Category Archives: Naturalist

Naturalist Class Tuesday, May 19th

I  left the office early today and headed out to my weekly Certified Naturalist class for the evening.  Tonight’s class was on Forests and Woodland Resources and the guest speaker was Zarah Wyly of the Sacramento Tree Foundation.  I’d met her previously at last year’s acorn-gathering class at the nature center.  She’s a funny and engaging speaker, as well as very knowledgeable, so it’s always nice to spend time listening to her.  She identified all of the species of trees and shrubs within an hour or so walking distance from the nature center, so it was a great learning experience for those of us who don’t know a lot about the regional trees.

Before the class, I scouted around a little bit and got photos and video of a California Ground Squirrel doing its “alert call” for several minutes, several White-Breasted Nuthatches flitting from tree to tree – sometimes in groups and it made me wonder if they were adults with fledglings –a Scrub Jay picking berries from an Elderberry bush, and what I think was a Purple Finch (more colorful than the House Finches I’ve seen) singing in another Elderberry bush.

During the field study part of the class, we also saw a variety of birds along the way, and some Cottontail Rabbits, and a California Alligator Lizard.  You know, those lizards that were all over southern California when we were kids?  Well, now they’re considered “rare”.  I didn’t know that – although I was suddenly aware of the fact that, yeah, I hadn’t seen any of them for decades.  I see the Western Fence Lizards everywhere (the “blue bellied” ones that do push-ups), but I haven’t seen an Alligator Lizard in… forever.  I got photos and some video of the instructor, John, sneaking up behind it so he could catch it and show it to us.  He got it on the first grab.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I learned that Interior Live Oaks are the only ones in California that stay evergreen… that the “sycamore trees” along the riverside are actually London Planetrees… that Cottonwood trees are “beaver candy” (they’re the first trees beavers go for when they move into an area)… and that there is this totally weird-looking hybrid oak close to the nature center.  (Zarah thinks it’s a cross between a Blue Oak and a Valley Oak.  She said, “It’s kind of on the Valley side of Blue.”

We also learned about “mast years” for acorns.  I had heard about them – they’re the years when the oak trees produce massive amounts of acorns – but I had no idea that the phenomenon was statewide.  That is, ALL of the oak trees all over the state synch up and ALL of them produce an over-abundance of acorns at the same time.  Then the mast year is followed by a year where there is a glut of mule deer, squirrels and mice; and the year after that there’s a massive glut of ticks everywhere; and the year after that there’s a massive population explosion of snakes…  Kewl, huh?

There was also a brief discussion about Oracle Oaks, which are a recognized species of hybrid oak, a cross between the Black Oak and the interior live oak… and there are individuals of these trees along the American River Parkway.  They’re more common further north though.  You can read more about them if you want at: http://sierrafoothillgarden.com/2010/11/06/discovering-and-identifying-the-oracle-oak/.

As an aside: we learned that the mating pair of coyotes had their pups several weeks ago, and the pups are now out on the preserve… but no one will say WHERE exactly because the nature center doesn’t want the public tracking the babies down and annoying (or harming) them.  Mama coyote had FIVE pups.  In the class, they passed around a photo one of the on-site naturalists had taken of them… All five of them huddled together, heads up, curious, looking straight at the camera.  A classic shot.  And those babies are soooo cute!

Oh, and the nature staff gathered four Monarch butterfly chrysalises from the small stand of showy milkweed they have out in the front of the nature center, and one of the butterflies matured yesterday, and they were able to release it…  So growing milkweed in your yard DOES work.  FEED those Monarchs!

Training Workshop in Coloma, Ca in July.

I got word that the next Northern California UC California Naturalist Program Instructor/Partner Workshops are going to be held in Placer County in July (about an hour or so from the house in Sacramento).  This is the next step in the process that Tuleyome needs to take to get the organization onboard to actually TEACH the naturalist classes.  I asked Sara if I could sign up for it and she said, sure!  So I’m booked for the workshops.  It’s a 2-day thing over a Tuesday and Wednesday, so I’ll drive up on Monday night, stay in Placerville and then go to the workshops from there.

