Laci M. Gerhart Barley

Field Blog

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 Mid-Day

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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Look at that face!

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.

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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.

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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.

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a disappointing red-eared slider

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.

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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.

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iNaturalist observations at the East Regional Pond in Woodland, CA

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!!

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TWO river otter sightings!!

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.

 

 

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.

Reflections on the BIS 2B MQI

This quarter, UC Davis’ Center for Educational Effectiveness performed a Mid-Quarter Inquiry (MQI) in my BIS 2B class, in which students were given a chance to provide feedback halfway through a course (in addition to the standard end-of-quarter evals). In this post, I will share and reflect on their feedback, which can be reviewed in full here.

The structure of the MQI allows students to free respond to two questions (What helps you learn in this class? and What limits your learning in this class?) and then vote on 10 suggestions for improvement provided by the students in the moment. It is worth noting that ~70% of the class was in attendance for the MQI, so these results represent the majority of students, but not the full enrollment. I did a quick-and-dirty analysis of the open-ended responses, and graphed the results of all three questions. Here, I will discuss the student responses to each section of the MQI and end with a summary of my take-aways and next steps.

What helps you learn in this class?

HelpsLearning

Top 10 student responses to the MQI question “What helps you learn in this class?” ranked by frequency

There were four components of the class that stood out as consistently helping students learn. The first was me as an instructor (which was a nice ego boost to start the analysis). Every quarter, students comment on my enthusiasm and passion for biology and report the positive impact it has on their learning and this quarter was no exception as over half the comments mentioned an aspect of my personality (enthusiasm, passion, openness) or classroom behavior (moving around the room, responding to questions, checking for understanding) that supports their learning. One student compared me to Bob Ross, which totally made my day. Another referred to my ‘beautiful life aura’ and how ‘the chakras align whenever she’s in the room’ which also made my heart happy. The iClicker questions I sprinkle throughout the lectures and discussions were a close second. Students enjoy the chance to test their knowledge, or work through a math problem together, and a couple explicitly mentioned the opening question each lecture, which jump starts their focus on the material for the day. The students also value the lecture capture videos, which many students make use of for exam/homework prep, supplementing their notes, or going through difficult content multiple times. I operate on the assumption that a difficult concept or example problem can be reviewed at their leisure later, so I’m glad that this response was in the top 4; however, it still only included ~60 responses (out of 215, so only 27%). Students also mentioned they enjoy my examples, stories, and case studies, which provide real-world links to the concepts we discuss in class. I’m glad they like these, because I like them, too and I would be hard-pressed to remove them from my lectures.

What limits your learning in this class?

HindersLearning

Top 10 student responses to the MQI question “What limits your learning in this class?” ranked by frequency

Overall, you will note that the top 10 responses to this question represent fewer individual students, because there was much more variety in the responses to this question than to the previous one.  In this section, I will respond to the top 10 concerns expressed by the students, excluding the ones that are included in the next section on recommendations, the lab section concerns, and the structure of class concerns. The structure of class concerns related to things like enrollment numbers, timing of the course, and wi-fi capabilities in the classroom over which I have absolutely no control. I did speak with the educational technology team about classroom wi-fi earlier this quarter and was told that SocSci 1100 was built in such a way that upgrades to the wi-fi are nearly impossible, so I do not believe this concern will be resolved soon (or ever), though they are aware of the issue. The structure of the lab activities and pre/post-lab questions are required to be identical across all sections of the course, so I cannot change anything relating to the lab. I have passed along some of the concerns about pre-lab feedback and grading concerns to Pat Randolph (who oversees the TAs), and I encourage the students to talk directly with their TAs for clarification on grading expectations and feedback on lab assignments. I also encourage the students to voice these concerns on their end-of-quarter evaluations for their laboratory section.

