North Peak, Mount Diablo after the Fire

I hiked the North Peak Trail in Mount Diablo State Park over the weekend. Like many others, I was curious to see the aftermath of the big fire that raged on the mountain three weeks ago. You could certainly see large areas that were burnt out. Black, charred skeletons of trees were abundant in some portions of the trail. This is a view of North Peak from the trail as you traverse the flank of the main peak, with Prospector’s Gap Road at the bottom of the photo.

 There was a poignant sight at one of the sharp switchbacks along the trail.

The image of these “naked” bolts evoked a strong reaction for me. It brought home the reality of the fire more than the charred hillside before me. Then there was the strange sight of a tree, or more likely a group of trees, that burnt at the base and then the intact top parts toppled over.

But you could see that the fire, devastating as it was, had not left the whole area in ruin. Here is a view looking to the south, downslope, from the trail.

There were signs of new life like this baby Western Fence Lizard near North Peak and green shoots rising out of the ashes along the trail. The plant growth was perhaps spurred by the unusual rains we had recently.

A saw and heard a few species of birds – Vaux’s Swift, Say’s Phoebe, Common Raven, Western Scrub-Jay, Red-tailed Hawk, Bushtit, Wrentit (heard), Anna’s Hummingbird, Hermit Thrush, Dark-eyed Junco, California Towhee, Golden-crowned Sparrow and Fox Sparrow. I managed to photograph a Fox Sparrow, near the North Peak,  as it scratched for food amongst the leaf litter.

There were insects too. Well-camouflaged Grasshoppers were common on the dusty trail. I saw a few butterflies – Common Buckeye, Acmon Blue, and Orange Sulphur. There were lots of dragonflies – Variegated Meadhowhawks. They were seen on the wing and perched on the trailside vegetation. In one patch there were several of them,  glittering from the light of the setting sun, as they sat perched on the burnt stems.

And as I drove down the mountain, I saw several Tarantulas. This is the time of the year when the males go wandering in search of a mate. Evening time, on the slopes of Mountain Diablo, is one of the best ways to see them. October should still be a good month to try and spot one if you are interested. That was a pretty good way to end the outing.

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Short Nature Ramble at Long Ridge Open Space

It was a nice sunny afternoon in early April and Long Ridge Open Space Preserve looked quite inviting. As expected, the wildflowers were putting on a great show. We started with Peters Creek Trail. The view was wonderful, as you looked northwest along the trail.

Peters Creek Trail


Red Pea

Red Pea – Lathyrus cicera

Henderson's Shooting Star

Henderson’s Shooting Star

In the first stretch from the parking lot, we saw these 4 different wildflowers. Henderson’s Shooting Star is native to Western America and is sometimes called Mosquito Bill for obvious reasons. The Red Pea (Lathyrus cicera) is a non-native, introduced from Europe. It is indeed a type of legume or pea. A bit of searching on the net seems to indicate that Long Ridge may well be the only place in the Bay Area that it is seen in! Incidentally, I also learnt that it contains a neurotoxin which can cause paralysis of the lower body. Next in line were the two maids – Fringed Redmaid (Calandrinia ciliata) and Milkmaid (Cardamine californica).



Fringed Redmaid

Fringed Redmaid

There were more wildflowers as we continued down the trail. Purple Sanicle belongs to the parsley family. The Woodland Strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is closely related to the familiar fruit (Fragaria ananassa) that we eat at home. Wikipedia says that “Evidence from archaeological excavations suggests that Fragaria vesca has been consumed by humans since the Stone Age. ” The French Broom is a non-native that is a highly invasive nuisance plant in much of the Bay area. Many volunteers are spending many laborious hours to remove it and alleviate its negative effect on natural areas. I did not know its name or anything about it on the hike, so I was able to enjoy the pretty flowers without any mixed feelings.

