Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

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Jefferson
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Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Jefferson » March 2nd, 2019, 2:47 pm

Note: the video companion to this post can be found in the "Herping California" series on either Bethany's channel https://www.youtube.com/user/TheHerpingLizard/videos or mine https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7yOTq ... fdL3g1JQ8Q
Warning: This post is picture-heavy

Two weeks ago now, I boarded an airplane for the first time in twenty years, westbound for California with Bethany, now my fiancé. The flight attendants ran us through the safety lecture as we prepared for takeoff, and I couldn't help but chuckle as I recalled how George Carlin lampooned this part of flying--"A water landing? Is that the same as crashing into the ocean?!" After cruising above the lights of North America's towns and cities and crossing the gleaming, snow-capped Sierra Nevada under a full moon, the endless expanse of lights surrounding San Francisco bay came into view and we landed amongst the bustling mass of humanity.

The next morning, we rode down to meet Bethany's family in the Santa Clara Valley and spent some time visiting and marveling at the grassy, green hills, interspersed with live oaks, sycamores, and palm trees and alive after so much rain. That evening, we drove out of the valley and into the hills to a remote redwood preserve, replete with a rushing stream canyon. The air was misty and fresh with the smell of new and different foliage. We first flipped a pair of California Slender Salamanders, the most ubiquitous salamander of the trip (we saw well over 100).

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California Slender Salamander

Then, while Bethany filmed a fragrant forest-floor millipede, I flipped a large black Plethodon. Santa Cruz Black Salamander!!! For my fellow Eastern US herpers who may have never herped California (as I hadn't--this was my first time on the West Coast), the black salamanders look like a slightly thinner, smaller version of our Slimy salamanders, or like a slightly chunkier version of the ravine salamander. Our specimen was jet black and proved to be a docile specimen to photograph.

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Santa Cruz Black

Nearer the stream, as we flipped myriad rocks and happened upon endless slender salamanders, Bethany shouted "Ensatina," from a few yards behind me! It was a Yellow-eyed Ensatina, unique to the region below SF Bay, and one of Bethany's most wanted species for the trip. It was so beautiful! It had a pinkish-purple upper body and bright orange legs, with, as advertised, a yellow tint in its eyes.

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Yellow-eyed Ensatina

A few more minutes of herping failed to turn up any Giant Salamanders, and so we turned in for the night and visited with family after a picturesque drive back into the valley.

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Santa Clara Valley

The next day we had a big extended family get-together at the grandparents' house, which was an absolute blast on many fronts, and we even got a bonus herp at the day's end--a Pacific Chorus Frog calling from the neighbors' backyard fountain at twilight.

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Pacific Chorus Frog

On Monday morning, we got up bright and early to hit a redwood park along the coast south of San Francisco. Along the way, we saw a big marine mammal, one I'd seen on the Discovery channel but never really expected to see in person: elephant seals. On a sandy beach where a large stream met the ocean, we observed a group of outcast males doing a mixture of glum lounging and fighting with each other. What unattractive animals they are!!! They look like something out of a Star Wars movie, and when they move, all one can see is blubber undulating, but they can move, and despite their clumsy appearance, approaching any closer than we did during breeding season is a bad idea, as they are quite territorial.

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Northern Elephant Seals

When we entered the redwoods from the surrounding oak-chaparral habitat, it seemed the day disappeared and dusk descended. The temperature dropped at least ten degrees, and the giants surrounded us imposingly. I can see how some find the redwood forests not enchanting but a little terrifying. One gets the sense that you're no longer the top of the food chain in a place that primordial. We found numerous slender salamanders and Ensatinas in the rich habitat (including one log with five Ensatinas, pictured below), but we started to lose hope that we'd find a California Giant Salamander as the morning wore on. But under a small log beside a stream, where the ferns grew lust and vibrant, we flipped a sub-adult California Giant! What gorgeous critters! The euphoria that pervaded the next couple hours of the trip is hard to exaggerate, and was surpassed only a few days later on the Oregon/CA border.

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Five Yellow-eyed

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California Giant Salamander

So we left the shade of the redwoods for marshes along the coast, trying our luck with western pond turtles, lizards, snakes, and frogs. Despite the beautiful scenery of the marsh, we struck out on all but a lone western fence lizard, probably on account of the unusual cold.

