Sunday, March 21, 2010

A different perspective.

(A new way to view a flower)

I have been thinking about perspective lately for two reasons. The first is that I got to spend 5 days helping to rebuild some ropes course elements about 2 weeks ago. It was a great time with most of my days being spent 30-60' in the air working in Douglas Fir trees (Pseudotsuga menziesii). And the second is that I am still watching the remains of the mountain lion kill near where I live. Very different perspectives. 
So talking about perspectives, being in the trees for 5 days was a cool experience and something I have not gotten to do since July of last year. Being 5 stories up in the air does give you a very different perspective to be sure. But the event that had an impact on me was one afternoon I was sitting in a tree about 60' up waiting for a cable to get cut on the ground. As I sat/hung there I started hearing bird calls all around me. A slight chirping chorus all around me. I saw one of the little birds land nearby me. At first I though it was a chickadee. It looked like it had a black cap, and black and white colors on it's body. Then the little one flew into the sunlight and it turned yellow! The shade had dulled out it's yellow color and once it was in the sunlight, it's full color came out! It was a very cool optical trick on my eyes. Talk about a change in perspective! I am not sure about the species, I am still looking in some bird books, but I think based on my look at it for a brief few seconds at about 25' away, that it was a Townsend's Warbler. So for this posting, I am going to send you on a "photo" journey to look for different perspectives.

You will need at least 2 people for this activity. One person is going to be a "camera" and the other is the photographer. This activity is called Camera and is one of my favorite classic outdoor education activities from the New Games Foundation and Joseph Cornell. This activity is a great game to play when you are on a walk or simply in your back yard. It is also a great game to play in and around your anchor spot. 

The photographer guides their “camera” around in search of specific things to photograph. The person being the camera keeps their eyes closed most of the time until the photographer “takes” a picture. When the photographer finds their subject, they position the camera’s lens (eyes) at the object. Then the photographer taps a shoulder of the camera to open the shutter (eyes) and then taps the shoulder again to close the shutter. It might help for the photographer to say “open” and “close” when taking the pictures. Then the pair moves to the next subject. It is important that the camera keeps their eyes closed between pictures so that the 2-5 second “exposures” will have more impact and be a surprise for the camera. Sometimes it is neat to keep talking to a minimum until you both have had a turn and let the "pictures" speak for themselves.

The traditional way of doing this activity is for the pairs to take photos of whatever catches the eyes of the photographer. This is a wonderful way of doing this activity, and you can also try and look for specific things to photograph. Here are some examples you might try: 
Parts of trees, specific trees, the 6 plant parts, rocks, producers, consumers, decomposers, portions of the water cycle, proof of decomposition, tracks.

You can also practice taking close up shots and also big vista shots. It can really create a neat feeling to go back and forth between the two. Or do a series of mirco-close up shots, and then a whole series of marco-wide angle shots. Another great thing to do is to bring a real camera with you and take shots of the pictures you take. Have a blast exploring with your new camera! I also encourage you to seek out natural things to photograph in your house.

Nature Nugget:
(Photos by Liesl Pimentel)

So, to touch base a little with the other event that caught my attention around perspective, lets talk about mountain lions, pumas, rock cats, and cougars! Yeah they are all the same animal. I will preface this section by saying that the puma is perhaps my favorite mega-fauna of all time! I have always loved big cats, and since the mountian lion is the only really big cat  here in North America, I fell in love with it early in life. 

Anyhow, here is some general info about these amazing animals:
Males- 1020-1540mm or 3'3"-5' without the tail up to 6'+ with the tail.   
Females-  860-1310mm or 2'8"-4'3"without the tail and up to 6' with the tail.

Males- 36-120kg or 80-265 pounds.
Females- 29-64kg or 64-140 pounds.

Their weight and length depend a good deal on their habitat and available food supply. The recent sightings in my area place the lion at about 140-150 pounds, most likely a male. They tend to eat ungulates but will go for smaller animals like rabbits, raccoons, etc.

The adults are solitary animals except for the brief period of mating period in December through March in the northern latitudes. A female will have on average 3-4 cubs which are born blind and will stay with their mother for an average of 15 months before separating and finding their own home territory. A home territory ranges in size from and average for females of about 60 square miles and about 100 square miles for males.

There is great concern among many people about being attacked by a mountain lion. The odds are pretty good in your favor. In 13 years-from 1991-2003- there were 73 attacks in the U.S. and Canada with 10 of those resulting in death. 7 of those attacks were in California and 2 of the deaths. Having said that, one piece of advice I can give folks in general about going outdoors, learn about the things that will hurt or kill you. There are fewer of them, it gives you knowledge about where you are going, and it will help keep you safe. A site that has good info on pumas and details recorded attacks and deaths.

 And now you know!

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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Clues left on the ground.

(A coyote track in mud)
I live in a fairly wild part of the bay area. There are bobcats, coyotes, various raptors, and mountain lions sharing the land where I live. Yes, mountain lions. This point has been brought up recently with three staff seeing mountain lions in the past two weeks. About a week and a half ago two of the naturalists had fairly close encounters with a puma. They had found a very fresh deer kill on property. And by fresh I mean within 5-6 hours. 1 of the staff was walking by and saw the lion sitting with its kill and it stared him down. Another naturalist saw the animal loping away. They estimate that the animal was between 130-150 pounds. My partner Jen saw a cat run across the road on the way home from a meeting late one afternoon. I have not seen one yet. 

Anyway, once I heard that a mountain lion was around, and that there was a kill site nearby, I needed to go explore. I have not been able to see a kill that new before, and the thought of finding more tracks was exciting. About a week earlier a naturalist had found three really nice prints when she was out with her field group. I spent about 30 minutes making notes and measurements of the track and imagining what the animal looked like as it moved up the hill.

