Saturday, January 24, 2009

Raining for the Homeless

Imagine you are holed up underground waiting. Waiting for a decent home. One where you can start a family and get on with your life. It's been months, yet still you wait. Waiting for the steady pitter-patter to wake you from your stupor and start your sturdy legs churning for your new home. Mid-January, it seemed that you might not leave your hovel at all this year.

A week later, finally, rain came to California. Rain and fog and hail for days. Ponds started to fill and the amphibians were on the move. Dirty noses, feet, then tails emerged from rodent burrows, rotting logs and rock clefts. But will the rain be frequent enough in the next few months to allow the frogs and salamanders to lay eggs, the eggs to hatch, and the larvae to develop into adults before the water dries up? For amphibians in California, it's a gamble with the weather to successfully reproduce.

<---"Where is my watery palace?"---

Since California's climate is basically a wet season and a dry season, wet-dependent animals like amphibians have had to adapt. They spend the wet season frolicking in ponds, rivers and creeks, but once the rain stops, many of these dry up and the water babies have to find alternate lodging. The larval forms of the frogs and newts get legs, and lungs or lung substitutes to join their adult compatriots on the outward-bound crawl. As the wet areas disappear, they seek out climate- and moisture-controlled terrestrial homes where they can wait out the dry season in a state of estivation.

There are four ponds on the Dipper Ranch that play a role in the reproductive cycle of amphibians. All of the ponds were originally created by the ranchers out of natural springs. They pushed pipes into the hillsides and drainages where springs slowly seeped, scooped out basins and pushed up earthen dams. These stock ponds held the dripping water for longer periods of time and thus kept the cattle watered. Ironically, after over 100 years of repeated and large scale human development across the mountain landscape (timber harvest, ranching, agriculture, transportation, flood control and housing development), these stock ponds are often the remaining reservoirs where the native amphibians species still hold court.

---Plum Pond---
The Plum Pond is a small pond in grassland. Even with cattle drinking, this pond retains enough moisture to support a thicket of cattails in the center, where red-winged blackbirds nest, with an outside ring of open water in the wet season. Last year, we saw coast range newts, Pacific treefrogs and California red-legged frogs at the Plum Pond. This year, the newts reappeared at the Plum Pond on November 11, 2008 when it started filling after the second rainstorm of the year, and you can currently hear a few treefrogs starting their breeding chorus.

--Mallard Pond--
The Mallard Pond is a medium-sized pond surrounded by forest. It always has some open water with a fringe of cattails and willows on its sides, a small man-made island in the middle and a rotting rowboat on the shore. Last year, we saw newts, treefrogs and red-legged frogs in this pond. This year, I started seeing newts mating in the Mallard Pond on October 6, 2008 after the first decent-sized rainstorm. Treefrogs are peeping there now.

---Newt Pond---
The Newt Pond is a small, highly seasonal pond that drains quickly. With patchy weather, it can partially fill and dry out several times during the wet season. Last year, it was full of newts and their eggs with a few treefrogs, but it dried up before anything hatched. This year, the Newt Pond started to fill on November 2, 2008, then was dry for the next seven weeks. So far this year, we saw about 10 newts in the Newt Pond the day after Christmas, and many newts were mating there by January 11, 2009, but the pond was dry again by January 20th and the newts were gone.
---Woods Pond---

The Woods Pond is a small pond in the woods fed by a slow seeping spring, and it is also directly adjacent to a steep seasonal drainage. It is mostly filled with cattail vegetation and a few small willows. Last year, we saw treefrogs and newts at the Woods Pond. Twice, we have seen a California giant salamander in the drainage above the Woods Pond. This year, I saw a newt heading towards the Woods Pond on November 11, 2008 after the second precipitation event of the season, but there still is very little standing water in the Woods Pond.

Over the next few months, I will make many trips to these ponds and will share their watery ups and downs. We will see how lucky the amphibians will be this year in their reproductive gamble with the winter weather.

PS: The Newt Pond is my favorite because it changes so much and you can see the struggle of life up close. Its oval shape and sloped berm remind me of an amphitheater, or should I say amphibian-theater?

