Thursday, May 16, 2013

Conservation of the Western Pond Turtle

By Danielle Olivera, Pepperwood Volunteer

Western Pond Turtles enjoying their favorite log at Turtle Pond.
The white stick to the left is used to measure depth.
January: Note how close the water is to the two trees in the back left.
That little white line on the right is the top of the depth gauge.
When I was a little kid, I loved playing with tadpoles and turtles. Many years later, turtles are still high on my list of interesting animals, though now I know a lot more about them. Our research at Pepperwood Preserve has been focused on the Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata), the only native freshwater turtle in California. Unfortunately, this hard-shelled reptile has faced many challenges in the past few decades, including non-native species introductions, habitat fragmentation and human disturbance. Since then, their numbers have decreased dramatically, putting them on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN)’s List of Threatened Species in California.

Every other week, our team of three (Pepperwood Stewards Carrie Mammoser, Lloyd Cook, and myself) hikes out to Turtle Pond, where we work to monitor the health of the pond and surrounding habitat, which has a direct impact on the turtles themselves. Since this species of turtle is on a decline, we decided to figure out what features constitute their ideal habitat. One of the key factors we’d like to determine is if human and non-native animal disturbances were negatively affecting the population at the pond.

May: So much change in just four months! By the end of the
summer, almost all of the water will probably be gone.
Each visit involves counting the number of turtles present, the types and number of all other plant and animal species present, the temperature of the air and water, wind, water height from the bottom of the pond, pH, nitrite and nitrate levels of the pond. All of these factors can affect the survival and reproduction rates of the Western Pond Turtle.

Steward Lloyd Cook taking measurements in May 2012.
While we spend most of our time observing the turtles and recording water quality, we also keep track of the other types of animals present and how those numbers fluctuate over the year. The turtles are shy and tend to jump off of their log into the water when we begin taking measurements. We’ve found that Sierran Treefrogs, California Newts, garter snakes and various fungi species are also present when there is water in the pond.

Though we only have one year of data, it’s exciting to see the monitoring project come together. It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but we can provide a couple examples of our measurements. Nitrate levels, for example, have remained constant throughout the year. The pond’s pH has also held steady at 5.5 over the course of the year. Water levels vary seasonally and can change drastically depending on rainfall – see the graph to the lower right for an illustration.

We look forward to collecting a second year’s worth of data so we can begin to compare how Turtle Pond and its community of Western Pond Turtles is changing over time.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Let's Go Camping: A Brief History

Enjoying the view at the 2012 Pepperwood summer camp

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

Going camping. Day camp. For those of us that had the privilege as young children of “going to camp” for the first time it felt so new! Like we were blazing a trail. Yet, organized camping in the United States and, in particular, here at Pepperwood, is not new. It originated in a drive to reconnect with the land in response to the growing industrialization of the country. Camping now, is also a way for youth to develop skills and abilities and importantly, learn more about themselves and what they are capable of.

A Brief History of Organized Camping in the US
According to the American Camping Association, the Gunnery Camp, located in Connecticut, was considered the first organized American camp. Mr. and Mrs. Gunn operated a school for boys. In 1861, they took the whole school on a two-week camping trip. The students spent their time boating, fishing, and trapping. The trip was so wonderful the Gunns continued the tradition for twelve years. Though boys got a small head start the girls weren't very far behind. 

In 1874 the Philadelphia chapter of the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) founded the organization's first camp. This vacation house was for "tired young women wearing out their lives in an almost endless drudgery for wages that admit no thought of rest or recreation." The first YWCA camp was in New Jersey, and was called Sea Rest. 

After the turn of the century, camping was really catching own. In 1910, the Boy Scouts of America was founded as was Camp Fire Girls now known as Camp Fire USA. In 1919 the first Girl Scout camp was set up with the organization setting out to charter additional camps the next year. Camping continued to grow in popularity in the first half of the twentieth century and by the 1950’s the idea of “Day Camp” also gained popularity.

