June 16, 2011
Thursday, June 16, 2011.
Today we met Sarah Ratay, the Catalina Island Conservancy’s Senior Plant Ecologist. Along with Charlie we all walked down Descanso Canyon, near Avalon. During the walk we practiced plant surveying and tried to identify as many plants as we could see, with a lot of help from Sarah and Charlie. On the right side of the road was a hillside, and on the left was a small canyon. There was an astounding difference in the types of plant communities present between the two areas: the hill side was sparsely populated with mostly invasive plants while the canyon was lush and covered with a much greater diversity of plants.
Today was my first step towards seeing plants like a botanist. An average person walks by through a landscape, recognizes that it is all green and therefore natural, may or may not be pleased with the sights and aromas, and walks on. A botanist or ecologist, on the other hand, knows and sees different shades of green, different leaf or flower arrangements, or the difference between a native plant and an invasive one. The trained eye can differentiate two seemingly similar neighboring plants the same way an average person differentiates between a dog and a cat. Today was the beginning of this awareness training for me, and now when I walk by areas that I was previously familiar with I see a whole new thing altogether. It is no longer just a tree next to a bush, but instead a rare endemic Catalina mahogany next to an invasive fennel.
As we walked down, we collected samples from several different native plants so we could practice identifying unknown plants using the Jepson Manual. The Jepson Manual is like the botanist’s taxonomic bible in California; it contains information on every plant found in California as well as a collection of keys, called a dichotomous key, for identifying vascular plants found in the field.
We returned to the Conservancy office in Middle Ranch to “key” the samples using the Jepson. For each plant you use the dichotomous key to identify it using key characteristics, for example monocot or dicot, shrub or tree, woolly or smooth leaves, etc., to narrow down the possibilities. The process turned out to be quite difficult and a little tedious. It took us about two and a half hours to identify the five plants! We keyed a toyon, crossosoma, and lemonade berry among a couple others. In the end we only managed to identify them with a lot of help from Sarah, because the vocabulary used is extremely specific and determining plant characteristics requires an experienced eye. However it was good practice for us and now we can at least attempt to identify plants we find.
After we keyed all of our samples we headed down the road to the Conservancy’s Native Plant Nursery. We met Pete Dixon, who is in charge of the nursery, and he gave us a quick tour around the place. They had a lot of cool gadgets and gizmos: a soil mixer/dispenser, a seed bank filled with seeds of native plants, multiple greenhouses, a heavy duty freezer room for seed storage, a machine to help seeds germinate, and all types of tools. I have loved plant nurseries ever since I used to volunteer at the Marin Headlands native plant nursery in the Bay Area while I was in high school. There is just something so peaceful, so zen about a plant nursery that can rarely be experienced anywhere else. I could literally plant and transplant plants all day, and I think the other interns feel that to some extent too.
After the tour was over, we had our first introduction to fennel removal, an activity that would end up consuming many hours of my summer and a lot of my interest. Because we cannot use herbicides in our trail area (because the drainage leads directly to the Marine Protected Area below), we learned how to manually remove this terribly invasive species. The Conservancy has an amazing armory (tool-shed) full of machetes, chain saws, axes, shovels, weed-wrenches, pulaskis, and other weed-killing accessories. For fennel the main tools used are shovels and pulaskis, kind of a fireman’s axe with an adze on the other side. Fennel or foeniculum vulgare is an invasive Mediterranean plant that now dominates much of the channel islands and a huge stretch of coastal California and Mexico. The plant is highly resistant to mowing and fires, neither of which will sufficiently kill a fennel plant by itself. The only way to remove them is to either use tools that can get the main root node out of the ground, or chemicals.
All of us learned how to remove fennel pretty well, but I had an unexplainable passion for it. We had some help from Muriel, the nine-year-old daughter of a Conservancy employee, who showed us proper fennel removal techniques and brought us candy. She was talented beyond her years in fennel removal and invasive species knowledge. We got so engrossed in removing fennel we accidentally worked past the end of the work day. Since then I have made it my personal mission to kill any fennel I see. I like to think of myself as the fennel Terminator. I have already seen a large number of them on our trail, and can’t wait to get started on them.
June 15, 2011
We had a big day in store for us this morning. We took part in one of Charlie de la Rosa’s “Stop the Spread” expeditions and joined ranks with his expert crew of invasive plant exterminators. Charlie, Tony Summers, and the other ACE members have been working together in a joint effort to remove invasive species from the island. Today’s agenda was to get rid of Genista linifolia, more commonly known as flax broom. Genista is one of the most invasive shrubs on the Island. They have green fuzzy stems, woody branches, and thin, long, and hairy leaves. Genista can grow to heights of more than 2 meters and can be very dense, forming monocultures. They usually grow in Mediterranean climates and are natives to North Africa, southwestern Europe, and the Canary Islands. This invasive plant was introduced to the island in the 1920s, at the Saint Catherine’s Hotel in Avalon where it was used for landscaping. It later escaped the city limits and spread into the interior of Catalina and out competed native plant species. It is now our job to find them and pull them out.
While the more experienced members changed into jumpsuits and prepared herbicide equipment, Charlie briefed us in his office, showing us aerial maps and GIS polygons of areas where the genista is located. They recognized early on that this was an ongoing project, not something they could accomplish overnight or even a year; it will take many years of careful maintenance. Take fennel for instance, it’ll take about 3 years to see a significant difference and the initial year is usually the hardest. First, Charlie and Tony strategically decide which areas to attack, because you can’t tackle it all at once. Then they remove all of the invasive plant species they can see from the targeted area and mark it on the map. In the second year, they revisit the area and get rid of the saplings. Simultaneously, they start plant removal on other sections of the interior. By the third revisit, they remove whatever is left and usually it is not much. Continual monitoring and tracking are essential to complete erradication.
Today we were revisiting an area near Avalon that had been previously treated. As we arrived at the site, we broke up into groups of 3 or 4 people and spread out to different ridges. I went with Tony Summers and Miller. We were handed two tools, a weed wrench and a grubber (a device that pulls plants out from the base), as well as a map. Miller handled the weed wrench, I had the grubber, and Tony had a handsaw and herbicide equipment. Since we were not trained to use herbicide, we were not allowed to handle it. We started at the top of the ridge and had to make our way down, all the while looking for genista. It was steep, there was no trail, and some parts were rocky and filled with cactus. We had to follow game trails or make our own way through the dense vegetation blocking us. We followed Tony until we couldn’t catch up with him. I have no idea how he could hike down the ridge so effortlessly and gracefully as I stumbled around and tried my best to keep my balance. Miller struggled as well.
Once we sighted the first patch of genista, Tony split us up in three tracks: one person to the right, one down the middle, and the other person down to the right. This method is a landscape surveying technique called triangulation, and helps make sure to get an area covered from all sides. This was so new to me. As much as I was confused and a bit scared to wander off the ridge on my own, I was super excited. Once we spotted patches of genista, we began to clear. I didn’t realize how deeply rooted these shrubs were and I fully overestimated my strength. I pictured plant removal as easy as pulling grass from a field, but boy was I wrong. It was so much harder, especially since we were on a steep slope. While I was trying to pry these persistent plants out, I also had to try to keep my balance. Sometimes genista grew in a weird way which forced me to pull them out in an awkward position so I didn’t break the root at the surface of the soil. I wanted to dig deep to the root, especially since I wasn’t applying herbicide.
Tony saw my futile struggle and gave me a quick tip on the proper technique of pulling genista. He told me to not use my back, but rather to get into a position where I locked my back. Then grip the plant as close to bottom of the root and use the force from my legs to pull the plant. Continue to pull back and forth, like a jerking motion, until the genista popped out. This alleviated some of the stress on my back, but I still had a hard time. So I used the weed wrench, which in my opinion was the most effective tool. As long as it latched onto the root of the plant and I could lean into the lever, the entire genista plant would pop out. As we went along, we had to keep count of how many genistia we removed to help give an estimate of the population. As we reached the bottom of the basin, we took a short refreshing lunch break under the shade.
