The obligatory Ano Nuevo State Park Elephant Seal photo

On my way home from a ministers’ retreat this afternoon, I stopped at Ano Nuevo State Park. The reason most people visit the park is to view the Elephant Seals that live there. And what’s not to like about these charismatic megafauna?

Molting female Elephant Seal

Today’s visit was too short. I’ve already convinced Carol to accompany back to the park tomorrow. (Although, to be completely honest, my primary motivation is seeing the nesting Bank Swallows I didn’t have time for today. Don’t tell Carol.)

Skunk skull

A few months ago, I found a dead skunk in a forgotten corner of St. John’s Cemetery; at that time, all that was left was the skin and the skeleton, and of course a faint smell of skunk. The skunk was lying in the midst of a deer trail. I couldn’t figure out how it had died: did a predator such as a raptor or a Bobcat kill it (Carol has seen a small Bobcat near the cemetery)? or did it die in some other manner? Based on what was left of the pelt, I’d say it was a Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis), not a Western Spotted Skunk, the only other species that lives in this area.

Since I first saw the body, the decomposers have been at work, and as the skin withered and decayed, the skeleton has slowly been emerging. Some of the smaller bones are now missing — it looked like Mule Deer have stepped on what’s left of the skunk — but the skull is now clearly visible. Using a stick, I positioned the skull and jawbone so I could see the teeth.

The dental formula for both the Striped Skunk and the Spotted Skunk is: Incisors 3 per side upper / 3 per side lower, Canines 1/1, Premolars 3/3, Molars 1/2, for a total of 34 teeth. This individual was missing one lower right incisor, the lower right canine, and one upper right premolar.

We have seen Striped Skunks wandering around the cemetery at night. In fact, skunks are the primary reason to not go into the cemetery at night: it would be far too easy to stumble across one as it came walking around from behind a gravestone, and the consequences of such a meeting could be unpleasant. Most of us would prefer to run into a ghost than a skunk.

Winnemucca, Nev., to San Mateo, Calif.

“At the border of the [Great American] Desert,” said Mark Twain, “lies Carson Lake, or The ‘Sink’ of the Carson, a shallow, melancholy sheet of water some eighty or a hundred miles in circumference. Carson River empties into it and is lost — sinks mysteriously into the earth and never appears in the light of the sun again — for the lake has no outlet whatever.” Although I had no interest in walking forty miles across the Great American Desert, without water, as Mark Twain had to do when he was taking the stage coach to Carson City, Nevada, I was interested in seeing the Carson Sink, so I left the interstate highway and drove down U.S. 95. There was no water in the Carson Sink when I drove through, just thousands of acres of bleak desolate salt-encrusted, dried-up mud. The Bonneville salt flats west of Great Salt Lake in Utah are pristine white and shine in the sun, and look sublimely beautiful; but the Carson Sink looks like dirty snow, with more dirt than snow, and looks merely grim.

South of the Carson Sink, the land rose, and grew greener and greener, and there were ranches on either side of the highway, and then I was in Fallon, Nevada, the self-proclaimed “Oasis of Nevada.” I turned east on Nevada Route 116, drove some ten miles through hay fields and ranch lands, passed through the little hamlet of Stillwater, and then out into the 77,000 acre Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge. East of Stillwater, the land grew steadily drier and less hospitable, and it seemed like the only vegetation was clumps of black greasewood (Sarcobatus spp.).

Stillwater NWR, Sarcobatus spp.

When I went around a bend in the road and suddenly saw open water, I thought at first that I was seeing those heat mirages so common in the Nevada desert. But no, it really was open water, surrounded by tule rushes and cattails.


The Stillwater marshes provide breeding grounds for many birds, and I saw juveniles of several species, including American Coots, Eared Grebes, Pie-billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, and various kinds of swallows. I saw Great Blue Herons, Loggerhead Shrikes, Snowy Egrets, Virgina Rails, White Pelicans — and watching huge White Pelicans glide in graceful formation against the backdrop of distant rugged desert mountains was a sight worth seeing. There were other animals in and around the marsh, too — lizards, and some hidden animal, probably a muskrat, that moved noisily among the rushes just at water level about five feet from where I stood, and and half a dozen jackrabbits.

