Thursday, December 12, 2013

2013 Mayacamas Christmas Bird Count for Kids

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

In the spirit of the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count which is celebrating its 114th year, Pepperwood, along with Sonomabirding, Safari West, and the Petrified Forest joined forces to launch the Mayacamas Christmas Bird Count for Kids. The count was held on the chilly morning of Saturday, December 7th, 2013. The purpose of the event was to get young people out engaging with our local environment in a meaningful way while also having fun. The data that was generated will help scientists answer questions critical to the conservation of local bird species.

Our young scientists, expert birders from the community, and staff gathered at Safari West early that Saturday morning. The youngsters ages 7 to 17 and their families started the day at “Binocular Bootcamp” with Tom Rusert and Darren Peterie, founders of the Christmas Bird Count for Kids. Outside the CafĂ© at Safari West participants learned the basics of how to operate binoculars as well as how to spot birds using strategically placed signs with laminated pictures of birds . They learned how and where to look for birds!

After learning about binoculars it was time to head out.  The chilled but excited group formed five teams and ventured forth to survey woodland, forest, chaparral, pond, and meadow habitats at Safari West, Pepperwood, and the Petrified Forest. Once reaching their sites, they spent 90 minutes in the field identifying and counting birds. The teams then returned to Safari West. Pepperwood staff and the participants tabulated the results at a celebration lunch. After the tabulation, the teams of young people named the “Juncos, Bald Eagles, American Coots, Living Dodos, and Stellar Juncos” presented their results to the entire group. Afterwards participants enjoyed a visit with an American kestrel and a great horned owl brought over by The Bird Rescue Center of Sonoma County. Safari West staff then ended the event with a walking tour of Safari West where folks could go to meet birds from other parts of the world.

The teams of young people, staff, and seasoned area birders did a fantastic job on this bitterly cold morning getting out and counting our local birds. The teams counted 54 species and over 900 individual birds. Some of the biggest groups included a murder of crows, several hosts of sparrows, and a paddling of mallards numbering 40! Several unusual birds were spotted including an accipiter, two northern harriers, and a purple finch. Some of the participants included Pepperwood’s TeenNat interns, siblings Ben and Emma Hoffman. Speaking about the experience Ben shared, “We both enjoyed ourselves quite a lot. It was pretty humbling to hear this one particular bird watcher name off birds as they flitted by. On the whole a very interesting experience and nice to get back with the TeenNaters that were able to come.” Ben’s favorite bird was a red tailed hawk that was in a tree about 30 feet away from the group.

Lisa Hug, one of our expert birders shared her thoughts about the experience, “The kids I had were a little older - mostly teens. They were fantastic. I was impressed with how they took charge of the situation and worked together on things. They passed the clipboard around by themselves and planned their presentation totally on their own. They were very ‘into’ the birds and appreciated them even though they were very cold.”

The data the teams collected is being uploaded to the eBird database. eBird is a real-time, online checklist program. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird’s goal is to maximize the vast number of bird observations made each year by bird watchers. It is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence. For example in  just one month in 2012 over 3.1 million observations were uploaded. As explained on the eBird site, “When you submit a checklist to eBird, you make your observations available to the global community of researchers, educators, conservationists, birders and anyone else with an interest in birds.” Dozens of scientific publications have used the eBird data to further our understanding of the biodiversity of the planet!

The Mayacamas Christmas Bird Count for Kids was a collaborative effort between Pepperwood, Sonomabirding, Safari West, and the Petrified Forest. WE enjoyed getting to know each other more and brining this valuable experience to our community’s young people. We hope to make it an annual event so stay tuned next December for our 2nd annual bird count!

 Special thanks to Steve Murdock for sharing his wonderful photographs of the event!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Lyme Disease in California - Avoiding Ticks Where They Live

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

Yuck! When we initially scheduled our lecture on Lyme disease held earlier this fall we were worried. Would anyone come? Do folks want to be empowered by the latest research or do we collectively want to put our heads in the sand about this devastating disease? Well, folks did come and were very interested! Personally, I have been touched in so many ways by Lyme disease. My brother has suffered from the disease for many years from a tick bite most likely contracted hiking with me in Big Basin Park near Santa Cruz. Staff members have been bitten by ticks and contracted the disease in Sonoma County and in the midwest. It’s a big problem but, as it turns out, the adult ticks and nymphs that carry Lyme disease have certain habits and preferences that can help inform where and how we spend time in nature.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected black legged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans which makes a bulls eye pattern. If left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system. Some believe Lyme disease can also cause long term chronic symptoms, though there is no complete consensus in the medical establishment on this.

