Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Newt or Not A Newt?

Eyed by newt on the landslide road.
Is it a loathsome creature or a fairy?   
When is a newt not a newt?  When it is a lizard?  When it is a salamander?

In this post, I will briefly sort out the different salamanders that occur in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. This info should answer some of the questions that have come up so far and will help with the odd twists that are revealed in upcoming posts of the Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt series.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

First Ever Red-Bellied Newt

As it walks through the forest litter, the red-bellied newt with its dark brown back and black eyes momentarily flashes the bright-red underside of its hands   
With photographic proof and reliable eyewitness accounts of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains, it was time to go looking for them myself. My first few trips to the streams and trails above Stevens Creek are unsuccessful. I find no brightly colored newts and only see a few of the common orange species, the California and rough-skinned newts. I'm not surprised. Newts spend large amounts of their lives under things - under logs, leaf litter, and in burrows underground. It's rain that gets the newts moving. I might have to wait for the second or third rainstorm to see any newts crawling towards the creeks, and if the population of the newly discovered red-bellied newts was small, it might take many, many trips before I stumble onto them.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Is That a Salamander in Your Pocket?

A photo on a computer screen in the ranger office   
Months went by and I forgot about the alleged red-bellied newt of Santa Clara County, then one Monday in December when I walked into the ranger office, a photo flicked on a computer screen and caught my eye. It was a newt being held by a hand clothed in a ranger's khaki sleeve. I looked again:  the newt in the photograph appeared to be the dark-eyed stranger I'd never met, the red-bellied newt. In the background of the photo were the same ranger bulletins I could see on the real bulletin board across the office. I was stunned as photo after photo of a red-bellied newt clicked on the computer's screen saver.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Thousand-Watt Smile

Chuck, long-distance runner and trail patrol volunteer, and his partner Chris
Sometimes you meet someone whose physical appearance so closely matches your unconscious image of a personality type that something very odd has to happen for you to be jolted into seeing that person as an individual instead of a stereotype. Same, same, same, BANG, different.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt

This is a story of a dark-eyed stranger, one of the most powerful neurotoxins in the natural world, a suicide, and something out of place.

The dark-eyed stranger is the red-bellied newt, known in scientific circles as Taricha rivularis.  A medium-sized salamander (5.5 to 7.5 inches from nose to tail) with a chocolate-brown back and tomato-red underside, this newt lives in the redwood and similar forests and streams of northern California.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

First Mud Puddle

First mud puddle - must have been some party going on after that rain   
Rain. Here are photos of tracks that appeared in one little mud puddle on the Dipper Ranch after rainstorms finally arrived in mid-November. Can you tell what the tracks are from? The mud puddle was on a road that goes past the water tank.

Everyone's saying "Rain" with such joy. We've been getting rainstorms every few days. People have been going out for walks in it. Waking up at night to watch the stormy skies. Turning off the radio and TV to listen to the sound of it on the roof and the leaves.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Vote for the 2014 Walnut Label

Juvenile western yellow-bellied racer pulled from the main springbox on October 22. Will this be the last snake observed on the Dipper Ranch in 2014?  Contestant #1   
Bits of rain but the hillsides are still dry and warm. It doesn't feel like fall except for the early dark evenings. Still, some seasonal patterns carry on despite the ongoing drought. The red-breasted sapsuckers squeak as they peck away in the persimmon tree during the day, and the leaves rustle when the gray foxes leap into the tree to eat persimmons at night. The English walnuts are falling behind the barn. There hasn't been enough rain to knock off their outer green husks, nevertheless, I find brown walnut shells a quarter mile down the road with just one ragged hole in them - ravens. If we don't get more rain soon, us humans will get black fingertips when we peel off the green husks to get to the tasty walnut meat.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Long Tall Timema Green

bunch of legs
kinda squishy
That makes it a bug, right?   

I say, "I don't do bugs" but the long, tall green one that clung to the Adirondack chair on my porch in May was just too interesting. I'd never seen an insect like this, so maybe it was one of those freaky larval stages that mimic the colors or markings of the adult insect but all the parts are twisted around to do something else. Like the transformer toys I would find wedged in the back seat of the Jeep after long trips with the boys. Alien yet disturbingly familiar. The god in charge of metamorphosis must be a boy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Green Thing May 2014

Check this thing out. I've been researching it but haven't had the time to write about it. The more I read about it, the more complicated and fascinating it gets.  Thought I would give you a chance to ponder this mystery before I get my writing shoes on.  For reference, it was about 2 cm long (not including antennae), was hanging vertically on my Adirondack chair on my porch on the Dipper Ranch in May. I have never seen one before.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Don't Park Here

If you've visited recently and parked your vehicle at the Dipper Ranch, did you notice a flowery scent as you drove away?

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Small Things in Redwoods

Five-petaled nodding flowers of the white-veined wintergreen.   
Coast redwood trees get lots of attention and adoration. Yes, redwood trees are big, ancient and have interesting forms and adaptations. Even so, all this redwood worship sometimes makes me squirm because the oak woodlands, coastal prairies, serpentine meadows and many other and richer vegetation types of California deserve equal attention and protection. It's an ecologist's point of view which sometimes makes me unpopular. As if to rebuke my profanity, recently I stumbled onto a small natural marvel in a forest of redwood giants.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Bioblitz - the wet part

California slender salamander. Tiny but if you look, they are ubiquitous in even the smallest of damp locations. Robert Stebbins found that the total number and perhaps the total biomass of either this slender salamander or another common small salamander, the ensatina, was greater than any other resident vertebrate in a Berkeley redwood forest,  (Stebbins and McGinnis, 2012).   
The bioblitz at Golden Gate National Parks continued through Saturday, March 29 with the official deadline for submitting all observations of plants and animals in the parks at noon. On Saturday, it was raining. Real rain like we actually live on the edge of a giant reservoir of water and arbitrator of weather - the Pacific Ocean. Rain like we haven't seen in two years. Rain that cut the number of attendees at the inventory hike Naiad and I led at Rancho Corral de Tierra from the 30 who signed up to five brave souls.

