Saturday, May 30, 2009

Deer Ears

I saw the first pair of fawns today. The does have been unusually secretive the last few weeks, so I suspected they were bedding down and birthing. Here's a doe 2 weeks ago who was lurking behind the woodshed for several days. I often spotted her in the evening as I came in the farmyard gate and would invite her to bring out her young 'uns for baby photos, but she did not indulge me. When I climbed the steep slope behind the woodshed to peek through the thick brush, I only spotted more farm junk.

The deer on the ranch don't usually lurk. They're either boldly eating fruit in the orchard, or they are checking you out from the far side of the pasture. I can step out of the house with my morning coffee and every deer this side of the canyon will look up. The cows don't even notice, they just keep grazing. Either they are loud eaters, or they don't find me nearly as entertaining as the deer do.

--- Doe eating loquat fruit in the backyard. They especially like the dry leaves.
This one has not spotted me through the bedroom window yet and is swiveling her left ear to track down the sound of my camera motor. ---

This evening, I noticed the fawns as I gave up on my brushcutter. The darn thing will work like a champ for hours but as soon as the sun slips behind the hills or the fog rolls in, it refuses to start. I'm sure I had something to say about that which probably caught the fawns' attention. As I stood up in frustration from the stubborn brushcutter, I saw four tiny ears aimed at me. The deer have a particular angle they cock their ears when they are watching you, something like 50 degrees. It's such a distinct pattern, I can now sometimes spot a deer watching me even if it is standing in a thicket.

--- While one deer is stealing plums,
the other one has spotted me and is aiming its ears my way. ---

The fawns stood rump to rump for awhile so they looked like a miniature push-me-pull-you in the grass. I didn't get a photo of tonight's twins, but here is pair of does taking the same pose in February as they watched me labor up a hill. Check out those ears.

Tonight, I scanned the pasture by the fawns and found a doe pointing her ears my way too, so I stopped cursing at the brushcutter. She bounded off, nonetheless, with the two fawns making tiny up and down leaps behind her.

My neighbor on the Hununu Ranch describes a doe using the same location behind her house year after year for raising her twins. Last summer after reading Mary's description, I noticed that each doe-fawn family would come out of the same brush patch and browse in the same general location at dusk. I started to recognize each family by their territory, the number of fawns trailing the doe (one, two or three) and any peculiar marks on their bodies, such as the doe with a cut in her left ear who lives in the willow thicket by the 3 bathtubs and only has one fawn. There is probably a Native Peoples name for all that.

--- By September, the yearling bucks get tiny antler bumps. ---

My backyard is sometimes like a giant slow-motion nature film. Usually there is something interesting to see at some point in the day. I am probably just as entertaining to the deer as they frequently train their ear antennas my way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Rattlesnake Decision

What I Did
in response to finding this:
Align Center
What would you do if you found a rattlesnake stretched out in front of your open garage? In WWUD, I suggested 3 options: kill it, move it or ignore it, and readers commented on what they might do. Now I will tell you what I did.

For a few seconds, I testily considered backing the car over this rattlesnake to kill it. But sometimes, killing a rattlesnake can be just as risky or more risky than other options.

I'd been mowing thistles on a hot May day, and left the garage door open as a shady retreat. After refueling the brushcutter, I peeled off my helmet and gloves and nearly stepped on this rattler as I whipped into the garage for a cold drink. It's always a shock to see a rattlesnake in your pathway or beneath your reaching hand.

Anger Alarm Annoyance

What should I do?
I don't want to do this.
This is my territory.
There are too many of you.

I visualized running over the venomous threat. But as soon as the engine turned over, the snake was likely to startle and disappear into the garage. A snake in a net is safer than one in my toolbox.

(observation & logic)
Where are the kids and the pets?

Where are my snake tongs and net?
The snake is quiet, not moving.
Its rattle is cocked to the side.
The snake is using the shade of the garage to cool off, just like me.

I could ignore the snake, hope it goes away and get back to my brushcutting. But then the snake could show up anywhere, under my mower blade, next to my water bottle or nesting in the garage without the luxury of time and space for me to respond safely.

