Three Reserves of the Gulf Coast

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“So, you guys are going to LA?,” asked the woman in the next to last row of seats on the Southwest flight. We were a bit puzzled by this inquiry since our plane had just left Southern California. “No, we’re going to the Florida panhandle,” was our reply.

“No, y’all are going to LA…. Lower Alabama.”

Such was our introduction to hospitality of the south on a recent trip to Mobile, Alabama for the annual National Estuarine Research Reserves meeting. Mike Vasey (manager of the San Francisco Reserve) and I decided to go early and see the Apalachicola Reserve in the Florida panhandle. Reserve Manager Jenna Harper generously allowed us to stay in their dormitory, a double wide trailer within walking distance of downtown Apalachicola. Jenna downplayed the accommodations repeatedly, but for us it was paradise.

The Hotel Apalachicola

The Hotel Apalachicola

We were serenaded in the morning with live music and as it turned out, approximately 300 yards away, the local Farmer’s Market was underway. Fresh coffee, pastries and fresh local fruit greeted us to Florida. Adjacent to the housing unit was a trail of sea shells and a boardwalk that meandered through the coastal forest and terminated with a great view of the marshes of the Apalachicola River. Lots of wildlife to be seen, from the secretive but gaudy cardinals to the Barred Owl, hunting rodents in the forest.

The trail below

The trail below

Apalachicola Boardwalk

Apalachicola Boardwalk

Florida Green Tree Frog

Florida Green Tree Frog

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

The marsh at the end of the boardwalk

The marsh at the end of the boardwalk

After a short tour of the downtown, we went to the Reserve offices and visitor center on the other side of the highway and a couple of miles south of town.

Downtown Apalachicola

Downtown Apalachicola

Colorful floats

Colorful floats

Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve

Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve

The Reserves boundaries includes lands managed by a variety of both State and Federal wildlife and coastal management agencies, giving the Reserve a total acreage of 234,715 acres. They have a beautiful visitor center and office complex, all elevated to allow hurricane associated flood waters to flow beneath its floors. There was an exhibit of cut paper art. Innumerable colored pieces of paper were cut and stacked in incredibly intricate designs, depicting the structure of diatoms as seen through a microscope. Several aquariums presented views of creatures from the nearby estuary, including a very active horseshoe crab.

Paper art

Paper art

Horseshoe Crab

Horseshoe Crab

Click below for video:
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After getting a tour of the facility from Pauly, wife of the former manager Lee Edmiston, we headed up river in search of the rare Torreya tree. This redwood like tree is only found in a very limited range in the Florida panhandle. The only Torreya trees I saw were in the parking lot, but the forest here was beautiful with magnolias, sycamores, bald cypress, live oak and pine dominating the over story. The Appalachicola River was flowing swiftly to the marshes on the Florida coast.

On the trail

On the trail

Gulf Coast Box Turtle

Gulf Coast Box Turtle

Bald Cypress along the Appalachicola River

Bald Cypress along the Appalachicola River

After a brief stop the next day at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, we headed towards our meeting in Mobile, Alabama. This State Park was gorgeous with a coastal scrub forest trail, butterflies meandering over the landscape and the hope of alligators on the water.

Point St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Point St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Don't swim here!

Don’t swim here!

Gulf fritillary

Gulf fritillary

Point St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Point St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Tri-colored Heron

Tri-colored Heron

We arrive in Mobile, Alabama for the meeting. At the opening plenary session, a representative from the Mississippi Office of Coastal Management informs us that he has obtained a special, albeit temporary dispensation from the governor’s office and we are free to use the term “climate change.” Those Mississippians got a great sense of humor.

The view in front of our hotel in Mobile, Alabama.

The view in front of our hotel in Mobile, Alabama.

On one day we visited Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Alabama. This 6,000 acre Reserve is located on Weeks Bay extending out to the much larger Mobile Bay. Reserve Manager L.G. Adams provides an excellent tour of the facility.

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

There is a wonderful boardwalk going into the forest behind the visitor center. This 3/4 mile trail rises above the forest floor and contains signage identifying the many species of trees found in these woods. This boardwalk terminates with a view of Weeks Bay.

Boardwalk at Weeks Bay NERR

Boardwalk at Weeks Bay NERR

View of Weeks Bay from end of boardwalk

View of Weeks Bay from end of boardwalk

Soon, we are on a boat on that Bay, getting a waterside view of the Reserve. Like many of these gulf coast bays, Weeks Bay is relatively shallow. Brown Pelicans are plentiful, as well as Caspian Terns, Laughing Gulls and a Bottlenosed Dolphin swims alongside the boat for a while.

