Friday, April 30, 2010

Buzzer Gets Its Color

Sunday's rattlesnake got iced.  On Monday, I carried it in an ice chest with a padded ice pack for the one-half mile trek to the relocation spot.  Cooling the snake lowers its metabolism and makes it less active during the release process.  However, as soon as I shook this snake out of the pillowcase and immobilized it with snake tongs, it started rattling.  With its head pinned to the ground, I quickly dipped its tail in green then purple ink and tossed it down the hill to its new habitat.  The ink job was messy since the rattler kept shaking its tail, but the marking was done.

 The purpose of marking the rattles is to determine if any of the relocated rattlesnakes are returning to the Dipper Ranch barn.  The good news is that so far, none of the seven rattlesnakes I have cautiously marked and relocated from 1 to 2 miles away from the barn have returned.  The bad news is that new rattlesnakes show up at the barn every year. 
Later in the day while I was mowing, I saw a brown-blotched snake moving in the grass.  I immediately turned off the brushcutter and stood back to observe.  After confirming with absolute certainty that the snake was a harmless gopher snake, I picked it up and carried it well out of my mowing area.  It had a big bulge midway down its body.  I hoped it was eating the pesky gophers whose mounds make it impossible to mow with a regular lawnmower.

Seeing both snakes on the same day reminded me of the key traits I use to distinguish the potentially dangerous rattlesnake from the non-venomous gopher snake.

A rattlesnake usually has rattles at the end of its tail, but the tail is not always visible.  A recently born rattlesnake will only have a button on its tail tip which does not rattle until the snake gets a second segment upon its first shedding.

A gopher snakes has a thin, pointed tail tip.  When alarmed, a gopher snake may rapidly shake its tail tip that gives the impression of a rattlesnake, especially if the tail is vibrating against leaves or the ground in a way that makes a buzzing sound.  A gopher snake may hiss when disturbed which also may sound like rattling.

A rattlesnake has a triangular-shaped head with the base of the head much wider than the neck.

A gopher snake has a narrower head which blends in more gradually with its neck.  When alarmed, a gopher snake may flatten its head which makes it look somewhat triangular.

Rattlesnake eyes have pupils which are vertical slits.  On the top of its head, a rattlesnake has many, small scales between its eyes.  As a pit viper, a rattlesnake has heat sensing pits between its eyes and nostrils which its uses to locate warm-blooded prey.

A gopher snake has pupils which are round or oval.  A gopher snake has a few, large scales between its eyes and does not have heat-sensing pits on its face.

Do not depend too much on body color.  The same species of snake can vary greatly in color depending on age and regional differences.  In general, I notice that a rattlesnake is often dusty looking whereas a gopher snake has a shiny coloration.

Are you ready to test yourself?  Soon I'll post more photos for you to guess whether each is a rattler or gopher snake. [Quiz now posted at Brown vs. Brown]

WARNING: Moving a rattlesnake is risky - do not attempt to relocate or otherwise handle a rattlesnake unless you know what you are doing.  I've discussed why I move rattlesnakes rather than killing or leaving them in the farmyard in The Rattlesnake Decision.  See the California Herps website for links on dealing safely with rattlesnakes and more tips on distinguishing rattlesnakes from gopher snakes.

See also:

Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus
Pacific gopher snake - Pituophis catenifer catenifer

Sunday, April 25, 2010

First Buzz

 Saw the first rattlesnake of the year on Sunday.  As the air temperature crept up to 80 degrees by early afternoon, I kept telling myself, on such a fine spring day surely the snakes will be coming out.  I was hoping to see the two shiny gopher snakes that usually show up first in the spring.  As I went about the usual weekend ranch chores, I made sure to perambulate around the barn (aka the snake pit) every now and then to look for sunning reptiles.  By the second round of barn inspections, there was a dusty head sticking out of a crack in the sliding backdoor.  I couldn't see much of the body so I couldn't tell how big it was, or check the dorsal pattern for diamonds or the tail for a rattle.  It had a somewhat triangular head and a dark line under the eye.

While peering at the snake from around the corner of the barn, I could see the numerous small scales between the eyes, but I couldn't remember whether it was gopher snakes or rattlesnakes that have that pattern.  I snuck in the front door of the barn and quietly, nervously crept to the back door to see: long fat body, diamond pattern on the back with dark rings near the tail, and a 7-segmented rattle held sideways.  Definitely a northern Pacific rattlesnake and one that had already had a few good meals after leaving its winter den.

I decided the snake's body wasn't sticking far enough out of the barn for me to easily snag it with my snake tongs, nor did I want to grab it from the inside and drag it backwards into the cluttered barn.  Instead, I set out my snake-capturing tools in the yard near the barn door and went back to the usual chores with a tingle in my shoulders.

