Amorous Newts and Grass Impersonations: A Cold Adventure on Sonoma Mountain

By Kathleen Grady

It was a cold and blustery afternoon on Sonoma Mountain two days before Thanksgiving. Most of the Restoration Ecology Class had already headed home for the holiday, but a few hardy¬†souls interested in grassland restoration, California Red-legged Frogs, or the potential for extra credit points decided to band together on an unofficial, not-at-all-a-field trip type outing. We ventured to an area normally not accessible to the public‚ÄĒthe Mitsui Ranch. This easement¬†is managed by¬†the Sonoma Mountain Ranch Preservation Foundation, a non-profit with the goal of making cattle ranching in California both ecologically sound and profitable.

Thanks to fellow Sonoma State student Keith Wellstone who is conducting research there, we were able to visit Sonoma Mountain Ranch and learn about the restoration techniques used at the ranch and the interesting organisms that call this beautiful place home.

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View of the property at about 2,000 feet of elevation, photo courtesy of K. Grady

Grassland Restoration

First, we met Jeff Wilcox, the managing ecologist for the Foundation. He gave us some background about the history of Mitsui Ranch, and about California ranchland in general.

Mitsui Ranch is roughly 632 acres in size. Like much of California’s grasslands, it was overgrazed for many years and kept under fire suppression, which allowed non-native annual grasses to takeover as the dominant pasture plants. Although some are decent forage for cattle, many actually provide less nutrition for the cows, or, are downright inedible. The Foundation acknowledges that many of these non-natives will persist, but they are also trying to restore the California native perennial bunch grasses, both for ecological reasons, and for ecosystem services: the native grasses are often better for and preferentially eaten by cattle. The Sonoma Mountain Preservation Foundation proposes combining best grazing practices and management with restoration to enhance both sides of the equation.

Chief among the inedible is medusahead, Elmus caput-medusae, a grass with silica in its cell walls that produces a thick thatch layer that crowds out any other species. Fortunately, medusahead has almost no seed bank and with regular prescribed burning, it can be nearly eliminated from the system.

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Medsahead monoculture, photo courtesy of Meridian Jacobs Weblog

Jeff took us out to a 10 acre plot that had been burned in 2014 and reseeded with a mixture of native grasses that were historically present or present in nearby systems, and are also known to be good cattle forage. Apparently with the drought last year, there wasn’t a ton of growth, but Jeff remains hopeful for this year. The plot is also further divided into transects for additional scientific research, and it includes a few small exclosure plots that will show plant growth in the absence of grazing.

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Small fescue (Festucha microstachys) a native annual good for forage, photos courtesy of Robert E. Preston

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Jeff doing his Festucha impersonation, photo courtesy of C. Christian

Amphibians and Stock Ponds: A Benefit of Cattle Ranching

After visiting the grassland, we went to check out some of Keith’s study areas. He is doing spotlight surveys for threatened¬†California Red-legged Frogs (Rana draytonii) at the Ranch. Following the mating season, he will also be surveying for egg masses. These frogs persist at Sonoma Mountain Ranch because of the cattle. Cows need water, and so active ranches maintain stock ponds for them. These muddy bodies of water provide choice habitat for Red-legged frogs.

Keith and Jeff both grabbed chest waders and nets and hopped into a cold stock pond to catch amphibians for us. Although we didn’t find any Rana draytonii, we did encounter another of nature’s wonders: Mating California Newts (Taricha torosa).

Photos courtesy of W. St.John, C. Christian, and K. Grady

Male newts’ skin gets slippery and their tail fins and forearms enlarge to swim after females more quickly and then grab on for mating. Several pairs were floating around in the pond. It was great to see them up close!

Photos courtesy of W. St. John and K. Grady

Working Lands Work

Overall it was a great, if chilly, visit to a local example of conservation in action. Working lands can be great resources for wildlife and people, helping us to maintain some of California’s wild places as well as providing us with ecosystem services, directly in the form of meat and dairy, and more indirectly, with carbon sequestration and open spaces. It was definitely a trip to be thankful for.

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Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata) by K. Grady

Praying Mantis at the Laguna

Restoration

As our Restoration Ecology class made our way to the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trais in Sebastopol to meet Brent Reed, Restoration Manager at the Laguna Foundation, we didn’t expect to meet the friends we did on the trails.

Portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail

Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail. Photo © W. St. John

Our task for the day was removing mesh and the baby tree protectors that had been on there for a couple of years. As the sun grew hotter and the work got tedious a strange hollow leaf looking thing was found.

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Praying Mantis Egg Sack. Photo © W. St. John

“Wow what is that!” Everyone was fascinated by this strange egg sack we concluded it was. Back to work we went pulling up weed mats, but we kept finding really cool anything things! We found about 5 snakes sheds that were fully tacked and we kept finding those egg sacks stuck to the weed mats.

