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?
An expired juvenile California nightsnake found in the gardens of Fremont Older Open Space Preserve.  The dark brown cross pattern at the back of the head makes it a nightsnake.
It's kinda warming up and the snakes are kinda coming out. Juvenile snakes probably have a tough time in the early spring. They are coming out of their first winter's hibernation without much body weight, and they are probably hungry enough to hunt during the day even though they may not know their territory well. This would make them susceptible to all the predators wanting to feed their own young families.

Juvenile California kingsnake trying to make a living and escape predators at Los Trancos Open Space Preserve
A few weeks ago, we were checking Los Trancos Open Space Preserve to see if the barbed goatgrass had germinated yet. Barbed goatgrass is a non-native invasive weed, probably a remnant of former wheat farming. The infestation at Los Trancos is small enough that we pull it out by hand when the plants have plumped up and are easy to find, but the seeds are still too green to shatter onto the ground. We couldn't find anything that we were able to identify as goatgrass seedlings, but the whole time we were searching there was a Steller's jay jumping up and down and squawking on the other side of the meadow. When the jay flew off, we went over to see what all the fuss was about. A juvenile California kingsnake was coiled up in the grass and rapidly shaking its tail tip. It looked unharmed but very annoyed. We don't interfere with the animals' way of eating each other, but as we left, I was hoping the little jester would find a hole to hide in.

California mountain kingsnake hanging out in the Dipper springbox. Check out that reflection - maybe that is why the gorgeous kingsnakes like the springbox.
Meanwhile, I also found its colorful cousin, the California mountain kingsnake, at the Dipper Ranch.  It was tucked in the exact same location of the corrugated springbox lid as a mountain kingsnake I found last summer. My heart froze for a moment when I saw the red-black-white coils above my head again, part instinctual snake-fear and part superstition. Last year, an unrelated but really bad tragedy happened about the time I found the first kingsnake in the springbox, and the beauty and evolutionary significance of its bright markings helped me work through my sadness.

Who left the water on?
Curious heifers break the floatball in the water trough and create a mini-marsh in the pasture.
But the only tragedy I've got right now is that the cattle broke the floatball on one of the watering troughs and it took me several days to figure out why two loads of laundry nearly emptied the water tank. I found and turned off the spilling trough, Cowboy V fixed it, and I'm sure he gave those heifers a lecture. I am happy to report that the water level in the tank is now rising about one foot per day. Since the old springboxes, redwood water tank, and rusty pipes are the only source of domestic water on the ranch, I check the water tank frequently. I have even taught myself how to quickly estimate the tank's water level from the outside by comparing subtle color changes in its faded green boards.

Redwood water tank.
Tomorrow is my birthday, I have a huge deadline at work, and a flat tire to fix. I'm feeling optimistic. I think spring optimism is a trait of us spring babies, like my mom and two of my five sisters, and the Los Trancos kingsnake that survived the jay attack. My mother, grandmother of 16, probably doesn't like be compared to a juvenile snake, but she is a survivor.

When I went for a hike today on the Dipper Ranch to inspect the multiple places falling tanoak trees have broken the new exterior fence, I found a huge tanoak tree that was alive and healthy-looking. "I'm gonna keep my eye on you," I told the giant. "If you survive this Sudden Oak Death devastation zone, I'll be collecting your acorns."

A double-trunked tanoak tree survivor among its fallen compatriots
in a Sudden Oak Death infested zone.
Then I simultaneously discovered a singing Lazuli bunting and my flat tire. While waiting for a ride from the Silver Fox, I followed the Lazuli bunting from my gate to an elderberry tree across the road to a coyote bush and around again as he sang from multiple perches in his territory. And that is how I discovered a fat doe sitting out the foggy morning beneath a row of oak trees along Jimmy's drive.  Jimmy died awhile back and it seems like the animals are taking over his yard. The doe was huge. "You better have those fawns soon," I told her. "I know for a fact that spring babies have a cheerful disposition . . . at least some of the time."

Tomorrow, I am going to wear my lucky Stihl ballcap and I am going to fix that tire and meet that deadline. Then we are having a huge party at Fogarty Winery. Actually, it's a fund raiser for Portola Redwoods and Castle Rock State Parks, but I telling everyone to come and share the birthday cheer.


  1. Love those snakes! Did you see the rattlesnake I posted a couple days ago. What a beauty.

  2. Years ago, a dead fence lizard in a small, crumpled paper bag in my mailbox at work (NPS). No note. NOTHING.



    However, it's gratifying that people see you as a resource re: what-the-heck-is-that. =)

  3. Firstly, Happy Birthday from a crotchety Autumn baby!


    Work colleague: "Hey, I saw this huge bird on the way to w..."

    Me: "Buzzard."

    Work colleague: "No, it was really big and..."

    Me: "Buzzard."

    Work colleague: "But it was just stood in a field, looking aro..."

    Me: "Buzzard."

    Repeat several times a year with different work colleagues, but possibly the same Buzzard.

  4. Hilarious! I can see we are among many like-minded geeks with a bio-sense of humor.

  5. Great nature writing and interesting information. Added your blog to our list of sites about local wildlife.


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