Must be lizard season.
Two people have shared recent lizard encounters with me: one was found in a cabin near Powers and one was found in the dunes.
Both encounters were with northwestern fence lizards — our local member of the six subspecies of western fence lizards — and both lizards appeared to be female.
Adult male northwestern fence lizards have lines of speckled browns and blacks on their topside, and have bright blue or blue-green patches along the sides of their bellies and, usually, on their throats. Males show off the blue to declare territory and attract females by flattening their sides and puffing out their throats while bobbing their heads and doing push-ups.
Female fence lizards have very little or no blue underneath, and the lines of speckled browns down both sides of the back usually show a pattern of short bars or crescents.
While some of our local lizards are sleek and smooth, fence lizards are not. A key characteristic of fence lizards are the strongly “keeled” scales: each scale has a pronounced ridge running its length, down the middle. In the fence lizard’s case the keel extends in a sharp point off the trailing edge of the scale. These keeled scales give fence lizards an overall slightly bristly appearance and make them rough to the touch.
Both male and female fence lizards are territorial, and both display by head-bobbing and push-ups, and by marking with scent. The males are more aggressive, actively defending their territories through combat.
After mating, females will lay 8 to 9 eggs in each of one to three clutches in late spring through early to mid-summer, burying them in loose soil in a protected spot. The eggs usually hatch about two months after being laid. Newborn western fence lizards are about an inch long, but can grow up to nearly 8 inches nose-to-tail-tip during their lifetime.
Fence lizards slow down and hide out in winter, hibernating in very cold areas. They’ll mate and lay eggs beginning their second year.
Fence lizards are excellent climbers, using their long, sharply-clawed toes to adeptly scramble up sheer surfaces.
Fence lizards hunt and eat mostly small terrestrial arthropods, such as spiders, scorpions, ticks, crickets, beetles, and such. Fence lizards are prey, too: snakes, birds, shrews, and other lizards dine on them.
As with some other lizards, fence lizards can cast off their tails to distract would-be predators. Even detached, the tail writhes and twitches for several minutes, drawing attention while the tail’s previous owner escapes. The stub eventually grows a replacement tail.
Like most land vertebrates, lizards can host ticks. Fence lizards that acquire ticks can be a benefit to the other species, though: According to the California Academy of Sciences, the bacteria inside the ticks that cause Lyme disease are killed by certain proteins in the lizards’ blood, so ticks that feed on fence lizards are no longer carriers.
Why “fence” lizard? Fence lizards prefer open, sunny spaces where they can climb up on rocks, logs, stumps, or, yes, fence posts, to sun themselves or to claim territory and display.
The fence lizards’ penchant for hanging out in very visible spots make them more vulnerable to predation than if they were more secretive — but, happily for us, it also makes them easier for humans to see and watch.