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Chipmunks and Ground Squirrels – Tiny Fun

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 21, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Sometimes, topics just become obvious.

I was weighing options for this week’s column, and was about settled on that old standby about the conflicts between moral values and day-to-day living. I especially enjoy thinking about the conflicts relating to those sudden magic moments when veganism, spiders, rattlers, birdseed, plastic, leather and fruitcakes all merge. Sadly, that will simply have to wait. Again.

You may recall that Deborah Essman – the Bird Whisperer of Paradise – recently presented her program on birds and wildlife of the Quilomene. The event was the July joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA). Her photos ranged from excellent to spectacular, and what really caught my attention was her correct identification of a tiny ground squirrel. This was to the consternation of a couple audience members who had instantly, and in error, whispered, “Chipmunk.” Time is always spent wisely with a well-prepared and well-presented nature program.

In line with how the universe usually puts these things together, a couple homeys stopped me in front of the Ellensburg Pet Center the next morning. They had been enjoying a number of great day hikes and picnic lunches in the hills around us, and were curious about all the little chipmunks they encountered. (“Or were those little squirrels?”) As chair of the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I am sworn to set aside all other interests to settle such confusions.

This is important stuff, really. After all, what is a picnic or camping trip without ground squirrels? Their friendly hustle, bustle and scurry delights children of all ages. To most of us they are just “chipmunks,” but only three of the eleven ground squirrels in Washington are the real deal.

One ground squirrel or another will be found most anywhere in our state. It could be a tiny least chipmunk (four inches long, one ounce), a hoary marmot (30 inches and fifteen pounds), or one of the in-betweens. Whichever, it will eat seeds, nuts, berries, flowers, grasses, leaves and insects.

All eleven are ground squirrels, but not all the striped ones are actually chipmunks (which all do have stripes). So which is which?  We can easily eliminate our three marmots, as well as the spotted or dappled ground squirrels. Simple, now, to separate chipmunks from lined ground squirrels; chipmunks all have “masks.”

In addition to the masks, there are other, less obvious, differences.

While they seem to hibernate in some locales, chipmunks generally put away food for mid-winter snacking in between several-day-long underground naps. In some Native American cultures, this trait is a teaching – a reminder – of gathering and preparing for winter. The chipmunks of Paradise are the least, Townsend=s and yellow-pine, and are quite similar in appearance (even experts can have trouble differentiating one chipmunk from another). The Townsend=s is most widespread, but any one of them could race up to your table during your next picnic or camping trip.

Our three marmots are found in rocky pasture areas from the lower foothills to well above timberline. They do not store food; they lay on masses of body fat to see them through winter’s hibernation.

The remaining five of our ground squirrels (California, golden-mantled, Columbian, Cascade golden-mantled and Townsend=s) are also generally hibernators, living off body fat reserves.

In keeping with the by-laws of the RCRGWD&OTTBA, I offer the following scientific names for our ground squirrels. Marmots: yellow‑bellied (Marmota flaviventris); hoary (Marmota caligota); and Olympic (Marmota olympus). Chipmunks: yellow-pine (Tamias amoenus); least (Tamias minimus); and Townsend=s (Tamias townsendii).  Ground Squirrels: California (Spermophilus beecheyi); golden‑mantled (Spermophilus lateralis); Columbian (Spermophilus columbianus); Cascade golden-mantled (Spermophilus saturatus); and Townsend=s (Spermophilus townsendii).

To learn more, check out the National Audubon Society=s Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest or another good field guide. You may be interested in Medicine Cards by Jamie Sams and David Carson.

Our little ground squirrels will find you at most any picnic. Look closely, laugh and enjoy. Resist the urge to feed them, as they may carry fleas – or bite – and they must still survive after you leave.

And remember, chipmunks have masks.

All about Pygmy Rabbits

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 14, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

The discussion on the floor of the impromptu meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was the recent press coverage of the pygmy rabbits which died in Douglas County’s lightning-sparked Sutherland Canyon fire a week and more ago.

