Archive for the ‘sign’ Category

Contumaza, Peru

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

I am in Contumaza, a small agricultural town in the northern foothills of Peru in South America. The landscape shares similarities to the southern parts of California, particularly the San Bernardino mountains.   Beautiful flora and fauna, of which i am completely unfamiliar with. A whole family of what appears to be Cactus Wrens, stark dark brown a nd white in color and rather large in size, building a nest in a cedar tree. Skunks, perhaps striped skunk,  the same size as ours in the US.    Amazingly colored hummingbirds, bright green, and huge, the size of a North American Bluebird, (kind of scary).

Some kind of black and white hawk the size of a redtail but shaped a  bit differently. All black wings with white wing patches beneath toward the outside of the wings. White tail with a black bar. Hovering over the mountain landscape.    Rabbits, maybe jackrabbit, rats and mice.

Getting off the plane into this new land  I decided  i wanted to see what the mountain lions where like on this continent. I am not sure if there actually are any where i am here, its very open with lots of farmland, but turns out there is a local zoo, “Hermita”, with all these amazing animals either out in the open or behind structures that are very accessible. I usually feel pretty sad when i go to zoos so i try to avoid them, and this one was no exception, but it was so close and i was exploring. He just paced back and forth impatiently in his twenty by eight foot cage. It was quite fascinating however to be able to watch him move, walk, urinate, doing things i have always seen in track and sign but never actually live. Quite  revealing.  People, mothers with children, just walked by, obviously quite used to “La Puma”.

The Vicuña is a beautiful mountain mammal similar to the Llama, but more slender and agile. It flows over the landscape like a dolphin on the water, graceful and completely at one with the terrain underfoot. I meanwhile stumbled and slipped quite clumsily in comparison as i chased after it. They put me to shame in how fast they could move over the  mountainside. I also couldn’t breath very well as i was somwhere around ten thousand feet above sea level.

I had arrived during their annual Vicuña shearing festival, in which they capture these wild animals and steal the fur right off their backs in the middle of an alpine winter. They then sell it for a rather high price to folks in Europe and North America.  It was a community affair, in which hundreds of people gathered to capture, cook, shear, clean and spectate.

In the cold hours of dawn, while it was still dark,  we gathered under the yellow street lamps to wait for the bus. About sixty- plus men and women piled together in the back of the open, wooden bed of a small semitruck, and proceeded to drive up what i would hardly call a road, for the next two hours. Winding over rocky switchback after rocky switchback, we bumped up and down, side to side, like livestock in the freezing mountain air.

Upon arrival to the camp we were met with hot “Mote” soup, a traditional Peruvian corn soup with various animal parts in it. It was very welcomed after the bitter ride.  The men then proceeded to juice up on coca, a native plant that can give one energy and relieve altitude sickness, and is also what the recreational drug cocaine is made out of.  We split off into smaller bands and made our way across the wide valley where the animals were grazing, eventually forming a line with each person walking over the grass and rock about twenty to fifty feet apart.

The goal was to corral the animals through the valley towards a fence that had been set up specifically for this event. The fence was arranged to funnel  them tighter and tighter into an enclosed pen. I read that this was how ancient cultures in Northern America captured wild ungulates such as deer, in their case to eat them, so it was interesting to actually participate in it being done successfully.

I kind of feel like i am dreaming sometimes when i am here as i find myself in such bizarre situations. Everytime a pack of Vicuña would come toward the line we would scream and wave stuff about to frighten them the other way.  Lookout men would stand up on the highest elevations and shout out orders to us, ”  Advance!”, “Stop!”, “Duck!”. Sometimes we would crouch and hide in the grass to let a few run past us.

"Calypto" Eucalyptus leaf

They had what must have been close to a thousand feet of rope with multi-colored plastic flags tied to it (they use alot of  plastic here), which they all held together and marched across the landscape with to further condense the frightened animal population.  At this point i realized why they had all been downing so much coca that morning. They were all running up these steep slopes in the thin high altitude air, holding  this rope, while screaming at the animals, while picking the line up over rocks and other snags. This was some kind of  intense athletic training . I barely kept up.