Florida Brown Pelican

Florida Brown Pelican

You are here

You are here

Our tour of Weeks Bay is not over though. We meet Fred Nation at a boardwalk built over a bog with hundreds of carnivorous pitcher plants. Fred is extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the flora of these bogs. He tells us that plant surveys in the bog reveal up to 60 species of plants in a square meter. He dissects a pitcher plant, exposing the insect carcasses, prey to this deadly plant.

Fred Nation

Fred Nation

White Top Pitcher Plant

White Top Pitcher Plant

Contents of pitcher plant

Contents of pitcher plant

Fred on the trail

Fred on the trail

After the meetings wrap up Mike and I head to Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in nearby Mississippi. We are met by Ayesha Gray, manager of the Reserve. Her visitor center is fantastic, built by the former manager Dave Ruple.

Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve

Ayesha Gray, manager of Grand Bay NERR.

Ayesha Gray, manager of Grand Bay NERR.

We join Jessica Ryan (acting manager of the Alaska NERR), and Angela Doroff (Research Coordinator of the Alaska NERR) and Mark Woodrey (Grand Bay NERR Research Coordinator) who takes us out for a boat trip to the edge of Grand Bay. From here, we land on a remote island where we can set up scopes on a variety of birds.

Heading out on Weeks Bay

Heading out on Weeks Bay

The natural beaches of Mississippi

The natural beaches of Mississippi

Birding on Weeks Bay

Birding on Weeks Bay

Our own private island for a half hour

Our own private island for a half hour

White Pelicans

White Pelicans

Myself, Jessica Ryan, Mark Woodrey, Angie Doroff and Mike Vasey

Myself, Jessica Ryan, Mark Woodrey, Angie Doroff and Mike Vasey

On our way back to the dock, we are joined by a bottle-nosed dolphin. Since this bay is very shallow, the dolphin’s dorsal fin is visible continuously. Our great adventure to the National Estuarine Research Reserves of the northern Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida is soon over and we board airplanes back to the West, full of ideas, hopes and visions of dolphins escorting us back to shore.

Lovelock Cave

Lovelock Cave entrance

Lovelock Cave entrance

I recently had the opportunity to visit a place I had wanted to see for years. Twenty miles off the beaten path (if Lovelock, Nevada can be considered the beaten path), lies an opening to a small cave that held secrets of how native people lived alongside the prehistoric wetlands of Northern Nevada.

Lovelock, Nevada does not often make the headlines. The local population includes a Mr. O.J. Simpson, who is incarcerated in the local state prison. In the late 1800’s it was also the childhood home of Edna Purviance, leading lady in many a Charlie Chaplin film.

Edna Purviance, silent screen star.

Edna Purviance, silent screen star.

The cave is located on an unremarkable rocky outcrop and is about 150 feet deep and 35 feet wide. The first values recognized in this cave were the large deposits of bat guano that were mined starting in 1911. The minors frequently ran into native American artifacts but these were discarded or collected randomly. An archaeologist named L.L. Loud from the University of California, Berkeley began excavations in 1912. He collected several items but a comprehensive survey of the artifacts was not put together.

Then in 1924, a second effort was initiated by Mr. Loud. This time, the remainder of the guano was excavated and the cave floor was explored extensively. In a pit under mats made of tule a cache of eight painted and feathered decoys and three unfinished decoys, all made of tule, were discovered.

Cache of tule decoys

Cache of tule decoys

These decoys were carbon dated and determined to be approximately 2,250 years old (plus or minus 230 years). They were shaped to resemble canvasbacks, a diving duck that still breeds in remaining Great Basin wetlands. Tules were shaped to approximate the canvasback body form and feathers were attached to the body to further imitate the live bird.

Feathered Canvasback decoy

Feathered Canvasback decoy


Unfeathered Canvasback decoy

Unfeathered Canvasback decoy

Along with the decoys were a prehistoric sling, baskets, and other food storage items. These people used these decoys to hunt waterfowl on a remnant lake descended from Lake Lahontan. Approximately 12,500 years ago, this Pleistocene era lake had a surface area of approximately 8,500 acres. By 9,000 years ago, Lake Lahontan had broken up into a series of smaller lakes, one of which was the Humboldt Sink, which existed adjacent to Lovelock Cave. Some of this lake bed is managed as the Humboldt Wildlife Management Area by the Nevada Department of Wildlife.

Pleistocene era extent of Great Basin lakes

Pleistocene era extent of Great Basin lakes

View of Lake Lahontan from the mouth of Lovelock Cave

Current view of Humboldt Sink lakebed from the mouth of Lovelock Cave

The cave was probably used seasonally when the wetlands were flooded and attracted flocks of waterfowl. The decoys were stashed in the cave each year for future use. For whatever reason, one year the hunters never came back.

Interior of Lovelock Cave

Interior of Lovelock Cave

The ancient decoys were honored by the State of Nevada when Larry Hayden’s painting of the canvasback tule decoy was chosen as the first Nevada duck stamp in 1979.