The first question was, “Do we have those pygmy things here in Kittitas County? (“No, and there is no clear evidence that they ever lived west of the Columbia.”) For a moment thereafter, the conversation shifted to our local rabbits, and the fine eating several homeys enjoyed growing up in Paradise. In our region, we have two rabbits – the little (two or so pounds of white meat) Nuttall’s, or mountain, cottontail and its similar-size cousin, the eastern cottontail (both with little bushy white “cotton” tails. Nuttall’s is our only local native rabbit. As it was largely confined to the riparian areas of the Columbia River and its tributaries (such as the Yakima), several high‑minded souls imported eastern cottontails during the 1920s and ’30s, and released them all across Washington. (At the time, demand around the West was such that kids across the country were being paid to raise eastern cottontails for release.)

And. of course, we have hares in Paradise. Snowshoe hares are also called “varying hares,” since they turn white in winter in most of their range, or “Washington hares” in areas where they do not turn. We also have a few black-tailed jackrabbits (hares) on ag ground. (White‑tailed jackrabbits are now found in only a few places like the Okanogan country.) Hares, however, are fodder for another discussion.

At some point, Don’t-Use-My-Name Homey, gave me one of those looks. “Okay, if we don’t have these runt bunnies here in the valley, why do you give a #@!?” “Well,” I allowed, “right after the turn of this Century, several locals went out with biologists Tom McCall and John Musser into the big sage of Douglas County, searching for pygmy rabbits, and it sort of rekindled an ancient relationship in me.”

The way it was, growing up in East Wenatchee in a family of extremely limited means, a lot of my youthful (late ‘40s and early ‘50s) meat gathering had to do with rabbits. I box-trapped and hunted cottontails in the orchards (Nuttall’s and easterns, no doubt) and often wandered at dawn and dusk into the big sage home of the pygmy rabbits. We ate a fair number of both, although my mom preferred the bigger cottontails. When I first learned that they were disappearing, I had to remind myself that loss of habitat was the issue – there were plenty of the mini bunnies in abundant habitat at the time I was after them. “Besides,” I said to Homey, “these are very cool and unique little mammals. Think about it…”

The pygmy rabbit is the smallest rabbit in the world. An adult weighs from 12 ounces to slightly over a pound, and is from nine inches to less than a foot long – one would fit on your hand. Its distinguishing characteristics include its small size, short ears, a white spot by its nostril, gray color, small hind legs, and lack of white fur on its one-inch tail. When it spooks, it is running – scampering – rather than leaping. On top of all that, it is one of only two rabbits in North America which digs its own burrows (although it will occupy others, as needed).

Pygmy rabbit’s scientific name is Brachylagus idahoensis. It is most active at dawn and dusk. Litters average six babies, and a pair may produce three litters annually by the end of June. (Photo of the pygmy eating owl clover by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Kourtney Stonehouse.)

Pygmy rabbits occupy a very unique habitat, and therein lies the problem with their future. They are found primarily in habitats dominated by big sagebrush and rabbitbrush, and, to a lesser extent, in areas with abundant greasewood. Year around, nearly 90% of their diet is sagebrush leaves. Much of this native habitat has gone to agriculture and urban development. Burrows are generally into slopes at the base of big sage plants, facing north to east, and may have several three-inch entrances, with trails leading about. In poor burrowing areas, the rabbits may occupy holes in stone walls, around volcanic rocks or burrows made by other animals.

Pygmy rabbits have apparently lived in the shrub-steppe of central Washington for at least 100,000 years. By 2001, only 16 individuals were known statewide; by 2003, pygmy rabbits were listed as endangered at both state and federal levels. There are other, less isolated, populations in the Great Basin states, as well as Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming.

Learn more about these interesting bunnies and their future, and find photos, on line.

While 70 rabbits died as the fire swept through the Beezley Hills breeding compound in Douglas County, a number survived, and were moved to one of the other breeding facilities. There is still a fair number of the rabbits making more. Just during this decade, DFW has release hundreds of pygmy rabbits into the wild – all part of a determined restoration effort involving USFWS, universities, zoos and outfits like the Nature Conservancy. The goal of all players is to return populations to sustainable levels.

Here’s to their successful efforts.

Kokanees, Rimrock Lake and Life Priorities

Written by Jim Huckabay on July 7, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

For some reason – I think traceable to Rimrock Lake and Ron Nelson – summer always feels like time for kokanee fishing and consideration of life priorities. I have caught kokes (those little landlocked sockeye with the brilliant red and delicious flesh) in a couple states and several lakes, but got hooked, so to speak, 60 years ago on Rimrock.

