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Friday, October 24, 2014

On Raptors, Identification, and Physics

One of the joys of working at and visiting Tejon Ranch is the large number of raptors that occur here throughout the year.  Their diversity and activity tends to peak in the fall and winter when Tejon Ranch's large densities of California ground squirrels (Otospermophilus beechyi) provide abundant prey. Golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons and of course California condors (technically not a raptor) are featured birds.  

Sometimes, it can be difficult to tell which species you are observing because soaring birds appear small, even in binoculars. With a little bit of practice, however, one can begin to notice patterns in the bird's silhouette as well as field marks. Here are a few examples of tips you can use to identify a few of the raptors that may be encountered on Tejon Ranch:

Red-tailed Hawk
Photo courtesy of Alan Vernon. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons Remixed by Scot Pipkin

Golden Eagle

Ferruginous Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

The incredible diversity of raptors on Tejon Ranch keeps visitors and researchers looking skyward. Add the occasionally ferocious winds over the Tehachapi Range and one can spend an enjoyable afternoon watching the raptors ride the currents and updrafts.  This  video from the New York Times sheds a little light on the tricks these amazing aerialists use to keep from crashing. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

On Behalf of the Rest of Life- by Dr. Mike White, Conservation Science Director

Intrepid citizen scientists braved the cold and wind during the 2011 Christmas Bird Count. Photo courtesy of Willie Burnside.

Chris G. and John B. setting up a wildlife camera.
I was reading an interesting Smithsonian Magazine article the other day about E.O. Wilson’s “Half Earth” idea (i.e., take half of the Earth for people and leave half for nature, The Wildest Idea on Earth by Tony Hiss. Smithsonian Magazine, September 2014).  But that’s not what I wanted to talk about.  When discussing the 109.5 million acres of wilderness protected in the U.S. since the Wilderness Act was signed by President Johnson in 1964, Hiss credited and gave “thanks to the citizen groups working on behalf of the rest of life.”  It is these citizens working on behalf of the rest of life that I want to talk about.  

 During the course of my career, I have had the opportunity to interact with lots of these citizens.  They can be well-organized, logical, and effective ambassadors for conservation (or sometimes not so much) but one thing they all share in abundance is their passion for the natural world.  At the Conservancy I have had the opportunity to spend time on the Ranch with many of these citizens, and I am continually struck by their passion and excitement for nature. There are people that love to key plants, spend their free time photographing snakes, or like to understand what types of rocks are under their feet.  I have spent time with folks that will crawl around on their bellies looking at tiny wildflowers that most people wouldn’t even notice (and spend more hours trying to put names to them!), that will drive hours through freeway traffic just to see a condor flying overhead or to pull some weeds, or whose idea of a good time is simply to walk in wild places.

Larry A. recording data for the 2012 CBC. Photo courtesy of Jen Browne

We are fortunate to have some of these citizens volunteering their time for the Conservancy to help with activities that most people would consider to be not so much fun at best and really geeky or boring at worst.  Our volunteers help count birds, identify and catalog plant species, download weather station data, count acorns on oaks, keep track of our pronghorn herd, watch hours of wildlife video to document animal activity, assist with tours, and even help maintain our vehicles!  The collective contributions of these citizens to conservation across the U.S. is really hard to measure, but we at the Conservancy know very well that we would have less information on the resources of Tejon Ranch, less manpower to carry out our mission, and much less fun without their involvement.
There are many people who really don’t understand what nature and wild places mean to me, and it is rewarding to be in the company of these like-minded citizens who appreciate and are turned-on by the same things as I am.  I am also gratified that we have friends who can work with us on behalf of the rest of life, and am comforted that we are creating a community of citizens to carry on the work that we have begun at Tejon Ranch after we are gone

For some, the fun doesn't begin until you get back to camp. These botanists are "keying" plants they encountered on their Tejon Ranch trip. Citizen scientists have helped the Conservancy immensely with finding plants and updating our plant list. Photo courtesy of Ann Dalkey. Accessed from the Jepson Herbarium Tumblr:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Teton Tuesday: meet your local insurrectionist

This week I would like to introduce you all to a friend of mine. I have come know this inquisitive caniform all too well over the past few months as I have endeavored to systematically record wildlife activity out on the ranch using motion-sensing cameras. The term “friend” might be generous in this case given that I have never actually met this individual and that she (I am not sure of her gender, although I have always considered her a she and will continue to do so in this post) has been actively thwarting my attempts at establishing a consistent grid of survey cameras throughout the most ecologically diverse areas of Tejon. This small, unusual looking black bear is responsible for the early termination of at least four of my cameras (that I know of!) and has come to represent a veritable Angel of Death for any survey camera unlucky enough to lay in her path. The last camera she claimed was ripped from its housing less than three hours after I installed it. She appeared in the first, last, and only video recorded.  

However, for all her mischief she is a very endearing creature. Her white chest and belly contrast a dark overcoat giving her a striking appearance very unusual for a black bear, while her keen interest in my cameras and her frustrating ability to dismantle them suggests a curiosity and dexterity beyond that of her brethren in the area. Black bears have an advanced sense of smell which we believe is attracting them to my cameras. Bears are my biggest obstacle in establishing a reliable network of survey cameras, but this young bear has distinguished herself as the survey’s primary insurgent.

                In retrospect, the absurd thing is my assumption that somehow by painting green leaves on the awkward plastic casing, we were camouflaging the conspicuous mechanical device I had been hiking around in my sweaty backpack all day from wild animals hypersensitive to every nuance of environment they survive in every day. Once again, the wilds of Tejon have served me up a generous serving of humble pie.          
Here she is multitasking with a pig carcass, there's nothing like a good scratch and snack...
This is a good shot of our bear gathering her strength before an afternoon of survey disruption
...doing what she does best!