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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Canned shrew

Winter is a good time to find canned and bottled shrews.

Many walkers around here deem their daily communion with nature incomplete without the comfort of a brewski or two, and tossing the cans or bottles in the brush is apparently de rigeur.

Shrews are attracted to the containers at any time of year, but codgers can find them more easily in winter and redeem them for cash.

Nonetheless, it's been a coon's age since I've found a canned or bottled shrew.

So when I saw that can of Mickey's Malt Liquor tilted upward in the duff I went for it.

It had several ounces left in it, and I could tell there was something soggy in there too.

Sure enough, it was another Trowbridge shrew (Sorex trowbridgeii).

It was the right size and color, and the tail was bicolored, but in winter the wandering shrew (Sorex vagrans) looks quite similar.

The definitive identification had to wait until I could look at its 4 unicuspid teeth.

The photo doesn't do justice to the structure of the teeth, but it gives an idea of what you see under the dissecting scope.

Just keeping the wet shrew on the microscope stage while lifting the upper lip is a frustrating exercise, but that's what it takes to see the 4 diagnostic unicuspid teeth. Their relative size differs between species. The pigmented upper incisor is also slightly grooved.

Trowbridge and wandering shrews are the two common species I've found here.

Empty beer cans and bottles are not encyclopedias, but looking into them is a good way to learn about your local shrews.

Redeem them at your local recycling center, and you can actually get paid to learn about charismatic micro-mammals.

Monday, December 17, 2012

From homely juvenile to young prince

Bushy-tailed wood rats aren't born beauties. 

In youth they look like any other rat, especially with that ratty tail and brownish-gray coat.

A few months later however, their tails gets hairy and their coats acquire buffy highlights.

This animal of the subspecies Neotoma cinerea pulla was camera trapped last summer in a talus slide in the central Sierra Nevada, and I suspect it is a young adult.

In one night we got 54 photos of several woodrats, and there were three age classes.

Unfortunately, a large bulky rat, presumably a male, was the most timid subject, and all images of it were partial pictures.

The subspecies occidentalis seen in the previous post is more silvery and regal in coloration than these woodrats of the Sierra Nevada.

They are all good-lookers though.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A dirty filthy but princely rat

A bushy-tailed pack rat (Neotoma cinerea) in a pile of slabs in an abandoned saw mill (Flathead County, Montana).

They may be the best looking rats in North America, but it doesn't matter. In western Montana bushy-tailed wood rats are regarded as dirty filthy rats.

"How could such a princely rodent alienate so many?" I ask.

"Because they stink, they make a mess, and they crap and piss all over the place", Carl answers.

Carl's photos show the ugly truth happening on his front porch.

Bushy-tail caught during intimate moment
 of fecal assessment. (Photo by Carl Hansen)

A poop-obsessed pack rat seems to nuzzle and whisper tenderly to its fecal pellet.

Bushy-tail aids in the delivery of a fecal pellet
(photo by Carl Hansen)
And here you see the rat aiding the passage of a fecal pellet with the tender care of a midwife delivering a babe.

This may be an example of coprophagy -- recycling nutrients in the fermentation products of the caecum, but never mind.

Even David Attenborough's soothing zoological wonderment at such phenomena would not change the minds of the pack rat's detractors.

A pack rat midden in an abandoned cabin.
The beautiful furry rat has other unsavory habits -- like moving into human habitations and decorating with foliage, twigs, and anything else that strikes its fancy.

The middens become their toilets, glued together with urine and feces, and in due course the reeking mass solidifies, crystallizes, and becomes amberat, which acquires a resinous bouquet, and in fact was once mistaken for Native American peanut brittle by a gang of starving 49ers.

The pack rat however has redeeming qualities beyond its good looks and silky Chinchilla coat.

Scientists now know that this dirty filthy rat is an environmental historian.

Countless generations of pack rats have been contributing to some middens for at least the past 25,000 years.

These paleo-middens are monumental edifices hidden in rocky canyons and caves, and they contain a treasure trove on data on environmental change and its consequences on body size as an adaptation to heat dissipation.

The biologists quickly realized that fecal pellets in paleo-middens were not all the same size, and used Carbon 14 dating to assign ages to feces and associated plant parts.

