Laci M. Gerhart Barley

Home » Teaching at UC Davis » Wild Davis III: Evening Observations

Wild Davis III: Evening Observations

*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 read about my morning and mid-day observations, follow #wilddavis on Instagram and Twitter, and check out my posts on our in-class activities!*

The students’ evening observations are to occur near dusk, sometime between 6 and 8 pm, in the same location as their morning and mid-day observations. One of the goals of this exercise is to illustrate how variable a single location can be in activity level, diversity of organisms, etc throughout the diurnal period. They have now followed their chosen location from dawn, through noon, and into evening (we don’t ask them to do a mid-night observation, although that would also be interesting!). I completed my evening observation at the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer earlier this week and this afternoon in class the students will discuss their experiences at their own locations.

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The stream

I want to be present for sunset, which is at the very end of our observation window, so I bike out to the spot about 7:15 pm. It is still fairly warm when I leave the house, and I have just been on the treadmill for an hour, so the cool breeze feels refreshing and I leave in a tank top and shorts. I soon regret this decision. I am still getting used to how much the temperatures cool at night here. In both Kansas and Hawai’i (where I have lived previously), the temperature didn’t drop so drastically when the sun set and so I’m rarely prepared for that, here.

As I bike out to my observation bench, I take special note of the stream. With the exception of my mid-day observation (when it was bone dry), I have always seen a decent amount of water in this stream, and once enjoyed a chorus of evening frog calls from the overlooking bridge. Today there is some standing water, not enough for an actual flowing stream, and no frogs.

All along the path as I bike to the bench I hear crickets chirping along the edge of the gravel. I used to be deathly afraid of crickets, especially the large, shiny black ones that you’d find in back corners of the basement. I have never cared for crickets, but I distinctly remember when it became a legit phobia. One summer, when I was 9 or 10, my family helped my grandmother clean out her rural Iowa farmhouse and my job was to clear the garage of all the crickets, dead from the powdered insecticide she had laid down around the garage. Mostly, this meant sweeping up massive piles of dead cricket bodies; however, the powder along the garage door itself had melted in the summer sun and caked the dead crickets to the cement, so those had to be scrubbed off with a stiff brush. In retrospect, scrubbing insecticide-covered crickets by hand without any sort of protective equipment (not even gloves!) was probably a poor idea, but this was the early 90s in the rural midwest and I guess we didn’t think of that. Anyhow, I ended that part with my hands covered in mutilated and severed cricket parts, but they were at least dead. I was nearly finished and sweeping out the last of the dead bodies from a back corner of the garage when I bumped a board leaning against the wall with the backswing of my broom. It fell to the side and behind it six *living* crickets clung to the wall. My back was to a large unmovable tool bench, so getting away from the crickets required me to first take a step towards them, which I was certain would cause all six of the crickets to leap onto me and I would simply die of a heart attack. I froze; I tried to call for help and all that came out was a little gaspy squeak. I stood there without even blinking for what felt like an hour, but was probably more like 2 or 3 minutes, desperately clutching my broom and certain that if I even inhaled too deeply all the crickets would jump on me (which, again, would cause certain instant death by heart attack). My grandmother came to check if I had finished, saw me frozen in terror and said “Oh good! You found some more!” and casually walked over and pinched all the crickets’ heads between her fingers. I was close enough to hear them squelch.

In Kansas, we also had cave crickets (which my sister still calls “creepy spider crickets” due to their unusually long spider-like legs). In college, I once found a cave cricket in my apartment and threw textbooks at it from across the room until I smashed it. I distinctly recall that it was my massive Campbell Biology textbook (6th edition!) that finally did it in. It was so big it left a stain on my carpet, which I did not discover for three days – I left it under the textbook that long just to ensure it was really, *really* dead. But then I moved to Hawai’i and realized that compared to the giant Scolopendra centipedes (and their painful stings) and the flying 3-inch-long American cockroaches (commonly called B-52s in Hawaii, after the Cold War era bomber), crickets aren’t so bad, I guess.

I guess…

Anyway, all the crickets stayed in the cover of the grass along the path, so I could enjoy their chirping song without being creeped out. I do think their chirps are kind of lovely, so I’m trying to focus on that aspect of their biology and not recall cricket legs and pink pesticide powder all over my hands or the squelch of their heads in my grandmother’s fingers. I make a mental note to look up if California has cave crickets, as all my textbooks live on campus now, so I have insufficient ammunition against them at home.

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Sunset from my bench

Sitting on my bench, I am facing the setting sun, which casts a nice golden hue over the landscape. People mistakenly think that dawn and dusk are very similar. Dawn is a grayish blue, with a cool crisp quietness. Dusk is gold, warmer both in temperature and hue and striped by long shadows. I enjoy them both, in very different ways. I love the hopefulness of dawn, the inhalation of a new day and all its opportunities. Our last year in Hawai’i, my husband and I eschewed the late-night parties of New Year’s Eve and instead ushered in 2017 with a dawn hike to Makapu’u to watch the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean. It was the perfect start to the year, and one that we plan to continue for future new year’s days. I also love the calm restfulness of dusk, which feels like a long exhale into night. Everything (or at least the diurnal things) are finishing up their last tasks and tucking themselves away for the night, cozy and quiet. I now kind of wish we *had* asked the students to do a mid-night observation, to see activity of the nocturnal crowd. A 1:00 am observation, however, is probably a cruel and unusual assignment.

There are fewer animals out now than in the mid-day. I hear a number of red winged black birds – which it turns out was the unusual call I heard on my morning observation. There are a whole flock of them milling about the trees in my corner and across the golf course, though eventually most of them take off in a cacophony of wings and squawks and my corner becomes mostly quiet.

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The lilac bush is done blooming and has begun setting fruit, as has the Isomeris, which now resembles its common name of bladder pod. Consequently, I see no pollinators of any kind. I do see more humans on this visit than I have seen on the others – ten in total, with two dogs. They are mostly in pairs, and walking casually (as opposed to the morning joggers) and so they are louder, talking animatedly with one another as they pass my bench.

As the sun sets, the crickets quiet down and all I can hear is the soft rustle of the grass in the breeze. The breeze itself is cool, and after my workout I am evaporatively cooling more than I wish, but the last rays of the sun are still warm between the gusts of the breeze. I will be chilled through by the time I get home, but there is a hot shower and a snuggly kitten waiting for me there, so I don’t mind.

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Besides the redwings, I see only two other birds. One is a hummingbird, which I don’t get a very close look at, but after consulting my guidebook I’m pretty sure is a black-chinned. The other is a beautiful white-tailed kite, which I get to watch perform its characteristic hovering hunting behavior. It must not see anything it wants, though, because after a few minutes (and a couple dozen photos), it soars off without diving for a kill. It is beautiful to watch though, and I’m excited I happened to see it.

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I do not, sadly, see any burrowing owls. It is quite possible that my presence itself has prevented this, if they are easily disturbed into hiding. Still, the kite was an unexpected treat, and overall I have really enjoyed these observations. Sharon and I emphasized to the students some of the studies showing the effects of nature on cognitive function and mental health, and I have definitely experienced that on these observations. I might make a bike ride through the buffer, and a half hour or so on ‘my’ bench a regular routine. It’s also a nice practice exercise for my wildlife/landscape photography skills.

This afternoon in class, I’ll get to hear the students’ final observations. I’m curious if the more urban sites are very active during the evening, or if they are more like the morning observations. I do not generally stay on campus very late, though I know classes go well into the evening, so there may still be many people around campus at 8 pm. Regardless, I hope my students have also gotten to see something unexpected and interesting and I hope they found value in this exercise overall.


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