West Marin nature


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Thanksgiving, Nov. 22 this year, is only a week away, and the flock of wild turkeys that hangs out on this hill doesn’t seem especially worried. However, 10 years ago when this photo was taken, the turkeys seemed much plumper. Must be the drought.

Last week, the fruit on our persimmon tree was starting to get ripe. What could be more cheerful looking?

The setting sun seen through smoke over Inverness Ridge last Friday.

The cheery scenes of fall began darkening last Thursday when the “Camp Fire” 185 miles east of here in Butte County began filling West Marin skies with smoke day after day. As of this writing [updated 10 p.m. Nov. 13], the fire had destroyed the town of Paradise, was known to have killed at least 48 people with more than 220 others still missing. It had blackened more than 200 square miles and had razed more than 7,000 structures including 6,453 homes.

As welcome as the smoke, a roof rat this evening crawled out from under a planter barrel on our deck to poach birdseed.

An egret walking past our kitchen door a couple of weeks ago. In the past, egrets have shown up around Mitchell cabin infrequently. This bird, however, has shown up several times of recent and twice perched on our deck railings.

 A blacktail buck. My neighbor Dan Huntsman practically looked this buck in the eye when he photographed it standing between our homes in the sun.

The same buck resting later in the shade on the far side of our house.

This bobcat near my driveway was photographed late last month by my neighbor Dan Huntsman.

There’s more to the animal life around Mitchell cabin than wildlife. Here student riders with Point Reyes Arabian Adventures circle on a nearby hill.

Twice this week raccoons again ate kibble on our deck with a skunk, and as in the past, they audaciously sniffed — and even pawed — its rear end but didn’t get sprayed.

Caveat lectorem: When readers submit comments, they are asked if they want to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. A number of people have said they do. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.
 

Lynn Axelrod Mitchell holds a glass of tea at the No Name in Sausalito.

The latest Marin Poetry Center Anthology (Volume XXI  2018) includes a poem by my wife, Lynn Axelrod Mitchell. Titled Our year in four, it draws upon the nature around our home. I like the poem enough to share it, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too:

I
Bird-call makes us break
our solitude and sleep
to slip within this risen day.
The water bowl’s resurgent lake
clear enough for sparrow-sip
this warming day.
Bird-track stars in snow crystals
deliver us this glistening day.
Prints recede as skimming seeds
hail this breath of day.

II
Emerge from where we go,
hopeless captives
who fail at hobbling dreams
that make us quake at what we keep
from what we may release
like birdsong calling in the day.
Gaping redwings, shoulders back,
slingshot notes around the meadow,
our neighborly divide their forum.
Swainsons’ swirling flutes
swizzle ‘cross the treetops.
We cast our husks of tribute
—sunflower, millet, suet—
to charm the scrubland gods:
While time is light as breath is air,
send them here, these newborn days.

III
Indigo sky.
No shoes, no shirt.
No rules need apply.
Berries lie in beds we made,
testifying to our pride,
our lustful spring ambition.
Luscious unclaimed virgins
no one ate or tried
        jumped
—or were they pushed—
from overcrowded vines,
juices caking in the dust.
Laboring emmets carry off the spoils
clamber up the stalks;
roving antennae fondle aphid rears:
honeydew!—like cheap, sweet beer.
Crusading leagues of ladybugs
arrive to save the plants
from habituated ants
who fight to keep their hooch.
Skirmish on the ragged green,
lunges, bites, maneuvers.
Biology is destiny, we say—
irrelevant to the sun devouring the day.

IV
Bring the tools inside, lay them sharp,
always clean, at rest in the dark.
The turned earth settles cool above,
warming continents below.
Give us time to think goodbye
sit on cushioned chairs
puzzle birds their silent pluming flights
wonder how they are.
Which tilt was final; setting sun decisive?
We try to reason when they knew: ‘now’ not if.
Storing wood for the annual surrender
we stake the ground on tremors
unbuckling chasms, bargaining again
we’ll hear the faintest notes return
sometimes through a murmur—raucous, rising.
Earth heaves, shudders in its own oscillation.

