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Monday, March 10, 2014

Christmas on the Baja Peninsula

I have been away from blogging recently due to a busy schedule and have honestly missed it. It has been
Family portrait on the island of Espiritu Santos, Baja Mexico
good therapy for me to write and I have learned a lot in the process. It is March as I write this but my thoughts have returned to our last family adventure: a Christmas trip to Mexico. We booked our tour through ROW Adventures and enjoyed every bit of it. We hiked, kayaked and snorkeled. We swam with sea lions and whale sharks. It was a true adventure! Five days and four nights of kayaking and camping were complimented with a few nights in a hotel and two nights at a lodge. Here are some of the highlights.

Christmas was on a Wednesday this year. That meant the public school vacation would extend 16 days. We decided to take advantage of that block of time and found a tour that advertised great activities and some interesting wildlife encounters. We left the unusually harsh NY winter on Christmas Eve and flew through Mexico City then connected on to La Paz, Mexico on the Baja Peninsula. That evening, we met our guides "Charo" and Damian, as well as the other family that was on the kayaking portion of the tour. We were fitted with wetsuits and snorkeling gear and given dry bags to pack our gear. We left early Christmas morning by motor boat for the island of Espiritu Santos and four nights of camping.
Laura and Danika, Christmas Day 2013
When we arrived on the island, we were given some additional instructions regarding kayak operation and how to pack it evenly. Each day we paddled only about four hours, giving us enough time to set up camp at each beach and explore the upland areas a bit. We saw rays jumping, dolphins swimming and everywhere there were birds. Gulls, pelicans and frigatebirds were the norm.
Magnificent Frigatebird, male
Baja, Mexico (12/13)

Picture the habitat of southern Arizona, but along the ocean. Once I turned from the ocean, I would swear I was in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson. The cardon cactus looked to me the same as the saguaro I had seen years ago in AZ. However, the fact that we were on an island with very little fresh water in the Sea of Cortez meant a very muted fauna. So although the bird life was abundant, we only saw one species of land mammal (Black-tailed Jackrabbit).

The morning of our final day on the island was spent taking a short motorboat trip to snorkel with sea lions at a small rock jutting up from the ocean. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. The sea lions ranged from tolerant to outright social with us. If you watch the video here you will see that one of the sea lions even grabbed on to my arm for a moment or two. Warning: That video is about 11 minutes long. I just couldn't bring myself to edit it down any shorter. I won't be offended if you just watch a little :)
Still photo from GoPro camera
Baja, Mexico (12/13)
Whale shark photo with GoPro
After snorkeling, we headed back to camp to pack. Low tides forced us to shuttle our gear through shallow water to the motor boat that came to pick us up. We arrived back in La Paz with plenty of time to unpack, shower and get ready for our group dinner together. The next day, we were driven to the harbor and met Dr. Deni Remeriz for a morning of searching for whale sharks. We had never even seen a whale shark no less swam with one, so the entire Van Niel family was excited for this adventure. Deni was very free with her knowledge of all things whale shark and you can find out more about her and her organization here. For a video of our adventure on YouTube, click here.

Our final two days were spent in Todos Santos, a small town with plenty to offer. We went horseback riding on the beach, took a cooking class, hiked and even got to help release sea turtles. One of our guides (pictured here) was Citlali. Turns our that means "morning star" in Aztec. In turn, we taught her the name of our daughter "Danika" which is morning star in Danish :). Here is a photo from the cliff hike. We had numerous sightings of humpback whales while on this hike.

On our last evening, just before dinner, our guide and driver told us they had a surprise for us. They had talked to the man that coordinates a sea turtle rescue operation and he was confident that there would be freshly hatched sea turtles to release to the ocean. This story deserves an entire entry by itself. But the short version goes like this: The olive ridley sea turtles come to the beach in Todos Santos and lay their eggs. But vehicles are allowed on the beach and would crush the eggs if they were left in place, so volunteers dig them up and re-bury them in an enclosure on the beach. When they hatch, they are collected and brought to the ocean where they must fend for themselves. It takes about 10-15 years for them to reach sexual maturity. There were about a dozen of us there to witness the release and the gentleman in charge picked Danika to carry the turtles to the surf.

All told, this was one of our most memorable trips.
Sunset in Mexico

Sunday, December 1, 2013

In nature, nothing goes to waste

My last entry described setting out cameras for my Black Bear Management Class and hoping to capture images of bears. As I reported, it was my third year conducting that activity but the first one that didn't produce bear captures. That activity ended about two weeks before the start of the regular firearm season for deer and bear, so I repositioned a few of the cameras in hopes of getting some last minute scouting in on the bucks in the area.
My Father is still recovering from his back surgery so hunting from a tree stand was not possible this
year. Instead, we set out a ground blind in a likely location, but one in which neither of us had hunted before. I set out a camera there of course.You can see the blind in the background. Notice the trail to the blind has been nicely raked so Dad would have an easy time getting to it. Although I changed cameras, this is the same set where I had placed "Bear Lure" on a dead log (foreground). We got some nice results!

