A couple weeks ago, my students all performed dawn observations at an urban location of their choice. Their choices were impressively varied, ranging from the teaching vineyard on campus to their own balcony or backyard, to urban greenspaces like community gardens and parks. This week, they must revisit the same location to observe wildlife activity at mid-day (sometime between noon and 2 pm) for 45 minutes. I made my way back to the East Regional Pond in Woodland on Saturday May 4th for my own observation.
I arrive at the Pond about 12:40 pm on Saturday. It is sunny and warm with a cool breeze – the perfect weather for a wildlife observation, though I have forgotten any sunscreen and am pretty sure my shoulders will be burned by the time the 45 minutes are up. Though there is much tree cover at the Pond, most of it is near the water (which is surrounded by a chain-link fence) and so the observation decks and the gravel path that connects them are all in full sun.
I start at the east-facing deck, as I did for the morning observation, since it is closest to the parking lot. On walking up to the deck, I notice a storm drain manhole cover with a fish on it and the words “No Dumping, Flows to Creek.” I didn’t notice this cover on my morning observation, so I snap a picture of it now to add to my collection.
Yes, I have a collection of ‘No Dumping’ storm drain signs, which may seem odd. When I was an undergrad, I took an Intro to Environmental Studies course which I was only interested in as a pre-req for the Environmental Law and Policy class I really wanted to take. My professor for the Intro class was Chris Brown, and I loved his class far more than I ever expected. He helped me see how the biological principles I was learning about in my major classes related to everyday issues and problems and could be applied to solve them. As a professor myself now, I see how much his perspective shaped the way I teach my own students. In particular, he used storm drain labels as an illustration of how disconnected people had become from nature – that we had to be reminded that the things we dump go somewhere and that other living things live in that somewhere and might be affected by our trash and waste. Since that class, I found myself noticing these drain covers and how they are similar or different throughout the country. I began photographing them, and have a collection of over 60 different storm drains from over 30 different cities. This photograph will become part of my collection, the first representation I have of a storm drain from Woodland CA.
On the path to the observation deck, I startle a western fence lizard and see it scurry into the underbrush. I’d been hoping to see some herps on this visit, since my morning observation was almost entirely birds, so I’m hoping he comes back out long enough for me to snap a picture (and I do see a couple later in the observation). The interpretive signage on the deck is covered in bird poo, and I wonder how often it is cleaned, since it was clear on my morning observation.
When I reach the deck, I look over the edge down at the water and see a flurry of little mosquito fish hanging out near the edge of the water. Only the very edge of the Pond is clear enough to see very deep, so it’s hard to gauge the depth of the water. I wonder if the Pond is deep enough to support larger fish, and if they would even have colonized this area naturally. The Pond is stormwater runoff, and I am uncertain of what other body of water it drains into (if any), so perhaps the mosquitofish are all that is here.
As with the morning observation, there is a chorus of bird song at the Pond. Throughout the observation, I see or hear doves, phoebes, red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, grackles, turkey vultures, house sparrows, coots, and of course, Canada Geese. In particular, there is a goose that keeps up its nasal honking throughout the entire 45 minutes. It is a constant squawk that sounds halfway between a snore and a living car alarm and it very quickly grates on my nerves. In my early 20s, I was a park ranger for the Clinton Lake Corps of Engineers in Kansas and the Canada geese were the bane of our existence. They are loud and slow and poop *everywhere* all of which are a general management nuisance in a campground. Once, a camper found one injured and called the rangers to capture it and three of us had an *actual* wild goose chase, which illustrated to me why that is a phrase. The campers were highly entertained watching three rangers flail unsuccessfully after the goose for the better part of an hour, but you can imagine we rangers were less amused. I have little love for Canada geese after that job and this one’s incessant noise very nearly ruins the overall calming effect that these observations usually have on me.