Jackrabbit, Stillwater NWR

Mark Twain calls this animal a jackass rabbit: “He is well named. He is just like any other rabbit, except that he is from one third to twice as large, has longer legs in proportion to his size, and has the most preposterous ears that ever were mounted on any creature but a jackass.” One of the jackass rabbits I saw started from cover when I got too close, stopped when i froze and stared at me with big black and yellow pop-eyes, let me take a photograph of it, then started suddenly and bounded away and lost himself among the clumps of greasewood.

When I got to Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, the sky was overcast, and the temperature was about 85 degrees — a very pleasant temperature in the dry desert air — but slowly the sun came out and the temperature climbed up to 97 degrees, and there wasn’t any shade to speak of, and I decided it was time to move on. When I sat in the car, almost instantly my back grew wet with sweat; it had been so dry that my sweat dried almost instantly as long as the air could get to me, but once the air was blocked off it soaked my shirt.

From North Dakota to central Nevada the highways are lightly traveled and there were many times when I couldn’t see another vehicle in front of me or behind me. But from Reno to the Bay Area, the highways are heavily traveled, and they wind and twist and go up and down abruptly, and I had to dodge the occasional crazed driver (all of whom seemed to have a California license plate) who thought it great sport to suddenly change lanes and dodge in front of me and slow down and speed up with no apparent rhyme or reason. Driving was no longer enjoyable, and I settled down to suffer.

From Maine to California, I had periodically been monitoring 29.600 MHz, the amateur radio national calling frequency for FM simplex, and in all those miles and hours had heard nothing but static. The driving required too much of my attention to want to try to listen to an audiobook, so I turned on the little 10-meter band radio and started listening to static. Just east of Sacramento, I realized I was hearing someone giving a call sign with a Hawai’i prefix. I replied, he heard me, and I wound up talking to Norm, who lives on the Big Island, some 2,450 miles from Sacramento. Traffic got bad so I had to end the contact — and of course by the time traffic got more reasonable, ten miles west of Sacramento, I could no longer hear Norm, and there was nothing but static once again.

And here I am, back home once more. I like the fact that I don’t have to worry about driving six or seven hours a day any more. I like seeing Carol again. I’m even looking forward to going back to work on Sunday. But I wish vacation weren’t over.

Big Timber, Mont., to Pocatello, Idaho

Every once in a while on a long trip you have a day where nothing goes wrong. That happened today. In fact, today was as close to perfect as I’ve gotten on any cross-country trip. I got up on time, and got on the road on time. The drive was easy, with little traffic and no delays. I arrived at Camas National Wildlife Refuge at four o’clock, with at least four hours to spend there.

The refuge consists of over ten thousand acres of varied habitat — open water, marsh, seasonally dry ponds, uplands with bunch grass and sage brush — along Camas Creek. The refuge provides habitat protection for breeding and migrating birds, but hunting and agriculture are also allowed in parts of the refuge.

Agricultural use of Camas N.W.R.

The weather was perfect, with a temperature of 79 degrees, dry air, light variable breezes, and perfectly clear skies. Almost as soon as I pulled into the parking lot near the refuge headquarters, I flushed a Common Nighthawk from where it was roosting in a tree, and with the sight of it circling around over me calling with a plaintive “peent, peent,” I found myself detached from any thought of workaday affairs. And it got better from there. When you come across inviting green marshlands with large areas of open water in what is close to being a desert landscape, with just over ten inches of precipitation a year, it is an amazing and refreshing sight.

Flooded pool in Camas N.W.R.

