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.
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!
As I set out on my hike in the warm morning air, I realized that today would be a likely day to see a snake. Today was predicted to be a hot day following on a warming trend over the last several days. It proved to be prophetic, as a group of us who converged on the Overlook upper meadow at about the same time were treated to spotting a gopher snake (see picture from a previous sighting).
Gopher snakes have similar markings to a rattlesnake, so they are often mis-identified. The simplest way to tell is to look for rattles — if the snake has rattles, it’s a rattlesnake, if it doesn’t, it’s a gopher snake. The gopher’s head is also not as spade-shaped as a rattlesnake.
Although many people are afraid of snakes — and especially the poisonous rattlesnake — snakes are a necessary part of our ecosystem. Without predators, ecosystems can fall tragically out of balance and perhaps damage an ecosystem irreparably. They also tend to avoid humans if they can, and it’s usually only when they are surprised or cornered do they strike.
In a conversation later the same day, a man recounted the story of a relative running the trail just last week who was nearly bitten by a rattler as she ran past. It missed because she was in rapid motion, but it was likely because she was in rapid motion and going past the snake in close proximity that it chose to strike. This is why it is very important to watch the ground ahead of you, especially when running. When hiking the snake usually has time to sound a warning before you get too close. I have had this happen on the trail.
So now that snakes are out of hibernation and on the Montini and Overlook properties, stay alert! If you can avoid riling up a snake it can be a pleasant outdoor experience to see a predator up close and watch it slide away into the grass. Let’s hope this describes all of your future snake encounters.
Wildflowers are not the only thing that are in season this March; rattlesnakes are also now coming out of hibernation. I ran into this fat and sassy specimen (pictured) last week on the Montini Preserve, right on the trail.
I was heading East on the Holstein Hill Trail, and right after passing through the meadow above the water tanks, the trail enters into the trees again and quickly angles to the left. It was at that angle where this angry snake was sitting and ready to strike.
Of course sightings like this are rare, particularly if you stick to the trail. I count myself lucky if I see one or two rattlers in an entire year, and I’m on the trails almost every day.
Also, they don’t want to mess with you and more than you want to mess with them. So if you encounter a rattler, just back off and let the snake slither off the trail before proceeding. Or go back the way you came, which is what I did that day since I was “rattled” (sorry!) after my encounter with a snake so large and ready to strike.
What really scared me was that I had just been thinking about breaking into a jog around that time, as that is a fairly flat stretch of trail, and if I might have been on the snake before it could warn me. So runners need to pay particular attention to the trail ahead!
Should the worst have happened, I would have been better prepared if I had read the information that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has on both avoiding snake bites and what to do if the worst happens. Big thanks to my fellow Steward Lisa Summers for the link.
Stay safe out there!