Urban greening in Vallejo

Rodriguez High School at Lake Dalwigk
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | March 12, 2020

Participating School
Rodriguez High School

Partners/Landowners
Solano Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Mary Badger, Technician, UC Davis Genomic Variation Laboratory
Natalie Kopec, UC Davis Undergraduate
Sarah Gaffney, UC Davis Graduate Student
Teska Hapig-Ward, UC Davis Undergraduate

Summary of the Day
By this time of year, most of our SLEWS projects are coming to an end – I’ve gotten accustomed to coordinating final field days with cupcakes and thank you notes and a shared sense of accomplishment. After finishing 5 of 7 SLEWS projects, it was quite an adjustment to get back in first field day mode, with introductions and name games! But that was just the case with our project with Rodriguez High School.

Our field day was at Lake Dalwigk in Vallejo, a public park in which Solano Resource Conservation District is implementing an urban greening project. The project involves planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers in the park, and our contribution would be helping with the tree planting.

During opening circle, Sarah McKibbin gave students an overview of the planning process for this project, and what had been done so far. Some of the trees had already been planted, but there were over 100 left to plant, which we all agreed would be impossible to complete in the time we had. We’d plant as many as we could and call it a day!

We played group juggle to learn each other’s names before dividing into mentor groups to learn to identify 5 of the trees we’d be planting: coastal live oak, valley oak, California buckeye, western sycamore, and black walnut. Once students could do this confidently, it was time to pit mentor group against mentor group for a game of “Steal the Native Plant” with students racing to correctly identify the trees.

After gathering shovels and gloves, Sarah led a planting demonstration, showing students how to dig a hole at the right depth, make a “pedestal” for the plant to rest on, cover the potting soil with native soil, install a tree tube, and secure it with a stake inside the tube.

Mentor groups set off tackling different sections of the irrigation line. Students really seemed to get in the flow of planting – one student who at first claimed he “didn’t dig” was later seen crushing it and planting 5 trees all by himself! This group was incredibly efficient and productive, FAR exceeding the RCD’s expectations – in fact, RCD staff were scrambling to set plants out in time for students to put them in the ground! By the end of the morning, our team had planted over 100 native trees, an incredible achievement!

After a well-deserved lunch, we learned how to use binoculars so we could look at some of the birds in and around Lake Dalwigk, including MANY Canada Geese, several species of ducks, gulls, coots, and sparrows. Students received and personalized field journals, then transitioned into mentor interviews. This gave them an opportunity to get to know the mentors they’d been working with all day, especially learning about their education and career paths.

To close the day, students summed up the day in just one word. Popular ones included: FUN, green, extravagant, interesting, productive, trees, collaborative, and rewarding. I couldn’t agree more!

With schools canceled for at least several weeks (if not the rest of the school year) due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains unclear whether we will be able to complete the rest of our field days. It’s possible this was the final Field Day of the 2019-20 SLEWS season. If this is the case, I could not have picked a better field day to end on.

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.

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!

Grass and forb planting at Petersen Ranch

Rio Vista High School at Petersen Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 6, 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, Partner’s for Fish & Wildlife Biologist, 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
The morning of this Field Day was the coldest so far – it was 28 degrees when I arrived to load up the truck with gear in the morning! After finding another water source (the faucets were frozen shut!) we loaded up the truck with hot water for cocoa and were on our way, passing frost-covered cows on the drive.

The restoration site was at the end of a dirt road that had become quite muddy in recent rains – just getting there was a 4wd adventure! Rio Vista High soon arrived with a small but mighty crew of students. After changing into rain boots, we were at our field site in no time.

We started our first Field Day with opening circle, where Chris Carlson of Solano RCD introduced the multi-year project at Petersen Ranch. Just last year, students from Rio Vista High installed irrigation, planted grasses, trees, and shrubs and installed bird boxes. This year’s students will help put the finishing touches on this restoration project. After a game of “Where the Wind Blows” where we learned Rio Vista students enjoy fishing, welding, and spending time outdoors we divided into mentor groups and gathered supplies for the day.

Chris led an informative and entertaining demonstration of our activity for the day – planting “plugs” of native grasses, forbs, and sedges. Mentor groups tackled different areas near the irrigation ditch, planting plugs of mugwort, purple aster, western goldentop, creeping wildrye, and saltgrass. Groups working further from the water source also installed drip emitters on the irrigation line and placed a protective covering around the plug. Rio Vista students worked incredibly fast – 800 plugs were in the ground in under an hour! Luckily Chris had some acorns ready for planting, and explained how oaks planted from acorns tend to live longer than those planted from saplings, as the tap root is undamaged. Students made short work of these acorns as well, planting 15 acorns in the riparian area. It’s amazing to imagine how different the area will be when those trees start to mature!

We still had some time before lunch, so mentor groups grabbed binoculars and bird ID cards and ventured up onto the levee. Some of the bird species we spotted included white-tailed kite, marsh wren, turkey vulture, red tailed hawk, white crowned sparrow, caspian tern, and lots of raptors. After lunch, we returned onto the levee to spend some time reflecting on the day in field journals. Students were great about spreading out to experience the site solo – some students were perched on the levee, while others found quiet spaces near the water.