Vicuña tracks in mud

I have not been impressed with the way folks treat animals here. I have seen way too much animal cruelty in the past two weeks than i care to mention. Voice hoarse, body sweating  and exhausted,  we finally got these animals into the pen, at which point they went into a frenzied panic. The men could have at this point respectfully apprehended and sheared these animals, but they didn’t. I wasn’t feeling the love.  They would put them in a headlock, pick them up by the tail,  strap them against the ground and then shave off what i assume they needed to survive the zero degree temperatures up there. Blood dripping from their mouths and legs after running full speed into these metal fences, the men laughed and cheered as these inspector people seemed to fail to notice that ther were actually living animals underneath the fur they scrutinized for quality. You could almost see the dollar signs floating above their  heads. I have pics of all this but perhaps i won’t post them.

I wondered what would be the appropriate thing to do in a situation such as this? Tear open the fence to let them free and have an entire Peruvian village murder me? I eventually just walked back up to the bus to wait for our departure.

Wish i could have gotten a pic of the sunset glowing red as it set over an endless horizon of silent, completely uninhabited mountains but the  batteries for my camera died.  As i lay in the back of the truck, packed on either side with human bodies like loaves in a bread shop, i stared up at the crystal clear skies with the milky way winding it’s way through and tried to forget the day and just revel in the  pure awe and joy of the moment .

Martes Americana

Sunday, February 10th, 2013

 

  

       Martes Americana, or the American Pine Marten.   

     It’s amazing how the weasel family has adapted to cover all sorts of terrain and habitat. The Long -Tailed and Short -Tail weasel have taken to the marshes and wetlands, the Mink and Otter to lakes and stream, the Badger has gone underground, the Wolverine took to the harshest of alpine and tundra climates, the Sea Otter to the salty ocean and the Fisher and Marten to the trees.

   Both Fishers and Martenshave a unique foot structure which allows their hind feet to turn around in a complete 180 degree half -circle. This affords easy movement up and down the trunks of trees. This is helpful to the Marten who wreaks havoc on the squirrel population as he hunts though the canopy in pursuit. I always wondered why the red and Douglas Squirrels where such tense little creatures, often alarming at me as i walked afoot, to the point of significant frustration.   They have giant ferocious weasels crawling after them through the trees, ripping them and their young right out of their hollow-tree trunk nests!! Nowhere is safe. No wonder they are on edge. 

 

 

       Here is my wrist watch next to the trail for a size reference.The tracks where in between the size of a Mink and a Fisher, about one and a half to one and three quarters inches long. Its bounding trail paralleled that of the Douglas Squirrels all day long, leading in and out of root cavities and entrances to various underground spaces.  Supposedly they can spend a significant portion of their time  underneath the snow in certain areas.

   I got the impression that the Marten was a smaller, cuter version of the Fisher. But more alpine. They moved very similarly, bounding about in between a 2x and 3x lope.

       Towards the end of my sojourn the Marten left a scat right atop a much larger animal trail. It looked like a dog trail but was moving about in a lope. It kind of reminded me of Fisher but bigger. I dismissed it as a local dog, but now i wonder what it was. 

Pine Marten atop a Snowshoe Hare trail

Fire and Ice

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

  Some cool ice formations i came across on the gravel road one chilly morning at Donner State Park in the Sierra Mountains of California.  Frozen in time, gone by the afternoon’s melting sun.  What hidden messages does the crystallized water have for a wandering wayfarer? 

   I was reminded of the poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost, which my English teacher had us memorize in high school. I thought it was a cool poem then but i remember she was kind of excited sharing it with us at the time. I never really got why she was so excited, but reading it now i get it. It  talks about Nature and Destruction. Nature and Destruction are Awesome!!

                               “Some say the world will end in Fire

                                                  Some say in Ice

                                   From what I’ve tasted of desire

                                 I hold with those who favor Fire.

                                        But if it had to perish twice

                                     I think I know enough of hate

                                    To say that for destruction Ice

                                                    Is also great

                                              And would suffice. “       

  Now i even get why she accented and spaced the words the way she did. Adults are so…………. entertaining. 

