Restoration Ecology at Sonoma State University

Welcome to the online home of Restoration Ecology at Sonoma State University. In Fall, 2017, students are collecting baseline data about the ecology of the stretch of Copeland Creek that runs through campus, to help inform restoration of this area in the future. They are also developing proposals for restoration of the campus lakes.

To see the blog archive from 2012 – 2014, please click here.


Sedges Have Edges

November 17 was a beautiful fall day in Sonoma County. The sky was clear and it was a nice cool temperature. This was an answered prayer for many students in this year’s restoration ecology. We went out to the Laguna Foundation and had a wonderful day.  Our main goal for the day was to plant sedge in an area right along the creek. This will help stop other weeds such as blackberry from invading the area. The neat thing about this project is that they were growing the sedge on their property and then we got to transplant it into an area along the creek. Throughout the day Paul and Brent led us. It started off with a quick tour of the buildings. They renovated a house that had been on the property and created it into office space.  Around the building they had landscapes that were meant demonstrate features of the landscape, which I thought was really neat. They mentioned how it could inspire people with ways to make their own yards more suitable for California’s Mediterranean climate.  They also had areas through the front area that were meant for children to play and interact with the environment. They had a willow tunnel that kids could go through and logs they could jump across. The area was very kid friendly. The showed us this small wetland area and they were telling us about how they take in some turtles from the wildlife rescue centers because they may have a better chance of survival in what Brent jokingly called  “fake nature”. I thought the comment was funny in the moment but found that the comment stuck with me throughout the day. I kept thinking if our restoration efforts were producing “fake nature.“ I really enjoyed hearing about the history of the Laguna De Santa Rosa and the surrounding areas from Paul and Brent. They explained how the Laguna is a water catchment, it was pretty eye opening to realize how much the Laguna floods. Towards the end of the day Brent showed us a large pole that they attack a camera to so they can take pictures. The camera was way over his head and he said after a big rain they have to kayak out to come and get it.  Before we headed to start the picking and planting part of the day they ended the tour by showing us their nursery. They are growing many native plants in which they grow for their own restoration projects, as well as sell some to organization as a way to make a little money. They are also partnering with the California Plant society and trying to get native plants to other places of restoration including some areas affected by the wildfires that occurred this last October. They also showed us the barn. The barn is really neat and has a long history. The barn has been there since the civil war. We also learned a little about how Sonoma County used to be known for selling hops and things that were non-perishable.  Learning little fun facts like these is one of the reasons I really enjoy going on fields trips with this class.

Eventually we made are way down to the creek and started the restoration work. They were growing the sedge in large patches.  It was our job to take chunks of the sedge out without completely getting rid of the whole area. We had to dig around the piece of sedge we wanted and try our best to not destroy the roots. If you did it right you would get what Brent called a bommer. Which was the sedge and then at the bottom a ball of roots and dirt.  Brent made it look pretty easy. When we actually tried it for ourselves we discovered it was a bit more difficult then he made it look, but no too bad. One thing many of us found out was that sedges definitely have edges. Many of us got cuts on our arms from being scraped by the sedge. It is for sure ingrained in my mind now that sedges have edges. After we finished picking enough we brought it back to the area by the creek and planted it in row. We broke up into different jobs for this part. Some people were in charge of giving the sedge a “haircut “ which entails trimming off the top part of the plant,because once we plant the plant we want them to focus their growth on their roots rather than their height. Some of us were in charge of digging holes and others were actually planting the plant. This part of the day was fun we were all joking around laughing while we worked.  We planted one whole stretch of area with the sedge.  It was rewarding to look and see the area look different due to our work and know that it will help the landscape in the long run. This restoration day was a really good balance of learning information about the landscape and actual hands on restoration.  Big thanks to Laguna Foundation for hosting us!

