Science Spotlight

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  • 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

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Categories: Wildlife Research
  • April 24, 2018


Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform on coastal cliff with succulent plant in hand
Wildlife Officer Pat Freeling replanting dudleya.

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform on vegetation covered cliffside with hand on succulent plant
Wildlife Officer Will Castillo replanting dudleya.

Last week, a team of California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) staff and volunteers spent hours working to replant than 2,000 Dudleya succulents that were seized after a poaching investigation. The plants were meticulously returned to the Mendocino and Humboldt county cliffs from where they were stolen weeks before.

The sheer volume of plants made it necessary to put a call out for help from volunteer botanists. The response was overwhelming. More than 20 succulent experts from the California Native Plant Society and U.C. Santa Cruz arboretum, along with National Parks Service personnel, assisted CDFW wildlife officers and seven environmental scientists on the replanting project. The replanted succulents will be monitored over the next week to ensure the greatest chance for survival.

CDFW Environmental Scientist Michael van Hattem calls Dudleya “the botanical version of abalone,” in the sense that they are a sensitive species, dependent on a very specific habitat. Without a concerted effort to reverse the effects of such a large poaching operation, he says, the ecosystem would be irreversibly damaged.

In March 2018, CDFW law enforcement officers uncovered an international conspiracy to strip the succulents from sea cliffs and ship them overseas to other countries, including Korea and China, where they are prized for decorative purposes. So far, there have been three significant poaching investigations. In the first case, prosecuted in Mendocino County, the subject was found guilty and fined $5,000. A second case is also currently pending in Mendocino County. 

The link opens in new windowthird recent case was out of Humboldt County, where wildlife officers seized well over 2,000 succulent plants from three suspects. Prosecution of that case is also pending. This week, the Humboldt County District Attorney’s Office released all but 10 of the plants from evidence to allow the team to replant them at the location where taken. 

“Our wildlife officers and partners have gone to extraordinary length to investigate and stop a new poaching threat in California,” said David Bess, Deputy Director and Chief of the Law Enforcement Division. “We can't think of a better project to work on through Earth Day weekend.”

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Wildlife Officer Will Castillo replanting a Dudleya succulent.

Categories: General
  • April 20, 2018

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in the bed of a truck shoveling rocks

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform standing in stream pouring rocks into stream from large bucket

Man in Department of Fish and Wildlife uniform crouching in stream looking at the water

Stream with rocks lining the streambed

California’s drought emergency was officially declared to be over last year, but its deleterious impact on fish habitat is still being felt in many parts of the state -- especially in arid parts of Southern California. In order to help offset these effects at one site in northern San Diego County, CDFW biologists and other staff recently toiled to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.

The Sweetwater River is a second-order stream located within Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. The underlying rock is granite, which, as it erodes, creates sand that accumulates in the low-gradient portion of the river. Previous surveys in the Sweetwater River revealed a lack of high-quality spawning habitat for the rainbow trout population, which was reduced by 70 to 80 percent during the recent drought.

Seeing an opportunity to restore habitat to this waterway, South Coast Region fisheries biologists came up with a plan to place suitable materials into Sweetwater for the rainbow trout to use for new spawning grounds. Beginning on March 20, CDFW Environmental Scientist Russell Barabe, scientific aids Joseph Stanovich and Ken Sankary and volunteer Mark Berlin worked in the hot sun and dry conditions to rehab the streambed. Using a nearby dry stream channel, the team shoveled hundreds of pounds of rocks and materials through mesh screens to remove fine sediment and sand and clean the rock, called cobbles, to make them ready for placement into Sweetwater River. All the rock had to be moved one bucket at a time and poured into pool tailouts (the downstream end of a pool where the water gradually shallows) to create spawning beds about three feet square for rainbow trout.

Though similar work has been done in northern California – specifically two larger-scale projects in the American and Sacramento rivers, which served as the inspiration for this project – it had never been done in this small a stream before.

