For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the local nature of my home in Central California. The region between the Mendocino Coast and San Luis Obispo strikes me as one of the most diverse places in California – it has nearly every imaginable kind of habitat for this part of the world: desert hills, prairies, mountain forests, serpentine barrens, rugged coasts, redwood groves, oak woodlands, chaparral, and so much more that the list just goes on and on. Of course, with this diversity comes a range of rare and threatened wildlife. While Central California may have lost its most “iconic” endangered species such as Wolves and Grizzlies, the variety and richness of its wildlife community continues to amaze and intrigue me, even though I’ve been nearly everywhere in the region, and throws in a surprise every time.
North Coast Ranges:
Central Coast Ranges:
One of the most naturally gifted regions of California, this region seems to just have it all – world class scenery, gorgeous coastlines, rich marine communities, rugged mountains, rare wildlife, and a huge number of ecosystems. Its waters teem with a variety of whales, recovering from near extinction, including Blue, Gray, and Humpback Whales. Joining these gentle giants is a parade of dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and the adorable sea otters. Climbing ashore, you arrive in the imposing Santa Lucia Mountains. This magnificent range frames one of the most scenic coastlines on Earth – Big Sur. While most tourists rarely stray from the well-beaten path of the famous State Route 1, there is much more to be discovered. Beyond the narrow coastal zone lies steep and wild mountains, a hiker’s paradise, and naturalist’s dream. Perhaps my favorite area here has to be Cone Peak. Cone Peak is a rugged mountain of ancient metamorphic rock that boasts some of the highest altitudinal change on Earth. It rises from Sea Level to over 5,000 feet in a matter of a few miles – greater than the elevation change on Mt Whitney! But it’s far more than the geology that keeps me coming back. This area boasts one of the most diverse and unique plant communities in California and Cone Peak is the best place to enjoy it – observe rare Manzanitas, disjunct populations of Sugar Pines, and best of all – the endemic Santa Lucia Fir, Abies bracteata, on the route to Trail Spring Camp. Big Sur also has a diverse animal community, but unfortunately, most of it is quite elusive and prefers to stay away from man – nonetheless, wilderness icons including Mountain Lions, Black Bears, and Tule Elk eke out a rough living in the remote lands of the Ventana. Big Sur does have one more success story though – the California Condor. Once at the point of almost Extinct in the Wild, these majestic birds have made a surging comeback and have recovered successfully, now often seen and common in Big Sur – symbolic of this land and its wilderness.
Further inland, things change drastically though. In the East of San Benito County lies the Panoche, a vast, flat expanse of shortgrass prairie and rolling, golden desert hills. This area shelters a unique fauna that is also sadly under threat, not just due to invasive species, but also due to a proposed Solar project – please try to rally support against this! The plains of the valley are home to a wide array of wonderful creatures – beautiful Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizards, colorful California Tiger Salamanders. comical Giant Kangaroo Rats, fierce American Badgers, and adorable San Joaquin Kit Foxes. There are also San Joaquin Antelope Squirrels, Tulare Grasshopper Mice, Mountain Bluebirds, Merlins, and Fresno Kangaroo Rats. I have actually observed a San Joaquin Kit Fox in this valley, a pretty amazing sighting (a highlight of my CA wildlife viewing exploits) and one I feel lucky to have experienced (few ever have). Its hills shelter rare desert lizards and rare plant communities looking rather out of place in this part of California, with their junipers, yuccas, sagebrush, alkali scrub, and mormon tea. There is even a large expanse of desert sand dunes, the Monvero Dunes, home to the endemic Ciervo Aegilian Dune Beetle and the pretty Pinoche Creek (sic) Gypsum Loving Delphinium, which is endemic to the slopes surrounding Silver Creek and Jackass Pass. One of the region’s most famous centerpieces are the spectacular bird migrations in the winter, consisting of threatened species including Mountain Plovers, Burrowing Owls, Prairie Falcons, Ferruginous Hawks, and Golden Eagles! I have made several trips to observe these birds in the ideal season. Further south of the valley and hills, you enter the Vallecitos, a syncline, or downward fold in rock strata. Nearby, watch for interesting tafoni rock formations and conglomerates – this region has a very unique geology. The Vallecitos is very similar to the Panoche is home to a range of similar fauna – Kit Foxes, Kangaroo Rats, and more are all common, but are joined by a more typical Diablo Range set of fauna: Badgers, Coyotes, Bobcats, Deer, and more occur here too. Heading south of the jumble of desert hills, prairies, and valleys, you enter into the high Diablo Range.