Monday, February 29, 2016

Owl-fred Returns

Last winter Casey and I discovered we had a lot of boreal owl activity in the woods around our house, prompting me to secure a taylor made nest box halfway up a spruce tree within viewing distance of our living room window. Several days after installment I climbed up the tree to have a peak inside and found evidence of use, and by March we had confirmed sightings of a boreal owl pair nesting in the box. The pair became known as Owlfred and Owlberta. While Owlberta was often seen poking her head out the entrance hole, and Owlfred was spotted on a few occasions making food deliveries at dusk, we had no idea what was actually going on inside the box. We never confirmed whether the pair managed to fledge any chicks last season, or if they even had any eggs in the first place.

To address this issue, we decided to give the nest box an upgrade this season, and fixed an infrared spy-cam to the ceiling of the box. I routed the 100 feet of audio and video cable through a window in our living room up to the television, and made a custom "Owl Switch" with a red light to indicate when the cam is on or off. This gives us 24 hour access to what's happening inside the box, and for the past month it's been a whole lot of nothing. We've watched the configuration of leaves and sticks in the box shuffle around, adding to the assumption that something had been rustling around in there, but for what has felt like a very long time we've seen nothing. That all changed last night.

Casey flipped on the Owl Switch during a midnight pee run and sure enough, Owlfred had returned. The tips of his primaries and tail obscured half of the box, and he was calling. This meant that Owlfred was perched at the entrance facing out, broadcasting to potential mates that he had found a nice place to raise some chicks. To hear his calls, check out the brief video below.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Peak Aurora Season

I drove across to my favorite local clearing last night to photograph a brilliant although brief burst of northern lights early in the night. The days are finally getting longer again up here, we're gaining about seven minutes of light with each passing day, but there's still plenty of darkness around to catch these solar events.


Friday, February 5, 2016

Saying Goodbye to Reef

For me, writing can be a useful exercise in letting go. I thought it only fitting to say a few words about the late Reefer dog. You might want to grab some tissues. 

As most of you likely know by now, the beginning of 2016 marked the end of the greatest dog I've ever known. Reef was a constant source of support, companionship, and love throughout the majority of my twenties. Reef was my dog, raised as a puppy during my final years of college in Monterey. He used to sprawl out on the bench seat of my 1970 El Camino on drives to work, the beach, the store, friends houses, and pubs; he went everywhere I went. While about on the town, people always used to look at his massive puppy paws and tell me "he's gonna be a biiiiig dog!", and they were right. He was a giant. As he grew older he became a dog I had complete trust in. I've spent the last 9 years making sure that dog lived a good a life. His presence motivated me to get out and explore, if only just for a walk around the block. Now that he's gone, I'm left with an empty feeling only time can heal. Turning 30 to me is just a number, but in a way, Reef's death marks the end of my twenties. 

In case you were wondering what exactly happened, here it is. While on the surface Reef appeared healthy, inside was apparently a different story. When Casey and I got home from holiday travels, we noticed that Reef wasn’t finishing his meals. He normally inhaled his food in seconds, so we knew something was up. While cuddling him on the floor, Casey noticed Reef's heart would beat extremely fast for a few minutes, slow a bit, then start beating fast again. We were worried he was showing early signs of congestive heart failure, so we took him to the vet the next morning. The vet agreed his heart was beating alarmingly fast, so we took chest x-rays and ran an EKG. His heart, although huge in size, looked perfectly normal. In fact the vet complemented him on how "beautiful" it was. Clinically, we were told, he wasn’t sick. He still seemed like the same old happy Reef. Of course, all of the vet techs loved him. He was always very popular at the vet’s office.

There was no way for us to know that Reef had a very small tumor growing on one of his adrenal glands. As we all know to well with cancer, it sometimes doesn't make itself apparent until it's too late. This tumor began putting pressure on his adrenal gland, forcing it to pump an excess amount of epinephrine into his blood stream. Essentially he was receiving intermittent heavy doses of adrenaline, causing his heart to race over 220 beats per minute. More than double the resting heart rate for a dog his size. Over the course of a few days, Reef went from not finishing his food, to completing refusing to eat. He began taking very shallow breaths, almost like he was panting, and his heart continued to race occasionally. We tried putting him on beta blockers to control his heart rate, but he did not respond well to them. He became very lethargic, barely able to walk. 

