Archive for the ‘Elise Hinman’ Category

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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Reconciling the perception of this misunderstood habitat from barren wasteland to botanical boon

by Elise Hinman

This post is the fifth in a year-long series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Read the previous post here.

One can often find beauty in the most unassuming places; sometimes even the mundane is worth a closer look.

Marin dwarf flax

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum). Photo courtesy of Bob Sikora.

Taking these words to heart on the watershed will likely lead you to some of the rarest and most fascinating plants around Mt. Tamalpais, like the Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolinon congestum). Its petite rose-colored flowers display unique deep purple anthers and emerge from dainty, slender stems between May and July. This wildflower is a threatened plant species endemic to serpentine soils in Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. What does all of this mean? Allow me to explain.

Federal and state agencies list the Marin dwarf flax as “threatened” because it is likely to be at the brink of extinction in the future. Why? Because it occurs in one (and only one!) tiny and under-appreciated California habitat often destroyed for suburban development: serpentine outcrops. Since the Marin dwarf flax lives in this one specific habitat and is confined to the Bay Area region, it is termed a “California serpentine endemic.”

Why does the Marin dwarf flax need serpentine soil to survive? It’s complicated. Serpentine has a very unique geology that gives it a peculiar nutrient profile, which reveals a special niche occupied by only a handful of adapted plants. Serpentine forms at the bottom of the seafloor, where molten rock from the Earth’s mantle rises to the crust’s surface as tectonic plates move away from one another. Over millions of years, this rock originating from the seafloor has fragmented and been exposed throughout California. Be on the lookout for it along Ridgecrest Boulevard on Mt. Tamalpais; serpentine outcrops are a greenish blue in color, devoid of most plant life, and upon a brief glance, may garner the descriptors “unsightly” or “strange.” In my mind, however, they have a Martian mystique about them.

Serpentine is low in calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium: macronutrients essential for plant growth. It is also high in magnesium, nickel and other harmful heavy metals. For these reasons, serpentine presents a harsh environment in which to grow and proliferate, and successful plant species must possess adaptive traits for survival. For example, many serpentine endemics possess high tolerances for heavy metals. Still, many serpentine species are often characterized as “dwarf” plants because the nutrient-poor environment inhibits their growth. But the soil environment presents both challenges and rewards. Since few plants colonize serpentine soils, competition for resources generally remains low between serpentine endemics.

The Marin dwarf flax has special adaptations to flourish in serpentine soils and shares its habitat with few competitors for necessary resources. Unfortunately, beyond serpentine it is a different story. In non-serpentine soils, plants do not need the same specialized adaptations to acquire resources; when nitrogen and phosphorus abound, success depends upon efficiency. Serpentine adaptations become hindrances in non-serpentine environments, making serpentine-endemic plants poor competitors. In this way, the Marin dwarf flax is “stuck”—without serpentine, it will go extinct.

If you happen upon a serpentine outcrop on your next hike, take some time to study its inhabitants. As always, be respectful of native wildlife and plant life and do not set foot in their home; serpentine plants are extremely fragile and may be the last of their kind. Instead, peer inside these peculiar islands of habitat from the edge. Take a moment to appreciate the magnificence these unique, humble and well-adapted plants have to offer.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it”—Confucius

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by Elise Hinman

This post is the first in a year-long series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Protecting, maintaining and stewarding the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed are daunting responsibilities, especially for a new seasonal watershed aide like me. Starting in the chill of winter, even walking outside sometimes presents a challenge, let alone the duty of keeping a watchful eye on the reservoirs and trails. Luckily for me, in my time of perceived helplessness and inferiority, I am not alone.

At this point in the post, you may be expecting an ode to my accommodating coworkers and supervisors, or a sonnet about the unshakeable, vibrant volunteers I met at my first Trail Crew day. While they are certainly deserving of recognition, do not jump to conclusions so easily. The warden of whom I speak weighs less than 15 pounds, but its wingspan reaches eight feet. Can you guess this creature’s name?

Did your thoughts soar to the majestic bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)? You’d be right! In wintertime, visitors and staff sometimes spot bald eagles using Bon Tempe and Kent lakes as fish foraging habitat. This noble bird commonly appears in Native American legends as a courageous, powerful guardian associated with spirituality and balance. I wouldn’t mind channeling some of those qualities during my months on the watershed.

Bald eagles

Bald eagle nest on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed

These stately birds are also international travelers. Many spend their summers in Canada and Alaska, migrating down to the balmier states and northern Mexico during the winter months. In the late winter and springtime, bald eagles return to the vicinity where they were born to build a nest and procreate. Though predominantly solitary raptors, bald eagles mate for life, reconnecting with their significant other each breeding season. Mating pairs will also rediscover their nest from the previous year, adding to its size and stability. The largest bald eagle nest on record weighed over 2 tons!*

Loyal, well-traveled, independent and brave—admirable traits we can all spot in the bald eagle. Had it not been recognized as an icon of freedom and power in the United States (as would have been Benjamin Franklin’s wish—he pushed for the turkey, instead!), the bald eagle might have gone extinct decades ago. The extensive use of DDT as a pesticide in the mid-1900s caused the bioaccumulation of poisonous chemicals in bald eagles and other raptors, and had devastating consequences on the species’ reproductive health. Because of the bald eagle’s importance as a national symbol, the United States took great strides to save the species from extinction. Congress listed the bald eagle as an endangered species in 1967, and in 1972 banned the use of DDT in the United States. Bald eagle numbers soared in the years following this legislation, and in July 1995 the bald eagle was delisted from endangered to threatened. In August 2007, it was removed from the threatened species list—a success story!

So begins our string of monthly blogs dedicated to threatened, endangered and species-of-special-concern flora and fauna using the watershed and its surrounding habitats to cling to survival. Keep your eyes open in February for another scintillating story, but for now, just take some tips from the bald eagle: Always remember to be reliable, self-sufficient and vigilant; it just might lead to achievement.

*“Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus.” National Geographic Animals. National Geographic.

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