Tiny Hikers: California Newts

Meet the California Newt, a species that secretes a neurotoxin and only lives in California!

Places to See California Newts

Purisima creek circle

Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve

 

The California newt is endemic to California, meaning that it can only be found in our state.

California newts are only found along California’s coast and mountain ranges. Its range extends from Mendocino County down to San Diego County.

Like most amphibians, California newts live a dual lifestyle: they spend half of their time in water and half on land.

Adult California newts migrate annually to ponds and streams for breeding. The first rains in the fall usually initiate these migrations, which occur at night.

Males and females will mate in ponds, and females lay eggs on submerged vegetation and rocks. The eggs hatch into a larval form of the newt, similar to tadpoles that turn into frogs. The newt larva spends 2 weeks in the water, growing to lose its tail fin and gills.

Adult California newts vary in size and color.

Adults range from 4.9 to 7.8 inches long from snout to tail.

Their coloration on top varies from dark brown to orange, and their bottom ranges from yellow to orange. No matter their color variations, they are always darker on top than they are on bottom. Their skin has a rough appearance.

California newts appear very similar to other species of California newts, so be careful during identification. When you encounter a newt, pay close attention to clues like your location, the newt’s general coloration and skin texture, the coloration of the skin around the newt’s eyes, and the shape of the newt’s eyes. For an excellent guide on identification, check out this page by CaliforniaHerps.com. Also, be sure to take plenty of photos for reference!

California newts are listed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife as a “Species of Special Concern”.

Populations of California newts in Southern California have suffered due to habitat loss. The ponds and streams that they need to breed have been destroyed by development. Introduced species (such as fish, crayfish, and bullfrogs) also pose a threat to California newts, since the introduced species are known to eat California newt eggs and larvae.

California newts eat small insects, molluscs, and the eggs of their own kind!

Their diet varies widely to include lots of insects and terrestrial molluscs (think snails and slugs). California newts have also been recorded eating the eggs and larvae of other amphibians, including their own species.

Cool facts about California newts:

  • California newts possess a toxin called “tetrodotoxin” in their skin. This toxin is the same chemical found in pufferfish.
  • California newts will migrate to the same breeding ponds that they grew up in.

Resources to learn more:

Enjoy the Stillness of Redwood Stands at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve

Half Moon Bay, Ca – Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve offers rich history and wildlife. Learn about its recovery from logging and its amphibian resident, the California newt.

Species to Look Out For

About the Park

Half Moon Bay, Ca – Nature Preserve

Science Spotlight: California Newts at Purisima Creek

Dan and I encountered our first California newt while hiking alongside Purisima Creek. We had been on the lookout for newts for the past few weeks, so you can only imagine our excitement when seeing a bright orange amphibian crossing our path.

California newts are found along the coast and mountain ranges of California, from Mendocino County to San Diego County. They are endemic to California, meaning that they are not found outside the state. They live a dual lifestyle, spending half of their time in water and the other half on land.

California newts are listed by the California Department of Fish & Wildlife as a “Species of Special Concern”. Ponds that they use for breeding and maturation have been lost to development. Fish, crayfish, and bullfrogs introduced to California’s freshwater areas threaten populations by eating California newt eggs and young.

Look out for California newts during their migration to their breeding grounds, which usually coincides with the first rains in the fall. If you see one of these bright creatures along the trail, be sure to not pick them up! Not only could you disturb them, but their skin is also loaded with a neurotoxin. The toxin, tetrodotoxin, is found in all species in their genus. It is also found in pufferfish.

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A California newt near the creek’s edge at Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve.

Park History

Prior to its status as a nature preserve, the Purisima Creek area housed seven saw mills supplying coast redwood lumber to the booming gold rush population in the San Francisco Bay Area. The entire preserve was cleared of trees that were large and intact enough for lumber.

The Save-the-Redwoods League gifted $2 million to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space, which allowed for the establishment of the park. Purisima Creek Redwoods Preserve offers 4,711 acres of recovering coast redwood forest, creeks, and a canyon.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Wander in Eucalypts at Wunderlich County Park

Woodside, Ca – Ever had Folger’s coffee? The Folger family played a large role in the history of this park. Learn this and more in our guide to Wunderlich County Park.