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Caveat lectorem: Some readers have asked to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.

A chestnut-backed chickadee yesterday pauses in its meal of birdseed to take a drink from the soon-to-be scoured birdbath on our deck.

A Cooper’s hawk occasionally hunts the birds that drop by our deck. Surprisingly, these hawks prefer medium-sized birds, such as doves, to small birds such as chickadees.

Cooper’s hawks, which seem to enjoy strutting, are also fond of jays, quail, and chickens. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Back to the hunt — the Cooper’s hawk flies off over the garden nextdoor. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Five raccoons use the birdbath as a raccoon bath. Tonight they all tried to squeeze into the bowl at one time, but four turned out to be the limit.

Jack rabbits in the fields around Mitchell cabin seem to enjoy a tranquil life, but when something scares them, the rabbits become frantic in their flight. It’s a good thing they aren’t following the Congressional demolition derby in Washington or they’d never stop running, at least until hit by a GOP-led committee hellbent on their destination no matter how many stop signs they blow by along the way.

Looking out the kitchen door earlier this week I saw a handsome bobcat among the dandelions.

It’s been a periodic visitor around Mitchell cabin, but of late its visits have become more frequent. When the bobcat’s around, it spends most of its time hunting gophers, often sitting or standing like this waiting to pounce. I can only assume it’s seen a gopher head pop out of the dirt for a moment or that it can hear a gopher scratching underground.

A smelly surprise this past week was a triad of young skunks marching in close formation back and forth across the hill. I have no idea why they arranged themselves in that fashion, but it was fun to watch.

But the biggest surprise I encountered this week was in a 28-year-old copy of Hustler magazine that I came upon.

As part of a photo feature in the men’s magazine, there was a picture of a wind farm with a couple of scantily clad young ladies standing in front of it. All that was typical Hustler. The odd part was the accompanying quotation from Wade Holland of Inverness, who back then was manager of the Inverness Public Utility District.

Before I asked Wade today about the quote, he was unaware he’d been in Hustler and found the revelation quite amusing. Wade said the remark dated from an abandoned proposal by IPUD directors to use windmills to generate part of the town’s electricity. God only knows how the magazine came upon his comment. Did someone at Hustler have a subscription to The Point Reyes Light (where coincidentally Wade is now copy editor)?

Less amused was a different Wade B. Holland. When I initially tried to call West Marin’s Wade B. Holland, I found the number I was using had been changed. I then searched online for another number and found one that looked like it might be his cellphone.

I called the number, and when a man answered, I asked if he was Wade Holland. He said he was, so I asked him if he were aware he’d been quoted in Hustler back in 1990. The man, who turned out to be in North Carolina, was astounded.

And when I read the quotation to him, he become a bit indignant, saying he was not the Wade B. Holland in that magazine. So I said goodbye and left him to tell his friends about the bizarre call he had just received from California.

There were no coyotes in West Marin for 40 years because of poisoning by sheep ranchers in northwest Marin and southern Sonoma counties. However, coyotes never disappeared from northern Sonoma County, and after the Nixon Administration banned the poison 10-80, they started spreading south and showed up here again in 1983.

A lean coyote on my driveway last week. (Photo by my neighbor Dan Huntsman)

In the years since then, coyotes put an end to more than half of the sheep ranching around Marshall, Tomales, Dillon Beach, and Valley Ford.

A coyote eyes my car as I park at Mitchell cabin.

Ranchers initially proposed outfitting their sheep with poison collars since coyotes typically go for the throat. The collars would not save the sheep that was bitten but would prevent the attacker from killing more sheep. The collars were not allowed, however, on grounds that a coyote which died from poisoning could, in turn, poison buzzards and other carrion eaters that came upon it.

A coyote runs past my kitchen door.

In 1995, Tomales sheep rancher Roy Erickson told The Point Reyes Light he had lost six ewes — most of them pregnant — to coyotes in the previous two weeks. Back then, each ewe sold for $85, and the unborn lambs would have been worth the same amount the following year. Financially, “it’s like someone slashing a pair of new tires every few days,” Erickson said.

