Naturalist Notes

Flora and fauna to watch for this winter.

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anna’s hummingbird

Anna’s hummingbirds are a common sight in neighborhoods and open spaces of northern California but this wasn’t always the case. Originally a southern species, these flashy, feisty birds have expanded their range northward into Alaska with the planting of ornamentals. Known for drinking nectar, these birds also consume, and feed their young, a high number of insects, especially during the breeding season which begins in winter. Our earliest breeding bird, females can be incubating eggs in their tiny nests as early as December and males can be observed doing skydiving courtship displays. Add sightings of Calypte anna to iNaturalist.

Arboreal Salamander

Arboreal Salamander sitting on leaves

During the rainy season arboreal salamanders spend a fair amount of time under fallen logs and foraging in leaf litter, but, as their name suggests, they’re also adept climbers. Their large jaws help them easily secure prey in precarious tree-top situations and their strong toes and prehensile tail enable them to climb trees up to 50 feet above the ground where they hunt for insects and take advantage of tree hollows for shelter.  As many as 35 arboreal salamanders have been found together in one tree hollow. Native to California and Baja California, these lungless salamanders are typically associated with oak woodlands and chaparral. Add sightings of Aneides lugubris to iNaturalist.

California Slender Salamander

California slender salamander

One of the most ubiquitous vertebrates in the Bay Area, California slender salamanders spend the dry months below ground in cool, damp spaces only surfacing once the rainy season gets underway. Their slender shape allows them to take advantage of earthworm burrows where they hunt for small arthropods. Lacking lungs, respiration is done through the skin and breeding takes place on land rather than in water. This nocturnal amphibian is frequently found in gardens spending the day under flowerpots, so use caution if moving them. Add sightings of Batrachoseps attenuates to iNaturalist.

Convergent Lady Beetle

Convergent lady beetle

This native ladybug is easily recognized by its thirteen black spots and slanted white lines above the eyes. A migratory species, large aggregations can be found in protected spots during winter but the reason isn’t well understood; perhaps they gather for warmth, to mate before dispersal, or to avoid predation. Both larvae and adults are voracious predators and therefore beneficial garden visitors, but nursery-bought individuals typically disperse once released. Help track the native species Hippodamia convergens on iNaturalist.

Fetid Adder’s Tongue

Fetid adder’s tongue

This cryptic, shade-loving lily is easily overlooked, yet beautiful (and malodorous) upon close inspection. A fetid odor attracts tiny fungus gnats who, looking for decaying vegetation to lay eggs on, inadvertently pollinate the flowers. Insects are enlisted in seed dispersal as well. Each seed has a small appendage containing lipids and proteins which ants feed to their larvae, later discarding the uneaten seed in nutrient rich soil – an ideal spot for germination. Look for fetid adder’s tongue in late winter along forested trails. Add sightings of Scoliopus bigelovii to iNaturalist.

California Forest Scorpion

California forest scorpion

An inhabitant of moist redwood forests and oak woodlands, this small arachnid spends its daylight hours under the cover of rocks or logs, venturing out at night to hunt for small invertebrates. Prey is subdued with large claws and sometimes a venomous sting from the tip of the thin abdomen. Reports suggest that, for humans, the pain of the sting is similar to a honeybee’s. Females give birth to live young who are then carried on the mother’s back until large enough to disperse. Add sightings of Uroctonus mordax to iNaturalist.

Green-winged Teal

Green-winged teal

Cute and colorful, the green-winged teal is our smallest dabbling duck weighing only 12 ounces. After migrating from forested wetlands of Canada and Alaska, males molt into colorful breeding plumage and begin courting females on wintering grounds. Courtship displays include over a dozen specific behaviors including burps, whistles, and posturing, with the majority of females choosing a mate by January. Scattered groups of green-winged teals are a common sight in winter but large flocks may appear or disappear overnight as they wander widely for food and safe resting spots. Males have distinct patterning while the brownish females can be recognized by a cream-colored slash below the base of the tail. Add sightings of Anas crecca to iNaturalist.

Northern Elephant Seal

Northern Elephant Seal

These giants of the sea grow as long as thirteen feet and weigh up to 4,500 pounds. After spending months in the water, pods of seals haul out in California and Mexico during winter. Males parade the beaches, posturing and snorting to impress prospective mates. Mothers live with their pups for only about 28 days, then shove off into the ocean, leaving groups of youngsters on the shoreline to mature together. On their own, the pups explore how to swim and feed on squid and fish. In the open ocean, mature elephant seals can dive for up to two hours at a time, descending as far as 5,000 feet below the surface. If you spot elephant seals, do not approach–observe quietly from a safe distance. Add sightings of Mirounga angustirostris to iNaturalist.