About the Park

Woodside, Ca – San Mateo County Park

Science Spotlight: Eucalyptus in California

While winding out of the young redwood forest at Wunderlich County Park, I was met with stands of eucalyptus – a non-native species deeply rooted in the logging history of the San Francisco Bay Area.

When checking out the plant life on your local hikes, it’s likely that you’re witnessing a mosaic of native and non-native species. It is estimated that California is home to over 1,000 non-native plants, introduced by early settlers of the state. There are 5,000 native plant species in California – making the non-natives a decently large proportion of plant life.

Native to Australia, eucalyptus trees are a common household name known for their beautiful gray-colored leaves and aromatic oil. California settlers during the Gold Rush faced high demands for lumber and a looming concern for the amount of native forest logging. Eager for a good source of wood, operations planted millions of eucalyptus trees around the Bay Area.

The eucalyptus optimism was met with failure – settlers soon discovered that eucalyptus trees are not good for lumber until after the wood matures over 75 – 100 years. Today, they still are present in many areas along the Bay.

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Eucalyptus trees dot the edges of the trail at Wunderlich County Park.

Park History

The Costanoan Native Americans inhabited the park area prior to settlement by Europeans.

Just like nearby Huddart Park, the redwood forest in the area was heavily logged during the Gold Rush. In 1840, John Copinger established a ranch in the area. The ranch changed ownership until it was sold to James A Folger II (yes, you guessed it – the Folger’s Coffee family!) in 1902 to be used as recreational area. The Folger Stable and Carriage House are still open to the public today, used as a stable and museum.

The land was purchased by Martin Wunderlich in 1956, who gifted the area to San Mateo County in 1974.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

When visiting, we recommend checking out the Folger Stable and Carriage House for a taste of South Bay history from the lens of the famous coffee family. We also recommend checking out Salamander Flat – keep your eye out for any amphibians there!

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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Birdwatching Bonanza at Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve

Palo Alto, Ca – Some of the best birdwatching in the entire South Bay is right in your backyard. Learn more about bird diversity and plan your visit to the Palo Alto Baylands.

About the Park

Palo Alto, Ca – Nature Preserve

Science Spotlight: Bird Diversity at Baylands

The Palo Alto Baylands Park is a favorite of mine and Dan’s in the area. Considered one of the best places to go birding in the South Bay, the Baylands Nature Preserve offers tremendous bird diversity no matter the month. When visiting, we’ve found that the entrance near San Antonio Road is a great starting point.

As you enter the park, scan the tall vegetation around the creek to your left for a belted kingfisher in flight. As you continue, cliff and barn swallows can be found darting across the skies around the forebay just beyond the bathrooms to the right. In the spring and summer, be sure to look out for their mud nests on the linings of the small building near the San Antonio Road entrance. In the later stages of nesting, small fledglings can be seen waiting outside the nest for parents to swoop in with food.

Just beyond the swallow-dense area, you approach the Charleston Slough to your right. Here, we’ve seen tons of awesome shorebirds: long-billed curlews, American avocets, black-necked stilts, marbled godwits, willets, and many more in large numbers. To your left, scan the browning reeds for unusually-shaped clumps. These “clumps” are most likely black-crowned night herons.

Along your walk, check out the edges of the water for great egrets and snowy egrets. Various species of waterfowl can also be found here, depending on the season. In the distance, you may be lucky to see northern harriers – recognizable by the white patch on their rumps (just above their tail on the top side of the bird).

As if the amazing waterbirds and raptors weren’t enough, peek in the vegetation dotting the sides of the path for smaller songbirds. We’ve seen all kinds of sparrow species, house finches, and the occasional yellow-rumped warbler.

Grab your notebooks and binoculars – there’s a world of discovery at the Palo Alto Baylands!

Park History

At 1,940 acres, the Palo Alto Baylands Nature Preserve is one of the largest protected marshland habitats in the San Francisco Bay Area. The area itself has a history in waste disposal, from landfill to recycling plant. In 2012, these operations were shut down.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are allowed on leashes.

When visiting, we recommend starting at the entrance near San Antonio Road.

Here are some helpful resources to help plan your visit:

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Enjoy Spring Poppies at Rancho San Antonio County Park

Cupertino, Ca – Learn more about one of the most popular parks in the Silicon Valley, nestled right in Cupertino.

