Friday, December 30, 2011

Tooth, Nail, Beak or Bone?

Katie at Nature ID and I are having a conversation about animal sign on vegetation.  I'm posting these photos for her  and will followup later with details.  I enjoy sharing info online with other nature bloggers - it's a great way to complement our learning.  More photos at "Read More"

Saturday, December 17, 2011

De-Lovely Moon

Total lunar eclipse, December 10, 2011.  The green ghosting is probably some type of light bouncing in the lens. Those little white dots are not specks on your monitor but stars showing up as the moon's glow is dimmed.
f/4, 4 seconds, ISO 400, 120 mm, Nikon D60, photo cropped
I spend most of my time puzzling over things on the earth's surface. I largely ignore the sky, just too much of it there. And then like a fortune cookie, the Lion Hunter called last week to say we were going to photograph the total eclipse of the moon at the Dipper Ranch. We agreed to meet early the next morning.  I have been missing eclipses and sleeping through meteorite showers since 1986, so I was determined to try harder this time. Over the next 12 hours, curiosity and photography once again brought me face-to-face with intimate details of nature, even extraterrestrial nature.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

30k - Just a Number, Words and Wonder

Fall morning showdown between bucks at the Newt Spring.
The wonder of it all.
In a few days, the Dipper Ranch blog will reach 30,000 hits since May 2009 (2.5 years).  I actually started blogging in October 2008 but I think I didn't rig up the simple version of Google Analytics until later.  I am not sure how significant 30k hits is.  I know that at least one blog I follow probably gets that many hits in a day, and many things on the internet are popular but not so useful.  I guess I could look into it, but I would rather spend the time researching cool season grasses.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Coyotes to the Wind

Coyote running in its colorful winter coat
As summer progressed, the coyote pups were showing up less often on the wildlife cameras along The Coyote Brush Highway.  They were growing and probably roaming farther and joining the adult coyotes on hunting trips.  We had started a construction project on the lower end of the Dipper Ranch to remove an old road and repair landslides to improve the water quality of creeks in the Pescadero watershed.  This resulted in construction equipment and contractors driving onto the property several times a day, a big change from the usual traffic-less conditions, and I wondered if this affected the coyotes' behavior.  Furthermore, there had been several trespassing incidents, so I decided to move the wildlife cameras away from the gate.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Coyote Brush Highway

Hot day on the Coyote Brush Highway for a coyote pup.
The game was up.  With their keen noses and my sensitive skin, I didn't expect to get additional close-up glimpses of the coyote pups as I did in June.  To keep track of their progress, I decided to place wildlife cameras near the brushy thicket where I frequently saw them. Not only did I suspect the coyote brush sheltered their den, but soon I learned how important the brushy structure was to many other types of wildlife.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Stumbling Onto A Coyote Den - the incidental merits of fighting yellow starthistle

Three juvenile coyotes travel past the wildlife camera on The Coyote Brush Highway.
I noticed something unusual in late June as I was mapping yellow starthistle in the upper pastures.  Mapping is an important early step to controlling noxious weeds, but I was annoyed to be walking through so much of this prickly pest.  In hopes of finding the waning edge of the infestation, I looked up towards the fence line and was relieved to see soft grass ahead.  And something else.  A small black flag was twitching above the seed heads.  It was the impatient tip of a brushy tail.  In a few seconds, a pair of paws came shooting out of the grass followed by a sharp nose and then a body and tail forming a furry parabolic curve.  A diving coyote pup.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Vote for the 2011 Estate Walnut Label

English walnuts still in their green husk.
Every year, we harvest English walnuts from the two trees behind the barn.  I give many of the walnuts away under the label of Happy Snake Ranch Walnuts.  Somehow, that tradition just got started and you to get vote on this year's label.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Predators, Poaching and Suicide

This is about the dark side of living in the country.  When humans touch land, sometimes bad things happen and this summer three bad things happened at the Dipper Ranch:  predators, poaching and suicide.  I feel partially responsible for one of them.  I'm talking about these bad things together to learn their lessons and then send them away.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Look What the Fog Dropped In

