Category Archives: Events

Salmon Day at the Hatchery, 11-04-19

I headed over to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.  They were going to open the fish ladder this morning at 10:30, but I wanted to get there and see the salmon before the crowd came in – and I’m glad I did.

It was 46º when I got to the hatchery and there were only three other cars in the parking lot, so I could park wherever I wanted to.  There were two rangers on the weir, doing whatever it they had to do to get the gate open that would allow the salmon to climb the ladder.  You could see salmon in the river, their humped backs showing above the surface of the water as they swam and jumped. At the base of the ladder, where the gate was still closed, the salmon were milling around it, banging on the gate wanting to get up the ladder to spawn.

Each of these fish is about as long as my arm!

They’re such huge fish! Photos and video don’t really do them justice.

From the fish ladder I walked along the riverside trail, then went into the trout raceways, and around the visitor’s center.

CLICK HERE to see the complete album of photos.

Along the river, I could see both Common Goldeneye ducks and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, lots of Great Blue Herons, lots of different kinds of seagulls, and lots of Great Egrets.  There were several Great Egrets walking along the webbing that covers the raceways where the salmon and trout fry a fed and grow. And another Great Egret that was feeding at the out-spout from the raceways to the settling pond. He’d figured out just the right spot where he could grab tiny fish that escaped from the raceways. I saw him catch four of them while I was watching him. Sometimes, the gulls would dive bomb the egret trying to steal the fish from his mouth!

Inside the raceways, a Green Heron and a Black-Crowned Night Heron had found a way inside beyond the chain link and the mesh coverings. I guess that they wait until someone opens a door and then quick fly in before the door closes again.  Once they’re in there, there’s no easy way out, but they have unlimited food with the millions of tiny fish in the raceways.  So, they’re trapped, but they’re well fed. There were also some pigeons and some House Sparrows in there.

Green Heron, Butorides virescens

Near the visitor’s center, they’ve added some extra artwork and sculptures including a jungle gym that looks like salmon eggs, small sculptures of salmon fry, and two benches that are long salmon with mosaic work all along the sides.  The benches were really impressive.  Some of the other stuff looked a little hokey and out of place though, including some extra painted signs that looked like owls, coyotes, and mountain lions.

Yep. A salmon egg jungle gym.

I walked for about 2½ hours and headed home.

When I went to my car, I was surprised to see the entire parking lot full of cars and several buses arriving filled with school children.  They were all there for the opening of the fish ladder. I’d seen what I wanted to of the ladder and can always come back to see the salmon climbing it another time (they’re around until about February), so I was glad to escape the crowd. (To find out when they salmon are spawning and when the hatchery takes the eggs, see their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/NimbusHatchery/ )

Species List:

  1. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna
  2. Autumn Sage, Salvia greggii
  3. Barrow’s Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica
  4. Belted Kingfisher, Megaceryle alcyon
  5. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans
  6. Black-Crowned Night Heron, Nycticorax nycticorax
  7. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus
  8. Brown Marmorated Stink Bug, Halyomorpha halys
  9. California Gull, Larus californicus
  10. Chinook Salmon, Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
  11. Coffeeberry, California Buckthorn, Frangula californica
  12. Common Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula
  13. Common Merganser, Mergus merganser
  14. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis
  15. Cumberland Rock-Shield Lichen, Xanthoparmelia cumberlandia
  16. Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus
  17. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris
  18. Fig, Common Fig, Ficus carica
  19. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias
  20. Great Egret, Ardea alba
  21. Green Heron, Butorides virescens
  22. House Finch, Haemorhous mexicanus
  23. House Sparrow, Passer domesticus
  24. Japanese Maple, Acer palmatum
  25. Mallard duck, Anas platyrhynchos
  26. Rainbow Trout, Steelhead, Oncorhynchus mykiss
  27. Ring-Billed Gull, Larus delawarensis
  28. Western Gull, Larus occidentalis

A Cat-Faced Spider and some Devil’s Thorns, 10-19-19

Around 7:00 am, I went out with my friend and fellow naturalist Roxanne to the “Open Trail Day” at the Bufferlands Regional San.  The bufferlands are comprise of 2150 acres of land around the Sacramento wastewater treatment facility that separate the facility from the surrounding neighborhoods – and had been landscaped to provide natural and manmade habitat for regional wildlife and plant species.

