Pacific Gopher Snake

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Fauna, Nature Articles

Gopher Snake 1Pituophis catenifer

As youngsters, my brother and I had a terrarium built by an enterprising neighbor who had invented a fly trap which collected live flies. On a family camping trip to the High Sierras, we collected lots of fence lizards (and live flies to feed them), and then, the big prize, a juvenile gopher snake. The morning after we put the snake in the terrarium with the lizards, disaster struck. The snake, which probably thought it had been put in heaven, was caught swallowing a lizard. How could it do such a terrible thing?! I guess we forgot that snakes eat live prey. Snake was immediately banished from heaven.

At first glance, a gopher snake could be mistaken for a rattlesnake. Both snakes share a light brown background color with a series of darker brown to black blotches along the center. In the diamond-back rattlesnake, these blotches are surrounded by white stripes, creating the diamond pattern. There is no white on the gopher snake. Instead, below the center blotches on the sides are smaller dark spots in a variety of shapes. The rattlesnake’s tail pattern is a series of black and white stripes whereas the gopher snake’s is light brown with small dark spots.

The visual mimicry is also accompanied by behavioral mimicry. The rattlesnake has a large triangular head whereas the gopher snake’s head is more rectangular and thinner, although when threatened, it will flatten its head into a more triangular shape. It will also puff up its body, coil into the familiar rattlesnake strike pose, shake its tail (no rattles here, though) and hiss menacingly. If the gopher snake does strike, it will do so with a closed mouth. For all this threatening behavior, the gopher snake is not poisonous.

Gopher Snake 2Gopher snakes are fairly large: 2 ½ to 7 feet in length. Even hatchlings can be 20” long. In spring, males engage in ritual combat, wrapped around each other. The winner mates with the female. Sometime between June and late August the female will lay a clutch of 12 to 14 eggs. These incubate 8 to 10 weeks before hatching.

The Pacific Gopher Snake lives 12-15 years in the wild, feeding every ten days on small mammals, birds, eggs, lizards and frogs. (We should have known this before we put the snake in with the lizards!) They often hunt during the day, although they may be active at night during very hot weather.

Pacific gopher snakes range from Canada to Mexico, west of the Cascades and Sierras . They prefer drier open country (deserts, shrublands, grasslands and coniferous forests) to damp, dense forests, and range up to 9000’ in altitude.

Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley.


Water Penny Beetles

Posted in Fauna, Insects, Nature Articles

Psephenus_herricki,I_DSC48“Grandma, what’s this?” Danged if I knew. Bella and I were looking for aquatic insects in the Mattole, and she had captured something very weird in the clear magnifying box. We couldn’t find its photo in Audubon’s Field Guide to North American Insects and Spiders.

What she had captured was really strange: small, and copper-brown, it was shaped like a flat limpet and segmented like a chiton. By using a magnifying lens on top of the box’s magnification, we could see a mandible, legs and moving gills on its underside. I got the identification several days later from Pete Haggard, entomologist: Water Penny Beetle larva.

It was a fortuitous find. These larvae are only found in clean, well-oxygenated, unpolluted water. They prefer fast-moving water, clinging to the underside of rocks, and avoid habitats heavily covered with algae or inorganic sediments. They breath oxygen through their paired feathery gills, rely on claws on their legs for rock-clinging, and move away from light, preferring the undersides of the rocks . The larval water pennies scrape the thin layer of algae, microorganisms and feces from the surface of the rocks with their mandibles and eat this. The penny-like shape is created by flattened dorsal (back) plates which expand out to widen the sides. The one Bella found was slightly over ¼” long.

Water penny adult, photo by Joyce GrossThe larvae grow and molt several times during the summer, and then they create a small chamber in moist soil on land, where they, still in their larval skins, pupate and transform into the adult. The adults are small (less than ¼”), dark, with short fine antennae and a slightly flattened body. They breathe air and live on land close to the water. The adult water penny beetle survives for just a short time, 2 to 3 weeks, and may not even eat during this phase. Like many other insects with an aquatic phase, they exist to procreate.

