About Me

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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.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Fred trees mountain lion

Fred trees a mountain lion from Chris Wemmer on Vimeo.

"Fred's barking at something" came the voice from the bedroom.

"Yeah, he's barking at a squirrel -- it's his morning routine", replied the voice in the office.

(5 minutes later)

"Fred's still barking, and it sounds like he's getting farther away."

"Okay, okay, I'll check."

From the kitchen window I saw Fred "arfing" gamely up into a live oak about 60 feet from the house.

And dang me if there wasn't a tawny cat up that tree.

I rushed to the bedroom announcing "Fred's treed a mountain lion", punched my feet into my jeans (somewhat like Charleton Heston in "The Big Country"), grabbed my camera, and headed out the back door.

The svelte cat was eyeing Fred from a safe height of 35 feet, and as I snapped a few pictures it turned its humiliated gaze on me.

Better shoot some video, I thought.

My soothing "Niiiice kitty" failed to improve the cat's disposition, but energized the dog even more.

Then Kitty moved to a new position and plotted her escape down some low-hanging limbs.

I shuffled down slope, grabbed Fred's collar, and filmed with my right hand as she crept out on the bendy limb.

In spirit and style, Kitty's getaway could only be that of Butch Cassidy and the Sun Dance Kid, and in a few moments her getaway was complete, as you saw in the video.

How did this come about?

Well, you might have heard my wife's voice in the video.

She was on the phone with my thoroughly jazzed neighbor "Iron Man", who called as soon as he heard the commotion.

His German Shepherd had also barked at something down in the brush, but wisely didn't give chase.

Then Iron Man saw something big moving down there, and heard Fred's full-throated bark shortly after.

Kitty was probably slinking away on our property when Fred surprised her, and vice versa. 

In retrospect, maybe the hazing taught this cat to stay away from human habitation. 

As for what was going on in Fred's skull, I'm not sure.

He may think the cat was a large variety of squirrel. (Okay, probably not.)

But I do know this wouldn't have happened without him. 


(Thanks for the photoshopping, Carl)

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How I "bear sprayed" my wife on our wedding anniversary

My wife dropped a hint last Sunday at breakfast. “Maybe you should check the camera traps this morning so we can get to the restaurant on time.”

I got the message. It was our 50th wedding anniversary.

It was a little after 8:00 when I finished packing my rucksack, and that’s when I remembered that the only time I ever walked up on a bear was about this time in the morning.

It was a harmless amusement – I could hear mother bear high-tailing it down the slope and splashing across the creek, while her 2 cubs set a record descending a big old Douglas fir. I can still see them backlit in a haze of falling bark and dust. No way were they going to be left behind.

But fate can be ironic, and a fleeting thought -- “Bear mauls senior citizen on 50th wedding anniversary” -- cautioned me to take the bear spray (a birthday gift from my younger daughter).

And how many times has someone pulled their bear spray trigger, found the canister empty, and 
witnessed their deliverance in painfully surreal slow motion? 

I had better test it. 

I pulled the trigger guard and squeezed ever so briefly . . . WOW!

The 10-foot plume of red pepper gas told me it wasn’t a dud.

And a moment later I found myself in the dilute invisible backwash. 

And so did my blinking dog.   

Sneezing and with one runny eye, we beat a hasty retreat into house.

The pepper cloud followed us into the kitchen with the cool air that funnels through the screen door in the morning.   

Suddenly the redhead appeared, “What’s that smell? We’re being gassed!”

“I just tested the bear spray, Sweetie, and it works!” I coughed, “It’s not really THAT bad (cough).  

She hurried off to get a dust mask, and I decided it was time to make our exit. 

The rest of the day was a charm. We encountered no bears, arrived at the restaurant on time, and recounted our bear spray episode for family entertainment.

“He hasn’t changed a bit in 50 years,” said the redhead.

"I’m lucky she still likes me," said the codger.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Winter weasel without snow

I finally got it:  I cam-trapped a weasel in its dashing white winter camo.

But as you’ve noticed, it’s sticking out like a sore thumb because there’s no snow 2 feet underground where the picture was taken.

I’ve wanted that photo since I learned that weasels are frequent but uninvited guests in mountain beaver tunnels.     