Every 20 minutes or so, I returned to the barn to check on the rattler's location.  By the third time, the snake was slowly cruising along the outside edge of the barn door and every breeze was blowing the door back and forth over the long line of brown diamonds.  It wasn't the best angle for maneuvering, however, since I didn't want the snake to disappear, I leaned against the swinging barn door with my shoulder and snagged its tail end with the tongs.  It was a buzzer and struck at the tongs which are fortunately 3.5' long.  I dropped it into the pillowcase already pinned open in the garbage can.  A big shout and a little victory dance of relief.  Then I twisted and rubber-banded the pillow case closed, and dropped the package into the garbage can. Thunk and a buzzzzz.

I set the garbage can in the shade, and locked down the lid.  Later, when it is cool and the snake is less riled up, I will mark its rattle with calligraphy ink and relocate it far away from the farmhouse. I'll have to come up with a new color pattern to distinguish this one from the other rattlesnakes I have relocated and marked since I have already gone through my stock of 5 colors of ink.  Maybe green with a black tip for this buzzer.

When I walked past the barn corner again, the lizards had reclaimed this snake-free corner of sun.  I'm sure I will be a little jumpy for the next few days after this first buzz of the year.

See also:
 Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus oreganus

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Pink Button (the inside story)

 Sky cow

To get ready for the lead paint removal on the Dipper house, I decided to move furniture out of my bedroom which is closest to where the chips tested positive for lead and also has leaky windows.  Even though the contractor promised to seal the windows during sanding, I decided to move my bed and dresser into a room without windows subject to drifting lead dust, and drape the remaining furniture with washable sheets.

A bedroom slowly falling down the mountain and cracking on the way

Once the outside of the house looked freshly painted, I suddenly decided to paint my bedroom before moving the furniture back in.  Of course, it was a greater undertaking than I expected.  The house is slowly slipping downhill in this mountain landscape and every window and door in the bedroom had at least two cracks crossing the walls, while the window with the most fabulous view leaked during heavy storms.  I am an old hand at painting, but window repair was new to me.  I consulted fix-it guides and fix-it guys, went to the hardware store several times, and struggled with conflicting advice.

By my third trip to the hardware store, I was in desperate need of some courage.  Fortunately, it was Johnny Cash's birthday and I sat in the parking lot for awhile listening to the man in black sing about brawling and prison and love on the radio.  When I finally marched into the hardware store, I insisted the clerk lend me his utility knife so I could cut a sheet of moisture- and mildew- resistant sheetrock to fit into my car.  Afterall, I told him, the other hardware store let me cut my own sheetrock (a bit of an exaggeration) and it was raining outside.  Humming "I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole", I slipped a piece of purple sheetrock onto the warehouse floor and cut it in half.

In the first part of this pink button story, I talked about ranches and legends and the signs my predecessors left outside.  The inside of the ranch house has its embellishments too:  wagon wheel lamps, a copper tile backsplash in the kitchen, and a sliding glass door that was installed backwards and until I retrofitted it, couldn't be locked.

One item left behind inside the Dipper ranch house freaked me out.  A few days after first moving in, I poked my head into the attic through the overhead hatch door in the hallway between the bedrooms.  Looking around, I saw that insulation had been added to the unfinished floor, but otherwise the space was mostly empty.  Next to the hatch opening was a heavy but loose beam.  It had a rope tied around it.  I tugged on the rope and a hangman's knot flipped up.  I realized the beam was long enough to span the hatch opening.  I must have uttered a strange noise at this discovery because my son poked his head into the hall.  He too was freaked out when he saw what I was holding at the top of the ladder.  I shoved the rope and beam back into the attic, closed it up and tried to forget about it.  One can't hang oneself in a hallway I told myself; there were some strange tenants that lived here after Paul and Lola and it must have been a prank I told my son.

A few days later, a co-worker came by to check the wiring in the house for installation of a washing machine.  The house apparently never had a washing machine, although I found an old agitating wash tub with a wringer in the garage.  Since there isn't any plumbing in the garage, I assume Lola started wash day by wheeling the tub out to the hose, the one near the kitchen door pink amaryllis. I was hoping for a more modern setup, but every time the handyman opened a fuse box or electrical outlet, he groaned at the unorthodox wiring. Finally, I told him to zip it all back up and we would have to bring in an electrician.

To mollify his disappointment at not figuring out this old house, I asked if he could help me remove something from the attic.  He thought I was talking about a dead animal.  Nope just a rope, I told him.  He held the ladder while I went back into the attic and removed the loose beam and rope.  I mostly needed his moral support to face my imagined stories about this odd artifact.  While we both joked that a hangman's knot was not quite as bad as a dead raccoon, I untied the rope, commented that it looked brand new and never used, and stashed beam and rope in separate locations in the garage for future use on more practical projects.