The first day covers all the necessities of building and executing the classes, the volunteer portal, iNaturlaist, homework and capstone projects; the CalNat system and partnering organizations; how to put a teaching team together; a week-by-week walkthrough of the classes required; and then techniques to market the classes you set up.  The second day is a “play” day and includes a tour of the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and journaling in the field.  Should be interesting stuff!  These workshops come right on the heels of a 4-day weekend during which I’ll be going up to Mount Shasta for two days of dragonfly classes.  I should be thoroughly exhausted by the end of that week!

Certified Naturalist Class

After work, I took the dog home, had a quick late afternoon supper, changed my clothes and then headed out to my Certified Naturalist class. Our guest lecturer tonight was Laura Burris, a botanist and certified arborist. The class focused on plants and how they differ depending upon the kind of habitat they grow in. Most of the class was spent out in the field, on the grounds of the preserve, observing plants, doing some sketches of what we saw, and learning about what habitat restoration crews have to consider when deciding what to plant and where to plant it.

I bring my camera along with me on these excursions, so I was able to get a few panoramic shots of the landscape by the river; and some shots of the river area itself (that I can use for comparison pictures later down the line as more water is released from the Folsom dam). We also looked at the native plant gardens around the nature center: poppies, yarrow, milkweed, field irises, etc. And we were intermittently distracted by Acorn Woodpeckers, a female Wild Turkey who decided to fly up into an old scag right near where we were talking, and some Red-Shouldered Hawks – including a fledgling just learning how to fly, and an adult who sat in the top of a tree and was challenged by Starlings.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After the outside portion of the class, we went back into the classroom for a PowerPoint presentation and talked a bit about the capstone projects we each wanted to do. I’m doing mine on the books I’m writing and putting together for Tuleyome, how they help to interpret the wild world for the general public, and how they can be used to engage the public in citizen science work and conservation… I’m really enjoying this coursework, and can see now how it directly relates to the work I’m doing at Tuleyome, so I feel like I’m getting a lot more out of it than some of the other folks who may not be so involved with an environmental/conservationist group.

So, it was very long day – I got home around 9:30 pm – but a productive one.

My First Certified Naturalist Class

Yep.  I’m going legit.  Hah!

I went to my first Certified Naturalist class today.  They’re taking place Tuesday now through June 9th at the Effie Yeaw Nature Center in Carmichael.  I can only get there by surface streets and traffic in the late afternoon is a “B”, so it took me an hour.  (I’ll have to leave the house earlier next time.)

The first 90 minutes of the class included some introductions and then a walk through the oak forest to the American River, which included spotting deer, woodpeckers, turkeys, water fowl, a tag-teaming pair of Red-Shouldered Hawks, Titmice, wrens, and other critters, information on ant colonies, a little bit of animal tracking, seeing the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars (one in the process of forming its chrysalis), identifying galls and granary trees, looking nests, trying to spot cotton rabbits and jack rabbits in the tall grass, and seeking to identify some of the plants in the area.  Then there was a short break, and after that we had a presentation on what a “naturalist” is and what role the naturalist plays in educating the public, and learned a few key terms.  The classes are four hours long, but tonight’s class sure didn’t feel like four hours; it felt more like 1 or 2.  Very engaging, very educational.  I was really pleased.  I hope the rest of them are this appealing.

Here’s the video of the ducklings: https://youtu.be/Bd2o57v6xtc

Another neat thing: they had each attendee tell the rest of the class about who they were and why they were taking the course.  A lot of my classmates (all except one was over 40) were retired grade school teachers and some of them worked for the Effie Yeaw center.  When I told them about myself and that I was with Tuleyome, there was a lot of positive response; a lot of them knew what Tuleyome was and what we were doing in the Berryessa Snow Mountain region – and two of them stopped me after class to tell me they’d read my Tuleyome Tales articles in the newspapers and really enjoyed them.  So, that awesome!

