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Posts Tagged ‘turtles’

Students volunteers on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed

Student volunteers on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed show off the results of their hard work—a mountain of non-native broom.

The Marin Municipal Water District honored 40 volunteers at a special recognition lunch recently for contributing their valuable time to the protection and preservation of the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed during fiscal year 2012/13. These volunteers donated nearly 7,500 hours—the equivalent of $185,625 in labor—to activities like trail maintenance, habitat restoration and endangered species protection on watershed lands between July 2012 and June 2013.

MMWD manages more than 21,600 acres of land on Mt. Tamalpais and in west Marin and counts on its volunteer workforce to help maintain and restore these lands. The Mt. Tamalpais Watershed is home to more than 900 species of plants and 400 species of animals, including 77 rare, threatened and endangered species. This abundance of life is threatened by many factors, including increased recreational use, invasive species and global climate change.

Begun in 1995, MMWD’s volunteer program recruits individuals, students and entire classes to help improve trails and habitat; greet and educate visitors; restore habitat and collect biological data; and map native and non-native plants, sudden oak death and aquatic species.

The 2012/13 fiscal year’s 85 volunteer events resulted in the following accomplishments:

  • Dozens of trails were improved for visitor safety and erosion control;
  • More than 700 school children and their parents removed acres of invasive broom, young Douglas-fir trees and other invasive plant species;
  • 140 hours were spent monitoring native western pond turtles and educating the public about this species;
  • More than 200 hours were donated to keep people and their dogs out of the breeding grounds of the native foothill yellow-legged frogs;
  • One third of the 900 plant species on the watershed were surveyed; samples will be housed at the herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences.

Without the help of volunteers, many of the important preservation and stewardship projects on the watershed would not be possible. For more information about our volunteer program and to find volunteer opportunities, visit our website.

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by Michael Paccassi

western pond turtle on log in Lake Lagunitas

Western pond turtle in Lake Lagunitas (Photo courtesy of Sami Kreling)

As California’s only native freshwater turtle, the western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) isn’t really getting all the attention it deserves. This unique and charismatic creature is listed as a vulnerable species in California, making it only one step away from joining the far-too-massive list of endangered species. Although the western pond turtle’s native habitat extends from northwestern Washington down to northern Baja California, habitat fragmentation, human catch, pollution and non-native turtle introduction are increasingly causing them to disappear.

In case you were unaware, many western pond turtles also call MMWD’s Mt. Tamalpais Watershed their home. In fact, each spring you can go out to one of a few specific locations on the reservoirs and witness dozens of turtles basking in the sun. Aided with a pair of trusty binoculars, one might notice a plethora of exotic turtles as well, including sliders, cooters and others. These non-native species are not merely living harmoniously with the western pond turtles, but rather outcompeting and, according to data, now greatly outnumbering them on our watershed. How did the non-native turtles get here in the first place you ask? Pet release, of course! Free Speedy and never look back.

For years MMWD has been training volunteer turtle observers to help educate the public and monitor the status of the western pond turtle on the watershed. The goal is to utilize volunteers as citizen-scientists in helping us keep an inventory of the turtle populations on the watershed, and to educate the public on the dangers of exotic species release. This year I trained 60 new turtle observers in turtle biology, species identification and observation skills. Forty-five of these volunteers actively participated throughout the duration of the program along with three returnees. Needless to say, the turtles were shown a lot of love from volunteers this year.

Unfortunately, the results of this year’s program paint a concerning picture about the status of non-native turtles on the watershed (see graph below). While it seems that western pond turtle (AM) populations are relatively stable (excluding 2012, which had low volunteer participation and high “unknown” turtle observations), non-native (NN) turtle populations seem to have sky-rocketed. The 2013 data also show that non-native turtle populations are nearly twice the size of western pond turtle populations on the watershed. A consistently growing non-native turtle population can only mean less food, shelter and habitat for the native western pond turtle.

Turtle native and non-native species count

(Click on graph to view full size)

non-native and western pond turtle

Non-native and western pond turtle (Photo courtesy of Sami Kreling)

It seems obvious that we have a problem on our hands, but what can we do about it? First of all, we need volunteers like you to help us continue monitoring and educating the public for years to come. Were it not for the benevolence of hard-working volunteers wanting to make a difference, we might not even know just how urgent the need for action is. Furthermore, turtle trapping (which was not done in 2013 and only cursorily done in 2012) should be, and hopefully will be, continued if we wish to keep non-native populations in check.

Stay tuned for the full 2013 Turtle Observer Report which will be available to read online. Also, be on the lookout for information about the next turtle observer training happening sometime next spring! TURTLE POWER!

