Our Rainy Adventure at the Laguna de Santa Rosa

By: Jessi Laughlin and Jasmin Perdue

Our class got the opportunity to take a tour of the Laguna de Santa Rosa located off Highway 12 just outside of Sebastopol. Wendy provided us with some articles from Brent Reed (our tour guide and Ecological Program manager for the Laguna) to read and give us an introduction to the area and the changes that have taken place. It was neat to see some of the historical photos of the Laguna.

The morning started out with a downpour that caused us to leave a little later than usual. The weatherman said the rain would stop mid-morning but all we could do was keep our fingers crossed. Wendy called Brent to confirm we were still good to go and we were! Our very soggy group pilled into the vans and away we went.

We were greeting by Brent and Aaron and only a few sprinkles. Brent started our tour at Meadowlark Field where 3,000+ trees and shrubs have been planted as part of the overall restoration work in the Laguna. What was once a recreation area that later developed into a dumping ground is now being restored and preserved as the unique wetland it is.

img_1720

Signage showing the history of Meadowlark Field. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

This area was the most recently restored part of the Laguna. Brent took us on a “journey through time” and we saw restoration work through the last decade. He shared photos of the area before restoration work had begun and little landmarks helped orient the photos for us to see the progress in plant growth.

The riparian corridor of valley oaks, Oregon ash, and box elders thickened as we progressed on the path. Brent pointed out that the wildlife seemed more abundant along the corridor as well. We came across a unique land bridge that is utilized by the Laguna Foundation that has to be removed in the winter due to flooding. This flooding is very important for the vernal pools nearby. There is an endangered plant that calls these vernal pools home. Aaron talked about some of the restoration efforts that have involved the process of disturbance and even some herbicide use when the endangered species is dormant.

The rain returned just in time for lunch. We struggled to open a little shelter tent and finally got it opened once the rains started to die down. The next part of our trip was planting basket sedge. Using the tools Brent and Aaron provided we cleared the top soil (and hopefully an exotic seed bank) for planting. Two large trays of basket sedge plugs were waiting to be planted. We planted in three different plots and then mulched with straw to help reduce exotics from germinating and to keep the moisture in the soil.

img_1726

Cutting back the top layer of soil. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

img_1737

Amy planting a basket sedge plant. Photo © Jasmin Perdue

With the rain gone and the plants in the ground we cleaned up to head home. We were so grateful for the time and information that Brent and Aaron shared with us. The Laguna de Santa Rosa is a diverse watershed that is moving towards healthier functions. It’s a beautiful place that we are lucky enough to have right in our own backyard. There are trails for the public to enjoy and we highly recommend it.

Getting Our Hands Muddy at Laguna de Santa Rosa

By Manuel Hernandez

20161028_103301

A Brief History of Meadowlark Field. Photo by Manuel Hernandez.

We began our wet and rainy day with a brief introduction to the Laguna de Santa Rosa, and more specifically Meadowlark Field, where we would be helping to plant some Juncus. Brent Reed and Aaron Nuñez from the Laguna Foundation were our hosts.

20161028_105252

Coyote Bush (Baccharis pilularis) is one of the first shrubs to move into a grassland after restoration. Photo by Manuel Hernandez.

As we walked though Meadowlark Field we took a journey through time, as we stopped at several locations where we could view the different stages of a restoration project – chrono-sequence of succession after a project.

Our last stop on our tour of Meadowlark Field was a field of vernal pools, which may not look like much now, but in the spring will be ecological and biodiversity hotspots.

20161028_113233

A Vernal Pool, a Spot of Brown in a Sea of Green. Photo by Manuel Hernandez.

After a soggy lunch we began work on planting Juncus. We first had to scalp, or remove the top layer of soil where the seed bank is. We then used plugs and planted the Juncus and then used hay as mulch to retain moisture and reduce chances for invasion.