While rolling my eyes at the goose, I notice another bird in the water that I’m certain I’ve never seen before. Through the zoom lens of my camera, I can see that it is mostly dark brown or black, with a light beak containing a distinct black stripe. The angle is poor for a picture from the east-facing deck, so I quickly relocate to the north-facing deck. On the gravel path connecting the two, I notice a cat. It appears very skittish, so it is likely a stray, and I severely hope it is not a pet from the nearby housing complex. Cats wreak havoc on native wildlife and housecats let to roam wild will still kill out of instinct even when well-fed. Honolulu was overrun with feral cats when I lived there and they (along with mongoose and avian flu) have contributed to the decimation of native birds through direct hunting and through the transfer of disease. I have little patience for people who poorly manage their pets – a point I’ll come back to in a few minutes.
At the north-facing deck, I find a series of pretty cool things. First of all, the bird I had been angling for is much more clearly visible. I catch a couple good side shots of the head and body (which will be useful for identification later) and I watch it dive and swim. Though it doesn’t actually dive, it just seems to sink down and then reappear some distance away, indicating it’s sinking down and then swimming under water, not just diving or dabbling.
Using iNaturalist, my bird guides, and a Google image search, I later identify this as a pied-billed grebe, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this awesome description of the behavior I witnessed:
Pied-billed Grebes can adjust their buoyancy and often use this ability to float with just the upper half of the head above the water. They catch small fish and invertebrates by diving or simply slowly submerging.
How cool is that?!
While I’m marveling over the grebe, I see another bird I don’t recognize, which I happen to catch mostly in focus as it flies by. The same combination of iNat, guide books, and Google identifies this one as a Northern Shoveler. Isn’t he beautiful?
While I’m marveling over the shoveler, I notice movement on the wood railing of the deck and see a handful of little jumping spiders facing off. One in particular appears to be the aggressor (a male?) and runs off several others (more males?) before crawling down to a small web under the railing and booping the web’s resident (a female?). She(?) scurries away and so does he. I know little about jumping spider mating behavior (with the fabulous exception of the peacock spiders) and so I’m not sure if that is what I’ve just witnessed.
After marveling at the jumping spiders, I glance down at the water hoping for some frogs or tadpoles. Instead I see this gorgeous guy’s little adorable face staring right up at me! It’s a western pond turtle and I’m so excited to see him in the Pond that I actually say out loud “Hi, turtle!!” at which he startles and scurries away in a cloud of sediment. I apologize, though he can’t hear me anymore. I thought I had seen a turtle in the middle of the pond a few moments prior, and I of course am now convinced he came over just to check me out. I love the idea that the wildlife is observing me as much as I am observing them, though that might be a bit anthropomorphic.
While marveling over the pondy (as I call the western pond turtles), I notice a plethora of damselflies and dragonflies, most of whom are in a flurry of mating. At the identification party after the City Nature Challenge, the entomologists lamented the blurryness of the damselfly and dragonfly photos (in particular, one of my own observations! ha ha ha), so I make sure to get as many clear photos as I can.
All of this activity has occurred at the north-facing deck, so I decide to see if there is similar activity at the south-facing deck. As I walk over, I see a single blooming elder tree (the only non-wind-pollinated plant in sight) and it is covered with pollinators. I see honeybees, hover flies, and two mating wasps! Between the spiders, the damselflies, and these guys, it’s apparently an amorous weekend at the Pond. I’m amused by the honeybee that apparently has no personal boundaries and keeps bumping the mating wasps out of it’s nectar-grabbing way. The wasps are not the slightest bit disturbed by this or by me and continue on for several minutes before I tire of taking photos and walk away.
As I walk to the south-facing deck, I stop for a moment at the east-facing deck, and notice another turtle not far out. I’m excited at the idea of another pondy, but through my camera lens I see it is a red-eared slider. I am disappointed by his presence, as I’d been hoping the pondies might have this waterway to themselves, unlike the UC Davis Arboretum, which the sliders are likely overrunning. The western pond turtle is a California Species of Special Concern and interactions with invasive turtles, like the slider, have been identified as a primary threat to their survival.