After lunch it was back to removing genista. Everything was going great until Miller and I met with a huge obstacle: Poison oak and a lot of it! The entire basin was filled with poison oak and let me just say, I wished I had worn a jump suit. We were supposed to go back up the ridge another way. But because of the poison oak, Miller and I ended up scaling the ridge back up. I thought I wouldn’t make it. It was super hot and climbing back up was about 1000 times harder than coming down. It was really steep and I definitely got the workout of my life. But we made it to top, somehow! This will definitely be a day I will remember.
June 14, 2011
By Sabrina Lawrence-Gomez
Today we traveled from Middle Ranch to the City of Avalon to take part in the Naturalist training given by Frank Hein, the Manager of Education for Catalina Island Conservancy. Frank gave a lecture on the natural history of the island including its formation. The island was formed when the Farallon oceanic plate subducted under the North American continental plate at a shallow angle, forcing crust to scrape off, creating the Sierra Nevada and the Channel Islands. Catalina then rose up out of the ocean about 5 million years ago. Because of its unique tectonic history, the island is composed of metamorphic and igneous rocks that can normally only be found beneath the surface of the ocean. Additionally, Catalina’s ecosystem is so unique because it has never been connected to the mainland continental crust; all of the plant and animal life here has had to cross 20 miles across the Pacific from the mainland. Some species did this on their own, native species, while some species were brought by humans, introduced species.
Frank talked about many of the introduced species on Catalina, including the American bison and the now eradicated feral goats and pigs. The management of the bison on Catalina is a great example of the Conservancy’s ingenuity in balancing the interests of the ecosystem and the community. The bison are a tourist attraction and an adored member of the community (they aren’t used in the bison burgers that star in many local menus!) however they are not adapted to living on an island where there isn’t enough food to support a large herd. As a result Catalina bison are not as robust as those in their native Great Plains grasslands, not to mention they place grazing pressure on the island plants. In order to solve this problem, the Conservancy conducted a study and determined the optimum herd size to be between 150-200 individuals then transferred nearly 300 individuals to the Rosebud Lakota Reservation and the Dakotas to meet that quota. To maintain that low population the Conservancy placed the female bison on birth control (using a projectile syringe to administer injections!) in order to reduce the population of the herd and reduce the pressure that yearly child rearing places on the females.
This program has been very successful and a supported by the community, unlike the program that eradicated the feral goats and pigs of the island. A large part of the tension between the locals and the Conservancy is due to the removal all of these small game animals (except for one lone pig affectionately named Ninja Pig) from the island. Hunting goats and pigs provided a source of food and recreation for many on the island but these grazers were extremely detrimental to the ecosystem, encouraging erosion and preventing many plants from reaching maturation. Since these animals have been removed erosion has decreased and many native plants have bounced back, but there is now a distrust of the motives of the Conservancy. Frank mentioned how the Conservancy acts as a fulcrum, balancing public interests with its mission, to be a responsible steward of its lands. This is clearly a difficult balance to strike and there is much to be learned from the successes and flaws of these conservation efforts.
After the lecture, we explored the Conservancy’s Nature Center. Although this wasn’t my first trip to Avalon, it was my first visit to the Nature Center. At the front desk we saw the Eagle Cam! Eagle Cam is a live camera that films three bald eagle nests 24/7, two of which are on Catalina, as a part of the Bald Eagle Restoration Project. With the help of the Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Institute for Wildlife Studies, and the California Department of Fish and Game initiated a program to reintroduce bald eagles to Catalina in 1980. In 2007, two bald eagles hatched on the island, the first two to do so in almost half a century! The Conservancy has had great success with the program, and has set the bar for endangered species restoration programs.
