Day after day the fog variously seeps up the canyons, pours across the ridges, or just hangs across everything, dripping and drizzling. Droplets cover every plant, glistening. It is cool and damp, but the soil is still drying. The dust is subdued but the plants grow thirsty.
This weather has prolonged the spring bloom which is entering the moment of giant patches of colorful shrubs. Lavender bush lupines and yellow-orange monkey flowers are being joined by bright yellow lizard tail, each of these gentle shrubs has its own color place on the hillsides but intermingle in the interstices in a mélange of crazy color patterns. More subtle flower patches also claim their spaces – Phacelia, bee plant, and cudweeds are also in full bloom. It is a good time to go for a walk where the coastal scrub is near, especially the post-fire coastal scrub. The fire set us up for a very colorful spring.
Snakes and Such
The extended cool spring seems to have concentrated the snakes into piles to keep warm. Last Sunday, Pete Trenham visited the farm and helped catalog 19 snakes in one walk about, including four rubber boas under one piece of roofing tin: a grip of snakes! We found gopher snakes of all sizes, a few ring neck snakes, yellow bellied racers, and garter snakes along with southern and San Francisco alligator lizards and blue bellied lizards. Down in the creek, we found California newts guarding their egg masses as a California giant salamander swam about. Molino Creek was much rearranged after the dynamic winter- now there are pools and riffles along with many beds of fresh piled rock.
Farmers are planting seedlings. Baby onions are especially numerous in long rows. Adolescent sunflowers are getting bigger. Tomato plants are settling in nicely. The cool overcast weather makes for transition ease as plants move from the protection in the greenhouse out into the open air.
The orchards are lush and gorgeous. Apple trees have dark green leaves, a foot of new shoot growth, and oodles of tiny furry new fruit. Cherry trees are laden with clusters of fattening light green shiny fruit nested in curtains of deep dark green foliage. Avocado trees are perky explosions of new reddish leaves reaching for the sky with bolting new growth. Slower, the citrus trees are beginning to flush with shiny new baby leaves while buds break with stark white flowers and famously sweet scent. The grape vines have thousands of long clusters of buds nestled in bright delicate spring green leaves
More Scents and Sounds
The gentle breeze brings a faint smell of fire and a distant hum is the source: air curtain burners are disposing of hazard trees on the nearby land. That distant hum is joined by hours of closer noise: mowers! This spring in particular has called the mowers to work. Mow the 5’ grass to 2” and the next week it will be back quickly with 6” a week growth. The sweet smell of fresh cut grass permeates the air when the wind dies down. The Merlin bird app identifies the dominant dusk chorus: purple finch, song sparrow, and barn swallow fill the ears with song as the day grows dark and evening sets in.
As with most species, we have a wealth of snakes in the Monterey Bay region, and I want to help you to know them…and to encourage a young person to become a wildlife biologist.
April is Snake Month
April is usually the month that you can see the most snakes. With the weather this year, it seems the snakes waited a little while so maybe May will also be rich with snake sightings. Most people I know see snakes crossing roads and trails. Too many people see snakes that were killed by vehicles on roads. Not many people get the opportunity to walk off trail to see snakes. If you can get out off trail, you might walk with a few friends side-by-side in a line through a meadow- an efficient way to see snakes. Another place most folks aren’t afforded to look is along bodies of water. A foray along the edge of a marsh or pond will likely net a snake sighting. And yet another unusual activity is a good way to see snakes: turn over ‘cover’ – logs, boards, bark, tin roofing, or anything else that is big enough and has touched ground enough to provide a hiding place for snakes. The rule is to put that piece of cover back gently and exactly like you found it. Looking for snakes is a good way to get in touch with wild nature around here, and it is also a viable and fascinating career. There aren’t enough local wildlife biologists: can you name one? We need to encourage more children to seek careers in wildlife conservation. There are a variety of nice jobs for people who know their snake ecology.