This brings us to my second rant about poor behavior by pet owners. Red-eared sliders, and many other reptiles, have been introduced a variety of places by release of unwanted pets by their owners. In my classes, I harp on the students to never do this. If you want to get rid of a pet, find a new owner or give it to an animal adoption center – even having it euthanized is more humane than releasing it to the wild. People apparently have an image of their unwanted pet living out its days in some sort of Eden, while the reality is that the animals either cannot survive on their own (and so starve to death or are quickly hunted by predators) or *can* survive on their own and are likely to become invasive.
Bottom line: if you do not want the responsibility of managing a pet, don’t get one. Or if you realize this after you already have one, relocate it responsibly.
I am ranting about invasive pet release in my head, to the accompaniment of the still-honking goose when I notice another pond turtle in the stagnant inlet drainage from the west. I’ve now seen a pondy four times (in open water, saying hi to me at the north-facing deck, saying hi to a killdeer in the center of the Pond, floating in the inlet), and a red-eared slider once (by the east-facing dock). Either there is one very active pondy here and one very lazy slider, or perhaps (as I hope) the pondies have an advantage in population size here. At least three of these photos are probably the same pondy, but I remain hopeful.
My cool bird finds and the question of pondy/slider population sizes leads me to check out other iNaturalist records from the Pond when I get home. I saw not one person on my midday observation, or when I stopped by the Pond during the City Nature Challenge, though this spot is so good for birds that I cannot imagine I’m the only person to have recorded observations here.
To track this location specifically, I first have to make East Regional Pond an official place on iNaturalist – I do this by hand-drawing the boundaries of the Pond in their map tool, which then allows you to search this location specifically.
I’m currently one of only nine observers at the Pond and amusingly I personally know several of the other eight. I’m the second highest observer here behind Greg Ira, the coordinator for the CalNat program with whom I’ve worked closely to develop the Wild Davis course. Not far behind me is Jonathan Eisen, a professor in Evolution and Ecology with me, who was also our top contributor for the Sacramento Region in the City Nature Challenge. Another is Amanda Lindell, a graduate student in the School of Education and a member of the Ballard Lab, with whom I also work closely.
About 40% of all the observations ever made at the Pond were posted during the City Nature Challenge last week, which makes me happy that people were getting out to see and photograph new places for the Challenge. In total, we’ve all found 39 species of bird there, and I personally have recorded about a third of those, so I’ll have to up my game at the evening observation in a couple weeks. In particular, I’d like to see a cinnamon teal, a bufflehead, and a redhead because they are all very beautiful and I’ve never seen those before anywhere. I’d also like to eke out Greg Ira for most number of observations and species, which will require 16 new observations and 10 new species. I’m confident I can get that many new observations, but not that many new species. I scroll quickly through his observations to see what he’s found that I’ve missed and discover he’s found a river otter there!! The observation was made in March of this year, about 9 pm at night, which means it’s **possible** I could see one on my evening observation! This is now my primary goal for the final observation this quarter!!
I also look for other observations of turtles and find one by Greg of several turtles basking together! He has it identified as a common slider, and one of the turtles is a red-eared slider (a subspecies of common slider) though the others are pondies! I post a comment on his observation that he can post the same picture again to document the western pond turtles (though this will give him an additional species record, ha ha!).
Overall, I was pleased by the diversity of organisms I saw this time around. The morning observation consisted exclusively of birds, and I love birds or whatever, but some variety was nice on this observation. The Canada goose car alarm was the only negative to this experience, and I’m kind of hoping they’re all napping for the evening observation.
In class tomorrow, I’ll get to hear how the students observations went and I hope they, like me, got to marvel over some interesting organisms and interactions and saw something different than they had on their morning observations.