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For as long as sentient humans have walked across the surface of the planet, they have observed the world around them. Quite often these observations had direct life-or-death consequences, as most of survival had to do with finding food while not becoming someone else's dinner. Fast forward a few million years and we find ourselves mired in technology, often interacting with the outside world through some sort of digital interface. And yes, I totally get the irony of writing that statement in a blog. Be that as it may, I've found that people generally don't pay much attention to what's going on around them. My job as a biology professor is to teach some of the forgotten skills of the naturalist, including the practice of observation.

Today I took my Ecology students birdwatching. We looked at other things, of course, but birds were the primary focus of today's observations. We started the day near the mouth of Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, where we were immediately challenged to identify some shorebirds. Fortunately we had a guest lecture from a seabird biologist yesterday, and she gave us some important clues to help us with our field IDs.

Some shorebirds are fairly easy to identify, such as this long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus). It was foraging in a stand of pickleweed just off the road, which is the only reason I was able to take a decent photo of it.

Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Long-billed curlew (Numenius americanus) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We also saw marbled godwits (Limosa fedoa), willets (Tringa semipalmata), as well as the flocking "peeps," which we never got a really good look at but all agreed might have been sanderlings (Calidris alba).

One of the things we had been warned about was the difficulty of identifying gulls. There are some features that help when the birds are in adult breeding plumage, but gulls go through several juvenile plumages before attaining their adult colors and there's a lot of phenotypic overlap among species. Case in point:

Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Gulls (Larus spp.) on Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Some of these adults are western gulls (Larus occidentalis) but some look different (smaller bodies, different beak coloration). They might be sub-adult westerns or another species entirely. And even the birds in juvenile plumage varied a lot; some were speckled or mottled while others were more uniformly colored. Several birds (not in this photo) had pale gray backs and pale tan flanks. According to my field guide, National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America, there are several species that have this plumage in their second or third winter. We kind of gave up on the gulls, but to be honest we didn't have a lot invested in identifying them.

The highlight of the beach part of the field trip, at least for me, was seeing snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus). These tiny birds are perfectly colored to hide in the sand, and unless they move they are almost impossible to see. I found them because we unwittingly wandered too far up the beach towards the dunes and accidentally flushed them from their divots in the sand.

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Can you spot all four plovers in this photo? Here's another quartet:

Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Snowy plovers (Charadrius nivosus) at Moss Landing State Beach.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This morning I saw my first humpback whale of the season. A couple of whale watching boats were lingering around the mouth of the harbor, which should have clued us in that there was something going on. However, it took a kayaker to tell us that there were breaching humpbacks just off the jetty before we realized. And I call myself a naturalist? Sheesh.

This bird is, I think, a third-winter western gull (L. occidentalis).

Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Western gull (Larus occidentalis) at Elkhorn Slough in Moss Landing, CA.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This species is endemic to the California Current, which means that it is found nowhere else. The pink legs are characteristic of western gulls, and the black on the tip of the bill indicates a third-winter bird. Adults have a red spot towards the end of the bill but not on the very tip. If you look closely you can see that this bird has a tiny bit of red immediately proximal to the black smudge.


After lunch we convened at the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor center, across the highway and inland a bit from our morning site. The students got a 30-minute orientation to the history and geography of the Slough, then we went on a hike.

Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orientation to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

The first leg of the hike was a short walk to what is appropriately called the overlook. This is where I gave the students their only real assignment of the day. They had to spend 10 minutes in silent observation. They could write in their notebooks and look around with binoculars, but they were not allowed to talk at all. With some groups this is a nigh-impossible feat, but these students did a fantastic job. After the 10-minute observation period we discussed what they had seen and heard. One student said he heard 26 bird calls, but didn't know how many of them were the same bird making different calls. Others mentioned the sounds of human activity--traffic on the highway, planes flying overhead, the beep-beep-beep of a truck in reverse--as well as the buzz of insects and birds. I asked if anyone else had noticed the shadow of a turkey vulture that flew directly over us.

Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Silent observation period at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I think this is a very valuable exercise and would like to extend this period of silent observation to 15 or 20 minutes for future classes. In a lot of ways class always feels a little frantic, and to slow down and simply be a part of nature is a luxury of time that many of us don't have. Alas, we had other places to visit on the hike and needed to get moving again.

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) in flight over Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Much of Elkhorn Slough used to be a dairy, and the Slough is still surrounded by agricultural fields. There are two barns on the Reserve, named Big Barn and Little Barn. Little Barn is used for equipment storage and isn't open to the public, but you can walk into Big Barn. There are two barn owl boxes in Big Barn. We searched under them for owl pellets; we didn't find any intact pellets but did see some that had been dissected by previous human visitors.

Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough. 18 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Little Barn (foreground) and Big Barn (background) at Elkhorn Slough.
18 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

I don't think I've ever seen this much green at Elkhorn Slough. All of the El Niño rains have brought forth a lot of wildflowers and grasses. We hiked past a large stand of non-native poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) on our way to Big Barn. That stuff is going to be difficult to eradicate, as it spreads quickly and outcompetes native species. And yes, this plant is highly toxic to mammals and was, in fact, used by the ancient Greeks for human executions (including that of Socrates).

