Sunday, February 20, 2011

Don't Pick Up a Banana Slug

Working in the yard today I came across a critter I did not expect to see:  a Banana Slug (Ariolimax columbianus ?).  I have seen many of these in the Santa Cruz Mountains and Muir Woods, and once or twice in Tilden Park.  I thought they made their homes exclusively under redwood trees.  But yet, here he is, on rocky soil and more exposed than any I have seen before.

These slugs excrete a slimy substance to keep themselves hydrated.  A naturalist at Muir Woods told us that most animals will not eat banana slugs due to the slime they produce on their skin, but raccoons have found they can wash off the slime in water and then dine on these delicacies.  The slime evidently turns into an incredible glue according to those who have gotten it on their hands, so I would recommend letting these creatures be.

This guy is not nearly as yellow as some.  Some are truly deserving of their banana moniker, a true banana yellow and banana shape, and if you step on one, I suppose you will get a true banana squish.  This one is one of the bigger specimens I have seen, between 7 and 8 inches (~20 cm) long (see the penny in the picture for scale).   He was moving along at a sluggish pace, 1 body length in about 2 minutes, or about .00006 miles per hour by my calculations.

As lowly as the banana slug may seem, it does get respect on one college campus. Most colleges and universities here in the U.S. pick a mascot that is strong or fierce, like a lion or bear or Trojan, but the University of California at Santa Cruz chose the banana slug.   Why?  I suppose they have their reasons.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Raccoons: Access Denied

Last month we wrote a post (Masked bandit comes for dinnerabout a raccoon coming into our house through the cat door and raiding the cat's food dishes.  We caught him on our motion sensor camera.   Brian suggested we buy an electronic cat door to prevent the raccoons from entering.  We did, and it seems to be working.

This new cat door has a sensor that detects magnets, and it comes with 2 magnets to put on your cats' collars.  As the cat approaches the door, the sensor detects the magnet on the cat's collar and unlatches the door so the cat can enter.  If the sensor does not detect a magnet, the door stays latched shut.

We were not sure it would work when we bought it.  First, our large cat, Paloosh, had never worn a collar and we wondered if he would object to wearing one.  This turned out to be a non-problem.  We bought a cat collar, put it on him, and he pretty much ignored it was there.  Second, the whole thing sounded a bit 'hocus-pocus' or 'smoke and mirrors', but it is now installed and it does work.

Ninja, with magnet and blue bell on her collar
It did take some adjustment for the cats.  Ninja had the most trouble at first.  She would hear the door latch click as she approached and this would startle her, she would pause, and then the door would re-latch.   She would poke at it with her paw to no avail.  We forced open the latch and unplugged the battery for a few days until she was confident to go right through it.  When we re-installed the battery she went through it with no problem.

The door does have some side benefits as well.  We realize that it will keep out the neighborhood cats, as long as their owners do not have magnets on their collars.  And it keeps the wind out, the old cat door was commonly blown open by the wind, letting cold air into the house.  This one stays shut and that should help our heating bills.

Now the questions is, how long will it be before the raccoons acquire a magnet and learn how to unlatch this new cat door?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Wild Turkeys

Turkeys are another wild critter that has adapted well to the suburban landscape.  The local species, Meleagris gallopavo, was introduced (or perhaps reintroduced) to Northern California by the local fish and game department in the 1960's and 1970's, and their numbers are increasing.

I grew up in an area with a couple of domestic turkey farms and knew some turkey farmers.  They used to say that turkeys are so stupid that if you leave them out in the rain, they will stare up with their mouths open and drown.  I doubt this is true, probably just an urban (or rural?) myth, but turkeys are not very bright.  There was a turkey in Walnut Creek, CA, that would stand in the middle of the road, forcing cars to go around him.  He would strut and ruffle his feathers and play chicken with the oncoming cars.  Some said he was flirting with the cars, as if to attract them as a mate!   I know that car designers go to great lengths to make their cars look sexy, so perhaps they succeeded with this demographic.