Exploring Lagunitas Creek

IMG_8506.JPGLagunitas Creek is a home for many species of salmon and for a rare species of shrimp. In the past, the morphology of the creek was changed due to agriculture to increase the farmland area. Not only was the morphology changed but there was a dam installed further upstream that controls the velocity of the water flow. When a large storm brings an abundance of water, the flow of the stream has a high velocity since the river is straight and lacks debris. The young salmon living in the shallows of the stream stand no chance against rushing water – young fish are swept down the river and do not survive. The dam also prevented a build up of sediment from settling at the bottom of the river. This area was in need of help from people who had tempered with Mother Nature upstream. People who would contribute to helping the creek include the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Trout Unlimited.

IMG_8505.JPG The restoration project we visited worked to increase habitat in the stream by placing logs into the stream. The logs  – native redwood trees from around the area – decrease the water flow and provide aquatic species a place to rest or hide. Most importantly the logs prevent young salmon from being washed away in a storm. The logs also provided the lakebed with nutrients by creating flood plains when there is an abundance of water. To prevent the logs from being carried away by the river, rods and boulders anchored them to the lakebed. While installing the debris, the restoration workers were careful to not harm the species they were trying to help.


They also made new channels in retired farming fields where the river used to flow. The goal of the restoration project was to increase the amount of flood plains in the area, and to do this, they planted native vegetation such as willows in the new channels. The cost of the project was only $40,000 across 8 sites, however there was also a lot of time and effort that went into the project, including the work involved in filing paperwork and applying for permits.

Overall, the restoration project in Lagunitas Creek seems to be successful and in the hands of smart, capable people.


The Restoration Team

Copeland Creek: An Abundance of Natural History


Holly using the Dichotomous Key. Photo © by Heather Kelly-Cavanaugh

Our first lab session, on September 1st, consisted of our entire class going out to Copeland Creek with professor Wendy St John.  It runs through the back of Sonoma State University, which surprisingly not many students know it even exists. As we walked up and down the creek we looked at different species and what possible restoration ideas could be set in place. The goal was to not only see the beautiful nature around us, but to also dive in and take a closer look at what we could do to improve the landscape.

Copeland Creek is 9 miles long, perennial, and completely human made. It comes down from Sonoma Mountain which is the home of Fairfield Osborn Preserve and runs through campus. Prehistorically this creek helped supply the Coast Miwok, Wappo and Pomo peoples before the European settlers arrived in the early 19th century The creek not only provides habitat for salmon and other aquatic animals, but it houses many terrestrial and riparian species.  As the years go on there are noticeable environmental issues that have risen. Bank erosion, invasive grasses and reduced populations of amphibians are just some examples of a larger list waiting to be addressed.

While on our walk along the creek, we talked about various reptiles and amphibians living there, as well as identifying native and non-native species. There are several oaks along the creek as well such as the willow, the big leaf maple and the cork oak which is an ornamental tree. A major non-native invasive species on the creek is the Himalayan Blackberry. It has taken over the landscape and reduced other species around it. The university has taken measures to eradicate the invasive species, however they are starting to grow back. We will continue efforts to keep the species at bay and convert the invasive species to the native California Blackberry. Other interesting species we identified while walking along the creek were: Buckeye, Poisoned Hemlock, California Grape, Black Walnut, Oregon Ash, and Coyote Bush.


Ducks wandering around the area. Photo © by Heather Kelly-Cavanaugh

When we finished out walk along the Creek, we came back to the classroom and focused on possible restoration ideas for the creek as a whole and the in invasive species. We also discussed starting up a club to help restoration of the creek. Gaining new members and helping to restore the environment around us is something we all agreed on. We are all looking towards a brighter future for the creek.

Copeland Creek: A Long & Winding History

On Friday, September 1st, Professor Wendy St. John took the Restoration Ecology class for a walk up part of Copeland Creek, where previous Restoration Ecology students had both proposed and implemented a restoration plan.  Our mission for the day was to get a better grasp of Copeland Creek’s history, to better understand the important role the creek plays in the ecosystem in Sonoma County, and to evaluate some of the restoration work the students have completed along the creek.

