A Squirrel Forever


Book Review: A Squirrel Forever by Douglas Fairbairn

Every now and then you pick up one of those books you just can’t put down. A Squirrel Forever is one. When I first saw the cover and the title I did not expect more than a lot of information about how to keep a squirrel as a pet. Since I love the little creatures I signed for the book. Yes, that information is very prevalent in the book, but it has a surprising number of other events as well. I did not think I’d be reading about the place where Frank Sinatra was making a movie, or a home where an ocelot was found in the backyard. And that is just a couple of incidents. In addition to fascinating descriptions of his relation with Chippy the squirrel, Douglas Fairbairn goes into the issues of his own life and collisions with other animals and humans on his property. The book is non-fiction and provides numerous details about wildlife interactions with humans, yet reads like a fascinating novel. Whether or not you have a passion for squirrels I believe you will find A Squirrel Forever surprisingly entertaining. Like many other great books I’ve read I found this one in the library at Fort Lewis. Written in 1973 but you can still find it on Amazon. Douglas Fairbairn has passed away but God bless him for this book.

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Reptiles and Amphibians of Mount Rainier

Here are a few examples of the herps you can find around MT Rainier National Park. Note the tiny tail on the Tailed Frog. That “tail” is actually a mail tool for mating. The small Western Toad jumped right off the trail in front of me and ended up clinging to a tree stump. Cascades Frogs are very common but easy to miss thanks to their coloration. The Puget Sound Garter Snake is just one type that shows up in this area. I am sure there are other frogs and snakes, plus lizards and salamanders, somewhere in the park, but I have not seen them yet. So I’ll keep looking and let you know.

Thousands of people visit and hike in the Mount Rainier National park every year. Mammals and birds are the most common wildlife sightings there. They are the animals most expect to see, and are the ones most advertised in the park documents and stores. Yet there are some other common animals not much noticed or talked about – the herpetological species. Why is that? Well, as I stated before the mammals and birds dominate Mount Rainier documents and photographs. And for serious hikers and beginners the magnificent mountain and cliff sceneries naturally attract attention. Plus, many of the hiking trails are quite rocky and covered with “spaghetti roots” that demand attention for your safety. Yep, I’ve been there and done that many times. But stopping from time to time and letting your eyes focus on the small streams and wooded areas right alongside your trail will often lead to other pleasant wildlife surprises. Garter snakes are everywhere in Washington State and they show up in many unexpected locations around Mount Rainier. You will find them in the lower elevation trails.  At these lower elevations and even ones much higher you also find a lot of amphibians. A couple of thousand feet up I have found Cascades Frogs and the unusual Tailed Frog. According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, Tailed Frogs live in cool mountain habitats, and Cascades Frogs live even above 3,000 feet. My observations align with that, but at an elevation of about 2,000 feet I was surprised to also discover small Western Toads. These toads are normally found at much lower levels. There are of course Bull Frogs to be found and heard in the lower level ponds.

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Some Interesting Squirrels

Time to share pictures of a few of our NW squirrel friends before they disappear for the winter. Douglas’s Squirrel is in the family of tree squirrels, and are significantly smaller than Gray Squirrels. Notice how that black stripe separates its orange belly from its gray back. Way up, but not spending time in trees is a ground squirrel called the Cascade Golden-Mantled ground squirrel. You can see dozens of them while hiking up around Mount Rainier. One may even join you for lunch! Going back down to the ground level you will sometimes run into a much bigger squirrel – a Yellow Bellied Marmot. Go back up in the mountains and you’ll see an even bigger member of the squirrel family – the Hoary Marmot.

Winter is coming and our squirrel friends are very busy getting prepared for the cold season. Everyone has surely seen very common Gray Squirrels running around, so I thought to share some pictures of a few of our other NW species. Yes, marmots are part of the squirrel family, and all squirrels are classified as rodents thanks to their upper and lower incisor teeth that never stop growing. All rodents and squirrels, however, have different personalities and habitats. Here in the NW thanks to our numerous mountain terrains our squirrel friends vary from very low to very high altitudes. I’m sure that just about anyone who has been hiking in the Mount Rainier National Park, especially, up near the Paradise Inn has seen the Hoary Marmots. There is a location up there with so many of them I call it “Marmot Hill.” If you’ve been there you have probably heard them, too. They often make so much noise they have earned the nickname “Whistle Pigs.” Although these marmots are very much in view they prefer to keep a distance from us humans.  But there is another squirrel in the park’s higher elevation that gets very friendly and thankful to us. Cascade Ground Squirrels will even take treats right from your fingers. Yes, I know you are not supposed to feed animals in the wild but it is very hard to resist when the little guys come right up to you when you are taking your hiking lunch break.

