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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of four. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Carnivorous squirrel

Rocky hauls off a squirrel's head

Sierra County, California; August-September, 2011 -- Camera trap set # 531

Our northern flying squirrels have a refined palate.

Not only do they relish mushrooms, truffles, and tender lichens; they also enjoy well-aged meat -- in this case road-killed western tree squirrel.

At this set amongst red firs on a north slope we expected a bear or a fox, hoped for a marten, and dreamt of a wolverine, but the only takers were the flying squirrel, a chipmunk and an American robin.

With 16 visits over 2 and a half weeks Rocky's persistence paid off.

He succeeded in running off with the head, which we had left lying on the rock.

Then he somehow managed to extract a joint of squirrel from under a slab of rock.

Fifty plus years ago, Robert T. Orr (late curator of birds and mammals at the California Academy of Sciences) told the boy-codger he was surprised to catch flying squirrels on Sonora Pass in meat-baited traps set for martens.

These appealing rodents haven't lost their taste for meat.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A windfall of cherries

Hollyleaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia)

A year and a half ago we were bumping along in the pickup when a bulb above Random Truth's head suddenly filled the cab with bright light.

"How about setting a cam in that patch of hollyleaf cherries on Gillam Spring Road?".

According to the scatological calendar it was that time of year again: the landscape was littered with carnivore scat, as it always is, but now most of the scat was chock full o' nuts, which means the critters were pigging out on wild cherries.

You can't mistake the pit of the hollyleaf cherry for anything else. As cherry pits go, they are BEEEG.

"Good idea, RT".

I am fond of windfall sets, but Craig was non-commital.

"You never know who's gonna show up at the cherry patch", I continued, "and ringtail might make a surprise appearance.

If indeed Craig was lukewarm to the idea, the mention of the elusive Chimineas ringtail changed his mind. He headed for Gillam Spring Road.

Well, we were too late in 2010. The cherries were past fruiting.

But we didn't forget.

A bumper crop of hollyleaf cherries called us back in 2011, and we set a camera at the assigned thicket.

We fetched it a month later and found over 400 photos.

The most common visitor (151 photos) was our old friend the wood rat. 

The wood rat (probably Neotoma macrotis) hauling a stick , which it dropped a few moments later.

In two shots the rodents were carrying cherries, in three shots they were hauling sticks, and the rest of the time they were running around or exploring. 

Gray foxes appeared on 4 occasions, and there was one photo of a bear's backside, clearly detectable only after photoshopping.

There were no surprises at set 530; in fact it was a bit of a disappointment.  

I knew the wood rats would be there; they're everywhere.

But I thought they would tell us a different story, a story about fulfilling their manifest destiny as seed dispersers.  

Not this time.

If we try again, with cameras at several patches of hollyleaf cherry, wood rat might give us a surprise.

But there are a lot of other subjects worthy of camera trapping, and wood rat can always be relied on for a cameo appearance.