Copeland Creek is a perennial creek that begins at Sonoma State’s very own Fairfield Osborn Preserve, located on Sonoma Mountain, and flows down through campus, draining into the Laguna de Santa Rosa.  The creek provides a diverse riparian ecosystem to the area.  Historically, the stream meandered down from Sonoma Mountain and spread out into the floodplain that we now know as Cotati, Rohnert Park, and the surrounding areas.  The rich ecosystem it helped create supported Coast Miwok, Wappo, and Pomo peoples for many years.  When settlers came to the area to farm, they channelized Copeland Creek and other waterways in order to build their homes and make for a more “livable” location.  The channelizing of creeks greatly altered the landscape – all of the sudden there were perfectly straight creeks shooting directly at the Laguna rather than hitting the floodplain and spreading out.  Today, the creek is a popular spot on SSU’s campus and serves the important purpose of providing flood control during the rainy season (although, as seen with the flooding on campus just a few years ago, sometimes the whole flood control thing doesn’t quite work…).

During our walk along the creek, we identified and discussed a number of both native and non-native species.  Interestingly, the canopy cover along the creek is made up of mostly native trees, such as oaks and willows, while many of the grasses are non-native.  Some other species that call the creek and surrounding areas home include:  Sierran tree frogs, slender salamanders, poison hemlock, a number of migratory birds, and the endangered steelhead (which even spawn in the creek by Lichau Road!).

One common non-native and invasive plant that can be found all along Copeland Creek is the ever-present Himalayan blackberry.  While Himalayan blackberry provides an abundance of food and habitat for wildlife as well as stabilization for soil, its ability to crowd out and overrun areas has made its removal a priority in restoration work along Copeland Creek.


Himalayan blackberry.  Photo © Makayla Freed

Last semester (Spring 2017), students, faculty, and members of the community alike worked tirelessly to remove Himalayan blackberry along the south bank of Copeland Creek on campus.  A masticator even came through part of the riparian area and removed several thickets of Himalayan blackberry.  In an effort to keep the blackberry from regrowing, students laid down cardboard mats and covered them in wood chips, blocking off sunlight.  As we walked along the creek, we could see areas where young blackberry stalks had poked through the cardboard – a true testament to the persistence of the Himalayan blackberry.  We also saw another highly invasive species that people involved in restoration work seem to come across the most often: trash.  From beer cans and lighters to even a feather boa, humans get rather creative with what they litter.


Jesica asking Raquel if the feather boa would go good with her outfit. Photo © Makayla Freed

At the end of class, we came together in the ETC to discuss different attributes we would focus on if we were to do restoration work on Copeland Creek.  Students brought up everything from the trash problem to the lack of native understory.  One thing we can all agree on is that in learning more about Copeland Creek, we now have a better grasp of both what makes the creek so unique and why restoration work along it are so important.  Despite some of the rather disappointing things we saw on our little field trip (like the stylish but out of place boa), I remain hopeful for the future of this wonderful waterway.

Copeland Creek Restoration Project: Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality and the Aquatic Community

Copeland Creek Restoration Project: Monitoring and Assessing Water Quality and the Aquatic Community

By Niall Ogburn and Michael Lutz

This semester we were tasked with the responsibility of testing the water quality in Copeland Creek, as well as getting our hands dirty and finding out what kind or organisms live in the creek (and if they’re native or non-native). To test water quality, we took water samples of the creek to test for pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, and temperature levels, all of which are great indicators of the health and well being of the benthic macro invertebrate and fish community that lives in the creek. Often times, monitoring the quality of these factors can tell you a lot about the structure of the aquatic community without physically assessing the species. However, we also assessed the community in the creek to try and get a good picture of the base of the food chain and the organisms that support larger aquatic members of the community such as steelhead and various amphibians.


