California Newt

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California Newts are large salamanders reaching a total length of around 8 inches. They are slow moving and have “expressive” faces. These amphibians have dry, warty skin that is not slimy and are light brown to black with a yellow to orange belly.

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The California Newt has a unique way of fending off predators. First they raise their head and point their tail straight out to expose their bright underside as a warning. If the predator attacks, the California Newt secretes neurotoxin through its warty skin and can cause paralysis and or death to its attacker.

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They spend the most of their lives under logs and in animal burrows during dry months. But during Spring rains, they migrate to breeding ponds. Several places in California close roads to insure the safe passage of these salamanders.

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Newts eat mostly bugs and worms, as well as slugs and snails. When feeding, adults flip out their sticky tongues to capture prey. They can live up to 20 years in the wild.

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Miner’s Lettuce

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Miner’s Lettuce is a broadleaf plant found throughout California (except for the lower desert areas). It inhabits natural plant communities, agricultural land, and urban areas, with a preference for cool, damp conditions. It dries up with the onset of hot weather.

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The flowers of Miner’s Lettuce bloom from February through May. Five to forty white to pale pink flowers on slender down-curved stalks cluster above a circular to weakly squared, often cuplike, green structure that looks like a leaf and completely surrounds the stem.

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This is an edible plant with pleasingly crunchy, mild-tasting, large leaves. The plant got its name because the Gold Rush miners ate it to stave off the scurvy, which is caused by a Vitamin C deficiency. It is one of the few North American wild plants exported to Europe as a salad green.

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Miner’s Lettuce is an important source of food for wildlife, providing a grazing source for gophers, quail, doves and rodents, while seed-eating birds eat the plant’s fruit. On a cool, rainy day like today, these plants seem to be thriving.

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Third Eye Herp

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug

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Here’s an insect that I recently found in my house. The Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, an insect not previously seen on our continent, was apparently accidentally introduced into eastern Pennsylvania about 10-15 years ago.

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It is native to China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan. This insect feeds on a wide range of fruits, vegetables and other plants. It is a sucking insect, a “true bug”, that uses its straw-like mouth to pierce a host plant in order to feed.

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Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs are attracted to the outsides of houses on warm Fall days while searching for protected, overwintering sites. They occasionally reappear during warmer, sunny periods throughout the Winter, and again when they emerge in the Spring.

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They are the typical “shield” shape of other stink bugs, almost as wide as they are long, which is less than an inch. The name “stink bug” refers to the scent glands which release an odor when the insect feels threatened. This prevents it from being eaten by many types of birds and lizards.

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Adults can live from several months to a year. While sometimes confused with native stink bugs, to identify this species accurately, examine its antennae for alternating bands of light and dark on the last two segments.

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Virginia Creeper

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As the snow and ice begins to melt, bits of green can be seen on the forest floor. One plant responsible to adding color to the forest at this time of year is Virginia Creeper, which is beginning to sprout.

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This plant is commonly misidentified as Poison Ivy due to its similar ability to climb upon trees. The easy way to tell the difference is the “Leaves of three, let them be,” slogan for Poison Ivy; Virginia Creeper has five leaflets.

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It is a prolific climber, in the Summer it can reach heights of 60 to 90 feet. It climbs smooth surfaces using small forked tendrils tipped with small strongly adhesive pads.

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The berries of this plant are eaten by many animals, especially birds, including: bluebirds, cardinals, chickadees, woodpeckers and turkey. Other animals, such as mice, skunks, chipmunks, squirrels and deer eat them too.

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It’s easy to see from its fruit that Virginia Creeper is in the grape family. Though other animals enjoy eating it, it is poisonous to humans.

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Since it is able to climb brick and stone walls, Virginia Creeper is widely planted as an ornamental. Its leaves turn a vibrant scarlet color in the fall.

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Winter Snowfly

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Because insects need warmth in order to function, they are not the sort of thing you’d expect to see on a Winter day. But nature has many “rule breakers” and the Winter Snowfly is one of them.

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Similar to dragonflies, damselflies, mayflies, and caddisflies – snowflies spend most of their life as aquatic larva. While most aquatic insects develop fastest in warm weather, Winter Snowflies do the opposite.

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Why don’t these insects freeze to death? The secret lies in the production of “antifreeze” that disrupts the formation of ice crystals in the insect’s haemolymph (blood), allowing the body fluids to remain liquid at temperatures several degrees below freezing.

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Once out of the water, snowflies rummage about in search of mates. Males attract females by drumming their rear end against the snow and ice. Females feel, rather than hear, the vibrations made by calling male.

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Winter Snowflies have very particular water quality requirements, and are among the first animals to disappear from polluted or degraded streams and lakes. As such, they are frequently used for biomonitoring.

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Club Moss

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These plants can be thought of a relicts of a glorious past, as Club Moss ancestors were tree-like during the aptly-named Carboniferous Period, which, together with ferns and horsetail ancestors, formed coal.

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This is one of the oldest living plants still around on Earth. Fossil records show evidence of relatives these plants alive on Earth over 200 million years ago. Like all primitive plants, they do not have flowers or seeds, but reproduce through spores in a cone-like structure at the end of the stem.

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They as also known as ground pines or creeping cedar, as they resemble these trees and a green year-round. But they are not very tall – maybe an inch or so.

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The spores have also been used in pyrotechnics and photography. They are extremely flammable and will explode when ignited. They were commonly used by old time photographers when they wanted to illuminate their subject, they would ignite the spores to create a flash.

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This small, fascinating plant with a long history also adds a bit of green to an otherwise mostly brown forest floor at this time of year.

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Dark-eyed Junco


This bird is nick-named the “snowbird” as it is most often seen in the Winter. It prefers cold climates and retreats north as Spring arrives. Juncos migrate to Canada to mate and raise offspring. They return to the U.S. to spend the Winter months.


These are birds of the ground. They can be seen foraging on the forest floor or gathering seeds in fields. Even when they visit birdfeeders (which they often do), they tend to stay on the ground and eat fallen seeds.


This species avoids deep forest interiors in favor of woodland edges and openings. Dark-eyed Juncos usually hop or walk as they move along the ground. They live in flocks and are very sociable outside of breeding season.


This wide-ranging, sparrow-sized bird shows considerable geographic variation in color. In Ohio it is slate-gray on its head, breast and back. This contrasts sharply with its white belly and outer tail feathers.


At this time of the year they can form mixed flocks with other small, seed-eating birds such as chickadees, sparrows and nuthatches. This “safety in numbers” behavior is an effective survival strategy.


Dark-eyed juncos, like many other bird species, are an important part of forest ecosystems. Members of this species aid in the dispersal of seeds and help to control insect populations.

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