Based on his symptoms, the vet suspected he had this tumor, a condition known as Pheochromocytoma, and we were waiting on results from a urine analysis for confirmation. We were of course worried about Reef, the vet cautioned this condition could put a deadly strain on Reef’s heart, but we figured we had months, years even, not days. In retrospect, I was in complete denial about the whole thing, and didn’t allow myself to believe Reef was in danger. Before the test results had come in, and before we had any answers, on the morning on January 2nd, Reef took a turn for the worse. He didn’t seem well all morning, he was panting again, and he hadn’t eaten in days. Casey had gone off to school, and I was downstairs in the bathroom when I heard a suitable whimper from Reef, followed by a few quick choking sounds. I ran upstairs and found Reef outstretched on his bed. I put my hands on this abdomen, his entire body was violently quivering, and at that moment everything went still. I felt his final breath drain out as his heart suddenly went quiet. I didn’t know what to do, there was nothing I could do. He was gone. Just like that. Reef slipped away. 

The vet agreed to perform a necropsy on Reef to determine the cause of death. Taking him in, wrapped in his favorite blanket my Mom had made him, was not easy; despite the fact he was such a heavy dog. A few days later the vet had answers for us. The rapid beating of Reef’s heart made it inefficient at moving blood past his lungs and throughout his body. This explains the panting. He was effectively trying to catch his breath during the doses of adrenaline.  Over the course of several days, this poor circulation caused a build up of CO2 in his blood stream, lowering the pH and making his blood more acidic. His heart and other organs were likely healthy enough to keep up with this pattern for a while, but another complication developed.

Cytokines are a diverse group of proteins released into the bloodstream that do a variety of jobs related to cell signaling and immune response, including coagulation and clotting involved with repairing wounds. When the blood pH drops, certain anti-coagulation pathways become disrupted, causing an unregulated coagulation response by these cytokines. Essentially the blood becomes very sticky.  Ironically, although the sole purpose of the heart it to oxygenate the body, in dogs, only a few small arteries actually feed oxygenated blood to the heart. In the end, Reef threw a clot that plugged one of these arteries, causing some of the heart muscle to lose function. A massive hemorrhage developed as blood began to back up, and his heart eventually failed. The vet also discovered severe hemorrhaging in his liver, which likely developed shortly before his heart stopped.  

All that’s left of Reef now are his ashes, a paw print, a sample of fur, and countless memories. Casey and I plan to scatter his ashes in Big Sur next year. If there’s one thing Reef’s death has taught us, it’s that life is short and death is certain. Death comes unexpectedly, often without warning. We never got a chance to meet old man Reef, never got a chance to say goodbye. He died too young. I’ve put together a small memorial for Reefer, which sits next to his favorite chair in our house. It includes a picture of him at the beach, his collar and name tag, and the following passage:

Reef was born in the rugged hills of Big Sur California. Legend has it his he was part lab, part polar bear. His handsome black coat contrasted smartly with his white chest, chin, paws, and tip of tail, drawing attention wherever he went. Raised in a college home, he was a dog of the people. A familiar figure at parties, beach fires, surf sessions, and backpacking trips with friends. 

With a calm demeanor and quick wit, Reef was always a joy to be around. He learned both voice and hand commands of all the popular tricks, and even invented one of his own, which we named “the cuddle fall”. Reef was polite enough to shut the door after doing his business outside, and was a master at killing boxes. He really loved destroying boxes.

Although he had a playful side, Reef also knew the value of hard work. He spent his early years assisting with deck duties on whale watching trips in Monterey Bay. He was especially skilled at line handling and comforting nervous passengers. Equally important to Reef was his love for travel and adventure. He visited all of the West Coast states along with Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado, on numerous road trips throughout his life. His final journey took him through Canada on his way north to the last frontier. Reef lived out his final years in Alaska, a fitting landscape for such an immense personality. 

Reef was a big dog with a big heart, loved by all lucky enough to meet him. Ultimately his big heart failed shortly after his ninth birthday, due to complications with a tumor on his adrenal gland. He remained young in mind and body until the very end. Though his sudden absence left a massive hole in our lives, his memory will forever echo throughout the halls of our hearts and minds. So long our beloved Reef. The best dog that ever lived