Photo of the Week – Rutting Bull Elk

As fall approaches, the Roosevelt elk enter the rut, the mating period for their species during which many of their distinctive behaviors emerge. After spending several months developing velvet-covered antlers, the bulls strip away the velvet and sharpen the tips of these bony structures by rubbing them against trees, shrubs and grasses. Here, bearing an impressive set of seven-point antlers, a bachelor bull looks up to survey its surroundings before returning to grazing in a field near Dry Lagoon.

Rutting bulls will compete to attract a harem by bugling and spraying themselves with urine to create a scent that appeals to cows. Bulls may challenge each other for control over a harem by bellowing at each other and walking in parallel to size up each other’s physical prowess. If neither decides to back down at this point, conflicts escalate to antler wrestling, in which bulls can sustain serious injury. Here, the bull featured in our photo from earlier this year shows signs of having lost his harem to a challenger, but is still attempting to attract cows and drive away rivals:

Bulls rarely eat while in control of a harem, and can lost up to twenty percent of their body mass during breeding season. This bull’s weight loss likely made him vulnerable to a challenge from a rival bull, in which he appears to have sustained an eye injury during antler wrestling. Not content to remain a bachelor, he continues to bugle and make his presence known to potential mates and rivals.

Elk cows are only fertile for approximately two days out of the year, so a bull with a harem must keep close track of which cows are in estrus if he is to mate successfully. To do this, the bull smells and tastes his cows frequently.

Young bulls not mature enough to mate will frequently live on the periphery of harems during the rut, grazing alongside the cows and occasionally honing their skills for future years.

Two young bulls practice antler wrestling

Meanwhile, the calves the joined the herd in June stay close to their mothers and continue to suckle and grow.

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News Roundup – Rivers, The State of Birds and More

In a comprehensive follow-up to a 2009 compilation, a new State of the Birds Report has been released (available in full as a PDF or summarized in their news release here). In a collaboration between 23 government agencies and conservation organizations, this extensive analysis of long-term monitoring data is the bearer of both good and bad news for U.S. birds. Restoration and preservation of wetland habitats has reversed declines in waterfowl populations while habitat loss and fragmentation in arid regions has lead to steep declines in bird populations of the Southwest and deserts of the western United States. Analyzing trends in seven key habitat categories, the report identifies 240 species that are either endangered or are likely to become endangered if current trends continue.

Meanwhile, the Audubon Society has released its own report about the shifting landscape bird populations are facing due to climate change. Data can be explored on an interactive map by species or by region, showing which birds will face habitat loss due to global warming over the next 65 years. While some species will face little to no challenge, others are expected to face nearly complete loss of their summer or winter habitats. The Eared Grebe, which is now the most abundant grebe species in the world, is projected to lose the entirety of its current summer range. The Golden Gate Audubon Society, using data from this report, offers a look at what’s in store for Bay Area birds. Further up the west coast, the Audubon Society of Portland is doing work to preserve the habitat of the endangered Marbled Murrelet.

An Eared Grebe in Lake Merritt

For those interested in making the country a more habitable place for birds, The Audubon Society has put together a list of things you can to help birds and Cornell Bird Labs offers a guide to planting bird-friendly berries in your yard.

With the tail end of a rain storm currently passing over California’s northern coast and another expected to arrive on Wednesday, good news has arrived for the region’s ecology, fisheries and agriculture. However, the exceptionally dry water year and complete depletion of snowpack in the state have taken a toll. Extremely low flows and warmer water in the Klamath River have contributed to the outbreak of a parasitic infection capable of killing adult salmon before they spawn. Nearly half the Chinook salmon caught in recent fishing expeditions were infected with the ich parasite. To combat the spread of the disease, the Bureau of Reclamation has begun to release water into the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath.

During dry years, many of California’s farms rely on pumping ground water to irrigate their crops. During this extended drought, some regions of San Joaquin Valley have extracted groundwater to the point that the ground level has sunk significantly. With a commonly used resource in danger of running out in some regions, California has joined the rest of the western states in adopting rules for extracting groundwater.

In response to pressure from groups associated with the urban farming movement, the city of Oakland is changing its zoning regulations to facilitate growing, harvesting and selling food within the city. Making use of blighted properties and normally unproductive residential yard space, urban farmers aim to produce food with a significantly smaller carbon footprint than large-scale commercial agricultural operations while avoiding wasteful and ecologically damaging irrigation, fertilizing and pesticide application practices that are widespread in the industry.

