Monday, December 31, 2012

The Lone Black Wolf - Yellowstone Reflections

A lone black wolf crosses the Lamar Valley
It starts as a black spot. No, actually, it starts as a bunch of cars on the side of the road in Yellowstone National Park and people looking through binoculars and scopes over the open Lamar Valley. So we stop, of course. And look. And shyly ask. With scraps of information shared in hushed tones and magnified glances, the black spot gradually turns into a wolf with four legs slowly moving across the wide river plain. A black wolf following its sharp nose, stopping, looking around, then moving on.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bighorn Sheep or Mountain Goat?- Yellowstone Reflections

Bighorn sheep climbing slopes high above the historic Roosevelt Arch of Yellowstone National Park
We saw a group of female and juvenile bighorn sheep browsing on the steep slopes above the Gardiner River canyon near the North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Bighorn sheep, especially females with young, prefer steep, open slopes where their nimbleness gives them the advantage to escape predators.

Still, they are cautious. As the group of approximately 15 ewes and lambs moved across the slope, the first adult would check over the edge.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Scenic Interlude - Yellowstone Reflections

Dead Indian Pass, Wyoming
Just a reminder that the Greater Yellowstone Area is rich in scenic vistas, history and geology in addition to all the wildlife which depend on and shape the same landscape.

This is part of a series of posts on wildlife observed in Yellowstone National Park in September 2012. To see more posts, select "Yellowstone" in the Sightings box in the right column.

Reconnoitering Wolf - Yellowstone Reflections

Wolf reconnoitering a pond in Yellowstone National Park.
On our second day in Yellowstone, we saw our second wolf. After stopping at Lake Butte Overlook to check out a story about the islands of Yellowstone Lake, we continued on our merry, chatty way when suddenly a wolf appeared on the side of the road.

It was loping along at a good pace, crossed the road, and as I popped out of the car, it headed down a ravine.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Pronghorn Antelope - Yellowstone Reflections

Pronghorn antelope in Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park
Lamar Valley is a wide river plain of glacier-strewn sediments and grasses, so Lamar Valley is a land of herds and grazing animals, pronghorn antelopes and bison, flocks of sandhill cranes and Canada geese.

From the distance in September in Yellowstone National Park, I enjoyed spotting the white rumps of the pronghorn antelopes in the wide vistas of Lamar Valley. First I would see one white rump in the binoculars and then check for the oddly-shaped horns, head in profile and chest; then I would spot another white-rumped pronghorn; then many, even without the binocs.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Collared Coyote - Yellowstone Reflections

Coyote in Yellowstone National Park - collared and ear tagged
A few days later, we were cruising the Northeast Entrance Road along Soda Butte Creek around dusk hoping for a view of the Lamar Canyon wolf pack and their pups when instead a collared coyote popped up. It had a radio collar and a bright pink tag on its right ear.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

First Wolf - Yellowstone Reflections

A gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park showing the wolf's broad face and white hairs around the mouth.
We arrived in Yellowstone National Park on the first of September in a thunderstorm and put our tents up in blowing rain. The first day was a good day for collecting information at the Visitor Centers and reacquainting ourselves with the lay of the land. By 7 pm, the Lion Hunter and I were leisurely driving the Grand Loop Road east of Madison discussing careers in biology when we saw signs of wildlife - a traffic jam.

The Lion Hunter said, "Wolf. Get out!" and without thinking, I obeyed. I grabbed my binoculars and camera and walked along the top of the river bank. I didn't see anything but studied where the crowd of people were looking between the pine branches. Then I saw movement on the other side of the river and suddenly I was looking at my first wolf ever. Its fur was streaked with white but somehow it looked young to me.

Yellowstone Reflections

Yellowstone National Park - sky, land, water. life.
I've decided to try something different in the next few days - share wildlife photos from Yellowstone National Park. The Dipper Ranch blog is primarily about natural history in the Santa Cruz Mountains located on the central coast of California, especially sightings and seasonal changes on the Dipper Ranch, my home. Over time, I've added my reflections on living and working as a park biologist in these natural areas.

