Spotted Towhee

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I have seen this fine bird in the Cerbat Mountains of Arizona as well as in California at Point Reyes National Seashore. It favors habitats of chaparral and brushy mountain slopes.

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The Spotted Towhee differs from the Eastern Tohwee found in my home state of Ohio in that it has heavy white spotting on its upperparts and harsher, more variable callnotes in its song.

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Like its eastern relative, it has a dark hood, rufous sides and a white belly – in addition to a dark, conical bill and red eyes.

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This large New World sparrow is roughly the same size as an American Robin. These birds forage on the ground or in low vegetation and have a habit of noisily rummaging through dry leaves while searching for food.

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Spotted Towhees feed mainly on insects, spiders and other arthropods in Spring and Summer and then switch to seeds, grain and berries in the Autumn and Winter.

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This is a handsome and conspicuous bird that I enjoy seeing on my trips out west.

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Santa Cruz Black Salamander

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I found this cool creature while herping the Golden State. They can measure up to 5-1/2 inches in total length. As their name implies, they are often solid black, though they sometimes sport a few fine white specks.

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This amphibian belongs to a large group known as Lungless Salamanders; they do not breathe through lungs, instead they conduct respiration through their skin and the tissues lining their mouth. This requires them to live in damp environments on land and travel only during times of high humidity.

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The Santa Cruz Black Salamander lives in forested areas and grasslands, where it uses rock slides, rotten logs and surface debris for cover. Like most salamanders, it feeds on small invertebrates such as spiders, beetles, ants and termites.

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This is a terrestrial amphibian that does not need standing or flowing water for breeding or any other part of its life cycle, although it may be found close to creeks or seeps. There is direct development of eggs into juveniles that resemble miniature adults, except with some color variation.

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It was enjoyable to make my acquaintance with this animal, which only lives within a very limited range and is endemic to California.

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Chalcedon Checkerspot

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I sometimes come across this colorful and very cool little butterfly while on my visits to California. It it relatively small, with a wingspan of less than two inches.

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It is a highly variable species, with the wing upper surface being black to dark brown and a characteristic yellow and red checkerspot pattern.

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The Chalcedon Checkerspot is widespread in the western mountains from Mexico to Alaska and ranges west to the Pacific Coast. It is a habitat generalist, though I most often see it in open fields.

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It can also be found in streamsides, forest clearings, sagebrush flats, desert hills and alpine areas. Males often remain perched on their caterpillar host plants, like Monkey Flower, as a strategy to encounter females.

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This is an enjoyable creature to see on my visits to the Golden State.

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Giant White Wakerobin

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This spectacular wildflower was easy to spot in the overcast, rainy Pacific Northwest forest. This largest and showiest type of trillium is frequently cultivated in wildflower gardens.

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The species is endemic to the western United States, ranging from west central California through Oregon to Washington. It is found in diverse habitats, such as the moist slopes of mixed deciduous-coniferous forests, among shrubs, thickets and along stream banks and river beds.

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This plant has an elegant appearance in low-growing clumps of large green leaf-like bracts and brilliant white flowers. Scientifically known as Trillium albidum, this is a very long lived genus, with some species known to live for multiple decades. In the wild, most species take 7-10 years to produce flowers from seeds.

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Giant White Wakerobin’s seeds are mainly dispersed by ants, which transport the seeds to their homes in order to consume part of the seed coat. This plant also spreads underground through rhizomes.

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As its common name suggests, it is one of the earliest blooming of California native flowers and a herald of spring.

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Flattop Crab

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This was a tiny, but super cool find while tidepooling on the California coast. A member of the Porcelain Crab Family, it shares the general body plan of a squat lobster, but their bodies are more compact and flattened – an adaptation for living and hiding under rocks.

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These are quite fragile animals and often shed their limbs to escape predators, hence the family name “Porcelain Crab.” What struck me the most about this creature was its oversized claws which it uses to defend its territory.

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Flattop Crabs are an example of carcinisation, whereby a noncrab-like animal (in this case a relative of a squat lobster) evolves into an animal that resembles a true crab. They can be distinguished from true crabs by the apparent number of walking legs (three instead of four pairs) and the long antennae located on the front outside of the eyestalks.

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These crustaceans feed by combing plankton and other organic particles from the water using long bristle-like structures on their mouthparts. At a a shell size of less than one inch across, its prey is quite small, mainly consisting of diatoms.

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The Flattop Crab can be found in the lower intertidal of sheltered waters. Its range extends from southeastern Alaska to southern California. It prefers areas with strong currents and can be found under rocks, especially those embedded in gravel or sand under seaweed and mussel beds in both exposed and sheltered shores.

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This was an awesome find on my Golden State adventure.

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Leather Star

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While tidepooling on the California Coast, I came across this sea star that was unlike any I’d ever seen before. Instead of being spiny and hard, it was soft and smooth.

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Leather Stars usually have five wide arms. Their upper surface is blue-gray and mottled with red and orange. Their texture is smooth and slippery to the touch, somewhat like wet leather.

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This animal feeds largely on sea anemones, sea cucumbers and Purple Sea Urchins. Occasionally they may eat sponges, hydroids and other marine invertebrates.

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The Leather Star sometimes lives symbiotically with the scaleworm Arctonoe vittata. This worm lives in the tube foot grooves of the sea star.

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Unlike many other sea stars, Leather Stars swallow their prey whole and digest it internally. They can grow to about 12 inches in diameter and have a distinctive smell that resembles garlic and sulphur.

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In order to hunt for food, the Leather Star has sensors at the end of each arm that can detect prey.

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Sea stars can reproduce sexually and asexually. They reproduce asexually by dividing their bodies and regenerating missing parts. The decapitated starfish limb can grow into a new sea star, so long as a part of the central body portion is attached.