Unless the state loosened its ban on toxic collars, the sheep rancher sarcastically remarked, “they’ll have to rename our place Fat Buzzard Ranch.” Fortunately, the ranch was able to survive.

Coyotes can walk at more than 20 mph and run considerably faster than 30 mph.

Tomales sheepman Dan Erickson today told me that thanks to special fencing, guard dogs, and hunting, there are still 10 or more sheep ranches in the Marshall, Tomales, Dillon Beach, and Valley Ford region. Coyotes continue to kill a few sheep, but they haven’t won yet. I’m happy to report we’re not hearing the ranchers howling, as the coyotes do almost every evening.

A sad afterward: Friday evening, July 20, Lynn and I were on Lucas Valley Road when we saw a young coyote walking in the grass beside the road. This was on the flats about a mile and a half east of Big Rock, and since there are no sheep ranches in the area, seeing it was a treat. Alas, later that evening when we passed the same spot while driving home to Point Reyes Station, we came upon a flattened coyote in the roadway. What a shock! Dammit, we all need to slow down at night.

 

It’s been a mixed week.

Last evening I was amazed to look out a bedroom window and see a red ball shining in the eastern sky. Lynn and I realized that the Lake County fire was the explanation. News reports said smoke from that fire was blowing south into the San Francisco Bay Area. As of this writing, the Pawnee Fire in Lake County has burned 14,150 acres and is only 73 percent contained.

 

Not wanting any wildfires here, I’d hired some guys to mow the fields around Mitchell cabin and neighbors Dan and Mary Huntsman’s home. All went well except for this one patch in the middle of a field that wasn’t cut all the way down. Much of the land was mowed using a tractor, but when the tractor operator got to this spot, he suddenly came under attack from a colony of yellow jackets which had a hive in the ground. I could have had the hive destroyed but opted not to since yellow jackets can be beneficial: they dine on flies and spiders.

This gopher snake showed up at the edge of the garden the same weekend two months ago when Lynn and I were married. I decided that was a good omen since we were overrun with gophers.

Today, Lynn spotted this four-foot-long gopher snake on our front steps. To give you a sense of scale, the railroad ties that make up the steps are three feet long. This snake’s tail winds through the grass up to the step and back down where it disappears on the left side of the photo. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

I was impressed by the snake’s girth and snapped this photo of it.

There are numerous variations in the coloring of gopher snakes, but most retain a rattlesnake-like hide. In fact, when gopher snakes feel threatened, they try to imitate rattlesnakes, hissing, coiling up, and shaking their rattleless tails. A week ago I was driving home up Campolindo Road when I spotted a gopher snake that looked like this one, lying across the narrow roadway. Not wanting anyone to drive over it, I stopped, got out, and walked over to the snake, which did not move. I then leaned over and grabbed the snake right behind its head. The snake hissed and tried to turn its head but couldn’t, and I carried it into the grass and let it go.

Garter snakes could be found around here fairly often 25 years ago, but the only ones I’ve seen recently were along the levee road. When I moved one of those out of the roadway a while back, I got a dose of the stench garter snakes spray when they feel under attack.

A rubber boa with a slight eye injury. These seldom-seen snakes (they hunt in the evening or at night) can also emit a stinky spray when frightened. Mice and voles are among their main prey.

I found this Pacific ring-necked snake in a rotten log while splitting firewood, as was reported here awhile back. The snake eats very small creatures — tadpoles, insects, and especially salamanders. It has just enough venom to immobilize them but is not dangerous to humans.

A mother raccoon and her four kits receive a few handfuls of dog kibble when they show up in the evening. The kits are usually weaned by the the time they are four months old but often stay with their mothers for up to nine months.

A blacktail doe with two offspring are also staying together. Here the family rests contentedly after crossing the barbed-wire border between fields without getting separated. Under the current Administration, human refugees apparently deserve less.

 

As regular readers of this blog know, Lynn Axelrod and I were married on April 26. The first installment of our honeymoon began June 5 when we headed up the coast to enjoy a few days in Gualala, Mendocino County. The second installment will come later this summer when we’ll probably head down the coast to Monterey County.