Prescribed burn in Big Basin State Park brings smoke and colorful sunsets.
Yesterday, thick fog came rolling through the coastside passes at 5 pm and suddenly it was an early dusk.  We were disappointed because we were hoping to shoot a second night of brilliant sunset colors.  This week the park staff is conducting a prescribed burn in the understory of Big Basin State Park.  Although the smoke temporarily degrades the crisp fall air, it provides beneficial ecological changes to the park's redwood forest and makes for fantastic sunsets.  The western horizon the night before was an hour-long show of many shades of orange, pink, red and purple.

Monday, October 10, 2011

One Part Rain, One Part Sun

Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) sunning next to filaree seedlings.
Last week we got the first rain of the season on the central California coast, almost one inch of precipitation over three days.  I was in the Sierras, so I saw it as snow.  Upon my return to the Dipper Ranch, Sunday morning was bright and cool, so I took a walk to see how the rains changed the coastal hills.

As with last year, filaree seedlings were the first to pop up after 3 dry months.  The tunnels and dens of the underground must have been cold and wet because I saw quite a few reptiles basking in the open.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Animals Anticipating Autumn

This time of year, there are small changes every few days.  Walking around the Dipper Ranch is like a wildland version of the I-Spy game.    Here are a few snapshots of the critters easing into the autumnal season.
Over a period of a few days, hundreds of swallows gather on the powerlines along Alpine Road.  Then that group sets off on its next stage of migration, and another group starts collecting.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tatting Caterpillars

A lacy doily made out of petals of a cudweed
I have crafty caterpillars in my farmyard.  My five sisters inherited our grandma's skill in the fabric arts, so I notice these things.  My grandma used to decorate her fancy sitting room with doilies, so I was surprised to find doilies on the cudweed bush behind the Dipper Ranch barn.

Spilling out of the old pig pen, the bank on which the mysterious farmyard doilies appeared used to be a weedy jungle, a common problem around farm buildings where the soil gets enriched by animal waste.  The pigs are long gone and the pen is falling down, but every year I spend a few sweaty days there pulling out manure-robust mustard and thistle plants.

Monday, September 12, 2011

40 Feet Is Too Close on a Full Moon Night

Harvest Moonrise 2011
Labor Day weekend I asked if 40 feet was far enough from the farm buildings to not worry about a rattlesnake.  The answer is "NO!"

For about 2 weeks, I've been watching this large rattlesnake hang out around a vacated gopher hole in the orchard. On hot mornings, the snake exposed only one coil at the entrance of its hole.  On cool and bright mornings, most of its body would be just outside the threshold soaking up the maximum amount of sun.  It didn't seem to be going anywhere and I couldn't make up my mind about moving it, so I just watched instead.  I talked to a local man who moves snakes for people and he suggested that perhaps it was shedding.  On a large snake, it can take 2 weeks to shed its skin and part of that time, the snake will have a cloudy scale over its eyes which makes it vulnerable to predators, so the snake will often stay close to safe shelter.  The first day I saw this snake, it had the typical dusty appearance of a rattlesnake, but recently its scales seemed shiny.

Friday, September 9, 2011

What Was That?

Rock wren (Salpinctes obsoletus) at the pig pen.
My current theme: "Don't be shy, go ahead and ask an expert."  But do your homework first.

In August while admiring the lacy cudweed pillows behind the barn, I noticed a bird hopping in the speckled light of the pig pen.  It was a plain-looking bird, just another LBJ (little brown job), except it had a distinct way of flitting from one object to the next.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wildflower Hotspot #5 - Bean Hollow and Pescadero State Parks

Flowers, rocks and sea life at the edge of the continent.
When the hills and valleys of the Santa Cruz Mountains get summer dry and the spring wildflowers go to seed, there are still places to see local wildflowers - the cool San Mateo coast.  Coastal parks stay moist with summer fog, and the spring/summer wildflower bloom is later and longer there.  Because much of the San Mateo coast is undeveloped, you can visit not only the ocean and beach, but also coastal prairie and coastal bluff scrub.

