West Marin nature


There were no coyotes in West Marin for 40 years because of poisoning by sheep ranchers in northwest Marin and southern Sonoma County. 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)

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 when I drive up to 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 — 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 added.

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 Tomales, Dillon Beach, and Marshall area. Coyotes continue to kill a few sheep, but they haven’t won yet. Perhaps that’s why they howl so much almost every evening.

 

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 raccoons 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.

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.

 

Next Page »