How to spot North Bay newts on the move
Holding a newt is one of the most sought-after wildlife encounters among the North Bay’s elementary school set. Each year, thousands of school kids eagerly await their field trip to one of our regional newt hotspots - Stuart Creek at Bouverie Preserve, the Frog Pond at Spring Lake Regional Park, Ledson Marsh at Trione-Annadel State Park and Martin Griffin Preserve on Bolinas Lagoon, to name a few.
It’s no wonder kids warm to these tiny cold-blooded critters. Unlike other wildlife their size, newts are eminently watchable. They don’t run or fly away, bite, scratch or sting. They don’t slime you with mucus like a banana slug, smear you in musk like a garter snake or pee on you like a toad.
You don’t have to be a kid, however, for a newt to steal your heart.
“Newts are so sweet, and soft and ?innocent-looking,” said Sally Gale of Chileno Valley in Marin County.
Others likely feel the same way. The volunteer Chileno Valley Newt Brigade Gale founded last year brought out dozens of volunteers who showed up at night to help the little amphibians cross the road to their breeding site, instead of ending up as roadkill.
What’s a newt?
Newts are a type of salamander characterized by relatively rough skin (all newts are salamanders, but not all salamanders are newts). Like all salamanders, frogs and toads, newts are ?amphibians. They spend the first part of their lives as aquatic larvae, then metamorphose into terrestrial adults that return to the body of water where they hatched in order to breed.
Sonoma County is home to three of the four newt species found in California. Collectively known as the Pacific Newts, our local species include the red-bellied newt, the California (or “coastal”) newt and the rough-skinned newt. As adults, they have similar features: four toes on their front feet and five on rear feet; legs held at right angles to their bodies, giving them an adorable, plodding gait and a two-toned body that’s brown to black on top and yellow to red underneath.
Spotting local newts
The aptly named red-bellied newt is perhaps the easiest to identify. Its deep tomato-hued belly and fully black soulful eyes set it apart from the other two. Red-bellied males, and some females, also have a distinct black stripe below their vent, the opening at the base of the tail.
Red-bellied newts breed in relatively fast-moving streams and prefer shady north-facing slopes for the terrestrial periods of their lives. Redwood forests are a favored upland habitat.
Rough-skinned and California newts prefer to breed in ponds or the pools of slower-moving streams. These two often appear in the same habitat and so are a bit tricky to tell apart, especially when they are small. Both have patches of yellow in their irises (unlike the doe-eyed red-bellies), but California newts have light-colored eyelids and, seen from above, their eyes appear to bug out to the sides.
On the other hand, the eyes of rough-skinned newts are surrounded by the darker skin of their backs and are more streamlined in profile. While all three Pacific newts typically return to their terrestrial lifestyle after breeding, some rough-skinned newts may stay in the water, making them somewhat more easy to find year-round.
It’s peak breeding season now for California and rough-skinned newts (the red-bellies typically wait until March and April, after creeks have subsided). That means now is a good time to find them (see sidebar on “Where to Look”).
The males arrive first to await the females. At newt ponds, you may see newts that appear to be stacked on one another, or in a rugby-like scrum called a newt ball. Males are jockeying into position to find the females. Once he has her in his clutches, a male newt will lay his chin upon the female’s head, transferring an “appeasement” chemical that induces her to choose him. It’s easy to spot the relatively large egg masses of the California newt in the shallow areas near the edges of ponds. Slightly smaller than a golf ball, California newt egg masses are firm to the touch and contain between 7 and 47 eggs. Within a week, the spherical eggs in the newt “golf ball” become crescent-shaped; by 20 days, the crescents have transformed into tiny larvae wriggling to free themselves into the water.
Threats to newts
Red-bellied and California newts are endemic to California - they evolved here and are restricted to the state. Of the two, the red-bellies have the most restricted range, appearing in only four counties (Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt).
According to herpetologist Dave Cook with the Sonoma County Water Agency, the red-bellied newts here and California newts in Southern California are considered species of special concern, because of their restricted range and pressure from human development. In Sonoma County, one worry for newts is the conversion of their habitat to vineyards and subdivisions.
Cook, who has been studying newts at Ledson Marsh in Trione-Annadel State Park for more than two decades, noted that all amphibians are especially sensitive to habitat pressure.
“It’s because they rely on both aquatic and upland habitats for their lifecycle,” he said. “If either one is threatened, you’ll see a signal run through that population.”
Another threat comes in the form of cars, especially at night and during rainstorms in breeding season. If a road comes between migrating newts and their pond, the roadkill carnage can be significant.
One such spot is Chileno Valley Road in Marin County. The road separates upland newt habitat from Laguna Lake, a favorite newt breeding ground.
Enter Gale’s Newt Brigade. After attending trainings last fall, volunteers have been coming out in small groups, most at night, since Dec. 1 to gently move the animals out of harm’s way and collect data. Observations are uploaded on iNaturalist (search for Chileno Valley Newt Brigade under “projects” at iNaturalist.org). The Brigade also has its own Facebook page.
Gale is hopeful their efforts will highlight the need for more wildlife crossings, such as tunnels, found in other parts of the state.
“Those features are considered a success if they save 50% of animals trying to cross,” Gale said. “I want to do better than that.”