Sunday, September 22, 2013

Thinking Backwards: the Landscape

Not much grows on a scree slope
Photo by randomtruth.  
Part 3: are you still with me? Still thinking backwards? This is my favorite part - the landscape state of mind. You are crossing a natural area, hyper-alert but at the same time in a dreamlike trance since you are not task-oriented, just absorbing as much of your surroundings as possible. Collecting images, sounds, and maybe a little scent. As an ecologist, I'm looking for clues on how the pieces fit together. This natural area is not just a list of plants and animals, but a constant flow of energy with any little click being some type of adjustment between the animate and inanimate. Even if I don't recognize these ecological relationships at the moment, my observations might help figure out patterns of the place later.

Every day in our wildlife camera trapping workshop at the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, we ventured into the beautiful montane landscape of Yuba Pass to practice our skills in a new environment. One morning, workshop instructor Dr. Chris Wemmer led the class across the North Yuba River in search of the bushy-tailed woodrat (Neotoma cinerea). But first we had to climb the side of a mountain.

A bushy-tailed woodrat exiting its rocky den at night.  
In the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the bushy-tailed woodrat often dens in rocky areas. And that's why we were climbing - to reach a scree slope where the bushies are known to reside. Scree slopes have little soil and are moving too frequently to support much vegetation. Snow melt from higher slopes flows underneath the loose scree and then seeps outward to support a dense band of water-loving trees and shrubs directly adjacent to the bare rocky areas. With shelter and food separated but in proximity, the bushy-tailed woodrats venture from their rocky lairs to forage in the nearby forests for twigs, seeds, fruit and mushrooms. That arrangement, I would learn, also makes for good cam-trapping opportunities.

At the Dipper Ranch, I've been watching another species of woodrat, the San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat (Neotoma fuscipes), build a nest of piled sticks in the orchard. Because the stick nests of the dusky-footed woodrat are large and common, they are easy to find in our coastal hills. I thought finding the bushy-tailed woodrat in the Sierras would likewise be easy. I was wrong.

Conifer branches shake off snow.  
Our hike initially led us through a conifer-rich forest, a clue that this location is buried in snow seven months of the year. Conifers have special adaptations to deal with cold climates including an overall shape that sheds snow and biochemical adjustments to resist freezing. At 6700-foot Yuba Pass, we were surrounded by towering red fir, lodgepole pine, sugar pine, Douglas fir, and Jeffery pine. Both the conifer diversity and the elevation were making me dizzy.

As we approached the sun-blasted scree slope, we entered a narrow zone of small deciduous trees and shrubs indicating a moist substrate. The small leaves on one shrub had shallow lobes, serrated edges and reddish stems. "Look," I casually commented, "a Ribes bush. I can't tell if it is a currant or a gooseberry because the fruit are gone." Wildlife must quickly gobble up fleshy berries in this conifer-dominated landscape, I thought. Dr. Wemmer smiled and disagreed. Participants in a prior workshop argued over the identification of this plant, he said, and they determined it was a mountain maple (Acer glabrum).

Conifers wedging themselves into rocks at another location in the Sierras - Pinecrest Lake.    
Whoa, my coastal botanical knowledge was not working so great in the Sierras. Think snow, I reminded myself. I found more stands of the maple after a three-point scramble up a rocky ledge. Standing on top of a boulder, I was towering over the mountain maples trees. Maybe this was as big as deciduous trees get in the harsh winters of the Sierras, since they are generally not well equipped to deal with deep snow and long spells of freezing weather. These trees and their leaves were more petite than any maple I knew, so I picked a few leaves and shoved them into my shirt pocket for later examination.

A different type of small tree swatted me in the face as the class navigated a narrow chute of rocky steps. I was sure this was a dogwood, but this time before I said anything, I did the dogwood test. Gently tearing across a leaf's veins, I looked for the telltale sign. Yes, a white thread of latex-like material stretched between the broken veins. All dogwoods do this, no matter what species they are. I showed the dogwood trick to my fellow classmates in the chute, and put a few dogwood leaves into my shirt pocket to show others later.

Other plants hug the ground, grow vigorously, and bloom quickly to deal with the snow and short growing season in the Sierras.  
At last we arrived at the scree slope. Barren. No plants, no animals, just rocks. I scanned the slope with my binoculars. No stick nests evident. Hmmm. Over lunch at the edge of the scree, Dr. Wemmer gave us a mini-lecture on the habits of bushy-tailed woodrats. Active at night year-round, they eat mostly vegetation, and stash it in chambers in the rocks. The best way to find an active den is to look for urine ledges. A urine ledge is a flat rock the woodrats select for peeing. Since the dens are often occupied by many generations of woodrats, the ledges become stained with a thick coat of whitewash. Another sign would be piles of clipped vegetation on sunny rocks which the woodrats leave for drying before they store it underground. This activity may occur more in the late summer and fall before the oncoming snow limits their foraging, so we might not see their hayracks in July.

Okay, I realized, the bushy-tailed woodrats didn't build towering stick nests like the dusky-footed woodrats. Or, if they did, they probably stashed them inside their rocky dens not visible to lumbering humans above ground. Urine ledges it was then - clambering across hot, steep, unstable rocky slopes looking and smelling for woodrat bathrooms. In the coastal area, this type of activity was sure to stir up rattlesnakes. I wasn't sure if rattlesnakes could survive the harsh winters of the Sierras, but because I was already feeling dizzy at this elevation, I decided to quickly finish up lunch to give myself more time to slowly and carefully search the scree slope.