They validated the relationship between pellet size and body size by examining several species of wood rats, and they did other tests to verify their findings.

Guess what?  Pack rats that lived 20,000 years ago in the shadows of the glaciers were impressive hulks.  They are estimated to have weighed as much as 450 grams (roughly a pound).

They grew smaller as temperatures increased after the last glacial, and by the mid-Holocene, about 6000 years ago they were 20% smaller than their ancestors.

It paid to be big, and even today the bushy-tailed wood rat is the largest living species of its clan.

The old pack rat may have a few nasty habits, but it's still a princely looking rodent.   

"Where is it? The viagra doesn't seem to be working".


Smith, F.A., J.L. Betancourt, and J.H. Brown. 1995. Evolution of body size in the woodrat over the past 25,000 years of climate change. Science, Vol. 270:2012-2014. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The secret cache

The secret cache, now stashed in a
chainsaw chain container. 

For the sake of the story, I'd like to say . . . "when Carl reached the rafters and tugged the black plastic bag, the truffles showered down with the force of a Montana hailstorm".

But it wasn't exactly so.

The garbage bag contained truffles alright, but they were tucked into the folds of two canvass cots intended for the codger and the redhead, who were about to arrive from California.

For the sake of the story I might also add that "Though we slept comfortably in our sleeping bags, those cots infused our slumber with a subtle but pleasing essence of shaved tartufi stewing in risotto."

But it wasn't exactly so. The truffles give off a mild odor, but the cabin smelled of lodgepole pine logs and fried steak.

Looks like several species.

I am tempted to say that "the delectable fungi were evidently the last will and testament of 'Old One-eye', the murderous Montana chickaree whose squirrelly chutzpah summoned his own demise.

But I'm not sure the sack of dried truffles was actually of his doing.

The chickaree isn't the only mycophagist  in our western forests. There is no shortage of truffle gourmets, including several species of chipmunks and the northern flying squirrel.

Biologists used to examine stomach contents to learn about food habits, but now they can identify truffle eaters by the spores in fecal pellets.

It's tedious work, but Carl could identify the maker of the secret cache with much less effort.

All he has to do is stuff a camera trap inside a black plastic bag with two canvass cots and hang it in the rafters of the shed.

If he's too busy I know an old codger who would be more than willing to give it a try.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Video vision in the tunnel - Part 2

Our first attempt at subterranean video this year was disappointing.

Had the camera been placed differently the footage could have been better, but there was also the problem of the curious bear cub that dismantled the set.

The subterranean action however was more than enough to call us back.

Our second attempt in August was in a different segment of the same mountain beaver (=showtl) tunnel.

This time I came prepared with a customized mount that could be spiked into the hardpan on the floor of the tunnel and nailed into the log embedded in the silt bench above the tunnel.

Set 519.3 after being disguised
with a large flake of red fir.
The camera post was spiked and wired
to the embedded log. 

We covered the vertical hole with a large flitch of wood.

As you have seen in Part 2, the bear didn't show, and if any subterranean critters bumped into the camera they didn't move it.

But I still didn't get the angle of the camera quite right. It should have been aimed up into the tunnel. The focus was also off, and the microphone made hideous sounds (which I'll try to remove -- sorry about that).

The camera in situ as we uncovered it
33 days later.

I just replaced the lens of the DXG 567v with a 4mm wide-angle CCTV lens, which will take in a much wider view.

We'll try again next spring.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Animal tracking whodunnit

Two codgers walking a dog encounter the scene above at 2:15 in the afternoon.  

Obviously, something killed Chicken Little, but there is no predator to be seen.

The codger's dog sniffs the carcass briefly but otherwise ignores the scene. 

The carcass is cold, the tail has been plucked, and the head has been pulled off.

The neck has been eaten, as well as the wings where they attach to the pectoral muscles.

The head is uneaten. 


1) What species is Chicken Little?

2) What species killed Chicken Little?

3) Why didn't the predator take Chicken Little when it left the scene?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Black-footed ferrets found again!

Photo by Dean Biggins, USFWS 

You don't get good news like this very often.

Find more on black-footed ferrets here, and read about robo-badger here.

Thanks to Dave Parsons and Brian Miller for the heads up.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Long-tailed weasel and rodent cornucopia

A long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) checks out the castoreum stain left as a scent lure.

