Pioneer plants plenty of plugs

Pioneer High School at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 28, 2020

Participating School
Pioneer High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers

Mentors
Dominic Carrillo, Development Associate, Center for Land-Based Learning
Elaine Swiedler, California Farm Academy Apprenticeship Program Coordinator, Center for Land-Based Learning
Gina Radieve, Environmental Scientist, California Department of Water Resources
Jen Metes, Conservation Programs Administrator, The Freshwater Trust

Summary of the Day
This SLEWS season, as you may recall, we had two schools working at the Yanci Ranch project site – Grant Union High School in Sacramento and Pioneer High School in Woodland. Because the ground was too dry to plug plant on Grant Union’s last day, they instead finished planting container plants and shored up the irrigation system so it would be able to moisten the soil for Pioneer students to complete the plug planting portion. Pioneer students arrived to softer soil, and ready to plant these plugs!

After a game of PVC golf, Amy Williams showed students what our restoration work would look like today. The goal will be planting some more native species including sunflower, yarrow, gumplant, goldenrod and milkweed – except this time, instead of planting plants in plastic container pots, these “plug” plants come in a tray, and are so small that planting them just requires poking a hole with a “dibble” and pinching the native soil over the top. At each marked spot, students would plant 4 plug plants, and install a protective tube secured by a stake around each to. To finish, students would apply a thick layer of straw mulch around the tubes to prevent weeds from outcompeting the native species.
Mentor groups divided along the line to conquer this project, working in pairs to plug plant, install tubes, and mulch. As they worked, students noticed several ant nests in the area and even found a tree frog!

After lunch and enjoying SLEWS-themed cupcakes, we hiked up to the top of a nearby hill for 360 degree views of Yanci Ranch. We saw our project site, earlier phases of the project that connect to our piece to create corridors for wildlife, and a beautiful view of the hills and the valley below. After taking the view in, students had time to create a thank you card for someone who made their SLEWS experience possible – be it a teacher, mentor, restoration partner, landowner, funder, or someone else. As students were working, I found an owl pellet and deer skull, both of which I showed to students during closing circle. As we finished the day, we reminisced on past field days and discussed our favorite moments of SLEWS. Many students enjoyed planting, the feeling of teamwork, visiting the earlier phases of the project, and being on top of the hill, but one student encouraged us all to enjoy the current moment with her one word answer, “now”.

The need to weed!

Woodland High School at the Maples
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 19, 2020

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Grace Auringer, Technician, Genomic Variation Lab
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab
Matt Clement
Matt Young, Fish Biologist, California Water Science Center, USGS

Summary of the Day
As you may recall, our SLEWS project with Woodland High School is actually two projects – two days at the Maples in Woodland, and two days at Capay Open Space Park. This was our third field day after one at the Maples and one at COSP, making it our final day at the Maples.

We had a small crew on this day which made PVC golf trickier than usual (you have to run FAST to get to the front of the group before the golf ball does!) but two groups won the game incredibly quickly. After that, it was time to group up to learn about the restoration work for the day.

Since we planted all the plants on our first field day here, our next task was to make sure these plants are given the best chance at survival. Installing “tubex” tubes around each plant will help protect them from pests, herbicides, and wind and will create a mini greenhouse for the young plants. Before installing the tubes, students checked to make sure the emitter was working properly, and created a soil “berm” on the low side of the plant to prevent all the water from flowing into the basin. But one of the biggest problems for these plants will be competition from weeds! To combat this, we mulched around each plant with a THICK (two “leaves” or “flakes” worth) of straw. This will prevent weeds from growing up around the plant, so they’ll have better access to resources like water and sunlight.

Speaking of weeds – there was already tons of cheeseweed and milkthistle sprouting up in our planting area. After a quick lesson on how to identify these pesky weeds, students set to work attacking each and every one! Students were very inquisitive as they worked – asking what benefit weeding would have for the plants, and asking to be reminded of the species we planted last time and their role in the ecosystem.

After lunch, we donned binoculars and set off to explore nearby Cache Creek. We spotted many different species of birds and took some time to relax and enjoy the view from the levee.