One thing I noticed in these photos is the strange red conical feature above his beak. It's called a 'snood'.  The snood will grow to several inches long and droop over his bill when the turkey is a courting. The flap of skin under his chin is called a 'wattle', and the red growths on his neck are called 'Caruncles.' Who makes up these names?

This guy was wandering down Skyline Boulevard in Oakland a few months ago, possibly looking for a mate amoung the BMW's or Mercedes that inhabit the area.  A few months later, we saw the governor of California (governor-elect at the time), Jerry Brown, jogging along the same stretch of road. Yes, politicians and turkeys sometimes have a lot in common.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tree Squirrels

Love them or hate them?  They have adapted well to the urban landscape.  The squirrels we have around our house are fox squirrels (Sciurus niger), and as the photos show, they are cute.

They can be fun to watch, I used to unwind in a hammock in my backyard on warm evenings after work. They would scurry about in the trees above my head and scold me with their chattery voices.  Every once in awhile they would run down a branch and take a flying leap to a branch in another tree a few feet away.  Quite a sight.  Sometimes I kept my camera with me, hoping to get a picture of these aerobatics, but I was never quick enough to get a good shot.

These guys can do some damage.  They chewed a hole in our roof and made a nest in our attic.  We could hear them running around up there almost every day.  The roof was quite old and needed to be replaced anyway, but we worried that if the roofers simply closed up the hole, the squirrels would be trapped in there to die.   The roofers assured us they would be working on the roof for a couple of days before they closed up the hole, and with all of the banging and pounding, the squirrels will leave on their own accord.  And they did.

Although they are excellent climbers, I saw one fall about 15 feet to the ground from a tree branch, while fighting with another squirrel.  I say they were fighting as they were making an awful racket with their clucking and chucking.  I can't translate what they were saying, but I am sure it is unprintable in 'G' rated blog.  In any case, the downed squirrel picked itself up off the ground, looked a bit dazed and confused for about 2 seconds, then ran back up into the tree.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


I am not sure if it is a legal requirement or not, but everyone does it.  If you write anything about Jackrabbits you must point out that they are not rabbits by the strict definition, but hares.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's talk about what strange looking creatures these are.  I took this picture at the San Francisco Bay Wildlife Refuge, near Fremont, CA.  Their ears! They are comically large, as if drawn by a cartoonist.  When my daughter saw this photo she asked, "Are those real?" in disbelief.  She thought I had photoshoped them out of proportion.  No, this is the raw photo.  This is what they look like live.

I chose one of these pics as my desktop photo and have even named the pair--Nick and Nack. Nick is the one with the small but unmistakable notch in his ear. Life can be pretty hardscrabble for these hares, no doubt.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Certainly not every time we go hiking in the open spaces around the bay area, not even half or a quarter of the time, but every once in a while we come across coyotes.  They are one of the more common wild animals we see.  This guy in the photograph is quite health and handsome.  I guess there are plenty of rodents and other prey in his neck of the woods.  By contrast, there is (or was?) a rather mangy coyote in Redwood park.  The rangers called him 'grandpa' because he looked quite old. He surprised them when he fathered a litter of pups, but they still call him grandpa.  Rangers also told us he probably has canine scabies, which affects coyotes and foxes and can also infect dogs.

Some coyotes are rather shy and run off as soon as they see us, but others are much bolder and not so scared of humans.  They do keep their distance, but sometimes that distance is only 10 or 20 yards, a little too close for my comfort.  But in spite of this, I have never seen a coyote act aggressive towards me, or any other human.  Many years ago in Briones Park, on the Blue Oak Trail, a small coyote was coming towards me, and just about the time I thought I should give way to him, he went off the trail, around me, and back on to the trail behind me, and trotted away.  A year or so ago in Shell Ridge open space in Walnut Creek, a mother coyote, obviously still nursing, came within 15 yards of us as she crossed our path and went down a hillside.  She kept a wary eye on us the whole time, but never gave any sign of aggression. She was probably more worried about us.