            Drop down to a much lower elevations and you will see a pair of squirrels similar in appearance to their higher up relatives. The Yellow Bellied Marmot gets its common name for an obvious characteristic that makes it easy to identify. They are intense burrowers and do not prefer life up in the mountains. In fact, the location where I first saw a Yellow Bellied Marmot surprised me. I was strolling alongside a river in a park just outside of Boise, ID, and one popped up in the grassy area right in front of me. Tree squirrels, of course, inhabit the lower elevation forested areas. Most of them are very common but some of the smaller species are sometimes hard to find. One day a certain tree squirrel showed up in a place where I did expect to find one. I had spent a long time wandering around a wooded area in the military post JBLM until I finally found the one known as Douglas’s Squirrel. The little guy was comfortably sitting on a tree branch and let me get pretty close.

If you are interested in the squirrels that inhabit our territory and want to know how to identify them, I highly recommend this book:

“Squirrels of the West” by Tamara Hartson (a Lone Pine Field Guide)

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Book Review: How to Know the Spiders by B.J. Kaston

BLUF: This is the best book about the arachnids that I have ever read. I’ve gone into quite a few books on this topic but never have I come across one so detailed in spider anatomy, behavior, and habitats. The anatomical details are incredible and serve as a perfect source for spider identification. Most public references give you a general description of body parts but B.J. Kaston goes much further. Just about all of us know the basics of spider legs, cephalothorax, chelicera, pedipalps, and abdomens but did you know that there are many more body parts identified within those body parts? And did you know about the “balloon spiders” that create a web deigned to be caught by the wind so that they can fly away to a new location? That was news to me. Reading this book you will learn and see the vast number of spider species and sub species, and you will learn exactly how to identify them. I very much like the description of various spider web types and locations. This, too, is an extremely useful tool for spider identification. Why did I get so excited about these animals to begin with? Because there are so many of them everywhere! Yes, we all are familiar with the abundance of spider webs around our homes. Many, of course, are the “orb weavers” who create those big circular webs hanging around trees. But walk out around your property after a light rain or misty morning and you will see hundreds of webs from ground to trees and in between rocks. Go hiking and you will see them alongside ponds and creeks, find them under logs and rocks, and see them on top of tiny flowers. B.J. Kaston delves into this and explains the species. He also explains how to capture and raise them as pets. And he recommends a very easy, yet fascinating thing to do – go out at night with a flashlight. I did it, and B.J. was right. Several times I discovered bright shining arachnid eyes staring back at me!

            I hope you are able to find this book. I found my copy in a library. B.J. Kaston’s books are on Amazon, but the one I am referring to, the 3rd edition, is no longer available for some reason. A much earlier edition from 1953 is there. I have not read that one.

Save Your Pacific Tree Frogs!

A couple of pictures showing the way my Pacific tree frogs adapted to the Yellow Flag Iris plant that took over the pond. Before this plant took over, the pond was a very open sight that I loved. But in a couple of years all I saw in there were bullfrogs. Then somehow, the Yellow Flag Iris quickly took over. Now I see Pacific Tree Frogs again. That plant the tree frogs enjoy are, like bullfrogs, considered “invasive.” Coming originally from Ireland they have also invaded Home Depot and Lowes. 