Coast range newt, Taricha torosa torosa
Pacifc treefrog, Pseudacris regilla
California red-legged frog, Rana draytonii
California giant salamander, Dicamptodon ensatus

Monday, January 19, 2009

Mouse Butt for Breakfast

This is Cat King Cole, our ranch cat. Some of you have expressed concerns about my rattlesnake postings. Cole is part of the solution. I got Cole because my neighbor, who used to own this property and built the house, suggested it. Not just any rancher/contractor, this guy knows his ecology - a cat would control the population of rodents and thus create a habitat that was less attractive to predators like rattlesnakes.

Deer mice would visit the house at night when it got cold or dry last year. I tried various things like sealing all the holes around the pipes, but they kept coming. Deer mice are kinda cute with brown fur, a bright white belly, and big eyes, but they can cause hantavirus besides being pests and attracting snakes.

Shrieking at the mice didn't help. One responded by running into the hall closet and then up into the vacuum cleaner. I threw the vacuum cleaner into the driveway for the night. Good thing the crew or cattle guys didn't come by the next morning; they like how I am cleaning up the place but vacuuming the driveway would have taken some explaining. Various traps helped, but I still didn't want mice in the house. So I decided to follow my neighbor's advice and get a mouser cat.

A live trap called The Tin Cat ---->

I had to contact several groups before I found Cole. See, the way I look at it, cats like the country. However, some of the animal rescue organizations refused to let me adopt one of their cats when I mentioned I lived in the country. And, when I said I was looking for a big cat that would come in at night when I called because I didn't want the coyotes to get it. Okay, so maybe that is not the first thing you should say when you want to adopt a cat.

But I eventually found Cole at Nine Lives Foundation in Redwood City. They helped me pick out the right cat and gave me lots of good advice. Cole turns out to be not only a great mouser but a snuggler. And he comes in at night. He saw a coyote once and growled at it; Cole was in the house, coyote was out.

Cole believes in tithing. The first mouse he caught, he brought into my bedroom so I would know what a brave warrior he is and would not take him back to the shelter. By the second mouse, I recognized the pouncing and scurrying sounds, and got up and closed my bedroom door. Mouse butt was at my bedroom threshold in the morning.

Cole also likes to leave mouse butt on the bathroom threshold. He keeps the crunchy head for himself, but I don't mind. I am not sure how that splotch of mouse blood ended up on the wall above the toilet tank, but I leave Cole to his methods.

Cole also reminds me that he is a domesticated animal by purring, snuggling and sandpapering my face every morning to get up and feed him. Coyotes, deer, snakes and other wild animals do not do these things, thus we should not try to feed them or snuggle with them.

---- checking out the barn ----

That is the story of how I got the cat to eat the mice to get rid of the snakes. Feel better? One last thing. I walked across the street to visit my neighbor and thank him for his cat suggestion. While I was telling him about how great Cole is, a grey cat walked through his yard. I was confused because I had left Cole in my coyote-proof house as I always do when I am not home. Turns out my neighbor has a grey cat that looks just like Cole, and she is a great mouser and snuggler too.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Beautiful Colors of Thirst

I took some friends for a walk on the Dipper Ranch on the day after Christmas. As we headed back to the ranch house for a spaghetti dinner, the sunset colored the sky. We were in awe. The photo above was taken at 5:17 pm and the photo below was taken 3 minutes later. We rarely get such colors for either sunrise or sunset in this part of California. Mostly it is either blank blue sky or fog.

On December 28, the sunset clouds were back but with hanging bases (photo below). This was probably virga - raindrops or ice falling from a cloud but evaporating before they reach the ground. It indicates a layer of dry air beneath the cloud. Sometimes the evaporation associated with virga increases the water vapor in the dry layer until there is enough humidity that rainfall can make it all the way to the ground. Not this day. Just beautiful colors, no rainfall.

