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.

Becoming native plant caretakers

Winters High School at Putah Creek Dry Creek Confluence
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | February 21, 2020

Participating School
Winters High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Valerie Whitworth and Michael Barbour

Mentors
Carolyn Kolstad, Biologist, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Josh McCabe, Restoration Coordinator at ACRT Pacific
Karleen Vollherbst, Schoolyard Habitat Program Coordinator, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Lea Pollack, UCD Graduate Student
Marisa Alcorta, Apprenticeship Program Manager, Center for Land-Based Learning

Summary of the Day
Our final day working at the confluence of Putah Creek and Dry Creek in Winters was a hot one, but that didn’t stop us from accomplishing a TON of work.

After mentor groups faced off in a game of PVC golf, we headed down to our planting site to hear from Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District about the plans for the day. The main goal was supporting the plants we had planted on our second field day to give them the best possible chance at survival. This was a multi-step process. First, students checked to make sure the emitter was working properly. Then, they installed protective tubes around each plant and drove a bamboo stake into the ground to keep the tube upright. They then cleared weeds around the plant and applied a thick layer of mulch to prevent weed growth around the plant and minimize water loss. There were a few areas in which plants needed to be planted as well, so we planted about 15 native plants in addition to what we had done on our second field day. As we planted, students and mentors noticed many birds around the project site, including yellow-rumped warblers, western bluebirds, and tree swallows.

After a productive morning, we had burritos for lunch and celebrated the last SLEWS day with a cupcake cake. Once lunch was finished, we moved on to mentor interviews. By now, students had been working with their mentors for 3 field days, and this gave them an opportunity to get to know them even better and ask them questions about their education and career paths. As you can see by the diverse job titles above, students were able to hear about several different lines of work and asked great questions, a popular one being, “what is the most surprising thing about your job?”.

To close the day, we shared our favorite experiences of all three SLEWS Field Days. Many students cited visiting Putah Creek on Day 1 and learning about black widow behavior with mentor Lea on Day 2 as their favorite experiences, along with mulching and planting.

Thanks for 3 awesome Field Days!

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!

Second round of plants at Yanci Ranch

Pioneer High School at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 31, 2020

Participating School
Pioneer High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Rominger Brothers Farms

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
Jen Metes, Conservation Programs Administrator, The Freshwater Trust

Summary of the Day
Our second field day with Pioneer High School at Yanci Ranch began as planting days often do, with a game of “Where the Wind Blows” during opening circle. In this game, students cross the circle to find a new carpet square to stand on whenever the person in the middle says something that applies to them. These students moved FAST – mentors and restoration partners ended up in the middle far more than the students themselves!

After reuniting mentor groups from the previous week, students learned about five native plants to play, you guessed it, a game of “Steal the Native Plant”! Similar to “Steal the Bacon”, students race against other mentor groups to be the first to identify the plant species as they’re called out. This time, students learned to identify elderberry, interior live oak, buckwheat, foothill pine, and coffeeberry, five of the species we’d soon learn to plant.

After gathering supplies, we headed down to the planting area where Michael Felipe of Yolo County Resource Conservation District gave a demonstration on the proper way to plant. Most students planted container plants, but one group also learned how to pole plant cuttings of trees. We planted along an irrigation line parallel to the one Grant Union High students planted the week prior. Students created systems to get the planting done more effectively – some groups chose to have dedicated diggers and planters, some groups switched off, and others worked in pairs. By the end of the morning, we had planted over 150 plants and installed a protective tube around each one!

After lunch, Brandon Baker of the Yolo County Resource Conservation District led us on a walk to check out earlier phases of the restoration projects at Yanci Ranch. Students recognized mature elderberry, foothill pine, and coffeeberry plants, and learned about toyon, quailbush, and coyotebrush as well. These earlier phases are very similar to the project Pioneer students are completing this year – they were just planted a few years ago. It was like looking into the future and seeing what our site will look like in several years’ time. The idea is that these phases connect to create a corridor for wildlife in an area where there are not always good food sources or places to hide. We even spotted a few deer near a more established hedgerow!

