Science Spotlight

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  • May 25, 2018

Four men standing next to each other with snow on the ground and trees in the background
Porcupine1: NRVP participants Greg Moore, Mike Maulhardt, Charles Brown and Ben Smith volunteered to service and maintain porcupine stations at Red Lake Wildlife Area.

Trail cam image of a porcupine between two upright posts at night


Trail cam image of a porcupine on ground amongst trees at night


Trail cam image of two porcupines near tree at night


Trail cam image of a porcupine on top of rock behind two upright posts at night

Not to put too fine a point on it, but studying California’s porcupines hasn’t traditionally been a high priority for CDFW.

Wildlife research funding is limited, especially for non-game species, and species listed as threatened or endangered are typically given top priority. That means that scientists sometimes need to be creative – and frugal – in their efforts to survey and manage non-listed, non-game species.

Stacy Anderson, a CDFW senior environmental scientist specialist based in Rancho Cordova, recently conducted a pilot project that does just that.

Anderson developed an interest in the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum) in 2017, after acknowledging that anecdotal evidence seems to indicate their numbers are on the decline.

Porcupines have historically inhabited diverse habitats including Humboldt County, along the Sacramento River, in the Coast Ranges, the Klamath Mountains, the southern Cascades, the Modoc Plateau and the Sierra Nevada. But in her conversations with unit biologists and wildlife officers in some of these areas, Anderson took note that many were reporting a substantial decrease in the number of calls from residents whose property – typically wood structures such as decks and outhouses – had been damaged by porcupines in recent decades. Informal surveys of veterinarians across the state also indicated a decline in the number of pet owners seeking quill removal from their pets.

Perhaps most telling, CDFW’s Sierra Nevada monitoring project, which has studied portions of the Sierra for the past nine years, has documented only seven porcupine sightings out of 750 stations surveyed via trail camera.

“We are worried about them because we don’t have a lot of sightings,” Anderson said. They live in low densities and they have only have one baby per year, so they don’t repopulate quickly.”

Recognizing the need to gather more information, Anderson and Evan King, another CDFW environmental scientist, launched a pilot effort last year to improve surveillance of porcupine, with a long-term goal of determining distribution and population numbers.

Anderson and King were inspired by the work of Uldis Roze, a researcher who has long studied porcupines in the Catskills of New York by using wood soaked in salt brine as a porcupine attractant. His research indicates that porcupines show a strong seasonality of salt use, which peaks in April through May and August through September. Because porcupines’ diet of plant matter is generally low in sodium (salt), they seek out other dietary sources of sodium to maintain normal levels in their bodies.

Anderson and King theorized that brined wood could be effective in attracting California porcupines, too. A plan was made to soak stakes made from 2x2s in a sodium brine to monitor activity. In theory, tooth scrapings on the wood could also be identified to species.

“It’s not a full-blown study – it’s just a way to test a plan of action that can maybe be used in a study later,” Anderson explained. “We don’t want to waste valuable resources on untested methodology, so this is a way to find out first if the methodology is going to work. It’s a low-cost, high yield approach.”

Twenty-three stations were set up for the 2017 pilot project, which was conducted from April to October. Members of CDFW’s Natural Resources Volunteer Program, who support departmental operations, supplied much of the labor, and the study costs were kept low. Expenses added up to less than $100, including salt for brining and wood. Trail cameras borrowed from other researchers were utilized to help monitor the stations.

Researchers were pleased to learn that the porcupines took to their efforts with a grain of salt (so to speak). They determined that brined-wood monitoring is more effective than traditional bait or game-trail monitoring, at least in the study area in northern Sierra and along the Sacramento River. Preliminary results indicate that the brined wood appeared to lure porcupines into the area of a camera station -- although most did not approach the wood and fewer still left a distinctive chew mark on the brined wood. But the trail cameras provided clear, useful photographs.

“We still have unanswered questions about this technique that will need to be addressed before we can consider it a success,” Anderson said. “However, our pilot efforts are promising.”

CDFW is seeking additional funding through state wildlife grants and collaborative efforts with other researchers and agencies to gain a better understanding of the North American porcupine’s status. Anderson plans to continue refining the methodology of her study, along with other survey techniques including habitat surveys, feeding signs, tree girdling, scat searches and the use of detection dogs.

Anderson also encourages members of the public to help CDFW’s efforts by reporting detections of live or “roadkill” porcupines.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Porcupine photo by CDFW Warden Chad Alexander.

