An Afternoon Encounter with two Ladies

It was a nice warm afternoon in the East Bay this weekend. I was delighted to see butterflies flying around in my neighbors front yard, which has lots of flowers and catches the afternoon sun. There was the usual multitude of Fiery Skippers. They are very active and playful as they fly around and chase each other.

Fiery Skipper

A white butterfly flew by which turned out to be a Cabbage White. Then a bigger, more colorful butterfly caught my attention. It was a Painted Lady. This is the butterfly whose spring migration is in the news every few years. Veritable rivers of these beautiful insects flow through the Bay Area. The last migration we witnessed was in 2009. We were lucky in having one of these rivulets flow through our backyard that spring.

I shot a few photos with the zoom lens. Since it is nearing the end of the season, you can see that this lady was showing signs of aging. As I was looking through the photos later, I noticed something I had missed in the field. There was another lady nearby, a ladybird beetle. It is most likely a Seven-spotted Lady Beetle,  a European species that has become quite common in the US after an accidental introduction. It is useful for controlling aphids.

Painted Lady and Lady Beetle

You can read more about butterflies and other insects on

Seven-spotted Lady BeetleSev

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Wildlife Education Day by Santa Clara Valley Audubon

Over the weekend participated in a fun educational event organized by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (SCVAS). There were over 30 different booths form different organizations and groups. Hundreds of people attended – most of them families with kids.

We had a small booth with lots of information about wildlife. We had photos of local wildlife and checklists of various common species. There were some very useful, colorful brochures on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and butterflies generously provided by Brenda Montano of  East Bay Regional Parks. We were also giving out a handy checklist for kids to record the animals and birds that they spotted.

We sponsored a contest for kids to record their sightings of some common wildlife species and send them in for a prize. Throughout the event we were talking to visitors about what wildlife they have been seeing recently and recording that on a whiteboard. Here is what the board looked like at the end of the event.

Many thanks to the volunteers who staffed the booth – Lalitha,  Ralph, Vivek and Jasmine (not in picture). And thanks to Toby Goldberg of SCVAS for extending us an invitation to participate in this wonderful event.

Lalitha, Mihir, Vivek and Ralph

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Dragonflies, Amphibians at Morgan Territory

An afternoon stroll in Morgan Territory Regional Park this Sunday, prompted by delusions of spotting a Puma (aka Mountain Lion, Cougar), turned into an above-average, all-around wildlife outing. During our hike , in addition to several birds and butterflies, we observed in great detail several species of dragonflies as well as a couple nice amphibians.

We started our hike from the main parking lot and staging area around 12:30 p.m., already late in the day – not ideal for wildlife watching. The sun was somewhat tempered by a cool breeze every once in a while, but the temperature remained high throughout the hike.

Morgan Territory Regional Park habitat

Morgan Territory Regional Park habitat

Passing through a shady patch, we spotted three interesting species of warblers – small, jumpy birds – flitting through the oak trees. The Black-throated Grey Warbler, Hermit Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler captivated us for some time, but we pushed on hoping to reach a spot where Pumas had been known to be seen during the day.

Earlier in the month, at the Martinez Beaver Festival, a person we met standing at the Bay Area Ridge Trail booth recounted two daytime Puma sightings at Morgan Territory around a campsite there. Needless to say, we didn’t see any Puma. We also missed the campsite entirely as the trail signs were a bit confusing.

Instead we spent our time around two ponds in the park: one was a cattle pond on the West side of Morgan Territory Road along Clyma Trail, the other was the pond I had visited before near the parking lot. The richness of animal life in and around the ponds was, as always, amazing.

Several species of dragonflies zig-zagged across the cattle pond, including Common Green Darners, Widow Skimmers, and Flame Skimmers. Occasionally, we would spot pairs mating or laying eggs in the pond. Most exciting was seeing several dragonfly nymphs cruising around in the water like some prehistoric underwater creatures.

As I circled the edge of the pond, I noticed several California Red-legged Frog and Sierran Treefrog tadpoles in the water, clustered near the edge of the pond. Some appeared to be feeding on the algae in the water. At one point, the dragonfly nymph swam over to an area with several tadpoles lounging, but as the nymph got close to any of them, the tadpoles zipped away.

After walking a little further around the pond’s perimeter, I found a grown Red-legged Frog sitting semi-submerged and seemingly unafraid of the human observers.

Red-legged Frog

Red-legged Frog at Morgan Territory

Walking back towards the staging area along the Coyote Trail was tough due to some steep uphill stretches and a relentless sun, but our spirits were buoyed by a Western Skink which slithered up the side of the trail from some leaf-litter. We saw several species of butterflies along the trails as well, including the California Sister, Western Tiger Swallowtail, Common Ringlet, and Common Buckeye.

