Monday, October 26, 2009

Garage Ecology

I've been cleaning the garage in preparation of the annual walnut harvest. I found an old radio in there. It probably belonged to Paul Ortega, the ranch caretaker who lived in this house for decades. On top of the old radio, I keep a pair of muddy glasses which I found in the dirt behind the barn last winter. Every time it rains, something shows up in the farmyard. The glasses remind me that we all grind down to dust one day, except for the junk we lose in the yard.

I assume these glasses were Paul's along with the muddy tools which keep showing up. I put the rusty tools in a bin in the garage with the mental label "Paul". The broken plates and glassware, I pile in a pot full of herbs with the mental note "Lola" (Paul's wife). I browse through Paul's bin now and then when I am thinking about what life used to be like on the ranch. Lola seems to be a constant pink presence in the yard. I am hesitant to clean the radio or the glasses because Paul touched them. I really don't know these things, but I make up stories about found items in an attempt to understand the past and to fit in with the time I sense flowing through this land.

--- Bucks and does gathering at the courting oak within earshot of the garage. ---

Farmyard deposition goes something like this: Paul loses tools in the farmyard while working, they get covered up with mud, more rain uncovers them decades later when Cindy finds them, Cindy puts them in the garage with all the other stuff that collects dust and requires annual cleaning, Cindy loses her stuff in the yard, somebody else finds them later, and so on. Be careful of what you lose in the yard because that will be your legacy.

--- Bucks passing calmly today. ---

Somehow this radio manages to tune in only AM talk shows from the 50s and 60s. An investment program ("Buy this book and you will be a millionaire.") and a Christian station ("Shameful dancers on the sidelines of football games") got me through cleaning up a lot of mouse poop.

--- Does resting on the other side of the hill. --

Meanwhile, through the open garage door, I could see the deer gathering under the courting oak. I kept an eye on the bucks, but today they repeatedly passed each other with no signs of aggression. The does were disappearing over the hill behind the courting oak, so I took a break from sorting nails to climb its back side and spy on them - the does were resting and the bucks were hanging out. Later, I noticed that the 4 x 4 buck was gone and the 2 x 2 buck was scent-tracking the does with outstretched neck. Below the house in a meadow, I could see a small male fawn attempting the same thing. The does just keep moving and grazing and ignoring the attention. I guess something happens eventually since there are new fawns every year.

--- Bucks don't seem to eat or rest much during the rutting season. ---

--- 2 x 2 buck steadfastly following a doe. ---

When dusk arrived, I turned off the radio in the hopes of hearing owls. I'd just gotten back from an animated talk by Garth Harwood to the South Skyline Association on Owls in Your Neighborhood. Within minutes, a big chunky owl landed on the utility pole in the orchard. I prepared my ears for detecting what species of owl it might be. Probably a great horned owl because of its large size, but possibly a long-eared owl which Garth says occasionally visits the Santa Cruz Mountains. And also to see if I could distinguish the higher pitched call of a female great-horned owl during the male-female duet. There's nothing like applying newly gained nature knowledge in your own backyard while cleaning the garage. Garth said the great-horned owls are starting their pair-bonding activities this time of year prior to breeding which consists of repeated calls back and forth. This explains the loud hooting from the maple trees next to my bedroom which have woken me up several times in the last few weeks. The owl gleaned his feathers, ignored my unsuccessful attempts to photograph him in the dark, hunted in the grasslands, but didn't bother to call.

--- Blurry large owl with ear tufts. ---

Later while sweeping the garage floor, I heard a loud crunching noise in the backyard near the two smaller walnut trees. As I walked in that direction, I heard the familiar sound of a deer trotting off. The deer are visiting the yard regularly, especially at night, to snack on the fallen walnuts. While I got distracted by star-gazing, the crunching started up again. Curious, I went inside to get a flashlight and waited. When the loud sound started again, I shined the light and was surprised to find a coyote under the walnut trees. He slipped away but at the spot he was standing, I found walnuts cracked open. I looked around and found more cracked shells with the nut meat missing.

--- To be tested for coyote saliva. ---

The Silva family used to own this land. The Silva girls told me their uncle planted the walnut trees behind the barn in the 60s and the nuts were a special heart shape and extremely tasty. They inquire how the walnut trees are doing, and I take the hint and walk across the country road with a big grocery bag of walnuts every year.

