We Californians are all under a state-wide mandate to stay at home, to minimize the spread of COVID-19 this spring. School hasn't been cancelled, but all classes have converted to distance learning. I had four days to figure out how to deal with that. Fortunately we are in spring break this week, which gives us all a little bit of a breather. I'm going to use the time to catch up on grading and plan for the second half of the semester.
The marine lab is also closed for business. Only essential personnel are allowed to be there. The term 'essential personnel' includes people whose responsibilities are animal husbandry. Since animals will die if I'm not there to feed them, I have met that criterion for essentiality. That's not a word, but you know what I mean. With so many fewer than usual people at the marine lab, there's a lot more wildlife activity. A few days ago I saw a long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata) chase down and capture a young brush rabbit. I just barely had time to catch a quick shot with my phone.
The most noticeable thing, though, is the increased birdsong. The sparrows, finches, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, doves, towhees, and hawks are all making a lot of noise. The barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) returned to the lab on the 21st, right on time! Maybe this year they'll have a more successful nesting season than they did last year.
Yesterday I witnessed something I'd never seen before: a territorial dispute between a black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) and a barn swallow. The fact that I had never seen it before in no way implies that it happens only rarely; maybe I've just never paid that much attention to these things before, or they've never happened while I've been around to watch.
Here's the story, in a series of snapshots.
Prologue. The barn swallow (H. rustica) is perched on one of the outdoor light fixtures. The phoebe (S. nigricans) swoops up from below.
The swallow takes to the air, only to be divebombed by the phoebe.
The swallow retreats. . .
. . . and the phoebe perches, triumphant, on the rain gutter.
The entire altercation lasted maybe as long as four seconds. I didn't see where the swallow flew. The phoebe remained on the rain gutter for about a minute or so, then took off over the meadow. Perhaps it has a nest somewhere nearby and was defending it. Both species build mud nests on cliffs and buildings, so these birds could be competing for nest sites. Or maybe phoebes just don't like swallows. Either way, this was the sort of interaction that I don't notice when there is a lot more human activity at the marine lab. Nature has a way of re-asserting herself when humans are removed from the scene for even a short period of time.
Back in 1994, the U.S. Army base at Fort Ord was closed in one of the base closure events that occur every once in a while. UC Santa Cruz (UCSC) acquired some 600 acres of the former base to establish the Fort Ord Natural Reserve, which serves as an outdoor laboratory and teaching space for students of all ages. University students from UCSC and California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) take classes and have internships on the Reserve. Kindergarten students visit the Reserve for what may well be their first experience of Nature. And I take my community college students there every year.
This year, Joe Miller, the reserve manager, had a lot of things for us to learn about, and we were kept busy all day. The first thing we did, after an introduction to the reserve, was hike to the first of several areas where Joe had set some rodent traps the night before.
There were 30 of these Sherman traps to check.
They are live traps, baited to lure in a rodent. The doors shut on the rodent once it ventures inside to grab some seed.
There's a super high-tech method to getting a live rodent out of a trap without hurting either the rodent or the human. You hold the trap vertically, open the top end, slip a plastic bag over the open end, make sure there are no escape openings, then flip the trap over so the rodent falls into the bag. And voilà, instant mouse in a bag!
Then you work the rodent head-first into a corner of the bag with one hand, and reach into the bag and approach it from the back end. Follow the backbone forward, then grab the rodent by the scruff of the neck.
Holding a rodent by the scruff of the neck allows the biologist to handle the animal safely and minimizes the probability of getting bitten.
We caught three or four deermice, but the cutest rodent we saw was a pocket mouse (Chaetodipus californicus). Joe didn't bother with gloves because, as he said, these guys are really mellow. And it really was! He handed it to us and we took turns holding it.
Cute little guy almost fell asleep on a student's arm.
I think it's called a pocket mouse because it's so cute you want to put it in your pocket and take it home.
We had to let the rodents go because Joe had other things for us to do. In addition to the rodent traps, Joe had set up pitfall arrays to catch herps (reptiles and amphibians). A pitfall array consists of two strips of aluminum flashing set up in the shape of a capital T. At each end of the T there is a pitfall trap. The critter runs or slithers along the flashing and then falls into the trap, which is a small bucket buried so the lip is just at ground level.
We got skunked on the pitfall traps--all of them were empty. We did, however, get to see herps. Joe showed us a couple of tiger salamanders, which he had permits to keep as teaching animals. These two animals are hybrids between the native tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense) and a salamander that was introduced from Texas into California to be used as bait. As happened quite often, the bait species took hold in its new habitat and is proving to be a nuisance. In their larval stage they are voracious predators, gobbling up the larvae of other amphibians including those of endangered species such as the red-legged frog. In the area of FONR, pretty much all of the tiger salamanders are hybrids to some degree.
Joe's two "pet" salamanders are very cute!
As with all other amphibians, tiger salamanders require a variety of habitats to complete their life cycle. They reproduce in water, and the larvae live in water. California has distinct wet and dry seasons, and the salamanders must find vernal pools where the water will last long enough for their larvae to metamorphose into the terrestrial adult form. Sometimes the pools don't persist long enough, and in very dry years the pools may not form at all. During the dry season, tiger salamanders may estivate underground, waiting until the weather gets cool and damp enough for them to emerge from burrows and forage on insects and small vertebrates.
One of the students had her heart set on seeing horned lizards, and her wish came true. Some UCSC interns working on the horned lizard mapping project caught a couple of small lizards for us to see. The larger adults aren't coming aboveground yet.
Like the tiger salamanders, the horned lizards face an uncertain future of their own. Their main prey are native ants. California has been invaded by Argentine ants--those are the little black ants that get into houses. The Argentine ants are extremely competitive and form supercolonies, wherein two or more adjacent colonies will merge underground and function as a single colony with multiple queens. They can and do outcompete the native ant species, and predators don't seem to like them. Unfortunately, the horned lizards don't eat the Argentine ants. If the lizards' food source is threatened by the ants, then the lizards could be in big trouble.
One of the things Joe wanted to show us was a plant with a tiny purple flower, that is just now starting to bloom.
This little plant, called greater yellowthroat gilia or sand gilia, is a California endemic species, found nowhere else. The State of California lists it as threatened, and the federal government lists it as endangered. It's a pretty plant, growing low to the ground because although it's March, we haven't had any rain for about eight weeks. And this is supposed to be our rainy season. Joe showed us some Gilia plantlets that were grown in greenhouses and had plenty of water, and they were three or four times as tall as the ones we saw in the field.
There is a lot of very interesting work going on at FONR these days, and it's exciting for me to see how many students are involved. Some of my students said they would contact Joe about internship opportunities, and I hope they do so. If I'm teaching Ecology again next spring, we're definitely coming back to Fort Ord, and I think we'll do an overnight camping trip. I'm sure the reserve is a completely different place once the sun goes down!