At the end of the day, we thanked Brent and Aaron and were invited back for any of their volunteer workdays. I would be interested in visiting our plots to see how they progress in time. It was thoroughly enjoyable to be able to take part in a restoration project and to see such a beautiful place on a beautiful day.

Big Plans for Copeland Creek

By Jordan DeSilva and Amy Unruh

The Day Begins

Photo by Amy Unruh

Caroline identifying and explaining tree species in the upland of Copeland Creek; photo © J. De Silva

Today day was the day that we all set out to take a stab at getting to know our new study site–Copeland Creek. Our restoration ecology class has been tasked with developing a baseline data report and the first step is to get to know what we are working with. Led by our fearless and enthusiastic leaders Caroline Christian and Wendy St. John, we spent the bright morning walking the creek and taking note of our distinct surroundings–plants, animals, and the lifeless workings of the creek.

Learning the Land

The path was quite unpredictable as we meandered through spiney himalayan blackberries that slashed our ankles, poison oak that hid among the shrubs, and low lying willow branches that we were forced to creep and crawl underneath, but the insight we gained was worth the pain.  Among the hazardous plant life arose a plethora of native and exotic species.  Today was about learning the workings of the creek and we did just that.  We identified many riparian species of interest- from box elders and buckeyes to trees of heaven and maytens, from mugwort and snow berry to milk thistle and english ivy.  We even had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the exotic cork oak- sparking a real interest in the class because of our proximity to wine country.

img_2194-jpg

Photo © A. Unruh

Concerns

As we looked along the creek we began to understand in what direction our baseline data report should be focused.  There was unseasonal water caused by campus runoff entering what should have been a dry creek.  The pooling from the run off harbored exotic mosquito fish that would have died if the water dried up.  Himalayan blackberries were a dominant force

img_3774

Photo © J. DeSilva

along the entire creek bank and clearly outcompeted the native California blackberry.   Willow species formerly planted in restoration efforts to stabilize the creek bank and lower erosion rates have started breaking off large branches into the creek that act as a major cause of flooding- an issue because initial purpose for creating the creek was to prevent flooding.

A Great Resource

At the end of our creek walk we were startled by the approach of a stranger who turned out to be a great resource.  William Stalkard, an employee of Sonoma County, was working on on a litter survey along the creek in an effort to guide management plans concerning storm drain filters.  He talked at length about his path through his studies, previous internships, jobs, and projects.  One project he worked on involved studying the movement of sediment from Sonoma

img_3786

Photo © W. St. John

Mountain through the watershed and we were able to pick his brain for techniques.  He explained the use of cross sections and tracer gravel surveys where they painted gravel bright colors in order to track their movement through space.  He provided us with his email and gave us insight into future career paths.

And We’re Off

The trip through the creek- although a bit overwhelming- was quite educational.  We have a much clearer concept of what is in the creek and have learned about past efforts that have failed which will all guide us in developing the baseline data report.  Meeting William Stalkard was very motivational in regards to our career paths and there is something to be said about actually getting down and dirty and tracking through the creek.  We are charged and ready to conquer.

Studying Tule Elk at Point Reyes

By Jana Johnston and Brian Mcissac

Long Windy Drive to Tomales Bay

img_3074

Driving to Tomales Point in Point Reyes, CA. Photo by J. Johnston

point-reyes-map

Map of Point Reyes National Seashore. Our class went to the Tule Elk Reserve at top left corner.

The weather could not have been better as we climbed into the vans and headed to Point Reyes, CA. Today’s field trip was a combination of Hall Cushman’s Ecology class and Caroline Christian and Wendy St. John’s Restoration  Ecology so we had quite the crowd. The real stars of the group were graduate students Eric and Caprice who are currently conducting research in this area and set up a little experiment for us to participate in. Today’s goal was to learn about the current research experiments being conducted at Tomales Point and to get some hands on experience gathering data.

