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The Carmel is a lovely little river. It isn't very long, but in its course it has everything a river should have. It rises in the mountains, and tumbles down a while, runs through shallows, is dammed to make a lake, spills over the dam, crackles among round boulders, wanders lazily under sycamores, spills into pools where trout live, drops in against banks where crayfish live. In the winter it becomes a torrent, a mean little fierce river, and in the summer it is a place for children to wade in and for fishermen to wander in. . . . It's everything a river should be.

-- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

Every Spring semester when I teach my Ecology class, I try to develop a new field trip activity, or modify an existing one. Some activities I'll probably always keep, either because they are really popular with the students or (more likely 'and') because I think they are good learning experiences, but I can also swap out some of the others if better options come along. There's also some fine-tuning that occurs along the way, as I tweak things to improve what I hope is already a good field trip. As much fun as it is to play outside instead of being stuck in a classroom, the point of the field trips is to learn something about ecology--a new habitat, current research in particular fields of study, challenges to restoration and conservation, and the like. Since citizen science has become the catch phrase du jour in the first fifth of the 21st century, I feel that it is important to give students opportunities to participate in some of the science activities available to the wider community.

The Carmel River
2019-03-15
© Allison J. Gong

All of which explains why the students and I made the hour-long trip down to a location called Garland Ranch, on the Carmel River. Back in the fall I heard of a new project starting up in Monterey County, to monitor water quality along the Carmel River. The project, called Watershed Guardians, is operated from the Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. Its goal is to protect steelhead trout in the river by measuring parameters that indicate suitability for the various life history stages of the fish. Like many programs of its kind, Watershed Guardians also has a secondary goal of getting students as young as middle-schoolers out of the classroom and into the field to do some real science. The two goals converge quite nicely, as a big part of the learning experience for the students is developing an understanding ownership of their local river and watershed. Hopefully that sense of ownership evolves into one of responsibility and stewardship. And it is a well-known adage that one way to get adults to care about something is to get their kids to care about it first, so all of these citizen science programs directed at school-age children have the benefit of attracting the attention of people old enough to vote and direct policy decisions. Win-win-win!

Our guide for the day was Matt, who works at the PGMNH and led the teacher training session I attended last fall. He met us at Garland Ranch, where we divided the class into four groups. Matt had arrived with two pairs of backpacks, each pair consisting of one light and one dark. The light and dark backpacks contained equipment and kits for different suites of tests. Each group of students would start with one backpack, either light or dark, and then swap with a different group when finished. That way every group ran all of the tests: pH, temperature, turbidity, DO (dissolved oxygen), alkalinity, and salinity. Some of the tests were quite simple, and others were more complicated.

Team 4 conferring with Matt
2019-03-15
© Allison J. Gong

The four sampling sites at the Garland Ranch location were close together near the vehicle bridge. We've had a lot of rain this winter and the river has been running high. As a result a lot of the sand had been washed away, making the beach fairly steep and rather narrow. To make matters even more difficult, the poison oak has been extremely crafty--its bare sticks are everywhere, looking totally innocent, encroaching on trails and twined around trees. It took some attention to make sure I didn't brush up against any of it while moving up and down the beach.

Collecting a water sample
2019-03-15
© Allison J. Gong

Careful sampling requires teamwork!

The final step in the program is for the students to enter their data into the Watershed Guardians database. The whole point of the program is for these data to be shared publicly for all to use. It's important for students to see the activity through to the end and to know that the work they did will actually be going somewhere. We'll take care of that task next week!


Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The other day my students and I lucked out with the weather and managed to get in a full day of exploring a former military base. Fort Ord, on Monterey Bay near the small city of Marina, was an Army base until it was closed in 1994. Since then, most of the land (~14,600 acres) has been designated the Fort Ord National Monument, administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management. Smaller portions were transferred to the surrounding cities, the campus of CSU Monterey Bay, the state park system, and the University of California's Natural Reserve system. Our guide for the day, Joe, is the reserve manager for the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, and had arranged for us to meet with researchers working at both sites that we visited. It really was a fantastic learning opportunity for all of us.

The Fort Ord National Monument (FONM) came into being in 2012--thank you, President Obama! Most of the monument is public land, with miles of trails used to hikers, bicyclists, and horseback riders. The monument is also home to the California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), the central California population of which is federally threatened. The first person we met on our field trip was a guy named Robert, who is a graduate researcher working on conservation of the tiger salamanders. Robert showed us some artificial vernal pools that he's using in his research.

Artificial vernal pools at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The 18 pools are about 10 meters in diameter, lined with an impermeable layer, and were allowed to fill with natural rainwater. Robert's plan is to seed them with salamander larvae and record how they survive and disperse from the pools. There's a lot more to the story than that, but it's Robert's story to tell, not mine.

