West Marin nature


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This is the second of two postings that show some of the animals which thrive around Mitchell cabin. The first posting focused on mammals I’ve seen and managed to photograph. Part 2 will feature amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

We will begin with some of the amphibians.

A Pacific Tree Frog chirps and then takes a rest on our deck.

An Arboreal Salamander crawls away from a tree.

A California Newt beside our front steps.

And now for reptiles

A male Western Fence Lizard, commonly known as a ‘Blue Belly,’ performs pushups to attract females and to warn off other males.

A Gopher Snake basking in sun near our driveway.

A Rubber Boa with a tick just below its left eye. Rubber Boas, which can measure more than 2.75 feet, are extremely docile with humans and will give off a stench rather than bite. They feed on young mice, snake eggs, lizard eggs, and young birds.

A Pacific Ringneck Snake that I found in a rotten log.

Birds

We put out birdseed on our deck every day, but what turns out to be almost as important to some birds is our birdbath, from which they regularly drink and in which they periodically bathe — and even prepare dinner, as you’ll see.

Two sparrows immodestly bathing together.

A crow uses the birdbath for skinning a caterpillar.

Two California scrub jays stop by the birdbath for a drink.

A crow gracefully hops over another crow to get to the birdbath.

A Golden-Crowned Sparrow disguised as a stained-glass window. The Golden-Crowned Sparrow’s distinctive, three-note song is essentially Three Blind Mice sung in a minor key.

Redwing Blackbirds eating birdseed on the railing of our deck.

A Brewer’s Blackbird feeds seeds to its young. Along with seeds, Brewer’s Blackbirds eat insects, spiders, and berries.

A (Tom) Wild Turkey near Mitchell Cabin. In 1988, a hunting club working with the State Department of Fish and Game introduced non-native turkeys into West Marin on Loma Alta Ridge, which overlooks the San Geronimo Valley. By now there are far more turkeys than turkey hunters, and their flocks have spread throughout West Marin.

A (hen) Wild Turkey leads her offspring uphill outside our kitchen window.

Seven Wild Turkeys forage with four Blacktail deer near our woodshed.

Wild turkeys, at least on this hill, have remarkably easy relations with several other species, including this lonely peacock that sometimes hangs out with them.

A White-Tailed Kite hovers over our field hunting for rodents. (They rarely eat birds.) Eighty years ago, the White-Tailed Kite was on the verge of extinction in California as a result of shooting and egg collecting, but White-Tails have now recovered to where their survival is no longer a concern to government ornithologists.

A turkey buzzard dines on carrion just below our deck. As for how the rabbit died and how it got there, I have no idea. Everything has to end somewhere, I suppose, and I guess this is the time and place to end this posting.

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.

A raccoon looking down on my front steps keeps an eye out for non-family members invading his territory.

Happy New Year! As longtime readers know, I’ve periodically started off the new year with a look at the wildlife around Mitchell cabin. This year I’m  going to do it in two postings, the first focusing on the mammals I’ve seen and managed to photograph. The second will feature amphibians, reptiles, and birds.

Begging for food at our door. This raccoon was missing its left front foot. Lynn took pity on the creature, dubbed it “Peanut,” and tried to make sure it got to eat without more-robust raccoons driving it away from the food.

Several raccoons show up on our deck every night hoping to get kibble or food scraps. Outside our front windows, they try to catch our attention, sometimes making noise by dragging the pads of their feet down the glass.

They bathe in our birdbath as well as drink from it. We’ve seen as many as four young raccoons crowd into it at one time it although its far side is 15 feet off the ground.

By now most of them are comfortable on our deck, and a few show up some evenings to take naps, especially those who are pregnant and need sleep.

We also see jackrabbits on this hill quite often but they’re not as punctual as raccoons.

The jackrabbits manage to get along easily with our local blacktail deer. The only time I’ve seen a rabbit particularly wary around these deer occurred when a fawn wandered over to the edge of a field to sniff it. The rabbit hopped off a few yards but stuck around.

Two young bucks, the far one with an antler missing perhaps from butting heads with another buck.

A fawn hiding in the grass. It’s fun to have blacktail deer around the cabin, but they tend to eat our roses and persimmons.

Even more of a problem in the garden are the scores of gophers that live in this hill. Their mounds perforate our fields.

But the gophers don’t have total free run of the place. Here a bobcat pounces on a gopher leaving its burrow near our cabin.

Bobcats have been far more common on this hill in recent years than they were 20, 30, or 40 years ago.

A gray fox occasionally suns itself on our picnic table. Fox populations around here regularly rise only to fall during distemper outbreaks.

A coyote beside our parking area.

Coyotes can be seen in our fields every two or three months, but Lynn and I hear them howling several nights a week. There were no coyotes in West Marin for 40 years because sheep ranchers regularly poisoned them. After the poisoning was banned during President Nixon’s administration, coyotes began showing up here in 1983. They had spread south from northern Sonoma County, where they never disappeared.

A mother badger with her kit. The most ferocious predators near the cabin are badgers. Even a bear would be no match. Badgers live in burrows up to 30 feet long and 10 feet deep, for they are remarkably efficient diggers thanks to long claws and short, strong legs.  Although they can run up to 17 or 18 mph for short distances, they generally hunt by digging fast enough to pursue rodents into their burrows. We occasionally find badger burrows in our fields, but we rarely get to see the animals themselves.

Lest I leave you with the impression that on this hill it’s all “nature red in tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson, I’ll end this posting with two examples of the many peaceful mammals living here.

A gray squirrel drinking from the birdbath. As I photographed it through a living-room window, the squirrel began eyeing me but didn’t run off.

Skunks are another species that increasingly populates our yard. They’re a bit worrisome, but so far they haven’t caused a stink here.

And may you too have a stink-free new year.

 

 

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.

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 8:53 p.m. Nov. 25], the fire had destroyed the town of Paradise and was already the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history.

It is known to have killed at least 85 people with more than 1,275 others still missing. It blackened more than 2,500 square miles before it was fully contained around 7 a.m. Sunday. The Camp Fire razed nearly 14,000 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 seemed to look this buck in the eye when he photographed it standing between our homes in the sun.

The same buck a few days later resting 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 tick on its eye. 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.

 

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