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Marsh

Further down the coast that day, we encountered several some interesting animals. In a little brackish marsh where locals fished from a rock pier, several sea otters played in the muddy brown water, some with food on their stomachs (including one with a crab leg that got in a stare-down with an envious gull).

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Get Your Own Box!

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Sea Otter

They dived under the water and laid on their backs in seeming care-free fashion. In the dunes near the shore, we found a Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander under a piece of driftwood, in probably the most unlikely spot I've ever found a salamander. The vegetation was scrub, the soil beach sand, the sun beating down overhead, the adjacent water salty. How a salamander could possibly subsist there is a mystery to me, but they do.

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Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamander

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Harbor Seals!!

On the way out of the estuary, we also spotted a whole colony of harbor seals sunning and saw a pelican flying low over the water. So concluded a wonderful day of exploring the Central California coast, and we headed back to the Santa Clara Valley to spend time with Bethany's grandparents.

The next day, we began our long trek north to the Oregon border by breaking it up with a couple stops in the SF bay area. The first, still south of the bay, found us hiking through an interesting mix of chaparral-oak-scrub and stately redwood trees. After a few hours of hiking, we had turned up a few Western fence lizards (which were sluggish and easy to photograph because of the mid-50s weather) and juvenile Arboreal salamanders, but not the adult, our main target.

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Western Fence Lizard

As always with my herping spots, the most productive area turned out to require the least exertion (Bethany frequently observes that I'm an expert at "roadside herping," or researching intensively enough that all my salamanders of interest can be found within a hundred feet of a road or parking lot). After a two-hour hike looking for Arboreal Salamanders, we found one in open, grassy habitat scattered with oaks within thirty yards of the parking lot in a last-ditch effort! We also happened upon a pair of Western Skinks, which I must admit are much more charismatic-looking than our eastern skinks, in the process.

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Adult Arboreal Salamander

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Western Skink

Also, though we did not bother taking pictures of any, the density of slender salamanders in this grassy opening in the forest was insane! We found 38 of them in about 20 minutes, and must have averaged at least two per log or rock flipped. One small log (barely a foot long and three inches wide) had five under it! I've heard it said many times, and have no idea whether it's true or who calculated it, that on average, there's a spider every six feet on earth, though we don't see most of them because they're hidden or burrowed. In the San Fran area, I'd say that rule applies to Slender salamanders as well!!

After finding our Arboreal and having lunch, we crossed over the Golden Gate bridge (which made me feel like I was in an episode of "Monk") into Marin County and made a stop along a trail leading to the sea. Expecting to find very little but have a nice hike, we were overjoyed at our finds. Near a small out-building along the trail, there sat a herper's dream--a collection of cover boards, downed metal, logs, and tarp, all strewn about in the eucalyptus (I never knew California had these until the trip) forest and open grass. One of the first pieces of tarp we peeled back had a large Alligator Lizard under it, which again, on account of the cold, was easily caught and photographed. The Godzilla-esque beast gave Bethany a bite on the finger and tried to do so a second time, but cooperated from thence forward. Bethany was ecstatic with this lizard, as she has been into lizards and lizard husbandry since her youth and always wanted to see an Alligator Lizard.

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Alligator Lizard

Then, under a board the side of the building, we noticed something large under decayed grass, and upon digging it out, we discovered it was a huge California Giant Salamander!!! This was the biggest salamander either of us had ever seen, larger even than the Eastern Tiger Salamander I'd seen in Michigan several years ago. Our California tiger had such bulging prominent eyes and a gorgeous mottled pattern, and we spent at least a quarter hour marveling at the beast and taking pictures.

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California Giant!!
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Same California Giant

Before we left this oasis of cover, though, we were in for one more lifer--our first and only snake of the trip. A California Red-sided garter snake, true to its name, that proved one of our most difficult photographic subjects. After getting some photos and admiring its red hue, we walked to the ocean and watched the sun go down over the chaparral hills. It was a cold walk back to the car!

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Red-sided Gartersnake

That night was the longest drive of the trip-about five hours to reach the northern edge of the state. As the darkness descended, the landscape turned from rolling hills and grassland to mountainous and forested in Mendocino County, and US 101 began curving with the mountains, and a small section of the highway had some snow on its shoulder. A sign, the first of many as it turned out, announced that we were on the "Redwood Highway." A short road cruise through some of the big redwoods up north turned up nothing, but little did we know that we had a road-cruise gem waiting for us barely a hundred yards from our Airbnb. Our GPS had us overshoot our Airbnb by a few mailboxes, but that turned out to be a godsend, because in the road sat a plump, beautiful Northern Red-legged frog! What a specimen! He was olive green and bright red all over, much more attractive than the specimens seen in field guides, which often lack much red.