This is garage ecology:
The Silva uncle planted the walnut trees, Paul Ortega took care of them, now I harvest the walnuts and give many away, and every year the deer, woodpeckers, jays, crows, mice and coyotes visit the trees for an autumnal feast. While the fundamentalists pray on the radio, the deer court openly, the owls don't give a hoot, and generations of coyotes walk over buried tools and plates to crack open walnuts.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

How to Stop a Buck

--- Prelude , 6:19 pm ---

The first storms of the season have arrived. A dying hurricane from the other side of the Pacific Ocean slammed into the central California coast last Tuesday. In 24 hours, it delivered 7" of rain in the La Honda area, 25% of the average annual total.

--- The kiss of purple, 6:42 pm ---

For a few days before and after a storm, pressure fronts shuffle in shapely clouds. On Saturday, I walked up to the high pasture at twilight and witnessed spectacular orange, pink and red clouds steaming in off the ocean. Squatting on the side of a grassy hill, I oohed and aahed as the scene changed every 30 seconds and clicked away on my camera.

--- 6:45 pm ---

With the brilliant show on my front side, the pasture was getting darker on my backside. I sensed that something was moving and perhaps watching me from the forested area to the right, yet I didn't want to turn away from the sky play or put down my camera. Finally, I glanced over when I heard a noise. A buck was running straight towards me. I quickly stood up in surprise, and in response, the buck halted and gave me a startled look.

--- "Whoa, what was that? You aren't a doe." ---

We assessed each other. He was the 2 x 2 buck (2 antler points on each side) I had seen lurking last week on the edge of the courting oak above the house where he was being ignored by the dominant 4 x 4 buck. I quickly snapped a photo of him and the camera flash went off in the darkening meadow. The bright light sent the buck (probably partially blinded) into the forest and a doe appeared out of nowhere to follow him.

--- Sliding into redness, 6:50 pm ---

I went back to photographing the colorful skies, but in a few minutes, I had the same feeling again. I looked towards the forest, but did not see the 2 x 2 buck. Turning further around, I realized how dark it was getting and then saw a large buck charging straight down the hill above me. He was far away but coming fast and getting larger. Several does were scattering down the hill behind him.

--- Buck Number 2 - looking big & determined. ---

At this point, I was standing up again. After all the months of watching deer run away, I couldn't believe this buck was intentionally charging me until I saw him tear through the open spot in the fence and turn resolutely in my direction. As his shaking rack got closer, I could tell he was the 4 x 4 buck I had seen consorting with does last week under the courting oak. I figured he had mistaken me for another doe to add to his harem, even though I was wearing a faded pink shirt and maroon sweat pants. Colors and details were blurring in the pasture with the oncoming dusk. Deer have a much keener sense of smell than eyesight. Any second, I expected the buck would realize his mistake and peel off in another direction.

He kept coming and I decided to photograph my impending doom. With the first flash, the buck slowed a bit but kept true to his heading. By the third flash and within about 50 feet of me, he stopped to reconnoiter. At that point I think he could smell me well enough to decide I wasn't worth the trouble, and he took a slow oblique retreat up the hill, collecting his does on the way.

--- Finally halting on the third flash. ---

I decided it was time to head home and I made sure to walk tall with an obvious 2-legged stride.

Even though I was a bit shook up, I was still enjoying the light show. The last rays were highlighting the jagged outline of each Douglas fir tree. So often, the big trees blend into each other and you think "forest", but you are not conscious of so many individual trees breathing all day and standing outside all night.

--- 24-7 breathing for you, 7:01 pm ---

The next morning in lighter conditions, I went to check the Newt Pond which started to refill in the big storm. Already, I saw a small newt and water boatmen on the pond's surface. Four days - how do they get there so quickly?

Below the pond, I saw the 4 x 4 buck, 2 does and a fawn quietly browsing. They watched me without concern. Instead of charging this time, the buck puffed out his neck, posed regally and then turned and slowly trotted downhill out of sight. I was relieved he wasn't raring for a fight. The does stood at attention.

--- The 4 x 4 Buck sneaking out to the left on a mission. ---

As I replaced my camera in my backpack, I heard a loud CLACK-CLACK and looked over just in time to see the 4 x 4 buck with lowered antlers tossing up dirt on the edge of the Newt Pond. The rump of another deer was disappearing into the forest. The 4 x 4 buck must have spotted the 2 x 2 buck at the pond, slipped downhill into the forest, and snuck uphill under cover to surprise and challenge the smaller buck. Their antler clashing only lasted a few seconds. Black-tailed bucks have a reputation of avoiding direct combat, preferring to bluff charge to establish dominance.

