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Wild Davis 2020: Evening at the Campus BOG

Spring Quarter is almost over and last week, the Wild Davis students completed their last of their observations, this one to be done in the evening.

It’s still hot when I get to the BOG around 6 pm, so I choose a spot at a shady picnic table to take my notes. I startle both a bunny and a squirrel, possibly the same squirrel that was so bothered by my presence at the morning observation 🙂

The first thing I notice is that the wildflowers are nearly all finished blooming and beginning to set fruit. I pick a fruit off of a lupine and split it open in my hand. Lupines are members of the legume family (which includes peas and soybeans), all of whose fruits form a pod that splits open along two edges. The small orchard along the north eastern lobe is also setting fruit, as are the elegant clarkia that were blooming when I was last here.

The south eastern lobe that was full of flowers on my afternoon observation has been cleared, and I notice what looks like the beginning of clearing of the lupine field in the north eastern lobe. This answers my question about whether or not the BOG crew are still working on the site even with the lockdown, but it raises another question. I had assumed the annual flowers reseeded themselves, which is difficult to do if the fruiting plants are cleared out. Now I wonder if the eastern lobes are seeded every year.

The few flowers still in bloom have attracted some pollinators, though on the whole there is not a lot of insect life in the BOG this evening. Similarly, I only hear a couple of birds, including the goldfinches I have seen on my previous observations, though they keep the trees and out of my sight.

More noteworthy this evening than on my other observations is the human presence. Throughout the entire observation, I am distracted by the low hum of the air conditioning unit in the Mann Lab just south of the BOG. It runs continuously the entire 45 minutes and makes me wonder if all the campus buildings are being maintained at their normal temperatures. Seems like a waste of money and energy for empty buildings, though most of the buildings are probably not truly empty. My building for instance still has a skeleton crew of office staff to take deliveries, and researchers with living organisms still have to come in to keep them alive. Additionally, we are moving into Phase 2 soon, when some of the restrictions on people and activities in the labs will be relaxed.

I also see a number of groups of people walking and biking around campus; more people than I have seen here on my previous observations. They appear to be family groups for the most part, and we all easily keep our distance as they mostly pass by the BOG without coming into the center where the picnic benches are.

This quarter, I haven’t found these observations as relaxing as I normally do. Generally, I enjoy the quiet solitude and the chance to slow down and just look and listen for a while. This quarter, though, I have too much solitude and I am so much more scatterbrained that focusing just on looking and listening has been hard. I look forward to being around people again, whenever the uncertain future ever allows that. In the meantime, I’ll at least get to read this week what my students found on their observations.

Wild Davis 2020: The Campus BOG at Mid-Day

This week, my Wild Davis students and I are doing our mid-day observations. Earlier in the quarter, we observed a location at dawn, and in a few weeks, we’ll revisit the same spot at dusk. This quarter, I’m doing my observations at the campus BOG, which gives me an excuse to get out of my house for a little bit and is one of my favorite quiet nature spots on campus.

Mid-day observations, following county health guidelines

Yolo County’s health guidelines now include wearing facemasks in all public spaces. I’m not entirely sure if the BOG would be considered ‘public’ – I’ve noticed most people not wearing masks outdoors, but I err on the side of caution and wear one anyway. The mask I’m wearing is one my sister made for me, out of spare material from a quilt we made together over the summer. She has made masks for our whole family, as well as her husband’s family out of spare material from a variety of previous craft projects and they are more comfortable and ‘stylish’ (if perhaps less effective) than the medical masks. They are also made with love, which is what I enjoy most.

Yes, I really had this many college t-shirts.

It doesn’t make much difference out here at the BOG today. When I arrive a few minutes after noon, there is only one other person in sight and she is sitting quietly at the benches with a notebook and headphones (and no mask). It is easy to keep well more than 6 feet apart and we mostly ignore each other throughout my observation.

When I was here in the morning a few weeks ago, most of the animal activity was morning birds. Dawn is a little too early for the pollinators, though I did see a couple bumble bees right at the end. Today, as I expected, the pollinators abound. As soon as I get close, I can see numerous dragonflies swarming above the flowers and hear the gentle hum of the honeybees.

The only dragonfly that pauses long enough to be photographed

It appears that peak bloom has passed for many of the species. Much of the Phacelia is closing up to set fruit, though the few flowers that are still open are popular, as always, with a wide variety of bees. The silver and arroyo lupines are also mostly gone, though the yellow coastal bush lupines still abound. As I walk through the center of the BOG, I can smell the plants even through the mask. The smell is more vegetative though, than floral – almost like a fresh-cut lawn.

The BOG appears very dry. I don’t know if that’s because many of the annual flowers are passing their prime and putting their last resources into fruit, or if the garden is not being watered or irrigated as much under the current shelter in place guidelines. I wonder how managed this garden is – I have seen people working in it frequently, yet it also appears that the annual flowers reseed themselves and the garden does not have a manicured or cultivated look, but is instead allowed to grow somewhat ‘wildly’.

Many organisms prefer a less ‘perfect’ garden, and indeed, in addition to the pollinators, I also see a variety of birds, and a bunny, and of course squirrels. One squirrel in particular seems personally offended by my presence at the picnic table and barks at me until I apologize and move to another.

At my new bench, I stop to make a short recording of the bird calls I hear. The voice recorder app I use shows the amplitude of the sounds its recording and as I watch it, I notice that it’s recognizing sounds even when the birds are silent. That’s when I notice there are construction noises, and the faint beep of a large vehicle backing up somewhere. I had blocked out these noises until the recording brought them to my attention.

I see several goldfinches, as I did on my morning observation. They flit about in a small group and are easily startled as I walk through the garden. They prefer the northwestern ‘lobe’ of the garden which is close to the Eucalyptus stand and they dash back and forth between the two, chattering at each other and picking seeds out of the BOG plants. I enjoy how they perch on tiny plants that don’t look sturdy enough to hold their weight. One in particular seems to struggle to balance on a blade-like leaf, which frankly looks kind of painful for her little feet.

