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 same 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.
ID’ing 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.