At closing circle, students were asked what they had learned that day. Popular mentions were how to identify milkweed and cheeseweed, how to use binoculars, and the benefits of mulching. As for favorite moments of the day, the clear winner was a surprise – weeding!

A five star day

Grant Union at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley |February 13, 2020

Participating School
Grant Union High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms

Mentors
Kathy Rightmire, Director of Development, Center for Land-Based Learning
Dani Gelardi, UCD Graduate Student
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
MJ Farruggia, UCD Graduate Student

Summary of the Day
“How did today go?”
“FIVE STARS!”
After each Field Day, I ask this question of our mentors and project partners in order to get feedback and look for ways to improve the SLEWS Program. Never have I been met with such an enthusiastic response! Read on to see what happened on this beautiful, five star day.

We started with a game of PVC golf before heading down to the restoration site to finish our part of the project. On their Field Day two weeks prior, Pioneer High did not have time to finish planting all of the native plants on their irrigation line. Our priority was getting these plants in the ground, so Grant Union students took this on, planting 65 native plants. Another priority was installing emitters along the line so that each plant would receive a consistent water source (especially as it’s been a very dry month!). Once emitters were in, we turned the irrigation system on to make sure it was working properly. Usually when we do this check, we find multiple “geysers” along the line – spots were emitters were not installed properly and pop off due to the water pressure, spraying water everywhere. Shockingly, we found no geysers! Grant Union did a perfect job! We also were able to plant 24 plug plants, but since the ground was too hard to use a dibble, this was done with trowels.

On our very first field day, we noticed a tall hill that looked accessible, so after lunch and a last-field-day celebration of SLEWS-themed cupcakes, we began the trek. The walk was not far but it was steep, and we all had to catch our breath at the top – especially those that chose to literally run and race up the hill!

I figured there would be a decent view from the top, but was absolutely blown away by the stunning panorama that awaited us. The excitement atop the hill was palpable – after taking some time to soak in the view, we passed out supplies for students to design and write a thank you card to someone who made their SLEWS experience possible. Many students wrote to their mentors, and others wrote a general thank you to all who helped plan their field trip.

We had our closing circle at the top of the hill where we shared our favorite memories from all three field days we had shared. Popular answers included hiking to the top of the hill, being out in nature, installing emitters, planting trees, seeing wildlife, teambuilding games, and enjoying the beautiful weather. Michael Felipe of Yolo County Resource Conservation District had come upon many tiny bones at the top of the hill, which we realized came from raptor casts or owl pellets – he shared his finds at closing circle.

It was amazing to close out the day with a view of not only our project, but also earlier phases of the restoration efforts at the site – we could clearly see how our piece connected to the rest of the wildlife corridor.

The first last SLEWS day of the year

Davis Senior High School at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 4, 2020

Participating School
Davis Senior High School

Partners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Yolo Basin Foundation

Mentors
Aaron Haiman, Environmental Scientist and Tribal Liaison, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
Brian Keegan, Sacramento State Graduate Student
Randy Wittorp
Xerónimo Castañeda, Conservation Project Associate, Audubon CA

Summary of the Day
Of all the SLEWS projects so far this season, the two coldest days have BOTH been with Davis High School at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area! Our third and final field day was quite chilly and windy, but Davis students simply put on an extra layer and didn’t seem to mind. We attempted to warm up with a game of PVC golf (all four mentor groups were able to successfully transport the golf ball into the goal!) before heading out to finish our SLEWS project.

We had 106 container plants and 15 plugs to plant, and did quality control (securing tree tubes after some severe wind) on every plant on the four trestles. We thought we’d be lucky to finish all that before lunch. Imagine my surprise when the group finished…at 10:30am! Finishing early gave us time to to do some wildlife observation, and we were in luck because mentor Aaron Haiman is an excellent birder. He showed students how to use and focus their binoculars, and we set off on a birding adventure. Species we spotted included Horned Lark, Savannah Sparrow, Northern Harrier, Peregrine Falcon, Prairie Falcon, White-crowned Sparrow, Red Tailed Hawk, Western Meadowlark, blackbirds, and White-throated Swifts.

