Sequoia

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While visiting Yosemite National Park in April, I walked a mile through the snow to have my first-ever encounter with these massive trees.

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This species is the largest known tree on earth and grow only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada at elevations between 4,500 to 7,000 feet. Found nowhere else on the planet, they are closely related to California’s Coast Redwoods – the tallest trees in the world.

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Sequoias can grow to be about 30 feet in diameter and more than 250 feet tall. They can live to be over 3,000 years old, with the oldest one on record living more than 3,500 years.

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Mature Sequoias lack branches on the lower half of their trunks. Their trunks taper as they rise, forming a rounded top where individual branches sweep downward. Their green needles are small and arranged in spirals.

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The snowpack from the Sierra Nevada provides these giant trees with the thousands of gallons of water every day.

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It was an awesome experience to meet a tree “in person” that I have been reading about for so many years!

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Painted Lady

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I often see this butterfly in my travels, as well as in my backyard. My larest encounter was at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. This insect it is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world.

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Males perch and patrol during the afternoon for receptive females. In the western United States males usually perch on shrubs on hilltops, while in my home state of Ohio, males position themselves on bare ground in open areas.

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This is sometimes called the “Thistle Butterfly,” because thistle plants are its favorite nectar plant for food. It is also one of the Painted Lady caterpillar’s favorite food plants. What probably owes the global abundance of this creature is that thistle are common and invasive plants.

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This butterfly is an irruptive migrant, meaning that it migrates independent of any seasonal or geographic patterns. It can cover a lot of ground, up to 100 miles per day at speeds of nearly 30 miles per hour.

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They are a favorite subject of study in elementary school classrooms, and often the caterpillars can be ordered in “grow kits” where they can be raised and after they transform into adults are released.

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Though the Painted Lady is one of the most familiar butterflies in the world, found on nearly all continents and in all climates, it’s still nice to come across them, wherever I may happen to be.

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California Scrub Jay

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This is a fun bird to encounter while visiting the Golden State; it is both colorful and intelligent. Their behavior can be bold and inquisitive, and their calls can be loud and raucous. The California Scrub Jay is often seen in parks, neighborhoods and riverside woods near the Pacific Coast.

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Pairs of California Scrub-Jays are often seen swooping across clearings, giving harsh calls, with their long tails flopping in flight. This is a bird that does not migrate. Western Scrub Jays eat insects, fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds, and occasionally small animals. They are regular visitors to bird feeders.

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California Scrub Jays gather surpluses of food and store it in scattered caches within their territories. They rely on highly accurate and complex memories to recover their hidden food, often after long periods of time. Jays can also be quite mischievous when it comes to procuring and storing food. They will steal acorns from Acorn Woodpecker caches as well as from stores hidden by other jays, and then look around to make sure no one is watching before they hide their stolen prize.

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Recent research has suggested that jays and crows are among the most intelligent of animals. The brain-to-body mass ratio of adult California Scrub Jays rivals that of chimpanzees and is dwarfed only by that of humans.

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Western Scrub Jays appear to have “funerals” in reaction to finding a dead jay. They will screech over the body, attracting other jays, for as long as 30 minutes and stay near the body for a day or two. We often don’t think of birds as being as “brainy” as mammals, but crows and jays are challenging that mindset.

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Douglas Iris

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When visiting Point Reyes National Seashore I often encounter this common wildflower of the coastal and central regions of Northern and Central California.

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The Douglas Iris was first described by 19th century botanist David Douglas Scottish who traveled through the American Northwest collecting a variety of plants. He also has the Douglas Fir named after him.

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In Spring, large clumps of iris with flowers ranging from cream to deep purple bloom in grasslands along the coast, and in the deep shade of coastal forests.

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The flowers are intricately patterned with nectar guidelines for potential pollinators, such as bees and butterflies.

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The Douglas Iris’ sword-shaped leaves overlap and can reach over one foot long, rising from underground stems called rhizomes.

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“Back in the day,” Native Americans in California extracted a single fiber from each leaf margin and used it to create strong silky fibers for fishing nets, rope and snares for catching game.

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Diablo Range Garter Snake

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This is a neat reptile that occasionally find when visiting California (the only place where it lives). It belongs to a species atratus, often called the “aquatic garter snakes.”

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Since there are no water snakes native to the Golden State, these fill the ecological niche that water snakes would otherwise occupy. This serpent is often found along waterways and when threatened, it usually escapes into the water, hiding on the bottom.

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Like many other garter snakes, it has three yellow stripes on a dark background. I tend to find it found on the edges of brushlands, woodlands, grasslands, and forests near ponds, marshes, streams and lakes.

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The Diablo Range Garter Snake as an adult tends to be less than three feet long. It is active in the daytime and forages for prey near water sources. It mainly eats frogs, tadpoles and fish.