I was surprised at how smoothly the replacement of the mushy window jamb in my bedroom went once I got the purple sheetrock.  To counteract the lingering effect of the attic rope and to thank a legend for his encouragement, I decided to glue a photo of Johnny Cash to the inside of the jamb before sealing it down.  Someday, some other resident may find that photo, and may wonder about their strange predecessor, however, this artifact should provide humorous rather than morose musings.

Thank ya' Johnny

In addition to the climbing rose on the garage wall, there are 8 other rose bushes around the house.  In April, when the does are bedded down with their new fawns, these poor bushes recover enough from the usual deer browsing that a few of the plants even get a chance to bloom.  They are all shades of pink.  One might guess that pink was Lola's favorite color.  Or, maybe Paul thought that pink was Lola's favorite color and so every birthday and anniversary, she would graciously accept another pink flowering plant.

The sky room

I painted the bedroom sky blue.  The view looks out the backyard, down a slope towards a pasture and across a heavily forested canyon.  You feel like you are in the sky when you walk into the room.  One day while I was painting, I realized there was a cow in the backyard.  They aren't supposed to be there but since it was only one cow, I let him mow my yard while I was stuck inside patching and sanding and painting.

 A white-washed ranch house

When the painters finished the outside, I walked around for a final inspection.  There were a few bugs stuck in the paint which is to be expected at this hilltop location in the country.  I was a bit annoyed that the painters had borrowed rocks from the garden pile, perhaps to anchor down the visqueen enclosure, and had neglected to put my rocks back.  But overall, the old ranch house looks quite good.  While walking around to pick up my rocks, I found a pink button on the ground by the kitchen door.  It wasn't my button, I don't wear pink.  I don't think the pink button belonged to the painters either, especially since they wore coveralls while they worked.  If you do laundry outside with an agitating tub and a wringer, you've got to expect to lose a few buttons.  Perhaps pink really was Lola's favorite color.
 Watching a storm arrive from the sky room

Legends, we like to listen to them, we like to create them.  Adaptation is an important survival skill for ranch living, not only to the challenging physical environment, but also to the changing cultural community.  We can borrow from the good parts of our history, and set aside the useless or harmful parts.  Perhaps listening to and making up legends helps us process our history and adapt to the change that is frequently occurring around us.  I think I will tack that pink button up on the freshly painted garage wall where the chicken door used to be.

 This legend hangs on a thread

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Pink Button

This old ranch house - not quite John-Deere green

This old ranch house got painted.  For a long time, the south and west exterior walls - the storm sides - had as much gray wood exposed as grimy white paint.  Some of the paint tested as lead, so the job got complicated.  We decided to move out of the house for a few days during the lead paint removal.  For 3 months, the family's bags and the pet crates were packed and unpacked as we waited for a few dry, windless days so the contractor could construct a temporary visqueen bubble, scrape off the remaining lead flakes, and cart them away.  Finally, in the middle of the rainy season, four projected dry days held and suddenly the job was done.

The contractor asked what color paint I preferred.  Well, the same colors, of course - white with dark green trim.  You can't change the colors of an old ranch house.

The squirrel thermometer smiles even when covered with grit on a 99-degree day.

To prepare for the painting, I took down decades of miscellaneous embellishments that had been tacked onto the walls and eaves.  The garage had a half-door contraption nailed to its exterior which at one time swung over the bottom half of the side entry.  Someone suggested it might have been used to keep chickens in the garage.  I pulled off its sagging green boards and corroded hinges, as well as two thermometers, an eagle-topped flagpole rusted and blown flat against the roof, and pulleys for some type of hanging screen long since rotted away from the porch.  Each week I worked out my annoyance over the rain delays by walking around the buildings with pry bar in hand and pulling off more random boards, nails and hooks all the while wondering who put them there and why.

Three rose bushes had tree-size trunks next to the garage.

A few years ago, a messy jungle and piles of debris surrounded the farm buildings from come-and-go tenant neglect.  We've been gradually cleaning it up.  To allow access for the painters, we needed to tackle more of the straggly plants.  I dug up and got rid of a rangy shrub next to the house to meet the defensible space requirements (clearing flammable vegetation near rural structures to reduce the potential for damage in the event of a wildfire), but I hesitated when taking my loppers after the pink rambling rose on the garage and decided to just trim it back instead.  As I pulled the tangled and decrepit vines from the wall, I discovered the live brambles were sprouting from woody stumps over a foot in diameter.  These modest-looking rose vines are actually very old plants.  I found myself trying to picture who planted them. Could I restore them to their former glory and still follow modern-day recommendations to reduce wildfire risk?

Gigantic mass of amaryllis bulbs and roots crowding the busy backdoor.

Next to the kitchen door was an amaryllis plant - the showy Hippeastrum type which are often sold as large bulbs in foil-covered pots.  Hybrids of South American origin, they are usually forced to provide colorful indoor blooms in the midst of dreary winter. At the Dipper door, this plant gets its pink trumpet blossoms in the summer, although its weather-beaten leaves never seemed to acclimate to this corner of the house.  When reaching for the hose or scrub brushes, I frequently worried I might rouse a snake hiding in its messy leaves.  I decided to transplant the amaryllis to get it out of the way of the painting and away from my backdoor cleaning center.  When I went to dig it out, I uncovered such a massive clump of roots and bulbs, I couldn't lift it out of the ground without first sawing it into smaller pieces.  Obviously, this plant had had a long residence next to the kitchen door and I wondered if I was crudely chopping into the legacy of a long ago birthday, anniversary or Easter present.  I found a sheltered spot for the amaryllis transplants in the front yard between two other old-time landscape plants, red-hot poker plants and a bed of narcissus.

The kitchen-door amaryllis bulbs sprouting at their new spot in the old yard.

Incidentally, there is another plant known as amaryllis and also pink-flowering that joins the old-fashioned landscaping at the Dipper Ranch.  A wide band of Amaryllis belladona covers the long bank between the front yard and the orchard. This African plant is commonly called Naked Ladies because months after its straplike leaves die back in the summer, bare stalks rise up like long lipstick tubes and explode with pink flowers.  I never liked the common name of this plant and used to consider it  gaudy.  I grudgingly appreciate that it is deer- and gopher-proof, and keeps out the thistles on the hardest part of the slope to mow.  One day while rereading the oral interviews with Paul and Lola Ortega, the original ranch caretakers that lived in this house, I noticed they mentioned pretty pink plants in their yard and bragged about collecting them from the former location of a hotel and stage coach stop on Page Mill Road, the stage coach road that used to cross the Dipper Ranch.  Now, I'm starting to like the Pink Ladies, as I prefer to call them, since they are the legendary booty of a stage coach heist, recycled and very practical in these rough surroundings.

Thick bed of Pink Ladies with their skirts protecting the edge of the orchard

I've heard talk about historical landscapes or historical landscaping.  Places that were planted around buildings long ago and became part of the historical culture. Some people think it is important to save and cultivate these historical landscapes along with the historical buildings to preserve the entire sense of place.  I don't pretend that the Dipper Ranch buildings have much historical significance, still I feel some responsibility to learn about and maintain the ranch's history where it is feasible and consistent with the new purpose of the ranch as an open space preserve. It is my version of thinking historically and acting locally.

The National Park Service defines historic vernacular landscape as " a landscape that evolved through use by the people whose activities or occupancy shaped it . . . the landscape reflects the physical, biological, and cultural character of everyday lives."  Estates of wealthy individuals and institutions may have fancy gardens and lawns, but the humble folk tend to create functional plantings to support their family such as orchards or vegetable gardens, or simple plantings that record a moment in their lives.

I recently found an interesting article by an architecture professor at the University of Colorado - Denver.  In Preserving Ranches: Not Only Possible, but Imperative, Ekaterini Vlahos ( I admit it, I found this an unusual name for someone researching history of the western US), talks about how "Traditional ranches are places where struggle and adaptation have etched themselves into the ground, weaving together culture, land, buildings, homes and lives."  She describes western ranches as places where people have needed to adapt to the oftentimes harsh environmental conditions, conserving their man-made and environmental resources, and often depending on the surrounding community and a local ranching economy to make it more than one generation.  In current times, as advocacy groups, recreation-based governmental agencies, and private buyers acquire traditional ranches, these new forms of ownerships often separate the ranch buildings from the land and the ranching culture.  Although I did not personally witness the transition, this discussion makes my head spin when I think about how much rural San Mateo County and its ranching history have changed over the past 60 years as the suburbs of San Francisco and Silicon Valley have expanded.

I spend most of my professional day as an ecologist trying to erase the destructive hand of man on the land - taking out erosion-prone logging roads, eliminating invasive species, and planting oaks and native grasses.  Living amongst the ghosts of the Dipper Ranch, I now sometimes get confused.  Furthermore, I think we have a tendency to wonder and make up tales about the people who lived on the land before us and we like to make legends out of them, sometimes quite exaggerated.  I am not sure why we do that.  And when and how do the new legends get started?  These are thoughts that followed me as I prepared for the ranch house painting, indeed, every time I repair, remove or alter the Dipper Ranch ground.

A Pink Button . . . to be continued

The Roessler-Rients farmstead.  In rural Minnesota, this farm has gradually changed in three generations.  I spent most summers of my childhood on this farm with my thrifty grandparents.