West Marin nature


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Many of the blacktail deer around Mitchell cabin appear to have large sores on the inside of a back leg. If they were indeed sores, that would be worrisome. What is going on? Do their knees bump against each other when they run? As it turns out, all’s well. It’s just a matter of deer being able to do things we humans would never try.

In this photo of deer-turkey Siamese twins I posted a few weeks back, the spot on the deer’s left hind leg looks downright bloody. But as I have now read on a whitetail hunting website, what we’re seeing is not a sore but a tuft of hair whose purpose is to catch urine for the deer’s “tarsal gland”:

“Each hair is associated with an enlarged sebaceous or ‘fat’ gland that secretes an oily material that coats the hair. When a [squatting] deer ‘rub-urinates’ — allowing urine to soak the tarsal gland —  the oily secretions absorb certain compounds in the urine. Studies have shown a diverse population of different species of bacteria living in the tuft of hair that makes up the tarsal gland. These bacteria interact with the compounds from urine in a way that creates the characteristic color and odor.

“Does, bucks and even fawns rub-urinate year-round, but bucks do it more often in the breeding season, which is why the stain and odor of a buck’s tarsal gland is more prominent during the rut. Changes in the composition of a buck’s urine also likely contribute. Older, more dominant bucks tend to rub-urinate more frequently, so the stained area is larger. In some cases, the stain extends down the inside of each leg.

“The exact mix of bacteria is unique from deer to deer, which may give each deer a unique scent that other deer can recognize. This scent is likely deposited in scrapes when a deer rub-urinates and urine flows over the tarsal gland onto the ground. It is likely tarsal-gland scent carries information about the dominance status, sex, health condition and possibly other characteristics of the deer it came from.”

A tarsal gland on a whitetail deer.

Turning to other oddities, I’ve had two recently at the Safeway in San Anselmo’s Red Hill Shopping Center. The first occurred around the beginning of the year on a day I was driving my backup car, a 28-year-old Nissan, to give it some exercise. I parked in Safeway’s lot, but when I later tried to drive away, the battery was dead. A neighboring driver let me attach jumper cables to his battery, but it did no good. I thanked the man and went looking for a phone to call AAA.

I don’t own a cellphone, and there was no payphone to be found. Luckily a friendly woman in a real estate office let me use their phone, and I called AAA but got a dispatcher in God knows what part of the world. After I explained I needed a tow operator to get my car started, I told her it was a white, 1992 Nissan with its hood open, parked in front of the Red Hill Safeway in San Anselmo.

“Is Safeway a store?” the dispatcher wanted to know. “Yes,” I told her. “It’s a supermarket.”

“What state is San Anselmo in?” I told her “California.”

“What’s the street address….?” The dispatcher went on and on like this as the woman in the real estate office rolled her eyes. Finally the dispatcher told me a tow truck would come by in 45 minutes to an hour and a half.  I groaned, thanked the woman in the real estate office, and the tow truck was there in 10 minutes. The call took almost that long.

More bizarre yet, while in the same store one day last week, I went into the men’s room and entered a stall only to have a metal panel that formed the main wall of the cubicle fall over on me. I was startled but not hurt, and I subsequently informed a store clerk that the men’s room needed attention.

The deer, at least, never have to worry about such mishaps.

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A coyote prowling, appropriately enough, near our coyote brush.

Coyotes were loudly howling Thursday night down at the foot of our cul de sac, creating the impression that something big was occurring. But as the Human-Wildlife Interactions journal explained in 2017, some mistakenly believe howling indicates that a group of coyotes has made a kill.

Coyotes howl for various reasons, and it is not likely because they have downed prey. Doing so would draw attention and might attract competing coyotes or other predators to their location, which is not something a hungry coyote would want to do. Coyotes howl and yip primarily to communicate with each other and establish territory. They may bark when they are defending a den or a kill. When coyotes are noisy, it often creates an exaggerated impression as to how many are on hand, largely because of the mixing of howls and yips.

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. Since then coyotes have put an end to well over half the sheep ranching around Marshall, Tomales, Dillon Beach, and Valley Ford.

Three horses belonging to Point Reyes Arabian Adventures grazing outside our bedroom window last week.

By chance, I’ve recently listened several times to the Irish singer Van Morrison singing his 1989 composition Coney Island. It’s a pastoral song, which seems to contain an odd reference to cocaine: “Coney Island/ Coming down from Downpatrick/ Stopping off at St. John’s Point/ Out all day birdwatching/ And the crack was good.”

The reality, of course, is that he’s actually saying “craic,” which is a relatively new Irish word for fun or entertainment. It was borrowed in the last century from Ulster and Scotland, where it is pronounced crack.

Jackrabbit outside Mitchell cabin.