   Robert Frost spent a significant portion of his life in New England, writing, teaching and walking about in the woods among other things. Many of his poems are about Nature and his interactions with Her.  I guess in this poem he was linking two human qualities that would tend toward the dark side of our beings, with elements in Nature, and then personifying them.

 

Wandering bears in the snow, flocks of Hooded and Common Mergansers, (lophodytes cucullatus), chattering kingfishers, minks and beavers. This well- used beaver trail connects a pond with a nearby mountain stream. It rises right over a well used hiker and auto trail. 

 

  

 You can see the hand-like beaver tracks intersect with the tire prints. I figured the beavers used the trail to drag brush from its foraging area, pond, to its burrow/lodge  in the bank of the stream.

  The interesting thing about this park is that it has a railway  going directly through it. So all of a sudden you will be hiking along and a giant freight train blazes by with much ferocity and clamor.

  A downed, weathered Pine, with accompanying beetle trails, a mysterious and silent melody written on the staff of Life, now past and dead.

Ringtail

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

 

  I wonder if one of these scats is ringtail. Found along the banks of the Yuba in Northern CA.  About 1/2 inch in diameter.

Lutra Canadensis

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Northern River Otter

  These tracks are somewhat difficult to see, but if you look in the upper left corner of the photo, you should be able to make out an arc of toes and a palm.

  This is the track of the playful, aquatic weasel known as the River Otter. I have lived in Nevada City for over three years now, a couple miles away from the South Fork of the Yuba river. I have spent considerable time along the banks of the Yuba swimming, exploring and observing wildlife. Never once in all this time was i aware that otters frequented this riparian habitat. I even thought to myself, ” i am bored , i know all the animals in this area too well.”  Hahahahaha.

   That’s what is great about tracking. It’s humbling. You get to thinking you know all that and then something pops up that reminds you how abundant and prolific the life is in this vast Universe.     

otter scat

  Here’s some otter scat. Check out the crayfish shell remains in it.  I was sitting with a friend along the side of the river when she suddenly exclaimed, ” Look!” I had my back turned to the water. I turned around but missed it. She said a slick, dark, cat-like- looking creature slipped down a crevice in the rock into the water. From her description it seemed that she had seen an aquatic mustelid, a mink or a weasel. ” But we don’t have those here.” i explained.  The next weekend i went out to investigate and scoured the banks of the river for an afternoon. Low and behold, an otter haul-out. Scat, tracks, fishy smells, everything.

  Perhaps part of the reason that i wasn’t more earlier aware of their presence was the fact that the banks of the Yuba look like this :

 All smooth stone. Very little substrate that i can track in, such as mud and sand.  But it got me to thinking: mammals will usually follow very defined trails, just as us humans will follow the same exact road to work everyday for years. It’s convenient. The otters trail is the river. That’s why , in this case, the sign was more difficult to spot. The tracks were left behind in the whirls and jettis of a rushing mountain stream, gone downriver just as soon as it appeared. What else in our lives is there, yet invisible to us for years on ened until someone points it out?

  Otters are brilliant in the water, like an underwater, professional dancer. They have webbed feet which you can kind of see in the top photo.  And very bulbous toes. If you see some very fishy smelling scat along a body of water along with a flurry of small grapefruit sized tracks and a whole messy flattened out area, you have the tell- tale sign of the river otter.

  And some amazing flowers found along the way.  The blossom did this fascinating thing where it would fall down the stamen after it was done flowering to hang upside down below the new growth.

Beckworth

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Beckworth is a rocky peak that sticks up into the sky outside my apartment window here in Portola, California. My roommate and i have been wanting to climb it so today we finally ventured out. The very top one hundred feet is a rocky crag that somewhat resembles a curved dome. I walked right up to it and found the most amazing lichen covering the stone.

I felt like i was in some kind of underwater tropical reef, it was so colorful. With the Sierra Valley spread out below and the sweet smell of some kind of scented bush below me, it was quite spectacular.

I scaled the wall to the top and found Woodrat scat -latrines and a nest fifty feet up the cliff! It was amazing to see a non-winged creature living in such a dangerous environment. I thought that the potential benefits might be that they could avoid predators.

