Garter Snakes

There are three species of garter snakes in the San Francisco Bay region. The terrestrial garter snake, the aquatic garter snake and then there are two snakes that are very closely related and are considered subspecies: the California red-sided garter snake and the famously endangered San Francisco garter snake. The latter incidentally is not found in the city of San Francisco but only on the Peninsula.

Garter snakes are the most commonly encountered snake in North America. Their range extends all the way into Canada and even Alaska and of course down into Mexico and beyond. They are found from the West Coast all the way east to the Atlantic Ocean. There are a lot of species and subspecies but they share many characteristics. None of them are particularly large (never more than four feet). They have longitudinal stripes down their body. They come in a wide range of colors — red, orange, brown, blue, green and black. They are relatively gentle and rarely bite, though they can. And they have glands next to their cloaca that emit a foul smelling substance as a defense mechanism. By the way for years they were considered not poisonous but actually they do have mild venom. But it’s not harmful to humans.

They are so successful because they can survive in a wide variety of habitats and have a very diverse diet. Basically anything that’s smaller than they are is considered food. They are even immune to the powerful toxins created by toads and newts. Unlike many other snakes, they do not kill their prey first but swallow them alive.

That classic scene in Indiana Jones with all the writhing snakes actually occurs with garter snakes. I have had the good fortune to witness hundreds of them emerging from their den on a warm March day in Northern California’s Tule Lake region. Males and females both emit characteristic pheromones and they find each other by following the scent trails. When the females emerge and are receptive to mating, more than 10 males will attempt to mate with them and form gigantic mating balls. That I’d love to see someday.

California Grasslands

When I am out hiking this time of year I am constantly reminded, especially as I look at the golden hills of California, how much the landscape has been altered since the Europeans first arrived in the New World. 500 years ago the sunny, baked hills above Livermore would have been greenish not yellow. Perennial bunch grasses with taproots penetrating down 18 feet took full advantage of permanent groundwater. And the plants would continue to photosynthesize throughout the extended drought of our Mediterranean climate maintaining their vibrant living color until the first invigorating rains of the autumn arrived. Grazing animals certainly existed here 20,000 years ago and impacted the grasslands. There would have been mastodons; giant ground sloths, as well as modern animals such as Tule elk, pronghorn, and black tailed deer. When the Native Americans arrived they also encouraged the grassland by periodically burning it. Grass has evolved to not only tolerate but often thrives under continued grazing and periodic fire. Agronomists suspect that some of our native grasses regularly live to 200 years and perhaps as long as 1000 years!
The most significant change in California’s biodiversity was the transformation of these bunchgrass-dominated ecosystems to the near total replacement by Eurasian annual grasses. The Spaniards brought horses, cattle, sheep, and their attendant European barnyard weeds into California in the late 1700s. These aggressive, non-native, annual grasses could germinate, flower and fruit in the short growing season and were already adapted to the heavy grazing of domesticated animals. Wherever livestock was introduced, the new grasses quickly outcompeted and replaced the perennials in an incredibly short period of time. This occurred so rapidly that there were basically no scientifically trained witnesses to record the startling conversion.
99% of the native grasses in California are gone. California’s early settlers transformed this place in so many ways – culturally, economically, ethnically – and they even gave us our golden hills.
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The Great Basin

The word, basin, has many different meanings here in the West. The rivers of the Eastern US erode mountains, carving valleys through which water flows to major river systems and then on to the ocean, but in much of the western US the underlying geology has created a different scenario. For the last 20 million years there has been significant stretching and thinning of the Earth’s crust here. As the crust thins, mountain chains are uplifted and the valleys between them drop. Many of us have driven across Nevada on Highway 50. The road goes up one mountain and drops into a valley over and over again. Geologists refer to these mountains as Horsts, German for eagle’s nest. And the valleys are grabens, German for ditch. Most of Nevada and parts of California, Oregon, Idaho, and Arizona is known as the Basin and Range Province.
The last great-unexplored chunk of American territory was that huge piece between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, south of the Columbia River and north of New Mexico. In 1842 Col. John Fremont was sent by the US government to map that terrain. There was a persistent myth of the Buenaventura River, which was said to flow from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. This of course would be a convenient way for immigrants to get California. As Fremont searched for this critical passageway he found that every single creek and river flowed into an interior drainage. He explored both the Great Salt Lake and the Humboldt sink in Nevada. He soon realized that not only was there no major river but not one flowed into the ocean so he named this huge region the Great Basin.
The largest desert in the United States is the Great Basin Desert. This desert is defined by high elevation, very cold winters, relatively mild summers, precipitation mostly in the winter and finally by the indicator plant–the Great Basin Sagebrush a.k.a. Artemisia tridentata.
So we have three overlapping uses of basin. The Basin and Range Province is geologic, the Great Basin is hydrologic and finally the Great Basin Desert is the botanical.
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Acorn Woodpeckers

