Garden Tiger Moth

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While hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore, I came across a few of these really cool looking caterpillars. The Garden Tiger Moth lives in the northern United States, Canada and Europe.

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Like the Woolly Bear (the caterpillar of the Isabella Tiger Moth) from my home state of Ohio, this “punk rock” looking caterpillar prefers cool climates with temperate seasonality, since they overwinter.

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Tiger Moths tend to have conspicuous patterns on their wings that serve as a warning to predators, indicating the moth’s poisonous body fluids. Its caterpillar’s hairs act as a deterrent to birds and provide some protection against parasitic flies and wasps.

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This species resides in a number of habitats, including gardens, damp meadows, fens, riverbanks, sand dunes and open woodland. Because of the caterpillar’s generalist diet, it is not constrained to where it lives by needing a specific host plant.

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Like other Tiger Moths, the adult Garden Tiger Moth exudes a yellow smelly liquid from a gland at the back of its head as a deterrent to predators. This insect’s bold colors are ideal for frightening predators – as the moth normally hides its hindwings under its less colorful forewings when resting.

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Aquatic Intergrade Garter Snake

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Marin County (CA) is a locality where all three subspecies of aquatic Garter Snakes (Santa Cruz, Oregon and Diablo Range Garter Snake) naturally intergrade.

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Although garter snakes are found across the United States, aquatic garter snakes are only found in the coastal regions of California north of Santa Barbara and the southern Oregon coast.

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Aquatic Intergrade Garter Snakes eat fish, salamanders, toads and newts. They do not have venom, nor do they constrict to subdue prey. Instead, they quickly grab prey by mouth and swallow it whole.

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Like other garter snakes, they have a striped pattern. These snakes have characteristics of each of the three subspecies that are combined to create them. This snake can be seen most of the year when conditions allow, but is primarily found during Spring through Fall.

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These reptiles inhabit creeks, streams, rivers, small lakes and ponds. They seem to prefer shallow rocky creeks and streams and are often found in woodland, brush and forest.

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Although they are often associated with water, I sometimes encounter them quite some distance from a permanent water source. They are active during the day and after dark during very hot weather.

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These snakes are always unique and interesting finds while exploring the Bay Area of California.

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Yellow Sand Verbena

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While exploring Point Reyes National Seashore, this low-to-the-ground plant with striking yellow flowers caught my eye. It is native to the west coast of North America, from southern California to the Canada–United States border.

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Most members of this genus have pink or purple flowers, but those of this species are bright yellow, making it easily recognizable.

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Yellow Sand Verbena grows on beach dunes and sand dunes of coastal bars and river mouths along the immediate coastline. It is an important plant in helping to stabilize dunes to resist erosion.

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It bears attractive neatly rounded heads of small, bright golden flowers. The individual flowers have no petals; rather, they are composed of yellow bracts forming a trumpet shaped around its stamens.

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This plant is seen exhibiting psammophory, a method by which plants save themselves from herbivores by attracting sand to themselves, making them difficult to be eaten.

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Yellow Sand Verbena’s leaves are succulent-like, in common with many other coastal plants and are about as long as wide, growing on short, thick stalks. Its roots are edible and traditionally eaten by the Chinook Indians.

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A member of the Four O’clock Family, this wildflower is also known as Coastal Sand Verbena.

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Northern Clingfish

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A tadpole in the ocean? That was the first thought that went through my head upon finding this fascinating fish. Most Clingfish species have tapering bodies and flattened heads, appearing somewhat tadpole-like in their overall shape.

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These fairly small to very small fishes are widespread in tropical and temperate regions, mostly near the coast, but a few species in deeper seas or fresh water. They are thought to primarily feed on tiny crustaceans.

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Clingfish are named for their ability to firmly attach themselves to surfaces, even in strong water currents or when hit by waves. This ability is enabled by their sucking disc, which is located on the underside at the chest and is formed by modified pelvic fins and adjacent tissue.

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Most species shelter in shallow reefs or seagrass beds, clinging to rocks, algae and seagrass leaves with their sucking disc. The sucking disc can be remarkably strong, in some species able to lift as much as 300 times the weight of the Clingfish.

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A Clingfish’s suction cup does double duty. When the tide goes out, a Clingfish’s pool might be left high and dry. But the cup holds in moisture, so the fish can still breathe.

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They often live in places exposed to strong currents and wave action and some are amphibious. As long as this intertidal-living species is kept moist by splashing waves, it can survive for up to three to four days on land.

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Most Clingfish species have a cryptic coloration, often brown, grey, whitish, black, reddish or green shades, and in some cases they can rapidly change color to match their background. This was a super cool find while tidepooling in the Golden State.

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Striped Kelpfish

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While tidepooling in the Bay Area of California, I came across this super cool creature that looks like seaweed.

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The Striped Kelpfish has an elongated and compressed body. It is brown, green or red in color and can be weakly striped or mottled in darker colors. It reaches a maximum length of 9 inches, with females being larger than males.

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These neat fish are found in intertidal zones within algae beds including in tidal pools and within seaweed and the kelp canopy mid-water at depths up to 30 feet.

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Kelpfish are known to change colors to adapt to their surroundings, they do this to hunt for their food, which is other small fish, crustaceans and mollusks…or to avoid becoming eaten.

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They are considered to be an important component of the food chain preyed upon by a large variety of fish, sea birds and marine mammals.

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The Striped Kelpfish is native to the Pacific Coast of North America from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico.

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Penpoint Gunnel

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This was an exciting find while tidepooling in California. The creature’s color can be varying shades of green, maroon or brown. It is commonly 4 to 8 inches long, though it can grow up to 18 inches. It is most easily identified by the dark bar below each eye.

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This is an elongated fish with long, low fins that tends to camouflage itself by matching the color of the seaweed where it hides. While Penpoint Gunnels cannot change color, they appear to be able to recognize and select the vegetation for which their color is a good match.

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In addition to hiding in seaweed, they also hide under rocks – including rocks out of the water at low tide. These fish are capable of breathing air while out of the water. The “penpoint” refers to the first spine of the anal fin. It is large and grooved like a fountain pen point.

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Like most Gunnels, the Penpoint Gunnel feeds on small crustaceans and mollusks. This North American Pacific Coast fish ranges from Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska to Santa Barbara Island in southern California.

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Of all the cool creatures that I encountered on my California visit, this one was my favorite.

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Kelp Crab

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We found several of these super cool crustaceans while tidepooling in California. Like other members in their family, they have very tough exoskeletons to protect them from predators.

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These crabs belong to a large group called “Spider Crabs.” They generally have long legs with relatively small body. Their carapace (back shell) somewhat resembles a five-pointed sheriff’s badge; it is smooth and is longer than it is wide.

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This species is usually dark brown. Kelp Crabs, as their name implies, are typically associated with their namesake plant and they are colored much like kelp. Their legs end in sharp points, which are used to cling to slippery surfaces.

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These creatures are herbivores most of the time. During the Summer they nip off bits of brown algae such as kelp, rockweed and sea cabbage, as well as several types of red algae. When the algae die back during Winter, they turn to an animal diet, including small mussels and barnacles.

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Kelp Crabs are found in rocky intertidal areas, kelp beds and around structures such as pier pilings. In the Fall, adults move to deeper water where they congregate, feed and mate. They use kelp beds not only for food, but also as shelter against predators such as Sea Otters.

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These creatures will sometimes attach pieces of kelp to the points on their carapace, saving them to eat later. While these long-legged invertebrates look delicate, they are stronger than you may think and are able to give forceful pinches with their front claws.

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Smoothhead Sculpin

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We found this cool creature while tidepooling in California. One thing that is noticeable about these particular sculpins is their massive heads, especially when compared to their tidepool peers.

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This is a common small fish in pools in the intertidal zone of rocky coasts, flitting from one hiding place to another. It shows great homing ability, returning each time the tide recedes to the pool in which it has taken up residence.

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The Smoothhead Sculpin is a predator, feeding on small invertebrates such as isopods, amphipods, gastropod mollusks, worms and barnacles – as well as insects that happen to fall into the water.

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When the seas are rough, it moves closer the shore. It can leave the water and breathe air, exchanging both oxygen and carbon dioxide, while hiding in a damp spot. This was an awesome Golden State find.

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Nuttall’s Linanthus

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While hiking on Mount Charleston in southern Nevada, I noticed the small flowering plant growing close to the ground.

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This member of the Phlox Family is a sweetly aromatic, clump-forming perennial with a round mound of stems clad with a distinctive whorled foliage.

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Native to much of the southwestern United States, it lives on dry, open or lightly wooded, often rocky slopes from the foothills to well up into the mountains.

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Nuttall’s Linanthus’ flowers are very similar to many other members of the Phlox Family. They are white or pale cream in color, about half an inch across and have five unnotched petals, centered on a yellow tube.

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This species was named in 1870 from a specimen collected by famed botanist and Harvard teacher, Thomas Nuttall.

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Western Coachwhip

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This is a classic American serpent of the southwestern deserts. It is active in the daytime, extremely alert and very speedy. I’ve come across it a few times on my visits to the Mojave Desert.

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Western Coachwhips actively hunt and eat lizards, small birds and rodents, subduing their prey by grasping it and holding it down with their jaws, rather than using constriction.

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They are curious reptiles with excellent eyesight and are known to “periscope,” which is to raise their heads above the level of the grass or rocks to see what is around them. They are often seen foraging in the hottest hours of a summer day.

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A mature Western Coachwhip may measure three to eight feet in length, though they average about four feet. They are a slender-bodied snake with a long and thinly tapered tail.

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This reptile has a range as to what it looks like in physical appearance; its dominant color often blends in with the soil color of its habitat, helping to camouflage the snake. The common name “Coachwhip” comes from these snakes often having a black head and neck, resembling a whip handle and large scales resembling a braided whip.

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For habitat, the Western Coachwhip prefers relatively open territory, such as sand dunes, prairielands, desert scrub, rocky hillsides and open pine and oak woodlands.

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The coachwhip is one of the longest native snakes found in North America. Out west it is also known as the “Red Racer” and it is a thrilling herp to encounter in the field.

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