By far the most common response was that my speed is too fast – both in terms of how quickly we move through content and how quickly I talk. The students are right – this is a fast-paced course and I am a fast-paced person. We have a lot of content to cover in 10 weeks, and I talk fast when I’m excited, which is most of the time. I have been working on slowing down ever since I started teaching (as my previous eval reflections show). Perhaps ever since I started speaking. One of the ways I try to get around this is by repeating myself a lot – and some students noticed this and appreciated it on the previous question. I also consider the speed factor to be one of the major benefits of lecture capture – the students can refer back to the videos to spend more time on material, which can even be watched at slower-than-real speed if my speaking is too fast. One issue here, which some students expressed in their comments, is language – both English, and scientific terminology. The lecture capture videos are captioned, but whatever mechanism provides the captioning poorly understands scientific terms. For example, in our discussion of life histories, every time I said “semelparous” the captioning reported I said “simple Paris” or “same in Paris” etc. It also confuses regular English sometimes – for example on one clicker question, I was discussing whether students would ‘choose E’ which the captioning reported as “choosy.” If English is not the language with which a student is most comfortable, mistakes like this in the captioning hinder their understanding even further. I have contacted the office that manages the lecture capture videos to look into how the captioning is generated to see if these issues can be addressed.

The second most common response was nothing – yay!

The third most common concern included a number of concerns relating to answer keys to coursework and feedback on assignments including 1) online answer keys to homework problems and exams, 2) answers to study guides and clicker questions, and 3) feedback on (in)correct answers on the homeworks. These are discussed in the recommendations section next.

The fourth concern was that students do not always enjoy or see the value of the discussions. Interestingly, there is a bit of a bimodal response here, since the discussion activities were also in the top 5 for the previous question on what helps students learn. The discussions are a new component of the course, and very different from other offerings of the course, current or previous. Since I am still calibrating these activities, some of them have been too long, and students worry content we didn’t get to in discussion will be on the exam. It won’t. There was concern that the small group discussions aren’t getting to the ‘right’ answer and then students will have learned the ‘wrong’ thing for the exam. You haven’t learned the ‘wrong thing.’ The primary goal of the discussions is to practice making predictions and interpreting figures/data on your own. In some ways, the exam question that most related to our discussion activities was the one that asked the students to predict the results of a study on plant growth given the hypothesis that nitrogen was the limiting nutrient (even though nutrient limitation was not the focus of any discussions). The students may not be aware of the rather overwhelming body of evidence (ex. Freeman’s recent meta-analysis) that active learning (discussion activities, small group work, etc) significantly improves student understanding and retention of course material, even when they don’t necessarily enjoy it. I understand why not all students enjoy them. The discussion activities are more about uncertainty and real research questions that aren’t yet fully answered. The students can’t memorize terms or facts, they must think through complex problems that don’t have simple answers. They can’t just sit there and stare at me like they can in lecture, they have to do stuff and talk to people. And they have to wallow in uncertainty for a while before it makes sense and/or we talk about it as a group, which is the part they probably hate the most and which is most valuable for their learning and most like real science. Unfortunately, sometimes the pedagogical structure that is most effective for student learning is not the one they enjoy the most (which is they there’s a paper titled “Is active learning like broccoli?“). I’ll do my best to structure the last two discussions to an appropriate length and difficulty, and I ask for the students’ patience and trust that this is a good mechanism for learning, and that I will represent the discussions fairly on the exam.

Concerns relating to incomplete slides on Canvas and the timing and repetition of homework assignments are discussed in the next section on recommendations.

I’m actually pleased that students want more preparation and opportunities for practice as they prepare for homework assignments and exams. There’s perhaps a disconnect between what types of practice the students already have in the class and what they think they have or think they want. For example, comments in this section frequently requested practice exams and review sessions. The study guides I post are essentially a practice exam, they are just called study guides. A study guide that is not a practice exam would be a bullet-pointed list of terms or concepts to study, otherwise, the two are kind of interchangeable. I call them study guides because that sounds less intimidating than a practice exam, and I find more students will use a study guide than a practice exam, even if they contain the same questions. I also do hold review sessions – I just hold them as extra office hours. I assume the students meant evening review sessions. My schedule is such that it is much easier for me to hold office hours or review sessions during the regular work day. So much easier in fact that on exam weeks, I hold 6 hours of office time in the BLC, as opposed to a 1-2 hour evening review session.

Which leads us to our last concern of wanting more office hours. I recognize that many students have class or work during my regular office hours. As already mentioned, I hold extra office hours in exam weeks to be available to more students prior to the exams. Additionally, students can approach me immediately prior to or after lecture or discussion to ask a question (many students come up at the end of class, and I have not once left without addressing all of their questions). Students are also welcome to attend any office hours held in the BLC, whether it is your instructor/TA or not. Students are also welcome to meet up with other students there to work through content or problem sets together. Students are also welcome to post questions to the discussion board. I cannot be physically available in the BLC at all times, which is why we structure as many mechanisms as possible for you to get the support you need. Please take advantage of them.

