Saturday, September 7, 2013

Bobcat Woes

I always love seeing bobcats while I am out working.  I like seeing them more than any other carnivore out there..although  I would love to see a mountain lion someday, but from a safe distance.  I have had several up close encounters with bobcats over the years and I always feel excited and exhilarated after each one.  They are such gorgeous animals.  I recently had a close encounter with one while walking a trail I use often to get to my study area.  Just as I was stepping foot onto the trail, I see a young, skinny,  rusty colored bobcat right in front of me.  It did not see me so I froze in place so I would not scare it.  It walked along the trail smelling the ground and then sat down.  It looked at me, and tried moving its head a bit to focus on me to figure out what I was since I stood completely still.  I moved a little and it figured out I was alive and got back up and walked a little more along the trail, still sniffing, not being very concerned that I was there, but looked me right in the eyes.  It wagged its tail when we made eye contact.  Usually you are not supposed to make eye contact, but I could not help looking into that wild face.  We held gazes for several seconds and then it looked away, sniffed the ground and looked at me again making eye contact, and once again wagged its tail until we lost eye contact. It finally slowly walked into the bushes and down a slope away from me.  I only managed a photo with my old flip cellphone which did not allow me to zoom in.  I could not manage to get my real camera out of my pack since all the movement and noise would have surely scared it away.
I love to think that these wild animals are out there…secretive and not seen by many and not affected by people in their everyday lives.  Recently, I have learned differently.  I have attended a couple mountain lion talks about studies being done in California and have found that although these animals don’t come into contact with people often, they are greatly affected by us by the poisons we put into the ecosystem. 
Basically the studies showed that most of the carnivores: bobcats, coyotes, fisher, mountain lions, etc. (and ALL of the mountain lions trapped and tested) in California tested positive for anticoagulant rodenticide. This is a poison commonly used for rats, squirrels, etc. that causes the animal to “bleed out” since it keeps the blood from clotting.  It is a slow, painful death.  Even animals in remote parts of the state that are not near any sort of civilization (fishers living in old growth forests) tested positive!    Testing was done in the Central Valley where it was suspected most of the rodenticide found in animals would be the result of the poisons put out to protect local farms/agriculture.  All results from areas tested showed that the poisons in these animals system MAINLY came from HOUSEHOLD use (d-con rat poison, etc.)
I urge people to stop and think before putting poisons into the environment as usually the intended victim is not always the one ingesting the poison. Birds of prey (hawks, eagles, owls, etc.) are also affected as they may feed on small mammals (rats, mice, squirrel, gophers, etc.) that have been poisoned.   If you are dealing with rodents in or around your home, the best solution is to do some habitat modification or trapping.  Poison should ONLY be used as a LAST resort and the type used should be researched. 

 Most toxic chemicals with long lasting effects include:

Less toxic choices include:

More information about wildlife and poison can be found here:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Reflecting on Reflections

Many people wonder why birds crash into their windows or simply peck at them. Birds don’t understand the concept of glass or it’s reflective properties and may just see it as an extension of the sky. This behavior can greatly injure a bird or kill it. If a bird crashes into your window and seems stunned, you can put the bird in a shoebox with air holes and place it in a quiet, dark place for about an hour. Sometimes all they need is a little bit of time to recuperate. After this time, you should try and release the bird and see if it can fly away on it’s own. If it cannot, and the bird still seems disoriented or has any obvious wounds or other injuries you should seek help from a local wildlife rehabilitation center. Don’t attempt to care for the bird yourself as this is illegal.
Birds are often seen pecking at windows and car mirrors during the breeding season. Males are full of testosterone at this time of year and become very territorial, and will often mistake their reflection for a rival male. This behavior can be discouraged by making your windows less reflective by closing curtains or shades, or by placing decals on your windows. Decals are sold specifically for this purpose and come in hawk-shaped silhouettes or something more subtle like butterflies or snowflakes. Many are treated to reflect back ultra-violet light that acts as deterrent to birds making contact with the window. Although the birds can easily see these decals, they appear almost transparent to the human eye. You can also try breaking up the reflection by applying strips of masking tape in a criss-cross pattern to your windows, or by drawing lines on them with a bar of soap. Adding a screen, net or other barrier outside the window, and moving bird feeders, birdhouses and bird baths away from windows also helps.
Birds attacking car mirrors can be discouraged by simply covering the mirrors when your car is not in use. Potholders or plastic grocery bags with a rubber band to hold it in place work well. If window reflection is attracting them to your car, you might consider investing in a car cover.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Home is where you make it