At closing circle, many students remarked that they most enjoyed learning how to plant and spending time outdoors. Mentors and partners enjoyed this as well, but the adults in our group were most pleasantly surprised by this awesome group of respectful, hardworking, and fun-to-be-around students. Can’t wait for our next day in the field!

Another day on the “Pharm”

Woodland High School at Pharm Schaer
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 24, 2019

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Candice Schaer

Mentors
Fanny Ye, Soil Conservationist, NRCS
Gina Radieve, Environmental Scientist, California Department of Water Resources
Miles Daprato, Environmental Steward for UCD Campus Planning and Environmental Stewardship Department
Susie Bresney, Staff Scientist, Stockholm Environment Institute

Summary of the Day
Just two weeks after installing irrigation at Pharm Schaer, we were back for the second phase of our project – planting the native trees and shrubs that will provide habitat and increase biodiversity on Candice Schaer’s property in Guinda.

We were once again treated to a brilliant, clear day in the Capay Valley with beautiful views of the hills. We began our day with an opening circle, playing “Where the Wind Blows” to learn more about one another. Then mentor groups learned to identify some of the plants we would be planting that day, including manzanita, Cleveland sage, coyote brush, fuschia, and toyon. Woodland High students played the most enthusiastic, competitive version of “Steal the Native Plant” I’ve seen all year – we had to modify the rules to prevent collisions!

Next, Brandon Baker of Yolo County Resource Conservation District led the students in a planting demonstration to learn the proper way to plant a native plant. Then students broke off into mentor groups, planting along the southern and eastern perimeters of Pharm Schaer. While planting, students were excited to see the sheep and llama that were providing weed control on the property! By the end of the morning, students had planted 120 native plants, buried two sections of irrigation line, and even started mulching the plants to reduce moisture loss and weed growth. We’ll finish this mulching project at our final Field Day in a few weeks.

After lunch, mentor Miles Daprato led a discussion about native ecology and read an excerpt from the book “The Ohlone Way” to help students visualize what this area might have been like thousands of years ago. This helped to put the restoration effort into context – though we won’t be able to get this area to look like it did back then, the hedgerow they installed will help provide resources to species whose habitat has been reduced.

Since we had seen so many birds on our first Field Day, I brought binoculars for our second Field Day and mentor groups explored the property, binocs in hand. Groups were able to spot Western Bluebirds, Say’s Phoebes, Western Scrub-Jays and more – even some cows grazing on the hills! Then, students found a quiet spot to reflect on the day and write a postcard to themselves about their experiences.

At closing circle, one student summed up her experience wonderfully, “I liked that we weren’t just planting, we were helping wildlife too!”. Thanks for another great day, Woodland High!

A rainy day at River Garden Farms

Florin High School at River Garden Farms
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 15, 2019

Participating School
Florin High School

Partners/Landowners
Audubon California
River Garden Farms

Mentors
Aaron Haiman, Environmental Scientist and Tribal Liaison, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
Esther Tracy, Environmental Scientist, Department of Water Resources
Fanny Ye, Soil Conservationist, NRCS
Xerónimo Castañeda, Conservation Project Associate, Audubon California

Summary of the Day
Our second day at River Garden Farms wins the award for wettest Field Day of the season so far! As soon as students arrived we had them gear up in rain gear and mud boots before having breakfast under a canopy. We did an opening circle and played “Where the Wind Blows” to learn more about each other, before playing a round of “Steal the Native Plant” to learn more about some of the species we’d later be planting.

On our first Field Day we installed a drip irrigation system, but unfortunately this area was too muddy for us to access this time. Luckily, Dominic Bruno (Assistant General Manager of River Garden Farms) had another project up his sleeve – maintaining the native plant hedgerow that classes of SLEWS students help install in years past. He demonstrated the proper way to trim the deergrass bunches, plant milkweed seeds, and replant some of the plants that did not survive.

Two mentor groups set off, clippers in hand, to trim the deergrass. One group pretended they were working in a barbershop, giving “haircuts” to the bunches of deergrass on the levee. As one student put it, “we gave haircuts to 33 customers and not a single one left us a tip!”. Two other groups ventured in the opposite direction, replanting some of the plants from previous years that hadn’t survived. Finally, the fifth group worked on planting “companion” milkweed seeds next to established plants. These milkweed plants will be a crucial resource for migrating monarch butterflies. By the end of the day, Dominic estimated that students trimmed 45 deergrass, planted 100 milkweed plants as associates, and replanted 50 native trees and shrubs!

The rain continued to come down throughout the morning, so we decided to shelter for lunch. After taking off raingear, students loaded back up onto the bus to ride to the shop area for lunch. On the way, avid birder and mentor Aaron Haiman led the students in a birdwatching activity facing some flooded rice fields. Flooding the rice fields breaks down the rice stalks for the following growing season, but also creates artificial wetlands that provide habitat for migratory birds. River Garden Farms has added another level of restoration to this effort, growing “Fish Food” for young salmon in the Sacramento River. You can learn more about this awesome project by watching the short film “A New Way Forward” at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miIhs-mc_40.

Students enjoyed lunch in River Garden Farms’ shop area, eating at tables amongst rice harvesting machinery storage. Students especially enjoyed warming up by the heater after a chilly, wet day!