The marshlands were teeming with birds. Admittedly, most of them kept far away from me, and I would have seen more birds if I had had a scope. But the light was excellent, and I could make out many of the birds I saw, even from a distance. I saw a good number of birds that had hatched this year. I saw two Trumpeter Swans accompanied a cygnet, a great many Mallards with ducklings, and lots of American Coots with their young — these three species are captured in the photo below, about as they appeared through my binoculars — as well as many other juvenile birds.

Camas N.W.R.

The refuge staff manage the water levels in the pools to maximize food sources, and several of the ponds had been allowed to dry out. These dry ponds looked stark and lifeless at first.


But a closer look at one of them revealed five Pronghorn Antelope — four adults and one juvenile — who were watching me cautiously. I stood watching them watching me, and as I did so a car drove by without even slowing down. A little boy looked at me through the rear window, and I wanted to tell him to tell his parents to turn around and come back and look — but then I got distracted by two juvenile Northern Harriers flying low over the dry grass.

If there was a disappointment in an otherwise perfect day, it was that I didn’t see any Sage Grouse, even though I spent half an hour walking along a trail in the upland habitat near dusk. These uplands hardly merit the name based on elevation, for they are only about ten feet above the level of the marshlands. But that ten feet is enough: the soil is dry gravel, and the vegetation is dominated by short bunch grass — dried a crisp brown in late July — and sagebrush. But I was more than compensated by this disappointment a little later. While I was sitting eating my picnic dinner, with the sun about to set behind the distant mountains, two Swainson’s Hawks tried to roost in nearby trees, only to be repeatedly attacked out by brave Western Kingbirds, and after ten minutes finally driven away, screaming loudly. It was a dramatic conclusion to the day.

I suppose if you are not all that interested in birds, this may not sound like an almost perfect day. Really, though, looking for and identifying birds wasn’t the point. I think we human beings are meant to be outdoors as much as possible, and we are meant to be interacting with other living things as much as possible; evolution has shaped us to this end. Computers and automobiles and toilets and hospitals have made our lives easier and longer and more comfortable, but not necessarily better and more soul-satisfying.

Posted a day late due to poor Internet connection.

Dickinson, N.D., to Big Timber, Mont.

The wind storm from yesterday continued unabated. The National Weather Service warned of sustained winds of twenty to thirty miles per hour, and gusts up to sixty miles per hour. It was an unpleasant drive from Dickinson to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and I was glad to park the car at the trailhead for the Paddock Trail. As soon as I parked the car, I realized that I was right next to a Prairie Dog town; thirty feet from the car, a Prairie Dog sat feeding at the entrance to a hole, warily keeping an eye on me.

Prairie Dog

As i looked around me, I saw more and more Prairie Dog holes, lighter-colored mounds of earth dotting the close-cropped vegetation. The mounds started near the edge of a creek and extended up a gently sloping plain to the foot of a butte.

Prairie Dog town

I estimated that the town covered an area of several acres. I walked up the Paddock Trail to the end of the town. Wherever I walked, a Prairie Dog would give a shrill alarm call, poised at the opening of a hole, ready to dart down inside when I got too close. I saw a pair of Mountain Bluebirds and an immature American Robin hopping around in between the holes; perhaps they were feeding. As the ground rose beyond the edge of the Prairie Dog town, I was more exposed to the full force of the wind, and to occasional spatters of light rain. It wasn’t fun, so I turned back, and decided to try the Jones Creek Trail. It turned out to be a little bit more sheltered, and I walked in for about half an hour, beneath the protecting buttes and amid the sagebrush.


Two female Northern Harriers flew above me, one apparently pursuing the other, twisting and turning through the tree tops, screaming at each other in the face of the high wind. I wanted to just keep walking for the rest of the day, but I had to drive halfway across Montana before nightfall, so I headed back.

When I was almost to the car I saw two people with binoculars around their necks. “Did you see the Harriers?” I said excitedly. They looked at me blankly. “Harriers?” said the man. “You’re not birders?” I said, pointing to the binoculars. “No,” said the man, with undisguised scorn. “Never mind,” I said, and didn’t bother to tell him what he had missed.