--- The two bucks standing off a few days before under the courting oaks. ---

What I learned from the first storm of the season:
  • Post-storm clouds make spectacular sunsets.
  • One can usually dress sloppily and disregard color coordination on the ranch, but a pink t-shirt/maroon sweatpant combination might act as camouflage against a brilliant sunset sky.
  • My hair color is muddy fawn and I must not have a strong scent.
  • Don't get in between bucks during the rutting season, even if you are surrounded by a large pasture and fenceline.
  • Camera flashes might stop a charging buck in his tracks.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Slow Down Stupid Deer Ahead

--- A buck holds court on October 4th under a strategic oak grove with plentiful acorns on the the ground. Throughout the morning, several does visited him. Fawns and smaller bucks browsed on the periphery of the grove; the large buck ignored them. ---

The bucks are back. I barely saw them in the past few months. Just a tall shoulder slipping into the trees. I suppose they summer in the dense lower canyons, leaving the high ground and developed water sources to the does and fawns. Now, black-tailed bucks with their swollen necks will stand in the middle of the road and not yield. And the does have become reckless, springing out of the roadside brush or down a steep roadcut without stopping to look and listen for danger. Their half-grown fawns, confused by all the changes in the herd, follow the rushing does without pause.

--- Buck and doe with tails raised. Courtship has begun. ---

The herd has started the rut - mating season - and the bucks are claiming territory, bunching the does together, ignoring the tag-along fawns, and towering over the younger bucks. The process of deciding whether a doe is ready to mate involves a lot of tail wagging and urinating on her part and sniffing on his part. The bucks will even pull back their lips to get a better whiff.

--- A young buck with velvety pedicels emerging from his skull.
This is Button on May 26th at the beginning of his second summer. ---

Throughout the summer, the bucks' antlers were developing, at first covered with soft, blood-filled velvet to feed the rapid growth which can be as much as 1 centimeter a day (Feldhamer). As the antler stops growing at the end of the summer, the bucks rubs the dried velvet and scent from their facial glands on springy young saplings. What happens to the spent velvet? Although I have seen plenty of signs of rubbing - branches with ripped bark and exposed wood on one side at about 10 to 45" above ground - I have never seen the actual velvet dangling on the branch or dropped below it. Deer have been observed eating the loosened velvet (Taylor) and perhaps other animals do too to recover nutrients.

--- A young buck with velvet-covered spikes or 'pencil antlers' in mid-September. This is probably Button later in his second summer. He would sneak out of the nearby willow thicket in the morning and evening for a quick drink before returning to cover. ---

The acorns are dropping, and as a choice food item, the deer are venturing out even in the daylight to scoop up these carbohydrate packages. The hunting seasons in our coastal region closed September 20th. Somehow, the deer, especially the larger and older bucks, know when the hunting pressure is off, and venture into the open more frequently. On the other hand, this behavior might be more of a result of game managers purposely setting the hunting season to precede the annual rut. With the approach of the rut, testosterone levels increase in the blood levels of bucks and they become hyperactive, increase roaming, exhibit aggressive behavior and eat more (Feldhamer).

--- By September 5th, a buck sneaks up to the farmyard to snack on buckeye leaves and check on the breeding status of the does. Most of his velvet is rubbed off with bits of moss or shrubbery sticking to the base of his antlers. This buck has 3 left points and 2 right points. ---

The combination of the deer breeding season, acorn drop, end of hunting season and earlier nightfall increase the possibility of hitting a deer while driving country roads this time of year. Mostly, it's the distracted state of the deer during the rut that raises the risk. Slow down when driving the country roads this time of year, especially at night. Be observant and you will notice particular locations where deer tend to congregate, often under an oak tree or at favorite crossings of a road, slope or creek.

Slow down, stupid deer ahead.

Most fall evenings, I see up to a half dozen deer when I pass the acorn-laden coast live and valley oaks at Moody and Old Snakey Roads. If a buck charges into the does and fawns, the whole bunch is likely to explode down the slope and onto the road. There is one curve on Page Mill Road where I often see a buck on the top of the bank tossing his rack against the starlit sky. I slow down before entering the curve because a few times he and the doe he was pursuing have stotted down the bank and landed on the road near my car. During the day, I can see a well-worn deer path at that location interrupted by the asphalt road.