We shared a few moments of total silence to listen to the birds and look for wildlife. Throughout the day we saw lots of birds: white tailed kite, red tailed hawk, meadowlark, killdeer, blue heron, flicker, bluebird, and a Say’s phoebe. Birdwatching seemed to be a favorite activity of the day!

Plants and postcards at Yanci Ranch

Grant Union at Yanci Ranch
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 23, 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
Jacob Byers, Partners Biologist, Sacramento NWRC
MJ Farruggia, UCD Graduate Student

Summary of the Day
For our second Field Day at Yanci Ranch, Grant Union students arrived early and eager to plant! After breakfast and opening circle, we got to know one another better (and brushed up on names) with a game of “Where the Wind Blows”. After dividing into mentor groups, students learned the names, characteristics, and ecological functions of coyotebrush, sage, elderberry, wild rose, and buckwheat – five of the plants we would be planting that day.

After becoming familiar with the plants, mentor groups faced off to be the first to identify those five plants in a game of “Steal the Native Plant”. Then it was time to grab tools and head down to the planting area to learn the proper way to plant our hedgerow. Some students would be planting native trees and shrubs from containers, while others would be planting cuttings of cottonwood, red willow, and mule fat in areas that tend to have more water.

Mentor groups divided themselves down the line, working the same sections they installed emitters on back in December. By lunchtime, students had planted an impressive 179 containers and 30 cuttings!

After lunch, we took a walk to take a look at some of the earlier phases of restoration here at Yanci Ranch. Rominger Brothers Farms has been working with Yolo County Resource Conservation District for several years to increase biodiversity and create corridors of native habitat on this cattle ranch. Several SLEWS projects have taken place here, including one with Grant Union High School! Amy Williams of Yolo County RCD led us through several of these previous phases, giving students a view of what their site might look like after it’s had a few years to mature. Students were even recognizing some of the same plants they just planted, but much larger, of course!

We took a moment to reflect in a beautiful meadow as students spread out to create a postcard from the field. On one side, students drew a picture to represent their experience and on the other, wrote a postcard to commemorate the day. As we returned to our home base and circled up to close the day, students expressed gratitude for the experience and remarked on how being outside and contributing to restoration made their stresses melt away.

Plants under the powerlines

Florin High School at River Garden Farms
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 14, 2020

Participating School
Florin High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
River Garden Farms

Mentors
Colin Fagan, Lab Assistant, Williams Lab
Dana Stokes
Jacob Byers, Partner Biologist, Sacramento NWRC
Miles Daprato, Environmental Steward for UCD Campus Planning and Environmental Stewardship Department
Nick Gallagher, Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA

Summary of the Day
Our second Field Day at River Garden Farms was warmer than anticipated, and thought it had rained the night before the dirt road was only damp, not muddy! After a breakfast of bagels and fruit, we got moving with a game of “Where the Wind Blows” before heading over for our planting demonstration.

Planting was tricky on this day – we were planting both tiny plugs and container plants, and putting protective tubes around each plant. Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District gave a demonstration on all the necessary steps before we divided into mentor groups to play “Steal the Native Plant”, a variant of “Steal the Bacon”. Students learned how to identify sage, elderberry, coyotebrush, toyon, lupine, and wild rose before racing to be the first group to identify these native plants.

After gathering tools, mentor groups ventured out towards their assigned section. River Garden Farms had some tree tubes they wanted to reuse, but they were too small to fit around some of our larger shrubs. Students improvised to fit two tubes together to make one megatube that would fit around the plants! This was a slower process than usual, but students were meticulous in their work and did a great job planting. Some students began even naming plants as they went!

I have to hand it to Florin students for being so enthusiastic and dedicated to the project – this was the first time I’ve ever had to beg students to come back for lunch!

After some well-deserved burritos, students had the opportunity to interview all of the mentors about their differing education and career paths. I heard students asking mentors for advice and some great off-script questions, including “what’s your favorite superhero?”. One mentor, who’s in the restoration field, replied that he’d pick time travel so he could travel back in time to see what the area really was like so he’d be better at his job. Perhaps some of the same native plants that would have been around back then are once again back in the area thanks to Florin students!

