Sunday, March 3, 2013

In the Provident Shadow of Omnivores

Nighttime silhouette in the wildlife camera at the cattle pen.
I felt restless in late November as I often do around the full moon, but I was also nervous about attending a four-wheel drive class. Meanwhile, the omnivores were leaving sign at new places on the Dipper Ranch, sometimes being rascals and sometimes making fortuitous appearances.

In the middle of the night before the 4WD class, I woke suddenly. Everything was silent. There were no kids or cats jumping on the bed, so I looked out the window to check on Orion's progress. Under the foggy full moon, the backyard was blurred by swaying tree shadows. Then I saw an especially dark shadow slink in a diagonal path. Was that an animal moving or was I just sleepy?

I sat up to get a better view and the shadow bounded around the corner of the house. It was long with a sharp nose and brushy tail and its springy leaps were low. I went back to sleep.

The next morning as I was getting ready for a day of truck driving, I convinced myself the shadowy creature was just a dream. Upon arrival at the off-road vehicle park, not the kind of place I usually hang out, I introduced my plucky partner to the truck we were borrowing from the rangers for this class: a Ford Super Duty F350. A huge utility truck, bigger than some dorm rooms. A tall woman and a short woman, we had been assigned Big Red's new rig. A truck so new or otherwise well cared for that it had no dents or scratches. At least not yet. Dora and I were a little intimidated.

A brush rabbit surveys the morning at the cattle pen camera
Then we saw the steep hill that was to be our first climb. Since I had more 4WD experience than most of the students, I had to stay calm. "It's not that bad," I told Dora. "I did this same hill in the class a few years ago. In the Jeep." I was trying not to glance with envy at my fellow biologists who were driving the modestly-sized Jeep for this year's 4WD class. I was the one who'd originally insisted that the inexperienced staff be provided four-wheel drive training, so I couldn't be a coward now.

Another daytime visitor at the pen camera is a yearling buck with antlers forming small bumps on its head in November. 
Driving up the steep hill in the biggest truck was not too bad, even when the instructor stopped us midway to tighten up the cones. Except for the part where the truck's nose was pointed so high we couldn't see the track on the hill or even the horizon and all we could see through the front windshield was the stormy sky above our pounding hearts. Nevertheless, under our sweaty hands the truck travelled up the track with good humor, and second after second the ground remained firm beneath us even if we couldn't see it.

Stellar jay popping into camera view.
Next was backing down the steep slope between cones set in a triple curve. In a stroke of genius, Trigger had partnered me with Dora who had very little off-road driving experience and sometimes an anxious personality. Just knowing I would need to coach her had stopped my worrying for awhile. But at the top of the hill while waiting for our turn, Dora started telling me how nervous she was. I didn't want to make her more nervous, so I was trying to calm my own anxiety by taking deep breaths while we watched the trucks below us nip cones or meander into the bushes. To change the topic, I told Dora about the mysterious shadow I had seen the night before. I wondered, "Did I really see that slinking shadow last night or is reading about wolves late into the night creeping into my dreams?"

A nighttime visitor to the pen cam - striped skunk
We don't have wolves here in the Santa Cruz Mountains but I am still fascinated after seeing them in Yellowstone National Park this past summer. In the four-footed carnivore and omnivore vein, I've seen domestic dog, coyote, gray fox, raccoon, striped skunk, mountain lion, and bobcat or their sign on the Dipper Ranch. Red fox, possum opossum, domestic cat, armadillo, and badger are also to be found in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Because the backyard shadow was so low to the ground and moved in a different way than the bold coyotes, I guessed it was a fox. I've never actually observed a fox on the Dipper Ranch, but I got a nighttime photo of a gray fox on a wildlife camera near the Newt Spring last December.

This gray fox triggered a wildlife camera at the Newt Spring in December 2011. I wonder why it is that the foxes show up more in the winter?
I am not sure if it was the deep breaths or my musings about the magical shadow, but as I pointed the truck's bumper down the hill, I was feeling secure as if something was watching out for me. All that I needed to do was concentrate and try my best and nothing bad would happen. A couple of the cones wobbled and I had to shift into reverse to get out of one clump of bushes, but otherwise, it was just another day at the office.

Climber of persimmon trees, defiler of bird baths, the bandit raccoon
If I survived the 4WD class, I would check the wildlife camera near the barn when I got home. That camera went up a few weeks earlier as part of another omnivore adventure. I had harvested the castings from my earthworm bin and spread them on the potted herbs behind the garage. That night, something scooped out big pits in the newly fertilized fennel pot. Probably the same something that deposited persimmon-packed turds in the adjacent birdbath. And left another turd on the back porch near my bedroom. Who else would do this but the bandit raccoon?

