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Saturday, June 15, 2019

A California Ground Squirrel Family Experiencing the "Trials of Life"

It's now June 15th and all has settled down, but a week ago or so there was high drama surrounding a mother California Ground Squirrel and her offspring who live among the boulders outside the house, in perfect view from the living room window.

Around June 1st, we first noticed some very young ground squirrels tentatively venturing from a hole at the base of some rocks to the south of the house. We could see them clearly from the upper storey, and I commented to Gary that it must be tough to live with the local snakes, which to them would seem like truly massive serpents. And then Gary said "Like that one?", and sure enough, there was a large Southern Pacific Rattlesnake gliding along, moving in the direction of the burrows. Within a couple minutes it had arrived and entered one of the burrows.

The mother squirrel, obvious from her enlarged nipples, vigorously tail-flagged (whipped her tail from side to side) to distract the snake, and possibly lure it towards her. Apparently California Ground Squirrels can direct warmth into the tail through shunting blood there, possibly to appear bigger, and I would postulate to attract a thermal-sensitive snake like a rattler. Research has shown that the squirrels do NOT direct warm blood to the tail when confronting a non-heat-sensitive snake species!

Eventually, but fairly soon, actually, after entering the burrow, the snake exited again. We assumed that it had not consumed any pups, as that is typically a fairly long process.

The mother squirrel was seen carrying some of her pups to the west, to another burrow, presumably. She carried it with the pup curled around her face, and completely immobile, unlike a dog or cat which would carry young by the scruff.

Mother squirrel with baby in characteristic curled posture.

The snake left the scene later and the family seemed to settle down.

This scenario played itself out for the next several days, with the snake visiting and the mother squirrel becoming highly agitated, tail-flagging and sometimes relocating her pups.

The "regular" Southern Pacific Rattlesnake leaving the squirrels' "favored" burrow.

The mother tail-flagging from atop a boulder.

One time we thought we might have seen five pups, but the fifth is uncertain. We did see four pups repeatedly, though, and that remained constant as the days passed. The snake never seemed to really get a meal from among the young squirrels. One day, TWO rattlesnakes showed up, each one disappearing down a burrow! The number of pups still remained at four (which is a small litter, as this species goes, and may reflect earlier losses that we did not observe). In between snake visitations, the squirrels were highly photogenic and often could be photographed from the living room through the big window. Sometimes the pups would allow photos to be taken of them as I hunkered down on the concrete walkway around the house outside. First, a variety of images of the mother on the boulders. Flies seemed ubiquitous. She has an odd, almost shaved look about her "mantle", with the fur on her shoulders being shorter than that further down her back, creating a black line where the black bases of the hairs are visible. She is also "redder" in coloration than many ground squirrels of this species are.

A rare quiet moment for grooming.

With a fly on her head.

Here are some of the pups on June 1:

Tentatively emerging from the burrow.

The "bold baby". Still at quite a tender age.

The bold one, relaxing in the sun.

On June 2nd, when the snake was not present, the pups were becoming more bold and photogenic.

Two pups would often emerge, with the third being quite shy, and the fourth extremely shy. 

The "lineup"

Over the next couple days I was unable to photograph the family, but did see the snake visit each day.

On June 5, I was able to do some more photography. There was a snake visit, and I managed to capture the mother just a few inches from the head of the rattler, which is emerging from her favored burrow between the two bigger rocks.

The plants are irises given to us by a neighbor over ten years ago. I divided them for the first time this year.

In the afternoon, after the snake had departed, the pups and their mother spent some relaxed time on the rocks. There is one pup who seems a bit bolder than the rest, and that pup interacts with its mother quite a bit. Flies were still very numerous.

The "bold baby", looking like a baby (kittens and puppies strike this sort of pose sometimes too!).

The bold one and his (or her) mother. Note the flies.

This mother seems amazingly patient and tolerant of difficult circumstances. Now, after two weeks with her pups out of the nest, she is less patient with the young ones, and often rebuffs them when they sniff at her face. Eventually the males will leave the area, although the females may stay near their mother.

The pups were out on the rocks quite a bit and easily photographed through the glass of the window.

Here is the mother with her nipples visible. The pups tentatively ate grass, but I suspect they may still have been nursing.

On June 6th, the babies were active in the morning and allowed me to photograph them from the sidewalk. The "bold baby" spent some time by him or herself on one of the bigger boulders and struck some awfully cute poses. The pups seem to yawn and stretch quite a bit.