We led those five brave hikers into the park in the rain, past the fungi, insect, bird and botany teams, and into a forest. Many of the Monterey pines had foam streaming down their trunks in the rain which formed frothy piles at the base of each tree. I've seen this phenomenon before but never with so many trees.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Bioblitz - First 12 Hours

Meadow vole at the trailside breakfast place.   
First thing we saw today as we walked 60 grade school kids out for their research surveys on the National Park Service Bioblitz was a meadow vole eating its breakfast on a trail of Rancho Corral de Tierra in Montara, California. Later, one of the kids asked me if plants talk to each other.  Besides the usual diversity of plants and animals on the beautiful San Mateo coast, we saw a rare plant, a rare

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A Shrouded Bulb

Gopher skull, seedlings of filaree, popcorn flower and grasses.
Anyone else out there feeling a little bipolar what with the full moon and the first treacherous kiss of spring rains? I see tiny seedlings coming up two months late and I say, "You're gonna die. There's no more rain coming. Sorry."

There's hopeful life and impassive death all around. Life and death, it's all part of a cycle, right, nothing unusual. Just look for the loop I tell myself and it will all make sense. But when I reach out to detect its invisibleness, I get nothing not even the delayed snap of a spider strand.

I am a soap plant. I present my simple leaves to the moon and she approves of their sinuosity. If I bloom at all this year, it will be low to the ground and just long enough to feed the moths. To save the energy, I'll abort those seeds and the gusts at summer dusk will blow them into cracks in the soil all around me. I will survive this drought by slowing breaking down one cellulose wall after another in my shrouded bulb. See you another year cute little seedlings.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Skunky Mood

This striped skunk has walked by this wildlife camera many times and ignored it. For some reason on this particular night, the striped skunk (presumably the same striped skunk) decided to charge the side of the camera. Was there a strap blowing around? Was the skunk in a testy mood? Was there an animal behind the camera? I don't know, just one of those camtrap mysteries.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wolf's Milk - A Bioblitz Preview

Wolf's milk - actually not a fungus or a Hostess pastry - a fact I learned while browsing iNaturalist   
The National Park Service is having a bioblitz at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in the San Francisco Bay area on March 28 and 29, 2014. Sponsored by National Geographic, it's gonna be huge. They expect thousands of citizens to join over 300 scientists observing and documenting the plants and animals of Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo Counties at 12 locations of GOGA (the National Park Service's four-letter code for this park).

A bioblitz is an event where animal and plant species are identified in a specific location over a short period of time. The eyes and ears of students and citizens are led by scientists to cover as much area in the park as possible and to confirm identifications. The inventory is useful to understand the park's ecology but it is also a great way for everyone to experience the biological richness of our public lands and the techniques of scientific inventory.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Bad Bad Bushnell Brown

Arrggh, that sinking feeling when I open up my Bushnell HD Trophy trail camera and the date says January 1, 2013. It's not January and it isn't even 2013. Rats, the camera reset itself! I know this means the Bushnell has probably missed some shots and quite possibly has a completely blank memory card.

I check the battery level, the memory card, and every one of the 20 steps in the complicated menu. And I check them again. Everything seems to be working fine, at least right now. One of the batteries is sticking out a little. I tap it. Was it loose or not? I don't know but the rangers are waiting for my advice and I've got a dreadful feeling.

(click Read More to continue but be forewarned there are gory photos of a deer carcass coming up and predator photos)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Zombie Rodent

Mountain beaver (a.k.a. aplodontia) is one of the unusual mammals you get to practice camera trapping on at this workshop in the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. It took me several months to realize why this particular camera, Wingscapes Birdcam 2, would occasionally get great close-up nighttime photos with flash but never more than one. Something about the electronics in this model shut the camera down after one or two flash photos. This model is now discontinued. For more info about this unusual burrowing mammal go here and a fellow alumnus has better photos of the zombie rodent here.  
Dr. Chris Wemmer announced his 2014 camera trapping workshop - if you ever wanted to get serious about using trail cameras to understand the mammals on your study site or the back-40 then this five-day adventure is for you. In 2014, it will be July 13-18 at the Sierra Nevada Field Campus in beautiful Yuba Pass, California.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Walking Rain

Centipede strolling in this morning's rain.
A good rain invites centipedes out into the open instead of their usual habit of keeping hidden, moist and hunting small prey under rocks and logs, in leaf litter or underground. This one seemed quite content soaking in a puddle this morning as I was checking culverts for first-storm clogging.

Monday, February 3, 2014

More Rain More Yoga

Yesterday the yearling deer 
danced in the first shower of their drought-born lives.

Today I freely tumbled
in the gentle waves of mountain yoga.

More rain.
More yoga.

Namaste Jikoji mountain home

Monday, January 6, 2014

Flying Foxes

With short legs, flexible forearms, and recurved claws, gray foxes readily climb trees.   
What is the "fantastic fossorial fellow according to Roald Dahl" and the final flying visitor to the Dipper Ranch persimmon tree in 2013? None but Fantastic Mr. Fox, or specifically at the Dipper Ranch, the spirited, leaping and tree climbing common gray fox.