Nevada 1979 State Duck Stamp

Nevada 1979 State Duck Stamp

These decoys were again featured on the 1999 Nevada Duck Stamp in a painting by Sherrie Russell Meline. A matted print of this painting has been hanging in our home for many years.

Sherrie Russell Meline's print and 1999 Nevada Duck Stamp

Sherrie Russell Meline’s print and 1999 Nevada Duck Stamp

During my days at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, we taught kids about how native people lived around wetlands. One of the educational activities employed was the building of tule decoys. This was always an enjoyable activity for me to participate in.

Making tule decoys at California Duck Days

Making tule decoys at California Duck Days

Lovelock Cave is not an easy place to get to, but if you ever have the opportunity to explore northern Nevada seek it out, enjoy the solitude and think about the thriving wetlands full of waterfowl and how ingenious Paiutes enticed those birds within range of their arrows.

Cliff Swallows

“When the swallows come back to Capistrano
That’s the day you promised to come back to me
When you whispered, farewell in Capistrano
Was the day the swallows flew out to the sea.”

cliff swallows

This lovely song written by Leon Rene and first performed by the Ink Spots in 1940 illustrates how humans are affected by the rhythmic migration of wildlife. The reliability of Cliff Swallows coming back to the Mission San Juan Capistrano on the same day each year became a symbol of loyalty. You could always count on the swallows.

The reality is that the annual arrival of Cliff Swallows was a tool used by Father St. John O’Sullivan to generate interest in restoring the ruins of the Mission. Fast forward to the latter twentieth century and the creeks used by the Swallows to gather mud for their nests have been lined in concrete with little surface water available to even make mud. But what of that reliability issue?

Actually, many of our migratory birds are very much “on time” when they arrive at their breeding grounds. It is quite remarkable that our Cliff Swallows, who spend their winters in South America can find the buildings of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve on the same week every spring.

Map Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Map Courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cliff Swallows are one of seven species of swallows found in North America. The Reserve regularly hosts Cliff Swallows as well as Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows. Tree Swallows are interesting in that they are the only swallow species to stay north during the winter months. They are able to do this because their diet has expanded to include berries, in addition to the standard fare of flying insects.

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallows are infrequent residents of the 158 nest boxes maintained on the Reserve. These boxes are located in the Elkhorn oak woodlands and monitored by our fine volunteers.

Shirley Murphey monitoring nest box.

Shirley Murphey monitoring nest box.

Here is a beautiful photo of a Tree Swallow coming to a nest box. This image was captured by Elkhorn Slough Foundation Land Steward Ken Collins.

The most visible of our swallow species is the Cliff Swallow. Although they are most frequently seen on buildings and bridges, they originally nested on cliff faces,hence the name. It is interesting to see these birds in their natural nesting habitat. This colony was in Los Gatos Canyon, northwest of Coalinga, California.

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Our swallows take up residence on the buildings of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve every spring. Although they sure make a mess, they are most welcome and extremely popular with our visitors and staff. Ken mounted a camera near one of our Cliff Swallow colonies. Please enjoy this spectacular footage shot by Ken Collins.

Coalinga Horned Toad Derby

Coalinga toads

For years we drove up I-5 going from Southern California to our home in Davis or Grizzly Island. One landmark on that lonely stretch of road through the San Joaquin Valley was the Harris Ranch feedlots. We’d flip the air conditioner to “recycle” in order to keep the stench out. Associated with this visual and olfactory display was the road sign that said “Coalinga.”

Harris Ranch Feed Lots

What I knew about Coalinga would take about five minutes to describe. I knew they had a large earthquake in 1983, and that it was situated on the north edge of the San Joaquin Valley desert. I looked it up in Wikipedia and one line stood out:  “Today, the city’s main industries are agriculture, oil and incarceration.” One other thing I knew about Coalinga. They annually held a Horned Toad Derby.

Blainville's Horned Lizard

So, when my friend Paul Paulson was up for a visit with his cousin, I asked about their hometown festival. Next thing I know, we are meeting in Coalinga for the 79th annual Horned Toad derby. I eagerly looked forward to the festivities. The theme this year was “Toad of the Rings.”

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First up was the parade. The streets were lined with the townsfolk as the opening banner came down the street. This town loves horned toads and you can find them everywhere. The high school mascot is the horned toad.

The beginning of the Horned Toad Parade

The beginning of the Horned Toad Parade

Oscar, the Coalinga High School Mascot

Oscar, the Coalinga High School Mascot

The largest horned lizard I have ever seen meandered down the street, outfitted with a go pro camera. I suppose that was to inform the steering of the contraption, but still I’d like to see that video.

