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Hiking highs

Pacific Treefrog, Hyla regilla, (c) Andrew Gray

Over the weekend I was hiking trails by Mount Pilchuck in the Northern Cascade Mountain Range, near Seattle. It is one of the wettest places in the area, receiving 100-180 inches of precipitation per year – Manchester UK averages 32 inches, so I am sure you get the idea! 🙂

The wet conditions coupled with deep winter snows results in plant communities and ecological zones occurring at lower elevations here than in surrounding areas. My main hike was to experience the Ashland Lakes, where I hoped to come across some of the local amphibians and reptiles of the area.

Western Toad, Bufo boreas, (c) Andrew Gray


It was an amazing hike through pacific silver fir trees covered in moss and western red cedar trees that were more than 300 years old. The trail also took me through carpets of bright green sphagnum moss, where I saw carnivorous plants and orchids, it was wonderful.



Arriving at the first beautiful lake, I was lucky enough to come across some highly camouflaged young Pacific Tree Frogs, Hyla regilla, that had just fully metamorphosed – perfect timing! To my delight, I also found a beautiful Western Toad, Bufo boreas, one of the few toads I’ve come across active during the day. Arriving at the 3rd lake, I had a further surprise in store….



Sizing-up Salamanders

North American salamanders are plentiful, and come in a wide variety of colours and sizes. About 50 different species are known to occur in California alone, and today I found several whilst searching an ancient redwood forest and also a stream bed within a beautiful canyon. The first species I came across was an Ensatina (above right), found within an incredible forest that contained what must be the tallest trees I have ever seen, giant redwoods, some measuring up to 300 ft tall!

Continuing north, driving to a place I had been told was great for herps, I arrived to a scene that took my breath away even more than the giant trees had. It was a tall but narrow canyon off the beaten track, completely covered in ferns. Water dripped down all sides and a clear steam flowed through. I started searching immediately, turning flat stones within the shallow stream bed. Unusual salamander larvae were hiding beneath – I was in heaven!

Unfortunately salamander larvae are notoriously difficult to identify and I didn’t have my books with me today for keying out specimens. I am not so familiar with some of the larvae of species in this area, but I think I now know what these salamanders were.

The sound is not great because of the running stream, but my question still stands in the following video – can you identify what salamanders these are? Clue’s in the title!


More pictures of the specimen HERE

Art Unabridged

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge spells the end of my time in San Francisco and the start of my journey North to Seattle. I leave behind a great city, full of culture and art, but I am so looking forward to the next part of my journey which promises the inspirational wonders only nature can bring.

Rugged coastlines, giant redwood forests, and (hopefully) an abundance of wildlife awaits, but here is just some of the art I have experienced in San Francisco, ranging from high to low, the neoclassical Palace of Fine Art to the street corners of Haight-Ashbury.


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San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

If you are interested in art you may like to visit 2 excellent galleries closer to home, the Whitworth Art Gallery on Oxford Rd, and Manchester Art Gallery on Mosley St, both of which are superb.

Whitworth Art Gallery                  Manchester Art Gallery

Monterey Bay

Carmel, sunset (c) Andrew Gray

At the moment I am staying in a little place on the West Coast called Carmel. Its a real gem of a place, known for its stunning coastline, quality living, and its Mayor, Clint Eastwood. Last night’s sunset was special – how I love beautiful sunsets.


Today was a blue sky day and I was at the Monterey Aquarium, 15 minutes away. The exhibits there were superb and outside the Aquarium seals were basking, and a group of sea otters were having a party. It was fabulous. The Aquarium’s huge Ocean exhibit, with hammerheads and schools of tuna was particularly impressive, as was the seahorse gallery. The layout, interpretation, quality of exhibits and animal welfare were probably the best I have ever seen for such an aquarium, and the activities for the children in particular lead the way as far as I am concerned – they even had young kids donning wetsuits and taking them into the bay on an underwater safari!


Here’s is a video clip of some unusual Weedy and Leafy Sea dragons I was enchanted by today which I thought you might be interested to see. Normally difficult to maintain in captivity, these amazing creatures were in large exhibits and were clearly thriving – if you look very closely at the video you will make out that some specimens are even carrying their blue coloured eggs.