An invertebrate-heavy day in Winters

Winters High School at Putah Creek Dry Creek Confluence
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 10, 2020

Participating School
Winters High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Valerie Whitworth and Michael Barbour

Mentors
Josh McCabe, Restoration Coordinator at ACRT Pacific
Lea Pollack, UCD Graduate Student
Marisa Alcorta, Apprenticeship Program Manager, Center for Land-Based Learning

Summary of the Day
Our second field day at the confluence of Putah and Dry Creek in Winters brought us many eager students, both familiar and new to the program.

A guest speaker joined us for opening circle – Jessa of the Xerces Society, an organization focused on invertebrate conservation. She spoke about the alarming decline in the population of the Western Monarch Butterfly (population down 86% from 2017 to 2018) and how the results of this restoration project will help support monarchs in their migration. We finished our opening circle with a game of “Where the Wind Blows” to identify similarities within our group.

After dividing into mentor groups and gathering our tools for the day, we headed down to the project site for our planting demonstration. Amy Williams of Yolo County Resource Conservation District began by introducing students to four of the plants we’d be planting that day – deerweed, toyon, fuschia, and wild rose. As these plants were passed around, students learned their ecological benefits and how to identify them. Then Amy demonstrated the main task of the day, planting trees, shrubs, and forbs. Each plant would be planted in specific spots along the irrigation line, and an emitter would be installed next to it to provide the plant with adequate water.

Mentor groups enthusiastically tackled this job in different areas, with some groups following to install “spaghetti” line to ensure the water would reach the plants. Once groups finished planting the larger plants, Amy showed them how to plug plant smaller “plugs” by poking holes in the ground using a “dibble”. We were all impressed by how much we accomplished by lunchtime!

After lunch, mentor Lea Pollack gave a presentation on the work she’s doing in her Ph.D. program. She studies behavioral ecology and works with black widow spiders. Students were surprised to learn that black widows have personalities! The more “aggressive” (not to people – to other spiders and prey) spiders build their webs in a different way than less aggressive individuals, and you can actually see the difference when the webs are sprayed with water! Mentor groups were each given a misted web (without a widow in it) and counted the number of “gum footed” lines in the web to figure out whether the spider that made it was aggressive or not.

During closing circle, students reflected on what they had learned that day. Many students shared facts about monarch migration, others shared the planting techniques they learned, and even more mentioned black widows – that they have personalities, that only the females build webs, and that the web structure can tell us about their behavior!

Planting through the fog

Davis Senior High School at Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | January 7, 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
Drier weather made access easier for our second day at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, but it was still a bit difficult to find the site as the bypass was blanketed in a thick layer of fog all day! Students were troopers in the foggy, cold weather – it didn’t get above the mid 40s all day, and the sun never did come out.

We played “Where the Wind Blows” during our opening circle, an activity where students, mentors, and partners identify commonalities within the group. After this, we divided into mentor groups so each group could learn to identify mugwort, wild rose, California blackberry, coyotebrush, quailbush, and deergrass in preparation for the “Steal the Native Plant” game. Students raced to be the first to correctly identify each plant and earn points for their mentor group. This came in handy later – students were able to recall the names and ecological value of the plants as they planted them!

Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District demonstrated proper planting technique before mentor groups headed out to tackle their trestles. You might recall that on this project we are helping to vegetate 4 former railway trestles, and each mentor group is adopting one! It requires a bit more flexibility than a typical SLEWS planting plan, as each trestle presents different challenges and obstacles. One group experienced extremely rocky soil, another had to avoid planting next to larger rocks. By the end of the morning, students had planted 350 container plants of native shrubs and forbs, and 80 deergrass plugs as “companion” plants!

After lunch, educator Sabreena Britt of the Yolo Basin Foundation led students in a water quality testing activity. After explaining the what’s and why’s of water quality testing, she had students rotate through 8 stations where they tested water turbidity, dissolved oxygen, salinity, conductivity, temperature, pH, total dissolved solids, and oxidation reduction potential. The data students collected was uploaded to Earth Echo International as citizen science data that can be used by real scientists! Check it out here: http://www.monitorwater.org/.

