It’s spring! Which means my Wild Davis students will be out and about all quarter gathering data for citizen science projects, developing capstone projects for local environmental organizations, and doing urban ecology field observations. The field observations are done on their own, outside of class time and involve three 45-minute observation periods throughout the quarter. In solidarity, as an example for the students, and just because I love this kind of work, I do the observation assignments as well. Last year, I observed the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer in hopes of seeing burrowing owls. I did not find any burrowing owls, but I did find a lot of other cool stuff.
This year, I decide to hone my ornithological identification skills at the Woodland East Regional Pond. The Pond is a combination stormwater retention, wetland habitat restoration, and Pacific Flyway migratory waterfowl habitat at the southern edge of Woodland, CA just north of Davis. The Pond is 148 acres with a 0.75-mile walking trail and three observation decks overlooking the central pond and sandbar. The Pond also abuts the northern edge of the Alkali Grassland Preserve, a 180-acre seasonal grassland/wetland set aside for protection in 2005 as part of a biological mitigation package for development activities in Woodland.
The morning observations are to occur near dawn, between 6:00 and 8:00 am. I get to the East Regional Pond a little before 6:30 am, only a few minutes before sunrise. The Pond has a parking lot and a gated entrance with signage indicating the park is only open from dawn till dusk and when I arrive an official-looking, but unmarked truck is parked in the lot and a uniformed man is checking the trashcans and fencing. I worry at first that he will tell me the park is not open yet and that I should leave, but he ignores me entirely and drives out soon after I arrive.
I begin my observation on the primary east-facing observation deck. Behind me is the parking lot, which separates the Pond area from Road 102 (aka Pole Line Road in Davis). On the other side of the road is a large housing development. To my right (south) is the Alkali Grassland Preserve and further south, a hodgepodge of orchards and ag fields stretching all the way to Davis. To my left (north) is the town of Woodland, most closely a box-store strip mall including Costco, Target, Michael’s, and Best Buy. The Pond, therefore, and its neighbor the Alkali Grassland Preserve, form the boundary between agricultural and urban landscapes.
Before I even reach the deck, I am bombarded by the cacophony of birds in the Pond. Two crows perch on the interpretive signage in the observation deck and squawk at me as I approach before flapping loudly away. Flocks of songbirds wheel and dive above the water and several pairs of loudly honking Canada geese mill about the waters and the sandbar. Immediately, I hear four or five distinct bird calls only two of which I can identify (Canada geese and red-winged blackbirds).
It has been warm the last few days and the morning is not that chilly though it is rather windy. I struggle to keep my notebook pages and my hair (for which I forgot any sort of tie) from whipping about as I take my initial notes. The Pond feels less urban than I anticipated, despite its closeness to major roads, housing, and shopping centers. Countless cars, trucks, semis, and even some farm equipment pass behind me during my observation, but they are not as distracting as I would have expected. Four planes fly somewhat overhead during my observation, though not close enough that I hear their engines.
The main observation deck faces east, which means that as the sun rises, it shines directly into my eyeballs, so I relocate around the Pond to the north-facing observation deck. A short gravel trail connects the two and, I presume, the south-facing observation deck. The edges of the pond are planted with native grasses and cottonwoods, and a short muddy section of the trail shows numerous shoeprints and bike ruts, though the signage indicates biking is not allowed on the trail.
From the north-facing observation deck, the Alkali Preserve is behind me and blackbirds, phoebes, doves, and swallows (I think?) sail back and forth between the two for my entire observation. I told my students not to spend the entire observation trying to photograph things, since a major point of this exercise is to experience the area without technology. I break my own rule, since I require the zoom lens on my SLR to have any chance of identifying the birds I’m seeing. In the low light, and mostly backlit by the rising sun, the best I can do with the naked eye is ‘waterfowl’ or ‘raptor’ or ‘songbird’.
One of the reasons I chose this spot is to practice both my bird photography and identification. I dabble a bit in wildlife photography, and have had mostly poor luck with birds. They move rather quickly, so I end up with a lot of blurry butt-ends of things.
From the north-facing observation deck, I can see a little cluster of coots pecking away at the soil of the sandbar in the middle of the Pond. They were hidden from the east-facing observation deck by the small stand of trees on the sandbar, but now I get a few pictures of their funny faces as they mill about with a killdeer.
I’m attempting to get a good look or a decent photo of the small birds whipping back and forth between the Alkali Preserve and the Pond (I think they’re barn swallows) when a hawk comes barreling into the Pond from the south. It carries either a snake or something’s entrails in its beak and lands heavily in the trees in the center of the Pond where I lose sight of it amongst the leaves. I wonder if it has a nest in there and I wonder if it is the same hawk I saw on the drive in. As I drove up Pole Line Road a similar hawk swooped down from the power lines to grapple with something on the ground. Given the tall weeds by the roadside, I couldn’t determine what it grabbed. Later, on my drive home, I see the hawk again, this time carrying a swatch of grass stalks in its talons, so perhaps it is building its nest in the Pond. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it on my mid-day observation in a few weeks.
I head back to the east-facing observation deck for the last ~15 minutes of my observation window, stopping along the trail to photograph a phoebe and some red winged blackbirds across the fence in the Alkali preserve. The open space and the bright light make for better photographs in this spot than in the long shadows and oddly reflecting water of the Pond. These photos will make good iNaturalist posts, though I’ll upload the blurry butt-shots, too.
The north-facing observation deck is obscured from the parking lot, so while I was there, I didn’t notice a sports car pull up carrying two young men. They are still sitting in the car when I come around the curve of the trail and stay in it, facing the Pond, for the rest of my observation. On other observations I have felt out of place compared to the other people in the area, but here, I look less odd than they do. With my long-lens camera, at dawn, in a migratory bird habitat, it is fairly obvious what I’m doing. It becomes more obvious what they are doing when I finish my observation and head back to the parking lot where I can see they’re getting high. This is odd to me, at 7 am on a weekday, but to each either own, I suppose. This, and the beer bottlecaps on the north-facing deck make me wonder what sorts of human behavior I’ll find on the evening observation.
In the whole observation I saw no animals except birds. The majority of plants in the Pond (and the nearby Alkali Preserve) are grasses and some cottonwood trees, all of which are wind-pollinated, so the chances of good pollinator diversity in my afternoon observation is low. I wonder if there are fish in the pond; if there are, they will be easier to see in the mid-day observation when the sun is high. I’m also hoping for some herpetofauna in the warmer mid-day and evening observations; there surely are fence lizards around here somewhere and perhaps some frogs to chorus in the evening.
On Wednesday, the students will share their morning observations and I look forward to hearing about the places they chose and the interesting things they observed. With over 30 students this quarter, I expect a lot of diversity in locations and hopefully some really exciting and unexpected observations.