Field Blog

Dawn at Dr. Ruth Risdon Storer Garden

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.

Hello beautiful redbud tree!

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.

Mary and Ruth’s Roses.
Friends and neighbors more than 50 years, they shared a friendship that bloomed along with their roses, creating beauty for all to enjoy.
In Loving Memory
Mary McGraw Miller, June 1 1911 – February 18, 1993
Ruth Risdon Storer, February 25, 1888 – September 13, 1986

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).

Wild Davis 2020: Evening at the Campus BOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Davis 2020: The Campus BOG at Mid-Day

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

Mid-day observations, following county health guidelines

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

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

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

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

The only dragonfly that pauses long enough to be photographed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris’s observation spot at Putah Creek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Davis 2020: The Campus BOG at Dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A patchwork of poppies, lupines, and fruit trees

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

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

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

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

The BOG at dawn

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

2019 Popsugar Reading Challenge Complete!

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

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

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

The Regular List

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

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

Now that’s an opening line.

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

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

The Advanced List

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

Wild Davis Observations: East Regional Pond at Dusk

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

The East Regional Pond at dusk

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

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

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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 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.