I’ll briefly outline the places one might work as a wildlife biologist, and then I’ll get to discussing what cool snakes there are around here. Parks and other conservation lands agencies employ ecologists to help conserve wildlife. There is also an abundance of ecologists working in research around the Monterey Bay. College and University wildlife careers come with teaching and research while jobs at other research institutions might not have the same teaching roles. There are also careers just doing outreach: think folks in museums, aquaria, on whale watching boats, and leading tours on land. Because of the environmental laws in our nation and in California in particular, there are a host of jobs as consultants, either in private business or as advisors working with Resource Conservation Districts or other such entities. While wildlife ecologists might not earn as much money as engineers, doctors, or lawyers, I know many who love their work and are leaving amazing legacies for future generations: peregrine falcons or condors that would otherwise have gone extinct, restored ponds hosting rare California red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders, wildlife corridors that support the movement of badgers and cougars, and many other such things. Next time a child or young adult mentions a love of birds, mammals, reptiles, or any wildlife, I hope that you will pause a moment and tell them how amazing it would be if they sought a career in wildlife biology. Perhaps they will be the ones to help conserve our rarest local snake, the San Francisco gartersnake.
Here’s the list of the 13 local snakes:
San Francisco gartersnake
Santa Cruz gartersnake
California red-sided gartersnake
Northern Pacific rattlesnake
California king snake
California mountain king snake
Forest sharp-tailed snake
Northern rubber boa
Wester yellow-bellied racer
California striped racer (whipsnake)
How many of these snakes have you seen? Traveling as I do through grasslands, I see gopher snakes every week. I once had a dog that for some reason wanted to gently pick up ring necked snakes in the forest. Now, I only see forest snakes (rubber boas, ring necked, and sharp-tailed snakes) when I go with a gaggle of folks doing surveys. There used to be more rubber boas on the north coast before the 2020 fire- a lot of them and other forest snakes must have died in that conflagration.
The Most Beautiful Snake
I don’t get around water much, but when I do, I have always seen gartersnakes and then I have to remember how to tell them apart. Your location matters if you are trying to see San Francisco gartersnake. That endangered species has never been documented south of Waddell Creek, but you supposedly can find them from Año Nuevo north and east to the urbanized areas. It ought to be called the San Mateo County gartersnake at this point, but maybe someone has seen one in the many wetlands of San Francisco. I include them here because they do occur on the northern boundary of the Monterey Bay, which is around Pigeon Point. The San Francisco gartersnake with its blue, yellow, and red stripes has been called the most beautiful snake in the world.
Santa Cruz’ Garternsake
We have a namesake gartersnake which is much plainer, the Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one like most gartersnakes has a dark blackish background and a single yellow or orangish line down its back. This species overlaps a lot with the San Francisco gartersnake but its range extends south to Watsonville.
The coast gartersnake is midway in coloration between the colorful San Francisco gartersnake and the not so colorful Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one has the gold line down its back but also has a red checks down its side, mixed with browns and blacks.
I like garter snakes for their smell. When you pick them up, they emit a ‘foul musk odor’ – apparently a defense. The smell washes right off, it is water soluble.
I don’t recommend picking up snakes unless you know what you are doing. If you are older than 16, you shouldn’t handle them without a fishing permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. If you do handle a snake, even the non-venomous ones might bite you. If they bite, you have to let them stay attached to you until they let go: if you pull away, you could dislocate their jaws. It is no fun to have to watch a snake chew on you until it is done. Some snakes, like mountain king snakes, have razor sharp teeth that will then make you bleed a bunch after they chew awhile.
Remember please to encourage young people to pursue careers in wildlife conservation. If you have a place for someone to live more affordably, you might pitch in for conservation by advertising it for a wildlife expert. Whatever you do, I hope you can appreciate our area more – our amazing snake diversity is just another example of how special our region is. Let’s conserve it!
-this article originally published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com – sign up to receive it and you won’t be sorry.