08 September 2013

Mountain Lion Encounter

I love to hike. In fact, I try to take a 5-10 mile hike each weekend. I just can’t think of a better way to get a few hours of solitude, while also getting great exercise, and an excuse to observe and photograph nature.

Today was no exception - I decided to do a ~9 mile hike at one of my favorite nearby locations - Rancho Canada del Oro.  At about a 15 minute drive from my house, it offers convenient access to pristine hiking. There are many points in the preserve where no signs of human activity are visible. No roads, no buildings, no power wires, and no other people!

I was about 4 miles in, marveling at the scenery. If I’m generous, it has rained about .05 inches since May 1. Yes - 4 months of no rain, but plenty of sun and heat. Yet, all around me, life was flourishing. Hundreds of butterflies fluttered at my feet, dragonflies patrolled their territory, and lizards scurried to hide when they detected my footsteps. Sporadic wildflowers still bloomed amid the golden brown sea of parched grasses. It was amazing to think about the delicate balance that must exist to allow all of this to persist during our annual summer drought.

I reached the highest point of the hike, almost 2000’ (about 1400’ elevation gain from the trailhead). Starting to head downhill, to my left was a low, wooded canyon, and to my right, steep grassy peaks (called the bald peaks).

Just then, breaking my solitude, a large animal bounded down from above and onto the trail no more than 15 feet in front of me. It hurried over the side of the slope and down, out of site. My first thought was “wolf”, but I immediately knew there were no wolves here. Then I replayed the scene in my mind, and realized it had a massive tail. Mountain lion.

Having an appreciation for nature and hiking, I’ve read a lot about mountain lions. I know a fair amount about their life history, and have read my fair share of stories of mountain lion attacks.

In fact, I know that far too many of the stories of lions attacking humans follow this scenario: solitary hiker/biker out in a secluded area of wilderness; a long, dry summer has left the mountain lions at their most hungry and desperate. Along comes an unsuspecting meal out for a hike or bike ride, and the rest is a story for the newspaper.

Over the years, I’ve had encounters with snakes, coyotes, hormonal elk, and bears (including a mother bear with a cub in Arizona). While these got the adrenaline running, I never felt threatened. But I’ve always had a bit of a fear of mountain lions. They are the only animal of the group that occasionally thinks of people as food.

With all of these thoughts circulating, I cautiously approached the trail’s edge and picked up some large rocks. I peered over the edge, hoping the lion wasn’t laying in wait for me to do just that, and saw the lion snaking its way further downward in the grass.
At about 50 yards, it stopped, turned around and looked at me. Knowing my mountain lion stories, I threw rocks at it to scare it away. I didn’t get close, but it got the message and continued downward. At about 100 yards, it stopped again and took a look back at me. At this point, I felt safe enough that I’d grabbed my camera and tried to take some shots of it.

With the exposed landscape and temperatures approaching 90, I could see the heat waves radiating off the mountain side. Looking through the viewfinder, it was as if I was in the African savannah, looking at lions through the heat of the land.

While he was staring, I was thinking about the primitive thoughts he was probably having - sizing me up, considering whether I am food or foe. After a few seconds of more staring, he disappeared into the woods below.

At this point I still had 4.5 miles back to the car. The question was - which route? My intended direction was downward, with the trail switchbacking back and forth across where the lion had just been. Or I could turn around, but have to cross the entirely exposed bald peaks in the heat. If I continued on my original route, I’d also be much more likely to encounter people as I’d get to more popular trails.

I decided to continue on my original route. I thought about some deer I’d seen earlier, and thus, there was plenty of food for the mountain lion - he probably wasn’t so hungry as to care about me. If he wanted me, he had already had its chance.

I picked up rocks to throw if I saw him again, and found one larger rock with a nice pointy edge, should I need to defend myself. I couldn’t avoid thoughts of what to do if I saw him again, how to avoid seeing him again, and what to do if it surprise attacked me (which is the usual modus operandi). I knew that I needed to protect my head and neck and fight back. I figured I’d hit it with the sharp rock, yell, kick, scream. I’d try to gouge its eyes, and use my heavy 300mm camera lens as a baton.

As I walked, the mountain lion took on supernatural qualities in my mind. Its stealth, speed, and strength were undeniable. I was relegated to a path of switchbacks on a mountain side, but he could simply bound straight up or down the mountain side. I remained vigilant. I occasionally looked over my shoulders, scanned for movement, and kept my rocks handy.

Every towhee scratching at leaves looking for an insect meal, or lizard rustling leaves to escape my threat caught my ear. Slowly, I progressed through the canyon bottom, and up the other side. I was now in an area of the preserve where cattle grazed. Lucky me! Now instead of 3 foot tall vegetation, a summer’s of cattle appetites had mowed the landscape to the soil, with only short grasses and sparse wildflowers growing a couple of feet.