The Chaparral Institute, working with The John Muir Project and the Center for Biological Diversity, has announced a lawsuit against the Stanislaus National Forest to prevent the logging of recently burnt trees. Citing primarily ecological concerns, they’ve offered a six-point explanation of why the planned “salvage logging” should be stopped.

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Photo of the Week – Burying Beetle

A margined burying beetle slowly makes its way up a hill above Trinidad State Beach, weighed down by a colony of small mites that live on its body.

In order to reproduce, this carrion beetle must not only find a mate, but has to find a small dead animal for its larvae to feed on as well. This is not an easy task for a slow-moving beetle that has to compete with vultures, mammalian scavengers and flies for a means to complete its life cycle. Having to carry around a colony of mites doesn’t make things any easier.

A close-up look at the mites borne by the burying beetle

However, these mites are not parasitic; once a pair of burying beetles finds a rodent or bird carcass, they play a very important role. Flies will inevitably reach a dead animal before the beetles and deposit their larvae, threatening the food source of the beetles’ larvae. When burying beetles deposit their young on the body of a small bird or rodent, several of the mites from their bodies will stay on the carcass as well and feed on the fly larvae. The burying beetles, true to their name, will bury the dead animal so that no other insects or scavengers can access it. The carcass, sealed away and cleansed of competing larvae, will nourish the beetles’ young until they pupate.

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Photo of the Week – Coast Garter Snake

In a rare patch of sun in the dense forests of Trinidad, California, a garter snake lounges on a mossy hillside.

Found along the majority of the California coast and varying in appearance from region to region, the coast garter has one of the most diverse diets of any reptile. Fish, birds, mice, lizards, amphibians, smaller snakes, worms, leeches, slugs and snails all fall prey to the coast garter. It shows a remarkable resistance to the toxin of the rough-skinned newt, and is the only animal known to survive after eating one.

Garter snakes are one of the few species of snake that give birth to live young. Breeding in spring, the newly-emerged juveniles can be seen between July and September.

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News Roundup – Waterways, Trails and More

California’s record-setting drought continues to strain the health of the state’s watersheds, ecosystems and agriculture. With a persistent lack of rainfall accompanied by diversions for irrigation and so-called pollution pot, the Van Duzen River has ceased to flow all the way to the lower Eel River, prompting a declaration of a state of emergency from Humboldt County supervisors. Following warnings about toxic blue-green algae, The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has instated a schedule of water releases from Trinity Lake to maintain river health. Agricultural interests in California’s central valley filed a lawsuit to stop releases from the reservoir and preserve the its water for irrigation, but a federal judge has denied this request.

In addition to the Trinity water releases, additional measures are being taken to protect wildlife during drought conditions. The Nature Conservancy and its allies are launching a program to rent strategically located patches of farmland and temporarily turn them into wetlands to aid in annual bird migrations. The Ten Mile River, which hosts one third of the spawning coho salmon in Mendocino County, has been slated for a long term restoration project intended to preserve fish populations.

Yurok tribal authorities have collaborated with state and federal law enforcement to stop illegal water diversions in the Klamath river by cracking down on illicit marijuana grows. In the first step toward developing long-term restoration plans and obtaining remediation funding, The North Coast Regional Wa¬≠ter Quality Board has recommended six waterways for impairment listing. Not content to wait for the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge to carry out its reclamation plan, natural forces have forged ahead and taken back a 50-acre portion of Humboldt Bay’s tidal wetlands. In the San Francisco bay, restoration efforts are taking place underwater to transplant native eel grass to the bay floor.

Fans of trails and public forests on the north coast have a lot to look forward to in the near future. Humboldt County has closed the deal to acquire nearly 1000 acres of forested land previously owned by Green Diamond Resource Company. This tract of land, located near Eureka, will have a trail system developed over the coming years and possibly be joined by additional purchases and/or easements of adjacent forest. The state has released funding to a handful of north coast trail construction projects while the Six Rivers National Forest has just grown by 320 acres.

An American Kestrel perched on a cyprus in coastal Sonoma County

Two northern California birds that occupy very different biological niches have come under increased scrutiny from conservationists. Both the Band-tailed Pigeon and the American Kestrel have suffered steady declines in their respective populations over recent decades. While recent research suggests a parasitic infection may be a large factor in the decline of the Band-tailed Pigeon, the transitory nature of of the American Kestrel has made the bird very hard to study. Falcon researchers are now requesting the help of citizen scientists to collect data on American Kestrels – those interested in helping can sign up here.

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