Northern River Otter

Northern river otters

Adorable, adaptable, and adept, the northern river otter is equally at home in water and on land. These members of the weasel family are fierce predators of fish, crustaceans, and even large birds like gulls or brown pelicans. Insulated in chilly waters by thick, water-repellent fur they use good hearing, a great sense of smell, and long whiskers to detect prey hiding in shadows. At one time these sleek swimmers were hunted for their fur, which nearly eradicated local populations. Happily, they’ve rebounded throughout the Bay Area and are once again found in virtually every waterway in Marin. Learn more at The River Otter Ecology ProjectAdd sightings of Lontra canadensis to iNaturalist.

Oyster Mushroom

Oyster Mushroom

A domestically cultivated variety, this mushroom was first grown in Germany during WWI as a subsistence crop. It then became a worldwide culinary delicacy. In the Bay Area, oyster mushrooms grow from the trunks of streamside alders and big-leaf maples. As the trees weaken from old age or other causes, the mushrooms help decompose dead wood, returning nutrients to the ecosystem. It is also one of the few known  predatory fungi – its mycelia paralyze and then digest tiny nematodes, helping the mushroom gather nitrogen. Add sightings of Pleurotus ostreatus to iNaturalist.

Ring-necked snake

Ring-necked snake

A wet weather fan, the ring-necked snake is one of few reptiles active during the winter. This small snake is often found under logs with its favorite prey, slender salamanders and slugs. Though harmless to humans, it employs venom from fangs at the back of its mouth to help subdue prey. The slender neck bears the namesake ring but when threatened, it diverts attention away from the vulnerable head by tucking it below the body and tightly coiling the tail, exposing a bright orange underside to distract would-be predators. Add sightings of Diadophis punctatus to iNaturalist.

Shooting Star

Shooting star

With bright pink, beak-shaped flowers suspended over small round leaves, shooting stars appear late winter just as queen bumblebees emerge and begin foraging. The inside-out flowers are adapted for “buzz pollination”. Bumblebees use the vibration of their flight muscles to shake pollen loose onto their fuzzy bellies, ready to be transferred to the next flower they visit. These stars of open woodlands are summer deciduous, dying back in the dry season. Add sightings of Primula hendersonii to iNaturalist.

Townsend's Warbler

Townsend’s warbler

Arguably the most striking winter songbird in our area, individuals that spend the nonbreeding season here are thought to be migrants from the Queen Charlotte Islands and possibly Vancouver Island. With an affinity for conifers these birds actively forage for insects in any habitat with an abundance of trees and shrubs, often joining other species in mixed flocks. Some populations overwintering in Mexico feed extensively on the honeydew excreted by scale insects, while local birds can be attracted to feeders with energy-rich foods like suet and mealworms. Add sightings of Setophaga townsendi to iNaturalist.

Turkey Tail Mushroom

Turkey tail mushrooms growing on a stump

It’s easy to find this common mushroom. During the Bay Area rainy season, they appear abundantly on dead logs or stumps. Look for concentric striations, in brown to blue-gray hues, with overlapping forms that fan like a flock of turkey tails. Validate your identification by checking the flip side. Unlike similar-looking cousins, the true turkey tail holds its fungal spores in tubes; tiny holes cover the underside. Used in some alternative medicine practices, western scientists have not yet confirmed any disease-fighting benefits for these fungi. Add sightings of Trametes versicolor to iNaturalist.

Warrior's Plume

Warrior’s plume

Carpeting woodland floors with fern-like leaves and deep magenta blossoms, this native to California and Oregon blooms winter into spring taking advantage of both bumblebees and hummingbirds to act as pollinators. Often growing in the vicinity of manzanitas and madrones, Warrior’s plume is a facultative parasite, meaning that, when the opportunity arises, it can tap into the roots of these plants to gain nutrients in addition to the sugars it’s able to produce itself through photosynthesis. Add sightings of Pedicularis densiflora to iNaturalist.

Witches Butter

Witches butter

Looking like glowing globs of orange jelly, witches butter is a common component of oak woodlands. This jelly fungus parasitizes another common species, false turkey tails. Small structures called haustoria penetrate the false turkey tail hyphae and steal nutrients. All of this occurs on a microscopic level within dead branches and fallen logs and is only apparent on the outside from the characteristic fruiting bodies of both species. Add sightings of Naematelia aurantia to iNaturalist.