Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Puma Scrapes

Puma delicately poses on huge paws at the Dipper Ranch night of October 4, 2015.   
When I lived in Florida, we called them panthers. I never saw a Florida panther, but in the 1980's, there were only about 30 Florida panthers left and I didn't know much about Puma concolor then. Officially, they are called mountain lions in California, and cougars seems to be the most popular name in other western states. These days, I like to use the word puma because it's short.

Max Allen, a researcher with Santa Cruz Pumas Project at the University of California Santa Cruz, posted an interesting piece called How Pumas Communicate Through Scent Marking on the National Geographic Wild Cats blog. In the 15+ years I've worked outdoors in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I've seen four pumas.  But I've seen lots of puma sign now that I know what to look for: scat, tracks, scrapes, kills and scratching logs.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Stuck Calf

A maple tree in spring bud at the west corner of the holding pen.   
When Cowboy V delivered the new cattle in January, I was perplexed to see calves follow their mammas' swaying udders into the holding pen. In prior years, he brought out only stockers - weaned steers and heifers which double their size in the winter-spring grazing season before they move on to other ranches with more summer water. Why would he bring small calves to the Dipper Ranch where predators have sometimes taken down steers weighing over 500 pounds?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Mindego Gateway - A New Trailhead to Russian Ridge

A rainstorm at the Mindego Gateway parking lot   
There's a new kid in the neighborhood. Mindego Gateway is a new trailhead and parking lot in the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve. In addition to connecting with ten miles of existing trails to popular locations like Borel Hill and the Ancient Oaksthe Gateway will provide access to a new trail in Spring 2016 that will climb Mindego HillFor those who like short walks with gorgeous views, there is also a path from the new parking lot to a tiered deck.

While building the parking lot, we discovered hidden plants and animals, and clues that many others have touched this land before us.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Big Red Is Down

Hello, hello, are you dead yet?
The driveway and the front gate have a good view across the Dipper Ranch, so I always scan the property when I come and go. On May 18th, 2015, I left the Dipper Ranch to run an errand and all seemed right with the Dipper world.

When I returned four hours later and opened the front gate, I noticed the big red cow lying on her side in a far sunny corner of Pasture 2. With her head on the ground in the middle of the day, it didn't look right.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Listing Swallows

A male violet-green swallow lists to the side in the hot sun. July 4, 2014   
Swallows appear in large numbers at the Dipper Ranch from July through September. They have finished nesting and gather the tribe before they head south for their winter grounds.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Grassland Snakes of the Santa Cruz Mountains

Special guest at today's volunteer project    
Today at a volunteer project, I am making a lunchtime presentation about snakes commonly found in grasslands of our local Santa Cruz Mountains in the central coast of California.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Leprechaun Day

Female timema from oak tree, 3/14/15  
Oaks have spring flowers too. Yellow male catkins dangle from the tips of oak branches the better to release their pollen in a breeze. Oak flowers don't have decorative petals because they are wind-pollinated and have no need to attract insects.  While examining the catkins of a coast live oak, a tiny green critter jumped onto my hand.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Spring 2015 - Full Throttle Ahead

Just another photo of California poppy.
First poppy blooming this year at Dipper gate.
Does that look like a February sky?
Eschscholzia californica, 2/12/15.      
Since we haven't had a winter (sorry, Boston), it's kinda disingenuous to say that spring is early in California and moving quickly.

Monday, February 2, 2015


Red-bellied newts spend most of their lives underground and we know little about what they do there.   
The genetic results for the unusual population of red-bellied newts were in. Two newts from the newly discovered population in Santa Clara County were compared to forty newts from the main range in Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt Counties. The populations were genetically indistinguishable from each other.

They were all the same. We were stunned.

This meant we could not determine if the previously unknown Stevens Creek newts were a naturally disjunct population or were introduced by humans from the northern range. These were surprising results for a salamander species.

Monday, January 26, 2015

A Newt Egg Crawl

Monte Bello Open Space Preserve is split by Stevens Creek and the San Andreas Fault  
 I had a third theory about how red-bellied newts arrived in the Stevens Creek watershed. We doubted the lost race theory because surely some of the thousands of people who live in, visit or study the Santa Cruz Mountains every year would have previously discovered them. And likewise, a recent, successful introduction by humans seems questionable because their strong homing instinct would send the newts plodding across roads and over cliff edges to their death, difficult conditions to get a breeding population established at a new location. Instead, maybe there was a "wormhole" - a passage through space and time that delivered red-bellied newts to this remote corner of Santa Clara County without swimming the deadly saline waters of San Francisco Bay.

Excuse me for mixing up astrophysics and geology. California has spectacular geology that sometimes seems as if it is from science fiction. Perhaps, across the epochs, there was an unusual geologic event equivalent to a wormhole that explains how red-bellied newts arrived and thrived in the Stevens Creek watershed.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Pepperwood Creek Affair

Dr.Victor C. Twitty (left) and academic colleagues, 1955, Amherst
Photograph from Esther M. Zimmer Lederberg memorial website   
In 1953 through a fishing buddy, Dr. Victor C. Twitty was introduced to a rancher who owned fourteen-thousand acres in rural Sonoma County. Twitty asked the rancher if he could conduct newt research there and the rancher agreed even providing a small house near an amphibian-rich stream. "Thus the Pepperwood Creek Affair was born" and Twitty established a newt field research center far away in miles and in focus from his academic and administrative responsibilities at Stanford University.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Of Salamanders and Men

A red-bellied newt in hand in the field  
"In addition to being a delightful place to live, northern California offers an asset that is perhaps less well known to the millions who have been flocking there in recent years: In my somewhat prejudiced opinion, its newts are unrivaled anywhere in the world!"- Victor Chandler Twitty, Of Scientists and Salamanders, 1966
While they were sorting through the genetic code, the Berkeley team asked us to keep quiet about the unusual sightings of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County until they had published their results. As a child of two university professors, I was not surprised by this request. So we did what we were best at, tromping around in the forest to learn more about this population especially where they lived.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Commander Salamander

Daniel Portik, Sean Reilly, David Wake, Michelle Koo of University of California - Berkeley,
Ranger John Lloyd, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District   
On a drippy day in February 2010, we assembled a team of experts in the field to confirm the amateur-level observation of red-bellied newts in Santa Clara County, California. I lead Sean Reilly and Daniel Portik, two graduate students at the University of California - Berkeley, on a long hike down the west side of the Stevens Creek watershed. Ranger John Lloyd drove Dr. David Wake and Michelle Koo of Berkeley's Museum of Vertebrate Zoology to a trailhead on the easterly side of the watershed where they hiked a final leg into the same canyon across a different set of tributaries. Our goal was to meet somewhere on the trail, hopefully where one group was busily cataloguing lots of red-bellied newts, or so I nervously joked.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Bucket Theory

Preserved specimen of California newt at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley.
This is specimen MVZ:Herp:8101.
Photograph from the Museum's Collections Database at     
Late at night I was pouring through field guides, scientific publications, and online catalogues of museum specimens, but they didn't give me answers as to how red-bellied newts arrived in the Stevens Creek watershed. The little creatures we found were so far out of their reported range, if I was going to get any sleep, I needed the help of experts. So I started calling around.