Pescadero State Beach and Pescadero Marsh Natural Preserve are 15.7 miles south on Highway 1 from Half Moon Bay.  On one side of the highway is the ocean, beach and sandy bluff.  You can follow the winding edges of Pescadero Creek under the highway to trails along brackish and freshwater marshes, creekside forests and brushy habitat for more variety of plants and good birding.  Docents with the San Mateo Coast Natural History Association lead hikes to Pescadero Marsh on the first Sunday of the month at 10 AM and the third Sunday of the month at 1 PM.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Dear J's: Please Stay Out of Trouble

Northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis oreganus) with frontal portion of body sticking out of hole and soaking up morning sun.  Preggers?
This has not been a relaxing holiday weekend.  Yesterday morning, I checked if the big rattlesnake was still hanging out in the orchard.  I've been trying to decide whether I should move it or not.  The crew was up here a week ago clearing dead trees and they saw it first.  I usually move rattlesnakes which I find near the house and farm buildings because I don't want them to surprise me later and one of us get hurt.  But this rattler was about 40 feet away from the buildings, and maybe I don't need to worry about it.  It was on the big side.  All the rattlers I have moved recently have been small, so my nerves are a bit jangly when it comes to a big one.  Furthermore, this big one could be a female about to give birth as they do at the end of the summer of one to 25 young, none of which I want to have near my house.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Alien Owlet Calls

Moonlight bouncing off fog banks between Butano Ridge and Long Ridge.
Owlet with your silly call, some type of cross between a tweet, a whistle and a screech.  When your parents patiently coach you with their hooo hooo ho-hoo ho-hoo, I can usually find them in the dark.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Scales on My Sleeve

A California mountain kingsnake in hand.
I found a California mountain kingsnake while checking the main springbox at the ranch.  As the rainy season ends, we've unclogged pipes, replaced filters and sealed a leaking water tank.  The spring slows down to a trickle in the summer, so its unnerving to start the dry season without a full water tank.  When we found a valve mistakenly closed in our water system, I started systematically checking all the essential parts.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve - Wildflower Hotspot #4

Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve - Woods Trail and Barlow Road
Above the town of Los Gatos, my favorite trails in the 17,600-acre Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve are Woods Trail and Barlow Road.  These connected trails are interesting and botanically diverse because together, they carve a 360-degree circle below Mt. Umunhum in open grassland, chaparral and shady forests with rocky outcrops and small headwater streams.  You get to see many different types of vegetation and most wildflowers are presented to you right alongside the trail, even at eye level.  There is one location along Barlow Road where I often see  red larksur (Delphinium nudicaule, shown above) growing shoulder to shoulder with a deep purple larkspur.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Moving in Straight Lines

Handsome thighs of a California red-legged frog
I took a workshop last week on the California red-legged frog.  The classroom portion covered biology and behavior, and the day and nighttime field portions covered habitat, life stages and pouncing on frogs under the careful guidance of the certified instructors.  By 10:00 pm of the nighttime training, we were all basically returned to our childhoods. The boys were counting up how many frogs they'd captured, and the girls were wondering why they were following boys around in the woods at night.  Once I took my gloves off, my frog capture rate went up to about 80%, but I preferred the spotlighting duty of being the first to detect the alien-eye-rays bouncing from the willow thicket back to our strategically aimed flashlights.

Almaden Quicksilver County Park - Wildflower Hotspot #3

Almaden Quicksilver County Park
Almaden Quicksilver County Park is located in south San Jose around the former mining town of New Almaden.  Here you get a view of nature reclaiming the mined lands with several of the park entrances right out of residential neighborhoods.  A dreamy afternoon can be spent reading about the wild ways of the New Almaden mining days in the first chapters of Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Angle of Repose, and then hiking further into these very same hills.  Or you can just go the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum after your hike.