This article is just an opinion, but it is based on what I have closely observed. When I bought the property where I now live I saw numerous native frog and salamander species. As our home was being constructed we dug and built three different types of ponds. One large one in the backyard for koi and goldfish, and two others for native species of any kind. The very small one in front of our home remains great for salamanders. Only about four square feet in width and 6 inches deep it has constantly attracted them. On the other side of our backyard fence, in the extended property, we had a large ditch dug in. About 15 feet wide and 4 to 5 deep it fills up from normal drainage coming down the slope of the Graham, WA territory. Within the last couple of years, however, the native frogs have disappeared. Bullfrogs had taken over the big ponds and I suspect that they had been wiping our native species. But recently I noticed quite a few pacific tree frogs hanging on the limbs of the explosive plant in our big pond outside the fence. For the past two years I was only able to see and hear bullfrogs. Now the Pacific tree frogs have returned! Is it because of that plant called “Yellow flag Iris?” It looks like that to me because this vegetation has taken over the pond as you can see from the above picture, and has provided a significant safe habitat for the tree frogs. I do not even hear bullfrogs now. So if you have a similar bullfrog issue in your pond, maybe the introduction of a Yellow Flag Iris plant will help. Bullfrogs in the northwest, by the way, are referred to as “invasive species.” But they are not invasive. Like the vast majority of so called invasive species they are actually “Introduced species” brought in by humans.  Many years ago bull frogs were introduced for “frog leg” dinners. Those days are over, and now bullfrogs are enjoying a lot of their own preferred meals instead. I like bullfrogs despite the fact that their territorial takeover is still going on, but I love observing other species of amphibians so I am doing what I can to preserve them on my property.

Black Bobcat!

I photographed the the normal colored bobcat sitting on a tree branch at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. It displays the tree climbing behavior these animals do. The amazing Black Bobcat in the other pictures approached me near a forrest area as I was eating lunch so I was able to get those photos. According to a study done by the Canadian Museum there have only been about 20 sightings of these carnivores in Canada and America. So I consider myself VERY lucky!

I never go to a restaurant for lunch. I bring a homemade sandwich with me and dine in my car in various places close to forests, swamps, and things. Why? Because you never know when some amazing creature will show up. If you love wildlife as much as I do, you keep your camera ready at all times. And this wonderful circumstance occurred to me at Fort Lewis, WA. Over and over there I’ve seen deer, elk, coyotes, rabbits, otters, beavers, all kinds of birds and reptiles. But as I was sitting in my truck munching on my sandwich last week a very unusual looking animal some distance away began approaching me. From the distance as I first saw it, the animal looked like a very small black bear. So of course, I grabbed my camera and began taking shots. Before I even looked at my pictures, however, the thing got close enough for me to realize that it was a bobcat. But I had never seen one so large and distinctly colored. I estimated its weight at 40 pounds or more. Even more astounding was the pure black fur coat it displayed. Something else I’d never seen before. These cats are normally brown or reddish brown and tend to be nocturnal, but day time sightings are not unusual. This black variation, however, also known as the Melanistic Bobcat, is quite rare. Like the “normal” colored bobcat the melanistic variety eats rodents and rabbits, and is also reported to attack deer. Considering the size of this cat I believe this is true.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

Here is an example of the color variations of our Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. The light brown specimen was found in the open part of the Bear Canyon Trailhead Park. It seemed to prefer a fairly open area. The one with the dark spots was sighted off the highway very close to the Yakima Training Center. This snake and several others were seen in an area more densely populated by weeds and brushes.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus)

Our overdue warmer weather is bringing out some of my favorite animals near one of my favorite WA cities – Yakima. Off of highway 12 is a state park called the Bear Canyon Trailhead. In addition to hiking along a trail of amazing landscape, you can find a variety of fascinating animals. The two that I usually find are the Western Fence Lizard and the Northwestern Pacific Rattlesnake. Warmer weather, of course, is the primary influence for sightings, but sometimes thing happen that you don’t expect. I was driving back from Oregon the other day and the temperature was 57 degrees with intense wind. But the sun was shining so I decided to stop. After wandering around for a while I did not see anything so I decided to head back to my car. Then, just in case and maybe, maybe, maybe, I wandered a little more. And much to my delight this Northern Pacific Rattlesnake crawled out in front of me. I’ve run into venomous snakes throughout America and other parts of the world, but none of them are as easy to deal with as our Northern Pacific Rattlesnake. They are well known for their non-aggressive behavior and this one followed that reputation. He was less than twelve inches away from my foot and easily could have bitten me, but all he did was crawl quickly away and hide under a big rock. Perhaps the low temperature had something to do with that but the other ones I encountered in much warmer weather reacted in very similar manner. No, that does not mean you should not be careful around them. Keep an eye on the ground when you hike around the dryer parts of this state. Stepping on one might just ruin their day yours. If you do find one expect it to crawl quickly away and begin rattling a warning for you to stay away. If you excessively agitate these reptiles, however, they will react like their cousins and bite you. So don’t do that.