One interesting thing about climbing is how mindful and present it forces you to be. It is a rare situation in which moving your foot two inches to the left results in death. When’s the last time you were sitting at a table having lunch and you were afraid to move your hand cause you didn’t want to die?Never. Minus the “afraid of falling to my certain death” part, if i could feel the way i felt seventy feet up that cliff every moment of my life, i would be all set. Complete and utter focus on the task at hand. Complete and one hundred percent conscious movement of every foot and forearm.

The cool thing about Nature is it can serve as a blueprint for the human mind as to how to be, meaning how to be alive in this world. You go out in the wilderness and you look around. The trees are not worrying about their bills they have to pay. The stones are not worrying about finding their soul-mate. The birds are not angry that their colors aren’t bright enough. You look around and you see that the essence of these creatures is stillness and peace. And you get to match up your own mind and soul with that essence. In this way connection with Nature serves as a spiritual practice.

The Ponderosa Pine is such a magnificent tree. Long green needles stick out in every direction forming wispy green orbs at the end of each branch. The bark has the most amazing Vanilla-sugar smell when it’s warmed by the sun, that brings me back to a flour-covered counter-top in the kitchen of my childhood.

Feather River

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

Mustela vison

The American Mink, a weasel found often  in waterways throughout North America and beyond. I walked along the feather river in Portola California today in search of wildlife. Some co-workers said the river has otter. I wanted to find out. I found some otter-like scat, but i couldn’t ID it for sure. I did come across the other riparian weasel however. His trails and scat were all along the banks in the mud and up on the rocks. The scat was almost entirely filled with crayfish remains.

Yesterday I picked up John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra” for the first time in years. I opened it up and was absolutely blown away. Everyone remembers him as a mountaineer, but honestly, I have never heard anyone else write like that. The mans mastery of words is phenomenal.  He makes Nature sound like Heaven. I’ve never heard anyone write about Nature like that. He was so enthralled by the wilderness and conveys it so well in his writings, I almost couldn’t relate, and i’m a naturalist. That guy was some kind of alien or something. Truly inspiring.

Castor canadensis

The Beaver, also a common resident of rivers, ponds and almost any place with water. If you look in the top right portion of the picture you can see a fairly large three-toed track that looks like a giant bird track, that’s the hind foot of the beaver. The hind left is also in the photo in the bottom left, but it’s jumbled up amongst other animals tracks and is harder to see.

The beaver has five toes on its hind feet, but usualy only the outer three show up. Not sure why honestly. It probably has to do with the fact that they spend a significant amount of time in the water swimming as apposed to travelling about on land.

Spotted sandpipers, ospreys, and a green-tailed towhee shared the banks of the Feather with me. The Osprey, Pandion haliaetus, makes a unique kind of shriek-call as he flies, that makes him sound like the dominant resident of the river.

Connectivity

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Black-tailed jackrabbit

Recently saw an amazing talk by Fraser Shilling of the UC Davis “Road Ecology” department. That is, the study of how wildlife relates to human transportation systems. He said according to the Humane Society :

ONE MILLION

animals die

DAILY

from auto travel in the US.

He started a website called www.wildlifecrossing.net in which citizens of California can enter roadkill observations onto the site as a means of making an accurate picture of roadkill patterns statewide. Its incredible. Check it out.

This is a Black-tailed Jackrabbit (lepus californicus) that was killed on the local highway, Hwy 49, last week.

Summer Solstice

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

The Yuba River

The rushing Yuba River. All the snow has been melting in the high sierra, so i hear, so all the water is rushing down into the foothills. A friend and i went and sat by the river. It was amazing. Woodrat, snake or lizard of some sort, huge bull frog, deer mouse, fawn and deer, killdeer, turkey, and quail tracks along the bank. Hoards of cliff swallows flying in and out of their nests under the bridge. A hot yet beautiful day.     

mystery tracks

  Not sure what these guys are. i was with a bunch of folks, when we were looking at them, who had to be somwhere, so i didn’t get to study them closely. i guessed that they were tracks of the meadow vole.  One of the tracks is about   3/4 of an inch long.  What do you think? please let me know if you have an idea. 