Satellite photo of the Environmental Technology Center and Copeland Creek. Our study took place in the upper pool marked by the pin.

Our two original objectives were to 1) bring water pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nitrate in compliance with California legislative standards by 2020, and 2) reduce the mosquito fish population by 60% by 2020. These objectives were created before any kind of monitoring took place, and were adjusted as we embarked on our project.

Testing the quality of the water for our first objective involved the use of a few different types of instruments that we had never used before. This was a surprisingly fun experience learning how to use instruments that are actually used out in the field by professionals to measure elements in water quality that reveal important information. We used an instrument called the LabQuest II, a small cell-phone sized piece of technology that has ports for varying attachment probes that measure temperature, nitrate, dissolved oxygen, etc.. The probes are inserted into the water for a period of time until the measurements of the water appear on the screen of the gadget. We used this tool to exclusively measure the dissolved oxygen levels and temperature in the creek. For nitrate and pH, we used an aquarium test kit that involved getting water samples and inserting a test strip into them and comparing the color of the strip to a chart. The use of the aquarium test kit was really an act of desperation more than anything else. As great as the LabQuest II was for measuring water quality, some attachment probes revealed themselves to be defective, so using the test kit was just a way of circumventing the problem.


Underwater photo of the top pool that our study was conducted in. The dark drainage pipe is partly visible in the left background. (Photo credit: Lutz)

Our results were nothing less than astonishing. Taking a look around Copeland Creek, it is very evident how much human activity there is in the dark, and at times disgusting creek. Trash is everywhere, and when I say trash, I mean hypodermic needles, old pieces of clothing, and an insanely large amount of plastic waste. Surely a place with this high amount of human pollution could not possibly hold relatively clean water. And yet, this is exactly what we found: fresh clean water that, on paper, seems good enough to drink (still, I wouldn’t recommend it). This was such a joy to find, especially sense this level of quality was already in line with our objective of bringing quality in compliance with California state legislative standards. The only problem was that according to the state’s clean water act, there is no compliancy standard. Our new objective is to keep these conditions at levels that are adequate for steelhead habitat.


The large upper pool (Photo credit: Lutz)

As exciting as these findings were, they were nothing when compared to the findings found from our assessment of the aquatic community. Our initial assumptions were similar to our assumptions about the quality of the water. How many species worth caring about could possibly call these trash infested pools home?

As it turned out, quite a few.


The unidentified elusive fish. (photo credit: Lutz)

Finding these critters was no easy task. As we walked into the creek on our first day of field work and began looking around, we saw no signs of promise. It took upwards of an hour, using primitive and simplistic methods to get a few Isopoda, a water skeeter, a baby crawfish, and a worm. Not the big haul of species we were expecting. We observed plenty of fish, which our professor suspected were invasive mosquito fish, and we already had plans to use traps to catch a large proportion, with an eye to their removal. We had also heard rumors of a potentially large fish living in the drainage pipe of the highest pool, and even had one blurry picture provided by Caroline Christian confirming its existence. On day one, however, no evidence of the elusive fish was found.

At this point, hopes were not high. It seemed that the only species using these small withering pools were either invasive fish, hardy uncharismatic invertebrates, and a ghost fish. But still we trudged on. On day two of our collection we managed to add two unknown water beetles to our list. We later identified these as walking water beetles, but it was still nothing to get too excited about.


The fish traps used to collect the sculpin and three-spine stickleback. (Photo credit: Lutz)

On day three of collection, we decided to implement the traps we had made from 2L plastic bottles, to see if they would be an effective means of catching those invasive mosquito fish. Baited with old dirty chicken, we left the traps to soak in the water overnight for 24 hours. What we pulled up from the depths will forever be in my mind.

