Broadhead Skink

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While visiting Virginia this month, I came across a lizard that I have not seen in a few years. The Broadhead Skink can grow to over a foot long and is the northeast’s largest lizard.

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This reptile is essentially a woodland inhabitant. It easily climbs trees and can sometimes be observed high in the branches of dead trees.

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Though Broadhead Skinks live in trees and prefer open forest habitats, they can also found hunting, mating and nesting on the ground. Here is one that I saw crossing a gravel road in southern Illinois a few years back.

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The female and young closely resemble the female and young of the smaller Five-lined Skink. This is an immature specimen which has a bright blue tail. Adult males are a uniform olive-brown, often sporting a considerable amount of red-orange coloration on their enlarged heads.

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Their diet is comprised of mostly insects. Broadhead Skinks search for food in trees and on the the ground using visual and scent signals, which are detected by tongue flicking.

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Trumpeter Swan

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While visiting northwest Ohio recently, I observed several of these huge waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans are listed as Threatened in Ohio. In 1996, Ohio became one of a number of states involved in reintroduction plans to restore them to the Midwest.

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These birds were killed for food and skins, first by Indians and then by white men upon arrival on the continent. The plumage trade peaked in the early 1800s and swan populations were dramatically reduced by the mid-1800s. Loss of habitat for this wetland-dependent species resulted in further declines.

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Weighing from 25-35 pounds when fully grown, the Trumpeter Swan is the world’s largest waterfowl. Adults usually measure 4-1/2–5-1/2 feet long. When fully extended, their wingspan can reach nearly eight feet.

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The long neck of the Trumpeter Swan is an adaptation that allows the bird to access food inaccessible to other species of waterfowl. Trumpeter Swans forage on water and, especially in Winter, on land. Their long necks allow them access submergent vegetation without diving.

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Trumpeter Swans inhabit lakes, ponds, large rivers, and coastal bays. They were historically more common in fresh water than salt water, but this is no longer the case.

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They are a long-lived, social species.

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Cecropia Moth

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Last month a female Cecropia Moth emerged from underneath my neighbor’s deck; it spent Fall and Winter there in a cocoon.

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The very next night a male stopped by to mate. This is North America’s largest native moth – females with wingspans of six inches or more have been documented.

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This spectacular insect is prized by collectors and nature lovers alike for its large size and extremely showy appearance. Their caterpillars feed on leaves (mainly Maple) throughout the summer. The adult moths don’t eat at all and rarely live longer than a week.

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The adults’ sole function is to mate and produce a crop of eggs. In order to find a mate, male Cecropia moths use their extraordinary senses. A female moth produces chemicals called pheromones, which the male can detect from over a mile away.

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I haven’t seen one of these awesome insects since my childhood, so it was a thrill to get reacquainted with them.

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Star of Bethlehem

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Lately, when hiking on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath, I’ve been seeing a lot of this plant. Star of Bethlehem belongs to the Lily Family and blooms in late spring or early summer. It is native to the Mediterranean region and is similar to wild garlic (though it does not have a garlic smell).

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The English name “Star of Bethlehem” seems to date from the Middle Ages. The bulbs were sometimes brought home as souvenirs during pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

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Its flowers are clustered at the tips of stems up to one foot tall. The three sepals and three petals form an attractive star, white on the upper surface, with green lines on the underside. It blooms from April to June; all parts of this plant are poisonous.

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The blooms open during the early morning hours and close by noon. This characteristic habit gives it the nickname “Nap By Noon.” Its leaves are grasslike, very dark green, rolled inward with a white center vein.

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Star of Bethlehem can be found in a variety of situations, including pastures, bottomland and upland forests, roadsides, suburban lawns and disturbed areas.

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Santa Cruz Garter Snake

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Being back in California last month allowed me to see my favorite Garter Snake in the wild. This species fills the niche of a Water Snake in the Golden State; it is often found around ponds and creeks.

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The Santa Cruz Garter Snake is only found California and resides in central and southern parts of the state. It has two pattern morphs: one with a single stripe along the back, and a three-striped morph more typical of garter snakes.

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Although they are usually less than three feet long, females can be rather stout-bodied. Its bright yellow (or sometimes orange) dorsal stripe creates a striking contrast with its black body color.

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This is an active and alert species that will seek the shelter of water and plunge to the bottom of a creek or pond and hide when approached.

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It feeds mainly on amphibians including frogs, tadpoles, and aquatic salamander larvae, but small fish are also eaten.

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Like all garter snakes, the Santa Cruz bears live offspring. Broods consist of three to 12 young.

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California Red-legged Frog

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This amphibian only lives in California. I’ve encountered them several times on my visits to the Golden State, though they are federally listed as a threatened species and are protected by law.

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This species is estimated to have disappeared from 70% of its range; it is an important food source for the endangered San Francisco Garter Snake. Two reasons for this amphibian’s decline are invasive species and habitat loss.