Wouldn’t it be cool to show a winter weasel without the benefit of its winter backdrop of snow?

How do you get that picture?

You can nature-fake it – just live trap a weasel (no small feat) and photograph it on soil and leaf litter set in a cage.

Or you can set a camera in a mountain beaver burrow.

But there’s risk and a technical challenge to leaving a camera underground in a rodent burrow for half a year.  

You have to supplement the camera’s normal battery power so it can take flash photos for 6 months. (I wired 4 external batteries -- 2 D and 2 C cells -- to the camera for back up power, and used 2 9-volt batteries to power the controller.)

And you have to retrieve your camera before spring snowmelt floods the burrow and drowns the camera or buries it in silt.

I was ready to deploy in the fall of 2013, but procrastinated, and the snow shut me out that winter.  

I procrastinated again in 2014, but it was a drought year, and I got away with setting the camera in early November.

Disappointment came the following May when I discovered the batteries died 45 days into the bargain and before any weasel made an appearance.  Murphy’s Law.  

Last winter I had the camera in the ground on October 7th. 

The camera had been out 8 months when I drove to the site a couple weeks ago with Bill and Diane Wilson. 

Our timing seemed okay. The snow was gone at 6000 feet, and the Forest Service road was dry.  The only thing that was worrisome was the Yuba River, which was already roaring from snowmelt.

At 7000 feet snowdrifts blocked the road.   

“Wait here Bill, I think it’s within walking distance.”

I skirted the drifts on the road, but it was solid snow at the creek, which was a choppy gusher.

This was not a good sign because the camera was in an alder thicket on a silt bench a few yards from the creek and only a few feet above water in summer.

A few minutes later I found the alder thicket; normally 8-15 feet high, it was flattened by snowpack.  

I’m standing there thinking it would take a team with shovels and spuds to expose the camera, when I see a bare spot and a piece of weathered plywood.

It was the cover over the tunnel and camera.

I tugged it free like a crazed treasure hunter . . . and “Damn (expletives deleted)!”

The tunnel was flooded.

I yanked the stake free with the camera attached . . . and “DAMN! (more expletives deleted)!”  

Rust-colored water drained from the camera case.

I pulled the precious SD card, dried it, and headed back to the car with the dripping camera trap.

At San Francisco State University’s field campus we downloaded the file.  

The camera took 106 photos before unseasonal rain flooded the burrow at the end of January.

I was resigned to another failure as we scrolled through blank exposures and occasional pictures of vole, shrew, or chickaree.

Then the snow-white weasel appeared. On January 7th. One image.

It was the last animal picture on the card.

Three weeks before the flood that ruined the camera.


Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A gob of minced meat

There it is, a gob of minced meat of unknown origin, just as I found it next to a pool in the Butte Creek watershed.

Fred sniffed it tentatively and left it alone.

I photographed it with an 8" crescent wrench for perspective.

Here are some other clues to help you solve the riddle.

It was 2:00 on Memorial Day, temperature in the 90s, and Fred barked several times as we climbed down the slope to the pool on the creek.

Now then, what left the gob of minced meat?

Monday, February 15, 2016

Cookie Monster with Velvet Paws

In the wetlands east of Sutter Buttes there’s a rice farm, and on this farm there’s a machine shed.

It’s one of those open machine sheds where swallows swoop in and out and a pair of phoebes may nest under the eaves.

Since farmers get the munchies, there’s a plastic jar with animal crackers on the workbench.
When the staff showed up for work last Wednesday the cookie jar was on the floor.
The jar was half empty. Something had pigged out on animal crackers.   

There were no bite marks or signs of brute force, but a cookie monster had managed to twist off the plastic screw lid.

So the farmer set a live trap on Monday, and the next morning the cookie monster’s identity was no longer a mystery.

In the trap was the raccoon's svelte cousin, the ringtail (Bassaricus astutus).

The farmer drove it to a remote area where there was plenty of ringtail habitat and let it go.

Energized by cookies and enabled by velvet paws with retractile claws, it dashed up a tree like magic.

That's a happy ending, I told my friend, but if the rascal comes back, I have a camera trap to see how it opens the cookie jar.

[Many thanks to Tony Rosa for telling me about this event, and to Bill and Susan Shaul and Carol and Frank Rosa for assembling the facts.]