Nature Notes from Big Creek, 1996

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April 1996 May 1996 June 1996 November 1996

April 1996 There have been more mountain lion activities at Big Creek. Last fall, our reserve steward Feynner Arias found a place along the canyon road where a lion had torn up the vegetation and made a broad path down hill. He also found some deep claw marks on a fallen tree as well. We decided to try and follow the trail to see if we could find a deer kill and perhaps get some photographs of the lion. We suspected that it was the same lion that we photographed in October, who seems to prefer to hunt along roads.
We spent an hour following the trail, which was very mixed up and did not proceed further downhill. Instead, the lion seemed to have doubled back, about where the claw marks were found. Feynner wisely quit following the trail and went back to where he first saw the torn vines. Just 30' above the road he found a mostly eaten deer carcass. Studying the area, we found a fresh pile of dirt about 30 feet from the carcass, with fresh lion scat a couple of feet away. I uncovered the pile, expecting to find some deer parts, but instead found fresh buried lion scats!
These scats turned out to be the key to the mystery (or so we think). Our guess is that a lion killed a deer on the road. It carried the deer above the road and began feeding. After a meal it marked the spot with its scat. At some time later a second lion discovered the deer and decided to take it for its own. It had a "confrontation" with the first lion, and chased it down the hill, tearing up vines and plants, and leaving claw marks on tree trunks. The second lion probably won the fight, buried the first lion's scat, and left its own scat to mark ownership.
In the months since this incident, Feynner and I have repeatedly seen small lion tracks on the road, made by the female lion that we photographed last fall. On a few occasions her tracks have been paralleled by a larger set of tracks, possibly a male lion's. Maybe this lion is her "friend" or possibly her mate. I wonder if the larger lion was the one who took the deer away from her, if it was indeed she who killed the deer in the first place. At any rate, watching these animals is better than watching TV dramas, although you have to be very patient and let the characters make themselves known to you. Just two days ago, on March 18, we saw her small, deep tracks, still hunting deer along the road.
Other notes: every few weeks we see a juvenile golden eagle flying up and down the canyon, or sitting out in the open grasslands. It is very dark, almost black, with whitish patches under the wings and base of tail. One time Feynner saw an adult bald eagle chase the golden eagle up the canyon. It is the time of year for bald eagles to start hunting baby seals at the seal beach; this something I was seen the last few years. Two days ago we saw an ocean-run steelhead up Big Creek. This is first large fish of this kind we have seen in 4-5 years. Maybe they will make a comeback. (3/22/96)


May 1996 I just read a published report written by Terry Jones, the archaeologist who has done so much work here at Big Creek and along the central coast. Terry and his co-author, Kenneth Gobalet, looked at over 77,000 fish bones that have been gathered from 51 archaeology sites along the coast, and identified them as well as possible. They identified over 80 species.
One important thing they discovered is that, in rocky coastal areas like Big Sur, people have always caught the same species that you catch today if you fish off the rocks with a hook and line. They found 3277 bones of rockcod, 1180 bones of cabezon, 295 bones of surfperch, and 237 bones of lingcod, and there didn't seem to any major changed through time that they could detect. No steelhead or salmon bones were found in Big Sur. In fact, salmon and steelhead bones were rare in the entire study (which stretched between San Mateo County down to San Luis Obispo county.) Unlike salmon streams further north, our creek and rivers were probably never "full" of easily harvested fish. This is surprising to me, because I have heard so many stories of abundant fish runs in the 1940's and 50's here at Big Creek. Still, our streams are not very "productive" in the biological sense of the word, which in this context means "full of food", so might not be able to support large populations of baby steelhead or salmon.
Terry also found bones of freshwater as well as marine fish species in Elkhorn Slough, suggesting that either the Salinas River or the Pajaro River, or both, may have emptied into the ocean via the slough. Freshwater species include carps and minnows (2538 bones), sticklebacks (586 bones), Sacramento suckers (576 bones), thicktail chub (276 bones), and steelhead (204 bones), as well as marine species found in the slough today. What a tremendous amount of work, but I think it was worth it to see how much, and how little change has taken place in different areas, and to understand how people have lived for thousands of years.
Other notes....I have seen a number of vole runways in the grasslands this spring. Voles are little, short tailed "meadow mice," which thrive on lush spring vegetation. They have large litters of babies, and can multiply to outbreak numbers in a short time if the conditions are right. This is the first time since 1987 I have seen lots of vole runways. Perhaps having two relatively wet rainy seasons in a row has brought them out. Vole outbreaks are great for predators, who can easily catch large number of the slow moving mice.
We saw tracks of a mother mountain lion and her yearling cub along the interpretive loop last week. The tracks went up and back along Brunnette Creek, as if the cub was curiously exploring and the mother was watching in close attendance. Feynner saw tracks of a big male just below our cabin yesterday. Most of the lion scats have seen lately consist mainly of deer fur. It doesn't seem that our lions are eating a lot of rabbits or mice, in contrast to the bobcats. Their scats seem full of small mammal prey.
As always, the Neighbors' Day open house was great! It was a gorgeous day and lots of friends showed up as well some new faces. I hope to see everyone again next year, on the first Saturday in April! (4/22/96)


