Amphibian Eggs

Checked a bunch of ponds for amphibian eggs yesterday. Here are some photos of what we found. Check the caption and click on the photos to enlarge.

In addition to frog eggs, we also found newt eggs.

newt eggs DSC_0236[1]

We even found one fresh batch of California Tiger Salamander eggs.

CTS eggs IMG_4769

California tiger salamander eggs. Note the nucleus in this backlit photo.





A Time to Speak

Much of my most serious time in the woods is done while hunting. That’s when I’m as quiet as possible. Often that is so quiet that a stick rubbing against my cap makes me jump.

Sometimes the woods are so quite that I stop and notice wheezing emanating from my own lungs or the pounding of my own heart.

The sounds of my trousers rubbing against brush or the snap of a twig, are not foreign to the woods. They could be produced by a number of critters or physical events.

On occasions, I have been so silent in the woods that special things have happened.

A little over 35 years ago I arose early during an archery back-pack deer hunt on a mountain in the California coast range. It was August and the trails were covered in two or three inches of dust. At first light, I moved cautiously and slowly along one such dust-covered trail not far from the top of a ridge that led to the mountain top.

The area was perfect deer habitat and I was feeling optimistic as everything seemed to be falling into place and the possibility of sneaking up on a buck was quite real.

Then a deer snorted from about 75 yards away uphill from me. “How could he have smelled me?” was my first thought.

Then another deer snorted and I heard it run off.

“So close, ” I thought to myself, not knowing what could have gone wrong.

I remained absolutely still as I stared up towards the ridge top.

I was standing in slight depression created by a minor drainage. The drainage led directly up the hill and my line of sight while watching was directly up said depression.

Then I caught movement about fifty yards up the hill. Something was coming down the drainage. It was a lion, a male lion with a very square head. He was lying low, but moving fairly quickly. I had little time to react before he would be right on top of me.

Obviously he had no idea I was there. Within seconds he was only 20 yards from me and still coming in a silent, slinking but ground-covering way.

I could only react. “That’s close enough pussy cat,” I heard myself say.

Stupid? Maybe, but that’s what I said.

In a flash the cat was out of sight. He covered the 10 yards between him and the closest thicket in almost no time at all. I never saw him again and I was thankful for that – except that the minute he went out of sight, I was somewhat terrified because I had no idea what he was doing.

I moved down the trail expeditiously and I believe he did the same. Neither of us wanted to become better acquainted.

Now, more than 30 years after that event, it is clear to me that the human voice is a valuable defence mechanism. Virtually all wild animals that live with humans are afraid of them. Sometimes our best defense is the sound of our own voice.




Conservation Versus Conservation



This great mallard habitat on Sherman Island is no more.

Our duck club, on Sherman Island in the California Delta, was some of the greatest seasonal marsh on earth. In winter, ducks, geese, shore birds, raptors, river otters, beavers, muskrats and many more critters thrived in that habitat.

It was great hunting.

After the California Department of Water Resources purchased the duck club from us, we continued to manage the property as a seasonal marsh. Then California decided that the property needed to be turned into a conservation experiment.

The primary goals were to reduce subsidence and sequester carbon. This was a prototype project. Unfortunately, the goals of the experiment conflicted with the existing use.

In order to test the hypothesis, the existing seasonal marsh would have to be replaced by permanent ponds.

DSC_0056 ducks

Our Sherman Island duck club was converted from seasonal to permanent marsh. It is no longer managed for waterfowl.

Having sold the property to the State, we were in no position to oppose the program. The rest is history. Although ducks and geese still migrate to Sherman Island, they avoid the permanent marsh in favor of the remaining shallow-flooded pasture that surrounds the property we used to own.

It’s easy to see the effects to waterfowl when you observe our property. It’s more difficult to quantify the effects this change had on the California waterfowl population, but when combined with other similar projects, it could be substantial. We’ll never know.

This was a situation where one form of conservation conflicted directly with another.

