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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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Squirrel Creek Campground

The view from the developer's lodge

Squirrel Creek Campground, Alaska -- August 19, 2014

We arrived in late afternoon, took campsite 16, and made the trailer ready for habitation.

While the redhead fed the dog, I made a recce to a large beaver lodge across the lake.

The trail soon petered out, but beaver skids and felled cottonwoods told me I was in a development zone.

It was the kind of development I like to see; so I turned back to fetch 3 cameras.

Again I beelined to the lodge, and found it gloriously covered with mud pies and giving off a strange gamey smell.

If that was the smell of castoreum it wasn't the beaver scent I use.

I set the infra-red video camera at the lodge, and staked the two still cameras at the beaver skids.

And I did a little experiment. I dabbed castoreum on the trail of the less active one.

A sudden splash caught me off guard!  Tail slapping. An insolent beaver was keeping tabs on me.  Three of them were cruising offshore.

Dinner was on the stove when I got back, and I was in my bunk when my wife reported that some men were coming through camp.

Two young guys with backpacks, fishing rods, and a big yellow lab on a length of logging chain traipsed past the trailer with the determination of Lewis and Clark.

They were heading right to my beaver sets.

I poked my head out the door.

"Hey guys!"

The first fellow just kept going.

"I've got several camera traps staked near the shore line."

The guy with the dog turned his head.

"Just want you to know the scent lure may attract the dog, okay?"

He looked at me with a slack-jawed expression, nodded, and was gone.

This was bothersome.

Suspicion and revenge scenarios flooded my thoughts. They passed through camp an hour later.

My suspicion was undeserved. I found my cams the next morning.

The video cam had failed -- a shame, because it looked like
they had a mud fight at the lodge last night.

Disappointment -- moisture on the lens
and wrong camera placement. 

And damn! The skid by the felled cottonwood was another failure; it had 9 blurry pictures of beavers hauling limbs toward the pond.

But the castoreum set came through with 130 photos triggered in 3.5 hours.

Okay, there were no prize winners, but at least the beaver was recognizable as a beaver.

Checking out the scene soon after I left.

Wading through the dew-drenched brush to check those cams was a delight, and the experience visited me with an afterglow during the long drive home.

Responding to the castoreum on the skid late later that evening.

We passed hundreds of beaver works along the Alcan and Cassiar Highways, and almost all of them called -- 'get in your canoe and check me out'.

I decided to spend some time appreciating beaver lodges in the Sierra Nevada when I got home.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Return of the Fisher

The football game wasn't going my way; so I decided to get physical and pull 3 cameras that had been soaking in the rain.

I headed up Skyway, parked the truck, mountain-biked a couple miles, surmounted a blow-down across the trail, and fell on my butt on the way down the ravine.

The first camera was dry, but three bears had bumped it off target during a  bumble-fest of scent-rubbing.

The news from the second camera was good and bad.

The bad news was the water in the case; it shorted a circuit and shuttered pictures like a machine gun.

The good news was a photo of a radio-collared fisher.

And the camera in the next ravine had more pictures of the same critter.

Discovering the scent lure
A good thing has happened.

California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) have joined forces to restore the fisher to the northern Sierra Nevada.

This radio-collared animal might be one of 40 fishers that were translocated from the northwest corner of the state to SPI land near Stirling City.

But it could also be one of the 48 offspring born to the colonizers over the past three years.

The historical occurrence of fisher in California has been a puzzle.

California's great academic naturalist, Joseph Grinnell, assumed fishers ranged throughout the Sierra Nevada.

Since Grinnell's time however, fishers were found to be missing from a 420 km section of the northern Sierra Nevada.

This "dead zone" is an enigma, because the habitat seems to have everything a fisher needs . . . a fisher-friendly climate, lots of trees, water, cover, squirrels, and maybe even a few porcupine.

Biologists have assumed that logging and trapping divided the population, leaving one in the southern Sierra Nevada and the other in the Trinity Alps and coastal mountains of NW California.

A recent study based on DNA from museum specimens and living animals tells a different story.

California's fishers became divided populations about 1000 years ago.

In other words, we can't blame the fisher gap on the Spanish colonization of California and the gold-lust-mayhem of the 49ers.

Fur trapping and intensive logging in the early 1900s, however, caused the continued decline of fishers across North America, and in 1946 California was the last fisher range state to enact protective legislation.

The two populations are now genetically different, which raises questions about their conservation.

Like, should we connect the northern and southern populations, and risk genetic pollution of their gene pools?

Or should we colonize the gap with fishers and brace the population against future environmental unknowns?

I rather like the idea of filling the fisher gap. California's just an experiment, isn't it?

Having a few more fishers around makes the place more interesting.


Grinnell, J. 1913. A distributional list of the mammals of California. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 3:265-390

Grinnell J, Dixon JS, Linsdale JM (1937) Fur-bearing mammals of California: their natural history, systematic status, and relations to man. University of California Press, Berkeley. 375 p.

Powell, RA. 1993. The Fisher, life history, ecology and behavior. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 237 pp.

Powell, RA,  RC Swiers, AN Facka, S Matthews, and D Clifford. 2013.  Reintroduction of Fishers into the Northern Sierra Nevada of California,  Annual Report for 2013 For the period of October 2009 to December 2013, 35 pp. 

Tucker, JM, MK Schwartz, RL Truex, KL Pilgrim, and FW Allendorf. 2014. Historical and Contemporary DNA Indicate Fisher Decline and Isolation Occurred Prior to the European Settlement of California. PLOS One 7(12):1-13


Gabriel, MW,  et al. 2014.  Anticoagulant Rodenticides on our Public and Community Lands: Spatial Distribution of Exposure and Poisoning of a Rare Forest Carnivore. PLOS One 7(7): e40163. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040163

Zielinski WJ, Kucera TE, Barrett RH (1995) Current distribution of the fisher,

Martes pennanti, in California. Calif Fish Game 81: 104–112.

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.


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.

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?


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.