As I’m hunting for good pollinator photos, I come across a bee I’ve never seen before. At first, it appears to have a bright orange line across its abdomen, but through my zoom lens I can see it is a neat row of pollen. I have never seen a bee carry pollen like this before and I’m unsure what type of bee it is. It’s about the size of a small bumble bee, but shiny and black like a carpenter bee. It is clearly neither of these, though, as its proportions are different than both. It is beautiful, and I capture a few good photos to use later to identify it.

Later that evening, as I’m going through the photos at home, I send one to Wild Davis TA and bee afficionado Chris Jadallah. He quickly identifies it as a member of the Megachile genus, which are known to carry pollen in this manner, and forwards the photo to another bee expert friend of his, who confirms it as Megachile gemula. I look this species up on iNat and find its common name is ‘small-handed leaf cutter bee’ which I find pretty amusing. I get suspicious though, when I notice that iNat only has records of this species in the northeastern quadrant of the US, the closest observation being in Illinois. There are only 18 total observations, though, so perhaps its full range hasn’t been documented. I ask Chris how sure his friend was and post the photos to iNat under genus Megachile, just to be safe.

For the rest of the observation, I sit quietly at the picnic bench and simply watch the garden. It is a beautiful day – a little warm in the sun, but perfect in the shade, and from this vantage point I can see the goldfinches darting back and forth as well as the dragonflies swarming over the southern ‘lobe’ of the garden and the occasional butterfly and hummingbird. I enjoy the chance to decompress for a moment; this quarter has been stressful in a variety of ways, for the students as well, and even a short break is a welcome one.

Wild Davis 2020: Morning Observations at Putah Creek (guest post by Chris Jadallah)

This post is part of a series on the Wild Davis 2020 California Naturalist training course. This post is written by Wild Davis Graduate Teaching Assistant Chris Jadallah.

I am excited to spend some time at the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve for EVE 16: Wild Davis this quarter. Somehow I only made it here for the first time a few weeks ago, and I have already returned a few times since. Riparian areas are very special. They support so much biodiversity, serve an important ecological function as habitat corridors, and offer so much cultural, aesthetic, and economic value to people throughout the world. The parking lot is a short drive from my home near the edge of West Davis, just off of County Road 98 Right as the dark morning sky is starting to fade away, I head over with coffee in hand. 

Map of the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve, full version available here.

I arrive at the particular spot I selected within the Reserve at around 6:40 AM, just as the soft light of the morning sun officially rises up above horizon. The tops of the trees are bathed in a golden glow, but because the sun is still low, everything below remains in a cool light. A number of different trees make up the riparian forest towering over me, including valley oak, eucalyptus, black walnut, willow, and even what I think is an almond tree based on the fuzzy green fruits covering its branches. Perhaps it is a volunteer from a nearby farm which wouldn’t be surprising given that Putah Creek cuts through a landscape matrix of primarily agricultural land. The trees are filled with young green leaves that slowly drift in the very gentle breeze. The sky is clear but the temperature is brisk, about 48 degrees according to my phone. It’s chilly even under my fleece jacket, but in a refreshing way that reminds me of first coming out of the tent after a night camping in the woods.

Chris’s observation spot at Putah Creek

I find a spot in the middle of the creek’s floodplain, and sit on the edge of a small cliff facing the water directly to the south. The ground is cold but mostly dry, except for the areas covered in vegetation where it is visibly damp, either from the morning dew or the storms that passed through the Sacramento Valley last week.

Before I can even settle into my spot, I am interrupted by a loud splash near the opposite bank. I see a plume of sediment underneath the surface of the water and immediately start scanning the area, thinking I might be able to find a fish. I was here last weekend and saw a largemouth bass hanging out near some large woody debris before swimming away. Immediately, I see a three foot long, slender object torpedoing from the area where I saw the splash away from me upstream. It disappears into the cover of an overhanging tree within a few seconds. My eyebrows furrow in incredulity and I stare in shock, thinking to myself, “What in the world?! That fish is HUGE. Did I really just see a three-foot-long fish? I’m pretty sure bass don’t get that big, could it be a catfish?” All of a sudden, it hits me – it was a river otter! My jaw drops in awe and stays that way for a good five seconds. I’ve only seen a river otter once before, when one was living at the Sutro Baths in San Francisco many years ago.

I’ve previously heard of river otters living in the Davis area, namely in the pools and canals of the Yolo Bypass, but I was definitely not expecting to see one today. I spend a good five minutes starting intently at the overgrown area where it disappeared, hoping to catch another glimpse, but alas, there was no sign of it. I begin to doubt myself, wondering if it was really just a big fish, so I pull out my phone to check the iNaturalist app and see if there had been any other observations of otters in the area before this. Lo and behold, someone recorded one in the exact same location less than two months ago. Just a few minutes into my observation, and my day was made!

It takes me nearly fifteen minutes to get back to more general observations of the site and stop thinking exclusively about the otter. I re-focus, and spend some time paying attention to some of the geomorphological and hydrological properties of Putah Creek. The water is about five feet away in front of me and below me, my feet hanging over the exposed earthen bank. In the area directly in front of me the creek is clear and fast-flowing, ranging in depth from about six inches to two feet. Medium-sized, multi-colored gravel make up the creek bed. Periodically, a small piece of algae or a leaf quickly floats by. About twenty feet across the creek is a marshy island, from where I assume the otter was either resting or sleeping before I accidentally disturbed it. The island is covered in short bunch grasses that are mostly brown, but with some pockets of green growth, as well as a few willow saplings.

Upstream, the channel narrows, so the river seems deeper and faster. In the middle of the channel, the water ripples due to some overhanging vegetation that dips into the surface. Downstream, the channel widens and the water slows. Along the bank, which curves slightly south, the water appears to still be moving relatively fast. It’s interesting to notice how these physical components of the creek play off each other. There is a clear relationship between channel width, channel depth, and flow, and this undoubtedly has an effect on the richness and abundance of aquatic life.

As I record these general notes, I periodically look back toward the spot where the river otter swam, and spend a few long seconds scanning in the hopes that it is still there. As I’m doing this, a female duck comes into view from upstream, slowly paddling along with the flow of the water. It swims toward the edge of the marshy island and begins foraging in the semi-aquatic plants, filtering water through its beak. A few seconds later, I hear a distant quacking that grows louder and louder until a male duck flies toward her from above, landing in the water with a loud splash. She immediately flies away and out of view upstream, and he takes off again to follow in a flurry of commotion.