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by Elise Hinman

How did the natural world captivate you as a child? Maybe it was when you learned that wild blackberries are edible (and delicious), built a fort out of downed tree branches, or observed a family of bluebirds making a nest in your backyard. I remember raising Sierran tree frogs from eggs at my house, watching the tiny tadpoles sprout legs as their tails disappeared. Releasing the young frogs back into the stream left a lasting impact on my respect for Mother Nature.

studying macroinvertebrates

Young citizen scientists get an up-close look at some of Lake Lagunitas’s macroinvertebrates at Family Science Day.

We all have our memorable moments in the great outdoors; we can only hope that an excitement for nature will live on in our youngest generations. On May 25, MMWD partnered with the California Academy of Sciences on an event aimed at making this hope a reality. Family Citizen Science Day at Lake Lagunitas brought a slew of activities to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed to stoke the fire of a new generation of scientists. Over 150 people attended the four-hour event, and judging by the excited kids and beaming parents, it was an amazing success.

Each family was furnished with a Field Scientist Activity Book and a bandana with a map of MMWD’s trails. They could play Lake Lagunitas bingo during their walk around the lake, hang out at the Lagunitas deck for hands-on activities, or participate in some of our scheduled events. Kids who completed three or more activities received one thing no citizen scientist should be without: a field notebook!

The scheduled events included two outings to an actual Mt. Tamalpais bioblitz site. There I helped kids identify a plant, carefully dig it up and place it in a plant press. Once at Cal Academy, the pressed plant will be dried and then transferred to a permanent mount, which will preserve the specimen in perpetuity—with the collector’s name on it! Checkerbloom, cat’s ear and narrow-leaf mule’s ear were a few of the flowering species collected for this fascinating project.

Kite making

A future environmental steward puts her artistic talents to work coloring an osprey kite.

At the wooden deck on Lagunitas Dam, the kite-making table was a popular stop. Here, kids had the opportunity to color their own osprey before folding it into a kite complete with a tassel tail. One mother (a science teacher no less) even improved upon our design by adding weight to the tail, giving the kite more stability—way to go! Running back and forth on the dam, participants chased the breezes that would lift their kites sky-high.

Luckily, the commotion on the dam didn’t faze the turtles sunning themselves on logs floating in the lake. Family Science Day participants studied these reptiles through binoculars and determined whether they were native western pond turtles or invasive red-eared sliders. Such data is important for MMWD to keep track of each species’ population size. Toward the end of the event, one bold turtle swam near the wooden deck area to take a closer look at the festivities, to the delight of lake-gazers.

Other kids made a bee-line for the macroinvertebrate table, where Cal Academy’s Alison Young pointed out fascinating water bugs hiding among the lake’s aquatic vegetation. Equipped with a waterproof magnifier, kids could get up close to these critters and see how they move through the water.

Once an hour, my fellow watershed aides, Jaimie Baxter and Jen Stern, and I led families to the redwood grove at the bottom of the dam to meet a tree. What does it mean to “meet a tree?” Well, one bold participant would be blindfolded and then led on a winding path to a mystery tree in the grove. Without eyesight, she had to touch the tree, smell the tree, listen to the sounds around the tree, and remember as much as she could about the tree, Trusting her guides, she was led on a different winding path back to where she started. She could then remove the blindfold and accept the challenge of finding “her” tree! The kids loved this activity and played multiple rounds, I was surprised by the trust blindfolded kids placed in their leaders; they walked without hesitation into anything their guides led them through, even if their guide was four years old and more excited about the activity itself than making sure her sightless partner made it to the tree unhurt. It was a hoot!

Family Citizen Science Day filled me with hope. In the time I spent observing the activities from afar, I saw smiles, heard laughter from both kids and parents, and felt curiosity and joy emanating from the families at the event. I listened as kids asked questions about the natural world, unable to contain their excitement at the knowledge they gained. This day wasn’t successful because it brought a crowd of people; it was successful because we helped nurture a new generation of environmental scientists and nature-lovers. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

Family Science Day is an annual event on the watershed. Next time you visit Lake Lagunitas please stop by Sky Oak Watershed Headquarters and pick up a free Sprouting Scientist Field Activity Book. Elise has completed her season with MMWD and headed off to Syracuse University to earn her Ph.D. in Biology, studying the evolutionary ecology of invasive plants.

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BAEER FairThe 36th annual Bay Area Environmental Education Resource (BAEER) Fair is just around the corner on Saturday, January 19, 2013. This resource-rich event is designed for teachers, community educators, students, families and all concerned about the environment we share.

Drop by MMWD’s booth for information on our free school education programs in water conservation and watershed ecology and restoration.

For those 18 or older, sign up for our Frog Docent training on March 2. The foothill yellow-legged frog is native to parts of the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and is listed as both a federal and state species of “special concern.” MMWD needs help from the community to stop the decline and help restore a healthy population within the watershed.