Black - Tailed Deer

  The male black tailed deer or a “buck” as they are commonly referred to.  Soon after i took this picture i watched as he proceeded to scratch his underside with his large antlers. they seemed pretty unwieldy so it was a somewhat impressive feat. 

ground squirrel dust bath

   The Beldings Ground squirrel, or at least thats what i think it is. I was calling the ground squirrels around here California ground Squirrels earlier. But now i am thinking they are Beldings( spermopholis beldingi). If i read correctly they are both in this range, but the California has white dots on its back while the beldings is smaller and has a reddish brown back. These guys are reddish and smaller.

   Anyways the ground squirrel “bathes” by rolling around in the dirt, or what others call a “dust bath” . Look closely for the fine striations in the dust which are the marks of the squirrels hair as he rubbed about.  

turdus migratorius

       The tracks of the American Robin. The tracks below are from the Western Gray Squirrel (sciurus grisius).  The feet of gray squirrels are amazing. the ones out here are gigantic, so their feet are also exceptionally large, as well as extremely dexterous. This has come about from the amazing acrobatic lifestyle they lead: jumping about from tree limb to tree limb and literally running up large vertical tree trunks. I was observing one in a low branch before me the other day. His/her hands protruded an almost nimble intelligence, the mark of their high-wire lifestyle no doubt.

Coyote

Monday, May 10th, 2010

Western Coyote (canis latrans)

The illustrious coyote.  The female behind my house, perhaps this is her, is raising pups currently. I found one of them, or rather one of them found me, one rainy night. It was very cold out a couple weeks ago, hail and slush covering the ground. I was about to turn in for the night when I heard some strange wailing sounds. “An owl perhaps”, I thought. I went to investigate and in the dark night a little form waddled up to me, calling. I picked him up and put him in my jacket. His brother up the hillside however wasn’t cooperative. When I tried to get him he retreated under his log and growled at me. Anyway I brought him into my bed to warm up. He smelled of skunk, I think he must have gotten sprayed, and kept him in my room for a few days feeding him goats milk from the local farm. I worked during the day and would come back home at night and take care of him. I got a taste of what having a baby is like. Its like having another full time job when you come home at the end of the day from your full time job.

Anyway after a week of going on no sleep ( he would bite me in the middle of the night cause he wanted to feed) I was starting to go insane. I asked a neighbor who has been living on the land for a long time and she said I should put him back. When my first found him my initial thought was that his mother had been hit by a car, so I hesitated, fearing he wouldn’t survive. I put him back on a Sunday morning and came back the next morning to find him gone. I hoped the mother got him. A little later I came upon a dead coyote off the bottom of the driveway, a small one, perhaps female, about one hundred feet from the road. Judging from the rate of decomposition of the body I guess she would have died a few weeks ago, about the time I found the baby. Heartbreaking.

Perhaps I should have kept him, but i wasn’t actually allowed to have pets in my room.

California ground squirrel (spermophilus beecheyi)

The california Ground Squirrel, or perhaps the Beldings Ground Squirrel. I am not sure which one. The Beldings is smaller and has a red strip on its back,  but ground squirrels are fossorial or diggers, and the soil is very red here and stains everyones shoes and livestock a dull orange color, so maybe its just an orange- stained california ground squirrel. Anyway I found along the road where these track were some patches of mussed-up dirt. At first i thought they were quail dust baths but then  a couple days later i saw a ground squirrel in one of them and realized they were probably their dust baths.

pacific tree frog (psuedacris regilla)

Can you see the little guy? I was walking along the river bed down the road and I stopped and sat down to look at the cool quartz rocks beneath my feet . I was sitting there looking at the rocks for a few minutes until I realized i was also looking at a small amphibian.  These guys make a chorus of sound all night in the pond behind where I live.

Bullocks Orioles nest building here, as well as Black -Headed Grossbeaks. Saw  a brilliantly colored Western Tananger and a Townsend Warbler a few weeks ago. Yelow warblers calling behind where I work.  Two Great Horns calling at night.