los vaqueros reservoir
I haven’t been lucky enough to see a jaguar in the wild yet, but I did see this fella (lady?) last Thursday at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County just after sunset.
Hiding just out of sight was this little one, probably trying to avoid being a bobcat breakfast.
It is a surreal landscape here – large mountainous hills that grow out of the flat grassy planes East of Mount Diablo, south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta. It is almost completely devoid of trees, other than a small riparian area at the dam outlet, but once atop any of the peaks that surround the reservoir, there must be thousands of giant wind turbines in sight. It’s staggering the number of turbines in view, for as far as the eye can see in some directions, over land that has been cleared for grazing.
Ironically, this general area has the highest concentration of nesting golden eagles in the world. It is home to many raptor and bird species, and has also been shown to be a main migration route for birds in the Autumn and Spring. It probably goes without saying that wind turbines and soaring birds don’t go well together (not for the birds, certainly). The mortality rate of golden eagles in this region is high due to collisions with the wind turbine blades, and is probably under-reported.
It’s hard to determine visually where the wind farms end or if they are part of different farms – to the north is the Shiloh Wind Power Plant, and to the south is Altamont Pass Wind Farm (of notorious history, for its vastly negative impact on raptor and other bird species). They are two of the four largest wind farms in CA. I’m not sure who owns the ones pictured above, I suspect it’s part of the Altamont Pass Wind Farm. The picture below shows a view to the north from above the reservoir – if you look closely you can see a LARGE number of turbines stretching across the horizon. I suspect these are part of Shiloh Wind Power Plant. It’s hard to differentiate where they start or end though because the turbines seem to be concentrated densely there to the north, then they sporadically run from that point far to the north all along the eastern edge of the Diablo range, then southeast towards Altamont Pass and out of sight.
Despite the jarring visual impact, these turbines are “green energy” and certainly have a lot of benefits over other energy production techniques. They are part of the compromise that we currently must make in our effort to satisfy energy demands while still attempting to minimize our impact on the environment – both to the creatures who live there now, and in a global capacity long term. No easy answers. No black and white.
Every day the sun rises though, and the cycle of life continues. Coyote doesn’t care so much about politics.
Autumn is my favorite time of year, and I’m always excited by the usual harbingers of Fall … pumpkins, raptor and bird migration, amazing light, crisp electric air, foliage color changes, bay nuts, and an instinct deep within me that drives me to figure out what ridiculous costume I’ll wear for Halloween.
There is also the call of the rutting bull elks, if you’re lucky enough to be close to some – a sound that reminds me of whale calls penetrating the surface of the water and echoing across the landscape. I love to see and hear them, especially at this time of year, when the bulls have their “harems” of cows protectively corralled close to them. If one tries to stray too far, the bull will herd her back. And if another male comes too close, a fight can ensue.
They make their bellowing, haunting calls often, seemingly to advertise their virility to the females and their dominance over other bulls -with the occasional chirping siren-like responses from the females, and other males calling back to defend their own space and ladies. It’s all about the ladies at this time of year.
On Sunday we visited the herds at Tomales Point to immerse ourselves in this Autumn rite, and though initially we were disappointed by the thick fog that enveloped just the very tip of the peninsula where the elk live, it turned out to be a good thing. Fog is one of the natural states of this area, and the landscape comes alive when it is foggy. Not only that, the fog allowed us to get closer to the elk than we would have been able to otherwise, creating a smoke screen for us as we approached from downwind to find a nice rock outcropping overlooking two small herds. And, as an added bonus, most of the two-leggeds depart with the fog!
Ironically, the best pictures I got were when we were leaving in our vehicle as a herd was milling about near the exit road. Vehicles can be the best blinds … and they’re mobile!
Oh, and the fog made a stunning scene for pictures.
I caught this one mid-bellow!!!!!!!!! The sight and sound was incredible.
As we were leaving the Point Reyes area, heading East back towards the big city, we saw a great-horned owl perched on top of a utility pole, just a shadow highlighted by the twilight. We stopped to watch it, and suddenly we heard the unmistakable sound of a begging juvenile great-horned owl very close by. Within a minute or two, it had flown up to land on the utility wires, begging intensely for its breakfast. After shredding its prey, the adult jumped over next to the juvenile and handed it over. Oddly, the young one didn’t stop begging, it just perched on the wire with the food in its talons. The only time it paused was when I mimicked its begging call, at which point it would look at me for a few moments, then return to begging. Must have been a spoiled young one … it does live in Marin County, after all.
moose is loose
A young bull moose made his way through the small town of Kelly one evening, calmly browsing on roof-high trees and bushes.
As if wolves weren’t enough, the next day held more surprises.
I left to go on a final hike that next afternoon, after packing up my jeep and preparing to leave Wyoming. I joked to the project director that I’d seen everything but grizzlies and pumas in Wyoming, so I was going to find one or both that afternoon since my time in Wyoming was coming to an end for now.
Sure enough, as I was almost to my hiking spot, I saw a large form crossing a stream just below me amongst the jungle of tall willows.
