By David Herlocker, Interpretive Naturalist, Marin County Parks
If there is anything good to say about the four year long drought we are experiencing, it is that we are learning just how precious water is, and that we truly shouldn’t take it for granted. We are by now quite aware of how a shortage of water can change our lives, but consider the effect that it has on wildlife; every drop, every molecule makes a difference. If the food chain is disrupted at the very beginning, the effect is magnified through the entire ecosystem.
Ecosystems result from a process that begins with energy from the sun. Plants capture solar energy and through the miracle of photosynthesis make that energy available for other living things. But without water, photosynthesis can’t take place. The sun continues to shine, but that energy is not captured and the system stalls. With less plant matter available, herbivore populations crash; this includes everything from insects to rodents to deer. Predatory insects, spiders, birds, bobcats; all predators are hit even harder. And as one dry year follows another, the condition is magnified even further. There are fewer seeds to sprout, fewer eggs to hatch and the plants and animals that have managed to survive find themselves in a world without nourishment.
Some of these changes are already quite evident; bird populations are shrinking. Species that migrate to this area to raise their young do so because the winter and spring rains typically produce an abundance of insects. Even species whose adult diet is mostly composed of seeds raise their young on highly nutritious (and usually plentiful) insects, but with fewer insects fewer young are produced. The dawn chorus is much quieter than usual; where once there were hundreds of voices, there are maybe a dozen, some familiar voices are absent altogether.
Changes in plant and animal populations are part of the cycles of nature, but the longer term consequences may be influenced by unnatural factors. Invasive plants like the drought-adapted yellow star thistle may spread at a faster rate and over wider areas, which would cause permanent disruptions in those ecosystems. Introduced animals such as wild turkeys and feral pigs, which are omnivorous and quite opportunistic, could out-compete native species and cause localized extinctions. The impacts caused by changes like these could last well after the rainfall returns to normal, but what if this weather pattern is the new normal?
We can modify our habits and make an effort to conserve water; hopefully more people will choose to follow that path. But what about the wildlife that have no choice but to make do with what little water is available? Is there anything that we can do? It is tempting to want to provide food and water for the animals that live in the parched hills around us, but that can actually serve to make the situation worse by creating unnaturally high concentrations of animals in inappropriate places. To learn more about the consequences of providing supplemental food or water for wild animals go to the WildCare website and read the article about Wildlife and Drought. If you really want to help alleviate the suffering of wildlife consider becoming a volunteer or donating to organizations like WildCare, they really do make a difference.
By Linda Novy, Marin County Parks volunteer
Seven volunteers from Creekside Equestrian Center walked over to the Willis Evans Trail Head on Saturday morning, October 25th. We met up with Matt Sagues, the Senior Resource Planner with Marin County Open Space District, who had the tools, knowledge, and the leadership we needed for this project. We walked into the Giacomini Preserve, across a bridge over Willis Evans Creek, spawning grounds for coho salmon, and then up a trail bordered by redwood trees, wood roses, ferns, huckleberries, and other woodland natives. As we reached the top of the trail, the forest plant community opened up into a meadow dominated by fescue bunch grasses. Matt told us that the meadow is composed of Festuca idaohensis, commonly called blue bunchgrass or Idaho fescue. As part of the District’s Vegetation and Biodiversity Management Plan, habitats are being cataloged throughout the Preserves, and this particular meadow has been deemed to be valuable habitat.
Matt went on to tell us that this serpentine meadow is home to a number of rare and endangered species endemic to California and specifically to Marin County. And, making it even more special, we noticed that the meadow is free from invasive grasses. Its beauty was truly stunning. One of the plants that is most exciting to the District and UC Davis botanists is the rare endemic, Tiburon Buckwheat, Eriogonum luteolum var. caninum. To identify this plant, the District asked UC Davis to confirm the plant’s identity which was accomplished by directly comparing buckwheat samples from Willis Evans meadow to Tiburon buckwheat samples at the UC Davis herbarium. This diminutive perennial, growing amidst the bunch grasses and along the wildlife trails, has red stems, and small fuchsia pink flowers on the one we found blooming. We were happy to see it recolonizing on a trail that now is closed to visitors. Matt pointed out another rare plant, the Tamalpais Manzanita, Arctostaphylos montana, growing here and also on Mt. Tamalpais. This Manzanita prefers serpentinite and rocky outcroppings, chaparral, and valley and foothill grasslands.
