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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Teton Tuesday: little more than a mud puddle...

Western diamondback (Crotalus atrox)

     A few weeks ago I shared a post that focused on the incredible abundance of wildlife that can occur along just a little stretch of creek deep within the ranch’s interior. This week I would like to post something similar, although this time, instead of looking at couple kilometers of creek-bed, we are going to focus on what amounts to little more than a mud puddle in the desert. Over the last month I have had a camera recording wildlife movements around a small spring in the upper pasture of Sacatara Canyon, as part of a larger monitoring effort in the area. The videos below were recorded over only two weeks from late July through mid-August, which speaks to the critical value of even such a miniscule water source this time of year in such a sunbaked and thirsty environment. I had never seen a diamondback drink before, but the stern looking fella pictured above was having its fill on the morning I installed this fated motion-sensor camera.    
Mountain lion (Felis concolor)
Great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)
American black bear (Ursus americanus)
Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Mule deer (Odocileus hemionus)
Northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium californicum)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Volunteer Appreciation

 Conservancy staff and celebrated volunteers L to R: Laura Pavliscak, Conservancy Stewardship Manager; Michael Allen, weather station volunteer, interpretive docent, and iNaturalist champion; Chris Gardner, interpretive docent, wildlife camera monitor, and birding survey volunteer; Scot Pipkin, Conservancy Public Access Coordinator; Chuck Noble, do-it-all volunteer, Bill Lydecker, pronghorn survey volunteer; Phoebe Prather, Conservancy Staff Biologist; Mike White, Conservation Science Director. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble

On August 10th, Tejon Ranch Conservancy proudly held its first-ever Volunteer Appreciation BBQ. Over 40 people including volunteers, friends, and family gathered at the park in the Old Headquarters of Tejon Ranch to celebrate the fantastic interpretation, stewardship, and citizen science work being done on the property. 

Scot presented awards to the most active volunteers. Photo courtesy of Mike Prather

Since the Conservancy was initially formed, we have been utilizing volunteers to assist with spring trip leading, data collection during efforts such as our annual Christmas Bird Count, Breeding Bird Blitz, and purple martin survey, and stewardship projects.  However, the scope of our volunteer efforts has broadened significantly in the last year in large part due to our adoption of the California Naturalist curriculum. This University of California-developed class is the natural history equivalent of a master gardener program. One of its primary objectives is to train members of the community to be knowledgeable interpreters, citizen scientists, and stewards of the land. 

Intrepid surveys searching for purple martins. Photo courtesy of Nicole Stephens
With a staff of seven employees and over 400 square miles of land to protect, enhance, and restore, the Conservancy is going to need a lot of help. Fortunately, we have established significant partnerships with a variety of research and conservation organizations ranging from the UC Berkeley Range Ecology Lab to dendroclimatologists (those who study tree rings to learn about past climate) from the University of Minnesota. These relationships are undoubtedly giving us deeper understanding of this extraordinary region and its management. However as is often the case with science, the research being performed on Tejon Ranch is leading to more engaging and complex questions than tidy conclusions. 

Vertical pipe capping volunteers
This is where volunteers come in. With a cadre of skilled nature observers, the Conservancy will increase its capacity to search for the answers necessary to perform the best conservation management possible on Tejon Ranch and beyond. Already, we have had volunteers take over pronghorn surveys, monitor our weather stations, help to sort through wildlife camera data, and maintain Conservancy vehicles. Since October 2013, we have received almost 2,000 donated hours from our volunteers- that’s the equivalent of an extra full-time employee on staff.  And we’re just getting started…

The benefits of volunteers on Tejon Ranch extend far beyond meeting the Conservancy’s organizational goals. We see our volunteer program as a way to raise awareness about the natural history and scientific study of Tejon Ranch and the Tehachapi Mountains. These ambassadors will disseminate their knowledge throughout the community and directly to visitors as interpreters on our public access events.

So where do we go from here? The Conservancy has begun training another group of naturalists and is working hard on developing a new series of stewardship and science projects that the public can help us with. Stay tuned to this blog and our website as we announce more opportunities to volunteer and help the Conservancy manage this spectacular place. Hopefully next year, you too will be able to attend our Volunteer Appreciation BBQ! 