Certified California Naturalist, Roxanne Moger, walking down the trail surrounded by poison oak.

According to their website, “…With a varied mix of upland and wetland habitats, the Bufferlands is an important wildlife area, supporting more than 230 species of birds, 25 species of native mammals and several native fish, amphibians, and reptiles. The Bufferlands is also home to more than 20 species of rare plants and animals, including several threatened and endangered species such as Swainson’s hawk, vernal pool fairy shrimp and giant garter snakes… Habitat restoration and enhancement efforts on the Bufferlands are ongoing. Through these efforts, the size of our riparian forests has more than doubled, and native perennial grasses are now an integral part of the landscape. Also, our staff continues to work with the resident farmers to better structure Bufferlands agricultural operations to benefit wildlife. For example, cattle grazing is used to enhance areas for the western burrowing owl, where vegetation would otherwise become too thick for these small raptors to hunt…”

A lot of its current look is due in great part to Roger Jones, their Senior Natural Resource Specialist. And he’s a great nature photographer to boot.

Roger Jones (and a Burrowing Owl)
This is one of my favorite photos that Roger took. He let me use it with my article on coyotes.

Access to the property is generally controlled, but the facility holds a lot of events there including walks to view cormorant, heron and egret rookeries, birdwatching at Meadowlark and Fishhead Lakes, the “Walk on the Wild Side” annual party and tours, and today’s Open Trail Day among others.

Finding the entrance to place proved to be a little tricky. The route Roxanne normally takes there was shut down at one point, so she had to recalculate and approach it from another way.  Still, I was amazed at how “hidden” the gravel road into the park side of the preserve was: a narrow opening across the street from a marina in the tiny town of Fremont.  There was plenty of parking on a grass and gravel lawn, and the trails were clearly marked, so once we got there we were good for the rest of the morning. Roger and one of the other rangers were there to check us in.  He remembered Roxanne from previous excursions there and remembered me from Tuleyome. He also follows me on Facebook and offered condolences for my loss of Sergeant Margie. Aww. I thought that was so thoughtful of him.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos.

We’re still between seasons – the migrating birds haven’t come in yet, and it’s still too dry for fungi – so there wasn’t a massive number of things to see.  Part of the trail, too, led under the I5 Freeway, where construction was going on, so any wildlife we might have seen around there was scared off by the noise and mess.  But we did enjoy spotting the iron animal totems along the route that went through a shallow forest of 100-year old oak trees, and the poison oak was actually quite beautiful this time of year.  So, most of my photos today were scenery shots.

See how many metal animal totems you can find along the trails.

The real standout was a Cat-Faced Spider we found in her big web on our walk back to the parking area.  She was a big gal, who tried to thwart our attempts to get pictures of her, until we got her to climb on top of our cellphones. Hah!  Had no idea those things were good for that.

I saw a few things I’d never seen or gotten good photos of before, and that’s always fun: Osage-Orange, Devil’s Thorns, Spiny Rose Galls and Panicled Willowherb.

Puncture Vine, Devil’s Thorns, Tribulus terrestris

We ended up walking for about 4 hours, which was really beyond my limit, especially after my long walk at the Zoo yesterday and my lack of sleep during the night.  I was totally exhausted and hurting all over when we got back home.

Species List:

  1. Ash Flower Gall Mite, Eriophyes fraxinivorus
  2. Asian Lady Beetle, Harlequin Labybug, Harmonia axyridis
  3. Assassin Bug, Zelus luridus
  4. Bobcat, Lynx rufus [scat]
  5. Box Elder Tree, Acer negundo
  6. Boxelder Bug, Boisea trivittata
  7. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides
  8. Burred Horsehair Lichen, Bryoria furcellata
  9. Bush Sunflower, Encelia californica
  10. California Blackberry, Rubus ursinus
  11. California Sycamore, Platanus racemose
  12. California Wild Grape, Vitis californica
  13. California Wild Rose, Rosa californica
  14. Cat-Faced Orb Weaver Spider, Araneus gemmoides
  15. Chicory, Cichorium intybus
  16. Chinese Praying Mantis, Tenodera sinensis
  17. Common Green Lacewing, Chrysoperla carnea [lion, nymph]
  18. Cottonwood, Fremont Cottonwood, Populus fremontii
  19. Coyote, Canis latrans [scat]
  20. Fat-Hen, Atriplex prostrata
  21. Flat-Topped Honeydew Gall Wasp, Disholcaspis eldoradensis
  22. Green Plant Bug, Chinavia hilaris
  23. Harlequin Bug, Murgantia histrionica
  24. Himalayan Blackberry, Rubus armeniacus
  25. Horse (domesticated), Equus ferus
  26. Oak Apple Gall Wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus
  27. Oregon Ash, Fraxinus latifolia
  28. Osage-Orange, Maclura pomifera
  29. Pacific Poison Oak, Toxicodendron diversilobum
  30. Panicled Willowherb, Epilobium brachycarpum
  31. Pokeweed, Phytolacca decandra
  32. Puncture Vine, Devil’s Thorns, Tribulus terrestris
  33. Rice, Oryza sativa
  34. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium
  35. Spiny Leaf Gall Wasp, Spiny Rose Gall, Diplolepis polita
  36. Sweet Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare
  37. Unidentified Milk Vetch, Astragalus sp.
  38. Valley Oak, Quercus lobata
  39. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum
  40. White Sweetclover, Melilotus albus
  41. Woollybear Gall Wasp, Sphaeroteras trimaculosum

Summer 2019 CalNat Class #4, 06-28-19

After an early morning meeting, I was totally exhausted by the time the naturalist class started. But I didn’t want to miss Hillary Kasemen from West Coast Falconry and her talk on falcons. 

She brought with her “Cubby”, a male Anatum Falcon (Falco peregrinus anatum) a subspecies of Peregrine Falcon also called an American Peregrine, “Aerial”, a female American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) and “Islay”, a female Lanner Falcon (Falco biarmicus).

We learned, among other things, that because they fly so fast (up to 200 mph in a dive) falcons have an exaggerated tubule in the nose to help channel air so they can breathe better. Jet engines are made with the same kind of “baffle” (nose cone) in the center. “This example of biomimicry is very retrospective in that engines weren’t first designed this way.” Nature never ceases to amaze.

And we also learned that the hoods often used in falconry help to calm the birds. Falcons take a lot of information in through their eyes, and can get visually over-stimulated at times. Put a hood or other covering over the eyes helps to cancel out some of that stimuli.

CLICK HERE for the full album of photos and some video snippets. #CalNat

Some students asked why we have presentations like this during the naturalist classes, and the reason is two-fold: (1) we want to introduce students to live specimens of species they might not otherwise encounter, and (2) we want to provide students who capstone ideas and volunteer opportunities.

The 1st Summer 2019 Naturalist Field Trip, 06-15-19

I got up at 4:00 this morning, got the dog fed and outside to pee, and then headed out to Woodland for our first field trip for the summer naturalist class.  I got to the Woodland Library around 5:45 am and waited for my coworker Bill and the students arrive. The weather was VERY cooperative today. I was worried that the summer heat would make our field trips unbearable in the summer, but today it was nice.  It was in the low 60’s when we headed out, and only about 78° when we came back, so that was great.  There was also a slight breeze which helped, too.

