Thursday, October 27, 2016

Vote for the 2016 Walnut Label

It's walnut harvest time. There's going to be a big crop and lots of neighbors and friends to share the bounty. Everybody gets to vote on the critter that goes on the label for the 2016 Dipper Ranch walnuts. Usually the label features one of the snakes that appeared on the ranch during the year, but there weren't many snakes this year. Why? Maybe because of the gray fox family that moved into the barn. Yes, foxes eat snakes. If you don't believe me, check out this video from the Camera Trap Codger.

I'm stubborn and even without a huge selection of snakes to choose from this year, I am not going to put some cutesy animal on the label. Instead, you get to choose among local animals I saw in 2016 which have a reputation of being creepy or strange, but really aren't. Mostly reptiles, spiders and bugs, but also some strange mammal tricks.

To start with, here is a fuzzy mammal and a colorful bird. A strange pair. While browsing low forbs, this black-tailed doe ignored the California scrub jay hopping on her back for several minutes.

Black-tailed doe with scrub jay companion.   
As she stretched her neck out for filaree sprouts, I noticed a pair of long scratches between her shoulder blades. Possibly from crawling under barbwire although most of the fences at the Dipper Ranch are wildlife friendly with unbarbed wire on the bottom few strands. The jay may have been picking at flies attracted to the healing wound. Then the jay jumped on the back of her fawn which likewise ignored it. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology mentions this specific behavior, including deer holding their big ears still so the scrub jays can pull out ticks or parasites. Strange but very practical.

Two punctuated scratches above the deer's neck.   
I found a cattle hoof in a water trough. Just sitting in the bottom like someone used it as a drinking cup. Strange. You might recall that a cow died on the ranch last year (Big Red is Down). I'm guessing the scavenging coyotes carried this disintegrating hoof around as a chew toy until one of the pups dropped it while drinking from the nearby trough. I pulled the slimy hoof out of the trough with my trekking pole. I don't drink out of the cattle troughs.

Cattle hoof found in a water trough.   
More slime, this time clusters of soft ivory-colored eggs glued to the underside of rocks in Mindego Creek in February. Not eggs of any fish, frog or newt we know.  Maybe some kind of snail? When we walked back up the creek a few weeks later, the eggs were gone.

Slimy eggs under rock in Mindego Creek, approx. 8mm long.   
With February rains, I went looking for giant salamanders. Instead, I found tiny slender salamanders under almost every rock and log I checked. Their big eyes show that they are creatures of dark places but how can you not admire the lovely purple cast on the speckled back of this slender salamander?

Slender salamander of purple hues.  
On that same February day, I found a juvenile Skilton skink on the ranch. If something scary attacks their bright blue tail, it drops off and the rest of the skink runs away. Gross, but very clever.

Skilton skink - juvenile with bright blue tail defense.   
And more adventures on February 20th included a Calisoga spider,

Calisoga spider   
a ring-necked snake flipped over on its back as a warning, "Don't eat me!", and

Upside down Pacific ring-necked snake.  Can you see its head?   
a small black widow spider minding its web under a rock. I carefully set the rock back so as to not disturb its lair.

Black widow spider   
And more spiders as the year went on.

A Johnson jumping spider enjoys the late afternoon sun shining on its mushroom cap doorstep
 as it crunches on a earwig.   

A coast gartersnake joins a March volunteer project digging up thistles around Monotti Pond.      
A western fence lizard in the gap under a barn door showing fresh yellow
on its limbs and around its eyes.  
A jumping spider rock-sunning at Mount Umunhum
 while botanists ponder the mountain's unusual offerings.
Identified as brown jumping spider Habronattus oregonensis per comments below.   
A turkey vulture tests my new trail camera in July and then drinks out of the cattle trough in the background with its buddies.  
This insect was roving a dusty trail in Monte Bello Open Space Preserve in August while I was checking goatgrass treatments.  I have no idea what it is.
Possibly a snakefly larvae per offline comment from SP.   
A western grey squirrel skull we found at Hendry's Creek in 
Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve in August.  
Ghost in the yard in August.  
Big rattlesnake sunning at the barn in September 
which we moved to a far section of the ranch.  
And finally, the fangs of a tarantula. No-one was harmed in this gentle inspection.
Check out the felt-tips of its legs and pedipalps.
So how about that unusual animal image at the top of this post?  Eight pairs of legs plus a long pair of arm-like pedipalps in the front, closely-set eyes and a serious set of "jaws".  Commonly called a windscorpian and related to but not actually either a scorpion or a spider. Also known as solifugids, fast and voracious predators of arid environments. Which doesn't explain why I have found them three times on my kitchen floor in the last two years. Except maybe it has something to do with the onset of rain in September and October which sends the termites flying, and some species of windscorpians are voracious predators of termites. Wild speculation here but wouldn't you say this is another strange yet fascinating critter worthy of the 2016 Dipper Ranch walnut label?

The large chelicerae or "jaws" of windscorpians pierce the exoskeleton of their insect prey.
The entire length of this windscorpian is 1cm.  
To vote on the walnut label for 2016, state your favorite strange critter in the comments below.  One commenter will be randomly selected for a bag of walnuts.

Windscorpian, Order Solifugae
Columbian black-tailed deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus
California Scrub jay, Aphelocoma californica 
Creek eggs, ?
California slender salamander, Batrachoseps attenuatus
Skilton skink, Plestiodon skiltonianus
Calisoga spider, Genus Calisoga
Pacific ring-necked snake, Diadophis punctatus amabilis
Black widow spider, Latrodectus hesperus
Johnson jumping spider, Phidippus johnsoni
Coast gartersnakeThamnophis elegans terrestris
Western fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis
Brown jumping spider, Habronattus oregonensis
Turkey vulture, Carthartes aura
Snakefly larvae, Raphidioptera ?
Western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus
Yard ghost, ?
Northern Pacific rattlesnake - Crotalus oreganus
Tarantula, Family Theraphosidae


  1. First choice is western fence lizard (great photo), and #2 is the ringneck. Btw - the amazing Alice Abela ID'd that Um jumping spider as Habronattus oregonensis.

  2. It's hard to pick just one! But, I think I'll have to go with Johnson Jumping spider. Thanks for the photos and stories. I look forward to receiving your blog notices in my email.

  3. So many good choices! I like the Johnson Jumping Spider best.

  4. My vote is for the spider on a mushroom

  5. Western fence lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis from Jean

  6. That's a good looking western fence lizard. (S)he gets my vote!

  7. The walnut harvest was fun and here are the votes from that day:
    slender salamander 3
    Calisoga spider 1
    ring-necked snake 4
    Johnson jumping spider 4
    turkey vulture 4
    squirrel skull 1
    ghost in the backyard 1

  8. #1 - doe and jay (GREAT photo!)
    #2 - windscorpian
    #3 - ring-necked snake.


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