August 7, 2005
The dry season is bearing down on us and the grassy, wildflower-graced slopes are now brittle and hay- colored with only deep-rooted trees and shrubs remaining green. The gravel and dirt roads upslope in El Dorado National Forest are developing stretches of deep dust and what's good about that is that dust is as good for tracking critters as snow. Therefore, when I wandered into the mountains this week my radar was set to animal tracks.
I really wanted to see porcupine tracks, for I have no experience with that animal and porcupines are found here. Fred saw one years ago beneath some brush but they're not common, and I found no sign of them during my hike. In dust their tracks would be easy to identify because their quills scrape the ground at the sides of their prints.
That dust told enough stories to keep me fascinated during the entire hike. Jackrabbits, foxes, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, beetles, lizards, quail, deer, snakes, and several things I couldn't identify, all left signs of having done nearly everything other than walk in a straight line.
I'd grown accustomed to the tracks' smallness, the largest ones being the deer's, so when bear prints suddenly appeared below me it was breathtaking. The back paw prints were 7½ inches long, not counting claws, which weren't visible, and 3½ inches broad. They looked unsettlingly like human prints, just much wider, plus the biggest toe was on the outside of the foot, not as among humans.
While measuring the prints my own hands placed near those massive, plodding tracks looked spidery and weak. For a moment I glimpsed how early people with simple arms must have felt when tracking a bear.
A few minutes later I came upon a shoulder-high Douglas-fir sapling right beside the road. It had been clawed and possibly chewed on one side so that its bark and wood hung in shreds. Copious resin exuded in gummy droplets, and I suspect that that's what the bear had been after. When I tasted the resin at first there was a hint of sweetness but then there was no flavor at all other than that of turpentine.
It's hard to imagine enough food being available at this time of year to keep a large bear going. It's too early for manzanita fruits and blackberries, and only a few undersized acorns are falling. We were over a mile from any water. About all I could think of that a bear could eat were grubs in decaying logs and ants beneath rocks. I've seen Pileated Woodpeckers extract thumb- size grubs from old logs, and I know that some very large ants with their white pupae live beneath our rocks. Black Bears are known to relish ants, which they eat in masses. Bears also eat roots and tubers, plus there must be the occasional honey tree. Down below, Diana tells me she's just seen some bear poop full of plum pits, apparently from a neighbor's orchard tree. Still, I think our bears must be pretty hungry these days.
The next day, backtracking, I came upon a second, slightly smaller set of tracks. Moreover, in the section of dust where they appeared they lay exactly atop my own tracks of the previous day, and going in the same direction. Was it a coincidence, or was that bear tracking me...?
ORGANIZING THOUGHTS ABOUT TRACKS
Like everything else, if you organize your thoughts about animal tracks you can learn them a lot faster. For example, did you know that the prints of animals in the dog/cat group show four toes while animals such as otters, weasels, skunks, raccoons and squirrels show five toes? Some animals with long, slender bodies bound from spot to spot so their four paw prints cluster in widely separated groupings, while the prints of shorter-bodied, heavier, lumbering animals are more evenly spaced.
When you consider size of print, habitat in which the prints are found, whether you're located within the animal's distribution, and miscellaneous other facts such as quill marks usually accompanying a porcupine's tracks, sometimes, through the shear act of thinking systematically, you can deduce "the only possible candidate" for a set of prints, and identify them on the spot.
I've set up an online "Key to the Tracks of Larger, More Common Backyard Mammals." I know you won't be taking your computer into the field to key out tracks, but just browsing through the key may help you structure your thoughts about animal tracks. The key resides at www.backyardnature.net/101/mamkey00.htm
THE LOCAL MAMMAL LIST
Whenever I move into new territory I review the distribution maps in my field guides to see which interesting plants and animals might be found there. Too many insects, fungi and wildflowers exist to make lists of species to look for, but the numbers of mammals, reptiles and amphibians is about right. My own list of mammals possibly found at this location is at www.backyardnature.net/sierras/mam_list.htm
That list holds the names of 82 mammal species. A good many names are preceded by a question mark because I'm not sure if they're found at my elevation. They may live in the very hot, deserty valley below, or the chilly alpine area upslope, but never occur at our 2600-ft elevation, though we're only four or five miles from those ecosystems.
