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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.