--- The Dot doe's pelage is rough on September 26th as she sheds her summer coat. ---

Deer hit by cars are not a pretty sight. Last fall on two separate occasions, I saw a hit deer on its side, kicking helplessly along a steep roadbank. Both deer had injured hindquarters and could not get up or even drag themselves away. Their eyes were bugging out in fright as they tore at the earth with their forelegs, but they could not budge their heavy hips and paralyzed rear legs. Many of the country roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains are narrow and winding which increases the risk of vehicles hitting deer, and the frantic roadside flailing of an injured deer creates an additional road hazard for subsequent cars cruising around blind curves. The damage to the cars that hit deer can be substantial. At one location, I saw broken bits of plastic fender surrounding the struggling deer.

Slow down stupid, deer ahead.

There are other causes of deer death: malnutrition, disease/parasites and predation. Deer are the primary prey item for mountain lion. A coyote or feral dog can take down a fawn or sick, injured or aging adult deer. By their first autumn, 25 to 30% of that year's fawns have died (Feldhamer).

--- Skull of a deer carcass found in the apple meadow of Pasture 1 in January 2008. Antler stumps at top of photo. Two widely spaced canine puncture holes on the top of the skull and two on the bottom indicate this was probably a mountain lion kill.---

--- Skull of fawn found at Plum Pond in October 2007. ---

The Dot deer family, started the summer as a doe and two fawns, and was frequently seen around the farmyard. The last time I saw all three together was the end of August and one of the fawns had a small open sore at the base of its tail. For the last 3 weeks, I have seen the Dot doe with only one fawn, so it is likely that the other fawn has succumbed to predation, disease or vehicle collision.

--- The Dot family with two fawns on August 30. The doe still has her red summer coat. ---

Be smart. Slow down while driving this time of year, especially at night. Be especially observant at those locations you repeatedly see deer mingling during the rut. Avoid damage to your vehicle and mangling of local wildlife.

--- By October 13th, the Dot family is down to one fawn.
Notice the doe is wearing her gray winter robe and the fawn has no spots. ---

One more time (I'll let you decide where the comma should be inserted):

Slow down stupid deer ahead.

See also:

Columbian black-tailed deer - Odocoileus hemionus columbianus

George A. Feldhamer, Joseph A. Chapman, Bruce C. Thompson, editors, Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation, John Hopkins University, 2003.

Mark Elbroch, Mammal Tracks & Sign, Stackpole Books, 2003.

Walter Taylor, editor, The Deer of North America, Stackpole Books and the Wildlife Management Institute, 1956 (with "Aldo Leopold (deceased)" listed as one member of the Editorial Committee).

Monday, October 12, 2009


--- Pacific spiketail devouring a wasp or similar insect
as detected by the yellow & black parts dropping from its mouth. ---

Dragoning is to dragonfly watching as birding is to bird watching. Frogs were hard to find round here in September, but the Dipper ponds were buzzing with swimming and flying insects. So a-dragoning I did go.

The amphibious frogs, toads and newts spend their larval days in the water, and spend some or much of their adult life on land. Dragonflies and damselflies spend their larval days in ponds, gobbling up other pond critters, and then they metamorphize into swift predators of the air. Both the amphibians and aquatic insects return to water to breed.

--- Dragonfly wing position on left;
damselfly wing position (hard to see as they are held against the abdomen) on right. ---

Dragonflies and damselflies together as a group are the Odonata order of insects, commonly referred to as the odes. The basic way to tell the difference is that the dragonflies, which are usually larger and stronger fliers, hold their wings out flat from their body like airplane wings when they are resting. Damselflies, which are usually smaller and frequently rest on the ground or vegetation, hold their wings folded against their sides like a closed fan or above their body in an erect 'V' when they are resting.

--- Odes mating in the "wheel" position.
The male (above) is gripping the female behind her head with special appendages on the tip of his abdomen. With the tip of her curled abdomen, the female is picking up sperm from a special segment on the forward part of the male's abdomen. ---

I am curious whether the 3 summer ponds at the Dipper Ranch support different odes. Based on my rudimentary knowledge of ode biology, my guess is that the following conditions affect the type and number of odes at each pond throughout the summer: size of pond at time of survey and change since the beginning of summer; amount of open water surface; whether water is moving or still; absolute and relative amount of submergent, emergent, floating and pond edge vegetation; and amount and variation of insolation.