Budding Biologists explore one of Pepperwood's oak woodlands
Pepperwood and Camping
Pepperwood has a history with camping as well. Kenneth Bechtel, who owned Pepperwood for over 40 years, loved the outdoors. Bechtel served as president of the Boys Scouts of America from 1956–1959. While the Bechtel’s owned Pepperwood Ranch, the site served as destination for his and other families. The ranch house, now known as the Bechtel House, served as headquarters. Folks liked to come up to hike, ride horses, cut down Christmas trees, and even have fun driving the jeep!

We continue this legacy through family overnights we offer. Several times a year families can join our Preserve Manager Michael Gillogly, and children’s music teacher and composer Ginger Parish for songs, hiking and a great family camping experience! We also offer a two- week summer day camp Budding Biologists. Campers get to explore the various habitats of Pepperwood while recording their reflections in nature journals. To learn more about our programs visit the events section of our website! Happy camping!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Understanding Pepperwood's Mushrooms

By Prahlada Papper, Pepperwood Steward

Helvella lacunosa
The kind of warm, dry weather we’ve seen throughout inland Sonoma County this past winter isn’t usually associated with mushroom foraging, but research on mushrooms (a.k.a. “foraging for data”) continues regardless. In order to document the effects of climate on mushroom fruiting, we need to do surveys during the dry seasons as well as the rainy ones. All that data is equally valuable to a complete picture of fungal ecology.

In fact, though, several groups of mushrooms continued to be surprisingly abundant at Pepperwood throughout January and February even with less than 5cm of accumulated rainfall, including elf saddles like the Helvella lacunosa seen in the picture to the right. That one is growing in a redwood grove, but another species, Helvella maculata, has also been common under Douglas-fir along with several species of Inocybe while live oak dominated forests have been mostly devoid of mushrooms.

Understanding patterns like theseof when and where mushrooms appearis the goal of a study recently revived here at Pepperwood using existing plots that had been sitting ignored and nearly forgotten for almost 15 years. Between 1996 and 1999, David Melloy, a graduate student at Sonoma State University, conducted regular surveys of mushroom diversity on the preserve using the same plots that we were surprisingly still able to re-locate after all these years. Several of those original plots were re-flagged and a few new ones were established in order to continue David’s work of studying the fungal diversity in Pepperwood’s forests and help clarify how localized climate, soils, and vegetation affect that diversity across a varied terrain and through both long and short spans of time.

From the wet and drippy Fall, to this dry and warm Winter, and now into the late Spring that we can only hope will bring rains again, our team has gathered and identified mushrooms from the plots and measured the trees surrounding them to put together spatial maps of each plot.

Combined with regularly collected data on temperature, humidity, and soil moisture, this study can help us answer basic questions about forest ecology and climate change. The appearance of mushrooms is being used as a token of the many organism-organism and organism-environment interactions that create an ecosystem.

Mycelium seen in a soil cross-section
Fungi spend most of their lives as networks of microscopic filaments in the duff layer or within the wood of fallen logs where they are among the primary decomposers of dead plant material. Or in some cases fungi form symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships with trees and plants in which a fungus helps supply water and nutrients to the plant while extracting the carbohydrates it needs to survive from the plant’s root system. At some point, environmental cues that are still not completely understood—but certainly include temperature, moisture and nutrient availability—can prompt that nondescript subsurface tangle of fungal cells to begin the fruiting process, leading to an above-ground mushroom. So fungi, and in particular their mushrooms, are uniquely suited to making many obscure environmental processes and patterns more evident. They may even be a key indicator of changing climate from year to year.

This particular mushroom study at Pepperwood Preserve will hopefully continue on for many years, generating a large enough batch of data that the more complex and long-term patterns behind the fruiting of the different mushrooms can begin to emerge from the background noise of a dynamic forest system.

This mushroom study is among the growing group of long-term monitoring projects at Pepperwood open to citizen scientist volunteers. Experience in ecological research is not necessarily required.  If you’d like to help on any aspect of the study—from fieldwork collecting mushrooms or surveying trees to lab work preparing soil samples or preserving voucher specimens—contact Pepperwood staff to be added to the project’s mailing or volunteer list. Work continues, rain or shine!