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.

Yakima River Chinook Fishing – Finally!

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 16, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

The kings are coming! The kings are coming! Yakima Nation and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife fish pros are expecting 2,000+ harvestable Levi George (Cle Elum) Hatchery springers in the river – even though they are very late this year. As of today, the 20+ miles of the middle reach of the Yakima River is open for hatchery spring Chinook. This reach extends from the I-82 Bridge at Union Gap (river mile 107.1) to the BNSF railroad bridge about 600 feet below Roza Dam (river mile 127.8).

The fine print: Daily limit is two (2) hatchery Chinook, at least 12 inches long (legal fish are missing an adipose fin, with a healed scar in its location of the missing fin) and all wild salmon must be immediately released unharmed and never removed from the water; Use up to two (2), single-point barbless hooks with a hook gap (point to shank) of 3/4 inch or less; Bait is allowed and knotted nets may be used only in the river section open to salmon fishing; Night closure is in effect; For this fishery, the upper “closed water” line is moved up to the railroad bridge (just downstream of Roza Dam) to provide maximum opportunity to catch hatchery kings; Steelhead fishing remains closed; You must have a Columbia River Salmon/Steelhead Endorsement.

More fine print: Use two fishing rods during this fishery with your purchase of a “Two-Pole Endorsement” in addition to regular licenses; Fishing from boats with gas motors is allowed only from the I-82 Bridge at Union Gap to the east-bound I-82 Bridge (upstream) at Selah Gap (used for transport only above that bridge; All fishing closed for 400 feet above the upstream side of the Yakima Avenue/Terrace Heights Rd. Bridge in Yakima (including areas adjacent to, and downstream of, the Roza Wasteway No. 2 fish barrier rack by Morton & Sons; More info from John Easterbrooks, Regional Fish Program Manager at 509-457-9330 or Eric Anderson, District 8 Fish Biologist at 509-457-9301.

That’s the simple part – the fishery is open, as above.

The rest of the story is how this opener happened – and the team and science and thinking involved. It’s actually pretty interesting; we can both learn a few things here!

The process starts with the U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Group – TAC – (this court decision predates the Boldt decision, relating to Washington’s salmon management). The TAC is administered from Portland and involves both states and the feds using a sliding scale for water conditions, salmon needs, and fish numbers. The members of the TAC monitor the various runs and provide ongoing in-season updates.

Our DFW fish pros (such as John Easterbrooks) work very closely with the Yakama Nation fish pros (especially Bill Bosch) and the Bonneville Power Administration to manage hatchery and natural-origin salmon based on the TAC data and agreements. Hatchery salmon are generally fitted with a PIT (Passive Integrated Transponder) tag, which identifies age and origin. If this salmon “team” was not working hand-in-hand, we would have no salmon to argue over in our part of the world.

Earlier this week, recalculations were based on returns through 12 June of various aged PIT-tagged Levi George Hatchery salmon at Bonneville. The results indicated that 2,400 to 2,800 fish would be moving into the mouth of the Yakima and heading home to the hatchery. The Lower Yakima has been open for a bit, but few salmon have been taken – conditions on the river have largely held the fish at the river’s mouth (with fishing limitations there to protect them). Finally, later than anyone expected, the River settled and the fish began moving past Prosser. Thus, today, the pros opened a two-hatchery-fish limit in the 20+ mile reach from Union Gap to Roza Dam. At this point, salmon fishing is open on every reach of the Yakima River under state jurisdiction!

You probably think we are fishing for fun and food. True, but we have a management purpose I’ve not considered. Fisheries pros want a ratio of 50-50 hatchery- and natural-origin salmon on the spawning redds above Roza Dam – and the more “natives” in the mix, the better. Our job is to remove enough excess hatchery fish to protect that ratio at spawning areas.

All those PIT tag and other salmon counts provide a fascinating insight into our fishing success on the Yakima. The ratio of hatchery to natural-origin fish at Prosser is 30-70. The ratio improves for hatchery fish as the season goes along and as the fish move up the river. Above the mouth of the Naches, it improves. At Roza, as the season progresses, you have a better that 50% chance of catching mostly Levi George Hatchery fish. The odds are highest at the point where both return counts and fishing participation drops off, and that is probably a month away.