Factors which can be highly variable at the time of each survey and thus influence which dragonfly or damselfly species are seen at any one moment are: air temperature, wind speed, time of day and lateness in the summer season. I expect the number of ode species I see to increase as I gain experience with dragoning.

Here is my initial prediction on ode populations and results from my first dragoning adventures in the last hot days in September. Below, you will find a brief description of the general conditions of each pond, my predictions and then photos of odes seen at that pond with a summary of habitat preferences for each species as provided in Kathy Biggs' field guide. These are preliminary identifications as I am dragoning novice.

The Woods Pond is shallow (1-2" deep) throughout the summer and its surface is about 80% covered by emergent vegetation, mostly cattails and cyperus. In September, water was slowly trickling out of the earthen bank at its head, spreading through the small pond and draining downhill through its outlet, although there were periods of no outflow in midsummer. I would expect the Woods Pond to have fewer total numbers of odes, lower diversity, and to support species that like slow moving water. In addition to the species shown below, a large bluish darner was seen.

--- Pacific spiketail, Cordulegaster dorsalis deserticola, hillsides, small wooded streams. ---

--- Vivid dancer, Argia vividia, seeps, streams.
The triangular shapes on the abdominal segments along with the pinched stripe on the thorax help identify this species among the many blue dancers.
Dancers hold their wings above their abdomen which helps distinguish them from the bluets which hold them alongside their abdomen. ---

The Plum Pond is a small pond in bright sun. It starts the summer with 1/2 open water and 1/2 dense cattail stand. By September, the cattail thicket is surrounded by narrow band of water covered by azolla and smartweed. No above ground inflow is evident and there is currently no outflow. My guess is that the depth is up to one foot in late summer, and the combination of sun, plants and water results in lots of odes and lots of different species. In addition to the species shown below, I saw a species of forktail damselfly and the wheeling odes shown above at the Plum Pond, but I could not identify them.

--- Common green darner, Anax junius, fields & waterways.
I don't know what the black thread is beneath its abdomen. ---

--- One of the all-blue mosiac darners, Aeshna or Rhionaeschna species. ---

--- Common whitetail, Libellula lydia, marshes, streams. ---

The Mallard Pond is a medium-sized pond surrounded by tall trees. It looks several feet deep. It has a small island covered with several small trees and rose thickets. The pond and island edges are crowded with cattails, overhanging tree limbs, and the long dam face is bare earth. Even by the end of the summer, as much as 75% of the water surface is open with patches of floating vegetation. I suspect the pond is slowly fed in the summer by underground springs and there was no outflow in September. With these varied conditions, I expect the Mallard Pond to have more odes and a greater diversity of species, but the general closed margins might mean more damselflies and less dragonflies (the later being stronger fliers and perhaps preferring to have nearby grasslands for hunting).

--- Probably the blue-eyed darner, Rhionaeschna mulitcolor, ponds, lakes, slow streams. ---

--- Striped meadowhawk, Sympetrum pallipes, ponds and lakes.
The four velvety spots where the wings meet the body are distinct. ---

--- Western forktail, Ischnura perparva, weedy ponds. ---

--- Desert firetail, Telebasis salva, shallow water with algae scum.
Only all red California damselfly in Biggs' field guide---

After a preliminary set of late summer odes surveys, I found:
  • The Woods Pond had 3 species of odes, with only one of those being a damselfly, matching my expectations of lower numbers and diversity.
  • The Plum Pond had 5 species of odes, with two of those being a damselfly. I was surprised that the sun power didn't provide more odes, but it could have been the weather on the day I surveyed or my inexperience.
  • The Mallard Pond had 4 species of odes of which 2 species were damselflies, a lower ode diversity and damselfly balance than I predicted.
These are very preliminary results, and I plan to go dragoning again next spring and summer.

--- Flying odes are hard to photograph.
One gets dizzy following them with binoculars or camera. ------

See also:

Kathy Biggs' California Dragonflies and Damselflies website with links to her excellent field guides

--- One of the blue darners.
They sometimes turned to face the camera when the focusing mechanism whirred ---