I have spent the last couple of posts talking exclusively about condors (because they are so awesome) but there are many other animals that live on the refuges as well. I have had many cool wildlife encounters while tracking condors and here I will share my experiences with these critters and shed a little light on their natural histories.
The very first night of my first hitch while walking back from the condor flight pen, we came across a fuzzy, springy little rodent called a kangaroo rat. These adorable little rodents are found throughout the American Southwest. They get their name from their bipedal posture and their habit of hopping around the landscape in a similar manner as the iconic Australian marsupial. There are currently about two dozen species and subspecies in the genus Dipodomys (though the taxonomy has changed considerably over the years) and some species are listed as endangered. There are many species in California, with many being found in only very small localities, and sometimes only a trained mammologist would be able to identify the tiny differences in morphology that distinguish the different species. K-rats are rarely seen above ground during the day, but at night they emerge in search of food, and can be quite bold and curious. As I bent down to snap this picture, the little guy darted right between my legs!
The largest mammal on the refuge shares a similar conservation story to the condor. Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) very nearly went extinct in the 19th Century until a single cattle rancher named Henry Miller discovered the last few remaining individuals on his property in 1870 and decided to protect them from hunting. This action alone saved the tule elk and today there are a few thousand species ranging throughout the grasslands of California. Historically, dead elk were likely one of the main food items of condors in California so their continued survival is beneficial to our program.
In the month of October, there was a mass emergence of an interesting fuzzy creature throughout the refuge- one of the eight-legged kind. Male tarantulas emerge from their burrows to seek out females in the Fall and could often be seen sauntering across the ground in search of love. However, as the month of October came to an end, they disappeared during the day to return to their normal non-breeding nocturnal lifestyle. They are docile, harmless arachnids and I often let them crawl across my hand when I encountered them.
Before starting my job working at the Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge Complex, I had never seen a wild bobcat. Four months in and my total has risen to over ten. I usually catch fleeting glimpses of them while driving down the road. However, there was one instance when I was out tracking birds at Bitter Creek when I looked down and saw what I thought at first was a friendly house cat walking up to greet me. I quickly realized that this was a fully wild young bobcat approaching me without a care in the world! It casually strolled right up to me, sitting down lazily only six feet away from where I was standing. After a few minutes, the cat got up and walked away into the bushes. This was one of my more memorable wildlife moments I’ve had over the last couple years.
I have seen several species of reptile while on the job but the most strikingly colorful has to be the California kingsnake (Lampropeltis californiae). These amazing serpents are ophiophagous, meaning they eat other snakes, and they are famous for their habit of feasting on rattlesnakes. One day I found a neonate (baby) snake while hiking to one of the nest sites at Hopper with another intern. I quickly grabbed it as it coiled up into an adorably menacing “S” posture and violently lunged at me repeatedly. After a few seconds of handling the snake calmed down and I was able to get some pictures. Their black and white banding pattern is absolutely stunning, and it’s interesting to think about how this snake evolved to have this kind of coloration. Other species of kingsnake are brightly colored, often with red, yellow, and black bands to mimic venomous coral snakes, but there are no coral snakes in California. There have been many studies on the evolution of these patterns and the underlying processes behind the evolution and loss of bright colors in kingsnakes and their relatives across the New World. It is now known that these patterns have emerged and disappeared multiple times over evolutionary time in response to speciation, changes in distribution of coral snakes, and other genetic factors. For a technical description of some of these evolutionary processes, please see the 2016 study by Davis-Rabosky et al.
Perhaps the most impressive bird (after the condor) on the refuges is the golden eagle. They are the second biggest birds in the area and sometimes can easily be mistaken for a condor when seen soaring far away. Unlike the condors, they are efficient hunters and can bring down prey larger than themselves. However, they are sometimes cause for concern for us during the condor nesting season, for they have been known to prey on nestlings. Thankfully this is a rare occurrence and we just remain vigilant at all of our nest observations. One day after I set out a calf carcass at one of our feeding sites, I returned to observe if any condors were feeding. I saw three large birds sitting around the calf and I assumed they were my target species. However, when I looked through my scope I found that it was three golden eagles. Although eagles usually kill their own prey, they will gladly take advantage of a free meal. I was both excited to see them and annoyed that they had stolen the food meant for the condors.
The final animal I would like to introduce I have not yet directly seen but I have come across signs of it. Black bears (Ursus americanus) are not uncommon in the area and I have come across steaming piles of scat on my treks through the mountains. They are potentially dangerous but for the most part they will flee from you as quickly as they can if you come across them. Some of my coworkers have encountered them with absolutely no incidents. However it’s a good idea to make noise to alert them of your presence from far away. For precaution while hiking by myself, I often clap my hands, call out, “Hey bear!”, or if I’m feeling particularly musical, sing to myself. Bears are an important part of the ecosystem and as long as they are treated with respect and caution, one need not be too worried about having an encounter with one.
All of these animals play valuable roles in the ecosystems of Southern California. Although the two refuges were established primarily for the conservation of the California condor, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s objective is to keep these ecosystems healthy as a whole and ensure the survival of all the plant and wildlife species that live on the refuges. Some of the staff biologists conduct population surveys on these animals and propose management strategies that will be in the best interest of these species. It’s always exciting to have encounters with wildlife, and the conservation measures employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other local agencies ensures the survival of the critters of Condor Country.