Photography


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Redwing blackbirds waiting for a dinner of birdseed at Mitchell cabin maintain proper social distancing (relative to size).

They say the Covid-19 pandemic is especially bad for older people. As a 76 year old, I can vouch for that. Like a lot of others my age and older, I wear hearing aids. Unfortunately, part of each aid sits outside the ear, and anti-virus masks are usually secured around the ears. As a result, our hearing aids sometimes get pulled off when we remove our safety masks. Goddamn virus.

Jackrabbit behind Mitchell cabin last Saturday.

“Jackrabbits are actually hares, not rabbits,” according to National Geographic. “Hares are larger than rabbits, and they typically have taller hind legs and longer ears. Jackrabbits were named for their ears, which initially caused some people to refer to them as ‘jackass rabbits.’ The writer Mark Twain brought this name to fame by using it in his book of western adventure, Roughing It. The name was later shortened to jackrabbit.”

A fence lizard with part of its tail missing.

Most of us are aware that lizards can lose a big piece of their tails and survive. To quote a Washington State University online explanation: “Lizards have a series of small bones that run down their back… called vertebrae. Along the tail are several weak spots called fracture planes… They are the places the tail can detach.

“The main reason a lizard loses its tail is to defend itself [and not only if a predator has seized its tail. A detached tail can also distract the predator]. When a lizard detaches its tail, the tail whips around and wiggles on the ground… Sometimes the tail will keep moving for upwards of half an hour.”

Lizards can regrow their tails in three to five weeks, but the new tail is usually shorter, has a different pattern of scales, and is made with cartilage rather than bone.

Another fence lizard, also warming itself  this week on our railroad-tie front steps, has regrown most of its original tail. The dark section where it broke off can easily be seen. It’s important to male lizards to get their tails back. Female lizards aren’t interested in them until they do.

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I’ll close with a couple of my favorite poems, both set in pre-shelter-in-place times. They’re by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Alan Dugan (1923-2003).

 

On a Seven-Day Diary

Oh, I got up and went to work/ and worked and came back home/ and ate and talked and went to sleep./ Then I got up and went to work/ and worked and came back home/ from work and ate and slept./ Then I got up and went to work/ and worked and came back home/ and ate steak and went to sleep./ They I got up and went to work/ and worked and came back home/ and ate and fucked and went to sleep./ Then it was Saturday, Saturday, Saturday!/ Love must be the reason for the week!/ We went shopping! I saw clouds!/ The children explained everything!/ I could talk about the main thing!/ What did I drink on Saturday night/ that lost the first, best half of Sunday?/ The last half wasn’t worth this “word.”/ Then I got up and went to work/ and worked and came back home/ from work and ate and went to sleep,/ refreshed but tired by the weekend.

Tribute to Kafka for Someone Taken

The party is going strong,/ The doorbell rings. It’s/ for someone named me./ I’m coming. I take/ a last drink,/ a last puff on a cigarette,/ a last kiss at a girl,/ and step into the hall,/ bang,/ shutting out the laughter. “Is/ your name you?'” “Yes.”/ “Well come along then.”/ “See here. See here. See here.”

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Stray cat. Does anyone around Point Reyes Station recognize this small, black cat? It started showing up at Mitchell cabin three days ago. I assume the owner lives somewhere in the vicinity of Highway 1 north of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. It seemed weak from hunger when we first saw it, and Lynn gave it some tuna.

Geraniums on our deck. Lynn and I spent a couple of hours yesterday rearranging pots of flowers, succulents, and a small tree on our deck to give some of them more sunlight. Three large pots of geraniums were part of the mix, and that brought to mind a poem by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Theodore Roethke (1908-1963).

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,/ She looked so limp and bedraggled,/ So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,/ Or a wizened aster in late September,/ I brought her back in again/ For a new routine — / Vitamins, water, and whatever/ Sustenance seemed sensible/ At the time; she’d lived/ So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer/ Her shriveled petals falling/ On the faded carpet, the stale/ Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves./ (Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured! — / The dumb dames shrieking half the night/ Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,/ Me breathing booze at her,/ She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me — / And that was scary — /So when that snuffling cretin of a maid/ Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,/ I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,/ I was that lonely.

—   —   —

As we get into summer, I’m seeing more and more young wildlife around the cabin.

A black-tailed doe leading her two young fawns, all three of them on full alert, across a field downhill from us last Friday.

A blackbird feeds two of her young as they noisily compete with mouths wide open for seeds she’s pecked up. This repast yesterday was enjoyed in a pine tree just outside our window.

A flock of hungry red-winged blackbirds began flying in yesterday when they saw Lynn and me spread birdseed on the railing of our deck while right below them….

two does, each with a fawn, grazed where the grass was a tad greener.

I’ll sign off with  a whimsical poem by the 1970 US poet laureate William Stafford (1914-1993). It provides a bit of humor to brighten these sad times.

Adults Only

Animals own a fur world:/ people own worlds that are variously, pleasingly, bare./ And the way these worlds are once arrived for us kids with a jolt,/ that night when the wild woman danced/ in the giant cage we found we were all in/ at the state fair.

Better women exist, no doubt, than that one,/ and occasions more edifying, too, I suppose. But we have to witness for ourselves what comes for us,/ nor be distracted by barkers of irrelevant ware;/ and a pretty good world, I say, arrived that night/ when that woman came farming right out of her clothes, by God,/ At the state fair.

 

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Six buzzards landed on the hill above Mitchell cabin last Saturday, immediately letting Lynn and me know that something had died.

We could see one buzzard tearing away at a carcass. But of what?

(Before going further, I should acknowledge the “buzzard” v. “vulture” dispute I occasionally get into with a few readers who apparently prefer British English to American English. For them, vulture is the only correct name for the species, and buzzard means only Buteo hawk. I disagree, and my authority is The American Heritage Dictionary. It defines the word buzzard as: “1. Any of various North American vultures, such as the turkey vulture. 2. Chiefly British. A hawk of the genus Buteo, having broad wings and a broad tail. 3. An avaricious or otherwise unpleasant person.”)

Upon closer inspection (despite the stench) I could see the deceased was a skunk. My guess is that it was killed by one of the great horned owls on this hill. Because of the likelihood of getting sprayed, coyotes and foxes reluctantly hunt skunks only when no other prey is available. Great horned owls — whose weak sense of smell is limited to supplementing their sense of taste — like to hunt skunks.

A great horned owl. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo)

Female skunks typically raise four to six kittens in a season, with the males leaving the females before the young are born. Skunks were once widely hunted for their pelts, but they now have far more to worry about from motor vehicles; skunks are so near-sighted they can’t see things clearly that are more than 10 feet away.

This buzzard arrived a day late for Saturday’s feast but still found enough skunk flesh to nibble on. Buzzards are fond of dead skunks, but they leave the skunks’ scent pouches intact.

Raccoons, like dogs, identify each other by sniffing bottoms, and (as seen here before) they also sniff skunk bottoms but for some reason don’t get sprayed. Two nights ago I saw a very young kit repeatedly sniff a skunk’s rear end. The skunk didn’t like it and kept moving away, but the kit persisted in nosing around back there until the skunk finally walked away.

At least it didn’t get killed and partially eaten by an owl with most of the leftovers consumed by a flock of buzzards.

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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.

—        —         —

 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.

—        —        —

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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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)

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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.

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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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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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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. 

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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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