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Posts Tagged ‘ecology’

by Andrea Williams

This is installment two of a twelve-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

California state flag

California state flag

You all know the grizzly bear is a main feature of the California flag, but did you ever give a thought to the turf below its paws? While I can’t be certain, I and others like to think they are tussocks of our state grass, purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, formerly Nassella pulchra). Did you not know California had a state grass? Purple needlegrass was designated our state grass in 2004, so while it’s only been official for 10 years, this pulchritudinous pastoral plant has been an important and widespread part of our state since well before there was a California. In fact, since individual purple needlegrass clumps can live more than 150 years, there may be plants alive today that have been around since before there was a California!

purple needlegrass

Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) Photo credit: Stephanie Bishop

Purple needlegrass is not only widespread and long-lived, but also quite distinctive in its look. Its inflorescence of delicate purple pennons wave above a mound of fine emerald blades. This fine look has it also available at many native plant nurseries. Some may mistake ripgut brome (Bromus diandrus) for purple needlegrass, but the former—a non-native annual weed—holds a fistful of red bristles on single stalks, with no basal clump of leaves. And while ripgut brome is a danger to grazing animals, purple needlegrass remains an excellent forage species—for cattle, elk, deer, or bears!

 

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by Eric Ettlinger

Coho season is wrapping up, and thankfully it’s ending with more of a bang than a whimper. In late January, at the typical end of the coho spawning season, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline “Crisis for the coho” with a couple of pictures showing the extremely dry conditions in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. As if on cue, the rain started falling a few days later and coho spawning took off. Since then spawning activity has subsided and in the last week we’ve seen what are likely the last few coho of the season. Our preliminary watershed totals are 433 coho and 203 redds, which is roughly double the size of the coho run three years ago.

Steelhead (pictured) have also been spawning in impressive numbers. In the last three weeks MMWD biologists have seen 153 steelhead and 126 redds. Steelhead are likely to continue spawning through at least April, and at this pace we’re looking at a very good year for steelhead. Rain is forecast to return late next week, which should bring up another wave of steelhead spawners.

steelhead female and small male

Steelhead female and small male

steelhead male

Steelhead male

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by Andrea Williams

This is installment one of a twelve-part series on grasses.

When someone asks what my favorite grass is, I prevaricate. Who can have just one? If pressed, I’ll pick California oatgrass (Danthonia californica), for reasons I’ll get into another time—but as a genus, fescues (Festuca sp.) are the best. Several of them have made their way into our gardens as lawns and ornamentals, but they’re natural standouts.

Most of our native fescues like to grow in big tussocky stands, sending slender stalks of spikelets to wave above dense clumps of fine leaves. Idaho (or blue) fescue (Festuca idahoensis) is probably our most well-known native; the tight blue bunches accent many a drought-tolerant landscape, and it’s found in our hottest driest spots on Mt. Tam as well. In the wild, it’s a little looser and tends to silver instead of blue, and can be hard to tell from red fescue (F. rubra) on occasion. Red fescue’s leaves aren’t red, but its flowering stalks often are. The fine leaf blades are rolled in long needles, and in most cases are a deep emerald green—the exception being, of course, when it grows in drier spots with Idaho fescue and the two species are almost indistinguishable. Red fescue is at its finest on the coast; the most common cultivar ‘Molate’ is from Point Molate, just on the Richmond side of the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, where the coastal grassland was nearly lost to development.

California fescue on Azalea Hill

California fescue on Azalea Hill

Our largest and perhaps most striking native fescue (or fesque, as it used to be spelled) is California fescue. Clusters of blue-green leaves grow as tall as three feet and tussocks can reach four feet across; single flowering stalks reach six or more feet in the air. The plant keeps its flowering stalk and stays mostly green year-round, keeping things visually interesting as the seasons turn. I usually find it at moist edges of woodlands and forests, and the stands near Azalea Hill and along Bolinas-Fairfax Road are some of the finest anywhere. Sometimes people have difficulty telling California fescue from the thirsty fungus-harboring invasive non-native tall fescue (F. arundinacea), but the coarse broad green blades and tillering spread of tall fescue are dead giveaways.

So whether you’re seeking a good-looking grass for your yard or on a hike, just remember: it’s fescue to the rescue!

