An Illustrated Guide to Bay Area Nature: Fall 2020

Text and research by Bay Nature staff

To Go or Stay

Some of us humans like to travel, and others of us are homebodies. We don’t really know why that’s so, or what makes us inclined to migrate or stay put. The same is true for dragonflies. Among common green darners (Anax junius), some individuals use late summer and early fall to begin a more than thousand-mile journey to the tropics. In the Bay Area, you can see and help count them as they fly over Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, following the coastline south. But the homebodies, who live year-round in California, begin a very different journey this time of year. In pools and ponds, common green darner eggs hatch, and the nymphs inside—bulbous-headed, six-legged, length-of-a-sesame-seed, water-breathing creatures—begin their voracious search for food. The travelers and homebodies, for reasons unknown, live by very different rhythms. 

Pup is Up

As the rains start and salmon begin to swim upstream, biologists reintroducing salmon fry keep an eye on otter families. North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) pups born in spring have already started learning to hunt by fall. The juveniles still live with their mothers at this time of year, so there’s a good chance of seeing them learning from Mom, according to data from the River Otter Ecology Project. Young otters often wander away to investigate the world, squeaking loudly to keep contact and tasting whatever they find: crayfish, clams, fish, and even birds. They consume around 15 percent of their body weight in fish each day! 

Snake Language

On the spectrum of creatures that are “all bark, little bite,” the behavior of the Pacific ringneck snake (Diadophis punctatus amabilis) stays with a person. If you’re lucky enough to see one, usually under a log or rock after the fall rains start, this small, plainish snake will surprise you. It’ll coil and flip over its tail to show a bright red-orange underside, then emit a smelly “something” (which reportedly also tastes bad) from its anal scent gland. The ringneck is trying hard to tell you to back off, so best to listen. But if you do get bitten, the venom isn’t harmful to humans.

White & Fluffy

We may not boast much snow in Bay Area hills, but we have our own brand of white fluffy stuff in fall. It’s called coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), and if you walk through chaparral or oak woodlands this season, you’re bound to see it. Each shrub is male or female, and their respective flowers look startlingly different. It’s the females’ flowers, with their silky white tassels bearing seeds, that catch the air and tumble along like so many mega-snowflakes. 

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Things that Fly

If fairies had to choose their favorite fungi, I’m pretty sure it would be the common bird’s nest fungus (Crucibulum laeve). Beginning in late fall, the fungi’s fruiting bodies, shaped like a tiny cup nest holding even tinier eggs, will start to appear on rotting woody debris. When a raindrop splashes into the buttermilk-colored nest, its force can catapult an egg out into the wider world. Each egg is in fact a packet of spores ready to spring to life.

Turkey Lurkey

This summer, Oakland’s Morcom Rose Garden was closed for several weeks due to aggressive behavior of a wild turkey christened Gerald by the local community. Gerald and his compatriots (Meleagris gallopavo intermedia), who tend to hang out in wooded areas and increasingly roam Bay Area city streets, were not always so common here. It was 2002 in Oakland during the annual Christmas bird count when the Golden Gate Audubon Society recorded its first sighting. There is no known turkey native to Northern California, but these game birds were widely introduced in the state around the 1960s and their numbers continue to grow. In fall, the turkeys gather in flocks of females or males to feast on acorns, before humans feast on them. 

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