September 26, 2016

Mouse War 2: Ballad of a Deer Mouse

In the 1959 Russian movie Ballad of a Soldier, a young war hero tries to go home on leave only to be distracted by multiple plot complications until almost his entire leave period is used up.

Could there be a movie called Ballad of a Deer Mouse? The Mouse guerilla moves cross-country, through many interactions and adventures, returning to what he thinks is his new home.

Only it's my home, you cable-chewing little collectivists.

Know Your Enemy.

Further analysis reveals that deporting Mice a distance of, for example, 150 yards (or meters) from the house merely creates a "catch and release" situation. "When both house mice and deer mice inhabiting granaries in grassland in Alberta were displaced, homing behaviour was poorly expressed in house mice, but well developed in deer mice."

Some went 1500 meters, even crossing a river and bypassing areas of good habitat. 

Another researcher reports, "One [radio-collared Peromyscus] mouse was traced as it returned to its nest 300 meters in 1 hour. This rate of homing is many times more rapid than the rate usually determined by conventional methods for tracking small terrestrial mammals."

The owner of a cafe in Westcliffe, Colo., said last Thursday (as we shared Year of the Rodent stories) that her daughter and son-in-law, who live near the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs, had live-trapped some deer mice and marked them with dabs of nail polish. These were released more than a mile from their house, and at least two came back to be re-captured.

It's Not About Us

When I was at CU-Boulder in the 1980s, I had a friend who moved from Nederland, up in the mountains, to an apartment in town. It was about twenty miles by car. Somehow in the move, her cat ran off and could not be found in Nederland. Some weeks later, it showed at the apartment  — where it had never been before!

We have all heard such stories. There was even a book and a Disney movie about one such "incredible journey."

Our collie-mix dog, the late Shelby, disappeared one winter — I was pretty sure that she was stolen and I had some suspects in mind, but they had disappeared from the area. Two months later, about 8:30 in the morning, she came walking up the driveway, skinny and with her claws worn down to nubs. We never knew where she came back from or how far she came.

These stories  are heart-warming because they show us that our companion critters are indeed incredible, and they want to be with us.

The Mice don't want to be with us. They just want what is ours.

I got five last night in one trap in the garage, all young recruits still in their gray basic uniforms. I was going to town, so they went five miles down the road to what may become the new deportation site, at the edge of a large pasture.

Maybe I should set aside some nail polish.

September 18, 2016

Mouse War: We're Kicking It Up a Notch

Photo credit Elizabeth Wolber, U. of North Carolina
This has been a yuge rodent year, deer mice (Peromyscus spp.) in particular. Some friends who live in a similar foothills ecosystem visited last week, and they agreed. One said that her mother, who lives next door, had trapped 66 mice this summer.

And we are just now getting to the cooler weather when they start invading our house in earnest, only it is more like last autumn's invasion never stopped.

I had set traps that I patrolled each day in the garage and connecting basement, but now the Mice are in the house upstairs.

When they ran around on the kitchen counter and gnawed on vegetables left out, we were annoyed.

When we found Mouse turds in the bookcases, we were a little disgusted.

When one got into the bedroom and awakened us at night with its rattlings and rustlings and chewing, we were highly annoyed, especially M. who is a light sleeper at the best of times.

And yesterday when I discovered that a Mouse had chewed the line between the telephone jack and my DSL modem/router, I was ready to declare war. Finding Mouse turds on my desk is one thing, but losing the Internet is serious to someone who works at home.

A red line has been drawn. There is no more "Reset" button with the Mice.

What has changed is that I must fight this war in a blue helmet, because the UN High Commissioner for Rodents (M. herself) has declared that only "humane" methods may be used. No more putting a snap trap baited with peanut butter in every shadowy corner.  Now I am becoming an expert in brands of live trap. (The Havahart two-door mouse trap works well but catches only one at a time.)

Thus the battle has begun. The first step in our larger strategy is to reclaim the bedroom, where Mouse forces had struck at our communications infrastructure. Repairs were quickly made and one of our best traps deployed in case the Mice return. Last night there were no Mouse disturbances.

As we reclaim the living space, having blocked a key infiltration point (where the TV antenna cable enters the living room through the floor) with steel wool, we will again take the battle to the Mouse beachhead, the attached garage. Some food caches have already been located and destroyed.

