Archive for September, 2014

Animal populations around here fluctuate noticeably from year to year with weather, disease, and predators all having an impact. This week we’ll discuss two species that have been affected in recent years: common raccoons and Tricolored Blackbirds.

A common raccoon in a pine tree next to Mitchell cabin where there’s no hunting allowed.

During my 39 years in West Marin, I’ve seen the number of raccoons and grey foxes simultaneously soar, plunge, and soar again. It’s happened several tines, and the culprit has usually been distemper, a viral disease that’s spread by inhalation and is fatal about half the time. It attacks the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, as well as the spinal cord and brain.

At the moment, the coast’s raccoon population appears to be thriving. In fact, raccoons are doing well nationwide. This wasn’t always the case. In the first three decades of the last century, the popularity of raccoon coats — especially for riding in convertibles — resulted in the animals being so heavily hunted and trapped that the common raccoon became far less common.

When prices for raccoon pelts eventually dropped, the number of raccoons made a comeback. Then it was television that took a toll on their population. For example, only about 388,000 were killed in the 1934-35 hunting season, Virginia C. Holmgren writes in Raccoons: In Folklore, History & Today’s Backyards. But in the 1950s, three TV episodes about Davy Crockett started popularizing coonskin caps to where 5.2 million animals were taken in the 1976-77 hunt. The average pelt sold for about $20.

A drop in pelt prices once again greatly reduced the take in subsequent years. This past February, 490,361 raccoon pelts were sold at the North American Fur Auction in Nevada, but fetched only $14.05 to $21.61 apiece. “Raccoon and bobcat prices [$73.25 to $393.49] didn’t exactly tank, but were lower than previous levels,” the Nevada Trappers Association reported afterward.

Fall colors on the deck.

Around Mitchell cabin, a few of the birds that at first glance appear to be Red-winged blackbirds are actually Tricolored Blackbirds. Just below the red patch on their wings is a small patch of white feathers, which is hard to see except when their wings are outspread. ______________________________________________________________

When flying, a Tricolored Blackbird’s white feathers are visible below and behind its red feathers. — Audubon photo by Linda Pittman

The color of that patch of feathers is the key to identification. If it’s yellow, you have a Red-winged blackbird. If it’s white, you have a Tricolored.

Tricolored Blackbirds were once one of the most common birds in California and until recent years lived on Point Reyes in great numbers. A few years back, ornithologist Rich Stallcup, who died in 2012, wrote that 30 years of bird surveys had found that “on outermost Point Reyes…. the winter population has ranged from 4,500 to 11,000 individuals…. Perhaps 8 to 10 percent of the world population.”

However, when the Horick Ranch folded in 2000 and the Point Reyes National Seashore took possession of it, the Park Service removed the cows and the dairy shut down, Stallcup noted. “This significant reduction in foraging opportunities may have — and have had — a serious impact on the size of the colony, which has dropped from about 1,500 nests in 2000 to less than 650 in 2003.”

Although Stallcup initially conceded that the dramatic drop in the number of Tricoloreds on Point Reyes could be within the range of normal fluctuation, several months later he sounded an alarm. “For the first time in many years, Tricolored Blackbirds are not now (August 2004) nesting in Point Reyes National Seashore. This condition is probably due to reduced foraging opportunities.”

In other parts of the state, Tricoloreds are also struggling to survive. _________________________________________________________________

A variety of blackbirds show up together at least twice a day to peck birdseed off the railing of the deck. But as seen in this photo from 2013, there were far more of them around here a year ago.

“In the 19th Century, Tricolored Blackbird flocks were described as so numerous ‘as to darken the sky,'” the Audubon website notes. “Over just the last 70 years, the Tricolored Blackbird population has decreased by more than 80 percent.” And the decline is continuing. The number of Tricoloreds in California fell by 44 percent to 145,000 in the past three years alone, The Los Angeles Times reported on Aug. 5.

“The reasons for this decline are many, but the loss of marsh and nearby foraging habitats along the coast and in the Central Valley is the main issue,” according to Audubon. “In more recent years, the species has become dependent on agricultural lands, with most of the largest colonies nesting in grain fields.

“A real dilemma develops because Tricolored young typically have not yet left the nest before the time farmers harvest their crop, and harvesting destroys Tricolored Blackbird nests and young. In some cases as many as 20,000 nests have been lost in a single field.”

“As part of an effort to save the species, Audubon California and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service are leading a program that pays dairy farmers to delay harvesting their silage crops through the nesting season,” The Times added.