Conservation comes in many forms and we see conservation activities frequently, but underlying conflicts are usually invisible except to specialists who manage wildlife or wildlife habitat.

Ongoing are changes to wildlife preserves and refuges on public lands. Where lands are dedicated simply to wildlife, there is competition between thriving species and threatened species. Should endangered or threatened status always trump thriving or common?

Where land is purchased for and dedicated to a certain species or group of species, one would expect management of that land to be managed for that species. Is that always the case?

Take, for example, land purchased with Federal or State Duck Stamp money. Duck stamp funds are raised by our government agencies specifically to purchase habitat for migratory waterfowl. Hunters purchase these stamps with hopes that there will always be waterfowl to hunt.

California has a long list of threatened, endangered and special-concern plants and animals. What is the ultimate “trump” species? Can habitat for a threatened species displace waterfowl habitat on dedicated land?

garter snake on log

Sometimes habitat is designed by the forces of nature. Other times man redesigns land to favor one species or another.

Habitat can be converted by applying water. Timing of the water application is crucial. When water floods fields in winter and is left to dry during the spring, the habitat favors migratory birds. When farmers use water to irrigate, farming can create food for many species including waterfowl.

When land is flooded and water covers the land during spring and/or summer, it is beneficial for numerous species and sometimes waterfowl can nest there, but usually not.

When land is permanently flooded, it favors primarily fish species but there is little food to attract waterfowl, especially dabbling ducks.

We must not kid ourselves about permanent marsh. It may attract golf course Canada geese, but it is not important to migratory waterfowl.

It would be nice to think that conservation always benefits all things, but it’s not that simple.

Lola and the Bald Eagle


When the bald eagle (above) attempted to steal a ground squirrel from the golden eagle in the second and third photos, it became an aerial battle.

Yesterday, I feared I’d be seeing another, more personal battle – over a teal that I had just shot. As my retriever, Lola, approached the downed bird, my hunting partner, Tom Billingsley, uttered the words, “Bald eagle,” as he looked upward.

Sure enough a bald eagle had just passed overhead flying in Lola’s direction. It was an eagle we had seen many times in the past. As the bird dropped lower and circled Lola with the dead green-wing teal,  I felt some trepidation.

My next thought was that Lola would probably just give the bird up, but what if she didn’t? I was thinking about firing a shot into the air to scare the eagle away.

Then a pair of teal flew past and I fired at the birds twice. One of them seemed to be wounded and the eagle immediately took up the chase, leaving Lola to retrieve the dead bird that lay in the water at her feet.

IMG_0022 Lola teal by Joe

Photo by Joe DiDonato


I was happy to have my dog back unharmed.

No kidding.

Aleutian Geese Arrive

Spent most of yesterday at Mayberry Farms on Sherman Island. I’m refurbishing my Airstream trailer and the repair job is progressing. During the afternoon heat, I stepped out of the trailer often to cool down.

Overhead geese were calling. It was the sound of Aleutian geese.

Being early in fall, I was taken by surprise. But, after reviewing some material on the internet I now realize they were actually right on time. It is normal for them to arrive in the San Joaquin Valley during early October. Yesterday their migration flight took thousands of them over the top of Sherman Island.

They just kept coming. String after string of geese. It was a sight to see.

Although a few geese flew lower than most, it appeared that they all overflew Sherman Island, but they will be back.

When the Delta corn crop is harvested, they will return to feast on the spillage left by farmers. That will be some time during the months of November and December.

Are There Wolves in Devil’s Garden?

The Gray Wolf population in Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon  has increased to the point that they are no longer listed. In both these areas wolves are now being managed to limit livestock loses.

Both Oregon and Washington maintain web sites providing the public with information about wolf activity.

Washington Update:

Oregon Update:

California now has at least two breeding pairs of wolves. You can read about them here:

Last June a wolf ran across the highway in front of me while I was driving home from a fishing trip near Lake Almanor. Now we have reports about a breeding pair in that area, so my sighting was not surprising.