Big Horned Lizard

Of course there was a queen, and marching bands, caballeros, local hot rods and business trucks. The football team was on a float with the cheerleaders. The wrestling team was performing wrestling matches on a trailer. Go Toads!

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Unfortunately, my friend Paul got thrown in jail.

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Later it was off to the park where the horned toad races would be taking place. I wanted to learn more about where these animals came from. I asked various people in town and got lots of stories. They bring them from Texas, from Arizona, from another country. The truth came from the chamber of commerce. These lizards are collected on a local ranch in the hills west of town. Each individual is marked and its location noted. When the races are over, each animal is released to the same place they came from. Well, the first afternoon race was about to get started so we headed to the racing arena. The racers waited anxiously in their container before being displayed to the audience.

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The anticipation was thick as the contestants were placed into a center ring for the start. Betting is not allowed but you can buy tickets and place them in jars corresponding to individual lizards to win prizes. However, betting is not allowed.

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After a thorough explanation of where horned toads come from and their importance, the race began. A more exciting contest cannot be found anywhere. Multiple strategies were being implemented, each trying to psych out the others. Soon, a tail flick, then another animal raised its head. One brave soul made his move and……….

Click here to watch race

Soon I was off to the souvenir stand to purchase a t shirt, so as to never forget this occasion. Suddenly all was good in the world in Coalinga, California.

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Horned toad images and art can be found throughout this town. No matter what you think about this event, the reality is that this animal is a source of pride for the town of Coalinga. Once a year the people of this town get together and celebrate their community. The figurehead of that celebration is the horned lizard. Anything that connects people with their environment in a positive atmosphere is a good thing.

I photographed every horned toad I could find and have compiled them into the mosaic shown at the top of this blog entry.

The next morning I headed back to Elkhorn and as I started climbing out of the saltbush desert of Coalinga, a fairly large wide lizard crawled off the side of the road in front of me. I couldn’t turn around for several hundred yards, but I did and walked the edge of the road where I had that sighting. I couldn’t be sure, but actually I’m thoroughly convinced that was a horned lizard that crossed the road in front of me as I left the beautiful community of Coalinga.

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To harvest forever the dreams of the San Joaquin

In the last month, I further indulged my love affair with the San Joaquin Valley with a couple of outings into the hills surrounding the south end of this remarkable place. The San Joaquin Valley is perhaps the most altered landscape in California. Historically, the center of the southern San Joaquin universe was Tulare Lake, the second largest lake in the Western United States. Its watershed was cloaked in vast arid grasslands, riparian forest, the wild Kern River and a unique desert ecosystem that extended north to latitudes shared by the Elkhorn Slough. On this landscape roamed vast herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope and flocks of waterfowl that would darken the skies. The surrounding hills host an impressive array of habitats as the Mojave Desert, Southern Sierra Nevada, Coast Range and San Joaquin Valley overlap in endless combinations of floristic associations.

Tulare Lake and adjacent watershed.

Tulare Lake and adjacent watershed.

There is a family connection to this place. In 1824, during the “Purisima Rebellion,” Native Americans at the Santa Inez, Santa Barbara and Purisima missions violently rebelled against their oppressors. Mexico had gained control of California a few years earlier and support for the missions had been curtailed. Conditions became unbearable for both the Spanish colonists and the “neophytes,” and violence erupted at these three sites. During the fray, a soldier with the surname Feliz was killed. His assailants quickly fled over the coast range to the east, and hid in the vast tulares of Buenavista Lake. An expedition of 85 men set out from Mission San Fernando and staged their incursion into the tulares at a small settlement called San Emigdio. The suspects were caught and brought to justice.

Site of San Emigdio

Site of San Emigdio

San Emigdio Canyon spills into the southwest corner of the San Joaquin Valley and historically drained into Buenavista Lake. There is public access through San Emigdio Canyon to a 93,000 acre private wildlife reserve called “Wind Wolves Preserve.” Years ago, I was involved in an elk relocation operation at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge that included the capture of several animals destined for the Wind Wolves Preserve. This was my first time visiting their Preserve. There is a spectacular entrance a few miles north of the highway that goes between Interstate 5 and the town of Maricopa. This is empty country.

Darkling beetle on road to San Emigdio Canyon

Darkling beetle on road to San Emigdio Canyon


Wind Wolves Preserve entrance

Wind Wolves Preserve entrance

This road gives access to the Administrative Hacienda, several picnic areas, a campground, and the San Emigdio Canyon trail. The Preserve conducts education programs, guided tours, and manages a volunteer program. Regardless of these developments, this is still a wild place, as indicated by their signage.

Lions and Bears, oh my!

Lions and Bears, oh my!

