Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Unbelievable Beauty at Hume Observatory

By Lindajoy Fenley, Pepperwood Member

I climbed up the ladder next to one of the telescopes at Pepperwood’s Hume Observatory and peered through the lens. A stark, white ball with a ring glowed back. It looked like a flat piece of plastic pasted on black paper. Bogus, fake, phony. Other telescopes focused on Andromeda and other star clusters, but the image that struck me the most was the first – that cartoon-like view of Saturn.

Astronomer Michael Bennett, captivated by his first view of Saturn over half a century ago, said everyone he’s ever guided to a telescopic view of the ringed planet for the first time says the same thing: a clear view of Saturn doesn’t look real.
After conjecturing about the possibility of finding other intelligent life elsewhere in the universe in a talk at the Dwight Center, Bennett, former executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, hosted 46 stargazers at Hume. Despite an air of joy and frivolity – with popcorn and chocolate cake served at a table near the telescopes ­– the members-only event was more than a party. It was a night of learning and appreciation, an opportunity to once again experience the awe that nature inspires. 

Bennett scheduled the event for a moonless night in mid-August, days after the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Though we were warned not to expect any streaks of light, simultaneous sighs of admiration arose from the crowd at least three times as meteors burned by.

With or without meteors, I bask in the beauty of the night sky away from city lights. The vastness the universe astounds me. But when I think about what I’m looking at, I feel inadequate. I’m frustrated that I can’t identify constellations and I strain to see them even when someone points them out. The Big Dipper is the only one I can locate on my own. 

A respected astronomer with bachelor's and master’s degrees in interdisciplinary physical science, Bennett agrees the constellations don’t look like what they supposedly represent. One exception might be Scorpio, he said. I saw the insect-shaped star formation as he traced a head, body, tail and pincher with a laser pointer. My confidence increased slightly.

Many people identify the constellation known as Cygnus, the Swan, as the Northern Cross. When Bennett pointed that out, I could see the cross, but not a swan. I failed to see other ancient mythological shapes he identified in the sky.

Before the event ended, the retired astronomer unknowingly bolstered my intellectual self worth by giving simpler descriptions of some constellations. He pointed his laser at the sky and traced a teapot where the ancients saw Sagittarius, the archer. He showed us Pegasus looked more like a baseball diamond than a horse. I found it easier to see those images in the starry sky, and it made me feel a little less stupid knowing that a real astronomer makes up his own names for groups of stars when he’s talking to ordinary people.

On Saturday, August 16, 2014, Pepperwood hosted an Evening of Stargazing event in appreciation of our Members who make our work possible. To learn more about Pepperwood Membership, please visit our website.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Community Highlight - Peggy Rockwood

Responses by Peggy Rockwood, Pepperwood Volunteer

Peggy with her grandson Leo
How long have you been a Volunteer with Pepperwood?
Well, I volunteered at a couple of Wildflower Festivals even before there was such a thing as the fabulous Dwight Center and the Stephen J. Barnhart Herbarium. Then once the center was built and the herbarium was functional, I started collecting, identifying and mounting plant specimens in 2011.

Tell us a little bit about your background and how you became interested in Pepperwood. What keeps you motivated?
I am a plant taxonomy nerd. I have a degree in biology with an emphasis in botany; my master’s thesis was a flora and vegetation map of a 1200 acre ranch – and it was so incredible hiking through the grasslands, woodlands, forests, chaparral, brambles, creeks (even with the close encounters with snakes, skunks and mountain lions) and finding all the hidden and not so hidden plants. I loved peering at the plants through my microscope to find their true scientific names, pressing them, mounting them and the idea of having them preserved for posterity in an herbarium.

Collecting native thistle on Telegraph Hill
I worked briefly as a consultant doing plant surveys on properties whose owners were applying for development permits. Doing that, I saw many incredible botanical treasures that there was no way to preserve, and it was often heart breaking. I now work at SRJC as a lab assistant for the biology majors classes. (As matter of fact, a couple important staff members and many volunteers are former students of mine, and I love them, every one.) I made field trips to Pepperwood in that capacity when it was still owned by the California Academy of Sciences and so I knew at least a little bit about the diversity of habitats and was intrigued by the potential for study.

Then, when I was asked to volunteer with getting the new herbarium up and running, I jumped at the opportunity. Getting to be involved with the building of a new herbarium is an exciting honor. There is so much potential for ecological disaster and loss of species at this point, that documenting what plants are where and preserving that knowledge (and the DNA) seems like some little (important) thing I can do with my somewhat obscure knowledge and skill set.  

What projects have you worked on?
As you may have guessed, I volunteer for the herbarium. I helped with the major revision of the Pepperwood Preserve Vascular Flora to reflect the scientific name changes in the second addition of The Jepson Manual. I continue to revise and update the Pepperwood Preserve Vascular Flora with additional plant taxa and locations that we are finding every season. I also collect, ID, press, mount, and sometimes help file my specimens. First I get to go hiking (if you can call what a botanist does really hiking), then I get to peer through my microscope, then I get to play with glue – what could be more fun?

What are three words that describe Pepperwood to you?
Peaceful, Vibrant, Significant

What does your experience at Pepperwood mean to you?
A small way to leave an important lasting contribution to the scientific knowledge that may help in preserving this amazing biosphere of ours.
Collecting in serpentine grassland west of Three Tree Hill

What’s the most surprising thing you've learned or seen at Pepperwood?
How really, very, very steep Telegraph Hill actually is and all the cool plants that live there.

What’s the one thing you’d want to share with someone who is thinking about volunteering?
Fabulous place, fabulous people, multitudes of opportunities, feel good about having fun.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Cook, garden, read novels, but mostly I hang out with my newest best friend, my grandson. I’m teaching him to love plants (well, all outside) – we stop and sniff all the flowers we see, we listen to the birds sing and try to find them hiding in the trees, some day he may just surprise his parents and speak in Latin to them – Nemophila heterophylla, or Pseudotsuga menziesii, or…

 Interested in volunteering? Check our website for info on monthly Volunteer Workdays or send us an email.

What the heck is LiDAR?

By Sandi Funke, Education Director

Land cover map courtesy of Tukman Geospatial LLC.
I was at a staff meeting recently where our research and preserve management staff got all starry eyed while waxing poetic about the new topographic maps produced of Pepperwood using “LiDAR.” LiDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging, and it’s basically a way of measuring the surface of the ground using an airplane-mounted laser. Our scientists talked about how wonderful these maps are and how lucky we are to have access to this ground-breaking technology. This is not the first time I have seen technical folks get all giddy over LiDAR, so why is it so special? Our Preserve Ecologist explained it was “technology and science, hand in hand” that got her excited. The tremendous range of LiDAR data applications for research ecologists and land managers is certainly cause for excitement.

Sonoma County has LiDAR data thanks to our friends at the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (SCAPOSD), and a new partnership with NASA. The data was produced as part of the Sonoma Veg Map project, a collaboration between SCAPOSD and the Sonoma County Water Agency and others. “The countywide LiDAR data is allowing us to accurately map the diverse habitats that exist in Sonoma County,” said Tom Robinson, SCAPOSD Conservation Planner. “Such an inventory will significantly increase our ability to protect and preserve the county’s biodiversity and natural landscapes, and the ecosystem services they provide for the community.”

LiDAR can record multiple distance points in the same relative
area, essentially creating a cross-section of vegetation.
Image courtesy of SCAPOSD.
As explained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, LiDAR is a “remote sensing method which uses pulsed laser light to determine the surface of the Earth.” Light pulses emitted from equipment on an aircraft are reflected by the surface they encounter. A sensor records this reflected light to produce a range of distances. When this laser range data is combined with other data including position information from GPS, the result is a dense, detail rich group of elevation points and accurate, three dimensional information about the shape of the Earth and surface characteristics from forest canopy down to the ground level.

LiDAR can produce incredibly high-resolution “digital elevation models,” or DEMs, which are basically detailed topographic maps that can be used for many purposes. In Sonoma County, LiDAR light pulse measurements were spaced only 3” apart. This means the resulting images reveal very fine features, like the shape of trees and shrubs, the outline of streams, and even individual fence posts.

This graphic demonstrates the difference in resolution between the new LiDAR data 
and existing methods. Image courtesy of SCAPOSD.
Here at Pepperwood, we will use the data for modeling our hydrology, determining where erosion may be occurring, identifying potential restoration sites, monitoring forest structure and vegetation community succession, and a multitude of other uses we have not even explored yet. We are currently using these detailed elevation maps to delineate drainages so we can improve our hydrologic modeling along and to establish “grazing monitoring units” defined by geological features.

Land cover map courtesy of Tukman Geospatial LLC.
LiDAR greatly reduces the amount of time researchers have to spend surveying on the ground. Data which could otherwise take months to collect can be gathered using LiDAR in an afternoon. Though there is no replacement for the long-term, on-the-ground monitoring we employ to record how our landscapes and their inhabitants are changing over time, LiDAR is an excellent addition to our toolbox. It will help us better manage our preserve for resiliency under climate change pressures and develop protocols that can be used by other preserves and open spaces in our region.

A special thank you to Tom Robinson and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District for sharing the above images! Read more about LiDAR on the SCAPOSD website here.