Prairie Described


Coastal prairies are home to many grassland-dependent mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles including elk, badgers, pocket gophers, grasshopper sparrows, savannah sparrows, meadowlarks, red-tail hawks, white-tail kites, golden eagles, western fence lizards, skinks, rare butterflies and moths, and a variety of other insects.


Badger in coastal grasslands. Photo courtesy of Ryan DiGaudio.








Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) - native

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Male tule elk at California State Tule Elk Reserve near Tupan, CA. 2008-02-12 Photo by David Jordan. Wikipedia Commons.

Deer Family (Cervidae)

bulletTule Elk is the smallest subspecies of North American elk (Cervus canadensis)(Linse 1998).

Tule elk:

bulletFound only in California.

bulletHistorically occurred in the Central Valley and coastal regions of central California (Linse 1998). 

bulletOccur only in grasslands and marshlands (Linse 1998).

Tule Elk Ecology


  • Tule Elk graze on grasses and forbs, then move to browse (shrubs and trees) as herbaceous plants dry out (Jameson Jr. and Peeters 1988).
  • Elk tend to consume a greater amount of forbs than grasses or browse (shoots, twigs, & leaves from shrubs and trees) during the year and are unique among other ungulates in their consumption of lichens (Findholt et al. 2004).
  • While significant dietary overlap occurs with other local ungulates, Elk favor forbs (with a lower proportion of grass and browse); cattle favor grasses (with a lower proportion of forbs and very little browse), and black-tailed deer favor forbs and browse in roughly equal proportion with a lower proportion of grasses contributing to their diet (Findholt et al. 2004).
  • Although grasses are the primary component of their fall diets, Tule Elk eat very little non-native annual bromes, such as Soft Brome (Bromus hordaceus) and Ripgut Brome (Bromus diandrus) (Gogan and Barret 1995 cited in Howard 1998). 
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Tule Elk, Lake Pillsbury near Hull Mountain, Mendocino National Forest, Lake County, California. 2010. Crabtree13. http://commons.

Fun Facts About Tule Elk

bulletMale elk shed and grow a new set of antlers each year that can weigh up to 40 pounds.  The antlers are made out of bone and as they grow in the spring they are covered with a system of nourishing blood vessels that looks like velvet (National Park Service 2009).

bulletNorth American elk are unique from other North American deer in that they have upper canine teeth. Elk canine teeth were used as the traditional pendant of the Elk’s Club (Jameson Jr. and Peeters 1988).

bulletTule elk were thought to be a subspecies of the European or Western red deer (Cervus elaphus) but mitochondrial DNA indicates the North American elk are more closely related to the Eastern red deer (Cervus canadensis) and that the three “subspecies” of elk in California (tule elk, Roosevelt elk, and Rocky Mountain elk) may be races rather than subspecies (Ludt, et al. 2004).

bulletIt is estimated that over 500,000 elk once roamed California. Through intensive hunting after the goldrush, their numbers plummeted.

bulletThe state awarded elk complete protection in 1873, 13 years after they went extinct in Marin County and 3 years after they were thought to be extinct statewide (National Park Service 2009).

bulletThe California Department of Fish & Game reintroduced tule elk to Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore in 1978. The Point Reyes herd is now one of the largest populations in California with over 400 counted during the 2009 census (National Park Service 2009).

Black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) - native

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Columbian Black-tailed Deer, Coast deer male. Walter Siegmund. http://commons.

Deer Family (Cervidae)

Black-tailed deer is the coast range form of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Black-tailed Deer Ecology


  • Black-tailed deer graze on grasses and forbs and browse on the leaves, twigs, and shoots of shrubs and small trees (Jameson Jr. and Peeters 1988).
  • While significant dietary overlap occurs with other local ungulates, (elk favor forbs, cattle favor grasses), black-tailed deer favor forbs and browse in roughly equal proportion with a lower proportion of grasses contribution to their diet (Findholt et al. 2004).

Botta's Pocket Gophers (Thomomys bottae) - native

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Botta's Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) at Ano Nuevo State Park, California. 29 January 2011. Leonard Weiss. Wikimedia Commons:

Gopher Family (Geomyidae)

Botta's pocket gopher has a missile-shaped body, large head, robust claws, and loose skin. The coloration of its fur is highly variable and is correlated with color of the surrounding soil.

Botta's Pocket Gopher:

bulletIs native to western North America. It is also known in some sources as valley pocket gopher, particularly in California. (Wikipedia).

bulletIs one of five species of pocket gophers (Thomomys spp.) in California (Salmon and Gorenzel 2002).  

bulletOccurs in valleys, desert ranges,
and mountain slopes to above timberline, and is the most common species of gopher in California grasslands.

Pocket Gopher Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Gopher mounds are large and bury the plants surrounding the openings of gopher burrows. At some sites, gopher mounds bury as much as 25-30% of the plant coverage (Koide et al. 1987).
  • Soil deposited by gophers at the surface is generally free of seeds, and the differential ability of plants to colonize the areas determines the composition of the resulting community on these patches (Douglas 1969; Hobbs and Hobbs 1987; Hobbs and Mooney 1985; Koide et al.1987). Because non-native species tend to be excellent colonizers, gopher mounds can enhance the growth of non-native species. Some land managers have taken advantage of the "new" soil deposited in gopher mounds as target sites for seeding native grasses (Brock Dolman, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, pers. comm.).
  • Pocket gophers are an important source of food for grassland predators. Weasels and snakes (including gopher and rattlesnakes) pursue gophers into their burrows. Badgers, and (historically) grizzly bears (Mattison 2004), are adept at digging out gophers. Many different predators prey on gophers when they are aboveground feeding, dispersing, or constructing mounds. These include coyotes, domestic dogs, foxes, house cats, striped skunks, bobcats, raptors, owls and herons (Case 2008).
  • grassy hilltops

    Bobcat (Lynx rufus) eating gopher, California, USA. 3 November 2009. Linda Tanner. Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.

  • Re-use of gopher burrows can be a significant cost savings for other grassland species. Tunneling underground is a tremendously demanding activity estimated to require 360 to 3,400 times the energy of moving across the surface. Most amphibians and lizards are ignored by gophers. Ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, and smaller rodents use gopher burrows but tend to leave the tunnel if it is occupied by a gopher (Case 2008).


  • Pocket gophers are strict herbivores and feed on forbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees in three ways: (1) they feed on roots that they encounter when digging; (2) they may go to the surface, venturing only a body length or so from their tunnel opening to feed on aboveground vegetation and seeds; and (3) they pull vegetation into their tunnel from below (Case 2008). Grasses are often consumed entirely (Gettinger 1984b).
  • Proportions of plants consumed vary seasonally. Gophers eat a greater amount of aboveground vegetation (shoots, leaves) during the growing season when the vegetation is green and succulent. Year-round, however, roots are the major food source, and they eat a variety of fleshy underground storage structures, such as bulbs, rhizomes, corms, and tubers (Case 2008). Dandelions are a preferred food. (Case 2008).
  • Gophers can consume significant amounts of grassland plants. At a density of 23 gophers per acre, Botta’s pocket gophers decreased the forage yield by 25% in annual-dominated rangelands in the California foothills. Similar consumption rates were measured in western Nebraska rangelenad, where plains pocket gophers reduced forage yield 21% to 49% (Case 2008).

bulletSoil Disturbance:

    grassy hilltops

    Botta's Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) with fresh mound. 22 February 2008. Dominic Sherony.
    File: Botta%27s_pocket_gopher.jpg.

