Home sweet nest box

Grant Union High School in the GEO Academy Garden
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | September 29, 2021

Funded by
Sacramento Municipal Utility District SHINE Award

Summary of the Day
For our third and final field day on our restoration project in Grant Union High School’s campus, we were finally able to work with a nearly normal number of students! 22 students joined us for a field day in the GEO Academy Garden.

To begin the day, we circled up in the garden to play a round of Group Juggle to learn each other’s names and then reviewed our agenda for the day. Students grabbed rakes to do some maintenance on the native plant area SLEWS students planted in April. The nearby sycamore trees had littered their leaves all over the area, making it difficult for the plants to get enough sunlight. Once the leaves were removed and composted, we moved on to our next activity – building bird nest boxes!

Center for Land-Based Learning Ecologist Jeanne Wirka led a discussion about cavity-nesting birds and how bird nest boxes can provide critical breeding habitat for these species. Groups of students were each given a bird box “kit” – a drill, cut pieces of wood, and screws and other fasteners. I was so impressed at how eagerly and confidently students jumped into this activity! Students who had never used a drill before figured it out with ease, and built the boxes using only a model box as a guide.

Once all the boxes were complete, each group signed and decorated their box before learning how to install it in the GEO garden – at least 30 feet from other boxes, facing the north or east, and making sure to affix an upside down trash bin around the pole to prevent predators from climbing up. Each group chose their own spot for their box, and by the end students had installed 9 bird boxes in the GEO Garden! Come spring, these students will be able to watch as swallows and/or bluebirds make nests and raise young right outside their classroom door, and will monitor the boxes themselves, contributing data to the Cornell NestWatch program.

Once bird boxes were installed, Jeanne shared her education and career path with students. Many students asked Jeanne for advice and had very insightful questions for her. From there we moved to some flowering plants in the garden and observed many pollinators, including carpenter bees, hoverflies, skippers, honeybees, damselflies, and a fritillary butterfly!

We ended the day with burritos and a “favorite moment” from each student. I was impressed with the variety! Some students loved raking, others preferred building bird boxes, others enjoyed looking at pollinators, and others loved the burritos most of all! I think we can all agree, it was an excellent day.

A hybrid SLEWS Field Day

Woodland High School at the Maples
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | April 22, 2021

Summary of the Day
For weeks now, I have been working with Woodland High School teacher Jerry Delsol to plan a virtual SLEWS field day of sorts for his students. We previously coordinated for him to attend one of our volunteer habitat restoration SLEWS Field Days in December (read more here), which he broadcast live to his students back in the classroom. Students were able to interact with our adult volunteers, see the site, and even ask questions of their own! 

We planned to do something similar at our headquarters at the Maples in Woodland, focusing more on the restoration and wildlife monitoring plans being implemented onsite. Some of his students were even part of the class that participated in our first year of SLEWS at the Maples (blog posts here and here!), so they’d be able to see how much the native habitat they planted has grown! When I met with Mr. Delsol the week prior to the field trip, I was thrilled to hear that he’d be able to bring a small group of students to the field day to participate in-person, while still broadcasting live to students attending school from home.

Students arrived bright and early on Thursday morning, meeting us at the “bioswale” their class created last SLEWS season. This SLEWS project included transforming a stormwater retention basin into viable habitat. I introduced the project to the class, and showed the next phase of the project (an adjacent hedgerow), which volunteers planted this past winter. Then we moved to the side of the bioswale to a wildlife monitoring camera set up by Center for Land-Based Learning’s Ecologist Jeanne Wirka. Jeanne introduced herself and her work at the Maples, where she is currently gathering baseline data on the wildlife and pollinators present. She’s already begun getting snapshots of wildlife from the motion-activated camera facing the hedgerow – including a coyote whose scat one student spotted! 

After meeting Jeanne, students split into three groups to rotate between different activities.

I led students in a native plant identification workshop and shared about how scientists press plants to create herbariums, preserved collections of plants in an area. Students then collected clippings of plants in the hedgerow to create plant pressings of their very own. Some of the species identified included California poppies, lupines, common fiddleneck, and yarrow.

Jeanne taught students about cavity nesting birds (and why it is difficult for them to find nesting habitat) before showing each group how to install a bluebird nest box on the Maples campus. They looked at nest boxes installed a few weeks ago by Yolo County Audubon, and even found an egg in one of them!

Mr. Delsol led a soil sampling activity in the nearby ag fields, looking at soil types and sampling the compost as well.

Meanwhile, Mr. Delsol’s student teacher engaged with students attending the livestream by asking them questions and leading them through the activities so they were active participants. Though this was a very quick field day (we only had 1 hour!) it was amazing to finally engage with students in-person.

A day of birds, boxes, and bugs

Woodland High School at Capay Open Space Park
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | March 4, 2020

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Cache Creek Conservancy

Mentors
Grace Auringer, Technician, Genomic Variation Lab
Matt Clement, Facilities Steward, Center for Land-Based Learning
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab

Summary of the Day
For our fourth and final day with Woodland High School, we were back at Capay Open Space Park. By breakfast it was already shaping up to be a warm day, and students arrived eager to get to work. We started the day with a game of “all aboard”, a game in which students attempt to stand on one foot on a tarp that keeps decreasing in size by half. When the game became impossible, we met up with Corey Shake, a biologist who gave us an introduction to bird boxes.

Nest boxes provide valuable breeding habitat for cavity nesting birds like Western Bluebirds when natural cavities are difficult to find. Michael Perrone and Joe Zinkl of Yolo Audubon were on deck to demonstrate how these boxes are built, and then mentor groups set to work assembling the boxes and attaching them to a long pole for installation.

Once the nest boxes were ready to go, Corey gave an instructional demonstration on how to use binoculars. We went on a walk to the installation sites and stopped along the way to do some birding. Mentor groups competed against each other to see which group could identify the most birds – the winning group identified 13 species! Some of the birds we saw included: Peregrine Falcon, Northern Mockingbird, Western Scrub Jay, White-crowned Sparrow, Anna’s Hummingbird, Common Raven, Red-tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Tree Swallow, Black Phoebe, Western Meadowlark, Mourning Dove, California Quail, House Finch, Great Blue Heron, Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and American White Pelican.

Amongst blooming redbuds, we installed 4 bluebird boxes along Cache Creek before heading down to the creekbed for our next activity: macroinvertebrate sampling. Elise Stinnett of Cache Creek Conservancy gave an introduction that showed students the types of macroinvertebrates we might see, and what they can tell us about the health of the creek. Four students donned mud boots to enter the creek and collect samples, and students were able to identify macroinvertebrates like dragonfly nymphs, mosquito larvae, and mayfly larvae. Looking at the species overall, students determined that this was a moderately healthy creek, as it included species that you’d expect to see in a healthy creek AND an unhealthy creek. Students were also excited to see many frogs jumping around by the creek’s edge.

After lunch and a celebratory cake, we sat down to write thank you notes to someone who made this SLEWS project possible. As students worked on their thank you notes, I asked for autographs on a “SLEWS was here!” sign that will be installed at our other project site (and new CLBL headquarters), the Maples.

To conclude the day, students shared their favorite experiences from all 4 of our Field Days together. Responses included hanging out by the creek, riding the argo across the creek, building bird boxes, spending time with friends, and planting.