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
Two doves in a backyard wire trap
A bander holds out a dove’s wing to see which feather has most recently molted, which will provide information about the age of the bird.
A volunteer trapper prepares to release a banded female.
If you have an interest in migratory upland birds – as a hunter, a birdwatcher or just a citizen scientist – there’s a unique volunteer opportunity coming up that will allow you to work hands-on with wildlife, while helping the California Department of Fish and Wildlife collect critical research data that will become part of a national database.
Approved volunteers will be specifically trained over the next few months and permitted to capture mourning doves for a seven-week period, from July 1 through August 20, 2018. Banders attach a metal leg band to each bird, determine the bird’s age and sex , and record the data before releasing the bird. Banders can choose their own trapping sites, which in many cases are on their own property.
CDFW is particularly in need of volunteers in North Coast and Bishop areas, but as this is a statewide program, volunteers from other areas may be able to participate as well.
“It’s a unique opportunity for wildlife enthusiasts to get hands-on experience and play an important role in the management of California’s number one game bird,” explains Karen Fothergill, an environmental scientist and coordinator of CDFW’s Mourning Dove Banding Program.
Several levels of participation are possible, but successful completion of a four-hour training session is mandatory for all participants. Trained volunteers will band in their local areas, ending 10 days prior to the start of the hunting season for mourning doves.
The imprinted bands that are attached to birds’ legs are an important tool used by wildlife managers to help them evaluate mourning dove populations. Band recovery data is incorporated into the US Geological Survey Bird Banding Laboratory database and used by wildlife managers to monitor the status of mourning dove populations.
Together, the volunteer force will band approximately 4,000 mourning doves around the state. This number – which is necessary for accurate population modeling – has only been achieved with the use of volunteers.
Volunteer training opportunities will be held around the state, depending on how many potential volunteers show interest in participating, and where those individuals are located. Fothergill said that she expects to hold at least four training opportunities in the month of May. For scheduling purposes, potential volunteers are asked to contact Fothergill no later than April 13.
Volunteers are not compensated, but all supplies will be loaned at no charge.
Program participants must be over 18 and have good organizational skills and a commitment to wildlife preservation. The trapping and banding work is typically done in the morning and evening, but volunteers who can only work limited hours or on certain days can still be utilized and are welcome. For more detailed information about the program or to reserve a space at a training session, please contact Karen Fothergill at (916) 716-1461 or Karen.Fothergill@wildlife.ca.gov.
Top Photo: Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura)
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.
Tim Hermansen of CDFW carries a turkey holding box to CDFW’s Levi Sousa while John Davis clears the net.
Derek Schiewek of CDFW holds a turkey while CDFW’s Laura Cockrell measures the tarsus.
Recent efforts to determine the number of turkeys on the Upper Butte Wildlife Area have been a net success.
CDFW staff and volunteers from the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) began annual turkey banding efforts in 2015 to gather information about turkey demographics and movements to facilitate better management of the population and assess future hunting opportunities. Approximately a dozen volunteers and staff have since worked on this effort two months each year, in the late winter through early spring.
Captured birds are fitted with a numbered band, and their age, gender and weight are determined before they are released. The number of times a turkey is recaptured through ongoing trapping activities, or when a hunter returns a band to CDFW, provides data about the density and the movements of the birds. Approximately 20 wild turkeys have been captured each of the past four years, using air cannons that propel nets. Last year was the sole exception, as torrential storms resulted in zero captures because portions of the property were flooded and could not be traversed with trapping equipment.
“That year was very frustrating, but part of being a wildlife biologist is going with the flow,” recalled CDFW Environmental Scientist Laura Cockrell, who is involved in coordinating and facilitating wildlife surveys on the wildlife area.
This year, walk-in traps were used for the first time to supplement the traditional use of air cannons, and the final tally was 38 turkeys banded, increasing the total number banded over the course of the project to 88. This baseline data will inform decisions on how many turkey hunters will be allowed access to the wildlife area each spring.
“Our volunteers and all our staff are what makes this project successful,” Cockrell said. “Everyone completes a safety training so we can make sure the birds are handled quickly and carefully, and then it is a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ during the trapping operations. If we did not have a dedicated crew on this project, it would not be successful. The walk-in traps allow staff to set up trapping operations in the morning, check the site throughout the day, and process birds as they are captured.”
Also appreciative of the banding efforts were turkey hunters, who had an extra “spring” in their step this year at the Upper Butte Wildlife Area.
The 2018 spring turkey hunts recently ended after 64 hunters who hunted on Upper Butte Basin harvested 35 turkeys. During the previous three spring seasons combined since spring turkey hunts began on the wildlife area in 2015, 133 hunters participated and 47 turkeys were harvested.
All the result of field conversations between CDFW staff and fall turkey hunters.
“During the fall turkey seasons some years back, hunters at the check stations would frequently ask us when we were going to offer a spring season, which we had not done before,” Cockrell said.
At the wildlife area’s Howard Slough and Little Dry Creek units, the problem was not a lack of turkeys but rather a lack of funding to hire staff to advertise, prepare, regulate and operate the extra hunts – and a lack of scientific data to support an extra hunting season.
A collaborative effort between CDFW and the NWTF solved that problem.
In 2014, NWTF applied for and received a state grant from the Upland Game Bird Stamp Fund. The grant proposal, which was spearheaded by NWTF District Biologist Kevin Vella, obtained five years of funding to support a seasonal coordinator position.
“This spring we had almost 1,800 applications for 144 open spots,” said Cockrell. “Our hunters really appreciate the opportunities that the spring turkey hunts provide. We frequently hear after a hunt what an amazing time they had out in the field and how much they enjoyed their time on the wildlife area. One of our hunters this season was so excited because he was able to harvest a nice turkey at his very first hunt!”
All photos © National Wild Turkey Federation, all rights reserved. Top Photo: Tim Hermansen of CDFW holds a turkey while Laura Cockrell of CDFW measures its beard with calipers.
Porcupine1: NRVP participants Greg Moore, Mike Maulhardt, Charles Brown and Ben Smith volunteered to service and maintain porcupine stations at Red Lake Wildlife Area.
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.
Wildlife Officer Pat Freeling replanting dudleya.
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 third 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.
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.
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