Coastal California has a Mediterranean climate. Summers are dry and winters are wet with relatively mild temperatures year round. In our area, there is virtually no rain from June through September; most annual rainfall occurs from November through April.

But not this water year. Weeks later, it's still warm and dry and no rain or fog in sight. We could be entering our third year of drought. So far in January 2009, San Francisco has received 0.24 inches of rain. The last time it was so low in January was 0.26 inches in 1920.

My lips and fingers are cracking and the start of the pollen season has us sneezing. Meanwhile, the winter animals are trying to find water. My bathroom window looks out at a cattle trough. These days all kinds of animals are visiting it and a trip to the bathroom is like looking out a blind on an African safari. A flock of over one hundred band-tailed pigeons visits the trough every morning. Even Cole the grey ranch cat makes a morning pilgrimage.

This last one I call the Buzzard Bar.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Cows Are Back

The cows are back for the grazing season.

Or calves. Or cattle.

This is our second conservation grazing season at the Dipper Ranch. Anywhere from 50 to 100 head of beef cattle are generally here from January to June, depending on the grass crop. We lease the 240 acres of ranchland to a grazing operator. He brings them in little and they go out big. It's amazing what grass can do.

Most of the calves are black, but there are white ones and red ones too. Our rangeland manager tells me, "We'll bring in one white calf for every 49 black calves to make it easy for you to count."

It's been a very dry winter so far. Today I saw the circling vultures, a coyote, and then a line of calves heading to the water trough at different times of the day. If we don't get good winter rain, the grass will brown up sooner and the cattle will come off the Dipper Ranch earlier. Seasonal grazing makes it possible to adapt to temporal weather conditions.

Last February, I peered out the bedroom window to see the deer browsing in their usual morning meadow. It was foggy and the deer were dark and looked soaked. I thought, "Heck, those deer are as big as bison." Last year, that's when I realized, "The cows are here."

Or calves. Or cattle.

Bovine terminology.
Cattle - if there is more than one.
Cow - an adult female who has had calves.
Calves - young cattle of either sex.
In some regions, the term "cows" is commonly used interchangeably with "cattle" especially if the gender mix of the herd is unknown.

So excuse me if I keep saying "cows" and keep counting just the white ones.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Sharp-tailed Snake

The sharp-tailed snake (Contia tenuis) is a small snake with a sharp tail end, a blunt head and distinct underside. The back is brown with a copper colored line on each side.

I was returning from a check of the watertank on June 8, 2008 about 6:00 pm when I saw a stick on the dirt road in the shade of oaks. Ahhh, actually, it was a small snake. I stepped back to pull my gloves off my pack and then leaned over to snatch it up. Gee, my curiosity actually gave me the courage to pick up a snake. When I saw the white underside with stark black crossbars, I vaguely remembered reading about such a snake.

Snake calmly traveled in my gloved hand to the house where we browsed the library for snake books. With a quick reference to the excellent photos in Alan St. John's book, I realized my bookish companion was a sharp-tailed snake, the first I had ever seen. They have a sharp spine at the tip of their tail. There might be a short-tailed species and a long-tailed species, but at the time, I didn't read far enough and didn't know to measure the tail. I am hoping to see more sharp-tailed snakes so I can get some tail metrics.

I took the sharp-tailed snake back to his original location, and let him go near a drainage where he might find some slugs for dinner. Sharp-tailed snakes are not listed as rare but I rarely hear people mention them, so I think they are rarely seen.

See also:
Alan St. John, Reptiles of the Northwest, Lone Pine Publishing, 2002.
California Herps

Monday, January 5, 2009

Rangeland Rattlers on the 4th of July

I have only seen two rattlesnakes on the other 899 acres of the Dipper Ranch - the grassy range, forested hills and steep creeks. I saw them both during a hot July 4th hike, they were small and at locations I didn't expect them.