This fall Dr. Robert Lane from University of California Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, spoke at Pepperwood about Lyme disease, tick life cycles, and his research on the spread of the disease in California. As explained by Dr. Lane and detailed in Pest Notes - Lyme Disease in California, ticks have four life cycles: the egg, larva, nymph and adult stage. In California, only the nymph and the adult female of the western black legged tick transmit the bacterium to humans.

Unfortunately, the western black legged tick is the most abundant of the 47 species of ticks known to live in California. It is very small. The nymphs are only the size of a poppy seed and the adult females are only about 1/8 of an inch. The nymphs transmit most of the disease in California. Nymphs are found in forests and woodlands carpeted with leaf litter or fir needles. They occur within the leaf litter and crawl onto tree trunks and logs. They tend to transmit the disease from March to July.

Adult ticks occur on low vegetation most commonly in grasslands or chaparral. Strangely, they are also more abundant on the uphill margins of hillside trails. More adults are also found in the margins between different habitats. Adults transmit the disease November to July. Adults tend to be active in the early morning and late afternoon.

There are several steps we can take to avoid getting bit by a tick. When in forests and woodlands avoid sitting on logs or leaning against tree trunks - bring a chair! If you are hiking in a potentially tick infested area, stay towards the middle of trails and stick to the downhill margin of the trail. Wearing long sleeved shirts and pants and tucking in pant legs and shirt tails can also help. Dr. Lane recommends considering use of repellant - some have been shown to be up to 85% effective. You should also always do a tick check after hiking paying special attention to exposed areas of skin on arms, legs, behind ears, and on the scalp. If you have pets you should also check your pet for ticks.

It may not be possible to completely eliminate all risks of exposure to Lyme disease in California. However, we can take certain steps to reduce contact to ticks. By getting more informed we can all feel a little safer exploring and working outdoors in California.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Exploring the World of Lichen with Shelly Benson

Photo by Pepperwood volunteer John Hibbard.
Lichens in our region are often seen on oak trees, covering their branches with a frosty white-green color or dangling down like Spanish moss. But did you know they are actually composite organisms consisting of a fungus and a photosynthetic organism (usually a green algae or a bacteria)? Sonoma County lichenologist Shelly Benson is president of the California Lichen Society has been studying lichen for 14 years. Pepperwood's Education Director Sandi Funke asked Shelly some questions about these fascinating life forms and how she got involved with them.

How did you get into studying lichens?
Somewhat by accident…a summer job as a botanist on an ecological research project gave me some experience identifying lichens. It turns out that once you have a little experience in this area you’re way ahead of the rest of the competition. I landed several other jobs that required lichen identification skills, including climbing trees in Canada to study arboreal lichens. I ended up staying in Canada to complete my graduate research on arboreal lichen ecology. When I moved to California, I got involved in the California Lichen Society and continue to work with lichens.

Photo by Joel Cervantes.
Why do you think lichens are important to pay attention to?
Many ecologists will say that they can read the landscape by observing which plants grow where. The same is true for lichens. Lichens are sensitive to microclimate conditions and respond to gradients in temperature and moisture. The mix of lichen species growing near the coast is distinctly different than the mix of species growing in the Central Valley, which is distinctly different than the mix of species growing in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Additionally, lichen community composition shifts in a similar way in response to an air quality gradient. Some lichen species have been identified as indicators of clean air and others are known to indicate elevated levels of nitrogen-based pollutants. Observing the relative proportion of pollution-sensitive lichens to pollution-tolerant lichens can inform you about the air quality in your area. I find the process of becoming lichen literate fascinating!

