DEAR JOAN: Can you identify this reptile for us? I'm not sure if it's a snake or a skink. My wife accidentally killed one a few weeks ago when she was digging in the garden.

Shortly after that, early in the morning, I discovered another one under a bucket on the cold backyard concrete. As I placed it in my hand to move it to the garden, it warmed and started to move, so I quickly moved it to a safer area in the garden.

It is silverish, maybe a little brown on top, about 10 to 12 inches in length and about the size of a slightly fat pencil.

Sharp-tailed snakes are shy creatures that prefer cool places. They also eat a lot of slugs and snails, making them a good garden partner.Courtesy of Tracy
Sharp-tailed snakes are shy creatures that prefer cool places. They also eat a lot of slugs and snails, making them a good garden partner. Courtesy of Tracy and Lisa Woodard ( Tracy and Lisa Woodard )

Oddly, we are surrounded on two sides by a street, another side by a 3-foot-high retaining wall and on the fourth side a 5-foot-high retaining wall. We have had skunks, possums, raccoons and snakes in our yard. Coyotes and deer walk the street, and we are at least a half mile from wilderness area yet the wilderness abounds.

Tracy and Lisa Woodard

Martinez

DEAR TRACY AND LISA: What you have is definitely a snake, not a skink. Skinks look more like lizards and have four legs. I contacted my new best friend, naturalist Michael Marchiano, who says he is 99 percent certain that what you found is a sharp-tailed snake.

He could be 100 percent sure if the photo included the head and tail, but that's pretty certain.

The sharp-tails are harmless although slugs and snails would disagree -- they make up the sharp-tail's main diet, making it a very handy guest in the garden.

The snake gets its name -- sharp-tail -- from a spine on the end of its tail. The spine contains no venom; the snake uses it to hold its prey in place while being eaten. Kind of disgusting but extremely useful.

Marchiano says sharp-tails range in color from reddish brown to olive, and are one of the few snakes you'll see from fall through spring. Unlike most snakes, they don't really like the heat. During the summer, they keep cool underground or in damp places.

Every gardener should encourage these shy, helpful snakes in their gardens by eliminating or limiting the use of poisons.

DEAR JOAN: I have a special interest in the effort to restore the Mount Diablo beacon. Frank A. Johnson, my grandfather, worked for the state of California, and I remember hearing stories as a child of his work on Mount Diablo. One time he was called to determine required repairs to the leaking summit building.

Martinez’ Mother Beaver works on the family’s home. The female has given birth to a new kit.Cheryl Reynolds/Worth a Dam
Martinez' Mother Beaver works on the family's home. The female has given birth to a new kit. Cheryl Reynolds/Worth a Dam (Cheryl Reynolds)

We can see the beacon from our house in Los Gatos when it is turned on Dec. 7 each year, the date it was turned off in an effort to keep California dark after the Pearl Harbor attack.

John Lien

Los Gatos

DEAR JOHN: The beacon seems to have a special place in a lot of hearts, but how great that you have such a personal one. The drive to collect $100,000 for the restoration of the beacon by Save Mount Diablo is continuing. In addition to a $50,000 challenge pledge by the Dean and Margaret Lesher Foundation, folks such as yourself have so far contributed $4,635. Still a ways to go, but my thanks to everyone who has given from all across the Bay Area.

Please join me in helping to keep the light burning by sending your tax-deductible donations to Save Mount Diablo -- Friends of Joan/Beacon, 1901 Olympic Blvd. Suite 320, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.

Martinez beavers

Heidi Perryman of Worth a Dam reports that the Martinez beaver family has a new kit, the earliest that one has been seen.

Joan Morris' column runs five days a week in print and online. Contact her at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com; or P.O. Box 8099, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.