Of late I seem to keep coming back to local wildlife in these postings. It’s hard to avoid in more ways than one. When I was driving home in the early afternoon today, a gray fox ran across my driveway. That was a thrill, and it made me wish I had my camera with me; however, the fox took off so fast I probably wouldn’t have had time to snap a picture anyway.

Three grey foxes scavenging on our deck.

I’m generally glad to have foxes around Mitchell cabin, but one of them is becoming a pest. Every morning a San Francisco Chronicle driver throws a paper on our driveway, but 

We’ve seen some foxes that were brazen enough to walk in the kitchen door to pick up a bite.

sometimes recently when I’ve gone to retrieve it, I’ve found that a fox had peed on it. Thank goodness the paper comes in a plastic bag. Foxes apparently mark territory the way a dog does, and they choose the most prominent targets around.

Foxes sunning themselves on top of a Toby’s Feed Barn shed that extends into the Building Supply Center’s lumberyard. This photo was taken out a back window at the post office.

The number of foxes hereabouts varies from year to year. This past year there weren’t many. In some years, however, there have been so many around Point Reyes Station that a couple of them took to sleeping on the roof of a shed at Toby’s Feed Barn. People would occasionally see them crossing downtown streets and hanging out between buildings.

When the fox population drops suddenly, that’s often an indication that distemper has spread among them.

A skunk at Mitchell cabin.

Two weeks ago I wrote: “I can’t recall ever seeing as many squished skunks on West Marin roads as I’m seeing this year. Skunks have very limited vision, and because they can see only what is right in front of them, they can’t see oncoming motor vehicles.”

To my chagrin, I proved my point shortly after midnight Saturday morning while driving home on Lucas Valley Road. In a wooded area west of Big Rock, a skunk suddenly darted onto the pavement in front of the car. I hit the brakes but there was no avoiding the creature. That certainly put a damper on what had been a fun evening spent listening to jazz at the No Name Bar in Sausalito. At least the car did not pick up a skunk smell.

A coyote in our backyard.

My happier encounter with wildlife that evening also occurred on Lucas Valley Road, in this case east of Big Rock. While I was en route to Sausalito, a coyote ran across the road in front of me. I was traveling at the speed limit, so I easily avoided it, and in any case, the coyote didn’t cut it close. Judging by the timing of its crossing, this was a much warier creature than the skunk would prove to be.

I get a kick out of seeing coyotes, but I’m not a sheep rancher. Coyotes put more than half the sheep ranches in northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties out of business after a federal ban on poisoning them took its effect in 1983.

At Mitchell cabin, however, the main way coyotes make their presence felt is with their nighttime howling.

The big story this winter has been the arrival of spring two months early. After a couple of downpours and a hailstorm, the sun this past week began prematurely shining through. The pleasant turn in the weather has given us all more to talk about than just events in Washington.

However, the mild weather seems to have confused at least some wildlife. I can’t recall ever seeing as many squished skunks on West Marin roads as I’m seeing this year. Skunks have very limited vision, and because they can see only what is right in front of them, they can’t see oncoming motor vehicles.

Their normal mating season is in the early spring and their young are born about two months later. Blind and deaf when first born, kits open their eyes after three weeks and are weaned in about two months. The kits stay with their mother for about a year, which is a long time for a skunk. Their typical lifespan in the wild is only three to six years.

 It’s been quite a while since a chipmunk was spotted on this hill, but last week two neighbors saw one cross our road. The only one I’ve ever seen up here is this Sonoma chipmunk, which I spotted out the kitchen window eight years ago.

It’s also been quite a while since I’ve heard frogs chirping as loudly at night as I have in recent days. (Of course, this began around the time I had my hearing-aid batteries recharged.) Winter is the main mating season for Pacific tree frogs. Males make their way to water and then charm females to the water with a chorus of chirping.