Gualala makes for a romantic getaway, and we’d previously vacationed there a couple of times. The downtown sits beside an ocean bluff at the foot of forested hills. Every year ocean waves restore a sandbar that closes the mouth of the Gualala River. This creates a lagoon that lasts until the next rains swell the river enough that it can burst through the sandbar.

The Gualala River is a large part of what keeps bringing us back. (Lynn took this photo of me during a 2012 trip.) Adventure Rents, which operates from a clearing on the bank just downstream from the Gualala Bridge, offers kayaks as well as canoes; we always rent a canoe. The river’s current is fairly weak at this time of year, making it easy to spend an afternoon paddling upstream. Because of wind off the ocean, paddling downstream into the lagoon and back would have been far more laborious.

A bald eagle regularly perched in a dead tree near our inn. We were told it had a mate, but we never saw it.

A covey of mostly very young quail greeted us when we returned to Point Reyes Station after being away four days. In fact, young animals of other species had also begun hanging out around Mitchell cabin.

A blacktail fawn stays alert in this unfamiliar world.

A couple of small jackrabbits were among the other youngsters. Rabbits are weaned when they’re a month old or less. They then start grazing away from the nest but return to sleep. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

A rapid rabbit: While I was watching this adult rabbit last week, it started and bounded off downhill as fast as it could go. When I looked uphill to see what had alarmed the rabbit, I saw ….

a male bobcat. He was acting pretty much like a male dog: peeing on posts to mark territory and rolling on the ground on his back with his feet in the air. He didn’t chase the rabbit.

A raccoon with four small kits now show up on our deck every evening, and we usually give them handfuls of dog kibble. Unfortunately, a skunk recently figured out the routine and has begun arriving around the time the raccoons are done eating. Neither animal alarms the other. This mother raccoon sometimes takes a nap while the skunk eats. On other nights, they eat side by side. It’s really too bad that humans don’t have the gentility of raccoons and skunks.

It’s not common, but every so once in a while I’ll spot in my bookshelves some intriguing volume I had forgotten ever buying. Last month I made one of those happy discoveries when I ran across The Secret Paris of the 30’s. It’s by the great French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984).

Brassaï’s photographs are engaging in a variety of ways, including the text he wrote to go with them. This photo circa 1932 is one of many shot in late-night settings. Titled “A Happy Group at the Quatre Saisons,” half the scene is in the mirror.

Other photos in the book include prostitutes and madams in brothels, dancers behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, police on the street, bums living under a bridge, an opium den.

He also documented gay and lesbian nightlife. In describing a lesbian bar called Le Monocle, Brassaï writes, “I was introduced to this capital of Gomorrah one evening by Fat Claude, who was a habituée of such places.  From the owner, known as Lulu de Montparnasse, to the barmaid, from the waitresses to the hat-check girl, all women were dressed as men, and so totally masculine in appearance that at first glance one thought they were men….

“Once in awhile one would see butchers from the neighborhood — rather common in appearance, but with hearts full of feminine longings — surprising couples. They would waltz solemnly together, their eyes downcast, blushing wildly.”

Photography closer to home: As I’ve often noted, raccoons are nightly visitors on our deck.

The raccoons have been showing up in search of food for so long they have worn two  paths to our steps, as was evident on a frosty morning last weekend.

Other critters have begun to use the raccoon trails during the day. Here’s a bobcat on one of them. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

To round out this set, here is the Michael Aragon Quartet playing jazz last Friday evening, as they always do, in Sausalito’s No Name Bar. Aragon is the drummer. Predictably the performance was excellent as it’s been for three decades, but the surprise for barkeep J.J. Miller came when I told him about a street in Rohnert Park which is also named “No Name.” I just discovered it myself a week ago. One possible reason the street isn’t better known is that it’s only one block long.

From bobcats to cathouses, from byways in Rohnert Park to jazz in Sausalito, this blog covers the waterfront. Be sure to stay tuned for more.

 

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.

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