Alaskan Wood Frog

These photos highlight the distinct characteristics of a wood frog. Their small, 2-3 inch length, pops up in my hand. On their back they have a lateral fold like many other frog species. The most distinctive point for recognition is that black marking on the side their face.

I’ve been in and out of Alaska quite a few times over the last few years but I finally got a picture I’ve been trying to get for those years – the Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvatica). This little guy jumped in front of me as I was meandering in the woods following a moose trail along a place called Cambell Creek outside of Anchorage. With a range extending from beyond the Arctic Circle throughout Alaska, Canada, the Northwest US, and all the way to the northern part of Georgia these small frogs have a huge habitat. But the most exciting thing about their living space is how far north they can go. Wood frogs live further north than any other amphibian or reptile. Why? Because of their famous ability to survive freezing. Even above the arctic circle they do not dig way down in mud during winter hibernation. Nope. All they do is snuggle under a log, heavy leaves, or something similar. Prior to this, however, they fill their body cells with a lot of glucose thus causing ice to form outside of their cells and not destroying them. Their heart stops but when the weather warms these amazing frogs come back to life, and start breeding in early spring. For more details on this amphibian visit the website of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Turtle Time!

The Western Pond Turtle was photographed at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. I’ve not seen one in the wild yet. Next to it are a pair of sliders, also known as Red Eared Sliders. Looking at the picture it is obviously where that name common comes from. Then you have the very colorful Painted Turtle. That name comes from the brilliant ventral part of its shell. Notice also the much smoother texture of the dorsal part of the Painted Turtle shell compared to the others, and the reddish color that begins on the bottom part of the shell dorsal. Although I have read that snapping turtles have also “invaded” the Northwest, I’ve not yet found one.

Okay! Now that we are finally approaching some warmer weather here in the Northwest keep an eye out for the animal that is just about everyone’s favorite reptile – the turtle. Classified as the order Testudines, there are 12 families of them living in the world, 7 of which extend into Canada and the Unites States. Of these, however, just 2 species are native to our Northwestern states. A couple of others have been introduced; one of which is very likely to be seen. Unfortunately, one of our native species, the Western Pond Turtle, is the least likely to be observed. Reasons for this may be due to the invasive Testudines (Red Eared Slider and Snapping Turtle) and the expanding human population. In my experience this has not had much affect, however, on our native Painted Turtle. This species remain quite common in our ponds and lakes. But the turtle you will probably see the most of is the Slider. Like many other “invasive” species it is a very common pet shop pet. Over and over on Craiglist I see offers for these turtles. Growing up in New York I saw lots of sliders and I was quite surprised at how big they get, sprouting up shells well over one foot in diameter. This is probably the reason so many of them appear as free pets on Craglist. I don’t recommend taking one of these unless you have a very large aquarium or an outdoor pond with the muddy exterior they need for winter hibernation. No matter how common any of these reptiles are there is one thing to keep in mind when trying to observe or photograph them – they are extremely wary and often dive into the water when you are within fifty feet. All of the pictures I have achieved are due to the long range lens on my camera.

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Thank You

Bald Eagle Feast


I had to share this picture of a pair of bald eagles. It’s the best one I have ever taken of this species, and it appears to display a unique behavior. Is this dad showing his child what to eat? The bird tearing into what appears to be the carcass of a rabbit is obviously a big male bald eagle. Staring at him in amazement is what appears to be a young bald eagle. How could this be? Because bald eagles mate for life and work together to raise their young ones. Even after they learn to fly the kids stay around the parents for a month or longer afterward. Perhaps that is what’s going on here. I noticed these birds while my wife and I took a nice walk along the Puyallup River near Orting, WA. We see bald eagles there quite often, but not like this.