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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.

On a misty, cool Friday I took my Ecology students up the coast a bit to Rancho del Oso, the nature center at the ocean end of Big Basin Redwoods State Park, which was the first state park in California. It was our first field trip of the semester, and goal was to get outdoors and start observing patterns in nature. The weather forecast called for a 50% chance of rain, but we lucked out and got the other 50% and had only light drizzle to contend with.

We spent the morning wandering through the woods. Even though visibility wasn't great there was a lot to see close at hand. For example, I've always loved how a lowly spider web looks when the silk has collected beads of dew:

Orb web in the morning mist, Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orb web in the morning mist, Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Orb web at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Orb web at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Am I the only person who has a favorite tree? I don't mean a favorite species or type of tree, but a favorite individual tree. Mine is an oak, and it isn't at all difficult to find, just a few meters up the trail leading from the nature center to Waddell Creek. Oak trees in general are my favorite trees in California, and this one is a magnificent specimen. One of the things I love about these coastal live oaks (Quercus agrifolia) is the way that the mature tree's branches grow all gnarled and reach along the ground. They have such character and seem so wise.

Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

If you climb up to the tree and look through it over the ridge there's a fantastic view into Big Basin Redwoods State Park. Today the view was obscured by fog, but even so it was pretty spectacular, almost eerie.

Rancho del Oso is at the bottom of the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail, which starts up in the redwoods at the top of the park. Waddell Creek flows through the park, under Highway 1, and empties into the Pacific Ocean. Strong afternoon winds in the spring and summer make Waddell Beach is a very popular spot for kitesurfers.

Fog has a way of turning a technicolor world into black and white:

View of Pacific Ocean from Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
View of Pacific Ocean from Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

Fog also makes for difficult bird watching; on the other hand it brings certain other wildlife out of hiding:

Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Banana slug (Ariolimax sp.) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

and:

California newt (Taricha torosa) at Rancho del Oso. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
California newt (Taricha torosa) at Rancho del Oso.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

Can't you see the determination of this little newt in its posture? They are single-minded when it comes to getting from here to there. The nature center has put up "Newt Crossing" signs to slow down the motorists. Driving slowly won't keep a newt from getting squished if it is run over, of course, but it does help drivers see the newts so they DON'T get run over.


After lunch we crossed the highway and went down to the beach. The National Weather Service had put out a high surf advisory, and the waves were big. I'd guess that they were about 3x my height. There was also a lot of foam blowing over the beach.

Some of the foam made very interesting iridescent bubbles on the sand and various bits of flotsam washed up on the beach:

Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sea foam at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sea foam at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Sea foam at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sea foam on driftwood at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

There were some really fascinating patterns in the sand. I wasn't the only person who noticed and appreciated them.

Sand at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sand at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong
Sand and rocks at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Sand and rocks at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Allison J. Gong

And lastly, we found a Strange Object. It was a white, oblong Object high on the beach, and it squeaked a bit, much like a dog's chew toy does, when I stepped lightly on it--obviously it was hollow.

The Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
The Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

Curiosity piqued, I borrowed a knife from a student and cut it open. The Object had the texture of a marshmallow, but was considerably tougher. It was about 4 mm thick. And on the inside there were remnants of what looked like formerly living animal tissue:

Interior of the Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach. 29 January 2016 © Allison J. Gong
Interior of the Strange Object we found at Waddell Beach.
29 January 2016
© Caitlin Sorkhabi, used with permission

What was this Strange Object? Well, I don't know. My first thought was that it might be the empty shell of an animal that had hatched out of it. However I can't think of what local creature might hatch out of an egg this size and of this consistency. Birds have calcified egg shells . . . this Object wasn't calcified. Some reptiles have leathery eggs . . . but what local species of reptile, marine or otherwise, would hatch out of an egg this size? And the "shell" of this thing was thick, much thicker than an egg shell would be, as egg shells need to allows respiratory gases pass between the embryo and the external environment.

So, call me flummoxed. Do you have any idea what this Object could be? If you do, let me know in the comments.

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