Pacific Giant Salamander

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While visiting Van Damme State Park in California, I came across one of the world’s largest land-dwelling salamanders, it reaches up to 13 inches in total length. These salamanders have a relatively large head, body and legs. Their smooth skin usually has tan, gold, or grey mottling on top of a dark brown, reddish-brown, or grey background.

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While Pacific Giant Salamanders start their life as entirely aquatic larva, with gills that allow them to breathe under water, most of their time as adults is spent beneath logs, bark or stones, either on a streambed or on land, though they will roam about freely after heavy rains.

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Pacific Giant Salamanders are found in a variety of habitats, but most live in the forest, near cool, clear, mountain streams. Mature and old-growth forests with plenty of litter, downed wood and talus are preferred habitats.

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These robust-skulled amphibians are equipped with blade-like teeth. They are well known for their ability to prey on small salamanders as well as rodents and small snakes.

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While most salamanders are silent, the Pacific Giant Salamander is one of several salamanders that have vocal abilities. When startled, these amphibians may respond with a low-pitched growl or bark. It was rewarding to come across this cool creature.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer

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I often see this large mammal while visiting California. It is part of a group known as Mule Deer and is indigenous to western North America; Mule Deer are named for their ears, which are large like those of the Mule. They have excellent hearing and eyesight that warns them of approaching dangers.

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Mule Deer are among the most beloved and iconic wildlife of the American West. They are distributed throughout western North America from the coastal islands of Alaska, down the West Coast to southern Baja Mexico.

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These animals live in a broad range of habitats such as forests, prairies, plain, deserts and brushlands. Mountain populations migrate to higher elevation in warmer months, looking for nutrient-rich new-grown grasses, twigs, and shrubs. I see them most often in open grasslands and forest edge ecosystems.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer are most active in the morning and evening, spending most of the daylight hours bedded down under cover where they are hidden from predators. Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of forbs (weeds) and browse (leaves and twigs of woody shrubs).

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Like all deer species, they are ruminants which means their stomach has four chambers to help them better digest the food they eat. Although capable of running, mule deer are often seen stotting (also called pronking), in which they spring into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously.

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Each Spring, a buck’s antlers start to regrow almost immediately after the old antlers are shed. Shedding typically takes place in mid-February. Here’s a buck sporting new antlers that I saw at Point Reyes National Seashore last month. As the antlers grow, they are covered with velvet, a layer of skin rich with blood vessels and nerves that nourish the bony antlers.

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Coming from an area where White-tailed Deer are common, it’s neat to see their Back-tailed counterpart when visting the West.

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Foothill Yellow-legged Frog

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While visiting California, I decided to seek out this creek-dwelling creature. It was a bit of a challenge, since it is a Federal Species of Concern and California Species of Special Concern.

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After quite a bit of hiking I came upon a creek. It wasn’t long after arriving that I spotted an amphibian just shy of three inches with bumpy skin in muddy shades of red, green or brown. It was unremarkable at first glance, but flipping it over revealed a distinctive lemon-yellow color under its legs.

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The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog can be found in Pacificfrom the upper reaches of the Willamette River system, Oregon, all the way south to the Upper San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County, California.

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Once thriving across their range, these frogs have disappeared from more than half their historical localities due to a variety of threats, including dams, timber harvesting, mining, livestock grazing, roads and urbanization, climate change, pollution, invasive species and disease.

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This amphibian uses slow-flowing streams and rivers to lay its eggs during the Spring months after the flow from the Winter storms has settled. After hatching, the tadpoles typically stay around the location of the egg cluster. After metamorphosis, which typically takes 3-4 months, the juvenile frogs make their way upstream from the hatching site.

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The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog is one of the most poorly-known frog species, as no detailed study of its life history has ever been undertaken. I felt very lucky to have found a few individuals of this very cool amphibian on my outing.

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Yellow Monkeyflower

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I sometimes come across this wildflower while visiting California. It is a member of the figwort family, the same family as Snapdragons, which I grow in my garden. The resemblance is clear.

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Yellow Monkeyflower is found in a wide range of habitats, but prefers wet places, including the splash zone of the Pacific Ocean, the chaparral of California, the geysers of Yellowstone National Park and alpine meadows. I see them the most in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where it can be quite misty.