3 generations: Nancy, Kestrel, and Phoebe Prather enjoying some family time during our 2014 BBQ. Both of Phoebe's parents have gotten involved with volunteering for Tejon Ranch Conservancy over the years. Kestrel is a volunteer in training. . . Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Teton Tuseday: a lesson in humility...

This week marks my six-month anniversary working out on Tejon and I would like to honor this occasion by briefly commenting on what a truly humbling experience it has been for me to learn from and interact with such a wild and complex natural system on a daily basis. Since I started with the Conservancy in February, it has been my responsibility and pleasure to learn the intricacies of the ranch and its inhabitants. I was hired to help develop and administer a pilot study on the major animal populations of Tejon, with a special emphasis on wild pigs and their impact on the landscape. I often chuckle at my own naiveté, as I recall my first meeting in which the details of this survey were described, and how I thought to myself that it sounded like a walk in the park. Now, almost exactly 6 months later, let me be abundantly clear in saying that a walk on the ranch is not, in any manner of speaking, a walk in the park. In the last half year I have been chewed up and spit out by the rugged terrain, deceptively treacherous vegetation and unforgiving climate of Tejon more times than I can count.
I remember there was a moment nearing the end of my first month, where, during an evening survey, I had managed to bury myself so deeply into a vast thicket of impenetrable Brewer’s oak, that I was forced to crawl on hands and knees in order to move through the aggressively tangled mass of branches. After more than twenty minutes of this pathetic exercise, with the rapidly fading daylight only increasing the comic inefficiency of my efforts, my hand found purchase, not as I expected on the sharp, sticker-filled gravel I had been accustomed to, but instead squished wrist deep into a warm meatloaf sized cow pie neatly camouflaged by the twilight shadows. In this singular moment of my abasement by the natural world, what occurred to me was not how completely I had underestimated the challenges presented by navigating such hostile terrain, nor was it how utterly ridiculous, disgusting and potentially dangerous my current situation was. The thought that thundered through my mind as I lamely attempted to wipe my wretched hand off on the side of my boots was how in the hell did a bovine, capable of expelling such a tremendous sedimentary deposit, manage to get into this abyss of godforsaken scrub?! To this day I consider the presence of that behemoth cow-pie in such an inaccessible location a true natural phenomenon and a mystery of science.
Despite it all, however, your trusty wildlife tech persevered, eventually made his way out of the Brewer’s-oak-of-death and on to a much greater appreciation of what it takes to survive and thrive out in the wilds of Tejon. As the months went on and my understanding of the ranch grew, I became more comfortable with how to get around and more importantly how the animals I’m tasked with surveying get around. We have improved our survey protocols and have begun to get a real feeling for the patterns of animal behavior that characterize wildlife activity out on the ranch. Still, just as I begin to get a feeling for the who/what/where/when/why of Tejon wildlife, the seasons transition and I once again find myself playing catch up as new patterns of behavior emerge along with the changing landscape. If my first six months on the ranch have taught me anything, it is that you must engage these wildlands as a student would approach a grand-master, and that without due respect you will be on your knees covered in it before the sun goes down… 

This week I am sharing a mix of my favorite photos and videos that showcase  some of what I have learned to love out here on the ranch over the last half year…  
Anna's Hummingbird (female)

 At the very moment this video is being recorded Dr. White and I are walking up this same tributary and must have unknowingly disturbed out friend's bath. We reached the camera 3 minutes after this was recorded!
A lioness and her cub taking a morning stroll along Blue Ridge. Coincidentally, the dense vegetation in the top right of this frame is some of what I got stuck in five months ago!
I wonder what got these boys so riled up?
The Sandberg cabin, lost in time amongst the cedars

Friday, August 8, 2014

2014 Purple Martin Survey Report by Dr. Phoebe Prather, staff Biologist

Photo 1. Adult male purple martin in flight on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Bob Steele.

Figure 1.  Range map of the purple martin (Tarof and Brown 2013).
The purple martin (Progne subis) is the largest swallow in North America and among the largest swallows in the world (Tarof and Brown 2013).  The species breeds in North America and winters in South America.  In eastern North America the species is broadly distributed but in western North America it occurs only locally in the Rocky Mountains, Sonoran Desert, Central Mexico, and Pacific Coast states and provinces (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  It can be found in North America as a summer resident from mid-March to late September, breeding between May and August, and gathering together in large flocks in September before they begin their southward migration.  The species is not well suited to the climatic regimes of middle and northern North America. 

