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Posts Tagged ‘Natural History’

California is a pretty amazing place for many reasons, and one is that we have a lot of different species and subspecies of salmon! The Sacramento River, for example, is the only major river in the world that has four distinct subspecies, or runs, of Chinook Salmon!

Salmon are such amazing creatures! They are so important to the ecosystems in which they live, and they have been so important to human societies for so long that they get a lot of attention, and rightly so. And, when their populations are not doing well, ecosystems and human societies feel the impacts.

Two adult Coho Salmon migrating up a river. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Coho Salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), sometimes called Silver Salmon, are one of the species found in California. They are a species that live in the ocean for most of their lives, but then migrate up rivers and streams along the north and central coast of California to breed and lay their eggs in gravel beds in the upper watersheds. In addition to being found in California, Coho Salmon are also found breeding in rivers and streams along the Pacific coast of North America all the way to Alaska, and the Pacific coast in northeastern Russia as far south as northern Japan.

When they do this epic migration, how long it takes, where they lay eggs, how long those eggs take to hatch, what the young salmon need to survive and for how long, when the young salmon migrate down river and into the ocean, and how long they live there before returning to the river of their birth are all important aspects of Coho Salmon biology that need to be understood if restoration efforts are to be successful.

The grant program I manage funds salmon recovery projects, so I am writing this blog post in part to help myself understand the life cycle of the Coho Salmon so that I can make the best decisions I can when deciding what projects to fund. So, with no further adieu…

The Coho Salmon life cycle in California:

In January, adult female Coho Salmon will lay between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs each in a gravel nest, called a redd, in a stream in the upper watershed of a river system. After mating and laying eggs, the adult Coho die (more on this later).

Many of the eggs are eaten by other aquatic animals, but generally between 200 and 300 hatch. This takes between 50 and 70 days depending on water temperature.

A stream in the upper Navarro River watershed in California where young Coho Salmon spend a bit over a year feeding and growing. Photo: A Birding Naturalist.

Once they hatch, these young Coho Salmon spend approximately a year living in shallow areas of streams where they can hide amounts rocks and large woody debris and prey on smaller fish and aquatic insects.

After about 14 months living and growing in these shallow streams, the 50 to 100 surviving young salmon, that are now called smolts, begin to migrate down stream in spring. Their color changes. They loose the bars and spots that helped them to camouflage in the upper watershed streams and turn onto a bright silver color. Internal changes also occur with their gills and kidneys transitioning to be able to survive in salt water.

Once they reach the ocean in summer, the smolts spend about a year-and-a-half feeding and growing into adult salmon. Adult Coho commonly grow to about 18 lbs in weigh and 24 to 30 inches in length.

Beginning in December, the now three year old Coho Salmon begin their migration back up the rivers and streams. This first involves a transition period to allow their gills and kidneys to transition back to tolerating freshwater. The adult Coho also start to become more and more red in color as they migrate up the rivers. Once the adults are accustomed to freshwater, they begin swimming upstream, guided by scent and triggered by stream flow volumes, back to the upper watershed streams where they hatched.

Then in January, the one to four adults that have survived all the way to this point from all those eggs that were originally laid find a partner, mate, the females lay between 1,500 and 3,000 eggs each in a gravel nest, called a redd, and then the adults die. Unlike some other salmon species, Coho Salmon breed one time and then die. No adult Coho preform a return migration to the sea.

While the completion of the life-cycle of a Coho Salmon with the laying of eggs and death is the end of the individual salmon’s life, it is just the beginning of the lives of many other organisms and has effects that ripple out across the ecosystem. The dead adult salmon are important food sources for aquatic animals (such as crayfish, caddisflies, and rainbow trout) and terrestrial animals (such as bear, river otters, raccoons, and eagles). The decomposing adult salmon bring nutrients from the ocean in the form of their own tissues, and deposit those nutrients in mountain streams and rivers. In this way, they serve as an important source of nutrients, basically fertilizing the soils of the forests of the upper watersheds.

Coho Salmon are amazing animals with an amazing life story. I am very happy to be doing work that will help to provide the habitats and water they need to allow them to continue it to the next chapter.

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This week, I am attending the Localizing California Waters conference that is being held just outside Yosemite National Park and is organized by a group called Watershed Progressive. It is a great event and I have been learning a lot and meeting some really passionate people in the water world of California.

One of the talks I attended was about beavers and their role in ecosystems and habitat restoration (which is huge!). But one part of that talk was a particularly crazy story that I wanted to share. It is about parachuting beavers! And yes, this is a true story!

