Category Archives: Volunteering

Acorn Harvesting Class with the Sacramento Tree Foundation

I could have slept in, but Sergeant Margie needed to go potty around 6:30 am so I got up to let him out and then just stayed up.  Marty was already gone for the day!  He was going to a car club thing at Ironstone, and they had to go in early to set up the cars before the guests arrived.

Around 8 o’clock I headed out to the Effie Yeaw Nature Preserve in Carmichael (about a half an hour from the house).  I’d never been there before and always wanted to check it out.  I had an extra incentive today because they were hosting an Acorn Gathering course by the Sacramento Tree Foundation.  The nature preserve was a little difficult to find because it’s off a road that isn’t really clearly marked; and inside the complex you have to be careful not to go down the wrong one-way roads or you end up facing all their tire-shredding road spikes.  But now that I know where it is, I should be able to find it again easily.  I got to the preserve around 8:30 and the class didn’t start until 10 o’clock , so I took some time to walk around a little bit.  They have a nice set of offices and a nature center there with a small amphitheater in the back of it, and a museum and shop inside.  They also have some raptors they’re rehabilitating including an owl and a Red-Shouldered Hawk.  Outside the center was a garden with lots of Showy Milkweed in it.  The plants all had large seed pods on them, but I didn’t see any Monarch Butterfly caterpillars on it.

I’d only walked out a short way from the nature center building when I came across a Mule Deer doe lying down in the grass… and nearby were her two sons, a yearling (with his first set of antlers) and a fawn (who was still too young to have gotten his first set yet).  I also saw several Turkey Vultures, Acorn Woodpeckers, Scrub Jays, several samples of sulfur shelf fungus, and all sorts of different galls including: Red Cone galls, Popcorn galls, Spangle Galls, Wooly Leaf Gall, etc.  All before the class started!  Wow!

The class was really neat.  It was held outside — the weather was lovely, in the high 60’s and a little breezy — and the presentation was by Zarah Wyly of the tree foundation.  She told us about the general morphology of oak trees (there are 20 different kinds in California, not counting the hybrids), and then narrowed that down to about 6 trees we’re supposed to look for.   We have to be careful what kind of acorns we gather and where we get them, because not all of them are “native” and the tree foundation doesn’t want to replant non-native acorns or the weird hybrid ones.  Apparently, oak trees don’t care who they have sex with, and if you gather acorns from a Live Oak tree and there’s a non-native Burr Oak tree within 1000 feet of it, the two can cross pollinate and create unwanted hybrid acorns that give you who-knows-what kind of oak tree.  Some of the who-knows-what acorns have too much tannin in them and can poison wildlife.  I had no idea…  I thought an acorn was an acorn.

We were given kits with the capacity to collect 200 acorns within the next month and a half.  The acorns have a short period during which they ripen and fall.  We only collected the fallen ones; not the ones on the tree.  And we don’t collect fallen ones that are mis-colored, have lumps or holes in them, that are “squishy” to the touch, or that won’t let go of their caps… because those are rotten or infested with something.  One of the acorns Zarah picked up when she took us out onto the preserve had a hole in the side of it that she said was indicative of weevil infestation.  While she was talking, this fat, pale weevil larva wriggled out of it onto her hand… right on cue.  Eeeew!   Hah!  When we collect the acorns we’re supposed to get about 40 from the same area, bag them, ID them by date, place and time (and take a photo of the leaves and bark if we can to help to positively identify the type of tree we’re collecting from).  Then we’re supposed to put the bags in the fridge (not the freezer, and no anywhere where the acorns will get too hot — no leaving them in the trunk of your car — and then notify the foundation that we have bags for pick up.  Their people will then meet with you to collect the bags.  We were given totes that proclaim that we’re authorized acorn interns, and blank releases in case we need to get a land-owner’s permission to collect on their property.    It was a 2-hour class, jammed with information… and very interesting.  I was so glad I went there!


Wood Duck Box Outing

I got to the office around 7:00 am and then after work, I accompanied my coworker Charlotte and our new HPA Coordinator Jordan on a trip to the Conaway Ranch.   The ranch, UC Davis, and the California Waterfowl Association had joined forces to host a duck-box outing at the ranch.  PhD students and interns from the college are conducting a 4-year study on Wood Ducks that nest on the ranch, and they took us around to the various duck box locations to show us what they do on a daily basis.  About 20 people showed up to participate in the outing.