Coney Island in Van Morrison’s song does not refer to the amusement park in Brooklyn but to an island off County Sligo on the west coast of Ireland. And here’s where the story gets interesting. By most accounts, Dutch settlers named Ireland’s Coney Island after the many rabbits found there, konijn being a Dutch word for rabbit.

In the late 1700s, a merchant ship, Arethusa, regularly sailed between Sligo and New York City. After seeing an abundance of rabbits on a New York island, Peter O’Connor, the ship’s captain, named the place Coney Island because it reminded him of the Coney Island in Sligo Bay. During the 1920s and 1930s, Coney Island, New York, became a peninsula when a creek separating it from the rest of the city was filled in.

Raccoons are nightly visitors at Mitchell cabin, and I’ve come to see at least two sides of their personalities. They’re cute and able to beg for handouts, but they get skittish if I’m too close, quickly backing away when I open a door. And that’s probably for the best. Over the years, West Marin’s raccoons have prompted numerous calls to the Sheriff’s Office from people who thought they heard a prowler on their porch or roof at night.

Skunks drop by Mitchell cabin most nights, aggressively competing with the raccoons for food. They don’t spray but forcefully shoulder aside raccoons, even though the latter are noticeably bigger. I’m fascinated by all this and find it shameful how misguided county policy towards the two species was six decades ago. In 1958, Marin County supervisors began offering $1 bounties for skunk and raccoon tails. Fortunately after three weeks, the board reversed itself and dropped the offer — not because it was cruel but because young hunters with small-bore rifles were shattering too many windows.

Despite appearances, this raccoon is not trying to look fierce. It’s merely chomping down hard on a piece of kibble.

If raccoons show up on our deck wanting to be fed and realize we don’t know they’re out there, some will make us see them through our living room windows by standing on their hind legs atop a small bench or the woodbox and staring in at us. If we still don’t see them, they often create a squeal by dragging the pads of their front paws down the glass.

Wild turkeys are native to Canada, Mexico, the American Midwest, and the East Coast but not West Marin although they are now found throughout this area. In the 1950s, the state Department of Fish and Game released some wild turkeys in Napa County because they were so popular with hunters. In 1988, Fish and Game biologists took a few birds from the Napa flock and released them on Loma Alta Ridge between Big Rock and Woodacre.

Few people hunt the turkeys these days, flocks have increased in number and size, and the turkeys have become rather bold. In 2001, two Tom turkeys went after a couple of school children riding scooters in Tomales. The children had to escape on foot, leaving their scooters behind. Now who’s doing the hunting?

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Needing a break from the political scene, I spent much of the past week photographing the critters that show up at Mitchell cabin.

Eleven blacktail deer grazing near Mitchell cabin last Saturday.

Following the deer up the hill were 21 wild turkeys.

Which led to an unusual stare-down.

For almost three years there’d been a dearth of possums around Mitchell cabin, but this past week two showed up on our deck after dark to nibble kibble.

Here a possum and raccoon dined together with no confrontations Sunday evening.

Raccoons, of course, are fairly comfortable around a number of other animals. Here four of them ate kibble alongside a skunk last fall.

And here a possum dined contentedly between two gray foxes just outside our kitchen door awhile back.

But the most integrated dining I have seen were this possum, fox, and raccoon, which I photographed together next to the kitchen door in 2011.

Monday morning Lynn woke me up so I could see this sharp-shinned hawk on the railing of our lower deck. The young hawk’s expression is mighty stern, and I fear it may be hunting the birds that show up on our upper deck to eat birdseed. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

In short, not all wildlife live in harmony around here.

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Our daily Rorschach test.

What we see in the clouds may sometimes reflect our feelings. This fiery sunset unfortunately brought to mind our crazed President and the danger he poses to world order, the environment, and social harmony.

Another sunset, but with a blacktail doe and no Rorschach test.

Looking at real creatures as opposed to those imagined in the sky is more certain to engender tranquility. Here’s a look at some of the ones I see virtually every day.

Two Arabian Adventures steeds in a feeding pen within a pasture next to Mitchell cabin. Since we haven’t succumbed to the national disaster yet, there’s nothing here for this buzzard.

Jackrabbits and towhees may have very different cultures, but they manage to coexist side by side peaceably.

There are more wild turkeys to be seen hereabouts than there were last year at this time.

Also abundant are blacktail deer, but that’s common. (Curiously, just now when I tried to type “blacktailed deer,” Spellcheck kept changing their name to “blackmailed deer.” This, in turn, raises the question: how would you blackmail a deer?)

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.

Silverfish are one of the oldest insects and may predate the dinosaurs by 100 million years. By now they’ve evolved into household pests that eat documents, photos, and clothes. So while I’m usually displeased at seeing a spider in the shower stall, I forgave this one because of his taste for silverfish.