For those eight years or older, sign up for our Turtle Observer training on March 23 to help us monitor and record activity of California’s only native fresh water turtle, the Western pond turtle, a federally listed “vulnerable species.” This program is great for students, families or individuals.

The BAEER Fair is from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Marin Civic Center located in San Rafael. General admission is $12.00, high school students and seniors $10.00, youth $8.00 and children 6 and under are free. Admission to the event is paid at the entrance door. Check out the BAEER website to learn more about the 2013 workshops and exhibitors, and visit MMWD’s website to discover our free water education programs for schools in our service area.

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by Ben Schleifer

When I go on a hike, I always hope to see a rare species of animal. Usually, these evasive animals can hear me coming from far away and avoid my heavy footfall, but on those seldom occasions I do see one, I feel like I have experienced something special. Most people go their whole lives without seeing a bear, or a moose, or a bald eagle in the wild, and knowing I have seen those makes an exhausting outdoor trip seem worthwhile. Still, you do not have to travel on a tiring journey to see a rare species of animal. There are many in and around Marin, and if you have ever been to the reservoirs of the Marin Municipal Water District you might have seen one or two. The Actinemys marmorata, or western pond turtle, is one of those subtle rare species that might have escaped your notice.

western pond turtle

Western pond turtle at Carson Falls
(photo courtesy of Lorri Gong)

These brown-to-black turtles are found in ponds and lakes all over western North America. Their only truly distinctive characteristic is a motley yellow and brown neck, so unless they are basking on a warm spring day, they are not easy to identify. Still, the western pond turtle is the only native freshwater turtle in California, and they are species in decline. They are recognized as a vulnerable species in California. Their dwindling numbers are in part due to loss of habitat and competition with other, invasive turtles like the red-eared slider. Both western pond turtles and red-eared sliders are found on the reservoirs of MMWD, which has been implementing practices to help protect our native California species.

Scientists at MMWD have been monitoring the turtle populations of both species since 2003. In 2009 an AmeriCorps intern suggested the district set up a program to monitor these turtles with citizen scientists—an idea that has now been implemented for the last three springs. AmeriCorps interns at MMWD, like myself, train volunteers in turtle identification and data collection. Then these volunteers walk around the beautiful lakes of MMWD collecting observations. We have Turtle Observers ranging from seven years of age to seventy years of age, and they are all contributing to our knowledge about these turtles on the watershed.

native western pond turtle flanked by two non-native red-eared sliders

A native western pond turtle flanked by two non-native red-eared sliders at Phoenix Lake
(photo courtesy of Lorri Gong)

In 2012, our Turtle Observers made 41 visits for 76 hours of observations at the MMWD reservoirs. They made 327 individual turtle observations, and from these observations, we estimated the reservoirs have seven western pond turtles and 27 non-natives. These numbers will help the scientists at MMWD know where to focus their turtle-trapping efforts to remove the invasive turtles. The Turtle Observers also informed countless hikers and bike riders about the native and non-native turtles, and shared with some lucky visitors the experience of seeing a rare species.

We train new Turtle Observers each spring. If you or a young budding scientist you know would like to take part in the amazing outdoor field science of turtle observing, please contact MMWD at volunteerprogram@marinwater.org.

If you would like to see how this year’s numbers compare to 2010 and 2011, click here.

I would like to personally thank all the Turtle Observers who turned in turtle report data sheets. It is a testament to what these folks value that they are willing to give their time to protecting and monitoring this native species. Thank you so much to Colin Lester, Sean Tipett, Kathy Tama, Shelly Hauser, Laurel Kelly, Matthew Brod Naeve, Richard Alden Feldon, Marge Gibbs, Eliza and Shelly Peppel, and Lorri Gong.

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by Jeff Jablonski

Citizen science is a process that has been going on for centuries. Laypeople often aid scientific research by collecting data across a variety of topics. In recent years, more and more opportunities are springing up for ordinary citizens to get involved in all sorts of projects. I want to highlight one group of volunteers who have been working on Mt. Tam the past few years to help monitor our ecosystems.

MMWD’s Turtle Observer program started in 2009 with the goal of identifying non-native turtles encroaching on habitat of the native western pond turtles in the lakes and streams of the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed. The western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata) is a federally listed “vulnerable species.” Volunteers are trained to identify western pond turtles and common invasive species like red-eared sliders and cooters. Armed with binoculars and data sheets, they head out to the lakes and creeks of Mt. Tam to count and classify the local inhabitants. This season, observers tracked populations in Lake Lagunitas, Alpine Lake and Bullfrog Creek. On a single trip, as many as 40 turtles were seen basking on logs or swimming in the waters.