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The California Red-legged Frog became famous for being the frog featured in Mark Twain’s short story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

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At two to five inches long, it is the largest native frog in the western United States. It has a reddish coloring on the underside of the legs and belly. The back and top of the legs are covered in black spots or blotches. Typically, the face has a dark mask and a tan or light colored stripe above the jaw that extends to the shoulder.

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Like most frogs, they will eat just about anything they can catch and fit in their mouths. Most of the time their food is insects. Their favored habitat is slow-moving or standing deep ponds, pools and streams. Tall vegetation, like grasses, cattails and shrubs, provide protection from predators and the sun.

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Some of its challenges are non-native American Bullfrogs (which are well established in California) competing for habitat as well as eating them. Another challenge is homes, farms and buildings being built on their wetland habitats.

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I enjoy coming across these very cool creatures when visiting the West Coast, hopefully a way will be found to preserve what’s left of their population.

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Ensatina

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Ensatinas belong to a family known as Lungless Salamanders. Oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange occurs through their moist skin.

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Adults can reach an overall length of about 6 inches, but are usually smaller. There are seven subspecies, all of which can be found in California.

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Their main habitat is forested areas, where they seek seclusion beneath fallen trees and rocks. During cool, cloudy, moist, rainy or damp, foggy days, these little amphibians often are out and about during daylight hours.

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One distinct characteristic of Ensantinas is constriction at the base of the tail. If severely stressed, either by environmental factors or a predator, the salamander discards its tail at the point of this constriction.

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This species is also known to secrete milky alkaline toxins from glands in the tail which are extremely distasteful and irritable to most predators. Like most salamanders, they eat a wide variety of invertebrates.

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There is a lot of variety in coloration, but almost all have orange or yellow coloring on the tops of their legs. Ensatinas also appear to have over-sized heads with large, expressive eyes.

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It’s always a pleasure to come across one of these cool creatures in the field, and I found a few on my last visit to California.

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California Ground Squirrel

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This is a common and easily observed mammal that I saw a lot of on my last visit to California. The squirrel’s upper parts are mottled, with the fur containing a mixture of gray, light brown and dusky colors.

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Unlike squirrels from my home state of Ohio, California Ground Squirrels live in burrows which they excavate themselves. Some burrows are occupied communally, but each individual squirrel has its own entrance.

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Their diet is is primarily seed-based, including barley, oats, and acorns. They eat eggs, insects, roots, tubers, seeds, grains, nuts and fruit. California Ground Squirrels have cheek pouches which allow them to collect more food than would otherwise be possible in one sitting. Like Ohio squirrels, they collect and store food for future use.

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Much research has been done on the interactions, both behavioral and biochemical, between Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes and California Ground Squirrels. Adult squirrels are largely resistant to the rattlesnakes’ venom and exhibit interesting behaviors such as tail-flagging and pushing grass at the snake when they encounter one.

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These interesting creatures have several calls and are fun to watch. They create habitat for other animals, such as rodents and snakes, which occupy empty burrows.

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California Kingsnake

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This reptile is a subspecies of Common Kingsnake, which have an extensive range that stretches from coast to coast.

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The California Kingsnake lives in a wide variety of habitats, including woodland chaparral, grassland, deserts, marshes, along rivers or farms and even in bushy suburban areas.

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Their food items include rodents, other reptiles, birds and amphibians.They are powerful constrictors. The “king” in their name refers to their ability to hunt and consume other snakes, including venomous rattlesnakes.

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This reptile is more active during the daytime in the colder regions of its range, but with higher temperatures, the California Kingsnake becomes night, dawn and dusk.

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Adults tend to be about three feet long. Although the distinctive banded pattern is common throughout its range a striped version occurs naturally as well in coastal southern California.

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I enjoy coming across this snake on my travels to California, Arizona and Nevada.

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Sierran Treefrog

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During my recent visit to California, I came across several examples of this small frog with a big head, large eyes, a slim waist, round pads on the toe tips and limited webbing between its toes.

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The name “treefrog” is not entirely accurate. This frog is chiefly a ground-dweller, living among shrubs and grass typically near water, but occasionally it can also be found climbing high in vegetation.

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Its large toe pads allow it to climb easily, and cling to branches, twigs, and grass. Like most frogs, its primary food is insects and other invertebrates.

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These amphibians can be a number of different colors, including green, tan, reddish, gray, brown, cream and black; most are a shade of green or brown, with pale or white bellies.

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They have a variety of dark markings on their backs and sides and a black or dark brown eye stripe that stretches from the nose, across the eye, and back to the shoulder.

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Adult Sierran Treefrogs are generally 1 to 2 inches long. On average, females are larger than males.

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The Sierran Treefrog makes its home around creeks, as well as woodlands, grassland, chaparral, pasture land, and even urban areas – including backyard ponds. It’s always fun to come across these charming and cool creatures.

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