Bottom line of all this is that, by the time these fish get to Roza, you have a better-than-coin-flip chance that the salmon on your line is a fat hatchery keeper. And those odds will continue to improve over the next few weeks.

Go fish.

Kids, Fishing and Derbies

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 9, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Well, here it is at last; Washington’s Free Fishing Weekend. Buckle up.

Tomorrow and Sunday, no one in your family will need a license to fish in any open water in the state. Here’s the small print (read it like that hurried description of side effects at the end of drug commercials): you need no state license, but size limits, bag limits and closures are still in effect. And you will also be required to complete a catch record card (available free at license dealers, and online at wdfw.wa.gov/fish/regs/fishregs.htm) for any salmon, steelhead, sturgeon or halibut you catch. This is also Kid Fishing Derby weekend.

Sadly, I now only have adults (Edward, last of the Hucklings, turned 21 years ago), and my Grand-Hucklings live too far away. Still, you can take your youngsters to one of a couple great fishing opportunities in Paradise.

Both of these kids’ derbies happen here in Kittitas County tomorrow (Saturday, 6/10), both are for ages 14 and under, and both have been happening for nigh on 30 years

The party at Fio Rito is the Annual Kiwanis Kids Free Fishing Derby. Registration and fishing starts at 10 a.m. and runs to Noon, for age groups of five and under, 6 through 10, and 11 through 14. Once upon a time, Kiwanis reared fish and turned them loose in local creeks for the event, but times – and rules – change, so Fio Rito it is. There are still cool prizes for the kids who come fish, though, with a bike, a fishing combo, a tackle box or travel gear for the top fishers in each age group. Every kid will walk away with some sort of fishing stuff – and probably some nice fish. Dale DeFoor has more info at 509-929-0449.

These fishing experiences touch people in many ways. Dale still tells of the child struggling with cancer who was excited to win an age group bike years ago. After he passed, his parents supplied bikes for other derby winners over several years. For young and old alike, fishing triggers a deep connection with Earth and Spirit.

The Upper County party is the Annual Easton Kids Fishing Derby on Lavender Lake (Exit 74 off I-90). This adventure has been co-sponsored since its inception by the USFS Cle Elum Ranger District and Cascade Field and Stream Club.  Registration starts at 6 a.m. at Lavender Lake, with lines in the water at 7. Prizes include fishing, camping and floating gear, and are given in each of several age groups. Other activities (fish anatomy, habitat, ethics, etc.) at several stations, will get kids into a free raffle for even more prizes. Mark Bennett will have info at 509-670-1464, but all you really must do is show up with your under-14ers.

This Easton Party always features appearances by Smokey Bear. Mark will tell you that some kids are a little unsure about it all, but most can’t wait to get a picture with Smokey – and still talk about it decades later. What a great way to kick off summer with kids!

These derbies can be great fun, but funny things happen when gangs of people get together to fish. And, as The Old Man used to say, “It ain=t all funny ha-ha.”

Near the end of the last century, I took eight-year-old Edward and thirteen-year-old Anna to a fishing derby at Hansen Pond (now Kiwanis Pond) near Cle Elum.

The instructions clearly said “Do not start fishing until 7:00 a.m.” We were there at 6:50. There were two dozen lines in the water, and the first fish had already been registered.

Adults could cast lines and bait hooks, but fish were to be hooked, played and landed by the kids.  As we walked to a likely fishing spot, I talked to a dad and a granddad holding and baiting two separate rods for the five- or six-year-old kid standing by. They explained that they wanted to make sure he would always have a rod ready to go and wouldn’t have any “down” time.

We watched half a dozen dads casting, hooking and bringing in fish. A couple of them actually stepped on their kids as they cast over, and across, the lines of anybody in the way. Frustrated, Edward noted there was plenty of room, and asked why the man with two little kids just down the shoreline kept casting both their lines over his, which was straight out. I allowed as how it was probably because he was catching fish. Then I suggested “maybe he thinks your hole is the only one in the lake with any trout in it.”

Eventually, the guy handed the rods off to his kids. In time, he actually let his boy and girl hook and land two nice truck trout.

By 9, the adults had pretty much surrendered, and kids were fishing, focused and happy. It seemed to me that a few fishers were being born. The Hucklings decided it was great time.