Species to Look Out For:

poppy circle

California Poppy

About the Park

Cupertino, Ca – Santa Clara County Park

Science Spotlight: State Flower at Rancho San Antonio

When strolling along the trail at Rancho San Antonio County Park, Dan and I were struck by the sheer numbers of bright California poppies we encountered.

California poppies are bright, adaptable flowers native to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They were first named by a naturalist aboard a Russian ship exploring California and Alaska.

California poppies can be found in a variety of habitats, from California’s coasts to the Mojave Desert. Their bright flowers are composed of four petals, and can range in color from yellow to orange. They are symbols of the “Golden State”, earning the title of California’s state flower in 1903.

On any Bay Area hike, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for blooming poppies in the spring and summer!

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California poppy at Rancho San Antonio County Park.

Park History

Prior to European settlement, the Ohlone Native Americans inhabited the area for over 3,000 years. Following the arrival of Juan Baptista de Anza to the Bay Area in 1776, the area around Rancho San Antonio was transformed into ranchland. The ranch changed ownership several times in its lifetime.

The Santa Clara County Parks department began to purchase the land in 1977, eventually accruing over 3,988 acres of land. Today, Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve manages the entire park.

For a more detailed history of the park, check out the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space Preserve’s page on Rancho San Antonio history.

Visit the Park

Please note that there is no entrance fee to enter the park. Dogs are not allowed.

Here are some helpful resources to plan your visit:

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Treetops to the Ocean: Marbled Murrelets

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, some rights reserved.

Marbled murrelets are full of surprises – defying all expectations of a seabird, they nest high up in redwood trees. Learn about their nest discovery in 1974 and their close ties with coast redwoods.

Cover photo: © Aaron Maizlish, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Marbled Murrelets

Marbled murrelets are seabirds.

By nature of being seabirds, murrelets spend the majority of their lives out at sea in search of food. They eat mostly fish and crustaceans.

Marbled murrelets are very unique amongst seabirds in that they nest high up in redwood trees.

Most other seabirds, including their close cousins puffins and murres, nest on rocky cliffs along the shore. The marbled murrelet defies all expectations of a seabird by nesting high up in redwood trees. They will sometimes travel 30 miles inland to nest.

Their solitary nests up in old-growth trees makes them very difficult to find – a tactic that’s thought to help discourage predation. Parents will also only fly to the nest to switch who’s incubating or to feed young very early in the morning or late at night to avoid detection by predators.

Marbled murrelets are different colors in the breeding and non-breeding season to camouflage with their different habitats.

Marbled murrelets are small, robin-sized birds. They are black on top and white on bottom during the non-breeding season (any time when they’re not attracting mates or nesting).

Marbled murrelets adopt mottled brown plumage during the breeding season – a unique transition that’s not found among their close relatives. This brownish color is thought to help them camouflage with the redwood trees that they nest in.

Marbled murrelets live along the northwest coast of the United States.

Their range extends from southeastern Alaska to northern California.

The marbled murrelet is listed by the state of California as endangered.

In Oregon and Washington, the species is listed as threatened. Factors such as habitat loss, predation by other birds (namely Steller’s jays), and low food availability have affected their population.

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A common sign at campgrounds, featuring a Steller’s jay and a warning to clean up all traces of food. Source: Save the Redwoods League.

In many California state and national parks, you’ll notice a campaign urging visitors to keep their space “crumb clean”. This movement is to discourage the number of Steller’s jays and other scavenging birds that are attracted to food that people leave behind.

Why be worried about attracting Steller’s jays, when it’s a charismatic and attractive bird? Well, in addition to eating human leftovers, Steller’s jays will also eat the eggs and young of other birds. One such species is the marbled murrelet, whose numbers are negatively affected by Steller’s jay predation.

Cool facts about marbled murrelets:

  • The marbled murrelet’s nest was discovered in 1974 by accident, when a tree climber in Santa Cruz stumbled upon its nest.
  • Marbled murrelets are the most recent species to have their nest discovered in North America.
  • Marbled murrelets are also known as “fog larks”, since their keer-keer call was heard early in the morning high up in redwood forests. It wasn’t until their nest was discovered in the 1970’s that people put together who was vocalizing.

Resources to learn more: