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Posts Tagged ‘My Research’

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A view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has produced a video called Restoring California’s Great Estuary that explains the EcoRestore initiative which is one of the big, state-wide efforts that is aiming at restoring some fairly significant amounts of habitat to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Being that I work for a State agency called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, this is something that I pay a lot of attention to. But there are a lot of reasons that everyone who lives in California, and many people who live outside the state, should also be interested in this video. A large portion of the people, farms, ranches, and industries in California rely, at least in part, on water from the Delta. That fact alone should make efforts like

Also, I work with many of the people featured in this video including my boss, Campbell Ingram. Seeing talented people that I know talking about an issue that I care about makes this video that much more appealing to me, but that probably won’t have much impact on you.

Enjoy!

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This is a link to a blog post I wrote for the UC Davis-USDA Delta Region Areawide Aquatic Weed Project website. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (the agency I work for) gets funding from the USDA to control Arundo infestations in the Delta.

Arundo (which I have written about previously here) is a highly invasive plant that causes bank destabilization, increased fire hazard, increased water use, and excludes native plants and animals. The Delta Conservancy has been coordinating with a the Sonoma Ecology Center and the USDA to apply treatments of herbicides and/or insects that are specific Arundo parasites to eliminate Arundo from as much of the Delta as possible. This work began last summer/fall at the Brannan Island State Recreation Area, as site that is owned by California State Parks and which has a lot of Arundo.

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I have been working for the California Department of Water Resources for a couple of months now. It has been a really cool experience in many ways, and I thought that sharing some of those experiences would be fun. So, here are a bunch of photos from my first two months on the job. The job, in this case, is focused on a place called the Clifton Court Forebay in eastern Contra Costa County. This is one of the main points where water is collected and then pumped from the Forebay into the California Aqueduct for transport to southern California. One of the major problems with this pumping system is that it is so powerful it pulls lots of fish into the Forebay including several species of threatened or endangered species such as Chinook Salmon, Steelhead, and Green Sturgeon. In response to this puling in of high numbers of fish, high numbers of predators also concentrate around the Forebay. These predators include predatory fish such as Stripped Bass, Large-mouth Bass, and several species of catfish. Other predators are many species of piscivorous birds such as herons, egrets, pelicans, grebes, terns, etc. The main point of the project I am working on is to find ways of reducing the numbers of predators in and around the Forebay. To do this, we are trying to figure out how and where the predators most commonly access the Forebay. This includes frequent avian surveys around the Forebay and also tracking the movement of the predatory fish. This tracking is accomplished by capturing fish and preforming surgeries on them to implant PIT tags and/or acoustic tags in them. These tags emit sound at particular frequencies and in particular patterns. Each tag has a unique combination of frequency and pattern which allows each tag to be individually identifiable. Microphones are setup around the Forebay and in the canals that connect to the Forebay so that as fish swim around, their tags are picked up and their locations recorded. In this way, we can track fish movement to a pretty fine level of detail. Pretty cool!

So, with that background, here is what my job actually looks like (all photos are my own unless otherwise noted).

IMG_2813The front doors of my building.

This is the Resources Building in downtown Sac.

My little corner.

IMG_2814Sunrise over the yard where we keep our trucks and boats.

IMG_2814aThis is me with my first Stripped Bass. It is just a small one, but still big enough to tag! (Photo courtesy of Mike Cane).

A view of the edge of the Forebay.

IMG_2817Osprey.

IMG_2818Bald Eagle.

IMG_2825The portion of the Forebay that leads into the pumps.

IMG_2826Tule beds in a corner of the Forebay.

IMG_2827A view across the Forebay.

IMG_2828One of the canals that leads into the Forebay.

IMG_2829The east slope of Mount Diablo in the distance.

IMG_2835Can you see the bird?

IMG_2837There it is! This is a Snowy Plover that I found on the edge of the Forebay. I was pretty excited to find this federally threatened species, especially since this was decidedly outside its normal habitat and range.

IMG_2842Here is another photo of the same HY Snowy Plover.

IMG_2844A flock of Long-billed Curlews and WIllets hanging out on the edge of the Forebay.

IMG_2845Long-billed Curlew.

IMG_2851Long-billed Curlew in flight.

IMG_2854I found this Red-shouldered Hawk on the bank of the Sacramento River as I walked to work one morning. It is sitting on a California Groundsquirrel.

IMG_2859Piscivorous birds lined up on one of the wing walls in the Forebay.

IMG_2860There are obviously a lot of fish to be had.

IMG_2863Pied-billed Grebe nesting in the floating vegetation that grows in the Forebay.

IMG_2864Clark’s and Western Grebes nesting on the Forebay.

IMG_2869This large fly (about 2-3 cm long) landed on the truck. Any ideas as to an ID?

IMG_2871Another view of Mount Diablo.

IMG_2873Me conducting an avian survey (Photo courtesy of Michelle Tyson).