Another encounter at home. A dove left its image when it crashed into the living-room window last week. Although initially dazed, the bird eventually few off.

A red-tailed hawk perches at sunset downhill from Mitchell cabin.

Waiting for the music at the No Name Bar in Sausalito a fortnight ago. Sitting from the left next to me are Friday night regulars Vivian and Ray, my wife Lynn, Paul Leclerc, and in recent weeks Billy Hobbs.

Sitting by the fire. Billy had been homeless for five years and was sleeping outdoors in Point Reyes Station when the rain and cold winds hit two months ago, so Lynn and I offered to let him wait out the bad weather in Mitchell cabin. Once he did, Billy was able to resume showering and getting his clothes cleaned regularly. Add to that a haircut and a beard trim, and he had dramatically cleaned up his act. 

Resting indoors by our woodstove. Being warm, clean, and well fed led to quite a metamorphosis for Billy, as regular readers of this blog know. Now his story has been read worldwide.

This week, his story reached journalists around the globe — not only throughout the United States and Canada but as far away as Ireland and Nepal —  when the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE) republished my Dec. 10 posting. In short, Billy has now become an internationally known artist.

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.

The big fundraiser every year for the Point Reyes and Inverness Disaster Councils is a pancake breakfast at the Point Reyes Station firehouse followed by a raffle. Unfortunately, the blackout two weeks ago forced organizers to call off this year’s breakfast. The food, refrigerated during the outage, was donated to our local food bank at West Marin Community Services.

The raffle was postponed until last Saturday when it was held at the firehouse. Displaying a photo Carlos Porrata of Inverness donated as raffle item are: (from left) my wife Lynn, coordinator of the Point Reyes Disaster Council; Cindy Morris, a neighborhood liaison to the council and a member of the council’s radio-room team; firefighter Ben Ghisletta, senior captain at the firehouse.

Nora Goodfriend Koven of Inverness looks over some of the raffle items, which included gift certificates from various merchants.

Continuing on… It was a pleasant surprise to look up from the dinner table and find I had a gray fox for a dining companion.

Also a surprise but a less welcome one was looking out my living-room window into the eyes of a pair of roof rats, which were nibbling birdseed off a picnic-table bench. Around Mitchell cabin, the roof rats try to nest in everything, and we’re forever finding them in our car engines and in of the wine barrel halves we use as planters. Just this week it cost me $25 to have a large nest cleaned out of my car’s engine compartment and have the rats’ damage to the wiring repaired. I leave the rats in our woodshed alone but trap the ones that get into the basement.

At this time of year, sunset is often accompanied by the honking of flocks of Canada geese heading to Drakes Bay.

Come nightfall raccoons inevitably show up to drink from the birdbath on our deck and snooze atop the railing. As long as there are no blackouts or disasters in Point Reyes Station, life is pleasantly peaceful.

Finally, let’s take a closer look at Russian President Vladimir Putin. Is he really a serious adversary? All he wants is the Ukraine. Click here and see what you think of his rock’n roll offensive. Right off you’ll notice in his audience the French actor Gerard Depardieu (who has taken up Russian citizenship), American comedian Goldie Hawn, and American actor Kevin Costner. 

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.

On a normal evening, this is how Mitchell cabin’s sitting area, dining area, and kitchen look. A journalism student once described the scene as a collection of “mismatched furniture.”

But for three evenings this week, here is how it looked as seen from the other end of the room (thanks to an oil lamp and 11 candles) as a result of PG&E’s turning off power to West Marin, along with many other communities. It was a precaution against high winds that might knock down power lines and spark wildfires in this dry weather.

Although most of West Marin was spared unusually high winds, the blackout cost Mitchell cabin not only its lights but also its water pressure. During the blackout, water coming from our faucets was barely more than a trickle. The cabin’s elevation is close to that of the North Marin Water District tanks on Tank Road in Point Reyes Station. As a result, gravity alone doesn’t provide much of a flow in our household water system, so we rely on an electric pressure pump to have strong streams of water in faucets, hoses, and in the shower.

Nor were showers much of an option during the blackout for any townsperson with an electric hot water heater. With the power back, I finally got to take a shower this morning. If the blackout had gone on for too many more days, Point Reyes Station might have developed a stinky population.

As I write at 6 p.m. Wednesday, power is still off in parts of Dillon Beach, Fairfax, Kentfield, Marshall, Mill Valley, Muir Beach, San Anselmo, Sausalito, Stinson Beach, and Tomales, the Marin Sheriff’s Office has reported. Better wear a face mask when you visit folks there.

But even before the blackout began life here was seeming strange. I looked up from my living-room chair a few evenings ago and was startled to see this damsel outside peering in the window.

Once I thought about it, however, the explanation was obvious. I was seeing a reflection from part of a plant holder hanging inside near the window.

Canada geese heading west to Drakes Estero for the night one evening last week. I get to see them most evenings if I listen for their honking around sunset.

Memories of spring: a kestrel on the railing of our deck.

Dealing with the blackout has been tiring, so I’ll stop here and take a snooze. Goodnight. I’ll sleep tight. And I won’t have any bedbugs bite; after all, Mitchell cabin is not a Trump hotel.

 

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.

With a world of chaos emanating from the White House all week, I once again took Thoreau’s advice and looked to nature for solace.

(Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

PG&E blacked out the West Marin towns of Bolinas, Stinson Beach, and Muir Beach for three days beginning last Wednesday night, as the troubled utility braced for a heavy windstorm that never materialized here. In the aftermath, a helicopter checked powerlines on Inverness Ridge.

ALSO LAST WEDNESDAY, FOUR RACCOONS AND A SKUNK got together here for dinner. As regular readers know, such get-togethers are becoming commonplace on the deck at Mitchell cabin. 

What’s changing is the number of skunks that show up at one time. On occasion nowadays, we’ll get as many as three on the deck at once.

A black-tailed buck with a deformed right rear leg, which caused him to hobble when he walked. I don’t know how he got injured, but I suspect he was hit by a motor vehicle. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

The buck repeatedly scratched its head on a pine sapling outside our kitchen door. The scratching bent a few branches, but the tree survived. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

(Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

The bird bath on our deck lures a constant stream of bathers and — especially — drinkers: not only birds but also roof rats and raccoons, foxes and yellow jackets. Yellow jackets? Yes, yellow jackets. They often show up for a drink when the water level is almost up to the rim.

Yesterday when I went to refill the birdbath, I found a yellow jacket struggling in the water. I didn’t know how it fell in, but I cupped the water around it with my hand and flipped it off the deck. As it sailed down to the ground, the yellow jacket no doubt felt greatly relieved to be rescued, but I wondered if he had any idea how his rescue occurred.

As long as one doesn’t get stung, it’s good to have yellow jackets around. They eat flies and fly larvae, along with insects that damage gardens.

A golden-crowned sparrow paused on the deck railing at sunset last Wednesday. Here in Point Reyes Station it had been a mostly peaceful day.

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Some critters get along with their animal neighbors better than we might expect. Here’s a look at some inter-species neighborliness that’s caught my eye around Mitchell cabin.

A curious black-tailed doe watches a housecat clean itself.

A great blue heron goes gopher hunting near Mitchell cabin beside a grazing deer.

Seven wild turkeys hunt and peck alongside four black-tailed deer.

Wild turkeys, in fact, can often be found roaming around with other creatures, such as this lone peacock.

A scrub jay and a roof rat comfortably eat birdseed side by side on our picnic table.

Towhees are nowhere near as brazen as jays, but this one seems unconcerned about eating next to a roof rat.

Raccoons and skunks manage to dine together on our deck almost every night. As previously noted, raccoons, like dogs, identify each other by sniffing rear ends, including the backsides of skunks. The skunks often shoulder aside raccoons while competing for food but for some reason never spray them.

Another milepost in inter-species mingling: a possum, fox, and raccoon eat nose to nose to nose outside our kitchen door.

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.

One of the joys of living in West Marin is the abundance of wildlife that shows up in our yard and even on our doorstep. Here are some examples of critters we spotted in just the past two days.

Gopher hunting: A bobcat apparently heard a noise under the grass in front of our cabin Sunday and prepared to pounce. Unfortunately, the gopher remained hidden.

Also hunting: A young Cooper’s hawk sat on a fence post near the cabin yesterday to scan the field for small birds. The Cooper’s hawk captures birds with its feet and kills them with repeated squeezing. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Deer fight? Well sorta: Two young black-tailed bucks provided entertainment yesterday near our parked cars as they practiced head butting.

The sparring was so non aggressive, however, that it sometimes looked more like nuzzling.

The antlers of black-tailed deer develop under a layer of skin called velvet. Once the antlers are fully grown, the velvet dries and peels off. We had seen one of these bucks earlier use a post for scraping off dead velvet, and the locking of antlers almost seemed like a continuation of the process. Come winter, the bucks will shed their antlers and next year grow bigger ones.

Raccoons and a skunk will now provide this posting with a familiar coda. The raccoon mother (second from right) showed up on our deck last night with four kits in tow, and we gave them a bit of kibble. One of the four (probably the kit at right) was featured in an Aug. 15 posting about a kit getting separated from this mother for a day.

A skunk has taken to watching the raccoons and following them up onto the deck to share their kibble. As seen in several photos in previous postings, the skunk sometimes shoulders the raccoons out of the way but doesn’t spray them. For awhile last night, one raccoon was eating nose to nose with this stinker.

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