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • May 10, 2018

Burrowing Owl being held while one hand slightly extends owl's wing

Burrowing Owl in hand

A dwindling population of a tiny owl in Southern California has a chance at a comeback, thanks to a collaborative effort by scientists from CDFW, the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR), Caltrans and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is currently listed as a Species of Special Concern, and nongame scientists have long been concerned about their viability and survival. Breeding populations have especially declined in the central and southern coastal areas, due in large part to a combination of habitat loss and eradication of the ground squirrels that dig out the burrows where the owls make their nests. In San Diego County specifically, the once-widespread population has been reduced to a single breeding node in the Otay Mesa region, just north of the Mexico border.

Two groups in particular have been monitoring these owls carefully, in an effort to help. Biologists from Zoo’s ICR have spent seven years assessing owl population status and productivity, including assessing the feasibility and effectiveness of artificial burrows, refining techniques to help the ground squirrels thrive and disperse into new areas and developing a system of identifying potential new locations where the owls might thrive. Much of ICR’s owl research has been conducted at Brown Field, a small municipal airport near the border within the City of San Diego, and on an adjacent property owned by Caltrans.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles from the Brown Field study site, CDFW scientists have spent a decade working to create more suitable burrowing owl habitat at Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve (RJER). Efforts there included installation of artificial burrows and mowing the tall grass to foster a low-growing grassland suitable for burrowing owls and ground squirrels. Despite their best efforts, CDFW scientists studying the Rancho Jamul site have experienced many years of disappointment -- although wintering owls have shown up every year, none have stayed and attempted to breed on the property. But conditions have been improving over the last four years, thanks to the implementation of a grazing program that reduced dense thatches of old grasses and expanded areas of open ground. As habitat changed at Rancho Jamul, CDFW scientists observed more squirrel burrows, and the conditions seemed just about right for the owls.

This spring, an approved development project at Brown Field began to take shape – and it became evident that the timing for an owl translocation project was ripe at last. Thanks to efforts by Caltrans, which incorporated burrowing owl habitat restoration as part of their mitigation effort for a nearby highway, CDFW staff believed the owl population to be strong enough to support a translocation effort. Also the spring season, just prior to egg-laying, is likely the optimum time to move the animals. After looking at many options, scientists decided to try to move five pairs of breeding owls to RJER in the hopes that they would establish a new population and thrive.

The full conservation team – which included CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the City of San Diego, Metro Air Park, Schaefer Ecological Solutions and the San Diego Zoo – was on board and ready to move the owls. In March 2018, the team caught five pairs and moved them to hacking cages at RJER. The owls lived in the cages for about one month to give them time to acclimate to their new surroundings. By the time the cages were removed, each female had laid at least one egg in the artificial burrow chamber.

CDFW Environmental Scientist Dave Mayer has worked on this project for years and is anxious to see efforts at RJER finally pay off. The presence of the eggs, he said, was thrilling to see. “More owls, and at diverse locations, is what it will take to conserve this species in San Diego County. This first step was a long time coming, but I have all my fingers crossed that it’s going to work.”

This successful multi-agency partnership will continue long past the actual translocation day. Scientists banded the owls and fitted some with radio transmitters. ICR staff will monitor the owls themselves, while CDFW staff will monitor the grassland and the grazing program, and perform inspections and repairs of the artificial burrows twice a year. After five years, CDFW will perform regular monitoring of the owls, the habitat and associated grazing practices, and the general status of the ground squirrel population.

Mayer is proud of the work achieved so far in this unusual project. “We built a better mousetrap, with the Zoo’s help,” he says. 

General information about California’s bird species of special concern can be found on the CDFW website, along with the link opens in new windowspecies account (PDF) for the burrowing owl and information about Rancho Jamul Ecological Reserve.

The San Diego Zoo has also issued a link opens in new windownews release with more details about the burrowing owl translocation project.

All photos © San Diego Zoo Global, all rights reserved

# # #

Categories: Wildlife Research
  • February 16, 2018

A black brant, similar to a dark-colored goose, feeds on eelgrass in a sandy bay shoreline.
Banded black brant feeding on eelgrass

A man with a gray beard and glasses, wearing a baseball cap and dark gray jacket, stands next to a spotting scope on a tripod, near Morro Bay, with Morro Rock in the background.
Volunteer John Roser in the field at Morro Bay

Hundreds of dark-colored birds fly together in a bright blue sky
Flock of black brant in flight above Morro Bay

A goose-like seabird with a black beak, dark hood, neck and coat, and white underside floats on bay water
Black brant in Morro Bay

John Roser began hearing the stories shortly after he moved to Los Osos, San Luis Obispo County, on the shores of Morro Bay in the mid-1990s.

Longtime birders, waterfowl hunters, biologists and other coastal residents were all saying the same thing: It seemed fewer black brant were showing up on the bay each winter.

