Text and research by Bay Nature staff
California ground squirrels (Otosper-mophilus beecheyi) do most of their excavating in spring, digging mazes of tunnels and burrows for the kits they’ll soon be raising. Other creatures move in too, including burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia), the small, goofy-looking raptors known for their gangly legs and 90-degree head tilt. The owls can dig their own dens, but abandoned ground squirrel burrows offer a pretty sweet deal: a home with a built-in security system. A preliminary study at Moffett Airfield in Santa Clara County last year found that when a ground squirrel called in alarm because of a predator, neighboring burrowing owls became more alert to danger 75 percent of the time. That’s good for the owls—and useful insight for folks trying to protect and provide habitat for the declining owl population in the Bay Area.
Salad for All
Humans aren’t the only ones who eat miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), the low-growing, fleshy native herb that pops up in early spring around the state. Yes, it’s true that gold miners prized the annual plant for its scurvy-curing vitamin C, that some California Indian tribes have long eaten the greens, and that foodie folk toss it in salads. But apparently gophers are also fans, so are the larvae of a particular owlet moth, and birds like mourning doves and quail enjoy the seeds.
It’s tick season, and there’s almost no creature western black-legged ticks like more than western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis)—which, not coincidentally, also are ubiquitous in spring. From grasslands to woodlands, you’ve probably caught sight of a male lizard doing push-ups and flashing his blue belly. Harder to see (and maybe mercifully so) are the ticks frequently lodged around the lizard’s neck. On the bright side, if those ticks harbor Lyme disease–causing bacteria, a protein in the lizard’s blood kills it. Thank you, lizard.
Mountain lion, cougar, puma, and panther (mostly a Florida thing) are all colloquial names for the same big cat (Puma concolor) that roams our Bay Area open spaces. Spring is one time when mountain lions are likely to be on the move looking for mates. Watch for a paw print in the mud or listen for caterwauling, that distinctive “I’d like a mate” scream made by females. You might even come across a scrape, where the cat has pushed soil into a pile and then peed and pooped on it to advertise its presence and search for a partner—like Tinder, but for cats.
As you walk along California beaches in spring, you’re bound to come across long, serpentine stalks of bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana) that have washed ashore after winter storms. Nereocystis translates from Greek to “mermaid bladder,” an oddly apt description of the hollow bulb at the end of the kelp’s stalk. The bulb contains a mixture of gases that keeps the seaweed afloat on the water’s surface, where the plant’s ribbony blades can soak up the sunlight.
Her kind are among the most widespread spiders in North America. Still, you may look right at a female goldenrod crab spider (Misumena vatia) and never see her as she waits inside a spring flower for a tasty bee or other pollinator to buzz in. She blends into the bloom, changing from canary yellow to white (or vice versa) in a matter of days. The color switch requires her to create and move pigments within a layer of cells in her exoskeleton.