California Kingsnake

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


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It only took over a year, but the quintessential Californian was finally found! Let’s take a look at arguably one of the most beautiful snakes in the country, the California Kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula californiae. This species is unmistakable in appearance, hosting a pallet of striking contrast, usually of black and white banding in its most familiar phenotype. There are local color variations throughout the range, with sub-populations exhibiting variable hues of chocolate browns and creams. There are even populations of individuals with longitudinal striping rather the more familiar banded pattern. California Kingsnakes are medium-sized, gentle snakes that range throughout the state in a variety of different habitats. When surprised/threatened, they will hiss loudly and quickly vibrate their tail, accomplishing a somewhat surprisingly loud buzzing noise when in contact with loose, dry debris. If the envelope is further pushed, they will hide their head within their coils and expose the bright red mucosal surface of their cloaca with (it is suspected) the intent of drawing attention to the back end while the front end searches for an escape.

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So, why are they called kingsnakes? Welp, these beasts will eat just about anything they come across – lizards, young turtles, birds, a variety of small mammals, large insects, the eggs of lizards and snakes, and even other snakes! Kingsnakes immobilize and dispatch their prey by constriction. California has a variety of snake species- our friend Lampropeltis getula californiae reigns supreme. These guys will even eat rattlesnakes – and if that isn’t macho enough, kingsnakes are immune to rattlesnake venom!

Western Pond Turtle

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Let’s take a look at the only native species of turtle to the area, Actinemys marmorata, the Western Pond Turtle. Pond turtles are small-medium semiaquatic chelonian species with a rather flat shell shape. Most appear somewhat bland, having a muddy-brown carapace (top shell), a yellowish plastron (bottom shell), and lighter brown appendages/head. There are some beauty queens, however, that display ornate, radiant striping on the carapace and pretty yellow mottling of the arms, legs, and neck. Males will usually have pale-yellow throats and flatter shells while females will have a higher, dome-shaped appearance to the carapace. These little tanks are omnivorous, feeding on aquatic plants, invertebrates, and the occasional frog/fish – the diet of champions!

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Again, these guys are the only species of turtle native to the central coast – any other species of turtle/tortoise found meandering about is either invasive or an escaped pet. Red-eared sliders, an eastern species, have established themselves in many places pretty far from home, including various places in California. Common Snapping turtles, another eastern species, have also made themselves at home in California as well.

Unfortunately, this is the last Central Coast reptile species I have in my arsenal! I suppose we’ll have to change gears and take a look at birds soon. I know, I am heart-broken as well; please stay strong.

Sound a Frog Makes

On the prowl! This guy was found just off of the mean streets of Pismo- up to no good, I imagine.

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Males can be differentiated from females by their vocal sacs, which appear as dark, loose skin over the throat area. A variety of different calls are utilized in the male’s quest for finding love and maintaining his territory – an excellent run-down of the different calls can be found (and heard!) using the link below:

http://www.californiaherps.com/f…/pages/p.sierra.sounds.html

The daytime call, an ugly-sounding, single-noted quack, is a common background noise heard just about anywhere there is shrubbery about. This noise is almost insect-like -easily unassuming of a lurking, well-hidden frog. The advertisement call, however, is a text-book, quintessential ‘ribbit’. In fact, the advertisement call was used as THEE frog voice soundbite in the early days of Hollywood, becoming world-renowned as the ‘sound a frog makes’.

Sierran Treefrog

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Here we have our most common amphibian species of the area, Pseudacris sierra, the Sierran Treefrog. These little beasts tend to reach a maximum size of about 2 inches or less and come in a variety of colors and patterns that can change in response to temperature and habitat. Regardless of an individual’s chosen garb, the dark ‘mask’ through the eyes and a ‘y’-shaped blotch on the center of the head are nearly always present.

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They are found pretty much anywhere capable of maintaining at least a drop or two of moisture – including downtown Pismo! Treefrogs are a regular inhabitant of my courtyard, and I derive much interest from listening to their calls and observing their patterning, much more so than a normal adult man should. I even occasionally find a frog or two indoors, to which I kindly escort them out. You ain’t helping to pay no rent, freeloader! Sit tight, soon we’ll discuss calls and differentiating males from females.

Western Skink

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Let’s take a look at a common representative of the Scincidae lizard family that can be found here on the Central Coast, the Western (or Skilton’s) Skink (Plestiodon skiltonianus). While sometimes seen basking, these fast, active little lizards are usually more at-home beneath leaf litter or environmental debris. Western Skinks have a rather aesthetic appearance; their smooth, shiny scales shimmer in the sunlight and the bright, eye-catching electric blue tail is a color rarely encountered in nature. But why would such a small, somewhat delicate lizard want to draw attention to its tail? We will soon find out!

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But first, let’s munch on a few nuggets of natural history: Western Skinks are diurnal lizards that spend much of their time foraging for insects, spiders and other invertebrates. They reach about 2-3 inches in body length (not including the tail) and females typically lay between 2-10 eggs in early summer, diligently guarding them until they hatch approximately 30 days later. During the breeding season, adults will develop a red-orange cast to the head, chin, and tail – much like the specimen pictured here.

