Thursday, April 7, 2011

It's Sssspring

Santa Cruz gartersnake cruising over yellow starthistle seedling.
This subspecies has a whitish to lemon-yellow throat.
While surveying for thistle seedlings on Friday at Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, I crossed from the Carboniferous period to the Permian period.  That is, I witnessed the seasonal emergence of scaly-skinned animals with eggs that have protective shells (reptiles) while slimy-skinned animals that lay their eggs in moist environments were slipping into their summer hideaways (amphibians).  Reptiles are kings of the summer, while coastal California's amphibians are more active in the winter-wet period.

Draped over a yellow starthistle seedling, I saw the first snake of the year - a Santa Cruz aquatic garter snake.   Sunning on the new section of the White Oaks Trail, this was probably a young-of-the-year snake only 8" long and 1/4" wide.  Aquatic garter snakes are born in late August to mid-October.

Newt crawling back into the earth for the dry season.
March was exceptionally wet with  20 days of rain and mean temperatures in the 50's.  The frogs, toads and newts used the extended wet season to continue laying eggs in ponds and streams.  Last week, a few dry and warm days occurred and the reptiles started coming out of their winter dens.  On Saturday, I saw a western fence lizard sunning itself on a Dipper Ranch road; its entire body was trembling as if it was trying to shake off the winter cold.  I know some mammals shake violently as they first come out of hibernation in order to speed up their metabolism, but I am not sure if the ectothermic reptiles go through the same process.

Western fence lizard not moving very fast yet.
On the Monte Bello hike, I saw a juvenile alligator lizard, a western skink missing its tail but still vigorously beating its way among the lush sprouts of the spring grassland, and a slow fence lizard.  The fence lizard bolted inside my pant leg as if, recently emerged from its underground winter dreams, it hadn't yet memorized the usual local shady retreats under rocks and into gopher holes.

The Santa Cruz gartersnake subspecies has a dark iris.
The aquatic gartersnake species to which it belongs usually has
8 upper labial scales (scales above the lip),
with the 7th longer than the 6th (counting from the front) .
Gartersnakes seem to be more tolerant of cool, early spring temperatures than other local snakes. In 2010, while giving a tour of the ranch to innocent city kids on March 6th, I snatched up a coast gartersnake that suddenly appeared.  Everyone was surprised especially the kids' father.

This coast gartersnake was the first snake I saw on the Dipper Ranch in 2010.
The yellow-bellied racers should start showing up next.  A few days ago, a neighbor told me he lifted a metal plate that had been sitting on the ground for  many years and found a cold rattlesnake resting there.  The snake was so slow, he scooped it up in a bucket and moved it to another protected place.  I have a saying -  most snakes don't get moving around here until the first three consecutive hot days  (greater than 80 degrees F), especially the larger gopher snakes and rattlesnakes.

Santa Cruz gartersnakes are black with a yellow dorsal stripe.
See also:
Santa Cruz garter snake, Thamnophis atratus atratus
alligator lizard, Elgaria sp.
western fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis
western skink - Plestiodon skiltonianus 
yellow bellied racer, Coluber constrictor
northern Pacific rattlesnake, Crotalus oreganus oreganus

Robert  C. Stebbins, Western Reptiles and Amphibians, Third Edition, 2003.


  1. I found your blog through the comment you made on Nature ID. Would like to follow along but where's the list of followers you have and how do I join in?

  2. Thanks friend of Sinbad. You can follow the Dipper Ranch blog by going to the Subscribe to Dipper Ranch portion of the right sidebar - about one-half the way down. click Post and/or All Comments and you have several options to add yourself as a follower. If none of those work for you, let me know. I might need to update. Also, if you have a reader such as Google Reader, you can usually just add in . I like your photos. Sinbad looks a little like my buddy Mango whose photo is on the Cast of Characters tab on the Dipper Ranch.

  3. JL, at the very top of most blogspots, there's also a "Follow" word that you can click to join.

    Cindy, apologies for this lengthy comment, but I can't find an e-mail for you. I love the coloring of the Santa Cruz garter snake! I've always assumed I see fence lizards year-round, but from my archived photos the earliest I've seen them around here was this year on Feb 21 at Garland Ranch, home of the wedding tree.

    Speaking of which and to reply to your questions on my recent post, our Monterey Co wildflower show is this coming weekend (04/15-04/17). This year is the 50th anniversary of the show. I can't believe Vern Yadon has been doing the exhausting day-before IDs for so long; he's got to be well into his 80's by now. I've been there when they've had over 700 species of wildflowers - oh my! - but I don't think they'll have that many this unusual spring:

    My wildflower hotspot nominations for the month of April are:
    Monterey Co - Fort Ord BLM Lands (personal observation this year)
    Santa Cruz Co - Wilder Ranch SP (even in past years by March it's going)
    San Mateo Co - Butano SP (heard there's a rare orchid blooming right now)
    Marin Co - ask John Wall for his recommendations of places or people who would know (
    Santa Clara Co - Henry Coe SP (
    San Benito Co - Pinnacles Nat'l Monument and Hwy 25 (east entrance)

    I hope this helps with your presentation.

  4. Beautiful post and sssssssnake pics! What are the thistle experiments this year? Do tell?

  5. I am experimenting with different methods of thistle control, manual and chemical. I have this rule to not discuss herbicides on this blog, so I am not sure if I will actually share the results. I think herbicides have a place in weed control, but I also think people need to get expert local advice on using them safely not read about herbicide use on a blogsite.

  6. jeepers, Katie. I didn't even know about that Follow button on the top of Blogger posts. There it is. I continue to learn much from my fellow bloggers.

  7. Wow, talk about a day late and a dollar short (me). 1. AMAZING 1st shot of that snake--DROOL! SO beautiful and such GREAT lighting! =) 2. Katie is kickin' butts all over the place as I'd never noticed "follow" either! Jeeze.
    3. I can't imagine why I'd not followed your blog before. I thought I did. Silly me. Look at all the goodies I missed! =) LOVELY herp shots.


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