This small but important project could increase the spawning success of a drought-reduced population in a stream with easy public access. If successful, this project could be used as a model for future habitat restoration activities in other small trout streams. The fisheries team’s work is an example of how our scientists put the mission of CDFW – to conserve California’s fish and wildlife resources for the use and enjoyment of the public – into action.

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: CDFW Scientists hauling buckets of rocks to create spawning beds for rainbow trout.

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Categories: General
  • April 12, 2018

CDFW wants to know if, when and where you’ve seen an elk in California – and they’ve just created a new online reporting tool that makes it easy for members of the public to share this information.

CDFW scientists will use the raw data to help guide their efforts to study statewide elk distribution, migration patterns and herd movement, population size estimates, habitat use, health and diseases, and causes of mortality.

“We have limited resources and our scientists cannot scan the entire landscape,” explained CDFW Senior Environmental Scientist Pete Figura. “This tool provides a way for us to leverage the many sightings of the wildlife-watching public. People often get excited when they see elk, and hopefully now they will channel that excitement by reporting the location and time of their sighting to our department.”

There are three subspecies of elk in the state – tule, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt -- and all three have expanded their range in recent years according to Figura.

CDFW has elk studies underway in the northern part of the state: one is focused on Roosevelt elk in Humboldt and Del Norte counties, and the other is focused on elk in Siskiyou and Modoc counties. Tracking and studying such a large mammal is a complex undertaking as elk herds are wide-ranging, and often graze and browse in areas that are not easily accessible, and there are only so many scientists to monitor their movements.

The launch of the reporting tool is just the latest effort to enhance the management of elk in California. Last year CDFW released a public draft of the Statewide Elk Conservation and Management Plan that addresses historical and current geographic range, habitat conditions and trends, and major factors affecting elk in California.

The plan will provide guidance and direction for setting priorities for elk management efforts statewide. CDFW is reviewing public comments on the plan and will incorporate appropriate changes into the final document prior to its release, which is expected soon.

CDFW Wildlife Branch Chief Kari Lewis has termed the plan an “important milestone” and explained that public feedback is a critical part of shaping the effort, which emphasizes a sharing of resources and collaboration with all parties interested in elk and elk management. This, she said, is essential to effectively managing California’s elk populations.

For more information about elk in California, please visit CDFW’s elk management webpage.

CDFW File Photo. Top photo: Group of Tule Elk.

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Categories: General
  • April 6, 2018

Bow of kayak floating on calm lake with foggy mountains in background
Brush habitats were created and put into Lake Perris to provide fish with habitat to feed and reproduce. The habitats will be completely submersed when the lake is filled to capacity.

Barren earth with large piles of large rocks distributed throughout
The exposed lakebed gave CDFW fisheries biologists the opportunity to safely construct different kinds of habitat for the fish in Lake Perris.

Landscape covered in gravel and piles of large rocks
Rock Reefs and Spawning gravel areas have been created and placed in more than 100 places around Lake Perris that will be utilized once the lake is returned to full capacity.

Calm lake facing a pile of large rocks partially submerged with mountains in the background
Rock Reefs constructed along the shore of Lake Perris, most about 1,000 square feet provide cover for juvenile fish and forage species.

Lake with partially submerged pile of rocks with trees and mountain in the background
135 Pipe Caves were constructed from PVC pipe and will provide spawning habitat for catfish.

Landscape of lake with overgrown vegetation in foreground, land peninsula with piles of large rocks in midground, and trees and mountains in background
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.

lake with partially submerged vegetation and mountain in the background
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.

More than a decade ago, Southern California freshwater anglers were disappointed to see a tried-and-true fishing spot dramatically affected by an emergency lake drawdown. Due to seismic concerns with the Perris Dam, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials deemed it necessary to reduce the water level at Lake Perris near Riverside by several thousands of acre-feet.

The drawdown exposed about 25 feet of bank around the perimeter of the lake. Since water was not going to be available for years while the dam was assessed and repaired, CDFW embarked upon a fisheries habitat mitigation project (funded by DWR) to create new fish habitat in the remaining water and the now exposed lakebed.

