Critters Alice Never Met in Wonderland

California is blessed with a peculiar wildlife. Well, was, as so may species were hunted to extinction, but those who have managed to survive one way or another, today can benefit from a number of lovely conservation projects.

The banana slug

Banana slugs rely on the Pacific coastal rainforest to live, so the problem of banana slugs is mostly the loss of habitat. But a few fragments of Pacific coastal rainforest still survive, thanks to pioneering conservationists like John Muir, the good people of the Save the Redwoods League, national and state parks and assorted activists, so if you care to travel to those fragments, you can maybe see I banana slug.

A banana slug is huge and bright yellow, but sometimes green with black splotches, and the ones I saw in the Humboldt county, around my cabin, were the ripe version.

The Tule elk

The Tule elk was actually hunted to extinction in the wild, but a few individuals (less than 100) remained in private ranchs and the species is currently being reintroduced. A nice herd is living in Point Reyes National Seashore, where their ancestors used to live and graze, right on the St. Andrea’s Fault Zone.

The Tule elk is basically a wapiti, so that you know.

The sea hare

The California sea hare is a magnificent mollusk which can weight up to 7 Kg and releases purple ink when disturbed. I don’t know about its status (CITES does not list it), but considering this and the fact that it’s a laboratory animal, I guess life is not easy for sea hares nowadays, except in a few places like Elkhorn Slough in  Moss Landing. The reserve is a tidal wetland in Monterey Bay, which features a number of restoration projects. You can spot sea hares fairly easily while you’re kayaking the slough.

The sand dollar

Another creature I met in the slough. If you pick one up, it will start to crawl on your hand with its velvety cilia. You can make friends with a sand dollar by putting it back into the water where you found it.

The California condor

Hunted to near extinction, either shot dead or poisoned by lead pollution (particularly from discarded ammunition), with a scattered, fragile, non-viable population remaining in the wild at the end of the Eighties, the California condor was saved by a recovery plan that involved the capture of all remaining individuals (22) for a captive breeding program, followed by a strategical re-release in California, Arizona and Mexico. There are currently 60 free flying condors in central California, good observation spots in Big Sur. I wasn’t able to spot a condor in Big Sur, but I saw the turkey vulture, which is another cool bird.

The Western sand piper

Sand pipers occour worldwide, but the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, an amazing place along Highway 1, one mile north of Huntington, is home to a flock of hundreds of the tiniest sand pipers I have ever seen. Bolsa Chica is a restored wetland, only a small remnant of native coastal California, but still a fabulous place.

The reddish egret

A rare sighting in California, but the first critter I was able to spot when I arrived in Bolsa Chica. The last one before leaving was a dolphin.

The California sea otter

Sea otters are, of course, brilliant and cumberbatchy. Hunted to near extinction, they were believed to be extinct before a small population of 50 individuals was found in Big Sur during road construction in 1938. Since then it has kind of bounced back to about 3 thousand, which is not encouraging (also considering the small genetic pool). Three days kayaking Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and I was able to observe only one mom and pup. For now, we can still benefit from the existence of the sea otter, which is predator to the predators of the kelp forest, so the kelp forest thrives when sea otters are around, fishes thrive in the kelp forest etc., while sea otters secure themselves rolling into the kelp before going to sleep, so they won’t be carried away by the waves. A sea otter is also the cutest thing. They can use tools, save tools and bits of food in folds they make in their fur, and they spend their entire life at sea, mother otter floating on her back while hugging the pup safe to her belly.

If you are in California, go out and see the critters, but watch out for poison oak or you’ll get a rash. If you are somewhere else, you can google the critters. Here is a photo of poison oak, taken in Point Lobos State Reserve.