Recent accomplishments of CDFW's scientific community
Banded black brant feeding on eelgrass
Volunteer John Roser in the field at Morro Bay
Flock of black brant in flight above Morro Bay
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 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
Volunteers from the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep install the second of three 2,300-gallon water tanks to provide water for wildlife in the Southern California desert.
SCBS volunteer Glenn Sudmeier and Steve Marschke install plumbing fixtures for the sheep drinker at the Cady Mountains guzzler project in San Bernardino County.
Pipes bolted into the rocks coming from a catch pond going to the original guzzler installed in the desert.
Plumbing pipes leading from the catch ponds to the storage tanks at the 40-year-old Cady # 1.
The completed project: Drinkers are covered by fiberglass simulated rocks that shade the water to slow evaporation and to stop algae growth in the opening of the drinker.
Entire scope of the project, with the 150-foot-long catch field in the background that feeds water to the underground tanks.
One of the most elusive species in California is the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) that live in the dry, desert mountains of southeastern California. Desert bighorn are far from fragile – males are about five feet long and can weigh up to 200 pounds, while the females weigh up to about 150. Despite their size, their keen eyesight and the agility to escape predators up steep rocky slopes, they still face many threats, including disease, human development, expansion and – more recently—a changing climate. Water is critical to their survival in this extreme environment.
The Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep (SCBS), an all-volunteer organization in Southern California, has been working since 1964 for the conservation and management of the desert bighorn sheep. Over the last 40 years, SCBS and CDFW have been installing drinking systems (also called guzzlers) across the sheep’s habitat to help counteract these challenges. Now the populations rely on these water sources to survive and there is a responsibility to keep them functional and maintained.
In September 2017, SCBS rallied the volunteers to install a new drinking system to provide sheep and other animals life-supporting water in the hot summers. The project took place in the desert east of Barstow, and began with the removal and replacement of the very first guzzler ever installed in California.
The old system had two cement catch ponds, each similar to a small swimming pool lined with plastic. The catch ponds collected rain water and funneled it though pipes and valves to three tanks, where it was stored and fed to a small stainless steel drinker box. Due to its age and condition, after being exposed to the desert air and sun for more than 40 years, the system needed constant maintenance, and – more importantly – SCBS members had to haul hundreds of gallons of water across the desert each summer in order to keep the tanks full during the hottest parts of the year.
To improve efficiency and reduce the impact on the habitat, engineers and scientists devised a new approach to the design and installation of the new system. They created a 150-foot-long catch field, laying down three sections of overlapping matting, like tiles on a roof. The mats were then covered with rocks to help it blend into the surrounding area. The mats are made of non-absorbent material that funnels water down a slope where it’s collected and fed into two 2,300-gallon plastic tanks buried in the ground.
SCBS members did all the work to design and engineer the site, dig out the large holes to bury the tanks and install the plumbing and other equipment, including a solar powered satellite telemetry system that will allow scientists to monitor the water levels, ambient temperatures, water flow and other measurements at the remote site.
After four days of morning-to-night labor, the project was completed and the site returned to its near-natural state. Most of the old system was removed with one tank still operating to give the sheep time to find the new water source about 1,000 feet away. The new system is more efficient, requires very little maintenance, and has a higher storage capacity that should eliminate water hauling efforts. The tanks provide enough water for all wildlife in the area, not just the sheep, and they are less visually intrusive from both land and the air, blending well into the desert surroundings.
All this equipment comes at a cost and this construction was paid for with a grant from the CDFW Big Game Management Account (BGMA) that provides money to fund projects that benefit big-game populations and the habitats upon which they depend.
The careful planning and work done will provide a stable and reliable water source for the sheep and other wildlife in this area for decades to come.
To watch volunteers install the new drinking system, watch a video on the CDFW YouTube channel.
Photos of installation courtesy of SCBS. CDFW photos of finished project by Andrew Hughan.
Native to the California coast and the California/Nevada state line, the Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly feeds on the nectar of the monardella flowers.