While sunflower seeds for the birds are stored in a lidded container, we had been leaving the feeders out when we brought them in at night (because of bears). No more! Now the feeders go into an empty garbage can with a lid so that they are not subject to nocturnal pilferage by Mouse insurgents.

At this point, some readers may ask, "You speak of wishing to involve indigenous forces such as Foxes. Why not deploy Cat commandos? They are silent, nocturnal, and effective."

Yes they are, but the High Commissioner, even though she has great affection for Cats, is worried about ethnic friction with the Dog element.

Unlike our previous Dogs, who lived side by side with Cats although they could never speak Cat clearly, this Dog (a/k/a Problem Dog or Rehab Dog) has had no previous Cat training. She fears the consequences of introducing Cat forces into what he considers to be his exclusive area of operations.

Therefore, rather than quick surgical Cat strikes, we fight a war of attrition, complete with holding cells and deportation back to Mousistan (a location about a mile up the road, where I left the rattlesnake).

September 13, 2016

Skis versus Snowshoes, Neolithic Style

(Photo credit: The Telegraph.)
I tend to think of skis as a Eurasian invention, while I associate snowshoes with North America. Well, I am wrong.  Proto-Italians worked out the "bearpaw" design more than 5,000 years ago.

Here is an older post about the "true" birthplace of skiing, but the photo link is dead, because this is the Internet.

September 11, 2016

You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive – Or with All Ten Fingers

I like to use scout cameras, although I am not as adept as the Codger. Some of my cameras have simply died, a couple were mauled by bears, and one was stolen.

But I have never had one explode.

This summer, exploding booby-trap (or as we say now, IED) cameras were news in Harlan County, Kentucky.
“Kentucky State Police Post 10 Harlan is investigating a case involving game cameras equipped with explosive devices,” read a press release from the state police. “These cameras have been placed in wooded areas in Harlan County. Kentucky State Police are asking for the public’s assistance with information on who is placing these cameras out in Harlan County.”
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives posted a warning:
In Harlan County, Kentucky, there have been three confirmed incidents of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) being hidden inside trail cameras, which exploded and injured people. An operation was conducted and nine IEDs were located and dismantled. Other devices, however, may still exist. Some of the trail cameras were found abandoned on paths in rural areas routinely accessed via the Dave Smith Drainage Area (Woodland Hills Subdivision, Harlan, KY), on the Little Black Mountain Spur in Harlan County.
A suspect was arrested and indicted, but in true Harlan fashion, chose to go out in a blaze of gunfire.

A man who had found one of the suspect's cameras lost several fingers and suffered other injuries. According to reports, the cameras were left up without batteries or data cards in them. When the victim took one home and put batteries in it, he completed the circuit to fire a small explosive charge concealed inside.
Sawaf, an avid hunter, owned and operated Harlan Counseling Inc. since 2014 and had a master’s degree in mental health counseling, according to court documents. The business was in a small strip of offices just off U.S. 421.
 And there is a "hillbilly heroin" angle too.
More than a decade before Sawaf’s arrest, his father, Ali Sawaf, was convicted on eight charges related to distribution of OxyContin and other painkillers. At the time of his conviction in 2002, Ali Sawaf was a urologist in Harlan County.
Pop culture reference in the post titleand here is the song.

September 08, 2016

Meet Timmy Woodhouse, the Segregated Scrub Jay

Timmy the scrub jay (Bureau of Land Management).
Some years ago, M. and bought a parcel of land — about an acre — adjoining ours, because we were afraid someone would buy and build on it, and we wanted some space. The purchase strained our budget, so we came up with the idea of soliticiting donations for a bird refuge — "Mission: Scrub Jay." (The name was inspired by these people.)

A little bourbon was required for the planning process. If Internet-based crowdfunding had been available in the mid-1990s, we might have gone for it.

Our spokes-bird was going to be Timmy the Scrub Jay. Western scrub jays are far from endangered, but we hoped that donors might confuse them with the Florida scrub jays, which are.

In the long run, the only result was that around here, all scrub jays are named Timmy.

Meanwhile, wheels were turning at the American Ornithologists' Union. All this time, Timmy had been under the impression that he was a Western scrub jay. But as of this summer, he is a separate species with a new name: Woodhouse's Scrub [hyphen] Jay. 

