Thursday, December 26, 2013

Of Gophers and Salamanders

A few years ago, my friend and co-worker Merald and I took the Uplands section of the Florida Master Naturalist Program. For our final group project, we teamed up and did a little skit about Gophers and Gophers. I talked about Gopher Tortoises and Merald talked about Pocket Gophers, but we pretended that we each thought we were presenting about the same thing and chaos ensued, all because of the confusion caused by using common names. We stood side by side next to our posters and took turns talking about various aspects of the two kinds of gophers. At the beginning of the presentation we agreed on the basics--that they lived in burrows in the uplands--but as we got more specific, the confusion became more clear. When Merald said that gophers were mammals, I interrupted and corrected him, and when I said they layed eggs in the apron of their burrow, he got very worried looking and sputtered. It was all good fun. We were perhaps too good at our play fighting because later on some people in the class told us they were starting to feel bad for us bombing so badly on our presentation.

Merald's Poster About Pocket Gophers

My Poster about Gopher Tortoises

I think about the gophers and gophers a lot when I'm out hiking because I'm quite likely to see signs of one or the other of them in the Sandhills that are so common around Gainesville. Pocket gopher mounds are far more common than gopher tortoises but you can often see both together in the same area, which causes some confusion. In fact, there is so much confusion in the names in general that it really becomes quite silly. In researching for the project we learned that the word "Gopher" comes from the French "Gauphre" which means "honeycomb". In Europe, gopher tunnels reminded people of honeycombs and thus the name for the animal. Later, when European explorers came to N. America, they applied the term "Gopher" to burrowing animals in general. One report we read said that in some regions of the U.S., moles and voles are called Gophers. The term is also applied to at least one species of ground squirrel. The animal we know in Florida as the Pocket Gopher is the Southeastern Pocket Gopher and is one of 6 species of pocket gophers in the U.S. But the term is also applied in the Southeast to a burrowing tortoise, the Gopher Tortoise. And some people refer to either the mammal or the reptile as just "Gopher", so you have to be sure you know which one they mean--Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) or Southeastern Pocket Gopher (Geomys pinetis).
Pocket Gopher Mounds in the Sandhill

Gopher Tortoise Burrow in a different Sandhill Nearby

But to make things even more complicated, in some areas people also refer to Pocket Gophers as "Salamanders". A real salamander is an amphibian, so there is no way that people confused them with the furry mammals. Actually, the term came first from "Sandy Mounder" because of the way the Pocket Gophers push out mounds of sand when they tunnel. Later this term morphed into "Salamander" because it sounded similar to Sandy Mounder. I recently learned that the term "Gerrymander" comes from Salamanders, too. In 1812, the Massachusetts legislature redrew electoral districts to favor Governor Elbridge Gerry. The distorted districts were drawn in a shape that resembled a salamander. People termed it a "Gerrymander", blending the names of the district shape and the governor.

I've been lucky enough to see many gopher tortoises. I've even moved some out of the road to safety.   I've never actually seen a salamander in the wild. The closest I've come is a few years ago when I was with an adventurous kid who caught a newt. I've also never seen a pocket gopher, although I have seen photos from a friend, so I guess I believe they exist. I have seen the mounds they leave in every sandhill and cow pasture. For the first five or ten years that I lived in Florida, I thought those mounds were fire ant hills. They look a little similar. Both fire ants and pocket gophers are pests, but not the gopher tortoise. Gopher tortoises are endangered and protected. They are endangered because their habitat is disappearing, and because people like to hunt and eat them. They provide critical shelter in their burrows for hundreds of species of animals, some of whom just share the space, and others who use it to escape fire. Pocket gophers eat tree roots and crops and dig up fields and yards, causing headache for farmers, ranchers and homeowners. They are abundant and annoying even if I've never seen one because they are "crepuscular" (marvelous word!), meaning that they are active at dusk and dawn. But they do play an important role in the ecosystem. Pocket gophers aerate the soil, and they are food for predators, including endangered Pine Snakes, who live in the sandhill and prowl pocket gopher mounds for their preferred food.
Gopher Tortoise

Red Eft That Will Grow Up to Become a Newt
And finally, I get to the main reason I started this whole tale of gophers and gophers.  The other day I was hiking at Morningside Nature Center and saw the tail end of this Pine Snake sticking out of a Pocket Gopher Mound. It was so focused on hunting that I was able to get quite close. Eventually I spooked it and it slipped all the way inside the mound. Later I came back to see if it was still around and the snake was stretched out in the sun, basking. I hope it was busy digesting pocket gophers, because it looked a little skinny. But it was nice to get a chance to see such a beautiful reptile up close and at work. I didn't see a Pocket Gopher, I didn't see a Gopher Tortoise and I didn't see a Gopher Snake, although they do exist. But I did see a Pine Snake. At least it wasn't a Salamander Snake--that would be an Amphiuma, and I have seen those. But that's another story at another park. Too confusing.
Pine Snake Going in For Dinner

Detail of the Beautiful Scale Pattern

Pine Snake Stretched Out in the Sun

Beautiful Face Scales

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Every One is a Star!