After a few miles, we arrived at the second pond near the parking lot. A quick survey of the ponds surface revealed hundreds of amphibian heads poking up out of the water (and one unidentified cranium – perhaps a Garter Snake?). The pond was teeming with Red-legged Frogs.

As we neared the pond for closer inspection, we were surprised by another amphibian. Small Western Toads started popping up around our feet everywhere – we had to be careful not to step on them.

Western Toad

Western Toad at Morgan Territory

After watching the toads and several frogs in the pond for a few minutes, we walked back to the parking lot after a surprisingly good, albeit Puma-less, four hours.

Manzanita tree along trail at Morgan Territory

Manzanita tree along the trail

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Afternoon Walk and Rattlesnake at Briones Regional Park

A brief walk around noon in the hot sun at Briones Regional Park didn’t reveal much in terms of spotting many different species, but did give some great views of possibly the largest Western Rattlesnake I have ever seen (it must have been close to three feet if not over). It’s not often that you see them during the day as they are primarily nocturnal.

Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake at Briones Regional Park

It exhibited some behavior I had never seen before as it slowly poked around the grass near the edge of the trail, moving away from the trail then back toward it, all the while incessantly flicking its tongue in and out. After a good 10 to 15 minutes of this behavior, it slithered away.

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Rattlesnakes and Kingsnakes on Mines Road

As the nighttime temperatures in the east bay moved in a decidedly warmer direction, we took a night drive along Mines Road last weekend to see what creatures, particularly snakes, we could find.

Cruising around a few nights earlier revealed a Grey Fox and  a Great-Horned Owl, but no snakes. We hypothesize that the reason for the reptilian absence was due to nighttime temperatures around 60F. The temperature during the drive this weekend, however, was close to a balmy 70F.

Sure enough, Mines Road (and possibly the weather) did not disappoint. About 10 minutes down the road from the Tesla Road turnoff, we found a little-over-a-foot-long Western Rattlesnake slowly crossing the road.

Western Rattlesnake

Western Rattlesnake on Mines Road

Further down the road, we encountered a snake we had been looking for for quite a while: a California Kingsnake, and a big one at that. This one cruised across the road fairly quickly, but we were still able to get some pictures.

California Kingsnake

California Kingsnake

Even further along the road, our tires almost screeched to a halt over a second California Kingsnake, this one much smaller and much more reluctant to leave the warm road (it eventually did with some help).

California Kingsnake

California Kingsnake

To top the night off, on the drive back, we found another Western Rattlesnake crossing the road, bringing our tally to four snakes total – two king and two rattle.

While seeing snakes on the road is exhilarating, the excitement is bittersweet. Snakes are constantly killed on roads, so if you can, please try and be careful when driving.

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Dragonflies and More at Shadow Cliffs

This Sunday (and Father’s Day), we took a short trip to Shadow Cliffs Regional Recreation Area intending to see some dragonflies. Both the summertime and the creekside and lakeside habitat made Shadow Cliffs particularly dragonfly-friendly.

Our trip was, by-and-large, a success. Dragonflies were everywhere, swooping, diving and hovering both above and around the water. A particularly beautiful species was the Widow Skimmer, which we saw several times.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Other dragonfly species included several Western Pondhawks and Common Green Darners.

In addition to the dragonfly-life, we saw several other pond-frequenting wildlife, including birds such as Black Phoebes and a couple Western Pond Turtles.

Black Phoebe, often seen around water bodies

Pied-Billed Grebe, a common bird seen in ponds (notice the bill)

These species, and great weather, made for a great trip.

Western Pond Turtle

Western Pond Turtle

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Mitchell Canyon and the End of a Quest

Two Saturdays ago, we took a trip to Mitchell Canyon in Mount Diablo State Park in an attempt to finally end our quest to find the Coast Horned Lizards in addition to seeing some springtime wildlife. We were successful on both counts.

The park’s flowers were in full bloom, splashing colors all over the landscape. We were able to identify many of them, including the bright red Indian Paintbrushes, Mariposa Lilies and the endemic Mount Diablo Fairy Lanterns – spherical flowers dressed in yellow.

Indian Paintbrushes

Indian Paintbrushes and other flowers at Mitchell Canyon

We hiked on the Eagle Peak Loop trail which climbed up to Eagle Peak after some gnarly switchbacks and unrelenting uphill slopes. It was a great day for butterflies, birds, and reptiles – some of the most active creatures during this time of year.