One of 33 species of birds listed as threatened or endangered by the State of California or the federal government, the western snowy plover is in jeopardy of disappearing from the dunes.
in 2017, two years after treatment, the southwest side of the herbicide treatment area shows little regrowth of invasive plants.
Sandy dunes along the California coast often feature hardy European beachgrass and a succulent, freeway iceplant, that many assume is part of the native flora. However, these groundcover plants were originally introduced in the 1800s by Gold Rush settlers who were hoping to keep sand from moving to the nearby roads, railroads and land. Today, they are invasive species that out-compete the native plants and the animals that live there.
Over the years, the invasives took over the native Tidestrom lupine and beach layia, causing them to be placed on the federally endangered species list. The endangered Myrtle’s silverspot butterfly and the threatened snowy plover are dependent on native plants like these, and today, they too are in jeopardy of disappearing from the area.
“Snowy plovers naturally select open areas to nest so that they can more easily spot predators,” said CDFW Environmental Scientist Laird Henkel. “The European beachgrass spreads quickly making the dunes less desirable as a place for these birds to nest.”
Scientists determined that removing these invasive plants would be the best way to restore the dunes and the ecosystem that depends on them. To this end, CDFW awarded $54,000 in Environmental Enhancement funds to a project on the Point Reyes North Great Beach, located in Marin County, to restore the native sand dune plants on a 13-acre area in 2015. The fund committee selected the Point Reyes application because of the success of their previous dune restoration projects.
Point Reyes National Seashore staff oversaw the removal of the invasive plants on the dunes. Their contractors spray-treated the dunes with an herbicide and uprooted the invasives by hand; they worked during times of low winds and no rain, to protect other natural plants, wildlife, nearby farms and the public from overspray.
Point Reyes scientists monitored the treated area with an easy-to-use mapping tool called photo point monitoring – an effective method of monitoring vegetation and ecosystem change. Visual surveys and the mapping program showed just a one-to-three percent regrowth of the invasive plants over time, while previous restoration projects showed much more regrowth.
“The project area represents a vital link between earlier restoration efforts near Abbotts Lagoon and new restoration efforts at the AT&T cell tower area, enabling the park to move closer towards its goal of several miles of dune habitat not wiped out by invasive plants such as European beachgrass and iceplant,” said Point Reyes National Seashore Ecologist Lorraine Parsons.
CDFW-OSPR and the Point Reyes staff consider the project’s first objective – eradicating invasive European beachgrass and ice plant – a success. Earlier this year, scientists noticed in treated areas the reappearance of wild cucumber. The reappearance of other native plants such as the mock heather, California blackberry and yarrow, and wildlife is the second objective, the success of which will be determined over time. Other treated areas in the region show beachgrass breakdown and increased native dune scrub and mat species after six years.
Photos courtesy of Point Reyes National Seashore and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Top photo: The Point Reyes National Seashore staff oversee contractors spray-treating the dunes with an herbicide.
The latest issue of California Fish and Game, CDFW’s scientific journal, is now available online. This century-old quarterly journal contains peer-reviewed scientific literature that explores and advances the conservation and understanding of California’s flora and fauna.
A photo of the world’s first radio tagged tricolored blackbird (Agelaius tricolor) graces the cover of this issue of California Fish and Game. The bird was tagged as part of a study, the results of which are published as “Breeding chronology, movements, and life history observations of tricolored blackbirds in the California Central Coast” by Wilson et al. The tricolored blackbird is currently under review for listing under both the California and Federal endangered species acts.
Also in this issue, Overton et al. offers a fascinating observation of predation by Peregrine falcons on an endangered California Ridgway’s rail (Rallus obsoletus obsoletus), the result of environmental extremes and a series of species interactions.
Other papers published in this issue look at a predictive model for commercial catch of white seabass (Atractoscion nobilis); fecundity and reproductive potential of wild female Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus); and updated information on the length-weight relationships (LWR) and length-length relationships (LLR) and condition factors for pelican barracuda (Sphyraena idiastes) in the Gulf of California.