We also had time to do a reflection activity. Students found a spot to sit by themselves and had the opportunity to write a thank you card to someone who made their SLEWS experience possible. Students wrote note to mentors, restoration partners, their teacher, funders, guest speakers, and parent drivers – all people who were essential components of this project.

Since it was the last SLEWS Field Day, we had a mini celebration at lunch, complete with cupcakes decorated with trestle mounds and deer antlers! It was a throwback to photos students saw at the beginning of this project, an aerial view of deer trapped on a trestle mound taken when the bypass flooded last year. When the bypass floods next time, hopefully those stranded animals will find it to be much more suitable habitat, thanks in part to Davis students!

After lunch, students gathered to hear from Yolo Basin Foundation’s Corky Quirk, a bat expert. Corky even brought 3 live bats to show students (a pallid bat, a Mexican free-tailed bat, and a big brown bat). Students were absolutely enthralled by her presentation, and asked tons of excellent questions. Do all bats live in colonies? (No) How many babies do they have? (our native species tend to have just one per year) Does pregnancy affect their flight? (probably!) Are bats blind? (no) Do vampire bat bites hurt? (not really – their saliva contains an analgesic!) Corky discussed bats in the bypass and all around the world, and touched on topics like rabies, and white nose syndrome.

Like our first field day, during closing circle, we shared our favorite moment of SLEWS. On the first field day, however, many students answer was “the burritos!”. This time, only one student mentioned burritos – most students mentioned planting, birding, and bats as some of the highlights of their experience. What a great season with Davis High!

The final SLEWS day of the (school) year

Sacramento Charter High School at Clark Ranch 1
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | April 17, 2019

Participating School
Sacramento Charter High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms
Bruce Clark

Mentors
Bob Ream, retired
Corey Shake, Partner Biologist, Point Blue Conservation Science, NRCS
Dana Stokes
Jess Rudnick, UC Davis graduate student

Summary of the Day
For the final Field Day with Sacramento Charter High School (and final Field Day of the 2018 – 2019 SLEWS season!) we were back at our original site, Clark Ranch. Our first Field Day was here back in December, but for our second day we installed irrigation at a site in Woodland. It had been over 4 months since our day at this site and it was remarkable how much had changed. In December the site was so muddy we couldn’t bring vehicles in, and it rained intermittently throughout the day. This time, it was plenty dry to drive on and at eighty degrees was the hottest SLEWS day of the season!

Students were excited during breakfast to find a native butterfly we identified as a Painted Lady. We played PVC golf to connect with our mentor groups before heading out to see the plants we had planted back in December. As this site had experienced a lot of wind and some flooding with the stormy winter we had, our task was to replace bamboo poles, adjust tubes and emitters, and weed around the plants to increase their chance at survival. One student found caterpillars while working along the hedgerow and wondered if they might be Painted Ladies – the same species we saw earlier in the adult (butterfly) form.

After completing our restoration work, mentor Jessica Rudnick, a UC Davis Graduate Student, led the students in a fun educational activity. She explained that they would be investigative journalists, and their assignment was to figure out how the farm was addressing environmental issues. Students rotated between stations learning about pollination (and native habitat benefits!), weeds and cover crops, irrigation, and predators on the farm. Students got to try immature almonds and were surprised to find they tasted like cucumbers! And appropriately, as mentor Corey Shake was discussing predators on the farm, a Swainson’s Hawk flew overhead.

Once students had had a chance to learn about all aspects of the farm, they compiled their reports. Some students elected to share their findings – one memorable and report was a student who chose to be a critical reporter and delivered a hilariously negative story about the almond orchard.

After lunch, we celebrated student Jordan’s birthday before ending the day with a closing circle. Many students remarked that they really enjoyed seeing how much their plants had grown in the past four months!