Here at Mitchell cabin we’re trying to do our part by making sure that hungry blackbirds regardless of age or species can find the birdseed they need to thrive. ________________________________________________________________

News from the great outdoors is often fascinating, of course. Here’s a headline I spotted online last week.

Now let’s get this straight. Who’s ambushing whom? — Reuters article as headlined in Google News

The autumnal equinox of 2014 is upon us. Fall has begun. If we were in Great Britain — still including Scotland, hip, hip, hooray! — we would probably say that “autumn” has begun. Transatlantic linguistic differences, you know, old chap. Sort of like “truck” v. “lorry.”

Until the early 1600s, the English name for the season was “harvest,” but as more and more people moved off the farm and into cities where there was no harvesting, they began to call the season “fall of the leaf.” After all, it’s the time of year when leaves fall from trees. Eventually, the phrase was shortened to just “fall.”

From what I read, the word “autumn” is at least three centuries older, but its origins are unclear. However, the French word for “autumn” is “automne,” so that may be a clue.

The cold-blooded countenance of a Western Fence Lizard.

The mostly dry, mostly sunny days of summer’s end were welcomed by a cold-blooded crew of Western Fence Lizards that daily warm themselves on the railroad-tie steps leading up to Mitchell cabin.

I’ve seen as many as three lizards at a time on the steps. Some scoot out of sight the moment they feel the vibration of my tread, but some don’t move at all, forcing me to be careful I don’t step on them. Actually, I don’t think that’s likely. Their staying still as long as possible is probably a form of camouflage they would abandon if I got too close.

The Western Fence Lizard diet mostly consists of insects and spiders.

Their nickname is “blue bellies” because of the color of their undersides, which can be seen when the males do pushups. It’s their equivalent of pumping iron in order to impress females and intimidate other males.

A Pacific tree frog right after I rescued it from my hot tub.

When I opened the lid of my hot tub Thursday to check the amount of chlorine and other chemicals in the water, a tree frog that had been hiding between the lid and the top of the tub took a flying leap into the caldron.

At 104 degrees, the water is hot enough to quickly kill a frog. I’ve seen it happen. This time, however, I had a sieve with me and was able to scoop the frog out in time to save it.

Autumnal raccoon kits begging at the kitchen door.

Three raccoon mothers and their kits show up immediately after sunset each evening to dine on whatever rations we’re willing to provide — slices of bread, corn chips, peanuts etc.

The kits are curious enough about the source of this bounty that they’ll sometimes take a step or two into the house when Lynn or I open a door to toss them their rations. However, most of the raccoons back away the moment we get close. The exception is one mother who sits beside the door and uses her front paws to unhurriedly take slices of bread directly from our hands.

Four wild turkeys uphill from Mitchell cabin.

It would be fun to be able to call them turkeys in the straw, but they’re really turkeys in the hay. Straw is basically grass with its seeds removed.

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, however, there are far more turkeys than turkey hunters, and their flocks have spread throughout West Marin.

A turkey pauses to dine on grass seeds.

A jackrabbit likewise dines on grass uphill from Mitchell cabin.

Jackrabbits, which are also known as black-tailed hares, avoid predators by using “an element of surprise and escape that works well,” Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens notes in his Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula.

“When a potential predator is detected, the hare will usually take shelter in the shade of a convenient clump of vegetation or behind a rock and freeze motionless. If the predator approaches very closely, the hare leaps into stride, zigzagging across open country until it finds shelter.

Jackrabbits have been clocked running at up to 36 mph for short distances.

“The effect on the startled predator is momentary confusion, which may afford the hare the advantage it needs to escape.” Their smaller cousins, the cottontail rabbits, prefer brush to open land. They have “poor running ability,” Evens explains, and “frequently fall prey to foxes, bobcats, weasels, hawks, and owls.”

A four-point buck, probably about a year and a half old, also forages in the grass uphill from Mitchell cabin.

“Columbian blacktail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) are the subspecies of blacktails native to the Bay Area,” Bruce Morris writes for Bay Nature. “According to the California Department of Fish and Game, there are now approximately 560,000 deer in all California, about 320,000 of which are Columbian blacktails….

“Blacktails have a typical lifespan in the wild of seven to 10 years, but they can survive in suburban habitat for as long as 17 to 20 years if unmolested,” Morris adds. “Suburban deer have minuscule home ranges, measuring three or four blocks for females whereas wild deer inhabit territories that extend for several miles.”

The other day I was walking up the front steps when I was so startled to see a deer right in front of me that I tripped and started to fall forward. Fortunately, I was able to catch myself and spring back, so I didn’t land on my nose. I’ll try to remember that sequence on Nov. 2 when daylight savings time ends and I have to reset the clocks.

