Pumas, raccoons and snakes, oh my

Diversity of wildlife on campus is unbeatable

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A coyote patrols the UC Santa Cruz campus. (photos by Michael Bolte.)
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A bobcat stalks through the high grass.
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A brightly colored hummingbird enjoys a snack. 

Joe Miller is walking up the narrow Seep Zone Trail on UC Santa Cruz’s upper campus when he suddenly kneels and points to a small, top hat-like shape poking out of the forest duff.

It’s the silk-lined entrance to the den of a California Turret Spider, one of the campus’ most secretive invertebrates. The spider, Miller explains, not only can live for a mind-boggling 16 years but also can molt into a smaller size when food is scarce. It rarely emerges from its den. 

That a student can walk out of a classroom and, in a few minutes, be in the same territory with an enigmatic arachnid, nearly 50 species of mammals, legions of birds, and scores of salamanders, newts and snakes, is what makes UC Santa Cruz unique among most universities, says Miller, who serves as steward of the campus’ 410-acre Natural Reserve.

And while there may be no official ranking for college campuses with the largest amount and diversity of wildlife, Chris Lay, manager of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, guesses Santa Cruz would most likely be one of the top contenders for the as-yet non-existent title.

 “I feel pretty confident,” he says, “that there aren’t many other campuses that have a 361-page book on the natural history of its land.”

Miller — a former bartender, commercial fisherman and ranch hand who got his degree in environmental studies from UC Santa Cruz in 2015 — is carrying the book “The Natural History of the UC Santa Cruz Campus” under his arm as he walks into the redwood and madrone forest of the upper campus.

He talks about the “smart and crafty” raccoons that raid campus trashcans and compost piles, the western and eastern grey squirrels that have trails high in trees, and the Peninsula dusky-footed woodrat whose lodges may include a bedroom, nursery, pantry and latrine.

Pumas (which Miller has only seen via hidden cameras), foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and long-tailed weasels wander the campus at night and in the early morning hours, while California ground squirrels can be seen popping in and out of the openings of their 50- to 200-foot-long meadow burrows most of the day.  The females form matriarchal colonies and share burrows while the solitary males have their own dens nearby.

Squirrels and reptiles — there are 18 reptile species on campus and Miller counts rubber boas and forest sharp-tailed snakes as his favorite — draw raptors like red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, and Peregrine falcons to the site.

Miller recounts how once, as he was riding his bike through the Great Meadow, he witnessed two powerful golden eagles fighting in the dust over a ground squirrel that one had caught.

“You don’t get to see that on most college campuses,” he says.

Lay talks of taking one of his classes to watch a barn owl near the Arboretum, of observing that area’s famous hummingbirds, of hearing the warning cries of tiny bushtits as a Cooper’s Hawk flew overhead. The daring Cooper’s hawk is known for capturing other birds in mid-flight.

“One of the rare things we see on campus is the Empire Cave Spider which is only found in the Cave Gulch area of UC Santa Cruz,” Lay says. Tiny Cave Gulch Pseudoscorpions are also found only on campus, along with the dazzling-green Ohlone Tiger Beetle that is endemic to Santa Cruz County.

There are bats, newts and Pacific giant salamanders which can bite and also prey on UC Santa Cruz’s school mascot, the Banana Slug, whose bright yellow, slimy bodies can be spotted in shady ravines on campus.

Students may come across black-tailed deer as they head to class, hear the skitter of western fence lizards and brilliantly hued skinks as they pass and, sometimes, scent the smelly calling card of a striped skunk. And, if they look around their feet they may see animal tracks, scat, and trails that hint at the presence of the four-legged university dwellers in their midst.

“This campus is so unique, so rare and so beautiful,” Miller says and, with all the chances to observe wildlife, it’s like being in a living laboratory.

In fact, the campus’ diversity of wildlife led to the formation of a student-run Natural History Club, which plans regular explorations in forest and meadow. There are also plenty of internships that put students into contact with wildlife, including the onomatopoeic “Herps on the FERP,” which allows students to do herpetology monitoring on the Forest Ecology Research Plot (FERP).

Find a spot, sit still and watch. Promises Miller: “You’ll find things you never thought you’d see.”

 SOME RULES FOR NATURE WATCHING:

  1. Be patient. Sit in one spot for a length of time and watch the behaviors of the wildlife you see.
  2. Be quiet. Noise and loud talking will cause some animals to take cover.
  3. Listen. A rustle in the bushes or birdcall will alert you to life nearby.
  4. Check the time. Early morning and evening hours are often the best time to spot wildlife.
  5. Narrow your focus. Stop and look out a few feet from where you stand. You may be amazed at the life you see.
  6. Make observations about what you see. What is the animal doing? How is it acting? What is the habitat around it?
  7. Do not touch or approach wildlife — for your safety and theirs.