  • Pocket gopher burrows consist of a main burrow with lateral burrows. Burrows are, generally 4 to 18 inches (10 to 46 cm) below the surface of the ground and are either plugged or mounded at the soil surface. Deeper burrow branches, which can reach down to 5 or 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 m), are used for nesting and caching food. A single burrow system may contain up to 200 yards of tunnels (Case 2008).
  • Gopher burrowing activity brings large amounts of soil to the surface. The number of soil mounds on the surface of the ground can reach 300 per animal in a year (1 to 3 per day and up to about 70 mounds per month) resulting in as much as 2.25 tons of earth moved per gopher each year, or 46.75 tons per acre for a population of 50 pocket gophers (Case 2008).
  • Potential benefits of pocket gopher soil disturbance are: (1) increased soil fertility by adding organic matter such as buried vegetation and fecal wastes; (2) increased soil aeration and decreased soil compaction; (3) increased water infiltration and thus decreased runoff; and (4) increased rate of soil formation by bringing subsoil material to the surface of the ground, subjecting it to weathering (Case 2008).

Fun Facts About Pocket Gophers

bulletPocket gophers are named for the two fur-lined pouches, one on the outside of each cheek, in which they transport collected food to underground storage chambers. The pouches can be turned inside out (Case and Jasch 2005).

bulletPocket gopher fossils have been found from Rancholabrean deposits in California, and the oldest fossil is 103,000 years old near Long Beach California (Jones and Baxter 2004).

bulletAs with all rodents, the incisors of pocket gophers grow continuously and gophers must gnaw to keep their teeth ground to an appropriate length. Gophers exert tremendous pressure with their bite, up to 18,000 pounds per square inch (1,265 kg/cm2) (Case 2008).

California Meadow vole, California vole (Microtus californicus) - native

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Microtus californicus, at the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, San Luis Obispo County, California. 23 May 2010, Jerry Kirkhart, Wikimedia Commons.

Vole and Hamster Family (Cricetidae)

California meadow voles (Microtus californicus) are burrowing mouse-like rodents with short tails. There are six species of voles or meadow mice in California and the California meadow vole is the most widespread in the state.

California Meadow Vole:

bulletFound in a variety of habitats where grasses occur.

California Meadow Vole Ecology


  • California voles can be detected by their characteristic system of runways visible in the grass that connect their burrow openings (Salmon and Gorenzel 2010).
  • California voles feed on the stems and leaves  of grasses during the wet season and switch to grass seeds during the summer (Batzli 1986). M. californicus also relies on sedges, fruits and forbs in certain areas. In the winter, voles also rely on roots and underground plant parts (Burt and Grossenheider, 1980; Ingles, 1965 cited in Peronne 2002). One study in a San Francisco Bay coastal prairie found that California voles preferred non-native annual grasses (Avena, Festuca perenne, and Bromus spp. over California oatgrass and meadow barley, both native perennial grasses (Batzli and Pitelka 1970). 
  • Vole survival and reproduction is better in vegetation dominated by creeping wild rye (Elymus triticoides), a rhizomatous native perennial grass that provides dense cover. This is mostly likely due to higher survival during the summer (Cockburn and Lidicker 1983).
  • Heavy grazing by M. californicus can alter the structure and composition of a grassland (Cockburn and Lidicker 1983; Batzli and Pitelka 1970).

bulletLife History:

  • A successful lifespan for a vole is up to a year, but the average lifespan is only a few months (Wilson and Ruff, 1999 cited in Peronne 2002).
  • Reproduction begins near the time of the first rains, and ends when the hot summer dries out the vegetation. Breeding can occur thorughout the year in coastal populations, where the grasses stay green all year, and temperatures are mild (Peronne 2002).
  • California voles seem mostly monogomous when populations are low. Where populations are dense, voles often have more than one mate. In these populations, males defend territories where grass is the staple diet, and females defend areas where fruits and forbs are the primary food source (Peronne 2002).
  • Male voles are longer and heavier than female voles (Peronne 2002).
coyote standing in grassland with meadow vole in mouth

Coyote munching on meadow vole at Tilden Regional Park in the East Bay. Photo by Elaine Bond 2011.

bullet Species Interactions:

  • There are fewer voles in grasslands grazed by domestic livestock than in those that are not grazed. Because vole populations are lower, there are fewer raptors, such as white-tailed kites, in grazed grasslands (Johnson and Horn 2008).
  • Vole predators are numerous and include coyotes, kestrels, hawks, weasles, kits, owls, snakes, herons, egrets, and feral cats. Voles are the primary food source for grassland raptors and mammal carnivores. In many cases, the abundance of voles will determine the abundance of predator populations (Peronne 2002).

Fun Facts About California Meadow Voles

bullet1.2 million year old fossils of Microtus species are known from California, although it is unclear whether the specimens are M. californicus or a related, possibly extinct, species (Bell and Bever 2006 cited in Wikipedia 2011).

bulletDuring peak population times, numbers of voles are said to reach up to 400 hundred per acre, causing crop problems in areas where farms overlap with vole habitat (Peronne 2002), including cultivated artichoke fields (Cynara scolymus) in California (Koehler, et al. 1989).

Black-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus californicus) - native

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Black-tailed jackrabbit eating berries. Basin State Park, Utah. 28 June 2006, James Marvin Phelps, Wikimedia Commons.

Rabbit Family (Leporidae)

Black-tailed jackrabbits are large, long-eared rabbits of the open grasslands.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit:

bulletThe most widely distributed jackrabbit in North America.

bulletFound from central Washington south to Baja California and east to Missouri (Howard 1995).

bulletRequire a shrub-grassland mosaic (Howard 1995).

Black-tailed Jackrabbit Ecology


  • They hide and nest under shrubs during the day and move into grasslands at night to feed on grasses, forbs and small shrubs (Howard 1995).
  • Jackrabbits consume 1/2 to 1 pound (1.1 to 2.2 kg) of green vegetation each day. Rangeland overbrowsing and overgrazing can occur any time jackrabbit numbers are high. Eight jackrabbits are estimated to eat as much as one sheep, and 41 jackrabbits as much as one cow. Estimates of jackrabbit populations run as high as 400 jackrabbits per square mile (154/km 2) extending over several hundred square miles. Range damage can be severe in such situations, especially where vegetation productivity is low (Knight 1994).
  • Black-tailed jackrabbits can consume many plants that are unpalatable or even poisonous to cattle (Howard 1995).

bulletFire: Black-tailed jackrabbits can escape from fires and return after the fire has passed.

bulletSpecies Interactions: They are important prey species for grassland carnivores, including raptors, coyotes, foxes, and badgers.

Fun Facts About Jackrabbits

bulletThe name “jackrabbit” came from early settlers in the Southwest who called it “jackass rabbit” because of its long donkey-like ears (Ballenger 1999).

bulletJackrabbits prefer well-grazed grasslands. Howard (1995) cites a study that suggests that jackrabbit populations can be controlled by keeping rangelands in excellent condition (i.e., with adequate grass growth). Daniel et al (1993) found that jackrabbit populations were significantly higher on rangeland in fair condition than on rangelands in excellent condition.

