Spring is the season of renewal, which manifests itself out in the wild in a myriad of interesting and beautiful ways. Certainly the abundance of wildflowers is an obvious example of spring, but it’s by no means the only sign. In certain areas of the state, we were blessed with a “super bloom” of rather massive proportions that was truly something to see. Entire hillsides were painted with orange, or purple, or blue wildflowers. I was in the Merced River canyon just outside Yosemite in April and you could look up and see an entire hillside of California poppies. So…yeah, wildflowers are, I assert, one of the most beloved signs of spring.
But of course there are others.
Once the Western fence lizard makes an appearance, you know spring has sprung. These reptiles need warmth to be able to move around, so once the weather gets warmer they will be seen on the trail. They are definitely our friends in a particular way. “Studies have shown,” Wikipedia tells us, “Lyme disease is lower in areas where the lizards occur. When ticks carrying Lyme disease feed on these lizards’ blood (which they commonly do, especially around their ears), a protein in the lizard’s blood kills the bacterium in the tick that causes Lyme disease.” And since another sign of spring is the presence of ticks, the timing is fortunate.
Other reptiles such as snakes are frequently spotted in spring, as they are out and about looking for a mate. Many mammals are as well. Just today on the Montini Preserve I saw a male wild turkey in full display, trying to attract a mate from a bevy of females (see picture, the females were out of the frame). A couple females were fighting, I presume over the right to go after this fine specimen. Oh how I wish females would fight over me, but then I’m not nearly as good looking as a turkey. Sigh…
I saw a gopher snake the other day, draped right across the trail enjoying the sun. I took some pictures (see one to the right) and walked around it, leaving it undisturbed. I then told other hikers to look for it, secretly hoping it was still on the trail so they could see it. Seeing snakes on the trail is actually a rare occurrence, and should be viewed as an excellent opportunity to see a type of wildlife that one doesn’t see very often.
Rattlesnakes, which are of course more dangerous than the harmless gopher snake, have also been sighted this season. Spring is actually when snakes are most often spotted by hikers, and Richard Dale, Executive Director of the Sonoma Ecology Center has an idea why: “Now that the weather has warmed, adult Northern Pacific rattlesnakes, the only likely species in this area, are making their way out of their winter dens to mate, and males will be facing off to vie for females. Perhaps this is why in my experience they seem to be most visible this time of year, and they seem to be less so as the year progresses.” That has been my experience as well, nearly every rattlesnake I’ve ever had the delight to spot happened to be in Spring.
Although rattlesnakes inspire fear in people (me included), it’s important to realize that snakebites are actually quite rare. Richard Dale says “55% of bites occur on men between ages of 17 and 27, and 85% of all bites occur on hands or the forearm…and 28% of bite victims are intoxicated. So it’s probably a good idea not to pick them up with your hands, especially while intoxicated. Not to make too light of them, they are dangerous, but common sense will very likely keep you safe.” That has also been my experience. I know of several incidents when I or another hiker was standing within striking distance of a rattlesnake and the snake did not strike, it warned with its rattle. Of course that causes most of us to jump wildly away from the sound, which is exactly what the snake wants. It doesn’t want to bite something so big that it has no hope of eating, it just wants some space, and most of us are only too happy to comply.
So if you happen to walk up on “Big Jo/e” (s/he, not sure which), who hangs out on the Montini Preserve (see photo), just give him/her a wide berth and go about your business, as will s/he. If you stick to the trail you really have nothing to worry about.
Yesterday, after pulling invasive weeds on the Overlook Trail, I found a tick lodged in the inside of my arm. So today, as soon as I got home from my session of weed pulling, I stripped and inspected myself before heading to the shower. I was shocked to find that another was attached to my side. It had apparently bit me before I even had a chance to find it. I was out for about an hour-and-a-half. Luckily, I hadn’t yet mailed my envelope to the Sonoma County Department of Health Services to test the first tick for Lyme disease, so I added it to the envelope and doubled the check (they charge $33 to test a tick).
Part of the problem is that these buggers are quite small (see the picture of my first tick). That means when scanning for a tick on your clothing or body, you need to look for a very small, essentially black dot. Also, my work takes me off the trail into the vegetation, which most hikers and runners have no need to do (so my story isn’t necessarily indicative of the actual danger).
In a weird confluence of events, I found the first tick while in the quarterly meeting of the Sonoma Overlook Trail Stewards. I discovered that my arm was sore, and I couldn’t figure out why that would be, so I looked at it, and found the tick. Thankfully I never go anywhere without my Swiss Army knife, so I ducked out of the meeting and extracted it with the tweezers. I wrapped it in a tissue for safe keeping.
To prevent your own up-close-and-personal encounters with ticks (which is really the purpose of this post), I suggest doing the following:
- Avoid touching or brushing against vegetation.
