**This post is a part of the Wild Davis course at UC Davis in which students must complete three timed observations of an urban habitat within the UC Davis campus or Davis city limits. As an instructor for this course, I joined the students in this exercise in order to provide a public example of the types of work the students do in this class. For more information on the course, you can follow #wilddavis on Instagram and Twitter, and check back here for more posts throughout the quarter!**
I choose to do my timed observations at the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer, a 38-acre habitat corridor and walking trail located in north Davis conveniently near to my house. The buffer provides natural space around and between housing developments, the Wildhorse golf club, and the agricultural fields that abut town. In particular, it is sensitive habitat for a colony of burrowing owls, which I very much want to see. Since I have walked this path before, I know there is a small bench near the strip of burrowing owl habitat (or at least near the sign that says this is the area) where the path takes a left turn around the golf course and I choose this spot for my observations. The morning observations are supposed to occur between 6 and 8 am, and I get to my bench at about 6:15 on Tuesday morning.
It is cold this morning – just cold enough that I can see my breath – and damp from a fog that is rising. I bundled up for the bike ride to the buffer – having moved here from Hawai’i, I am not at all metabolically prepared for sitting on a stone bench on a chilly morning. I’m wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, gloves, earmuffs, and two pairs of sweatpants; and I brought a thermos of hot coffee. Even through two pairs of sweatpants, the stone bench is too cold to sit on for long, so I meander around this section of the path.
From my bench, I can see quite a bit of the path, which was mostly empty this early on a cold weekday morning, though I did see 6 people either walking or jogging the path during my observation. I can see the Wildhorse housing development in the distance and the rolling hills of what I’m pretty sure is Hole 4 of the golf course. Behind me is a small patch of meadow, bordered by a wire fence that marks the edge of the buffer, and beyond that, an orchard. I can smell the smoke of a fireplace, and I can hear distant traffic and the mower and leaf blowers of a lawn crew in the golf course. A couple times I hear the whistle of a train a ways off.
Once the lawn crew moves on, I hear the sparrows twittering to each other as they flit around the bushes. They are the busiest little bees this early in the morning, as it is too early for the actual bees. They will come near to me if I stand still, but even just a turn of my head sends them clamoring back to the safety of the redbuds. My spot is mostly grassy, but there are a few lilac bushes (in full bloom), a few redbud trees (mostly free of their buds now and just leafy green), and a few oak trees sporting some wasp galls. I notice that one of the redbud trees has green flagging ribbon tied to one branch, and two of the oak trees and a lilac bush have yellow flags planted at their bases. I wonder what these flags mean – perhaps the oak trees are under observation for their galls, although I see nothing unusual about the lilac bush and redbud tree that are also flagged.
As I biked in, I flushed a few rabbits from the path, but I see none in my area throughout the observation. I do see a hawk, being harried out of the golf course by a gull that repeatedly divebombs the hawk, even after it has fled to the orchard. The hawk forages for a bit in the orchard until the gull leaves and then makes his way back over the golf course. I see him going back and forth between the two, suggesting his hunting is easier in the managed landscapes than in the overgrown cover of the buffer. No wonder the bunnies and the sparrows like it here.
Most of the people I see along the path come after the sun has just risen, a little before 7 am. They all say good morning, and one woman stops to chat about the weather. I wonder what they think of my presence here – I know how odd I must look. Given my cruiser bicycle, my thermos of coffee, my bulky double sweatpants (the outer pair of which are my husband’s plaid flannel sleep pants), and my note taking, I am clearly not here for exercise as they all are. Every person I see is white, and I wonder if they would smile and greet me if, instead of a 30-something white woman in oversize sweatpants and hoodie loitering about a back section of the path, I was a black teenager doing the exact same thing. To my knowledge, Davis is a safe town for everyone, but I wonder anyway. I am reminded of an essay by Evelyn White titled Black Women and the Wilderness, in which she fears the danger of being in the wild – not the fear of accidents or wild animals, but the fear of other humans and what they might do when you are out alone in the wilderness. I feel safe in this corner of the buffer, alone with the sparrows, as I have felt safe in most natural places all my life, and I wonder how much of that feeling is the privilege of being white.
“While the river’s roar gave me a certain comfort and my heart warmed when I gazed at the sun-dappled trees out of a classroom window, I didn’t want to get closer. I was certain that if I ventured outside to admire a meadow or to feel the cool ripples in a stream, I’d be taunted, attacked, raped, maybe even murdered because of the color of my skin.” ~Evelyn White
I finish my coffee just as my 45 minutes is up. As I bike back out of the buffer zone, a barn owl takes flight from the meadow to my right. For one instant, I think it is a burrowing owl and I get excited – but it is a barn owl, though I like them, too. I hear an unusual bird call from a tree near the trail’s entrance. I don’t recognize it, and I can’t seem to find the bird that is making it, despite the fact that the tree doesn’t have that many leaves. I’m reminded of another essay, this one by Annie Dillard, titled “Seeing” and found in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “Specialists can find the most incredibly well-hidden things,” she states, separating her ability at ‘seeing’ from that of the ‘specialists’. I keep meaning to mention this essay to the students in the Wild Davis course – don’t worry if you’re not good at seeing things right away (or ever), even ‘specialists’ struggle. I record the call so I can try to ID it later.
“I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions. Finally I asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.” ~Annie Dillard
Tomorrow afternoon, I’ll get to hear about the students observations. We let them choose a place without any oversight, so I have no idea what types of locations they have chosen. I hope they saw, heard, smelled, felt something interesting. I hope they felt safe alone there at dawn. I hope they avoided distracting themselves with technology (as I did, mostly, with the exception of taking some photos). I hope their choices reflect the variety of habitats in and around the UCD campus. I hope each student’s experience is unique in some way and that they value sharing it with their classmates (and hearing about their classmates’ experiences). I hope they enjoyed it and that they saw whatever habitat they chose in a way they hadn’t seen it before.