Archive for July, 2017

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.