Mexico’s Independence Day was celebrated Sunday in Point Reyes Station with mariachis, singing, folkloric dancing, Mexican food, Mexican drinks, and children’s art — all outdoors at the West Marin Commons.

Ballet Folklorico of Petaluma Paquiyollotzin provided a visual treat, thanks not only to their dancing but also to their colorful costumes. _______________________________________________________________

Ballet Folklorico’s director, Abraham Solar, said that the group’s name Paquiyollotzin means “joyful heart” in the Nahuath language.

Roughly 1.5 million people, mostly in Central Mexico, speak Nahuath. Or so I read.

Informally, the Nahuath language is sometimes called Aztec.

 

The four photos of dancers used in this week’s posting were contributed by director Solar. _____________________________________________________________

Drinks for sale ranged from beer and soda to such Mexican specialties as michelada and horchata.

Getting warm applause from the crowd was the band Mariachi Jalisco de Miguel Orozco.

Gilberto Rodriguez (right), who is in charge of specialized maintenance at West Marin School, and John Littleton of Point Reyes Station, who’s known for his wildlife photography, indulged in some spontaneous wrist wrestling at the food booth. To their left, Socorro Romo, West Marin Community Resource Center’s manager, was unaware of all the grimacing only an arm’s length away. ____________________________________________________________

Mexicans refer to their independence day as Grito de Dolores (“Cry of Dolores”) or El Grito de la Independencia (“Cry of Independence”).

It marks the beginning on Sept. 16, 1810, of an 11-year-long war that achieved independence from Spain.

The “cry” was made by a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo, who standing outside his cathedral in the town of Dolores exhorted Mexicans to revolt against the Spanish.

I visited Dolores (now called Dolores Hidalgo) in 2006 and was much impressed by the town’s garden-like plaza and Spanish Colonial buildings. The old cathedral still stands, and I thought: what a charming place for launching a revolution. _____________________________________________________________

A young lady at the art table with a butterfly (una mariposa) decorating her face.

A folkloric dancer twirling at one corner of the West Marin Commons, a once-vacant lot that’s evolving into a park, at the west end of Point Reyes Station’s main street. In the background is the Palace Market.

The sun was warm, and the people had a good time. It was a perfect afternoon. Or speaking in the spirit of the day: el sol era cálido, y la gente pasó un buen rato. Fue una tarde perfecta.

Nowhere is the effect of the ongoing drought more dramatic than at Nicasio Reservoir, which is currently only half full. According to Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) which owns the reservoir, West Marin is in its ninth drought since 1975. At least as measured on Mount Tamalpais.

MMWD, however, is not yet hurting for water. Its seven reservoirs together are still 92 percent full thanks to late-spring rains.

Nicasio Reservoir is so low because the district is steadily drawing on it to supply the San Geronimo Valley treatment plant while leaving as much water as possible in its other reservoirs, which are slower to fill. These include Lagunitas, Phoenix, Alpine, Bon Tempe, Kent, and Soulajule.

Today’s Nicasio Valley Road can be seen to the left of the low-lying old Nicasio Valley Road. This photo of Nicasio Reservoir was taken in 2009 when the water level was also dropping.

Nicasio Reservoir was created by the erection of Seeger Dam in 1961. The new reservoir flooded a number of longtime ranches and inundated the north end of Nicasio Valley Road, which had to be relocated to higher ground (as seen at left).

When the water level dropped this year, thousands of freshwater clams were left stranded and easy prey for various creatures.

Among the creatures currently scavenging on the reservoir’s increasingly exposed bottom are daily flocks of Canada geese.

The old Nicasio Valley Road and its bridge often remain submerged for several years at a time. These days they are high and dry, far from the water’s edge.

Even the centerline on the usually flooded old road is visible in many places now that the water level has dropped.

January, 2010

Creation of the reservoir in 1961 also necessitated relocating a large section of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road, a project that cost more than acquiring land and building a dam.

A relic of a mishap that occurred during the construction of today’s roadway can still be found half-hidden in fennel and Andean grass on the south side of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road between Platform Bridge and Seeger Dam.

It’s easy to overlook this rusted steel bar sticking out of a basalt roadcut about 50 yards downhill from Laurel Canyon Road, but according to oldtimers there is a curious history behind it.

As part of blasting through the rock 55 years ago, the road builders one day were drilling a hole for some explosives when their drill shaft broke. Removing it would have required considerable work, so they merely cut off the top and left the bent shaft sticking up beside the road where it can still be seen.