Interspersed in the meadow we saw another interesting rare and endangered grass, Vanilla Grass, and forbs such as yarrow and Douglas iris. Moving up the slope, there were healthy clusters of coffee berry, toyon, and madrone. As the meadow transitioned to chaparral habitat further up the slope, we noticed a growing population of California yerba santa, and chamise. There was a prominent Sargent cypress, which is part of a chaparral, foothill woodland, and lower montane forest plant community, often on serpentine.
Then to work! Our goal was to remove encroaching Douglas fir trees from the edges of the meadow. Species like Douglas fir are pushing into serpentine habitat that would have naturally burned and been invigorated by fire. These tall trees will eventually shade out grassland species, so our goal was to fell saplings and smaller trees, and hand pull seedlings, in order to keep the meadow clear. We even pruned off some of the larger fir trees’ lower branches that were shading out meadow grasses. We bucked the brush into understory areas. After 3 hours, we felt we’d made a good dent in the fir tree population, and hiked back out, but not before agreeing to adopt this meadow and return to it at least once a year to keep pushing the encroaching fir trees back.
This was satisfying project, and as Matt said, it has high habitat value because of the rarity of this pristine meadow. The habitat restoration event was inspired by the participation of Megan Amaglio and Sophie Cox in the “Students in Parks,” part of the District’s Environmental Stewardship Program. Many thanks to volunteers: Elizabeth Barrow, Carson Cox, Ann Darragh, Linda Novy, Kathi Runge, Johanna Stefanski, Matt Sagues, Megan Amaglio, and Sophie Cox.
For more information about our volunteer programs, click here. Thanks for caring for Marin County’s parks and open spaces!
Measure A was passed by Marin’s voters in 2012 to care for Marin’s parks, open space preserves, and farmland. For two decades prior to 2012, Marin County Parks (MCP) and Marin County Open Space District (MCOSD) rangers were spread thin. Vacant ranger positions weren’t filled because of budget cuts, while the acreage of open space preserves kept growing. Folks out in the open spaces noticed too. Some compared rangers to snow leopards; they knew rangers were somewhere out there but had never seen one. Due to the shortage of rangers, road and trail maintenance suffered, unauthorized trail construction and other resource protection issues multiplied, and people out enjoying the parks and preserves had few to turn to when they had questions or concerns. Ensuring sufficient staff to maintain our parks and preserves and to serve our visitors were the highest priorities when Marin County Parks developed the first Measure A budget. By late 2013, we had hired new park rangers, open space rangers, ecologists, planners, landscape architects, naturalists, and volunteer coordinators, among others. Many had been working with us as summer seasonal employees for several years. A few grew up here in Marin and have stories of roaming the parks and preserves as kids. Others moved here from as far away as Australia and fell in love with Marin’s climate and natural beauty. We’re pleased with the energy, vitality, and ideas these new hires bring with them, and we’d like to give you the opportunity to get to know them. Their stories of how they became interested in working for Marin County Parks, and their dreams of what they want to accomplish in their work, are refreshing and inspiring.
The following interviews were conducted by Kevin Wright, External Affairs Coordinator, in December 2013.
Kevin Wright: Please tell us your name, position title, and something about how you became interested in parks work or work as a ranger.
Luke Bishop: I’m a new ranger with MCOSD, originally from Australia but came over when I was young and have basically grown up in Marin County. It’s like a homecoming for me being able to work for the county. I went to Redwood High School and studied geography at Sonoma State. I worked as a seasonal for Marin County Parks between 2007 and 2010, left in 2010, had some fun, and now I’m back. Marin is a beautiful place to work.
Shannon Burke: I’m an assistant interpretive naturalist. I’ve been with the department for five years, and was part time until very recently. I used to do a lot of volunteer work for environmental organizations in Marin, and because of this was hired to help in the Naturalist Program led by David Herlocker. For a little while I was working as an open space ranger with a special assignment. It’s great to be doing this interpretive work; full time and I’m really happy. If it’s in nature I love it!
Sarah Burkhart: I’m a park ranger at Stafford Lake. I knew I wanted to be a park ranger ever since I was a little girl. I saw that ranger with a flat hat and I knew I wanted to be one. I previously worked as a park ranger and for the Army Corps of Engineers. I became interested in Marin County Parks because I had a friend that worked for the County and he said it was a great organization to work for. When I’m at work I bring a bright, shiny face to the crowd; I’m very positive and upbeat and so grateful to be here.