Purple Sanicle, Woodland Strawberry, French Broom

Purple Sanicle, Woodland Strawberry, French Broom

Further along we encountered a butterfly – not nearly as colorful – but providing a nice change of pace from all the flora. It was the Propertius Duskywing, named after a Roman poet of the first century B.C. The intricate pattern and the many subtle shades of brown/gray help make it quite attractive despite the lack of color. We must have seen 4 or 5 these butterflies. It is the commonest duskywing in the Bay area. The similar Mournful Duskywing has a broad white trailing edge to the rear wings.

Propertius Duskywing

The trail crossed a little stream and of course we peered down hopefully from the bridge. After a bit of searching we were rewarded with the sight of  California Newts swimming in the water. They always remind me of swimming crocodiles as they swim underwater with their legs tucked into their sides and their tail propelling them along with sinuous sweeps. The pooled water in the streambed was in a forested area and the low light made photography a bit challenging.

California Newt

Once in a while we carefully turned over logs with great expectations. Usually there is nothing but occasionally we encounter interesting creatures. Always remember to gently return the log to its original position. Under one such log we found a California Slender Salamander.  This salamander is part of a family called Lungless Salamanders. They lay their eggs on land in a moist place and hatch directly into a tiny salamander with the same shape as an adult. They do not go through the aquatic larva phase.

California Slender Salamander

Just off the trail was an iconic invertebrate of the Bay area, the California Banana Slug (Ariolimax californicus). It evokes reactions ranging from “Ugh!” to “Wow!” but usually at one extreme or the other. Few people can look at it without generating a strong response. This one seemed to be enjoying a light snack.

California Banana Slug

A nice sight further down the trail was a stand of Manzanita in full bloom. Usually you get to admire the beautiful red bark of this tree. This being spring and the right time, the lovely white flowers were adding to the charm. In trying to identify the species, I learnt to my dismay, that there are many species of Manzanita and I will have to make more careful notes in the field if I hope to identify them.


Other species we saw – Black-tailed Deer, Band-tailed Pigeon, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Western Fence Lizard. For more information about the wildlife of the Bay area visit

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Eastern Slopes of Highland Ridge

This is an account of an afternoon hike in mid-February, on the Eastern slopes of Highland Ridge, in Morgan Territory Regional Preserve. The starting point was the intersection of Morgan Territory Road and Highland Ridge Trail. In the very first section I came across a murder scene. A little scrutiny revealed the identity of the victim. You can see the evidence for yourself. The colorful feathers had me puzzled for a bit.

Colorful featherFeathers









I saw a few small flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons. Some of them were feeding in a tree along the trail and they took off at my approach. The day was just warm enough to have tempted a Western Fence Lizard to spend some time on a sunny rock. After trudging uphill for a while I crested the ridge and got my best sighting of the day.

Coyote on hillside

The Coyote seemed to be quite nonchalant as he rested high up on the hillside. He just lay there and watched me from afar as I checked him out with my binoculars. Next I come across this big, empty metal cage. It is used for capturing Wild Pigs – feral animals that cause a lot of damage to the environment. They will root, tear, trample, and dig as they forage. Their population in California has been exploding and they have spread throughout the state. A KQED science video about the wild pig problem in California is embedded at the end of this article.

Cage for trapping wild pigs

The views in the high country were fantastic. Wave after wave of hills were stretching in almost every direction. And the majestic presence of Mount Diablo was felt all the time.

Views from Highland Ridge



After walking along the ridge for about half a mile, I started descending via Raven Trail. Then I traversed the hillside using Fox Trail to connect with another section of Raven Trail.

All along this section I saw these lovely white flowers. They were Milkmaids – Cardamine californica – one of the first flowers to bloom each year. They seemed to prefer the shadier portions of the hillside.

A nice surprise was the sighting of a Varied Thrush, an uncommon winter visitor to the Bay area.

From further down the hillside, I started hearing the loud chorus of frogs. Soon I came upon the breeding pond and saw several males calling vigorously and pursuing females. These were Pacific Chorus Frogs – Pseudacris sierra (also called Sierran Treefrog; scientists have been messing around with the name of this species). I managed to capture some sound and you can hear the chorus for yourself. This is the most common frog species you are likely to hear in the Bay area.