Yuba River (North Fork) drainage, Sierra County, California

I wasn't expecting miracles at set 574, but it always seems like a miracle when I camera trap a weasel. Especially a blue-eyed weasel. (Just kidding, folks; those pretty blue peepers are the reflection of the camera's flash from the eye's tapetum lucidum).

This weasel sniffed the castoreum just long enough for a single photo.

The set was under a boulder on a steep slope in red fir forest.  A few de-scaled pine cones identified it as an undercover messhall.

The camera snapped 431 photos in 33 days, but 60% were blank images most probably triggered by fleet-footed rodents.

Long-eared chipmunk (Neotamias quadrimaculatus)

Possibly a brush mouse (Peromyscus boyleii)

Deer mice and long-eared chipmunks accounted for most (=80%) of the wildlife photos.

Long-tailed vole (Microtus longicaudus)
shows its bicolored tail

A bright-eyed long-tailed vole posed nicely for one photo,

Northern flying squirrel, a meat eater

and northern flying squirrels left 13 images during three visits.

Chickaree (Tamiasciurus douglasii

Chickaree's visited 10 times and left 14 photos.

Even the deer mice sniffed the castoreum.

Every species of mammal left at least a few self portraits while sniffing the irresistible castoreum.

The stuff is a truly broad-spectrum attractant for mammals and indispensable to this camera trapper.

I can't identify the only critter that ignored the scent lure.

The best of three photos of the "mystery chick".

At first I thought it was a scruffy molting wren.

But now I wonder if it's a chick of a blue (sooty) grouse, mountain quail, or even a sora rail?

Early September would seem a bit late for a chick, no?

Any opinions out there?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Montana scat set

A cock Franklin's grouse "walks on by" the scented goodies.

"Whoa! Did you see that?"

We were buzzing down a forest service road on Carl's quad and almost missed it.

It was just another turd on the road, and it wasn't steaming, but it was fresh, and it was big, filled with hair and bone.

"This might have been left by a wolf. I'm setting a cam here."

 I've always had good luck with scat sets -- that is, a camera trap set at carnivore scat, usually on a trail.

I added a few drops of synthetic civetone to give it a little olfactory sparkle.

Set 577 was reasonably productive, but as luck would have it, the only wolves to show were of the domesticated variety.

Fred gives the scat an early morning sniff

A bobcat paused to give it a sniff, but I can get bobcats at home in California, and would have been much happier with a picture of Canada lynx.

The same for a striped skunk that checked in,

though it gave a good photo when it mosied over toward the camera.

The herbivores couldn't have cared less about the scat, but snowshoe hare and Franklin's grouse are new species for my camera trapping life list.

Our best shot of a snowshoe hare.

Snowshoe hares of course are legendary for their cyclical predator prey games with the Canada lynx, and they're dirt common in this neck of the woods.

We got a fair number of photos, and this is the best I can show. 

Franklin's grouse, a subspecies of the Spruce grouse, was more cooperative and also gives us a flavor of the north woods.

And of course there were white-tailed deer and chickarees, which you've already seen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Camtrapping Griffin Creek

Griffin Creek, Flathead County, Montana.

After a Montana breakfast (steak, eggs, and strong coffee), and a two-hour warm-up (sanding boards for Carl's log bath house), we are ready to hunt beaver on Griffin Creek.  

Griffin Creek isn't at all like the tumbling streams of the Sierra Nevada.

There are no noisy boulder gardens, logjams, or water ouzels, but it is just as wild.

We launch the canoe.

The creek meanders quietly but flows strongly, and soon we find ourselves trapped in a channel 8 to 12 feet below a vast willow-choked floodplain.

Here and there you can wade the shallows to mid-calf, but then the bottom drops off into a dark 12-foot pool.

We are two contented codgers, adrift in the current, basking in the grand ambience of wild Montana.

Carl fly fishes aft; I play with my new GoPro Hero2 at the stern.

This is cool. I feel like a frontiersmen.

Apparently Carl is on the same wavelength.

"Did I tell you a grizzly visits this area?"

"Oh, really?" says I.

I have a hunch where this is going. My friend is well-read in frontier history. I preempt his mischief.

"And didn't Hugh Glass get nailed in a patch of willows just like this place?"