As humans expanded into new areas in the 1940s they began to run into beaver conflicts. One growing community in Idaho had a problem with a particular community of beavers that were routinely damaging houses and other property. These humans complained about this beaver community, and eventually it came to the attention of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

Beavers are native to the western USA, but they had been largely hunted out during the 1700s and 1800s for their fur. Therefore, there were large areas of the Idaho wilderness that had been beaver habitat, but had no beavers. This gave the Idaho Department of Fish and Game an idea for a solution to the human-beaver conflict. Take the beavers, and move them into some remote wilderness areas. But, this raised a problem: how were they going to get beavers into these remote areas? The answer? Drop them out of planes!

Crates, each containing a single beaver, dropped with parachutes into the Idaho Wilderness. Photo: Boise State Public Radio.

That’s right, in 1948, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game constructed a bunch of specially designed crates that would hold a beaver and protect it as it dropped through the air, and then would break open when they hit the ground. The crates also had parachutes attached to them.

A beaver emerging from its opened crate after a parachute-assisted landing. Photo: KTVB 7.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game then safely trapped the beavers that were causing problem for those humans. The result was a total of 76 captured beavers. These beavers were loaded into the specially designed crates, the crates were loaded on to planes, the planes were flown out over remote areas of the Idaho wilderness, and then the crates with their beaver passengers were dropped out of the planes and allowed to float down to the ground below! The first beaver to be dropped in such a manner was named Geronimo, and he and the rest of his beaver companions all but one survived their skydiving experience, and, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, went on to live their beaver-y lives.

I found this story to be so hilarious and absurd! Such a huge amount of effort to protect the property of a small group of humans that had moved into an area where the beavers were already living!

I am glad that the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decided to move the beavers instead of kill them, and I will say that the beavers probably ended up in a pretty good place, far from humans and in areas that were likely to make for good beaver homes. Since the beaver had been so decimated by over hunting, these beavers may have helped recolonize some of their former range.

The story gets crazier because in the 1950s, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to emulate Idaho and also air dropped beavers into remote areas of wilderness. In California, the reason for parachuting beavers into the wilderness had nothing to do with beaver-human conflicts, but instead was to help reintroduce beavers to their historic range

So, all in all, a good story. But still a hilarious and absurd one as well.

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A Douglas’s Squirrel sitting on a branch. Photo: National Park Service

In his “Wilderness Essays,” John Muir said that the Douglas’s Squirrel “…is the most influential of the Sierra animals, quick mountain vigor and valor condensed, purely wild…”

And a couple of weeks ago, while my family and I camped in Kings Canyon National Park, I got to see how some of this influence is wielded.

In the early morning, I spent a bit of time wandering through the forest around the campground. As I was exploring, and watching Mountain Chickadees and Brown Creepers and Williamson’s Sapsuckers and White-headed Woodpeckers, I heard a thud of something hitting the ground close to me. I paused and then heard another thud. I looked up and high above my head I saw a Douglas’s Squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) moving through the branches of a pine tree.

The forests of Kings Canyon National Park are filled with Douglas’s Squirrels! Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

The squirrel was moving from branch to branch checking the various cones. It would climb out to the tips of the branches where the cones grow and carefully and quickly assess each cone to come to a decision on whether or not it was ready to be harvested. If it was ripe enough, the squirrel nibbled away any pine needles blocking the base of the cone, and would then chew through the stem of the cone.

Once it had the cone off the branch, the cone would fall from the squirrel’s mouth and plummet to the ground. At first, I thought that the squirrel had accidently dropped the cone. However, after watching this process repeat a couple of times, I realized the squirrel was intentionally dropping the cones, and attentively watching where they fell. After observing the fall of a cone, the squirrel would scamper to the next cone.

I watched this process repeat again and again for over forty-five minutes. The squirrel was very strategic in how it went about its harvest. It was clearly working its way down the tree from highest branch to lowest. It would run out a branch to check the cones on it, harvest the cones that it wanted, then run back towards the trunk. Then it would jump to the next lowest branch and repeat the check-and-harvest process. In this way, it systematically checked every branch on the tree.

In the time I spent watching it, this squirrel must have harvested and dropped at least twenty cones. In that time, it also took a break for a few minutes to stretch out on a branch and rest, it took a few shorter breaks to groom its fur, and it spent a bit of time calling out into the forest. I figured that once the squirrel had enough food down on the ground, it would come down and feast, but it never did. I had to carry on with my day, so I left the Douglas’s Squirrel to it’s.

When I returned home, I read up a bit on this harvesting behavior, and it turns out that my assumption that the squirrel would eat the fallen cones was wrong. Douglas’s Squirrels do harvest large numbers of cones, but they are for winter storage! Once the squirrel I was watching was done harvesting cones, it was probably going to come down to ground level and begin hiding all those cones away in various locations so that the squirrel can come back and dig them out once the snow is covering the ground and other food sources are scare.

Forests filled with, and shaped by, Douglas’s Squirrels. Photo: Aaron N.K. Haiman

And this is where a big chunk of that influence comes in because the squirrels never make it back to eat every cone that they stash. These uneaten cones, and the seeds they contain, are where new trees sprout, so by hiding cones and then leaving them, these squirrels are shaping the forest of the future! That is some serious influence!

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Once a week, I am offering up a tip or action or idea that we can all engage with to help reduce waste, use less materials and energy, help conserve species or habitats, and/or generally work towards living in ways that allow for more health and wellbeing for all aspects of the planet.

So, this week the green thought is about keeping cats indoors. Cats are very efficient and successful hunters. When let out of doors, they can and do kill large numbers of wildlife including approximately 1.3–4.0 billion birds and 6.3–22.3 billion mammals each year. Further, domestic cats have directly contributed to the extinction of about 63 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles worldwide. Domestic cats represent a very significant threat to wildlife.

Cats sitting in an enclosure on the side of a house (photo courtesy of digsdigs.com).

A solution is to keep cats indoors. Cats can get plenty of exercise and entertainment inside, and enclosures can be created to allow cats to safely enjoy some sunshine and fresh air. Additional benefits of keeping cats indoor are that cats avoid getting lost, attacked by other animals such as dogs or other cats, and they also being hit by cars!

Thank you for visiting my blog! Please check back in next week for another Green Thought Thursday!

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Once a week, I am offering up a tip or action or idea that we can all engage with to help reduce waste, use less materials and energy, help conserve species or habitats, and/or generally work towards living in ways that allow for more health and wellbeing for all aspects of the planet.

So, this week the green thought is about how to use less water in the shower. Water requires a lot of energy to pump. It is also a very scarce resource (especially if you live somewhere that experience extreme drought conditions like I am in California). Using a lot of water when we shower uses up a lot of energy, and means burning fossil fuels which are the cause of global climate change. Using a lot of water when we shower also uses a lot of WATER!

Example of a low-flow showerhead in action (photo courtesy of Earth 911).

Two solutions come to mind for this issue. The obvious one is to take shorter showers. We can all challenge ourselves to shorten the time we spend in each shower that we take. Another great solution is to install a low-flow showerhead. These can be found for $10-$20 (and sometimes more) at your local hardware store and they will likely reduce the amount of water used in a shower by around 40%. If we all install low-flow showerheads there will be more water for fish in the rivers, trees in the forests, and in our taps for drinking!

Thank you for visiting my blog! Please check back in next week for another Green Thought Thursday!

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A flock of Mallards lifting off of a pond. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Each spring since 1948 staff from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife have conducted a survey of central and northeastern California to count the numbers of ducks and geese that are breeding in those areas. These counts are conducted by biologists flying in fixed-wing aircraft over the central and northern parts of California, and they form the basis of the California Breeding Waterfowl Survey. This long term data set is hugely powerful when scientists are looking at long term trends in populations and examining the effects of habitat loss, climate change, human population growth, pollution, and other factors.

Fixed-wing plane used during a breeding waterfowl survey over the Klamath River Basin. Photo: Keith Stein

The 2022 California Breeding Waterfowl Survey was just released and it’s not great. The total number of waterfowl breeding in California has declined 19% since 2019. All species were found to be in decline to some extent. Canada Goose were the least impacted with declines of 5% since 2019. Cinnamon Teal were hit the hardest with declines 54% since 2019. That means that there are only about half as many Cinnamon Teal breeding in California today as there were just four years ago! Mallard (the most common species of duck that breeds in California) and Gadwall were also hit hard with declines of 25% and 31%, respectively, since 2019.

These declines are in large part likely due to poor breeding habitat conditions. Ducks and geese need water to breed. The 2021-22 winter in California had below average precipitation across California, and the snow pack water content in California’s mountains is also below average. Such continued and serious drought conditions are resulting in less water for both natural and managed wetlands, and so to the poor breeding habitats and reducing waterfowl populations found in the survey.

Hopefully more water will fall in the state this coming winter. In the mean time, save water any way you can! The less water we all use, the more will remain in rivers, streams, reservoirs, etc. that can benefit the birds, fish, and other wildlife of California!

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Once a week, I am offering up a tip or action or idea that we can all engage with to help reduce waste, use less materials and energy, help conserve species or habitats, and/or generally work towards living in ways that allow for more health and wellbeing for all aspects of the planet.

So, this week the green thought is about how we do our laundry. Water requires a lot of energy to heat up in a washing machine. It also takes a lot of energy to run a dryer to get the water out of our cloths. This energy means burning fossil fuels which are the cause of global climate change. By finding way to use less energy we can all help reduce some of the impacts of climate change. We can also save some money since paying for all that energy can be expensive!

Clean laundry hang-drying (photo courtesy of Lowe’s).

Several solutions are pretty easy on this one! We can wash clothes in cold water. This removes all the energy needed to heat up the water. We can hang-dry our clothes, when we can. This removes all the energy needed to heat up the air and run the dryer. And when we can’t hang-dry our laundry, we can use dryer balls. This reduces the amount of time that a dryer has to run and so reduces the amount of energy needed in the drying process. So, by using less energy on laundry days we can all help address climate change and reduce our household expenses at the same time!

Thank you for visiting my blog! Please check back in next week for another Green Thought Thursday!

If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a few options:

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Once a week, I am offering up a tip or action or idea that we can all engage with to help reduce waste, use less materials and energy, help conserve species or habitats, and/or generally work towards living in ways that allow for more health and wellbeing for all aspects of the planet.

Fruit and vegetables to eat instead of meat (photo courtesy of Times Now News).

So, this week the green thought is about eating less meat. Raising animals as food sources is very costly from the amount of land that is needed to the food and water that the animals require to the pollution that the animals produce (not to mention the pollution from growing the food for the animals) to the energy and materials used to transport and package the meat from those animals. All of those costs make extensive meat eating very impactful on the ecosystems of the world.

A solution is to eat less meat! Even reducing meat consumption by going one full day without meat would make a big difference to the environment. Pick a day (Meatless Mondays have become rather popular) and be a vegetarian for that one day each week (or go vegan if you really want to maximize your impact). Lets all reduce the amount of meat we consume and help to save the planet!

Thank you for visiting my blog! Please check back in next week for another Green Thought Thursday!

If you are interested in other ways to connect with me, here are a few options:

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Once a week, I am offering up a tip or action or idea that we can all engage with to help reduce waste, use less materials and energy, help conserve species or habitats, and/or generally work towards living in ways that allow for more health and wellbeing for all aspects of the planet.

Plastic water bottle floating in a wetland (photo courtesy of Resource Magazine).

So, this week the green thought is about plastic water bottles. Plastic water bottles require a large amount of resources to create (including quite a bit of water), they are generally only used once, and then many of them end up in landfills or in waterways where they break down into microplastics and cause a whole suite of issues for animals, plants, water pollution, and more. They are a huge waste from start to finish!

A solution is a reusable water bottle! Get a nice one! Decorate it! Remember to bring it with you when you leave home! Most stores, shops, cafes, etc. are happy to use a bottle that you provide. So, lets all stop using disposable water bottles and reduce the amount of plastic waste we humans create!

Thank you for visiting my blog! Please check back in next week for another Green Thought Thursday!

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About a year ago, we had a bit of an invasion in our yard. Rats, in ever growing numbers, were eating the birdseed from the feeders in our backyard (and also eating just about everything else they could find). So, to make the area less hospitable, we decided to take down the bird feeders and so remove the birdseed as a food source. Let me me tell you, I really missed having birds frequenting the yard to eat!

But it worked! We removed all the food sources we could find and trapped the rats like crazy for quite a while, and we have not seen a rat in a couple of months. So we, tentatively, refilled the bird feeders and rehung them in the yard.

Once the feeders were rehung, I was curious to see how long it would take for them to be rediscovered, and which species would be the first to notice and take advantage of this food source. For the first two days the feeders went ignored, but on the third day a flash of feathers dropped onto the pole that the feeders hang from.

It was an Oak Titmouse!

Oak Titmouse (Photo by Aaron N.K. Haiman)

The titmouse looked the feeders over from its perch on the top of the pole, and then flew off without dropping down to actually take a seed; its exit just and sudden and purposeful as its arrival. Just a few minutes later the flash of feathers appeared again, and once again there was an Oak Titmouse on the top of the pole. This time the titmouse did drop down to one of the feeders, grabbed a sunflower seed, and rapidly departed. A few minutes after that, the flash of feathers occurred once again, and again there was a titmouse on the pole. This time, it only paused there a moment before going for a seed, and while it did so, a different flash of feathers appeared! A second Oak Titmouse joined the first on the feeder, each bird took a sunflower seed, and both flew off. The two birds, very likely a mated pair, visited the feeder numerous more times that afternoon and evening.

Watching these birds appear to drop out of nowhere so suddenly is such fun! They are so filled with character and curiosity that watching them investigate the bird feeders and the rest of the surroundings is a constant source of entertainment, and they fly in so fast and with so little warning, and then leave so abruptly, that each flight coming or going is a surprise and gives me a thrill of excitement.

The Oak Titmouse pair has continued to be frequent visitors to the feeders. They have been joined, so far, by a handful of House Finches, a California Scrub-Jay, a pair of Mourning Doves, and a pair of Lesser Goldfinches.

It is hard to put into word just how happy I am to have birds back in the yard! I just hope the rats stay away.

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