Putting the finishing touches on a project in Rio Vista

Rio Vista High School at Petersen Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | April 3, 2019

Participating School
Rio Vista High School

Partners/Landowners
Solano Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Emily Snider, UCD graduate student
Karleen Vollherbst, Schoolyard Habitat Program Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Matthew Young, Fish Biologist, California Water Science Center, USGS
Luke Petersen, Partner Biologist, Point Blue Conservation Science, NRCS

Summary of the Day
For our third and final Field Day, we decided to spend the day at a more established restoration site to give students the opportunity to see what their project might look like in several years time. Though the site was flourishing, so were the weeds – our main project task of the day would be removing these weeds to reduce competition with the planted natives.

We played a round of PVC golf to get our mentor teams working together before beginning our restoration work. Chris Carlson explained that there would be two main project tasks that day – weeding and digging. He showed students how to identify three common weeds – cheeseweed, hemlock, and mustard – before demonstrating how to use the hoes to efficiently remove them. We also discussed the ambitious digging portion of the project – in order to install two barn owl boxes, two deep, narrow holes needed to be dug. While some mentor groups weeded, others used post hole diggers and shovels to dig a four-foot-deep hole in the earth. Once the hole reached a four-foot depth, some students were excited to test it out and climbed in up to their shoulders!

Before installing the owl boxes, mentor Luke Petersen gave a wonderful talk about barn owls and why these nest boxes are so important. Mentor groups worked together to hoist the posts into the holes as Jeff of Solano RCD secured them in place. Then it was time to mix concrete! Instead of a cement mixer, Rio Vista students used shovels to mix the concrete and secure the post. By mornings end, the area was looking nearly weed-free, and two barn owl boxes were standing tall!

Students then had the opportunity to interview mentors about their education and career paths before sitting down to reflect and write a thank you note to someone who made their SLEWS experience possible. Many students ended up thanking their mentors, who by then had spent three field days guiding them. And several students ended up writing and distributing several thank you notes!

Cheers to a wonderful last field day at Petersen Ranch!

Ending the last Field Day with a BANG

Grant Union High at Clark Ranch 2
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | March 28, 2019

Participating School
Grant Union High School

Location
Clark Ranch 2 in Davis, CA – the southern of two projects at this site

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms
Bruce Clark

Mentors
Jen Metes, Research Associate, Consero Solutions
Julea Shaw, UC Davis graduate student
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab
Sean McNamara, Manager, Sierra Orchards

Summary of the Day
As you may recall, this winter season had quite a few big storms. Not only did many SLEWS Field Days need to be rescheduled, but some of our sites were damaged by wind and flooding. Perhaps none more than the southern Clark Ranch site, where Grant Union students arrived to find protective tubes missing and roots exposed in much of our planting area!

We warmed up with a game of PVC golf before heading to our planting site to assess the damage. Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District showed students how to “emergency room triage” each plant. Many plants had exposed roots which needed to be reburied, and others were in need of replacement protective tubes and bamboo stakes. Groups worked in the same section where they planted months prior, and were able to see how their plants were surviving. Before long, the planting area was looking much improved, giving these native species a much better chance at survival.

After lunch, students had the opportunity to interview their mentors about their education and career paths. Groups of students rotated from mentor to mentor asking about their day-to-day work and advice they’d give themselves looking back.

At closing circle, I asked everyone to share their most memorable SLEWS experience. After hearing from just a few students, the weather took a sudden, stormy turn – strong winds started blowing, and rain starting falling. The downpour quickly turned to hail and we were forced to abandon closing circle and race towards the road to meet the bus. The storm only worsened – there we were, in pouring rain and hail, with no cover and a long walk to the bus. Not to mention students had already removed their raingear after a pretty clear day! As we hurried towards the road, we heard thunder in the distance and saw several flashes of lightning. The bus pulled up as soon as we got to the road and the drenched students climbed in. I guess there was no need for a closing circle – after that experience, I think we know what everyone’s most memorable SLEWS experience was!

Though that was a memorable experience, it had tough competition. For me personally, my days with Grant Union High have been some of the memorable of this SLEWS season – my first Field Day EVER was our irrigation day back in November, our second Field Day brought a film crew and some mud-related logistical challenges, and we capped it all off with this crazy thunder and hailstorm. What a year!