Figure 2.  Distribution of the purple martin in North and Middle America (Tarof and Brown 2013).

Photo 2. Adult male on nesting cavity, Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Bob Steele.

The adult male purple martin is the only dark-bellied swallow in North America and is entirely glossy black, giving it the purplish sheen for which the species is named (Tarof and Brown 2013).  The diet of the purple martin consists exclusively of flying insects and while foraging is capable of flying higher than any other swallow.  The species evolved as a secondary-cavity nester, meaning it relies on natural cavities or holes already created by woodpeckers.  In the eastern United States, however,  by the year 1900 the species had completely switched from using abandoned woodpecker holes to human constructed martin houses due to the competition for natural tree cavities from the introduced European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and house sparrow (Passer domesticus).  There are now only a few records of martins using natural nesting cavities east of the Rocky Mountains.  However, in western North America where the species is less common and breeds in localized populations in mountain forests, deserts, and coastal areas, it still nests almost exclusively in woodpecker holes or natural cavities.  There are very few other species that show such an abrupt geographic difference in the use of nest sites (Tarof and Brown 2013). 

Photo 3.  Example of adult female and second year purple martin plumage on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Bob Steele.
Figure 3.  Range of purple martin in California (CABSSC).
The purple martin breeds widely across the state of California but is locally distributed in forest and woodland areas at low to intermediate elevations (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  It was once described as being “fairly common” and widely but irregularly scattered throughout the state (Grinnell and Miller 1944).  Currently it is designated as a Species of Special Concern by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  Populations began to decline statewide in the 1970s (Airola and Williams 2008).  The decline is thought to be correlated with the increased number of European Starlings out competing martins for nesting cavities.  The starling arrived in California as a breeding species in the early 1960s and has affected all purple martin populations except for those in forested regions where starlings are not yet abundant (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  Several regional populations have shrunk substantially and purple martins are now extirpated from most interior and south coastal lowland areas.  

Photo 4.  Valley oak  nesting cavity on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Robin Prather.
Purple martins utilize different nesting substrates in different parts of the state (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  In northwestern California, where the species appears to be more numerous and more uniformly distributed than anywhere else in the state, martins concentrate in redwood forests near the coast and local inland areas.  Here the martins utilize conifer snags, tall trees, and remnant redwoods that stand above regenerating forests.   In the Sierra Nevada mountain range martins have nested continuously in small numbers but current known nesting sites are widely scattered and small.  In the Cascade Range birds are concentrated around Shasta Lake where they nest in snags of trees created from the construction of Shasta Lake reservoir.  The persistence of populations in forested areas appears to depend on the presence of clusters of large snags or individual very large snags that can support multiple pairs of nesting birds.  In northeastern California the major nesting area is Lava Beds National Monument where birds nest in rock crevices in underground lava tubes.  In the Central Valley the species historically nested in buildings and riparian habitats from Stockton north through the Sacramento Valley until the 1970s.  But with the increase in starling numbers the purple martin has been extirpated in much of the region except for the city of Sacramento where it persists by nesting in bridges.  Along the central coast, martin populations are very local and confined to the conifer areas on coastal ridges.  A few sites in this region are the last places where the purple martin still nests in western sycamore (Platanus racemosa) riparian woodlands.  The Tehachapi Mountains, including Tejon Ranch, may represent the last place where martins regularly nest in oak woodlands.  However, a survey in 2000 found martins to be absent in low elevation oak woodlands where they once were present and where starlings are now abundant (Shuford and Gardali 2008).  

Photo 5.  Ridge on Tejon Ranch supporting purple martin nesting trees.  Photo by Nicole Stephens.
Purple martins occupy some sites that are suitable only temporarily, such as recently burned or logged areas.  The species is also highly vulnerable to spells of cold and rainy weather during the spring and early summer that temporarily reduces insect food supplies and may eliminate or reduce regional populations (Tarof and Brown 2013).  These factors make the species too rare to be reliably surveyed during a general bird survey and result in extremely rough population estimates (Shuford and Gardali 2008, Airola and Grantham 2003, Airola 2009).  There are very few long-term surveys tailored specifically to purple martin populations and one-time studies are able to report where birds are at that time, but not the absences in areas previously occupied (Airola and Grantham 2003).  To better monitor the species statewide, small scale species specific surveys need to be conducted every year for each known population in the state.  The Tejon Ranch Conservancy has begun such an effort.