After the disturbance, the scene becomes calm again. Just because it’s calm, however, doesn’t mean it’s quiet. The babble of the creek provides a constant backdrop to incessant bird calls. Directly across the creek from me, I hear the songs from what seems to be several birds of unknown species. Behind me, I hear the periodic and distant coos of a dove. The sharp cry of a red-tailed hawk pierces the air. Far away, the faintest sound of the occasional car speeding by on the county road comes into earshot. I could get lost in the sounds.

I take some time to observe more directly around me. Immediately to my left and right, and all behind me toward the middle of the floodplain, are young, leafy mustard plants between a few inches and about three feet tall. While a few are starting to flower with tall stalks of yellow blooms, most are still in the pre-flowering stage. Interspersed amongst the mustard are grasses of similar height, covered in stalks of young green seeds. To my right are some small brown mushrooms growing from the soil at the base of these plants. Walking trails criss-cross the floodplain, and I am surprised that I have not seen a single person yet given that these trails are usually quite popular.

It is 7:30 AM now, and as I get ready to walk back to the parking lot, I notice that the glow of the sunlight has lowered to capture more than just the tops of the trees. Downstream, it is even shining on the water surface, causing water vapor to rise in wisps. I’m excited to return to this place and continue seeing how it changes over the next few weeks – I have so much love for where I live.

Wild Davis 2020: The Campus BOG at Dawn

It’s spring again and my Wild Davis students are working on their California Naturalist certifications, which includes doing 45-minute observations at a location of their choosing. The first observation is due next week, and must occur around dawn. In support of their work, I do the observations as well, having chosen such local green spaces as the Wildhorse Agricultural Buffer and the East Regional Pond for previous iterations of the course.

Left: The UC Davis Biological Orchard and Gardens, and Right: a map of the BOG’s location

This year, I’ve chosen to do my observations at the UC Davis Biological Orchard and Gardens also known as the BOG. The BOG is a collaborative campus project focused on sustainable landscaping and botanical diversity. The BOG features plants from California, South Africa, and Chile, including 13 varieties of fruit trees that are nearing commercial extinction.

I have spent much time at the BOG. Previous iterations of Wild Davis have used it for a pollinator activity and several of my faculty colleagues and I meet regularly at the BOG picnic benches to share lunch. Consequently, it is a place I associate not only with natural beauty, but also with friendship. This quarter, isolated in my house with only my husband and my cat, teaching both of my courses online, and sequestered from nearly all normal human interaction, I chose to visit the BOG in the hopes of channeling the camaraderie I have felt there previously.

I arrive at the BOG at 6:15 am on Friday April 10th. Other than a couple trips to the grocery store and a few afternoon walks around my neighborhood, this is the only time I’ve left my house in… two weeks? Two and a half? It’s hard to gauge the passage of time these days. Traffic (both vehicular and pedestrian) on my way to campus was sparse. As an early riser, I know this time of day is generally sparse in human activity, but today it reminds me of how empty the streets always are now.

The new picnic table patio at the BOG, photo from the BOG Facebook Page

When I arrive at the BOG, it is not surprisingly entirely empty, though I can hear grounds crews working somewhere to the north, including the back-up beep of a large vehicle. There have always been a few mismatched picnic tables scattered about the BOG grounds, but near the end of winter quarter, they completed a small sitting area in the center of the BOG, complete with three new picnic tables under a large tree. I choose the middle table and spread out my notebook, camera, and thermos of coffee to begin my observation.

lt is chilly this morning; cool enough that I can see my breath when I exhale, and that sitting on a metal picnic bench is uncomfortable, but not so cold that my thermos of coffee can’t keep me warm. I sit quietly for a moment at the bench, noting what birds I hear. I note an occasional crow caw and a handful of songbird, one of which is the house finch, though the others I am not confident I can identify. I take several pictures of them to hopefully identify later, but my angle is strange (directly beneath the birds high in the tree) and the grayness of early morning light washes out much of their color. The bright yellow one with the black capped head is an American goldfinch, and I think I also see a yellow rumped warbler, though I’m not certain. When I return from my observation, I will look up both birds calls in the Cornell Lab to see if I recognize them as any of the other bird calls I hear this morning (spoiler alert: I don’t recognize them).

As I’m noting these in my journal, I hear the unmistakable caw of a raptor, and barely catch in my peripheral vision a medium-sized bird landing in the tree behind me. I keep an eye on the bird, noting that it is clearly eating something it holds in its talons. I take a few pictures with my camera, which come out absolutely hideous in the low shadowy light of the early morning. I can’t seem to get a clear view of it with the camera or my eyes and am not certain what kind of bird it is. It seems too small to be an adult red-tailed hawk, but too large to be a kestrel. The pale orange-y banding on its chest suggests a red-shouldered hawk, though it seems small for a hawk. Perhaps it is a juvenile. I try unsuccessfully for a better photo until it takes it’s meal elsewhere.

The hawk reminds me of a hawk I have seen and heard around my own apartment recently in north Davis. Nearly every afternoon, I have heard its raucous caws and it has occasionally been accompanied by one or two other hawks. I have also seen it twice around the corner from my apartment when I go for a walk – both times it carried a kill to the top of the same tree. I wonder if it is nesting there, though I haven’t been able to see a nest, despite bringing binoculars. The new hawks in my life remind me of a book I recently read, Red Tails in Love, about the trials and travails of mating hawks in New York City’s Central Park and the birders who documented their lives. It is a sweet story, and I wouldn’t mind following these hawks’ lives much as the Central Park birders did.

The BOG is still under development, which means it looks a little different every time I come. As I wander the gardens today, I notice several new components. First, in the garden behind the picnic benches, several plants are bagged and tagged with different colored tape. Bagging is a common practice in research on flower pollination, so that the researcher can control what pollinators have access to the flowers. I also notice what appears to be a weather data logger posted to one of the light poles. These both indicate that the garden is being used for active research and I make a note to ask one of the BOG’s organizers, Ernesto Sandoval, about this. If there are interesting data coming out of the BOG, we may be able to utilize it or contribute to it as part of the class. Next year, anyway…

I also notice a new artistic component. One of the trees has a mirror anchored in the scar of a pruned limb, and below the mirror hangs a tag that reads “Thank the tree for the air you breathe.” I am unsure about the purpose of the mirror (I have seen one on another tree on campus, near the Student Community Center and it equally confused me), though the tag is not wrong in its emphasis on trees’ contributions to atmospheric composition. I pat the tree on the trunk and thank it.

