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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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Mouse of the North Woods

Southern Red-backed Vole (Myodes gapperi), Kiskatinaw Campground, British Columbia


There wasn't much time for camera trapping when we had only a month to drive 7000 miles and see the sights on the AlCan Highway.

There was no time to hump through the muskeg or climb through the slash.

I told myself to forget about lynx, wolves, and wolverines and set my sights on campground fauna.

And that's where I met the Southern Red-backed Vole (hereafter RBV).

They greedily scarfed sunflower seeds before my camera traps.

I expected deer mice, but the Southern RBV seemed to be the dirt-common mouse of the north woods.

I found them in conifer forests, aspen groves, and degraded woodland common around RV parks. 


I thought voles were herbivores, but red backed voles are more omnivorous than many voles of the genus Microtus, and they also eat underground fungi.

Some related voles are good climbers, but the Southern RBV's short legs, long chassis, and short tail is designed for running on the ground.

And unlike meadow voles, they don't engineer tunnels in low growing vegetation.

The Southern RBV is found across Canada, and ranges as far south as the Columbia River in the northwest US, but it apparently managed to reach New Mexico and Arizona via the Rocky Mountains.

It's well adapted to northern climes, starts breeding under thick snow, and lives a year on average, though a few survive to see a second winter.  

I appreciate this denizen of the north woods, and was pleased to add it to my list of camera-trapped  critters.




References


Foresman, K.R. 1012. Mammals of Montana. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula.

Armstrong, D.M., J.P. Fitzgerald, and C. A. Meaney. 2011. Mammals of Colorado. Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Boulder.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Happy Hour in Whitefish

Logger Bob Love, the real thing.


August, 6 -- Whitefish, Montana

It was our last day at Carl's cabin, because we were heading North to Alaska the next day.

We drove to Kalispell for supplies and to have a tire repaired,and then we pigged out on barbecue.

Food coma soon followed, and we headed home.

Carl had the foresight to save some of the meal for the ladies, who had been busy at the cabin, and this made our power-naps somehow excusable.

When we awoke the woods were rumbling. So we strolled over to watch Logger Bob sawing and munching piss firs with his machines.

Bob is the real thing. No lumbersexual wears pitch-stained pants, and smells like chain saw exhaust.

Carl hired Bob to thin the piss firs, "because they crowd out the larches and pines".

"They're as common as wood rats around here, and they stink like rats, too."

(Carl always abuses my favorite rodent in my presence.)

Yep, Piss firs. I hadn't heard of them either.

The colorful moniker comes from the subalpine fir's habit of releasing a stream of water when bored with a forester's auger. So says the Slang Dictionary. 

Break time in the pickup.
While we admired the machinery, Bob's dog Sparky hunted Montana's other native scoundrel, the bushy-tailed wood rat.  

Sparky knows where to find these handsome rodents, and how to flush them, and if he doesn't nail them on the run, he trees them and stands vigil till they come down and make a run for it. 

Our dogs Fred and Petey found Sparky to be a really neat guy, and joined him in the chase, but they just didn't get the waiting game under the tree.

Sparky stood vigil while
Petey and Fred wanted in.
Fred can't even catch a squirrel, and thinks the game ends when the squirrel goes up the tree.

So when Sparky treed a rat that afternoon our dogs drifted off and were soon looking wistfully into the cabin.

Before long it was happy hour, and a chance to chat with a real Montana logger.

We gathered on Carl's porch next to the beer cooler where Moose Drool and other brews greased the skids.

Soon we swapping stories about trees, timber, wood, land, and of course wildlife.

Old snags?  Bob knew of a big one used by bears as a hibernaculum.

I asked if he had ever seen a wolverine out here. 

I doubted he had, but I was wrong.

"I passed one on the shoulder of the road one morning.

"It had it's head up the butt-end of a road killed deer, and was within shooting range of any passing pickup. 

"So I walked it away from the road and called the game warden."

"The warden dragged the carcass up into the woods, and the wolverine survived a close call with civilization.

Salted into Bob's accounts was the name of Bud Moore.

Moore grew up in the Bitterroots, trapped and built cabins as a teenager, was a Marine during WW2, and worked for the Forest Service most of his life.

He was one of those rare individuals who "listened to the land and learned from it".

"Bud was like my brother, grandfather, father, mentor and best friend. It was like we'd known each other in previous lives, and reconnected.  We will again one day."
  
Moore was a toddler when writer Norman MacLean worked for the Forest Service, but their paths crossed decades later when MacLean needed a fact checker for his draft of A River Runs Through It.

In Bob's words . . .