  Monterey Bay Aquarium     Weedy and Leafy Sea Dragons    Carmel by the Sea

50 shades of Green

What’s grey all over, but totally green from top to bottom?  – The Californian Academy of Science’s building in Golden Gate Park!  It’s a place I have been itching to visit and I feel very fortunate to have finally had the chance; it was a spectacle to behold.  The building, which also incorporates the Steinhart Aquarium and a Planetarium, was designed to be one of the greenest museums in the world – and it is, and not just from an environmental friendly point of view.

Looking around all the exhibits, I was particularly interested to explore the use of educational interactives and touch screen video screens to enhance the learning experience in the aquarium. However, the highlight of the visit was witnessing the fantastic indoor rainforest which spans 4 floors, from the dark green flooded forest basement exhibit to the emerald tropical rainforest canopy – every shade of greenery in between is all contained within a microclimate controlled, naturally-lit biosphere!

Before leaving I also got the opportunity to go up to the 2.5-acre undulating green roof. Standing on the roof itself feels like your on another planet, but it incorporates the magnifying windows for the rainforest (pictured), sixty-thousand photovoltaic cells to provide electricity from solar energy, and it also absorbs nearly 3.6 million gallons of rainwater per year to help save water. Pretty cool.

The Academy of Sciences itself is an international center for scientific research and is at the forefront of efforts to understand and protect the diversity of Earth’s living things. It has over 50 professional educators and Ph.D.-level scientists, supported by more than 100 Research and Field Associates and over 300 Fellows.  The Academy’s research collections, which are among the World’s largest, include more than 26 million specimens.


         ACADEMY OF SCIENCES                                      GOLDEN GATE PARK

Alumni Talk

Yesterday I met with and delivered a talk for a group of Manchester University Alumni members in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley. The talk had been arranged through the Manchester University Alumni Office and the North American Alumni Coordinator, Rahana Gunawardena (Left).

It was a pleasure for me to represent the University and it certainly provided me with an opportunity to present my nature conservation-orientated talk to a new audience.

I was kindly collected from downtown San Francisco by Shirish Hardikar, and during the drive talk turned to the money associated with Silicon Valley living. I heard of the entrepreneurial successes of start-up companies, from the the early days of “Bill & Dave’s” garage in Palo Alto, where in 1938 they developed the audio oscillator which launched the company that still bears their names – Hewlett Packard.  This strong American ideology of personal graft culminating in capital gain, upon which the Silicon Valley is founded, seems to be integrated into the culture of this area. The venue for my talk was by Apple corporate world headquarters.

Tomorrow I visit The Californian Academy of Sciences, a world-class scientific and cultural institution based in San Francisco. The Academy has opened a new facility in Golden Gate Park, a 400,000 square foot structure that houses an aquarium, a planetarium, a natural history museum, and a 4-story rainforest all under one roof! 🙂

University of Manchester             Your Manchester             Manchester Alumni

British Wildlife Centre

This coming weekend I will be visiting the California Academy of Sciences and giving an international lecture in San Francisco. However, before heading off I needed to ensure a very good home for the young weasel orphan I have been raising – the one that you may have read about in my previous post but 2: An Artist’s W Easel

Well, I knew just the place… The British Wildlife Centre.

The British Wildlife Centre is a very special place that provides people with an opportunity to see and be inspired by our native species and their natural environment. Located near Lingfield in Surrey, the centre maintains over 40 species, all displayed in natural settings. It’s a truly wonderful place.

I had arranged to let the centre have my young male weasel to pair with their young lonely female, Eva. On arriving I was overwhelmed to see how wonderfully the animals were being kept and how happy and healthy they all looked. It was simply amazing to come face to face with some of our rarest british species, some of which I have never even had the opportunity to encounter in the wild. Matt, Head Keeper, kindly showed me the collection, sharing his clear passion and enthusiasm for all. Superb!

Apart from witnessing the clear commitment of the owner and staff to the wellbeing of the animals, it was also extremely heartening to learn of the ethos behind the centre and to hear of all the education work and conservation work associated with it. This includes a wonderful 16 acre wetland nature reserve that has been established, where species richness has increased tenfold and children of all ages engage with nature during special taught sessions.

Before leaving, I had the fortunate opportunity to get close to one of my favourite mustelids, Pine Martens. It was such a cool experience and one I will never forget. I’d like to thank Matt for sharing his time and his passion, and would recommend to all interested in British wildlife to visit the centre. Take my word for it, it is superb.