Owls, Starfish, & Plovers… Oh My!

Owls, Starfish, & Plovers… Oh My!

Owls, starfish, & plovers… oh my!

Before this internship began, I never imagined that I would have so many new, incredible, and diverse experiences packed in my first month. Over the past weeks, I’ve been visiting with various San Francisco Bay Area Inventory & Monitoring Network (SFAN) natural resource monitoring teams to learn about their work and gather media materials. These teams are collecting long-term data on “vital signs” in national parks along the central California coast; “vital signs” are particular animals, habitats, and abiotic factors which are indicators of the health of their ecosystems. The media materials which I collect about these indicators and their environments will be integral to my main project this summer– an ArcGIS StoryMap. The StoryMap will provide an interactive, multimedia based platform for audiences to explore what network scientists & partners are learning about climate change impacts to these various vital signs, and why this is important. Throughout the summer, I am also writing articles (such as The Mystery of Migration: Salmon Monitoring at Redwood Creek), developing social media posts, and contributing to the SFAN website. 

I feel incredibly lucky that I am able to meet and learn from SFAN’s scientists & partners, as well as experience the rich ecosystems which they study. Here are just a few of the incredible adventures which I have been on so far:

Northern Spotted Owls

Highlight: Watching a sleepy owl look down at me from its perch on a tree.

In early June, I joined Wildlife Technician Taylor Ellis as he conducted surveys for northern spotted owls (Strix occidentalis caurina) in Point Reyes National Seashore. Surveying this species allows for an understanding of the trends in their occupancy (ex. sites where the species is found), nesting, and reproductive success. We also took down some automated recorder units (ARUs), an acoustic monitoring device which is tied to a tree and is able to record the presence of owls.

As we waded through dense brush, poison oak, and sword fern, Taylor used his impressive mimic of an owl call, as well as recorded playbacks, to attract a male owl. I was amazed when the bird swooped over, and peered at us sleepily from high in the branches. We observed the owl’s behavior to determine if it may have young nearby.

Northern spotted owls in Marin County, the area in which Taylor’s spotted owl surveys take place, is one of the last stable populations of the species. Largely due to competition with the barred owl (Strix varia) and habitat loss, the bird is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

A brown owl dappled with white, a yellow beak, and large dark eyes perched on a mossy branch and looking down.
The male owl which we encountered in the forest. Northern Spotted Owls are considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (NPS / Environment for the Americas / Avani Fachon)
A bare patch of wet rock with circular shaped markings. Mussels and algae surround the bare patch. A brown limpet is highlighted with a white circle.
A cleared limpet “grazing” area in a rocky intertidal zone at Santa Maria (Point Reyes National Seashore). The curved marks show scrape marks from their radula (or tiny teeth) used to feast on algae. The limpet is circled in white. (NPS / Environment for the Americas / Avani Fachon)

Rocky Intertidal Zones

Highlight: Learning about limpets (Lottia gigantea)— a type of sea snail — and seeing their grazing area (see photo below).

As I gingerly weaved through the rocky intertidal zone, trying not to slip on the slick algae or crush any marine critters, I was impressed by the diversity of species which inhabit this watery ecosystem. A longtime National Park Service volunteer, Kent, described the area as a “marine Garden of Eden”; Kent and the team of aquatic biologists explained the many intricacies of intertidal communities and the amazing adaptations which they have developed to live in this environment. Sea anemones, for example, have a symbiotic relationship (i.e. a mutually beneficial relationship) with algae; they provide one another with nutrients! 

Over the course of a week, the team surveys several rocky intertidal zones through a variety of methods, including transect and fixed plot surveys. There are many intertidal species which are sensitive to environmental changes, such as shifts in ocean or air temperature and salinity; collecting data on these species allows scientists to detect abnormalities in these marine ecosystems.

Western Snowy Plovers

Highlight: Observing newly hatched snowy plover nestlings.

I had the opportunity to join Wildlife Biologist Matt Lau, as he conducted snowy plover surveys and banded a nest of newly hatched chicks at North Beach in Point Reyes National Seashore. So adorable!

Snowy plovers are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act; they are losing their sandy beach habitats and are greatly affected by human recreational activity. SFAN’s long term monitoring data allows scientists to keep track of plover populations and protect their nesting sites.

A newly hatched and banded snowy plover chick. In just a couple of hours, this chick will begin walking and feeding itself! (NPS / Environment for the Americas/ Avani Fachon)
A close up of a group of small blue flowers with a yellow center.
A forget-me-not thriving alongside a water quality monitoring site in Tennessee Valley (Golden Gate National Recreation Area). (NPS / Environment for the Americas / Avani Fachon)

Water Quality Monitoring

Highlight: Catching a glimpse of what felt like “secret” spots along lush streams, and learning about the importance of water quality monitoring.

I observed and took photos as Hydrologic Technician Alex Iwaki collected water samples at various locations in Golden Gate National Recreation Area and John Muir National Historic Site. On a rotating basis, he also visits several more sites in Pinnacles National Park, Point Reyes National Seashore, and Muir Woods National Monument. He takes these samples back to the lab to assess turbidity, nutrients, and bacteria– important for understanding how stream conditions are changing over time.

I also recently had the opportunity to join a camping trip at Pinnacles National Park, where I learned about work being done by SFAN’s botany, raptor, and riparian monitoring teams. Tune in to my next post to learn more!

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