Play behavior on wave-splashed rocks has been observed before mating. Fertilization is internal (inside the female’s body). The female lays small, bright yellow eggs, hundreds of them, on the edge of the stream, or submerged objects in stream riffles. The newly hatched larvae crawl into the water to repeat the cycle. Next summer, we might find another one.


Written by Eve Braughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley


Winter Bloomers

Posted in Flora, Nature Articles

IMG_5283Even though it is still winter, some plants are starting to bloom.

Alders are one of the first plants to bloom in winter. These trees usually start blooming in December, but some early bloomers start in November. You can see the orange-brown catkins hanging down from bare branches, a beautiful sight all winter long. The catkins are the male flowering structure, and release pollen to fertilize the female cones. The cones persist on the trees and in the fall, the winged seeds are dispersed. The alder that grows in our area is the red alder, Alnus rubra, and has red inner bark and roots. Growing along streams, seeps, and springs, this fast growing tree needsIMG_5346 plenty of water. You can see the red roots growing right out into the water in streams. Alder groves are a stunning sight, with their pale, almost white trunks mottled with black, growing tall up to their interlocking crowns. Red alders are in the family Betulaceae, along with birch and hazelnut. Since alder roots produce nitrogen, they are a pioneer species, that is, one of the first plants to come into an area after fire, flood, clearcut or other major disturbance. On disturbed sites, they can grow away from water and are short-lived, as they enrich the soil, making way for other species to move in and crowd them out.

IMG_5319Bay trees are another winter bloomer. Starting around the new year, the small creamy yellow flowers start to open. Flowers are in umbels, or umberella shaped clusters. Standing under a blooming bay tree on a sunny winter day is a sensory experience: they give off a heavenly floral scent and are noisily abuzz with pollinating insects. Once the flowers are pollinated, fruits resembling small, round avocados form. By summer, the fruit’s skin has fallen away, leaving a nut, or bayberry. On years with abundant bayberry crops, walking under a bay tree can give you a slippery ride, with your feet rolling out from under you. The California bay tree, also called pepperwood, myrtle, or laurel, is Umbellularia californica. It is in the family Lauraceae, and is related to the European bay laurel, avocado, camphor and cinnamon. Bay leaves contain many active compounds and have many uses. They can be used for seasoning foods, chewed on to relieve toothache, steeped in a hot bath to relieve arthritis pain, and can be crushed to release the aromatic oils which help relieve headaches and cleanse wounds.

Written by Cheryl Lisin


Gophers: Good Guys?

Posted in Fauna, Mammals, Nature Articles

GopherNot if you are a farmer who has seen his potato plants being mysteriously pulled underground. Not if you see mounds of fresh dirt appearing on your golf greens. So how could gophers be good guys?

Gophers dig extensive networks of tunnels underground and bring that soil up to the surface as mounds. This moves new minerals, organic compounds and moister soil to the surface and aerates the soil. This enhanced soil quality and moisture enables a larger diversity of plants to grow. So gophers are appreciated in the wild.

But in the vegetable garden, they are a menace. They feed mostly underground, dining on roots, stems, bulbs, and leaves, often pulling the whole plant down into the tunnel. At night they may come out to forage on foliage near their burrow entrances. They have fur-lined check pouches which they can fill with food to carry to their storage chambers, or fill with soil to bring to the surface. The food put in the storage chambers is eaten in times of low food supply.

Like all rodents, gophers have very large, ever-growing incisors. They use these for gnawing and for digging, which they can do without ingesting large amounts of dirt by closing their cheeks behind the incisors. They also use their front claws to dig tunnels, which can be more than 450’ long. The burrow system is complicated, with a main burrow often 90’ long, with 3 to 4 forks. Off the main gallery, they have side chambers used for storage or for nesting. All that digging uses huge amounts of energy, which the gopher gets from eating huge amounts of food. Both sexes build nests of dry, shredded vegetation formed into a hollow ball. Usually, each animal lives in its own burrow system.

Physically, gophers are well adapted to the fossorial life, with a stubby body and short sturdy legs, short hair, and small eyes and ears. Their eyes are receptive to ultraviolet light as well as to two visible (to us) colors (blue-green and green). Males are larger than females (7” to 11” vs 6” to 9.5”) because females stop growing after their first pregnancy and males grow throughout their lives.