Grassland Carnivores

grassy hilltopsCoyote closeup. Christopher Bruno.

Grassland carnivores, mammals and raptors alike, are supported by the abundant rodents such as meadow voles, pocket gophers, shrews, and rabbits that occupy coastal prairie habitat. In the past, now extinct megafaunal browsers and grazers once supported (as prey) a different set of megafaunal carnivores in coastal prairies.

  • Coyote (Canus latrans)
  • Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargneteus)
  • Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
  • Ringtail (Vassariscus astutus)
  • Mountain lion (Felis consolor)
  • Bobcat (Lynx rufus)
  • Feral house cat (Felis catus), introduced

Black bear (Ursus americanus) - native

grassy hilltops

A brown American Black Bear cub seen west of Boulder, Colorado, dining on bunch grass. Hustvedt.

Bear Family (Ursidae)

Black Bear:

bulletIs native to much of North America.

Fun Facts About Black Bear

bulletBlack bears were found on Point Reyes until about 1863 (Kawahara 1970).

bulletConsidered extinct from the area by 1901, there was a confirmed presence in 1971. In September and October 2010, there were five reports of black bear tracks and scat (droppings) along the Tomales Bay side of Point Reyes National Park (National Park Service 2010a).

bulletAlthough a problem in other areas, black bear attacks are so rare in California that there are more reports of Bigfoot sightings (Stienstra 2000).

Black bear California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis) - native, extirpated

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“Monarch” the last California grizzly bear in captivity is the mascot of the bear flag republic on display at the California Academy of Sciences. Photo by Payton Chung (Wikipedia).

Bear Family (Ursidae)

Grizzly Bear:

bulletNative to California’s coastal prairie and scrub from the northernmost boundary of California through the Central Coast and from the San Francisco Bay Area up into the Central Valley grasslands and foothills and the foothills near Los Angeles (Stienstra 2000).

Grizzly Bear Ecology

bulletLife History: Eat both plant and animal foods. Plant foods included clover, berries, tule roots, bulbs,  grapes, wild oats and other grasses (Stienstra 2000). Prey animals included lizards, deer, gophers, mice, grubs, and yellow jacket nests (Stienstra 2000).

bulletGrazing: Are known to eat California brome (Bromus carinatus), a coastal prairie grass (Tollefson 2006).  

bulletSoil Disturbance: Grizzly bears once had big effects on plant distributions by digging up large patches of ground with their 5-6 inch long claws searching for bulbs and roots to eat.

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The only grizzly bear left in California is on the state flag.

Fun Facts about Grizzly Bears

bulletA grizzly bear was purportedly roped on the sand dunes of Tomales Bay in 1850 (Kawahara 1970).

bulletCalifornia’s state symbol has been extinct in California since 1922  when the last grizzly was killed in Fresno County (Noss and Peters 1995; Stienstra 2000). 

bulletGrizzly bears were driven to extinction by population growth and habitat loss in the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Los Angeles. According to Stienstra (2000), the ferocious grizzly lost its advantage when the rifle was brought to the state in the 1840s. Grizzlies were hunted for their meat and for sport and killed by sheep and cattle ranchers protecting their herds. 

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Natural range of the grizzly bear in California. Adapted from Stienstra 2000.

Badgers (Taxidea taxus) - native

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Badger (Taxidea taxus). Bob Hines. U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Division of Public Affairs.

Weasel Family (Mustelidae)


bulletDistributed throughout California.

bulletMore abundant in grasslands where small burrowing rodents are abundant (Stienstra 2000).

Badger Ecology

bulletLife History: Badgers are largely carnivores that prey mainly on small mammals including pocket gophers, kangaroo rats, moles, mice and other rodents (Sullivan 1996).

bulletSoil Disturbance:

  • Badgers use their long claws to dig their prey out of the ground and to dig dens.
  • Burrows are 10 feet deep with large mounds of soil built up at the entrance (Sullivan 1996).
  • American badger dens are up to 8 to 10 feet long in Sonoma County (Susan Kirks, Paula Lane Action Network. 2014. pers. comm).
  • Badgers move to new dens sometimes as often as every day (Sullivan 1996). 

Fun Facts About Badgers

bulletBadgers have been present in Sonoma, Marin, and San Francisco Bay Area grasslands since the Pleistocene when their excavations probably served as readily available mud wallows for herds of prehistoric bison and mammoths (Parkman 2006).

bulletFemale badgers line their dens with grass.

introduction to grassland Birds

bulletGrassland birds are the most threatened group of birds in the United States. Most grassland birds are ground nesters and/or foragers. Grassland bird populations diminish with habitat fragmentation (Rao, et al. 2008).

grassy hilltops

White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), 14 July 2007, Wolfgang Wander, Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.
wikimedia. org/wiki/File:White-crowned-Sparrow.jpg.

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Birds, such as the grasshopper sparrow and savannah sparrow, need the open spaces between bunch grasses to forage and build their nests. Grassland with 100% cover (i.e., no gaps among grasses) is poor habitat for grassland birds, whether dominated by introduced annual grasses or restored native grasslands (see page 7 of Grassland Birds Need More than Grass at the Hastings Natural History Reserve).
  • Wildflowers that grow among grasses are an essential food source along with the insects that the plants attract.
  • Over 86% of California’s grasslands are privately owned and largely managed by ranchers (California Partners in Flight 2000).
  • Poorly managed grazing can destroy nests by trampling and reducing protective cover (Unitt 2008).
  • Well managed grazing, one that creates a mosaic of grassland habitat, can be beneficial to grassland birds and to livestock (North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee 2013).

Much of the information below on grassland birds and raptors is from All about birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum) - native

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Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum). 29 May 2005(2005-05-29), dominic sherony, Wikimedia Commons.

Sparrow Familty (Emberizidae)

The grasshopper sparrow is a small, stocky, flat-headed sparrow with a short tail and unstreaked breast.

Grasshopper Sparrow:

bulletDistributed across North America (Slater 2004).

bulletBreeds only in grasslands.

Grasshopper Sparrow Ecology:

bulletLife History:

  • Grasshopper sparrows nest in small depressions in the ground. The nests are small cups woven from grass and lined with plant fibers, fur, and roots. The nest is usually concealed by a canopy of bent grass (Slater 2004).

  • If you happen upon a nesting female grasshopper sparrow, she will escape by quietly running away through the grass rather than flying (Slater 2004).
  • Grasshopper sparrows forage for seeds and insects on the ground and on low plants (Slater 2004).
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Grasshopper sparrow on a nest. Chester A. Reed, ''The Bird Book'', 1915.

Fun Facts About Grasshopper Sparrows

bulletAlthough grasshopper sparrows may indeed sometimes eat grasshoppers, these small birds are named instead for their song which sounds like a grasshopper buzzing (Fix and Bezener 2000).

bulletThreatened primarily by urbanization, the grasshopper sparrow is considered a Bird Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish & Game (Unitt 2008). Populations have declined over 60% in the last 25 years (Slater 2004). 

Bryant’s Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus) - native

grassy hilltops

Passerculus sandwichensis - Savannah sparrow, Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Huntington Beach, California. December 2006, Elaine R. Wilson, Wikimedia Commons.

Sparrow Family (Emberizidae)

Bryant's savannah sparrows are a small, streak-breasted species with a yellow dot on its brow.