"McLean didn't know Bud at the time, but since Bud knew the country and characters in the stories, he asked him to check the manuscript for facts.  In Bud's words, 'I took my red pencil to it and sent it back'.  The edits didn't go over well, but Maclean eventually agreed they were warranted."

"Bud was on the team that investigated the Mann Gulch fire, and was responsible for the Fire Fighter's standard safety rules, which are still in effect today."

"They are fashioned after the Marine Rules of Battle Conduct.  Bud had been in the Marines, and couldn't recall the rules to the letter, but he thought they'd be applicable to fire fighting."

"The team was meeting in DC, near some military facility.  Bud went out and found a Marine at a bus stop, and asked him to recite the rules.  He wrote them down, brought them back to the meeting, and they were adopted by the FS."

The Maclean-Moore relationship grew into one of mutual respect, and when Moore was writing The Lochsa Story he observed that "McLean took care of my inclination to put outdoor pursuits first, desk work last. Every time I dropped my pencil and looked at my fly rod, he would show up in some form or another."

I had one last question before Bob headed home.

"What's wrong with Sparky's paw?" (Sparky favored one paw. Was it a casualty of the chase?)

"Compound fracture", said Bob. "He broke his leg when he fell off a roof, trying to get deer fat I'd put up there for ravens.   

"Maybe I should have had it cut off. He wouldn't be in such pain, but he wouldn't be able to catch wood rats either." 

It was a happy hour I won't forget.


References
Cawelti, John.  www.press.uchicago.edu/books/maclean/maclean_cawelti.html
[an interesting excerpt about Maclean's analytical and critical compliment of a lecture Cawelti once gave at the University of Chicago -- from Cawelti's book, Norman Maclean: Of scholars, fishing, and the River]

Moore, Bud. 1996. The Lochsa Story, Land Ethics in the Bitterroot Mountains. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana

Maclean, Norman. 1992. Young Men and Fire. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Another Thanksgiving dog story



It was too late when I found Fred completing the ancient dog rite of self-anointment.

He had found something that smelled like a pig sty, and his white throat and orange collar were reeking with a repulsive brown residue.

I've never smelled anything quite that poor in the woods, and the only solution was canine scent exorcism.  

"You're getting a bath". 

Happy-dog turned to hang-dog. He knew what was coming.  

I drove home with the windows open and thought about my options. 

A fecal-scented dog goes over like the proverbial turd in the punchbowl, but when your wife is baking pies the day before Thanksgiving it's far worse than that.  

Full disclosure of Fred's condition clearly was not in the interest of smooth domestic relations, but I had a plan.

The simple act of bathing him for the holiday -- without reference to the real reason, would be a thoughtful consideration.  

I tethered Fred on the deck, drew two buckets of warm water from the mud room without alerting the redhead, donned my rubber boots, and thoroughly lathered the dog twice with a commercial "oatmeal doggie shampoo".

When I toweled him off he was ready to play.

I poked my head in the door to the warm balm of pumpkin pie. 

"Hi Sweetie, I gave Fred a bath so he'll smell good for his birthday".

He rolled on the carpet --  a regular post-bath ritual --  and fetched a toy from his toy box.

I felt the burden ease up, but a little later my wife observed that Fred smelled "a little strange", and asked what shampoo I used?

"He smells like a bowl of hot oatmeal, doesn't he?"

I gave him the sniff test and found that the shampoo had removed 95% of the strange scent.

A faint but distinctive sickly sweet residue remained.

I decided to come clean, and all was well.

I was the only one with the memory of that fetid-scent, and I couldn't get it out of my nose.

We gave Fred his usual dinner of kibble before Thanksgiving dinner, but garnished it for the occasion with pulled turkey neck meat.

Then we gave him his birthday gift -- a new "stumpy toy" (read fuzzy hollow stump with holes and squeaky owl toys inside).

He obsessed with it until dinner was served. 

He sat through the meal with his head near my lap. I was the only one who could smell his scent residue.

The story could have ended there, but there was more.

After dinner Fred amused us with his toys, but when the ladies were washing dishes, he stole the remains of the turkey neck from the kitchen garbage. He wolfed most of it down before I could react to the protests in the kitchen. 

This was definitely out of character, but he seemed to sense that the occasion was his.

The next morning we found that he barfed up the turkey meat next to our bed.

But party dog was back to normal.

Does this give me second thoughts about having a dog? Hell no!  

Fred's an endless source of entertainment, and what's more, he just discovered a new species

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Little Earthmover


Ever wonder what a mountain beaver does outside of its burrow?