He is very pleased with his new surname. He might put up a "Don't Californicate Colorado" sticker. He is indifferent to whether you capitalize Scrub-Jay or not, as he favors neither an Audobon-ish "up style" nor an Associated Press "down style."

He does, however, favor acorns and sunflower seeds.

August 29, 2016

Where Are These Foxes When I Need Them?


It has been a major rodent year, building on 2015. First, the rabbits. For years we hardly saw a rabbit or a rabbit track, and when we did, M. and I would comment on the sighting to each other.

Now I see cottontails frequently in the woods. One hopped across the driveway this morning. Another was under a bird feeder. The greenhouse vents are now protected with chicken wire and some of the more vulnerable vegetable garden beds screened as well.

It's not enough. There are mice as well. Through the summer they invaded the house and garage in platoons; I was live-trapping three or four a night, night after night — and sometimes in the daytime.

These mice I dumped in a brushy gully about 150 yards from the house. (I hope that that was far enough to keep them from coming back.) It's a smorgasbord for foxes! Where are the foxes?

August 20, 2016

Why Mountain Bikes Don't Belong in Wilderness Areas

As its name suggests, the Wilderness Act of 1964 has been in effect for fifty years, long enough that most Americans have grown up with it.

From a campfire-argument point of view, I could say that our culture is weird if we have to draw lines around a small portion of the country — only 2.7 percent of the Lower 48 — and say, "In these places, natural processes are more important than the human ego."

In other words, plants and animals come ahead of human exploitation, whether that be for economic or recreational reasons.

(Like Gary Snyder, I define "natural" as those self-organizing processes not under the ego's control — including most of what your body is doing right now.)

On the ground, the "wilderness" designation usually means no engines, no wheels. If you want to do in, you walk, ride a horse (or other equine), paddle, or float. Some of these can even be done by people with disabilities!

Come now two senators from Utah, Orrin Hatch and  Mike Lee, who want to allow bicycles in wilderness areas.

Since I really doubt that either one of them lives for mountain biking, I suspect that this is just a thinly disguised attack on the very idea of designated wilderness. They don't care about bicyclists as such, they are thinking about oil wells etc.

As the "camel's nose under the tent," mountain bikers work pretty well, better than ATV riders, for example. After all, they are "using the quads God gave them," as a certain anti-ATV bumper stick says.

But they still don't belong in designated wilderness areas, not under the spirit of the Wilderness Act, which has pretty well proved its worth in fifty years.

Yes, bikes are quiet(er) than motor vehicles, but as they rush over the trail (go to get cool vid on that helmet-mounted GoPro camera, right?), they are still a disturbance.

Let's keep Wilderness Areas as they are, places where the needs of plants and wildlife come first. Sure, we can go there with respect, but our desires to put knobby tires everywhere in the name of recreation can be limited in these small slices of America.

If you think that mountain bikes are cuddly and harmless, you can make your case — but then you are opening the door for the next mechanical intrusion. And the next. And the next.

August 17, 2016

A Singles Bar for Beavers

Orphan beaver kit in July  2016 (Courtesy Wet Mountain Wildlife).


Beavers normally live in family groups, "colonies that may contain 2 to 12 individuals. The colony is usually made up of the adult breeding pair, the kits of the year, and kits of the previous year or years" (Source here).

You can't just drop a strange beaver in and expect it to be accepted.

So how can orphaned beavers be returned to the wild?

This month the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife returned this beaver and some others to a stream where no beavers currently live, but which is good potential habitat.

Supervised (not pursued!) by a game warden's dog, the beaver swims away (Colorado Parks and Wildlife).

It checks out its new habitat (Colorado Parks & Wildlife).

The reintroduced beavers are all unrelated, of course. They normally mate in mid-winter, with kits born in the spring. So what we have here is a sort of a singles bar for Castor canadensis, with the hope that at least one or two breeding pairs will be created.

It is hard to sex beavers by looking at them, incidentally. Their external genitalia look the same. Some people can tell male from female by sniffing.

August 05, 2016

Rattlesnake, You Can't Go Home Again. Or Can You?

When I relocated the rattlesnake last Saturday after it alarmed the guests in the cabin, the wife of the couple staying there asked me, "It won't come back, will it?"

"No," I said, "It won't." But what did I know? Especially when a day or two later, when M. was walking our dog on the county road, and encountered one of the neighbors, who told her how she and her husband had encountered a rattlesnake earlier along that road — and it was buzzing angrily.  (He had gone home for his gun, but on his return, the snake was gone.)