Bryant's Savannah Sparrow:

bulletA subspecies of savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), Bryant's savannah sparrow is endemic to California.

bulletOccurs only in the narrow coastal strip from Humboldt Bay in the north to the Morro Bay area in the south with its center of abundance in the San Francisco Bay area (Fitton 2008).

bulletIs a year-round resident of California’s coastal prairies and marshes.

Bryant's Savannah Sparrow Ecology:

bulletLife History:

  • Savannah sparrows avoid areas with unusually tall grasses.
  • Birds nest on the ground in open-cup nests that are near grass bunches or under matted plants. The nests are hidden under the grass canopy. Females and males distract predators by erecting their crests and/or quivering their wings (California Partners in Flight 2000).
  • Birds forage around the bases of plants mostly for seeds and fruit, and occasionally for insects and other small animals such as slugs and sow bugs during the breeding season.  

Fun Facts About Byant's Savannah Sparrow

bulletConsidered a species of special concern by the California Department of Fish & Game, the major threats are loss or alteration of habitat and habitat fragmentation (Fitton 2008).

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) - native

grassy hilltops

Western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). Photo by Kevin Cole 2008, from Western_Meadowlark.jpg.

Blackbird Family (Icteridae)

Western Meadowlark is a robin-sized bird with a black V-shaped band on a bright yellow breast and distinctive brown, black and buff color patterns on the head and upper parts (Cornell Lab of Ornithology 2011). Males and females have the same coloring.

Western Meadowlark:

bulletIs a year-round resident of California grasslands.

bulletNest and forage in grasslands, meadows, and pastures.

bulletRestricted to western North and Central America.

Western Meadowlarks Ecology

bulletLife History:

  • Western meadowlarks nest on the ground. The females build cup-like nests in dry depressions hidden in the vegetation. The nests are usually covered by a grassy dome woven from the surrounding vegetation.
  • The nests have an entrance tunnel that can sometimes be several feet long (Birding
  • They feed on insects (beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, bees, wasps) and seeds and probe in the soil for grubs and worms.

Fun Facts About Western Meadowlark

bulletStill abundant but declining throughout its range in North America, the western meadowlark is listed as a species of concern by Point Reyes Conservation Science (California Partners in Flight 2000). 

bulletMistakenly thought to be the same species as the eastern meadowlark (Sturnella magna), this species was overlooked by the Lewis and Clark expedition and therefore earned its species name, neglecta (Fix and Bezener 2000). The two species are almost identical with black v-shaped marking on bright yellow breasts, but the western meadowlark is distinguished by its musical flutelike song.

Raptors: Birds of Prey
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Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) in the Cloisters City Park in Morro Bay, CA. 12 September 2007. Michael Baird (

bulletThe raptors described below are year-round residents of coastal prairies who prey mainly on small mammals, such as pocket gophers and the abundant meadow voles that scurry through a maze of grassy tunnels they create on the grassland floor (California Partners in Flight 2000).

bulletSustaining healthy populations of raptors requires maintaining prey habitat in foraging areas. The density of these birds is highly correlated to the density of prey animals in grasslands (California Partners in Flight 2000).

bulletThe grasslands of California's Central Valley are the largest overwintering location for raptors in North America (Pandolfino et al. 2011 ).

Northern  Harrier (Circus cyaneus) - native

grassy hilltops

Female Northern Harrier, 7 December 2008. Andreas Trepte (

Eagle and Hawk Family (Accipitridae)

Formerly known as the marsh hawk, the northern harrier can be identified by its low flying habit and its owl-like face. The males are grey and the females are brown.

Northern Harrier Ecology

bulletLife History: Unlike the other raptors listed here, northern harriers nest on the ground where they build open nests surrounded by erect annual or perennial grasses and forbs (California Partners in Flight 2000).

bulletSpecies Interactions: Northern harriers prey on small rodents, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.

Fun Facts About Northern Harriers

bulletThe northern harrier is considered a California Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Game (California Partners in Flight 2000).

Red-tail Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) - native

Eagle and Hawk Family (Accipitridae)

grassy hilltops

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) eating a California meadow vole (Microtus californicus). Photo by Steve Jurvetson, Flickr.

Red-tail Hawk:

bulletHunts in meadows and grasslands.

Red-tail Hawk Ecology

bulletLife History:

  • Red-tailed hawks nest in tall trees and hunt in nearby meadows and grasslands where they prey on meadow voles, pocket gophers, rabbits, and other small animals.
  • Small rodents make up 85-90% of their diet with an occasional bird, snake, and other small reptile (Stienstra 2000). 
  • They often perch on fence posts and power lines.

White-tail kite (Elanus leucurus) - native

grassy hilltops

Juvenile White-tailed Kite (Elanus leucurus).1 November 2007, Len Blumin, Wikimedia Commons.

Eagle and Hawk Family (Accipitridae)

White-Tail Kite

bulletInhabits open grassland along the west coast from Baja to southern Washington State (Dunk 1995).

bulletHunts in grasslands where they hover in air before parachuting feet first, with white wings held high, upon the spotted prey.

White-Tail Kite Ecology

bulletLife History:

  • Kites nest in tall bushes or trees near their foraging areas and rarely perch on man-made objects (Fix and Bezener 2000).
  • During the non-breeding season they roost communally in groups of from 10 to 40 individuals. A roost of greater than 100 birds was reported in Sonoma County in 1965 (Bolander and Arnold 1965).

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Like red-tail hawks, white-tail kites prey heavily on meadow voles and small rodents sometimes eating small birds, snakes, lizards, and large insects.
  • White-tail kites hunt in ungrazed areas much more often than grazed lands, presumably due to higher abundance of prey species, especially meadow voles. White-tail kite populations increased by by 10 times after grazing was stopped in grasslands purchased by the California Department of Fish and Game for white-tail kite conservation (Dunk 1995).

Fun Facts About White-tailed Kites

bulletPopulations were severely reduced in California in the early 1900s because of habitat loss, shooting, and egg collecting. In the 1930s, the species was predicted to go extinct, but from the 1940s to the 1980s, the California population increased dramatically. Populations declined again during the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps because of habitat loss and increased disturbance(Dunk 1995).

Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) - native

grassy hilltops

A portrait of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). 2 July 2007. Rocky. http://commons.wikimedia.

Eagle and Hawk Family (Accipitridae)

Golden Eagles:

bulletNest on the edges of cliffs or in tall trees that overlook open grassland hunting grounds (Fix and Bezener 2000).

Golden Eagle Ecology:

bulletLife History: The nests, built of sticks, branches, and roots, can measure up to 10 feet across.

bulletSpecies Interactions: Golden eagles prey on small mammals, birds, and less often lizards, snakes and some larger mammals, such as wild pig and foxes. They also eat carrion.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) - native

New World Vulture Family (Cathartidae)

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Close view of a California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) Spring 2000.   Frier/ Nikon, Scott. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Digital Library System.

California Condor:

bulletOnce ranged to Florida and Washington State, the last remaining wild bird was captured on April 19, 1987 (Fix and Bezener 2000).

California Condor Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions: Carrion is the main food of the California condor. These large scavengers once thrived on the carcasses of elk, pronghorn, and other large animals that roamed California’s grasslands.

