Wildlife


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Deer neighbors

This week we’ll take a look at the deerest creatures around Mitchell cabin,

A blacktail buck outside Mitchell cabin.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated that well over half the roughly 560,000 deer in California are Columbian blacktails, the deer native to West Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.

For years many people believed (and some websites still say) that blacktails are a subspecies of mule deer, a species found from the Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest and as far east as the Dakotas. DNA tests, however, have now found mule deer to be a hybrid of female whitetail deer and blacktail bucks.

Whitetails first appeared on the East Coast about 3.5 million years ago. DNA evidence suggests they spread south and then west, arriving in California about 1.5 million years ago.

In moving up the coast, whitetails evolved into blacktails, which resemble them in appearance and temperament. Blacktails eventually extended their range eastward, meeting up with more whitetails coming from the east. 

A buck shows up to die

A deer skull hangs on a wall behind our woodstove.

Guests seeing this skull often wrongly assume I must have shot the critter and hung up its head as a trophy. In fact, I am not a hunter and don’t like the idea of killing wild animals for pleasure.

In this case, I did not seek out the buck but rather he sought out our front steps to breathe his last.

 

 

 

 

 

One morning when I started down my front steps en route to get The San Francisco Chronicle, I found a three-year-old blacktail buck lying dead on the ground just outside my gate. There were no signs of trauma on the deer although there were small lesions in his mouth. It turned out the buck had died of a necrobacillosis infection.

I dragged the body to the edge of my field (at left), and buzzards (AKA vultures) lined up on fence posts to dine. Maggots too soon began devouring the corpse.

Road kill

Awhile back, I was driving on Highway 1 near home when I spotted a dead fawn beside the roadway.

An upset doe kept trying to cross the highway to check on her fawn. But every time she started down to the roadway, a vehicle (such as in the upper photo) forced her to retreat back up the shoulder. For more than half an hour, she tried unsuccessfully to reach her dead offspring.

Gentle creatures

A curious doe watches a cat cleaning itself outside our kitchen door.

Deer and wild turkeys intermingle while foraging in our field, both species obviously realizing the other is a gentle neighbor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A family of raccoons enters the kitchen of Mitchell cabin in search of food. They were given some bread, but not in the kitchen.

Living in West Marin means living with nature. The surprise is how often nature manages to live with itself.

A blacktail buck and a bobcat foraging near each other on the hillside above Mitchell cabin. Each was aware of the other but didn’t seem to care.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

A possum, fox, and raccoon eat kibble nose to nose just outside our kitchen door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Likewise dining side by side are this towhee and roof rat nibbling birdseed off our picnic table.

One surprising relationship went on for years around this part of town. This peacock was often seen in the company of a flock of wild turkeys. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the peacock in recent months. I hope it’s okay. (Sad update: Obviously, not all species of wildlife are friendly toward each other, and the day after this posting went online, a neighbor told me a bobcat had killed the peacock.)

Just how close different species can live to each other was epitomized Tuesday evening. I had been lying on a couch in the living room listening to music when I got up and spotted a raccoon a few feet away eating kibble put out for our cat. The raccoon had managed to get inside because our kitchen door had been left open a few inches. It soon departed by the same route.

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Can events in nature foreshadow events in the human world — e.g. a devastating storm before a  big battle?  The storm may not cause the battle but merely symbolize events to come. 

 

Mass burial. The first nine days of Russia’s shelling of Mariupol in Ukraine led to bodies of civilians being dumped in mass graves. It’s a horrid scene. Widespread death is certainly becoming a metaphor for our time.

Appropriately enough, a vulture swooped down outside our front window today and put on an impressive display. My first thought was: that’s one big buzzard! My second was: this carrion eater reminds me of Vladimir Putin hovering over Ukraine. It’s hard to get that war off one’s mind.

A true diversion. Seven blacktail deer outside our kitchen door today.