On average, a mature female can produce 2 litters a year, with 5 young in each. The young are born pale, blind, hairless, and with poorly developed ears, although the cheek pouches are fully-formed.

The pocket gopher found in California is Thomomys bottae. It is also found in Nevada, southern Utah, Arizona, western Texas and northwestern Mexico. They occupy a wide range of habitats, from montane meadows to dry deserts, in soils ranging from thick clays to loose sands and silts.

Good guy or bad guy? It depends on where they are.


By Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley.


Dog Vomit Slime Mold, (Physarum polycephalum)

Posted in Misc, Nature Articles


0098The first slime mold I saw frightened me. It was growing on a tree stump in our front yard, and I was at that time taking a course in fungal diseases.

It really is harmless. It decomposes vegetable matter.

The name is a good description of this weird organism. Although it looks like a mold, and it releases spores like a fungus, it moves. Slime molds are currently classified with the Protista, single-celled organisms like the amoeba or paramecium. But unlike them, it has a complicated life history which includes a colonial stage.

One stage of its life begins as a spore: single-celled with only 1 set of chromosomes. When ripe, the spore can either become amoeba-like, and move by bulging itself in a direction with the rest of the cell contents flowing behind (streaming). Or, it can grow a flagella, a moveable “tail” which can propel it forward. These swarm cells move about, ingesting the bacteria they encounter.

When food is scarce, if it meets another swarm cell of like kind (amoeboid or flagellated), the two will fuse together. They now have a paired set of chromosomes. This new creation then duplicates all chromosomes, again and again, and becomes a multi-nucleated organism within a single cell membrane. This is the stage we encounter, usually on a rotting log or tree.

It is now called a plasmodium, and it too can stream about like a very large amoeba, flowing over the surface as it seeks dead vegetation, bacteria, yeasts, and fungi. It can sense air-born chemicals, and direct its flow toward the source. It surrounds its food, and secretes enzymes to digest it, and then ingests the components.

750776349_8af1fdc09eSlime molds prefer damp shady areas with lots of organic matter. It tries to avoid light. However, if it is exposed to light, or if food gets scarce, the plasmodium can quickly change into a fruiting body. Stalks arise from its surface, bearing spores. When released, these spores can be spread by the wind. Spores can also remain dormant for years, until favorable conditions allow it to become a swarm cell. The spores absorb moisture in cool humid conditions, split and escape from the spore coat. The life-cycle now repeats itself.

DNA research has shed a light on the relationships of slime molds and their evolutionary history. They seem to be very ancient organisms, perhaps a billion years old, and may have been the first life to live on land, rather than in the oceans.

It also seems, perhaps, to have a form of intelligence. Research has claimed that P. polycephalum can find the shortest route through a maze when food was placed at the exit. The amoeba also makes a pattern of networks between several food sources, and cycles between them to achieve a balanced diet of protein and carbohydrate. Further research will show whether these claims are true.

Regardless, Dog Vomit is an interesting organism.

Article by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley.


Neotropical Migrant Songbirds: A Miraculous Journey

Posted in Birds, Fauna, Nature Articles

Written by Kyle Keegan


                                                                                                                                                                                  As the days become longer and the storms of winter pass, each year brings the promise of an ancient ritual that has taken place on the North Coast for millennia—Spring migration. Oak woodlands, forests, and meadows that were virtually silent during winter months become saturated with the songs and antics of some of our most colorful and vibrant bird species: Western Tanagers, Black Headed Grosbeaks, Lazuli Buntings,Vireos, Warblers, Hummingbirds and Swallows. Some of these birds who just weeks before may have been foraging in jungle canopies along side Howler Monkeys and Toucans, now find themselves in a temperate world—among Gray Squirrels and Steller’s Jays.

Why Leave the Tropics?

Why do these small birds leave the tropics in the first place, risking their lives on this long journey? Scientists theorize that the greatest draw to neotropical migrants is the brief, yet spectacular abundance of insect activity during our spring and summer months. During this short period, the explosion of insect life provided by temperate ecosystems is virtually unparalleled, allowing migrant birds to coexist with our local resident species, while capitalizing on the highly nutritious food. Research also suggests that breeding success may be higher here than in the tropics where parasites and predators are more prevalent.