The only deer photo:

A curious coyote:

And those bears we were hoping for two weeks earlier!!!
Bears rolling in "Bear Lure"
Well, opening day arrived and Dad saw no deer but he DID see these two cubs and their mother. He has no interest in shooting a bear. In addition, shooting a bear from a group of bears is not legal in our
part of New York. I was jealous of his sighting. I spent the day in my tree stand and saw no deer OR bears. The next day wasn't much better. We made plans to hunt on Tuesday. Turns out Tuesday was a far different day. Tuesday's hunt lasted a whole ten minutes. Dad had just gotten himself zipped into the blind and I had only taken a few steps away when I heard a soft whistle and turned to see his arm pointing out the side window at a buck that was walking through the woods. With a single shot, the buck was down and just like that I had my work cut out for me :). Not that I minded field dressing the deer. I made quick work of it and dragged the nice 8 point buck to level ground.
Now, I am not one to waste an opportunity. With that fresh gut pile just sitting there, I repositioned the camera in hopes of capturing whatever would come for the Thanksgiving-time feast. As you can see from the photo above, there was no snow on the ground on the day I made this set but a week later it was a different story when I went to retrieve it. It was cold. It had snowed, then rained, then froze, then snowed again. It made for some beautiful scenery:
When I got to the tree where I had left the camera, I found only a strap and attachment. This is a Cuddeback Attack so there is a plastic mounting bracket that goes on the strap. The camera can be taken off and checked and the strap remains in place. I could see some damage to the bracket and hoped it was either weather or wildlife and not a trespassing hunter. I felt around in the deep snow a bit and found the camera with no trouble. We had to take it back to camp to thaw it before I could extract the SD card and see what we had captured. First to find the gut pile were crows:

But the remaining photos (and video) were three bears: a mother and two large cubs.

I am always pleased to get bear photos but these were especially nice. First, these were certainly the same bears my Father had seen only a few weeks earlier. Second, it was interesting to see them scavenging. I wondered what their meat scats looked like. And finally, I had the camera set to take 30 second videos as well so I was treated to some excellent views of the big fat sow and her two healthy looking cubs. With so much food available this year, I was not surprised at their apparent healthy condition. I made a simple video and uploaded it to YouTube. You can view it here. Its only a few minutes long.

One final note: On our way out of the woods for lunch that day, I noticed something as we passed an apple tree near the ATV trail. Looks like our bears stopped and gave the tree a good clawing. I now have more bear sign to share with nest year's Black Bear Management students....

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Well, we were hoping for bear...

Trying a "creative" overhead set
This was the third year in a row I have set cameras out at my Father's property with the goal of capturing images of bears for my Black Bear Management class. Here are last year's results and results from 2011. Let me assume most of you will NOT click on those links (even though I highly recommend you enjoy the stories) and let you know I captured bear photos in 2011 and 2012. This year, we were not as fortunate. Seven cameras were out for 12 days, including four of our new Reconyx cameras. I used the same brand of scent lure I used in previous years to attract bears and fully expected we would achieve our goal.
Some highlights:
WTD: We captured deer on each camera. Our biggest buck
One morning of snow and this lip-licking buck
The best image from my "creative" overhead set

Coyote: Five cameras captured coyote. Here are my favorites
The Reconyx seems to elicit a response from animals
But the images from the Reconyx ARE nice. Look at this distant coyote and how nice it looks, even with the high magnification I subjected it to.
Raccoon: Even though we didn't get bears, we did get their lesser "cousins". I poured the sweet smelling lure directly into a rotting log.
Below is the log I have used in the past to attract bears. If you did check out my 2012 post, this is the set that produced the bear(s) rolling. In this set, the log is running perpendicular to the camera and is just below the field of view.
 So no bears, but this set did have a surprise in store for us: FISHER. Multiple visits by one or more fisher made this class project a success. Fisher are increasingly common in this area but are considered recent additions. I was thrilled to get pics and will dedicate a future blog entry to them exclusively. For now, enjoy a few of the better shots:
Cropped fisher in some wet snow
Love that tail!