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Northern red-legged Frog

The next morning, the lifers started coming early and didn't let up until lunchtime. Upon waking up at our Airbnb and meeting our hosts, we went out to the car to load the day's provisions and decided to flip a few pieces of debris around the parking area (the house bordered the redwoods). Three boards, three Painted Ensatinas (and, of course, more slenders)!!

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Painted Ensatina

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Roosevelt Elk

On our way to the Oregon line, we saw a Roosevelt Elk moseying his way across some pastureland and marveled at the ocean's beauty--the rocks strewn about offshore and the bright blue hue. To me, Del Norte County felt much like Northern Michigan-colder than downstate, pine trees, Native Americans, fishing shops, RV camps, and small restaurants everywhere, and waterfront driving. Stopping in a Native American-owned gas station, I got punked by a security guard who told me that my top button was unbuttoned. I wasn't wearing a buttoned shirt. That'll keep you on your toes. Just across the Oregon line, we ventured a few miles inland to the Siskiyou National Forest and, at a small seep flowing into a beautiful, turquoise-blue stream, flipped our first Southern Torrent Salamander of the trip. These guys are mostly aquatic but can occasionally be found under debris close to streams in the redwoods if moisture is high enough. Since the west doesn't have desmogs or Eurycea, these guys and the Giant Salamanders rule the roost in small streams. They're agile and quick like the eastern stream salamanders, too. It's a good thing Bethany brought a goldfish net!

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Southern Torrent Salamander
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Same Torrent

With the Torrent Salamander under our belt, we took some pictures of the gorgeous river into which the seep emptied then drove further into the forest to a pair of small streams.

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A River Ran Through It

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Oregon Stream

The first gave us a Coastal Giant Salamander larvae and another Torrent Salamander, and in my giddiness, I started impersonating sports personalities like John Madden. At the second stream, we found a Dunn's Salamander at the side of the stream under some talus.

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Juvie Dunn's

It was a great find, but by this point in the day, all we could think about was food, so we exited the national forest and drove down to Crescent City for some grub.

After lunch, we made out way back into the woods, this time on the California side of the border, by driving up winding logging roads with a mix of standing and downed timber along them. Along one particular logging road, we discovered that although clear-cuts might be a net negative for the environment, they are a boon for salamander searchers. With all the logs on the ground and scraps of bark everywhere, finding salamanders is incredibly easy. We found a bundle of Painted Ensatinas, a large adult Del Norte Salamander, which is dark brown and slender and looks to me like the Ravine Salamander of the east, and then happened upon the mother load: a GIGANTIC Coastal Giant Salamander adult!!

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Painted Ensatinas, Del Norte co, CA

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Del Norte Salamander

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Coastal Giant Salamander

Bethany and I couldn't believe the size of this salamander, which was somewhat bigger than the California Giant from the day before. I remarked on our video that three of these salamanders would roughly equal one Shih Tzu!

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Bethany holding Coastal Giant

We continued herping along the picturesque road for a little while, hoping to come up with a Clouded Salamander, but higher on the mountain in their domain, snow still persisted, and we turned back for the coast.

Driving back down, we took a jaunt through some of California's largest redwoods, and got pictures of us in front of them for reference. What a humungous tree species this is, and even more than further down the coast, how vulnerable a person feels in the presence of such giants--they give the impression that other giant creatures must reside within their environs (judging from the salamanders, that's right). The next day and a half was still fun, but we hit a mid-trip lifer drought and struck out on Northwestern Salamanders and Red-bellied Newts.

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Redwoods
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Me in front of a redwood

The next morning, we started our return trip south and hit a spot in Humboldt County's redwoods, finding some Ensatinas (and slenders, of course) and a Torrent and then heading south once again to the vicinity of Eureka, where we found little of note and I started to develop a minor sore throat. The drive from Eureka back into Mendocino County was helped along by good conversation between us and by Sirius XM radio, which allowed us to keep up with current events such as the Jussie Smollett debacle, North Carolina 9th district fraud, Venezuela crisis, and tax law changes on the go. Just before we arrived at our Airbnb, we stopped at a beach to watch the sunset, and much to our surprise, were in the company of some Amish. I'm not sure if they were on Rumspringa or what, but this was one of the strangest occurrences of the trip.