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Now, let’s get back to that tail. The tail in many lizards accounts for a significant portion of their body length and is an important aspect of balance, locomotion, and, in some species, fat storage. The tail is, however, also the most likely area of the lizard to be captured by a would-be predator. Many species of lizards across different families have evolved a remarkable defense mechanism, known as caudal autotomy, in which they can essentially break their own tail off! Within the vertebra of the tail are pre-determined fracture planes that work much like the linear perforations of a notebook. When even the slightest amount of pull is applied to the tail, these fracture planes ‘activate’, truncating the tail at the point of restraint.
(https://ispub.com/IJBA/1/2/7729)

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Here we have the spoils of an attempted skink capture. After detachment the muscles of the tail will continue to violently contract, leaving the tail to writhe about for a few minutes. This dramatic flailing of the brightly-colored tail serves as an excellent distraction to the predator as the remainder of the lizard retreats to safety. We can see why, then, this animal would want to draw attention to its tail.

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Black-bellied Slender Salamander

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Let’s take a look at another species of lungless salamander common to the area: Batrachoseps nigriventris, the Black-bellied Slender salamander. These little guys have been hard to come by given the recent drought and heat; however, once a bit of moisture and a milder ambient temperature roll on in, Black-bellied slender salamanders will be regularly encountered. They are a small species, growing only a few inches in length, and are commonly found beneath moist debris such as rotting logs. Their slender appearance, small legs, and very long tail give them an almost worm-like appearance. When surprised, they tend to flail about- again looking a bit like a deranged worm. Like other species of lungless salamanders, oxygen exchange occurs through the skin and mucus membranes.

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Here’s a pretty horrendous picture of another individual found just yards away from the previous: As you can see, there is a good deal of variability in the basic coloration of this species. It is not uncommon for individuals to have a lighter base color and a reddish back. While this guy looks a bit different from the previous, they are in fact the same species.
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Okay, sit tight, another amphibian is on the way!

Monterey Ensatina

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Well, well, look who’s back with some herpin’ action! Today we will take a look at our first amphibian species which, based on how dry things have been around here as of late, have been very few and far between. This beautiful guy here is a somewhat commonly-encountered salamander of the Central Coast, Ensatina eschscholtzii escholtzii, the Monterey Ensatina. There are a few subspecies of Ensatina that range throughout western California; all are neat-looking little creatures! Like many of California’s salamander species, the Ensatina belongs to the family Plethodontidae, the Lungless Salamanders. Plethodontid salamanders do not breathe through lungs. Instead, the tissue of the dermis (skin) and mucus membranes is involved in oxygenation of the blood. Such a form of respiration requires them to live in damp environments; therefore, Ensatina live in relatively cool moist places on land becoming most active on rainy or wet nights when temperatures are moderate. They stay underground during hot and dry periods where they are able to tolerate considerable dehydration.

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D’aww, just look at that little face! Like many brightly colored organisms in nature, those beautiful colors are intended to convey a message to would-be predators. The tail contains a high density of poison glands that secrete a milky white noxious substance that is incredibly distasteful and sticky. When disturbed, an Ensatina will stand tall in a stiff-legged defensive posture with its back swayed and the tail raised up, swaying the tail from side to side. The objective of such as display is to draw attention to the tail and away from the more vulnerable body.

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We’ll be taking a look at another species of lungless salamander soon, keep your eyes peeled!

Side-blotched Lizard

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Okay, changing things up a bit. I had planned on presenting a different species; however, I came across this guy at the beginning of the week and thought he’d help the sequence flow along a little better. This is Uta stansburiana, the Side-blotched lizard, a species that at first glance can look somewhat similar to the Western fence lizard we just looked at. Like the Western Fence lizard, the Side-blotched lizard is a small, fast, diurnal (active during the daytime) species of lizard that feeds primary on insects. Hmmm, why is it called a Side-blotched lizard?

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Boom! Regardless of dorsal pattern and coloration, Side-blotched lizards will display an axillary (near the arm pit) dark patch, as seen here. They are present bilaterally (on both sides) and both sexes have them. In addition to these blotches, which Fence lizards do not have, the Side-blotched lizard has fine, granular scales, as opposed to the spiky, coarse scales of the Fence lizard.
In most instances one cannot get very close to these flighty little lizards. This individual, however, was a very bold male that stood his ground when I approached. His machismo allowed me to show you another key difference between the two species…..

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Have a look at the obvious differences on the ventrum between the male Side-blotched lizard (left) and the male fence lizard. Again, the hemipenal buldges and large femoral pores are indications that this Side-blotched is a male (in addition to his territorial behavior). Take a close look at the chin/throat area of the Side-blotched lizard on the left: notice the orange-tinge to the throat? Three sub-populations of males with different behavioral characteristics have been identified based on their throat coloration. Per californiaherps.com:

Orange-throated males – are dominant, aggressive and territorial and mate with many different females.
Yellow-throated males – do not defend territories. They mimic females and sneak past territorial orange-throated males to mate with their females.
Blue-throated males- guard their mates, chasing off the yellow males, but they are run off when confronted by orange males. Blue males also cooperate with neighboring blue males to protect their respective mates from the orange and yellow males, and their breeding is much more successful when they do so.

Pretty amazing stuff! Our arrogant orange-throated male certainly lived up to his reputation!

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Western Fence Lizard

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Okay, let’s change gears a bit and discuss one of our most familiar scaly faces, Sceloporus occidentalis, the Western Fence Lizard. These spiky little lizards can be found just about anywhere, including courtyards and city parks. They’re insectivorous, meaning they feed primarily on insects; larger males will, however, eat smaller lizards on occasion, even those of their own species! They are also important prey items for many species, including raptors and snakes. Western fence lizards can show a bit of variety in their behavior and coloration based on gender. The most striking differences in coloration occurs within the breeding season from March – June; during this time, males love to strut their stuff, showing off beautiful colors and performing physical ‘push-up’ displays to intimidate rival males and impress nearby girls. Male Western fence lizards, such as the one seen here, can have beautiful flecks of cyan on their dorsal scales. Let’s take a closer look:

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Here we can fully appreciate the dapper of a male Western Fence Lizard; just get an eye-full of that green!

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Now let’s take a look at the females: Female fence lizards tend to have a ‘dainty’ build when compared to the rather robust build of males and have a somewhat discreet pattern of dark, horizontal waves on the dorsum (back).

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A different female: Female Western fence lizards typically lay 1-3 clutches of 3-17 eggs that hatch after 60 days. Since Spring was the mating season, baby fence lizards should be making an appearance soon! Keep an eye out!

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Let’s look at other ways males can be distinguished from females: One of the most obvious visual differences occurs on the belly. The male, seen on the left, has areas of striking metallic blue on the lateral margins of the belly (2) and in the gular (chin) area (3)- hence the ‘blue belly’ moniker that is often applied to Western Fence lizards. Additionally, males will have more yellow in the thigh area and rather prominent femoral pores (1). These femoral pores secrete a waxy substance that is used to mark territory.The female, seen on the right, has greatly reduced blue markings (2,3) and much smaller femoral pores (1).

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Let’s have another look at those femoral pores and genital area: Within the blue box one can see a small, horizontal row of dots; these are the femoral pores. Notice the difference in prominence when compared to the female (pink borders). Also, take a look at the tail – notice the male has a thicker tail that bulges on either side (blue dots). These are the hemipenal bulges; they are absent in the females.
Next time we’ll take a look at another somewhat common species of lizard – and discuss a really neat defense mechanism!

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Pacific Gopher Snake

As a child I was enthralled with reptiles, mesmerized by the unending stare of a snake and the myriad geometric patterns and colors of turtle and lizard scales. I would spend hours trekking through nearby fields and streams in search of all things slimy and scaly- a habit I never grew out of. Growing up in the Midwest, species of the western US up until now were encountered only as pictures in books and childhood daydreams. After relocating to the west coast, much of my free-time is spent in the field attempting to catch a glimpse of the native reptile and amphibian species of central California. More recently, I have become interested in identifying and untangling the seemingly unfathomable number of bird species found here on the Central Coast. As I encounter local species of reptiles, amphibians and birds I will be posting pictures of these animal encounters along with interesting natural history facts about each specimen. There is so much beauty within the world to be discovered and appreciated; why not start in one’s own backyard.


Having introduced the only venomous snake in our area, let’s now take a look at a harmless species of snake that can be confused with the rattlesnake: The Pacific Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) is perhaps one of the most commonly encountered snakes of the area. This large, nonvenomous snake can reach lengths of over 5 ft in length. It is a powerful constrictor that utilizes the strong muscles of its coils to asphyxiate its prey. Gopher snakes feed on small mammals (pocket gophers are a favorite), birds, and bird eggs. Smaller individuals will eat insects and lizards. The gopher snake has a few features that can easily lead one to mistake it for a rattlesnake, especially when exhibiting a threat display. Let’s learn how to distinguish the two:

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The pattern of the gopher snake at first glance can look remarkably similar to that of a rattlesnake; however, there are a few morphological (body shape) differences that can be used to distinguish the two. The most obvious, of course, is that the Gopher snake does not have a rattle. One of the defense mechanisms of this species, however, is to quickly vibrate the tip of the tail when alarmed – which can sound remarkably similar to a rattle when the tail comes into contact with surrounding vegetation! Secondly, gopher snakes have a much narrower head that is relatively indistinct from the neck. The rattlesnake, on the other hand, has a very wide, diamond-shaped head that is significantly wider than the neck. Again, things get tricky; an angry Gopher snake will adapt a defensive stance in which the head is flattened and the body is recoiled into an ‘S’ shape, like the specimen seen here.

There are other external features that less apparent from a distance that delineate the two: The gopher snake has round pupils (the black central portion of the eye) whereas the rattlesnake has vertical, slit-like pupils. The head scalation of the Gopher snake also consists of large, plate-like scales when compared to the much smaller, finer scales of a rattlesnake’s head. In the end, if there is any doubt as to what species of snake you are encountering, LEAVE IT ALONE!

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