Trails wind through open stands of valley oak and blue oak trees with Chinese houses, farewell-to-spring and other colorfully-named wildflowers waving in dappled light, and California quails calling from mossy rocks and crumbled brick foundations.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve - Wildflower Hotspot #2

Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve, Redwood City, California
Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve balances on the edge of San Francisco's suburbs and the rugged, undeveloped mountain valley that stores water for the 2.5 million humans living along the Golden Gate and San Francisco Bay.  Once it was scarred by motorcycle trails and destined to become another golf course.  But a stubborn group of local botanists kept finding small, unusual plant treasures there and reversed the fate of this county park.

Edgewood Park is the most consistent and reliable place to see the spring wildflower display in the Santa Cruz Mountains and it can be easily reached from any city between San Francisco and San Jose by taking Edgewood Road east from Highway 280.  Highway 280 is sometimes described as one of the most beautiful highways in the world, and in addition to the darkly forested slopes to the west often crowned by great banks of cascading fog, the bright patches of Edgewood wildflowers to the east are likewise visible from the highway each spring and subtly remind the speeding motorists that they are following the course of a major faultline between two giant sliding landforms.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Coyote Ridge - Wildflower Hotspot #1

As you travel on Highway 101 between San Jose and Morgan Hill, you may have noticed bright patches of spring color on the hills to the east - this is Coyote Ridge.  Serpentine rock, part of our unique California fault-shaped geology, forms Coyote Ridge and soil high in some minerals and low in plant nutrients.  Some California plants have evolved to be tolerant of these conditions.

Poor soils often make for good wildflowers.  Coyote Ridge supports a colorful spring bloom of wildflowers including more than a dozen rare species.  It is also one of the few remaining habitats for the threatened bay checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis) which is dependent on a few small native plant species for adult nectar and caterpillar forage.  Increased deposition of nitrogen from the air, probably primarily from automobile exhaust, is changing the unique soil conditions that create the serpentine grasslands and is allowing European annual grasses to spread on Coyote Ridge and outcompete the colorful native color that also supports the rare butterfly.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Wildflower Hotspots of the Santa Cruz Mountains

On cloudy days, some flowers stay closed.
I will be making a presentation Wildflower Hotspots of the Santa Cruz Mountains on Sunday, April 24, 2011 from 11:00 to noon at Mission College in Santa Clara, California for the 39th Annual Wildflower Show of the California Native Plant Society - Santa Clara Valley Chapter. Below is my list of 20 wildflower hotspots. Each has a link to the park website with directions, trails and other logistics.

Many generous local plant people have nominated their favorite hikes and allowed me to use their wonderful photographs which I will be sharing at the show.  Over the next few weeks, I will be posting some of those photos here with more details on spring hikes, giving you tips on how to find and enjoy wildflowers and providing links to some of these great photographers.  Go to the "Search This Blog" window in the middle of the right-hand column and enter "wildflowers" or "hikes" to find the updated posts about wildflower hikes.  Please add your observations and check the comments for the most recent information.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

It's Sssspring

Santa Cruz gartersnake cruising over yellow starthistle seedling.
This subspecies has a whitish to lemon-yellow throat.
While surveying for thistle seedlings on Friday at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, I crossed from the Carboniferous period to the Permian period.  That is, I witnessed the seasonal emergence of scaly-skinned animals with eggs that have protective shells (reptiles) while slimy-skinned animals that lay their eggs in moist environments were slipping into their summer hideaways (amphibians).  Reptiles are kings of the summer, while coastal California's amphibians are more active in the winter-wet period.