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Pulling weed mats. Photo © W. St. John

Finally someone satisfied our curiosity and told us it was a Praying Mantis egg sack. Wow how cool…none of us had ever seen one before. As we kept finding those through our restoration work we assumed it was laying egg season.

A walk through the Laguna

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Tree. Photo © W. St. John

As Brent took us for a walk through the Laguna for a little history talk, we kept coming across our dear friend the Praying Mantis. They were everywhere! The Praying Mantis is a a fierce predator. They live for about a year making and laying their eggs in the autumn and then they hatch in the spring. Their leaf like egg sack protects the eggs during the cold winter season. They can be up to about 3 inches long and some can rotate their head 180 degrees.

Finding the Praying Mantis everywhere was a wonderful highlight of the field trip. Everywhere we looked there was an egg sack or a praying mantis its self!

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Praying Mantis. Photo © W. St. John

Getting Down and Dirty at the Laguna de Santa Rosa

By: Jessica Grant, Sean Evans, and Ryan Galloway

On a perfect fall day, our Restoration Ecology class began our trip to the Laguna de Santa Rosa where we would spend our day working, learning, and having fun with a few members of the restoration team. Once we arrived, we met our guide for the day, Brent Reed, who is the Restoration Projects supervisor for the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation. Brent gathered us around and gave a quick speech about the history and present day Laguna Watershed. Then we were off to take part in our restoration work for the day.

Brent Describing the Laguna

Brent giving us some background on the Laguna. Photo © W. St. John

The Laguna de Santa Rosa is the largest freshwater wetland on the Northern California coast. The watershed forms the largest tributary to the Russian River, and includes multiple cities such as: Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Santa Rosa, Windsor, and Cotati. The presence and health of the Laguna is of great importance to Sonoma County‚Äôs water quality and flood control. Because of such importance, the Foundation‚Äôs mission is to ‚ÄúPreserve, restore, and enhance the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and to inspire public appreciation and understanding of this magnificent natural area.” The hands-on restoration work we were able to take part in was really a great way to experience such an influential and spectacular area of importance where we live.

Portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail

Portion of the Laguna trail. Photo © W. St. John

During our time at the Laguna de Santa Rosa, we were given the opportunity to work in one of the restoration projects currently happening in the area.  We were given the task of removing weed blankets, stakes, flag markers, and other supporting instruments from oak tree saplings that were planted throughout the field.  The saplings had survived through their vulnerable phase and were now ready to grow on their own.  The task seemed daunting at first, with seemingly endless rows of saplings.  But with a great work ethic from the group, we were able to clear a large portion of the field we worked on.  A couple hours of honest work under the sun welcomed an anticipated lunch break nearby in the shade of great oak trees overlooking the Laguna.  After lunch we set out on a stroll, following a path that circumnavigated the Laguna.  With a creek to our left, and a vineyard to our right, the sun shimmered overhead as a hawks shadow swept over the land. We made it to a duck pond to where our journey would end.  On the way back conversations could be heard speaking of what new knowledge and spirit was uncovered today.

After spending the day volunteering with Brent and his staff, we were able to better understanding of the kind of work that goes on at the foundation, and see firsthand how restoration project are benefitting the landscape at the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Walking away from this, we could see that the oak tree saplings were well on their way to growing and helping to rejuvenate the space off the trail. It will take a few years for the area to fully take form with the work that was done, but within a generation, the workspace we went through will be teeming with more life, and a better environment for the biota around it. This experience was one that without a doubt helped shape our understanding of not just what goes on at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, but of what is required of restoration projects, and just how transformative they can be.

Exploring the Laguna

Exploring the Laguna. Photo © W. St. John

Restoration at the Laguna de Santa Rosa -Draft

Restoration at the Laguna de Santa Rosa

by Elias Lopez

On November 6th our class visited the Laguna de Santa Rosa. We were welcomed by Brent Reed,¬†the Restoration Projects Supervisor of the Laguna De Santa Rosa Foundation, and he introduced to us¬† Aaron Nu√Īez, the Restoration Technician and Sonoma State Alumni. The Laguna is one of the¬†largest freshwater complex on the northern Californian coast and is rich in wildlife.

 

Portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail

Portion of the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail. Photo Credit: Wendy St. John

The Work Day

Our work site was in the Middle Reach area near the Chevron gasoline station off of Highway 12. Two years ago this site was part of a massive planting project; oaks, coyote bush, wild roses along with other native plant species were transplanted in hopes to recreate a wetland forest.  This site is now a nonactive site, meaning there will be no more restoration work done to it. This is were we come to play. Since it is nonactive, our job was to remove as much as man made materials from the planting sites as possible. These materials included flags, stakes, metal screens, milk cartons, and weed mats. The materials were sorted so materials can be reused or recycled. These materials were first installed to prevent competition with other plants, mostly invasive species.