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by Eric Ettlinger

Female coho

Female coho (photo by Rosa Albanese)

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. In my last update I described how coho salmon spawning had unexpectedly jumped up (so to speak) following a tiny bit of wet weather on January 30. Another small rain event followed that survey, coinciding with an increase in water releases by MMWD, and more spawning ensued. Over three long and wet days last week MMWD biologists surveyed most of Lagunitas Creek, and finished the uppermost section of creek this morning. In total we counted 118 coho salmon and 56 new coho redds. We also counted 118 salmon during the previous week, but it’s difficult to say how much of this coincidence was due to counting the same fish twice. To date we’ve seen 349 coho and 161 coho redds. This is an increase over three years ago, but still far less than the large coho run we were expecting.

The other big news was, of course, the enormous amount of rain we received. Since Friday the Kent Lake rain gauge has recorded over 11 inches of rain, while the gauge at the top of Mount Tamalpais recorded over 21 inches! This has helped our water supply situation and has finally allowed salmon to swim into the tributaries. Flows are still too high and turbid to conduct surveys, but later this week we’ll be investigating how many salmon survived both drought and flood to return to these creeks at last.

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by Rosa Albanese, Watershed Stewards Project Member

I love frogs When I was asked to organize the 2014 Frog Docent Program at MMWD to get people on board with protecting Mt. Tam’s very own foothill yellow-legged frog (Rana boylii), I was excited because, simply put, frogs are really cool and definitely worth saving. Here are just a few reasons why:

  • They are one of earth’s best indicator species. Their ability to breathe through their skin and their reliance on clean water and clean habitat free of toxics and pollutants means that they are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment. It should be a warning sign to all that if frogs are not doing well, then something is wrong.
  • They serve as a critical part of the food web. Not only do frogs provide a meal to other animals like fish, birds, dragonflies, beetles, and snakes, frogs also prey upon insects such as mosquitoes, which may be vectors for nasty pathogens such as West Nile virus and heartworm.
  • They provide medical researchers with the potential to improve human health. Many pharmaceuticals used to save millions of lives have come from the skin secretions of some very special frog species. Some examples include medicines that help block HIV transmissions, reduce high blood pressure, and treat antibiotic-resistant staph infections.

The sad part is that on a global scale one-third of the world’s amphibian population is diminishing. On a local scale it is just as depressing. The foothill yellow-legged frog population has disappeared from more than 45% of its historic range in California and Oregon, in part due to habitat loss, pesticide use, introduction of exotic predators, disease, water impoundments, logging, mining, and grazing in riparian zones. Kermit was right when he said, “It’s not easy being green.” The current drought conditions are certainly not making matters any better for wildlife. All is not lost, however. There are many things you can do to give frogs a break and make it easier for them to survive and reproduce.

Here are just a few:

  • Conserve water: Clean, cool water is a precious resource and should be conserved at all times but especially during a drought. Simple graywater systems can be implemented around your home; some are as easy as using a bucket to catch water from your sink or tub to flush the toilet!
  • Avoid pesticides: They end up in waterways and harm amphibians. Don’t use them around your home and don’t support them by purchasing fruits and vegetables that are sprayed with them. There have been several examples showing declines in frog populations near agricultural areas and fatal mutations in frogs exposed to herbicides or pesticides.
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle! Do these in that order and not only will your wallet thank you but the planet will, too.
  • Volunteer to become a frog docent at the water district. Spend a few weekends at Little Carson Falls, a popular hiking destination, informing visitors about the frogs’ plight and keeping foot traffic out of the frogs’ sensitive breeding habitat. The training will be held Saturday, February 22, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information and to reserve a spot, contact volunteerprogram@marinwater.org or call 945-1128.

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by Eric Ettlinger

coho salmon pair

Coho salmon pair in Lagunitas Creek, January 31, 2014

Finally some good news from Lagunitas Creek! Last Friday MMWD biologists conducted surveys to get a baseline salmon count ahead of a three-day increase in stream flows. This was the last “Upstream Migration Flow” of the season, and we wanted to document how many salmon spawned in response to the extra water. We were blown away to see significant numbers of salmon spawning throughout the creek before the flow even started. Apparently the 0.07″ of rain we received on Thursday was enough to encourage coho to finally spawn. In total we observed 118 live coho and 45 new coho redds. So far this season we’ve documented 252 coho and 103 coho redds. On Friday we also saw seven spawning steelhead and seven new steelhead redds. Finally, during a partial survey of Walker Creek (the next salmon stream north of Lagunitas Creek), we found the first coho redd and coho carcass of the season.