A Dangerous Journey

Migration is inherently dangerous. Neotropical migrants must travel over mountains, deserts, forests, vast expanses of monoculture, and urban sprawl during their northbound journey; with many species flying by night. Some birds such as the Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) come from as far south as the Amazon Basin in Brazil, while most other migratory species winter in Mexico and Central America. During this journey they use a complex array of strategies to orient and navigate themselves. Over their lifetime neotropical migrants learn the “sky map,” using the stars and sun as a travel guide. They also utilize the topography (landmarks) and wind directions, as well as subtle cues from the magnetic field of the Earth. The course they take is a learned one, shaped over evolutionary time and passed on by their elders.

During the extended journey they may be threatened by: storms, pesticides, house cats, collisions with windows, wind turbines and high-rise buildings, and increasingly—the erratic weather caused by climate change. A freak frost or prolonged cold, wet weather can cause large numbers of migrants to perish.

Despite the risks, great numbers of them arrive each spring to serenade us amidst blooming wildflowers and lush green landscapes; quickly getting to work establishing territories, finding mates, and building nests.

Linking Landscapes and Culture

Neotropical migrant songbirds comprise over half of the species that we hear singing during the spring and summer months on the North Coast. The presence of neotropical migrants serves as both an indicator of the health of our North Coast ecosystems, as well as the health and integrity of their tropical winter lands—linking the landscapes of Humboldt to the far off territories of Latin America. A unique example of cultural and ecological interconnectedness.


Photo of a female Western Tanager by Marie Raphael


Chemise Mountain – Interesting Plants and a Great View

Posted in Flora, Hikes, Nature Articles

Written by Cheryl Lisin


IMG_3260-copyWhat a beautiful view – you can see snow on the Yolla Bollys from the top of Chemise Mountain! Located along the Lost Coast Trail in the King Range National Conservation Area, Chemise Mountain is easiest to get to by hiking up from Nadelos Campground on Chemise Mountain Road. At the campground, you cross the bridge over Bear Creek with its lush riparian plants, and head up, up, and up! It is 1.5 miles to the top of the mountain with a 778 foot elevation gain. The interesting plants along the way and the view at the top make all that huffing and puffing worth it.


As you climb the trail, you become level with and can look into the canopies of some magnificent trees – fir, madrone, tan oak and chinquapin. If you hike here in spring and early summer, you can see several species of mycho-heterotrophs blooming along the trail. These are non-photosynthesizing plants which get their food from parasitism upon fungi in the soil rather than from photosynthesis. There are red and white striped sugarsticks, yellow Indian pipes and low growing gnome plants of the heath family, and the delicate spotted coralroot from the orchid family.


After switching back and forth several times, the trail makes it up to the ridge, but there is still more uphill before you get to the Mountain top. Here the chinquapin trees are abundant and their spiny nut casings can be seen on the ground. The nut inside is like a miniature chestnut, but usually the squirrels beat the humans to them. If you are lucky, you may spot a rattlesnake plantain plant. Not a planintain at all, but an orchid, the foliage hugs the ground and is beautifully mottled in silver and green. The flowers are white and rise on a stalk in late spring. Farther along, just a few feet past the spur trail to the top, there is a rare occurance of knobcone pines. No other pines are native to this area and the knobcone is limited to just this small stretch. Here they are spindly and don’t acieve great heights, due to the nutrient poor rocky soil of the ridgetop. In more hospitable places, the trees can reach 80 feet, but here the tallest are about 20 feet. The cones are indeed knobby, staying on the tree for many years. Some cones stay so long they are engulfed in new wood as the tree grows around them. They are closed cones, needing fire to open them and release the seeds.


IMG_3280At the the peak (2958 feet), you are treated to the big view to the east, across the Mattole and Eel River watersheds to the Yolla Bolly mountain range and beyond. The view is kept clear thanks to BLM and Nick’s Interns. Once you head back down, it is surprising how fast you get to the campground after all that work it took to get up to the top.


Jack Rabbits and Cottontails

Posted in Mammals, Nature Articles

Jack Rabbits are crazy; why else would they run ahead of a car for ¾ mile without turning off the road? Maybe they just like a good run, and they are built for it, able to go as fast as 35 mph. They have very long hind legs and can bound 20 feet.

Lepus californicus ranges from Texas and Mexico to Oregon and California. We tend to associate them with arid regions, but they are present and happy here.

Here to, is the cottontail, aka brush rabbit, Sylvilagus bachmani. But while the hares (jack rabbits) like a moderately open situation with a mixture of grasses, forbs, and shrubs, the bunnies (cottontails) prefer dense brushy cover or thick grass ( in which they make runways) and rarely come out in the open. However, cottontails have been seen frolicking in a meadow in the moonlight. Perhaps they prefer fun to run.

Lepus is a nocturnal feeder, eating a varied diet of whatever is available at the time: grasses, forbs, twigs, and buds. Their range may be over ½ square mile in some places, but they do not migrate. Nor do they make nests, using shallow depressions beneath shrubs and small trees for cover, warmth, shade, and giving birth.

The hare breeding season runs from late January to August, producing 3 to 4 litters a year. After a gestation of 41 to 47 days, the 3 or 4 young are born fully furred with their eyes open, and are mobile soon after birth. A good thing that is, because they are nursed for only 2 to 3 days.

In contrast, cottontails can have up to 5 litters a year with 1 to 7 young per litter. The gestation time is 22 days, and the young are born hairless.

Both have light undersides but the jack rabbit is darker on top, with black-tipped ears and tail . It is also twice as large, with proportionately longer legs and ears.

Nor does the cottontail have as wide a range, S. bachmani being limited to Oregon and California. There are many other species and genera of hares and rabbits across the Northern Hemisphere. It is thought they evolved in Asia during the Paleocene from an ancestor common also to rodents and elephant shrews.

Hares and rabbits, and their kin the pica, (all lagomorphs) are not rodents. Their skulls can be easily distinguished from rodents by the dentition. While both have large ever-growing gnawing incisors, lagomorphs have 4, not 2, upper incisors. The second pair is smaller and found behind the front pair. Lagomorphs have more, and larger, cheek teeth, which are ever-growing. Rodent molars are small, and not ever-growing, probably because the rodent diet of seeds, grains and tubers is high-energy and need less chewing than the grasses that lagomorphs prefer. Grasses contain silica, which is highly abrasive. Also, rodents do not have milk teeth: lagomorphs do, although these are lost in utero or soon after birth.

Written by Eve Broughton. Eve lives in Whitethorn and was educated at UC Berkeley.


Natural Life of the Lost Coast: Porcupines

Posted in Fauna, Mammals, Nature Articles, Uncategorized

”Wow! What’s that! Stop the car!” There, alongside the road in Rockefeller Forest, was a porcupine. I haven’t seen one since then, probably because porcupines are mainly nocturnal. During the day they hang out in the branches of trees. At night in the forest, those strange sounds you might hear, grunts, coughs, moans, wails, whines, shrieks and clicking teeth are not a werewolf, but a porcupine.

Living in mixed and coniferous forests, porcupines are found in Canada, Alaska, and the northern and western USA. There are also isolated groups in West Virginia and western Virginia, and in shrub lands and deserts south into northern Mexico.

Natural Life of the Lost Coast: The Sharp-Tailed Snake: the North Coast’s most elusive reptile

Posted in Amphibians and Reptiles, Fauna, Nature Articles

This summer on a warm August night in Salmon Creek, our daughter spotted what appeared to be a large earthworm crossing the road. Upon closer observation, she realized it was a very small snake unlike any she had seen before. She picked the snake up and carried it home, and to our surprise, it was the snake that was highest on our “life-list” priority for North Coast reptiles – the Sharp-Tailed Snake.

Sharp-Tailed Snakes (Contia tenuis) spend most of their lives in the darkness of a subterranean world hidden safely underground, beneath rocks, or deep plant litter, where it is cool and moist. Their secretive nature and unique habitat requirements make them one of the most rarely observed North Coast reptiles.

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