Archive for August, 2013

Skunks are crepuscular, which means they hunt at twilight and daybreak, and last Wednesday as the sun was going down, a lone skunk showed up just outside Mitchell cabin. Except during the mating season, skunks are solitary critters, so its being alone was no surprise. The surprise was seeing one at all. It had been years since a skunk had been out in the open around the cabin, and it was sort of a treat to see one despite skunks’ stinking reputation.

It’s not unusual to smell a skunk hereabouts, of course; this is the countryside. And occasionally I’ll spot a dead skunk on Highway 1. Skunks have terrible eyesight and can see only about 10 feet, which is why they are so vulnerable on roadways.

A skunk on the hunt.

Skunks are omnivorous. They eat plants, grasses, and berries at this time of year, as well as insects, earthworms, salamanders, frogs, lizards, carrion, and birds’ eggs whenever they can find them.

They are a major predator of honeybees because their thick fur protects them from stings when they attack hives — to eat bees, not honey.

This skunk seemed to be looking for small rodents, such as moles or voles, and periodically dug furiously in various holes it came across. The creature’s strong, short legs and long front claws are ideal for burrowing.

Skunks mate in the early spring and their young are born about two months later. Blind and deaf when first born, kits open their eyes after three weeks and are weaned in about two months. The kits stay with their mother for about a year, which is a long time for a skunk. Their typical lifespan in the wild is only three to six years.

At times the skunk was almost vertical as it dug into the ground. It couldn’t see me when it was in this position, but I wasn’t about to pull its tail.

Skunks produce their foul-smelling fluid in anal scent glands to drive off predators, of course, and they can spray it up to 10 feet with accuracy.

Skunks are sparing with their spray, however, for they have only enough for about half a dozen blasts, and it takes roughly 10 days to rebuild their supply. So rather than relying on repeated spraying to drive off predators, they count on their distinctive black and white coloring to act as a warning. Nonetheless, if a skunk raises its tail, stamps its feet, and hisses, back off quickly, for it is about to spray.

Point Reyes Station naturalist Jules Evens writes in The Natural History of the Point Reyes Peninsula that skunks are sometimes eaten by mountain lions. I wonder how cougars avoid being sprayed. Great horned owls also eat skunks, but that’s easier to understand since the owls have a very poor sense of smell.

Skunk meandering at sunset.

So what do you do if you, your dog, or your cat gets sprayed? Despite the old wives’ tale, tomato juice will not eliminate the smell. It merely cloaks it slightly. Humans and pets both need thorough baths to get rid of the stench.

Bathing dogs is not always easy, and bathing cats can be comparable to the battle for Damascus. Moreover, you probably will need special pet shampoos and soaps, which are usually available only from veterinarians.

It is common for skunks to dig holes in backyards and lawns, much to the annoyance of some homeowners.

In the mid-1990s, the Marin Major Crimes Taskforce raided a marijuana patch on the south side of the Point Reyes-Petaluma Road about a mile east of Highway 1. Pot is reputed to have a skunk-like smell, and soon after the raid, I began noticing a skunky smell whenever I drove through the area. Evidently there was a second patch somewhere in the vicinity.

Almost two weeks went by before I spotted a dead skunk in a ditch beside the road and figured out where the smell was coming from. It made me wonder how often cops prepare for pot raids but find only dead skunks.

In the Deep South, skunks are often referred to as polecats while in Latin America they are called zorrillos (meaning little foxes).

Skunks have suffered from bad press for centuries. Even Charles Darwin dismissed skunks as “odious animals” in The Voyage of the Beagle published in 1839. However, when Looney Tunes in 1945 debuted a Parisian skunk named Pepé Le Pew, the creature’s reputation began to evolve from stinky to comic. Click here for a bit of post-war nostalgia.

Struggling to breathe, a juvenile fin whale washed ashore at Stinson Beach early Monday. The 42-foot-long male weighed roughly 11 tons.

The whale appeared to have taken a beating thrashing around in shallow water. There was also trauma to its right side, which could have come from colliding with a ship. That’s been known to happen here. The fin whale’s only natural enemy is the killer whale (i.e. orca). Photos by Lynn Axelrod

The California Marine Mammal Center based on the Marin Headlands handled the scientific aspects of the death. After a volunteer at 7 a.m. reported a beached whale was dying, the center dispatched a veterinary team to investigate.