History Lesson by Hall Cushman

Although he always has something interesting to say, Prof. Cushman had to compete for attention with the stunning view, herd of elk and breaching whales and dolphins in the distance. He along with Eric and Caprice gave us the low down of the 18 year

img_3073

Professor Cushman pointing out enclosures. Photo by  J. Johnston.

(and counting) enclosure experiment taking place before our eyes. The native tule elk (cervus canadensis nannodes) was near extinction in the late 1800’s due to lack of habitat because of the booming ranching business. However, the species was reintroduced into this area in 1978 and the research experiment began 20 years later in 1998.

Research currently being conducted by Prof. Cushman and a team of graduate students is looking at the recovery of the landscape after decades of cattle grazing and the effect of the re-introduced tule elk population. This area has a long history and a continuing competition with cattle ranches which has had a huge effect on the landscape as you can see in the picture below.  Notice the extreme

fullsizer-1

Elk grazed (back half) vs cattle grazed (front half) landscape. Photo by J.Johnston.

difference between the elk and cattle habitats! You can see the change from a dry brown grassland to a green shrub dominated landscape as you drive through the fence.

Data Collection

img_3086

Students measuring transects. Photo by J. Johnston.

After eating lunch on the sides of the cliff overlooking the ocean and the endless rocky shoreline to the north, we got down to business.  Split into
several groups, some of us were sent into the coyote brush (bacharris pilularis) and lupine (lupinus arboreous) dominated upland habitat while others stayed in the grassier lowland nearer to the cliffs.  We created a number of 60 x 15 ft. transect lines chosen randomly so as not to introduce bias into the data.  We then measured the total ground cover created by the lupinus and bacharris as well as the amount of elk droppings that could be found within our study plots.  Our data was then compiled and made into the chart that you can see Eric holding in the picture below.

img_3092

Lab assistant Eric C. holding rough graph of field data. Photo by J. Johnston.

 

You can see, as Hall and company had expected, that the general trend in the area is that the more cover you find in a given area, the more elk scat there will be, indicating that the elk prefer to congregate in areas with cover.

And now we ask ourselves, how is this data useful to us?  What can we determine of the elk and their relationship with their environment?  Is this how it’s always been?  It is important to consider that Tomales Point is not a pristine ecosystem, it is a novel ecosystem that has been greatly affected by the exclusion of its native ungulate populations of tule elk and, most likely, the pronghorn (antilocapra Americana) as well as the eradication of coyotes (canis latrans), wolves (canis lupus) and the California grizzly bear (ursus arctos californicus), an extinct subspecies, and the Coast Miwok people who formerly managed this land.  Although the coyotes have recolonized from populations that spread from more northerly territories and predate the elk calves, the wolf was the main predator that kept the tule elk in check.  Populations were forced to move much more frequently and therefore the necessary disturbances they provide to plant communities was spread out over a different range of distance and time.  I think it is important for us to consider the relationships between all of these factors, from predator-prey interactions to controlled fire regimes, in order to better guide our understanding and decision making in regards to the healthy restoration and maintenance of such a complex environment.

Getting Home

I will end with this: If you ever ride in a van with Wendy, ask her to sing.  Seriously.  Grease, Disney, whatever you want, man. Elk bugling is nice, but they’ve got nothing on Wendy.

Ecology at Tomales Point

By Megan Gaitan and Julianne Bradbury

What, exactly, is the difference between “ecology” and “restoration ecology?” Where does one end and the other begin? Students in two Sonoma State University courses by those titles are discovering the differences, the similarities, and the joys of both concepts. In a shared field trip to Tomales Point at the Point Reyes National Seashore, the overlap between these two ideas were explored in a most dynamic and breathtaking context.