Autumn is the time to prepare for the coming winter. And right now I am watching one of my favorite creatures do this- acorn woodpeckers. These birds, like nearly all woodpeckers, are black and white with a splotch of red on their head. They are usually described as having a clown’s face. This, coupled with their raucous laugh, makes them easy to find throughout California and all the way to Arizona.
As their name indicates they are closely associated with oak trees. Extended family groups of them are busy now stocking collective granaries. The birds gather acorns and stuff them into holes they have drilled into the bark of large trees. As the acorns dry out they become too small for the holes and the birds then spend a lot of time rearranging the acorns. Insects sometimes infest the acorns, but for the woodpeckers this is a minor problem. When they revisit the granaries for food they either eat the acorns or feed on the insects that are eating the acorns.
But their unique claim to fame – to quote Walt Koenig, the researcher who studied them for 30 years – is their bizarre sexual behavior. In a granary group there can be up to six males cobreeders with three female cobreeders and six or more non-breeding helpers. The six males are all related, as either brothers or fathers and sons but they compete for sexual access to the three females, who are also related to each other. The females lay eggs all in one nest. After the eggs hatch not only do the breeding males and females help provision the young but the helpers also help. And just who are these helpers? They are the young, both male and female, from previous years. Sure sounds like one big happy family– but not so fast.
But their unique claim to fame – to quote Walt Koenig, the researcher who studied them for 30 years – is their bizarre sexual behavior. In a granary group there can be up to six males cobreeders with three female cobreeders and six or more non-breeding helpers. The six males are all related, as either brothers or fathers and sons but they compete for sexual access to the three females, who are also related to each other. The females lay eggs all in one nest. After the eggs hatch not only do the breeding males and females help provision the young but the helpers also help. And just who are these helpers? They are the young, both male and female, from previous years. Sure sounds like one big happy family– but not so fast.
To prevent incest the non-breeders must leave their family of origin and join another nearby family group. This only happens when a vacancy occurs due to death of a breeder. A pair of same-sex birds from one group fights another pair of same sex birds for dominance and therefore entrance into the new family. These very intense brawls Dr. Koenig calls – Power Struggles. The losers have to return to their natal group as helpers until another opportunity arises. Koenig has also found that joint-nesting females will sometimes destroy each other’s eggs.
Who knew about this ongoing soap opera in the woodpecker world?

Hula Hoop

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Malarkey. This old dog learned a new trick not long ago and I am loving it. A couple of years ago I began training for a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. Shortly into the process I found a hula-hoop that my brother-in-law had left in our basement–hmmm. I picked it up — it was heavier and a bit larger than the ones of my childhood. I started hooping with it. It was a bit easier than those lightweight ones. I love to dance so soon I was hooping to some rather loud and energetic music.

I had seen flaming hoops at Burning Man and was quite intrigued. So I bought one and began using a flaming hula-hoop. Then I discovered LED hoops. These were fantastic — very flashy and not a fire hazard! I now have about eight Hula-hoops of different varieties. Fortunately for me there are some that break apart and so I can pack them easily for my travels.

I take my hoop everywhere. I have introduced hooping to the Batwa people of Uganda–also known as pygmies. I hooped at Murchison Falls along the Blue Nile, with the Maasai in the bottom of the Ngorongoro Crater. I hooped with Buddhist monks in the kingdom of Bhutan and in front of Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Hula hooping brings smiles to everyone’s faces especially when an older guy like me is doing it. And it is a wonderful way to stay in shape.

When it came time to climb Mount Kilimanjaro I took my hula-hoop. This past February I hooped on the on the roof of Africa at 19,340 feet. I checked with the Guinness Book of Records and no one has officially hooped that high. Even the 20-somethings who make up the bulk of hoopers are impressed with that one.

Hoops can be inexpensive and last a lifetime. As instruments of fun and pleasure they have an infectious, universal quality. I can testify to the joy on the faces of children and adults who hula hoop. This Sunday is believe it or not, world hoop day. There are about 200+ events occurring throughout the world including a big one in San Francisco. Hula Hoop for health and for fun – it is never too late to learn something new. Believe me.