Naturalist Notes

Sonoma Chipmunk

Sonoma chipmunk sitting on a post

This adorable rodent, marked by five black longitudinal stripes, is found in chaparral and forested areas of Marin and Sonoma counties. In fall they get busy, foraging during the day for seeds, fruits, and insects, stuffing their cheek pouches. They carry the treats back to snug underground dens, building a food cache to sustain them through winter hibernation. You can spot Neotamias sonomae perching on stumps, low tree limbs, and rocks, munching and keeping a watchful eye out for intruders. Add sightings of Neotamias sonomae to iNaturalist.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar waxwing eating berries

With a stylish crest, harlequin black mask, yellow-tipped tail, and red-splashed wings this bird is a stunner. They are one of the few avian species that specializes in eating fruit. In fall and winter, groups flock to savor berries–toyon, madrone, and cedar. Listen for high-pitched whistles among the branches as they feast. Late in the season, when berries are overripe and partially fermented, younger, smaller, less experienced birds can eat too much and become intoxicated by the alcohol. Add sightings of Bombycilla cedrorum to iNaturalist.

Coyote Brush

Coyote brush in flower

This bushy shrub up to 9 feet high is common from coastal California to the Cascade ranges. In autumn, male plants produce small clusters of white flowers with yellow pollen. This fertilizes nearby female plants, which produce seeds carried on the wind by fluffy white “pappi.” An integral component of native coastal scrub and chaparral habitat, Coyote Brush frequently has galls, harmless abnormal growths that shelter insects. Over time mature plants build up dead wood, nature’s way of encouraging the fires that have been part of California ecosystems for thousands of years. Add sightings of Baccharis pilularis to iNaturalist.

Pacific Common Seal

Harbor seals hauled out on rocks

Also known as Pacific harbor seals, these marine mammals have pretty spotted coats in a range of shades from silver to brown. They spend half their time in water, diving for seafood: sole, flounder, hake, cod, herring, or squid. Safe in the surf, they often stop to bob and fix curious eyes on shore dwellers. When they haul out on land, they prefer to be left alone, snoozing in groups as they recuperate from swimming and foraging. Although rare, mothers will sometimes leave a pup on the shore when they move off in search of a meal. If you spot a solitary youngster, leave the pup alone–mom will soon return. Any disturbance reduces the young one’s chance of survival. Add sightings Phoca vitulina to iNaturalist.

Tule Elk

Large male Tule elk with full rack of antlers

Endemic to California, these majestic elk were believed to be extinct when in the mid-1870s one small herd was discovered on a private ranch in Bakersfield. In 1978, 8 females and 2 males were reintroduced in Point Reyes. There is now a large population at Tomales Point as well as additional, smaller, free-ranging herds on other National Seashore grasslands. In early fall, the elk are in rut–mating season–and the dramas begin. Males gather harems of females, sparring with other males for dominance. Occasionally a female will wander from the group eliciting high-pitched bugling and posturing from the bull as he herds her back in. Bachelors are almost always roaming on the outskirts, waiting for any opportunity to usurp the dominant bull. Bring binoculars and enjoy the show. Add sightings of Cervus canadensis nannodes to iNaturalist.

Western Gray Squirrel

Western gray squirrel foraging for nuts

Cool gray and white, without a hint of brown, these tree squirrels are California natives. Unfortunately, the woodland creatures are more sensitive to the intrusion of human settlement than their non-native cousins the fox squirrel and eastern gray squirrel, which are established in the Bay Area. Western grays thrive in oak forest, eating acorns, nuts, and fungi, and only have one litter of kits a year. Fox squirrels and eastern grays have adapted more easily to fragmented suburban habitat, even crossing along power lines between trees. And they breed more frequently. Consider yourself lucky if you see one of the truly indigenous Sciurus griseus. Read more in Bay Nature.

California Scrub Jay

Scrub jay

Common from Washington state to Baja California, these bright blue songbirds are mischievous characters, brave enough to steal acorns from woodpeckers, or even a piece of sandwich from a picnic. When other birds hear the jay’s loud raspy calls, many will clear out to avoid the commotion. It’s fun to watch these animated characters; they aren’t easily spooked. Couples typically form life-long bonds, and actively defend their territory. One jay can bury up to 500 acorns during the fall and, remarkably, remember where each is buried several months later. Add sightings of Aphelocoma californica to iNaturalist.

California Black Oak

Black oak leaves, colorful in fall

Native oaks are woven deep into the life of California ecosystems. Owls, woodpeckers, and squirrels nest in the safety of oaks. Many wild mammals and birds survive the winter thanks to nutritious acorns. Black oak acorns are a favorite wild forage, and native Americans preferred black oak acorns when making meal. Black oaks also offer a luxurious display of fall color uncommon to the Bay area’s native trees. With thick bark, and a rich supply of nutrients stored in their roots, oaks have adapted to survive wildfire. Sadly, they are not resistant to sudden oak death, a pathogen exacerbated by climate change, that is claiming the lives of thousands of oaks across the state. Add your sightings of Quercus kelloggii to iNaturalist.

Banded Garden Spider

Banded garden spider

Found around the world, these large spiders are easy to find in the Bay Area in autumn as temperatures drop. Look for a striped silver, black, and yellow body and long legs with dark bands. Dwelling amidst shrubby vegetation, it sits quietly in the center of a large, concentric web waiting for insect prey to enter the trap. Then it strikes, paralyzing dinner with venom. Harmless to humans, their life cycle is short. Most die off in winter. If a banded garden spider takes up residence in your backyard, leave them be and enjoy the predatory drama. Add sightings of Argiope trifasciata to iNaturalist.

American Crow

Black crow

The common black crow lacks dazzling plumage but it has more than its fair share of avian intelligence. Crows solve puzzles, make tools, teach each other tricks, and recognize faces. They also love to play. An online “crow boarding” video features one of these corvids repeatedly sliding down a snow-covered roof on a sled of its own making. Crafty omnivores, crows forage insects, grain, and garbage, making them adept at surviving in almost any North American locale, from wilderness forests to residential backyards. Add sightings of Corvus brachyrhynchos to iNaturalist.

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker

Red-capped, clown-faced flocks are easy to spot in oak woodlands. They live in big noisy groups; listen for their raucous, laugh-like calls. In fall they get busy, drilling holes and stashing acorns in trees, fence posts, and other wooden structures. A single tree may hold thousands of hidden morsels, serving as a communal food pantry through winter. The birds carefully tend stored food, making sure acorns are wedged tightly so other animals can’t snatch. They also practice cooperative breeding with all the adults working together to raise the young from a single nest. Add sightings of Melanerpes formicivorus to iNaturalist.

Pacific Poison Oak

Close up of shiny poison oak leaves

This common native plant, a member of the cashew family, defends itself against infection with an oily sap that causes a severe allergic reaction in humans. As problematic as the irritating chemical urushiol can be for people other animals, including deer and squirrels, love to eat the leaves. Squirrels, foxes, and woodrats nest in poison oak, and over fifty species of birds feed on the seasonal berries. Open space visitors should avoid contact with this plant, but they can feast their eyes on vibrant colors when the leaves turn in fall. Add sightings of Toxicodendron diversilobum to iNaturalist.