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.
Imagine you are holed up underground waiting. Waiting for a decent home. One where you can start a family and get on with your life. It's been months, yet still you wait. Waiting for the steady pitter-patter to wake you from your stupor and start your sturdy legs churning for your new home. And then finally, rain comes to California. Rain and fog and hail for days. Ponds start to fill, streams start to flow, and finally the amphibians get on the move. Dirty noses, feet, then tails emerge from rodent burrows, rotting logs and rock piles.  - Raining for the Homeless 
One of the first heavy rains of the winter calls a California newt out of its underground dry season retreat. You can tell this is a California newt because of its dark orange back and light orange underside, the gold bands in its eyes, and the swirl of light orange that reaches up to touch the lower eyelid.   
The red-bellied newts may take even longer to make their appearance. Since they breed in fast-moving streams, red-bellieds wait until the later part of the rainy season, February to May, or whenever the highest flows have calmed down a bit.

I wait too until a January weekend when a series of storms are forecast to blow in off the Pacific Ocean. When the winds shift to the south, I know the storm is approaching and call the Sailor to see if he wants to make a test run for newts that night on the Dipper Ranch. He does and we are not disappointed. We hike a mile and a half to the Monotti Pond and see 256 California newts.  Newts creeping out of gopher holes.  Newts trundling after beetles. Newts tugging earthworms out of the ground. Mud-covered newts crawling out of the grasslands and splashing into ponds. Swollen newts emerging from the ponds and greeting the bumpy-skinned newcomer newts. We see more newts on the hike home, but just splash and laugh and stop counting. They are everywhere and seem intent on eating after their long summer fast, paying no heed to our flashlights and jubilant chatter.

With one successful newt trek under our belts, we decide the next morning is ripe for a red-bellied newt survey along Stevens Creek. I call Chuck, who originally reported red-bellied newts in our mountain range, and he agrees to join me and the Sailor.  Chuck wants to start at a different trailhead farther away so he can get in a training run. He'll catch up with us on the trail.

The next morning, the sky is still dripping as I meet the Sailor at the trailhead and we start to gear up. We want to bring our cameras to document this potentially momentous event, but it could start pouring at any time and we don’t want to ruin our equipment. We sort through various lenses and bundle them in plastic several times. I pack my version of a gourmet lunch - smoked ham, gouda cheese, pumpkin seed crackers and persimmons and walnuts from the ranch orchard. After all, we have an eight-mile hike in cold and wet weather and I don’t want any grumps.

I had prepared myself for wet field conditions by dressing in raincoat, rain pants, my favorite baseball cap and recently-waterproofed hiking boots. My most important wet weather items are wool socks which don’t get cold when they are wet and neoprene gloves I stash in my pack. The Sailor is dressed like, well, a sailor. He is wearing waterproof overalls, a long slicker, thick rubber boots, and an odd-looking hat. He used to work on a fishing boat in the northern Pacific and I guess he’s saved the serious gear for this serious expedition. The hat is a bright red golf cap.

He catches me eyeing the hat and explains with a grin, “I need to keep my noggin’ warm.”

“Okay,” I say looking down at his boots, “Remember this hike is four miles down to the creek, and the four miles out again is quite steep.”

I show my notes and photos to the Sailor on how to distinguish the different species of newtsThe main differences we will be looking for are dark brown versus orange back, red versus orange belly, and all dark versus gold-banded eye. It seems simple but I am nervous. What if we don’t see any newts? What if they all moved last night? What if we find newts and the colors aren’t as distinct as they are described in the field guides? Colors in nature are so tricky.

We step out onto the trail, and it’s nice to finally get going. The forest air is cool and drippy but we are warming up as we walk and the trees are bright with moisture and everything smells earthy and rich. I see a newt. We run over, I pick it up and examine it head to tail. It’s orange with bicolored eyes. We are sure it is a California newt, the same as we saw over two hundred times last night, yet still we check closely. This happens several times as we make our way down the first mile of the trail. The good news is it’s wet and overcast enough for the newts to be on the move during the day. But I am still nervous that I will get skunked for the third time and not see any red-bellied newts especially after getting the Sailor all interested in this unusual story.

We come to an intersection, choose the right fork and within a few steps heading down that destiny, I see it. A small newt crossing the trail. It clearly looks different. I walk over to inspect, lean down and for the first time I see the red flash, a flash I will see many more times that day, and other days and in my dreams for years. The back of the newt is dark chocolate brown, so dark, I have a hard time spotting it against the damp dead leaves covering the forest floor. But every time the newt reaches one foot forward, the opposite limb pushes back and for a split second, the latter flips up and flashes the bright red color of the underside of its hand. A tomato-red palm that flips back over and disappears again. For a few seconds, I am mesmerized by this alternate flashing and the realization that this is surely a red-bellied newt practically in my backyard and 80 miles out of its known range.  

My first ever red-bellied newt. At barely 3 inches in length, it was a small juvenile yet still distinctly different than the common orange California newts and rough-skinned newts.   
Tentatively, I break the moment, pick up the newt and work through the distinguishing traits proclaimed by the field guides. Dark brown or blackish back - check. Completely dark eye with no gold band - check. Tomato-red underside - check. I am actually holding a red-bellied newt in my hands. I examine the newt again and then call to the Sailor, “I’ve got one.”

We pass the newt back and forth, flip it over, notice that its tail looks clipped, stare into its solemn eyes, and all the while, the newt keeps waving its limbs in the air still following the call to its breeding stream. It is so startlingly bright, especially when the newt flips its hand. I had always thought it was going to be just the belly that was red, but the chin, underarm, and palms are bright red too. I pull Stebbin’s A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians out of my pack and we go through the key and descriptions and, yep, it’s still a red-bellied newt.