I could grab a nearby shovel and chop off its head, but then I would have to stand too close, and if my aim was not true, the shovel tip might hit the concrete instead of slicing the snake in one blow and then it might come after me. Not safe. Alternatively, my long-handled net and snake tongs could immobilize the snake if I moved slowly and positioned carefully.

(respect, decide)
Back off slowly.

Put your gloves on.
Put your helmet down.
I don't like to kill animals.
The snake is calm; not in an alert position.
This is an open area, easy to see and reach.
This snake has probably lived on the ranch longer than I have.

I decided - capture and move the rattlesnake. I gathered tools and took action. When I clumsily brushed the snake with the tongs, it made a dash for the garage. Fortunately, on a smooth concrete floor, it's easy to sweep up a sprinting snake with a net.

--- Waiting to be released ---

Later, I moved the snake approximately 2 miles away and marked its tail with green ink. I hope I never see it again.

Kill it, move it, or ignore it. I don't judge people for killing venomous snakes to protect their family, pets and livestock. And I hope they do not judge me for sometimes deciding to safely move a rattler to another location.

Most of our daily decisions are gradual choices among selfish options, and the longer term and larger scale consequences are not immediately evident, if ever, and can be reversed. The rattlesnake decision is unique. Each time I come face-to-face with a rattlesnake in the farmyard, I have to quickly work through the initial fear response, check my physical and moral position in the world, and develop a clear, stepwise response for the next few minutes.

How often are we in the position to make a decision when emotions, logic and beliefs are compressed into a few moments? I am taking steps to make the farmyard less of an attraction to the rattlers, however, it is likely I will be in this position again. This lowly reptile teaches me to make clear and balanced decisions and to quickly follow through. On snakeless days, I consider, "How can I make more rattlesnake decisions?"

Another snake lesson - reasonable watchfulness.
The signs are on the wall at the entrance to the bathrooms at the Herbert S. Miles Rest Area, Interstate 5, Red Bluff, California. The rest stop buildings are next to a blue oak woodland and grassland. The entryways to the bathrooms are sheltered by a brick L-shaped wall but have no closing door. The tile pieces on the floor of the bathroom are brown and tan colors.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sunshine Work Load

Beautiful weather and I spend all my energy outside. Lots to post about: thistle bashing, green rattle, purple rattle, several curious and furious gopher snakes, velvet ant, but the biggest news - the treefrog tadpoles are morphing. There are smallish tadpoles without legs, big tadpoles with legs, tiny treefrogs on the pond edge with tail stumps, and young treefrogs without tails at the Plum Pond. It's hopping with aquatic and aerial insects and nesting birds. The Newt Pond hasn't completely dried up yet but it's getting low and murky with lots of treefrog and toad tadpoles. I even saw a newtlet secretly swimming about the shallows. The cattle like to watch me mow, they sneak into the yard when I am working, and sometimes I give them thistles for dessert. And a big toad visitor one night (photo above). It will probably be another week before I get stories and photos up. So go outside and play.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mowing Thistles

Mowing is a strategy to stop a large stand of thistles from producing viable seed. It requires good timing and usually needs to be repeated several times during the spring/summer season.

If you haven't already eliminated the thistles in your target area, it's probably time to switch strategies. The thistle plants are bolting - sending up straight, tall stems from the center of their rosettes (ground-bound circle of leaves), and thorny buds are forming at the top of the bolted stem. These are the flower buds.

<--- bolting purple starthistle plant ---

On the Italian thistle, some of these buds are starting to open and reveal the numerous purple flower petals (top photo). I will be mentioning Italian thistles often in this post because they are the first thistles to bolt and are currently flowering at the Dipper Ranch (2200-foot elevation) in our region.

