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.

Chuck is lanky, wears prototype sunglasses, and has a 1000-watt smile. He is a marathon runner among other things I don't know much about and can't remember - computer executive, inventor or such and such. I met Chuck in his role as a trail patrol volunteer. A trail patrol volunteer hikes (in Chuck's case runs) trails in the preserves to assist visitors, answer questions and report trail conditions. A typical patrol for Chuck consists of running 11 miles through 4 preserves in 2 hours depending on how many times he stops to talk to visitors. Occasionally when I'm leading a volunteer project in the preserves, planting oaks or pulling thistles, Chuck will zip by with a few words of encouragement, a wave and a smile. And that was about all Chuck and I saw of each other.

Once in a low-crop year when I was desperately looking for tanoak acorns as part of a Sudden Oak Death research project, Chuck reported that the tanoak trees along a remote section of Red Mountain Trail were heavy with acorns. I checked the location in the field but either industrious squirrels beat me to the harvest or Chuck and I had different ideas of a big crop. At the time, I suspected Chuck the Runner covered a lot of ground but couldn't tell the difference between tanoaks and canyon live oaks.

My treasure chest - to me, every species of oak looks different in leaves, bark, canopy and especially in acorn cap.
To many people, just being outside is wonderful and they don't need to identify and label everything.
That's something I should remember and to likewise respect people who simply appreciate the beauty of nature.   
One evening in 2009, I was updating our docents on scientific research projects in the preserves. The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District docents are a lively, intelligent and curious bunch and I always anticipate their challenging questions. I survived the formal round of questions, yet still had a throng of querying docents crowded around me during the social hour. After lively exchanges, the group slowly dwindled and I noticed Chuck lingering on the outskirts watching me and I thought, "An athlete, at least this will be an easy question."

When no-one else was within earshot, Chuck sidled up to me and quietly mentioned that he had seen red-bellied newts while trail running in the Stevens Creek watershed in May. My tired mind flipped through its dusty note cards of amphibians and came up with nothing. Red-bellied newts sounded like an exotic pet from a tropical country. Their chances of surviving in the local preserves were remote, so I assumed Chuck had actually seen our native California newts which commonly occur in ponds and streams of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the winter rainy season.

Sighting rare, exotic or dangerous animals or plants is a sport among adventurous outdoors people. Sometimes the thrill of the unusual overcomes a duty to accuracy. I am responsible for investigating mountain lion sightings in the preserves, and I've heard some wild stories. By carefully listening to the description, I can often determine that the reporting party had actually seen a bobcat, coyote, golden retriever or house cat. I've developed a diplomatic style of investigating, asking open questions, and gently leading excited amateurs to concluding that the saucy bobcat was probably not threatening to kill them.

This mountain lion report checked out.
The drag marks and tracks on the adjacent road made us suspect a mountain lion had dragged prey into this thicket, but it wasn't until this juvenile mountain lion showed up on the wildlife camera we put near the site that we were able to confirm.  After all, none of us were about to go in that thick brush and search for the carcass. Observations and signs can sometimes be misleading, so its good to keep an open mind when you get unusual reports from someone you don't know well. They could be wrong, they could be right.   
A few mountain lion reports I have heard were clearly accurate, some quite authentic, like that of a mountain biker who described deer charging across a trail pursued by a tawny, sleek and muscular blur "with a long tail as wide around as a Pringles can". That must have gotten his heart beating. Other reports are confusing and since I'm not actually a witness, I can never be sure. On a few occasions, my initial skepticism has turned out to be wrong when tracks, distinct signs at a deer carcass, photos of a lion in a tree, or a pattern of subsequent similar reports verified that a mountain lion was hunting in that location.

With Chuck's report of a red salamander, I took the approach of repeating back key phrases to check for consistency and tease out more information.

"You saw red-bellied newts?"

"Yes, Taricha rivularis. They were mixed in with a bunch of California newts that were moving along the trail. There were so many newts on the trail, we had to stop running and tiptoe to avoid stepping on them."

Trying to keep a tone of doubt out of my voice, I commented that newts usually move in large numbers towards ponds and small streams at the beginning of the fall rainy season for breeding. After laying eggs in the water in February and March, one-by-one the newts gradually disperse back to their upland hiding places in gopher holes, under logs and in the cracks of shaded rocks. May is not a month I would expect to see newts migrating en masse. Chuck reminded me that there had been an unusual May rainstorm on that particular day when he was running.

"How could you tell they were red-bellied newts?"

"They had tomato-red bellies."

"They weren't just dark California newts?"

"No, you gotta believe me. Their red color was really different from the orange newts. Chris, my running partner, pointed the first one out to me, and then we noticed others."

"Maybe they were ensatinas. Shiny dark-orange salamanders with gangly heads and deep wrinkles down their side?"

"No, ensatinas are way different. I'm sure these were red-bellied newts."

Just another orange-red salamander in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
This one is a female yellow-eyed ensatina commonly found under moist logs and rocks. The 12 to 13 costal grooves on each side of the body help identify this salamander.
Ensatina eschscholtzii xanthoptica  
It didn't make sense to me but Chuck was so adamant, I knew it was best to let him tell his story and I could check details later. As we concluded our conversation, I suggested he get a photo of the newts with his cell phone the next time he saw them. Chuck seemed frustrated, but with my busy schedule, I wasn't going to hike all the way out to Stevens Canyon to check an isolated and probably erroneous report.

A few days later, an associate emailed me that Chuck had reported red-bellied newts as a new species he observed in Santa Clara County. This associate manages the Natural Resources Database with on-line species lists for over 200 parks in the San Francisco Bay area. This was such an unlikely sighting, he wanted to confirm it with me. I stalled and said I wasn't sure.

But the inquiry reminded me to look up more information. With a quick check at CalHerps, I found that even though the red-bellied newt is native to California, its range is restricted to a small area of northern California and even there it is not very common except in certain stream systems. This area was almost 80 miles north of us - that explained why I drew a blank that night when Chuck reported red-bellied newts in our preserves south of San Francisco, and why I had never seen it despite my propensity for walking up creeks. I noticed that several of the popular amphibian field guides described red-bellied newts as "tomato red below", almost the exact words Chuck used. I wondered if the thrill of discovery and power of suggestion had led Chuck to see red among a sea of variably-colored orange newts.

I also checked and found that several salamander species from the eastern United States or in the exotic pet trade had bright red colors, however, I could not find any reports of these escaping and establishing populations in California. I suggested the manager of the Natural Resources Database decline to add the red-bellied newts as residents of Santa Clara County until Chuck could provide us with photos and we could independently confirm the sighting.

I forgot about the red-bellied newt until December when something very odd occurred: "Is that a salamander in your pocket?"


To be continued as Is That a Salamander in Your Pocket?

This post is the second in a series on the discovery of red-bellied newts in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. To start at the beginning of the series go to Mystery of the Red-Bellied Newt.

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