Fun Facts About California Condor

bulletThe last of the wild condors were taken into captivity and today, there are only a few small introduced populations in California and Arizona (Chamberlain, et al. 2005).

bullet The United States Fish & Wildlife Service announced in October 2010 that there are over 100 free-flying condors in California as a result of recovery efforts begun in a 1982 captive breeding program when the wild population was just 22 individuals (Woodbridge 2010).

bulletCondors can locate their prey, land, and take off easier in short vegetation. Today, California condors forage almost entirely in rangelands. Their primary food source is domestic cattle carcasses as large wild prey species have diminished (Tesky 1994).

bulletTom Smith, Bodega Miwok, told Isabel Kelly in 1932 that the condor “did not stay in this country much; he came around here once. He flies here in summer time, he doesn’t want to get wet” (Kelly 1996).

bullet During the Pleistocene, Merriam’s terratorn (Terratornis merriami), ranged over the entire United States feeding on marine mammals and now extinct megafauna. Probably a hunter as well as a scavenger, this bird was twice as big as a California Condor. Remains of over 100 individuals were found in La Brea Tarpits.

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A California condor protects its chick inside a cave on the side of a cliff near Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. (USFWS Journal).

Lizards in grasslands
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Western Whiptail, Cnemidophorus tigris multiscutatus. Chris Brown. 4 October 2006.

Most lizards prefer open habitats which provide microhabitats for basking and feeding. For this reason, moderate grazing can enhance habitat for lizards. Western fence lizard, western skink, and western whiptail lizards were three times more abundant in grazed areas than non grazed areas of grasslands in the East Bay Region of San Francisco Bay (Riensche 2008).

If caught by the tail, many lizard species have the ability to detach their tail and escape. Although most lizards have the ability to re-grow the lost appendage, the tailless lizard is at a disadvantage for it has lost that particular defense strategy until the tail regrows. Also, the regrown tail is often smaller and not as strong as the original ( 2010).

Western fence or blue-belly lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis) - native

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Western fence lizard. US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station

North American Spiny LIzards (Phrynosomatidae)

Adults can be black, gray, or brown with blue marking on the sides of the belly and throat and yellow or orange marking on the limbs.

Western Fence Lizard:

bulletIs one of the most common western lizards and occupies a wide variety of habitats (Stebbins 1966). 

bulletPrefers open (grazed) grasslands (Riensche 2008).

Western Fence Lizard Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions: Cattle grazing can increase the abundance of western fence lizard populations (Riensche 2008).

bulletFire: Western fence lizards move from unburned to burned areas in southern California chaparral where they can be found basking on the blackened leafless branches of shrubs (Lillywhite and North 1974).

Fun Facts About Western Fence Lizards

bulletSonoma, Marin, and other areas of California have low rates of Lyme disease. This is because a protein in the blood of the western fence lizard kills the bacterium carried by the western black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), that causes Lyme disease (A Closer Look: the Western Fence Lizard. ).

bulletMales often display their blue throat markings when intimidated by flattening their sides and raising the skin on their throats; when courting they do the same while bobbing up and down to impress their prospective mates (Storer  and Usinger 1963).

Western skink (Eumeces skiltonianuson) - native

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Juvenil Eumeces skiltonianus from northern California. 11 March 2006. Marshal Hedin. Wikimedia Commons:

Skink Family (Scincidae)

The western skink can be easily identified by the broad brown stripe edged with black and bordered with a white stripe on either side. The blue tail occurs only in juveniles (Stebbins 1966).

Western Skink:

bulletIs more common in grazed grasslands than ungrazed grasslands (Riensche 2008).

bulletOccupies a variety of habitats with leaf litter.

Western Skink Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Cattle grazing can increase the abundance of western skinks in grasslands (Riensche 2008).
  • Western Skinks forage through surface litter looking for insects (adults, eggs, larvae), spiders, beetles, caterpillars, moths, grasshoppers, crickets, insect larvae, ants, centipedes, and sow bugs (California Department of Fish and Game 2010).

California Alligator Lizard (Elgaria multicarinata multicarinata)- native

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San Diego Alligator Lizard ('Elgaria multicarinata' webbii), 21 May 2009 BetacommandBot. Wikimedia Commons: http://commons.

Anguidae (Alligator Lizards and Allies)

California alligator lizards have a large head with powerful jaws, an elongated body with bony scales, and a long, slightly prehensile tail that they can wrap around vegetation when climbing ( 2010).

California Alligator Lizard:

bulletIs endemic to California ( 2010).

bulletIs a subspecies of the southern alligator lizard (Elgaria multicarinata), which is native to the Pacific coast of North America.  

bulletThere are three subspecies of southern alligator lizards: the California alligator lizard (E. multicarinata multicarinata), the San Diego alligator lizard (E. m. webbii), and the Oregon alligator lizard (E.m. scincicauda) (Stebbins 2003).

Alligator Lizard Ecology:

bulletSpecies Interactions: Alligator lizards are voracious eaters and prey on insects, arthropods, and other lizards (California Department of Fish and Game 2010).

Fun Facts About Alligator Lizards

bulletAlligator lizards have the ability to deliberately detach their tail when threatened. The detached tail wriggles around for several minutes, detracting the would-be predator, while the lizard escapes ( 2010).

Western ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus amabilis) - native

Typical Snake Family (Colubridae)

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Photographer: LA Dawson Animal courtesy of Austin Reptile Service. 2006-03-15. Wikimedia Commons:

The western ring-necked snake is named for the pale yellow or reddish collar at its neck. It is small, reaching only about 15 inches long and about as thick as a pencil (Storer  and Usinger 1963).

Western Ring-Necked Snake:

bulletOccurs throughout the United States, central Mexico, and south eastern Canada.

bulletCan be found along the south-central California coast from Ventura County north to southern Santa Cruz County, and inland through the coast ranges.

bulletIs found in a wide variety of habitats with southern populations occuring primarily within riparian, meadows and other moist environments.

Western Ring-Necked Snake Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions: These snakes feed on salamanders, lizards, small snakes, slugs, worms, and insects ( 2010).

Fun Facts About Western Ring-Necked Snakes

bulletThe subspecies D. p. amabilis is endemic to California and occurs from Sonoma County to Monterey County ( 2010).

bulletMildly venomous, perhaps to subdue prey, it is not considered dangerous to humans ( 2010).

bulletWhen disturbed, it will coil its tail exposing the bright red underneath ( 2010).

Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer) - native

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A closely related supspeces of Gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer sayi). 6 April 2007. Freeparking. Wikimedia Commons:

Colubridae (Colubrid “Snake” Family)

Gopher Snake Ecology

bulletLife History: Pacific gopher snakes are non-venomous snakes that kill their prey by constricting their body in coils around the prey or by pressing the prey against side of their burrows ( 2010).

bulletSpecies Interactions: Pacific gopher snakes feed on pocket gophers, other small mammals, birds and their eggs, lizards and insects ( 2010).

Fun Facts About Pacific Gopher Snakes

bulletPacific gopher snakes are often mistaken for rattlesnakes because of their similar diamond-shaped markings and because they often mimic rattlesnake behavior (Stebbins 1966).  When cornered they will coil up, draw back and spread their heads and vibrate their tail before they lunge and hiss at the intruder (Storer  and Usinger 1963).