When we arrived at the ranch I was alerted right away to the sounds of killdeer screeching around us, so I looked around and actually spotted TWO of their nests on the ground.  They make little shallow depressions in the ground and surround them with rocks and gravel, so they’re sometimes hard to see.  (One of the UC Davis guys, John, said he’d accidentally stepped on some of them during earlier excursions, because he wasn’t paying attention to where he was walking.)  When you get too close to a nest, the mother flies off of it, and then rolls around on the ground, pretending her wing is broken to distract you from the nest.  It’s so funny to watch them do this.  One of the nests we found had 4 speckled eggs in it, and the other had three.  We also saw three different kinds of egrets, Great Blue Herons, Black-Crowned Night Herons, Black and White-Faced Ibises, Red-Winged and tricolored Blackbirds, Barn Swallows, and all sorts of other birds as we drove around the ranch.

To get to the duck-box destinations, we had to car pool, and I went with my coworkers in a huge 8-passenger van.  The step up into the van was so high that I had trouble getting in (and out) of it.  I actually had to get onto the floorboard, on my knees (which hurt like hell), and then climb up into the seat.  I was sore by the end of the day; used muscles and pulled muscles I didn’t know I had.  My poor old body…

At the ranch, all but a very narrow strip of riparian habitat had been destroyed in the past — (Conaway is seeking ways to restore a lot more of it now; and Tulyome is hoping to be able to help them with that.) — so the trees that the Wood Ducks would normally use to nest in don’t exist anymore.  To give them spots to nest, though, the ranch has sent up a series of boxes for them… and they seem to have adapted well to using them.  They like the area so much, actually, that many of the ducks never venture too far from it, and those that do migrate return to it to breed again the following year.  They’ve found nests, for example, with moms and daughters, or a pair of sisters, sitting on the same nest, incubating the eggs together…

We found eggs in two of the boxes we checked, and also found a female Wood Duck sitting on the eggs in one of them.  We had to climb up a ladder to look into the boxes — which was again tough on my knees, but I really wanted to see what the inside of the box looked like…  The eggs we saw were pale tan, but one of the UC Davis folks, Tez, said that he had a photo of a nest with many different colored eggs in it.  It’s not uncommon for Wood Ducks to “parasitize” one another’s nests; that is, the females will lay eggs in their own nests AND other nests as well.  And Tez theorized that the different colors of eggs correspond to the mother who laid them (but he can’t be certain without seeing the chicks hatch, giving them a blood test, and then matching the DNA to the moms).  He said that sometimes the females will lay eggs in several nests before actually claiming one particular nest as their own and then sit to incubate the eggs — no matter whose eggs they are.

Sometimes, to “salt” the nests, the grad students will put fake eggs into the nests with the hopes that parasitizing females will lay “live” eggs on top of the fake ones.  They’ve had pretty good success with that…

Tez lifted the eggs out of the nest that didn’t have a mom in it — he figured she had fled when she heard the vans coming but would be back later to continue to incubate her brood — , and put each egg to his ear to listen to them.  When the ducklings are about ready to hatch, you can hear them pecking.  None of these eggs were that far along yet.

After everyone had a chance to look into the boxes, one of the students lifted the female out of her box and showed us how they weigh, measure and check the birds.  They can tell the age of the female by several different factors:  if she has a leg band, they know she’s at least a year old (and if she doesn’t have one, they give her one); older females have more white on their heads and wing feathers (like “gray hair”) and the shoulder feathers are more iridescent; and older females have an orange ring around their eyes whereas the younger ones have a yellow ring.  Based on this stuff, they figured the female they had in hand was at least 2 years old.  I got to hold her for a while (inside the net bag they put her in so she didn’t freak when they weighed and measured her).  She weighed next to nothing, and I could feel her little heart pounding away inside her chest.  I was worried we were stressing her out too much — all these people looking at her and handling her.  So, the grad student put her back in her nest — through the front door rather than the top, so it was more like she normally returned to her nest.  Within a few minutes she was calm again, sitting on her eggs…

It was a very interesting and educational outing.  I enjoyed it, despite the fact that it was 98° outside (ugh) and I was sore from muscle pulls.  I’m glad I went.