One time I did feel threatened by a coyote, but when I think back on it, I realize it was just my own fear, and that the coyote had no intention of doing any harm.  It happened many years ago when my kids and I were walking north on the Coast Trail near Palomarin at Point Reyes National Seashore. About a mile in, a guy coming the other way said, "I wouldn't take kids down this trail. There is a coyote on the trail coming this way".  I said thanks, but went on anyway.  Around the next bend I saw him, the biggest coyote I have ever seen.  The size of a great Dane.  I stopped in my tracks, and he stopped in his, and sat down.

My kids were little back then so I quickly turned them around, and started them back down the trail.  As we headed back towards civilization I picked up a couple of the biggest rocks I could throw, in case I needed a defense.  The coyote followed us at a distance and each time I turned to look at him, he would stop and sit down. After a half mile or so, I looked back and saw him take a sharp left turn, go off the trail and over a ridge.  We never saw him again.  I must admit, a dog that sits down is taking a very non-aggressive posture.  I'm glad we let him go his way.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Tale of Two Salamanders

Our yard is very rocky, and one way we commonly come across critters is when we move a rock.  It is amazing the life and diversity you can find just under the surface of this earth.  It's like a whole other world down there.  Working in the garden last weekend, we found under rocks and stones: ants, sow bugs, little centipedes, some kind of cricket, and worms, but the most interesting creatures we found were amphibians - salamanders.

Slender Salamander
The more common variety we see is the "California Slender Salamander", or Batrachoseps attenuatus.  At first glance, these appear to be worms, but on closer examination you will see tiny legs.    For years I thought these were a reptile, some sort of skink, as I thought a skink was basically a lizard with small legs.  It wasn't until I found the 'California Herps' website ( that I found out these are salamanders.

Arboreal Salamander
Another species we rarely see (although we found two last weekend) is the arborial salamander, or Aneides lugubris.  The scientific name is latin for 'shapeless and dull colored', a rather dismal name for such an interesting critter.  And although this looks like the most harmless creature this side of the Mississippi, it evidently has teeth and can bite and draw blood.  Check out the above mentioned California Herps site to see a picture of salamander teeth and the damage they can do!

One of the more amazing things about both of these species is that they do not have lungs.  They do not breathe through their mouths.  Instead, they breathe through their skin.  Bad breath and B.O. are one and the same for these guys.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

Egrets eat Gophers?

I was sitting in my car eating lunch in a gravel parking lot at the Coyote Hills Regional Park, near Newark, CA.  (see  The local regional parks are a great place to be when you have a few minutes or a few hours to kill.  Many interesting critters come and go, including humans.  Also, as a bonus, they usually have restrooms by the parking lot, and these are sometimes difficult, but important, to find when you are out and about all day.

I was watching a large egret, a 'great egret' according to my field guide, poking around a small creek that led to a large marshy area.  A friend of mine once wondered out loud how these birds evolved to be pure white.  They stand out like a sore thumb, and one would think that both their prey and their predators could easily see them, and thus they would be Darwined out of existence. But they seem to survive nicely, even thrive around the San Francisco Bay.

This also makes them difficult to photograph.  They are so white that if you use the standard camera settings they get washed out, with no details of their feathers or shading.  I always have to remember to adjust my camera by an f-stop or so below the automatic setting to get a decent photo of them.

I had my camera that day, and I did reduce the f-stop, and I started taking pictures of the elegant bird as it would stalk its prey by the creek, stepping one foot forward rather quickly, then standing motionless for a few seconds, then another foot forward.

After about 10 minutes of this, he jabbed his head into a marshy area and came up with rodent in his mouth!  A rodent?  I thought they ate fish!  And maybe frogs as well, but a rodent?  I continued to take pictures as he reoriented it in his beak and swallowed it down whole.  (See the slide show in the sidebar for more photos, and click on it for larger pictures) When I got home and was able to enlarge the photos, we saw that it was a gopher, and a rather large gopher, in fact.  Is this known?  That egrets will eat gophers? I wonder if we could get one to hunt in our garden!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Glowing bugs

We did not know that scorpions lived in California. We thought they only lived in the southwestern U.S. desert, like Arizona or the Mojave, but one evening we found one on the wall of our bedroom!  We looked up information on them on the internet, and sure enough, they do thrive in the Bay Area, They live under rocks and come out to hunt on warm nights and evenings.  And they are not as dangerous as we thought, either.  The sting of the species that live near us is no more dangerous than a bee sting, accoring to most authorities on the subject, and we hope we don't find out ourselves.  But the most interesting thing we read about these creatures is that they glow a greenish color if you shine an ultraviolent (UV) light on them.  Remember those 'black lights' from 1970's dance parties?  Those are more correctly known as 'UV' lights.  And now they are available as 'UV' flashlights on Ebay, and they are cheap.