Milkweed for Monarchs at the Maples

Woodland High School at the Maples
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | December 11, 2019

Participating School
Woodland High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District

Mentors
Bob Ream, retired
Grace Auringer, Technician, Genomic Variation Lab
Mandi Finger, Associate Director, Genomic Variation Lab
Matt Clement

Summary of the Day
You may have heard that the Center for Land-Based Learning is moving from our current headquarters at the Farm on Putah Creek in Winters to The Maples in Woodland. The new office is coming together quickly (check out our new headquarters here!) and we have plans to do SLEWS projects onsite for many seasons to come – starting now!

As part of the site construction, a stormwater retention basin was installed alongside our future California Farm Academy plot. Since this area won’t be actively used, it’s a great opportunity to create habitat for wildlife!

You may have heard the unfortunate news that monarch butterflies are at risk – the California population plummeted by 86% in just one year (from 2017 to 2018). To help address this, the Xerces Society has developed “Monarch and Pollinator Habitat Kits” to distribute to restoration partners. Yolo Resource Conservation District is implementing one of these kits here at the Maples. These kits consist of native milkweeds (the host plant for monarchs, essential to their breeding success) and nectar plants to support adult monarchs and other pollinators. Along with the Xerces kits, the Yolo County RCD planned to line the bottom of the basin with native grasses.

We will have two field days at the Maples with Woodland High School, and at our opening circle I recognized many familiar faces – several of the students participated in SLEWS last year and were back for more! As we relocated to the stormwater basin after opening circle we realized we had a surprise visitor – Mary Kimball, Executive Director of the Center for Land-Based Learning! She assisted the Yolo County RCD staff in giving a stellar planting demonstration, in the process planting the very first plant of this restoration project!

We had a TON of work slated for this first field day, yet as always Woodland High students shocked us with their enthusiastic and unwavering work ethic. We started by laying down two 750+ foot lines of drip irrigation, and followed by planting 225 container plants and installing drip emitters for each. After that students moved on to plug planting in the basin itself, planting more than 2000 plugs! Finally, students planted 150 milkweed rhizomes in the pollinator meadow area.

A productive morning of work was rewarded with burritos from Chuy’s Taqueria, and we were fortunate to finish the field day just as the rain started! Our next field day with Woodland High will be at Capay Open Space Park, and I cannot wait to see what we accomplish there!

Pioneers of planting

Pioneer High School at Jack Rice’s
SLEWS Program | Sacramento Valley | March 22, 2019

Participating School
Pioneer High School

Partners/Landowners
Yolo County Resource Conservation District
Jack Rice

Mentors
Amanda Lindell, UCD graduate student
Brianne Palmer, UCD graduate student
Francisco Bellido Leiva, UCD graduate student
Nick Gallagher, Rangeland Management Specialist, USDA

Summary of the Day
Due to some mid-year changes, a restoration project opened up a few months ago for a new school to take on. Fortunately for me, AP Biology teacher Kimberly Lumbard of Pioneer High School was eager to give this experience to her students. I visited students in the classroom to talk about SLEWS and the project they would be a part of and just four days later, our project began!

We started the day with a game of Steal the Native Plant because you guessed it – we would be planting native plant species. Sacramento Charter High School had installed an irrigation system several weeks prior, so the area was primed for planting. After learning to identify several species including coffeeberry, wild rose, buckbrush, and fuschia, students competed to be the first to correctly identify the plant. One student impressed us all by rattling off the scientific names of many plants in addition to the common names we were learning!

After a planting demonstration by Alex Tremblay of Yolo County Resource Conservation District, four mentor groups spread out along the irrigation line to plant native trees, shrubs, and forbs. We just expected to plant a portion of the plants – 180 seemed impossible with our smaller group – but surprisingly, Pioneer students finished the project!

After lunch, we played a game of “Who Am I?”. Each student was given a plant or animal ID card and told not to look at it – instead, each student placed the card on their back and asked yes/no questions until they were able to figure out what they were. Once everyone figured out “who” they were, they found another person in the group who they interact with in the wild. We explored the types of symbiotic biological relationships, including mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism before each pair shared their interaction with the group.

At closing circle, students shared their favorite part about the day and one thing they learned. Many students shared that they liked helping the environment and feeling more involved as environmental stewards. One student even remarked he was looking forward to planting native plants at his house!