Rolling in the scent
We captured seven mammal species this year (less overall than past years):
-White-tailed deer
-Eastern chipmunk
-Gray squirrel
-Red fox
Missing besides the black bear are common mammals in this area like red squirrel, opossum, deermouse sp., etc. I had fewer cameras but four were Reconyx (which have a wider range of detection than the Cuddebacks and therefore as a rule pick up smaller mammal species more easily). 
What will next year bring???
Why doesn't anyone care what the raccoon says?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Shack

Last week, I attended The Wildlife Society's annual conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I flew out
of Rochester, NY on my birthday (49 this year!) and looked forward to celebrating in my own way. The conference itself was full of highlights: two of my former students presented posters while
another gave an oral presentation on her doctoral work at Penn State. Another alum and I caught up over lunch and I got to meet fellow blogger "Trailblazer" and some of his students. I even gave a presentation myself on my critical thinking unit based on the mountain lion controversy in New York. But all of that took a back seat to the post-conference field trip to Aldo Leopold's shack.
Aldo Leopold's Shack
If you are unfamiliar with Aldo, his shack or the book A Sand County Almanac stop right now and open a new browser window and buy a copy on Amazon or run to the library and check one out. I cannot attempt to explain the book here other than to assure everyone that it is an enjoyable and educational read. This book is a real favorite of mine and required reading for all of the freshmen in our degree program. The first hundred pages are the actual almanac of the book, starting in January and progressing to December, with the stories focusing almost exclusively on activities in and around the shack and property.
I teach the Leopold units (first unit is about Aldo's life while the second is more about the lessons of the book) to the freshmen and over the years have personalized the content in a way that makes teaching the first unit a real emotional experience for me. I have read SCA dozens of times and it seems the more I read it, the more connected I became to the work and to the man. And when I say emotional, I do not exaggerate. I have a confession to make: a "secret" that I just don't discuss. One year, with no warning, when I reached the part of the lecture on Aldo's life where he dies fighting a grass fire, I began to cry. I couldn't stop it. I was embarrassed. I was worried how my students would react. Surely I didn't want them to be turned off by the material but I had little control at that point either. The tears just flowed and I finished the lecture amid a perfectly silent crowd. And every year since, that emotion wells up and I can feel it coming. And every year I wonder if I should just change the lesson, make it less personal or not get so wrapped up in the story. The truth is, it takes a lot out of me and with multiple sections, I am pretty drained. But each year I receive positive feedback from my students. Not all mind you, but enough to continue to teach this section with all my heart.
Grindstone near The Shack
So you can see that I would be pretty excited to visit Leopold's shack. I had been there before, but just as I have read the book dozens of times, I wished for multiple visits to the place that inspired so much of it.
I brought two copies of SCA with me to Wisconsin. One copy was the original copy I bought as a Freshman in college; the one that is now missing both covers, has a spine that has split multiple times and is held together by a rubber band. I just had to have the old girl with me. The other is a newer book, one I will discuss later. I spent most evenings reading passages from the book as a way to wind down from the day's events and get ready for the trip to the Shack. One day I attended several presentations regarding wolf reintroductions, so I read Thinking Like a Mountain before drifting off to sleep. I visited the natural history museum one afternoon where I vaguely recalled that Leopold had somewhere written about the potential loss of species and that future generations might have to learn about birds only from specimens in museums. After much searching, I found that reference in Goose Music. I even listened to the audio version of SCA on my ipod while using the hotel's fitness center.
So it was with great anticipation that I boarded the bus on a warm October day to journey to The Shack and the recently built educational center. Among the 30+ like-minded passengers was Alyssa from Nature in a Nutshell, a former student. The chatter on the bus was diverse. Everyone had just finished a long conference and some where talking about future conference sites while others shared viral videos via smart phones. I took the opportunity to read Illinois Bus Ride:
"I am sitting in a 60-mile-an-hour-bus sailing over a highway originally laid out for horse and buggy. The ribbon of concrete has been widened and widened until the field fences threaten to topple into the road cuts. In the narrow thread of sod between the shaved banks and the toppling fences grow the relics of what once was Illinois: the prairie." Leopold goes on to recount the conversations of his fellow passengers and what they see and fail to see on the drive. I smile at the familiar words and wonder what Leopold would make of the conversations surrounding me now.
The drive seems long and I am getting cranky. I had skipped breakfast and assumed I was just misjudging the time. But as we rounded a curve and were faced with an overpass with a clearance of only 12 feet, it was clear that we had taken a wrong turn. The driver apologized and protested that he had only done what the GPS had told him to do. I tried to remain philosophical and knew the perfect passage to read to maintain my patience:
"Then came the gadgeteer, otherwise known as the sporting-goods dealer. He has draped the American outdoorsman with an infinity of contraptions, all offered as aids to self-reliance, hardihood, woodcraft, or marksmanship, but too often functioning as substitutes for them. Gadgets fill the pockets, they dangle from neck and belt. The overflow fills the auto-trunk, and also the trailer. Each item of outdoor equipment grows lighter and often better, but the aggregate poundage becomes tonnage." Wildlife in American Culture
As I sit reading, the bus backs up farther and farther. I would guess we backtracked over a mile on that road until finding a suitable space to turn around. I remarked to the passengers "I feel like Leopold sawing through the Good Oak and traveling backward in time." The comment was met with only a few chuckles.
When we arrived at the new Leopold Center, we were nearly an hour over due. Our guide got to it
quickly and explained that he would do his best to show us both sites, the Center and the Shack in the time allotted. The Center is fascinating. Until recently, it was the greenest building in the world. Some of that distinction comes from the use of local materials in the construction. Highlights for me:

