Monday, October 10, 2011

One Part Rain, One Part Sun

Southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata) sunning next to filaree seedlings.
Last week we got the first rain of the season on the central California coast, almost one inch of precipitation over three days.  I was in the Sierras, so I saw it as snow.  Upon my return to the Dipper Ranch, Sunday morning was bright and cool, so I took a walk to see how the rains changed the coastal hills.

As with last year, filaree seedlings were the first to pop up after 3 dry months.  The tunnels and dens of the underground must have been cold and wet because I saw quite a few reptiles basking in the open.

With legs tucked tightly by its side, at first this southern alligator lizard looks like a snake with extra long jaws. 
A southern alligator lizard was stretched out in a sunny spot in the upper pastures.  It kept absolutely still except for rotating its serious eyes at me as I walked around its 10 inches of scales.  I rarely see alligator lizards this long without a snapped off or regrown tail.  Although we get both northern and southern species of alligator lizards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I knew this was a southern alligator lizard by its gold rather than dark eyes.  It was probably a female since its head was not strongly triangular as with the male alligator lizards.

Two in three weeks is too many northern Pacific rattlesnakes (Crotalus oreganus) in the farmyard.
When I walked through the orchard, my skin tingled under the sun and I moved cautiously past the gopher holes.  Sure enough, I spotted and then captured a rattlesnake which had previously eluded me.  This snake was not the one I found and captured at the same location in mid-September, because I cautiously marked that one's rattles with black ink before releasing it 1/4 of a mile away.  This was another rattler that showed up at the same hole in the orchard a few days after I moved the first one.

In September, I was initially confused as to how many rattlesnakes I was dealing with.  The rattler I was seeing in mid-September would bask with either just a coil or its head out of the hole, or would curl its entire body right at the entrance of the hole.  Then I moved that rattler and there were no snakes in the orchard for a few days.  But in late September, I was seeing a rattler at nearly the same location.  Did the first one come back or was this another one perhaps attracted to the scent of the original one?  This snake was acting differently, however, and would bask with its body curled under a clump of bunchgrass behind the hole and never revealed its rattle.  Was this the same snake just exhibiting a range of behavior, or did different snakes have distinct basking behaviors?

On a rattlesnake over two feet in total length, the presence of just two segments in its rattle string indicates that older segments have worn or broken off, a common occurrence in wild snakes.  A new segment forms next to the body each time the snake sheds (which could be one to three times per year depending on many conditions, Klauber 1982).
Then one evening I got close enough to spot the short and unmarked rattles of a stick that turned into a rattlesnake stretched out in front of the barn.  When I shined a flashlight on that snake, it turned around and quickly undulated under the barn door with a gentle clicking of its snubbed tail.  I turned the porkchops on the grill and rechecked to find the rattler prowling in front of the barn again, but I was in no mood to chase it down in the dark.  Over the next few days, I would spot a scaly coil in the orchard hole, but not close enough for me to snag it with my snake tongs.  Until I could, the cats were on house arrest with no garage-mice privileges and I was careful where I stepped around the out buildings.

Finally last Sunday, I found the rattler fat and content in the orchard's sun.  I caught it easily with net and snake tongs, and I am fairly certain it was the same snake that had been roaming the barn at night.  I am wondering if the brush rabbit, which usually hides in the barn but I haven't seen in the last few days, is what slowed this rattler down long enough for me to capture it.

Long spider kites floating high overhead
Once the fat rattlesnake was safely locked into the snake can for later relocation, I did a victory dance in the farmyard only to have my whooping interrupted by the appearance of long, white strings swirling in the gentle breeze high overhead.  Spiders were "ballooning".

Spider parachute covering more newly emerged filaree seedlings
Some species of spiders climb to the top of trees or rocks, raise their abdomen, and extrude a kite of tangled, silken threads which catch a breeze and allow the spider to "fly" to a new location.

Some ballooning spiders land on wild oat stems.

As the air stilled in the late afternoon,  I saw many of the spider kites snagged on trees, grass and fences.  I poked through the landed webs looking for a spider pilot or egg case, but just got strings stuck to my fingers.
Spider silk - strong and flexible, good properties for aerial migration of small passengers.
Turns out that it's mostly small species of spiders or newly hatched spiders that use this method of dispersal, so the spider associated with each fallen parachute may have been too tiny for me to see or may have already scurried off in search of a new home.  It seems amazing that one small spider can produce so much silk.
New arachnid home?
I've casually observed that some insects seem to enter a new life stage after the first big rain.  One year I witnessed the emergence of thousands of dampwood termites in the farmyard and dozens of bats arrived to harvest this short-lived phenomenon.  It's been raining most of today, so we will see what fairies bang on my windows tonight.

Early season precipitation will mean different changes in the Sierra Nevada mountain range where winter temperatures get much lower than at the coast.
Laurence M. Klauber, 1982, Rattlesnakes, Their Habits, Life Histories, & Influence on Mankind, Abridged Edition.


  1. Fantastic first foto. Well done! One of the best critter shots I've seen on a blog in quite a while. I like it, in case you didn't know by now.

  2. She was a very obliging lizard as long as I didn't block her sun.

  3. Great post, Cindy! I love how you weaved your story.

  4. lovely!!!

    Will need to re-read again later, and savor.

    Yes, in my experience, early in the a.m. is MUCH preferable for relocating rattlesnakes versus the late afternoon. =) Milder, calmer, easier, less adrenalin shooting through veins, etc. =)

    It's also too cool that you know what the tiny seedlings are. =)

  5. Cindy's tips for id-ing seedlings: 1) look around nearby. There are probably some other seedlings with the same cotyledons or primary leaves but also with some true leaves that you will recognize. Sometimes, you can even find the dead stalks/leaves/flowerheads from annual plants from the previous year and guess their progeny are the seedlings you are seeing at their base. 2) Push a popsicle stick in the ground next to the seedling with a date. Take a photo. Go by every few days and check, take more photos until the plant gets leaves or flowers you recognize. Yell at the deer if they pull up your popsicle sticks.


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