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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Teton Tuesday: Trap-camera highlights, summer drought edition!


As July comes to a close, with the luxuriant bloom of spring a distant memory and the promise of Fall rain still too far off to provide any solace, the ranch and all its inhabitants are locked in the stranglehold of drought. Plants and animals alike have shed all excess, reducing energy expenditures to what is most critical for survival. This stress on the ecosystem does provide an opportunity, however, particularly for one tasked with observing and recording animal behavior. If there is a silver lining to the drought conditions afflicting the ranch this summer, it is the predictability of wildlife movements as a function of available groundwater. This week on the blog we have trap-camera highlights captured over the last month around the last remaining creeks and springs still producing despite the relentless heat. As these water sources continue to dwindle, the animal activity around those that subsist dramatically increases. The clips below are just a small sampling of the many animals trying to beat the heat this summer on Tejon.

These two beautiful young cougars (likely siblings) are utilizing one of the last remaining catchments of this size on Winter’s Ridge.
I noticed this downed cedar below Lopez Flat was perfectly situated as to create a bridge across the canyon. I set up a camera out of curiosity to see who was using the short-cut. Check out who showed up!
Relentless heat has a way of working everyone’s nerves. These two pigs are fed up with one another along El Paso Creek.
 
Even in the most extreme conditions, life somehow finds a way! Here a fawn on still shaky legs enjoys her first days of life under the watchful eye of mom.


 
 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Project Update: Sacatara Canyon



A view up Sacatara Canyon. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak



Looking down Sacatara toward the Antelope Valley. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak
On July 10th, 2014 construction was completed on the Sacatara wetlands fencing project. This marks the first step in Tejon Ranch Conservancy’s long-term riparian enhancement initiative. The plan is to see how excluding cattle from various wetlands on the property will affect flora and fauna. Our hope is to promote greater abundance and diversity of native species in these critical habitats. Sacatara is particularly important in this effort as it is the largest wetland system on the Antelope Valley side of Tejon Ranch. 
A portion of the fencing project that encloses one of Sacatara's springs. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

Southern alligator lizard (Elegaria multicarinata). Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak
In order to know what effect our management has, we need to understand the current condition of the resource. That way, when we look at the wetlands over the next five years, we’ll be able to see how it has changed from when cattle were allowed to roam free. To that point, Conservancy staff have been conducting vegetation and bird surveys of the Sacatara springs and meadows. Here are some cool things we’ve been finding:


Long-horned beetle (Tragidion annulatum). The antennae are almost 5" long! Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak





Check out the crazy compound eyes of this Mydas fly (Rhaphiomidas sp.). Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

The Conservancy has also placed wildlife cameras in Sacatara to see what goes on when humans are not around. Unfortunately, it’s looking like the pigs have been having a field day in Sacatara. We suspect this is likely due to the drought forcing them to seek out places with reliable water for their foraging and wallowing needs. For more information on the wild pigs of Tejon, check out Dr. White’s blog post from April 4, 2014. 

A sounder of pigs can do a lot of damage in one night. Photos like these can help us identify individuals such as the spotted sow in the center. This helps us understand how far these animals are ranging and when they do certain things.

Wallowing.

This is what pig damage looks like the next day. Note the depression caused by wallowing and all of the mud that has been kicked up by their activities.

One glimmer of hope is that our cameras have also detected significant mountain lion activity- a cat’s gotta drink too! Hopefully this feline has developed a taste for wild boar and will help us keep these populations at bay. 


This kitty is a sight for sore eyes. Hopefully it likes "the other white meat"!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Teton Tuesday: Balance and Symmetry

All natural forms, when scrutinized in isolation, can be mesmerizing in their complexity and aesthetic design. Even the most mundane structures can be breathtaking when examined on a scale that reveals the fundamental composition of the form, in all its glorious detail. Under a powerful enough microscope the ant crawling across your kitchen counter becomes a showcase in anatomic efficiency and precision functionality, the dusty lump of sandstone on the side of the road becomes a galaxy of swirling mineral and sedimentary particles that outnumber the stars in the sky. This universal aesthetic that exists within each natural form is enough to fill the halls of every art museum ever built a million times over, but the natural world does not present itself with an appropriate frame and brief informative caption. Instead, we find the innumerable forms that make up the natural world all stacked on top of one another and mushed together, adding exponentially to the complexity and confusion of the physical world around us. It is this interplay between natural forms that at once presents the grand primordial artistry (for lack of a better word) of the universe that has been captivating sentient observers from time immemorial, while hiding from those observers the true level of aesthetic complexity intrinsic in each individual form. There are times, however, when the natural world presents itself in such a complimentary way that the beauty and wonder of the overall composite is perfectly counterbalanced by the detail and form of its constituent parts, such that both macro and micro scales are accentuated in concert. It is moments like this that the visual poetry of the natural world becomes utterly mind-boggling, and a usually dutiful wildlife surveyor is forced to stop what he is doing and snap up some pictures. The following are modest examples of the balance and symmetry between natural forms found throughout Tejon Ranch...


