Posts Tagged natural history
In a bid to go green, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW; formerly, the California Department of Fish and Game) is digitizing their 99-year-old quarterly scientific journal, California Fish and Game. In addition to making all issues post-December 2012 available online, they’re also dusting off the stack of journals in the archives. In the coming months, CDFW will be working toward digitizing back-issues dating back to 1914, when the journal was first published.
Back when the journal debuted, California was unquestionably a different place. Among the journal’s opening pages were these missives from the Board of Fish and Game Commissioners:
“The wild game belongs to the people in their sovereign capacity and as such should be enjoyed by the people and cared for and preserved for their benefit. It must not be considered as the property of a class and no class should be permitted to monopolize it… The right of any generation to careless indifference or wanton destruction can not be admitted. Each generation is the guardian of the existing resources of the world; it comes into a great inheritance, but only as a trustee; and there is no recovery or resurrection of an extinct species.”
– Ernest Schaeffle
“So often we lock the door after the horse is stolen. Let it not be so with the game birds and wild creatures of California.”
– Frank M. Rutherford
“Preserved game and fish, like preserved forests or preserved water powers, are of no practical public good. Preserved fish and game die; so do preserved trees; preserved water-powers run to waste. Conserved – that is, used and protected – fish and game, forests, water-powers and all other natural resources are, of course, of practical benefit to the public. And therefore, fish and game conservation – not preservation – commissions are of practical benefit to the public… Our game, however, can not be conserved, or even preserved, if the cover in which and the food on which it lives be not conserved. Our fish can not be conserved, or even preserved, if the waters in which they live be not kept at least free from pollution. If our wild places be permitted to be fire ravaged and destroyed, if our streams and bays be made the dumping grounds for noxious materials, then there will be no use for game and fish conserving laws, no need for a fish and game conservation commission – there will be no fish and game to be conserved.”
– George C. Pardee
During the journal’s first year alone (Volume 1 spanned 1914 through 1915), Joseph Grinnell, Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, raised the hue and cry concerning the “ravages of the house cat” on native bird populations and the decline of the wood duck; the price of a dozen quail and the bounty on mountain lion “scalps, or skin with scalp attached” were equivalent – $20.00, or $465 in today’s prices; Mr. Edward A. Salisbury was touring the state of California showing moving pictures featuring the wildlife of the west, including the life history of the steelhead trout, treeing and roping wildcats and mountain lions, and hunting geese for the San Francisco market; a game warden’s salary ranged from $720 to $1,500 ($16,759 to $34,915 in today’s prices) a year; and the non-native opossum was confirmed to have been introduced to California from Tennessee by a San Jose jeweler in 1910.
Curiously, the journal’s trademark green cover – a triptych featuring a trout, mule deer, and quail – didn’t make its appearance until Volume 1, Number 2, and has changed very little over the years. Looking backwards, that triptych is perhaps the only constant California has seen in the last century.
The Owl and the Woodpecker: Encounters with North America’s Most Iconic Birds, by Paul Bannick, The Mountaineers Books (http://www.mountaineersbooks.org), 2008, 200 pages, $ 26.95.
Maybe I’ve spent too many years looking down, scanning the ground for wildlife (I am, after all, a herpetologist), but it wasn’t until photographer Paul Bannick’s The Owl and the Woodpecker that I realized how critical a keystone species woodpeckers are to their winged cousins. In much the same way ground squirrels interweave the earth with burrows that become superhighways and refugia for fellow ground-dwelling insects, amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, and even some birds (say, burrowing owls), so too does the woodpecker riddle the woods with cavities that become the tenements and penthouses for owls and an impressive array of woodland creatures.
Combining the best of both worlds, Bannick both shows and tells the rich natural histories of these two indicator species through well-researched text and jaw-dropping photography. Bannick, always fascinated by the glimpses of owls and woodpeckers fortune put in his path as a youth, decided in 2005 to photograph every North American woodpecker and owl as a way of drawing attention to these species’ plight and the questionable future of the sensitive habitats they depend on for survival. The result is a captivating compendium of facts and photography, a true testimony to Bannick’s mastery of light, timing, birding, and patience. In the scores of photographs Bannick carefully selected for these pages, his timing with the shutter freezes in place cascades of wood chips, wriggling insects bound for ravenous fledglings, the spray of feathers on touchdown, the buoyancy of wingtips on liftoff. Every page is one delight after the next, capturing the prismatic color and charisma of these spectacular birds.
Bannick’s photography unabashedly venerates the owl and the woodpecker, and rightfully so. If nothing else, Bannick’s work serves to remind us why it is so important to look up – to catch sight of these treetop totems.
If you were to follow the Pacific Coast Highway south from the harbor and lighthouse at Point Arena, winding along the rocky shoreline as the Pacific Ocean washes over the world’s end on your right, you might miss the unassuming bullet-battered tin sign swinging in the breeze that reads, simply, “C-Ranch Dairy.” The sign marks the sorry excuse for a rutted ranch road that cuts across the pasture tying Highway 1 to the salient bluffs where this fledgling enterprise – one that could only exist along the California coast – overlooks the sea. On the C-Ranch Dairy grounds, the herd lolls along the coastline, swatting flies and loafing in the fog-drenched, intermittent sun. Most of the herd here is recumbent, the cows and their young huddling by bulk-some bulls. The cathedral silence of the coast and fog is broken only by the herd’s insistent lowing and chuffing, and the crash of seething surf. But when a fight breaks out between two bulls, the blood and blubber flies as the two thunder and rear in a contest of dominance and mastery over the herd. Head hung low, the losers in these battles slink off into the surf in search of a tasty squid to wash away the taste of defeat.
The herd at C-Ranch is atypical of the traditional bucolic, happy-cows-California dairy. There are no Rorschach-dappled Holsteins, no steaming cow-piles, no cud to munch. Here at dairyman Angus Tirostris and wife Miro’s Sonoma County ranch, the stock is counted not by horn or hoof, but by flippers. You see, the Tirostris’ run elephant seals, not cattle, on their sea-green acres. And the brine-bottled seal milk they’re peddling – trademarked “Sealk” – may put hair on your chest, if not blubber under your belt.
When reporters come calling (which they seem to do increasingly, these days), Tirostris rattles down the road in his battered pick-up to meet them at the highway. The bumper sticker on the pick-up’s rear fender reads, “My udder ranch cows are Holsteins”. Tirostris is a third-generation dairyman – the only difference between him and his granddaddy is his livestock. To fend off the inevitable incredulous questions, the truculent Swede commandeers interviews by cutting to the chase – how did he get into the business of seal milk?
Sitting around the Tirostris’ kitchen table, Angus nurses a frosty glass of Sealk during our interview. His walrus whiskers strain the stuff like a trash rack or baleen (I admit the glass before me rests untouched). For 30 years, Tirostris had run several hundred head of Holstein along his 500-acre coastal pasturage. But after tsunami swells undercut the bluffs in 2011, 1/4 mile of seaside cliffs began to calve into the ocean, washing Tirostris’ Holsteins out to sea in the deal. When he set out to assess the storm’s aftermath, the unfortunate dairyman found he had lost his herd, and that the Fates had traded him bluffs for beach. Caught up in the throes of filing for bankruptcy, he hardly noticed when a colony of elephant seals arrived one morning in late December and established a breeding rookery on the raw, rocky beach.
Today, the elephant seal stands as a text-book example of a species that managed to survive near-extinction and a genetic bottle-neck. Despite the 19th Century “fishery” by sealers hunting the species for the prized oil made from its blubber, elephant seal populations have since rebounded along the Pacific Coast. Nevertheless, despite the elephant seal’s expansive breeding range in years past, rookeries along the Pacific Coast are still few and far between today. And so it was that this elephant seal colony became more than a curiosity to passerby biologists; it marked an extralimital range extension for the species along the Sonoma coast.
One such passerby, famed thalassohodoscatologist Ostermund I. Fuhl, Ph.D, saw in the rookery an opportunity. Thirty years ago, a younger Fuhl had embarked on an adventure into northern Alaska’s Avatanak Bight to explore what was then the burgeoning field of open water tracking and scat identification. On one of his many forays asea, Fuhl overheard an Inupiat–Yupik (Eskimo) elder recount the story of a fisherman’s infant lost at sea during a subsistence whale hunt. The child, tossed from a pitching umiaq (the traditional seal-skin boat), was found and adopted by a bearded seal that had recently become separated from her pup. The impromptu wet nurse suckled the infant on seal milk for three days before a Greenpeace activist stumbled across these strange bedfellows on an ice floe and rescued the child.
This tale stuck with Fuhl during his long years at sea. After his return to the states in 2008 and the successful 2012 publication of his renowned field guide, Marine Mammal Tracks and Scats: A Field Guide to North American Species, Fuhl pooled the royalties from his New York Times best seller, tracked down Tirostris and his elephant seal rookery, and formed a partnership under the label, feauxSeal Inc. Together, the entrepreneurs rehabilitated the waning C-ranch dairy with the shared vision of revolutionizing the American dairy industry with the next best food fad since Olestra or Crystal Pepsi.
The colony at C-Ranch arrives in December and departs in March, the perfect example of sea-range seastock. And because elephant seals, like other pinnidpeds, fast during their time at the rookery nursing their young, there’s no need for Tirostris to supplement their diet, a benefit that keeps C-Ranch’s overhead to a minimum. Fuhl and Tirostris are tight-lipped about the details of feauxSeal’s patented dairy process. But the entire facility operates above-board, permitted through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, California Department of Food and Agriculture, NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. More recently, feauxSeal made waves within rabbinical circles after attaining kosher certification through the Orthodox Union.
The nutritional health benefits of Sealk are staggering. In addition to the essential calcium, protein, potassium, and vitamins D, B12, and A, Sealk is packed with omega-3 fatty acids which – altogether – not only builds healthy bones and teeth, but can also help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke. “It’s nature’s equivalent of a glass of milk and fish tacos, bottled and delivered to your doorstep,” says Tirostris. “The only way you could replicate Nature’s recipe in the kitchen is with a blender.”
With the first Sealk season coming to a close, feauxSeal has been market-testing their products on the shelves of local Whole Foods Markets and smaller Sonoma County boutiques. The groundswell of foodies and connoisseurs describe the unique flavor of Sealk and other Sealk products – “sea butter” and “chaeses” – as “fishy to nutty,” a distinction Tirostris takes pride in. Like any fine wine, Sealk’s “bouquet” reflects the elephant seals’ diet in the wild: hagfish, lamprey, stingray, hake, skate, squid, rockfish, dogfish, and ratfish. Raw Sealk – sold in collector’s bottles in either half- (200.5 oz) or whole-steins (401 oz) – has already infiltrated the cafeterias of certain private elementary schools. The sea-salt rinded Beachmaster Brie and Poseidon’s pepper-jack, two in an expanding line of feauxSeal’s trademarked chaeses, are already on backorder. Sealk is quickly becoming Neptune’s nectar.
Despite Sealk’s many proponents, some dairy industry detractors have raised the hue and cry. Several environmental groups, purportedly tipped off by the Russian mafia-backed kefir industry, are scheduled to testify before congress next week about whether Sealk might be tainted by pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and brominated flame retardants – all also common in marine mammals, especially in their fatty breast milk. Recognizing the highly competitive nature of the dairy industry and the instability of fickle food fads, feauxSeal is already in negotiations to develop an organic alternative, SoySealk, a clear sign Fuhl and Tirostris understand that profits grow where milk money flows.
When asked about the future of feauxSeal, Tirostris’ eyes gleam in anticipation of the sea change they’re banking on in this cottage industry’s prospects. “If our venture is profitable,” he muses, “we plan on taking the sea world by storm. Fuhl is already scouting a herd of manatees along the Florida coast. These are the ocean’s true sea-cows. Mark my words, by this time next April, Fuhl and I will be peddling Mermilk in every nursing home and Walt Disney World food booth along the Atlantic seaboard.”
On a midday hike this weekend, I caught this year’s first glimpse of western pond turtles (Clemmys marmorata) taking advantage of March’s false spring sizzle. It was the vainglorious male basking on an outthrust stump that first caught my attention; I knew him well from past visits to this pond. A slow circuit of the water’s edge revealed a second sub-adult in the tules who, like a child’s stockinged feet peeking from beneath the curtains during a game of hide-and-seek, betrayed its submarine wanderings beneath the toffee waters by the yaw, pitch, and roll of emergent stems in its wake.
But it was my wife – credit where credit is due – who first noticed the hatchlings flush from a waterlogged branch. I gave the little ones five minutes to muster the courage to reclaim their posts before I retraced my steps. Past a crocodilic California red-legged frog recumbent in the shallows, past the spastic turtle – aware and watching me now with the mercurial courage renowned in western pond turtles (Splash!). And then, on a thumb-width limb, I spied two hatchlings bookending the branch. Emboldened by the radiant noontime warmth, the pair resisted the urge to flush again into the tepid pond. The same held for the unexpected second pair of hatchlings I observed queued head-to-tail not two feet away.
The four hatchlings – most likely two or so years of age – are a good sign of successful recruitment in this population. There are sexually mature adults to breed, their nests are escaping detection by predators, and at least one cohort of hatchlings has survived the first of its most vulnerable years. But as these little ones grow in size and their shells harden, they will be better equipped to handle the abuse of a curious dog or a hungry fox. Until such time, that propensity to flush will pay off in spades.
The Tortoise: A Publication of the Turtle Conservancy (http://turtleconservancy.org), Volume 1, Number 1, 2012, 160 pages, $25.00.
Late last year, the Turtle Conservancy published the inaugural issue of The Tortoise, “a magazine dedicated to the appreciation and conservation of tortoises and turtles and their habitats.” The Turtle Conservancy is the nonprofit scientific and educational organization behind the Behler Chelonian Center, an AZA-Certified turtle and tortoise conservation facility in southern California that acts as a hub for research and conservation around the globe, and as a breeding facility and assurance colony stronghold for at-risk species. There on the center’s lush mediterranean grounds, more than 650 individuals representing some 28 species of endangered turtles and tortoises are cared for and bred in a gamble against the possible extinction their cohorts face in the wild from habitat loss or collection for the food and pet trades. And these are just some of the species featured in the debut issue of The Tortoise.
From Madagascar’s ploughshare tortoise to the Pinta and Floreana tortoises of the Galapagos Islands, The Tortoise features thirteen stories by Turtle Conservancy associates in the trenches with the world’s dwindling chelonian populations. The stories vary from accounts of the turtle and tortoise trade (“Widely Endangered and Widely Available”) to glimpses of the Turtle Conservancy’s many projects (“The Bolson Tortoise”) to swan songs for species on the brink (“The Geometric Tortoise, Quietly ‘Slipping’ Into Extinction”).
Reading The Tortoise cover to cover, two articles stood out of the crowd. In “Turtle Soup for Dinner”, Peter Laufer, author of Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets and The Dangerous World of Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors, and Conservationists, reflects on his introduction to turtles and tortoises as he explored the worlds of the animal trade and obsessive collectors. In “On the Track of the Volcan Wolf Tortoise”, renown herpetologist Peter C. H. Pritchard explains the important role genetics can play not only in understanding the distribution of species in an island system, but also in rediscovering the genes (and on occasion the individuals) of species presumed extinct in the wild.
Although it isn’t clear whether The Tortoise will be an annual, quarterly, or – less likely – a monthly periodical, the breadth and scope of the magazine is promising. With little exception, nearly every photograph was worthy of a high-end coffee table book. The full and half page spreads, as if each story were part photoessay, gave the photography top billing. With so much backing this endeavor, I look forward to future issues in the hope that by broadcasting their message under The Tortoise‘s banner, the Turtle Conservancy’s work to conserve the world’s turtles and tortoises will succeed.