For other trip reports from Morgan Territory Regional Preserve see Dragonflies, Amphibians at Morgan Territory, Aug. 2010 and Field Trip to Morgan Territory, Aug. 2009

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Newts on the Ridge

The recent rains made for a nice surprise on my hike last weekend. I went to Pleasanton Ridge in the afternoon. It was refreshing to see everything turning green after the hot, dry days of summer. Soon I came across my first California Newt as it was crossing the trail. I find their determined plodding quite admirable. Slowly but surely they keep moving towards their distant destinations driven by the primeval urge to create offspring.

California Newt

The California Newt – scientific name Taricha torosa – belongs to the salamander group of amphibians. It is endemic to California. It is found along the coastal ranges and there is an isolated population in the southern Sierra.

The emergence of the newts is an annual event triggered by the rainy season. Most of them spend the dry season in moist habitats – under logs and rocks or inside burrows and crevices. From November/December – depending on the rains – they start moving towards their breeding sites in ponds and creeks. Some individuals spend the entire year in permanent bodies of water. We have seen them in Waddell Creek at Rancho Del Oso and in Horseshoe Lake at Skyline Ridge Open Space.

California Newt

Newts secrete a strong neurotoxin (tetrodotoxin) from their skin. It can can cause death in many animals, including humans, if eaten in sufficient quantity. The toxin can also enter through a mucous membrane or a cut in the skin. So be very careful if you ever handle a newt. Interestingly enough, some Gartersnakes have developed an immunity to the toxin and are known to prey on newts. You can see a fantastic photo of such predation taken in Henry Coe State Park.

I saw several more newts along the path – a total of 9 in a little over 2 hours. The bigger ones were around 15-20 cms (6-7.5 inches) in length. A group of Acorn Woodpeckers with their amusing antics provided some variety in the wildlife viewing.

Acorn Woodpecker

As I neared the parking lot at the end of the hike, I saw a young man on the trail ahead of me. Suddenly I saw him bend down and pick something up from the ground. It was a newt from the trail. He set it down carefully, away from the trail. As I caught up with him, he explained that he was saving the newts from being accidentally trampled. He was not a card-carrying wildlife enthusiast but he had an empathy for animal life. By the way, he was aware of their toxicity and planned to wash his hands after the hike. His kind actions served as a nice ending to a nice outing.

A lot of the newt information was gleaned from Gary Nafis’ excellent site You can find out more about amphibians of the Bay Area on our amphibians page.  Here are earlier posts about salamanders on Pleasanton Ridge and South Park Drive in Tilden Park.

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September Outing – Back Creek Canyon on Mount Diablo

A nature hike on the northern slopes of Mount Diablo is a good way to enjoy the Mount Diablo wilderness. We started from the Mitchell Canyon Staging area, went East on Murchio Rd and then started climbing up Back Creek Trail. Along the way there were lots of Variegated Meadowhawks. It was a hot day and most creatures were wisely staying hidden. There was an unusual flower by the dusty trail. I later identified it as Zauschneria (Epilobium canum). It grows on dry slopes and in chaparral. It is a perennial and bears these lovely flowers in late summer and fall. It is sometimes called California-fuchsia, though it is not really a fuchsia.


On the way back, in a woodland area, we came upon a snake crossing the dirt road. It was a young Western Rattlesnake (Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is the subspecies found in the Bay area).  You can see how well-camouflaged they can be against the dry leaves and twigs on the forest floor. It was difficult to find again if you took your eyes off it for a moment.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

It decided to stop again not too far from the trail. I tried to persuade it to move away with a hiking pole but it was quite reluctant and coiled up in the classic defensive pose.

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

A cute sight was this California Ground Squirrel gathering acorns. The rattlesnake and the squirrel are traditional enemies. Adult California Ground Squirrels have developed immunity to rattlesnake venom and they apparently have a number of other defense mechanisms. I was fascinated to read that “Female squirrels with pups also chew on the skins shed by rattlesnakes and then lick themselves and their pups (who are never immune to venom before one month of age) to disguise their scent”.  They are also known to heat their bushy tails and wave them back and forth to communicate to the snake that easy food is not available. The snake senses the infra-red heat with its special pit organs.  Squirrels can be quite aggressive towards rattlesnakes.