The Upstream Migration Flow coincided with 0.8″ of rain on Sunday, and we’ll be documenting the salmon response in Lagunitas and Walker Creeks for the rest of the week. By next week we should have a pretty good idea how many salmon survived the last few months and finally spawned.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Salmon spawning in Lagunitas Creek has remained muted, despite water releases  from Kent Lake. On January 1-3 MMWD released approximately 29 million gallons of water to increase flows in Lagunitas Creek from 20 cubic feet per second (cfs) to 35 cfs. This “upstream migration flow” is intended to allow salmon to swim upstream through shallow areas and spawn, although it’s unusual for spawning activity to increase significantly when these releases don’t coincide with rain. We found 12 new coho redds following the flow, which was an increase from the previous week, but similar to the low counts in December (see chart). We also found a redd that was likely built by a steelhead, which was the first evidence of steelhead in the creek this season. This past week we surveyed all of Lagunitas Creek, nearly down to Point Reyes Station, and found ten new coho redds.

To date we’ve observed 57 coho redds in Lagunitas Creek, which is exceptionally low for mid-January. A surge in spawning is still possible; back in 2001 we counted 96 coho redds in the second-to-last week of January. With no rain in the forecast that’s probably too much to hope for, but hopefully the forecast is wrong and rain is on its way.

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by Eric Ettlinger

January has arrived and both rainfall and coho salmon numbers remain far below normal in the Lagunitas Creek watershed (see chart). In the last two weeks MMWD biologists counted 15 new redds in the main stem of Lagunitas Creek. On Tuesday a school of 35 adult coho were seen in the “Swimming Hole,” a deep pool in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. That brings the season total to just shy of 100 coho (some of these were likely counted multiple times), which is far below the 400 fish typically seen by early January.

Yesterday MMWD began releasing extra water to provide an “upstream migration flow” for coho salmon. Salmon generally prefer storm runoff for migrating upstream, but on occasion we’ve seen coho increase their spawning activity in response to these water releases. If the extra water doesn’t encourage a surge in coho spawning, there is some light rain in the forecast for late next week that might do the trick. We’ve seen spawning activity spike as late as the last week of January, but hopefully we won’t have to wait that long.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Another week without rain and very few salmon are spawning in Lagunitas Creek. MMWD biologists documented 24 coho salmon and seven new coho redds this past week. We also saw three Chinook salmon and identified what appeared to be five new Chinook redds. The total counts are similar to what we saw the week before, but far below average for the third week of December, which should be peak spawning time. In fact, excluding the population crash of 2008-09, the 22 coho redds seen so far this season are the fewest seen for this date in the last 17 years. Back in 2004-05, the great-grandparents of this year’s coho had constructed nearly 200 redds by this date (see chart).

Looking on the bright side, Lagunitas Creek is faring better than many coastal streams that continue to be closed by sand bars due to the record-breaking dry spell we’re experiencing. Water releases by MMWD have allowed some salmon to migrate as far upstream as Peters Dam, and more water will be released in January to facilitate additional spawning. In about a third of years, coho spawning peaks in January and this appears to be one of those years. All we can do is hope that rain returns soon.

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by Eric Ettlinger

Coho salmon are currently spawning throughout Lagunitas Creek, albeit in below-average numbers. We observed 21 coho salmon and 11 new redds this week (see table of MMWD salmonid observations so far this season). The most upstream of these fish were two coho on a redd upstream of the Leo T. Cronin Fish Viewing Area, about as far upstream as salmon can go in the creek. These fish likely migrated upstream following the small storm we received last week. We expect coho spawning activity to increase slowly but remain below average while the dry weather continues.

Chinook salmon observations have declined over the last few weeks, with only one Chinook and one Chinook redd observed this week. We may see another pulse of Chinook if/when the rain returns. The extended weather forecast is for dry conditions to continue for the next two weeks.

coho redd

Coho redd

I’ve included a photo of one of the coho redds we observed this week. The contrast between the light-colored redd and the dark, undisturbed streambed, plus the extraordinarily clear water, make this redd unusually easy to identify. Upwards of 2,000 salmon eggs are likely buried in the upper right portion of this redd.

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