The only shot of the beaver's tail was hazed
by moisture on the lens. 
"Yep", says Carl as he guides the canoe into a muddy beaver canal.

We paddle for 50 feet and belly to a stop in the mud.

"The dam is just ahead. We'll walk in, but don't run if you see a grizzly."

"Roight", says I with sarcastic British tone.

A minute later we are standing before a 4-foot beaver dam, deciding where to stake our cameras.

Carl settles for a set on the dam, and I decide on a set looking up the dam's spillway.

I am rummaging through my pack looking for a mount when Carl announces that he's finished.

"What, finished? I haven't even started."

In a few minutes I finish my set, and Carl kicks a few sticks out of the dam.

The spillway starts to gurgle. Raised in Montana, my friend knows a thing or two about beaver.

"That'll bring 'em in".

Such are my memories of wild Montana.

A day later the redhead, Fred, and I headed home to California.

Carl agreed to leave the cams out for a month and to mail them to me before he heads for home back east.

He emailed me a couple weeks later.
"Pulled the beaver cams today.  I was going to check on them and pull mine if the batteries were dead - which they were - but on the way in I saw human boot prints in the mud and got a little concerned so pulled both cameras. . . . 

"Wanna hear the good news? I'm sure you do! The old master once again blew away the student. You got dozens of good shots of Mr. Beaver going up and down the dam - some real close. I got a few lousy photos of beaver far off on the other side of the dam, then 200+ photos of waving grass and trees. Grrrrrrr!"

Wish I could take the credit, but Carl was just too trusting of his trail camera's PIR sensor.

Those motion detectors are suckers for hot air, and they've tricked me too many times. I set my cams for 24 hour detection only in cold weather or when the camera is in full shade.

Plus, I have a long way to go to match the beaver pictures taken by my fellow camera trappers on Camtrapper.com.

But the best part of camera trapping isn't always the pictures.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bruin's leftovers

Workers tend their brood in the aftermath of bear predation.

The suspect bear who hauled off the drowned deer has a taste for yellowjackets.

Its diggings have become regular features of Hendrick's flume, and this nest was ravaged two nights ago.

The bear didn't clean its plate, and in fact the queen still reigns, so I snapped a few photos.

The workers were too distracted to have at me.

I went back today to see if the bear cleaned its plate and to collect a yellowjacket for identification.

The remains of the paper nest in the earth cavity.
Bruin hadn't returned, the queen had retreated into the wreakage, and the yellowjackets were tending their brood.

They buzzed me when I tried to get one of them into a vial, and when another one bombed into my hair the codger humped down the trail with remarkable agility.

There are at least 18 species of yellowjackets in the US according to a USDA manual, and my photos match up well with the diagrams of the California yellowjacket (Vespula sulphurea) [NB: 9/23/2012 -- based on Katie's comment (see below) I have examined more photos and  think that the gatric pattern most closely matches that of Vespula vulgaris]

This species nests underground, and is a good citizen that feeds on insects and disdains picnics.

Next year's generation hinges on the survival of the overwintering queen, since she alone survives the winter. When she is ready, she'll disappear in a rotten stump or under loose bark. The workers will become comatose and die with the shortening days.

A few weeks ago the redhead reported that yellowjackets took great umbrage with Fred, who had the temerity to drop his stick next to their nest.

They buzzed him and dived into his fur, but he didn't seem to fathom what was happening.

His reaction was to shake them out of his fur, and if they succeeded in stinging him he showed no ill effects. They certainly didn't dampen his appetite.

Setting a camera trap at any social insect nest will require patience, but will eventually yield some interesting pictures or footage of predation-in-action.

I'm leaving that project to the younger camera trappers out there.


Akre, R.D., et al. 1981. The Yellowjackets of America North of Mexico. USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 552, 102 pp.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The carcass disappears

I was absent-mindedly amusing myself, tossing Fred's stick into Hendrick's flume, when I found myself looking at a carcass in the water, a fawn in winter coat.

When I pulled my camera from the bag, I inadvertently flipped my pruning saw into the water, and soon realized that Fred wasn't about to heed my desperate commands to fetch it.

As I watched my saw drift into a riffle I jumped in and rescued it myself.