I stopped in Beach, North Dakota, for lunch; I avoided the fast food joint right next to the highway and drove a mile into the town and found La Playa Restaurant was open. In the restaurant, classical music was playing, and the young woman at the counter said, “Sit wherever you want, but not at a table that’s not clean yet.” A man with a graying pony tail sat across from a thin middle aged woman and talked about people they knew. An older woman with a grumpy face said to a young waitress, “There’s no lettuce left at the salad bar. The eggs are gone, too.” I ordered a small steak, medium rare. “Here’s your steak, darling,” said the waitress, and it came cooked perfectly. An elderly man and woman walked in, having a conversation that I’d describe as eccentric, with leaps of logic that I couldn’t follow. It was after two o’clock, and the music switched to a country rock radio station. The grumpy-faced woman ate methodically and stoically. I paid my bill, left the restaurant, and drove around a couple of blocks of downtown Beach. The town had a friendly feeling to it, and I particularly liked a hand-lettered sign in the park: PET POOPS YOU SCOOP.

Beach, N.D.

The highway wound through the buttes and over the rivers and creeks of Montana. I was driving right into the teeth of that strong wind, so strong that the car was using about a fifth more gas than usual. I stopped for gas, and kept driving: a broad plain with cultivated fields; fantastically eroded buttes; a glimpse of a river with muddy water; softly rounded buttes; huge rolls of hay; cattle at a water hole; a small valley with a cluster of ranch buildings and trees whipping in the wind; another creek; another butte; the landscape passed by, always a little different, slowly changing as I drove onwards, the big sky overhead. I had a recording of of Terry Reilly’s minimalist masterpiece “In C,” and it seemed to fit the passing landscape perfectly: slowly changing, a sense of excitement and discovery slowly waxing and waning.

I stopped for a moment at a roadside rest area where I looked out over Rosebud Creek. The old Chinese art critics said the highest form of landscape painting depicted a landscape that you could wander in. This was a landscape you could wander in: the railroad winding between a cliff and a river; a large island in the river; ranch buildings just visible hear an there among the wide-spaced trees; mysterious bluffs in the distance leading to a hidden prairie beyond.

Rosebud Creek

Rosebud Creek

Rosebud Creek

By the time I reached Billings, I had to buy gas. Carol had said Billings was worth stopping in. Had Carol been with me — Carol, that best of traveling companions, who always knows where the interesting places are to be found in any city — I’m sure I would have found the funky quarter where there are good cheap restaurants, a farmer’s market, a used bookstore, and a coffee shop with free wifi. But since Carol could not come on this trip, all I found was a supermarket and a gas station.

This post is for Carol, who asked for lots of photos.

Big Springs, Neb., to Avoca, Iowa

As you drive along Interstate 80, the people you meet in desert places, like in Winnemuca, tend to be friendly, tolerant of eccentricity, with a live-and-let-live attitude towards the world. The people you meet in mountainous places, like Laramie, tend to be outdoorsy and a little bit macho or macha, mountain-men and mountain-women who like to prove themselves. And the people you meet in the Midwest are courteous, pleasant, and just plain nice.

As anecdotal evidence to prove this theory, I offer the desk clerk at the Motel 6 in Winnemuca: friendly and tolerant even when he had to chase people out of the motel pool after the posted closing time, and on the edge of being eccentric himself. And I offer the clerk in the food coop in Laramie, who works in the ski industry, who obviously lives for his time outdoors, who was polite but uninterested in anything but outdoor sports. And I offer the waitresses as Ember’s Restaurant in Avoca, Iowa, who were unfailingly polite to me though I was the last customer of the night, the only customer in the place; they even chatted pleasantly with me and made me feel welcome while they were cleaning tables and mopping floors around me.