When we returned to the visitor we asked the Reserve's naturalist, Jane, to take our picture. So this is class photo #1 of the semester. It's not complete, as three students were absent today. I hope to get a picture of the entire class another day.

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I wanted to take the students to the woodpeckers' acorn granary, but we didn't have time to hike that far. Spring break is coming up week after next, and I think I'll go back to the Slough to say "hello" to the family of acorn woodpeckers. I'm looking forward to having more time than I do at the moment to play outdoors. I want to do some drawing, too!

This year I'm teaching Ecology for the second time. It is a field-intensive course: we have all day on Fridays to meet outside the classroom and do something outdoors. Most people understand that hands-on experiences are the best way to learn, whether the subject matter is field-based or computer-based (such as working with software for statistical analyses), and part of my job this semester is to provide as many diverse experiential activities as I can for my students. As I am a marine biologist by training and inclination the course is biased towards marine ecology, but I'm doing my best to include terrestrial activities as well.

Today we visited the Younger Lagoon Reserve on the Long Marine Lab campus, to participate in the ongoing habitat restoration project. We were met by Beth Howard, the reserve manager, and Tim Brown, the reserve steward, who gave us a brief history of the reserve and the conservation work going on there.

Beth (aqua jacket) and Tim (yellow jacket) give us the rundown on restoration at the Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Beth (aqua jacket) and Tim (yellow jacket) give us the rundown on restoration at the Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

We are standing in a plot that had very recently (as in within the last week) been planted with young grasses. The reserve staff, volunteers, and student interns collect seeds from local populations of native plants, germinate and grow them up in the greenhouse, and then plant them the following spring. The idea is that in a few years the larger scrub plants, such as coyote bush and sticky monkey flower, will outcompete the non-native weeds and the plant community will more or less take care of itself. The annual flowering plants should re-seed and repopulate the area at the end of the season.

The master design in this area of the Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The master design in this area of the Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Tim, as the reserve steward, designed this bit of the reserve. The areas within the polygons are to be planted with flowering annuals, while the spaces between polygons are to be filled with perennial grasses. To make seed gathering easier, we were told to plant in patches, resulting in medium-sized patches of several plants of one species grouped together.

In addition to helping plant upwards of 1500 plants today, we got to see how last year's plants are doing! I'm proud to report that they have filled in beautifully and grown a lot:

On the right: Plants that my students and I planted last year. On the left: Plants that were set out about a week ago. Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
On the right: Plants that my students and I planted last year. On the left: Plants that were set out about a week ago. Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Not all the vegetation in the right side of the photo was the stuff that we planted last year. Some of it was weeds. The reserve workers are about to shift from planting mode to weeding mode, to remove as many weeds as possible before they have a chance to flower and set seed.

When it was time to start the actual planting, we were shown how to make holes and insert the baby plants.

Demonstration of the "dibble dance." Younger Lagoon Reserve © Allison J. Gong
Demonstration of the "dibbler dance." Younger Lagoon Reserve
© Allison J. Gong

The dibbler is a nifty tool that makes holes in the ground. You clear off the layer of mulch, shove the dibbler into the soil, and wiggle it around, making a perfectly round hole. The plants are grown in cone-tainers, that not-so-coincidentally are the exact same size and shape as the holes made by the dibbler. I asked Beth, and she confirmed that the dibbler and cone-tainers are made by the same company. Once the dibbler has made the hole you remove a plant from a cone-tainer, stick it in the hole, tamp down the soil around it, and replace the mulch.

We were instructed to place the holes 18" apart, and not in a strict grid pattern. The goal is to restore a natural setting, not create a formal garden. After the instructions we all got to play in the dirt.

Student working at YLR Students at YLR Student at YLR Students at YLR

In addition to planting flowering annuals in a couple of the polygons, we also did this:

Native grasses my students and I planted at Younger Lagoon Reserve. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Some of the native grasses my students and I planted at Younger Lagoon Reserve.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

After our work in the field we went across the marine lab to Younger Lagoon. It rained on us for a while, and we sheltered under the lean-to and looked out over the lagoon. It's beautiful even in the rain.

Younger Lagoon 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Younger Lagoon
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Younger Lagoon. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) at Younger Lagoon.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

This red-winged blackbird was loudly staking his claim to a bit of territory. He never showed off his red epaulettes, though. Another bird was replying from the top of a cypress tree a short distance away. The back-and-forth went on for about five minutes, before one of the birds flew off.

For the first time I got to hike the trail that parallels the east side of Younger Lagoon. We didn't go down onto the beach, but I was able to see a perspective of the large rock at the mouth of the lagoon that I'd never looked on before.

Large rock at the mouth of Younger Lagoon. 4 March 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Large rock at the mouth of Younger Lagoon.
4 March 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Does anybody else see the profile of Abraham Lincoln in this rock?