When everyone got to the library and had signed in, we all headed out to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  I left my car in the parking lot and went with Bill in his van along with our student, Jeanette, who is a middle school teacher.

  • Locate and identify at least fifteen (15) animal species (birds, amphibians, reptiles)
  • Locate and identify at least ten (10) plant species
  • Locate and identify at least ten (10) insect species

While we were walking around the nature center, I think they all got the majority of those requirements!  The insects were probably the most difficult for everyone, but we’ll see on Friday (at class) how well everyone did. 

Near the nature center, we came across a large fat weevil sitting on the top of the flowering head of a tule.  Bill rapped on the weevil a couple of times and figured it was dead, but when I stroked it, its feet moved, so we all inferred that the weevil was in a state of torpor, waiting for the sun to get a little higher in the sky so it could warm up more and start moving around. 

Everyone took photos of it and tried to identify it using the iNaturalist app we’d told them about in class on Friday.  It came up as a Billbug Weevil from the genus Sphenophorus. If you look at the map in iNaturalist, though, you’ll see that Billbug Weevils have been sighted all over the globe. So, calling this a Billbug Weevil is somewhat accurate, but for a more precise ID, I wanted the students to try get down to the species level on the weevil when they got home. Insects can be especially hard to ID because there are literally millions of them, and you have to deal with taxon levels that include superfamilies, tribes and subtribes before you can get close to the species. It will be interesting to see how far the students are able to get.

We also found a buckwheat plant that I didn’t recognize as buckwheat at all because its shape wasn’t like any buckwheat plant I’d seen before.  The signage by the plant said it was California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum, as did iNaturalist, but that didn’t quite look right to me. The leaves were the wrong shape.  So, I did a little more research, and I believe it was actually St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum, a kind of wild buckwheat that usually only grows in Southern California. When we were studying the plant, two of the students (Jeanette and Edna) also observed that some of the flowers still had their pink pollen balls and others did not… and we inferred that those that didn’t have their pollen balls anymore had already been pollinated.

Buckwheat, St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum, with pollen blass intact

When it came time to drive the auto-tour route, I drove Bill’s van so he could do more observations, and Jeanette and another student, Mica, a retired farmer, came along with us. Bill was able to open up both sides of his van, so the gals could get an unobstructed view of what was out on the preserve. Although everyone was able to go at their own pace along the route, we stopped at two of the park-and-stretch areas so we could compare notes and get a closer look at things.  At the first stop, the students Ken and Alison, who are already expert birders, were helping the students spot and identify bird species and also explained what they meant when they talked about the birds’ GISS.

GISS stands for “General Impression, Shape, and Size” (originally a military term). Birders often use the bird’s GISS as a way to do a preliminary or in-field identification of a bird when it’s backlit (only seen in silhouette) or is too far away to see any details of its coloring. So, Alison and Kent were able to distinguish a pair of Northern Harriers flying over our heads from the Red-Tailed Hawk that was flying near them by nothing but their GISS. Very cool.  I’m nowhere near being that kind of an expert. 

At the second park-and-stretch spot, students relaxed with their lunches for a little while, and I was able to find a couple of examples of a specific kind of gall to tell them about, a Cottonwood Petiole Gall and is created by the aphid, Pemphigus populitransversus. The wingless female aphid called a “stem mother” chews at the leaf petiole (the stalk that joins a leaf to a stem) until it swells and then she climbs inside the swelling and has her babies inside of it. The baby aphids are born live and can be in either a winged form (called an “alate”) or without wings.

Cottonwood Petiole Aphid Gall,
Pemphigus populitransversus

While the students were resting and checking up on their notes, one of them, Alison, let us see what she’d put into her field journal for the morning. She’s an artist, and she uses fountain pens and watercolors to write and decorate her entries. It was beautiful. I can hardly wait for Friday when all the students share their journals, so I can take photos and let you see what they’re doing…

I also overheard a couple of students talking about how much they enjoyed the class, how much they’ve learned already (in just two sessions) and how many resources we’ve introduced them to that they didn’t even know existed before now.  That is so gratifying!