Deer can be found grazing around our home virtually every day of the year. The number of blacktail deer looks high this winter, but not dramatically so. What’s changed, as I’ve been reporting for months, is the number of jackrabbits grazing hereabouts. Apparently for cover, they tend to hang out close to bushes rather than in the middle of fields. Unfortunately, when driving home I sometimes flush one of them out of the bushes; it will hop onto the driveway and race uphill ahead of my car. Not a good strategy to avoid getting hit.

If you throw in the gray squirrels, such this one, plus raccoons and wild turkeys, the wildlife around here seems to be ready for full-on spring.

Friendly surveillance — A raccoon keeps track of what’s happening on our deck.

Anybody home? A wild turkey shows up at the kitchen door.

A beautiful attack — Perhaps the most amazing work of nature I saw during the past fortnight was a piece of firewood with an engraving that resembled the sun and its rays. It appears that the type of engraver beetles that carved this design probably was a variety of bark beetle.

Bark beetles have plagued pine forests around the world. Their “attacks are initiated by male beetles, which construct nuptial chambers beneath the bark,” the US Forest Service explains. “Each one then attracts several females, which, after mating, construct egg galleries radiating from the nuptial chamber.”

The beetles introduce a blue-stain fungus into the sapwood, and it prevents the tree from using a flow of pitch to repel the attacking beetles. The fungus also blocks water and the distribution of nutrients within the tree.

How ironic that an engraving with an artistic design is actually insect damage.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik on Monday wrote about designer Christina Kim interviewing famed restaurateur, author, and sustainable-farming-advocate Alice Waters. The interview took a somewhat surprising turn, Garchik noted, when “at one point, the conversation turned to tablecloths in Switzerland.” Now there’s one hell of an obscure digression.

But the culinary world is full of surprises. On Tuesday when I dropped by Toby’s Coffee Bar for my daily mocha, the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli could be heard on the bar’s radio singing Time to Say Goodbye (click). It was a haunting duet with Sarah Brightman, but what impressed me was how skillfully barista Diciderio “DC” Hernandez could whistle along with it. Wow! I can’t even carry a tune whistling.

Rounded stingrays, the most common rays on California’s coast. National Geographic photo by Norbert Wu.

Odder but grimmer: Did you read where 156 people in Orange County were attacked by stingrays in just three days last month, 73 of them on Dec. 29 at Huntington Beach? Stings from the rays’ tails are painful and can get infected but are seldom fatal. Lifeguards said there are far more stingrays around than usual, apparently because of low tides and because unusually warm water this winter is drawing them back to shore .

Victims are usually stung while wading in shallow water, and the easiest way to avoid them, lifeguards note, is to shuffle one’s feet, which stirs up muck and scares them away.

Another odd story: Chronicle columnist Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California Assembly, is well remembered for championing civil rights, economic reform and other liberal causes. However, his brief nod to burlesque and porno filmmaking seems to be mostly forgotten.

So let me remind you that Brown (center) as mayor deemed July 13, 1999, the official day of Tempest Storm, the “queen of burlesque,” (at left). He then went on to deem July 28, 1999, the official day of porno actress Marilyn Chambers (at right). Chambers starred in Behind the Green Door and other pornographic movies while Storm was known as a striptease dancer.

Perhaps President Trump will someday name a holiday after his former porno inamorata Stormy Daniels.

The nationwide protests that began a year ago when Donald Trump was elected president are continuing to grow. Immediately after the election, bumper stickers urging people to “Resist” became common around Marin. Lately, the protest has apparently been picked up by the business community. Two weeks ago, I saw a Mill Valley garbage truck with the message “Refuse” painted on its side.

On a happier note, all the bad weather we’ve been having of late is certainly good for the countryside.

The horse pasture next to Mitchell cabin had been totally eaten down by Thanksgiving, and Arabian Horse Adventures, which leases the land, had to drop piles of hay on the ground to feed its small herd.

But thanks to several rainy days in the past couple of weeks, the hills are starting to turn green again. Here one of the Arabians browses just beyond our common fence. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

Fellow grazers — The blacktail deer population on this hill has seldom seemed larger. In these photos, eight does graze downhill from Mitchell cabin while a smaller group dine uphill.