Today my students and I visited the Monterey Bay Salmon and Trout Project hatchery, to learn about local efforts to save the federally endangered coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). The coho is one of five species of Pacific salmon found on the coast of North America, the other four being the Chinook (O. tshawytscha), the chum (O. keta), the sockeye (O. nerka), and the pink (O. gorbuscha). The coho's range extends in the North Pacific from northern Japan up along Russia, across the Aleutians, and down the coast of North America to the northern bit of Monterey Bay. In our area the coho return to their natal streams (Scott Creek, Big Creek, and occasionally the San Lorenzo River) during the winter rains in January and February.

The local population of coho make up an evolutionarily significant unit (ESU). This means that they are locally adapted to the extent that they are biologically and genetically distinct from other populations. For example, coho from Alaska, where they are much more common, cannot be successfully transplanted into our watershed because they are genetically programmed to spawn in the fall, the time of year when our streams are dry or disconnected from the ocean due to sand bars. So these fish aren't just any old salmon. They have evolved to live in this particular watershed and as such are irreplaceable.

Our first stop of the morning was to the fish trap on Scott Creek. The weir, the structure that extends across the river in the photo below, traps fish that are swimming upstream. Once on the upstream side of the weir, the fish are directed into the cage, from which they can be removed so that fisheries biologists can collect life history data--species, sex, weight, length--before they are released to continue their journey upstream (if they are steelhead) or transported to the hatchery to be spawned (if they are coho).

Students visiting the fish trap on Scott Creek. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Students visiting the fish trap on Scott Creek.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

No fish were in the trap when we got there this morning but our host, a NMFS biologist named Erick, told me that eight coho had been caught yesterday. We did see a pair of steelhead swimming in the water upstream of the weir. Anytime I see a fish out of water, I forget how difficult it is to find them when they're in their natural habitat. The spots on a steelhead's back blend in perfectly with the ripples of the water and the gravel of the stream bed.

Pair of steelhead in Scott Creek. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Pair of steelhead in Scott Creek.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Do you see two faintly reddish blurs in the photo above? Those are the fish. They are facing upstream, to the right. The larger fish on the top is the female.

After the visit to the fish trap on Scott creek we drove up to the hatchery, which is located along Big Creek. The hatchery's day-to-day operations are run by a couple of people from MBSTP. During the busy seasons staff and interns from the NMFS lab in Santa Cruz work up there, too, so the little hatchery building gets quite crowded. We were fortunate to get to see pretty much all the steps involved in trying to return an endangered species from the brink of extinction.

Male salmon, called bucks, are held in pens outdoors. They can contribute more than one sperm donation in a season, just as in the wild a male can fertilize the eggs of more than one female. A buck is taken from the pen, sedated, and then is milted for his sperm. The milt is collected into a glass test-tube and kept dry; once the sperm make contact with fresh water they become activated, and there is a 30-second window during which they can fertilize eggs. Sperm can also be damaged by exposure to UV radiation, so the test tubes are always held in a closed hand. Back inside the hatchery building Erick takes a look at the sperm under a microscope to make sure they can swim properly.

Female salmon are called hens. Before eggs are taken the hens are anaesthetized and examined by palpation and ultrasound to confirm that their eggs are mature. A sample of ovarian fluid is taken and sent off to be tested for disease. When a hen passes the ripeness test she is sliced open to release her eggs into four metal basins.

Collecting a sample of ovarian fluid from a ripe coho hen. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Collecting a sample of ovarian fluid from a ripe coho hen.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

A single female's eggs are fertilized by the sperm of four males. The fisheries biologists keep a detailed matrix of who mates with whom, so that they can avoid additional inbreeding in a population of fish that has already undergone a genetic bottleneck. Milt that has been collected from broodstock males is placed over the eggs. Fertilization occurs once fresh water is added to the basin. The egg-sperm combination is swirled ("just like panning for gold," Erick explained) for two minutes, then the eggs are rinsed and disinfected before being placed into a 100% humidity cold incubator held at 11°C.

The eggs remain in the incubator until the embryos have developed eyes. Then they are transferred into trays through which water flows. When they've absorbed most of their yolk sac they get placed into large indoor trays where they will be fed until they are big enough to go into the outdoor tanks. They'll spend about a year in the outdoor tanks and should then be ready to undergo the process of smoltification, during which their physiology undergoes the alterations necessary for the transition to marine life.

Erick explains hatchery operations, standing next to one of the outdoor pens where smolts are held. 19 February 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Erick explains hatchery operations, standing next to one of the outdoor pens where smolts are held.
19 February 2016
© Allison J. Gong

When I took last year's class to the hatchery we didn't get to see much activity because there were so few fish returning due to the prolonged drought and low water in the creek. This year's El Niño, which has brought rain, has also made it possible for the fish to get into the creeks. Coho are a 3-year species, so the fish returning this year were born in 2013. These fish outmigrated as smolts into drought conditions, and fortunately for them they return during a rainy year. Their progeny will outmigrate in 2017, hopefully into a strong upwelling which will produce lots of food. And when they return in 3-4 years, I hope that there is enough rain for their creek to flow.

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