A patchwork of poppies, lupines, and fruit trees

In our guidance on the activity, TA Chris Jadallah and I emphasized to the students to consider all their senses. I have not yet tried smell, so I focus on this sense for a moment. Even this early in the morning, without the heat of the sun to warm them, I can smell a sweet scent of flowers. It is strongest near the patch of Phacelia and lupine, though when I smell each individually, they do not seem to match the scent. Perhaps it is a bouquet of all the contributions, or perhaps it is the apple trees, which are too far from the sidewalk for my nose to reach directly.

When I have been here during the day, I have very much enjoyed the plethora of pollinator activity in the BOG. In the best times, with warm weather and at the height of flower maturity, they make an audible buzz and the air above the flowers seems to shimmer with their activity. I see only one pollinator this morning, and it is in the last minute or two of my observation. I find a single bumblebee on the Pride of Madeira flowers that are technically landscaping around Hoagland Hall and not formally part of the BOG.

The bumble reminds me that I had been intending to document the flowering plants in the BOG on iNaturalist, for possible pollinator associations in the future. I also am trying out new citizen science projects, so I use the new Seek app through iNaturalist to document a few species. I also plan to make the BOG a ‘place’ in iNaturalist, which will allow me to track organisms documented there more easily. Over my mid-day observation in a few weeks, I can do a more formal survey of the plants present and their pollinators.

As I’m leaving the BOG, I note two more things that I have never seen here before. The first is a small lawn, at the back of which are two benches tucked under the shade of a tree. I’ll have to remember this location for the times I need a quiet space to escape to outside of my office. The second is a memorial posted in front of one of the trees on the edge of the BOG. I do not know who Harry Gee is, or what relationship he had with UC Davis in his 30 years of life. Still, I respect this type of memorial. I have already donated my body to research when I die, which means I will have no cemetery plot or headstone. My mother once asked where she should go, then to mourn me, and I like the idea of a living ‘headstone’ as a place of remembrance.

The BOG at dawn

This activity has been bittersweet. Normally, I love the solitude and time dedicated for quiet reflection. This spring, though, I’m having more solitude than I care for and the things I have to quietly reflect on are mostly just depressing. I hope the students have enjoyed a chance to get outside and stop watching lecture videos for at least a few minutes, and I look forward to hearing in class this week what they observed.

2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge Complete!

There are few things in life that Laci loves more than books and lists (and completing things well ahead of schedule), so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered the 2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge. The Challenge has been around for five years now, but I’m just now joining the club.

The really awesome thing about the Challenge is that the reading list is not a list of books, it’s a list of prompts for which a wide variety of books could be selected. To help you choose, there’s a Goodreads Group with over 23,000 members contributing to discussion boards relating to each prompt. It’s a fantastic way to branch into new genres, or play it safer with your old favorites.

The Challenge has two parts, the ‘regular’ list of 40 prompts, and an ‘advanced’ list with 10 additional prompts that are a little more difficult or specific. Being an overachiever and an avid reader, I of course did the full 50. Here, I’ll list out what I picked and link to each book’s Goodreads page for descriptions and reader reviews. You can also see my ratings for each book on my Popsugar Shelf and see how I’m progressing on my 2019 reading goal of 100 books.

The Regular List

Both Natalie Parker and Tessa Gratton are close friends of mine, and I had gotten shamefully behind on their latest books – the Challenge gave me the perfect excuse to catch up!

I chose several books from Lit Hub’s 30 Dystopian Novels By and About Women list, including The Core of the Sun, which begins “I lift my skirt, pull aside the waistband of my underpants, and push my index finger in to test the sample.”

Now that’s an opening line.

  • A book about family
    The Home Place by J. Drew Lanham
  • A book written by an author from Asia, Africa, or South America
    Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
  • A book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title
    The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  • A book that includes a wedding
    Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
  • A book by an author whose first and last names start with the same letter
    Circe by Madeline Miller
  • A ghost story
    Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • A book with a two-word title
    Find Me by Laura van den Berg
  • A novel based on a true story
    The Girl Next Door by Willow Rose (based on the BTK Killer)
  • A book revolving around a puzzle or game
    The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell
  • Your favorite prompt from a past Popsugar Reading Challenge
    There were SO MANY good options, but in the end I chose “A book you got from a used book sale” from the 2017 Challenge. For which I read The Fifth Season by NK Jemison

For Black History Month in February, I decided to read only books by African or African American authors. Not all of them counted for the Popsugar Challenge; they included

The Advanced List

Overall, I really enjoyed the Challenge – it got me to read some things I’d been meaning to get around to for a long time (Agatha Christie, Gabriel García Márquez, etc) and some things I probably never would have considered reading (Tupac’s poetry). I’m already looking forward to next year’s prompts!

Wild Davis Observations: East Regional Pond at Dusk

As we near the end of the quarter, my Wild Davis students are completing their final timed observations. At the start of the quarter, they chose an urban location to sit at for 45 minutes at dawn, and later at mid-day. This week, they went to the same location for 45 minutes around dusk. For my observations, I’ve been visiting the East Regional Pond in Woodland, just north of Davis.

The East Regional Pond at dusk

After the mid-day observation, I made the Pond a formal Place in iNaturalist so I could easily track what wildlife has been found there. Consequently, I arrive at the Pond about 7:30 on Monday evening with a couple goals: 1) bypass Greg Ira (Cal Nat program coordinator) as the top observer at the pond and 2) observe a river otter, which have been documented in the Pond by both Greg and iNat user natewl. I casually inquired with some colleagues and Greg is totally unaware of our ‘competition’ at the Pond, which makes meeting Goal 1 more likely. Both of the otter observations already posted were made around dusk in the spring, which makes Goal 2 seem likely, though I am well aware of how elusive otters can be.