New in this issue is a section called “From the Archives,” which reprints articles from past issues to provide historical perspective on topics still relevant today. The first article in this series comes from Volume I, Issue I, dated 1914. It asserts that natural resources must be conserved for the use and enjoyment of the public.
Download the entire Fall Issue 102 in high resolution, or browse individual articles in low resolution.
The endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys raviventris) graces the cover of California Fish and Game, Volume 103, Issue I. Researchers ventured into the pickleweed to study the tiny mouse, which is endemic to the marshes surrounding the San Francisco Estuary Bay and its tributaries. The mice were fitted with tiny radiotelemetry collars and tracked for three years. Researchers documented some curious behavior in the resulting paper, “Potential evidence of communal nesting, mate guarding, or biparental care.” The accompanying photos provide a fascinating glimpse into an active nest.
Another paper, “Documentation of mountain lion occurrence and reproduction in the Sacramento Valley of California,” explores the potential for mountain lions to exist in fragmented habitats if there is adequate connectivity with larger blocks of suitable habitat and sufficient prey. The study used camera traps to document populations of mountain lions in the Sacramento Valley’s Butte Sink, which is made up of relic riparian habitats interspersed with managed wetlands. The photos show healthy mountain lions moving through habitat that has long been considered unsuitable due to extensive agricultural and urban development.
The article, “Mussels of the Upper Klamath River, Oregon and California,” reports on sampling efforts that expand existing baseline population data on freshwater mussels in the Upper Klamath River. The sampling efforts may ultimately assist with protection, mitigation and enhancement efforts for large bi-valve species.
The final paper provides insights into the benefits deer and elk derive from licking mineral rocks. Researchers took samples of “lick sites” that were used by California black-tail deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) and Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) in the Klamath Mountains, Siskiyou County. After performing a detailed analysis of the elemental content of each lick site, the researchers concluded that each lick site offers a different smorgasbord of minerals, and in varying concentrations. The study’s objective is to begin identifying, classifying, and analyzing important mineral lick sites to benefit future ungulate management efforts.
As it has for the past 103 years, California Fish and Game continues to publish high-quality, peer-reviewed science that contributes to the understanding and conservation of California’s wildlife. We look forward to witnessing the contributions of the next installment.
Download the entire Winter Issue 103 (PDF) in high resolution, or browse individual articles in low resolution.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has completed its annual waterfowl breeding population survey.
Mallards, gadwall and cinnamon teal comprised 54 percent of the ducks observed, down 30 percent from last year. The number of mallards decreased from 263,774 to 198,392 (a decrease of 25 percent) and total ducks decreased from 417,791 to 396,529 (a decrease of five percent).
The most notable decrease occurred in the Sacramento Valley area, where mallards were estimated at a record low of 31,000 (73 percent below the long-term average).
Given the abundant precipitation, one might expect the numbers to be higher. In some parts of the state, it did indeed increase available habitat (uplands and ponds). But in many areas, last winter’s heavy rains largely resulted in deep, fast-flowing water, which is not ideal for dabbling ducks. Other reasons for low duck observations could include winter flooding of nesting habitat that normally remains dry, the late-season flooding of the rice fields in the Sacramento Valley and the conversion of rice fields and pastures to tree crops.
CDFW biologists and warden pilots have conducted this annual survey using fixed-wing aircraft since 1948. This year’s survey was conducted from April 3 through May 4 in the Central Valley, and May 9-10 in northeastern California. The population estimates are for the surveyed areas only, which include the majority of the suitable duck nesting habitat in the state. Surveyed areas include wetland and agricultural areas in northeastern California, throughout the Central Valley, the Suisun Marsh and some coastal valleys.
The full Breeding Population Survey Report can be found at www.wildlife.ca.gov/conservation/birds/waterfowl.
The majority of California’s wintering duck population originates from breeding areas surveyed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in Alaska and Canada. Those survey results should be available in early August. CDFW survey information, along with similar data from other Pacific Flyway states, is used by the USFWS and the Pacific Flyway Council when setting hunting regulations for the Pacific Flyway states, including California.
It does not take a leap of faith to believe that CDFW scientists have gained the upper hand in bolstering the population of yellow-legged frogs in the High Sierra.
