Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mud turtles, mountain lions and more: arrangements for a Wildlife Festival

I got a YES!  I got a YES!! Doc Hale is coming to my scavenger hunt!

Ok, back up.  You have no idea what I'm talking about.

Two weeks from now, on April 22, the Nature Area in my town will be hosting a Wildlife Festival.  The Nature Area is 13 acres of beautiful habitat with multiple creeks, 400 year old heritage oaks, frog ponds, and wildflowers, painstakingly restored over the last three decades by one dedicated and dauntless woman and her crew of volunteer staff and students.  It's beautiful.  And it's owned by the school district, and adjacent to my kid's school, and it's recently been hammered by budget cuts.  Access and educational programs have been cut way back, and some folks are beginning to talk about development.

I live in a community that's absolutely ensconced in nature.  We're 10 minutes from major urban areas, but our town is nestled in and amongst rolling hills and parklands.  We're a community that loves the natural areas around us, but we've also settled right on top of some of the most delicate and precarious habitats - the creeks.  We've built in the drainages to save our views of our hills, but those drainages are what keep the hills healthy and alive and packed with wildlife.  By choking them, we're choking off the habitat and the animals we chose to live amongst.  And within the limits of our town, the Nature Area provides the absolute best, healthiest, most vibrant parcel of creekside habitat around.  It is the town's last refuge of the California red-legged frog.  It is alive with bird song.  Unlike the majority of town, the creek waters in the Nature Area run clear and unchoked by trash, English Ivy, French Broom, and Himalayan blackberry. And it's a safe piece of nature that every kid in the school district has access to, to run around unrestricted, to learn about science and ecology and growing things, and Native American culture.  It's a treasure.  But it's a threatened treasure.

So to raise money for the Nature Area: the Wildlife Festival.  And because we recognize that to restore creeks, we first  have to preserve the healthy creeks among us, the Friends of the Creeks organization to which I belong is joining in to support the Wildlife Festival.

The Festival has been going on longer than I've been around, and is apparently going to be choc-a-bloc full of things like a live raptor show, and honeybee demonstrations, and live music, and making your own nature inspired arts and crafts.

I volunteered (because nobody shot me down in time) to organize a Creek Wildlife Scavenger Hunt.   Where kids follow clues down the trail past the creeks, meeting and learning about different wildlife as they go, with hands on activities, crafts, and games.

First on my recruitment roster: my good friend and fellow wildlife biologist, Matt.  Matt has a passion for reptiles, and for pond turtles in particular, and he's the very fond owner of a rescued, unreleasable, Western pond turtle*.  Matt will be bringing Speckles to meet the kids as Station 1 at my scavenger hunt, and for a hands-on activity, he and the kids will be making Turtle Soup.**

 Second on my recruitment roster:  Jon, a biologist who works for the local water agency, which coincidentally owns the creeks running through the Nature Area.  Jon is both good-natured and completely awesome, and came up with the brilliant idea of letting kids use his equipment to identify (and them make their own) animal tracks by the creek.  Possums, raccoons, deer, who knows what else.

We're going to have stations with live native tree frogs to examine,  and bottled invasive bullfrogs (evil ever-hungry destroyers of all native amphibians).  And stations with good creek plants and bad creek plants.  But what I really needed, as of yesterday, was 1)Mountain Lions, 2) fish, and 3) birds.

So I wrote to Doc Hale, legendary mountain lion biologist.  And now we have come back to the beginning of this post!

 I met Doc in January of this year, thanks to Matt-of-the-turtles and his hiking propensity.  Matt showed up at work one Monday with photographs of some scratch marks in the dirt on a hiking trail.  He passed them around to half a dozen wildlife biologists, asking "what made these scratches?"  "Mountain lion" said the first.  "Mountain lion" said the second.  "Mountain lion" said the third, fourth, fifth and sixth.  But Matt, being a scientist, was skeptical.  He called up the best known mountain lion specialist in nine counties, and invited him out for a hike to look at the tracks.  I tagged along with my oldest kid and his buddy, because what six year old doesn't want to track enormously powerful pussycats with daggerlike teeth who can run like cheetahs and jump like kangaroos? 

Here's Doc, examining the trail marks (click to make it bigger and examine them yourself):
Yup, those are lion tracks.

A seven year old's hand is smaller than a mountain lion's paw

Where the lion sharpened his claws on a nearby tree

Houses, 25 yards from the claw sharpening tree.  I wonder if they know?

When tracking wildlife, it is always good to bring along a nature photographer

Doc, as you can guess, is a character. Not only does he know his wildlife, but he's a trained archeologist and can identify the Native American uses for every herb we passed on the trail. He's been tracking lions for decades, and is on a first name basis with many of the long term feline residents of our towns.  His photographs are astonishing***, as are his estimates of how many of these enormous, but secretive lions live right in our collective backyards. Dozens of them use the creeks in our local towns as their trails, slipping through silently in darkness, moving from one open parkland to another, leaving no evidence but grainy night photos on trail cameras and an occasional scratch mark on a tree.  And Doc has graciously agreed to come help out, sharing his photos, and his astonishing tales, with the kids at the Wildlife Festival!  WWHHHHEEEeeeeeeeeeeee!!

This is going to be awesome.

Matt and Jim (Doc) Hale, discussing their findings

 Now, all I have to find is someone to bring riparian birds, and someone to bring fish.  If you know of anyone, give me a shout!


*These lovely shelled beasties have been suckerpunched by habitat loss and by competition from released pets, such as the red-eared slider, and are currently a State Species of Special Concern - which basically means they're working their way on to the endangered species list.

**Ok, not really.  Because Speckles wouldn't taste very good.  Early settlers in California got very excited about all the pond turtles here, because turtle soup was a huge delicacy, but to their enormous dismay, it turns out that pond turtles taste like mud.  And not very tasty mud at that.  More like slimy green mud at the edges of a cow-trampled puddle on a muggy summer's day.  Remind me to tell you about the oysters, sometime, though.

***Lion eating a deer on the front lawn of a house in a nice residential neighborhood 10 minutes from here.  Night shot of more than half a dozen lions hanging out like campers at rest time in clearing in the woods.  Deer hunter proudly kneeling next to a newly killed stag, in time honored hunting pose, totally oblivious to the lion who is standing 6 feet behind him, looking on.

1 comment:

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