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 Texas.gov. 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.

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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.

Who’s your neighbor? Wildlife Monitoring at SSU

Written by: Danielle Wegner


Another viewpoint we wanted to incorporate when examining the Copeland Creek is Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 11.10.50 AM.pnghow species with large ranges utilize the creek that cuts through the north end of Sonoma State. We grouped this category into the wide range apex species, which incorporates species such as mountain lion, bobcat, deer, river otters, and western pond turtles. These species are considered “umbrella” species that maintain a wide habitat and can help assess the health of the surrounding community. Often conservation management programs that focus on umbrella species will benefit many other species that share the same area. Our first step was to determine what species we had utilizing Copeland creek. We set up four camera traps, loaned to us by the Sonoma Land Trust, along the creek, one in each of four designated zone sites of our study. These cameras were set up over a long weekend and we were delighted to see the different wildlife that share the campus with us students. Despite not seeing bobcats or river otters, we cannot rule out the potential for them to utilize the creek. A more extensive camera trap study spread out over the year would be beneficial to get a greater scope of the wide range species that may or may not use the area. Inference can also be drawn upon the previous Copeland Creek master plan, along with citizen science reporting’s to better determine what wildlife are present within the area.  We also performed visual survey for tracks and scat across the four zones to help identify what wildlife were in the area.

Screen Shot 2016-12-12 at 10.41.28 AM.pngThe western pond turtle was another species we wanted to draw attention to due to its conservation status as a species of concern in California. Western pond turtles utilize not only waterways but they also migrate to nearby highland areas for nesting purposes, meaning they met our criteria of a wide ranging species.  Our first step was to determine if western pond turtles were present on campus. This was done by visual surveys in which turtles were counted at the campus lake adjacent to the stream during the basking hours of the afternoon. We next wanted to determine the population dynamic by mark recapturing the turtles to determine gender and age category by setting up a hoop trap, a safe way to capture the turtles without causing harm. We were able to confirm western pond turtles are present on Sonoma State campus, however due to the cooler fall season our counts were not very high and no turtles were captured in our trap. We hope in the future this monitoring program can continue over a longer period of time that would include the different seasons.

Blogging with Frogs- Acoustic Monitoring of Riparian Frogs

Written By: Paolo Solari

Frogs are both terrestrial and aquatic animals, which means they live both on the land and in the water, making all parts of the riparian corridor and creek potentially critical habitat.

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Pacific Chorus Frog. Photo © W. St. John

Pacific Tree Frogs are noisy critters, especially the males, which make relatively loud breeding calls. Additionally, each frog’s call has a fairly unique tone, making it pretty easy to distinguish between individuals. With this in mind, we decided that a call survey (documenting the total number of frogs heard while walking the length of Copeland Creek) would be a great way to determine the Pacific Tree Frog abundance in the area. Unfortunately, things did not go quite like we had planned.

Amy and I met by the ETC building at around 6:30 pm on a Monday night. With a tally clicker in our hand, and hope in our hearts, we began our walk down Copeland Creek.  By the time we had reached the end, we heard a total of three frogs.  As it turns out, frog activity is highly dependent upon temperature, rainfall, and relative humidity. This cold, dry night provided less than ideal conditions to properly account for frogs in the area. As the Fall season slowly turns into Winter, these conditions only worsen. In other words, we were too late. While Pacific Tree Frog breeding season is technically from November to July, they do prefer warmer nights.

Even though we did not hear as many frogs as we had hoped, we do not consider our attempt a failure. Learning proper sampling techniques is not something that we take for granted, as we realize this is something that we can take with us into our future. We also realize that our experience may help direct future endeavors in the right direction.