We drove "our" snake about a mile up that road when we relocated it to its new home. Do they come back? It was time to ask Mr. Google.

Mr. Google brought me to a guest-blog post by Erika Nowak, a herpetologist from Northern Arizona University.  (Her master's thesis was on the "biological effects and management effectiveness of nuisance rattlesnake translocation.")

She is no fan of translocation — it breaks up snake social groups — unless the alternative is death or habitat destruction. (See also the Advocates for Snake Preservation website.)

She writes that it is "best to relocate within 1 square kilometer (0.6 mile): Short-distance translocation is considered to be within the rattlesnake’s normal home range; a general rule of thumb in the southwestern U.S. that I use for larger species like western diamond-backed rattlesnakes is an average of 1 square kilometer."

And this: 
The reality is that in the short term, most adult rattlesnakes will try to home back to where they were moved from. This phase often results in higher than normal mortality rates from disease, predation, and being hit by cars.
Or death from a neighbor who has the usual Western "all snakes must die" outlook.

A hummingbird can fly from southern Mexico or wherever, start hovering at the spot where the feeder hung last year, and we think that is normal for birds. But cold-blooded reptiles never seem as clever as birds to me.

So now we are wondering, was that "our" rattlesnake coming home again? Or was it another member of its extended family, in which case this is not only a big mouse year but a big rattlesnake year.

July 30, 2016

On Being Ranger Rick, Or Not

Western rattlesnake (Idaho State University).
I was deep into an editing job, wondering as always why some people can earn a PhD without knowing how to write a References list, when the telephone rang.

The rental cabin was taken for a long weekend by a couple from somewhere in the Denverplex — Aurora, I think. It was the wife, and she sounded kind of shaky.

"I went out to my truck, and there's a SNAKE!"

"OK, "I said," I'll be right over."

I had a seen a bullsnake over there before. People are always mistaking them for rattlers and going all herpe-cidal. I got a five-gallon plastic bucket and a shovel and walked the couple hundred yards to the cabin.

Curled by the retaining wall that holds up the parking space  was a Western rattlesnake.* Well, hello, little guy, are you the reason that I have not been catching mice in my cabin traps?

The woman was inside the back door, practically chewing her knuckles. Her husband was on the steps with a big stick, but keeping his distance.

I scooped the snake and dropped it in the bucket. Look at me, I'm Ranger Rick!

I surely was not going to reach down and pick up the bucket's bail, so I tried to work the shovel blade undernearth it. And I knocked over the bucket, and the snake slithered out onto the lawn, heading for some thicker vegetation.

"X*%$," I thought, "Now I will have to kill it to keep them from panicking."

But the snake was so angry that when I prodded it again, it coiled up, and again I scooped it, dropped it in the bucket, and walked away with the bucket held by the shovel blade.

"Kill it!!!" she called through the window.

No, I said, I would relocate it. Perversely enough, my experience ten years ago makes me more tolerant of rattlesnakes. Maybe the venom changed my brain.

This rich Texan has bought up a lot of land around us, including a small ranch whose previous owner had decorated one area with signs proclaiming "RATTLESNAKE TEST AREA. KEEP OUT." (Works better than "No Trespassing," don't you think?)

Those signs are gone now, but we all remember them.

Once home, I dropped the bucket into an empty garbage can, snapped on the lid, and secured it with a bungie cord. Mr. or Ms. Snake had been buzzing the whole time and kept on buzzing while M. and I took it for a drive. That was one angry snake.

Where the county road parallels a creek in the former "test area," I tipped over the garbage can, spilled out the bucket, and then removed bucket and garbage can with the shovel. We left the snake there by the side of the road, still coiled and buzzing.

Now if I could just find a bull snake, I could relocate it down in the gully where I have been dumping all the mice that I live-trap in the garage and basement here at the house. There was even one in my study wastebasket earlier this week — it has been a huge mouse year.

       *It seemed two feet long, so it was probably 18 inches.

Water Hemlock Can Kill a Dog

Last summer a border collie chewed on some water hemlock near Fort Collins and died on its way to the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

As every plant guide will tell you, water hemlock in bloom looks a lot like Queen Anne's lace, which is completely harmless — its roots are edible. So you can have a fruitful wildcrafting experience, or you can die twitching and drooling.