Watching all this (in the bottom photo) is a buck who seems intent on guarding the smaller harem from predators and other bucks. Before long he begins stamping on the ground with a front hoof. Why he does this is debated. Studies on whitetail deer suggest that bucks may be sounding an alert. Or they may merely be marking territory when they stamp since their hooves leave a scent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inverness’ Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History on Sunday revived from a 1990 show a fascinating exhibit of some of the architectural styles notable in West Marin during the past 150 years.

Tocaloma — This farm house on Platform Bridge Road went up around 1865. As the display notes, it is “a simple Italianate house modified by a gable roof with dormers. The projecting architectural moldings supported on consoles at the head of the windows are typical [of the style].”

Southwest of Tocaloma  in Olema stands Druids’ Hall. It was built in 1885 as a social hall for the Ancient Order of Druids, a fraternal organization founded in London in 1781. It is now operated by Sir and Star inn and restaurant.

The museum display describes the building as “handsomely proportioned with details similar to the Olema Hotel” where Sir and Star is located. The design of both buildings is “attributed to Joseph Codoni, the carpenter craftsman who combined his skill in traditional building using local materials, with pictured details from pattern books.”

The first house in Inverness was built by Capt. Alexander Baily. About 1900 Baily enlarged it to accommodate children and other family members. “A wing with gabled roof was added, thus creating more attic and the name ‘The Gables,'” according to the exhibit. For years it was the home of historian Jack Mason, his wife Jean, and daughter Barbara. Jack left the home for use as a museum when he died in 1985. The exhibit notes that the late architect “Ted Boutmy skillfully did the architectural remodeling.”

Point Reyes Station — There are some surprises in the display. Most West Marin residents are familiar with the Mission Revival architecture of the derelict Grandi Building, which was built as Hotel Point Reyes after an earlier brick building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

The surprise is in Visalia, Tulare County, where the Hyde Business Block included this near-identical twin of the Grandi Building (as seen in a 1906 sketch). The architect is listed as B.G. McDougall.


Still standing at the corner of Third and C streets in Point Reyes Station is an old, brick structure which was built around 1907 as the Taddeucci Bakery with an adjoining house. The bricks and corrugated iron roof “perhaps … were there to make the bakery fireproof,” the museum display speculates.

Home on pilings over Tomales Bay —  “Since early days, over-water houses have been a characteristic feature in West Marin,” the exhibition notes. “Two types of construction are evident: buildings which rest partially on land above the high-tide line and extend over the bay on pile supports, and structures built entirely over the water at some distance from the shore and approached on oiled, wooden walkways.” This Inverness home built in 1955 was designed by architect Harold Wagstaff. The display comments this is “perhaps the last of the over-water houses because of coastal regulations.”

Highland Lodge, as seen in its “heyday,” on Callendar Way in Inverness was built in the early 1900s by Mary Florence Burris. She immediately set up the two story house as a full-board hotel, and in 1908, she had another two-story house built nearby for her home and as a residence for her staff, most of whom were relatives.

The lodge began attracting many prominent guests, including future President Warren G. Harding, and in 1909, Mary advertised that “Highland Lodge is open only to those who give satisfactory references.” 

Mary put her young niece Grace through teachers’ college in San Francisco, and Grace went on to teach for two years (between 1915 and 1917) at the one-room Marshall School. Grace later became a teacher and then principal at Belvedere School. “As Mary grew older, her niece Mabel took on more and more responsibility,” Meg Linden wrote in the exhibit’s program, and when Mary “died on Dec. 3, 1942, Mabel soon closed down the lodge.”

In recent years, it has been the home of former Marin County Planning Commissioner Wade Holland and his late wife Sandra.

Indoors we may be celebrating the holiday season sitting around the fire with a glass of egg nog, but outdoors it’s still “nature red in tooth and claw,” as the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson described it.

A bobcat has repeatedly shown up around Mitchell cabin this fall, and Tuesday at Toby’s Coffee Bar I chatted about it briefly with neighbor Carol Horick. Carol told me the bobcat had eaten one of her chickens the night before. It was an old and tottering chicken she’d owned a long time, so the financial loss was small. Nonetheless, the incident had put her on alert, and she was on her way to Building Supply Center to buy some metal mesh to further safeguard her remaining chickens.