This summer, I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park where I was saw an extraordinary amount of wildlife - amazingly, we saw wolves four times. Under the guidance of a wildlife biologist friend, I learned about animal interactions in the Yellowstone environment. I've read about Yellowstone ecology and wolf reintroduction since then, but I've got a lot more to learn.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The King of Walnuts

The California mountain kingsnake has been elected by popular vote to be the Dipper Ranch snake featured on the 2012 Dipper Ranch walnut label. Thank you readers for your votes and delightful comments. I can see that you relish the diversity of snakes in our California coastal mountains as much as I do.

NEWS FLASH - I've seen two more snakes since November 18th when I predicted the California nightsnake would be my last 2012 snake sighting on the Dipper Ranch. The snakes should be tucked away in their winter beds by now, right? Until a series of intense storms shook things up in late November. At times, the rain was falling so hard that the slopes became super-saturated and slipped and oozed beneath themselves.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Vote for the 2012 Walnut Label

The walnut crop at the Dipper Ranch is huge this year. The guest bedroom is crammed with English walnuts drying in trays, box lids, buckets, and bags while Mango and Cole guard the harvest from mice.  Every year (well, almost every year), we pick a photo of a different Dipper Ranch snake for that year's walnut label. Vote for the snake to be featured this year and you may be the lucky person to whom I give a bag of shelled walnuts.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Fall at the Horse Meadow

When the days got short and the nights crisp, the animals came to the horse meadow. Mostly they came to eat the persimmons off the tree. Long retired to the meadow, the horse shared his only tree because he wanted to watch the visitors.

The raccoons came at night. Once when it was raining, they came during the day as if the raindrops hid their bandit ways. The mama raccoon led the parade with her back rolling up

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Last Purple Rattlesnake

Northern Pacific rattlesnake captured September 27, 2012 in backyard at Dipper Ranch.
Rattle dipped in purple calligraphy ink.
Thursday evening I got buzzed while carrying the last bucket of water to the garden. At the Dipper Ranch, it is risky to wander outside on a hot summer night. I'd been rushing to finish projects in the yard when the warning sound at my feet made me realize it was nearly dark. I halted, pinpointed the vibrating blur, and slowly backed away with the bucket between me and the rattlesnake.

Friday, September 28, 2012


These are all photos I took while camping in Yellowstone and Tetons National Parks in September. Wildlife abounds.
I took a journey to Yellowstone and Tetons National Parks a few weeks ago and I'm still feeling spellbound by the days of wildlife watching and grand landscapes that we saw. The muse has taken over my mind for nearly 12 hours a day since then and in the wee hours of the night, I have been trying to read and write simultaneously about the late summer changes of our local Santa Cruz Mountains and the ecological forces reshaping Yellowstone in response to the reintroduction of both wolves and fires. Although gray wolves and pronghorns are not part of our local natural history heritage, there's something there - I just can't quite get the words out yet. I am hoping by the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays that I will have the time and vocabulary to share some of these grand western experiences and photos with you. Or maybe that's just dreaming.

Today, while waiting for a budget meeting to start (yah, biologists gotta do that too), I learned the word zugunruhe - a fall nervousness as the tension to migrate builds up. I'm trying to behave, I'm trying to get along with people, but sometimes these human affairs are just soooo pedestrian in comparison to predators and the dissolution of rocks and I want to fly away. Now I am wondering if the swallows collecting by the thousands on the telephone wires on the Dipper Ranch ridgelines are making snotty little comments to each other and if that rattlesnake that buzzed me in the backyard two nights ago is just suffering from too much late summer fat accumulation. Hah, I trapped that rattlesnake in a bucket with a locking lid! It is not a monster like The Roper has in East Bay but the largest I have seen on the Dipper Ranch, so it may take a few days before I work up the courage to move it far away from the house. Rattle, rattle, write, read, write, please do not disturb me with your politics.

Trackers at the Dipper Ranch

The Bay Area Tracking Club visited the Dipper Ranch on September 9, 2012. With about 20 people attending, we set off on a dirt road towards the Newt Pond and the Newt Spring to look for animal sign.

