So often along our coastline, especially during spring and summer, the northwesterly winds can relentlessly blow with gale-force strength for days on end. On one of these windy summer days, I was assigned to help with a biological survey near Windy Point above Point Buchon.
As I walked northward into these gale-force winds with notebook and pencil in hand, I could smell the pungent fragrance of coastal scrub and see the golden waves of wind-blown grasses in the expanse of coastal terrace below me on Pecho Ranch, the land between Montaña de Oro State Park and Diablo Canyon Power Plant.
When I turned the corner around Windy Point, I saw two American badgers on the dirt road. Because I was downwind, they probably couldn’t smell or hear me. As soon as they saw me, they casually walked northward along the road then down the hillside toward the Pacific before disappearing into the fields of amber.
As they walked away from me, their stocky and low-slung bodies with short legs resembled rolling carpets. They had distinctive head and body markings, with a white stripe that started at their snout and extended toward their rump. In my opinion, they are magnificent animals. That was the first time in my life that I’ve ever seen badgers in the wild.
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The American badger is a member of the Mustelidae family, a group of carnivorous mammals. Along the Central Coast, Mustelids include skunks, long-tailed weasels and sea otters. Another member is the wolverine. One wolverine was spotted in California in 2008 and has since managed to roam free in the wild in Tahoe National Forest.
Mustelids vary greatly in behavior and size. Skunks, because of their chemical defenses, tend to be somewhat carefree, while wolverines have been seen attempting to drive bears away from their kills.
A member of this family actually uses tools. Sea otters will place rocks on their stomach to break open hard-shelled prey and can weigh as much as 99 pounds.
On the other hand, American badgers weigh between 15 and 25 pounds and by nature are elusive. They can be seen foraging during the day in locations with little human activity; however, they are mostly nocturnal along the Central Coast and normally solitary.
Which leads to an interesting question: I’ve observed a sea otter hauled out many feet away from the ocean near Tom’s Pond located near the beach below Windy Point. I’ve wondered whether a badger has ever met a sea otter and how these distant cousins would react to each other.
Badgers prefer open grasslands with deep soil to dig in, such as the coastal terraces along the Pecho Coast, but they can be found in many other habitats such as high alpine country. Badgers have keen vision, smell and hearing and have huge foreclaws up to 2 inches in length. They use these foreclaws to dig in pursuit of prey.
They feed mostly on rodents such as ground squirrels and gophers by digging into their burrows. They will also eat insects and even rattlesnakes. These clever creatures will even block escape exits.
Retired PG&E marine and terrestrial biologist Sally Krenn told me badgers play an important role in grasslands and coastal sage scrub plant communities. They help keep rodent populations in check, and their digging aerates the soil.
Rancher Bob Blanchard appreciates their ground disturbance and looks at it as if they are rototilling the soil. Another benefit of badgers is that their abandoned badger burrows provide shelter for rabbits, snakes, coyotes and burrowing owls.
PG&E terrestrial biologist Kelly Kephart says that if you’re interested in hiking these stunning lands, PG&E has two scenic trails open to the public, the Point Buchon and Pecho Coast trails. The Pecho Trail leads to the Point San Luis Lighthouse, the only surviving Prairie Victorian model lighthouse on the West Coast. The trail offers some of the most spectacular views of the Pacific found anywhere.
The Point Buchon Trail stretches across miles of pristine ocean terraces, where you just may spot a badger. For information, visit http://pge.modwest.com/pgereservations/trailshome.php or https://sanluislighthouse.org/.