I’m taking copious notes to share with the rest of the office staff, and we’re also supposed to start keeping a field journal, so I’ll need to find something that’s easy to carry and can stand being out in the “wilderness”…

Watching Steelhead Eggs Get Gathered & Fertilized

I got up about 6:16 this morning, so I could get out the door a little after 7:00… and headed out to the Nimbus Fish Hatchery.  I wanted to see them gather the eggs from the Steelhead Trout.  I got there about 10 minutes before the process started, so one of the docent guys in the visitors’ center walked me through it and showed me all the key things I should look for when the fish were let in.  When the process started, it was just me and a woman with her two kids, and a couple of staffers watching it, so I was able to see everything really easily.  I got photos and some video… but I was shooting through a dirty glass wall most of the time, so the camera was having trouble focusing on what I wanted it to.

I’m glad I went to see the Steelhead eggs gathering rather than the Chinook Salmon egg gathering process.  When the salmon go through, they’re killed: smacked on the head with a hammer and gutted.  They’re going to die right after they spawn anyway, but the process sounded really bloody and brutal.  Steelhead, on the other hand, can spawn year after year, so the hatchery doesn’t kill them and instead puts them through a process that allows them to go back into the river after the eggs are gathered and fertilized.

The process starts outside of the hatchery building.  Fish come up the 260-foot ladder from the river and then go into a “crowding tank” which is about 12 feet wide and 60 feet long.  Once in the tank is closed off, a mechanical arm pushes the fish forward to a lifting tank on the outside of the hatchery building.  A gate on the side of the hatchery’s wall opens up, and the fish in the crowding tank swim into a “lift-tank” inside the building.  From this point, you watch the egg-gathering through a glass wall.

There’s a curling cable that goes down into the lift-tank, and it “anesthetizes” the fish with a low electrical charge.  Once the fish are calm, the tank rises and the handlers check each fish.  Rainbow trout (trout that haven’t gone to sea yet) were mixed in with some of the Steelheads, so they were put into a chute that sent them right back to the river.  The Steelheads are all checked to see who’s “ripe” and who isn’t.  The “unripe” fish are put into a run (outside) to hold them for a day or two to see if they can “ripen” before being returned to the river.  They don’t keep the Steelhead in the run for very long, because the fish don’t handle being confined well and can die of shock.

Ripe males and females are “tagged’ by cutting a notch in their tail, and separated into large pans by sex.  Inside the large pans is a mixture of mineral salts that also helps to keep the fish calm.  (When the fish are released back into the river, they sometimes turn around and come back up the ladder again.  The handlers can tell if they’ve already seen and counted the fish by whether or not there’s a notch cut into its tail.) Even with the electrical zap and the chemical bath, some of the fish were still really spry.  The docent said that the fish are really strong, and if they’re not handled properly, they can injure themselves or the handlers.  The salmon, especially, he said, are so tough that they’ve actually smacked the handlers hard enough to knock them out, split their lips open and and break their noses.

Then the females are taken out of the “girl pan”, one at a time, and one guy holds her while another guy uses a syringe to pump a little air into her belly.  The air pushes against the mass of eggs inside the mama fish and helps to push them out.  The handler squeezes out all of the remaining eggs, and then “burps” the female to get all the air bubbles out of her.  (If all of the air isn’t removed, then the fish can’t swim properly because she’d be too buoyant.)  She’s then turned over to a team of biologists who measure her, and take scale, blood, tissue and ovarian fluid samples for research purposes before she’s released down the chute into the river.  Her eggs are put into in a plastic pot, and then a male Steelhead is pulled out of the “boy pan”.  The handler squeezes the male’s belly to push out the milky sperm (“milt”) over the eggs, and the guy holding the pot stirs the eggs and milt together with his hand.  The male Steelhead goes to the biologists and then down the chute, while the guy holding the pan of now fertilized eggs carries the pan over to another guy who then moves the eggs to a tank with betadine-like stuff in the water to kill any microbes or diseases that might have been in the ovarian fluid.  After their betadine bath, they’re put in cylindrical clear-walled hatching tanks where the Steelhead eggs hatch into fry.