It is also not surprising that two wolves tried to run down three bucks I was stalking last week. It happened right in front of me.

It was day two of the 2017 archery deer season in the Devil’s Garden when I decided to hunt a particular spot believing that a buck would show up.

More so than in most places, mule deer bucks in the garden tend to have favorite hangouts and I thought I may have found one.

Leaving my car parked about a mile from the location I was hunting, I started out about 3:00 PM. Walking slowly, I was cautious about making noise or spreading my scent. The wind was blowing up the canyon and I knew that the wind shift would take place some time in the early evening and after that it would steady out. So, with luck, I might have a chance for a stalk without the bucks detecting me.

At a range of about 700 yards from the area I expected that bucks to show, I sat down wearing my guilly-suit that made me very had to pick out. A black cow walked up the draw and when she was about to step on me, I spoke to her and she looked at me quizzically. Then she made her move around me and continued on her way.

While glassing the ridge-line where I expected a buck to come from, two deer appeared – both small bucks. I was pleased to see some action and got up to close the distance between me and them to about 530 yards. There I sat against a tree stump and studied the bucks.

A third buck appeared and apparently it had been there the entire time. It was a big buck and was turning gray. Now I was excited because this third buck was the kind of deer everybody wants a shot at. He appeared to be about 25 inches wide, tall and four by four. But he stayed in the shadows and mostly behind a patch of timber that blocked my view while the two younger bucks remained mostly visible.

The wind did not show any signs of shifting, so I remained at this position for about a half hour while monitoring wind direction.

Without any warning, what first appeared to be two gray coyotes, came charging at the deer that were up wind of them. However it didn’t take long to figure out that these two canines were not behaving like coyotes.

In case you don’t know, I’ll tell you that coyotes and mature mule deer coexist very well with each other. On occasion a buck will become nervous around a coyote, but coyotes weight about 30 pounds which is approximately a quarter the weight of a mature mule deer buck.

A typical encounter between a coyote and a mule deer buck would be that the coyote would hardly pay any attention to the buck. The dog typically would sniff around looking for ground squirrels or voles without showing any interest in the deer.

The buck might face off with the coyote and make sure it doesn’t cause him trouble, but it would hardly run away. Does with young fawns may run from a coyote, but typically they only do that to lure the coyote away from their fawn.

So, back to the wolves. They charged at the buck trotting at attack speed. (I’ve never seen a coyote trot.) They were on a laser path to the bucks when they disappeared from sight at the edge of the small timber patch where the deer were feeding.

For a moment, there was no indication of what was going on. Then the bucks busted out  of the timber at the down-wind side. They were running as fast as a buck can run. They climbed to the top of the small ridge and disappeared in seconds.

Bucks don’t run from coyotes.

I didn’t say anything about wolves for a couple of days. Then a coyote crossed the road in front of me at about 30 yards. He was dinky. That’s when I decided my story was definitive.

The first wolf was coyote colored, but it had short hair. I’ve never seen a short-haired coyote. Maybe scraggly, but not short-haired. The following wolf was slightly smaller than the lead wolf, but its coat was long very similar to most coyotes.

A follow-up phone call verified that two wolves had been sighted in the garden recently, just a few miles from where I saw them.

Wolves are not longer just a thought or a vision in California or Devil’s Garden. They are part of our lives. Forever.










The Boss

On the next-to-last evening of the hunt, my cousin Wes and I were sitting in camp and something landed in a large yellow pine above us. The critter was obviously a large bird and it began to chirp loudly.

Before long we figured out that it was a bald eagle and it was giving another eagle a bad time. When the other eagle left, the mature “boss” bird stuck around for a longer visit.

On the last trip out of the campground with my cargo trailer in tow, the eagle appeared again and landed on a large branch of a close-by yellow pine. I was fortunate to snap a few shots of the magnificent animal.