Any such list is eye-opening. Among the 82 species on my own list are five shrews, three voles, a dozen members of the squirrel/chipmunk type, five mice and 16 species of bat. There are mammals I've never heard of such as the Mountain Phenacomys and Trowbridge Shrew, and mammals I've heard a lot about but never seen, such as that porcupine, aplodontias, badgers and ringtails.
In fact, I doubt that I'll ever see most of these mammals, mainly because they're largely nocturnal or rare. However, if I keep looking there's a good chance I'll run across some of their tracks, and that's when having a look-for list will come in handy.
Finishing my morning crap, even before I'd pulled my breeches up, one of my little turds moved. I was astonished.
It hadn't been on the ground more than three minutes and nothing was visible at its sides so obviously something was moving it from below. That turd was bouncing around exactly as if a tumblebug were beneath it, but surely no tumblebug would be at work after less than three minutes.
However, it was indeed a tumblebug, a species smaller than the big, greenish ones I've seen in the Southeast. Tumblebugs, also called Dung Beetles, belong to the Scarab Beetle Family, a huge family (±1300 North American species) famous for the brilliant, often metallic colors of some of its species. You can see a tumblebug like the one I encountered at http://cedarcreek.umn.edu/insects/album/024030002ap.html
I've never beheld a more fastidious bug. For several minutes he probed and nudged two of my smaller creations before settling on a much larger blob, beneath which he vanished entirely.
Of course the thing that dung beetles do is that a pair of them will form a mass of dung into a ball, roll the ball a distance, dig a hole, and bury it. Then the female lays her eggs in it. When the eggs hatch, the larvae find themselves in the very satisfying position of being entirely surrounded by their favorite sustenance.
I had to leave before my little beetle did all that. However, judging from the zeal with which he'd begun his job, I'll bet that by the time you read this some little dung-beetle larvae will be feeling very snug indeed, thanks to me.
YELLOW SALSIFY GLOBES OF LIGHT
You never know when a magical moment might come along, and sometimes it happens exactly when you least expect it. That was the case in the mountains as I crossed a large clear-cut area where pine forest had been reduced to stumps and weeds.
That open area was sizzling and the glare was awful. Entering it from the forest had been like stepping from a cathedral into a Wal-Mart parking lot. I just kept my eyes on the dust hoping for an interesting track.
Suddenly I sensed some kind a change that was much more subtle than a shift of key in a fugue. There was something about the light, and a shimmering kind of movement...
At my side, all along the road, chest-high Yellow Salsify, TRAGOPOGON DUBIUS, was fruiting. Hundreds of spherical fruiting heads more than three inches across, each head composed of dozens of slender fruits topped with off-white fuzz parachutes, glowed dazzlingly in the intense sunlight and nodded in the day's breezes. You can see how large those heads are -- like oversized Dandelion "puffballs" -- here.
The intensely bright, dancing globes of light atop slender stems appeared to hang beside me at different levels like lights inside a Christmas tree, each globe dancing with its own wind. Sometimes a cooling breeze came along catching just right in a single fruit's parachute and that little tuft of sunlight-fuzz would launch out over the field shining like a Walt-Disney fairy.
So, I happened to be present at the exact moment in the local Yellow Salsifys' lifecycle when their fruiting heads reached maturity, and the exact time of day when it had grown hot and dry enough to be perfect for fruits to be released. Down below at Fred's the peak of Yellow Salsify fruiting season had passed a month earlier but then, despite having passed hundreds of fruiting heads every day, I'd never experienced a Yellow Salsify moment like this.
Long I stood, sometimes rogue breezes shattering entire Yellow Salsify heads all at once, making them crumble on the wind like big, dry snowflakes on a windshield, then whole squadrons of parachutes would float off to who-knows-where, each little future Yellow Salsify alone and full of promise.
Sometimes the parachuted fruits accumulated against clumps of grass and inside large spider-webs. What a plague those fruits and their fuzz were to the spiders that day! But, the ones who caught the right currents of air went far, far, far, and I watched them as long as I could.
