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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