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It’s spring quarter again, which means we’re back in the Wild Davis saddle and starting our urban ecology field observations! As always, the quarter includes the students choosing a location to do 45-minute observations throughout the quarter at different times of day. Often, the students in the class haven’t done this sort of activity before (just sit and experience a place for a long time) and so as an example, and just because I find it relaxing, I do them as well.
In past years, I’ve chosen natural spaces near my house – the Wildhorse Ag Buffer in northeast Davis, the East Regional Pond along Road 102 between Davis and Woodland, and the Biological Orchard and Garden on the UC Davis campus. This year, I’ve chosen the Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer Garden in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.
I’ve chosen the Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer Garden because Ruth herself has been on my mind a lot lately. She was the first female physician on the UC Davis campus and the first female pediatrician in Yolo County. She was also an avid gardener and dedicated member of the Friends of the UCD Arboretum. The building that I work in (Storer Hall) is named after her husband, Dr. Tracy Storer, a well-known zoologist/ecologist and professor at UCD for over 30 years.
The reason Ruth has been on my mind is that she is part of a revamping of the Storer Hall Lobby that, while somewhat derailed by the COVID pandemic, has been in the works for a while now. In response to feedback from undergraduates in the EEB major at UCD, published research on how public spaces impact students sense of belonging, and faculty interest in more visibly representing diversity, the faculty in my department are planning some changes to the signage and portraiture in the Storer Hall Lobby. Currently, a large portrait of Tracy hangs prominently in the entranceway over the main staircase, along with a small biography plaque. We hope to add similar imagery and a biography of Ruth to this space (either by adding an individual portrait of her, or replacing the one of Tracy with one of the couple together). While the garden is a beautiful dedication, and aligned with Ruth’s own love of gardening and the Arboretum, I have found that few students (and faculty!) are aware the garden exists, or knowledgeable on Ruth’s legacy. Indeed, the faculty member with whom I am working on the Lobby updates has been a professor here for 10 years and didn’t know the garden existed. Consequently, we think including her in portraiture in the Storer Hall Lobby will both increase visibility (literally and figuratively) and knowledge of her contributions to UCD and Davis, and bring attention to the garden as her dedicated space.
Since that process is moving rather slowly given (waves hands at the world), I’ve decided to use this small platform as a way to at least bring Ruth’s accomplishments and her garden to the attention of my students. Our first observation occurs at dawn, so I made my way out to the Ruth’s garden at 6:45 Tuesday morning (Apr 6).
The first thing I notice when I park on the road next to the garden is the redbud tree blooming inside. I love redbud trees, with their quirky shape (you absolutely cannot prune a redbud, you have to just let it be the shape it will be), and their unabashed blooming when everything else is still green or brown. I identify a lot with redbuds, to the point that I frequently use the screenname Cercis, the name of the redbud genus.
The garden is clearly meant for just such observational experiences – there are many benches spread throughout the garden, along its winding and interconnected paths. Each of the benches bears a dedication; the bench I’ve chosen today is dedicated to Allie Greene by her husband. The benches and their dedications lend a quiet sense of community to the space, a feeling that you aren’t completely alone in the garden, or at least not alone in enjoying it. Allie’s bench sits beneath a crabapple and a cenizo tree, both of which are in the early stages of budding out.
Perhaps my favorite dedication in the garden is the plaque honoring Ruth’s friendship with Mary McGraw Miller. The garden has many varieties of roses, which apparently were a favorite of both Ruth and Mary, and I very much love the special honoring of long-time female friendships.
The roses indeed are beautiful, particularly so in the early morning dew. I imagine they will smell quite lovely on my midday observation when they are warmed in the afternoon sun.
As I settle on the bench with my coffee, I quickly notice the noise; the garden is loud with both natural and anthropogenic sounds. The garden is near the road and even at this early time cars driving by are audible, as are distant trains. A grounds crew is also working in the Arboretum lawn nearby, and their leaf blowers distract from the natural peace of the garden. There are several bird species loudly calling to one another – I recognize the cawing crows and screaming scrub jays and the worn-out-squeek-toy call of an Anna’s hummingbird. There are several other twitters and chirps that I can’t identify by ear, though I recognize the birds themselves as white-crowned sparrows and (the most unfortunately named bird) bushtits. Later in the morning, I hear a single loud barking call and while I don’t recall ever having heard it before, I instantly think of a green heron. Later, when I check the Cornell lab and eBird recordings for green herons, I’m pretty sure, but not certain, that’s what I heard.
As I wander the gravel paths of the garden, I startle a trio of ducks; one male and two females. They quack at me and continue on their way, amusingly keeping to the paths just as I do. They are dabbled with white, indicating that they are offspring of hybridization between the wild mallards and the couple domestic white ducks that have taken up residence in the Arboretum. The origin of the domestic ducks is unclear, though the most likely mechanism is that they are former pets, released to the Arboretum by their disinterested owners. I also notice birds flying over the garden, including a hawk that is harried by three of the cawing crows, and two great egrets. All of them appear to be leaving the Arboretum waterway, flying northwest over the garden.
The garden itself contains quite a bit of signage. The majority of plants have ID cards posted at their base identifying their common and scientific names. Plants of note (called Arboretum All-Stars) also have larger signs outlining their range and environmental needs, interesting facts, etc. These sorts of signs are common throughout the Arboretum. In addition, Ruth’s garden also has signage with gardening tips and strategies – a testament to her knowledge of tending her own gardens. I chuckle at one titled “Am I high maintenance?” Having recently received my second COVID vaccine, I also am disease resistant and now consider myself a ‘low maintenance rose’.
Considering the sign, I check the roses in the garden closely for signs of disease, and as the sign suggests I find very little. I do see one leaf which appears to have a fungal infection, and a remarkably small number of rosebuds carry aphids. While the signage focused on fungal infections, I wonder if ‘low maintenance roses’ also harbor some protection against aphids. The photos below may appear to contain a lot of aphids, but compared to rosebushes I’ve seen elsewhere on campus, these are small aphid loads.
Just as I’m nearing the end of my observation, the sun begins to peek out of the trees to the east, blanketing the dewy lawn behind the garden in shafts of sunlight. It is a beautiful sight, and makes me pleased I chose this location for my observations, and pleased that it is dedicated to a woman I’ve recently learned more about and come to appreciate (even if I still think she deserves a portrait in Storer Hall as well).
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.