When I arrive at the Pond, I follow the same pattern I have on the other observations, starting at the east-facing deck with the plan to rotate between the three observation decks throughout the observation. In my past visits, the north-facing deck has the most activity, so I intend to spend the bulk of my observation there. The first thing I notice from the east-facing deck is that the water level is higher than it has been in my previous visits – the central ‘island’ is nearly submerged in water, and only a small rise of muddy sand rises above the water level.

I am absolutely ecstatic that there are no Canada geese and so, though the beginning of my observations is full of bird song, particularly an amorous cacophony from the male grackles chasing after the two ladies, there is not a single sonorous nasal honk to be heard. That is, until about 8:15 when the entire family comes swimming home from wherever. They are as annoyingly loud as ever, but do make an adorable little train on their way in. I enjoy how you can tell even from a distance the adults, the juveniles, and the little chicks. I notice the chicks are up front, protected on either end by adults, and the juveniles come next with an adult in the middle and one bringing up the rear. I wonder if this order is intentional, to protect and guide the young geese.

*honk*

My previous observations had been curiously devoid of humans. The Pond is near to town, beautiful and calming, and full of good bird observing, which made me surprised that there were not other people here taking a relaxing turn around the observation decks. When I first arrive this time, a young man is skateboarding along the trail away from the east-facing deck and I don’t pay enough to attention to notice where he goes; that is, until I make my way to the north-facing deck and find him seated on his skateboard with headphones in, watching the water. I consider leaving, but the north-facing deck has the best views, and the deck is certainly large enough for two people to look out and not overtly bother one another. I worry I’ll startle him if he’s playing music through his headphones, so I make a point to come around into his view as far to the side as possible so as not to creep up on him. I start to say hello and realize he is sobbing quietly to himself and I feel instantly awful for disturbing him. I apologize for the disruption and ask if he’s ok, which is stupid since he is obviously not ok. He hesitates, then nods awkwardly, and I leave awkwardly.

On my way back from the north-facing deck, I notice two kittens, scurrying under the chain-link fence that surrounds the Pond. They are in the exact same location in which I saw an adult cat on my mid-day observation and I’m not exactly pleased that the stray cat has reproduced. Feral cats are incredibly destructive, especially to wild birds and an increasing population of cats here is not promising for the birds’ safety.

When I make it back around to the east-facing desk, there are two cars in the lot (in addition to my Jeep) and two teenage women walking down the path with a pre-teen boy gamboling after them. I continue on to the south-facing deck, where I can just see them stumble upon the young man as I did and also awkwardly return to the east-facing deck. I feel even worse for the poor guy, being repeatedly interrupted when he clearly came here for solitude.

The south-facing deck has been the least interesting on my previous visits and tonight is no different; with one exception – while scanning through my camera, using the long lens like binoculars, I notice a napping duck tucked away in the foliage of little island in the middle of the pond. I snap some photos and confirm later that it is a cinnamon teal! I had very much wanted to find one of these, since they are beautiful and one of the species that Greg had found that I had not 🙂

Cinnamon teal!

I make my way back to the east-facing deck for the last 15 minutes of my observation. I am keeping an eye out for otters, when the whole Pond goes silent just for a moment. There must be a gap in the traffic because I didn’t even notice I could hear the cars on Road 102 behind me until they now pause. The numerous birds all also pause for just a moment in their song, and all I hear is the soft sound of the light breeze over the water. It is a calming moment, and beautiful, and I wonder if it was entirely by chance, or if the birds all sensed something that I didn’t.

one last quiet moment

After posting my observations to iNaturalist when I get back, I review my goals. Goal 2 is a wash – I found no otters, though I will keep an eye out if I find myself in that area around dusk again. Goal 1 is met in letter, if not in spirit. I managed to tie Greg with 58 observations at the Pond; however, EVE professor Jonathan Eisen has ousted both of us with 63 observations! Jonathan was the top contributor to the Sacramento Region City Nature Challenge and since then has gotten really into iNat and has been uploading a large number of photos from previous wildlife-viewing trips. Consequently, many of his observations are newly posted, but not newly taken – he’s been ahead of Greg and I for some time, we just didn’t know it! Amusingly, I am also tied for second place in number of species identified. I am still 7 species behind Greg and tied with Jonathan at 27 species.

My time at the Pond is technically over, though I would like to continue visiting. It is an odd place, simultaneously serving municipal needs (stormwater drainage), ecological needs (waterfowl habitat), and social needs (privacy and seclusion for Woodland residents). It feels more isolated and ‘wild’ than it truly is, which is perhaps why both the birds and the teenagers enjoy it so. I will have to keep an eye out, still, for otters, and hope to pass Greg and Jonathan in observations and species numbers in the near future 🙂

Wild Davis Observations: East Regional Pond at Dawn

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.

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Interpretive signage at East Regional Pond providing a map of the habitat and the importance of the Pond for stormwater management, wildlife and habitat restoration, and urban greenspace.

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.

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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).

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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.

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Example: blurry egret butt

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.

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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.

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breakfast of hawk champions

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.

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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.

NPR’s Top 100 Sci Fi & Fantasy List: COMPLETED!

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I *may* have gotten a little carried away at the library

Reading has always been one of my favorite activities. I honestly think the ability to read might be the skill I value most, even though it’s (fortunately) a super common skill.  As a little girl growing up in Kansas, I loved how books could transport me anywhere, and anywhen. Nowhere is that more true than in the sci fi and fantasy genres, where you can push beyond even the limits of the laws of physics and the space-time continuum.

In the summer of 2014, as I was cranking into my post-doctoral position at Kansas State University, I stumbled across NPR’s Top 100 List of Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels. I was new to both genres – a couple years prior, I had made it most of the way through George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (better known as Game of Thrones) and by the fourth book had given up on the life expectancy of any character whose story arc I enjoyed. I lamented my dissatisfaction with the series to a number of my friends who read fantasy regularly – what I wanted wasn’t Martin’s medieval war story with a side of dragon (#sorrynotsorry), I wanted something with more *actual* fantasy. Every person had the same response: then you should read the Wheel of Time. I spent the last year of my doctoral program wallowing through Jordan’s 14-book, ~12,000-page series, which was actually a nice mental break from the 5-chapter, 215-page hellscape that was my dissertation.