Our next activity was an interpretive hike, a guided hike focused on natural and cultural history, behind the Wrigley Memorial up to the ridge divide road, led by Frank. We learned some new plant species and practiced our identification skills along the way. Some of the species we identified included: the Catalina endemic St. Catherine’s lace, sow thistle, laurel sumac, scrub oak, cucumber vine, the invasive genista, white and black sage, and the native sticky monkey flower. Creating and leading an interpretive hike is one of our main goals for this internship, and the hike with Frank provided a great example of one. Hopefully, we can incorporate all that we’ve learned today into our trail!
June 13, 2011
Today was our first day of work and we were super anxious and curious about what was ahead of us. We got up early and were ready by 7:30am as we waited nervously for Charlie de la Rosa, the coordinator for the Catalina Island Conservancy’s “Stop the Spread” program, which focuses on removing invasive species. He was really friendly, easy-going, and just wonderful to talk to. Charlie answered all our questions and concerns and then we were off to start the day. First we stopped by the site of our potential trial, near USC Wrigley, and hiked up the game trail.
The hike was interesting and fun. There was a lot of vegetation, which we have yet to identify. The trail was a bit rough since it wasn’t cleared, so we had to blaze through bushes and cactus. Charlie talked about the trail and shared what he envisioned. He pointed out the fence line and explained the importance of recognizing markers, such as the ridge line and basin line, that will give perspective and help guide other hikers. Basically these are features that people can easily follow with their eyes. As we wound through the game trail, Charlie told us to look around and study the different view sheds that each turn or angle would offer. One moment we saw the calm blue waters of Catalina island, on the next turn we discovered a cliff edge teeming with different plant life. We hiked up to this beautiful grove of trees, called Toyon a native plant to California. We had to duck our heads to get into this lovely area, it felt like our little secret cave. It was such a wonderful find, standing underneath the trees, looking up and through the branches. All us immediately agreed that this is definitely a spot other hikers must see.
Afterwards, Charlie drove us to Middle Ranch, about a 30 minute drive, where the Conservancy’s main office of operation is located. We met Carlos de la Rosa, the Chief of Conservation & Education. Carlos gave us a presentation about the island history, biogeography, and explained some of the contentions between the Conservancy and Catalina locals, mostly surrounding the topic of eradicating the goats and pigs of the island, as well as feral cats.
Charlie and Tony Summers, another Stop the Spread member, took us on a hike to Ben Weston beach after Carlos’ lecture. It was another delightful hike. There were several points where we had to jump over creeks and rocks to pass along the trail. One of us noted how the rocks seemed to be lined up almost in a straight line to connect with the rest of the trail. Charlie explained it was intentional and part of engineering a trail; creating rock bridges, called ‘rock work’. It can be an intensive part of construction, but will help create a long lasting path. While we walked along the trail, Charlie identified various plants such as the sea rocket, poison oak, mule fat, and lemonade berry. We had the shocking pleasure of trying the lemonade berry, which tasted very much like shocktarts! We also heard this persistent and annoying sound. It turned out to be a squirrel’s call, trying to warn us we are in its territory.
Halfway through our hike, we encountered one of Catalina’s famous bison wandering in front of us. This was the first time I’ve ever been so close to one. He was massive and hairy. Charlie clapped his hand and the bison began to walk off. A few feet over we found the bison’s wallow, a space where bison lay down and roll in the dirt, creating a crater like structure in the soil. It is easily identifiable by the squashed grass and circular outline of the bison’s body. At the end of trail, we were rewarded with this spectacular scene of the beach. It was super serene and calm and no one was there. It was simply OURS! We sat on the bench with the wind blowing our hair. We discussed about future plans of the trail, such as making signs and ways to raise money for them. All us were excited, we were brain storming and throwing ideas out there: such as putting a gumball machine of “seed bombs” that distributes native seeds so hikers can replant them all over the island, getting donaters to fund our trails, etc. Then we went back and settled into our new lodging, called the bunker house, where we met the other Conservancy and some ACE (American Conservation Experience) crew. It was a very busy day and I can’t wait to see how the rest of our summer unfolds.