Our volunteers allow us to accomplish ecological monitoring far more efficiently than staff could do on our own. The data and observations they contribute help our ecologists to more accurately estimate our turtle populations, better assess the health of the watershed, and make natural resource management decisions.

Turtle Observers

Volunteer Turtle Observers at work on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed

Perhaps just as important as the data collected is the fun people can have gathering it. Citizen science is a great way to get out and enjoy nature on your own or with friends and family. The turtle observer program is open to children ages eight and up, and this year almost half of all excursions were made by at least two people. And since the turtles are out when it’s sunny and warm, there is no better time to enjoy a hike or relax by the lake!

Turtle Observers start in March and continue through the beginning of the summer. If you or someone you know is interested in participating, check our website or send an email to volunteerprogram@marinwater.org early next year.

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by Eric Ettlinger

When I think of wildlife migrations I think of wildebeest on the Serengeti, gray whales off the California coast, and arctic terns migrating between hemispheres. I definitely don’t think of pond turtles. In fact, having observed the same turtles loafing about in MMWD’s reservoirs year after year, I assumed turtles barely moved from one end of a log to another. But if you observe wildlife long enough, you’ll always gain respect for their abilities.

smolt trap check

Checking the smolt trap on Lagunitas Creek

Each spring, MMWD’s Fisheries Department operates a rotary screw trap in Lagunitas Creek near Point Reyes Station, to monitor salmon smolts as they migrate to the ocean. Fish are swept into the trap and funneled into a live box, where they are counted and released each morning. For two months the trap captured migrating coho salmon and steelhead smolts, as well as 13 other species of fish. The trap also captures amphibians, crustaceans, lots of debris and the very occasional turtle. One morning in late April we captured a western pond turtle, which to my great surprise looked familiar. At the edge of its carapace (shell), on the ninth marginal scute (the ninth square on the edge of the carapace, counting clockwise), was a distinctive notch. As far as I know, I’m the only biologist in the watershed marking turtles, so that was likely my mark designating this as Turtle #9. I measured the turtle, took some pictures and sent him on his way.

Western pond turtle #9

Western Pond Turtle #9, with arrow showing notch in marginal scute

Back in the office I reviewed the data from six years of turtle monitoring in MMWD’s reservoirs. MMWD began a non-native turtle removal project in 2004 to reduce competition between non-native and smaller, native turtles. In 2004 and 2005 I removed 79 red-eared sliders from Phoenix Lake, outside of Ross. These were provided to a turtle rescue organization that would find new, and hopefully permanent, homes for them. As part of that project, volunteers go out each spring and count native and non-native turtles in district reservoirs to track the ratios of turtle species. Native turtles are once again the majority in two lakes, but non-natives still dominate in another.

Turtle #9 was one of 17 western pond turtles captured and marked in Phoenix Lake while non-natives were being removed. In 2004 his carapace measured 176 millimeters (6.9 inches), and when he was recaptured in 2009, still in Phoenix Lake, he had grown two millimeters. By 2011 he had grown an additional two millimeters and had migrated 16 miles, straight as the crow flies, into another watershed. Of course he didn’t travel straight as the crow flies. His most likely route was to trek one mile west and approximately 500 vertical feet up to Bon Tempe Lake in the Lagunitas Creek watershed, and then down to Alpine Lake. Obstacles from there include Alpine Dam (135 feet high) and Peters Dam (215 feet high), before a turtle can get to the undammed reaches of Lagunitas Creek. By this point Turtle #9 would have traveled over nine miles, with nine more creek miles to go before reaching our rotary screw trap in Point Reyes Station.

Why would a small turtle undertake such a journey? Young males of many species disperse to find open territories, but this was a fully-grown male, from a lake recently cleared of 79 non-native competitors. Maybe he started out looking for new mating opportunities close by and just kept going. Another possibility, although remote, is that he hitchhiked. While that sounds absurd, turtles often get moved around by people. Usually it’s a female, traipsing overland to lay her eggs, that’s picked up by a well-meaning person and put into the closest body of water, which isn’t always where she came from. But someone driving a turtle to Point Reyes Station is an even more implausible theory than a turtle making the journey alone.

Which brings me to the sermon part of this post. Everyone loves turtles, but that love can have consequences for the objects of our affection. When we see a turtle shuffling across dry land, our inclination is often to put it back in the water. This forces the likely heavily pregnant female to start her nesting journey all over again. If you see a turtle on a busy road, help it by moving it in the direction it’s going, but otherwise leave it alone. And if you have a pet turtle that was once cute but is now a large, smelly paperweight, please don’t release it into the wild. Contact the Marin Humane Society instead. You may think you’re sending your turtle on an amazing journey, but along the way it may compete with or spread diseases to our native turtles, which almost always prefer to loaf about in peace.

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