Regardless, once I found the list, it perfectly fit the combination of my voracious reading habit and my anal retentive love of crossing things off lists.

In the time I’ve been working on the list, a lot of people has asked me the following questions:

How was the list compiled?

All of NPR’s Top 100 lists are compiled in roughly the same way. For this list, NPR readers nominated over 5,000 titles, which were then reviewed by a panel of experts and culled to a finalist list, which was then opened to an online poll that received over 60,000 votes. The 100 books receiving the most votes made the final list. The books are ranked in order of most to least votes; from J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (receiving 29,701 votes) to C.S. Lewis’ Space trilogy (receiving 1,452 votes).

Before you freak out that your favorite book or series isn’t on the list, it’s worth noting that this list intentionally excluded young adult and horror/thriller novels, both of which now have their own Top 100 Lists.

Since this is essentially a popularity contests, there are a number of criticisms that can be levied, the most frustrating (in my opinion) being the dearth of diversity in authorship. The list is overwhelmingly white male, which is also true of both genres generally. The top ranked book by a woman is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at #20, and while many male authors have multiple entries on the list (including Tolkein, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury, Stephenson, Gaiman, Vonnegut, King, Orwell, Sanderson, Clarke, Pratchett, Wells, Niven, and Verne), only one female author appears more than once (LeGuin).

Seriously? A HUNDRED books? Did you actually read them all?

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My cat even read some of them with me.

Yes, and no. Many of the books on the list are actually a series, so the list totals ~320 individual books.

I had previously read ~10 of them (including two of the heftier series Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire and Jordan’s Wheel of Time) and I did not reread those. Two of the list are graphic novels (Moore’s The Watchmen and Gaiman’s Sandman series) which I skipped because I don’t care for graphic novels. I also let myself out of a series if I truly hated it and had read a significant portion of it to give it a fair chance. I did not complete Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire for the aforementioned reasons. I also did not finish Piers Anthony’s Xanth series because it is literally 40 books long; I read the first dozen or so and then could not stand any more terrible puns or juvenile plot lines based around gender stereotypes and I simply could not bring myself to interlibrary loan a book titled The Color of Her Panties.

Other than those few exceptions, I read everything on the list. Totaling over 250 books.

Geez, how long did it take?

Almost exactly four years. I did also intersperse some books that weren’t from the list, but not many.

I’m interested in sci fi and fantasy, but I don’t want to read the whole list. What do you recommend?

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Winter break 2014: a few books from the list, a couple extras on Hawaiian history, and a little kir royale on the side

This is hard, because it depends so much on preference, and because my opinions of the books are probably influenced by the order in which I read them since I had read so little sci fi and fantasy prior. But with those caveats, here are my personal top 10, in the order in which they appear on the list:

(I promise there are no spoilers in these descriptions, everything I discuss here are either general themes/topics or plot info you learn in the first couple chapters)

8) Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy: just read everything by Asimov. Foundation is great, I, Robot is greatthe robot novels (of which only Caves of Steel is on the list) are all great. Just really, read everything he ever wrote. They are fantastic on their own, and also frequently referenced throughout other sci fi works.

20) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: If you went to high school in America, it is highly unlikely that you have not read this book. If you haven’t read it, read it. If you haven’t read it since high school, read it again. Shelley’s monster is a far cry from the green-skinned, knob-necked zombie of pop culture and her portrayal of the monster’s ostracism by society and Frankenstein’s guilt over his creation are powerful and timeless. The story behind her own life and the writing of the book just make it all the more fascinating.

23) Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series: I’m a little conflicted with Stephen King. He’s a fantastic character writer and I often feel like the fantasy and horror aspects of his novels detract from the quality of his character development. The Dark Tower is no exception – you have a fabulous blending of four characters who are so different that you would never expect them to work well together (and yet they are the perfect ka-tet), but shit gets weird fast. It’s a long series, and if you make it through Song of Susannah, you’ll be wondering what brain trauma King went through as a child that would account for his plot lines, but at least read through Wizard and Glass because Roland is a fabulous story teller.

27) Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles: this book is halfway between a collection of short stories and an actual novel. Each chapter is a separate time slice in human colonization of Mars, and as the reader you kind of ‘play God’ by knowing all the back history of previous chapters that current characters don’t know. I was hard-pressed to pick only one of Bradbury’s several entries on the list, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. The Illustrated Man (another collection of short stories) is also good, and Something Wicked This Way Comes has some of the most poetic writing I’ve read.

43) Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy: one of the frustrations I frequently ran into with fantasy series were that there was little internal logic to how the magic worked (it seemed anyone, no matter their ability, could always just dig deeper in a time of real need and do just about anything). In Mistborn, not only is Sanderson’s storytelling fantastic, but the structure of the magic is really specific and clearly defined, and the cleverness comes in how it is used. The storyline is also far less predictable than a lot of the fantasy series on the list. I felt like most of them were protagonist (frequently an orphan) finds magical ability, then maybe love, fights evil, rides off into the sunset, blah blah blah. This is one of the few series where I found the ending surprising without just being a contrived last-minute plot twist.

54) Max Brooks’ World War Z: I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine it does the book justice. The book is split into a bunch of small sections following numerous individuals’ experiences with the zombie outbreak – regular people, government officials, doctors and scientists trying to understand the ‘infection’, etc etc. I was struck by the realistic feeling to most of the stories – like, I’m pretty sure this is what would actually happen if a zombie outbreak occurred.

77) Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy Series: Ok, full disclosure, this series has some rather graphic S&M scenes. And, I don’t mean 50-Shades-Of-Gray-my-inner-goddess-is-moaning kind of crap, I mean real violence. The up side is it’s all 100% consensual, since this society takes the religious precept “Love as thou wilt” remarkably literally. I really enjoyed following a strong female protagonist navigating her own sexuality and trust issues, and the series’ discussions of morality in love, sex, and loyalty/betrayal and how these interweave with religious and societal norms.