I have been a proud homeowner for the last two months. I never dreamed that I would be in this situation being that I was born and raised in California where house prices are astronomical, and working in a career that typically does not pay well. I grew up in San Francisco living in apartments or “flats” as they were called there. After that I had many places that I called “home”. As a wildlife biologist, I did a lot of traveling over the years, working on projects that lasted anywhere from 3 to 6 months. While I always had a permanent residence, I also had many “home away from home” experiences. I sometimes had nothing more than a tent to call home. Other jobs had me living in apartments in a city, houses in the forest, and one even had me living in a literal shack! I have not only lived in unusual buildings, but unusual places. I spent a total of 9 months living on an island, and another 2 living in the Arctic Circle on a compound with a bunch of oil drillers. Between projects I would return to my permanent residence which was close-packed apartments, which we usually managed. Not only was my ceiling someones floor, and the walls on either side of me shared….but these people could come to my door at anytime…day or night…to complain or request a repair. We never had much privacy, and could never be left alone. We finally moved to a real house after 16 years of apartment living. It was a great place in the middle of the Angeles National Forest complete with mountain stream outside our door. We loved it, but it was an expensive rental and not our own. Finally after dreaming about owning a home for many years, house prices dropped dramatically and on a whim, I went to a first homebuyers workshop. I figured MAYBE we could buy a house in a year or two. From the time I took the class, to the time I was living in my new home was ONLY 3 months later. The whole process was fast and easy. We had many friends who were having a terrible time trying to buy a place, but everything sort of fell perfectly into place for us. We feel so blessed to finally have a place to call our own, even at this late stage in our lives.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Hike of a lifetime

I give up a city kid in a concrete jungle. My only experience with wildlife were some pigeons downtown, gulls at the beach and crabs that would grab our toes as we went into the ocean to play. I never got to experience summer camp, girl scouts, or any of those things that most normal kids did. Growing up a poor inner-city kid just did not have opportunities like that. There was no such thing as family vacations either..I did go on a few with friends families, and got to spent most of my summers in LA visiting my sister. If not for her, I probably would have never left San Francisco.
Even though I was a city kid..I always loved animals, and read as much as I could about them, and watched shows about them as well. One of my favorites was Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. I did not get to experience nature first hand very much at all, but was taken on a field trip when I was 9 years old to Samuel Pete Taylor Park. To be honest, I am not even sure where it is located..the outskirts of San Francisco I guess..but I have ALWAYS remembered the name as it made such an impression on me. This was my first and only experience hiking in nature up to this point in my life.
I was absolutely fascinated by the wildness of it all..had never seen trees, plants or animals in this way before. When the hike was over I did not want to go back. Me and another student begged our teachers to let us finish out the trail. Amazingly they did! This would never happen today. We were left to finish the trail by ourselves and then hike back down alone where the rest of the group would meet us. We were given a brief warning by the teachers before they left, about bobcats and other animals we might see. I remember having absolutely NO fear at all of any animal I might encounter on the trail…it was all too exciting and fascinating to me!
I feel that this field trip was a pivotal point in my life. I realized then how deeply I cared for animals and nature. This was the very start of the many travels and journeys I would take as a wildlife biologist. It made me realize how impressionable children can be and how important it is to get them outdoors and experiencing nature. Almost every biologist I know first became interested in their career by having a positive early childhood experience in nature. If I had never taken that hike, my life may have taken a completely different course.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The nest is yet to come

