After scouting out a couple of locations on Day 1 of our time in San Francisco for the 2014 National Geographic BioBlitz, Neil Losin and I were on a mission to photograph as many species as possible before the event actually began. We knew that we could find lots of great subjects back at Tennessee Valley, but on our way there, we decided to stop at Fort Point, just beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, to search for the San Francisco Fork-tail Damselfly (Ischnura gemina). This beautiful little insect is a rare, locally endemic species that can reliably be found in grassy ditches near the Fort Point parking area. Though it was a bit early in the spring, we had high hopes of finding an adult damselfly. Sadly, we had no such luck. However, while we were there I became rather obsessed with making a photograph of one of the many bumble bees in flight in front of the bridge and of course, MYN portraits of some of the species. After a few hours of this, and a bit of success, we moved on to Tennessee Valley.
As expected, this area was a goldmine of subject matter for us both. We began by finding what would be the first of many California Slender Salamanders (Batrachoseps attenuatus). These fascinating, rather quirky Plethdodontid (or lungless) salamanders are equipped with extremely long tails and very tiny legs and feet. Adorable, yes, but these adaptions allow the small amphibians to move easily through the moist leaf-litter that they inhabit. A study published in 2013 suggests that rather being a single widespread species, B. attenuatus is actually a group comprising 39 species or more! We don’t know which of these provisional species our finds in Tennessee Valley represent, so we’re going to have to call it B. attenuatus for now!
From the outset, we had one species that we wanted to discover above all others: Aneides lugubris, the Aboreal Salamander. Its eastern relative, Green Salamander (Aneides aeneus), has fascinated me for years, so the chance to see a western cousin was a real thrill. Couple this with the fact that the Arboreal Salamander has teeth (you read that correctly) and I was hooked! Well, as luck would have it, about an hour into our shoot, Neil rolled over a log and found what we were looking for! I was tempted to do a cartwheel but previous experience told me that this wasn’t a good plan. However, we were definitely both in a celebratory mood, to say the least!
This fascinating animal showed no signs of aggression towards either of us. However, its powerful jaw muscles definitely hinted that if it decided to bite, it would do the job well. To residents of California who are familiar with this species, our excitement might seem silly, but there is something very satisfying about setting your sights on a target and finding it, particularly early in a trip.
This special species wasn’t the only cool thing we found at Tennessee Valley that morning. We also discovered a Coast Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans terrestris), some cool centipedes (including one guarding a clutch of eggs), a nice Eumininae wasp, and several other nice invertebrates. What a way to start off Day 2!
After lunch, we traveled back towards the city to the meet up with National Park Service botanist Tanya Baxter at the Marin Headlands. Tanya had graciously agreed to help us locate some very special plants that were unique to the area. Marin County has an interesting blend of different habitat types, which makes it possible for a diverse spectrum of plant and animal life to co-exist there.
Up in the Marin Headlands, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge we had the privilege of finding some of the special plants of the area. We photographed several species of breathtaking wildflowers, including the Franciscan Paintbrush (Castilleja subinclusa ssp. franciscana), Blue Dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) and the Silver Lupine (Lupinus albifrons), which is a larval food source of the federally protected Mission Blue Butterfly (Aricia icarioides missionensis). We photographed in the headlands until after sunset, when the Golden Gate Bridge was aglow with lights of passing cars. What an incredible end to the day!