Northern Red Salamander

This past weekend I accompanied 18 high school students to south-central Ohio to explore some of the state’s natural wonders. We found a creek and Adam, Pat, Jen and Claire decided to turn a few logs in the area.

Our efforts paid off when we found this strikingly bright red amphibian with scattered black dots.

Jen thought is was an awesome find, and I agreed.

The habitat for this colorful creature is under rocks and logs in and around cold, clean springs and adjacent brooks.

The Northern Red Salamander is a large (up to 8 inches) amphibian. This species has a distinctive, bright yellow iris and a stout body.

Older examples of this salamander, like this one I found a few years ago, are less brightly colored and often somewhat purplish.

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Western Conifer Seed Bug

Looking out my kitchen window this morning, I saw one of these trapped between the screen and the window. The Western Conifer Seed Bug belongs to a small group of true bugs called the leaf-footed bugs. As the name indicates, these bugs have long hind legs that end with a flattened, leaf-like structure. They sometimes are called “walky bugs” in Ohio due to the slow and steady way that they walk.

There are more around the house that stay hidden, though on warm Fall, Winter and Spring days they can be seen in the open, catching the warm sun’s rays. They are able to fly and make a buzzing noise when airborne.

The Western Conifer Seed Bug feeds on the sap of developing conifer cones throughout its life. Their primary defense is to spray a bitter, offending smell; though to humans sometimes it can smell pleasantly of apples or pine sap.

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This insect was first described in the western United States and has been expanding its range eastward. It was first detected in Pennsylvania in 1992.

Western Conifer Seed Bugs overwinter as adults under protective debris for shelter. They are harmless to people and kind of cool to have hanging around the house. Their flat bodies allow them to wedge themselves into small cracks and sometimes they end up inside homes.

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Marsh Marigold

I got back in Ohio in time to see one of the showiest of all of our early blooming wildflowers. Marsh Marigold is found in marshy areas and wet woods.

The flowers are about 1-1/2 inches across. This plant forms loose clumps of large kidney or heart shaped waxy leaves, with branching stems 12 to 18 inches tall.

Its genus, Caltha, is Latin for “cup” and describes the upturned petal-like sepals which form a shallow cup. Though “marigold” may be a good description of its color, this is not a true Marigold, but rather, a type of buttercup.

“Back in the day” this plant had the common name of “Cowslip.” Since it often grows in low lying hilly areas, cows often slipped on it when they went to a creek to take a drink.

This plant grows along quiet waterways, such as streams and ponds. I haven’t seen it in a few years, so it was nice running into several examples of Marsh Marigold in Brecksville Reservation today.

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False Tarantula

By looking under a rock found on a hillside, I found the biggest wild spider I’ve ever seen – a False Tarantula. These creatures are about the same size as the local tarantulas but they are in a different family of spiders.

These spiders usually safely hidden in their self-made caves; wandering males are what most people tend to encounter. They share many similar characteristics as “real” tarantulas, which is why the two are often confused.

False Tarantulas occur all over California from sea level to the high Sierra Nevada Mountains. Their reclusive habits and nocturnal behavior keep them hidden from view most of the time, so they aren’t commonly encountered.

It is brown to silver gray in color and has fine hairs all over its entire body. This tarantula look-alike behaves much like its larger cousin.  If threatened, it will rear up and expose its fangs as a warning to its perceived attacker. Finding this big arachnid was one of the highlights of my California trip.

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Common Raven

The Common Raven has accompanied people around the Northern Hemisphere for centuries, following their wagons and hunting parties in hopes of a quick meal.

These birds are surprisingly large. They aren’t as social as crows; they tend to be seen alone or in pairs. Their throat is covered by thick and shaggy feathers and they have a thick, heavy bill.

Common Ravens prefer open landscapes, such as tundra, seacoasts, open riverbanks, rocky cliffs, mountain forests, plains, deserts, and scrubby woodlands. They store foods of all kinds, including nuts, bones, eggs, and meat.

These birds are very important in native cultures throughout their range. They an important mythic creature in western Native American traditions. In many cultures they are viewed as a symbol of wisdom, fertility and creation.

Unlike crows, Common Ravens typically soar and glide. On this windy day near the ocean, they would often hover on wind currents, remaining suspended in the air. They are acrobatic fliers and have been observed flying upside down for as far as one kilometer.

Common Ravens engage in seemingly playful acts such as yanking the tails of cats and dogs. They are among the smartest of all birds and are capable of learning innovative solutions to newly encountered problems.

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Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is the most widely distributed venomous reptile in California; it is one of the nine subspecies of the western rattlesnake. The one pictured below is a baby that was born last year.

This rattlesnake is one of the most broadly tolerant of all rattlers in its choice of habitats, though they prefer areas with rocky areas and ledges. It can be found at higher elevations than any other rattlesnake – up to 9,000 feet.

The snake preys upon small mammals, birds and lizards. It uses its tongue and heat sensing pits (the holes in its face between the eyes and nostrils) to hunt.