Further Projects and Internship Opportunities 

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Steve sorting out materials. Photo Credit: Wendy St. John

After our work day we enjoyed walked around the Laguna. Brent pointed out other projects and areas that were heavily invaded by poison hemlock, Himalayan Blackberry and pepper weed. He expressed interest in doing an experiment on management techniques to remove pepper weed. Another project he mentioned was removal of invasive species and transplanting on a creek on the other side of Highway 12. After the day was over he thanked us for all our work and encouraged us to get involved in the Laguna Keeper days, which are community based volunteer work day. He also offered us an opportunity to become an intern. This offer was really appealing because interns may possibly get hired by the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, Aaron was hired this way. I hope to continue my involvement there to learn more about restoration practices.

Restoration Unfolding at the Laguna De Santa Rosa

By Angelica Andrews Buot, Kelly Grieve and Jenna Topper

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Seasons changing at the Laguna. Photo © W. St. John

On November 6th, 2015, our restoration ecology class caravanned our way over to the Laguna De Santa Rosa in Sebastopol, only about a 20 minute drive. We left the vans and gathered around in a circle to meet Brent Reed, the Restoration Projects Supervisor of the Laguna De Santa Rosa Foundation. Brent introduced us to Aaron Nu√Īez, their Restoration Technician, and one of their kind interns. Brent gave us information about the Laguna as well as his involvement with the area over the years. We checked out the map of the Laguna and made on our way to see the restoration project that we would be helping work on.

 

Lowdown on the Laguna

Brent shared a wealth of knowledge with us. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is the largest actual freshwater wetland complex on the northern California coast and of extreme importance. This area of land has fostered a variety of different ¬†activities over time. Laguna De Santa Rosa Watershed’s past gives insight on public preference of land uses. Sebastopol at one point added to the discharge, which resulted in multiple lawsuits. There were multiple instances of unsanitary conditions, which led to improved handling of sewage and discharge. At one point sediment pile up was encouraged because it reduced the risk of mosquito born diseases which was a large issue at the time. To our surprise, in the 1930‚Äôs there was even a small airstrip and a hangar that resided next to one of the old oaks. What a neat place with a wild history.

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1933 airplane and hangar near an iconic oak. Photo Credit: John Cummings & Pacific Coast Air Museum

 

Pulling up Mesh, and More Mesh

Many projects are happening on the Laguna, and after learning about some of them, Brent led us to the site of restoration that we had the privilege to work on.  Brent and Aaron walked us over to the restoration site and explained the goals of the impending workday.  Because this site is fairly close to Highway 12 and the plantings of native species appeared controlled and organized, the site did not feel very wild or natural.  However, farther away from the road the landscape looked denser and more wild because the vegetation from previous years of restoration work has had more time to develop.  The bulk of the day was spent ripping up squares of mesh that had been laid down with each planting of a native

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Steven tossing out mesh. Photo © W. St. John

species.  This mesh was laid down in the beginning to discourage weeds from competing with the native plant being planted.  However, now that most of these natives are bigger, competition from weeds is not a huge threat.  Besides removing mesh, plastic cups that once held the baby plants were cut and removed, allowing for the roots of the now developed plants to further expand into the surrounding soil.  The native plants involved in the restoration were species such as Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis),  California Wild Rose (Rosa californica) and California Blackberry (Rubus ursinus).

 

Walking through the Laguna

After a few good hours of work and cleaning up the no-longer needed tools of mesh, plastic yogurt containers, and wooden stakes, we stopped under a few shady oaks for a lunch break. Then Brent led us on a trek through different areas of the Laguna. We passed through the ‚ÄúHemlock Forest‚ÄĚ and talked about restoration methods to remove and replace it eventually. Brent even touched on the famous invasive Himalayan Blackberry (main invasive of Copeland Creek) and their strategies of extraction.¬†We passed by a seasonal bridge which will take you to the western side of the Laguna. ¬†Together we made a few stops, learning more about the area and wound up by the pond before we were on our way back to the vans.

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Walking toward vernal pools. Photo © W. St. John

This was truly a great Friday. The sun was shining on us, and it was good to get out there, put in some hard work, and see some of the many facets of restoration. Brent thanked us tremendously for all the hard work that was put forth by our class. It is truly amazing what 30 hands can do in such a short amount of time. It was just another example that showed how community support can be largely advantageous to each aspect of Restoration. ¬†The Laguna Foundation is an incredible organization and we’re grateful for what their doing for our community (they even take interns and volunteers kayaking down the Laguna when it floods).