Saturday, August 28, 2010


Isn't it funny how a project changes your outlook?

I have a not very secret fear of bears visiting me at night when I am camping.  But as we crawled up the Sierra foothills behind a sluggish RV on the way to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp I could see a silver lining: we'd get to add black bear to the list of California mammals we've seen.

At camp I sat on the shady deck of our cabin, enjoying the rush of the South Fork of the Tuolumne, and browsed through Mammals of California and A nature guide to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp looking for mammals we might spot. The latter was UCSC alum Phil Coffin's senior project.  We should be so lucky to find such a guide to all the places we go a-mammal-hunting.

With its help we saw the pallid bat and the California myotis.  You see, the Mammals of California book has a handy dichotomous key with which it is simple and pleasant to identify a bat.  Why, first you simply determine whether your bat has one or two pairs of upper incisors.  And then you check whether it has a furred or nude interfemoral membrane.   I don't know about you, but little old rabiesophobic me is not about to check out the number of incisors a bat has even if I could catch one, which actually was pretty likely as one night they were flying all around our heads in clouds.

Woman playing pingpong with cloud of bats around her head:  "Did someone say bats?  Are there bats around here?"  Looks up, screams, clutches head.

Here is my best photo.  Can you make out the incisors?

I'll need to fiddle with my camera or maybe even take a class to improve my night photography.  I was trying to shoot on automatic settings and it wouldn't flash because nothing was in focus.  Darned bats move too fast to focus on.  However, you know what doesn't move fast?  Bat guano!

Under the Hardin Road bridge, as promised in our guide.  How exciting!  There it is again, that way that a project changes your outlook.  As part of a project bat guano=exciting!  After finding the guano we settled down to wait for nightfall.  Well, I settled down.  The kids swung on the rope swing.

The Mammals of California book also suggested we attach cyalume capsules to sleeping bats we might find in caves which would allow us to track their movements after dark.  I wish I could say I had done this. With gloves on.  And a respirator.  Because I do not want to get rabies just because I think it would be a real knee-slapper to watch a bat fly with a glowstick glued to its fur.

But the beloved and practical Nature Guide to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp told us that pallid bats roost under the Hardin street bridge and fly out in the evening to catch insects.

We waited, they flew out.  Check.  The California Myotis, it told us, scoops water from the river.  Stroll out, it says, and watch them after dinner.  Done.

The best tip was this: a ringtail lives in the dining hall and comes out in the evening.  If you are like many people at camp you are saying a ringtail what?  A ringtail lemur?  No, no.  They were once called Ring-tailed cats, but the same folks who took the fish out of starfish took away their cat.  These raccoon cousins are now known simply as ringtails.  Gold miners loved ringtails we are told, because they eat vermin.

Since ringtails are, according to Wikipedia, "nocturnal, solitary, timid, and rarely seen" we expected it to be a challenge to see one.  But the Nature Guide told us, "Some nights in the D-Hall, you may see a shape dart across one of the rafters, and it may even stop and stare at you with huge, curious eyes."  So we began, with great anticipation, to stake out the dining hall in the evenings.

Ok, so this is how we staked out the dining hall.  We would pass through it several times in the evening and look up hopefully.  No luck.  One morning as I made my coffee with my Clever Coffee Dripper (thanks, Moira!)  I overheard people talking about having seen the ringtail the night before.  We realized that we weren't going to catch something that darts along the rafters by passing through from time to time.  We'd have to have a real stakeout.

We entered the dining hall at 9pm.  Here is Evelyn staring up at the rafters.

The rafters, in case you were wondering.
And Clementine, demonstrating that we fueled this stakeout with hot cocoa, hot apple cider and Apples to Apples.
Yes, we set our minds to it this time.  But by 10pm the kids were flopped on the table and moaning, "I'm sooooo tired."  We went to bed.  No ringtail.

