West Marin nature


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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Halloween, which will be celebrated Tuesday, is our second Irish holiday of the year. The celebration is believed to have originated 2,000 years ago with a Celtic harvest festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). During the eighth century, the Catholic Church Christianized the celebration as “All Hallows’ Eve,” hallows being a word for saints. The name “Halloween” is a contraction of “all hallows eve” because it falls on the night before All Saints’ Day.

Halloween is the night that the dead supposedly return, which accounts for all the ghosts and goblins on the street. 

My fiancée Lynn buying a pumpkin this week at Nicasio’s popular pumpkin patch.

The Celts inhabited Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales, along with Brittany in France. This helps explain why many Halloween traditions are basically Irish: the costumes (to scare off and confuse ghosts of the dead), the games (e.g. bobbing for apples), and especially the jack-o’-lanterns. When it came to carving jack-o’-lanterns, however, the Irish used large turnips, not pumpkins.

Immigrants to the US brought the jack-o’-lantern tradition with them and found that American pumpkins were far better than turnips when carving jack-o’-lanterns. Thus the Halloween tradition took another interesting turn.

Because Halloween falls during the harvest season, a traditional cornucopia (horn of plenty) is assembled annually at Mitchell cabin.

Also marking the fall are ants. As nature dries out, battalions of ants annually invade our kitchen in search of water. We place saucers under our houseplants to catch any seepage, and the ants head straight for the saucers. I often wipe them away with a damp sponge; if they’re on plants, I spray them with Windex, which doesn’t seem to bother the plants.

“The evening rabbit show,” as we call it, provides predictable entertainment daily at Mitchell cabin.

It’s in the same tradition as our “evening bird show.” Here a couple of sparrows take their daily shower in our birdbath.

So as we head into Halloween night, let’s be sure to remember Ireland’s role in shaping it. “Halloween” may not sound like a Celtic rite, but it’s as Irish as St. Patrick’s Day and even more Irish than the constellation O’Ryan over our heads.

 

 

 

Rabbit redux — As was reported here a couple of weeks ago, there are more jackrabbits in the fields around Mitchell cabin this summer than in past years. I quoted one neighbor who pointed out there are fewer foxes this summer and suspected that might explain the increase in rabbits. However, a few foxes remain, and other predators, such as coyotes, are also around.

Not a housecat — Still another predator, which shows up from time to time, is a bobcat. I spotted one last week in the field below  Mitchell cabin. From a distance, a person might mistake a bobcat for a large housecoat since they’re roughly similar in general appearance. There is, however, a key difference that allows us to quickly tell them apart; bobcats don’t wear pet collars.

A Turkish convoy — No doubt a bobcat would also enjoy a turkey dinner if it could get one. This flock of wild turkeys has been showing up in my fields for months. The turkeys are not native to West Marin. For the benefit of hunters, state Fish and Game biologists in 1988 released a small flock on Loma Alta Ridge just north of Woodacre.

The flock quickly grew, and before long wild turkeys were gobbling throughout West Marin. Some birds spread as far north as Tomales, where they were known to chase school children. In fact, the turkeys’ most-impressive bit of mischief also occurred in Tomales. Here’s what happened back in February 2005.

 A turkey gliding down off a hill on the west side of the main street (Highway 1) clipped a 12,000-volt power line, causing a “loud explosion and bright flash of light,” residents Walter Earle and Margaret Graham told Point Reyes Light reporter Peter Jamison at the time. The couple said the turkey, which was not set on fire, landed on Highway 1 and in a daze walked around in circles before ambling off across a field and disappearing into the brush.

Earle immediately called the Tomales firehouse and reported, “Some turkey just took out the power lines.” Fire Capt. Tom Nunes later said he thought Earle was talking about a drunk driver, not a bird.

As it turned out, the turkey had sparked a four-hour blackout in town.

Hiding in the grass — Among the most common wildlife around Mitchell cabin are blacktail deer. Their fawns are typically born in early summer, and as of this week, still had their spots. The spots provide excellent camouflage from predators, as can be seen here.