Photo by Joel Cervantes.
How hard is it to differentiate between different types of lichens?
For the most part, if you have a good eye for detail, it is pretty easy to differentiate between different species of lichens. Once you learn the various lichen structures to look for, you’ll be able to sort out different species. However, putting a name on each of those different lichens is a little more difficult. One of the biggest challenges is finding a key that works well for your area. Currently, there is no lichen equivalent to the Jepson Manual, a key to the vascular plants of California. I often use keys from several different regions (e.g. the Pacific Northwest and the Dessert Southwest) to identify a specimen collected from the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Additionally, some lichens require the use of chemical tests for identification.

What is one of your favorite lichens and why?
Lace lichen, Ramalina menziesii, is a favorite lichen of mine.  It is one of the pale greenish hair-like lichens that drape the branches of trees throughout western California. The architecture of this lichen is amazing! Many of the lichen’s long, slender strands have lobe-like branches with a beautifully intricate lace-like pattern. The beauty of this lichen and its wide distribution throughout the state are reasons why the California Lichen Society has started a campaign to make this the California state lichen.

On Saturday, October 26th, 2013, Shelly will teach a class on lichen at Pepperwood. Click here to register or learn more about the class.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Phenology - Studying Plant and Animal Life Cycles

By Tom Greco, Communications Specialist

An acorn on one of Pepperwood's many oak trees
It is autumn at Pepperwood. Deciduous trees like black, Oregon, and blue oaks are all losing leaves. Squirrels and acorn woodpeckers are busy gathering acorns – the latter stuffing them into their granary trees. Our big leaf maples, found along creeks and seeps, are turning a brilliant yellow. Ravens are foraging on figs at our homesteads by the dozens. Bucks are shedding their summer camaraderie and beginning to scuffle for dominance as rutting season begins. It is a great time to examine phenology.

Phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and biological events as they are influenced by environmental factors like changing seasons, variations in climate over time, and localized elements like soil composition and elevation. If there is unseasonably little rainfall one winter, for example, that may affect the life cycles of certain plants. They could experience a later bloom than average, or perhaps produce less seeds that year. If a plant blooms late, that could in turn affect the life cycle of an insect that relies on it for food. In this way, phenology can also be used to examine the relationships between plants and animals within their environments.

Examining a budding plant to determine what life cycle
stage it is in.
The study of phenology is not new, but it is becoming increasingly important in the face of our changing climate. As average annual temperatures and other climatic factors begin to shift, they will undoubtedly affect the life cycles of plants and animals. In order to measure the impacts of a changing climate, a baseline for current temporal patterns of biological behavior must be established. This means taking regular observations of life cycle events like bud burst in plants, or the first appearance of butterflies or migratory birds or animals. Over time we can determine the correlation between shifting climatic factors and phenological responses in our flora and fauna.

Dr. Susan Mazer explains the California Phenology Project's 
monitoring protocols to Pepperwood staff and volunteers 
Because of the great diversity of plant and animal life, especially in our region, collecting phenological data can be a time consuming and labor intensive process. Fortunately, advances in technology have made it much easier for researchers to collect this data with the help of citizen scientists, who are often nature-enthusiasts volunteering their time. The California Phenology Project (CPP), which was launched in 2010 with funding from the National Park Service, was created to help streamline the collection of phenological data by offering resources and creating a central database where organizations and individuals can contribute their work. Dr. Susan Mazer of UCSB, founder of the CPP, visited Pepperwood in August to advise on Pepperwood’s current monitoring program and how it can be tied into the CPP.

Many of Pepperwood’s research efforts, including our Vital Signs monitoring project, involve the study of phenology. Each year we collect data via our Reptile and Amphibian Survey, Grassland Monitoring, and Acorn Monitoring projects, to name a few. This year, we are working with the Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) to apply for funding from the National Science Foundation for a long-term Phenology Project at Pepperwood that is aligned with protocols set by Dr. Mazer and the CPP. This is the focus of SRJC student Prahlada Papper, Pepperwood Steward and the inaugural Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium Intern, who is working with Pepperwood staff to establish a transect model that could be replicated in other locations throughout our region.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Oaks: Biology and Significance of Our Majestic Giants

By Steve Barnhart, Academic Director

Oak trees and shrubs are found in many different environments and climatic zones around the world.  Some 500 species exist, primarily in temperate, subtropical and tropical regions of North America, South America (Columbia), Europe, North Africa, the near east and Asia, dropping below the equator into Indonesia. Many local populations of oak species exhibit unique characteristics, yet as a group they are able to adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions.