Draped over a yellow starthistle seedling, I saw the first snake of the year - a Santa Cruz aquatic garter snake.   Sunning on the new section of the White Oaks Trail, this was probably a young-of-the-year snake only 8" long and 1/4" wide.  Aquatic garter snakes are born in late August to mid-October.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pond Cows

Cattle reflect at the Barn Pond, an ephemeral pond which appears for a few days after heavy and steady rain.
How, they wonder, do frogs and newts know not to lay eggs in this pond,
while ducks make a paddle-visit.
It's raining again and the frog chorus is very loud every night.  The cattle and deer have rinsed coats although usually they are also wearing mud socks.  The coast range newts are slowly leaving the ponds as evidenced by the occasional sad orange blobs on Alpine Road.  I am trying to write something about newts but am stuck pondering evolution, so, sigh, while you wait, here are the answers to the puzzle in the last post.

Friday, February 11, 2011

February Scrambled Ramble

Find a caption for each of the photos below by sorting out the smashed-together words at the end.  All photos are plants and animals currently strutting their stuff in February on the Dipper Ranch.  Click on a photo for a larger view.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Predator in the Middle - What Happened

If you saw this on a drive down a quiet country road, what would you think?

Press "Post a Comment" below to share your thoughts.

----------------------------------------------- A Followup: ---------------------------------------------
A few days ago, I invited readers to share their thoughts about the above photo. Responses here and ones I otherwise received speculated this situation was the result of humans persecuting animals, a giant shrike or other predator taking advantage of a barbed wire fence, even witchcraft (see comment section below).  Let me share the specific facts as I heard them, biological facts as I've learned them, and unmask this story of predators.

That is a bobcat carcass hanging on a barbed wire fence.  I did not stage that photo.  It is exactly how I found it.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Coyotes Are Omnivores

Rib bones still attached to the steer carcass with their surface shredded
By the three-week mark of finding the steer carcass at the Dipper Ranch, the skeletal frame is becoming exposed.  All the major bones are still attached yet something is scraping their surface.  I assume this is from gnawing or scratching by the coyotes since they are frequently caught by the wildlife cameras at the carcass, and their teeth and claws are more capable of shredding hard surfaces than the beaks of the other common visitors - ravens and vultures.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beefeaters of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Two coyotes working the carcass on the night of Day 2.
After finding both canine and feline tracks around the dead steer, we decided to rig up a wildlife camera to see what predators returned. Wildlife cameras can be placed securely in the field to record wildlife activity over an extended period of time, at night, and in situations where wildlife would avoid locations or modify their behavior if a human observer was present.

On Day 2 of my dead-steer observations, I watched from the backyard with binoculars as ravens landed on the carcass and frequently flew off again throughout the morning.  By high noon, the cattle were peacefully grazing in the Golf Tee pasture near the carcass so I decided it was safe to check the wildlife camera.  When I opened the sheep gate to the Golf Tee, the living cattle looked up and trotted out of view.

Please note:  the remainder of this blog post contains graphic descriptions and photos of a carcass and predators feeding on it.  Do not select "Read More" below if you do not want to see these.  If your curiosity is greater than your gag reflex, press on.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Bone Yard

Deer skull in the Bone Yard
The ground is covered with bright green grass which germinated in the fall rains.  Most days have been cool, so the new grass is still short.  The Roper taught me the cattleman's 100-degree rule:  if the sum of the daytime maximum temperature and the nighttime minimum temperature is more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, then the grass keeps growing.  Conversely, if the sum is less than 100, the grass stops growing.  For example, last week the nighttime lows were in the 30s and the daytime highs were in the 50s, which adds up to the 80s.  No prolonged freezing weather, so the grass didn't die, it just stayed short.  For the next few weeks, any bones lying about the grasslands stand out in stark contrast to the bold green turf alluding to prior struggles between predator and prey.

There's a field below the house I call the Bone Yard.  On the edge of a dark oak forest, it is littered with a collection of white-grey bones old enough to have been separated and scattered into what I imagine are chewing piles.  Bones of a large cow, several deer and even a coyote skull suggest that this is some type of wildlife 'killing zone'.

Please note:  the remainder of this blog post contains some graphic descriptions and photos of a carcass.  Do not select "Read More" below if you do not want to see these. If you are interested in amateur wildlife detective challenges, press on.