The deer made Newy, the stray cat we adopted, curious, and she wandered over for a closer look. The deer were obviously curious about her too. Newy arrived at Mitchell cabin last year with a family of raccoons, and she enjoys watching wildlife as much as we do. In fact, sometimes she seems to think of herself as wildlife, but Lynn makes sure to get her in at night and makes her bed nice and cozy.

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To ressurect one of my Valentine’s Day photos, I’ll start off with a skein of Canada geese flying past Inverness Ridge.

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This posting is late because I’ve been grappling with interference from some hacker, who’s dropped hundreds of odd symbols seemingly at random in posts I recently put online and posts from years ago.

Some examples:

—Journalist!
 
— Salvadoran
 
 the Gibson
 
 
 The author

 

I suspect the hacker is Vietnamese since the symbols also show up in foreign-language comments, which Google identifies as Vietnamese.

 

 

 

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The oddest West Marin news in the past fortnight came in the Feb. 3 Point Reyes Light. Here it is word for word.

Sheriff’s Call — Sunday, Jan.10: 

NICASIO: At 7:42 p.m. a woman who said she was moving to town from Southern California reported that someone who works at the post office was shooting metaphorical arrows, meaning witchcraft and sorcery, and that God had told her she needed to eradicate witchcraft and sorcery. She said the man was going to make her have demonic serpent offspring and she could not report him to his supervisor because the supervisor was likely in the same region of warlocks, and she wanted to assure deputies that she had not been struck by the arrows because she was protected by the blood of Jesus — she had an X-ray to prove it.

When I showed this to a friend in San Rafael, what he found equally amazing is that tiny Nicasio has its own post office.

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This is a belated review of an entertaining linguistic book, A Charm of Goldfinches and Other Wild Gatherings. It was originally published five years ago by Ten-Speed Press. My wife Lynn gave it to me for Christmas.  The author, Matt Sewell, is a Canadian ornithologist, illustrator, and artist who has exhibited in London, Manchester, New York, Tokyo, and Paris.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As most of us know, a group of geese is called a “gaggle” — but if the geese are flying in formation — the proper term is “skein,” writes Sewell. The term “comes from an old French word for ‘V’ Formation.”

Some group names are grim but accurate. Here a “wake” of vultures divvy up a skunk killed by an owl.

Virtually every night at Mitchell cabin we can hear a “band” of coyotes howling.

Groups of coyotes are called “bands” although to my mind, “choirs” would be more accurate. Sewell notes that “outside of their guarded family units, coyotes hang together in unrelated gangs, scavenging and doing whatever coyotes do.”

A “sulk” of foxes atop a shed at Toby’s Feed Barn. These were spotted by postal staff outside a postoffice window.

 

A “plague” of rats. Given my recent experience with roof rats, I would second the group name “plague.” Roof rats found their way into my car’s engine compartment around Christmas and chewed wiring, piled up debris, and damaged the car’s computer. The final tab at garages in Point Reyes Staton and Santa Rosa to repair the damage came to more than $2,500.

 

A “trip” of rabbits.

Sewell frequently indulges his ironic sense of humor. Describing how groups of rabbits came to be called “trips,” Sewell writes: “Now, some of you may be thinking: the trip would be to follow the white rabbit down the rabbit hole.  Sadly not: this term is from the 15th century, not the 1960s Jefferson Airplane lyric, or even Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which inspired the song. It is, in fact, about as psychedelic as a turnip patch.

“A colony of rabbits is a flighty bunch — not surprisingly, as the whole world is their enemy…. They are rarely safe for long, not when they’re hunted by hawks and owls, weasels, foxes, domestic pets, and humans, to name just a few.”

As noted previously, “jackrabbit” is short for “jackass rabbit,” a nickname it got because of its ears.

A “lounge” of lizards. This is a blue-belly lizard on the wall of our cabin.

 

Lizards are cold-blooded “so they need to warm up from the sun or on warm stones.”

“It’s this lounging that gets them into trouble though as lizards are easy prey in this laid-back state.

“If they are cruelly snatched, lizards at least have a last-gasp mechanism for freedom: they can release their tail, which will wriggle around in the predator’s mouth, confusing the daylights out of it while the lizard makes a dash for the undergrowth.”

I hope it gets there safely.

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This week’s puns are from a book, which (to my surprise) I found at West Marin Pharmacy, and gave Lynn for Christmas: Dad Jokes, the Good, The Bad, The Terrible, by Jimmy Niro. Most of this posting outlines the various minor calamities that have befallen this household of late. Also included are three amazing photos of wildlife.

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Yesterday a clown held the door open for me. I thought it was a nice jester.

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My wife Lynn was cooking Christmas dinner when our oven quit working. She had finished most of the meal but never got to bake any potatoes. Nor was there any baked turkey. None was available after Thanksgiving. Nor could she find fresh cranberries. Supply chain issues? 

Having grown up in a Jewish household, Christmas was not part of her holidays. Lynn opted to cook eggnog-coated, breaded pork cutlets instead. Pork was a frequent meal in her childhood household, notwithstanding some stereotypes. The faux-kosher meal, which included previously baked yams and turkey stuffing sans turkey, was delicious.

After we ate, Lynn contacted large-appliance repairman David Brast of Inverness. She told him a section of the oven coil had gotten very bright, and a huge amount of steam had emerged from a stovetop coil. Then the oven stopped working. He said, “That wasn’t steam. That was smoke.” Brast quickly figured out the problem, sent away for parts, and agreed to come over and fix it this Thursday, which he did. 

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The lady helping me at the bank has a big stain on her blouse. Should I teller?

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The day after Christmas my car developed its own problems. Dashboard lights started telling me to “check engine” and showed tires skidding. Monday when I took my 12-year-old Lexus to Cheda’s Garage, mechanic Tim Bunce quickly figured out the problem. Rats had gotten into the engine compartment, chewed on the wiring, and started to build a nest.

Cheda’s too had to send away for parts, but it turned out the rats had also damaged an injector harness for the engine’s computer. Now I have to take the car to Santa Rosa to get the harness replaced and the computer reprogrammed. Goddamn, it doesn’t sound cheap! Which raises the question….

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How does the Vatican pay bills? They use Papal.

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The car and oven breakdowns came on the heels of the smoke detector in Mitchell cabin starting to give off a bird-like chirp every minute or so when the air was cold. That has now been fixed, but I’m wondering what will go wrong next.

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“Dad, I’m cold,” his son said. “Go stand in the corner,” replied the father. “It’s 90 degrees.”

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There are times reality can be as humorous as puns. We’ve been hearing coyotes howl every night for months, so I was particularly intrigued by the “People’s Choice” award winner of this year’s Living with Wildlife photo contest sponsored by WildCare. 

Photographer Janet Kessler managed to snap a shot of a coyote knocking down a “Don’t Feed Coyotes” sign.                                                                                                      

 

This photo of a peregrine falcon taken by Carlos Porrata of Inverness won the “Best in Show” award.

And this photo of a badger, which Porrata also submitted, was among the contest’s finalists.

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A doctor made it his regular habit to stop at a bar for a hazelnut daiquiri on his way home from work each night. The bartender knew of his habit and would alway have the drink waiting at precisely 5:03 p.m.

One afternoon, as the end of the workday approached, the bartender was dismayed to find that he was out of hazelnut extract. Thinking quickly, he threw together a daiquiri made with hickory nuts and set it on the bar.

The doctor came in at his regular time, took one sip of the drink, and exclaimed, “This isn’t a hazelnut daiquiri.”

“No, I’m sorry,” replied the bartender. “It’s a hickory daiquiri, Doc.”

 

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Seven of the nine deer that often show up together these days in the field below Mitchell cabin.

California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has estimated that well over half the roughly 560,000 deer in California are Columbian blacktails, the deer native to West Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.

For years many people believed (and many websites still say) that blacktails are a subspecies of mule deer, a species found from the Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest and as far east as the Dakotas. DNA tests, however, have now found mule deer to be a hybrid of female whitetail deer and blacktail bucks. Or so says author Valerius Geist in Mule Deer Country.

Whitetails first appeared on the East Coast about 3.5 million years ago. DNA evidence suggests they spread south and then west, arriving in California about 1.5 million years ago.

In moving up the coast, whitetails evolved into blacktails, which resemble them in appearance and temperament. Blacktails eventually extended their range eastward, meeting up with more whitetails coming from the east. 

“Apparently the blacktail bucks [as seen here] were able to horn in on the harems of their parent species. The result: mule deer. Mule deer are so named because of their long ears.

Our word “deer” comes from the Old English word “deor,” which referred to animals in general, of course including deer. In Middle English, the language of Chaucer (c.1343-1400), the word was spelled “der,” and The American Heritage Dictionary notes it could refer to all manner of creatures, including “a fish, an ant, or a fox.” Or as Shakespeare wrote in King Lear, “Mice and rats, and such small deer,/ Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.”

A buck sniffs a doe to determine whether she’s in heat.

“Deer rely heavily on scent for communication, especially during the mating season,” writes Jane Meggitt in Mating and Communication Behavior of Deer. “Certain gland secretions mix with urine, which gives deer information about the sex and reproductive state of other deer in their vicinity.”

“Before the actual mating, does play ‘hard to get’ for several days. The buck chases a doe, and she eventually allows him to ‘catch’ her.

“After copulating several times over a period of a few days, the buck stays with the doe for a few more days until she is [no longer in heat]. He stays by her to keep other bucks away,” Meggitt writes.

“When he leaves, he might go on to find other does with which to mate. If the doe doesn’t get pregnant during that cycle, she goes into another estrus cycle within three to four weeks…. After an approximately seven-month pregnancy, a doe gives birth to her fawn, or fawns.

“It isn’t unusual for healthy, well-nourished does to give birth to twins or triplets. Fawns found alone aren’t usually abandoned. Their mother is nearby, but out of sight. Does and fawns vocalize to let each other know of their whereabouts. If a predator threatens a fawn, the mother stamps her forefeet, snorts and might try to drive the threatening animal — or person — away,” Meggitt adds.

Two bucks ignore each in passing. The older deer in the foreground initially eyed the younger buck to see if it would try to horn in on his harem. It didn’t, and the old guy soon lost interest.

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Sheltering in place with only limited socializing definitely affects one’s thinking. It forces many of us to spend more time alone taking stock of ourselves and of our lives. It’s a humbling experience and may provide an inkling of why a prisoner behind bars cannot avoid thinking about his life. But, as I’m sure the prisoner knows, too much such thinking becomes tedious. For the moment, I’m trying to divert my attention to the creatures I find all around me.

A hummingbird a week ago enjoyed a few sips before the smoke from the Woodward Fire significantly dissipated. As of this writing, the fire, which a lightning strike started on Aug. 18, was 97 percent contained, having blackened 4,929 acres in the Point Reyes National Seashore.

A coyote wandered up to the greenhouse of neighbors Dan and Mary Huntsman on August 21. Had I been looking out my living-room window, this is what I would have seen. Alas, I wasn’t looking, but Dan was and from his home took this picture. (Photo by Dan Huntsman)

Buzzards on Sept. 13 feast on the carcass of a skunk presumably killed by a great horned owl. It was the second time in recent weeks buzzards dined on a skunk near Mitchell cabin.

A gray fox showed up on our deck after dark last week to dine on the last bits of kibble I had given some raccoons earlier.

A skunk goes eye to eye with Newy, the stray cat we adopted in late July. More frequently than the fox, skunks show up after the raccoons to pick through what remains of the kibble.

And in a weather vein: Whenever Lynn opened the bedroom window in recent days, I started sneezing and then coughing. “Do you think it’s pollen or smoke that’s causing the sneezing?” she asked me a couple of days ago. “The answer,” I told her, “is blowing in the wind.”

I’ll stop here. There’s a lot I’m tempted to write about our political situation, but I think I’ll save that for another week.

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Last week’s drama of wildfire, politics, and coronavirus continues, and none of it is better.

The Woodward Fire in the Point Reyes National Seashore had grown to more than 2,800 acres and was only 8 percent contained as of this morning despite more than 10 days of ground and aerial (seen above) firefighting. Residents south of Inverness Park on Silverhills Road, Fox Drive, and Noren Way have been ordered to evacuate.

Because the fire started near the Woodward Valley Trail on the ocean side of Inverness Ridge, it was named the Woodward Fire. And where does that name come from? In 1890, some members of San Francisco’s Pacific Union Club formed what they called “the Country Club” in the area for hunting, fishing, and socializing, Inverness historian Dewey Livingston told me this week. The hunting club building was at Divide Meadow. As it happened, two of the original members were brothers, Henry and Robert Woodward, and the trail is named after them.

A red moon rose through the smoke Monday.

A pin given to me by Inverness friends Sunday takes note of a serious national security problem.

And while the fire raged,  Republicans again nominated Donald Trump as their presidential candidate although on Sunday night he retweeted misleading Russian propaganda about his Democratic opponent Joe Biden’s communications with the Ukraine. Significantly, the US intelligence community had already identified the propaganda as part of Moscow’s ongoing effort to “denigrate” the Democrat ahead of the November election.

“The President of the United States should never be a willing mouthpiece for Russian propaganda,” responded Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

More bad news. Osteria Stellina on Point Reyes Station’s main street served its last meals Tuesday. Lynn and I had one last dinner there Monday. (She’s placing her order with a masked waitress at left.)

In the midst of the pandemic, with customers having been relocated to tables set up in a parking lane of C Street, owner Christian Caiazzo announced that for financial reasons he was closing the upscale Italian restaurant. He will now operate a pizzeria in Petaluma.

Deer Naked Ladies. In front of Mitchell cabin Saturday, two does, each with a fawn, grazed beside a patch of Naked Ladies, as Belladonna Lilies are commonly called. They were all very cute.

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Uphill of Mitchell cabin.

Live Oak trees have grown up all around Mitchell cabin in the 43 years I’ve lived here. I’ve planted several pines and a palm on the property, but the oaks arrived without my help.

A Scrub-jay arborist on our birdbath last Friday. As it turns out, Scrub-jays planted (literally planted) most, if not all, of the oaks. 

“California Scrub-jays…. are an important part of the natural oak-woodland ecosystem of our area,” Lisa Hug, a naturalist and ornithologist, wrote in the Sonoma County Gazette this month. The magazine notes she has been an interpretive ranger in the Point Reyes National Seashore, a research assistant with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, and also one with the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Ms. Hug currently teaches birding classes.

Live oaks that have sprung up downhill from the cabin.

“The Scub-jay’s favorite food is acorns,” Ms. Hug explained. “In the fall, the Scrub-jays collect acorns and bury them in various places. One jay can hide up to 5,000 acorns annually and remember exactly where it has hidden most of them. They will also watch each other bury acorns and steal each other’s treasures.

“If a jay thinks it was watched when it buried an acorn, it will re-bury it later. This acorn-burying behavior is very important for the regeneration of oak forests in California.”

Scrub-jay funerals. Ms. Hugs also points out, “Scrub-jays are very intelligent, social and even sensitive [and] are known to have funerals. If one bird finds a dead jay, it will call loudly and other jays will gather around the dead bird and caw loudly for up to half an hour.”

Too tired to eat. A mother raccoon with four kits in tow showed up at our kitchen door Saturday night looking for kibble. Apparently they’d spent the evening wandering around, and no sooner did the group start eating than two kits fell asleep.

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