June 1996 This was a great month for butterflies. We did our eighth annual "fourth of July" butterfly count last week. We always hold the count in early June, mainly to meet the scheduling needs of some of the counters, and for year-to-year consistency. This year there were butterflies everywhere, down in the canyon, up on the ridges, in the brush, and in the woods.
The most common species was the buckeye, a pretty brown butterfly with big "eye spots" on the wings. Male buckeyes sit on the roads and trails, defending their little patch of sun and courting female buckeyes when they appear. They chase nearly any butterfly that comes by, no matter what species. If the intruder is another male buckeye, the chase may last a long time.
There were also dozens and dozens of butterflies drinking from puddles of water and mud in the road. These were mainly echo blues (a small butterfly with shiny sky-blue wings), pale swallowtails, and California sisters (a large species with orange spots on the wings). Nearly all "puddling" butterflies are males, seeking a nuptial "wedding" gift of salt for their mates. When male butterflies mate, they transfer to the female a sack-like "spermatophore." In addition to containing sperm, the spermatophore is like a dowry, a highly nutritious gift containing food and essential nutrients for the eggs that are developing in the female.
Male butterflies which prevent their partners from mating again (with a different male) will tend to father more offspring than other males. As a consequence, the spermatophore is designed to be left permanently in the female, blocking the opening and making future matings difficult. However, the male needs to make sure that the female has the best nutrition possible (so that his offspring will be healthy), so he takes the risk of feeding at puddles to gather special nutrients.
Some species of female butterflies have the ability to soften the spermatophore "plug" and mate more than once. This is too bad for the first male, since his sperm are diluted with the sperm from later males. Consequently, his offspring will be fewer, but the female receives benefits nutritionally, thus increasing the number and vitality of her eggs. It is interesting that butterflies, like most other animals (including we humans) try to be the best parents they can be, but sometimes our very natures are at cross-purposes. At least it is fun to try and figure these things out.
One spot along the upper reaches of Canogas creek was like a butterfly garden, with dozens sitting and perching in the little glades, and chases here and there. It was a remarkable day! It also produced a record for one day - 39 species. The previous record was 37.
Other notes: the black oystercatcher that nests in Big Creek cove is back. It has nested every year for 10 years on the same ledge, halfway up the side of the rock. This year, perhaps because of the big waves and stormy weather last month, the pair nested on top of the rock rather than on the side ledge. As of this week they are bringing bits of oyster and other goodies to their little black chicks. (6/18/96)


November 1996 Last night my family and I were driving the "mule" (our utility cart) home through the reserve with the lights turned off. We were driving very slowly so as not to upset a load of cargo (we are moving back down to the gate cabin from Whale Point), when I saw a great horned owl fly in front of me. It looked like a huge moth, about 3 feet across, and it flew up to a lilac bush next to the road and seemed to beat its wings just above the bush. Then it flew another 10 feet to the next bush, hovering and beating its wings again. After a few seconds it flew 25 feet up the road and hovered next to another bush. Then it flew over the lilacs and disappeared.
As I drew even with the last bush I was able to see a quail-sized bird flush and scuttle down under the bushes, apparently safe from the owl. Upon seeing the smaller bird I realized that the owl was probably hunting, trying to startle and flush prey off nighttime roosts. This is a strategy that could be very effective against birds. When I consulted the "Life Histories of North American Birds" I read that horned owls are known to feed on wide range of birds including small species, in addition to their "usual" diet of small mammals. However, there was no mention of this unusual hunting behavior.
The mountain lion we call "the girl" has left scats and tracks along the road on the south side of Devil's canyon, again and again. She seems localized in one small area, and I wonder if she may have kittens keeping her "tied down." I have been collecting scat samples to send to UC Davis for genetic "fingerprinting" so we will be able to recognize her presence in the future.
Other notes: In the rains of November 17, Big Creek rose about 3 feet, nearly washing out the foot bridges but not quite. I was impressed with how much rain soaked in to the ground rather than causing runoff and an even bigger flood. The warm temperatures have been great for plant growth and the hills are turning green. The first installment of California "spring" is here!....This fall we had an "average" acorn crop, many more than last year but fewer than "mast" years. We also were visited by an "average" number of acorn-eating Band-tail Pigeons. (11/20/96)

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