The moment of impact

An unrelated avian mishap occurred Monday morning before breakfast at Mitchell cabin, but Lynn and I don’t know if the bird survived. A dove taking off from our deck flew under the eaves and slammed into a living-room window.

The crash was loud, and the dove left an image of how it looked at the moment of impact. It managed to fly off, but it might very well have suffered major injuries.

Old blue eyes. Flash photography often gives humans red eyes. Blacktail deer come out with blue eyes while raccoon eyes can end up white or green or both. Possums get pink eyes. Elsewhere in the United States, flashes turn prairie dog eyes orange and alligator eyes red.

Blacktail doe at sunset a week ago, eating persimmon leaves. Flash photo by Lynn Axelrod

As SparselySageAndTimely.com originally explained 10 years ago, the reason flashes — which are often vital for photographing nocturnal wildlife — give these animals’ eyes their various colors is not the same reason flashes can make human eyes look red. 

Among mammals, the iris of the eye expands and contracts to let in the optimum amount of light as conditions become darker or brighter. When a camera flashes, the human iris cannot contract fast enough to keep bright light from reaching the back of the eye; as a result, red blood vessels of the retina reflect light and show up in photos as “red eye.”

Unlike humans, many other mammals, especially nocturnal creatures, have a mirror-like surface, the tapetum lucidum, behind their retinas. The eyeshine of a deer caught in the headlights is a reflection off the tapetum lucidum.

The tapetum lucidum helps nocturnal animals hunt and forage in low light. Here’s how. Light from outside the eye passes through the iris and the retina and then bounces off the tapetum lucidum back through the retina. This magnifies the intensity of the light reaching the rods and cones of the retina, which are what sense light.

However, the color of the tapetum lucidum differs from species to species, which is why rabbits have orange or red eyeshine while dogs are often green or blue. Nor is having a tapetum lucidum an unmixed blessing. As Wikipedia notes, the tapetum lucidum “improves vision in low light conditions but can cause the perceived image to be blurry from the interference of the reflected light.”

So the next time you see some ‘old blue eyes’ in nature photos shot with a flash in low light, please remember that they were never unique to old Frank.

Roof rats on my deck eating birdseed several years ago.

Roof rats can be found throughout West Marin. At our home, they used to eat many of the seeds I scattered on our deck for birds. They still do but far less often these days.

Before we continue, you should remember it was the fleas of these rats, which originated in southern Asia, that spread the Black Death throughout Europe in the 14th Century, killing about half the people.

A roof rat takes a drink from the birdbath on our deck.

Over the years here at Mitchell cabin, I’ve managed to trap numerous roof rats that found their way into the basement where they tore up old boxes and clothes for bedding material. In addition, they twice gnawed through the dishwasher drain hose. This has also happened to other West Marin residents including our neighbors.

Some of their worst damage, however, has been to our cars. Woodrats like to use automobile ventilation systems for shelter, and they bring in bits of foliage for bedding. Cheda’s Garage twice cleaned out the mess for me.

Finally Tim Tanner at the garage told me to make sure I use dashboard controls to close the cooling system at the end of each day so the rats couldn’t get in. I started doing this, and the problem stopped. Last month, however, Lynn had to learn the same lesson with her car.

A woodrat’s ability to construct a nest is impressive. Lynn on Sunday inspected a humongous nest that rats built atop some scraps of firewood in our woodshed. Unfortunately for the rats, we had to tear down their home to get the wood.

By chance, I hired Danny Holderman of Point Reyes Station to carry the last of the logs to a woodbox on our deck. Before we drove to Mitchell cabin, we stopped by Danny’s home downtown. While waiting for him, I started looking at chickens in his coop, which is equipped with a vertical metal tube that works like a bird feeder.

While I watched, a roof rat suddenly appeared in the coop, ran up a wooden gangplank to the feeder, and disappeared inside it. When I later told Danny what I’d seen, he told me it happens fairly often.