It was really neat to watch the process; they have it down so well that no one got in anyone’s way, and the fish were all processed quickly. Here are a couple of short videos:

Separating the Boys from the Girls video: http://youtu.be/1LdGvGnxC6c
Fertilizing the Eggs video: http://youtu.be/Jv0upLwFz04

The docent said that last year at this same time they would get about 26-30 pairs of Steelhead each time they did an egg-gathering round, and the rounds could continue on back-to-back for the whole day.  Today, because the river is so low, there were only 4 pairs of Steelhead in the first round (of fish that came up the ladder) and about 6 pair in the second round (that came out of the holding run)… and then the crowding tank was empty.  So egg-gathering this morning only took an hour.  Yikes!  He also noted that the hatchery releases about 4 million Chinook fry and 1 million Steelhead fry into the adjoining rivers each year… but their numbers will probably be lower this year because of the drought conditions.

 When I was done watching the egg-gathering process, I walked on the path along the American River and took some photos of the water birds out there.  Lots of cormorants, seagulls, and ducks… and one little Phoebe.  Awwww…  It was a fun morning!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Yolo Weir Tour on Sunday

On Sunday, I got up around 5:45 in the morning to do all my morning ablutions stuff before heading out to the all-day Yolo Weirs tour.  It was around 61° when we started out, and it got up to around 86° by the end of the tour.  I got pretty sunburned and it was super-windy all day, so we got a lot of dirt blown in our faces.  And O.M.G. what an exhausting day.

I was the first one at the Yolo Bypass Area Wildlife Headquarters (on Country Road 32B in Davis, CA), and no one else showed up for about 20 minutes so I thought for a moment I had the day wrong or something.  There ended up being about 25 people for the tour, and rather than providing vans or trucks or whatever, they asked that we all car pool.  I got into an SUV with a gentleman named John Brennan who was actually one of the speakers on the tour — and he talked and gesticulated all the while he was driving (which both interesting and scary at the same time.  John, watch the road!  Hah!)

We started off at the head of the Freemont Weir which is north of Woodland.  The weir system has been around for about 100 years, but when it was first planned they didn’t have all the fancy electronic measuring equipment and whatnot, and there was no real coordination of anything, so private land owners were indiscriminately building ad hoc weirs on their land to hold back the flood waters of the Sacramento River without really caring where the water went as long as it didn’t flood their own property.  Water came from a variety of smaller rives and dumped into the Sacramento River (which can hit flood stage at least once a year), but because of the way the valley is tipped, the water didn’t automatically drain down to Southern California; instead, it backed up, flooding everything around Sacramento and the towns north of it.  A hundred years ago, when the river flooded everything came to a stand-still until the waters drained off again…  The city of Sacramento — like the city of New Orleans — is in the middle of a huge flood plain that sits below the river level.  Some of the experts on the tour were laughing about all the developments now taking place in the Natomas area of northern Sacramento: if one weir doesn’t work or there’s a levy break, Natomas will be under water.  The cost flood insurance in that part of town is astronomical.   Anway, now, the whole north state has set up a series of dams and locks and weirs to try to control the flood waters, and most of the time it works.  In 1986 and 1997 when we had several major rain storms come across the state, everything from Shasta Dam to the Yolo weirs worked together to keep Sacramento dry. (And that’s why Discovery Park is under water for several months in some years…  the water just has to go somewhere…)  Joe Countryman, one of the speakers on the tour and an expert in hydrology, says the 100-year-old system is starting to fall apart, however.  Some of the levies and weirs weren’t built correctly — but trying to fix them and bring them up to code is too expensive, so Sacramento County is just hoping that when disaster strikes the cost to rebuild people’s lives will be less expensive than fixing the broken bits of the system.  Yikes!

Anyway, we stopped first at the Freemont Weir which right now is just a cement buffer surrounded by acres of grassland and oak trees.  When the river floods, the waters spill into the grasslands and the weirs control where it goes and how high it gets.  If the flood is a bad one, though, and the water breeches the weir, the levies then have to do their jobs.  Last year I heard on the news that water was spilling over the Freemont Weir, but I had no idea what that meant — until now.  Joe said one time he was out in the field videotaping the water coming over the weir and was startled to see a guy in a kayak come over the weir with it!  Yikes-2!

After this stop we went onto one of John Brennan’s rice farms, Knaggs Ranch (he said it’s tradition in the farming industry that when you buy a farm from someone, you name the farm after the previous owner… so even though Brennan now owns the property, it’s called “Knaggs” after the previous owner).  John’s rice fields are what I drive over every day to and from work when I drive from Sacramento to Woodland and back.  He told us that he has to drain all the fields in March, get them dry and tilled by April, get them all leveled (using a GPS system, so he can get them all to an angle of only 2” from front to back), and get the insecticide and fertilizer down by May 1st, so he can start filling them with water and get the rice seed flown over them before June 1st.   Between September and February, the state had been demanding that he leave the fields flooded for “habitat” purposes (for the flocks of water fowl who stop off here on their way south during the winter).  He didn’t like the idea of having his land just sit there all wet with no income being generated by it, so he proposed a project to the State which is now in its second year.  He said that over the past  decade or so, the salmon fry were getting lost inside the weir system, and large numbers never made it out to the ocean or got out there too early in their cycle and were killed off by predators.  So, he spearheaded a project to hold the fry in his rice fields until they get big and fat enough to release out into the rivers and head to the ocean…  He said last year they had about 100,000 salmon in one portion of his fields, and some of them were so big you could see their humped backs poking out of the shallow rice water.  He’s hoping to do better this year.  It sounded like such an ingenious use of his lands!  When we were out in his fields, he was just starting to flood them.

Another thing he was promoting was to set up lines of trees along his properties, not only as wind-breaks, but also as habitat for ducks and other birds.  He said the ducks often lay their eggs in the wheat fields and corn fields but don’t have anywhere to retreat to if predators come along.  In the rice-field areas, the trees would also help to regulate the temperature of the water by providing shade along the edges of the field where the salmon fry can retreat to when the center of the field gets too hot for them.

After our visit at Knaggs Ranch, we then went to the Settling Basin, which is a plot of land lower than the rice fields, where water from the weirs is pulled in so the sediment can be released from it.  The Settling Basin fills about 8” inches per year, I think they said, and they’re running out of space for it… and the sediment is so full of Boron and mercury that it can’t be used for agricultural purposes… The state and county haven’t figured out yet what they’re going to do when they can’t use this basin anymore (or what they’re going to do with all of the contaminated dirt.  The consensus so far seems to be to cover  it with cement, like Chernobyl.)

We were then off to the Conaway Ranch for lunch — sandwiches and soda.  This is a working cattle and sheep ranch, but parts of it are also wetlands, so they’re focus is trying to find ways to balance out the two… and they’ve apparently been very successful.  (Tuleyome just got a grant to host environmentally focused outings for children and families at the ranch.)  We were supposed to hear all about the ranch from the manager, Mike Hall, but at the last minute some tractor or something broke on the ranch, and he wasn’t able to make it in during the lunch hour.  So, we left there early and went on to see the tiny Lisbon Weir — which is basically a pile of rocks in the tidal wetlands at the end of the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.  It’s so weird to think of “tide” affecting things this far inland, but they do.  Right behind where the weir is situated is what looks like a tall levy… but it’s actually the side of the Deep Water Channel that connects Sacramento and San Francisco through the Sacramento River.  Robin Kulakow, who was telling us about the Lisbon Weir, said that there have been a few times when she’s been out in the fields by this area, and could see the top of big ships cruising along the channel.  Hah!  Kewl!

The tour ended with a mini stop at the new wetlands area that just opened up near the Lisbon Weir, and then we all headed back to the headquarters.  It was an interesting day.  Not a lot of walking, but I still got outside and learned some stuff in the process.

For more information about the tours hosted by the Yolo Basin Foundation, CLICK HERE.