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Like all North American garter snakes, this species produces live offspring, having about a dozen babies in late Summer or early Fall.

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Rough-skinned Newt

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Rough-skinned Newts have relatively grainy and dry skin compared to other salamanders. They also have a fairly stocky shape. This distinctive salamander is two toned: dull grey to brown on top, and bright orange to yellow below.

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Their bright belly color serves as a warning to would-be predators. When disturbed, the newt will curve its head, neck and tail upwards to display it.

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I often find them in forested environments under rotting logs. Like most amphibians, newts become more active and come out of hiding when it rains, but unlike other salamander species they will venture out during the day.

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Adult newts eat a variety of organisms, including insects, slugs, worms, and even amphibian eggs and larvae.

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Protected by powerful tertrodotoxins, the Rough-skinned Newt is the most poisonous amphibian in the Pacific Northwest. One contains enough poison to kill 25,000 mice.

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Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk

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While visiting Van Damme State Park in California, I saw a few of these cool rodents. Also known as the Redwood Chipmunk, this is a member Squirrel Family. It is endemic to areas near the coast of northern California in the United States where it inhabits coastal coniferous forest.

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The Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk is tawny olive in color with five dark stripes on the body and three on the head. As the name implies. As its name implies, a pale patch of fur is found immediately behind the ear.

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This animal is secretive in its habits and rarely seen, but it can often be heard emitting its characteristic shrill double-syllable “chuck-chuck” call. These animals rely on Coastal Redwood forests and mixed conifer or Douglas Fir forests for their habitat.

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At the end of winter and beginning of spring, a significant portion of their diet consists of fungi. The rest of the year they consume is a very wide range of seeds. The Yellow-cheeked Chipmunk has a limited range with a total area of occupancy of only 7,700 square miles, though its population is steady and it faces no particular threats.

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This is a neat creature that few people get to see – and a great part of my California adventure.

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Northern Alligator Lizard

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This lizard occurs along the Pacific Coast and in the Rocky Mountains from southern British Columbia to central California. Square bony scales, a large head on an elongated body and powerful jaws probably give this reptile its common name.

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Northern Alligator Lizards are small to medium-sized rough-scaled lizards with short limbs and a long tail. Their body is around 4 inches long and their tail adds an additional 6 inches.

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I often find them in grassy, bushy, or rocky openings in forests, but they can also reside in areas of low to moderate development, including in rock retaining walls, woody debris and rock piles. Lizards need the sunny openings to bask in to thermoregulate.

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Northern Alligator Lizards are found in cooler and wetter environments than other species of lizards in the United States. This reptile feeds on a variety of food items, including crickets, spiders, beetles, moths, snails, small lizards and baby mice.

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Alligator Lizards are characterized by a distinct fold of skin along their lower sides. This allows the body to expand when the lizard is breathing, full of food, or in the case of females, carrying offspring.

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This creature has the ability to “release” (autotomize) its tail. The dropped tail acts as a decoy, distracting the potential predator. Over time, the lizard will regenerate a shorter, fatter tail.

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Unlike its relative the Southern Alligator Lizard (an egglaying species), this reptile gives birth to live offspring.

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Plains Garter Snake

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While flipping some debris behind a gas station in Kankakee, Illinois, I came across this “lifer” reptile.

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This snake occurs in grassy areas such as vacant lots, abandoned fields, meadows and pastures. It is not unusual to find them near towns.

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Plains Garter Snakes are native to most of the central United States and range as far north as Canada and as far south as Texas. In my home state of Ohio, we have an isolated population.

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Their diet is similar to that of most other garter snakes; they favor frogs and toads, salamanders, fish, small rodents, leeches and earthworms.

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Like other garters, the Plains Garter Snake features three yellow stripes on a background color of dark brown to dark green. Described as “one of the most cold-tolerant snakes,” on warmer Winter days, it often comes out of hibernation to bask in the sun.

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Though the habitat was unglamorous, while visiting the “Land of Lincoln, it was super cool to find this snake that I’ve never seen in the field before.

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Snowdrops

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The young shoots of snowdrops emerging from the frost-covered ground provides anticipation for the beginning of Spring.

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Snowdrops are in the amaryllis family and there are only a dozen cultivated species, mostly native to the deciduous woodlands of Europe and western Asia.

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Flowering from January to March, it can naturally be found growing in the woods and by streams. The plants have two linear leaves and a single small white drooping bell-shaped flower.

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Snowdrops have been known since early times, being described by the classical Greek author Theophrastus in the fourth century BC.

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Celebrated as a sign of Spring, Snowdrops can form impressive carpets of white in areas where they are native or have been naturalized.

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I enjoy seeing them in my yard as well as when I’m out and about in late Winter and early Spring.

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