A roof rat and towhee dine together peaceably.

Adult roof rats are 13 to 18 inches long, including their tails which are longer than their bodies. While they have been known to eat bird eggs, they, in turn, are eaten by barn owls. 

A scrub jay dining with a roof rat.

Despite their taste for eggs, roof rats often manage to get along with adult birds — perhaps because they’re so cute.

 

With Thanksgiving coming up next Thursday, it seems appropriate to start off with some turkeys.

Now that turkey hunting is mostly a thing of the past in West Marin, wild turkeys such as this tom are constantly prowling my property.

A couple of weeks back, a flock of turkeys wandered from my field over to my neighbors’ fence where one tom caught sight of his own reflection in the glass of their greenhouse. Apparently thinking another tom had invaded the flock’s turf, he started pecking at his likeness, but it wouldn’t leave until he did.

Leaving a limb (but not as part of a Thanksgiving dinner). Turkeys aren’t much good at flying, but this one managed to make it up into a pine tree; however, it didn’t stay long.

There’s been a bobcat around Mitchell cabin more often this fall than in the past. Here it lurks below Woodhenge. (To prevent cars from accidentally driving off the edge of our parking area, we erected our own version of England’s Stonehenge, but because ours is made from old lumber and sections of logs, we call it Woodhenge.)

The bobcat prowls our fields hunting gophers. It’s not that bobcats don’t eat other prey, but there are so many gophers around that this one may not need to. It’s fairly common to see the bobcat catch a gopher.

More of a concern is this fellow. He’s been wandering about our hill for a couple of months, and even when we don’t see him, we can sometimes tell that he’s been around.

A few evenings ago, a bunch of raccoons showed up on our deck, so I threw a handful of dog kibble out the front door. Raccoons, of course, love kibble — as people who feed their dogs outside know. On this particular night, a skunk showed up on our deck to dine with the raccoons. Neither species seemed to alarm the other, which fascinated me, so I cautiously stepped outside to photograph the scene.

My presence didn’t alarm the skunk either, but the battery in my camera was dead. Shucks. As I gingerly retreated back inside, the skunk to my surprise tried to follow me. It’s not unusual for rural residents to get raccoons in their homes, but skunks. I quickly shut the door in its face, managing to avoid hitting it, and the skunk went back to eating kibble with the raccoons.
Persimmons for two bucks. From the deck, Lynn was able to photograph this pair of blacktail bucks eating fruit that had fallen from our persimmon tree. She and I don’t eat many persimmons, so the main competition the deer have for the fruit are birds and the raccoons.

No doubt, they’ll all be feasting too next Thursday.

 

The bank in Point Reyes Station has been an unpredictable place for a century while operating under a series of ownerships. On Monday, it surpised the town yet again.

Here’s how it all began. The Bank of Tomales in 1910 bought land on the main street for a branch, which opened in 1913 in a wooden building where Flower Power is now located. In 1923, Dairymen’s Coast Bank took over the bank and built the brick building occupied by the florist today.

While this was happening, the wooden structure was jacked up and moved to Mesa Road where it became a two-woman brothel. The late Lefty Arndt, who noted he never patronized the place, once told me it was the only brothel that ever operated in Point Reyes Station — despite what people say about the Western Saloon building and the Grandi Building. In 1928, Bank of America acquired Dairymen’s Coast Bank.

The bank went through its first crisis in August 1959 when a 31-year-old tree trimmer armed with a pistol and sawed-off shotgun robbed it of more than $14,000. Tellers and the one customer in the bank were forced into the vault. The robber kidnapped bank manager Al Cencio but released him in Samuel P. Taylor State Park.

A week later the robber, who was named William Jerry “Dugie” Williams, turned himself in, but the money was never recovered. Williams said he had buried most of it near a tree in Lagunitas but couldn’t remember which tree.

During the previous 15 years, Williams had been arrested for draft evasion, burglary, contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and passing bad checks; he was on parole at the time of the robbery.  That September, a federal judge in San Francisco sentenced Williams to 15 years on Alcatraz.