My folks had split the sheets and my brothers and mom and I had moved from East Wenatchee to Yakima. September of 1958; my junior year of high school. Jackie was beautiful, with a stable, loving and outdoor family. Her father, Ron, was a fisherman and hunter with a cabin on Rimrock Lake…and a water‑skiing boat we could use anytime.

On school mornings, I’d get to Naches (where I was attending high school), have breakfast with the family, then walk to school with Jackie. I always felt welcome, and had liked Ron the moment we met. A funny guy, he always had a crack about how my early morning appearances overflowed his cup of life. I loved my time with them. I never thought about the impact they might have on a lost kid who had headed outdoors on his first legs.

That same fall, Ron had invited his brother Bob out from the East to find work. Times were tough, but Ron figured Bob might bloom out here, even though jobs were very scarce nationwide. I watched Bob start day after day of looking for work. Each morning, THIS would be he day. He was the most optimistic man I’d ever met. He was a hunter.

After weeks, Bob found a perfect job and sent for his wife and kids. Shortly thereafter, he told his new boss he needed a week or two off to go deer hunting with his brother Ron. The owner/boss told him he was the best machinist he’d ever hired, but no time off yet. At a very quiet breakfast just after that, Bob was musing about the tough year he and his family had just come through, and said something like, “I don’t see why he couldn’t let me go. I didn’t ask for pay, just time off. Told him I’d hafta quit, then, ‘cause I always go deer hunting. And now, for the first time in many years, I can hunt with my brother. I don’t know… It seems a damned shame to quit a good job just to go deer hunting.” But quit he did. After the hunt, there was a note from the aging boss, who said he had to know if Bob was truly a man of his word. A very few years later, Bob owned the company. That whole thing changed forever the way I look at priorities.

Anyhow, the following spring, Ron took it upon himself to teach me about kokanee catching and eating. It didn=t escape me, either, that I was captive in his boat. He was teaching me about life, and making sure I understood that my 17-year-old hormones were to stay in check.

On a given Saturday morning, we might catch a couple dozen eight- to twelve-inch kokes. I always cleaned the fish (necessary, Ron explained, because he had to concentrate so deeply to find just the right size aspen limbs, and properly fire up the smoker. When the smoke-cooked kokanee were just right, we would invite the women out to share the bounty of sweet red-fleshed kokes. To this day, I’ve eaten no better, nor in finer company.

By that fall, mom had moved us to Boise. Jackie and I corresponded for a time, but destiny had other plans. Some years later, I wrote Ron, thanking him for taking me in the way he did. In 1995, I learned that he was catching kokes in some clear, cold lake in the sky. Last I heard, Jackie and her family were in the lower valley.

I guess we have to set outdoor priorities for ourselves, but kokanee fishing is readily available to all of us through fall. Most folks talk about Chelan, Rimrock, Banks Lake, Sammamish and Lake Roosevelt, but Kachess, Keechelus, Cooper and Lost Lake have them , too. And Rimrock is not that far down the road. It’s pretty simple fishing really.

Trolling, still fishing, and jigging are all good ways to catch these most delicious fish, ranging in size from eight to 20 inches, depending on food and water. Most trollers use strings of blades or dodgers ahead of spoons or spinners with silver, red, or orange. Still fishers often use size eight to 12 hooks tipped with juicy maggots, kernel corn, or pieces of worm. The jigging method works over a school of kokes, with a ¼ oz. to 1 oz. jig.

For a list of waters, instructions, a pretty good video and general information about kokanees in Washington, check out wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/washington/Species/9008/. Google “kokanee fishing in Washington” and find everything else you need to know.

Happy koke fishing. Happy eating. Happy summer.

Fun with Gopher (Bull) Snakes

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 30, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

I came in from gardening last Sunday to an urgent message from GrandHuckling Joshua. Joshua, his mom and three siblings live on acreage at the eastern edge of Aurora, Colorado – some 20 miles from downtown Denver. “Grandpa, we have a great big rattlesnake on the patio and we need to know what to do with it! Please call.”