One more learning moment: On the eucalyptus trees along the end auto-tour route on Saturday, I also stopped to pull a leaf off of an obliging eucalyptus tree, so I could show the students in our vehicle the white teepee-like formation on it that some folks mistake for galls.  The formations are actually called “lerps” and they’re created by a tiny insect called the Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, Glycaspis brimblecombei. These insects spin little white houses for themselves made of sugars and wax pulled from the leaves. They’re often very sticky with the honeydew produced by the insects.             

When we were done with the tour, everyone went their separate ways.

Species List:

  1. American Bullfrog, Lithobates catesbeianus,
  2. American Robin, Turdus migratorius,
  3. American Wigeon, Anas americana,
  4. Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna,
  5. Ash-Throated Flycatcher, Myiarchus cinerascens,
  6. Bermuda Grass, Cynodon dactylon,
  7. Bewick’s Wren, Thryomanes bewickii,
  8. Billbug Weevil, Sphenophorus sp.,
  9. Birds-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus,
  10. Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans,
  11. Black Saddlebags Dragonfly, Tramea lacerata,
  12. Black-Tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicusm,
  13. Blessed Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum,
  14. Brewer’s Blackbird, Euphagus cyanocephalus,
  15. Bristly Oxtongue, Helminthotheca echioides,
  16. Buckwheat, St. Catherine’s Lace, Eriogonum giganteum,
  17. Bulbous Canary Grass, Phalaris aquatica,
  18. Bullock’s Oriole, Icterus bullockii,
  19. California Flannelbush, Fremontodendron californicum,
  20. California Fuchsia, Epilobium canum,
  21. California Ground Squirrel, Otospermophilus beecheyi,
  22. Canada Goose, Branta canadensis,
  23. Cinnamon Teal, Anas cyanoptera,
  24. Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii,
  25. Common Checkered Skipper, Pyrgus communis,
  26. Common Minnow, Phoxinus phoxinus,
  27. Common Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum,
  28. Cottonwood Petiole Aphid Gall, Pemphigus populitransversus,
  29. Coyote Brush, Baccharis pilularis,
  30. Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii,
  31. Eurasian Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto,
  32. European Heliotrope, Heliotropium europaeum,
  33. European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris,
  34. Field Bindweed, Convolvulus arvensis,
  35. Field Mustard, Sinapis arvensis,
  36. Flax-leaved Horseweed, Erigeron bonariensis,
  37. Floating Water Primrose, Ludwigia peploides ssp. peploides,
  38. Fremont Cottonwood, Populus fremontii,
  39. Gold Dust Lichen, Chrysothrix candelaris,
  40. Goodding’s Willow, Salix gooddingii,
  41. Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias,
  42. Great Egret, Ardea alba,
  43. Greater White-Fronted Goose, Anser albifrons,
  44. Great-Tailed Grackle, Quiscalus mexicanus,
  45. Green-Winged Teal, Anas carolinensis,
  46. Italian Thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus,
  47. Jimson Weed, Datura stramonium,
  48. Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos,
  49. Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris,
  50. Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus,
  51. Mosquitofish, Gambusia affinis,
  52. Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura,
  53. Mute Swan, Cygnus olor,
  54. Mylitta Crescent Butterfly, Phyciodes mylitta mylitta,
  55. Narrowleaf Cattail, Cattail, Typha angustifolia,
  56. Narrowleaf Milkweed, Asclepias fascicularis,
  57. Northern Bluet Damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum,
  58. Northern Pintail, Anas acuta,
  59. Northern Shoveler, Anas clypeata,
  60. Oleander Aphid, Aphis nerii,
  61. Pied-Billed Grebe, Podilymbus podiceps,
  62. Poison Hemlock, Conium maculatum,
  63. Raccoon, Procyon lotor,
  64. Red Gum Lerp Psyllid, Glycaspis brimblecombei,
  65. Red-Winged Blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus,
  66. Rough Cocklebur, Xanthium strumarium,
  67. Sharp-leaved Fluellen, Kickxia elatine,
  68. Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa,
  69. Spotted Orb-Weaver Spider, Neoscona crucifera,
  70. Striped Horsefly, Tabanus lineola,
  71. Sunburst Lichen, Xanthoria elegans,
  72. Teasel, Wild Teasel, Dipsacus fullonum,
  73. Tule, Common Tule, Schoenoplectus acutus,
  74. Turkey Tangle, Fogfruit, Phyla nodiflora,
  75. Variegated Meadowhawk Dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum,
  76. Western Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis,
  77. Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis,
  78. Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta,
  79. Yellow Starthistle, Centaurea solstitialis