The project had two phases. The first was to immediately create fisheries habitat in the drawn-down portion of the lake in order to maximize use of the remaining water. The second was to build new habitats on the temporarily exposed areas, with the hope of benefitting both sport-fish species and anglers when the lake is eventually refilled. 

After 12 years, both phases are nearly completed.

After the initial water level reduction, teams from CDFW and DWR began working to prevent the immediate collapse of the lake’s fishery. The initial work, which took three years, involved the creation and placement of about 400 fish habitats made of recycled Christmas trees and citrus limbs. The man-made shelters ensured the fish would have places to hide and reproduce.

After the initial triage, CDFW biologists began to place additional habitats into the remaining water of Lake Perris. These habitats, made of thousands of tree trunks, citrus limbs and whole tree stumps would eventually give the lake’s fish an additional 1,500 refuges for safety. 

The citrus limbs were drilled with a ½” hole in the base and multiple limbs were tied together as compactly as possible and attached to a concrete block with polypropylene ropes to weigh them down. They were then placed strategically in different parts of the lake. These citrus habitats should provide cover for the warm water fish for at least 10 - 15 years.

Due to their bulk, increased buoyancy and weight, the single tree stumps were placed individually around the lake and weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored.

Because the lake will be refilled to capacity once dam repairs are complete, it is important that the scientists are able to carefully track each habitat location. They worked in quadrants, placing 20 - 60 bundles into each to create “communities.” The grouped communities increase localized productivity of the warm water fish native to the lake and contribute to maintaining the warm water fisheries while the lake is in its reduced capacity. Each of the quadrant’s corners was marked with GPS, enabling scientists to record and monitor data specific to each location. 

The second phase of the project was the implementation of a Fishery Habitat Plan for the exposed lakebed above the drawn-down area. The implementation of the plan is a requirement of the Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement between CDFW and DWR.

As with the below-water work that had already been completed, CDFW scientists carefully planned what kinds of habitat to create, what materials to use and where to place them in the open, exposed lakebed in order to provide the best environments for fish when the lake was fully restored. Areas were selected for habitat placement based on accessibility, proximity to existing natural habitat directly affected by the water reduction, avoidance of areas utilized for construction activities, distance from swimming areas and consideration of boating hazards.

Multiple types of habitats were designed and installed in Lake Perris, including:

  • Brush habitats. Similar to the citrus branch habitats already placed in phase one, these brush habitats add to the terrestrial vegetation growth that has thrived in the lakebed since initial triage efforts began in 2006.
  • Pipe caves constructed from 12” diameter PVC pipes. Approximately 4 feet long and capped at one end with concrete, these will provide spawning habitat for catfish that was lost when the lake was drawn down. A total of 135 pipe caves were placed around the rock reefs and terrestrial vegetation and will allow the young catfish to disperse into favored rearing habitat.
  • Rock reefs were created from 226 dump truck loads of material stockpiled by DWR from a nearby rock quarry. These rock piles cover about 110,000 square feet of the lakebed -- about the size of two football fields. Staff created 109 rock reefs, each about 1,000 square feet (about the size of an average home lot). These provide cover for juvenile fish and forage species (such as crayfish) as well as spawning habitat and foraging areas for adult fish. Their placement is designed to allow fish to transition from deeper waters to shallower waters -- and vice-versa -- when the lake returns to normal operating levels.
  • Spawning gravel areas. Thirty of these were created from suitable bottom composition for sunfish, bass, bluegill, etc. to spawn on and around. Almost 200,000 square feet of gravel bed habitat are now in the shallowest areas of the lake, adjacent to rock reefs or terrestrial vegetation that will be covered once the lake refills.

    After years of cooperative work Lake Perris is nearly ready to be refilled and with the thousands of new and improved habitats local anglers will be shouting “fish on” for decades to come. 

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Citrus tree stumps, weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored were placed individually around Lake Perris to create small habitats called communities.

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Categories: General
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