Coulter Pine

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While hiking on Mount Hamilton in California, it was impossible not to notice a few impressively-sized pine cones on the ground. The cones were extremely spiny and exuded a sticky substance that was noticeable when they were picked up.

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The Coulter Pine is also known as Big-cone Pine; this species is named after Thomas Coulter, an Irish botanist and physician. Coulter Pine needles occur in bundles of three and are 6 to 12 inches long.

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This tree produces the heaviest cone of any pine tree. Old time lumberjacks called them “widow makers” because the cones occasionally killed loggers when they fell. People are advised to wear hardhats when working in Coulter Pine groves.

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This evergreen is native to the coastal mountains from central California to the Baja peninsula. The tree’s crown is broad, thin and irregular.

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Its bark is dark gray to black, deeply rugged with scaly ridges. It can reach heights of 75 feet with a straight to contorted trunk up to 3 feet in diameter.

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For its flower, male cones are yellow in tight clusters, while female cones dark red-brown. This is a slow growing species, reaching only 20 feet in 20 years. Given the proper conditions, the trees can live up to 100 years.

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Their massive spiny cones, can be as long as 20 inches and weigh more than 10 pounds. This was a neat tree to spend time with on my California visit.

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Pacific Giant Salamander

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While visiting Van Damme State Park in California, I came across one of the world’s largest land-dwelling salamanders, it reaches up to 13 inches in total length. These salamanders have a relatively large head, body and legs. Their smooth skin usually has tan, gold, or grey mottling on top of a dark brown, reddish-brown, or grey background.

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While Pacific Giant Salamanders start their life as entirely aquatic larva, with gills that allow them to breathe under water, most of their time as adults is spent beneath logs, bark or stones, either on a streambed or on land, though they will roam about freely after heavy rains.

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Pacific Giant Salamanders are found in a variety of habitats, but most live in the forest, near cool, clear, mountain streams. Mature and old-growth forests with plenty of litter, downed wood and talus are preferred habitats.

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These robust-skulled amphibians are equipped with blade-like teeth. They are well known for their ability to prey on small salamanders as well as rodents and small snakes.

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While most salamanders are silent, the Pacific Giant Salamander is one of several salamanders that have vocal abilities. When startled, these amphibians may respond with a low-pitched growl or bark. It was rewarding to come across this cool creature.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer

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I often see this large mammal while visiting California. It is part of a group known as Mule Deer and is indigenous to western North America; Mule Deer are named for their ears, which are large like those of the Mule. They have excellent hearing and eyesight that warns them of approaching dangers.

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Mule Deer are among the most beloved and iconic wildlife of the American West. They are distributed throughout western North America from the coastal islands of Alaska, down the West Coast to southern Baja Mexico.

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These animals live in a broad range of habitats such as forests, prairies, plain, deserts and brushlands. Mountain populations migrate to higher elevation in warmer months, looking for nutrient-rich new-grown grasses, twigs, and shrubs. I see them most often in open grasslands and forest edge ecosystems.

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer are most active in the morning and evening, spending most of the daylight hours bedded down under cover where they are hidden from predators. Mule deer are primarily browsers, with a majority of their diet comprised of forbs (weeds) and browse (leaves and twigs of woody shrubs).

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Like all deer species, they are ruminants which means their stomach has four chambers to help them better digest the food they eat. Although capable of running, mule deer are often seen stotting (also called pronking), in which they spring into the air, lifting all four feet off the ground simultaneously.


Each Spring, a buck’s antlers start to regrow almost immediately after the old antlers are shed. Shedding typically takes place in mid-February. Here’s a buck sporting new antlers that I saw at Point Reyes National Seashore last month. As the antlers grow, they are covered with velvet, a layer of skin rich with blood vessels and nerves that nourish the bony antlers.

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Coming from an area where White-tailed Deer are common, it’s neat to see their Back-tailed counterpart when visting the West.

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Foothill Yellow-legged Frog

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While visiting California, I decided to seek out this creek-dwelling creature. It was a bit of a challenge, since it is a Federal Species of Concern and California Species of Special Concern.

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After quite a bit of hiking I came upon a creek. It wasn’t long after arriving that I spotted an amphibian just shy of three inches with bumpy skin in muddy shades of red, green or brown. It was unremarkable at first glance, but flipping it over revealed a distinctive lemon-yellow color under its legs.

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The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog can be found in Pacificfrom the upper reaches of the Willamette River system, Oregon, all the way south to the Upper San Gabriel River in Los Angeles County, California.

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Once thriving across their range, these frogs have disappeared from more than half their historical localities due to a variety of threats, including dams, timber harvesting, mining, livestock grazing, roads and urbanization, climate change, pollution, invasive species and disease.

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This amphibian uses slow-flowing streams and rivers to lay its eggs during the Spring months after the flow from the Winter storms has settled. After hatching, the tadpoles typically stay around the location of the egg cluster. After metamorphosis, which typically takes 3-4 months, the juvenile frogs make their way upstream from the hatching site.

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The Foothill Yellow-legged Frog is one of the most poorly-known frog species, as no detailed study of its life history has ever been undertaken. I felt very lucky to have found a few individuals of this very cool amphibian on my outing.

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