Western yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon) - native

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Western Racer (Coluber constrictor mormon). 30 May 2011. Jrtayloriv. Wikimedia Commons:

Colubridae (Colubrid “Snake” Family)

Yellow-bellied racers are typically under 3 feet long, slender with large eyes, a broad head and slender neck. Their bodies can be brown, blue grey or olive green above with off-white or yellow below (Sonoma County Reptile Rescue n.d.). 

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer:

bullet Prefers open areas with sunny exposure - meadows, grassland, sagebrush flats, brushy chaparral, woodlands, riparian areas such as pond edges, and forest openings (

bulletIs found throughout most of California north and west of the Sierras, and south along the coast to the Baja California border (

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions: Despite its Latin name, it does not constrict prey but actively hunts for lizards, small mammals, birds (also bird eggs), snakes, and large insects. It moves quickly with head held high, capturing and crushing the prey with its jaws or by trapping the prey with its body ( 2010).

Fun Facts About Yellow-Bellied Racers

bulletYellow-bellied racers are one of the few snake species in the world whose juvenile coloration differs significantly from the adults. Juveniles have dark blotches on the sides and saddled marking on the back. The juveniles were once thought to be a different species from the adults due to the difference in appearance ( 2010).

bulletAlthough yellow-bellied racers are non-venomous and considered harmless to humansr, they can bite agressively

North Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) - native

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Rattlesnake from northern California. 2 August 2007. Marshal Hedin. Wikimedia Commons:

Viperidae (Viper Family)

Rattlesnakes are the only poisonous reptile in California (Storer  and Usinger 1963).

Northern Pacific Rattlesnake:

bulletAlthough they rare along the coast, Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes have been observed in coastal prairie in Marin County (CPEFS Mapping Crew, personal communication 2010).

North Pacific Rattlesnake Ecology

Species Interactions: Rattlesnakes often use a sit-and-wait approach to hunting and feed primarily on small rodents (including gophers) , small rabbits, some birds, and lizards that are unlucky enough to pass nearby (Storer  and Usinger 1963).

Fun Facts About Northern Pacific Rattlesnake

bulletBoth adults and juveniles are dangerous to humans and should be avoided.

bulletYoung north Pacific rattlesnakes have bright yellow tails with a silent undeveloped “button”-like rattle ( 2010; Stebbins 1966).


bulletAlthough coastal prairies are known for their high diversity of wildflowers, they may support an even higher diversity of insects.

bulletCalifornia’s remaining coastal prairies act as refuges for the many insect species with greatly reduced populations; however, some are already extinct (California Native Plant Society 2001).

bulletInsects serve many ecological roles, but perhaps the most important is pollination. Pollinating insects, such as native bees, bumblebees, beetles, butterflies, moths, and flies are needed by 90% of flowering plants and over one third of our food crops for their reproduction (Pollinator Partnership 2010). 

Ohlone tiger beetle (Cicindela ohlone) - native

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Ohlone tiger beetle. Photo courtesy of US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Ground Beetle Family (Carabidae)

Ohlone Tiger Beetle:

bulletIs known only from 5 locations in Santa Cruz County; because it was recently discovered, the original range and extent of the populations is unknown.

bulletOccurs only on coastal terraces in Santa Cruz County with California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) and purple needlegrass (Nassella pulchra, Stipa pulchra) (Freitag, et al. 1993; Santa Cruz Public Library 2009). 

Ohlone Tiger Beetle Ecology

Life History:

  • The beetles are active from late January to April and tend to be found in areas of low and sparse vegetation where there are patches of bare ground  (Freitag, et al. 1993).
  • The larvae live in small burrows (4-6mm diameter). The burrow openings are flat with no surrounding excavated soil mounds apparent (Jones 2001). Adults move among plants to find mates and hunt for prey (Jones 2001).

Species Interactions:

  • Both the adult beetles and the larvae are predatory on insects.  The larvae grab passing insects and other invertebrates from their burrows, and adults hunt prey on foot (Jones 2001).
  • Ohlone beetle populations are threatened by rooting wild pigs that destroy the smooth surfaces the beetles need to hunt and mate (Phelan 2002).
  • Ironically, the beetles need paths, once created and maintained by now extinct megafauna, elk, and deer and now, by hikers and mountain bikers.  However, mountain bikers and Ohlone tiger beetles are on a collision course, literally: Beetles are often  crushed by bike tires (during the beetles active period from January to April) and over-used or improperly-used paths are destroyed by erosion (Phelan 2002).

Fun Facts About the Ohlone Tiger Beetle

bulletThe Ohlone tiger beetle is named for its fierce predatory behavior and for the Ohlone village site, now Marshall Field, where it was first discovered (Phelan 2002).

bulletThis species was first described in 1987 from a specimen collected northwest of the city of Santa Cruz, the Ohlone tiger beetle is known only from five remnant native grasslands.

bulletThe Ohlone tiger beetle was federally listed as endangered by the federal government in 2001 (Jones 2001).

introduction to Butterflies and Moths
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Hyles lineata, 20 April 2008. Jessie Terwilliger.

bulletAdult butterflies and moths can look very similar:

  • Butterflies usually have a club or swelling at the end of their antennae while moths can have simple to feather shaped antennae, but do not have clubs at the tip.
  • Butterflies are usually more colorful while moths are plainer and sometimes quite hairy.
  • Butterflies are active during the daylight hours (diurnal) while moths are active during the evening (crepuscular) and at night (nocturnal) (Opler, et al. 2010).

bulletButterfly and moth caterpillars are even harder to tell apart.

bulletThe Big Sky Institute in Montana has a great website called “Butterflies and Moths of North America” where you can search for butterflies and moths that occur in Sonoma and Marin Counties or in any county in the United States (Opler, et al. 2010).

Umber skipper (Poanes melane) - native

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Umber skipper (Poanes melane). Photo courtesy of Eugene Zelenko. 7 Feb 2010. Wikimedia commons.

Skipper Butterfly Familty (Hesperiidae)

Skippers are stocky butterflies that resemble moths.

Umber Skipper Ecology:

bulletLife History: Males perch on grasses and wait for passing receptive females (Opler, et al. 2010).

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Coastal prairie plants that act as host plants for the umber skipper are tufted hairgrass(Deschampsia caespitosa) and California brome (Bromus carinatus).
  • The caterpillars feed on the leaves and live in shelters of rolled or tied leaves. The adults survive on flower nectar (presumably from wildflowers) (Opler, et al. 2010).

Endangered butterflies

bulletHabitat loss and degradation of coastal prairie habitat has led to the decline of prairie-dependent butterflies. Among those most threatened are species that depend on only a few plant species, called host plants, for their reproduction. When habitat is fragmented or invaded by weeds, host plants often decline, and, even when present, can also be overlooked or not used by butterflies when surrounded by and overtopped by non-native species (Severns 2008).

bulletButterflies often have two kinds of host plants:

  • Mature butterflies lay their eggs on the host plant and once the eggs have hatched serve as larval food-plants.The butterflies described below lay their eggs on specific plants upon which the larvae or caterpillars feed during their growth stages called instars.
  • Once they metamorphose, butterflies feed on nectar from the same or other species of plants.

Mission blue butterfly (Plebejus icariodes missionensis) - native

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A male mission blue alights on a grass blade during its 3 week flight season. Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Blues and Hairstreak Family (Lycaenidae)

The mission blue butterfly is a subspecies of Boiduval’s blue butterfly with a wingspan of 1 to 1.5 inches. The males’ wings are a colorful iridescent blue on top; the females’ wings are dark brown with blue at the bases.