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The beach

That night we had some of the best pizza I've ever had from a mom-and-pop store in Fort Bragg, CA. If we're ever back in Mendocino County, we're definitely getting that pizza.

The next day saw our herping fortunes turn positive once again. In the piney hills of Mendocino County, we first found some Speckled Black Salamanders and an Oregon Ensatina at a roadside pull-off. The juveniles of the Speckled Black have gold backs, while the adults are black with small white dots, much like the Slimies in the eastern USA. The Oregon Ensatina evidently narrowly escaped recent predation, as it was missing the majority of its tail.

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Speckled Black juvie

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Speckled Black adult

Further up the road, we tried a creek rumored to be good for Red-bellied Newts but found none despite the picturesque habitat. We did, however, very near that spot in dry, clearing habitat (pictured) rustle up a few more black salamanders and the gem of the day: Wandering Salamander!!!

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Wandering Salamander sub-adult

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Habitat

Wandering are also members of the Aneides genus like the Black, Arboreal, Clouded, and Green Salamanders, and prefer slightly drier habitats than you'd normally expect to find a salamander in. Case in point: the Wandering Salamander juvenile was found within 100 yards of both Western Skinks and scorpions (yes, scorpions--I had no idea that they made it all the way to Northern California).

With that, we came down out of the mountains and tried a lower-elevation stream for Red-bellied Newts to no avail, then proceeded south to our last redwood stop of the trip, in Sonoma County. Here, we turned up a gaggle of slender salamanders and over a dozen Oregon Ensatinas, purple with black eyes and orangish legs.

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Oregon Ensatina
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More Ensatinas

In the dying light of the late afternoon, we walked along a crystal clear stream with binoculars, looking for newts (boy, we must have looked odd!!) and reminiscing on our great luck with everything except Red-bellied newt on the trip. We drove back into the agricultural valleys that predominate south of Santa Rosa to finish the day.

On Saturday, we began by perusing a small marsh in search of California Tiger Salamanders, but found that the excessive rain had turned it into a fetid mud field, barely walkable and impossible to properly herp. Back on the other side of the bay, we found a few more Gabilan Mountains Slender Salamanders, Pacific Chorus Frogs, and a gopher hanging out behind a park visitor center before paying a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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Gabilan Mountains Slender

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Gopher it!

The Aquarium was interesting (my favorite was the octopus), but I'll admit that compared to Ripley's Believe it or Not in Gatlinburg, it was not overly impressive. Seeing Sand Tiger Sharks in a tank and going on a conveyor belt beneath them provoke very different degrees of excitement.

A few miles away in a small city park, we flipped a pair of Santa Lucia Slender Salamanders, the prettiest slenders of the trip, within a few minutes of parking the car. One of the Santa Lucia Slenders had a bright red stipe running down its back while the other looked like all the other slenders we'd seen throughout the trip. They were found in habitat much the same as that where we found the Arboreal Salamanders south of San Fran--open, interspersed with oak but generally grassy.

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Santa Lucia Slender Salamanders

The cold and clouds, we think, precluded us from seeing our California Sea Lion, but it was a magnificent day regardless, and we ended by chowing down at the Black Bear Diner, the West Coast equivalent of Cracker Barrel.

Our final day in California, we had one last shot at newts in the Diablo Range, and we got there around 8am ready to hike and search. At first, it looked as if conditions would work against us. The creek, swollen from rain but still running clear, was high enough that I got wet at nearly every trail crossing, and the trail crossed the stream frequently. The first half-mile of flipping objects and scouring the stream banks and riffles yielded nothing (except, of course, more slenders). But at the fourth stream crossing, we saw a small pool a few feet deep separated from the stream, and a quiet section in the stream itself. Bethany ran up to the pool and within ten seconds yelled, "I see one!!!" There turned out to be about ten newts within a ten-foot radius of our position, most in the pool, others crawling slowly along the bottom of the stream itself, and two in amplexus. Unbelievable stuff! I had never seen aquatic newts just out in the open, and the habitat was so beautiful--like a Steinbeck novel come to life with the sycamores and oaks hugging the stream banks.

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Coast Range California Newt
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More California Newts!

We spent a while getting video and photographing our newts, and I did a Jordan Peterson impression (available on Bethany's YT channel) in my deliriousness. Part of my euphoria can be explained by the fact that the California Newts we found represented a broken record: 16 new salamander species for 2019. For reference: my record for most in a whole YEAR was previously 15, set in 2016. We saw more new sallies in a week than I'd ever seen in a year!!!

We hiked on for another hour or two just for curiosity's sake, and found a Western Toad to round out the trip's herps, along with (can you guess by now?) more slenders.

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Western Toad

We then drove down the Diablo range back into the Santa Clara Valley, ate at an In-and-Out Burger (which was amazing--I want them back east!!), and visited with Bethany's aunts and uncles for a few hours before departing for the airport. We landed back east the next morning as the sun came up over Philadelphia. What a journey! Happy herping to you all, and thank you for reading!

Trip theme songs-North Ontario (Gordon Lightfoot), If You Need Me (Gordon Lightfoot), Moonlight Lady (Julio Iglesias)

Total trip statistics:

New salamander species-16
Snakes-1
Frogs and Toads-3
Lizards-3
New herps total-23
Cool mammals-Sea Otter, Elk, Elephant Seal, Harbor Seal
Counties-9
States-2 (Oregon, California)

Zach_Lim
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Zach_Lim » March 3rd, 2019, 3:10 pm

Fantastic finds, all of them. Makes me miss home. The Black salamander is gorgeous.

Your garter snake is actually a Coast Garter (T. elegans terrestris). Pretty one.

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Jeroen Speybroeck
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Jeroen Speybroeck » March 4th, 2019, 5:14 am

Salamander madness, love it!

Jefferson
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Jefferson » March 6th, 2019, 7:02 am

Thanks for the kind comments guys; it was indeed a blast of a trip filled with mander madness. Hopefully we'll have some good stuff to report from back East soon as the weather warms up.

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Jeff
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Jeff » March 7th, 2019, 6:55 am

After lunch, we made out way back into the woods,
Young love

This was a wonderful post for me, as I'm from the Santa Clara Valley, and made many of those same trips up the coast and down to Monterey. For twenty minutes I thought I was back in California. My office window is behind me, so I got to escape the Louisiana swamp for a bit.

If you have a Gabilan Slender sal in hand on the dunes, you are never more than six feet from a legless lizard.

Now the ruinous nit-picking: Zach is correct on the garter ID, you don't mention species, but the alligator lizard is a Northern (you seem to be life-listers), and your juvenile Dunn's is a juvenile Del Norte. If I ever get back to the Smokeys I'll need a corrective review of my salamander photos in exchange [I'd like to think I'm at 94 U.S. species of salamanders]

Jeff

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Rich in Reptiles
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Rich in Reptiles » March 7th, 2019, 9:42 am

Glad y'all enjoyed the pics and post!! Nathan and I had an amazing trip. We are grateful to Zach Lim for giving us San Fran area advice!

Jeff: two gut-punches there! We actually didn't find a Dunn's and we were potentially so close to a legless lizard! We'll remember that for next time. Thanks for the ID help!

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Rich in Reptiles
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Rich in Reptiles » March 7th, 2019, 9:44 am

Jeff wrote:
March 7th, 2019, 6:55 am
After lunch, we made out way back into the woods,
Young love
Shoot! That was a typo... NATHAN!!! :shock: :lol: :lol:

Jefferson
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Re: Northern California Trip Report (2/16-2/24 2019: Picture Heavy)

Post by Jefferson » March 7th, 2019, 1:54 pm

Jeff,

Wow, what a typo (should have read, "made OUR way back into the woods,..."--sorry Thany) but I suppose there are worse ones to make. I recall once seeing a church bulletin somewhere in rural Kentucky that said, "Change your wife through prayer." One letter makes all the difference sometimes.

As for the nit-picks, that's certainly part of why we have a forum here in the first place. Thanks for the cross-checking! I needed to re-jigger my life list to adjust for new/eliminated subspecies of salamanders anyway, so I suppose it won't be that much of a pain to change the Dunn's/Del Norte observation. As for the legless lizard, well, we'll be back out there sometime anyhow. Glad you liked the post!!

Jefferson
P.S. I'd be glad to help you with your Smoky Mountain desmog ID blues. That's a park I know pretty doggone well.

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