IMG_2877Caspian Tern, Snowy Egret, and California Gulls.

IMG_2879American White Pelicans feeding in the Forebay.

IMG_2882One American White Pelican swam quite close to us as we were counting.

IMG_2883Clark’s and Western Grebes nesting in a patch of floating vegetation.

IMG_2884A closer look at the Clark’s and Western Grebe nesting colony.

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Being able to see what is in front of you is an important skill. This may seem like one of those statements that is so obvious that there is no point making it. However, it seems to be a skill that is difficult to master. Recently, I have been running into this issue a lot. As I have mentioned in other posts, I am a Teaching Assistant for an introductory biology class at U.C. Davis on Phylogenetics and Biodiversity. A large part of this class is exploring how organisms (plants, animals, fungi, microbes, etc.) are similar to, or different from, one another. This requires students to actually look at organisms and determine these similarities and differences, and here lies the rub. Getting college students to simply describe what they see is frequently a real challenge. We will be looking at an organism and when I ask them to tell me what they see, they immediately begin telling me what kind of organism it is. That is not the same thing. I am asking them to describe what is in front of them (a soft body, two openings for water, no skeletal support system) and instead they are giving me labels (a Tunicate).

And this phenomenon is not limited to college students. I have been a birder all my life and sometimes lead birding walks for various organizations. I have often asked other birders I am with to tell me what they see when looking at a particular bird. Their tendency, young birder and old, is to start attempting to put a name on the bird. Instead of looking at the bird and letting what they actually see guide them to an identification, they jump ahead and start putting names on the bird that often basically amount to guesses. Over and over again, in so many different settings, I have seen this kind of thing happen, and it is always because the people looking at the world are not able to slow down and really see it!

This need to rush to a label is really troubling for me. I know humans have a sort of innate tendency to want to put things in boxes, but surely we should be able to overcome that tendency. We should be able to look at an object and just take it in. Make note of what you see before you and let that information guide your thinking. The desire to put a label on something reverses this process. By putting a label on an object, we are biasing what we think that object will be like.

I have seen this happen in the birding world so many times! Someone will see a bird. Great! They will not know what it is right off the bat. Nothing wrong with that! So they will ask for help in identifying it. Wonderful! Then the problems start. Instead of looking at the bird are really seeing what is there to see they jump to the identification, the label. Since they did not know what the bird was, the label they jump to is often just a guess and is usually wrong. And here is where it gets weird. Once they made that jump to the incorrect identification the birders will start saying that they see field marks that are not there, but that are consistent with their jumped to label. Let me say that again. They start seeing things that are not there! How we think about the world alters how we perceive the world. By giving in too quickly to the urge to put labels a thing, we can influence how view the thing. This gets downright dangerous in the world of science.

I would like to encourage everyone (scientists and non-scientists alike) to do, would be to look at an object and really see what it has to show you. The identification of an object is the end goal, not where we should be starting. Instead, the first step must be to make careful observations. Just look at the thing and see what is actually there without making any jumps or judgment calls. Then the information from those observations needs to be carefully thought about. Then, after you have absorbed and considered what is in front of you, let that information guide you to an identification, if possible.

But really see the world! Don’t see what you want to see, or what you think you are going to see, or what you think someone else is expecting you to see. Just let yourself take a moment to look carefully, and really see.

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Yesterday, I was up in the mountains for my last field day of the year. I spent a few hours in Truckee, CA and after not getting a lot of Evening Grosbeak action, I headed to Soda Springs, CA. Not much going on their either, so it was not a particularly strong finish, but it is always nice to be in the wilds. Just how nice it is to spend regular time in wilderness got me thinking about next year. I am not planning on having field work next year, as I will be working on other projects, and I am really gong to miss my regular mountain visits. I have been spending one day a week, almost every week, in the Sierra for the last two summers and falls. I have seen some beautiful locations and had the opportunity to get to know several areas at a very detailed level. It has been wonderful to feel like I am genuinely getting better at knowing the birds up there by sight and sound. To get more comfortable with a biological community like this has been a really special treat, for me.

I am not sure what I am going to do to fill that gap next year. My research projects are probably going to keep me pretty close to home most of the time. I have already started exploring my local area in more detail, which has been fun and which I will certainly continue to do. But birding in the Sacramento area is just not wild like the Sierra. There is nothing close to me that is. Well, we will see what happens.

I can say that these past two summers have been fairly successful. I have collected enough data for what should become one chapter of my dissertation! I am now going to get to work analyzing the data, writing the paper, and getting it published. That is going to be fun. But it will certainly be good to have this section of my work finished. Feeling like I am accomplishing steps towards my degree is something I have been lacking recently, and getting this out the door will be a big step in the right direction. I will certainly post updates as that process occurs!