It was a sow grizzly and her three “cubs,” who were all about a year and a half old a just about as big as she is. I later learned that in all probability it was a grizzly known as “six ten,” and she even has her own facebook page (see here)! They had been hanging around the south side of Grand Teton National Park, even going out of the park and into some ranch land in search of food (the dry summer has created a food shortage for bears) before being “encouraged” back into the park (see here). The Park Service had closed a road near the visitor center for a few days because she and her cubs, along with a black bear and her cubs, were feeding by a road. Oh, and I guess she was charging at cars.
Closing the road seems like it was a reasonable idea. Cancelling my hike there also a good idea.
I saw them from about 300 meters, and our interaction was peaceful. Once again, seeing such a gigantic beast in the wild defies words. How they managed to disappear into the willows and not be seen again as I watched afterwards for an hour for another peek just defies reality. Where do four giant bears hide? The mystery endures for another time.
wolves need help
I try to keep this blog apolitical, but I am bending my rule for this. I’d love if you took a minute to read this (if you haven’t already seen one of my pleas) – and if you feel moved – to add your name to a petition to help find a better solution for wolf management in Wyoming.
These next two days are critical for the wolves of Wyoming, if you haven’t already please check out the following petition to endorse re-evaluating the proposed management plan by the Wyoming Fish and Game Department which goes into effect in two days. It includes unregulated hunting, trapping, and poisoning of wolves in the majority of the state.
Seeing wild wolves was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I want my children, and theirs as well, to be able to have that experience and be proud of the choices that we make today to protect these National Treasures of the United States and the Earth. I am not a liberal and I’m not a conservative. I’m a human being that understands that no issue is as simple as to have only two points of view. I understand that hunting is necessary for managing wildlife at this time, but I believe it should be done in a humane way with plans based on science and compassion. Wyoming’s plan includes neither.
summary of issue:
Wolves were removed from the Federal Endangered Species list last year, meaning the management of the species has been turned over to individual States. Montana and Idaho started management last year, and though their plans were approved by the Federal gov, they still include questionable methods that seem to endorse the old West mentality of extermination (outside of any National Parks) – though at least their hunting plans have some limits and regulations. To contrast bad and worse, Wyoming’s proposed “management” plan was so poor that last year the Feds would not turn over the responsibility until revisions were put into place. Any day now though, management will transfer from the Feds to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, despite very few reasonable revisions.
Wyoming’s current “management plan” includes categorizing the wolf as a “predator species” outside of Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park (and a small area just outside those parks). As a predator species, they will be subjected to unregulated hunting outside of those areas – they will be allowed to be shot, trapped, poisoned, or any other method of destruction, at any time, with no oversight. This plan is not far off the existing plans in states such as Texas that offer a dollar reward for every coyote killed.
Wyoming’s management plan needs further revision, or the wolf needs to remain with some Federal protection. Wyoming is part of this Union of the United States of America, and they are stewards of many National treasures. I believe in States’ rights to govern, but there remain shared resources that belong to all of us. Wyoming should remember that many of their cities and towns exist because of the treasures within their state, and much of their income comes from people who come from outside the state to visit. Let’s come up with a plan that honors the people who have to live with wolves, the wolves, and our future generations.
why should we care?
The proposed plan from Wyoming seems archaic and fear-based, not a plan based on science or even remotely including any compassion for a species that is directly related to animals that many of us keep in our homes and consider parts of our families. Anyone who has a dog or has experienced time with wolves knows that they are intelligent beings, live in close family groups, and experience some feelings similar to our own.
Wolves, and other apex predators, are necessary parts of a healthy ecosystem, just as are all creatures right down to insects and bacteria (see this article). It is proposed that one reason deer ticks and Lyme’s disease is so out of hand in the Eastern United States is that deer populations, along with other prey species, have gone unchecked due to lack of predator influence, allowing the ticks to proliferate.
The methods of “management” proposed by Wyoming include activities that I would associate with a 3rd world country. Let’s create a plan based on science and compassion, something we are proud of as citizens of the United States of America – something that can be a model for big predator wildlife management around the world. Poison and traps are horrific ways for an animal to die, and it is often a slow and painful death. Not only that, traps and poison have many other casualties in the form of other animals that aren’t targeted. I want my children and children’s children to be proud of the choices we make, not embarrassed that we reverted to the very tactics that put the wolf, bison, and many other animals in the position that they are in today.
recent articles regarding this topic:
LA Times click here
New York Times click here
Defenders of Wildlife summary click here
Thanks in advance for taking a moment to raise your voice in favor of a more humane, moderate and compassionate plan for managing these amazing animals!!!
The tracks that I saw two Fridays ago I supposed to belong to a set of three wolves, and three days later I returned there to cast some tracks of their paw prints on the shores of the lake where I had found them. Originally my plan was to cast a bunch of the tracks, then hike around the lake with some left-over plaster to see what other cool tracks I might find.
The wolves had a different plan for me.
I spent a few hours pouring plaster, and most of the good tracks were close to the area where I accessed the lake. It was a hot day, even by Wyoming standards, and there was a pair of swans that took great interest in my affairs. They were alternating feeding with short forays to investigate my work with much curiousity, as I traversed the banks back and forth over an area about a 1/4 mile in distance. I was happy to have them there.
After pouring the plaster, I started off to hike around the lake. As I continued east, the amount of wolf sign just increased. I found more evidence of movement there by the wolves, it still seemed like only three individuals but it was obvious that they used the area with some frequency. Not only were there more tracks, but there were bones and parts of animals that indicated kill sites and also objects that seemed to be used as toys. After my day, I learned that the area was home to a wolf den, so it is likely that many of the bones and feathers that I encountered during my day were the play things of young wolves. These included swan feathers, and I suspected that perhaps there were only two swans because their young had fallen prey to the wolves of the lake.
As I was walking and scoping the ground in the heat of the day, a form caught my eye towards the east side of the lake, about 300 meters away. As I brought my binoc’s to my eyes, I already knew what it was.
It was a wolf.
Languishing on the cool mud by the lake.
It didn’t realize I was there, despite me being generally upwind of it. I stared a bit in disbelief, even though I shouldn’t have been surprised based on the amount of sign that was around. Still, when you actually see a wolf for the first time, in the wild, there is a moment of pause that’s required by the mind and body. We as a species have a long history with the wolf, and like many things, the experience is not quantifiable by the mind. Nor are words capable of expressing it.
Eventually it got up and started scouting the shoreline, and it was then that I realized there were two other wolves in its company. I saw a beautiful red-tailed hawk flight feather on the shore right next to me, and I couldn’t help but smile. Shortly thereafter a red-tail appeared in the sky just to my left, and it seemed to coax me on, giving me the go-ahead to investigate further.
I didn’t want to disturb them, but I saw that it was possible to get a little bit closer while still keeping water in between us. As I tried to get in position, two of them heard/smelled/saw me, and they moved away up a densely vegetated drainage behind them. The third moved a bit slower in the same direction, until all three had disappeared. I waited a bit, then decided to walk further, still having the intention of walking around the lake.
As I got about 50 meters from where they had been, I realized that I needed to pass very close to where they had been laying. In addition to not wanting to bother them further, I realized that I’d be walking, by myself, on a very exposed mud plain, with no where to go and nothing to defend myself. I don’t think wolves would attack me unprovoked, but … they are, umm, wolves. This was real.
As I was trying to decide what to do, the largest of the three reappeared not far away, within 150 meters. She (I’m assuming, based on size) seemed to be relaxed and just investigated the area as I watched her. I was able to get a few more pics as she meandered around.
As I watched her, it started to occur to me that, while it was amazing to see her chilling by the lake, it left two other wolves unaccounted for. And I was essentially pinned in by the lake, the willows, and the hillsides around me. Not that I really expected that they would be trying to flank me and give me a surprise, but why chance it? It was my first experience with wolves, and they are intelligent animals. And big. Very big.
I think it was right around when I took these pictures below that I decided a greater distance between all of us was prudent …
The feeling of having a wild wolf gaze at you is unlike any other feeling. Thrilling, chilling … primal.
After taking these last shots, I started to make my departure, leaving the wolves in peace to their afternoon cool-down. I’m not going to lie … I also picked up a large club-like log, and, neanderthal-style, plodded back along the lakeside from whence I came, with many glances behind me. I may have grunted a few times between wide smiles.
After I gathered up the casts of the tracks and put all my gear back into my jeep, I walked down to the lake to say a good-bye and thank you. As I expressed my gratitude standing on the bank, I heard a peregrine calling as if to acknowledge my sentiments, and I just gave a big smile – and a wolf howl – before I turned and made my way back to camp. It’s a thrill to know that when I howled like a wolf there, wolves were actually hearing it.
Instead of angry neighbors.
On the drive out, my old friend the red-tail called so loudly that I stopped my jeep to find it, and it flew out in front of me as if my escort, leading me for a bit, seeming to celebrate the events of the day with me as it finally landed on a nearby tree and watched me pass.
where there are wolf tracks …
… there are wolves.
Today was an amazing day – I saw my first wild wolves!!! Three, to be exact. Likely the three that left the tracks that I spotted on Friday and are posted in my previous blog post.
More details to come …
There are wolves that roam very close to where our camp is setup here in the Teton National Forest. These particular tracks are from a bit further north … after a hike to check some remote cameras, I sat next to a reservoir to eat a snack and I stumbled on them. Three wolves started out moving along the edge of the lake, I realized as I backtracked them – towards the end of the trail there was only one.
I was hoping the other two weren’t in the dense willows right next to me as I scouted their trails.
Ok … part of me was hoping they were there.
The politics of wolves in Wyoming is very heated, there is the possibility that soon (after they are removed from the Federally protected status that they currently have until the end of August) in unprotected areas (outside Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park) that they will be allowed to be shot on sight with no regulation. See this link.
Come on Wyoming, let’s find a reasonable compromise eh?
To be walking where there are wild wolves is an experience I will never forget.