83) Iain M. Banks’ Culture Series: This was probably my favorite entry on the whole list. It’s a 10-book series that follows The Culture, a society of numerous intelligent and sentient species (humanoid and non) and artificial intelligences that interact with other ‘less advanced’ societies. Each of the books follows different characters and occurs on different planets and in different time periods, which means they need not be read in any particular order and most can be read as a stand-alone book. I really enjoyed the theme throughout the series of the impact of ‘benevolent’ manipulation by The Culture on other societies and on individual agents of The Culture. Also, the AIs that control spaceships are so advanced that they have individual personalities, which means that the ships are plot-driving characters and have their own social interactions/norms. Not all the books have quite the same tone, which makes it not feel as repetitive as other long series, and many of them are written with a wittiness that makes even the longer novels easy to read. If you’re not ready to commit to the full series, I recommend starting with Consider Phlebas (which occurs during the Culture-Idiran war) followed by Look to Windward, which discusses the impacts of that war 800 years later.

92) Robin McKinley’s Sunshine: this is McKinley’s only entry on the list, as much of her work is young adult or children’s fiction. I really enjoyed Sunshine, though if I’m being totally honest, I’m including her in my top 10 more for body of work as a whole and not just this novel. You should also read The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown and Dragonhaven and Pegasus.

3) Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game series and 100) C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy: really, what I loved in these two were the second and third books in Card’s series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide) and the first of Lewis’ trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet). These deal with the behavior of human individuals and societies when faced with newly discovered intelligent, sentient species and the danger of cultural misunderstandings, especially in the face of xenophobia. Card’s series also delves into inter-planetary ecology. Discovering intelligent life was a common theme in the sci fi entries, but I thought these two addressed it best.

An aside for books about war

Many novels in both genres focus on war, to the point that I am now really sick of reading about war, especially in fantasy where it’s mostly hand-to-hand combat with lots of beheading and disembowelment… There were some noteworthy ones, however, which didn’t quite rise to my top 10, but were still thought-provoking.

56) Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and 74) John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: I accidentally read these two back-to-back and found them to have interesting similarity, even though they’re rather different. Both follow an individual soldier throughout his career and both focus on how war and general life in the military separate soldiers from the civilians they protect. The Forever War focuses on social and temporal separation as the protagonist accrues time dilation while traveling to battles throughout the galaxy. Old Man’s War focuses on biological separation through the development of genetically engineered super-soldiers and trends more towards the question of what it means to be human.

81) Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series: this is another hefty series – 10 books at 1000+ pages each. It actually has a lot in common with Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – countless characters that you cannot possibly keep track of, numerous political factions all fighting over the same area for different reasons, and no one’s safe from death (but even dead, they might not really be gone). It’s better than Game of Thrones in my opinion, though because the characters are a lot more diverse and the cultures they represent are more richly developed and there’s a thread of humor woven through that keeps it from being too terribly depressing.

So…. what are you going to read now?

Oh, so many things! There’s The Guardian’s dystopian novels that reflect today’s socio-political climate, there’s The Guardian’s five best climate change novels, there’s NPR’s  novels for understanding Trump’s election, there’s every book Obama recommended during his eight years in office, and there’s Emma Watson’s Our Shared Shelf list of feminist writings. That sentence maybe came off more political than I intended, but I’ve been stuck in sci fi and fantasy for four years now, and I feel like I need to reconnect with the real world. I also have plans to slog through James Joyce’s Ulysses with a friend with whom I previously slogged through David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, so maybe I should just round out the Top 10 Most Difficult Novels.

I just love books. And lists.

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The final four! Small Gods was the official last book.

UHWO Biology Students Propagate Native Hawaiian Plants for Habitat Restoration

As part of our ongoing service learning and habitat restoration component of the introductory biology courses at UHWO, my class recently started propagating cuttings of native Hawaiian plants. The students will care for their plants throughout the semester and then plant the cuttings at Piliokahe Beach as part of our dune ecosystem restoration project.

Bruce Koebele, our resident service learning coordinator and expert on Hawaiian plant propagation, visited the class to get the students started on caring for their own little keiki plant.

Step One: Prepare the Media

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Top to bottom: peat moss, perlite, black cinder

Our first step was to prepare a suitable potting media. We used a 1:1:1 mix of peat moss, perlite, and black cinder. This mix combines the water retention capabilities of the peat moss with the physical integrity (ie lack of decomposition) and aeration/drainage capabilities of the perlite. The black cinder provides the local ‘flavor’ of volcanic rock. Though it is not totally clear why, endemic Hawaiian plants seem to propagate better with the inclusion of cinder in the potting media.

Step Two: Prepare the Plant

Bruce brought three plants for us this semester: ‘ākulikuli (Sesuvium portulacastrum), pohuehue (Ipomea pes-caprae subsp. brasiliensis), and pohinahina (Vivax rotundifolia). All three of these plants are native to Hawai’i and are common in coastal habitats, making them ideal for planting at the Piliokahe Beach dune ecosystem.

Preventing disease in new cuttings is important. Even relatively resilient plants are more susceptible to disease when you’ve cut them open for a while. Consequently, our potting media was pasteurized and sterilized, and the cuttings themselves were washed before being planted. Once everything was all clean, the students trimmed leaves from the stem to provide underground support and cut the stem at a node. The fresh-cut stem was then dipped in a rooting hormone to encourage the cuttings to develop roots.

Step Three: Planting and Data Collection

Plants were then planted in the media-filled pots, and placed in a large plastic tub with a little water in the bottom. The tub protects the plant from desiccation until it is able to develop enough of a root system to support its water needs.

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My little pohuehue

Since we are scientists, we will also be tracking the growth of the plants from now until we plant them at Piliokahe Beach. This semester, I’m propagating a pohuehue, shown at right, which is currently approximately 14 centimeters tall, and proudly sports 7 leaves. At this point, we can be certain there is no root growth. In the future, the presence of new stem growth and new leaves will indicate sufficient root growth to support new above-ground growth; however, we obviously will not uproot the plant to measure root growth.

Step Four: Future Care

The plants will live in the UHWO Biology Lab for a few weeks until they are stable enough to move home with the students. Each student will then care for their plant at home, until we bring them back to campus in October for the Piliokahe planting. Each week, the students and I will re-photograph our plants and document any changes in height or leaf number and any other notes on the health of our plants. I have full confidence that we will experience 100% survivorship and that all our little ‘ākulikuli, pohuehue, and pohinahina will soon get to start their new lives on a dune at Piliokahe Beach.