I first heard this account from an oldtimer I knew decades ago, and today I asked Pete Maendle of Inverness Park if it was accurate. Pete is the senior road maintenance supervisor in West Marin for the country Department of Public Works, and he said he had heard the same thing from oldtimers in his department.

So see if you can spot the broken drill shaft the next time you drive slowly by. It’s easy to miss because of all the vegetation around it, but it’s a relic of an historical mishap.

Tomales celebrated its Founders’ Day Sunday with a block-long parade on the main street (Highway 1) followed by a picnic in the town park. The theme of this year’s celebration was Taste of Tomales. Although the number of parade participants was smaller this year than last, the party that followed packed the park.

Parade announcer Dru Fallon O’Neill (at right) welcomes a miniature train complete with adults, kids, and even a dog. The entry drew attention to the West Marin Review. Each year Point Reyes Books plus neighbors and friends — Madeleine Corson (holding the leash), Steve Costa, Doris Ober — publish the Review, a collection of writing and art. The first issue appeared in 2008. In 2010, the Review received a design award from the New York Book Show.

Lynn Axelrod contributed most of the photos used in this posting, including the one above.

This year’s parade marshal, Javier Choperena, is a longtime rancher, whose fine beef is a cross of Angus and Charolais. A Basque immigrant, his name was spelled Txoperena in the old country. “In Spain he was a welder, carpenter and artist,” Dru, the parade announcer, told me, and “he has secretly built replicas of the buildings in the village of Tomales… Not many know this about him.”

On the other hand, one “well-known fact” about Javier, Dru added, is that “he’s a huge supporter of the Athletic Club of Bilbao soccer team from Spain.” Two years ago, the club, which recruits players who learn their skills in Basque Country, had one of the best records in Europe.

John Sanchez at the wheel of his 1950 Farmall tractor pulled a trailer carrying his family in the parade.

A small but enthusiastic contingent of Tomales High cheerleaders took part in Sunday’s parade.

Moe and Monica Boudens from Mass Wiggle used a 1950 San Francisco firetruck to promote vermi compost, tea, and worms.

The ever-popular Ehecatl Aztec Dance Group from Santa Rosa danced to the beat of two drums.

Tomales Presbyterian Church used the parade to publicize its upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary.

Again this year, Jeff Etamad of Tunnel Hill Ranch in Tomales led his llama named Crunch in the parade while his son Cam brought up the rear holding the leash of a Golden Doodle named Lucky.

Wayne and Kim Simoni of Sebastopol entered a 1910 Packard in the parade. Wayne said there are only four of these cars left in the world. Kim noted the car had previously belonged to a man in Pennsylvania and that they had spent years convincing him to sell it to them. They finally got the car two years ago, she said.

Tomales Girl Scouts Troop 10988 showed up in force for the parade.

Shannon Hobbs and Jason McLean of Marshall rode in an octogenarian pickup truck with a stuffed bobcat on its hood.

The sign on Leslie Swallow’s car door said, “Remembering Our Cats.” It wasn’t exactly “Midnight, not a sound from the pavement,” but even without Andrew Lloyd Webber, the parade entry honoring two late cats “let the memory live again.”

A 1949 Ford truck in Sunday’s parade publicized Tomales Farm and Flea Market, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 19, at John and First streets in Tomales.

To this little girl’s delight, the Hubbub Club Marching Band from the Graton-Sebastopol area of Sonoma County kept on playing for the Founders’ Day crowd after the parade ended.

Tomales Town Park filled up with celebrators after the noontime parade. All manner of food, drinks, produce, and crafts were for sale under a couple of dozen canopies.

Little Organic Farm, which is located on the Tomales-Petaluma Road between town and the Coast Guard Training Center, offered an abundance of heirloom potatoes, along with other vegetables.

“Take our picture,” called out a table full of picnickers. “We’re all Italian.”

Among the crafts for sale were birdhouses, an owl box, and a bat house.

Tomales Volunteer Firefighters, as they do each year, had their own booth for recruiting new volunteers.

When the celebration was over, parade announcer Dru Fallon O’Neill praised the “great variety and show of community pride represented by entries in the parade and at the park.”

Dru (at left) also took note of the “glorious weather” and her “gratitude for the volunteers, especially the traffic-detail/crowd-control crew led by Eddie Byrd with help from townsfolk, Coast Guard volunteers, and local FFA.

“Set-up/cleanup under the auspices of David Judd [was] aided by Walter and Margaret Graham. We could not operate such an event without all of the behind the scenes talent.

“Chalk up another successful event, smoothly paving the way for a grander, seamless celebration next year.”