That's when Fred finally noticed the drowned deer and looked at me as if to say, "What now?"

The carcass was without injuries, but it couldn't have drowned here; it must have happened a few miles upstream where the flume's vertical sides channel much swifter and deeper water.

I heaved it up on the far bank, dragged it into a patch of thimbleberry canes, but decided against setting a camera nearby.  Too many people with dogs.

The carcass was untouched on the following two days, but I assumed it would be gone when I returned from a four-day trip to Mono County with Random Truth and Jake.

Not so. It was still there yesterday afternoon, day seven.

Though unscathed, it had ripened enough to call in a vulture, but the bird hadn't started its work.

Today the carcass was gone, but no scraps and whitewash told of sated vultures.

Fred's carefree approach was soon checked.

He sniffed about cautiously, then stopped in his tracks, raised his hackles, and growled and barked with agitation.

There was no drag trail, and it's my guess that a bear packed it off.

It took seven days for the vulture, and eight days for a bear to find it.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The head on the tree

"How come you're so big but don't have antlers?"

Richard told me he was sure I would have some use for this old deer mount, and I knew there was no way out.

When you owe a very helpful friend dozens of favors you enthusiastically cart off a moth-eaten head mount and find a place to hide it.

I discreetly balanced it on a cob-webby pile of wood working jigs on a shelf above the radial arm saw, and was pleased how well it blended in.

The redhead didn't notice it for about a month.

I sawed off the antlers the other day to make handles on the doors of the pump house, and they look excellent there.

Then I hung the head on a live oak next to the house.

Fred was out of sight at the time, but as I was getting a camera ready in the garage I heard him barking up a storm.

He had discovered the tree with the deer head.

"What is it, Fred?"

Emboldened by my attention he advanced and gave a full-throated train of yodel barks.

When I cautioned "Be careful" he backed off with a sideways glance. (He learned that command with the aid of mousetraps.)

The photos herein are the other two visitors of "the head".

There's no question the young buck is looking at the bulky profile of an unfamiliar buck, but he didn't hang around long enough for a second photo op.

It's hard to say what the gray fox is up to, though he could be sniffing a frayed ear.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Assassin of the munklets

Jud, the one-eyed assassin, a red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).

Poor Jud is "daid".

No, the likes of Jud don't always make it to old age In Montana territory, and a reliable source tells me that Jud is no longer among the quick.

I am not talking about that sour-puss Jud Fry.

I'm talking about a squirrel, a one-eyed chickaree and an assassin of munklets, the seed-gobbling chipmunks that adorn the stump outside the kitchen window.

You see, the stump is an ecological theater, and when Montana women knead bread and bake pies they like to tune in to the daily stump show.

Those women rise at dawn to stoke the fire, and then they stoke the stump with sunflower seeds.

And they know there's a social order on those stumps.

At the top are the Steller jays. Then come the chickarees, the munklets, and finally timid dickey birds like juncos and mountain chickadees.

But when things go awry on the stump Montana women take note.

It's hard to believe, but two of our most adorable squirrels, chickarees and flying squirrels have a dark side.

They have a patent appetite for red meat, and are on record for occasionally eating nestling birds and smaller rodents.

I have a suspicion that our California chickarees (Tamiasciurus douglasii) may even lay waste to red tree vole nests just so they can eat the dwellers within.

It's unusual however for a chickaree to become a serial killer, but that's what happened to Jud, and he excelled at it.

He stalked, chased, and maimed munklets, and the chipmunk population started to dwindle.

I asked Carl for photographic evidence, and he sent me the pcture of one of Jud's victims.

What drives a chickaree to such madness? No one saw the assassin eating its victims.

Or was it madness?

The sociobiological explanation -- well, let's say hypothesis -- is that chickarees that regulate the population of their competitors have an advantage, especially when competitors become numerous.

Supporting evidence?

Well, rodents have no qualms about pilfering each other's seed caches, and both chipmunks and chickarees depend on seed stores to make it through the winter.

Chipmunks however have the advantage of hibernation.

Chickarees on the other hand don't hibernate. They must eat everyday and tough out the long hard winter by feeding on their cone larders.

If chickarees could talk, they just might tell you that offing chipmunks is one way of leveling the playing field.

Of course that doesn't make murder any easier to watch.