We saw some classic summertime birds, such as the Black-headed Grosbeak as well as some classic chaparral-type birds such as the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. Butterflies included several Western Tiger Swallowtails and Variable Checkerspots.

Variable Checkerspot

Variable Checkerspot

One of the day’s highlights was a young Western Rattlesnake lying motionless off of the side of the trail (which we then showed to a visiting cub scout pack, the members of which were pretty excited). Northern Pacific Rattlesnake is the subspecies found in the Bay area.

But the indisputable treat of the day was the completion of our quest – a beautiful Coast Horned Lizard. It scurried briefly off of the trail before returning, gobbling up some ants and slowly crawling away. To say that we were excited would be an understatement, this lizard (as shown by the pictures) is possibly one of the most unique, awe-inspiring Bay Area animals.

Coast Horned Lizard

Coast Horned Lizard

Coast Horned Lizard back

Coast Horned Lizard back

With that, we were content with our day’s findings and made our way back.

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Garter Snakes Galore

Something about the month of May brought out the garter snakes, both in the wild and even at home.

While I thought seeing what could have been either a California Red-sided Gartersnake or a Coast Gartersnake (frustratingly hard to identify, especially if you only get a quick look) at Tilden Regional Park was fortuitous, our neighbor brought over one that he had found crossing a decently large street next to our house in Pleasanton.


California Red-sided Gartersnake found crossing a nearby street

We were able to get some pretty nice looks at it – and are somewhat hesitatingly identifying this one as a California Red-sided Gartersnake – before releasing it safely into the nearby hills.

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San Antonio Valley in Spring

This trip consisted of a long drive, starting from Livermore via Mines Road, continuing past the junction with Del Puerto Canyon, into San Antonio Valley,  over the slopes of Mount Hamilton, past Joseph D. Grant County Park  and ending in San Jose on Alum Rock Avenue. There is mostly private land on both sides of the road but you see a fair bit of wildlife because it consists of large open ranches with lots of good habitat. (See map below).

Along Mines Road you encounter a lot of chaparral habitat. At one point a stream crosses Mines Road. This is a annual stop to check for tadpoles and indeed there were plenty of them. There were Western Toad tadpoles and Pacific Treefrog tadpoles. The toad tadpoles, which were very dark, were present in large numbers.

Stream with tadpoles along Mines RoadWestern Toad and Northern Pacific Treefrog tadpoles

Wildflowers are everywhere in San Antonio Valley. There are vast expanses filled with lupines, poppies, California buttercups and other species. And they are framed by the majestic oak trees. On prior trips Tule Elk, Coyote and Lewis Woodpecker have been seen here.

Wildflowers - San Antonio Valley Road

At a serene farm pond by the roadside, there was a pair of Ring-necked Ducks.

Ring-necked Ducks in a pond off San Antonio Valley Road

The highlight of the trip was a California Red-sided Garter Snake. It was sunning itself on top of one of the large corrugated metal pipes under a culvert. Garter Snakes are hard to identify and this identification is based on much consultation with the excellent site – Let me know if you have anything to add.
California Red-sided Garter Snake

Other sightings along the way included  several Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontail, Black-tailed Deer, a few pairs of Wood Ducks, flocks of Wild Turkeys, Yellow-billed Magpies, California Thrasher, California Quail, Acorn Woodpecker.

Follow these links for  more information about our local reptiles , birds, mammals and amphibians on See an  earlier trip report from August 2009 with photos of Tule Elk.

View Larger Map

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February Finds: Two Species of Salamanders

On a short walk along South Park Drive last weekend in the hills above Berkeley we made some pretty interesting finds: a Yellow-eyed Ensatina and a California Slender Salamander.

Each November through March, South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park is closed to automobiles due to California Newt and Rough-skinned Newt migration. The newts migrate to nearby ponds, such as the Japanese Pool at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, in order to mate and lay eggs.

South Park Drive Newt Sign

We decided to take a short walk along South Park Drive to see if we could catch a newt or two crossing the road. While we were unable to spot any newts, we made two other finds off the side of the road.

Under a damp log off to the side of the road, we found a small, tightly-coiled juvenile California Slender Salamander.

California Slender Salamander Juvenile

California Slender Salamander Juvenile near South Park Drive

Overturning another nearby log revealed a juvenile Yellow-eyed Ensatina.

Yellow-eyed Ensatina Juvenile

Yellow-eyed Ensatina Juvenile near South Park Drive

Both these species of salamander become more active during the wet season – the current months offer a great opportunity to spot them.

Find more information about the San Francisco Bay Area’s amphibians at

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