Of these three regions, where would I prefer to live? The idea of proving myself to the junior Paul Bunyans of the mountainous regions is not very appealing to me. I like the niceness of the Midwest, but I’m too much of a New Englander to trust constant niceness. But I’d like to live with the desert rats: I like friendly and tolerant people, and I’d fit in pretty well with the eccentrics.

East of Kearney, Neb., I saw a sign that said “Rowe Audubon Sanctuary Next Exit,” so I took the next exit. I crossed over several channels of the Platte River, turned right onto a gravel county road where a sign told me to, and soon pulled into the parking lot of the sanctuary headquarters, a stone’s throw from where the Platte River rushed by under cottonwood trees.


A staffer in the the headquarters building told me that they were experiencing a “high water event”: heavy snow in the Front Range in April, followed by heavy rains in May, caused high water in the Platte River in June. I found that the water was indeed high, right up to the main trail in places, and covering a number of small side trails completely.

It was hot — better than ninety five degrees, with humidity that made it feel hotter — and the mosquitoes were biting. But I hardly noticed. Northern Bobwhites were calling everywhere, and I saw several, running along the edge of a field, bursting into flight when I got too close, flying from a low perch in a cottonwood into the brush. I haven’t seen that many bobwhites since I was a child, and their calls brought me back to childhood, listening to them call in the fields behind our house: “Bob — white! Bob, bob, white!” over and over in the mysterious dark humid summer evenings.

It wasn’t just the Northern Bobwhites that drew my attention away from heat and mosquitoes. Dicksissels sang throughout the fields, a female Baltimore Oriole screamed at me when I got too close to her nest, a three-point buck stared at me from the edge of a corn field then sprang away, Tree Swallows zipped past just a few feet above my head. Overhead, high cirrus clouds refracted the sun into red, yellow, green, and blue; and since cirrus clouds are made of ice, this created a partial ice bow.


A big old rabbit stretched out in the shade with its legs splayed out fore and aft, so that its belly was on the cool, damp ground. It looked at me imperiously, daring me to come any closer, ready to spring into action if I did.


But I went back by the other path, because I suddenly realized how hot I was, and how good the air-conditioned car would feel. Besides, I had been walking around for two hours, and if I were to get to Avoca, Iowa, at a reasonable hour, I had better start driving.

Web of relationships

Today I was at Pescadero Marsh to look at live birds, but the dead things proved more interesting. It was just after low tide, and I saw two empty crab shells (prob. Red Crabs, Cancer productus), looking as though they had been eaten by gulls; interesting, but a pretty common sight, and it’s more interesting to actually see a gull eating a crab. Then I found the empty shells of two small crustaceans, organisms I’d never seen before. Here’s one of them:


I have no idea what species this is, though I suspect it’s a fairly common organism.

Later, I walked along the dike near Butano Creek, and came across a dead mole (the notebook next to the mole is marked in inches):


Given the size of those front feet and the short tail, I’d say it was a Broad-footed Mole (Scapanus latimanus). This is the third dead mole I’ve found in six months.

What interests me when i see dead things in the field is trying to figure out how they died, and how they are tied in to the ecosystem. The Red Crabs were easy to figure out — probably eaten by gulls. But why did that little crustacean die? it didn’t look as though another organism had tried to eat it, so was it simply left high and dry at low tide? As for the Broad-footed Mole, there was a definite hole in the other side of the animal, which could have been made by a bird’s bill; I saw Red-tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers hunting in the marsh; perhaps a raptor killed the mole, then got scared away before it could eat.

These are just possible scenarios; I’ll never know what really happened; but what I do know is that somehow these dead creatures reveal something about the web of relationships between organisms.

Pescadero Marsh

Pescadero Marsh

I went for a walk in Pescadero Marsh for the first time today. It’s a pretty remarkable place. It encompasses a variety of habitats, including pickleweed salt marsh, freshwater marsh, riparian corridor, sandy beach, old sand dunes, etc. Birdlife ranged from birds typical of beaches, like Sanderlings and Black Turnstones; to birds typical of freshwater marshes, like Marsh Wrens and Common Yellowthroats.