Student Recommendations

Suggestions

Suggestions provided and voted on by the students during the MQI, ranked by frequency of students who agree with the suggestion

Multiple attempts on homework: nearly 83% of the students present for the MQI wanted additional attempts on the homework assignments. This surprised me, since the mean scores on the homeworks have been in the mid-B range, so I think the students are doing quite well on them. Generally, I am strongly opposed to changing grading structures mid-course; however, so many students want this change that I am willing to consider it. The current grading structure was that each homework quiz can only be taken once, but that the lowest homework grade will be removed from each student’s grade calculation. In my opinion, dropping one homework is a more valuable benefit, since it allows a student to have a weekend where they are ill, or working long hours, etc and have it not affect their grade (which taking the quiz multiple times would not help). If I were to allow multiple attempts on the homework, I would allow only 2 attempts and I would no longer allow students to drop their lowest homework score. Since we only have three homework assignments left, I consider this a poor trade, and I think dropping the lowest homework score would most benefit the students’ final grades; however, I will allow them to vote on it in class on Wednesday.

Full lecture slides posted to Canvas with no hidden content (80% support): it is important to note that I ‘hide’ content on the lecture slides only for the purpose of inspiring student discussion and consideration of a question. The content I ‘hide’ is examples of whether or not real scenarios follow our hypothesized expectations, or examples of answers to a discussion question I pose to students, and occasionally definitions of a term I want them to try to define on their own first. The students have access to the slides during class, so if this content was visible, they would not think about and discuss the possible answers with their neighbors, they would just read ahead to the next slide or two and regurgitate what is on the slide. I do not post full slides after each lecture for two reasons: 1) students who attend class get a little bonus of seeing the ‘hidden’ content and can even take a photo of it in the moment on their phones, and 2) all of the content is visible on the lecture capture videos (which is why I’ve been putting ‘hidden’ in quotations) and so all students can refer back to the videos to see what the slides showed. Consequently, the material is not truly ‘hidden’.

Correct answer on clicker questions (80% support): I’m not going to have a slide with the answer marked, since students will just look at the next slide and not think about the question. I believed I was discussing the answers to each clicker question when we view the results (with the exception of the opening question, because we come back to that one later in lecture); however, several students commented that my discussions after the question are too vague and the answer is unclear. I will endeavor to be more explicit on the answer when I pose a clicker question, and I will ask the students to stop me and ask for clarification if the answer is unclear.

Post study guide answers on Canvas (71% support): when students have asked me for answers to the study guide questions, I encouraged them to go to office hours, or to post to the discussion board and we can talk about the answers there. If students know an answer key is coming, many of them will not work through most of the questions on their own. On a discussion board, the students can start a dialogue about why answers are right or wrong, which helps them identify where their misconceptions or mistakes are far better than just having the answer. I have struggled to get students to use the discussion board in BIS 2B (not just this quarter). I’ve talked with some other faculty, and they’ve had better luck with anonymous discussion boards like Piazza. I may ask the students this week if they would be more likely to use an anonymous discussion board for this purpose.

Post homework answers on Canvas (69% support): It is standard practice across the majority of offerings of this course to NOT provide electronic answer keys on Canvas in order to limit a particular mechanism of academic dishonesty (I’m not going to elaborate on the mechanism because I don’t want to give the students any ideas). I was surprised by how many students considered going to the BLC once a week an egregious barrier to accessing the answer keys. All the students are a few doors down from the BLC once a week for lab, and all the TAs have access to the room and could let students in to check answers even if there aren’t office hours at that time. Still, I can hang the answer keys in the hallway so they can be viewed any time the building is open, not just the BLC.

Provide feedback on pre-lab assignments (63% support): This is a concern that I cannot directly resolve. The pre-labs are graded by your lab TA, and so the best mechanism for feedback on these assignments would be in lab.  I have passed along this concern to Pat Randolph (who oversees the TAs), and I encourage the students to talk directly with their TAs for clarification on grading expectations and feedback on lab assignments. I also encourage the students to voice these concerns on their end-of-quarter evaluations for their laboratory section.