Subject 031
I was using an old grazing map to track down a former spring in Pasture 2. I walked up a steep ravine, following several eras of tangled pipes. Finally, I determined that the top of the bowl-shaped drainage had slipped and the former springbox was probably buried. I headed back down the ravine stopping frequently to decide where to step among the dense ferns and slippery banks. Just before I placed my boot on a narrow earthen bench next to a small pool, I noticed a small rattlesnake resting there in a flat coil. Subject 031's rattle was not marked by red spraypaint as Subject 028 which we had released 15 days earlier at a location 0.6 miles away in a southeastly direction.

I didn't expect to see a rattlesnake among ferns or next to water. However, I guess it makes sense. This was one of the few drainages that still had water after a dry winter and the fellow could have been waiting for small critters to come to the pool for a drink. Rather than pulling my camera out of my pack while balancing on the banks, I quickly backed off and went up the other side of the ravine.

Subject 032

Venturing further west in Pasture 2 on that day, I came across a calf carcass I had originally found freshly scavenged in early March. Four months later, the carcass was mostly hides and bones. I continued on and searched the west end of Pasture 2 to see if I could find any signs of the other 2 missing calves with no luck. As I returned past the March carcass, I decided to take photos to document how a carcass changes over time. When I focused my camera on the carcass, I suddenly realized there was a rattlesnake curled up on the black hide. Cow bones and rattlesnake - was this some sorta motorcycle dude tattoo? The small rattlesnake looked like a jungle king on his soft velvet cushion.

Notice that Subject 032 is in what is known as a resting coil. The snake's still body rests flat on the ground or slightly piled on top of other coils, with the head resting on the outer loop. If the snake was aggravated, it would get into a striking coil with its posterior end in a wide loop on the ground (as a sturdy base for a possible forward lunge), the anterior end raised vertically and in a loose S-shaped wave, and the body swelling, shaking, rattling and hissing (Klauber).

In a resting coil, a rattlesnake may be asleep or awaiting prey at a good hunting spot. It could also be using its first level of defense when aware of a potential enemy - holding still which along with its cryptic coloration might result in the enemy not detecting its presence. I often see rattlesnakes in the resting coil position (see most of the photos in the Barnyard Brats posting). Be forewarned that a rattlesnake is capable of dangerous bites in any position, however, the type of coil indicates how threatened a snake feels and the likelihood of it escalating to its next levels of defense - flight and/or strike (Klauber).

I didn't have the nerve to disturb Subject 032 to determine if it had a red-marked rattle. I decided to let him lounge peacefully on his velvet cushion and I headed straight home as I had had enough fireworks for my 4th of July.

Laurence M. Klauber, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind, abridged edition, University of California Press, 1982.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Barnyard Brats - Rattlers Again

The barn is big and not currently used by humans or livestock. In this semi-abandoned state, it seems to be a popular place for small rattlesnakes. This posting exhibits the 9 rattlesnakes I have encountered in or near the barn.

Consider this a detective story. Why are there so many rattlesnakes at this location and why are they almost always small-sized? Are the same snakes returning to the barnyard after being chased or relocated? How can we determine if snakes viewed on different dates are the same or different individuals? What will happen next year?

Subject 009
Discovered 10/24/07 while co-worker of Samson & Son ilk was investigating barn for potential salvageable finds. Fortunately, same co-worker had experience working outside and instinctively ran out of barn as soon as he heard familiar buzzing sound. I peeked in barn just in time to see small rattlesnake slip behind one of the ancient cabinets. No photo taken.

Subject 013
Small rattlesnake found 05/12/08 behind garage next to barn. First blotch at top of neck was butterfly-shaped. Captured with muslin butterfly net and relocated approximately 0.1 mile in a northeasterly direction.

Subject 017
Large greenish rattlesnake discovered under picnic table after 5 people had been meeting for one hour around same table to discuss grazing. All 5 meeting participants leapt away from table and brave ranger dispatched rattler with shovel. No photo taken.

Subject 019
Small rattlesnake found coiled up between studs and by screened vent in garage on 05/18/08. Caused serious consternation and disruption of plans to clean garage for the day. Couldn't scoop up snake between studs with round net. Borrowed litter picker tool from ranger office. Rattler successfully eluded capture and slithered behind boxes and beneath shelves with constant rattling for one hour. Eventually captured Subject 019 and relocated 0.4 miles in easterly direction. Second photo taken as snake slithered away at relocation site and shows a blotch broken into two dots near the tail end.