I was out counting birds this weekend for the Christmas Bird Count and I caught myself calling out "oh, it's just another Mockingbird". And then I realized what a stupid thing that was to say or think. I mean, where do I get off dismissing any bird, whether it be Mockingbird, Wren, Cardinal, or Vulture as "just another (fill in blank)"? When did I get so jaded? They may be common, but they are anything but insignificant, boring or ordinary. Take the Mockingbird. To begin with, they are really beautiful with gray and white markings, a long tail, and a lovely curved beak with whiskers. But then if you add their ability to mimic sounds, then they get really interesting. I've heard the Mockingbirds in our yard mimicking Wrens, Titmice and Mississippi Kites. I read somewhere that they can mimic car alarms. They're really smart. And fierce. They will defend their nests, chasing off cats, hawks and gardeners,  and will remember the faces of individual people who bother them. So they're smart, fierce and beautiful, and definitely nothing to sneeze at.

Don't Mess With This Northern Mockingbird
And what about the Carolina Wren? Just a Little Brown Job? When you look closely at them, they are elegant and gorgeous! They have rakish white eyebrow and a basketweave pattern on their cocoa brown wings and tails, with cafe au lait breast feathers. They're beautiful! They are devoted parents and when they make a nest on your front porch (because they have figured out that it's worth the risk to nest near humans because of the protection they might get from other predators) you will see both parents taking turns sitting on the nest and going out to feed. When the chicks hatch, both parents head out to forage for caterpillars and bugs, but they are always watching carefully. And when there is any danger near, they will fly and scold. The males are soulful singers who will bring a tear to your eye with their sincere "teakettle" song.

Carolina Wren Singing His Little Heart Out
And Cardinals? Oh, yeah, them. Ho hum. Who cares? Everyone has Cardinals, right? Because they are so common here, we lose perspective. But they are really pretty extraordinary. We did not have Cardinals in Utah when I was growing up and I was blown away the first time I first encountered one in Wisconsin. I know for sure that if I saw SCARLET, CRESTED, SINGING birds like these while I was traveling in another country, I'd go nuts! Cardinals are amazing!
Male Northern Cardinal--Wowza!
Just a Turkey Vulture? How can we shrug off an eagle sized bird with a 4 foot wingspan that glides and soars gracefully in the thermals overhead? Just because they have that wrinkly red face. But their featherless head is a perfect adaptation for plunging their heads into carrion. No messy facial feathers to catch food! They rarely kill and defend themselves by regurgitating. Kind of sweet and peaceful, really. As scavengers they serve an essential role in the food web, cleaning up the dead things. In a place like Florida with so much roadkill, we should be pinching ourselves over our luck to have such an abundance of Vultures!

Turkey Vulture, Doing What They Do Best--Notice the Gorgeous Blue on the Wing Feathers
So, just a flock of Blackbirds? Or for that matter, just a skipper butterfly? Just a stink bug? Just a fly? Just a weed? Think again. Look carefully and get to know them, and remember that every one is a star.

Flock of Female Red-Winged Blackbirds

Ocola Skipper with the Cutest Furry Face 
White Spotted Stink Bug with Ruby Eyes
I Spy a Fly Eye on Goldenrod 
Just Another Weed? Or Beautiful Butterfly Magnet? Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Thank You, Ranger Ted

It's funny what things from your childhood stay with you. You never know what experience will have a lifelong impact or what may shape your future. You may not know it at the moment it occurs, but some encounters can be profound. It was like this with Ranger Ted.

I grew up in Salt Lake City, and at Wasatch Elementary School, where I attended, we would occasionally have special visitors and performances for the whole school. We were very fortunate to have several visits from the world-class Utah Symphony during my K-6 years. We had ballet and modern dancers and puppet shows. One year, a charismatic U.S. Congressman from our district, Wayne Owens, came and talked to us about how he walked across the entire state during a recent campaign. But for me (and no offense meant to my mother-in-law, Carol, who played cello in the Symphony), the best visits were from Ranger Ted. I remember them as happening every year, but it could have been less frequent. After all, he was just one man, and there were many elementary schools to visit. But I get ahead of myself.