All oaks are members of the genus Quercus, in the plant family Fagaceae, which includes beeches, chestnuts, chinquapins and tanbark oak. Tanbark oak is not a true oak (Quercus) due to a number of significant biological differences, including flower structure and pollination. Other species which bear the term “oak” in their common names are not related at all, e.g. poison oak. Oak trees and shrubs can be deciduous, losing all their leaves seasonally, or evergreen (live oaks for example). Oaks are mainly identified by their bark, foliage and fruit (acorns).

Approximately 80 native oak species are found in the USA, with 21 of these present in California. These species are classified in 3 evolutionary lineages or sections: white oaks, red oaks and intermediate oaks. In Sonoma County, we are graced with 5 white oak, 4 red oak and 1 intermediate oak species.

Hybridization, or crossing between species, occurs within evolutionary lineages or sections.  These oak hybrids are usually fertile and thus can reproduce with other hybrids or their parental species. A common example at Pepperwood are the hybrids between blue oak and Oregon oak, which exhibit a full range of characters between the two parent species.

Oaks have been a very important resource for humans over thousands of years. Acorns have been a dietary staple for millennia - in most recent history for the acorn-gathering and oak-cultivating Native Americans of California. Oaks have also been important for cultural and religious reasons. 

Oaks perform a very important ecological role in many landscapes. Because of the food resource (acorns) and shelter (nesting places) they provide, oak-dominated plant communities have the highest diversity of wildlife species of any California landscape. Here, oaks play a central role in the community food webs, thus filling the niche of an important “keystone” species. Oaks also provide important amenities with regard to watershed integrity, local carbon balance and natural fire fuel breaks.

Unfortunately, the loss of oaks and oak habitat in Sonoma County and throughout California is occurring at an alarming rate. This loss is primarily due to urbanization and the agricultural conversion of wild land habitat. In the growing exurban areas, the ecological integrity of oak woodlands is being severely compromised because of the impact of patchy development upon wildlife species. Added to these factors are the direct impacts of construction and landscaping upon individual specimen trees as well as the increased spread of pathogens and disease. The pathogen that causes Sudden Oak Death is having a pronounced impact upon coast live oak and tanbark oak in our local wild lands, including Pepperwood.

Native oaks are a natural legacy that we all should desire to preserve. Their beauty and landscape utility are obvious, but their evolutionary and ecological significance is even more important to the long term integrity of our natural landscapes.

Join Steve Barnhart and arborist Bruce Hagan for a class on caring for oak trees on Saturday, October 19th, 2013 from 9am to 3pm at Pepperwood. Whether your yard is home to one oak or one hundred, this class will provide a comprehensive overview of proper oak tree care and management. This class costs $30 and includes a hike to visit some of Pepperwood's many oaks! Please click here to register.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Planting a Sense of Wonder

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

I love hearing about people’s vacations. Trips to the Africa to go on safari, hiking the rainforest, kayaking the open ocean, don’t these all sound amazing? But, does one need to buy a plane ticket to ignite a sense of wonder in our natural world? Can we find inspiration in our own backyard? How about even in the small garden of a mobile home park?

John Griffith grew up in Fairfield, California. A graduate of Chico State he has spent the last 15 years restoring native habitats in northern California as a crew supervisor with the California Conservation Corps (CCC). But he did not find his motivation in grand outdoor expeditions. 

The new Demonstration Garden at Pepperwood.
John explains, “…I fell in love with nature in a small backyard in an urban mobile home park. It was my grandma's backyard where she had a garden with soul. The soul was the bees and butterflies that went from flower to flower in her tiny garden. Under a small plastic dish that served as a watering hole for butterflies, lived a toad. When my grandma revealed that a toad lived under it, I became hooked on nature. I've been curious about it and its secrets ever since. I was four at the time. I've been a naturalist ever since.”

John knows small outdoor spaces can harbor magic! Because of this, John is big believer in the National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Wildlife Habitat program. This program certifies gardens that have the necessary components of a wildlife habitat - food, water, and shelter. The program has certified over 150,000 gardens nationwide with over 10,000 certified in California alone! John and his crew have recently certified the outdoor space of their Ukiah campus as a wildlife habitat. Check out this video they made about the certification process!