Learn more about the Preserve at their website.

http://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_windwolves.html

http://www.wildlandsconservancy.org/preserve_windwolves.html

San Emigdio Canyon trail

San Emigdio Canyon trail

The “canyon” in this area is a valley with a flat terrace between two steep hillsides. This dry terrace is cut by an jagged arroyo filled in places with stands of Fremont Cottonwood. The trail alternates between low profile grasslands on the flat terrace and the shady riparian forest. The creek flows alternately below the surface and above ground. In the wetter areas riparian forest dominates while the dry areas are dominated by Great Basin sagebrush and rabbitbrush.

Riparian Forest

Riparian Forest

Trail through Arroyo

Trail through Arroyo

Evidence of Native American habitation can be found in several places.

Grinding Stone

Grinding Stone

It’s easy to imagine inhabitants of this canyon looking north into the endless Valley with Buenavista Lake in the near distance.

Looking north out of San Emigdio Canyon

Looking north out of San Emigdio Canyon

San Emigdio Canyon drainage.

San Emigdio Canyon drainage.

To the east of this area, in the southeast corner of the San Joaquin Valleys lies the Tejon Ranch. This 200,000 acres ranch is the largest in California. I have driven by it my entire adult life. What a thrill to get a chance to tour this beautiful area. I joined a small group of folks conducting a herp survey of the Tejon Ranch. We met in Lebec and carpooled to Tejon Canyon. This valley had scattered large Valley Oaks, looking deep green despite the drought conditions evident on the surrounding hills.

Vally Oaks in Tejon Canyon

Vally Oaks in Tejon Canyon

As we traveled up canyon, the Valley Oaks gave way to Blue Oaks with Sycamore and Cottonwoods along Tejon Creek.

Blue Oaks on higher slopes

Blue Oaks on higher slopes

The road up Tejon Canyon

The road up Tejon Canyon

This was an area where we found several Gilbert Skinks and Northern Pacific Rattlesnakes.

Gilbert's Skink

Gilbert’s Skink


Rattlesnake

Rattlesnake

Continuing up slope, we encountered Black Oak and open meadows.

Black Oak at higher elevations

Black Oak at higher elevations

The ridge top had scattered sagebrush and spruce. Quite different from where we started and starkly contrasting with the vegetation on the desert side of these mountains.

Spruce on the ridges

Spruce on the ridges

As we topped the crest and headed down into the Antelope Valley, the vegetation changed dramatically. This was the high desert and patches of Joshua Tree appeared amongst the dry grasslands.

Joshua Trees

Joshua Trees


Beetle on cactus flower

Beetle on cactus flower

Finally, we looped back to Lebec and our loop through the enormous Tejon Ranch was over. Both of these properties were absolutely spectacular. Both conduct tours of these lands that the public can participate in. If you have interest in seeing some of the lesser known parts of California, take some time to visit the Southern San Joaquin Valley and get a glimpse of old California.

“They say the Sierra melts with the rain
To race through the valley like blood through the vein
Turning the lowland from golden to green
To harvest forever the dreams of the San Joaquin”

– Randy Sharp

Salamander breeding confirmed

The Elkhorn Slough crew has been working on creating fresh water wetlands in an interesting way. We haven’t had standing water on the surface for four years due to the drought. We embarked on a project to construct ponds and install pond liners to hold water more efficiently. We also devised ways to capture rain water and store it for future use. This particular pond captures water from the roof of a residence and along approximately 200 feet of road. The water is captured through gutters and pipelines and ends up in large storage tanks. The water stored in the tanks is used to sustain the water level in the pond.

The pond liner being installed:

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The completed pond a couple of months later:

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The pond turned out beautifully and we were able to capture water in the December rains that stimulated the surface movement of Tiger Salamanders as documented in an earlier blog post. Those sightings were about a half mile away.

The other night our crew went to sample this and other ponds and made some interesting discoveries. They found both California Tiger Salamander and Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander larvae. This was exciting news for us, since we have never documented Tiger Salamander breeding on the Reserve and the Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander hasn’t bred here since 2011. They were both breeding in the same pond, which was pretty interesting.

As many of you know, Barred Salamanders were released in the Salinas Valley many years ago, they bred with our native California Tiger Salamander and their hybrid progeny have expanded their range in the area. We were interested in learning if these animals possessed introduced alleles from Barred Salamanders. Since we are currently conducting California Tiger Salamander workshops this week, it was a good opportunity for the experts to take some samples and get them down to Brad Schaefer’s lab down at UCLA.

This morning we went to the pond and quickly captured several amphibian larvae:

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Here is an example of a Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander larva. Note the long toes.

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I tried to photograph it in a ziplock bag, which gave me this interesting image:

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Here is an especially healthy California Tiger Salamander larva:

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The crew got to work collecting the tissue samples:

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Each animal was measured:

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A tissue sample was taken from the tip of the tail.