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Leather Stars are found from Prince William Sound, Alaska to San Diego, California. They live on rocky shores and in clean harbors on pilings and sea walls.

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By-the-wind-sailor

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While tidepooling on the California coast, I came across these strange looking creatures. At fist I didn’t think that they were organisms at all, but rather pieces of plastic.

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It is a free-floating hydrozoan that lives on the surface of the open ocean. Each apparent individual is a hydroid colony and most are less than three inches long.

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Though their deep blue color is eye-catching, their most obvious feature is a small stiff sail that catches the wind and propels them over the surface of the sea. They catch their prey (generally plankton) using tentacles that hang down in the water and bear stinging cells.

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These creatures typically live far offshore in open ocean waters and their little sails help distribute them using the force of the wind. However, because they sail only downwind or at a slight angle to the wind, they are often blown ashore in very high numbers, with millions piling onto beaches in drift rows.

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There are two forms of By-the-wind-sailors. California specimens have a sail which is angled to the right of the main axis. This means that as the wind pushes it along, the creature tacks as much as 60 degrees to the right of the true wind direction. California’s predominant wind is from the northwest, therefore these animals are usually kept offshore.

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The other form of By-the-wind-sailor has a sail angled to the left of the main axis. Not surprisingly these animals are found on the other side of the ocean – Japan, Korea and Siberia. Here the sail functions in the same way – it keeps the animal offshore and therefore safe from being stranded.

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Each By-the-wind-sailor is a colony of all-male or all-female individuals (called polyps), which are divided into separate groups within the colony. Some polyps specialize in feeding and reproduction, while others protect the colony and provide structural support.

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All polyps of an individual By-the-wind-sailor are connected by a canal system that distributes food and eliminates wastes. Even though they are very common and distributed throughout the oceans of the world, very little is known about the details of their life.

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This was indeed one of the coolest creatures that I found on my visit to the Golden State. These animals may be alternately known as Sea Rafts, Purple Sails and Little Sails.

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European Starling

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This bird was introduced to North America in 1890 and 1891, when about 60 individuals were released into New York’s Central Park as part of the local Shakespeare society’s plan to introduce all the birds mentioned in their author’s favorite writings.

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Today, more than 200 million European Starlings range from Alaska to Mexico and many people consider them pests. Here in Ohio, this may be the most numerous of any bird species, with massive Winter roosts numbering into the tens of thousands.

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This is a surprisingly long-lived creature, with the North American record for a wild bird being 17 years and 8 months. Starlings are great vocal mimics; they readily imitate other birds as well as mechanical sounds and even human speech.

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European Starlings turn from spotted to glossy and dark each year without shedding their feathers. The new feathers they grow in Fall have bold white tips – that’s what gives them their spots. By spring, these tips have worn away, and the rest of the feather is dark and iridescent brown. It’s an unusual changing act that scientists term “wear molt.”

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Starlings will eat nearly anything, but they focus on insects and other invertebrates when they’re available. They also eat fruit including wild and cultivated types. We most often see them at our suet feeders.

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Though they’re sometimes resented for their abundance and aggressiveness, European Starlings are still dazzling birds when you get a good look at them.

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Wandering Broadhead Planarian

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It’s not very often that I come across these very cool creatures, but I did recently while flipping rocks along a creek. Land Planarians are a type of flatworm that have about 1,000 different species living worldwide. The Wandering Broadhead Planarians are identified as flat, yellow and with a dark stripe down the middle of their backs. They are quite slimy, like a slug. Apparently the slime helps them move as well as maintain internal moisture levels.

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Wandering Broadhead Planarians are nocturnal predators that feed on slugs, snails, pillbugs, millipedes, spiders and earthworms. They use chemical signals that are produced in folds of their skin to detect prey. When a land planarian feeds, it slimes over top of potential prey, attaches its mouth opening and vomits digestive juices, liquifying its food. Then it sucks up the soupy nutrients.

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Like many other flatworms, they are able to reproduce either sexually or asexually. Sexual reproduction culminates in eggs being placed in cocoons that hatch in three weeks. A single planarian will, every couple of weeks or so, attach its tail to a rock or some other immoveable object and slime away, tearing its tail from its torso. A new tail grows from the wound, as we might expect of a flatworm. The tail segment left behind, however, grows a new torso and head within 10 days.

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I often think of these strange creatures as being in the tropics and although I found these on a chilly Ohio day, they are indigenous to Southeast Asia. In the United States, they were first encountered in 1943 in Westchester County, New York. Since that time, and despite the disparity in climate between the USA and Southeast Asia, they have spread practically from coast to coast.

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Trentepohlia Alga

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While hiking in Brecksville Reservation, I noticed this bright orange coloration on a rock wall. Upon closer examination, it appeared to be made up of tiny orange “cushions.”

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The genus Trentepohlia would not, at first glance, be taken as a green alga. But this free-living species is mostly yellow to bright orange or red-brown in color, due to carotenoid pigment, which usually hides the green of the chlorophyll.

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Trentepohlia is a genus of filamentous terrestrial green alga with a worldwide distribution. It grows on rocks, old walls and the trunks and branches of trees. It does not do any damage to the surfaces that it resides on.

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Algae (singular alga) are members of a group of predominantly aquatic photosynthetic organisms. Algae are almost ubiquitous throughout the world and can be categorized ecologically by their habitats.

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Their photosynthetic pigments are more varied than those of plants, and their cells have features not found among plants and animals. Algae serve ecological roles as oxygen producers and as the food base for almost all aquatic life.

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This was a fun and colorful find on an otherwise dreary February day in northeast Ohio.

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