More time on the homework assignments (46% support): The homework assignment availability dates are timed for a specific reason. The assignment does not open until immediately after class on Friday, since the questions that relate to Friday’s content could not be answered before this time. The due date of Sunday at midnight was set so that students cannot get unfair assistance on the homework during office hours. I know that this is a tight window, which is why I structured them to be only 10 multiple choice questions. I have been keeping an eye on the average scores and average time spent on the assignment (which Canvas calculates for me) and adjusting future assignments accordingly.

Include multiple choice questions on exam (34% support): I have never cared for multiple choice questions for a variety of reasons (many described here). Writing fair and clear multiple choice questions is harder than it seems, and there is some anecdotal evidence that they favor students who are less prepared (ie, guessing), and that students who are better prepared frequently talk themselves out of the correct answer. There is also no chance for partial credit. One student commented explicitly on the fairness of this structure, which I would like to address: “Short answer tests in an uncurved class seems unfair when other BIS2B sections have multiple choice tests.” To my knowledge, all other sections of BIS 2B (including my previous ones) have exams that are a mix of multiple choice and short answer. Essentially, what our class does is take the multiple choice sections of the exams and put them as weekly homeworks, which students can complete at their leisure and with the assistance of notes, textbook, lecture slides, and video, leaving the full 50 minutes of exam time for just the short answer.

Include short answer questions on homework (19% support): I agree that this would be good practice for the students prior to the exam; however, I simply do not have the grading manpower to handle 312 short answer questions every week. I support practice on the short answer questions through the study guides, which I encourage students to talk about with me in office hours, before/after class, or through the discussion board, if they would like feedback on their answers.

In Summary
Overall, it appears that the students are generally pleased with the structure of the course. While not overwhelmingly supported, the structural differences in this course from others (including clicker questions, lecture capture, discussion sections, and homework assignments) all appeared in the top 10 things that help students learn. The primary thing I can do to increase student success is slow down. I will do my best to speak more slowly and repeat myself. From the students’ engagement in class, and the high mean grades on the weekly homeworks and our first exam, I believe the students are keeping up with the pace quite well, though it may not feel that way to them.

There are three structural changes I will consider: First, I will post answer keys in the hallway outside the BLC so student access is not limited to when the BLC is open. Second, I will ask the students if they would be more likely to use an anonymous discussion board for discussing study guides and weekly homework questions. Third, I will allow the students to vote on whether they prefer 2 chances on each homework assignment or dropping the lowest homework grade from their assignment.

 

Wild Davis Final Presentations!

Today was our last day in the Wild Davis class (sad face!) and today the students presented their final projects! We structured it as a little mini-conference, complete with snacks and sparkling juice (in actual wine glasses) for a classy little event. A short description (and photos!) of each students’ project is outlined below:

Arboretum Waterway: Turbidity and Secchi Depth (Anne Boyd)

Anne’s project related to water quality throughout the Arboretum waterway, measured using secchi depth and turbidity. A secchi disk estimates water quality through clarity – the deeper the disk goes in the water before you lose sight of it, the clearer the water is. Turbidity assesses the ‘cloudiness’ of the water by measuring particles suspended in the water column (like small algae). Professor Steven Sadro in Environmental Science and Policy loaned Anne the equipment and some bench space in his lab for the data collection! Anne hypothesized that water quality would be highest near the weir (since that was one of the reasons for the construction of the weirs) and lower as you move down the waterway away from the weir to more stagnant areas of the waterway. She found instead that the clearest location in the waterway was near the southwestern end, her second furthest site from the weir. She developed some new hypotheses to explain her unexpected data, including the impacts of runoff and point source inputs, shading by trees, and the ‘inputs’ of ducks, fish, and turtles.

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Anne also contributed my hands-down favorite photo from the class. I met up with each of the students during their individual projects to observe their data collection. After taking turbidity samples, Anne totally unprompted did the one thing people always want to photograph scientists doing – holding up a vial of liquid and looking at it very intently.

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The quintessential field science photo

The Wildlife of Davis: A Coloring Book (Ella Brydon)

Ella’s project was quite different from the other students’. Her ‘question’ related to how to get the general public (particularly other UC Davis students) interested in the wildlife of the Arboretum and the ecological interactions we had observed in class. Towards this goal, she developed a coloring book of Arboretum wildlife based on her own original drawings of organisms found there. Each page of the coloring book is accompanied by the scientific name, as well as interesting facts and identifying information for that organism, and color sketches of many of the organisms are included in the introduction to guide the colorer. We plan to print a couple bound copies of the coloring book and we may approach the Arboretum and the campus bookstore about a larger-scale printing effort to make the coloring book available to students.