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) outlines the main components that are needed to sustain wildlife in a garden. The first component is food. Oregon grapes and various oak species ensure birds and small mammals have forage on the campus. They will also be installing “pollinator pit stops” in the late fall for bees and butterflies. The next component NWF outlines is supplying water which the CCC has done with the addition of a birdbath.  Crew members report that just a short while after installation birds were taking advantage of this resource. Wildlife also require places to hide, be protected from weather, and raise their young. The CCC campus has a number bushes including native black berry serving this function as well as a mix of native trees such as sycamore, oaks, redbuds, and redwoods. Brush piles also serve as shelter. They even have an old silo which is home to bats as well as the occasional owl.
Habitat garden educator
Charlotte Torgovitsky

Besides the NWF website which has loads of information including helpful tip sheets for specific types of wildlife, another fantastic resource for wildlife gardening is Nancy Bauer’s book The California Wildlife Habitat Garden: How to Attract Bees, Butterflies, Birds, and Other Animals. Nancy along with Charlotte Torgovitsky will be teaching a class at Pepperwood Creating a Wildlife Garden utilizing Pepperwood’s new Demonstration Garden on Saturday, September 28th from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. They will be focusing on specifically which native plants work in our northern California region as well as when to plant.

The chance to see a native animal is always exciting. Knowing that your home garden is providing habitat is very satisfying. So whether you have 50 acres or a window sill you can do something to help our native birds, pollinators, and mammals be more resilient in the face of a changing environment. You will also be planting a sense of wonder to those that get to enjoy the space!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Teen's Perspective on Pepperwood

By Nurel Arriaran, TeenNat Intern

Nurel (right) and Rebecca
Fernandes in the field at 
Nurel is a student at Rincon Valley Middle School and was one of the 28 interns who participated in the 2013 debut of TeenNat, a program designed to educate teens about the natural world and introduce them to careers in science. From July 9th through August 9th, for 3 days each week, TeenNat interns spent their days exploring Pepperwood, engaging with scientists, photographing plants and animals, uploading their observations to where they can be used by researchers. Their photography was made into a gallery show entitled "Teen Visions of Pepperwood" now on display in the exhibit hall.

Nurel wrote the following article for Pepperwood's blog!

Pepperwood Preserve is a gem embedded between Santa Rosa and Calistoga that all the Bay Area’s residents must know. It is place for constant science research about the magnificent biodiversity from our area where hundreds of plants and animal species native to Sonoma County are kept safe.

For more than 30 years this preserve has been protecting untiringly the flora and fauna of the area. Its importance for Sonoma County is remarkable. Pepperwood participates and collaborates in multiple scientific works such as: Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Collaborative (TBC3), The Landmark International Fog Study, Save the Redwoods League, and the monitoring of the wildlife. It also offers an exclusive rainbow of educational programs. This year Pepperwood Preserve offered the first TeenNat program.

Nurel records an observation.
I am one of the 28 teenagers that participated in this internship, a unique experience where we worked and learned invaluable information from some of the best environmental educators and conservation scientists from our county. This program changed my perspective, the information that I gained lay in fertile ground. Now, I am determined to advocate about the importance of biodiversity and environment.  

While I was hiking with the biologists and scientist as an intern from Pepperwood, I recognized that the work from earth is so powerful that it blinds our generation from appreciating the value nature. As a curious and science oriented teenager, I interviewed Sandi Funke, Education Director at Pepperwood:

When was Pepperwood formed and why?

Pepperwood is a 3,200 acre nature preserve located in Sonoma County. As one of the largest scientific preserves in Northern California, Pepperwood provides a sanctuary for wildlife and affords a native habitat for its flora and fauna to thrive. Pepperwood Preserve was originally established in 1979 as a gift of the Kenneth Bechtel family to the California Academy of Sciences. Jane and Herb Dwight established the Pepperwood Foundation in 2005 to acquire Pepperwood Preserve and to expand the conservation, research and education programs based at the preserve through the creation of the newly opened Dwight Center for Conservation Science. The mission of Pepperwood is to advance science-based conservation throughout our northern California region and beyond.