By the time I returned the call, Daughter Nicole had reached the sheriff’s office and had received wise advice: “Stay away from it and don’t antagonize it.” Nicole explained that it was very big and coiled up and striking out. It seemed pretty aggressive; not unusual for one of the prairie rattlers which occupy that habitat. Certainly, a rattler was possible there, but we have had this phone dance before, so I had my suspicions. As calmly as possible, with four excited, jabbering grandhucklings in the background, we walked through my standard checklist.

“Are there rattles, or rounded buttons on the tip of the tail?” (“No, I can’t see any, but it is really shaking its tail and making rattle noises.”) “Is its head triangular shape?” (“No, it’s squarish.”) “Is there that dark line of scales across the top of its head?” (“Yes. …So it’s a bull snake, isn’t it?”) That established, I suggested it was on the sunny patio, warming itself. It would likely be moving off soon – just leave it alone and keep the kids away from it.

An hour later, the phone rang again. “Now there are two of them, Grandpa! And they are hissing and striking at us!”

When Nicole answered my return call, I wondered why they were “hissing and striking” at the kids. “I told them to leave them alone,” she said, “but every time I turn my back, they’re out on the patio teasing them! Their listening isn’t working. It’s too exciting. Can you talk to them?” “Okay,” I agreed, “get the brats on speaker phone.”

“Look,” I said to the gaggle of grandhucklings, “you have horses and dogs – lots of them – being boarded and raised there, right?” (Murmuring of agreement.) “And lots of mice, huh?” (Murmuring of further agreement, with outbursts of hating mice in grain and feed.) “Okay. These gopher snakes – bull snakes – are your best friends. They live on the mice, and the more mice you have, the more bull snakes you will have. Want the bull snakes to go away? Then be more effective at getting rid of the mice. In the meantime, you brats have to stop teasing the snakes on the warm patio to make their bodies work right – they can’t keep themselves warm like you can.” (Mutterings of “Aw, okay…” and, “So what if it bites us?”) “Well it’s not poisonous. But its teeth are sharp and angled backward, so it can be hard to get its mouth off you and the bite could hurt – and your mom will douse a lot of antiseptic on the bite because there are all sorts of nasty germs and bacteria on those mouse-eating teeth! You won’t like it.”

“Look, guys, these are your friends. Don’t pick on them. Nicole, you could probably keep a long stick to gently move the snakes off where you don’t want them. Just be gentle and kind. AND you could use the stick to beat bad children.” (Protestations about how well-behaved they all are.) “One last thing, guys. Don’t kill the bull snakes. The only reason to kill one is if you are starving and you are going to eat it!” (Miscellaneous “Eww” sounds followed by 10-year-old Kristian’s request to try one, “cause I’m very hungry and they look pretty fat!”) “Good luck with that. I’ll talk to you brats later. I love you. Bye.”

Returning to my gardening, I found myself remembering when Edward, last of the Hucklings, was about two. On our property in the Monument breaks country southeast of Denver, we and Gusto, our Labrador retriever, startled a six-foot bull snake in dried grass. It hissed, coiled, rattled the grass and struck out. For a few seconds it convinced my heart it was a rattler. I can still feel the terror of that moment – I’ve often thought that adrenaline rush triggered the kid’s desire to study snakes.

Be that as it may, the Wildlife Education Subcommittee of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association requires the following. Our Pacific gopher snake is Pituophis catenifer catenifer. It is buff-colored with brown blotches, dark lines on the sides of its neck and a smooth tail tip. As mentioned above, a darker row of scales atop its head gives it the “bull” handle. Ours may surpass four feet. They will climb trees after birds, or eggs, and are effective ground hunters. Constrictors, they coil around and crush rodents or birds too big to swallow alive. They also eat lizards and other snakes. Common in most habitats here east of the Cascades, their bite is harmless, but painful and infectious. Ectothermic, they can’t internally regulate body temperature and are most active at warm times.

Bull snakes hibernate from October to April, often sharing hybernacula (dens, often little more than south facing rock crevices deep enough to avoid winter’s worst) with rattlers, garter snakes and others. Imagine sleeping all winter entwined in a ball of snakes to conserve energy and stay above freezing. After emergence and mating, the females lay from four to 20 leathery eggs in warm soil. At 11 weeks, the young will hatch and begin fending for themselves, often becoming food for raptors, coyotes, foxes or other snakes.

Gopher snakes are peaceful, beneficial critters. Unfortunately, their resemblance to rattlers often triggers a “kill first, identify later” response from people, and many die purposely under car tires.