California Ground Squirrel

Birds seen included Rufous-sided Towhee, Dark-eyed Junco, White-tailed Kite and Pacific-slope Flycatcher.

For another trip report from the northern slopes of Mount Diablo, see  Mitchell Canyon and the End of a Quest

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Surprise Visitor of the Reptilian Kind

Over the Fourth of July weekend, I got a pleasant surprise. A California Kingsnake showed up in our garage (in southern Alameda County) in the middle of the afternoon! Perhaps the hot weather had something to do with it. Somehow it ended up picking the right house to visit. It was about a meter long and quite mild-mannered.

California Kingsnake

California Kingsnake

I caught it and put it in a cloth bag to keep it calm. It was one of those reusable shopping bags and it felt like quite an appropriate reuse of the bag.

Kingsnakes have a very unusual habit – they will hunt and eat venomous snakes including rattlesnakes. They have developed immunity to the venom. The “king” in their name comes from this habit. They are found throughout California. They are a sub-species of the Common Kingsnake which ranges over much of the USA.

I decided to release it near Sunol Regional Wilderness. When I opened the bag, it took some prodding to get it going. It slowly poked its head out of the bag and then glided smoothly out to its freedom. At first it wanted to head towards the road and I had to persuade it to go in the other direction.

California Kingsnake EmergingCalifornia Kingsnake Close up


Since it was not moving too fast, we were able to take this video.

You can find out more about Bay Area reptiles on our reptiles page. An earlier nocturnal encounter with a Kingsnake is in this post.

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A Summer Afternoon in Lime Ridge

An Afternoon in Lime Ridge

May 2012

It is a pleasant, sunny afternoon in the East Bay. My brother and I are on a nature hike in Lime Ridge open space, an area stretching from Walnut Creek to Concord, and home to a variety of reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals, and insects. The landscape is a mixture of greens and browns, abundant with oak trees, shrubs, and tall grasses.

As California’s dry climate approaches the hot summer months, the spring pond has mostly evaporated, leaving behind some marshy areas of mud and grass.

Here, we noticed our first sign of movement—a tiny little shape, no larger than a thumbnail, crawling along the muddy ground. When we crouched down and looked closer, we realized it was a young Western Toad.

As we continue into the meadow, we realize the entire area – stretching as far as the eye can see – is teeming with thousands and thousands of juvenile toads, hopping around in the grass and hiding in holes in the mud. We estimated that we saw five to ten toadlets per square meter.

We collect some of them in a jar so as to observe them more closely. The amphibians remained crawling around at the bottom of the jar, except for one that nearly escapes the jar. This individual is a light-green and yellow color. It is about the same size as the juvenile Western Toad but has slightly different markings, and we noticed it is able to climb up the side of the jar, unlike the rest of the toads.

This species of the amphibian–which we have identified as the Pacific Chorus Frog (or Pacific Treefrog)–is much more sparse than the toads were. We estimated about one Pacific Treefrog for every 60 Western Toads.

You can see the difference between the two species here.

Interesting Facts:
-It is relatively easy to distinguish between a frog and toad—the differences between the two may seem subtle, but there are a few key distinctions. Although the Pacific Treefrog is nearly the same size as the juvenile Western Toad, frogs have a smooth skin surface, while toads have bumpy skin. Frogs also have webbed or padded/enlarged toes, whereas the toad does not. The frog is also an exceptional jumper—it has longer legs, so it can jump much farther distances than the toad in relation to its body length.

-Frogs actually absorb water through pores in their skin—as amphibians, they need to be in wet areas to avoid water loss and dehydration.

-The Pacific Treefrogs have an interesting quality—they are able to fluctuate between “color morphs,” ranging from brown to bright green. They can also change from darker to lighter and even shift pattern markings. These shifts in pigmentation are caused by differences in the frogs’ habitat lighting, brought about by seasonal changes. The initial transformation can be noticed immediately, and a full color morph can take from weeks to months.