- Inspect yourself and others for small black dots.
- Tuck pants legs into your socks.
- Shower after your hike.
I made a couple signs to this effect to put at the entrances to the Overlook, and will make another two for posting on the Montini. In my ignorance, I hadn’t realized that ticks would be out by now. Richard Dale, of the Sonoma Ecology Center, told me at the Stewards meeting that they have been out for a couple of weeks. In the future, I hope to be better about warning people of the danger as soon as it becomes real. Even I could have used the warning. Stay safe out there, hikers and runners!
Yesterday I pulled a tiny tick off me (see photo), sadly not before it had bitten. Now I have a sore and swollen red spot on my back, and I’m on the lookout for any signs of Lyme disease. That is a serious disease that needs to be caught early to have any chance of avoiding potentially serious consequences.
A study in the 1990s found that the Western Fence lizard, which is plentiful on both the Overlook and Montini properties, has an enzyme that can essentially cure a tick of transmitting Lyme disease. However, a study in 2008 found that after removing the Western Fence lizard population from a plot of land, the number of ticks went down as well, as most of the young ticks could not find another host. So although the later study did not negate the findings of the earlier one, it does point out the complexity of the interactions of various populations and these effects on the spread of disease.
All of that is perhaps just a long-winded way of saying — be careful! Check yourself and others after hiking on the trails. Believe me, you don’t want to be me.
In Northern California, despite the current cold snap, we have essentially entered Spring. This means several things. Plants like poison oak are flourishing, sending tendrils out to conquer new areas. We are presently trying to cut this back from the trail.
Soon we will also need to watch out for ticks, which are particularly bad early in the season, from March to mid-May. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, so it’s important to prevent the little buggers from biting you. Wear long pants and inspect yourself after your hike. If you do get bitten, then watch the bite carefully for signs of Lyme disease, as early treatment by a medical professional is essential. Thankfully, we have the Western Fence Lizard to help us out, since when a tick bites that lizard an enzyme is transferred to the tick that cures the Lyme disease. This has led to a much lower incidence of Lyme disease than in other areas without this helpful lizard. So be kind to the Western Fence Lizard! They are already scurrying across our trails.
Another hazard to watch out for is rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes emerge from hibernation in the Spring when the days become warm enough for cold-blooded reptiles. I’ve already seen the Western Fence Lizard scurrying across the trail, which means snakes will not be far behind. However, this recent cold snap has sent them to ground. But rattlesnakes are typically around from March to September, so we are entering the time when they will be coming out of hibernation in the lowlands and making their way to their higher hunting grounds. Since they will be on the move, most of my sightings of rattlesnakes tend to happen in the Spring.
So stay alert and safe out there!
When hiking out in the wild it’s inevitable that you run into the remains of deceased (and probably eaten) wildlife. Some hikers may be sad to see these signs, but I take it as an indication that the ecosystem is working as it should. In a world of carnivores there is simply going to be carnage.
But at the same time, I pause and admire the feathers, or bones, or hair that remains behind and see beauty in what is left. I’m afforded a much closer view than I usually get, since squirrels scamper away as I approach and birds take flight. It’s a chance to admire the colors and textures of skin, hair, feathers, and fur.
A rare occurrence is to find an animal intact (see photo of a Shrew Mole), and at those times I feel particularly blessed with an opportunity to study it. More frequently, I find the animal mutilated (see photo of the snake) or largely gone (see photo of what was left behind of a squirrel).
But I find even the fragments fascinating in their own way, and grateful for the opportunity for close-up inspection.
When you are out on the trail, keep an eye out for these sights, and count yourself blessed should you come across a relatively intact wild animal. And if there are only remains, you will know that they fed a predator and are part of a cycle that includes not just a life but also a death that nothing living on this planet escapes.
If you’re a reader of this blog you likely know that dogs are not allowed on the Montini and Overlook properties. However, there is one type of canine that is definitely allowed, Canis latrans, or coyotes. I happened to spot one today out in the meadow below the Holstein Hill trail on the Montini Preserve (see photo).
Even if you don’t see a coyote you can often hear them. The other day I was hiking on the Montini Preserve and sirens started going off below me in the town of Sonoma. They were met by howls from above me by a coyote responding to the sirens. They also bark (see the video below of a coyote barking on the Montini Preserve).
Coyotes are abundant throughout North America, and they thrive in the kinds of mixed meadows and woodlands we have here in Sonoma Valley. They eat small game such as rabbits, rodents, fish and frogs, and deer. They can also consume snakes, insects, and even fruit or grass (but most of their diet consists of mammals). Near humans, they have been known to eat garbage and pet food.
Canis familiaris, the domestic dog, is descended from the coyote. So you could say that we owe coyotes quite a bit.
Keep your eyes peeled the next time you’re out on the trail, and maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot one (or hear one).