There were signs of other resident animals as well. Along the edge of Pescadero Creek, you pass by what look like big piles of sticks, but they’re actually houses built by Dusky-footed Wood Rats (Neotoma fuscipes). In the photo below, the tape measure at lower left is extended to 12 inches (300 cm); so this particular wood rat house is about four feet high (1.3 m).

house of Neotoma fuscipes

From a little further down the same trail, you can see a Great Blue Heron rookery. Their nests look like big piles of sticks, piles that may be three or more feet from bottom to top, that somehow got stuck high up in the branches of dead trees. I counted at least eight herons sitting on nests — four foot high birds roosting on three foot high piles of sticks thirty or forty feet above the ground.

immature Phalacrocorax auritus

On a secluded part of the beach on the other side of Highway 1, an immature Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) was too stupid, or too dazed, to move away when I walked past it. It stood quite still while I took its photo (above). The other birds and animals I saw were far less trusting than this cormorant: as soon as humans came into view, they flew or scuttled away out of danger. Except for the fifty or so Elephant Seals I saw lying on the rocks out beyond the beach: they did not seem to pay any attention to the humans walking on the beach; but then, they were well out of reach of any meddling humans, protected by a couple hundred feet of surf and slippery rocks.

Mammal signs

Yesterday, Carol noticed some scat and other mammal signs in our garden. First, something has been eating the tree kale Carol has been growing. The bitten-off leaves and stems are some 425 mm / 17 inches from the ground:


This seems a little high off the ground for rabbits. According Jameson and Peeters Mammals of California, the rabbit most likely to be found in our area is Audubon’s Cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii). The total length, from nose to tail, of Audubon’s Cottontail is 370-400 mm, or about 15 inches; it would be a stretch (but possible) for a rabbit that size to reach up 425 mm to nibble on stems and leaves.

Right next to the tree kale is a deposit of scat: many small pellets, all about 5-7 mm in diameter. This, according to Olas Murie in A Field Guide to Animal Tracks would be absolutely typical of cottontails. But it may be coincidence that there’s a deposit of cottontail scat right next to the bitten-off twigs, and it could be that a deer got into our yard; Carol has seen deer down the cul-de-sac on which we live, and we suspect that they move up and down San Mateo Creek, which is less than a block from our house.

There’s another scat right next to another of our garden beds. Here’s my sketch of it:


The lack of taper on the ends, and the relatively large size, leads me to believe that these are raccoon scat. Murie says that raccoon scat can be difficult to identify, and “may be confused with the larger skunks and opossum.” But given the size — on the large size for raccoons, probably too big for skunks or opossums — and the fact that we regularly see raccoons at night in our garden, I’m going to guess this is from a raccoon.


After a week of twelve hour days, getting everything set for the first day of Sunday school, I was ready for a break. When Carol suggested we go for a late-afternoon walk at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, I was ready to go.

About an hour into our walk, Carol pointed down at the ground. “What’s that?” It was a small animal, dead. A mouse? No, a closer look revealed it was a mole. I turned it over carefully. There was a bit of a flat place where it had been lying; presumably decomposition was beginning. But you could still see the general shape of the animal. I admired it for a while then made a sketch, slightly smaller than the actual size of 110 mm total length, which I refined once we got home:

Shrew-mole, Neurotrichus gibbsii

Of the two species of mole which inhabit our area, it was clearly a Shrew-mole (Neurotrichus gibbsii). According to Jameson and Peeters, in Mammals of California, we humans don’t really know what this species eats, or how it reproduces: “The Shrew-mole seems to feed indiscriminately on a board spectrum of soil-dwelling insects, pill-bugs, and centipedes”; it “appears to breed in late winter”; and “little is known of its reproductive habits” (my emphases). Another organism to which we humans live in close proximity, but about which we know little.