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…
Today was the first day I noticed lizards on the trail this year, although it must be admitted that I hadn’t been on the trail for a couple days. But suddenly they are everywhere, along my entire hike from the 4th Street trailhead on the Montini Preserve all the way up to the top of the Overlook. Lizards provide a characteristic short, sharp rustling sound as they scurry and stop, scurry and stop, in the dry leaves. If the rustle is not of this variety, it may be a snake instead.
Lizards, like snakes, are reptiles and as such are cold-blooded. This means they rely upon their environment for body heat, which also requires them to hibernate for a period during the winter when ambient temperatures are cold. When they emerge from hibernation depends on the weather, and our recent heat wave in mid-February clearly has released them from hibernation.
So keep an eye peeled for this little creatures, who are often quite colorful, and also for their cousins, snakes. If the lizards are out, then rattlesnakes can’t be far behind.
An Alligator Lizard.
Wild flowers are not the only things now gracing the hills above Sonoma that a network of trails traverse. Lizards of a number of different varieties are out in profusion as well. Many times on the trail I’ve thought I would surely step on one, but they zip down the trail or off into the underbrush with a speed that is astonishing given how low to the ground they are.
The wide variety of lizards always has me checking to see if I’ve seen that type before, and recently I’ve been rewarded with seeing some quite beautiful types. The California Alligator Lizard is certainly one of the largest you will see on the trail, and also one of the most colorful with it’s stripes of alternating colors.
But there are many other varieties as well. A very useful web site for identifying lizards is the CaliforniaHerps.com, which provides a visual index to try to spot the one you saw on the trail.
Since lizards are cold-blooded and must regulate their body temperature by careful but frequent sun exposure, you can sometimes see them sunning themselves on a rock (pictured at left) or on the trail. If you have a camera with a long enough optical zoom (say 20-30x), you can sometimes get in close with the camera without scaring the little guy off. This is important, as they are easily scared by us giant humans thundering down the trail.
Recently I saw a multi-colored lizard smack in the middle of the trail just below the Overlook Trail meadow (pictured at right). I’m not very good at identifying lizards, but I think this fellow is one of the types of Fence Lizard.
But whatever the types, there are clearly at least half-a-dozen or more different species of lizard that can be found on the Sonoma Overlook Trail and Montini Open Space Preserve, and that’s just fine by me. Most days you’ll find me hiking the trail with an eye scoping the ground, partly to avoid rattlesnakes, but also to avoid stepping on these little guys. Sure, they’re quick, but I still worry.