California Reptiles and Amphibians Part 2

Sunday was the big field trip day! We packed sunscreen, poison oak soap, lunch, water, and a warm jacket and met our fellow students and instructors near the staging area. We were very lucky to have this field trip go to the Crystal Springs Reservoir area, a protected (and fenced in) area south of San Francisco. Only two vans were allowed in, and we were accompanied by a water warden at all times.

The instructor promised frequent stops, and we would look around for a stretch of time at each place. She had scouted out the area the week before - and we were all excited about this opportunity to see for ourselves.

The first stop was already a success - the instructor immediately found a newt that was hiding under a log, and we also saw some slender salamanders (and a lot of poison oak). Several different newts live in the Bay Area, the rough-skinned newt, the California newt, and the red-bellied newt. You can identify them by how the coloration around their eyes is. But as a beginner in the herp identification department, I was quite happy to tell a newt from a salamander from a lizard and won't attempt identification.


At our next stop, everyone went to the bathroom and one of the students found a dead sharp-tailed snake, which we "posed" on a rock, and which the Herbarium staff ended up taking along for the collection.

Sharp tailed snake

The instructors also found several more chorus frogs, often hiding between the bark and the wood on a dead tree. We saw them in bright green and in brown, and one of the guys even puffed up his throat to look big and threatening.

They were all very small and quite hard to catch, but we were lucky to have several experts along so we would all get a good look and take a photo or two.

The slender salamanders, in contrast, were not that hard to catch because it was rather cool, but they were hard to find.

They always blend in very well with their environment, and they are quite small and look like worms with little feet. The instructor thought that you can find them in most gardens, but I've looked and haven't found any so far.

Slender salamander

Much more rare -  so rare that it's on the Vulnerable list - is the California Red-legged frog. Our water warden very fortunately knew where they were hanging out at the edge of a lake, but we couldn't get very close, so this photo is the best we have. We saw three frogs at this place, mostly submerged, but clearly ready for the next insect that might come by.

As the day went on, we got to higher and more exposed areas and it was much windier and colder than we had expected - especially because the sun did not come out. But we bundled up in what we had and were rewarded by a Skilton's skink (the only skink that lives in the Bay Area). Regrettably, it got so freaked out by being handled that it dropped its tail which wiggled mightily as the instructor held the skink. And then it dropped another part of its tail. Lizards and skinks drop their tails so predators scoop up the tail and leave the rest of the animal alone - and they then regrow the tail. When we looked at the lizards from the jars the day before, we had found that most of them had a regrown tail. Below you see the skink from the back, with part of its tail missing.


We also found an alligator lizard, and I am now rethinking my identification of some of the lizards near Tassajara - they were so big and shiny that they were probably alligator lizards, not fence lizards.

Alligator lizard

By that point, I was so cold that I had to retreat to the van to warm up. I missed seeing a snake and a fence lizard, but that's the price I paid for not wearing long undies, and I'll know better next time. I did go out to explore again at the next spot where we had hoped to find a giant salamander but found instead some mussels and a lot of poison oak.

By then, it was getting toward 3 o'clock and we were getting tired and ready for hot tea and a bathroom. The van dropped us off where the cars were and we were on our way. And here's what we learned:

  • There's an amazing number of amphibians and reptiles right outside! Many are endangered, and we have to make sure that we don't cover all the areas where they might like to live with houses. 
  • Some salamanders, lizards, even snakes or frogs quite enjoy living in a suburban garden. They need shelter, some water, and enough food. I have a few arm-thick (or thinner) logs in a few places -- great places to hide. 
  • Having a pesticide free garden can help - and having CA native plants helps even more. The Camelias in my garden always look perfect, while the CA native all have little nibbles here and there. Those insects feed my lizards!
  • Jepson Herbarium is an amazing place for taking classes and they do amazing field trips (one woman in this class had been to several of them). So, here's hoping we can go on another one soon!

Postscript: A week after the workshop Mr. Mouse and I applied our new herp detection skills in our own garden and were thrilled to find a slender salamander (shown below) and a lizard who was too fast for us to identify or photograph. Great fun!


Country Mouse said…
What a great day out - so many wonderful critters! Mostly when I see slender salamanders it's been rainy and they've slithered or been washed into the swimming pool - from which it is easy (and fun!) to rescue them next morning.