People often ask what my typical work day is like and what I mostly do (from March until August) is nest search. I find the nests of tiny little grey endangered birds. I monitor these birds religiously keeping track of when they arrive, when they find a mate, when they build their nest, when they lay their eggs, how many they lay, when they hatch, how many hatch, and when their chicks leave the nest, and then I follow up to make sure they survived after they left the nest. I also try and keep track of when they leave the area to migrate back to Mexico. This may all sound like a lot of info to gather..and believe is! I will also add that I have to do this for up to 142 pairs of birds. This is an enormous amount of info and that is why I spend 5-6 months of each year, 8-9 hours a day working outside in the field gathering it. Luckily, nest searching has become one of my favorite things to do!!
I was first introduced to nest searching in the spring of 2000 while working with Henslow’s Sparrows in Tennessee. I had no nest searching skills to speak of and really did not understand how one would go about finding a birds nest. I learned that I would soon be sneaking up on birds and observing them for long periods of time while trying to be as still and quiet as possible. There were certain rules to follow as well such as never making a trail to the nest. You could not walk straight to a nest then go back the way you came as this could lead a predator right to it. You had to sort of walk by the nest and glance in as you passed. Also, we had to keep an eye out for predators (especially other birds) who could and would watch us to find out nest locations. Jays were especially adept at finding nests. I heard stories about one project where all the nests were flagged 5 meters south of the nest. A smart jay came along and figured out the pattern and went to every nest with a flag marking its location and ate them all! If a potential predator might be around we sometimes had to do “fake” nest checks. We would approach several bushes in the area (one holding the real nest) and check them all, peering into each bush to throw off the jays, crows, mockingbirds, or ravens that might be keeping an eye on us. We also did not want to draw cowbirds (a parasitic species) to the nests either.
Different species pose different challenges to finding their nest. Some birds are ground nesters, some scrub or tree nesters, while others will nest in cavities or crevices. The nests can be located at a range of heights depending on species as well. Nests are composed of all sorts of materials: moss, spider webs, sticks, branches, flowers, snake skin, feathers, twigs, mud, leaves, and sometimes even man-made objects. Each time I find a nest, made out of a variety of materials, and containing eggs of different sizes, shapes, colors, with different markings like spots, etc…it is like finding a work of art. To me, they are natures little masterpieces.
When I nest search I get into a sort of “one with nature” mode. I wear only earth tone colors so I blend in with the scenery, and will crawl into a bush or scrub and just sit absolutely still, moving nothing but my eyeballs and just “become” part of nature. After sitting there for a while I just seem to blend in as I have had many close encounters with animals while doing this. I once had a whole family of quail (mom and 15 tiny babies) run by me, completely unaware of me, and so close I could have reached my hand out and touched them. I have also had deer, and coyote walk right up to me as well while in this comatose state. Some of the more curious birds such as wrens and hummingbirds have come literally within an inch of my face or my eyes.
Some nests take a very long time to find, and I feel I am up against a clock somehow on some bizarre game show where the bird is my opponent. I have had to crawl into the territories of some fussy birds that would freak out if they saw me. One little bird would come and find me no matter how quietly I entered it’s territory and no matter how far outside of the territory I would start to crawl. It would end up perching right above my head and would start scolding me. It was like I was playing hide and seek with the bird, with me always losing! I swear the bird enjoyed it. When I have a bird this challenging it is always a huge triumph when I find it’s nest. I feel exhilarated and sometimes a little giddy and like I have really accomplished something that day.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy nest searching so much is because it is a challenge, and you can set goals as to how many nests you want to find that day, or what particulars birds nest you want to find that day, etc. and then you can really focus on the task and get it done. I thrive on setting goals and then meeting them. I am definitely a “to do” lister and finding nests is sort of like completing everything on your “to do” list for that day. It is a test in patience, focus, using observational skills, the ability to be quiet and still, to be sneaky, to outwit nature, and sometimes it involves a lot of luck! No matter how you find the nest, it is always quite satisfying in the end.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Got baby birds?

Since the bird breeding season is almost here, I thought I would share what one should do if they happen to find a baby bird this spring. It seems so many people mistake fledglings as being abandoned that they may inadvertently end up killing a baby bird by "saving" it. This is the advice I usually give:

If the bird is fully feathered, it is most likely a fledgling and has left the nest on it's own and it's parents are caring for it. It is normal for birds to leave the nest before they can fly. You need to replace it where you found it..preferably in a scrub or tree so it is relatively safe from predators, and the parents should come back to feed it. If it is unfeathered...then look for a nest and if you can find it...replace it into the nest. Do not worry about your scent being on the chick..birds have a very poorly developed sense of smell and will NOT reject a baby that has been touched. If you cannot find a nest, get the bird to a local wildlife rehab for it's best chance of survival. Also, keep in mind, it is illegal for you to try and raise this bird on your own. All birds in the U.S. are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Look for a rehab here:

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Gossip Bird

When I was first hired in 2006, to study the Least Bell's Vireo I had never seen or heard one before. They are an endangered subspecies (one of four) of the Bell's Vireo. It is a little non-distinct gray bird that occupies mostly riparian habitats. It does however have a very distinct song. I was given a mnemonic device to recognize its song. A fellow birder told me to think of the vireo as “the gossip bird” as when it sings it quickly says “You tell me what she said about mmmeeeee, I'll tell you what she said about yyyooouuuu”. Play the video below to see if you can hear the gossip for yourself.
I was told they arrive every year around March 15th, after migrating back from Mexico. I went out to my study site on the 15th, but never heard or saw one. I went out on subsequent days...and still nothing! I was a little frustrated, but not too frustrated since no one had heard them in the watershed yet. Finally the days turned into weeks, and still no sign of the bird. They had never been this late before and I started to think they would not show up at all. Just my luck..get a full time permanent position studying a bird that did not exist! Finally, on April 15th, a full month after their proposed arrival date I heard its distinct song. I immediately called my boss to tell her the good news. She questioned me to make sure it was indeed a Least Bell's Vireo I was hearing since it was my first. I told her I was positive as their call can really not be mistaken for anything else. I finally spotted the bird as well, to confirm its species. I was the first to hear one that year and in the days to follow more and more vireos showed up. We never did figure out why the birds were a month late..all we could assume was that they got caught up in some storm and were blown off course, or that many left late due to the storm.
We typically name our birds..usually after something to help us remember their we have birds named after trees, rocks, or other naturally occurring things in nature, but we also name them after man-made items found out on our sites. I named my very first bird “Riker” as a tribute to a Star Trek The Next Generation character. William Riker was Captain Picards' “Number One” officer. Riker was my “Number One” bird!