Over the past three decades, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs have become imperiled in California due to the two-pronged impact of introduced (non-native) trout and chytridiomycosis, a disease that is affecting amphibians worldwide.
Past introduction of non-native fish, including rainbow trout and golden trout, to benefit sport fishing in the High Sierra took a heavy toll on the species. High-elevation lakes where these frogs once flourished were largely fishless until fish stocking came into vogue. As the years passed, scientists determined that these introduced fish were depopulating the frogs by competing for food sources (primarily insects) and by predation (trout ate both adult frogs and their tadpoles). Chytridiomycosis, which affects many frog species, also impaired the ability of the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog’s skin to exchange vital nutrients, which often leads to death.
As a result, Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs are believed to have vanished from approximately 92 percent of their historical habitat, and halting and reversing that decline has become an important goal of CDFW, as well as other state and federal entities.
“This is an animal that only lives in the Sierra Nevada,” said Sarah Mussulman, a CDFW senior environmental scientist. “It is one of our unique California species that lives in high-elevation areas, and as an amphibian it serves as an important link between the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This link is especially critical in the low nutrient, granitic basins of the High Sierra, where frogs and tadpoles consume insects and algae and are themselves consumed by a variety of snakes, birds and mammals.”
CDFW recently completed two projects as part of its ongoing efforts to reverse the population decline of Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs.
The efforts took place at two sites: Highland Lake and Clyde Lake, located approximately seven miles apart on the Rubicon River in the Desolation Wilderness area of El Dorado County. The projects were completed with federal grant funds earmarked for the recovery of endangered and threatened species (the species is listed as threatened by the State of California and as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).
Highland Lake, along with its outlet, an unnamed stream, and two small adjacent ponds, supported a small population of rainbow trout when the project began in 2012. Trout abundance had declined in the absence of stocking in recent years but sufficient natural reproduction occurred in the inlet to Highland Lake to sustain the population. CDFW began using gill nets to remove rainbow trout -- the descendants of fish planted in the lake by CDFW from 1935 to 2000 -- in 2012, in partnership with Eldorado National Forest personnel.
During a frog-monitoring survey at Highland Lake in 2016, approximately 800 adult frogs were observed, as compared to a 2003 survey in which only a few tadpoles were observed. Because the frogs have consistently survived in this area despite the presence of chytridiomycosis, scientists believe they have a good chance at persisting in the area for a long time.
“Highland really had a population explosion over the past five years and can be counted as one of the most successful projects of this type ever undertaken,” Mussulman said.
The project at Clyde Lake was smaller and had somewhat different factors.
Golden trout, which frequently have the same negative impacts on Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs as rainbow trout, including predation and competition for food sources, were planted by CDFW at Clyde Lake from 1932 through 2000.
Once stocking was halted, the golden trout proved less resilient then the rainbow trout at Highland Lake, due to habitat factors.
“Clyde Lake sits in a north-facing granite bowl bordered by 1,000-foot cliffs, and no flowing streams enter the lake,” explained Mussulman. “There was no spawning habitat, which is likely why golden trout did not persist there after stocking was halted.”
The stream flowing out of Clyde Lake and four nearby ponds did support a small population of golden trout after plants were halted. The fish in the stream and ponds, which are self-sustaining populations, are precluded from moving from the stream into Clyde Lake by a fabricated dam. In 2013, frogs and a few tadpoles were observed in the stream alongside fish, and CDFW began removing the fish from the stream with gill nets to provide additional habitat for the frogs.
Nine years of monitoring data collected by CDFW scientists indicate that the area’s Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog population, while small, is slowly increasing. Surveyors observed more than 120 frogs in 2016, compared to a low of six observed in 2005. Moreover, in 2016, for the first time, dozens of tadpoles were observed in the newly fish-free lower reaches of the stream.
“It is great to see these populations recovering,” Mussulman said. “It is a great privilege doing this work that helps keep these frogs on the landscape.”
CDFW photos: Highland Lake in the Desolation Wilderness, and a Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog
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