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Squirrels, Squirrels, Squirrels! (and ducks)

Three of our students did projects on the squirrel population on campus. As even the most casual observer has noticed, there are MANY squirrels on campus. What they might not have noticed is that there are two species of squirrel – the fox squirrel (orangeish and commonly found around the MU), and the western gray squirrel (gray, and more common in the Arboretum area). The fox squirrel is introduced, while the gray squirrel is native.

Harrison Espino observed squirrel behavior at different locations, focusing on whether interactions with humans were active (approaching or fleeing) or passive (unresponsive) and how far individual squirrels traveled during his observation window (up to 45 feet in 20 minutes!).

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Nia Falkner compared tameness of squirrels and ducks on campus, noting how close individuals would let her get and their reactions (vocalizations, tail flicks) to her approach. Nia’s presentation included a particularly tame duck quacking along to Nia’s rendition of “Just the Two of Us”!

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Lisbeth Solis tracked foraging behavior in squirrels, particularly whether they were searching for food or begging from humans. She found that squirrels in the MU spend a much larger amount of time begging for food, while squirrels in other locations almost exclusively search on their own.

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Insect Preference for Sugar and Salt (Xinyu Gao)

Xinyu was interested in attracting flying insects to liquid solutions, based on her enjoyment of butterflies from her hometown. She put out tap water, 1% salt solution, and diluted honey and tracked insect visitation from late morning to after sunset. She found an interesting variety of organisms (more than just the insects she expected) including carpenter bees, flies, spiders, moths, and even a cat…. All of the baits experienced much higher visitation after dusk and the sugar bait had the highest visitation (salt was the lowest).

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A Study of Camponotus essigi (Isabelle Gilchrist)

Isabelle was inspired by our afternoon with Phil Ward and decided to track ant behavior she had noticed around Robbins Hall Annex. She observed ants moving up and down a tree trunk and into and out of Room 12 of the Annex. Attempting to gain access to Room 12 to determine where the ants were going led her on a wild goose chase across multiple departments, and even emails with higher admin! No one was able to answer her questions, or even unlock the door. Consequently, Isabelle reported that the room ‘belongs to the ants now.’ Keeping to the outdoor behavior, Isabelle attempted to ascertain if the ants were going into our out of the door and up or down the tree. She counted numbers of ants moving in each direction and collected some for weighing. She also photographed ants foraging and documented the relative abundance of major and minor workers. Her data indicate that ants coming down from the tree were heavier (presumably carrying food in their stomachs back to the colony) and that about 25% of the ants were worker ants. She also hypothesized that all ants around Robbins Hall Annex are part of one colony, since transporting ants from her area to a separate colony on campus resulted in attacks between the ants (which were not observed between ants traveling on/around the tree and the Annex).

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Which Trees are Best for Nesting? (Laura Poikonen)

Laura observed bird and squirrel nesting site choices in the Arboretum. She noted that squirrels and birds both prefer angiosperm trees, particularly ones with fuller foliage cover. She also noted that birds and squirrels do not use the same individual trees, perhaps because of nestling predation by squirrels. Laura also got some fabulous photos of bluebird nest holes in trees, which she took with her cell phone through the lens of her binoculars!

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Balance Coming From Under Us: Decomposers of UC Davis (Abigail Rodriguez)

Abigail’s project focused on the underground communities of decomposers on the Davis campus. She compared litter composition and decomposer type and abundance at different soil locations around campus, finding that the more managed areas with landscaped lawns had no macroscopic decomposers at all. At more ‘natural’ locations throughout the Arboretum, a wide variety of organisms were found, including ants, earthworms, spiders, millipedes, and beetles.

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Finding Otter (Tristan Tran)

From the first day of class, Tristan was intrigued by the rumors of otters inhabiting the Arboretum waterway. He hoped to find one himself, so to guide his search, he developed an online survey about otter presence and behavior. He also spent time in the Arboretum looking for the otters himself and distributing the survey in person to others present in the Arboretum. While he did not find any otters during these observations, the findings of the survey were very interesting. Tristan compared survey responses of otter behavior and diet to published research. There was no consensus among the respondents on when otters are most active (they are mostly crepuscular) and little on their preferred habitat, identifying pretty much the entire waterway as ‘most likely habitat’. Most respondents believed otters used to be present in the waterway, but have left it recently due to draining of the waterway for construction and repair, or because of changes in water quality. First hand observations of otters were usually at least two years in the past (and most were four or more), which supported the assumption that the otters are not currently present. Many respondents (and Tristan himself) hope/believe that the otters may recolonize the waterway now in the coming years. When asked if he plans to continue his otter search throughout his tenure at UC Davis, Tristan responded that he spends a lot of time in the Arboretum for a variety of reasons, and will keep an eye out for the otters whenever he is there.