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This plant can grow as high as three feet. The flowers have red or maroon spots on the wide, hairy throat of the lower lip petal. Its coarsely toothed leaves are edible and can be eaten raw or cooked; they are sometimes added to salads as a lettuce substitute, though they have a slight bitter taste.

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Over the years, Yellow Monkeyflower has been a model organism for studies of evolution and ecology. There may be as many as 1,000 scientific papers focused on this species.

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It’s genus, Mimulus, comes from the Latin word that refers to “mime,” a reference to the funny clown-like face the flower resembles. “Monkeyflower” is another reference to the shape of the flower.

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Funny or not, this eye-catching bright yellow-flowered plant is a welcome sight while on my travels.

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Coast Garter Snake

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Without a doubt this is the most commonly encountered serpent when I’m on my outings in California. Here’s one of several that I found this week while visiting The Golden State.

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This reptile is highly variable in appearance, with the colors between its yellow stripes brown or olive, with a pattern of dark spots, intermixed with a suffusion of red, orange or rust coloring.

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It inhabits a range of ecosystems and elevations – I have found it at sea level as well as at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

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Despite its subspecies name terrestris, it is often found near water. Open sections of conifer forests, fields, foothills and along creeks and at the edges of ponds are some of the spots where I’ve found them.

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Reflecting the diversity of habitats frequented by these snakes, a wide variety of foods are eaten, including fish, amphibians, leeches, slugs, earthworms, lizards, snakes, small mammals and birds.

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This snake occurs in a narrow coastal strip from the southern part of California up until southern Oregon; hence the common name “Coast Garter Snake.”

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Like other Garter Snakes in the United States, this species gives birth to live young in mid to late Summer.

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Though commonplace, I enjoy seeing this classic feeding generalist that is adaptable to take advantage of they variety of prey that exists in California’s highly variable climatic conditions.

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Devil Stripe-tailed Scorpion

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While exploring the desert, I often come across this creature, which lives primarly in Arizona and occupies a wide variety of habitats, from sandy deserts to grasslands to mountains.

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Like other scorpions, it has a long tail equipped with a venomous stinger used for defense and to subdue struggling prey (usually insects). It also is equipped with pincers to catch prey and tear it to pieces.

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Although the sting of this very common scorpion is reportedly quite painful, it is not dangerous to people with normal reactions and the pain soon vanishes.

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Scorpions have been found in fossil records, including coal deposits from the Carboniferous Period. They are thought to have existed in 425-450 million years ago. These arachnids have changed little in the hundreds of millions of years since they first climbed from the primal seas and took their place among earth’s first terrestrial arthropods.

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Devil Stripe-tailed Scorpions are sturdy and medium-sized. They usually are under rocks during the day. Like all scorpions, they are nocturnal and venture from their shelters at night to forage for prey.

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A stout tail with darkly-marked ridges running lengthwise and a total body length of about two inches are identifying characteristics of this desert ground dweller.

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Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard

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Hiking Kelso “Singing” Sand Dunes in California is an odd sensation. It feels like you are walking up an escalator that is going down as the sand shifts under your feet.

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The largest dune field in the Mojave Desert also offers a chance of hearing a low, rumbling “song” that can not only be heard, but can also be felt vibrating through the ever shifting ground.

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Although the environment at first seemed barren and lifeless, a bit of movement caught my eye. Then it was gone. A little while later I saw a similar movement and this time carefully watched where the creature buried itself.

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The Mojave Fringe-toed Lizard is a flat-bodied lizard with smooth, sand-colored skin featuring a pattern of small black spots. Their habitat is restricted to areas containing fine wind-blown sand dunes, the margins of dry lake beds, desert washes, and hillsides. Large, triangular-shaped fringes on their rear toes are used for speed and mobility in the sand.

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This reptile feeds on small invertebrates that dwell close to the sand’s surface, such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers, and scorpions. They also eat seeds, leaves, grasses, and flowers.

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This is a speedy, ground-dwelling lizard that runs on its hind limbs when at top speeds. When threatened it often runs a short distance and then wriggles under the sand, chisel-shaped snout first. This was a really neat place to encounter a really neat lizard!