Behind-The-Scenes “Natives” Tour, 04-18-19

Today, I was treated to a behind-the-scenes “natives” tour at the reptile house and got to visit with a Burrowing Owl at the Sacramento Zoo.  There were two school buses full of kids there, so I didn’t hang around much after the tour, but I still got to see and learn some cool stuff.  My tour guides were Kathryn, a keeper named Bill (who did all the reptile house stuff) and a keeper named Mike who showed me the Burrowing Owl.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.

Inside the back of the reptile house it was warm and kind of humid (which is what most of the reptile need to feel comfortable). The place is laid out like a snake, in a serpentine pattern, with the back sides of the habitat enclosures along the outer walls and other tanks and materials along the center spaces and inside walls. Each enclosure has pouches on the door with cards that tell when the animals’ feeding scheduled are and what work has taken place during the week, and also give the keepers detailed information on each animal inside the enclosure.  Some of the enclosures have one or two specimens inside, but others, like the one for the tiny Dart Frogs, can have a dozen individuals in them. Somehow – usually by color pattern – the keepers can tell who each individual is.  Everybody gets weighed about once a week to make sure they’re on track physically.

The first thing I had to do when I got inside the reptile house was dip the soles of my boots in a disinfectant bath to make sure I wasn’t tracking in anything that might harm the animals inside. (And we did the same thing just before leaving the building.)

Some of the critters don’t get enough UV light inside their enclosures (because the light is set in the ceiling of the enclosures and the animals (like turtles) can’t climb up to it.  So, sometimes the critters are taken off exhibit and allowed to bask under UV lights in separate terrariums to make sure they get all the “sun” they need. When I was there, they had some handsome Hamilton’s Pond Turtles (Geoclemys hamiltonii) doing the basking thing. The Hamilton’s have beautiful black-and-white polka dotted faces. I don’t remember ever seeing them before, so getting to meet a couple of them was a treat.  [They’re native to the Ganges, not California.]

I also got to see the Venomous Bite Alarm: a red phone that automatically connects directly with the local fire department.  So, if a keeper or a guest gets bitten by a venomous snake, all someone has to do is knock the receiver off the phone and an alert goes out to emergency personnel who are dispatched immediately.  All of the enclosures that hold the venomous snakes also have red warning cards on them, and a garbage can underneath the door, so if the snake lunges out at someone, it falls into the can instead of on a person.  Sometimes, the low-tech stuff is what works best.

And I got to see the food room for the reptile house, which is kept separate from the food storage for the other animals in the zoo because it’s comprised mostly of live insects and small frozen mice. There were egg crates crawling with live crickets and bottles of different kinds of worms… Some of the creatures, though, are vegetarians, so there are also greens, small flowers and other goodies for them to eat.

The tour was so cool! I got so much information from the staffers, that I don’t know if I’ll remember it all. But I’ll give you some of the highlights.

I got to see the zoo’s California Newt (Taricha torosa), our state’s endemic newt (found here and nowhere else on earth).  The are considered a Species of Special Concern because their numbers are dropping due to habitat loss and having to deal with invasive species like Bullfrogs and Red-Eared Slider Turtles. They’re often confused with Rough-Skinned Newts and Red Bellied Newts, but although they’re all from the same genus, they are separate species.