The coastal sea goose is a cultural icon of the area, the signature species of the Morro Bay Winter Bird Festival and a temporary visitor welcomed by locals as the geese arrive each fall from their summer breeding grounds in the Arctic. When the geese are present in big numbers, you can hear their cacophony almost anywhere on the bay from November through April or until the warm environs of Baja California lure the birds farther south on their migration.

Roser, who holds a degree in biology from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and spent 25 years as an environmental educator, set out to see if the old-timers’ stories were true. For the past 21 years, he has provided CDFW and brant biologists throughout the Pacific Flyway with their most credible and reliable source of data on wintering brant in Morro Bay.<

“I’m retired, and I wanted to take on a volunteer project that would make a difference in this community,” Roser said of his motivation. “I wanted to create a Morro Bay specific data set significant enough that it would be valuable in brant studies and research across the Pacific Flyway.”

Roser’s initial efforts in 1997 focused on reading and reporting bands on individual birds with the help of a high-powered telescope. He has recorded more than 4,000 bands, including one affixed by a Russian ornithologist to a bird in Siberia some 5,000 miles away from Morro Bay where Roser spotted it. In addition to counting individual birds, Roser developed a formula – in consultation with brant biologists – to calculate the number of “brant use days” in Morro Bay each winter.

Roser’s retirement project has led him on a brant-like odyssey.

He banded brant one summer in Alaska, worked in Humboldt Bay with leading brant researcher Jeff Black and his Humboldt State University graduate students, and traveled to Baja California to help biologists read bands on birds at the extreme end of their southern range. Much of Roser’s winter observations take place at CDFW’s Morro Bay Wildlife Area.

“John is our go-to guy on the ground in Morro Bay for sure,” said Melanie Weaver, the head of CDFW’s Waterfowl Program. “We only have two employees in our program, myself included, so we depend on regional staff and volunteers like John to help compile survey data. John is part of the local community, he cares, and he is close to the resource.”

The data Roser supplies are incorporated into CDFW’s Mid-winter Waterfowl Survey, which is used to set hunting regulations for the following waterfowl season.

What attracts brant to Morro Bay is the same thing that prompts the birds to stop at other coastal bays along their southward migration: eelgrass. The underwater seagrass grows in shallow marine environments and is the birds’ primary food source.

Roser’s initial research in 1997 confirmed the reports he was hearing: The wintering brant population in Morro Bay had declined significantly and corresponded with a crash in eelgrass acreage in the bay.

While CDFW surveys from the 1930s through 1960s documented Morro Bay’s wintering brant population as high as 11,800 birds, Roser’s first survey in 1997 recorded a population high of fewer than 700 birds.

The eelgrass crash in the mid-1990s was temporary and well-understood, caused by an influx of sediment from a fire-ravaged landscape, a deluge of freshwater from a rainy year and warming El Nino ocean conditions. As environmental conditions normalized in subsequent years, the eelgrass rebounded, and the brant returned. Roser counted a population high of 4,600 birds in Morro Bay in 2001.

The story since then, as told in Roser’s annual reports to CDFW, is of another dramatic crash in eelgrass acreage in Morro Bay and a corresponding drop in the numbers of brant wintering there. Unlike the eelgrass crash of the mid-1990s, the latest decline has been more persistent and perplexing.

Biologists measure Morro Bay’s eelgrass acreage each year. Eelgrass spanned 344 acres as recently as 2007 but had dwindled to just 14 acres by 2017. Not surprisingly, Roser’s 2016-17 brant survey recorded a population high of just 319 birds and a low of 43. Roser’s brant-use-day metric has fallen by 90 percent since the nearly 500,000 brant use days he recorded in 2001. In the past five years, brant use days have measured around 50,000 a year. Money from the purchase of the California duck stamp-validation, required to hunt waterfowl in California, is funding research into the eelgrass decline along with restoration efforts.

In addition to fewer numbers of brant frequenting Morro Bay, Roser has noticed behavioral changes in the birds that still show up. Increasingly, the brant are foraging on secondary food sources that include salt marsh vegetation and green algae species such as sea lettuce with eelgrass in short supply.

Roser takes some solace that the overall Pacific Flyway brant population is holding steady if not increasing, estimated between 130,000 to 165,000 birds. Roser says waterfowl biologists are seeing flyway-wide changes in brant behavior that they suspect may be linked to climate change.

Fewer brant are migrating to Mexico for the winter. More are remaining in Alaska and their northern range throughout the year as warming Arctic conditions require fewer calorie demands and less ice exposes more eelgrass. Ten years ago, less than 10 percent of the population wintered in Alaska. By 2017, almost 40 percent of the Pacific Flyway population spent the winter there.