Monster Quest 2016

For the past decade, a group of herpetologists from across the country have gotten together every summer to hunt herps in an event colloquially termed ‘Herp Quest.’ The exact location and quested herp varies from year to year, though generally focusing on rare herps in the desert southwest. For the past several years, Herp Quest has been held in the Kingston Mountains of the Mojave Desert in California in search of a California Gila Monster. Gila monsters are found in northwestern Mexico, Arizona, and southern Nevada, and although their range extends a bit into southeastern California, they are only rarely found there. The difficulty in finding a gila monster is compounded by the fact that they spend the vast majority of their lives in underground burrows, only occasionally coming to the surface to feed and mate. This is perhaps why the group has not yet been successful…

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from left: Becky Chong, Bob Thomson, Levi Gray, Brittney White, Amber Wright, Kyle Edwards, Anthony Barley, me, Ian Wang

In addition to hunting monsters, there is also an ongoing research project between Bob Thomson and Amber Wright at UH-Mānoa and Greg Pauly at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Folks associated with this project are spending ~2 weeks  traversing a handful of sampling locations throughout the Mojave collecting various lizards and surveying lizard populations. Consequently, this year’s Monster Quest was held near Kingston Peak, just north of the Mojave National Preserve, which is the one of the team’s sampling locations.

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View from our campsite near Kingston Peak

Monster Quest, then, is a conglomeration of actual scientific research, ‘freestyle monstering’ (which sounds like a mash-up of the Monster Mash and the Thriller dances, but is actually just wandering around looking for gila monsters), general herping (same as ‘monstering’ but just looking for any herp), and campfire camaraderie fueled by bourbon.

We found all sorts of awesome animals. Some of the ones pictured below were formally collected (killed and preserved for current research and long-term museum collections), others were tissue-sampled (a small clip of the tail is taken and preserved), and others were just admired, photographed, and released.

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For me, not being a herpetologist and never having been to a herp quest, there were a lot of new experiences. I’ve done my share of field collecting, but it functions in a fundamentally different way when you’re collecting plants. Most of these animals were caught with a noose (a short loop of string on a telescoping fishing pole), or (for the larger ones) simply grabbed by hand. I am terrible at both of these methods. I hesitate, my hand-eye-coordination is poor, and I feel bad for molesting the animals. Consequently, I relegated myself mostly to photographing 😀

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Becky (left) and Levi (right) coordinate on noose-ing a whiptail

The good news is, I had a fabulous time getting comfortable holding the animals. If you’ve ever worked with live animals, you know there are right ways and wrong ways to hold living things that don’t really want to be held. You want to make sure they are stabilized and safe without injuring them or yourself. You also want to take a cheesing photo with them because they are so cute and adorable.

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I wouldn’t say I was ever afraid of snakes, per se; however, I am definitely not super comfortable around them. And (prior to this trip) I would have said I could never hold a snake without my holding its head so I’m sure to not to be bit. That, however, was before I met the sweetest and most snuggly gopher snake (photos above). I held that snake for over an hour, and she curled up in my arms, laid her head on my shoulder, curled around my neck, and even gave me little snake kisses (which I maintain was not ‘testing my tastiness’ as others suggested :-D). I absolutely fell in love with her and named her Snakey McSlithers. Gopher snakes are not part of the research project, so she fortunately was released back to her home after our snuggles. A couple of the herpers on the trip, Adam Clause and his undergraduate student Ben Thesing, set up some professional shots of many of our animals (complete with lighting set-up and arranged backgrounds – it was impressive), and I plan to get in touch with them to get myself a quality photo of Miss McSlithers.

Don’t worry, we didn’t *only* see herps. Despite its reputation as a desolate wasteland, the desert ecosystem is very much alive. We saw a variety of desert birds, mammals, insects, and plants. The packrats were a bit annoying considering they ate all our tents (not a joke – one ate a hole in a tent and then camped out there until the tent’s owner returned to sleep).  I really wanted a good picture of a jackrabbit. I had a desert ecosystem pop-up book as a little girl, and I loved the page about jackrabbits (yes, I was a nerd even then). Jackrabbits are, however, quite difficult to photograph, unless you prefer your shots blurry and of mostly back legs. Ian also found a tarantula hawk wasp, which are beautiful and super cool – gravid females sting and paralyze a tarantula, then lay an egg on it and bury it in a burrow; the wasp larva then feeds on the (still living) tarantula until it pupates into an adult and burrows out of the spider’s abdomen. Remarkably vicious, considering adult tarantula hawks eat nectar.

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While I was playing with snakes and photographing flora and fauna and having a refreshing Bud Light Lime after freestyle monstering, the actual science was happening. Greg Pauly led the crew to prepare the samples we collected during the day. Prepping involves recording all the data on the animals (species, sex, weight, length, collection location, etc), humanely euthanizing the animal (in the same way the veterinarian does for a pet), surgically removing the liver (for DNA analysis), and injecting formalin to ‘set’ the animal into a hardened pose for long-term curation. The photos below show the collected animals at various stages of this process.

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In addition, Bob, Amber, Greg, and Anthony performed transect surveys of lizard populations. At each of their sampling locations in the Mojave, the group performs three transects. A transect is just a straight line across the landscape along which you take data. Often, this is just counting the numbers of different organisms or species you see. In the photos below, you can see the four align themselves along a particular direction, spread out, and walk some distance (I don’t remember how far), documenting the herps they see along the way. This is the least invasive data collection, and provides population estimates across space and (when repeated every year) through time. Each of the researchers carries a GPS unit while walking the transect – Amber uses these to make really cool color-coded maps of all the transects performed each year.

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On Sunday, we drove back to Las Vegas. The research team will continue on to the other field locations, but the rest of us flew back home for our own jobs 🙂 On the way, we stopped to see a unique rock art installation, called Seven Magic Mountains. Kyle gets full credit for bringing this little bit of culture to Herp Quest.

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You can see the full photo collection of the trip at the Thomson Lap Flickr Stream.