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And then each animal was released.

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The genetics of each sample will be determined we’ll find out if the introduced alleles from the Barred Salamander have reached our area and whether or not we have hybrid Tiger Salamders at the Elkhorn Slough.

Death Valley

Death Valley at sunrise.

Death Valley at sunrise.


I had the opportunity to end 2014 with a visit to Death Valley. Every couple of years I need a “desert fix” to see and feel the stark landscape of the arid west. The last time we went to this area in 2007, my camera rolled out of the vehicle at our first stop and never worked again. I was eager to get back with a working camera.

Our first stop was a BLM campground in Walker Pass. This no fee campground was absolutely beautiful and we were the only campers that cold night. Located in a unique transition area where the Mojave Desert mingles with the Great Basin in the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. Joshua Trees mingled with Pinyon Pine, Juniper and Jeffrey Pine.

Walker Pass at night.

Walker Pass at night.

We spent our first night in Death Valley at the Texas Springs Campground near Furnace Creek. Campsites are in close proximity to each other and the place was full. Ironically, a typical night at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve is much quieter than most public campgrounds. With a half moon in the sky, I decided to escape the crowd and go for a night hike to take photographs. Walking in the desert with only the illumination of the moon is something everybody should experience. Once the eyes adjust, every detail of the rocky desert trail becomes clear.

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Desert Trail at night.

Desert Trails at night.

The chalky white hills arising from the wash near the campground were beautiful in the moonlight.

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Our goal was to get into the back country and see the “Racetrack Playa,” a dry lake where isolated rocks have left strange tracks on the lake surface. This site is 28 miles down a dirt road at an elevation of 3608 feet. We drove up to Ubehebe Crater and began negotiating the rocky road.

The east wall of Ubehebe Crater.

The east wall of Ubehebe Crater.

Eventually we arrived at a crossroads marked with an impressive collection of tea kettles. Our tea kettle was an important piece of equipment to us, so we did not add to the display.

Teapot Junction

Teakettle Junction

The road wound though a stand of small Joshua Trees. I was surprised to see this plant in Death Valley. I did a quick search for Desert Night Lizards, but they were probably deep under cover to survive the winter.

Joshua Trees in Death Valley

Joshua Trees in Death Valley

We arrived at the playa in the late afternoon. It was clear that the higher elevation would result in cooler temperatures, but we were not expecting a night that bottomed out below 20 degrees.

Our hardy crew in the Death Valley back country.

Our hardy crew in the Death Valley back country.

In the morning we headed back to the playa bed, where I saw some of the only birds viewed in the park on this trip. A flock of horned larks was foraging around the perimeter of the playa. Nice to see some life in this barren landscape. The surrounding desert vegetation revealed a small group of Sage Sparrows, rummaging in the litter of the creosote. The playa itself was a a perfectly flat and barren plain.

The Racetrack Playa

The Racetrack Playa

The sailing rocks of the Racetrack Playa have presented a mystery for many years. How did these rocks leave such tracks?

A couple of the "Sailing Rocks."

A couple of the “Sailing Rocks.”

People studied the movement of these rock through the entirety of the twentieth century. Yet, nobody ever witnessed the rocks actually moving. It was thought that perhaps the rocks were moved by strong winds when there was water in the lake. The clay soils could provide a slick enough surface to facilitate the sliding of the rocks. An alternate idea was that when the water in the lake froze, high winds moved whole sheets of ice, including the rocks themselves.

Another of the "Sailing Stones."

Another of the “Sailing Stones.”

Finally, with the utilization of Global Positioning Systems and time lapse photography, a movement of rocks was documented on December 20th, 2013. In the coming days, some rocks moved as much as 224 meters. When thin ice sheets just a few millimeters thick start to melt during periods of light wind, the thin floating ice panels shove the rocks across the lake surface. These rocks can move at up to five meters per minute. The mystery was solved.

On the north end of the playa, a large outcropping of Quartz Monzonite appears in the lake bed. This rock formation is known as “The Grandstand.”

"The Grandstand."

“The Grandstand.”

On our way back to the Furnace Creek area we encountered a very friendly coyote. His mate was not quite so bold.

Coyote

Coyote

We took a look at a place where ground water comes to the surface, forming a creek that flows through pickleweed thickets. So strange to see this marsh plant in the middle of the desert.

Salt Creek

Salt Creek

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All in all, a fantastic trip to a unique part of the State and a great glimpse of our desert wilderness.

Elkhorn Tigers

California Tiger Salamander

California Tiger Salamander

It started with a photograph on facebook posted by wildlife rescue expert Rebecca Dmytryk. Her husband Duane had found a California Tiger Salamander in their driveway. We were pretty sure this species was found in our watershed but not certain. A couple of days later, Reserve worker Mike Curthoys told me he saw them on Strawberry Road. Two nights later a big rainstorm hit the area. I get a call from Mike that Tiger Salamanders are “all over the road.”

I head over there and it is a spectacle. In distinct areas, animals are crawling across the road, along the shoulder, and unfortunately, getting squished by traffic. We work to get them off the road for an hour or so. That night 49 salamanders were found.

Some of the many California Tiger Salamanders found on Strawberry Road.

Some of the many California Tiger Salamanders found on Strawberry Road.

Amazing to think that they spend most of their lives underground in rodent burrows. When the first strong rains arrive, they emerge from their subterranean lairs and congregate in breeding ponds to reproduce.

Larval California Tiger Salamander in the hills above Salinas.

Larval California Tiger Salamander in the hills above Salinas.

Take a look at the diversity of dorsal patterns on these animals.

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The world is full of surprises and 2014 is the year we rediscovered California Tiger Salamanders on the Reserve. Can’t ask for a better holiday present than that.

Bucks for Ducks

Banded Mallard in the hunter's bag

Banded Mallard in the hunter’s bag

For much of my career, I’ve been involved with developing and managing freshwater wetlands in the Sacramento Delta and Suisun Marsh. In both locations, we managed waterfowl hunting as part of our public use programs.

Suitably, I’m writing this blog entry in the old Meyer hunting Lodge on the Elkhorn Slough Reserve, built as a getaway by Henry Meyer and Frank Buck in 1906. They and their families hunted ducks in the old rookery pond down the hill in the early years of the 20th century.

Henry Meyer in the courtyard of the Lodge.

Henry Meyer in the courtyard of the Lodge.

Alice Meyer Buck at the Elkhorn Slough

Alice Meyer Buck at the Elkhorn Slough

With autumn now upon us and the sound of shotguns punctuating the morning skies, I thought it would be a good time to review the lead role hunters play in wildlife, particularly wetland conservation in our country. They contribute the vast majority of funding for acquisition, development and management of wildlife habitats. These funds come primarily from the purchase of duck stamps, firearms, ammunition, hunting licenses and hunting supplies. Additionally, the majority of fresh water wetlands are privately owned and managed by waterfowl hunters as duck clubs.

Duck Stamps
Since 1934 the Fish and Wildlife Service has required the posession of a federal duck stamp in order to hunt waterfowl. The first year’s duck stamp is certainly a collector’s item these days with it’s depiction of a male and female mallard.

1934 Federal Duck Stamp

1934 Federal Duck Stamp

Today the Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a contest to choose the artwork that will grace the annual stamp. The winning artist this year was Jennifer Miller of Olean, New York with her stunning portrait of a Ruddy Duck.

2014-15 Federal Duck Stamp - Ruddy Duck

2014-15 Federal Duck Stamp – Ruddy Duck

These stamps currently cost $15 and this money goes towards acquisition and development of wetland habitat. Since 1934 this program has generated over 1 billion dollars that went directly into protecting over 5 million acres of habitat important for waterfowl. Over 55 million dollars was raised in 2012 alone.

California began its own duck stamp program in 1971 and since that time has raised more than 22 million dollars. We were the first state to institute a state duck stamp program. Now, every state in the nation has their own duck stamp. John Nelson Harris of Groveland, Florida painted the winning entry for 2014 with his beautiful portrait of a Lesser Scaup.

2014 California Duck Stamp - Lesser Scaup

2014 California Duck Stamp – Lesser Scaup

State Duck Stamp funds are used for wetland restoration and enhancement projects throughout California. Generally, this means reconfiguring the topography of an area in order to manage water in such a way that particular wetland values are enhanced. This usually involves designing and fabricating a plumbing system for efficient flooding and draining capabilities.

Partners in front of recently completed State Duck Stamp Project

Partners in front of recently completed State Duck Stamp Project

Proposed Wetland Restoration

Proposed Wetland Restoration

Completed project.

Completed project.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages a visual arts curriculum that includes the creation of a junior duck stamp. They conduct a junior duck stamp art contest in every state on an annual basis. I had the good fortune to serve as a judge for this contest for three years. This assignment proved somewhat stressful and the majority of these young artists far surpassed my abilities to draw any kind of duck.

Junior Duck Stamp judges making difficult decisions.

Junior Duck Stamp judges making difficult decisions.

Groups of entries from the elementary school artists.

Groups of entries from the elementary school artists.

Firearms and Ammunition Tax
This tax on firearms and ammunition was enabled by the “Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937.” It is more commonly known as the “Pittman-Robertson Act,” named in honor of the act’s two sponsors, Nevada Senator Key Pittman and Virginia Congressman Absalom Willis Robertson. All buyers of guns and ammo contribute to this fund. Hunters make up a significant proportion of this group. Since this 11% tax was initiated, this program has raised over 7 billion dollars for wildlife management. This money is distributed to all 50 states, who must each have laws in place which prohibit the use of state hunting license dollars outside the wildlife agency responsible for conservation and administration of hunting licenses. It also requires that each state provide state funds as a 25% match of their allotment.

Since 1937, California has received over 275 million dollars from this fund. Current year is over 20 million dollars. This money funds virtually all the State Wildlife Areas in the State of California and across the nation. All the Central Valley Wildlife Areas are dependent upon intensive management and this management is expensive.

Tundra Swans at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, Davis, California

Tundra Swans at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, Davis, California

Similarly, the “Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act” allowed a tax on fishing equipment to create a funding source for fisheries projects. A component of this program is the Aquatic Education Program, which funds the majority of the education program at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve.

Greeting school kids at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve

Greeting school kids at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve


Hunting License Sales

Hunters must purchase an annual hunting license. This money goes directly into the Fish and Game Preservation Fund. This dedicated funding source pays the salary of many Fish and Wildlife employees. It is often used as match in order to receive the federal Pittman Robertson dollars.

Successful duck hunters in California's Central Valley.

Successful duck hunters in California’s Central Valley.

Private Wetland Management
Three quarters of the fresh water wetlands in our State are privately owned and managed as duck hunting clubs. Most of the Suisun Marsh is in private ownership, as well as the Butte Sink, two areas well known as wetland oases for ducks. The Grasslands area surrounding Los Banos, where one quarter of our remaining freshwater wetlands have been restored has a significant acreage of private wetlands.

Duck Hunting Club in the Suisun Marsh.

Duck Hunting Club in the Suisun Marsh.

These models for funding conservation have been in place since the 1930’s and have proven to be very successful and reliable sources of money for wetland management. Hunters have funded the restoration and management of hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands in this country for many years. The loss of hunting and the revenues generated could be catastrophic to wetland conservation. It is simply not feasible to achieve the wetland conservation values we have today without the waterfowl hunting community. There have been various efforts to obtain funding from other users of the outdoors. An $18 fee attached to vehicle license fees (Proposition 21) was defeated by the voters in 2010. Perhaps in the future there will be opportunities to everybody to help keep the ducks coming to California every autumn.

There is no place on earth like California’s Central Valley. This area harbors remarkable concentrations of waterfowl and waterfowl hunters. North American waterfowl populations are estimated by gauging the conditions of the breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Annual flight transects count the number of ponds that have water in the vast “Prairie Pothole Region” of Canada and the northern plains of the United States. All told, they fly 55,000 miles each spring, counting these ponds.

Female mallard with large brood of ducklings

Female mallard with large brood of ducklings

Conditions this year on the breeding grounds are extraordinary, the best witnessed since the program began in the 1950’s. Estimates of number of waterfowl coming to winter in the United States are as much as 49 million birds. California will get their share and people are working hard to make sure there is flooded ground available for them. The hunter’s continued involvement is critical this winter as it has been since people began managing North America’s waterfowl populations.

Sunrise and White-fronted Geese

Sunrise and White-fronted Geese

Rain Beetles

Rain Beetle

Rain Beetle

Finally, we got some rain at the end of October. A day long shower soaked the Elkhorn Reserve thoroughly. I got up early Saturday morning to see if any amphibians were on the road. I did not see those critters but was surprised to see three strange looking beetles in one of our guzzlers. I posted a photo on my facebook page and the animal was quickly identified by one of my Fish and Wildlife colleges as a Rain Beetle.

Well, with an interesting name like that, I thought it worth learning about these insects. Rain Beetles are found only in Western North America. They are all in the genus Pleocoma, the sole member of the family Plecomidae. There are 20 species known to occur in California.

Most of their lives are spent underground, where their various larval stages feed on roots of oak trees and other plants. It may take several years for these larvae to develop into adults. Rain events can trigger the emergence of adult male and female rain beetles. At this stage of their lives, they have no functioning mouth parts, so they are unable to feed. Males are able to fly and live only a few days. Females cannot fly and may live for months. The females release pheremones from the entrance of their burrow, hoping to attract a mate. Meanwhile, the males are flying low, searching for these females. Several males cluster around a female. She mates and goes into her burrow to lay her eggs. These eggs hatch about two months later. The male continues to seek out female partners and soon dies.

Apparently, when the males leave their burrows for their nuptial flights, they are attracted to lights and shiny pools of water. That is how they got into the guzzler Saturday morning.

You never know what you’ll find on the trail.

For more detailed information about Rain Beetles, check out the Hastings Natural History Reservation website at http://www.hastingsreserve.org/invertebrates/Insects/Pleocoma/RainBeetle.html