We did get to help Robert check the pitfall traps, which are arranged in pairs on each side of the fence surrounding each pool. Each trap is a small bucket set into the ground to be level with the surface. The lid is mounted on wooden legs and sits above the trap, to keep it from filling with water. Animals crawling along the fence will fall into the bucket. Robert collects data on the animals trapped and then releases them unharmed.

The tiger salamanders are all underground at this time of year so there were none in the traps. The students did, however, find a pair of western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) in one of the traps. They were in amplexus, which is what herpetologists call the mating position of frogs and toads: the male clasps the female around her body, ideally positioned to fertilize the female's eggs as she lays them.

Western toads (Anaxyrus boreas) at Fort Ord National Monument
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

The pair of amorous toads were released into one of the ponds, where they swam off together, still in amplexus. Their offspring will be born into the pond as tadpoles, along with those of the chorus frogs, the red-legged frogs, and hopefully not too many bullfrogs. Incidentally, herpetologists use the term 'tadpole' to refer only to the larvae of frogs and toads; Robert calls the larvae of his study salamanders just 'larvae'.

We ventured over to the Fort Ord Natural Reserve (FONR), where we ate our lunch in a clearing surrounded by coast live oaks and coastal scrub. FONR is one of five natural reserves managed by UC Santa Cruz as an outdoor classroom and teaching lab. School groups ranging from elementary school to university levels visit FONR to learn about the natural environment, often for the very first time.

FONR sits on an ancient sand dune, and all of the vegetation has had to adapt to difficult growing conditions. The soil is almost entirely sand and doesn't hold water at all. The wind picks up just about every afternoon and blows in salt from the ocean; these winds can be quite fierce even without the salt. The sand itself gets blown around, making an unstable substrate. As a result, plants that would otherwise grow tall are stunted here. Take, for example, the coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia). In places that are more sheltered from the wind, they are tall and majestic, even as they continue their meandering growth form. At FONR they are much shorter and more closely resemble the other scrub plants than actual trees.

Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and coastal scrub at Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gon
Horned lizard (Phyronosoma sp.) at FONR 2018-05-12
© Allison J. Gong

After lunch we heard from Dani, a UCSC undergraduate student studying horned lizards (Phrynosoma sp.). The lizards are very well adapted to this environment. They live in sand, and have flattened bodies so they can hide on top of the sand and become practically invisible. Like the tiger salamanders the horned lizards are underground now. They should emerge in the next couple of months. This is one that we saw last May, when Joe invited last year's class to visit the Reserve on a Saturday, after our planned field trip was cancelled due to rain.

Footsteps of spring
Sanicula arctopoides
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

In early March the plants were starting to bloom. One of the earliest bloomers is this delightful plant called 'footsteps of spring'; its real name is Sanicula arctopoides. They look like small blotches of yellow spray paint against the ground. And when you see several of them scattered on the trail, you really understand their common name.

Students follow the footsteps of spring (Sanicula arctopoides)
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

There were, of course, no horned lizards to be seen. We did, however, hike the reserve, and Joe showed us some of the endemic and/or endangered plants that live there. That's Joe, in the front of the group here:

Joe and students
Fort Ord Natural Reserve
2019-03-08

Our last stop at the end of the field trip was at a location where the Army used to work on fire suppression. They did this by dumping various flammable items and fuels on the ground, lighting them on fire, and putting them out. This activity resulted in groundwater and soil contamination, which Army contractors have been working to clean up for 20 years now. Currently the site is where Robert is raising his tiger salamander larvae in raised ponds; he will eventually release the larvae into the artificial pools that we saw earlier in the day.

Ponds for growing salamander larvae
2019-03-08
© Allison J. Gong

Each of those ponds is filled with natural rain water and contains a small screened tub into which Robert placed 10 salamander eggs. The larvae, after they hatch and have used up all of their yolk reserves, feed on whatever zooplankton have sprung up in the ponds--a quick glance showed that copepods, ostracods, and insect larvae had already taken up residence. The idea is that the salamander larvae will escape from their tubs into the pool at large, which will give them lots of room to grow up.

In a very real sense, this field trip ended where it started. Things don't always work out this nicely, and my Type A personality is pleased at both the symmetry and the closure. Because these field trips are necessarily snapshots of what is happening at a particular moment in a particular place, it can sometimes be difficult to connect them to the real world. This week, though, I feel that my students got the whole story, or at least the entire outline of it. This visit to FONM and FONR may very well be my favorite field trip of the class, because I learned so much about things that are new to me. Thank you, Joe, for arranging such an amazing day for us!

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