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How to spot North Bay newts on the move

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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.

Breeding season

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 rain storms 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 percent of animals trying to cross,” Gale said. “I want to do better than that.”

How to handle newts

If you do find a newt, please follow a few simple guidelines in handling them, for their protection — and yours.

First, although they also have lungs, newts breathe through their skin, so make sure your hands are wet and free of sunscreen, insect repellent or hand sanitizer. Dry hands and chemicals can harm the delicate permeability of their skin.

Hold the animal close to the ground. As slow moving and rubbery as it appears, a newt can get injured if dropped.

Always put the newt back where you found it, and rinse your hands in water.

Finally, never kiss, lick or swallow a newt!

The skin of our Pacific newts contains a potent toxin called tetrodotoxin or TTX, the same toxin found in puffer fish. TTX is a highly effective deterrent to predators, which is probably why newts can afford such a laid back, slow-moving lifestyle.

Fortunately for nature lovers, simply rinsing your hands with water before handling food is considered a sufficient precaution.

“To the best of my knowledge, there are no known cases of people becoming seriously ill handling newts,” said Marin County biologist David Herlocker. “That includes those of us who work with newts and have handled thousands.”

To see newts

For a self-guided newt walk, visit the Environmental Discovery Center at Spring Lake Regional Park and ask for directions to the frog pond.

During its public season in spring and summer, nature guides at the Martin Griffin Preserve on Bolinas Lagoon can help you explore the Preserve’s ponds. Find out when they’re open at www.egret.org or by calling 415-868-9244.

Docent-led Guided Nature Walks at the Bouverie Preserve near Glen Ellen will be held on March 14, April 18 and May 2. Email Nancy.trbovich@egret.org or call 415.868.9244, ext. 306. Unscheduled self-guided hiking is not allowed at the preserve.

Another spot is the Ledson Marsh in Trione-Annadel State Park. To get there, take the Lawndale Trail to the Marsh Trail from the Lawndale Road parking area. Or you can take the Warren Richardson Trail to the Two Quarry Trail and then the Marsh Trail from Channel Drive. A naturalist-led hike is planned for 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Feb. 15, leaving from Channel Drive..

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