Naturalist Notes

Flora and fauna to watch for this winter.

California Newt


Watch your step during the winter rainy season. California newts, also called orange-bellies, emerge from their hiding places in woodlands and chaparral during wet weather. These adorable, common amphibians, five to eight inches long from nose to tail, can be spotted along trails once the winter rains begin. Their orange bellies are a warning to would-be predators that their skin secretes a neurotoxin more potent than cyanide. Spot a newt? Add your sightings of  Taricha torosa to iNaturalist.

Common Greenshield Lichen

Common Greenshield Lichen

As you walk through a wet winter forest and see green patches shimmering on trees and rocks, you are likely spotting lichen. Common greenshield lichen grows in beautiful fan shapes of blueish green. Lichens are a complex life form–a symbiotic partnership of fungi and algae. Fungi (the dominant partner) protects the algae and provides moisture. The algae photosynthesize carbohydrates to feed the fungi. Lichens survive in severe climates and extreme temperatures, but they need clean air. Scientists use lichen to determine levels of air pollution, and even to identify specific airborne toxins. Add sightings of Flavoparmelia caperata to iNaturalist.

Coast Redwood

Redwood grove

Sequoia sempervirens are the tallest trees on earth, reaching up to 379 feet high. They are also among the longest-lived. Scientists have dated some individuals at more than 2,000 years old. Before commercial logging began in the mid-1800s, massive redwood groves stretched from Big Sur, California to southern Oregon. As a species, they have survived for twenty million years, developing thick bark and tannins to protect against fire and insect pests. But in spite of preservation efforts, their numbers are declining, pressured by development and a changing climate. Add your sightings to iNaturalist.

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned sparrow

This yellow-capped songbird winters in the Bay Area, often returning to the same location year after year. Spot them on the ground pecking for seeds, fruits, and insects. As days lengthen, light-sensitive cells in their bodies signal it’s time to fatten up for spring migration–a 2,000 mile trip back north, to British Columbia or Alaska. These sparrows are also known for their melancholy, sliding scale song, which haunted miners as they panned for California gold during the mid-1800's. Add sightinga of Zonotrichia atricapilla to iNaturalist.

Great-horned Owl

Great-horned Owl

Found in a wide variety of habitats throughout North and South America, these large, powerful predators have been called “tiger owls.” They rule the skies at night, swooping down to kill rodents, rabbits, opossums, skunks, snakes, and even other birds with their razor-sharp talons. Their feathers are designed for silent flight, so victims rarely hear them coming. Listen for deep hoots after dark–pairs often call to each other, with the male having a noticeably lower pitch. Add sightings of Bubo virginianus to iNaturalist.

Northern Flicker

Northern flicker woodpecker

Northern flickers are big, flashy birds, with bright orange-red underwings, a black bib, spotted belly, and white rump. They drum with strong, sharp beaks to communicate and mark territory–the louder, the better, as far as the flicker is concerned. They also drill nesting cavities up in trees. (If they take a liking to your wood siding, consider putting up a nesting box.) They forage for their favorite food–ants–on the ground. Flickers in northern ranges tend to move south for winter, so keep an eye out for an uptick in numbers in the Bay Area during chillier months. Add sightings of Colaptes auratus to iNaturalist.

Northern Elephant Seal

Northern Elephant Seal

These giants of the sea grow as long as thirteen feet and weigh up to 4,500 pounds. After spending months in the water, pods of seals haul out in California and Mexico during winter. Males parade the beaches, posturing and snorting to impress prospective mates. Mothers live with their pups for only about 28 days, then shove off into the ocean, leaving groups of youngsters on the shoreline to mature together. On their own, the pups explore how to swim and feed on squid and fish. In the open ocean, mature elephant seals can dive for up to two hours at a time, descending as far as 5,000 feet below the surface. If you spot elephant seals, do not approach–observe quietly from a safe distance. Add sightings of Mirounga angustirostris to iNaturalist.

Oyster Mushroom

Oyster Mushroom

A domestically cultivated variety, this mushroom was first grown in Germany during WWI as a subsistence crop. It then became a worldwide culinary delicacy. In the Bay Area, oyster mushrooms grow from the trunks of streamside alders and big-leaf maples. As the trees weaken from old age or other causes, the mushrooms help decompose dead wood, returning nutrients to the ecosystem. It is also one of the few known  predatory fungi – its mycelia paralyze and then digest tiny nematodes, helping the mushroom gather nitrogen. Add sightings of Pleurotus ostreatus to iNaturalist.


Manzanita in flower

With glossy evergreen leaves and eye-catching maroon peeling bark, manzanitas are important native shrubs ranging from British Columbia to Mexico. Throughout the winter, clusters of bell-shaped flowers provide a vital source of nectar for insects and hummingbirds, and a wide variety of mammals and birds feast on springtime berries. Highly adapted to fire and drought, manzanitas thrive in summer-dry climates where they carpet chaparral slopes. Add sightings of manzanita to iNaturalist.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

This tiny, olive-green songbird is abundant in woodlands and forests. As winter arrives spot kinglets foraging in shrubland, parks, and backyards. This adaptive use of winter habitats has helped them thrive, even amidst human settlements. Highly energetic, they flick their wings almost constantly. The adult male flashes a brilliant red crown when excited, particularly during the springtime breeding season. Otherwise, he keeps it concealed. Males also have a loud, double-noted call. Add your sightings of Regulus calendula to iNaturalist.

Sierran Treefrog

Sierran Tree Frog

These adaptable amphibians range from central California to Idaho, living near freshwater habitats from sea level to upper mountain ranges, in grasslands, chaparral, woodlands, and even residential areas. No bigger than two inches, they have a noticeable dark stripe running through each copper-colored eye. They range in body color from green to brown to dark gray, depending on seasons, surroundings, and temperature. depending on surroundings, seasons, and temperature. These colors camouflage the frogs, but also help regulate hydration and body heat. Add sightings of Pseudacris sierra to iNaturalist.

Turkey Tail Mushroom

Turkey tail mushrooms growing on a stump

It’s easy to find this common mushroom. During the Bay Area rainy season, they appear abundantly on dead logs or stumps. Look for concentric striations, in brown to blue-gray hues, with overlapping forms that fan like a flock of turkey tails. Validate your identification by checking the flip side. Unlike similar-looking cousins, the true turkey tail holds its fungal spores in tubes; tiny holes cover the underside. Used in some alternative medicine practices, western scientists have not yet confirmed any disease-fighting benefits for these fungi. Add sightings of Trametes versicolor to iNaturalist.