How does Pepperwood benefit the community?

Pepperwood is the place where researchers are answering the critical questions about how our northern California wild lands are responding to climate change. This research is critical as our community grapples with how to spend limited funding for parks and open space. Their work is also vitally important for water planners to ensure we have enough water to go around in years to come. Pepperwood’s education program link youth and families with the outdoors, empowering then to get outside, get moving, and discover the amazing world around them.

Nurel took this wonderful photo of a baby western screech owl!
What kinds of animals can you find at Pepperwood?

Pepperwood’s diverse landscape provides incredible habitat for a wide variety of native animals. We have over 130 species of birds including ground birds, songbirds, and raptors such as the Golden Eagle. Our mammals include mountain lion, black bear and even American badger. We host 29 species of amphibians and reptiles with include the Pacific giant salamander, blue tailed skink, and the California King snake.

What programs are there at Pepperwood?

In addition to TeenNat, we run the SCENIQ-Students Conducting Environmental Inquiry program. SCENIQ brings first through sixth graders out to Pepperwood and sends our educators into their classroom. About 900 students from our area participate every year. We also offer over 40 community and adult education classes, workshops, hikes and lectures every year. Our citizen science program links volunteers with real on the ground science studies hosted at Pepperwood. Community members help gather and analyze data focused on wildlife density and occurrence, grasslands, oak woodlands, and more!

What influenced the creation of TeenNat program?

Another great photo by Nurel of a western fence lizard.
Teens in Sonoma County are greatly underserved by environmental education programs. At the same time, many high school students are not meeting academic standards in life science and biology. An overwhelmingly large number of our teens are also suffering from being overweight or obese. In creating TeenNat, we hoped to empower youth such as yourself to be able to get outside and confidently explore the outdoors. We also hoped to give connect teens with new scientific knowledge and skills that will enhance their background in natural science.

Are there any plans for Pepperwood in following ten years? 

2013 TeenNat interns and Pepperwood educators.
Pepperwood has just completed drafting a five-year strategic plan. Included are 5-year action plans designed to guide specific priorities through 2018 in education, research and preserve management, communications fundraising, and administration. In education we hope to continue our TeenNat and SCENIQ programs and better connect with Latino families. In research, we will solidify Pepperwood as a “sentinel site” in which citizen scientists and researchers can “take the pulse” of wild lands’ reaction to climate change. We want to be a regional leader for conservation science and environmental education. Our communication, fundraising, and administrative efforts will be fully developed to support these efforts.

I dare you to learn more about the biodiversity of the Bay Area, check out places where you can find more about environmental education, and visit You will be breath-taken by the species and sights you will find. And take your turn to contribute to protect our valuable resources! Start visiting Pepperwood; the beauty of the place will amaze you. Pepperwood preserve offers hiking programs for the community starting at no cost. Call them at  (707) 591-9310 or visit for more information.

Read the Spanish version of this article published by Avance News HERE!

Friday, August 9, 2013

California Gold: A New Englander’s Pepperwood Journey

By Carey Lang, Pepperwood Summer Intern

Less than one week into my Pepperwood internship experience, Lisa and I road-tripped to the California Academy of Sciences to meet with a handful of scientists and researchers and discuss the crux of my internship project up at Pepperwood this summer. As we were driving down the freeway (at first I wrote “highway” but I changed it so I would sound more west coast…), she asked me what I thought of the rolling golden hills of Northern California. I squinted out the window, trying to figure out what she was talking about. Everything just looked kind of brown to me. Brown and dry.

Of course, as I told Lisa, I meant that in the most observational and scientific way possible. There’s nothing wrong with brown and dry, but when I left my home in western Massachusetts, the woods around my house were saturated with emerald and jade and everything was alive and pulsing with early summer energy. I know that green and wet do happen here; I’ve been told I just need to wait until the winter. But having never been to the west coast before, I was experiencing a little bit of a landscape identity crisis.