Ranger Ted was a Park Ranger from Yellowstone National Park, and he would visit our school to tell us about the wonders of Yellowstone.  He had a nice face and a short, silver, hair. But there was a little edge to him. When he showed up in his full park service uniform and Smokey The Bear hat, he had a commanding presence, not unlike a military drill sergeant. We did not misbehave around Ranger Ted. But it didn't hurt that he was so fun to listen to.

He would show up with a slide carousel and he would talk to us about the wonders of the park while flipping through the slides. We learned about the geysers, the sulphur springs, the mud pots, the Yellowstone Lodge and the animals. We laughed when a slide came through that was upside down and we all wished that we could be present when the Steamboat Geyser went off because it wasn't "Old Faithful" and it might be as long as 50 years between eruptions! He knew how to grab the interest of a kid--talk about the scary, exciting and gross things. Every visit from Ranger Ted had to include a stern warning about being careful around the boiling mudpots and hot pools, and what happened to the children who didn't listen and ran and tripped and...disaster. Or the child who reached into a hot spring and when she pulled her arm out... Gasp!

And then there were the bears. He told stories of the dumb tourists who got out of their cars to take pictures of the grizzly bears walking in the roads. The really stupid ones waved food to attract the bears. And...bye bye tourists! We learned about the bison that could get angry and charge a car, spearing it with their sharp horns, and of moose that could stomp you to death. And he would wrap up every visit by bringing out a baggy and he would explain to us that the stuff inside was called "scat". Bear poo. He would not allow us to dissolve into hysterics over having a ranger showing us bear poo. We had to be scientific and mature about it. And then we examined the scat to see what bears eat. Then he would tell us what happens to a bear when it learns that people have food--about how it may become too familiar with people and maybe even hurt someone, and then the bear would have to be killed. We learned that our actions had consequences, not just to ourselves, but to the natural world.

It all seemed so breathtakingly dangerous and beautiful. In my imagination, a trip to Yellowstone meant watchful walking on precarious pathways and flirting with disaster at every turn. But I really wanted to go to go there to see this wondrous place for myself. He was good at his job, old Ranger Ted.

Salt Lake is close enough to Yellowstone that there was a fairly good chance that the kids would have been there with their families. Many of my classmates had. I didn't get there until middle school. But after listening to Ranger Ted, I was prepared. Years later, when I brought my own kids to Yellowstone, I was sure to tell them not to fall into the boiling mud pots, and not to plunge their arms into the steaming water. We saw a grizzly bear and did not get out the car to feed it, and tsked knowingly at the foolish people around us getting out of their cars in order to get a good photo of a bison.

One time when I was about 20 years old, I was in the Utah State Capitol building and saw Ranger Ted walking by in his ranger uniform and hat. It had been years since I'd seen one of his talks, or since I'd even thought about him. But when I saw him I was so star struck that I couldn't bring myself to even go over and say hello. I often wish I had. And I wish I could talk to him now and tell him what I do now and how often I think about his visits to my school when I was a kid. I wish he could see me talking to a group of school children about alligator nests or butterfly metamorphosis, leading a wildflower walk, or catching a lizard, and he could see how much impact he had on my life. I'd tell him that for years I grappled with what I wanted to be, and that finally, I figured it out. I wanted to be Ranger Ted.

Volunteer Ranger Katherine
This week I was telling my, now adult, daughter about my memories of Ranger Ted, and I realized that I could Google him and find out more about him. I learned that his name was Ted Parkinson and that he was a professor of conservation and natural history at BYU and a seasonal park naturalist and ranger at Yellowstone, where he led nature walks and taught conservation workshops at the Yellowstone Institute. He served in China-Burma-India in WWII, which may have accounted for his commanding presence. During the school year, he visited schools, sometimes doing 10 presentations a day, for 36 years. He believed that teaching children about environmental awareness was very important. After 40 plus years, my memories about the specifics of his presentations to my school are a little foggy. He probably told us a lot more than the sensational parts I remember best. But what I know I do remember is his fundamental message, that nature is worth caring about. And this has stayed with my all these years. This was his mission. In his words, "As we learn things they become a part of our lives. That is why when you leave I will always be in your mind." I learned that he died in 2004 at age 87, a cultural institution in Yellowstone and in the Utah public schools. And he will always be in my mind.