“This bird is tied to Morro Bay, our culture and our identity,” Roser said. “A robust wintering brant population needs abundant eelgrass beds. Eelgrass needs a healthy bay and watershed. Our actions as stewards of Morro Bay really do reverberate across the globe.”

CDFW photos: courtesy of John Roser
Top photo: Pair of black brant on Morro Bay

Categories: General
  • January 30, 2018

The latest issue of California Fish and Game, 103-3, makes a significant contribution to the body of research related to longfin smelt in California. A paper titled, “link opens in new windowHistoric and contemporary distribution of Longfin Smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) along the California coast (PDF)” analyzes and presents observation data for this species from a variety of published and unpublished sources dating from 1889 to 2016. This anadromous fish, which is listed as threatened under the California Endangered Species Act, has been documented in a diverse range of habitats, including coastal lagoons, bays, estuaries, sloughs, tidal freshwater streams and nearshore habitats. In addition to providing a comprehensive look at the existing information available for longfin smelt along the California coast, this paper identifies additional information needed to improve management and enhance recovery of the species within the state.

In “link opens in new windowDistribution and derivation of dabbling duck harvests in the Pacific Flyway (PDF),” the authors look at abundance, banding and harvest data from throughout the Pacific Flyway and other important source areas in the Central Flyway to estimate the distribution and derivation of Pacific Flyway dabbling duck harvests during 1966−2013. The Pacific Flyway has long been considered an important wintering area for dabbling ducks. Better knowledge of the origins of these birds could assist in both harvest and habitat management.

The authors of “link opens in new windowDistribution of Amargosa River pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis amargosae) in Death Valley National Park, CA (PDF)” endured harsh environmental conditions to document the occurrence of Amargosa River pupfish along the lower Amargosa River drainage where the species has not been previously documented. The downstream-most location of Amargosa pupfish captured in this study extends the previously recorded geographic range approximately 49 river km. The findings not only determine the distribution of Amargosa River pupfish within Death Valley National Park, but will help identify suitable locations at which to establish long-term monitoring sites.

California Fish and Game has published high-quality, peer-reviewed science for the past 103 years, making important contributions to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife.

Cover photo courtesy of Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences.

Categories: California Fish and Game Journal
  • January 26, 2018

For residents of Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the majestic Roosevelt elk is a common sight. Although Roosevelt numbers were dwindling in California by the 1920s, conservative management strategies and limited hunting opportunities have helped them to rebound. Today, researchers have identified more than 20 distinct groups of elk in these two counties, many of which consist of well over 50 animals.

This conservation success story doesn’t come without a downside, though. Elk require large amounts of food to survive, and they tend to graze where food is most plentiful – often in agricultural areas and residential neighborhoods, where they cause damage to crops, landscaping, fencing and other private property.

Partly in response to rising concerns about property damage caused by the Humboldt and Del Norte herds, CDFW scientists are working on a wide-ranging, long-term study of Roosevelt elk population size and growth, herd movements, habitat use, disease and causes of mortality. The project, which is a collaborative effort with researchers from Humboldt State University, will collect critical baseline information about the animals that will help CDFW develop more robust and efficient methods for monitoring the herds, set future hunt quotas, inform local agencies about elk management and manage depredation issues. CDFW initiated this project in 2016 and expects to continue data collection efforts through 2018.

Tracking and studying one of the largest mammals in California is a much more complex undertaking than one might think. Roosevelt elk herds are wide-ranging and tend to graze in areas that are not easily accessible. Traditionally, CDFW relied on aerial surveys to monitor population trends of big game species such as elk, but such surveys are only feasible in a small portion of northwestern California because visibility is limited by steep terrain and dense vegetation. Ground surveys have similar constraints and are further limited by the small amount of occupied habitat that can be easily accessed from roads.

Given these constraints, CDFW scientists are employing multiple survey methodologies for the current study. Different techniques will be used in different habitat types. For example, in hard-to-reach areas, trail camera footage will be compared to visual surveys and used to collect herd composition data and estimate population size. Estimates will also be derived from analyzing the DNA contained in elk droppings.

CDFW also monitors the movement of the Roosevelt elk via electronic collars. There are currently 20 collared elk in coastal Del Norte and northern Humboldt counties and researchers hope to extend this project into central Humboldt County this winter, with plans to collar as many as 30 additional elk. Captured animals are also marked with ear tags, which allow for individual identification.

These survey efforts, and similar efforts elsewhere in the North Coast Roosevelt Elk Management Unit (EMU), are outlined in California’s Draft Elk Conservation and Management Plan, which is available for public review and comment through Monday, January 29. The plan provides guidance and direction to help set priorities for elk management efforts statewide.

CDFW photo: Environmental Scientist Carrington Hilson monitors a Roosevelt elk during a survey of the population.

Categories: General
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