The National Park Service had managed to turn the whale so that it was headed back out to sea, but the whale was already dead by the time the veterinary team arrived around 9 a.m.

After the whale died, a Park Service lifeguard tied a cord around the whale’s tail so that it could be dragged onto the beach with a backhoe.

The whale proved to be too heavy, however, and the line snapped the first time the Park Service tried to pull the corpse ashore.

“The veterinary team has since performed a necropsy (animal autopsy) to try to determine the cause of death,” the center reported later in the day. “Once the whale was rolled over, the Marine Mammal Center’s director of veterinary science, Dr. Shawn Johnson, discovered trauma to the sternum area and internal hemorrhaging around the heart.

“In addition, air [bubbles were] present in the subcutaneous tissue — indicative of trauma.” However, the center added, “There were no broken bones discovered.”

The severe trauma to the whale’s right side was found upon further examination.

Numerous radio stations, several television crews, and a number of newspaper reporters and photographers massed on the beach to cover the fin whale’s death. It was the second in a year in West Marin waters. A 47-foot-long fin whale washed ashore at Point Reyes last year after having been struck by a ship.

“Fin whales are the second largest marine mammal on earth, next to blue whales, and belong to the family of baleen whales,” the Marine Mammal Center wrote on its website.

Unfortunately, fin whales are on the federal list of endangered species, and the death of this young leviathan upset many observers. It brought tears to the eyes of my partner, Lynn Axelrod, who covered the sad event for The West Marin Citizen.

The young victim with the town of Stinson Beach in the background.

Even before it began to decay, the whale’s corpse was giving the area a fishy odor. After the whale was cut up by Mammal Center staff, the Park Service buried it eight feet deep further up the beach. Microbes in the sand will cause the fat and tissue to decompose but leave the bones intact.

This was only the latest of many whale burials at the beach. Some 31 whales have become stranded on Stinson Beach in the past 34 years, and even in death they are covered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Unless one has a permit, it is illegal to disturb the bones.

The Marine Mammal Center on Tuesday reported, “All we can determine at this stage is that the animal appears to have suffered blunt trauma which either caused, or likely contributed to, its death.

“The cause of that trauma is unknown at this time. Additional testing [on blubber from the whale] will potentially reveal other findings.”


Are you going to Inverness Fair, Sparsely Sage And Timely? Remember me to Juan who works there, he once was a good friend of mine.

The annual Inverness Fair was held Saturday next to the firehouse. At left, oysters from British Columbia served on the half shell were sold as a benefit for the Inverness Foundation. The group maintains the Jack Mason Museum of West Marin History. The Inverness Association is the operational arm of the organization.

Big woofers — The band High Tide Collective from Bolinas was hit with fairgoers, playing a mix of rock ‘n’ roll and up-tempo blues.

The dancing dog — At times throughout the afternoon, folks danced to the band’s music, including a couple who danced with their dog. Watching with rapt attention were a little girl and another dog.

Doggone impressive — One of those selling crafts was Roger Sierra, formerly of West Marin and now living in Petaluma. Among his items for sale were two Guatemalan-made Pipes of Pan. Sierra gave an impromptu demonstration of the instruments’ flute-like sound by picking one up and playing along with the band.

Fresh from holding its own Far West Fest two weeks earlier in Point Reyes Station, KWMR community radio took part in the Inverness Fair, selling t-shirts and giving out bumper stickers.

Waterdogs — Rebecca Porrata (left) and Kate Levinson (right) were among the women selling tacos as a benefit for the Tomales Bay Waterdogs. The program teaches youngsters living around the bay the vital skill of swimming.

Hotdogs — Katherine Landreth enjoys a hotdog sold as a benefit for the Youth Sailing program based at the Inverness Yacht Club.

Inverness Garden Club held its annual plant sale. The club maintains plantings on the median of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard through downtown, at Inverness’ aptly named Plant Park, at the Gables (which houses the Jack Mason Museum and Inverness Library), at the Point Reyes Station Post Office, and at the Point Reyes Station Library.

A colorful duo sold the raffle tickets for the Dance Palace’s annual Duck Derby, a fundraiser for the community center in Point Reyes Station. During the derby, a flock of numbered rubber ducks floats down Papermill Creek, with the first duck to reach the finish line at White House Pool winning. This year’s derby will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22.

No doggerel here — Outside the Inverness Library, used books were sold as a benefit for the Marin County Free Library system. The books of rhyme were mostly fine, and none was doggerel.