Raccoonoitering Raccoons show up around Mitchell cabin virtually every evening. Raccoon kits are born in the spring and raised by their mothers until late fall. No doubt the biggest killer of raccoons around here is the motor vehicle, but once they’re in my fields, the main threat they face is each other. Unrelated raccoons frequently fight among themselves. We’ve seen raccoons that had lost part of an ear — or even a foot — in these skirmishes.

Chinook, like the salmon — An unfamiliar animal I encountered in the past week was this parrot named Chinook (seen perched on my wrist inside Sausalito’s No Name bar). Chinook wasn’t at all skittish around people although all the noise eventually irritated the 25-year-old bird and it nipped my finger — but not hard enough to draw blood.

More wild life — The Michael Aragon Quartet performs at the No Name every Friday night. The band plays jazz in the genre of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderly, and they do it so well that drummer Aragon, the bandleader, has had the Friday gig for more than 30 years. On a couple of Fridays recently Nicasio-based Miwanza Furaha (above) sat in for a few songs. She’s a dynamic blues singer, whose passionate style reminds me of an intense Billie Holliday, and every time she sang, the crowd went wild.

 

When I drove up to Mitchell cabin last Wednesday, nine blacktail deer were grazing in the front meadow.

It’s common to have deer in my fields. Nine was the most in recent months although in times past I’ve had as many as 16.


Jackrabbits are also more abundant at present than they’ve been for a while.

The rabbits appear fairly comfortable around the deer, and it’s not uncommon to see them grazing side by side.

Unfortunately, cars and trucks take a toll on both the deer and the rabbit populations, so please keep an eye out for them when driving, especially at night. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)


The rain we’ve been having in Point Reyes Station certainly enhances the scenery.

Here a tea rose on our deck sparkles with droplets after a wet morning. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod)


 

 


Horses grazing next to Mitchell cabin don’t seem to mind chilly weather, but on truly cold days, the folks at Point Reyes Arabians outfit them all with horse blankets.


 

 


Having escaped another yuletide feast, a wild turkey takes a leisurely stroll beside the cabin.

 

 

 

 


Perhaps the most emotionally compelling critter around Mitchell cabin this yuletide has been a young, three-legged raccoon that started showing up here in November. My partner Lynn was concerned about the little guy and soon named the raccoon “Peanut” because it was the runt of the litter. Maybe it hadn’t been getting enough to eat. We don’t know how Peanut lost his front-left leg. Perhaps in a fight with another raccoon. When we first noticed him, all that was left of the leg was a bloody spot.

By now the injury has healed over, and Peanut manages to get around fairly well with only three legs. He’s able to climb trees and even the lattice along our deck.

The name Peanut, however, periodically makes me chuckle. As it happens, back in the 1980s, I was part of a group that studied Spanish one evening a week in the old Dance Palace. Meeting at the same time elsewhere in the building were Mexican immigrants learning English.

Once when two of the instructors were to be away for a week, they arranged for the Spanish-speaking students to teach us English-speaking students Spanish and vice versa.

The approach was fairly straight forward. A Spanish-speaking student who was already fairly fluent in English would tell one of us the meaning of a Spanish word and then have the student use it in a sentence. When it was my turn, the woman conducting the class gave me the word cacahuetes, and I was immediately flustered when heard her say it meant “penis.”

I could pronounce ka-ka-wah-tays, but that wasn’t the problem. I now had to use the word in a Spanish sentence without embarrassing myself in front of the class. Then it struck me. The Marin Community Foundation had just awarded a $5,000 grant to a Stinson Beach filmmaker who was producing a physiological study titled Dick. “A Stinson Beach man is making a movie about cacahuetes,” I said in Spanish. The teacher looked surprised but quickly moved on.

When I got home from class that night, I told my then-wife Cynthia, “You’ll never guess what word they taught us tonight…. cacahuetes. Cynthia, who spoke Spanish fairly well, looked puzzled and asked, “What’s unusual about peanuts?”


Happy New Year!

 

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