How do you tell the difference? I was taught the purple blotches, but there are other distinctions as well, which this well-illustrated web page explains.

You might not think of water hemlock as attractive to dogs, but some will chew on plants randomly. (I'm looking at you, Fisher.)

July 29, 2016

Escape from Stalag-Dachs 17!


Over at the rehabilitation center, Gus the badger has been working on his tunneling technique. He started with the boulder visible on the left. The swift fox that was released last April had a small den underneath it — Gus spent a couple of months enlarging that sett (den), adding more entrances, and even dragging in a small log — a roof prop?

But then his ambition grew: it was time to tunnel for freedom!

His enclosure is made from chain-link fence, and the mesh comes in horizontally for about thirty inches on each side to deter digging. Hah! Gus located the edge (you can see it behind his head), and dug under it until he reached the outer wall. Then he kept digging.

The rehabbers are philosophical about his escapes. The exit is in a meadow, and they figure that digging a tunnel is part of the rehab process.

Gus still comes back for meals — frozen rats, etc. But he is developing an adult personality, a more aggressive one. Grown-up badgers are the opposite of cuddly.

The only question seems to be whether he will be somehow caught and relocated to a good release site, or whether he will release himself.

UPDATE: Around the 10th of August, Gus started leaving some of his frozen mice uneaten. Evidently he was feeding himself. By the 16th, he had been missing from his enclosure for several days and was presumed to be living on his own.

"So long, and thanks for all the mice." (Classical reference.)

July 21, 2016

Relocating Trout after the Hayden Pass Fire


Firefighters are demobilizng from the Hayden Pass Fire, which started Friday, July 8th, and really blew up the following weekend, covering more than 16,000 acres at the northen end of the Sangre de Cristo Range in Fremont and Custer counties.

Inside the fire permeter was a creek containing a genetically unique strain of endangered Colorado greenback cutthroat trout. Wildlife biologists feared they could be harmed by the fire itself or by erosion from burned slopes afterwards.

As soon as it was possible, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife crew retrieved as many of the trout as possible by electroshocking netting, in order to move them to a temporary home elsewhere.

From a forestry standpoint, this area was overdue for a big fire. I remember the last time that M. and I hiked up Big Cottonwood Creek, one of the drainages affected, I was struck by the amount of dead trees stacked up.

But as she points out, a lot of little lives are always lost in such a fire. We make our choices as to which ones can be saved.

July 12, 2016

Some Actual Journalism about Wildfire

Hayden Pass Fire, Fremont County, Colo.,
as of July 11, 2016.
Three years ago, after the Royal Gorge Fire, I was complaining that no one ever seemed to assign a cause to some of the big fires in southern Colorado, such as Waldo Canyon (2012) or Black Forest (2013).

Reporters go to the twice-daily fire briefings, they all file the same stories, be they print or electronic or web, and then there is no follow-up.

But here is one exception to that pattern: some actual reportage from the Colorado Springs Independent. The headline, however, is not too promising: "Waldo, Black Forest Fire investigations lurch to a standstill years later."
Four years later, though permits have been issued to rebuild 309 homes from Waldo and 311 from Black Forest, the causes of both fires remain a mystery, and barring a new revelation, they might go unsolved forever.

"I would love to say an arrest is imminent, but I can't say that," said El Paso County Sheriff's Commander Richard Hatch, who oversees the still-active Black Forest Fire investigation.

Colorado Springs Police Sgt. John Koch, a former investigator on the Waldo fire, says investigators are at a stalemate without a tip or new development that would unlock the puzzle.

"We still encourage members of the public with knowledge of suspicious activity to come forward," Koch says.
At least someone was arrested for starting the Cold Springs Fire, still burning west of Boulder. But really, don't we have enough homegrown idiots without having to import them from Alabama?

Further south, our skies are smoky from the still-rolling Hayden Pass Fire, which has passed 12,000 acres in size. (4,900 ha.) Blame lightning for that one. You can't arrest Thor.

I blame the reporters for passivity, but there is more than that. I worked as a newspaper and magazine journalist, but I have also held an institutional public relations job.

Since I got into the emergency-services scene, however, I have been shocked at how these people seem to hate the news media.

When you consider the passivity of most reporters these days, that's sort of like hating springer spaniels.

Hence my moment of glee at seeing an actual follow-up story. Even though it offers no revelations, at least it is a progress report.