I targeted an area of the scree that was within 75 feet of the forest edge figuring this might be the maximum foraging distance for woodrats. Up and down the slope, back and forth on uneven rocks, always alert for a buzzing sound. Initially, I couldn't find a woodrat den. How hard is it to find a woodrat bathroom, I wondered, so I crossed the scree slope to seek the counsel of another student who was setting up his camera. He had found a spectacular urine ledge. Although not obvious from a distance, when you peered between the piled rocks at a certain angle, there was a dazzling white-encrusted rock platform like a billboard saying "See bushy-tailed woodrats here."

Snow brings dormancy but also water.  
That's when the pieces of the landscape puzzle fell into place for me. I realized I was not going to photograph the bushy-tailed woodrats where they spend most of their time because it was underground and I wasn't going there. But the snow-shaped landscape and how the animals were using it provided advantages for photographing them above ground. They had to leave their rocky dens to forage in the surrounding forests. And they handily marked the places they emerged from underground with urine ledges. Furthermore, the den entrances were barren landscapes which provided an unobstructed view for photography, and without vegetation, possibly a greater accuracy for the camera's sensor to pick up animal movements. Dr. Wemmer had suggested all this information in his lunchtime lecture, but the subtleties only became apparent to me after  spending time in the bushy-tailed woodrat's habitat.

A dusky-footed woodrat on the coast doesn't have to deal with the challenges of snow and cold winters.   This one is arranging sticks on top of the firewood pile at the Dipper Ranch. 
I needed to adjust my search signature for the Sierran landscape. I had been too focused on looking for obvious aboveground features like those left by the dusky-footed woodrat of my coastal home where it hardly ever snows. I went back over the scree slope this time peering into the dark spaces between the rocks. Eventually I found a urine ledge and set up the Bushnell Trophy HD camera which photographed a bushy-tailed woodrat that night eating some of the maple, dogwood and other local food samples I left out for it as described in the previous two posts Thinking Backwards: the Camera, and Thinking Backwards: the Animal.

A bushy-tailed woodrat spends a lot of time in the summer collecting and storing food in its underground den for the long Sierran winter.  
Getting into place, setting the set, and photo-capturing your target animal - you don't have to actually shrink yourself and descend into the bushy-tailed woodrat's underground lair. Instead, use information, interpret the landscape, think like a woodrat, and then think like a camera. My limited experience with the Bushnell Trophy Cam resulted in many misfired frames and somewhat overexposed night photos. But my botanical meanderings while climbing to the scree slope helped in capturing photos of the bushy-tailed woodrat and getting a snapshot of its behavior and food preferences in its natural setting.

To be a better cam-trapper, I need to spend more time understanding the technology and reading about animal behavior. Still, my favorite mindset is the landscape. It's exciting to discover how the small pieces fit together, influence each other and change over time. Trail cameras allow us to capture photos or videos of mammals and birds in places and behaving in ways that we might not otherwise be able to witness. But they are still only isolated pieces of information, and to truly know a natural area, it is important to spend time in the landscape and learn from each other.

The wind in my heart, the dust in my hair. - Talking Heads, Listening Wind

My skills have improved since taking the camera trapping workshop. A few weeks ago I noticed this small pool in a nearly dry creek at the Dipper Ranch and recognized it as an opportunity. Even with my oldest camera, I was able to get a good photograph of a mountain lion visitor because I thought about the surrounding landscape,  the value of a fresh pool to wildlife in the dry summer, and how to work with the limitations of this particular camera.  
I hope this backwards series will help you set up trail cameras in the future.

This post is part of a series based on my experiences at a camera trapping workshop. To see the other posts, check the dates before and after this one, or click "wildlife camera" in the Sightings box in the right column.

Felisa A. Smith, Neotoma cinerea, Mammalian Species, No. 564, pp. 1-8, American Society of Mammalogists, 1997.

Red fir (Abies magnifica)
Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta murrayana)
Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana)
Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)
Jeffery pine (Pinus jeffreyi)


  1. Cindy, Many thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences of camera traps. There's much to ponder upon the next time I venture forth and I hope your words will echo in my head as I select a suitable site. It sounds like there's no substitute for practising, practising and more practising. And that the opportunity to try out several different brands and styles of camera is invaluable. I'll be sure to report on progress, whether good or bad!

  2. Great job, Cindy. It was fun having you in the class since you were by no means a novice, and I was bowled over by your marathon botanizing after the workshop ended. Happy camera trapping.

    1. Yuba Pass is amazing. I will definitely be back there again even if I have to join the painting ladies.

  3. I, too, find the Sierras like an alternate reality, familiar, yet different enough that I question its validity. Next time I head over there, I'll try to remember about the mountain maple. What a useful and educational workshop. It seems to me you're an excellent student, Cindy. So, how long before you lead a cam trap workshop in the Santa Cruz Mountains?

    1. We are working on Dr. Wemmer to teach a class in San Francisco Bay Area. May be a different format to match our busy lives here. Shorter, spread over several weekends or even a special class for teachers to get kids involved. What would you like?

  4. Too bad the workshop format has to change. It looks like you really got a lot out of it just the way it was. I don't know, I probably wouldn't do it, but I have a friend who's just starting to cam trap. He got a gray fox, too, where we went camping recently. He's a teacher and does stuff with his 5th-6th students down in the Channel Islands. Keep me informed and I'll make sure he knows about the workshop.


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