The next night was Table Night, aka the camp talent show.  And the night after that would be Bingo Night in the dining hall.  It seemed unlikely that a timid and rarely seen critter would come out on Bingo Night.  I resolved to slip off after the first act (coincidentally my kids' skit) and stake out the D-Hall.

But it turns out that I'm the sort of person who doesn't miss her friend's son's performance on the chance that I might spot a ringtail. 
And wouldn't you know it, after listening to Solomon I even stick around for the staff performance of Stand By Me instead of running straight off to the stakeout.  And Evelyn spots me and says Greta is falling asleep.

I'm about to take her off to bed when I decide to just go by the dining hall.  And I ask the first person I see.  And she says she did see the ringtail.  It was just there not more than three minutes ago.  I slumped onto bench with dejection and self-recrimination.  I could have just skipped the Stand By Me.  I lack the grit required for this project.

Sure, I managed to spot this ground squirrel living up to his new genus name Spermophilus (seed lover). But anyone can see a ground squirrel.   In fact you have to drive them off.  One ate Clementine's deodorant.  And my chocolate stash.
It is going to take persistence and dedication to see a lot of these mammals.  Do we have it?  I missed the ringtail by three minutes and the kids opted not to try at all and stay at Table Night.  Greta is here only because I dragged her here when she wanted to go to bed.

But, I told myself, at least our trip did not pass without some sign of a black bear.  Scat!  Not only did we examine the scat twice but we went back to photograph it later.  Lots of manzanita berries in there and a 
long piece of plastic wrap twisting through and holding the whole thing together.

I cheered myself up a little bit with the memory of the bats and the bear scat and the ground squirrel.   And then I looked up.  To see a ringtail staring down with huge, curious eyes.

Greta was thrilled.  It was the cutest thing ever.  I left her in the hall and ran to the amphitheater for Ev and Clem.  

When I got back the ringtail was hiding in the firewood by the huge stone fireplace.  Everyone gave it a little space and it escaped the firewood stack and streaked to the cup racks near the dishwashing station.  It hid in there, peeping out from time to time.  It was acting cornered, so I moved some trashcans to give it space to slip behind them and up the cupboard that it had descended from.

We all backed up.  But to our surprise it struck out straight across the floor.  It paused at Evelyn's foot and looked up at her.   I thought it might run up her leg.  Then it scampered beneath the tables and benches and squeezed into a bench seat at the far side.  

We decided to leave it alone and retreated.  Table Night had ended and the dining room was flooding with people.  We sat down to talk over the unbearable cuteness of the ringtail and the possibility of owning a pet ringtail.  Clementine decreed that the ringtail had been 100 times better than any of the Table Night acts.  And then he was spotted climbing up the stacks of games in a corner cupboard, over the stereo, and up to the rafters.
He darted along the rafters, and back to his hole.  I got to have my cake and eat it, too.  I got to watch Solomon, sway to Stand By Me, and see the ringtail.  And all my kids got to see it and so did Solomon and his siblings and parents.  Life is good.

Another thrill from camp was Evelyn's first fish.  A 13 inch rainbow trout.  She caught it, she killed it.
Back home she gutted it, she cooked it (with some help), and she ate it.

Clem made the owl that perches in the pic below on the railing above our cabin number.
Greta was seldom without face paint.
I hoped the owl would scare away the squirrels.
It didn't.  They must have heard me vowing to spend less time on the computer when we got back to civilization and decided to help.  Because when I was packing up look what I found.

My laptop power cord chewed into 4 pieces.  I was annoyed at first, but I perked up when I realized I could view it as a sign of mammalian life.

Coming soon:  We have a trail camera.  We plan to set it up in the backyard and see what's there when we are not.


Kristin said...

Great story--so fully explained and fun to read. Nice photos too.

Susan said...

Kristin, thanks! And thanks so much for your earlier comment with desert bighorn and other mammal tips. We'd love to hike with you in Sunol to the bobcat's home.

AM said...

Well done, Evelyn!

Karen said...

I'm glad you finally got to see the ringtail :-)
This will be a fun project, I can't wait to hear more!