Soaking wet in the rain and excited, we pause to photograph and document this moment of first discovery.   
Now we are really excited. We take lots and lots of photos. Picking up and putting down the little newt over and over again. Photos of me holding the newt and grinning. Photos of the Sailor holding the newt and grinning. Measuring the newt. Describing the newt out loud and then writing it down in my field notebook. All the while I keep saying, “I can’t believe it.  This is so cool.” I thank the newt as I tend to do to all living and inanimate objects when I’m happy.

Finally, reluctantly, we let Mr. First Ever red-bellied newt continue on his way into the leafy litter and we hike farther down the trail.

This first red-bellied newt had a stub tail.  Probably nipped by an unwary bird or even another red-bellied newt fighting for territorial position in a insect-laden pool, the tail is growing back.
Chuck catches up with us and we excitedly share our sighting. Despite having run from the trailhead, Chuck is talking a mile a minute and comparing our sighting to the many times he has seen red-bellied newts on the trail and what we are likely to see ahead. He’s exultant and nearly dancing circles around the gear-laden us, he in his running shorts, t-shirt and mud-splattered running shoes. Eight months later, he has finally been proven right. He did see red-bellied newts and I, the biologist, have to eat my former words of doubt. Still, I am excited and I’m having a hard time following his rapid descriptions. Chuck promises that the next hairpin turn in the trail is the epicenter of red-bellied newts in the Stevens Creek watershed, the one place he has seen them most often. He launches into a tale about finding a red-bellied newt and a California newt having a tug-of-war over an earthworm under a giant Douglas fir tree, and even though he is doing all the talking, we can barely keep up with him on the trail.

And we do find red-bellied newts at the hairpin turn, fifteen of them, mostly large adults stubbornly making their way downhill towards the creek. I inspect, measure and photograph them, and mark their location on a map. Along the way, we also see many of the common California newts, and I keep a head count and mark them on the map too, but otherwise we pay them little attention. At the bottom of the trail, we search the creek for newts but see none, pause to wash out hands and then eat lunch.

When they are not moving, the red-bellied newts are well camouflaged
in the leafy brown and black litter of the forest floor   
The sun comes out. The Sailor and I strip off our rain gear and still we are sweating. We are now heading back up the trail and seeing few newts. Chuck decides the newts are done for the day, and he has other adventures in mind, so he is going to run uphill and leave us slugs behind. He says goodbye with a gloating grin, and I know that look in his eyes means “I told you so.” I just laugh because it is good to be proven wrong on this one.

I can barely breathe on the steep parts of the trail, so I am silently thanking the glistening leaves, the rocks, even the trail signs and I feel like I am going to hallucinate with exhaustion and happiness. The Sailor is silent too and I assume he is glowing with joy. We have seen the improbable - a beautifully colored salamander 80 miles out of its known range and I am back to daydreaming about its flashing red palms.

Over the next few months, I become increasingly obsessed with the red-bellied newt. I read papers about its behavior and the potent neurotoxin of which its bright color warns. I hunt down obscure clues on why it might occur at this unlikely location. On rainy days, I argue with my boss about whether I need to stay in the office to complete meaningless administrative tasks. On weekends, I gather an eclectic band of nature nerds and neighbors to comb the Stevens Creek watershed and sometimes we find more red-bellied newts of all sizes indicating that they may be breeding.  

Meanwhile, the Sailor and I get into it. I don’t spend enough time with him in the city. My head is always flying away on the wind and I can't stop talking about the dark-eyed stranger. I don’t want to stop wandering, I tell him, and miss another chance to discover the fantastic, the first ever again. 

One evening, the Sailor and I try to prove to ourselves that we are still friends by meeting for dinner in a Persian restaurant. I'm not happy to be in the city but I'm curious that he's suggested such exotic food and I really want to be pleasant, even laugh with him again. The conversation quickly goes offtrack and soon he is pounding his fist on a counter right next to my head. Dark clouds of fog and pain are streaming over his lips. A humming noise starts and I can’t hear what he’s saying. I’m looking around the restaurant for the red flashing hand, the hand that’s non-threatening, the newt that doesn’t care what I do or what I eat but goes about its business as if I am of no importance. The newt that is calling me to solve its mystery and I walk out of the restaurant.

The red-bellied newts appeared to be traveling long distances, even up and down steep grades. We saw them tumble head-over-tail down a bank, then right their bright undersides and start trundling on again.   
Sometimes, I look at the photographs of the Sailor and me on that rainy, colorful day when we first found the red-bellied newt. In photo after photo, we are grinning and we are delirious. Bursts of light are pouring out of our eyes and lifting our hats. There are very few moments we have like that in our lives - a unique adventure, a new discovery, something beautiful and improbable that exists on its own and has nothing to do with us. We are just observers. We didn’t make it happen, we just experienced it together. It was a sweet time. 

Some people would have been satisfied with this once-in-a-lifetime experience but I wanted to solve the mystery of why the red-bellied newt was so far away from its home. As a botanist, I needed help from salamander experts. Experts I didn't know and who would probably doubt me
. But if Chuck-the-Runner could endure eight months of my own skepticism, then I could find the courage to call on some experts.


To be continued as A Newt or Not a Newt?

This post is the fourth 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.

Red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis)
California newt (Taricha torosa)
Rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa)


  1. It is so exciting to make nature discoveries... I want to wish you a very Happy Holiday season... Michelle

  2. I'm glad that I found this tale of discovery!

    1. Thanks, Brent. I'm curious as to how you found this story and the Dipper Ranch blogsite. I haven't been able to write recently but have several more stories (snakes!) coming up.


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