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Project Tierra News and Activities

Teacher and students working by slough The articles on this page highlight the work that students, instructors, and volunteers do to make Project Tierra possible. It provides snapshots of how and why the wetland monitoring is done, reports our findings, relates some personal experiences of the participants, and gives examples of how the project helps our local students learn via field study integrated to California standards-based curricula. For specific information about the purpose of the program and the methods used to implement this citizen science-based approach, please visit the project’s home page.

We welcome new volunteers. For more information about Project Tierra, please contact Noëlle Antolin at 831-728-1156, Ext. 5.

Updates to Watsonville-Wetlands Bird Census

Great blue heron. Photo: Efren Adalemby Bernadette and Bob Ramer

In the July 2012 WWW newsletter, an article “Bird Surveys Take Flight in the Watsonville Wetlands” described how Noëlle Antolin, Director of Education Programs at WWW, had been working with Bernadette and Bob Ramer and Steve Gerow to develop a protocol for surveying habitats around the sloughs. At that time — with the help from a dedicated group of volunteers! — we had just completed our fourth census at various sites around the sloughs. Since then, we have increased our coverage from 10 sites to 21 sites and have now completed 12 censuses (5 in September, 4 in May, and 3 in February), with a total of 203 species observed. The September censuses occur during the peak of fall migration, while the May censuses look at birds that may potentially breed in the area, and the February censuses record the birds wintering around the sloughs.

Each census is different and reflects the current conditions affecting the sloughs. Our winter census in 2014 was during the height of the prolonged drought that has gripped central California, and the number of water-related bird species (such as members of the duck, grebe, heron, and coot families of birds) was extremely low (18 species reported). Fortunately, the heavy rains in December 2014 brought needed runoff into the sloughs; and, during our February 2015 count, we recorded 33 species within those bird families. When we conduct this year’s May census, most of these water-related birds will have migrated north, but a few species (such as Mallards, Pied-billed Grebes, Green Herons, and American Coots) will remain. They will be joined by Pacific-sloped Flycatchers, Tree, Violet-green, Barn, Rough-winged, and Cliff Swallows, Yellow and Wilson’s Warblers, Hooded and Bullock’s Orioles, and other birds from southern wintering grounds that have come here to breed. During the May 2014 breeding season, a pair of Bald Eagles successfully fledged an eaglet from a nest along Harkins Slough. We hope that this year’s May census will document an equally happy event!

For many bird watchers, fall is the most exciting time of the year as almost any bird may appear around the sloughs during fall migration. Again, water level plays an important part; and the dropping water levels in the sloughs during the spring and summer months expose mudflats that become prime feeding and resting areas for migrating shorebirds, some of which migrate from the high Arctic to the tip of South America. During the high-water winter months, we typically see five or six species of shorebirds around the sloughs. In contrast, during our fall censuses, we may see as many as 20 species of shorebirds pass through the area, such as Lesser Yellowlegs, Solitary, Baird’s, and Pectoral Sandpipers, and Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes. And other rarities, such as Stilt, Buff-breasted, and Semipalmated Sandpipers add to the excitement.

Over the past five years, we have recorded 163 species of birds during our fall censuses, 145 species during winter, and 119 species in spring. Our combined total for all 12 censuses is an amazing 203 species of birds. (For comparison purposes, the Watsonville Wetlands Watch “Birds of the Watsonville Wetlands” lists 225 species of birds that have been reported through the years around the sloughs.)

These censuses have given us a nice “snapshot” of the birds that depend upon the Watsonville Wetlands at critical times of the year. A more thorough understanding comes from long-term data collection. This is the goal of Project Tierra, which engages citizens—such as you—in participating in this ongoing research. Over time, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of how bird species utilize various plant communities around the wetlands throughout the year and how that data may inform our restoration goals and other land management decisions. We would not be able to gain this insight without the committed efforts of our volunteers. Feel free to explore the data we have collected so far by clicking here. (04/2015)

Extraordinary 6th Grader Contributes to Project Tierra

Amelia Pedersen with Science ProjectThe data on slough bird populations collected during sixth-grade student Amelia Pedersen’s science project field work, described in our May 2013 newsletter, is being incorporated into our Project Tierra database. Amelia paddled in the sloughs five times a day during February 2013 to gather data for the project.