Subject 020
A few hours later on the same day, 05/18/08, while moving heavy equipment on a dolly and precariously nudging a lawn chair out of the way with one hand, discovered another small rattler coiled up at northeast corner of barn by hose. I had spent several hours reading in the same chair at this location the day before. Quickly captured rattlesnake with litter picker tool and stored in sealed container for several hours to determine if any more visitors required portage to remote location on the ranch that day. Released at same location as Subject 019 at 7 pm.

Subject 027
Small rattlesnake discovered at northeast corner of barn near hose on 06/18/08, one month after finding similar-sized rattler at same location. However this snake had a thin white line through the brown blotch between the eyes and the blotch at the top of the neck appeared forked on the top, whereas neither of these patterns were evident in photos taken of Subject 020. Moved 0.1 miles in westerly direction next morning at 6:30 am.

Subject 028
Small rattler discovered 06/19/08 at northeast corner of barn by hose and chair at 18:00 almost 12 hours after releasing similar-sized snake found at same location previous day. Subject 028 had white lines between nose blotches and a split blotch at top of neck similar to Subject 027 and it is highly likely this snake crossed a ravine and returned to the same location by the barn and chair in less than one day. Captured and held Subject 028 for several days to see if any additional rattlers showed up - none did. On 06/22/08, moved Subject 028 in southeasterly direction 0.6 miles. Marked snake's rattle with red spray paint.

Subject 034
Discovered small rattlesnake stretched out on concrete sidewalk at foot of kitchen steps on warm night at 10 pm on 08/11/08. Jumped over snake to get snake tongs in garage; captured that night and released 08/15/08 in easterly direction 0.4 miles (same location released Subjects 019 and 020). Marked rattle with black spray paint.

Subject 040

Discovered by unsuspecting visitors on 10/26/08 as they reached for a decorative horseshoe on large rock outside northwest corner of barn. Visitor was so enamored by horseshoe art (which I had never noticed) that he did not see rattlesnake on same rock until I grabbed him by the shoulder and pulled him back. Small rattlesnake was neatly tucked into notch in sunny rock. Snake had double-forked blotch at top of neck, kidney-shaped blotches 2/3 way down length of tail and small rattle. Snake captured by tongs and net with assistance of wary visitors and relocated 0.4 miles in easterly direction. Marked rattle with white spray paint.

CONCLUSIONS: In at least one case, moving a rattlesnake (Subject 027) a short distance (0.1 miles) probably resulted in it returning in one day (Subject 028). None of the marked rattlesnakes (Subjects 028, 034, 040), which were moved 0.4 to 0.6 miles away, have reappeared at the barnyard yet - assuming that the spraypaint doesn't rub off. Since northern Pacific rattlesnakes give live birth in August through October, and 5 of the 8 small rattlesnakes were found in May or June, these snakes likely were born in a previous year. We, therefore, cannot assume that they were located near the barn because they had been born in that general vicinity and had not dispersed yet. Two gopher snakes were also observed repeatedly in and near the barn during the first consistently warm week in May 2008, and since gopher snakes sometimes den with rattlesnakes (Klauber), it is possible that the barn or some nearby location is serving as a winter den.

The most likely scenario is that the barnyard provides or recently provided suitable rodent prey and sunny basking sites which attract snakes including rattlers. A hardworking crew cleaned up many years of junk in the barnyard 2 summers ago, and a change in tenants on the property has resulted in careful disposal of garbage so as to not attract mammals, and discouragement and trapping of rodents around the house. These actions, along with safe relocation of rattlesnakes over 0.5 miles away, should result in less sightings of rattlesnakes near the barn in future years. Tenants and visitors will be educated to use caution when working in the barnyard during warm parts of the year.

Laurence M. Klauber, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind, abridged edition, University of California Press, 1982.

Barn photo by Mark Walchuk.