October 10, 2004
MOUNTAIN LION AT DAWN
Early Monday morning one of my friends appeared at the trailer door with the news that a Mountain Lion, PUMA CONCOLOR, had just sauntered before their bedroom window. My friends were as excited as I, for they've been watching wildlife for 40 or so years and had never seen one before, though several of the neighbors have.
Naturally I had to go looking, but when the little trail the big cat had been following entered a thicket, the hair on the back of my neck stiffened and I figured it might be smart to stay out of there.
My friends do occasionally hear one or more of the big cats, though what they hear is not the classic roar or snarl, but rather the short, high-pitched squeals you can hear at www.wildaboutcats.org/apacry.wav.
When my friend described what she saw, she said it was about the color of the drought-killed grass around the house, but a bit darker, and the long, thick tail had a black tip. When she told how tall it was, she put her hand about mid-thigh. That's a scary size. It's known that the males get eight feet long and longer, and generally weigh 130-150 pounds.
Then on Thursday morning as I jogged at dawn I rounded a corner and there was a Mountain Lion scrambling away from me, about 50 feet away. But this one was only about knee high and I could plainly see hints of spotting in its coat, at least that part near the belly. Since my friends are sure that their cat had no spotting and was larger than this, I'm guessing that they saw a mother and I saw one of her kids. Baby Mountain Lions bear black spots and the spots gradually disappear during the next 15 months. The young stay with their mothers until the next litter is produced two years later.
A government website says that more than 2,000 Mountain Lions lived in California during the 1970's, but today's population is estimated to be between 4,000 and 6,000.
There's a lot more information and pictures at a web site called "Living with California Mountain Lions" at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/lion/ and the Mountain Lion Foundation's webpage is at www.mountainlion.org/.
VISIT WITH A GOLD PROSPECTOR
On Thursday I visited a neighbor whose hobby is panning for gold. He showed me a small vial of gold he'd taken from the river in the canyon below us, the product of a whole month of hobby panning, and he explained how he separated gold flecks too small to fool with by hand by dissolving them in liquid mercury, which then he heats in a process giving off poisonous mercury vapors.
I have a friend who has always dreamed of panning for gold, not to make a killing, but to get just enough to survive on, so I asked this question: "Can a greenhorn come here and pan for gold, and make enough money to at least pay bills and survive without losing money?"
His reply was quick and unequivocal. He said "no." Of course there's always a chance that the first rock you turn over will have a nugget beneath it that will pay for a trip to Hawaii, but no one should count on that.
In fact he had one vial in which flecks of gold and lead were present in about equal measure. He explained that because both gold and lead are very heavy metals it's hard to separate them after they have both been separated from lighter sand and pebbles. The lead came from hunters' buckshot and bullets fallen into the river over the years. Seeing that gold is no more common in the river than hunters' lead let me know just how rare gold really is.
Anyone coming to California and interested in easy, tourist-style gold-panning might check out the page at www.fabuloustravel.com/usa/tuolumne/goldpanning.html. For the more serious loner, there's a list of equipment needed and general directions for panning at www.beloit.edu/~SEPM/Rocks_and_minerals/panning_for_gold.html.
My old birding fieldguide makes it all very simple: There's a bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, SPHYRAPICUS VARIUS, which is fairly common from coast to coast in the US. In most of the US it's a winter bird, spending its summers in Canada and the higher elevations. You can see one with its distinctive large, white wing-patch and small patch of red on its head at ontfin.com/Fav/YBSA.htm.
The only nod to a possibility that the situation may be a little more complex than described above is that my old fieldguide also shows a picture of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with much more than a small patch of red on the head. In that picture the whole head is red, as well as the chest. The bird looks as if it's been dipped head-first into a bucket of red paint. The guide says "Red-breasted races occur on the Pacific Slope." You can see such a red-headed sapsucker at www.stanford.edu/~petelat1/sapsuckr.html
Here in the Sierra Nevada foothills I see birds that look like the ordinary Yellow-breasted Sapsucker, as well as red-headed ones. Moreover, now the Internet tells me that no longer are the red-headed ones considered to be a mere race of the Yellow-breasted species. They constitute a full species all by themselves, known as Red-breasted Sapsuckers, SPHYRAPICUS RUBER -- and S. ruber is itself divided into northern and southern subspecies. Plus there's yet another sapsucker my fieldguide doesn't know about at all, the Red-naped Sapsucker, SPHYRAPICUS NUCHALIS, in the US's western mountains! You can see one of those at home.earthlink.net/~richditch/rnsapsucker.htm.
How simple it all was before this genetic-sequencing business started discovering complexities in the evolution of things that we never suspected. One is glad to have "the truth," but one yearns for the old days when all the facts seemed to fit nicely into a small fieldguide fitting neatly into a pocket.
A local lumberman explained the situation with our local pines. He said:
"Down in the canyon, and getting as high as almost here, there are Digger Pines. Here we have Ponderosa Pines. Right above the Ponderosas, the Sugar Pines come in with those big cones."
That's a striking thing about being here in the Sierra Nevada foothills. If you pay attention, the vegetation zones reflecting elevation changes are obvious, and it's surprising how little elevation change is needed to alter the forest's composition.
Of course the zones grade into one another, and there's some overlap of the species' elevation preferences. At our latitude, drought-tolerant, wispy-looking Digger Pines occur between 500-3000 feet in elevation. Our handsome Ponderosas grow from 3000-6000 feet, but the giant-coned Sugar Pines overlap them, preferring 3500- 6500. So, right here we're in a narrow band that's OK for Ponderosas, but too low for Sugars.
Precipitation and forest luxuriance reaches its peak above us at 5000-6000 feet. Higher up, yet other pine species appear, adapted for colder, drier conditions. Jeffrey Pine grows at 6000-8500 and Western White Pine at 6500-9500 feet. Finally, in the Alpine region, scraggly, slow-growing Lodgepole Pine appears between 6000-10,000 feet, and even higher-growing Whitebark Pine survives at 9500-11,000 feet.
Other tree species are mingled with the pines, but the pines tell a nice story all by themselves.
HIKING ABOVE LAKE TAHOE
Early Friday morning I appeared at the house of a new friend and we took off upslope. After passing through majestic and geologically interesting scenery, we came to the village of South Lake Tahoe, shown on the map here.
On that map, notice Fallen Leaf Lake just south of Lake Tahoe itself. Just to the west of Fallen Leaf Lake there's a 9,735-ft high mountain called Mount Tallac. Arriving in South Lake Tahoe we went to a trailhead below Mount Tallac and parked in a pretty grove of Jeffery Pines. A web page with a topography map showing the area and describing in detail the Mount Tallac trail we took can be viewed at www.tahoeadventuresports.com/peakindex/south/mounttallac.htm.
What a joy being back in an alpine setting! The cold afternoon wind was violent and exhilarating. Ravens croaked overhead and vegetation at the summit consisted of little more than colorful splotches of lichen on fractured basaltic boulders.
Below the summit near the tree line, one sees lone- standing, incredibly gnarled and picturesque Whitebark Pines, PINUS ALBICAULIS, with enormous white trunks bearing small, twisted, wind-buffeted limbs. A 5-inch branchlet of this species may be 12-17 years old. When I read that these trees produce few ripe cones and that the seeds managing to mature are usually eaten by nutcrackers, I wonder how the species survives. You can see exactly how these incredible trees look at www.science.siu.edu/landplants/Coniferophyta/images/Pinus.albicaulis.JPEG.
Lower down, Lodgepole Pines, PINUS CONTORTA, appeared, looking shaggy and often diseased, as seen at www.science.siu.edu/parasitic-plants/Viscaceae/images/TSU.hosts.JPEG.
Just by luck we happened to be there during what was surely the peak of the fall colors for Quaking Aspen, POPULUS TREMULOIDES. Imagine hiking through groves of these as brilliant sunlight charged the quivering, bright yellow leaves with energy. You can have at least a hint of what it was like by viewing the picture here.
What a luxury to have this amazing habitat within an easy drive of here. Maybe another time I'll be returning to explore the many miles of backpacking trails in the alpine wilderness area beyond Mount Tallac.
Higher up on Mount Tallac the wind was so strong that the only birds I saw were the ravens and an occasional sparrow-like bird flitting for half a second among low- growing, stunted heather -- flying much too fast for me to identify.
However, in a shadowy, well-protected cove at midslope populated with stately California Red Fir (ABIES MAGNIFICA) I did have the satisfaction of spotting a Clark's Nutcracker, NUCIFRAGA COLUMBIANA, a jay-sized bird (closely related to jays), all white but with striking black wings and tail. Its picture, notes on life history and distribution map can be seen at www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i4910id.html.
At www.backyardnature.net/birdmmry.htm I feature the Clark's Nutcracker on a page with the title of "Birds with Fantastic Memories." There I write this:
"In late summer, Clark's Nutcrackers harvest seeds of Pinyon Pines. They stuff the seeds into pouches below their tongues, and then may fly several miles and bury the seeds. A single nutcracker may bury as many as 33,000 Pinyon Pine seeds in groups, or caches (pronounced CASH-es), of four of five seeds each. When winter comes and food is scarce, the bird returns to its thousands of caches and eats its seeds."
Studies have shown that Clark's Nutcrackers remember far more than the general area in which they've buried their caches. Very often they remember the exact location of individual caches. For that specific task of remembering where their caches are located, the brains of Clark's Nutcrackers appear to be more highly developed than that of an average human.
JOGGING IN MOUNTAIN LION TERRITORY
This week each dawn as I jogged past the woods into which Monday's Mountain Lion disappeared I paid special attention to large, overhanging tree-limbs and wherever shadows gathered beneath roadside thickets. I glanced behind me as I ran.
I think it's healthy to occasionally be reminded that our lives are threatened by many powers and agencies beyond our control. Especially we need to reflect more on what will happen to all of us if the Earth's ecosystem continues to collapse -- the idea being that maybe if we get concerned enough, we'll stop some of the behaviors causing the collapse.
Every day we should consider the fact that if our streams, lakes and aquifers continue to be polluted, at some point we're simply not going to have all the freely available drinking water we need. What liberties will we lose to those who control the future's drinking water? Already we see cartels exploiting their ever- increasing control of energy and medicine. Won't the drinking-water cartels be even worse?
We would do well to think more about the misery and death that will result if it turns out to be true that manmade industrial pollutants are causing global warming preceding profound climate changes. And let's all reflect on how we'll get along if any one of the Earth's ever-increasing numbers of terrorists or Heaven-seeking religious fanatics finally succeeds in dusting the global atmosphere with the Plutonium that today is stockpiled in poorly guarded places.
During the current political debate, who is talking about these very real, life-on-Earth-threatening possibilities?
To me, that absence of discourse is a thousand times more terrifying than any large, overhanging tree limb as I jog at dawn. That silence is more threatening than the deepest roar from the darkest thicket.
TRAVELING NEXT WEEK
Tomorrow, Monday the 11th, I'll be back on Greyhound, continuing with my current life-reshuffling process. My next Newsletter will detail my trip, but I'm uncertain as to when it will be issued, or from where.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers.
Visit Jim's nature site at www.backyardnature.net.