Continuation of newsletter article by Nanci Adams:

Amelia did quiet, timed observations from her canoe at her stops in each of the five slough sites: Hanson, Harkins, Watsonville, Struve, and West Struve. After repeating her initial work two more times, she created charts for each site, recording habitats, species of birds, total individual birds, and various personal observations. By slough site, she graphed the number of individuals and varieties of bird species. She analyzed and discussed her results and drew her conclusions. Amelia supplemented information on her display board with slough photos and delightful hand-colored drawings of birds seen.

Drawing by Amelia Pedersen

Red-winged Blackbird
by Amelia Pedersen

She was surprised to learn that her original hypothesis wasn’t correct. “Hanson Slough easily has the most birds and biggest variety of birds within the five Watsonville sloughs. Gallighan Slough had the least (fewest) birds due to pollution. Different birds liked different habitats.” Amelia also concluded, “These findings show that parts of sloughs that are close to people definitely have less (fewer) birds. This means that oil, trash and cleared-away trees impact the slough environment. This means that if we clean up trash and preserve trees and natural habitat, (it) will help the sloughs.”

An impressive young lady, Amelia may very well have a promising future in science, especially ornithology. Oh, and those pesky UFDs? After her presentation to my class, I presented Amelia with National Geographic western bird guide, which identifies all flying ducks. She now has her ducks all in a row.

Nanci Adams, who began birding as a teen in South Dakota, currently teaches classes that she created, Birding Basics and Brown Bag Birding, through Watsonville-Aptos Adult Ed. The classes take place at the Fitz Wetlands Educational Resource Center and in the field. Descriptions and registration information may be found at http://waae-pajaro-ca.schoolloop.com/. Nanci stresses non-competitive, joyful birding and an appreciation of the local wetlands and their denizens. She especially enjoys helping WWW docents and high school students strengthen their birding skills.

Bird Surveys Take Flight

To better understand how birds use the sloughs, Noëlle Antolin, Director of Education Programs at WWW, has been working with Bernadette and Bob Ramer and Steve Gerow to develop a protocol for surveying habitats around the sloughs. 

Bird Survey Map of Struve Slough
Example Bird Survey Map.
Click on map to enlarge.

Over the past two years, they have created site descriptions and maps that detail how to census birds in various areas. Then they implemented a process where observers can enter their sightings into e-Bird (an online checklist program developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society) which, in turn, feeds the information into a database maintained by Watsonville Wetlands Watch. Finally, they oversaw four surveys (two during the fall and two during the spring) to ensure that counters could follow the instructions in a consistent manner and that the overall process worked as intended. The long-term goal is to activate a page on the Watsonville Wetlands Watch website where interested observers can read about the project, attend an orientation session on how to conduct a census, and then begin conducting their own surveys.

During the just-completed May 2012 census, 16 counters surveyed 18 sites and reported 97 species of birds. Combining these results with the previous three censuses, we have now recorded 131 species of birds within the slough environment. By May, most of the waterfowl and shorebirds that populate the sloughs during the fall and winter months have left for their breeding grounds. They have been replaced by flycatchers, swallows, warblers, orioles, and other birds that come here to breed. During the spring transition period, additional species were observed within the wetlands, including Bald Eagle, Solitary Sandpiper, Lesser Yellowlegs, Wilson’s Phalarope, Black Tern, Northern Waterthrush, and Tricolored Blackbird, but these birds eluded us during our counts. Hence our censuses represent four snapshots of the sloughs at particular points in time. As more people conduct additional surveys, these snapshots will evolve into a continuum that illustrates how vital these wetlands are to the birds and other species that make their homes in the sloughs.

We want to recognize those volunteers who have participated in the surveys; it is their enthusiasm and support that has made this project successful. So, thank you for your wonderful help in fine-tuning this process: Nanci Adams, Noëlle Antolin, Phil Brown, Sharon Clark, Steve Gerow, Don Glasco, Lois and Wally Goldfrank, Joan and George Hardie, Sharon Hull, Clay Kempf, Kathy Kuyper, Todd Newbury, Bernadette and Bob Ramer, Alex Rinkert, Heidi and Richard Sandkuhle, Scott Smithson, and Jeff Wahl. (Posted 07/2012)

Students Study the Chemistry of Wetlands

This spring around 200 students from Pajaro Valley High School chemistry classes stepped out of the classroom to learn about the chemistry of wetlands with Watsonville Wetlands Watch. During the field trip to the Department of Fish and Game preserve at West Struve Slough, students learned how nitrogen and oxygen cycle through healthy and unhealthy wetlands. The students then tested the water for dissolved oxygen and nitrate concentrations.