Violet-green swallow, Winter's Ridge.
 
Full moom over Blue Ridge.

Pollinators investigating California's own western thistle (Circium occidentale).
 
Condor snag on Middle Ridge.


Wildflowers enduring the morning fog atop Coon's Leg Ridge.
 
All eyes and ears along Cottonwood Creek.


 


 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Managing Grasslands on Tejon Ranch: The Ecological Site Concept, by Dr. Mike White, Conservation Science Director



One of the Conservancy’s priority resources for management at Tejon Ranch is our grasslands.  Tejon Ranch supports over 100,000 acres of grasslands, which in-turn support many native plants and animals for which we would like to enhance conditions.  Under the Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement, conservation of the Ranch is via conservation easement and under these conservation easements the Tejon Ranch Company retains the right to run livestock in conserved lands.  Therefore, developing a better understanding of our grasslands and identifying ways to better manage them has been a high priority for the Conservancy since its inception.  To gain this knowledge, we embarked on what is now a 5-year research partnership with the UC Berkeley Range Ecology Laboratory directed by Dr. James Bartolome.  The research briefly discussed below will ultimately serve as the PhD project of Sheri Spiegal, who is expecting to finish her degree at the end of the year.  You can find more details on our grassland research at our website: http://www.tejonconservancy.org/research.htm

The focus of the Tejon Ranch grasslands research has been to document how the composition of plant species in our grasslands changes from one location to another on the Ranch and from year to year (primarily due to changes in weather).  One of the findings of Sheri’s research is that geographic locations that support grasslands on Tejon Ranch can be usefully organized into ecological sites.  An ecological site is a set of land units with a common climate, similar topographic and soil characteristics that support similar potential vegetation, and respond similarly to management.  The idea is that a site with a particular combination of soil, topography, and climate will support a specific set of plant species, while another site with different soil, topography and climate will support a different set of plant species.  For example, Sheri has found that sandy soils at flatter, low elevation locations in the San Joaquin Valley support a different set of plant species than do silty soils, on steeper sloped locations at higher elevations in the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains. 

Ecological sites can change over short distances. In the Tejon Hills, soils change quickly making room for a variety of rare plants. In the northwest (green) portion of this area, plants such as Comanche Point Layia (Layia leucopappa) can grow due to sandy soils. In the eastern, higher portion of the hills (red), clay soils support more geophytes, like striped adobe lily (Fritillaria striata).

To-date eleven ecological sites supporting grasslands have been identified at Tejon Ranch.  Furthermore, Sheri has also found that plant species in our grasslands vary in their species composition from year to year depending on weather, but that the changes in species composition within ecological sites are more similar than the changes seen between different ecological sites.  So the ecological site concept does appear to be a useful way to describe grassland plant communities and their changes over time.  The use of ecological sites in range management is being promoted by agencies such as the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (https://esis.sc.egov.usda.gov/About.aspx), and the Conservancy is using this ecological site framework to organize our grassland and grazing management planning.


"An ecological site is a set of land units with a common climate, similar topographic and soil characteristics that support similar potential vegetation, and respond similarly to management."

 


One of the interesting and relevant findings of this research is that some ecological sites tend to support higher abundance of native plant species, while other ecological sites are always dominated by nonnative plant species, but the abundance of natives can vary dramatically from year to year based on weather.  Look at the photos below, which show two different ecological sites (Sandy Alluvial Flats and Sloping Loamy Sands) in two different years (2010, 2011).  In general, the colorful wildflowers are native species while the green grass is predominately nonnative.  You can see that the Sandy Alluvial Flats ecological site supported good native wildflowers in 2010, whereas the Sloping Loamy Sands ecological site was dominated by nonnative grass.  However, in 2011 both sites were dominated by nonnative annual grass.
The Conservancy’s challenge is to identify grazing management regimes that can enhance the native species that we care about.  Based on this body of grasslands research, we believe that some ecological sites, like the Sandy Alluvial Flats site, have a greater potential to support native plants than do other sites (like the Sloping Loamy Sands site).  Understanding ecological sites provides us information to consider where we prioritize our scarce management resources within the large area of Tejon Ranch to get biggest native grassland biodiversity bang for our buck. This research also gives us information on how to manage grassland biodiversity.  We believe that in some cases the high abundance of nonnative grasses depresses habitat quality for not only native plants but some native animals as well.  We are currently working with the grazing lessees at Tejon to utilize livestock as a management tool to help remove dense nonnative grasses in those ecological sites that support high native plant potential to improve grassland habitat quality.

Keep in mind that these are management experiments – we must document whether the proposed managed grazing regime achieves our conservation objectives or not.  However, we feel that 5 years of grassland research has provided us with a strong science foundation rationalizing these experiments, and we’ll learn about their efficacy from our long-term monitoring.  Stay tuned as we continue to learn more about our grasslands and how to manage them!!