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Getting skunked by birds

This week I took my Ecology students to the Younger Lagoon Reserve (YLR) on the UC Santa Cruz Coastal Science Campus. The YLR is one of 39 natural reserves in all of the major ecosystems throughout the state of California. The UCSC campus administers five of the reserves: Younger Lagoon, the Campus Reserve, Fort Ord Natural Reserve, Año Nuevo (operated in conjunction with the California State Park system), and the Big Creek Natural Reserve in Big Sur. The UC reserves are lands that have been set aside to use as living laboratories and outdoor classrooms, and are fantastic places to take students to learn about the natural history of California. They provide students with opportunities to gain valuable hands-on experience working in the field, through classes, internships, or volunteering.

Younger Lagoon
23 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Younger Lagoon Reserve comprises about 70 acres of land, most of which was formerly brussels sprouts fields. The lagoon itself is a Y-shaped body of brackish water that receives input from run-off due to rain. It connects with the water of Monterey Bay only when there is enough freshwater flowing to break through the thick sand berm; this happens once or twice a year during the rainy season. The Lagoon lands were donated to UCSC in the 1970s. East of  the actual lagoon are about 47 acres of what are referred to as Terrace Lands, which were incorporated into the YLR in 2009. This is where, for the past three years, I've brought students to work on vegetation restoration. The team of reserve stewards, interns, and volunteers has a yearly goal to replant two acres every year.

Restoration of native vegetation at the Younger Lagoon Reserve
23 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

This year, instead of getting straight to the planting, we began the morning at the bird banding station. Personnel at the YLR have been banding birds for a little over a year now, usually on Fridays and occasionally on Thursdays. The banders, or "bird nerds", get started at about 07:30, and by the time our class arrived at 09:30 they had caught five birds. It was windy and there was no cloud cover at all, which were not very good conditions for catching birds in either the mist nets or the ground traps.

Rachel explains how a mist net catches flying songbirds
23 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong
This trap catches birds that forage on the ground
23 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Notice how both the mist net and the ground trap are empty? That's the kind of luck we had with the bird banding.

The rest of the morning was very productive. After the bird banding demonstration we joined the UCSC student interns on the Terrace Lands for some planting. The method used for planting has changed since the last time I was here with students in 2016, due to a 5-year study comparing weed control methods. Herbicide was very effective, but obviously toxic to the native plants as well as the weeds. The stewards also tried laying black plastic over the fields and letting the sun bake the weeds to death. This was almost as effective as herbicide; however, the plastic can be used only a few times and then has to be thrown away to end up in the landfill. The result of the study was a compromise between effective weed control and minimal negative environmental impact. The planters now put down a layer of biodegradable paper and cover it with mulch. Holes are punched through the paper and small plants are planted in the holes. The combination of the paper and mulch seems to work pretty well. Plus, there's no waste!

Rolling out the weed barrier
23 February 2018
© Allison J. Gong

A large group of about 25 motivated workers can accomplish quite a lot in a few hours. By lunchtime we had lain three long strips of the paper side-by-side, covered them with mulch, and repeated the process twice more, using up the entire roll of paper. The hole-punching and planting go more slowly, but we did place ~200 plants in the ground. It was a busy and productive morning, despite the lack of birds. The students said they learned a lot and had fun doing it. That's the beauty of field trips!

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