Hide and Seek in the Creek – Coverboards

By: Paolo Solari

Coverboards have been used in amphibian and other terrestrial vertebrate studies for many years, and can be a great way to determine which animals are present in an area. Coverboards offer suitable nest sites for terrestrial vertebrates (mostly amphibians) and offer protection from predators. They also are useful in that they reduce nesting-site competition. With all this in mind, we thought that coverboards would be a great way to determine what kind of animals, as well as how many, were in our very own backyard in Copeland Creek. Unfortunately, things did not go quite like we had planned. I’ll talk about that a little later, though. First of all, here is what we did:

Our first step was getting coverboards. Wendy helped a lot with that. In fact, she bought us 8 of them! The next step was to distribute them (relatively) evenly throughout the length of Copeland Creek on campus. Our plan was to place two coverboards in each section of the creek. Danielle and I lugged the 8 coverboards to the eastern end of the bridge near the footbridge, where we placed our first coverboard. Despite occasionally getting stuck in those pesky Himalayan Blackberry bushes, we made our way westward down the creek, towards the ETC building. Our goal was to place the coverboards in cool, moist locations. We also thought it would be best to hide them as much as possible to avoid potential disturbance from larger animals or people exploring the creek (this would end up making it somewhat difficult to find all of the coverboards). After we placed all of our coverboards, our next step was to wait for critters to move in.

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Photo source: Paolo Solari

Two weeks later, Beverly and I checked the coverboards on a foggy Monday morning. We slowly lifted the first one, only to find the ground underneath completely uninhabited (save for the occasional tiny arthropod). Despite finding no signs of amphibious life under our first coverboard, we did not lose hope. However, this desolate trend continued all the way to our very last coverboard, in which we found nothing but a couple of pill bugs.

 

Before starting our experiment, we knew that most coverboards need at least three months to establish (and can sometimes take up to a year). Obviously we were working with a much shorter time frame.  Our mindset going in was that we most likely would not find anything, and that turned out to be the case.  However, we still learned sampling methods that we would not have learned otherwise, and that is not something that we take for granted. It was also nice to more intimately familiarize ourselves with our own backyard in Copeland Creek, a place that we have, and will continue to spend a lot of our time.

Monitoring Plan for the Channel Morphology of Copeland Creek

By: Jordan DeSilva and Jasmin Perdue

The Plan

Channel Morphology of Copeland Creek–that was our task.  What did that mean?  What do we measure?  Where do we start?  Those were the thoughts racing through our minds upon our assignment.  The semester long project clearly began with research research research, which is always the most tedious task, but provided us with all the basis to develop our plan for monitoring the channel morphology, which if you don’t know is the  physical shape and geological composition of the creek channel. Our research led us to two monitoring protocols that we found relevant and decided to implement on the creek–cobble size distribution, which would lend us information about water velocities that may effect erosion rates; and creek cross sections, that would give us information to compare to future years in order to observe the ever changing channel.

Cobbles

The thought of counting hundreds of cobbles was nothing short of exciting. With calipers in hand, we walked the creek, surveying for an interesting spot. We laid down a transect line, and got comfortable, to record for what would be the next hour and half of rock measuring. Picking up rock after slimy, cold rock we measured the three axes of each rock. With aching backs, we finished measuring the final rock until we called it a day after finishing only one transect.

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Data sheet for our cobble size monitoring © Jasmin Perdue

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Jasmin measuring one of one many along a transect line. © Jordan DeSilva

The next day we marched back out to the creek, determined to finish the next two transects. Just when we thought cobble measuring couldn’t get any more exciting, it did! We had just laid out our second transect line when a swarm of Sonoma County Sheriffs came through, surveying the area for evidence concerning the murdered body recently found on campus.

Meeting with Michelle

Michelle Goman (who totally rocks!) came to our rescue when we realized we didn’t have a clue about what we were doing.  We walked into her office and this ray of sunshine whipped out all sorts of equipment in her tiny cubicle of an office, like she does this everyday of her life.

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Practice with the auto-level equipment. ©Jordan DeSilva

She had us test out the equipment a couple of times and we all acted like we had the procedures down pact, but really we didn’t even begin to understand the foreign language she was speaking. When we finally got out in the field and realized we still didn’t know what we were doing, she came out to guide us through the process once again. Without Michelle, who knows if we would’ve gotten anything done!

Cross Sections

Oh man, did we have some problems with the cross sections. Thanks to Michelle it only took three days to figure out how to collect the surveying data, but there were more hurdles to come. Laying the transect lines meant that we had to have a straight path across the jungle of a channel that is completely dominated by Himalayan blackberry. This meant that we had to use loppers to cut back all the brush and blackberries in the way–that was fun!  Covered in cuts and scrapes and dirty as heck we managed to laugh our way through the struggle.

The paths were clear ,we knew what to do, and still no cigar. When we went to attempt a fourth time we realized that there was no way to secure the transect line on the opposite bank and that we needed help.  We went back to class, and with Caroline’s encouragement, we were able to recruit the lovely Amy and Danielle to help us hold the transect line secure and to help us record data. Ta-da! We had all the components for success finally. The four of us went out to the sites and busted out all three collections in roughly three hours.

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A transect site that needed a lot of brush clearing. ©Jasmin Perdue

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Jasmin reading the stadia rod through the auto level. ©Jordan DeSilva

The collections and struggles within them have secured in our minds that restoration ecology is no joke, but that with hard work and determination it can be done and the learning process is always interesting.

Salmon Crossing!

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Written by: Gianpaolo Solari & Beverly Wong

Slide 1

Photo Credits: http://nps.gov

It is widely accepted that California’s native fish (largely our salmon, steelhead, and trout) are experiencing a consistent, momentous decline. Many of these populations are diminishing at a dangerously rapid rate. Of course, there are many factors that drive our gilled friends towards extinction. Climate change and out mismanagement of water are large ones, but human population growth and destruction of habitat are large contributors as well. So what exactly is natural salmon habitat? To understand that, we must first understand the Salmon life cycle. The cycle starts in freshwater, when a female fertilizes her nest of eggs (also called a redd). These eggs will hatch as alevins (tiny fish with the yolk sac still attached to their body). These alevins will slowly grow, and emerge from their redd, and become fry. Fry generally live in their natal stream for about a year, and it is for this reason that they depend on appropriate habitat. These fry need logs, shade, and large rocks to rest and hide in. The fry will eventually migrate towards the ocean, where they will live for one to seven years. Salmon will then head back to their natal stream, where females build their redds, males fertilize these redds, and both the males and females die. With this in our minds, on November 18th we made the trip on a foggy Friday morning to Lagunitas Creek.

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Sarah speaking about her role in salmon restoration at Lagunitas!

We were met by three friendly professional faces — Sarah, Erik, and Eric with a ‘C’. Because much of the salmon habitat have been degraded or completely destroyed, restoration projects that Sarah and her team have started focus on improving current habitat by mimicking conditions in the past when salmon were abundant. For example, a significant project that has been worked on includes implementing woody debris in the creek. Naturally, trees along the bank would occasionally fall over or branches would drop from the canopy and into the streams. These woody structures would catch onto the sides randomly, which creates deep pools, areas to hide from predators, as well as a slowed down velocity so fish do not get washed away down the creek.

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Looks real, huh? Nope, just woody debris structures that have been plopped here in the creek!

It was a real treat to actually see the woody debris structures in place at Lagunitas Creek. Despite the fact that it is artificial, it did seem to fit in with the habitat aesthetically. However, the most important part was that it was improving the life of the salmon population, as well as other organisms that occupy the watershed. In fact, we happened to see a female salmon digging little egg depositories in the Creek as Erik was speaking about the very subject. It was a good feeling knowing that these structures actually were allowing salmon to survive and do other salmon-y things like hiding behind and within substrate when a huge storm hits.

While many individuals think that  restoration mainly focuses on the environmental and scientific aspects, the financial, political, legal, and social aspects of it all are overlooked. This trip in particular gave insight on all of the different but equally as important factors that play a large role in restoration and conservation. For example, Sarah told us her journey through learning about the difficult process of permitting and how she had to speak to the local community about and of the restoration projects that were being planned. Without getting a permit and without speaking with the community about their thoughts and needs, there wouldn’t even be a restoration project!

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Making our way down to check out Lagunitas Creek!

Switching to Eric Young’s role on salmon restoration, he is someone you wouldn’t think would even be involved in a project: a lawyer – more specifically, an environmental lawyer that focuses and handles all of the legal aspects of a restoration project. There are always laws and regulations to follow, especially with heavy alterations to the environment like the woody debris that had been put in place along areas of Lagunitas Creek and Devil’s Gulch. And finally, the most commonly thought of to be a part of restoration is Erik’s role as a biologist that focuses on the statistics and science behind salmon populations in different areas.

With all of Sarah’s, Erik’s, and Eric’s knowledge and abilities in different fields, they come together as a well-rounded team to implement important restoration and other projects of environmental and social importance. Despite their differences in each of their fields, it is actually beneficial to have such different minds and personalities work together and it really showed during our trip.