Gazing through the plastic bottles, two fish could be seen. One was large (considering the size of the traps entrance) with a big meaty head and a tapering body. It was marbled brown in color and had milky glazed eyes . . . the fish was dead, presumably from lack of oxygen in the trap. Its existence was nonetheless an extremely exciting realization that the creek was home to a variety of fish species. The second fish in the trap was small (about an inch), grey, had three spines sticking out of its back, and was alive. Unfortunately in our ignorance, we assumed this little guy was a mosquito fish that had made its way into the trap, so no thought was given when we preserved the fish in ethanol.

What we later discovered was that the fish was really a California native called a coastal three-spine stickleback. If we had known the fish to be native, we would have released it back into the water to live a happy life, but, as my father always tells me, you live and you learn. The second fish we found was, astonishingly, another California native called a sculpin. These discoveries were very exciting, but more excitement was yet to come.

After the thrills of finding native fish, we decided to get to work catching some of the mosquito fish that were observed swimming in the creek. These were easily caught using an aquarium style dip net. With a little bit of patience, we managed to catch a juvenile and adult fish. They were about 2.5 inches, long and sleek looking, deeply indented caudal fin, greenish silver with a black band on their lateral line, and a closer look revealed that they were not, in fact, mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis). 


California three-spine stickleback and Sculpin (Photo credit: Lutz)


It took us a great deal of time and investigating to find the identity of our mystery fish. Only through the help of Sarah Phillips of the Marin Resource Conservation Department (RCD), and local fish enthusiast, were we able to I.D. the fish as Hesperoleucus symmetricus, more commonly know as the California roach; a native fish.

This finding felt unreal. Not only to find a third native fish that makes up the majority of the fish community in the pool we assessed, but also that our second objective called for the reduction in their population by 60%. This was a lesson well learned: always check the identity of your problem species before implementing reduction plans.


California roach collected from copeland creek (Photo credit: Lutz)


Mosquito fish (Gambusia affinis) (Photo credit:


As we were leaving our from our last day of field work a couple weeks later, one final surprise revealed itself from the darkness. The large mystery fish, suspended in the water column, swam casually out of the large drainage pipe. I tried getting pictures with my phone of the fish from above, but they turned out just as blurry as the pictures shown to us in the beginning of our project. Then I remembered I had a waterproof case on my phone. I stuck my phone in the water and took some pictures. It was through these pictures that we were able to identify the fish as Lepomis cyanellus, a green sunfish. Although “Sunny” is an exotic species that is most likely eating a few California roach, we have decided that Sunny is cool.


Sunny the green sunfish (photo credit: Lutz)

Documenting Our Feathery Friends in Copeland Creek

ghitten by: Beverly Wong

One might notice the huge contrast between the atmosphere of  the different parts of Sonoma State’s campus. While there are herds of students buzzing and rushing about to get to their next class in the main area by the infamous ‘Bacon and Eggs’ structure, the atmosphere quickly turns peaceful and serene when they hit the outskirts of the campus — specifically where Copeland Creek crosses through our campus. The chitter chatter of students about the stresses of last-minute assignments and the massive deck of flashcards they have to memorize for an exam quickly becomes replaced by the squawks, chirps, quacks, and other birdy sounds once you hit Copeland Creek.


Copeland Creek

Copeland Creek (©Wendy St. John)

In fact, birds are a large indicator of ecosystem health due to their high sensitivity to ecological changes in a habitat and the large connection between habitat components and different avian species. Clearly, it was easy to tell that birds make up a significant part of the Copeland Creek community, with all the bird noises in the background. With the restoration of Copeland Creek in mind, it was crucial that our group focused on the avian community to document the various bird species,  the abundance of the birds, and to compare these results with the reports of species that were spotted in the creek years ago. This information will become incredibly useful in future restoration projects on Copeland Creek because you won’t know what needs to be done if you have no idea what is out there!