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I had an absolutely fantastic time in the Wild Davis class this quarter. Sharon and I had a great bunch of students who were all motivated and excited to get outside and do class a little differently each week. They had great ideas for their projects, really followed through on the data collection and analysis, and produced awesome papers and projects. Numerous students even asked us if it was ‘ok’ to go over on the length of the paper! I hope the students enjoyed the class as much as I did, and I really look forward to offering this class again in the future. Until next time…. keep it wild, Davis!

Wild Davis: Revisiting Campus Research Programs

Last Thursday marked the final group project week in the Wild Davis class! Following this week, students will be working on their individual projects, culminating in a paper and presentation over a campus ecological interaction they find interesting. Also, I missed posting about our wasp gall day a few weeks ago, so I’m including a latergram of that exercise here, too. Both of these exercises related to published research that has been done on the UC Davis campus, which provided the students with a background of data on the system we were observing.

Impacts of Wasp Gall on Herbivory of Oak Trees

The valley oak trees along the Arboretum sport numerous galls (commonly called ‘oak apples’) created by Andricus quercuscalifornicus, a gall-forming wasp, which lays its eggs in twigs of the oak trees. As the eggs develop into larvae, they elicit the development of galls which house and feed the larvae until they are mature and tunnel out of the gall. While the larvae are developing, the galls are reddish-green and resemble small apples (hence their nickname); however, once the mature wasps leave the gall, it dries out (‘senesces’ in scientific terms) and remains on the tree for several years before eventually falling to the ground and decomposing. Consequently, a given tree may carry hundreds of galls at various stages of development and senescence.

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In March of 2013, the EVE 180 class (Experimental Ecology and Evolution in the Field) performed an experiment on valley oak trees in the Putah Creek Riparian Reserve in which they documented arthropod communities prior to and following experimental removal of senesced galls from trees. The team removed over 5,000 galls from 52 different trees and found that gall removal resulted in a 59% increase in density of herbivorous arthropods. This difference was driven by the fact that senesced wasp galls are frequently occupied by Salticid spiders (my favorite! so cute!), which in turn reduce the arthropod community (and alter its composition) through their own predation. The study was later published in the journal Ecology, and is a great example of research opportunities for undergraduates at UC Davis.

Our class studied a different population of valley oaks – those occupying the Valley Oak Grove in the Arboretum. Instead of removing the galls and tracking changes in arthropod density through time, we observed gall density and arthropod density per tree. Students worked in pairs to count and identify arthropod communities on the trees, and to estimate the quantity of herbivore damage to leaves. We were also interested in whether trees near the waterway in the Arboretum contained more galls than those further away (since anecdotally, this appeared to be the case). While we didn’t find any strong correlations between oak galls and arthropod densities, leaf damage, or proximity to the waterway, we did find an impressive diversity of herbivorous and parasitic activity on the trees, and even some evidence of spider presence on senesced galls. One of the things I enjoyed about this session was seeing the quantity of parasitism and herbivore damage that an individual tree can sustain without it being obvious to a casual observer. My personal favorite was a leaf found by Isabelle Gilchrist, which had sustained leaf gall damage that altered the growth of the primary vein, compromising the entire size and shape of the leaf.

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Tracking Native and Introduced Turtle Populations in the Arboretum Waterway

Our last week focused on finding, identifying, and documenting the behavior of turtles in the Arboretum waterway. Though a number of species have been found in the waterway over the years, only two are common: the native western pond turtle, Emys marmorata, and the red-eared slider Trachemys scripta elegans, introduced to the waterway via release of unwanted pet turtles. I love turtles, and I spent probably more time than was strictly necessary doing recon (wandering the Arboretum with my long-lens SLR) for this exercise, which means I have a *lot* of adorable turtle photos.