The Mission Blue:

bulletIs found only in Marin County and the San Francisco Bay area.

bulletMay have been more widespread, but the original distribution is unknown (Arnold 1983: 25, as Plebejus icariodes missionensis)

Mission Blue Ecology

bulletLIfe History: Mission blue butterflies have a one-year life-cycle:

  • The adult butterflies live for only about a week from March to July. The female butterflies lay single eggs on the top surfaces of leaves and sometimes on the stems and seedpods and flowers of perennial lupines.
  • When the eggs hatch the caterpillars feed for several weeks on the inner leaf tissue and flowers and then migrate down the stem into the leaf litter at the base of the plant and lie dormant.
  • The following spring they ascend to feed on plant tissue, descend to pupate in the leaf litter, and finally ascend again to metamorphose into butterflies.

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Adults mate and feed on flower nectar, primarily of coast buckwheat (Eriogonum latifolium), but also feed on nectar from golden aster (Heterotheca sessiflora), blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum ssp. capitatum), and Ithuriels’s spear (Triteleia laxa).
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Mission Blue larva with small honey ants (Prenolepis impairs) that protect the larva and harvest secreted honeydew. Photo courtesy of Thomas Y. Wang, http://www.missionblue

  • The female butterflies lay single eggs on, and larvae feed only on three perennial lupines: silver lupine (Lupinus albifrons), summer lupine (Lupinus formosus), and varied lupine (Lupinus variicolor). The annual, sky lupine (Lupinus nanus), may be a fourth larval host species (Wang n.d.).
  • The later stages or instars of the larvae of the mission blue butterfly are tended by ants, primarily the small honey ant (Prenolepis impairs) as well as the shiny wood ant (Formica lasioides) (Arnold 1983). The larvae secrete honeydew that the ants eat, and the ants presumably help protect the larvae from parasitoids and predators.

Fun Facts About Mission Blue Butterflies

bulletThe species was first described in 1937 by Hovanitz from a specimen collected on Twin Peaks in the Mission District of San Francisco and collected in the 1960s at Fort Baker, Marin County, the original distribution is unknown (Arnold 1983: 25, as Plebejus icariodes missionensis).

bulletThe mission blue butterfly was listed by the United States Government as an endangered species in 1976. Residential and industrial development has greatly reduced the extent of its coastal grassland habitat (U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2010).

bulletThe lupines that this species depends on for larval food are considered "pioneer species," that grow best in areas of recent disturbance, such as rodent burrowing and mudslides (Arnold 1983).

bulletA second subspecies of this butterfly, Fenders blue butterfly (Icaricia icariodes fender), is endangered in Oregon prairies where it depends on two lupine species, one that is also endangered.

San Bruno elfin butterfly (Callophrys mossii bayensis) - native

Blues and Hairstreaks Family (Lycaenidae)

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly:

bulletOccurs only at Dillons Beach and Alpine Lake in Marin County and Milagra Ridge and Montara Mountain near Pacifica in San Francisco County.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions:

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    Host plant of the San Burno Elfin butterfly, broadlead stonecrop, Sedum spathulifolium. 2 July 2008. Walter Siegmund. http://commons.

  • The larval host plant is stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium; Crassulaceae), which tends to occur in rocky outcrops and has a widespread distribution in California.
  • Several species of ants tend the young larvae and protect them from predators. The larvae secrete honeydew that the ants eat, and the ants presumably help protect the larvae from parasitoids and predators (National Park Service 2010b).  There are at least nine species of native ants involved and each species seems to attend plants with different color variation (U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service 1984).

Bay checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis) - native

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Bay Checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha bayensis). 13 May 2010. SACRAMENTO FISH AND WILDLIFE OFFICE; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Wikimedia Commons: http://commons

Admiral and Brush-footed Butterfly Family (Nymphalidae)

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly:

bulletOccurs only in serpentine outcrops in the San Francisco watershed.

bulletMay have been the most abundant and widespread butterfly species in the central Coast Range of California 200 years ago (Murphy and Weiss 1988).

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • The larval host plants of the Bay Checkerspot Butterfly are dwarf plantain (Plantago erecta) and two species of Indian paintbrush, Castilleja densiflorus and C. exserta (National Park Service 2010b). Females lay their eggs on dwarf plantain early in the season. When this small plant begins to dry up, butterflies then lay their eggs on Castilleja and immature larvae disperse to the Castilleja to finish their development  (Ehrlich, et al. 1975; Murphy and Weiss 1988). Checkerspot butterly reproductive success is highest in areas with serpentine soils, since Castilleja species used by the butteflies occurs on this soil type (Ehrlich, et al. 1975).
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    Bay Checkspot host plant, Owl's Clover (Castilleja densiflora), Briones Regional Park, Contra Costa County, CA. 6 April 2003. Franco Folini. http://commons.wikimedia.

  • Adult nectar sources include Lomatium spp., California goldfields (Lasthenia californica), coastal tidytips (Layia platyglossa), and scytheleaf onion (Allium falcifolium). Of these species, the scytheleaf onion is most often found growing in serpentine.
  • When cattle grazing was removed from grasslands growing on serpentine soils in San Jose, several populations of Bay checkerspot butterfly nearly went extinct because the areas were rapidly invaded by introduced grasses that took advantage of the increased nitrogen available from automobile pollution  (Weiss 1999).

Fun Facts About Bay Checkerspot Butterflies

bulletThe causes of Bay Checkerspot declines and local extinctions are urbanization, freeway construction, invasion of non-native plants, fire, a combination of drought and overgrazing, and surprisingly, a lack of grazing or undergrazing when combined with the nutrient enrichment effects of nitrogen pollution from automobiles on busy Highway 101 (Murphy and Weiss 1988). Serpentine soils are generally dominated by native plants that are more adapted to the lack of nutrients and the presence of heavy metals. Nitrogen deposition from automobile pollution facilitates the invasion of introduced grasses into the nutrient-poor soils (Weiss 1999).

Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly (Speyeria zerene myrtleae) - native

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Myrtle's silverspot butterfly at Point Reyes National Seashore. (NPS

Admiral and Brush-footed Butterfly Family (Nymphalidae)

Myrtle’s Silverspot Butterfly:

bulletOnce ranged from San Mateo County to the mouth of the Russian River in Sonoma County in coastal prairie, coastal scrub and dune habitat.

bulletIs now known only from four populations in northwestern Marin County and southwestern Sonoma County (two at Point Reyes National Seashore).

Myrtle's Silverspot Butterly Ecology

Species Interactions:

There is only one larval host plant, the western dog violet (Viola adunca).

The adults primarily feed on flower nectar from the curly-leaved monardella (Monardella undulata), a rare native plant, but also gather nectar from a variety of native plants including hairy gum plant (Grindelia hirsutula), bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), coastal sand verbena (Abronia latifolia), seaside fleabane (Erigeron glaucus), and false dandelion (Hypo chaeris radicata)(Adams 2007; Black and Vaughan 2005).

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Adult food plant, Mondardella undulata, of the Checkerspot butterfly. 18 June 2007. JKirkhart35. http://commons.