-The Western Toads in lower-elevation regions such as the area we hiked) mate in the late winter to early spring, while the species in mountainous regions mate in the late spring to summer. The juvenile toads we saw, about the same size as the Pacific Treefrogs, had newly developed from s1171
tadpoles and were still small, but eventually grow to be much larger than the frogs. The toads won’t be able to reproduce until they are 2-3 years old!

-Frogs and toads are considered “indicator species”—which means that the presence of these amphibians indicates a healthy environment. Recently, these delicate and vulnerable amphibians have been in rapid decline due to climate change, pollution, destruction of their natural habitats due to construction, chemical contamination from fertilizers, etc. Lately the Bay Area has seen a lot of rain—the Lime Ridge area last year around this time was completely dry due to drought. We were excited to see so many young toads and frogs on our hike this time—it suggested a healthy habitat and thriving ecosystem.

After a few minutes, we release the Treefrog and Toads, making a mental note to visit again in a few weeks to see how the toadlets are developing.

Continuing along our hike, we spotted the Western Fence Lizard.

Interesting Facts:
-The Western fence lizard may appear dull in hue (which enables it to camouflage with the ground, rocks, or tree trunks), but the underside is a bright, metallic blue color.

When we go to exit back through the open space gate entrance, I narrowly avoid stepping on a Desert Stink Beetle! Disturbing this seemingly harmless critter would have been a big mistake…

Interesting Facts:
-This species, a type of darkling beetle, raises its abdomen when aggravated or in danger, releasing a foul stench, which it secretes from glands at the tip of its abdomen.

-Most predators avoid this beetle due to its stink and unpleasant taste, except for a few, including grasshopper mice, who avoid this by sticking its abdomen into the sand and consume it headfirst.

While crossing a cul-de-sac bordering the open space we just exited, we spot a strange looking insect that appears to have red fuzz covering its body. Its appearance gives it the common name Velvet Ant, although it is actually a type of wasp, belonging to the family mutillidae.

Interesting Facts:
-The female Velvet Ant invades the ground nests of other wasps and bees, laying its eggs on the larvae (hosts). Once the host larvae develop into their pupal form, the newly hatched velvet ants eat their hosts, spinning their own cocoons inside their hosts’ pupal cases.

-Male Velvet Ants have wings, and look quite different from the females. The females are wingless, however they are often seen as pests, as they can deliver a nasty, painful sting—earning them the nickname “cow-killer.”

As we return home from our hike, we find a California Striped Racer, also known as the Alameda Whipsnake. My neighbor spotted it slithering in our yard outside of the house.

Although usually fast and skittish, this one is relatively calm and doesn’t seem too frightened…

Interesting Facts:
-Most types of racers are a single, dull color. The California Racer is unique among many racers because it has bright yellow stripes down its body.

-California Racers are often confused with Gartersnakes, another common snake in the area with similar stripes and colors. However, they can be distinguished by the placement of the yellow stripes on their back—the garter has a stripe running down the center of its back, while the California racer has two stripes and a thick black center stripe. The Gartersnake also has rough, or “keeled” scales, whereas the California Racer’s scales are smooth.

Throughout my childhood, I was lucky enough to have grown up right next to the Lime Ridge Open Space. Since the entrance to the wildlife reserve was only a block down from my house, I’ve gone on countless nature hikes with my family, exploring the different types of species of frogs, snakes, mammals, birds, and insects. From trekking through the hills with my neighbors as a child, treading along the various wildlife trails with my family, catching insects with my brother and looking at them under a magnifying glass, my experience with the open space has occupied an integral and meaningful place in my childhood. I’ve learned a lot over the years, things you can’t learn simply from just reading books, taking a biology class or watching Animal Planet. From my many experiences and encounters—being eight years old and watching in awe as a tarantula crawled over my shoe, bringing home tadpoles each year and raising them into frogs and then releasing them back in to the wild, or thinking I was the crocodile hunter and trying to grab every snake I saw (poisonous or not)—I’ve become rather fond of the nature I grew up with, and have learned to respect all wildlife, no matter how slimy, strange, stinky or slithery.