The present bank building was erected in 1976 at a cost of $215,000 but not without a major setback. During its construction, an arsonist on May 20 set the structure on fire, causing $100,000 worth of damage. A $1,000 reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist, but he was never identified.

Nonetheless, the new Bank of America was able to open that Oct. 19. In 1994, BofA sold the branch to the Bank of Petaluma, which in 2008 sold it to Wells Fargo.

The trees around the bank were always a major part of its site’s appearance. Over time, a small sapling on the Palace Market side of the bank’s parking lot grew tall enough to become the town Christmas tree and a site for caroling.

That made yesterday’s tree cutting a shock to many people. This blog on Dec. 18 noted that the pine was scheduled to be cut down because it was considered sick and might drop limbs on people. Nonetheless, I was stunned to see actual logging. 

As seen from the bank’s rear parking lot, a Pacific Slope tree-trimming crew also cut down a pine on the north side of the bank.

And they trimmed a third pine at the back of the bank’s parking lot. I understand the bank’s concern about “widow makers,” as they’re called. I was around one. As a reporter in Sonora during the early 1970s, I covered the death of a man who was picnicking in a park on a windless day when without a sound a dead limb fell on top of him.

As of Wednesday, the “stump” of the former town Christmas tree had been lightly decorated with prayer flags. Until the stump is removed, other decorations can be expected, one of the Wells Fargo staff told me.

 

Two middling-large celebrations were held this past weekend in Point Reyes Station. Both were fun — but reflected grim reality.

Saturday was Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. Among families from south of the border, it’s a day to pay homage to loved ones who are no longer with them. In West Marin these days, a number of Gringos also observe Dia de los Muertos. (The word Gringo, by the way, did not originate in Mexico but in Spain during the 1800s. For some Spaniards, Gringo was used to mean Greek (Griego) and referred to people speaking a language that was Greek to them.)

In Point Reyes Station, the celebration began at Gallery Route One with a parade featuring music, dancing, and colorful costumes. Leading music for part of the march were Debbie Daly on accordion and Tim Weed on banjo.

Artist Ernesto Sanchez provided face painting at his studio in Point Reyes Station. Adults and young people both took advantage of the offer.

Main street merchants, including Chris Giacomini, owner of Toby’s Feed Barn, and Sheryl Cahill, owner of the Station House Café, went outdoors to watch the parade go by.

After dancing and making music for the entire length of downtown, all three blocks of it, the marchers headed for the Dance Palace Community Center. Providing special color, music, and dancing were the Aztec Dancers, who regularly perform in Point Reyes Station parades.

Inside the Dance Palace, artist Sanchez had created a giant altar where members of the crowd placed pictures of loved ones no longer with us or mementos of their time on earth. Here Socorro Romo, the program director of West Marin Community Services, rests in front of the altar.

Following these rites celebrants enjoyed Mexican food, drinks, and traditional music.

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But Point Reyes Station was just warming up. On Sunday morning, the annual Pancake Breakfast was held in the town firehouse. It’s a benefit for the Point Reyes Disaster Council which helps residents prepare for — or deal with — wildfires, major earthquakes, and flooding.

The council sprang into action during the recent wildfires in the wine country, which forced hundreds of evacuees to seek shelter in Marin County. Although the disaster was not local, the council acted as an intermediary between various organizations helping evacuees, numerous volunteers, and people staffing shelters.
At the firehouse, firefighters cooked a variety of pancakes (regular, vegetarian, or gluten free), sausages and eggs, which they served along with milk, orange juice and coffee. Seen frying sausages is Ken Eichstaedt, manager of Inverness Public Utility District; the district administers Inverness Volunteer Fire Department’s finances.

Approximately 400 people showed up for breakfast in the firetrucks’ garage.

A raffle to raise funds for the Disaster Council was also held, and youngsters had a chance to ride around town in a firetruck.

The Point Reyes Disaster Council’s account of how it came to be, what it does, and how to take part can be found at pointreyesdisastercouncil.org.

 

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