Students work on water-testing project. Indoors photograph of students around table. Later at the Wetlands Educational Resource Center, the students graphed and analyzed data collected over the past year from two Watsonville slough sites. One site was in the industrial region of Watsonville, and the other site was from an agricultural area. The students were asked to compare oxygen and nitrogen levels for the two sites as well as look for patterns in the data. They found that the site closest to agriculture had significantly higher levels of nitrogen, probably due to fertilizer run-off. Using their knowledge of the chemistry of wetlands, the students made recommendations for how to improve the health of Watsonville’s wetlands. Some recommendations included creating native plant buffers around the wetlands, building detention basins near farms to catch runoff, and reducing total agricultural runoff by limiting the amount of fertilizer to a level that can actually be absorbed by plants. (Posted 07/2011)

Monitoring Results Are In: Rabbits Prefer Eating Native Grasses

Our third year of Project Tierra’s plant population monitoring began in the first week of May. Three Algebra classes from Pajaro Valley High School took a field trip to the Watsonville Slough Ecological Reserve to continue to track the effects of the coastal prairie restoration project that was implemented in 2008. The goals of the monitoring study included tracking the success of the native plantings on the site and determining whether these natives are able to spread outside the planting area and move into the neighboring grasslands. The results will be used to help the restoration staff plan and implement their coastal prairie restoration projects.

Americorp Interns Nicolas Viveros and John Morley during the pre-field trip classroom presentation
AmeriCorps Interns Nicolas Viveros and John Morley
during the pre-field-trip classroom presentations

The classes received an introductory presentation by restoration staff Jonathan Pilch and Mary Paul along with guest speakers Nicolas Viveros and John Morley, both Americorp interns working on monitoring projects with the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz county and the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project. The students learned about the techniques and methods of monitoring, plant identification, and about the restoration project itself. They then spent a class period in the field collecting data onsite and analyzing the collected data in the Fitz Wetlands Educational Resource Center (WERC) classroom.

Preliminary results were able to demonstrate and quantify many of the changes that were observed. Analysis of the results showed that rabbits have in fact been grazing the site and also demonstrated their preference for native over non-native grasses! As the monitoring database grows over time, long-term changes in the grasslands plant populations from restoration efforts can be documented and tracked to inform future decisions about restoration. (Posted 06/2011)

Muskrat Preens for Docents Monitoring Wetlands Water Quality

As part Project Tierra, each month four teams of Watch volunteers measure the temperature, turbidity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and electrical conductivity at specific sites in the Watsonville sloughs. They also measure nitrates, phosphates, and bacteria on a regular basis. These test results will be used to make decisions about how to best manage and restore Watsonville’s wetlands.

Muskrat swimming. © John White
© 2010 John White. © 1995-2011 UC Regents. All rights reserved.
Docents Priscilla Partridge and Cathy Gamble said this about their recent water-monitoring field trip: “Each month we look forward to water quality testing. We go to the same sites, but the landscape is ever-changing. It is always an adventure because we never know what we will see. Waters we deemed ‘stagnant’ in January were ‘flowing’ with visible currents in February. As we readied our testing instruments, a large muddy-brown rodent swam right past us, got out of the water about 20 feet [6 m] away and cleaned itself, clearly aware of our presence but seemingly unconcerned. It was early afternoon, not the usual time to see a muskrat. That day we saw four muskrats and were ‘over-the-moon’ about it.”

The muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) is a dark brown or black mostly aquatic animal that is 16 – 24 inches (40 – 60 cm) long. It can swim underwater for 17 minutes, using its vertically flattened tail for propulsion. Muskrats are usually active at night and eat aquatic vegetation along with crayfish and frogs. They are eaten by foxes, coyotes, large owls, and hawks.

Priscilla Partridge and Cathy Gamble are veteran docents who make significant contributions to the Watch, being key field trip helpers, working in the garden and greenhouse, and spearheading large-scale special projects. Cathy says that seeing a muskrat has been on her “bucket-list” and Priscilla says “We are so lucky to have these beautiful wetlands nearby — full of interesting creatures and peaceful water views.” (Posted 04/2011)

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