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Devastating Grasshopper, Melanoplus devastator, a massing species of California grasslands. 30 September 2007. Eugene Zelenko.

Nearly 200 species of grasshoppers occur in California and more that 50% are endemics (Stromberg et al. 2007).


  • Grasshoppers feed on grasses and forbs. Fewer grasshoppers are present during the rainy season when winter annual plants begin to germinate and grow. However, small seedlings eaten during this time may suffer greater damage because they are more vulnerable.
  • The plants with the potential for highest risk from grasshopper herbivory are perennials or late-season annuals that are growing from June to October when grasshoppers are adults and are the most active (Joern 1989). 

  • Grasshopper damage has been reported during outbreaks in 1957 and 1958 (Stroheckers et al. 1969 cited in Stromberg et al. 2007) and was reported historically from established California missions, but Cronise 1986 (cited in Stromberg et al. 2007) reported that their effects were not extensive.
  • In Montana grasshopper herbivory influences rates of nitrogen cycling by changing the quality of leaf litter and rates of decomposition.

bulletSpecies Interactions: Many predators eat grasshoppers including western meadowlark, grasshopper sparrows, and kingbirds (Stromberg et al. 2007).

Introduction to Native Ants
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Depth of honey ant (Prenolepsis imparis) nests as measured in Tallahassee Florida. The figure of a 5 1/2 foot man is for comparison (Tschinkel 1987).

There are approximately 281 species of ants in California, 255 of those are native, 100 are native to the San Francisco Bay Area alone (Mahir and Ameet 2010), and 63 (25%) are found only in California (Ward 2005a).

bulletSoil Disturbance: Ants can have large effects above and below ground: Ants carry aboveground matter into the soil enriching it with nutrients; their belowground tunneling and chamber-building disturbs and aerates the soil. 

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Ant activities tend to increase the presence of soil biota, such as bacteria, fungi, and nematodes (Boulton, et al. 2003).
  • Although not as effective pollinators as bees, ants can carry pollen from flower to flower and may be important pollinators of some rare plants. A study of the San Fernando Valley spineflower (Chorizanthe paryi var. fernandina; Polygonaceae) in southern California revealed that native ants are important pollinators that substantially increased seed production of this rare and endangered plant that was once thought to be extinct (Jones et al. 2010).

Small honey ant (Prenolepis imparis) - native

Ant Family (Formicidae)

Honey ant

Prenolepis imparis. Photo by April Nobile. Copyright, 2000-2009.

This ant can be recognized by the strong constriction in the mesonotum that divides the slender thorax into two parts (Texas A & M University 2008).

Small Honey Ant:

bulletIs native from Canada to Nebraska, south to Texas and Florida, and also occurs in New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington ( Texas A & M University 2008). 

bulletOccupies a variety of woodland habitats and can invade structures and potted plants (Texas A & M University 2008). 

Small Honey Ant Ecology

bulletSpecies Interaction: The small honey ant is one of two ant species that tend the endangered mission blue butterfly larvae (Arnold 1983).

Fun Facts About Small Honey Ants

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Plaster cast  of a Prenolepis imparis nest made by Dr. Walter Tschinkel at Florida State University.  Researchers can use plaster, molten aluminum, molten zinc, or paraffin to make a cast that shows the size and complex structure of underground ant nests. Photo by Charles F. Badland, with permission of Walter R. Tschinkel.

bulletSmall honey ants are also called the winter ant, because they can forage in temperatures when most ants are inactive.

bulletTheir nests can extend as much as 12 feet deep; each vertical nest contains many lateral rooms for food storage and for rearing larvae (Tschinkel 1987).

Tschinkel (1987) reported that some of the ant colonies housed from 9,000 to 10,000 workers and were from 7 to 9 years old.

Harvester ant (Messor) - native

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Head  view of harvestor ant (Messor andrei) specimen CASENT0005728 collected by P.S. Ward. Copyright, 2000-2009.

Ant Family (Formicidae)

The nests of harvester ants can be identified by the seed chaff that litters the entrances (Ward 2005a).

Harvester Ants (Ants in the Genus Messor):

Occupy open, dry habitats.

Harvester Ant Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Ants in the genus Messor are granivorous or seed eating ants that occupy open, dry habitats. (Ward 2005a).
  • Harvester ants can affect the distribution of plants by removing and/or dispersing seeds.

Fun Facts About Harvester Ants

bulletMessor andrei is endemic to California and Baja California (California Academy of Sciences 2002-2010).

Funnel Ant (Aphaenogaster occidentalis) - native

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Profile ant Aphaenogaster occidentalis specimen casent0005725. © / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

Ant Family (Formicidae)

Funnel Ant:

bulletIs widespread in moister habitats in California.

bulletIs an omnivore scavinger that nests in the ground.

bulletHas been documented at Bodega Marine Reserve (Ward 2003; Ward 2005b), Salt Point State Park and at Mount Tamalpais State Park (CDFA 2010).

Western black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus) - native

Western black-legged tick

Western black-legged tick, Ixodes pacificus. Photo by James Gathany, courtesy of Department of Public Health, CDC.

Hard Tick Family (Ixoididae)

Larvae have six legs and both nymph and adult have eight legs.

Western Black-Legged Tick:

bulletOccurs in the western U.S. and British Columbia.

bulletAre present in many habitats including yards in all but two counties in California; they can be found in coastal prairies and care should be taken to avoid them.

Western Black-Legged Tick Ecology

bulletLife History: Western black-legged ticks are “three-host ticks” meaning that they find a new host to feed on for each of their three life stages: larval, nymph, and adult (Vredevoe 1997a). Each stage typically lasts a year and ends with a dormant period (CDCP 2010).

bulletSpecies Interactions:The larvae and nymphs feed on lizards and small rodents; adults feed on large mammals and humans. Only one blood-meal is taken at each stage (Vredevoe 1997b).

grassy hilltops

Life cycle of the three-host tick. Courtesy of DPDx website, Center for Disease Control.

Fun (and Not So Fun) Facts About Western Black-Legged Ticks

bulletTicks find their hosts by “questing” (Vredevoe 1997a). They crawl up grass stems or perch on leaves, typically along the edges of trails, and wait for a passing animal to brush by. Ticks do not jump or leap, but grasp with their front legs. 

bulletWestern black-legged ticks carry two tick-borne diseases: Lyme disease spirochete (a corkscrew shaped bacteria) and anaplasmosis (caused by the bacterium Anaplasma phagocytophilum). Ticks that carry Lyme disease are found in all but two counties in California (California Department of Health Services 2005). They acquire Lyme disease spirochetes by sucking them up as they feed on an animal carrying the disease; the spirochetes multiply inside the tick and they can then transfer them to the next animal they feed on (CALDA n.d.).

bulletThe Center for Disease Control has lots of on-line information on preventing and treating Lyme disease, including a Lyme disease toolkit with printable brochures, fact sheets, radio sound bites, Lyme disease prevention for kids, and a widget you can add to your webpage.

bulletThere are two more tick species in California that can transmit disease to humans:

  • The American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), can carry the bacterium that causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever (Rickettsia rickettsii) andthe baterium that causes tularemia (caused by the Francisella tularensis bacterium), both potentially life-threatening diseases (Center for Disease Control & Prevention 2010).
  • The brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), which can carry Rocky Mountain spotted fever (Center for Disease Control & Prevention 2010).