PUNCTUREVINE & MUSCLES
Thursday afternoon my friend Buck came down on his motorcycle carrying a weed for me to identify. I thought I'd seen such a thing in Spain and Italy so it was a surprise seeing Buck carrying it. Wanting to confirm my identification we went onto the Internet and I got another surprise: It's a very famous plant among bodybuilders!
The plant was TRIBULUS TERRESTRIS, known in English by a variety of names, Puncturevine apparently the most common. The medicinal herb sites say it cures all kinds of miseries, but after Googling it you have to plow through a couple of pages of links to bodybuilding websites before you start seeing pages dealing with its other virtues.
Bodybuilders like the plant because extracts of it are considered to increase the body's production of Luteinizing Hormone, which in turn triggers natural testosterone production, and of course testosterone is the male sex hormone. One site offers 100 tablets for $27.95. You can read all about this at http://www.bodybuilding.com/store/trib.html and you can see the yellow-flowered plant itself at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/topics.cgi?earl=plant_profile.cgi&symbol=TRTE
After bodybuilding websites, the main kinds of sites dealing with Puncturevine are those relating to invasive plants. Puncturevine, originally from the Mediterranean region, is prohibited in Arizona and in California is considered a "C-List Noxious Weed." Being C-Listed here means that an invasive is so widespread that in most cases the state won't fund projects to eradicate it.
This is not the kind of information Buck was looking for. He was interested in the plant because his bees love its dime-size, yellow flowers, and he was thinking of getting seeds and planting a whole field of them! Sure enough, when we Googled the key words bees and puncturevine, we found that the plant produces copious, high grade pollen and nectar. The problem is with the puncture part of its name. The plant's small fruits bear very stiff, sharp spines that can puncture a bike's tire, and you can imagine what would happen to a cow's gut if a single fruit were included in a bale of hay.
So, I'm not sure what Buck is going to do with all this information. As he climbed back onto his motorcycle he had that look in his eye of an old farmer unexpectedly finding himself sitting on a park bench next to a Las Vegas stripper.
GASOLINE MAKES PISTONS MOVE
During Buck's visit he told me a story about his father, and when Buck does that he's going a long way back because Buck is well into his 80s. His story went something like this:
"When my father was teaching me how the engine that ran the sawmill worked he opened up the engine and showed me where the pistons were. He explained that gas fumes exploding above the pistons made those pistons go up and down, and the pistons were connected to a crankshaft in a way that made the crankshaft turn, and the turning of the crankshaft is what moved the blades that cut the lumber. And then he said, 'When gas fumes are being used up there above the pistons, you make sure that back there at the blades there's lumber being cut.'"
In other words, don't waste the gasoline.
I remember those kinds of notions being expressed by my people when I was a kid in rural Kentucky. Back then I thought of such sentiments as hillbilly talk, for I had seen that people in movies and on TV didn't say that kind of thing. Today, however, I'm of the opinion that such thinking suggests a much more sophisticated and realistic assessment of what has value in this world and how humans should behave, than the general principles currently guiding our culture.
Why is this matter relevant to a naturalist's newsletter?
It is because I love living things and there is nothing more threatening to life on Earth than the behavior of people who would ridicule the kind of close accounting favored by Buck's father.
In my opinion, when someone jumps into a car and drives someplace just to buy a hamburger, that is the moral equivalent of environmental terrorism. When people set their air conditioners at too cold a level and claim it's OK because they're working hard and paying for the electricity, it is a display of profound ignorance with regard to the environmental costs in producing and delivering that electricity, and they are showing how uncaring they are for those who will come later and have to pay the real costs. When voters allow themselves to be seduced by political demagogues, especially war-making ones, it is a rebuke to the Creator who endowed us with brains that when used enable us to see through such people.
How I long for the days when average folks with rough hands and honest smiles, and often with very little formal education, were endowed not only with the wisdom to speak in favor of frugality, self discipline, simplicity and country-style wholesomeness, but also the gumption to conduct their lives according to those sustainable principles.
Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,