The stone wall that holds the rain run-off from the roof and sends it to the native plantings is made from an old Civilian Conservation Corps building that had been torn down and saved. Our guide explained that a check of records revealed that Aldo had once lectured inside that very building. You can see some old cement adhering to the stones.
Much of the wood harvested to construct the buildings came from the original Leopold property with white pines having been planted by the Leopold's themselves. Here is a shot of the ceiling with red maple boards serving as material between the joists
But I was distracted. I was so close to the Shack! I wanted to maximize our time there. We boarded the bus for the very short trip to the shack and all exited. After a quick warning about the poison ivy, our guide told us of Aldo's purchase and the family's less than enthusiastic reaction at the condition of the Shack. We started down the path, the Shack obscured by trees that were not alive 80 years ago when Aldo purchased the property. And then, around a curve, it came into view.
We got closer and all stood in a semi-circle facing the Shack and learned of a few pieces of history. The Leopold's built an addition (left side of photo) for sleeping quarters. The chimney had to be rebuilt several times. Aldo was a bad cook.
Leopold's Shack
The first group went inside and the rest of us were encouraged to pick an apple or two. I didn't need to be told twice.
"These things I ponder as the kettle sings, and the good oak burns to red coals on white ashes. Those
ashes, come spring, I will return to the orchard at the foot of the sandhill. They will come back to me again, perhaps as red apples, or perhaps as a spirit of enterprise in some fat October squirrel, who, for reasons unknown to himself, is bent on planting acorns." Good Oak

I spent considerable time looking for bur oak acorns. Leopold writes about bur oaks several times and I really wanted to try to plant a few on my property. But those fat October squirrels (and other pilgrims to the Shack) beat me to them. I grabbed instead a handful of red oak acorns and chuckling, turned to the following: "I had a bird dog named Gus. When Gus couldn't find pheasants he worked up an enthusiasm for Sora rails and meadowlarks. This whipped-up zeal for unsatisfactory substitutes masked his failure to find the real thing. it assuaged his inner frustration." The Round River. If any of my acorns take root, I will think of Gus.

When it was our turn to enter the shack I sat at Aldo's table and listened intently. I was most curios about the artifacts on the walls, including Aldo's shovel:
"Why is the shovel regarded as a symbol of drudgery? Perhaps because most shovels are dull. Certainly all drudges have dull shovels, but I am uncertain which of these two facts is cause and which effect. I only know that a good file, vigorously wielded, makes my shovel sing as it slices the mellow loam." Pines Above the Snow

Aldo's saw:
"We let the dead veteran season for a year in the sun it could no longer use, and then on a crisp winter's day we laid a newly filed saw to its bastioned base. Fragrant little chips of history spewed from the saw cut and accumulated on the snow before each kneeling sawyer. We sensed that these two piles of sawdust were something more than wood: that they were the integrated transect of a century; that our saw was biting its way, stroke by stroke, decade by decade, into the chronology of a lifetime, written in concentric annual rings of good oak." Good Oak

Two saws were found in the Shack. The other is displayed in the Leopold Center. One of them is undoubtedly the saw used to process the Good Oak:

 Look closer at the photo above. That is Estella, The Leopold's youngest (and now only surviving)
child. I heard Estella speak in 2005 at the Wildlife Society conference in Madison, Wisconsin. And now I have another connection to Estella. Last year, I taught a brand new class called Wildlife Field Techniques. We worked hard as a group to create a class that was both educational and meaningful. No other group of students will be pioneers in the sense that these were. It was a great experience for us all and in appreciation, the students of that class arranged a gift for me. So on the last day of class the students presented me with the gift and I was genuinely surprised and appreciative. I opened the bag and found a copy of Sand County Almanac. I must confess that I was a bit confused. Surely these students knew I had a copy of this book and, seeing its disrepair thought I could use a new one. But just as surely they must know I would never give up my first copy. All confusion disappeared as I opened the book and found it pesonally inscribed to me from Estella. What an amazingly thoughtful gift!

I posed in front of the Shack on a Leopold bench with that very edition in my hands. And it was that book that I sat with and read Great Possessions while at the "holy land" itself. 

Gone now were the worries of late buses, missed meals and unfound acorns. There was only genuine happiness at my place in the sun.