Nature Notes from Big Creek, 1998

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March 1998 July 1998 November 1998

March 1998 The other day I took a "shortcut" up a steep grassland to the top of Highlands Ridge. The ground was soft and springy and there were millions of small plants, including the wild oats that will overgrow everything in a couple of months. There were lupines, clovers, storksbills, and bunchgrasses. Rarely there was a gopher mound. I tried to avoid crushing any plants as I walked - doing this seems to give me energy so I don't get tired.
Near the top of the ridge I saw the back of a brownish-gray animal, about the size of Kim's little dog Pulguero. At first I thought it was a badger because of the low, flat shape, but finally I saw its striped face and tufted ears and realized it was a bobcat. It was digging low, probably trying to catch a gopher. As I watched, it stood up and scanned the area nearby. It had beautiful spots on its chest. It then walked slowly toward me but looking intently at the ground about 10' ahead. It seemed to hear or see something, because it froze momentarily, then slowly moved forward, gathering itself to spring. It waited maybe 15 seconds, then pounced on something on the ground. After a couple of seconds it stood up and looked around, as if to see if someone was watching. The bobcat repeated this kind of activity for about 10 minutes.
All the time this was happening, I was in full view of the bobcat, maybe 150' away, sitting in the open grassland. When it finally saw me the bobcat sat up and stared at me for a second. Then it "politely" looked away, then back at me, then away again. I remained motionless, except for handling my binoculars and occasionally looking away, copying the bobcat. After half a minute it calmly walked up the hill and over the ridge.
I sat for about 20 minutes, very moved by the intimacy and grandeur of the ridge top setting and the hunting cat. Then I walked up to the ridge top. At the top I barely caught sight of the bobcat slowly walking east down a swale of grass. Keeping some bushes before me, I found another watching spot and waited. Sure enough, the cat went back to its hunting technique. Comparing it to the incredibly patient hunting of our house cats, it seemed that the bobcat lacked concentration and patience. It never waited more than 60 seconds to pounce, and never caught anything.
After 10 minutes of fruitless hunting, the bobcat crouched low in the grass. At the same time, a doe and yearling fawn walked into view, looking straight at the cat. The cat hunkered down even lower while the deer walked by about 50' uphill. The doe looked intently and the cat, and stamped her feet. I thought she was going to leave the cat behind, but when she was directly uphill for the cat she faced toward it and started walking down the hill. When she leaped forward the cat bounded down the slope, the deer following rapidly. The cat escaped into the thick brush and escaped.
I jumped up to see the chase, and the fawn saw me. It stared up the hill as I crouched low behind some bushes. After the doe finished with the cat she walked a few steps up toward me, without ever getting a good lock. She stamped her feet and huffed at me several times, then, perhaps catching my scent, turned quickly and ran off into a gully. She and the fawn appeared miraculously soon on the other side of the steep brush filled gully and disappeared into the brush again. I moved out into the open to sit on the grass, waiting.
After about 15 minutes the bobcat walked to the edge of the brush and sat for a while. It looked at me, and after a few more minutes walked out into the grass and began hunting again. It began to drizzle and the cat sat upright with its eyes closed, waiting for the rain to stop. After more fruitless hunting it began to rain some more and the cat slowly walked out of sight up the ridge.
I wonder if the bobcat was such a "lazy" hunter because it never really detected any prey. Perhaps it was just "practicing" while hoping to actually find a gopher. The cat has been a resident up there for a while and always looks well-fed. It doesn't really make sense to me because, as shown by the deer, hunting is a risky activity. The cat is not looking out for enemies and is in the open, vulnerable. Maybe, like me, the cat was just out enjoying a beautiful day.
Other notes: Big Creek rose to 9' on the gauge and moved logs that have not moved since 1986 when I moved here. Right now it is 4' deep and running crystal clear. It never rose at all after the 1" rain yesterday afternoon. (2/16/98)