Photo 6.  Typical upper 1/3 of the slope nest tree position on a ridge on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Nicole Stephens.

The first purple martin survey was conducted on Tejon Ranch by the Tejon Ranch Conservancy in June, 2010.  The survey was then conducted again in June of 2011 and June of 2014.  Conservancy staff and volunteers survey the ridges of the Ranch for a week during the month of June.  Each year previously known nesting trees are visited and new nesting trees are often found as well.  So far the Ranch has a total of 40 nesting trees.  We found 23 nests in 2010 and 21 nests in 2011.  The 2014 survey found a total of 12 nesting trees, with 8 of those being new trees .

Photo 7.  Typical nesting tree canopy cover on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Nicole Stephens.

The major ridges on the Ranch include Cordon Ridge, Middle Ridge, Winter’s Ridge, and Tunis Ridge.  Cordon Ridge has a total of eighteen known nesting trees.  This year we found four active nesting trees, one previously known and three new nesting trees.  There appeared to be only one active cavity in each tree.  Middle Ridge has seven known nesting trees, two of those are new nesting trees found this year.  One of the new nesting trees appeared to have two active cavities.  Winter’s Ridge has six known nesting trees, three of those being new trees discovered during this year’s survey.  One of the trees had 2-3 active cavities, which might have just been different entrances to the same nest, illustrating another challenge with accurately surveying purple martins.  The three previously known nesting trees were not active this year.  Tunis Ridge has a total of nine known nesting trees.  This year only two nesting trees were found and they were both previously known.  

Figure 4. Location of purple martin nesting trees on Tejon Ranch.

Figure 5. Location of purple martin nesting trees and ridges on Tejon Ranch.
This year purple martin behavior was difficult to interpret.  Adults and second year birds did not seem as strongly attached to trees as they typically do.  There weren’t large numbers of birds flying around the tree together vocalizing and going in and out of cavities.  Nestlings were heard in a couple of nests, but even then there was not a large amount of activity around the tree.  Just as many things in the natural world are behaving strangely due to the prolonged drought, we hypothesized that the martins had started nesting earlier than usual and that we had missed the window.  However, the week after the survey staff was out on the Ranch and witnessed the typical behavior of large numbers of birds flying around and vocalizing at nesting trees found the week before and nestlings were heard in the nest.  We formed another hypothesis that the Ranch supported a late insect hatch that caused some of the martins to have a later than normal nesting period resulting in possibly two different nesting periods on the Ranch.  As a result of this complex nesting cycle, the Conservancy has decided to redesign their purple martin monitoring program for next year, but as of right now it is still in the tossing around of ideas stage.  The Tejon Ranch Conservancy acknowledges the importance of the Ranch for nesting purple martins and is committed to develop a strong long-term monitoring program that will track the populations over many years to come.

Photo 8.  Surveying for purple martins on Tejon Ranch.  Photo by Nicole Stephens.

Airola, D. A.,  2009.  Status of the purple martin in Northern California: Results of a pilot study to develop and apply a survey method.  US Fish and Wildlife Service.  Sacramento, California. 
Airola, D. A., and Grantham, J.  2003.  Purple martin population status, nesting habitat characteristics, and management in Sacramento, California.  Western Birds 34: 235-251.
Airola, D. A., and Kopp, D.  2009.  Recent purple martin declines in the Sacramento Region of California: recovery implications.  Western Birds 40: 254-259.
Airola, D. A., and Williams, B. D. C.  2008.  Purple Martin (Progne subis), in California Bird Species of Special Concern: A ranked assessment of species, subspecies, and distinct populations of birds of immediate conservation concern in California (W. D. Shuford and T. Gardali, eds.), pp. 293-299.  Studies of Western Birds 1. W. Field Ornithol., Camarillo, CA, and Calif. Dept. Fish and Game, Sacramento.
Grinnell, J., and Miller, A. H. 1944. The distribution of the birds of California. Pac. Coast Avifauna 27.
Shuford, W. D., and Gardali, T., editors. 2008. California Bird Species of Special Concern: A ranked assessment of species, subspecies, and distinct populations of birds of immediate conservation concern in California. Studies of Western Birds 1. Western Field Ornithologists, Camarillo, California, and California Department of Fish and Game, Sacramento.
Tarof, Scott and Charles R. Brown. 2013. Purple Martin (Progne subis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online: