Featured Scientist

  • July 9, 2020

Gwinn holding a mourning dove captured as part of a banding project.

Scientist Abigail Gwinn trapping a small mammal with a cover
Small mammal trapping for a population monitoring project at Lokern Ecological Reserve.

Scientist Abigail Gwinn holding a short-nosed kangaroo rat caught for the Lokern Ecological Reserve monitoring project
Gwinn holding a short-nosed kangaroo rat caught for the Lokern Ecological Reserve monitoring project.

Scientist Abigail Gwinn Processing a tule elk captured as part of a translocation effort at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge
Processing a tule elk captured as part of a translocation effort at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

As the unit biologist for Kern County, Abigail Gwinn conducts research on several endangered species in the Central Valley including San Joaquin kit foxes, blunt-nosed leopard lizards, giant kangaroo rats and more. She also responds to public questions about wildlife and assists residents with managing wildlife conflicts. She’s currently working with CDFW’s Wildlife Branch to put together a deer monitoring plan for the central coast which will include trail cameras, aerial surveys, radio telemetry and fecal DNA analysis. Gwinn also does wildlife education and public outreach for local schools and community groups. She graduated in 2007 from California State University, Monterey Bay, with a Bachelor’s degree in Earth Systems and Science Policy. She was hired by CDFW as a scientific aid in 2008.

What sparked your interest in wildlife conservation?

Growing up I did a lot of hiking and camping. I liked being outdoors and seeing animals. I used to subscribe to Ranger Rick magazine, which had really cool photos of wildlife. At first, I wanted to be a photographer for Ranger Rick. In middle school I learned that I could be a wildlife biologist. I remember reading about biologists doing radio telemetry and forest surveys, and I realized all the science that was being done to increase our understanding of different species of plants and animals.

What kinds of experiences did you have as a scientific aid? 

I started out working on a food safety project on the Central Coast which involved testing for E. coli and salmonella in local wildlife populations. Most of the work involved live-trapping small mammals, like mice and voles, and mist netting songbirds to collect samples for the lab. After that project, I moved on to the California Recreational Fisheries Survey where I interviewed anglers about their fishing trips and measured their catch for biological monitoring. I helped with steelhead rescue on the Carmel River and was part of a short but intense bear population study using hair snares in Monterey County in 2014. I started working more inland with projects in or near the Carrizo Plain, mainly involving kit fox monitoring using radio collars, camera traps and spotlight surveys. Eventually this led to more work in the San Joaquin Valley where I walked survey grids for blunt-nosed leopard lizards, helped with kangaroo rat population monitoring, and continued working with kit foxes.

Part of your current job is doing public outreach. Do you enjoy it?

I like providing people with information about the animals they’re interested in. When I do outreach, I get people of all ages asking questions about wildlife they’ve seen. A lot of people like to tell me stories, which I enjoy hearing.

It sometimes seems like everyone has my phone number, so that can be challenging – especially during baby bird season. People sometimes mistakenly think they’re doing a good thing by picking up and taking in baby birds found on the ground. But it’s usually best to leave them there. If a baby bird is on the ground, it’s often a fledging. Usually its parents are in the immediate vicinity and are still caring for the bird. They’re watching out for it and driving away predators. The baby bird needs time and space to learn how to fly. It’s hard telling people that they shouldn’t have picked up a bird and that the bird doesn’t need rehab.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of the job is being able to get out and see a lot of different places. Kern is a huge county – there's a lot to see beyond the valley.

Is there a species that’s especially challenging to manage in Kern County?

Conflicts involving bears can be challenging because the public is very divided in their opinion on bears. But that’s more of a people challenge than a wildlife challenge. The key with bears is to get ahead of the conflict by educating people on what they can do: Clean your grills, don’t leave your dog food out, install motion-sensor lights, etc. An attractant that people don’t always think of is bird feeders. People really like to see birds so they’re reluctant to remove feeders, but bears are really attracted to them. I do as much education and outreach as I can, and thankfully I get a lot of support from the wardens, other biologists and from our Natural Resource Volunteer Program.

Have you been surprised by any wildlife you’ve seen in Kern County?

I saw a lizard in the desert that I’d never seen before. It turned out to be a yellow-backed spiny lizard, which I was unfamiliar with. I was with a group of scientists doing brood counts for quail and chukar and we saw this really cool, extremely colorful lizard. It was fast though, and I didn’t quite get a photo. We were all trying to get a look at the lizard so we could identify it later.

Kit foxes are a big issue in Kern County. What would you like the public to know about them?

They are small and cute and native to this area. Kit foxes have some really interesting adaptations to living in arid environments such as large ears that help dissipate heat and being able to get all the water they need from their food. San Joaquin kit foxes were originally listed as endangered in the 1970s due to habitat loss and fragmentation, a result of industrial, agricultural and urban developments in the Central Valley like the California aqueduct and expanded highways.

Urban kit foxes, like those in Bakersfield and Taft, are having a problem with mange. Mange is a mite that infects the skin and causes the foxes to itch, which can create open wounds. It affects the immune system and can eventually cause death. So far, it’s only been observed in urban foxes. The rural foxes don’t seem to be affected, and we’re hoping to keep it that way. The original cases of mange may have been due to contact with coyotes or domestic dogs. It’s usually transmitted from direct animal-to-animal contact, although the mites can persist on surfaces for a while in the right conditions. If you have a dog with mange, it’s important to work with a veterinarian to get it treated. There are several products on the market that treat mange along with fleas and ticks. It’s important to avoid letting kit foxes congregate in an area, so I tell people to make sure they don’t leave pet food or other attractants in an area they could access, like a front porch. Another issue is kit foxes getting tangled in soccer or volleyball nets. I also tell people to make sure those are tied up and put away.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in wildlife and conservation careers?

Volunteering is the best way to get started, and the best way for a young person to develop experience and meet people in the field. Be available and be flexible. A lot of work tends to be in the early morning. For example, mist netting for birds often starts before dawn. Additionally, I recommend developing your communication skills because doing public outreach is part of the job for many scientists. I was able to get a lot of practice doing presentations through 4-H when I was young.

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