A friend once observed, “Teach a kid to fish and she’ll hassle you for more ‘til she’s grown and gone!”

Even the random nature of +/- sportsmanlike gang fishing is a good start to a fishing life. Take a kid fishing.

Swallows Bring Summer – and Eat Pests

Written by Jim Huckabay on June 2, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Based on conversations with several homeys over the past week or so, my recent garden experience is about normal for this particular year. Even at mid-day, I was finding that the mosquitoes would suddenly outnumber the weeds I was pulling. I found myself praying – begging really – for swallows. Thankfully, we are entering their season.

I love watching swallows – just off the water, dipping for insects or a drink – or most anywhere. I have, on occasion, been swept away at four-way stops, or stoplights, watching violet-green and cliff swallows sweeping and dipping (The Old Man called it “jitterbugging”) through and around cars. I may, sometimes, have been so enthralled watching them snatch up injured insects rising off warm hoods or grills that other drivers felt compelled to rudely remind me to move my rig.

In addition to our stoplight jitterbuggers, we commonly see tree, bank and barn varieties. (There are plenty of northern rough-winged swallows in Paradise, too, but we seem to notice them less.)

In these days of concern over Zika, West Nile and other mosquito-carried diseases, the swallows of Paradise take on a whole new importance. They will individually and collectively eat uncounted tons of mosquitos and other flying insects this summer.

Horse owners will often tell you, enthusiastically and with a touch of awe, about the mud nests on the walls of their boarding barns. They will probably even tell you about the birds keeping flying insects off their horses and foals. With a nod to the enthusiasm of Deborah “Bird Whisperer” Essman for these amazing and valuable birds, let’s talk swallows.

All six of the swallows we enjoy in Washington are elegant flyers with long, pointed wings, and (except for the cliff swallow) notched tails. We see plenty of barn (Hirundo rustica), violet-green (Tachycineta thalassina) and cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota). Along with tree (Tachycineta bicolor) and bank (Riparia riparia) swallows, there is a fair population of the northern rough-winged (Stelgidopteryx serripennis). They are all migratory birds.

Tree swallows arrive first in spring and head south last in fall, and are the only swallows to largely winter within the U.S.  (Most of ours winter along the Gulf of Mexico or southern California.) Flying insects make up most of the tree swallow’s diet, although more than any other Washington swallow, the tree swallow eats berries and other vegetative matter when insects aren’t flying. This allows it to weather cold spells better than other swallows, which thus allows it to winter farther north.

On the other hand, barn and cliff swallows have among the longest migration flights of any of our land birds – some actually winter as far south as Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America.

Tree swallows nest in tree cavities or nest boxes (especially near water) and compete – often poorly – with mountain bluebirds, flickers, starlings and others for cavities. Where nest boxes have been provided, their populations have increased.

In addition to cliffs (check out the Selah Cliffs Natural Area at the west-bound I-82 rest area by the Training Center), cliff swallows use bridges, culverts, and buildings near water for nesting.  Mud nests are bulbous affairs, stacked one on top of the other, with entrances on the sides, facing a bit downward. These colonial creatures make the most densely populated communities of any breeding birds on the continent; including as many as 1,000 or more pairs, each with its own gourd-shaped nest somewhere in the jumble.

Barn swallows are our most common urban-area swallows, living wherever civilization goes. Cup-shaped nests are made of mud plastered to the timbers of barns or other outbuildings.

Barn and cliff swallows are often observed carrying mouthful after mouthful of mud, then shaping it with feet, beak and body. This is work. One study found that a particular pair of barn swallows – to collect the mud and materials for their nest – made 1,359 trips, covering a total of 137 miles in a work period of six to eight days. It appears that they still take time to play (celebrate?), however, as many have been observed carrying feathers high into the sky, dropping them, and swooping down to catch them in mid-air before adding final touches to the nest.

Overall, swallow populations are healthy and increasing. This is good: few sights are more enjoyable than those flashes of orange, purple, green or brown in rapid, skillful flight around the bridges, overpasses, buildings, water and ag ground of Paradise.

Learn more about the sounds, nests, colors and lives of swallows from www.birdweb.org/, www.allaboutbirds.org, or a good field guide. Photos. Too.

As robins bring spring, so swallows bring summer – and help keep it livable.