Benthic Invertebrates

A lot of my time at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve has been spent in the plankton lab that is offered to school groups as part of their field trip. It is a really neat lab because it allows students to interact with microscopes, something that some students might not have a chance to do within their regular school year curriculum.

The key to a good lab is collecting a good sample from the slough. This usually requires a pair of rubber boots to get into the water and collect some big chunks of bryozoans, which are a plant-like colonial animals that the benthic invertebrates like to hang from.

Some of the most commons benthic invertebrates we see in the lab are Caprellids, also called skeleton shrimp. When most students first see them under the microscopes they are a little spooked because of their alien-like appearance. Most people think they look like mantises of some sort. Another critter we often see are sea spiders from the class Pycnogonida. Students usually ask if they’re actual spiders and they are not, they just look like land spiders. We also get brittle stars and small sea jellies.

The best part about the lab is seeing how excited the students are looking at their samples. Especially after they’ve had some initial trouble focusing the microscope but then eventually get it right and are able to see the critters clearly and sharply.

Helping in the labs was always a fun activity. And it was also a reminder about how we are surrounded by micro and macroscopic life, and that sometimes it’s important to appreciate it and observe it sometimes.

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A Crow Eating a Carrot

The title of this blog post was inspired by someone describing the way a Black Oystercatcher looks as a crow eating a carrot due to their dark plumage and their long bright orange bill.

Now that the shorebird surveys are over I’ve started to get involved in helping to monitor Black Oystercatchers and their nests. This monitoring will help towards gathering data about the Black Oystercatcher’s reproductive success. These particular birds seem to be facing quite a bit of challenges. Their range falls within the rocky intertidal, which means that they might be facing habitat loss due to climate change. While nesting, they also face the danger of predators including gulls and crows.

This project is being led by Hugo Ceja, the Monterey intern from last year. He has a network of volunteers helping to monitor the nests at various locations around the Monterey Coast. Hugo has become quite the expert on anything Black Oystercatcher-related, so I’ve been trying to soak up as much information from him as possible. So far I’ve gone out with him to the sites a few times and I’m always amazed at how much he knows about the Oystercatchers and their behaviors. I am also surprised at his ability to find the nests that he is monitoring in the first place because they are so very well camouflage, inconspicuous, and often times far away.

The first thing I learned about the Black Oystercatchers is that they are very territorial amongst their own species. A pair of Black Oystercatchers will claim a territory and will chase any interlopers that come into their territory. From my own observations out in the field I’ve noticed that this is behavior might have to do something with their troubles reproducing. When an outside Black Oystercatchers comes into the territory often times the Black Oystercatcher that is on the nest will get off the nest and join the chase as well. Predators will take advantage of this situation. This past Tuesday there was a pretty close call when a nesting pair of Black Oystercatchers went off on a chase and a gull got really close to the eggs and was looking down at them. Luckily, one of the Oystercatchers came back just in time.

Another thing that I’ve become quite familiar with is the Black Oystercatcher’s calls. They have a very distinct calls and it is rare that they fly without making a call, making it somewhat easier to locate them.

The kind of observations that are of interest to this monitoring include: nesting behaviors, incubation exchange, the fledging of the chicks, and any significant observations of predators as well.

I’m excited to learn more about the Black Oystercatchers and I’m hoping that this data will lead for them to receive a special status if their populations are actually in trouble. While this season has already been plagued with lost eggs, I’m hoping that the other pairs will pull through and raise chicks successfully!


Día Del Niño Outreach


Last week was El Día del Niño at Ramsey Park in Watsonville, CA.  This is an annual event to celebrate Earth Day. Karina and I, as well as our supervisor Amanda, participated in the event by setting up a table that included information about the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. We also had a very fun board game for kids and also adults to participate in. The game included different animal species as well different habitats in picture cards that needed to be coordinated with each species and its habitat. In the event there was also a lot of different outreach tables from different organizations that provided very informative information for kids and adults to enjoy. The surveys have been going good with a large mixture of shorebirds from Sandpipers to Plovers and Willets. I am starting to see fewer numbers though as the shorebirds are leaving our survey areas to other places. It seems like the last couple of weeks the shorebirds were just here in large numbers, but that has changed really rapidly.

Spring Clean-Up At Elkhorn

This weekend on April 19th I participated in a spring clean-up around the Elkhorn Slough Reserve. While it was not at the reserve itself, it was a community clean-up co-sponsored by the Elkhorn Slough Reserve and the Elkhorn Slough Foundation. Volunteers from both nearby and faraway places showed up for this event.

The morning started with a quick set-up of pamphlets and snacks and beverages. Soon after people starting arriving.  One of the Elkhorn Slough Reserve’s scientific aides, Alina, and myself were helping volunteers with signing in and other general questions they had. After signing-in the volunteers were free to grab brightly colored safety vests, plenty of trash bags, and gloves.

After an introductory safety talk the volunteers were free to go to the surrounding neighborhood site that they desired. The first site I began to clean-up was the road that the reserve lies on, Elkhorn Road. I was surprised by the amount of trash located at the site since from a car’s view it looks almost spotless. Because of the recent rain we’ve had here in the Monterey Bay area, the vegetation along the road has grown quite a bit, so it was hard sifting through the tall grass in order to find pieces of trash.

The trash objects I most frequently encountered were 40 oz beer bottles and cigarette boxes. It was pretty scary finding out that people drink while driving down the roads surrounding Elkhorn Road because they are very twisty and windy.

I tried picking up as many small pieces of trash as I could in order to prevent any of the birds that are migrating through the area from confusing the trash for food. While I was out on the roads I also tried to look out for any birds to sharpen my identification skills!  I hope that this clean-up made a difference, and I’m sure it did considering the large numbers of bags of trash and recyclables that we were able to fill up.

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Shorebird Migration In full Swing

More and more shorebirds are arriving by large numbers to the Elkhorn Slough Reserve and to a couple other of our survey locations. Jerry Road is one of my favorites because its where we are able to see a bigger diversity of shorebirds from Black-bellied Plovers to Whimbrels. This week my fellow survey partner and I had a special opportunity to meet with Carleton–he is an avian ecologist with Point Blue Conservation Science. We had the chance to survey Snowy Plover nests and Karina was able to locate one all by herself as we were walking on a gravel path. Snowy Plovers like to nest on gravel paths because their eggs resemble that of a Snowy Plovers egg which helps it camouflage from predators. Also this last Wednesday Karina and I attended a community outreach event that took place at my local gym in Salinas, CA called ‘In’Shape’.  We took this opportunity to reach out to the public about the Elkhorn Slough Reserve and briefly discussed what Environment For The Americas is. Some of the people didn’t even have an idea that the Elkhorn Slough Reserve existed so it was a really good feeling to see people exited about going to meet a new location where they can take their families to and enjoy a educational walk through the reserve.