No?

I guess I'm not surprised. 

Well, have a look anyway.

Here's some footage of a mother and her offspring taken during last summer's Camera Trapping Workshop in the northern Sierra Nevada.

There's not much to say.

Mountain beavers are just like big pocket gophers when it comes to moving earth. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to kill a dead snake




The background to this video concerns my good neighbor, a hard-working businessman, dog-lover, Iron Man competitor, irrepressible optimist, and electronic wizard who loves all things natural, except rattlesnakes.

When California's foothills warm up in the spring, Pacific diamondback rattlesnakes show up to lounge in the morning sun.

And last spring my neighbor from Chicago, let's just call him Larry, started finding rattlesnakes lounging in his backyard.

When this happens most folks around here start to curse and do a little fandago with a shovel or hoe while beating the snake to a pulp.

And that pretty much describes how this rattler met its demise.

Larry was kind enough, however, to deliver the corpse in a bucket, and after removing its head, I stashed it in a hole dug by a local pair of gray foxes.

The camera showed how a cautious fox "kills" a dead snake.

Its reaction tells me this wasn't the first time it used the old "shake and break" method to dispatch a snake.

But it makes you wonder if gray foxes prey on rattlers very often, and if so, how risky is it?

I imagine that as long as a fox seizes a rattlesnake somewhere away from the head, and shakes it quickly and violently, it can inflict a fatal whiplash and prevent a venomous bite.

It's not something I expect to see, so someone else will have to prove it.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Slinky grim reaper of the underworld

Long-tailed weasel with prey.


There's a good reason weasels are long and skinny.

It's "essential to the profession of a burrow-hunting rodent predator...", wrote weasel expert Carolyn King.

This photo of hunter and quarry was taken in a mountain beaver burrow, and it would seem to prove the point.

But did this long-tailed weasel kill the golden-mantled ground squirrel in the burrow?  Or did it dispatch the rodent above ground and then drag it into the burrow?

Golden-mantled ground squirrels are common in the area, but you find them in dry open coniferous forests rather than the riparian woodland and thickets where mountain beavers dig their burrows.

I've camera trapped this mountain beaver burrow almost seven months in the past 4 years, and the graph shows that golden mantled ground squirrels are not among its users.




I suspect the weasel killed the ground squirrel above ground and dragged it into the burrow to feed out of harms way. That's how weasels operate.

But as the graph shows, a weasel is more likely to encounter a mountain beaver in this burrow than a golden-mantled ground squirrel, and the chickarees and voles down there certainly run the risk of meeting this slinky grim reaper as well.

One other observation: the camera failed to record the resident juvenile and adult mountain beaver during the last sampling period. At least one mountain beaver has always been present.

Has the weasel appropriated this mountain beaver's underworld?

Is its nest now lined with the soft pelts of the previous residents?

I'll update you next month.


A chickaree shells a fir cone in the underworld earlier this month.


Reference:

King, C. 1989. The natural history of weasels and stoats. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Errant Mountain Beaver



Folks up here on the ridge were recently roused to declare their biophilia when a mountain beaver was reported swimming down the Butte Creek Flume.

One of our local naturalists, a retired bike-riding school teacher known by his avatar Forest, documented the rare event in video.

This is the first verified record of mountain beaver in Butte County, and the discovery begs the question: From whence the errant rodent?

I'm an enthusiast of these guinea pig size rodents, and I recognize their haunts when I see them, but I have never seen their signs in the county of Butte.

They require lush vegetation for food and live in moist habitats with shallow water tables, Their burrows often tap into underground springs.

I guess I have to look a little harder.

Arctos, an extensive database of zoological records, lists mountain beaver specimens from several counties in the Sierra Nevada, including Shasta, Plumas, Eldorado, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, Mono, Mariposa, and Tulare.

I suspect this particular rodent entered the flume voluntarily, swam around, and went with the flow.

But here's the rub. Its flume float could not have been longer than about 3 miles.

If the rodent had embarked on its swim further upstream it would have passed into a deadly siphon that conveys the water down and then up a ravine.

Even Houdini couldn't have made it through that siphon alive.

If the mountain beaver's odyssey started above the siphon, it had to travel by land to bypass the siphon and reach the flume's navigable portion.

Unfortunately, the neighborhood's flumes do not lead to suitable habitat for mountain beavers. So I doubt this rodent's trip led it to greener pastures.

It was an unusual event and it makes you wonder.

Did the mountain beaver abandon its home because of the drought? Or was it just a normal attempt to disperse that few people ever see?

We're lucky to have naturalists like Forest here.