Herpetological expedition No 1: Ft Ord

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April 10, 2000  

On a fine Monday morning, Felix and I got up, loaded his car with assorted garments and unassorted foodstuffs, and drove south about a hundred miles to the Fort Ord Natural Area.

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Felix suggested that we stop to see the sights. The first sights were of the back of a convenience store in Santa Clara, where we could pull the car into the shade. Felix established that was a splendid place for a picnic and a change of clothing. I took the opportunity to spill a good tablespoon of milk down the front of my overalls while preparing the bottle.

Mt Madonna

We drove over the Santa Cruz mountains by way of Hecker Pass, a small wine-making area with a fairly gentle country road. At the ridge of the mountain is one of the old Miller estates, now Mt Madonna county park.

After paying the entrance fee, Felix and I drove into the park and found an entirely empty parking lot with a big grassy meadow nearby and some redwoods for shade. As soon as we got out of the car, Felix met his first western fence lizards, by far the most commonly sighted lizard in Santa Clara County. This one and two of its cohort were, true to name, skittering around by the parking-lot fence.

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MVC00122.JPG (290926 bytes) Before Mt Madonna turned from an estate into a park, a generous man named W.R. Hearst gave Mr Miller a few white fallow deer. The Millers and Hearsts now spend little or no time at Mt Madonna, but these deer still live in a paddock there. They are odd deer, specially imported. If you don't look twice and you are only marginally observant, you think they are goats. Goats don't have antlers.


We drove westward over the mountains and into the coastal Pajaro Valley and Elkhorn Slough area. If you have eaten broccoli or artichokes in the United States, you know what this place tastes like. The flat plains of the valley are just right for growing market vegetables most of the year. Felix currently avoids the entire cabbage family, so he in presumably only interested in Watsonville for its scenery. He is not a real-estate speculator, and thus displayed no interest in some fairly cheap land for condominimums or a retirement complex.


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Fort Ord Natural Area

The U.S. Army's Fort Ord was decommissioned several years ago and is now preserved by the federal Bureau of Land Management. About a third of the property is fenced off with scary danger signs, for fear that some plant scientist will tread on unexploded ordnance, thereby robbing us of some important specimens. But the rest of the property is open to the public on foot, horse, or bicycle.

Felix and I joined Experienced Amateur Herpetologist John Sullivan for a few hours' tracking the elusive coast horned lizard, . The coast horned lizard lives in a few isolated, sandy spots in Central California. I've actually seen one at Pinnacles National Monument, and John took us to two spots where he has met them at Fort Ord. The coast horned lizard is extremely adorable and it eats ants. This ant-eating behavior guaranteed that I would not accidently take home a horned lizard rather than Felix. Unfortunately, there are people who capture and collect horned lizards rather than leaving the few that are left to eat their ants happily in the wild.

However, the day wasn't really ideal for horned-lizard sightings, as it was not quite hot enough and it was very windy. We didn't see any on this trip, but maybe Felix will get to meet one on the next venture.

Felix's first snake

Even without meeting horned lizards, we had a herpeto-wonderful time. Felix's first encounter was with this baby gopher snake Pituophis melanoleucus, which John found while waiting for Felix and me to arrive. Gopher snakes are common in central California. They are probably the most docile wild animal there is, with the possible exception of the mussel. The snake seemed especially interested in going inside Felix's hat. John found the snake under a piece of plywood and put it back when the two babies were finished posing together.


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More native species at Ft Ord

Felix didn't interact so closely with most of the animals and plants we met. He avoided the prickly live-oak leaves, for example, and did not swim with the frogs. However, he was present when this alligator lizard Elgaria multicarinata crossed our path. Alligator lizards are all pretty, and this one is pretty green. Later in the afternoon we met a reddish one.

Many reptiles like to keep their tails if they can, but will lose them under duress. This alligator lizard had almost no tail left to speak of. Felix likewise has almost no tail to speak of, although he is working daily on plumping out that part of his body.


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Through the 20th century, the United States federal government has controlled a lot of the land in the western part of the country. Strangely, the best preserved land has sometimes been the one that the government was actively using, as at Fort Ord. In cases like Fort Ord's, the goverment's using the land involved blowing some of it up. Because it's bad for business and worse for tourism to have explosives going off while anyone is around, the assorted military branches cordoned off their lands and they often retain a strong natural community.

NativePlants.JPG (750225 bytes) Fort Ord has a few exotics, especially along the roads, including eucalyptus trees and poison hemlock. Some of the exotics seem more benign: we found a large patch of peppermint Mentha piperata under a couple of eucalypts. I see various mints in the wild but little peppermint at all.

Fort Ord is chock full of native plants. Most of the terrain is open and hilly, sloping steeply up from the agricultural Salinas Valley and coastal dunes. A lot of it is chapparal, with few trees, but extensive stands of manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp., probably especially A. pajarensis), chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), California lilac (Ceanothus spp.), and coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis) .

My page about a pre-Felix trip to the Sonoran desert includes a couple of pictures of similarly well preserved land in the Yuma Proving Ground.

Getting around an old base

Given the open country and a fairly sunny day, I was concerned that Felix's casing might get burnt. So he wore even more sun-reflecting clothing that I did. Since he was asleep, he didn't mind wearing this airy but comprehensive outfit for most of our walk.

Felix is getting heavy, but his stock of spare clothing and meals still weighs more than he. The small weight in front is Felix. The big weight in the back is his kit.

Beyond the ceanothus and the coyote bush in this picture is a set of bunkers on the hillside. I don't know what's stored in them these days.

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EmergencyPhone.JPG (300735 bytes) In addition to a surprising number of native plants, the Fort Ord Natural Area still has much of its military signage, and some of it seems inappropriate or misleading.


Some of the signs are out and out odd. I wonder just what sort of marketing person goes into a defense reutilization office on a rural base in central California. DefReut.JPG (166290 bytes)
Some of the signs have a quaint feeling to them. IntergarrisonRd.JPG (40870 bytes)

More fine creatures

GarterSnake.JPG (303294 bytes) Felix's second snake of the day was this baby Santa Cruz garter snake Thamnophis atratus atratus. E.A.H. John Sullivan explained that this aquatic garter snake and the coast garter snake T. elegans are easily distinguished from all common garter snakes T. sirtalis by these coastal garter snake's eight upper lip scales. 

Felix didn't get to play with this garter snake, which was skittish. The snake did not resort to the usual garter-snake defense of pooping on its captor, even though Felix would certainly have recognized a kindred spirit.

E.A.H. John Sullivan also spotted a snake in the grass near a sandy washout, but only caught a glimpse of its stripeless back. I saw rustling plants but nothing more. Felix was asleep and didn't see anything.

We did find out exactly what that garter snake would grow up eating. All around it were dozens of Pacific treefrogs Hyla regilla. In the nearby experimentation ponds were lots of treefrog tadpoles, froglets, and small frogs.


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TreeFrogInHand.JPG (187722 bytes) Pacific treefrogs are itty bitty frogs, especially young ones. These frogs make even Felix look big.
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Read more about reptiles and amphibians on Exp. Amat. Herp'g'st John Sullivan's site