Be kind; as Edward and the Snake Whisperer of Paradise, Dan Beck, might say, “Gopher snakes are cool animals!”

All about Lightning and Safety

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 23, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

We can pretty much agree on the thrill and excitement of a lightning storm, I think. Some sights and sounds and smells are just never forgotten. Forty-five years after grad school and those dazzling nighttime storms in eastern Kansas, I can still feel the electricity – even taste and smell that acrid ozone air – around the dozens of nearby lightning strikes.

Unlikely, it is, that we will have many of those moments here in Paradise. Still, as we move evermore into thunderstorm season, allow me to share the rest of the story. This could be important. After all, being struck by lightning can mess up your whole day.

On average, we get from 10 to 20 days of thunderstorms a year. The west side will run about half that. In comparison, Florida, Texas and some Midwest towns will have more than 100 days of lightning storms annually. Worldwide, lightning occurs 50 times per second, and one in five occurrences will strike the ground.

The crashing thunder results from the sudden heating and expansion of the air. A single stroke may involve a direct current of as much as 200,000 amperes and a million volts. Since lightning travels at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second), a flash is virtually instantaneous.

Lightning takes many forms, but energy mostly channels from a negative to a positive charge. The most common “bolts” or “strokes,” are jagged, stepped or forked discharges from cloud to ground or vice‑versa, and often from cloud to cloud. One or another of these forms of lightning have crackled over the valley several times in the past month. “Sheet” lightning illuminates a whole section of a cloud. “Ribbon” lightning occurs when a cloud to ground discharge channel shifts between strokes, separating the strokes across the horizon, making several ribbons visible at a time. In “bead” lightning, the stroke breaks up into luminous fragments 20 or 30 meters long. One of my personal favorites is “ball” lightning, a moving, glowing sphere from tennis-ball to beach-ball size (online your will find many stories and images related to ball lightning).

In the U.S., over the last decade or so, lightning has killed 30 to 40 people a year. Worldwide, according to various sources (including the journal Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, and  the National Lightning Safety Institute) some 24,000 people die from lightning strikes annually, with injuries about ten times that number. Total annual property damage in the U.S. may exceed 300 million dollars, including loss of livestock, and fires in buildings and forests.

Tens of millions of that damage occurs each year to electrical transformers, lines, towers and other equipment. Indeed, most forms of lightning have been duplicated (rarely on purpose) in power plants, where discharges have hit the order of 150,000 amperes.

Buildings in lightning-prone areas are often protected with systems of lightning rods, conductors and grounding systems much like those designed by Ben Franklin. In efforts to neutralize the electrical potential of a storm before lightning becomes active, such systems often use tall masts, overhead grounding wires and towers.

A dozen human activities account for more than half of all lightning deaths. Fishing, camping, boating and soccer are the top four, with golf at number 12. No surprise, maybe: 82% of U.S. lightning deaths are males.

Your odds of being struck in a given year, according to NOAA, are about one in 1,083,000. That is at least 50 times LESS likely than being killed by a vehicle, but much better odds than Lotto. (Across the U.S. the odds of being struck by lightning in an 80-year lifespan are one in 13,500.)

Take simple precautions, and don’t ignore the danger. Get into a house or building. Avoid contact with metal pipes (don’t shower), stoves (don’t cook), and wires (don’t use the telephone). A metal car or truck is a good shelter (don’t touch the metal), but don’t put your life in the hands of a convertible or the back of a pickup. Caught outside, find shelter under a cliff, in a cave or in a low area like a ravine or ditch. Avoid telephone poles or flagpoles, wire fencing or clotheslines, high areas like hilltops or rooftops, and water bodies.

If you are caught out, and feel your hair stand raising, lightning may be imminent. Kneel with your feet and knees on the ground, bending over to keep your profile as low as possible. DON’T touch your head to the ground.

The good news is that nine out of ten people struck by lightning are only injured and most fully recover. Mouth‑to‑mouth or cardiopulmonary resuscitation often revives strikees. Some may need treatment for burns or shock. (It IS safe to touch someone who has been struck – they will not carry an electric charge.

The bad news, on the other hand, is that if you are the one struck, the odds don=t matter.

Enjoy the show when it happens. And be careful.