Wildlife


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“Do you see that blonde over there?” a friend asked me in town today. “She’s a little hottie.”

“A little haughty?” I replied in confusion. “That’s too bad.” Then it was my friend’s turn to be confused.

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 A livestock-feeder bowl on the railing of Mitchell cabin’s deck is used as a birdbath where numerous birds both bathe and drink. Here a towhee takes a bath.

Other critters also use the birdbath, including raccoons such as these yesterday. Almost every evening, a mother raccoon and her four kits try to squeeze into it together. And like the birds, they’re not at all squeamish about drinking their own bathwater.

The kits’ struggles for space in the bowl sometimes worry me a bit, for one side of the bowl is about 20 feet off the ground. Ironically, another side is above Mitchell cabin’s hot tub, and more than once while in the tub, I’ve been surprised by sprinklings of cold water that turned out to be splashes from a bird taking a bath.

A skunk or two also show up on our deck virtually evening to eat any kibble the raccoons leave behind. This one showed up Wednesday. They raise their tails when disturbed but never spray, at least while on the deck.

A lonely peacock, which mostly hangs out near Highway 1 a quarter mile away, occasionally wanders over to our yard, but we’re mostly aware it’s in the vicinity because of its cries at night. During the breeding season, peacocks scream to attract peahens and sometimes merely because they hear other peacocks.

Got him. Two weeks ago this blog published photos of a young great blue heron hunting gophers near our cabin, and a few days later neighbor Dan Huntsman snapped this great shot of the heron holding a gopher it had just caught.

A bobcat made one of its periodic visits to Mitchell cabin this week. Like the heron, bobcats like to hunt gophers here.

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As has been in the news a lot lately, some police actions warrant special scrutiny — both in the US and abroad. Here’s a incident reported in the June 17 San Francisco Chronicle:

A man in Vienna was fined $565 for breaking wind loudly in front of a group of policemen on June 5. The man had behaved provocatively during an encounter with officers, according to police, and when he got up from a bench, he “let go a massive intestinal wind apparently with full intent.” The man was cited for offending public decency. Police later commented online, “Of course no one is reported for accidentally letting one go,” but “our colleagues don’t like to be farted at so much.” The Chronicle headlined its account: “Farting fine,” which it clearly wasn’t.

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The rainbow-striped LGBTQ pride flag was created in 1978, and three years ago in Philadelphia, a black stripe and a brown stripe were added. The flag initially symbolized support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people, who are often discriminated against. The black stripe and the brown stripe were added to explicitly support brown and black LGBTQ people.

Three weeks ago, our board of supervisors voted to fly the Philadelphia flag at county buildings throughout Marin during national Pride Month, which is June. I first saw it last week flying in front of the firehouse and sheriff’s substation in Point Reyes Station. Few other people seem to have noticed; today while I was doing my “essential business” at the Palace Market, the post office, the gas station, and the pharmacy, I didn’t encounter anyone who was aware of the flag flying in town. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

A flock of Brown Pelicans over Mitchell cabin Sunday evening, probably headed for Drakes Estero.

A family of quail in our field Sunday. Perhaps because quail once had a reputation for being particularly amorous, “quail” in times past also was a word for “harlot.” In “Troilus and Cressida,” for example, Shakespeare wrote that Agamemmnon is “an honest fellow and one who loves quails.”

A female wild turkey landed on the railing of our deck Friday to partake of seeds we’d scattered there for other, smaller birds.

It would be hard to imagine an uglier neck than a wild turkey’s — unless you’re another wild turkey. “When the male turkey gets to courting the hens,” the Audubon Society reports, “extra blood rushes in, and the wattle glows bright scarlet for maximum visual impact.”

The wattle consists of a “wrinkly mass of bumpy, warty-looking red skin,” Audubon notes. “On a hot day, with the sun bearing down, the bare skin of neck and wattle helps release excess heat. Birds don’t sweat.”

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While sheltering at home, Lynn and I are taking even more photos than usual of the creatures around the cabin. Here are a few new shots.

Seen out our front window. A blackbird feeds birdseed to her chick as a Band-tailed Pigeon watches and a crow shows up to share in the birdseed.

A female Brewers Blackbird looks up from pecking birdseed off the railing of our deck to find a large, dark creature looming over her.

The creature turned out to be a Band-tailed Pigeon, one of the many who started showing up in numbers near Mitchell cabin in the past year.

A young Scrub Jay scans the hillside from a bamboo stick being used to prop up a young pine. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Probably the most-interesting bird hanging around Mitchell cabin this past week has been an immature Great Blue Heron, who has repeatedly shown up to hunt gophers. (Coincidentally, the previous posting here features an egret likewise hunting nearby.)

After standing poised above a gopher mound for several minutes, the young heron suddenly speared a gopher the moment it stuck its head up to look around. The alignment of a heron’s neck allows it to shoot its beak forward in a split second.

A Blacktail doe yesterday led her fawn on a walk around the cabin.

The fawn appeared to thoroughly enjoy the adventure, but when it got even a short distance ahead of the doe, it would look back to make sure its mother was close behind.

A moth caterpillar on our deck railing approaches an unrecognizable fellow insect. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

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 Covid-19 regulations causing everyone to stay at home most of the time, we who have the good fortune to live in rural small towns at least have nature to keep our days interesting. Along with all the raccoons, deer, skunks, rabbits, and coyotes (which we hear most nights) around Mitchell cabin, Lynn and I also have an immense variety of birdlife to entertain us.

An egret walking at the edge of Mitchell cabin’s parking area last week.

We sometimes don’t see egrets near the cabin during the winter, but in springtime, they usually start showing up.  Around the end of the 19th Century, it became popular to use egret feathers to adorn hats, and in North America, egrets were hunted for their feathers almost to the point of extinction. Thankfully, they were saved by passage of the federal Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Each spring, colonies of egrets and great blue herons, can now be seen nesting high in evergreens at Audubon Canyon Ranch beside Bolinas Lagoon.

The strike. After standing motionless for a brief time, the egret suddenly spears a frog in the grass.

Holding a dark green frog (barely visible) with the end of its beak, the hunter contentedly walks off.

The beauty of an egret taking flight.

High flyer. On Sunday, I spotted a heron sitting near the top of a tall pine tree on which ravens frequently perch to survey their kingdom.

A blacktail doe running lightly along the edge of our driveway on Monday. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Her fawn meanwhile had to bound through the grass to keep up with her. (Photo by Lynn Axelrod Mitchell)

Just like national affairs, West Marin’s sunsets have been dramatic of recent — but the drama’s been happier here. This is how Sunday ended. Yea for nature.

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The  previously announced closing of the Station House Café this coming Monday has been postponed until after July 4, owner Sheryl Cahill said this week. It could stay open through September if revenue is  keeping up with costs. Cahill dismayed West Marin three weeks ago when she said she would close at the end of May because new landlords planned to raise her $100,000 per year rent to $252,000, which she couldn’t afford.

For the next three months, however, her rent is frozen. Once she does close, Cahill hopes to find a new site, and landlord John Hural hopes to find a new restaurateur to rent his building.

This New York Times headline from 10 years ago still amuses me, for it implied that the Palestinian Authority considers indoor plumbing unacceptable in a Muslim country. As it turned out, Hamas was actually upset with women smoking hookahs.

A mother raccoon, who shows up outside our kitchen door every evening begging for kibble, brought four new kits with her the past two nights. They’re very cute and often climb the lattice to the railing but then have trouble climbing back down. They do it headfirst, so it’s a challenge.

Even more of a surprise was this blacktail doe who showed up on our lower deck two mornings ago and then went down some stairs to a still-lower level to inspect our hot tub. My wife Lynn already suspected that a deer had been venturing onto the lower deck at night because some buds in a flowerpot there were getting eaten. I was skeptical, but I guess she’s right.

A male red-winged blackbird repeatedly buzzes a raven drinking from our birdbath and eventually drives him away. Since ravens sometimes eat baby birds, the blackbirds don’t like ’em.

Well, hello there. In West Marin, the past couple of weeks have been full of surprises, such as this inquisitive gopher snake which greeted me as I headed down the driveway Thursday.

It was a good-sized snake, more than four feet long. The snake eyed me as I leaned over it but made no attempt to slither off.

Smoke from a fire at the old Foresters Hall in Point Reyes Station drifted over the town on Friday, April 24. The blaze damaged the northeastern exterior of the landmark, including a porch and staircase. Water damage to two apartments forced the tenants to move out. (Marin County Fire provided this photo)

The Foresters of America, a benevolent group, opened a chapter, Court No. 219, in Point Reyes Station in 1905. Its members began designing the hall in 1916. When I arrived in West Marin 45 years ago, the building was called the Sandcastle Gallery, which Jeanne Booras and her husband Bill operated. Kathryn de Laszlo and Stephen Marshall of Petaluma now own the building. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined. (Sheriff’s artistic photo)

Another surprise. Sheriff’s deputies in Bolinas on Sunday, April 27, arrested a bicyclist allegedly toting bags of methamphetamine and armed with a loaded revolver, as well as multiple knives, on charges he had just stabbed a friend during an argument. The suspect, Derek James, 39, of Bolinas was jailed with bail set at $50,000.

Last week, Marin County eased the coronavirus lockdown enough at golf courses to allow residents here to play but with groups limited to two people. No doubt many golfers were happy, but evidence for the Marin Independent Journal’s headline was hard to spot in its photo of golfer Nate Siedman from Bolinas.

A small bone surprised us by showing up beside our birdbath Wednesday, and I’m fairly sure a raven brought it there for rinsing. From appearances, it is a chicken bone probably found in someone’s garbage.

For a few years now, ravens have occasionally used our birdbath for preparing dinner. Here a raven brings a mouse’s head to the birdbath for washing.

Obviously feeling at home, raccoons often take naps on our deck at night, which makes us feel — surprise — like housemates.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?)

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