So I bought one and went searching around my yard and neighborhood, looking for these critters on a warm evening.  I didn't find any.  But I did find something even more interesting, a glowing millipede!  And then a bunch of them.  They are about 1-1/2 to 2 inches long, and were crawling through the detritus under live oak and pine trees.

We searched the internet for information on these and found almost nothing, until we came across the website of a millipede expert from the University of Arizona, Paul Marek (see   He told us they are known scientifically as 'Xystocheir Dissecta' (Don't ask me how to pronounce that first word!) and they are quite common under live oak trees in the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas of California.  They fluoresce, the UV light is reflected back as visible light.

I took a video of one of these guys while shining the UV flashlight on it.  The blinking red light is from the 'Recording' indicator on my camera.  

These millipedes glow only if you shine a UV light on them, but according to Dr. Marek, there is another species that glows like a firefly.  These are bioluminexcent, they produce the light themselves, without the need of a UV light shining on them.  These live in the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains.  We hope to see one someday.

We will search again for scorpions and let you know if we find any.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Deer caught on camera

So, now that we know the game camera works (see we have been thinking of other uses for it. I put it at the back of the house and aimed it at the pile of droppings below the overhand (see and left it there for a couple of nights, but few of the photos had animals in them, and those that did just had our cats walking by.

There is a low spot in a fence behind our house, far from our enclosed garden (see, where we have seen deer jump over in the past. We mounted the camera on a tree, aimed it at that spot and left it there for 4 days.  Here is the result.  Amazing!  We got deer looking into the camera, deer walking away, bucks with horns, and does.  See the slide show in the side bar.  But only deer.  I was hoping we might see a fox, or coyote, or even a mountain lion.

It seems the deer come through here once or twice a day, so I put the camera back near that same spot.  The doe could be having babies in May, so hopefully we will get some pictures of spotted fauns in the future. We will keep you posted.

Deer in the Garden

Our local black tailed deer are fun to watch as they wander through our yard, but they sure like to eat, especially the plants we would prefer they didn't.

When we bought our house there was a lemon tree in the front yard that was almost naked of leaves.  The previous owner tried to protect it with a ring of chicken wire around it, but over the years the deer were able to poke their noses through the wire and strip it nearly clean of leaves.  Amazingly enough, with our added protection, the tree is still alive today.

We like to garden, so one of our first DIY projects was to build a 6' deer proof fence around the front yard..  We planted day lillys, succulents, naked ladies, manzanita, olive trees, and a second lemon tree, a gift from Chris.  All was well for several months.

Naked Lemon Tree
Then one morning we looked out the window, and the new lemon tree looked BARE!  Almost no leaves on it.  We rushed into the garden and saw the day lillies were mowed to the ground, many succulents were trimmed back, and even the local manzanita were nibbled on.  And of course the hoof prints were unmistakable - Our deer proof fence was not so deer proof.  

We wondered if the deer could hop the fence in a low spot, or perhaps scoot under it in a high spot.  We patched a a couple of these spots, and the day lillies grew back, and we noticed a couple of new leaves budding on the lemon tree, but low and behold, again one morning, the lillies were eaten and more plants munched on.

I bought a 'driveway patrol' wireless motion detector on ebay, hoping to catch the deer in the act and see where they jump over or scoot under to escape.  At first we were bothered by several false alarms; the cats wandering through the yard and tree branches swaying in the wind would set it off and we would run to the window, but alas, no deer to be seen.  I mounted the sensor so that it could not detect the swaying branches, and above the height of the cats, and now we wait.  

Reciever, in the house

Sending unit, mounted in the yard
We will let you know how this works if we ever catch a deer red handed.