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Speckled Rattlesnake

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My first example of this snake I found in the daytime in Valley of Fire State Park (NV), most of the others I have encountered while roadhunting at night in Nevada and Arizona. This is a venomous species found in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico.

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The Speckled Rattlesnake is not a particularly large snake; most measure 2 to 3 feet in length. This species varies in color, often matching the earth tones of the rocks and soil in its habitat. Some occur in beautiful shades of orange or pink.

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Like all rattlesnakes, this reptile has heat-sensing pits on either side of its head with which it detects warm-blooded prey. The pits are located in between the nostril and the eye.

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With a scientific name of Crotalus mitchellii, it is named in honor of Silas Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), a medical doctor who also studied rattlesnake venom.

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The Speckled Rattlesnake eats mice, rats, lizards and birds. It uses venom injected through its long, hollow, retractable fangs to kill and begin digesting its prey.

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This is an alert, nervous species most often associated with rocky hillsides and outcrops. In older literature, this snake is known as the Faded, Bleached and Granite Rattlesnake.

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Great Plains Toad

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While visiting Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge in the Mojave Desert, I heard explosive jackhammer-like metallic trills that lasted almost a minute. I decided to investigate.

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Located in a region of Southern Nevada which receives only about 6-1/2 inches of rain per year, the refuge’s lakes, marshes, meadows and tall Cottonwood Trees are quite a contrast to the surrounding desert; it’s like an oasis.

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I eventually pinpointed where the noise was coming from and located my first ever Great Plains Toad. It was easily identified by its large, symmetrical olive blotches with light borders on a background color of gray-brown to green. It was a robust toad with dry, warty skin.

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Additional looking turned up a few more. This creature occurs in deserts, grasslands, semi-desert scrublands, open floodplains, and agricultural areas. The Great Plains Toad is beneficial to farmers, as its primary diet is various species of cutworms as well as other insects.

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This amphibian is widespread in the Great Plains States and the Southwestern United States. In dry areas it may only emerge from its burrow for a few weeks when conditions are right, and usually at night; but in areas with permanent water and abundant rain, it may be active all day.

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The Great Plains Toad is an accomplished burrower and often remains underground in the daytime if conditions aren’t ideal for it to be out and about. It has spades on its hind feet which makes them well equipped for digging.

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This amphibian is slow moving, often using a walking or crawling motion along with short hops. Like most toads in the United States, it relies on the secretion of poison from its wart-like glands to deter predators.

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It was very cool to come across this unexpected amphibian while on my visit to the Silver State.

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Chuckwalla

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While hiking the Las Vegas Area, it’s easy to give your attention to the lizards scurrying across the desert floor, but by looking up, you may find another intriguing desert dweller quietly perched high in the rocks.

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Unlike most other lizards here in the southwest, the Chuckwalla is strictly a rock dweller and is found in rocky outcrops, lava flows, and rocky hillsides of the Great Basin, Mohave and Sonoran deserts.

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This is a large, bulky lizard reaching nearly 16 inches long, with folds of loose skin on the sides of its body. Its original species name, obesus, refers to how fat the reptile looks.

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Males tend to be slightly larger than females and are often darker in color. Their color varies considerably by region, but generally includes grey, reddish brown and/or yellow. The banded patterns found on juveniles are often retained into adulthood by females.

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These day-active lizards emerge in the morning and before seeking food, bask in the sun until reaching an optimum body temperature of 100-105 degrees F. I often see them out and about when it is too hot for other lizards.

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The Chuckwalla is primarily a vegetarian and eats fruit, leaves, buds and flowers from a variety of annual as well as perennial plants. It also occasionally supplements its diet with insects. Its favorite foods are yellow flowers and the fruit of the prickly pear cactus.

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When the Chuckwalla senses danger, it scurries between rocks and lodges itself tightly into a crevice. Then it inflates itself with air until it becomes securely wedged. This makes it nearly impossible to extract from its retreat.

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This is one of the largest lizards native to the United States. It’s a “classic” desert reptile that I always enjoy seeing in the wild.

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