Slowly, I felt more at ease, and more relaxed. I crossed a recent wildfire area, and after another 30 minutes of steep terrain, was back at my car. Of course, I took a moment to re-read the ubiquitous warning that most of the area parks have.

19 May 2013

Chestnut-backed Chickadee Nest

As a fun home project, my daughter and I decorated and hung a chickadee house this spring. Within a few days, we had a chestnut-backed investigating it.

We watched the Chickadees faithfully bring supplies into the house, and then eventually started hearing the peeps of chicks. The peeps grew stronger and louder for about 2 weeks, and then one day stopped. It seemed the chickadee family had successfully raised their young!

On the unlikely hopes that a second family will still rear young, we cleaned the house out yesterday. The nest they had built inside was amazing - made of animal hair and a little bit of grass.

After taking the bottom off of the house, this is what we saw:
 The nest extended to the corners of the house, packed very tightly.

We took the nest out, and it was concave in the middle. It was quite clean - just a couple droppings that likely were left the day the birds fledged.

You can see the grey animal hair well on the left side of the nest, but when viewed in person, it was obvious that the nest was probably 60% or more animal hair. This was a good reminder at how resourceful birds are in finding the materials they prefer (or need) for nesting and eating.

My daughter and I had a great time building and decorating the house, and we took care to research proper placement. It all paid off, and we're looking forward to being the landlord for more bird tenants in the future!

25 February 2013

Surf Scoter - Again

As a follow up to the previous Surf Scoter post, here is a shot of one snacking, taken last Friday.

One of the things that makes Shoreline Lake unique (aside from its proximity to the Bay) is that it is a saltwater lake. Many of the birds are very approachable - it makes for a wonderful photographic stop.

03 January 2013

Nature, Photography, and Birding on Google+

I'm a fan of Google+, and those interested in nature and photography (and nature photography!) should give it a look if you haven't already.

If you are familiar with Google+ already, check out these communities, which may be of interest. If you are new to Google+, skip to the next section and then come back to this one later.

Landscape Photography
National Geographic Exploration 
Nature Photography

There are plenty of other good ones - the above are just to get started.

And I just created a Birding North America community yesterday.  I have not invited anyone to join - so consider this blog post the first invitation to join the community.

For Those New to Google+

Google+ is usually referred to as a social network, and often compared to Facebook. In my opinion, these comparisons do not do it justice.

Google+ (or G+) was launched a little over a year ago by Google, and it nicely combines features of Twitter and Facebook, along with lots of unique features and capabilities.

Benefits of Google+

  1. Greater control. You create 'circles' of friends and acquaintances, and only share to those specific circles. No more sharing family information with strangers. And now you can target your birding exploits only to those interested.
  2. Communities. The community feature allows you to create a more advanced sharing experience than a traditional mail list.
  3. Photo quality. G+ has been a leader in photo quality on social networks, providing larger images with minimal reprocessing. Professional photographers have flocked to G+.
  4. Innovation. G+ keeps producing new features - volume sliders, hangouts (real time video conferencing), etc. Facebook has had to scramble to add inferior versions of these features.
  5. No advertisements.
  6. All of your posts get delivered. No need to 'pay to promote' like in FB to ensure everyone actually sees your posts.

Detriments of Google+

  1. Total users. Other social networks still have many more users.
  2. Learning curve. Many people look at G+ and don't see much activity and immediately leave. This is often for two reasons - one is what #1 above mentions - there are still fewer users of G+. The other is that the sharing model of G+ is different. From day 1, G+ has allowed targetted sharing, meaning your G+ friends may be sharing items, but just not 'publicly', or not directly with you. Further, the 'following' model is something many people don't expect since they are used to Facebook. Try following some interesting people.

Getting Started on Google+

Go to and login. If you have a gmail account, you can re-use those credentials.

Once logged in, set up some circles. My circles are called "close family", "extended family", "work contacts", "friends", "acquaintances", "birders", "photographers", "music", and "following". You can name them however you want - when creating circles, think about who and what you intend to share. Remember, you can put a person in more than one circle - for example, I have work contacts that are also friends.

Now, add people to your circles. Search for your friends and acquaintances. If you have trouble finding people you know, you can "follow" people you do not know. For example, you can follow news organizations (CNN, NPR, BBC, The Economist, etc), sports teams, and interesting people. I follow National Geographic, B and H Photo, The Nature Conservancy, and others. If you are in to photography, you can follow the likes of Thomas Hawk, Mike Spinak, Scott Kelby, Trey Ratcliff, and many others.

You can adjust the 'volume' of each circle, so circles that are less important will only show up if there is nothing else, or if there is a lot of engagement.

If you are using G+ on a mobile phone, you can adjust your notification settings. Personally, I don't want to get 'buzzed' every time a new post or response is sent, so I disable that. Similarly, you can set up G+ so that it emails you every time a new post/response is sent to you, or you may disable that feature.