The newt’s poison (which it excretes through its skin) is so potent, it can kill a dog within 4 minutes. It’s believed that the Common Gartersnake is immune to the toxin.

California Newts breed in February and March in the wild. To keep the newts from going into breeding mode with its associated “water drive” (that causes them to leave their terrestrial homes to go find water in which to breed, preferably the same water source in which they were born) the zoo controls the temperature of their habitat to “skip” the spring and jump from winter directly to a cool summer.  So far, depriving the newts of their spring time doesn’t seem to adversely affect them.  Because their habitat had to be kept cooler and drier than the rest of the reptiles’ habitats, they have their own room that’s kept around 65° for most of the year.

Like the California Newt, the California Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma californiense) prefers the cool weather, too, so it’s kept in the same enclosure as the newt.  It’s also a native and endemic species. It’s considered an Endangered Species and is gone from most of the state.  A “mole salamander”, it spends most of its life underground and only comes out for any extended period of time to breed.  Although they go through courtship rituals, the males and females don’t actually touch one another to reproduce. The males deposit balls of sperm on the ground or in the water, and the female then drags her body over it.

They breed in vernal pools which are temporary water features, so the baby salamanders either have to develop, absorb their gills and start breathing with their lungs before the pools dry up, or they have to “overwinter”, buried under the ground in a sort of stasis that can last for a year or more and then finish developing the next spring. Amazing.

The spots on their bodies can change as they age, but are always unique to each individual, so the keepers at the zoo can tell who’s who by looking at and tracking the spots.

Next up was the California Giant Garter Snake (Thamnophis gigas). A threatened species, and another endemic one, they’ve lost about 98% of their habitat (!) so there are a lot of efforts throughout the Sacramento Valley to try to reestablish habitat for them – and a lot of that is in and around rice fields. The zoo got their female, which is the snake I met, from a farm after she’d been accidentally run over by some of their equipment. Her body has scars on it she’s blind in one eye, and a good portion of her tail is missing… but she was very mellow and seemed very comfortable with her keeper, who said that these snakes, despite their size, aren’t as aggressive as other gartersnakes and seldom bite. Their defense mechanism is to dive under water (they spend the majority of their time in or around water) or “skunk” their attacker with musk from their cloaca.

The Giant Gartersnake can grow up to 5½ feet long, and although some of the other gartersnake species can get almost as long as the Giants, they don’t have the Giants’ girth. These are thick snakes, like rope. Their diet is mostly made up of aquatic species, lots of fish and frogs.

Then I got to meet one of the zoo’s Common Chuckwallas (Sauromalus ater), a big male with orange staining on his back. I always forget that we have these guys live in this state. I always think of them being from Arizona or Nevada… They do “push-ups” like our Western Fence Lizards do as a warning and territorial display, but their main defense is their skin.  They have extra skin hanging from their sides that they can inflate, like a balloon, when they feel threatened. Usually, they’ll climb into a rock crevice, inflate their bodies to wedge themselves in, and wait for whatever is bothering them to leave.  Bill, their keeper, said he could tell what their mood was like just by how they felt in his hands. The male Chuckwalla was super docile, and I bet he could have gone to sleep if Bill hadn’t kept moving him this way and that so I could take photos of him.

They have special longer scales around their ears (tympanic membranes) to protect them when the lizard digs into the ground or wedges itself in rocks. And they also secrete excess salt from their nose – which Bill says then then rub onto the front of the glass of their enclosure, dirtying up the glass with their salty snot. Hah!

Although they have a pair of Chuckwallas, a male and a female, the male has yet to fertilize any of the eggs the female lays.  Sometimes, they can tell the female is pregnant with eggs, but then she reabsorbed them into her body before they get laid because they don’t get fertilized. Interesting.

Their diet consists of nothing but veggies, and I got to see some of their feeding dishes with included a variety of greens and little flowers, and some protein powder.