Curious trackers examine the evidence.
There were lots of deer tracks and some coyote and bird tracks, and we found two types of hairs caught on a strand of a barbwire fence about 8 inches above the ground. Coyote and a high-jumping rabbit, coyote dragging rabbit under the fence?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Summer Water

Vultures checking out the new cattle trough.
Random Truth just posted great photos of bears bathing in cattle water troughs in the Tehachapi Mountains at his Nature of a Man blogsite. Go see them - they're hilarious!

So that got me thinking about two particular water sources at the Dipper Ranch this summer. One is a  spring that leaks out of a cut bank.  Usually, this has a bathtub size pool beneath it but with the reduced amount of rainfall this winter, the spring is barely dripping. By late August, the pool was just mud. So I dug a series of small pools beneath it to provide summer water for the wildlife, and put up a wildlife camera. Visiting this spring pool seems to be a family affair.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

First Flight of the Humble House Finch

House finch nestlings  growing rapidly and waiting for more food.
The house finches won the battle of the porch again this summer. Last summer, I was delighted with the unobstructed view when we pulled down the old, sagging screen porch and replaced it with a new floor and open sides. Then the house finches discovered the porch with a view. They decided to try nesting there. "Oh, no, no", I told them, "Try the other 899 acres."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Smokey Bear Paid a Visit

Smokey Bear is NOT happy with someone's habit of smoking cigarettes at the Dipper gate.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Extra Toes in the Redwoods

Large tracks on Windy Hill Open Space Preserve
(no longer sure whether these are mountain lion or not, see comments)
The San Francisco Bay Area Tracking Club will be holding their September tracking event at the Dipper Ranch on Sunday, September 9, 2012, 8 - 11 am.  Casual potluck afterwards for those who want to stay longer.  You do not need to be a member of the tracking club to attend this event, just interested in learning. Read on for details.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Art Like Djerassi Art

You look into the Djerassi forest and there is a sprite looking back at you.
Or is this your forest reflection?
Faeries: Friend or Foe series, Derek Jackson, 2002
Because I got the days mixed up for the cats' vet visit, I was walking away from the recycling bin just when a ranger realized he couldn't go on the Djerassi sculpture tour. So the Pixie and I got the tickets instead. And there was more to that day. We checked a Sudden Oak Death research site, saw albino redwoods, hung out with cute dogs who gave us poison oak, heard the fledgling barn owls, and the Pixie showed off her cat whispering skills. Yep, that was a magical day. Was it the art or was it pixie dust?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Letting Go at Point Lobos

Brandt's cormorant and nestlings on Guillemot Island at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Both male and female parents tend the nest. The nest is a pile of vegetation cemented together by guano. Cormorants wrap their webbed feet around the eggs to incubate them.  
In mid-June, I was passing up the California coast after attending the Navigator's graduation at Cal Poly. I drove coastal Highway 1 all the way from Morro Bay (after a brief visit with the peregrine falcon families at Morro Rock) to Pescadero which is the turnoff to the Dipper Ranch. It took all day, it was lovely and I stopped at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve to check on the Brandt's cormorants. I was tickled to see the cormorants still squatting on Guillemot Island.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Coastal Romance on the Rocks

Male Brandt's cormorant in breeding display - head tipped back over back, distinct bright blue gular pouch inflated, wings fluttering, tail cocked.
I took a photography workshop with Nate Donovan at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in mid-March. I thought that I had been to Point Lobos in Monterey County before, after all, I moved to the central coast of California from Florida over 25 years ago. We got to the park early and I zoomed down the closest trail for a preview before the rest of the students arrived. Colorful rocky cliffs, foamy waves, wind-sculpted cypress trees and the dense bushy habitat of coastal scrub promising birds, lizards and small mammals with the sun's encouragement.  No, I'd never been here before. Not sure how I missed it.

I've toured the grassy hills of Palo Corona Regional Park above this section of the coast with fellow ecologists, and pulled ice plant at Garrapata State Park to the south, but never had I witnessed this rough and jagged shore with numerous small coves and changing vistas. Coastal California has so many beautiful places, it's hard to keep them all straight. The big clouds of a storm front were blowing in over the ocean and making large waves, so it looked like it was going to be a day of photographing white spray and aquamarine droplets flung at the rugged rocks. Except I got distracted by nature which tends to happen to me at nature photography workshops.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Longest Day

5:30 AM - Woke up to see a gophersnake visiting the birdbath outside the bedroom window.
8:00 PM - Stopped on the way home to watch a mom coyote groom 3 pups.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A New Tail at The Coyote Brush Highway

Who might this be - this newcomer to The Coyote Brush Highway? 
A new critter visited The Coyote Brush Highway.  Click "Read More" below to see the action caught by a wildlife camera.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Move the Rattlesnake First - an Ecliptic Experience

Solar eclipse 532 pm near La Honda, California. In central California, the eclipse was partial rather than annular. Captured by turning large end of binoculars towards the sun and projecting onto a white foamboard with focus short of infinity. Does anyone know what the green semi-circular ghost is in the lower left corner of this photo?  It shows up sometimes when I shoot the moon with my 200mm lens.
Originally, I was going to travel to Nevada to shoot the annular solar eclipse. It's how I approach photography - tag along with an expert and ask lots of questions. The Lion Hunter and I had such a fun time shooting the lunar eclipse in December 2011, I invited myself on a trip he was planning for the May 20, 2012 solar eclipse.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wildflower Hotspot #6 - Coyote Lake - Harvey Bear Ranch County Park

Go now. Go anywhere in the Santa Cruz Mountains now to hike in the fresh air and catch the spring wildflower bloom because it is moving fast. We had lower than average rainfall this winter, so the fields are not heavy with flowers.  Still, there is a good variety of colors and shapes to enjoy, just more widely spaced apart.

Go this weekend to Coyote Lake - Harvey Bear Ranch County Park because its serpentine meadows are entering their second phase of flowers. The cream cups and goldfields are starting to dry up and form seed but the poppies are coming on strong.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Cheerful Disposition

Another reason to love my Gitzo tripod - it's a great place to pose a snake.  Notice the incomplete triad - sixth band behind the head. By photographing distinct patterns, I can record and distinguish different kingsnakes on the Dipper Ranch and get a rough idea of population size.
What does it mean when people leave dead snakes on your desk? It was only a 4-inch long nightsnake, its death a mystery to the finder, but why leave it on my desk? There is no in-box in my cubicle that says, "Leave all manner of  crumbled flowers, mushy weeds, bugs and dead animals here."

Ok, I have eccentric friends and I share their nature geek reputation. Still, geek-to-geek, shouldn't one remember that fellow biologists are often out of the office for days at a time,  and even a small snake will get smelly after a few days when it is dead? I have forgiven the geek in question because she really wanted to confirm this was one of the rarely seen nightsnakes, and she has pulled me out of many a pickle. And the petri dish coffin was a nice touch. How does your nature geek club keep things interesting?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Flower Links

I found this minute flower on Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve last week.  I have never seen this flower before, so I was excited.  By using the wildflower ID tools on the Links page, can you discover the flower's name?  Educated and wild guesses welcomed in comments.  You can ask any questions about the plant that will help you identify it and I will respond in the comments.
I've updated the Links page (select Links tab at top of page) to add many resources about wildflower hikes and identification.  Because we live in an amazing biologically diverse area, there is no one site that will magically tell you the name of a flower you found.  Sometimes you have to hunt and peck around.  That is called discovery.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Discovering Wildflowers in the Santa Cruz Mountains

Discover trails - Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve
The winter season was on the dry side this year, so the wildflowers are blooming several weeks late in spring 2012 and not as abundantly as in wet-warm years. But the time is now - go for a hike and you will still find the beauties scattered about and maybe some surprises.

Here is a list of places I recommend for wildflower viewing in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, primarily in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties with a few farther locations added at the end. Edgewood Park, Coyote Lake, Santa Teresa, and Russian Ridge are particularly recommended through May.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Earth Day Parade

Welcome back.  Ash-throated flycatchers fly up to the Western US to nest in cavities, often in manmade structures like fenceposts and telephone poles.
Saturday morning when I heard a familiar chirp-trill from the maples trees, I popped out of bed and ran around the house announcing, "The ash-throated flycatchers are back! All the way from Costa Rica! Get up, get up! Greet the arrival of spring!" Like a pesky dog, I was sent outside where the flycatchers entertained me by chasing each other at high speeds around the farmyard with loud "weet" calls and flashing of tail feathers.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Augury of Spring

Three reasons to slow down on Page Mill Road - sharp curves, bicyclists on the road, and wildflowers.
There is a curve on Page Mill Road that is covered with blossoms of Warrior's plume (aka Indian warrior, Pedicularis densiflora) for a few short weeks every spring. It is blooming right now, a bold announcement that the spring wildflower season has started.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Bareheaded Bucks and a Springtime Quiz

Seven bucks in formal antler attire, Dipper Ranch sunset, Christmas 2011

It's the bareheaded season for bucks - by March they should have dropped their antlers. So far this winter, I haven't seen any brown and therefore recently-shed antlers on the ground. On the other hand, all the deer I see right now are antler-less. I play this game in late winter and spring - I try to figure out which are the does and which are the bucks by their body shapes and behavior. If I see a group of deer that are of mixed sizes, I assume it is the matriarch doe with her last two generations of daughters.  If I see a large single deer, I assume it is a lone buck. But I'm not sure, so the guessing game is actually quite fun for the next month or so.

The Columbian black-tailed buck grows and sheds its antlers every year. The antler calendar goes something like this:

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Deschampsia elongata

Slender hair grass (Deschampsia elongata) with green seedheads in May
Slender hair grass (Deschampsia elongata) is a native California grass. It showed up in the yard after I trimmed back the ancient rose bushes to paint the garage.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Three Coyotes on a Sunny Winter Morning - Pair Bonding

Male coyote in front, female coyote in back.
Three coyotes were sunning in a grassy field near Monte Bello Open Space Preserve one morning this week.

Smaller male on left, female in center, larger male on right.
Select "Read More" for photos and discussion about what the coyotes were doing.  Please note - some photos and discussion of coyote anatomy follows.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Let the Spring Begin

Western leatherwood (Dirca occidentalis), a rare native California shrub, has distinct sprays of bright yellow flowers in the late winter.  Notice the sharp point behind the flower.  This feature often remains behind the flat tip of the branch after the flower falls and is one way to distinguish this plant from the similar osoberry (Oemleria cerasiformis).
Spring has begun almost without a winter.  The local chapter of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS) has several hikes coming up that will feature the earliest of the spring wildflowers.  If we don't get more rain this winter, we may have a short wildflower season, so get an early start and shake that rain stick.  Select "Read more" below for info and links on these hikes.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Coyote Storytelling Event

I've been invited to lead a storytelling evening:

The Coyote Brush Highway
South Skyline Association General Meeting 
Friday, January 27, 2012, 7:00 pm
Saratoga Summit Fire Station

"Mountain resident and biologist, Cindy Roessler, will tell a story and share photos about her recent encounters with a family of coyotes on the Dipper Ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Coyote (aka the Trickster, the Western Songdog and many other names) inspires stories of wonder, frustration and imagination.  Bring your coyote stories and let's share an evening of real tails and tall tales."

Monday, January 16, 2012

Newt Tracks

Tracks at edge of Newt Pond, San Mateo Co, California, 12/29/2011
Total width 3.8 cm, width of central drag mark 3 mm
footprints 1 cm wide x 1.5 cm long
Probably a track of the coast range newt
This is the track of a tail-dragging animal leaving the Newt Pond. Snakes don't make footprints, our local lizards usually don't enter water, and anyway, it's too cold this time of year for reptiles. Since I know that coast range newts breed at this pond every winter, this is probably a newt track, but why was it leaving its breeding pond in December?

When it comes to interpreting animal sign, observe the where, when and size of the marks, and look around for other clues. By absorbing the nature of the site in addition to observing the actual marks, you can make a good guess at the behavior of the animal.