Under Thistle Logic, I described how to tell the different thistles by the shape and markings on their rosette leaves. Now you can also sort the thistles by their flowering characteristics. Italian thistles have "decurrent" stems - the spiny edges of each pair of opposite leaves continue down each side of the stem like long fins or spiny ruffles. The Italian thistle flower buds are clustered together at the tip of the stem and they usually are 1/2 to 7/8" wide including the spines , noticeably narrower than other thistles common in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Timing: Once an annual plant starts to bolt, it is determined to flower and produce seed. By timing your mowing correctly, you can use this inclination to your advantage. Changes in the chemicals circulating in the plant at the time of bolting cause the growing tip in the center of the rosette to produce elongating cells. Once the stem reaches approximately knee height in the Italian thistle, the growing tip switches to producing flower buds. Two to five flower buds form at each stem tip. These quickly swell into their spiny threat. The phyllaries (overlapping leaves covering the flower bud) open and the purple petals reveal themselves, although the flower heads on the Italian thistle never open into a broad face.

<--- decurrent stems of the Italian thistle ---

Thistles are pollinated by insects. You might see honeybees, native bees, flies, beetles and ants visiting the thistle flowers and thus spreading the pollen from flower to flower to create fertilized seeds. The insects may also be there to eat the seeds or lay their eggs among the thistle seed larder.

Each individual Italian thistle flower head is actually made up of about 14 small flowers bunched together. That means that each Italian thistle plant can produce hundreds of seeds. All that thistle bounty is from one original seed, so it's important to stop the flowers from developing viable seed.

<--- honeybee on milk thistle ---

Mowing down the thistle stems will stop the development of the flowers at their tips. Wait to mow until the plant has made a serious investment in stem growth - when the stem is about 1/2 its ultimate height or up until the time when the flower buds start to swell . If you wait until the flower buds have opened, some of the flowers may have already become fertilized; even after being severed from the nourishment of the live plant, there may be enough energy left in the stem and bud for the seed to continue to mature and become viable.

Repeat Mowing: The thistle plant, however, is still determined to flower and seed, so it will probably send up another or several more bolting stems in the next few weeks. Keep an eye on the resprouting and mow the thistles again when the stems are several inches high yet the flower buds are not open. Depending on your regional climate, the wet/warm periods of the current season, and the species of thistle, you may have to mow one to four more times in the summer.

<--- Bolting Italian thistles. This stand has no open flowers and is ready to mow. ---

Sometimes, plants will react to mowing by sending up very short stems and the new flowers will be so low to the ground, you won't be able to mow them with typical mowing equipment. Then you are at risk of letting the plants go to seed. This is a bad situation and the best way to avoid it is to make sure you don't mow the plant too early - make sure the plant has already sent up several inches of bolting stem. Each time you chop off a considerable bulk of the plant in the stem, you are removing much of its resources. Repeated mowing should eventually deplete the plant of energy. In fertile soils and with mild, rainy summers, the thistles may keep resprouting until the weather and day length finally trigger the end their annual lives.

In poor soils, or dry conditions, the thistles may grow to a shorter stature and produce smaller flowers sooner. The bolting of the stem, and formation and swelling of the flower buds will still follow a predictable pattern that you can track to determine the right time to mow.

--- Weevils mating on the leaves of an Italian thistle at the Dipper Ranch. These may be thistle head weevils (Rhinocyllus concicus), an introduced biocontrol insect that unfortunately may also attack native thistles. --->

Individual plants within a stand of thistles can grow at different rates. Try to time your mowing to get most of the flower heads at the right stage or err a little bit on the early side so fewer flowers are likely to go to seed. You can walk through a thistle stand before mowing and pull out the plants with opened flowers or cut off the ripe flowerheads. Put these into a container for disposal. To avoid throwing more material into the landfill, I usually stockpile mature/pulled thistle plants in the corral where the cattle eat and stomp on them. Even though some may continue to develop to mature seeds, if they germinate next year, they are likely to get beaten by the cattle again, or at least I can attack them all at once in one spot.

In conclusion, carefully time mowing of thistles and expect to repeat it several times in the summer. Soon, I will describe techniques to avoid harming wildlife while mowing, sheet mulching and how to tell if a seed is ripe.

