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.


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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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.


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.


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.


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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California Night-stalking Tiger Beetle

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These are really neat beetles which have sickle shaped mandibles and live in open habitats. They reside mainly in California, but there also have been sightings of this insect in southwest Oregon.


The California Night-stalking Tiger Beetle inhabits areas between meadows and forests where there are an abundance of pine trees.

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This is a carnivorous beetle both during the larval and adult stages of development. Larva wait near the entrance of the burrow for passing organisms and quickly grab prey and drag it back into the burrow.

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Adults are mainly nocturnal and roam about during cloudy days or night in search of prey, which is mostly insects. Their diet depends heavily upon what organisms are available; they are rather opportunistic.

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Although fast-moving like the Six-spotted Tiger Beetle from my home state of Ohio, this species is unable to fly. I’ve been glad to come across this intriguing creature on my last two visits to California.

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Arboreal Salamander

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This species is found both on the ground as well as in trees. On the ground it often hides in logs and stumps or beneath bark and rocks. I enjoy coming across this amphibian when I visit California. Here’s one that I found yesterday.

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It is also well known for its climbing abilities. “Back in the day” many individuals were found on the University of California Campus at Berkeley occupying cavities in trees, some at a height of 30 feet above the ground. This is a juvenile that I encountered this week (the rest of the photos in this post are from previous visits to California).

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This is a fairly big salamander (the largest examples reach 7 inches, including the tail) with a large head and angular jaws. The eyes are prominent. Its stout legs undoubtably aid it in scaling trees. It is often chocolate-brown in color and sprinkled with pale yellow spots.

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This is one of the very few salamanders with vocal abilities. When handled it may bite and squeak.

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The Arboreal Salamander is mostly nocturnal and eats insects such as crickets and termites (as well as other invertebrates) found underneath leaf litter at night. These are lungless salamanders that breathe through their skin, so they are restricted to areas with plenty of moisture.

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Not only do these amphibians have a interesting “look” to them, but their unique lifestyle makes them and enjoyable herp to find and observe in the wild.

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Pacific Gopher Snake

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This large constrictor is native to the western coast of the United States. It is just one of the several subspecies of Gopher Snakes that we have living in the United States. I look forward to seeing more of them on my current visit to California.

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Although they can grow seven feet in length, most adults that I find are about half that size. I tend to find them in habitats such as meadows, fields and agricultural farmland; they are seldom found in dense forests.

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Pacific Gopher Snakes range from cream to light brown and have dark blotches on their backs and smaller dark spots along their sides. Young examples tend to be more boldly patterned than adults.

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Their keeled scales caused their skin to have a bit of a rough texture. Thier pointed head and enlarged scale in the tip of the nose are adaptations for burrowing.

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The Pacific Gopher Snake can produce a loud hiss when agitated or fearful. This species will also inflate its body, flatten its head, and vigorously shake its tail, when threatened.

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These snakes are primarily active during the day, though are sometimes seen moving and hunting at night – especially during warm weather. They are good climbers and burrowers.

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Harmless to humans, these reptiles are important to keeping the rodent population in check and maintaining their local ecosystems.

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Mourning Dove

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This graceful, slender-tailed, small-headed dove is common across the continent. The Mourning Dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. They like to hang out on the deck rail, ground and backyard maple tree at my house.

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Part of the reason for its significant increase in population is that many forests have been converted to farmlands, pastures and towns – which provide ideal habitat, as this is an open-country bird.

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Their soft, drawn-out calls sound like laments (mourning). When taking off, their wings make a sharp whistling or whinnying sound. Mourning Doves have coloration that matches their surroundings. They are brown to tan overall, with black spots on the wings and black-bordered white tips.

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Seeds make up 99 percent of a Mourning Dove’s diet. It tends to feed busily on the ground, swallowing seeds and storing them in an enlargement of the esophagus called the crop. Once they’ve filled their crop, they fly to a safe perch to digest their meal.

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Although this is primarily a bird of open areas with scattered trees, and woodland edges, large numbers roost in woodlots during Winter.

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