Now I’ve been here for six weeks and have eaten breakfast with a herd of deer munching on the grass less than two feet away from me. I’ve cantered through the field below Roller Coaster Ridge on Simba, one of the horses that lives on the preserve. From the picnic table on Three Tree Hill I’ve watched a fireworks show over Windsor to my left while a lightning storm flickered through the sky to my right. And I celebrated my 21st birthday exactly as a 21st birthday should be celebrated, with my coworkers who have become my friends. I’ve also had bats land on my face while I was sleeping. I’ve shared my house, my shower and at one point my coffeemaker with 300 roommates -- all of them tiny cockroaches. I’ve been jolted from a deep sleep by an apocalyptic thunderstorm shaking the walls of my room at 3 AM and I’ve discovered that one person cannot consume enough Annie’s Mac and Cheese to make purchasing a pack of 12 boxes a good decision.

I’ve also been working 8:30 to 5, five days a week at the Dwight Center. A lot of the time I’m working with data -- both collecting it and then crunching the numbers in Excel. However, when I’m not out in the field or sitting on my laptop, I’m hanging out with the coolest group of 13-18 year-old interns who are participating in Pepperwood’s TeenNat program. I’m working shoulder to shoulder with staff and I do have the official Pepperwood name tag, but because I’m also an intern at the preserve myself (albeit of a slightly different flavor), I think I lend a different perspective to the program. None of us are getting paid, we’re all still in school, and we don’t really have a clue as to what we’re eventually going to end up doing with our lives. I do have a little bit of experience with outdoor education, and I’ve been continually impressed with how intelligent, perceptive and motivated our TeenNat interns are, and how seriously they’re taking both their work and their play at the preserve.

The coolest thing I’ve gained from TeenNat is that up until this point, I’d never really considered a real career as an educator, but the other day I found myself browsing through my college’s course catalogue looking for education classes. I’ve really enjoyed interacting with kids who love to learn as much as I do, and I’ve even impressed myself with the things I’ve been able to teach them. The other day I just started rambling about the different types of lichen that we could observe on the preserve, which was something I’d learned about a few weeks ago while out doing fieldwork. As I pointed something out to the TeenNatters, I suddenly realized that they had all gone silent and were staring at me, listening intently. The best part, however, is that I actually knew what I was talking about. While I’m nowhere near as skilled as the fantastic education staff at Pepperwood, TeenNat has exposed me to a whole new side of myself I’m eager to explore.

I’m starting to see the gold in the Californian mountains. 

Carey Lang will return to Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts this fall for her senior year. Her summer internship at Pepperwood has involved assisting with the new TeenNat internship program and working with Pepperwood researchers to streamline data collection and management for our many on-site projects. We are very grateful for her all she has done!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Creating a Beautiful Demonstration Garden

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

Volunteers take a break to pose during a Volunteer Workday
In the spring of 2013 a dedicated group of staff and volunteers finished installing stage one of Pepperwood’s Demonstration Garden. Groups such as our TeenNat internship program are already out wandering the golden pathways, exploring the plants, and observing the newly arrived visiting pollinators. The attractive undulating sitting area situated under an embracing oak is luring groups in for receptions, small meetings, or classes just grabbing a snack after a long expedition. The entire area is so well suited to the site it is becoming very hard to remember the Dwight Center without it.

Michael (left) and volunteers during construction of raised beds
However, designing and installing the garden was no small feat. This multi-year effort would not have happened without the hard work of Michael Golas. Michael is a Pepperwood steward and owner of Michael Golas Landscape Design. Besides lending his considerable talents through the design and installation of the project, he donated the in-kind services of his hard working crew on several occasions. We recently had a chance to interview Michael to hear directly from him how the project unfolded.

PW-How did you get started helping with Pepperwood’s Demonstration Garden? What was your role?

View of the garden from benches in the shade of an oak tree

“It was an idea that came to me while attending our final Bio 85 class in the late spring of 2010. Sitting on picnic tables under two magnificent Coast Live Oaks on that warm afternoon made me think of others who would enjoy having the same opportunity in a more developed setting. The picnic tables were replaced with curved benches stepped into the natural slope under the arching branches. The demonstration garden idea was shared and further developed with staff input, and a plan was conceived with the help of landscape architect Michael Cook. Construction began in fall of 2011 with the anticipated grant funding. I was asked and agreed to lead the volunteers and fellow staff through construction.”

PW-Why do you feel native plants are important to include in gardens?

