Naturalist Notes

Flora and fauna to watch for this summer.

California Brown Pelican

Brown pelican floating on water

With seven-foot wingspans and giant bills, brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus) are hard to miss as they soar over bodies of salt water. Spotting fish, they can dive at speeds of up to 45 miles an hour, plunging head first, filling their gullets with up to three gallons of water and catch. Removed from the endangered species list in 2009 after decades of restoration efforts, as many as 20,000 individuals spend the summer in the golden state. Before winter, most will head back to warmer southern breeding grounds.  Add your sighting to iNaturalist.

California Sister Butterfly

California sister butterfly

Common in the Bay Area, these dramatically hued butterflies are easy to spot. Look for orange dotted wing tips with a white band fanning against black. Adelpha californica can often be found fluttering near stands of native live oak trees, which are the host plants for their larvae. The oak leaf diet makes them distasteful to predators. Adults are attracted to ripe fruit, flower nectar, and mud puddles, where they drink nutrients from wet soil. Add your sighting to iNaturalist.

California Wild Rose

Close-up of California wild rose in bloom

Three to six-foot high thickets of this hardy native grow from the northern coast all the way up to the Sierra foothills. Small, five-petaled, pink blooms are fragrant, ranging from pale blush to fuchsia, with yellow centers. Look for the flowers amidst oak woodlands and near creeks where Rosa californica thrive in light shade with some moisture. The vitamin C rich fruit (also called hips) are eaten by birds, rodents, and rabbits, while the stems are well-defended with sharp, hooked thorns, a feature that rabbits and wood rats use to their advantage when building nests amidst the brambles. Add your sighting to iNaturalist.

Pink Ribbons Clarkia

Pink ribbons clarkia wildflower in bloom

This Northern California native produces silky pink, 1.25” pinwheel blooms on shiny red stems from late spring through summer. A member of the evening primrose family, it favors relatively dry, wooded areas. Try growing this hardy annual at home in a partly shady spot to add summer color to your garden. It’s drought tolerant, deer resistant, and attracts butterflies. Add your sightings to iNaturalist.


Cicada in close-up, showing black lace wings

The reverberating noise of a cicada is synonymous with summer. How can a small insect create such mighty sounds? U.S. Naval researchers unlocked the mystery when seeking to discover how to improve underwater communication. Credit the male cicada’s tymbal organ, which has rib-like bands on a membrane that vibrates rapidly when activated by a special muscle. Males do a version of cicada Pilates 300 to 400 times a second! Cicadas don’t bite or sting, are not poisonous, and generally don’t injure garden plants. So leave them be and enjoy the cacophony. Learn more about cicada acoustic research


Orange dragonfly

Colorful adult dragonflies grace freshwater ponds and wetlands in summer. Some prefer still water; others like running streams. Look for long, bright blue, green, or orange bodies and delicate wings.  Males do acrobatic maneuvers, patrolling back and forth in search of females, who visit ponds, lakes, and streams to lay eggs. Some species of these insects migrate long distances, and can reach speeds of up to 30 miles an hour in flight. Others are homebodies and travel more slowly. Their favorite summer snack is mosquitoes. Add your sightings to iNaturalist.

Mourning Dove

Mourning dove

Listen for the soft, haunting call of a mourning dove in morning or evening. They are one of the most abundant and widespread bird species on the continent, living comfortably in close proximity to humans. Mourning doves even build their loosely woven nests and raise their young on house gutters, eaves, or windowsills. Males choose favorite cooing perches; regularly advertising territory with their calls. They feed in open ground, preferring seeds, and are easy to attract to a backyard with grains like millet. Add your sightings of Zenaida macroura to iNaturalist.

North American River Otter

River otters on sand

Otters have two layers of fur – the thickest coats in the animal kingdom – to keep them warm and buoyant. At home in water or on land, they have webbed feet and sleek tails for swimming as well as strong legs and sleek bellies for running and sliding. They can jog as fast as 15 miles per hour! Creekside dens often have an underwater entrance, helping to protect them from predators. Otters are known for playful antics and a variety of vocalizations from chuckles to chirps to growls. Due to conservation efforts and habitat improvements North American river otter populations have recently rebounded and they are once again found in many parts of the Bay Area. Add your sightings of Lontra canadensis to iNaturalist.

Pacific Harbor Seal

Group of harbor seals sunning on a beach

Ranging along the west coast from Alaska to Mexico, harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are often seen in groups sunning on rocks, beaches, or mudflat shores. Look for adorable, curious faces and spotted coats in colors from silver gray to reddish brown. They split their time equally between land and the water. Pups are born swimmers, so you can also spot their bobbing heads eyeing you from the water. Adults dive deeply for up to 40 minutes when foraging for seafood. If you spot seals, leave them be and observe quietly from a distance. If disturbed the group can abandon a favorite site, sometimes even leaving youngsters behind.  Add your sightings to iNaturalist.

Sticky Monkey-flower

Yellow sticky monkeyflower

This vigorous perennial native thrives from southern Oregon to Mexico, in a wide variety of habitat from coastal shrub to redwood forest to oak woodland. It even tolerates serpentine soil. Monkey-flower bushes can reach up to four feet tall and five feet wide. Abundant flowers in hues of light to deep orange, said to look like a laughing monkey face, draw bees and hummingbirds from early spring through summer. The larvae of checkerspot and buckeye butterflies feed on its dark green leaves despite a sticky resin which deters other insects and helps the plant conserve water. Add your sightings of Diplacus aurantiacus to iNaturalist.

Tiburon Mariposa Lilly

tiburon mariposa lilly

Protected under the California Endangered Species Act, Tiburon mariposa lily (Calochortus tiburonensis) is found only at Ring Mountain Preserve. The lily grows on serpentine soils in open areas. Looks for these unique flowers in early summer. Blooms are light yellow-green with reddish to purplish-brown markings, and have long slender hairs on the upper surface and margins of the petals. Add sightings to iNaturalist

Western Fence Lizard

Western fence lizard

Also called blue-bellies, these common lizards grow up to 8 inches long, nose to tail. Males show off by doing pushups, exposing bright blue undersides. They are at home in backyard gardens, sunning on paths, rocks, and fence posts, and snacking on spiders, mosquitoes, and other insects. To regulate body heat, each individual can change color from light gray to near black. A fence lizard can live for several years, hibernating through the winter. The species thrive because each female can lay up to three clutches of eggs each year. So, watch out for the baby lizards that emerge during the warm, dry season. Add your sightings of Sceloporus occidentalis to iNaturalist.