July 1998 The "El Nino" weather has brought us rain and humidity to an unusual degree this year, and the ocean surface temperatures were unusually warm for winter and spring. I have been looking for effects on wildlife and plants for some time, but only recently have the changes become apparent. The most obvious difference this year is in the phenomenal growth of herbaceous plants; everything from dandelions to wild oats has grown to enormous size. I have seen purple star thistle 15 feet tall, and wild grasses growing over my head. Shrubs and trees have grown also, including long branches of poison oak and ceanothus.
The redwoods near my cabin suffered brown-off caused by salt spray, but are sprouting new pretty green shoots and will recover soon. All the flowering plants are flowering prodigiously, with huge sprays of monkey flower, lizard tail, and lupines everywhere. I have discovered some "new" plants for the reserve species list, plants which in most years are tiny and inconspicuous, but which have grown large and showy this year. I wish I had time to take a plant press out for a week or two and collect fine specimens of flowers.
The cool, stormy weather seems to have reduced populations of caterpillars, aphids, and other soft-bodied insects. It has also delayed the onset of spring and summer species. Last week during our annual "Fourth of July" butterfly count, we observed greatly reduced numbers and diversity of species. This was partly because of the cool weather (on the actual count day it never got over 60 degrees, and we only saw caterpillars - no butterflies), but on warm days before and after the count day, the reduction in numbers was evident. The milkmaid butterflies are still flying, a species that we often don't see this late in the season.
Several bird nests failed. A house wren at Whale Point abandoned the nest, and the Red-tail nest (also at Whale Point) was partially blown over. The red-tails tried on two occasions to start a nest (by laying eggs) but gave up both times, and they have not yet tried to repair the nest. The oystercatchers never even started to nest this spring on the Big Creek Cove rock, although the disturbance from highway bridge construction may have contributed to that failure.
In previous years the harbor seals have given birth to 20-40 pups every year on the beaches in the marine reserve. This year I counted only 8 pups in June. I thought the numbers were reduced last year (I counted 15 in May, but the birthing season may not have been over) but this is much worse.
Some animals seem more successful this year. There seems to be a lot of quail chicks, and on a hike up one of the redwood canyons, there was a convention of screeching juvenile blue jays. They make enough noise for ten birds, but still there must have been dozens. The deer seem fat, although I have seen relatively few fawns. Perhaps they are well hidden in the tall vegetation. And there are millions of cottontail bunnies in the dense cover on the slopes. I suspect the bobcats, horned owls, red tail hawks, and other predators will have a good year for hunting, if they can find their prey in the dense brush.
I would be interested in hearing other "El Nino" nature stories; please call me at 667-2543. (6/19/98)

November 1998 Yesterday Kim and I saw the first deer of the season on the slopes above our cabin. In previous years the deer have come down in mid-summer to feed on the flowers and succulent vegetation on slopes near the ocean, but this year they stayed away until mid-October. A buck with long, thick antlers, and two does, one perhaps a yearling, worked their way along the steep slopes eating flowers and tender shoots. The lack of deer feeding this year may allow the vegetation to take a better hold on this rocky unstable slope, and maybe we'll grow something besides thistles and hemlock.
This is the best time of year to look for tracks in the road, and there are lots of deer sign to be seen. Just up the canyon road I could see where males had been facing off and perhaps fighting, with numerous smaller prints of does and young nearby. I also saw a set of mountain lion prints, 81 mm wide, striding down the road, probably checking out the deer sign. The day before I saw another set of lion prints, 72 mm wide, on the road above Feynner's cabin. These tracks clearly belong to a different lion, probably the small-footed female lion we call "the girl". A month ago Feynner saw sign of 3 and possible 4 lions on one day, within a two mile radius.
Last month I paddled out in a kayak and measured the ocean surface temperature. It was 60 degrees, unusually warm for our coast even in summer. The giant kelp along the coast has not grown much lately, probably because the water has been too warm for this cold-loving species. When I filtered the ocean water with a fine-meshed plankton net, I could see enough plankton to turn the water brown.
When I went out again yesterday, the water was 54 degrees, and the kelp seemed to be growing more. The plankton was extremely abundant. I could also see a lot of marine "snow", which looks like shredded scrambled eggs floating everywhere. When Sonie and I looked at a drop of concentrated plankton under the microscope, we saw millions of tiny "ropes", divided into cells with long hairs extending to the sides and ends. These are a kind of microscopic golden algae. We also saw some sculptured, spiny, armored "dinoflagellates," just large enough to eat the diatoms. We also saw a few other kinds of critters, including one that sometimes produces demoic acid, a toxin that rarely finds its way into seafood and poisons people. Every month, I send a plankton sample to a lab in Berkeley, where they try to keep track of these and other potentially dangerous organisms.
Other notes: The coast live oaks seem to have produced few acorns up on the ridges this year. However, the tanoaks and the canyon oaks have a good acorn crop....I have seen flocks of up to 100 band-tailed pigeons....The creek gauge is now about 2" higher than normal for this time of year, and about 4" above its level during the drought years. (10/19/98)

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