So I anchored a scrap piece of chicken wire around the fennel pot and set the birdbath on a tall stand. The next day, the fennel pot was undisturbed but I found a huge pile of turds on top of the earthworm bin. I tossed the turds down a gopher hole.

The next day after that, the worm bin was covered with an even larger pile of persimmon turds. I harassed the gopher colony with more smelly predator sign, and I balanced a tippy contraption on top of the worm bin to discourage the nightly visits of the poop meister.

Long fingers get raccoons into many adventures and leave distinct tracks.
Remembering where I had seen coon tracks, I mounted a wildlife camera near a dusty road by the cattle pen.  A few days later when I checked the photos on the wildlife camera, sure enough, there was a fat, smirking, persimmon-burping raccoon.

By the end of the first day of 4WD training, Dora and I were feeling more confident about driving a big truck on rough roads. We followed the instructors' advice about left foot braking, tracking your clear path, keeping a steady pace, gear ratios, and so on.

My advice is that it helps to talk to your truck. Because of her courage and adventurous pluck, we named our big truck Lucy after Lucy Pevensie in the Narnia series, and we praised her huge tiger paws that gripped the crazy tilting curves of the infamous 4WD racetrack.

Nighttime tail. Notice the black line all the way down the dorsal side of the tail - a mark of the gray fox.
When I got home even before scraping off the day's mud, I checked the wildlife camera. There were two types of brushy tails in the first set of photos. The nighttime tail was lower to the ground and had a dark line down its entire length. The daytime tail was higher up, had a black tip and a black dot near its base. The later I clearly recognized as coyote. The former could be a fox.

Bushy tail with dark tip and black dot midway down the tail (subcaudal gland)
In a second set of photos, Brushy Nighttime Tail passed the camera again, then turned around to be silhouetted as a pointy-nosed ghost. I wasn't dreaming. There had been a gray fox creeping about my backyard and waking me up. A little guardian fox.

A small canine, the gray fox is common in wooded areas.
The next day at 4WD training, it was already raining but we still did some muddy curves before they shooed us off the track. By the time we drove out, the clay road was so wet, Lucy was gently sliding between the barbwire fences but we didn't panic because we had faith in our truck. We watched the rest of the class come slipping down the same path. It was raining hard by then and it was a good simulation about what we should do if we were working far back in a preserve and the weather changed - get out while you can and stay out until the weather clears. The rangers don't always have that choice when responding to emergencies, but as biologists, we can reschedule for another safer day. It was dry and warm inside Lucy's cab and I told Dora about the fox photos.

Even without color, the Undercover Naturalist could tell this was a gray fox rather than a red fox because of the dark mustache and its short legs.
We drove Lucy back to headquarters, cleaned off the mud and gassed her up. I was reluctant to abandon her in the ranger parking lot and say goodbye. I was all for borrowing a tube of lipstick and writing "I Love Lucy" in huge letters on her windshield, but alas, none of us newly christened truck mamas had any lipstick. Instead, we left little love notes in her many pockets and storage bins which probably drove Ranger Big Red crazy for a few weeks.

A gray fox on the San Mateo coast. Gray foxes often favor brush in addition to wooded areas. Photo courtesy of the Silver Fox.
Working in these park agencies, sometimes it's a man's world. Trucks and chainsaws, trespassers, accidents, tractors, landslides and sometimes guns. I am not really sure how the guys handle the stress. But this is what it takes to get two gals through 4WD training - falling in love with a broad-hipped truck, talking each other through the tough spots, and the mysterious encouragement of a shadowy omnivore.

Although our approach to problem solving is often quite different, I greatly admire and appreciate my male co-workers.
brush rabbit, Sylvilagus bachmani
Columbian black-tailed deer, Odocoileus hemioanus columbianus
Stellar jay, Cyanocitta stelleri
Raccoon, Procyon lotor
striped skunk, Mephitis mephitis
common gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus
red fox, Vulpes vulpes
coyote, Canis latrans


  1. Lovely.

    I want to insert a coda here, to indicate that one should repeat reading that word, and soak it in. Such a delightful post!!

    I adore grey foxes, and admire their moxie--at least the ones I encountered when I was in the NPS.

    Never thought about it until I read your post, but perhaps one of the reasons I liked the NPS (and still like outdoor, wildlife work) was that I was very comfortable around men. Raised by my Dad from 5th grade through college, I watched football with my dad, he taught me never to point a gun at anything you aren't willing to shoot, and he was generally a very good humored, smart, funny, brave person.

    Glad you have that charming visitor. =) (p.s. I tend to see bobcats in the winter--as you asked, why?!?)

  2. Biobabbler: a good reminder for me to say that we have women as rangers and field crew too. I find the work environment much more accepting than when I started my career decades ago and was referred to as "Honey".


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