Next up was the Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), California’s endemic turtle which is considered a “vulnerable” species. It’s lost a lot of its territory to the invasive Red Eared Slider Turtle which was brought into California for the pet trade, but then – when people found out how difficult water turtles are to keep – they were just dumped in the wild.

Unlike the Slider Turtles, the Pond Turtles have smooth marginal scutes (the “scales” along the edge of the shell in the rear) and they don’t shed their scutes. Instead, to grow, the scutes add rings to the outer rim of each one (like the rings of a tree). Like the Slider Turtles, male Pond Turtles wave their fingernails in front of the female’s face as part of the courtship ritual.

There are a couple of different ways to tell the males from the females at a glance. The easiest way it to look at the skin under the chin: if it’s a plain creamy color, it’s a male; if it has spots, it’s a female.  The female’s cloaca is also closer to the edge of the shell than the male’s is.  Both sexes have flat plastrons (the bottom half of the shell).  In some other turtle species, the female’s is flat, and the male’s is concave (so he can climb up on top of the female’s shell without rocking off).

As an aside: the Sacramento Zoo is the only zoo in the country that has a clutch of natural-born Pond Turtles. There’s a pond on the zoo property that local wild turtles went into and where they had their babies. At first, the zoo staff didn’t know that they were there, but then they saw crows snatching the babies out of the water, so the staff rushed in to rescue the little ones and now keep them as exhibit animals °and breeding stock.

When we were done with the reptile house visit, Kathryn walked me out to behind the amphitheater where their teaching animals are housed.  These included Cameron the Bateleur Eagle, Foster the Laughing Kookaburra, Charlie the Great Horned Owl, and sister Burrowing Owls, Sapphire and Ruby.

Cameron greeted us by lifting her hackles and bowing down on her perch. Rather than it being a threatening gesture, what she was actually doing was asking for someone to scratch her neck. Hah!  Charlie was being quiet in his enclosure, peeking out between some lengths of fire hose. He was a rescue and release owl who refused to fly off when he and his fellows were released in the wild. He just sat on the ground, preferring to be with humans than other owls.  Mike the keeper who looks after the educational animals, said that it’s the breeding season right now, so a lot of wild owls have been flying into the trees around Charlie’s enclosure eyeing him and hooting to him. Hah!

What I really wanted to see were the Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia), and Mike brought out one of them on the glove so I could get a close look at it. The zoo has several Burrowing Owls, but the educational ones are sisters, Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby was being anti-social this morning, so Mike brought out Sapphire. She was super mellow, and just sat on his hand, looking around while he talked about her.  (He said she has the worst mouth-breath, but I didn’t notice that. Hah!)  The owls, which are native to California, are losing their habitat all over the state, so they’re considered a vulnerable species and Species of Special Concern.

In most raptor species, the females are larger than the males, but this isn’t true of the Burrowing Owls. Males are larger and have a lighter color than the females.

It was so great to see all of the animals up so close. I got to touch most of them (except for the newt and the owl) and took photos of everyone. It was a fun tour; I’m so glad I was able to do it.

CalNat 2019 Winter Class 10, Graduation, 04-12-19

Greg Ira, the UC California Naturalist Program Coordinator, came to the graduation of our winter 2019 #CalNat class on Friday, and brought Mark Bell, the Vice Provost for Statewide Programs, and Sarah Angulo, the Community Education Specialist from the university with him.

We also had some other special guests: a pair of newborn kittens brought in by our student, Fran Bowman. Fran is fostering the kittens which, at this stage, have to be fed every three hours. We let her bring them into the class and feed them during the break – and they got a LOT of attention. Hah!

We had Greg and Mark speak a little bit first on the UC Certified California Naturalist program, and then had the students who hadn’t presented their capstone projects already do their presentations.

Ten students presented their capstones, including a 2-person team.  I was impressed by the work they’d all done.

CLICK HERE for the album of photos.