They also scratch quite a bit - they are attractive to flies, and likely have fleas.

The bold baby also climbed one of the small oaks near the boulders.

Only a couple days after these photos were taken the family seemed to disappear, but then reappeared again by the mother's favored burrows. As of the 15th they are still active outside our living room window and we have not seen a snake in quite a few days!

Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Fox and the Hummingbird(s)

On May 25th I decided to try some hummingbird photography from the platform we built downslope from the house. Usually I use a blind on the platform, but decided to try it without the blind this time (knowing that hummingbirds usually are pretty unconcerned with close-proximity humans).

Sure enough, the hummers happily congregated, and I obtained some images of them:

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna's Hummingbird
Before long, I saw what looked a bit like a cat creeping in the thick manzanita stand beyond where the hummingbirds were, and about 30 seconds later, a gray fox face appeared above one of the rocks in front of the manzanita. It was perhaps 15 feet away from me! It lingered for long enough to get quite a few images, but as I only had the 400 mm telephoto, I could only get close-cropped portraits! Exactly the opposite of the usual wildlife photography dilemma (with the subject a dot in the distance). Here are two of the portraits. The fox looks particularly unconcerned, I would say:

Gray Fox, unconcerned by humans, cameras or tripods

Some other birds visited at close range also, and were fairly unafraid:

White-breasted Nuthatch, with small food item

Male House Finch, yellow form

A Live Badger Observed in Pine Hills (San Diego County)

No photos, unfortunately, but this was my first "good" view of a live badger ever, and especially interesting, at least for me, as it was in San Diego County.

On the night of May 1, 2019 while driving home from Palomar College, at around 11 pm in Pine Hills near the town of Julian I saw what looked like a low-slung cat waddle off to the left side of the road and then disappear into a small grassy ditch along the side of the road.

I decided to carefully back up and look more closely (from the car) and saw an unmistakeable badger face observing me from a foot or so from the edge of the road. That explained the short-legged waddle. I tried to take a record image with my cell phone but the head disappeared. Upon later investigation, there is a culvert in that spot which extends under the road, although on the opposite side it seems to be closed off.

I have driven along this stretch of road late at night two days per week for about 32 weeks per year over the past 12 years or so, so this sort of observation is a rarity.

For the record, the spot where this badger was seen was very close to:
33.048016, -116.636228 just south of the corner of Eagle Peak Road and Boulder Creek Road (as shown on Google maps).

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Our Local Gray Foxes

Gray Foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) seem to be very common animals here in the Cuyamaca Mountains.

Dense chaparral is attractive to Gray Foxes, and we have quite a bit of this habitat, especially after the regrowth following the Cedar Fire. The high number of downed trees, boulders and dense cover must provide good denning sites for foxes in this area.

The San Diego Mammal Atlas (Tremor et al. 2017) suggests that these foxes are likely monogamous, although it is not known if they remain so over consecutive years.

The trail cam photos that we got last summer regularly showed TWO foxes visiting the water sources that I have out on the property! Perhaps a mated pair?

This image clearly shows the black stripe down the tails of the foxes, a character distinguishing the Gray Fox from the kit fox.

In this image, there's some interaction at the bird bath! The date is incorrect - this was also in the summer of 2018 (I did not reset the clock after changing the camera batteries).

Another image with a pair visiting for water. September is a very dry time here, especially as we had almost no monsoonal rain this past summer.

One day last summer the bird bath that the foxes like to climb up on had a mark in it! Foxes often mark their territories by placing scat on high points like boulders, or even small rocks on the ground. To a fox, the bird bath probably seems like a boulder with a large depression in it.

In late July we had an odd sighting of a fox snoozing on a rock about 100 feet from the house. It was a hot day, and apparently this fox was unconcerned about the activities around the house that day. The jays gave it away with their usual raucous mobbing behavior, triggered by almost any predator in the area. The fox clearly just wanted to sleep in a shady spot, but eventually moved off in to the landscape.

Crop of the photo above.

The fox on the ground before exiting the scene. Another good shot of the black stripe on the dorsal surface of the tail.

A fox or foxes also regularly visited the ground-level bird bath on the patio over the summer.


Leaving, in the late afternoon, after the bath was dry...

There are a fair number of natural springs in the area, but wildlife still will come to these sources placed out by local residents - a good incentive for us to keep up the practice.