The Wonders of Tomales Point

Dr. Hall Cushman, instructor of the Ecology course, and Wendy St. John, co-instructor of the Restoration Ecology course, were the principal guides for the excursion. Additional leadership and interpretation was provided by Caprice Lee and Eric Cecil, both graduate students under the direction of Dr. Cushman, and instructors of the laboratory sections for the ecology course. This dedicated and knowledgeable team led roughly sixty students on a four hour tour, describing the land use history and vibrant ecosystem at this 2500 acre federally designated wilderness area.

img_1521

Dr. Hall Cushman, Professor of Biology at SSU, orients students to the landscape of Tomales Point at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

A highlight of the day was the sight of Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes), charismatic herbivores that were once almost hunted to extinction, but now grace this rugged area in relative abundance. Prior to the advent of the gold rush, populations of this California endemic species were estimated at around 500,000, but following the huge influx of miners (who were also hunters) in the second half of the nineteenth century, only 10-100 individuals were left. In 1978, California Fish and Wildlife (then “Fish and Game”) reintroduced Tule elk in 23 areas, including Point Reyes. Populations grew exponentially following reintroduction until 1998, when growth plateaued – since then the Tomales Point population has typically fluctuated between 400 and 600 individuals.

img_1539

Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) at Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

A prominent feature of the landscape is a set of 24 research plots; these plots were established by the National Parks Service and U.S. Geological Survey eighteen years ago, and are currently in use by Dr. Cushman’s graduate and undergraduate students. 12 of these plots serve as exclosures (fenced plots designed to prevent entry) for the Tule elk. The remaining 12 plots allow the elk free access, and serve as control plots to help researchers examine how these large herbivores impact the plant and animal communities at Point Reyes. For instance, Eric Cecil has sampled the invertebrate animals (insects, spiders, and other creepy-crawlies) with contraptions called “pitfall traps” in both types of plots to see how elk grazing changes the number of species and size of populations of these little critters. Caprice Lee performs similar studies on plant communities, and Vanessa Dodge, another one of Dr. Cushman’s graduate students, examines potential impacts on soil characteristics.

img_1530

Caprice Lee and Eric Cecil, graduate students at SSU, describe their research at Tomales Point, with a Tule elk exclosure plot pictured in the distance. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

Research in the Field

After a great introduction to the study system we hiked our way up the Tomales Point Trail. Not far from the parking lot, though, was a small exclosure experiment being conducted on Monterey Cypress trees to protect them from herbivores. We paused for a description of this species that has historically been used as a windbreak to provide protection from the harsh elements that exist on the coast. However, ecologists see this non-native, invasive species as a threat to biodiversity here in the system. Cultural values that challenge ecological views of this tree reflect much of what we’ve learned this semester about different interests and decision making in restoration.

img_1537

Monterey cypress trees (Cupressus marcrocarpa), protected by National Parks Service exclosures, along the Tomales Point Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

We continued on to our lunch break and quickly began collecting data. We first split up into six groups – 3 in an area heavily dominated by coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) (high) and 3 in the dry, less populated Lupine (Lupinus arboreus) area (low). In these groups our objectives were to take true counts of dung and shrubs present in a 25 m x 5 m belt as well as measure the percent cover. True counts were taken by walking through the belt and recording the exact number of shrub species or dung piles present in the area. Percent cover was estimated by totaling the length of shrubs touching both reel tapes in 1 belt, dividing by the total area and multiplying by 100 to get a percentage.

img_1552

Sonoma State students and faculty enjoying a lunch break at Tomales Point, Point Reyes National Seashore, before engaging in an afternoon of data collection. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

We completed this procedure for 3 different plots we randomly selected in our given areas. Once all six groups were finished we graphed our data on a whiteboard to see the varying effects of tule elk in the different habitats. Plotting the number of dung per plot by percent cover for high versus low presented differing results. The high area had a trend that demonstrated low dung counts associated with more cover. The low plots did not have any general trends.

img_1556

Eric Cecil, SSU graduate student, displays a graph representing the relationship between percent cover of shrubs and Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) activity in this coastal dune environment. Photo by Julianne Bradbury.

After seeing the graph displayed we hiked back to the vans and headed home. The excursion was a great introduction to sampling methods and research in the field. This exposure was greatly beneficial for all of us that attended and definitely gave us a new perspective in looking at field methods.