It’s been a particularly good week to live in Marin, where the news was mostly positive, rather than in certain other parts of California, where the news too often was grim. Consider the following:

1. On Thursday, a 36-year-man, who had been teaching at O.B. Whaley Elementary School in San Jose, was found guilty on five counts of lewd and lascivious behavior with five second-grade girls between 2010 and 2012. The victims, who were 7 to 8 years old, testified teacher Craig Chandler had taken them to a locked room during recess, blindfolded them, and then made them perform oral sex on him. Chandler now faces 75 years to life in prison.

2. On Friday, a 33-year-old Catholic priest from Sacramento, the Rev. Uriel Ojeda, was sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting a 13-year-old girl while he was an overnight guest in her parents’ house.

3. Also on Friday, Los Angeles Police arrested Scott Hounsell, who until June 15 was the executive director of the Los Angeles County Republican Party. Hounsell is charged with sexting a 16-year-old girl. Ironically, the GOP leader in May had publicly snickered, “Is it just me, or does every Weiner headline for the NY Mayor’s race seem like an intentional dirty pun?” (At least none of the females Democratic candidate Anthony Weiner has been sexting is underage.)

Tragic underestimate. (AP Photo/The Bakersfield Californian, by Autumn Parry)

4. At 6 a.m. Saturday, the demolition of an old PG&E power plant in Bakersfield sent shards of metal flying more than 1,000 feet. The shrapnel cut off a 43-year-old Bakersfield man’s leg and caused major injuries to his other leg. Another two people, who suffered lesser injuries, as well as two cars were likewise struck in a Lowe’s parking lot. The 1,000-foot safety zone was too small for blowing up a steel structure, an outside demolition expert later told The Bakersfield Californian. “Cleveland Wrecking Co. of Covina was the prime contractor,” the newspaper reported. “Subcontractor Alpha Demolition hired Demtech Inc. to take down the structures.”

5. At 8 p.m. Saturday, a 38-year-old motorist drove down the paved boardwalk at Venice Beach at high speed and deliberately struck 17 people (click here for video). A 32-year-old Italian tourist on her honeymoon died while 16 other people received injuries ranging from minor to major. The driver, Nathan Campbell, drove off but turned himself in to Santa Monica police two hours later. His motive remains unknown.

6. On Monday, a 30-year-old sheriff’s deputy from Orange County will be arraigned for allegedly pepper spraying a 19 year old’s pizza after another officer stopped the teen for a traffic violation. “[Deputy Juan] Tavera is accused of spotting a pizza on the back seat of the victim’s car and then pepper spraying it without the teen noticing,” The Los Angeles Times reported. “Later at home, the victim shared the pizza with four friends, leading all five to experience physical discomfort.” The incident occurred last September, and the sheriff’s office spent the last 10 months investigating the alleged assault.

Gayer news — These two headlines ran on successive pages in Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle, on the last page of the B section and on the first page of the C section. Was it the “rose-colored view” provided by local dykes that got Marin County Republicans to support marriage equality?

San Francisco standup comic Marilyn Pittman, who performs a risque show called “Ask a Lesbian” (click here for video), visited Mitchell cabin in June, treating Lynn and me, as well as our friends, to a sampling of her brash humor.

In some sketches, Marilyn describes herself as a “dyke,” so I sent her a copy of these headlines. Unfortunately, the “Dykes” refers to Sonny Dykes, the new head football coach at UC Berkeley.

All the same, it was a very good week for the struggle against homophobia. From the GOP in Marin County, to Vatican City, to California’s Central Valley farmlands, tolerance of differing sexual orientations is growing.

While being interviewed by the press a week ago, Pope Francis remarked, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Later that day, The Bakersfield Californian did a spot check of Catholics leaving mass at St. Francis of Assisi near the city and found the people it interviewed overwhelming in agreement with the pope.

“God created us as equals, and as Catholics we believe in welcoming anyone into our church, so it’s excellent to hear that he wasn’t afraid to say it verbally for the whole world to hear,” said one of the people interviewed, Lupe Galindo, 66.

So that’s a roundup of California news — good, bad, and off color — during the past week. In closing I’ll return to the aforementioned comic, Marilyn Pittman, because a couple of her sketches remind me of the old limerick: “A gay in a bar in Khartoum/ Asked a lesbian up to his room./ But they argued all night/ Over who had the right/ To do what/ And with which/ And to whom.”