Photograph of some of the plants in mid-July 2013
“Nature's diversity can be best experienced at one's own pace when a permanent location is set up for that learning. Native plants are often overlooked except those of exception that boast relative size, brilliance, and numbers that make them more distinct. We're flooded with plant introductions from around the world given the climate we in Sonoma County and California enjoy. Native plants have taken a backstage given the choices offered and, by examples presented in our garden here, we hope to highlight the important role each have to play in any permanent garden or the plant community in which they abide.”

PW-What led you to choose the plants that you did?

“Choosing nearly all native plants with most from selections collected locally, we again want to highlight the diversity and beauty that comes with our local flora for all to experience.”

PW-Now that the garden has been installed and has had a while to grow, is there anything that is surprising to you?

Volunteers creating handicap-friendly walkways through the garden
“The biggest surprise would be how well the garden has been received by visitors, volunteers and by staff. Most offered encouragement and many came to help but their reaction to seeing it has been pure joy. Second to that, the speed at which some of the selections have taken to their new home has us evaluating what can and should be included in the next round of planting.”

PW-What resources would you recommend if someone is thinking about including native plants in their home garden?

California Flora in Fulton is our local source for material and boundless plant lore. The website offers detailed cultural information on each species with footnotes on related reading.”

Pepperwood’s Demonstration Garden is open and used in Pepperwood classes and programs, visiting classes, rental groups, during open houses, and during membership events. For more information about Pepperwood or to become a member visit our website.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Learning More About Our Wild Neighbors

By Tom Greco

A young deer photographed by
a Pepperwood wildlife camera
Every year, thousands of animals are killed on roadways in Northern California, a problem that impacts both wildlife populations and our safety on the road. In 2010 alone, California Highway Patrol reported over 1,800 wildlife-vehicle collisions state-wide. As residential and agricultural development continues to expand, so too will the habitat conversion pressures facing our region’s wild inhabitants. Some impacts from human activity are obvious – we have all seen dead deer or raccoon on the side of the road – but the stealthy nature of animals like black bears and mountain lions keeps most of their habitats a mystery. Through new advances in technology and a team of dedicated volunteers, Pepperwood is now gaining insight into the life cycles and movement patterns of our wild neighbors.
A bobcat photographed by a Pepperwood wildlife camera
Last summer Pepperwood installed 20 motion-activated cameras around our preserve, becoming the first location in Northern California to utilize the internationally recognized Wildlife Picture Index (WPI) system. This Wildlife Conservation Society method for analyzing wildlife will allow us to begin accurately recording what kinds of animals are present on the preserve, how and when they are using the land as habitat, and other valuable data. Unless we establish such a baseline for the health of our wildlife, we won’t know how populations are changing over time – and whether it is due to our management practices, impacts on habitat corridors, changing climate, or a range of other factors.

A pair of foxes photographed by a Pepperwood wildlife camera
Pepperwood works with wildlife biologist Dr. Sue Townsend to establish protocols and trainings we are applying here at the preserve to provide a model for other open spaces to begin implementing similar monitoring programs region-wide. This summer, Pepperwood worked with our partners at Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Mayacamas Mountain Sanctuary and Modini Ranch to install a second camera grid in our local wildlife corridor. These 21 new cameras are located about 20 miles north of our preserve. Given their close proximity, this expansion of our WPI project will be particularly useful for detecting potential differences in populations between sites as well as observing species migration patterns. In the future, Pepperwood aims to deploy a smaller set of cameras between the two larger sites so we can begin to see which specific routes animals choose to get from one location to the other.

"Critical Linkages" map developed by
the Conservation Lands Network
The Conservations Lands Network, a five-year science-based study with input from 125 organizations, produced a “Critical Linkages” map indicating the pieces of land most likely to be used by wildlife as they move between larger open spaces like state parks and other preserves. With the addition of more camera sites in surrounding areas, the data Pepperwood collects will help evaluate these predictions and help land trusts and other conservation organizations prioritize the acquisition of lands most beneficial to wildlife. By creating “wildlife corridors” of protected lands, we can reduce the impacts of human activity on our wild residents and give them the space they need to thrive.

Stay tuned for more updates about our Wildlife Picture Index project - Like us on Facebook to see the latest photos!