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I was out along the shores of Bucks Lake near Quincy, CA, last week, in the hope of getting some more of my field work done. Unfortunately, I did not think to check the weather report before I left. It has been so dry this summer that it did not even cross my mind that it might rain! Well, this was the day that rain it did. A lot! It started as I was driving up into the mountains, and did not stop all morning! When I got to Bucks Lake I parked near Haskins Creek and sat in my car for a while. I soon decided, however, that if I was going to up there, I might as well get out and do some birding. Maybe I would find some Evening Grosbeaks and see what they were up to in the rain.

Well, I did not find any Evening Grosbeaks, but I did get a good bit of birding in. I spent most of my time watching a big flock of White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. Watching the birds forage in the rain was pretty cool. The lighter showers were not enough to bother most of the birds most of the time, and so they stayed along the roadside. It was only when a heavier downpour began that the birds would retreat into the cover of some dense willow thickets and wait until the rain lightened up again. I was struck, as I often am, by how dramatic an event migration is. Just last week, I was up in the mountains and saw my very first White-crowned, and Golden-crowned, Sparrows of the fall. Now, here is a flock of about 60 White-crowns and 20 Golden-crowns! Just like that, this synchronized wave of millions of birds has descended upon California!

As I continued to watch this flock, I started to pick out the odd birds that were mixed in. There was one Song Sparrow. A few Yellow-rumped Warblers flew in and out. Of these, two were of the Myrtle subspecies, which is generally the more eastern subspecies, so they were cool to find. I continued to watch through my binoculars, but suddenly the birds that I could see scattered. I took my binoculars down and saw that the whole flock was racing for cover! I looked up and found out the reason for the sudden panic. An adult Red-shouldered Hawk was flying right up the middle of the meadow and directly over the foraging passerines. The hawk did not actually make any directed move towards the small birds, but instead flew off into the trees. A little later, an adult Bald Eagle also flew, rather dramatically through the rain and mists, over the flock. This bird did not cause any reaction from the sparrows at all, and neither did a Common Raven a few minutes after the eagle. The sparrows can apparently tell the difference between various predators, and know which they should worry about. I thought this demonstrated some pretty fine ID skills on the part of the sparrows!

In spite of being cold and wet and not finding any Evening Grosbeaks and not getting any field work done, I really enjoyed that morning in the storm. It made me realize how much I have missed being out in the rain!

Here is my full species list:

Bald Eagle (1)

Red-shouldered Hawk (1)

Northern Flicker (2)

Steller’s Jay (11)

Common Raven (1)

Mountain Chickadee (3)

Red-breasted Nuthatch (3)

Golden-crowned Kinglet (5)

American Robin (8)

Yellow-rumped Warbler (3 Audubon’s, 2 Myrtle)

Song Sparrow (1)

White-crowned Sparrow (60)

Golden-crowned Sparrow (20)

Dark-eyed Junco (20)

Brewer’s Blackbird (1)

 

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A few days ago, I found myself in Blackwood Canyon on the west coast of Lake Tahoe. It is a beautiful spot where Evening Grosbeaks have been reported regularly over the last couple of weeks. The day was lovely, and the birding was terrific with lots of classic mountain birds all around. Warbling Vireos and Hermit Warblers were foraging in the poplars that grow along side the stream that runs down the middle of the canyon. MacGillivray’s and Wilson’s Warblers were leading young birds around through the willows. Spotted Sandpipers were walking and bobbing their tails as they foraged along the rocky stream edges. Female Mallards lead broods of ducklings from pool to pool.

I did find a flock of Evening Grosbeaks, though they were not particularly cooperative in terms of my research plans. However, while I did not get the experimental trials I had hoped for accomplished, I did see something new and cool. I was stopped along the side of a road at around 9:30am beside a small group of spruce tree when I heard an Evening Grosbeak giving really loud flight calls. They were actually kind of spectacularly loud! As I watched, I saw the grosbeak, a male, flying from tree top to tree top and continuing to give these high amplitude calls. After standing below him recording for a few minutes, I figured out why he was behaving this way. There was an adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in the top of one of the spruce trees and the grosbeak was mobbing it. Now, Evening Grosbeaks are known to use their flight calls to coordinate the movement of a flock and they are also used by birds to locate other individuals over long distances. Further, they may possibly play a role in mate choice decisions and in population identification. However, to the best of my knowledge, this is the first time flight call have been observed being used in a predator harassment context! After a few more minutes, the Red-tailed Hawk flew off. The Evening Grosbeak, having succeeded in annoying the predator into leaving, quieted down and then departed on his own business.

This was yet another reminder that calls can have many different functions even when it is basically the same call, and even when that call is has a fairly simple structure. What subtle differences communicate different information to a receiver? Was the volume of these calls an important component of harassing a predator? Are there other differences (speed of delivery, frequency range, something else) between flight calls that are used in different contexts? I have this one recording, and so will certainly examine it to see if there is anything that jumps out at me, but with only the one occurrence, it will be hard to identify smaller differences, even though such small differences may be quite important to the birds involved. This also served as a reminder that exciting things can happen, but you have to spend time out with your study subjects to see them!

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