First, our group got together and created a game plan of how we were going to approach this task. In the beginning, it seemed straightforward.  First, you put on your shoes, hop out the door, and just go out there and point out every bird you encounter — right? Well, yes and no. We had to create a very specific procedure on how to record all of this bird data so that it would represent the avian community as accurately as it can. Therefore, we decided to record data four times in total, twice in the morning, when birds are known to be the most active, and twice in the afternoon.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.49.48 AM.pngSince our feathery friend was being difficult in terms of having a picture taken of it, here is the exact picture we looked at on Google Images where we officially determined that the bird we were looking at was indeed the Spotted Towhee! © David Powell



With our plan set in stone, we were ready to begin. On our first morning, Paolo and Amy came extra prepared with the Merlin Bird ID App (free in the Apple App and Google Play Store) downloaded onto a phone, and pages of Google Image pictures of the most common species found in the creek. This came extra handy as it helped us identify lots of birds right then and there because you can never depend on the memory of a stressed out college student. It was pretty difficult at first because we were still familiarizing ourselves with common bird species, focusing the binoculars in on a bird before it flies away, jotting down the description of unidentifiable species, tallying the number of individual bird calls we heard, and dealing with the most frustrating fact of all — birds are exceptionally good at not staying still when you want them to be still. But after a trial run or two, we managed to have a steady system and were able to document and identify some bird species on our own! For example, there was a cute little bird with beady red eyes rustling around in a bush. Right as we saw it, we played around on our phone, flipping through numerous pictures of birds on Google Images, trying to identify it on the Merlin Bird ID App for a good solid five minutes until we finally concluded that it was a Spotted Towhee!

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.51.52 AM.pngPicture from What our group will potentially look like when we are finished with this project.

The rest of our walks became less stressful as we got more comfortable with the routine of documenting the birds we found along the Creek. After all of the successful identifications and data analyses, we were confident that we were on our way to start our professional birding company.

Catching Critters in the Creek

Written by: Amy Unruh

After weeks of logistical issues, we were finally able to get ahold of the Sherman traps from the biology department that we would be using to capture and analyze the small mammals along Copeland Creek. With the guidance of Biology professor Wendy St. John, we set out on a frigid Sunday evening to set our traps. Because the features of the creek change so drastically as you walk from one end to the other, we knew we had to spread the traps out along the length of the creek so that we could capture the full spectrum of habitat types. Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.43.38 AM.pngWe placed two traps in each zone, and four traps in zone one, which is the largest.

In order to assure that our friends would have somewhere pleasant to stay for the night, we arranged each Sherman trap with an irresistible helping of Nature Valley granola and a good-sized wad of cotton to make a bed with. We sought out places along the creek that were fairly inconspicuous— so that passersbys wouldn’t be able to find them without looking around a little bit (this backfired on us the following morning). We hid the traps under shrubby plants, in blackberry bushes, and in small divots along the bank. It didn’t take very long to set up- after about an hour we were done; all we could do was wait patiently for the following morning.

7:00 A.M. on a Monday and we had all gathered at the base of the creek, eager to see what we found. We were in high spirits as we walked down the creek bed and searched for our first two traps that we’d left in the first zone. It didn’t take long to realize our mistake– we had never taken photos of where exactly we left the traps. The first ones were the hardest to find. When we finally found the traps in the first zone, we were eager to see some critters. As Beverly picked up the trap- ready to dump its contents into the plastic bag, the rest of us waited anxiously. Then we watched as Beverly’s face sprouted a look of disappointment and we unanimously understood without words that we hadn’t caught anything.

We continued along the length of the creek, searching for our remaining traps. One by Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.46.27 AM.pngone, we found the traps, picked them up, and accepted we hadn’t caught anything. With each empty trap, we increasingly understood that the likelihood of catching any mammals was very low. When we got to the last trap, we looked at one another in defeat and exited the creek bed.

We walked back to the supply room to return the traps and pondered why we hadn’t caught any animals. Perhaps it was too cold? Maybe the traps weren’t sensitive enough?

Nonetheless, our group learned about the complications that are inevitable when it comes to live animal traps. We had a good time overall and were each able to pick-up a new technique, which will be really valuable in the future.