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Our goals for the class exercise were to track how many turtles we saw of each species (and what this might mean for their relative population sizes) and whether or not there were differences in the types of basking perches they chose (which might indicate competition between the two species). Turtles present a few particular problems for this kind of project. First, given the clarity of the water in the Arboretum, we can only really observe turtles that are basking, or swimming near the surface. Second, the two species can be difficult to distinguish, especially from afar. Third, basking turtles tend not to…. do much… which can make 3-hour class observations somewhat boring.

I countered these problems by 1) extensive recon (cute turtle photos!!) to identify the areas of the waterway where we are most likely to find turtles basking and swimming, 2) a crash course in turtle ID for the Wild Davis students, and 3) a short-term ethogram (behavioral table) based primarily around choice of basking habitat and “turtle plops,” which represented the ‘disturbability’ of the turtles (when they abandon their basking habitat due to human or other turtle interference).

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Turtle plop!

This exercise would have been impossible without the generous equipment loans of Santiago Ramirez, who let me borrow binoculars without a neck strap (the trust level!), Marcel Rejmanek, who might not even know I have his two pairs of binoculars, and Gail Patricelli, who handed me her THREE THOUSAND DOLLAR sighting scope and tripod with a casual “Don’t break it!” and a chuckle. I continue to be impressed by and proud of the generosity and collaborative nature of my colleagues. Gail’s sighting scope was perfect for the lake section of the waterway, which is the widest, and also where turtles like to bask on the cement embankment, out of view of the path on their own side, and the furthest possible distance from viewing on the opposite path. The photos below show the same Emys through my zoom lens SLR (which at any other part of the waterway is more than sufficient) and through Gail’s sighting scope. I also want to say a special thanks to Robyn Screen and Bob Thomson (both now at University of Hawai’i, Mānoa) who have studied these turtles (see links to studies below) and who could provide input on basking locations, turtle ID, and general fun facts about the turtles and their history.

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We found fewer turtles during class than on any of my recon visits, and particularly fewer native Emys. Still, we could do some good observations. We noted few differences in behavior or basking preference between the two species, though we observed more Trachemys in the water, and mostly only saw the Emys basking. We also noted that the juvenile turtles we saw (including the teensiest turtle I have ever found!) were all Trachemys – which might suggest this species recruits offspring better than Emys. Fortunately, on my recon trips, I saw numerous juvenile Emys, so the native turtles are also recruiting, although perhaps not as much as the Trachemys.

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After our observations, the students had a number of questions about the interactions between invasive and native turtles. Even if they have similar basking habitats, could the Trachemys outcompete Emys for food? With seeing so few juvenile Emys and so many  juvenile Trachemys, should we be worried about the native turtles’ population size? What could we do, in management terms, to remove the Trachemys from the waterway? How can we prevent more non-native turtle species from being introduced to the waterway?

Fortunately, some of the research done on the turtles has looked at a few of these questions. A 2003 study by Spinks et al quantified population sizes of the native Emys and nine other introduced species, finding that the Emys population had declined by 40% throughout the study period of six years. “Headstarting” the turtles (rearing juveniles in captivity and then releasing them to the waterway) did improve population sizes, but does not address the root causes of decline. A study by Lambert et al in 2013 did find differences in basking habitat, which recommended management practices the Arboretum could undertake to provide more spaces for Emys (namely areas with low human presence, steep slopes, shallow water, and a concrete basking substrate). Another study currently under review by Lambert et al tracked the effect of Trachemys removal from the waterway on Emys basking preference. The team removed nearly 200 Trachemys turtles and then observed Emys behavior in response to this reduction in competition. Interestingly, the Emys primarily used the same basking locations they had used previously (abandoning some basking sites, but not expanding into others). This study also documented a pronounced east-west gradient in basking preference, with Trachemys primarily occupying the eastern end of the waterway and Emys more prevalent in the western end. It is worth noting here that our turtle observations were primarily in the western end of the waterway, where this study would have predicted our observations to include more Emys. These studies might lead us to some concern about the future of the native Emys turtles, but another study assessing population structure throughout the Sacramento Basin provides some hope. In 2010, Thomson et al reported relative distributions of Trachemys and Emys, finding that while the introduced Trachemys are present throughout the basin, they are concentrated in more urban areas with high human traffic (like the UC Davis Arboretum waterway) and are far less common throughout portions of the Emys range with less human impact, where the native turtles can still be found in abundance. Still, Emys marmorata is still listed as a Species of Special Concern in California, making continued observations of these populations important.