The kill site was pretty amazing. Don't worry, no photos here. If you would like to see them, email me. It is amazing what a large cat can do. Unfortunately the area around the kill was mostly covered in a thick leaf and twig covering, and with people coming to check out the site, I could only find hints of prints and animal trials. After a little while chatting with two other naturalists about the lion, I headed out to an area where I had seen lion tracks before to see if I could find any new ones. No luck, but I did find some good coyote tracks-like the one above, and some neat deer tracks-See below.

The last photo is not a deer, it is a pair of worm tracks! I found no new mountain lion tracks, but I did have a great time being outside and finding other signs of animals. I also got to see and hear a great many birds. Anyway, as I walked home I spent a good deal of time thinking about tracks. I love seeing footprints left by people, birds, and animals. It is a brief glimpse into the movement of an animal on its daily rounds. Now you can get very obsessed with finding and following tracks. My goal is to give you some basics. The great thing about tracking or becoming track aware, is that you and your kids will begin to re-pattern your brain with how to see patterns in nature. Tracks are simply a different pattern left in the ground than what is usually there. 

So in general tracking requires you to notice things that are out of place or are creating patterns. A depression in the Earth, grass shinning or dull, sticks broken, sharp angles, and recurring patterns. As you notice from the pictures above -especially the deer prints- tracks can come in different shapes even from the same species.

Here are some general tips for tracking:
- Try and keep tracks between you and the Sun. Lighting can make a HUGE difference in how you see tracks.
- Cat tracks tend to be rounder than dogs and rarely show claws.
- Canine tracks tend to be oval in shape and often show claws.
- Deer tracks tend to look heart shaped and have a pointed end.
- Birds that live and hunt mostly on the ground will usually walk, while birds that hunt and live in the trees more will usually hop.

You might notice that I used the terms "usually" and "tend" in these tips. There are trends in tracking, and nature provides us with a wide range of variety. There are some other tips you can use especially when you are just beginning to spot tracks:
- Mud provides a great medium for tracks.
- So does snow.
- If you live in a area with sand, you can find many more tracks than those of us in wooded areas.
- Bodies of water are great areas to look for tracks-animals need water.
- Animals have routines just like us and tend to take the same trails on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

A fun game to play with kids around where you live is to see if you can determine whose shoes left what tracks around your house. Using shoes is great because so many of them have unique patterns on the bottoms. Play around with making tracks in different soils and mediums.

Websites to visit for tracks: A website by a tracking friend of mine here in California. A good site with several good links.

Nature Nugget:
Another sign that animals have been around is that they leave scat. Scat is the scientific term for poop.  So to follow that fact, I am going to try and answer the question one of my camp staff asked me years ago: "Why is poop brown"? So here we go:

Scientists have been pondering the question "why is poop brown" for centuries and still have not quite figured out why. As it turns out, and you may have noticed, not all scat is brown.  Sometimes scat can be green, yellow or nearly black.  On occasion there are pieces of plant matter, fur, bones, etc in it too. We are talking about animal scat here, not human.

Some animals like rodents, rabbits, and shrews have two types of scat. One is the typical kind -- waste that is left behind. The other, however, is dark and rich in vitamins. Just like cows regurgitate and chew cud to get more nutrients from their hard-to-digest diet, some animals eat this special scat. Now isn't that a tasty thought!

The color of scat can help determine the animal's diet. Dark scat means lots of meat for carnivores, and moist plants for herbivores. White scat is often dried out. Blue scat means berries, whereas grey carnivore scat usually indicates the presence of fur. Grey, and the presence of actual fur helps too!

Some animals, like deer, leave scat as they walk. But other species, particularly those with dens, have a latrine area so they can keep things tidy. Just like pet cats, wild cats try to bury their scat. And some animals, like mountain lions, use scat as territorial markings. I have found that coyotes tend to poop on a high point in a trial as a marking sign.

Birds, reptiles, and amphibians sometimes combine their scat and urine. A white nitrogenous deposit on scat means it didn't come from a mammal. However, just because there is no whitish layer on the scat doesn't mean it didn't come from a bird.

Bird pellets, also known as cough pellets or casting, aren't scat, but they are similar: pellets are the undigested remains of meals that birds regurgitate from their gizzards. Raptors like eagles and owls and corvids like ravens and crows, as well as other birds cast pellets, including herons, gulls, and kingfishers. Pellets are often found near roosting or nesting sites, though some birds will cast pellets were they ate. In them, you can find hair, bones, beaks, claws, and other clues as to what a bird’s last meal was. You can find owl pellets on-line to order for home science projects.

Now in people, our poop, you could call it scat if you want, is mostly shades of brown or yellow, but other colors can occur as well. I found two explanations of why scat is brownish in color. The first is that digestion is aided by bile and when bile is metabolized by bacteria in the large intestines, a byproduct called stercoblin is created, which gives poop a brown color. The second reason says that dead blood cells release iron that is then converted into bilirubin which gives our poop a brown color.

Now in people we can also have multi-colored poop. Some illnesses in babies gives them green or even blue-green poop. I found out on a backpacking trip with teenage boys, that freeze dried cobbler turns poop a very odd color of green. The kids were a little freaked out at first! In the front country, another source of blue poop in children is more innocent: it can come from eating a concentrated source of blue food coloring such as ice cream. Intense red food coloring can produce bright red poop. Sometimes brightly colored foods pass through the gut almost unchanged, and poop may be speckled with bright red fragments such as pimentos, or that favorite, bright yellow kernels of corn. 

And now you know!

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