See also:
Italian thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus
Purple starthistle, Centaurea calcitrapa
Milk thistle, Silybum marianum
  • Weeds of California and Other Western States, Joseph M. Ditomaso, Evelyn A. Healy, 2007, University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

--- This flat field in Pasture 1 was probably cultivated in the past, but now hosts a big stand of milk thistles. The crew mows it with a tractor. We call it "the deer golf-tee". --->

Tuesday, May 12, 2009



What would you do if you found this healthy rattlesnake sunning in front of your open garage door?
  • Would you back over it with the car and kill it? Grab the shovel hanging in the corner of the garage and chop off its head? Blow it away with a shotgun?
  • Would you scoot it into a bucket with a shovel and release it far, far away? Snag it with snake tongs and a net? Lasso it with a noose?
  • Ignore it and hope you never see it again? Pretend you didn't see it and hope it goes away? Run screaming the other direction until someone else makes a decision?
What would you do?


Tell me what you would do. Share your thoughts why. Then I will tell you what I did.

PS: if you click on the photo, you can get a closer look at what this fellow is doing with his tail. I haven't figured that out yet.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Big 5-0

Monday was my birthday.

I had to work, but that's okay because I got to spend the
and saw a rainbow.

I had breakfast with my favorite tailed friend.

The boys gave me a loaf of artichoke bread which we ate while checking for frogs, then they fixed my brush cutter. I'm excited about chopping up thistles this weekend. Every girl needs a Stihl and sweet guys who help her fix it.

I wore my favorite boots.

I stopped at the art store to get bright green and electric pink calligraphy ink for dipping rattlesnake tails.

I did a crooked headstand in yoga class and kept thinking, "I'm happy. I'm upside down. I'm so happy. "

This year I will go outside and play, tell lots of stories and only brush my hair when I want to. Was that 50 or 8 years old?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Snake Weather - Part 2

--- Snake moving gear: pack, pillowcases, snake tongs,
ice chest, bottle of ink, coffee mug, muslin net ---

Align CenterOn Friday last week, I woke up to 38-degree weather - perfect weather for moving venomous snakes. When I pulled the pillowcase out of the trashcan with the snake tongs, the rattling started immediately. Even though I knew there was a rattlesnake in there, I still jumped at the noise. There's marketing potential in that sound - wake up people at post-lunch meetings, condition your cat to stay out of abandoned buildings, etc. I dropped the pillowcase into a small ice chest with ice packs. Sometimes, I transport snakes in an ice chest to cool them down so they will be less active.

I selected a release site that is about one mile from the farmyard at a grassland/forest edge with basking rocks where very few people or cattle wander. By the time I walked the 20 minutes to its new home, the rattler had cooled down. When I poured it out of the pillowcase, it barely moved. I pinched it with the snake tongs and shook it out, intending to dip its tail in an opened bottle of ink resting on the ground.

Yes, you read that right. Their rattles are made out of hornlike material, similar to our fingernails, and they don't lose them when they shed. So if you put a unique mark on the rattle, you can figure out if a snake returns to the original capture location. Last year, I tried spray paint but it is awkward to hold the snake in the tongs with one hand and reach out and spray the tail with the other. A friend recommended the dipping method as easier and more permanent. Unfortunately, the snake was still cold, so it didn't want to unkink into a nice straight line for dipping. Eventually, I maneuvered the tail end so that it curled over the lip of the paint jar and the rattle got a black coating with a distinct angled edge.
I gently tossed the rattlesnake out into the grass and it headed downhill away from me. I hope I never see it again. But, if a big rattler shows back up in the farmyard, and it has a rakishly black rattle, I will know I have to move it further away next time. Or maybe, I will just leave the ice chest at the corner of the barn as a deterrent.

--- snake bling ---

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not try to capture or move rattlesnakes unless you know what you are doing and/or have help and advice from an experienced person. Rattlesnakes are venomous and their bites can be dangerous to people. See Living with Rattlesnakes for more information about safety around rattlesnakes.

Weather one week later: it's gently raining and may rain through the weekend. This will probably be our last rain of the season. Although there might be fogdrip, we have no rain all summer. The small ponds will dry up and the hills will turn brown. It becomes the season of bird nesting, fawns, seeds and insects. Goodbye rainy season and my amphibian friends. See ya' next year.