It uses venom to kill and break down the tissue of the animal, which helps to digest the victim. The Northern Pacific Rattlesnake hunts during the day on warm days, but waits until nightfall when the days become really hot.

Rattlesnakes add a rattle to their string each time their skin is shed. The rattle is composed of hardened keratin, the same material as a human’s fingernails.

Adult snakes typically reach 24-60 inches in length. They are stout and have fairly large eyes with vertical pupils and a long, dark cheek patch. Often the blotches that run down the snake’s back become bands further down, giving the snake a “raccoon tail.”

Rattlesnakes are live-bearing, and typically give birth to between 2 and 8 young in mid-September to October. Newborn rattlesnakes are fully venomous but lack a rattle; they have a small, modified scale at the tip of their tail called a “button.”

Though feared, rattlesnakes are valuable predators, and likely an important control agent for some species of small mammals.

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Harbor Seal

Driving along Highway 1 in the evening, I noticed a group of large rocks on a sandbar in the ocean. As I observed them, I noticed one of them move. I decided to investigate further. It turns out that the “rocks” were really Harbor Seals.

Harbor Seals have spotted coats in a variety of shades from white or silver-gray to black or dark brown. They reach five to six feet in length and weigh up to 300 pounds.

Since Harbor Seals cannot rotate their hind flippers underneath their hips, when on land they move by undulating in a caterpillar-like motion.

Their food includes herring, flounder, and perch. They will also consume octopus, squid and shrimp. A Harbor Seal’s diet varies seasonally and regionally and often is subject to local prey availability.

Seals have large eyes to see in dark, deep water. They have long necks, which they can shoot out quickly to catch fish while swimming. A seal’s whiskers help it hunt and navigate by sensing pressure waves from fish and underwater objects.

These days, many of the females are tending to their pups, which are born between February and April and weigh 20-24 pounds at birth. A pup can swim at birth and will sometimes ride on its mother’s back when tired. Pups make a bleating noise that sounds like maaaa. They sound like children and it’s a bit haunting.

It was a great way to end a day in the field to come across this unexpected surprise and experience these marine mammals.

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Northwest Forest Scorpion

Although scorpions are usually associated with deserts, they actually occupy a range of habitats from coastal beaches to mountains to tropical rainforests.

Their large front claws and long tail featuring a stinger at the end of it allow them to be easily recognized. Because of their secretive habits, scorpions are seldom seen – even in places where they are common.

The Northwest Forest Scorpion may be encountered under rocks, logs and in burrows. It is medium-sized, ranging from 2-3 inches. It is a communal, rather shy and a slow-to-act scorpion, preferring to play dead or hide rather than sting. All scorpions are venomous, though few are dangerous to humans.

Like its relatives, the Northwest Forest Scorpion will eat anything it can catch, though its diet mainly consists of insects. After dark they leave the safety of their shelters and either actively seek out or lie in wait to ambush prey.

A really cool thing about scorpions is that they glow under a UV light and it just so happens that I have a UV flashlight with me in this trip. The glowing is thought to attract insects (some of which apparently can see UV light) at night.

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Coast Redwood

The Coast Redwood is the world’s tallest tree. It’s hard not to think about prehistoric times when seeing their gigantic trunks. Found mostly in California, it grows in natural stands in a long, thin, coastal area along the Pacific Ocean.

Throughout the year it rains quite a lot in this thin coastal strip and it is quite foggy most of the time. Because of this, the tree can absorb enough water to survive.

Although we often think of life on the forest floor, different species of plants, lichens, salamanders and invertebrates live high up in the the complex branch systems of redwoods.

This tree provides cover for life on the forest floor as well. It sheds large slabs of thick back. Many different types of cool creatures can by found by looking under the shed bark at the foot of the tree; I found my first California snake this way.

These immense trees have delicate foliage. Narrow, three-quarter inch needles needles grow flat along their stems, creating feathery formations.

Because of the dramatic atmosphere, these redwood forests have been used as scenery in movies like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.

The world’s tallest living tree is named “Hyperion” (fans of the largest trees give them names) and is no less than 379 feet. In the most favorable parts of their range, Coast Redwoods can live more than two thousand years.

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California Toad

The California Toad is large and robust with dry, warty skin. It is slow moving, often getting about by walking or crawling instead of hopping.

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This species is generally nocturnal except in the Spring, when it is also active during the daytime. Here’s a small one that I found by a reservoir yesterday.

Toads eat spiders, insects, slugs and worms. Their prey is located by vision, afterwards the toad lunges with its large, sticky tongue to catch its food and bring it into its mouth.

The California Toad inhabits a variety of habitats, including marshes, springs, creeks, small lakes, meadows and woodlands. These amphibians spend much of their time underground. Although they are avid diggers, they generally use small mammal burrows or crevices under logs and rocks.

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These are one of the larger types of toads native to the United States. I did some herping with Sarah and Connie over the weekend. And Sarah found that they can be quite a handful.

Connie agreed with this assessment.

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