See also this earlier trip report for Lime Ridge.

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Foothill College Sustainability was invited to participate in the Earth Week Faire at Foothill College on 20 April, 2011.  It was organized by Gillian Schultz  and the Sustainability group as part of the week long celebration. We were in great company – other participants included:

  • Acterra
  • Audubon Society
  • California Native Plant Society
  • Santa Clara County Open Space Authority
  • Stevens & Permanente Creeks Watershed Council table at foothill college earth week faire

Many students and a few faculty stopped by. The wildlife photographs we had on display were very popular. We were also promoting the Bay Area Puma Project on behalf of the Felidae Fund. We fielded a lot of questions about Pumas (Mountain Lions/Cougars) and a few about Bobcats.

One of the great things about participating in these events is that you make useful connections with the people active in other related organizations. You get to meet with people without the hassle of coordinating times and setting up meetings. We were glad to meet Joanne McFarlin of SPCWC and Dana Litwin of the Open Space Authority.

Earth week faire at Foothill College

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Lizards on a Log at Las Trampas

California Buttercup

California Buttercup

It was a nice weekend in early April and Las Trampas Regional Wilderness was beckoning. There was no rain. It turned out to be a good day for lizards and butterflies. And some early wildflowers were already blooming. The most common were the California Buttercups.

Then I started seeing the butterflies. The first one was the Pipevine Swallowtail. This was a lifer for me (I am still a novice butterfly watcher).  I saw several more later but they all proved elusive for photography.

Next was a Margined White – a lifer.  This was identified later by experts on our flickr group and bugguide, based on this photograph. And soon after that I saw a California Ringlet which is a subspecies of the Common Ringlet. This is a fairly common species in grassy, open areas.

Margined White butterfly

Margined White butterfly

California Ringlet

California Ringlet




Following the Bollinger Creek trail, which runs parallel to the creek, I had tall trees on my left and grassy slopes on my right. The next species to show itself was the Anise Swallowtail which is a really pretty butterfly.

Anise Swallowtail

Anise Swallowtail

Under a fallen tree branch I found this millepede. If you know its identify, I would love to hear from you.


At the point where the trail turns left to cross the creek, I stopped to check out an interesting log. I saw a scurrying movement and then spotted a Western Fence Lizard.

Western Fence Lizard

There were several Fence Lizards on the log. To try and get good photographs of the lizards I went a bit close and then stood still for a while. My patience was rewarded by an uncommon sighting. A head poked out of a crack in the wood. Checking it out with my binoculars, I was thrilled to see that it was a Western Skink.

Western Skink

Later I was able to see its blue tail during the few glimpses I got while it foraged under the fallen log and the rotting debri around it. I also saw another skink which had lost its tail. Once before we had a great sighting of a skink at Las Trampas. Spring is a wonderful time to be out on the trail – go out and see what lucky sightings you might get!

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Salamanders at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park

It’s about that time of year again when salamanders become easier to see around the bay area so I took a few hours today in between bouts of severe rain to poke around some logs at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park.

We’ve seen several amphibian species here before including California Slender Salamanders, Yellow-eyed Ensatinas, California Newts and Western Toads so I figured I had a good chance to find something interesting. Also see our post about salamanders in Tilden.

After carefully peeking under a few logs which revealed several beetles and worms but no salamanders, I gave up and decided to enjoy the scenery: the green of the grass and distant snow-covered hills made it quite a sight.

But on my way back down from the ridge line, I decided to check one more log under which I found four California Slender Salamanders and one young Arboreal Salamander – a first for me.


Two California Slender Salamanders at Pleasanton Ridge

The Arboreal Salamander was a small one and resembled a young Ensatina we had found on the ridge before, though the color is quite different. Check out our amphibians page to get some more information on the different species of bay area salamanders.

Arboreal Salamander at Pleasanton Ridge Regional Park


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