Mike Warner: I’m an open space ranger. I got interested in parks originally when I was finishing up college with a degree in geography. A friend of mine who was a park ranger with another agency got me into the field, helped me discover Marin County and showed me how great this place is to work in. I’m from Novato, and started off working with the Marin Municipal Water District on Mt. Tamalpais, worked for California State Parks at China Camp and Mt. Tam, and now I’m on the open space trail crew.
Jason Samansky: I’m a heavy equipment operator. Originally I came from Colorado and I’ve worked anything from low-voltage to the oil fields. I lived in the Central Valley since 1999 and I took a position as a seasonal employee with Marin County Parks in 2010. I had no idea this part of the Bay Area existed. I thought the Bay Area was nothing but buildings and houses and high rises like in San Francisco and Oakland. Once I came here I fell in love with the vast open spaces and all the things to do. I had run heavy equipment before this job, so when one of our maintenance equipment operators left, I was asked to take over. Ever since then I’ve been doing different road projects throughout the county.
Ian McLorg: I’m an open space ranger. I was born and raised in San Anselmo, went to Drake High School, got a degree at Humboldt State in Forestry, and have been working in the open space preserves as a seasonal assistant since 2007. I became interested in parks work and working as a ranger as a Youth Conservation Corps member for Point Reyes National Seashore in high school. I was a trail crew worker and it got me interested in natural resource science, so I studied it in school and kept coming back each summer. It was a fantastic job and I wanted to stick with it. Also I really enjoy the idea of working in the place where I grew up.
Kevin: Since being hired on here, what have you been working on?
Everyone: Shadowing people and seeing a lot of public lands, a lot of training.
Ian: Each veteran open space ranger has taken one of us under their wing, and we spend a certain number of hours in each of the open space preserves to learn about them. We’re seeing where each new ranger fits in with their own personal style providing visitor services; what their emphasis is and how they approach helping people. It has a lot to do with your own background and who you are. We were hired because of who we are and they want us to be ourselves, while having a basic foundation of knowledge to work from.
Jason: I’ve gotta say my job is completely different than the rangers or anyone else here at MCP. I spend most of my winter developing projects for the following year’s maintenance and construction season. It’s called the work log. Once the Road and Trail Management Plan gets approved, the ball will start rolling.
Shannon: I’ve been building on what other people have done. David Herlocker has led the interpretive program for a long time. Being full time now makes such a big difference and allows me more hours to offer walks and serve as a resource for the other staff in the department, especially the rangers.
Kevin: The focus of Measure A funding is “Caring for what we have.” In your work, how has Measure A enabled you to do that?
Mike: One positive thing, one of the big things I noticed talking to park visitors is they’re happy to see someone they haven’t seen. Many people feel like they haven’t seen a ranger in years. The fact that we’re out there, giving out maps, educating them about the rules and wildlife, has been huge in the last three or four months.
Ian: I heard one person say we’re like snow leopards, because we’re out there but no one ever sees us. So having more boots on the ground and being out there for people is having an impact. The people who were working here before us had a lot on their plates. Like Bilbo said, it’s like butter being spread over too much bread. Everyone was stretched so thin they weren’t able to address things as well as they wanted to. I like to think that I enhance the work of people who were already here. They just needed more help; by that I mean educating people about what exists here and why to protect the natural resources, why they should care about it and giving them a reason to care.
Mike: When we’re out in the field we interact with the public about 90% of the time. It’s making a huge difference. You go into a preserve and you go in with a backpack with 10 or 12 maps and you come out with one left. You’ve given them all out and you talk to people. You’ve probably spent an hour talking to people.
Jason: Now that Measure A funding is kicking in, projects are going to really take off. I’ve already had a preview of what we’ll be doing. And the amount of funding we have to manage and take care of the lands is more than we’ve ever had. The roads are already a lot better. Once the RTMP kicks off that will be the guidance for what we can do.
Kevin: What else excites you about the work you’re doing?
Sarah: Events. I love working with people and coming up with my own creative ideas; that MCP supports too. I did a wreath-making workshop last weekend and it got really good reviews. I want to offer more hands-on learning opportunities because we don’t really have a lot of that yet; so I’m excited to be at the forefront. One idea is bringing games into the parks, and having activities for families. Family time is huge for me.
Jason: I get to know the same people. I spend weeks or months in one spot. You get to know the same person with the Labrador, or the person who thinks what you’re doing is great, or the person who isn’t so excited about what you’re doing. You get to know them all as individuals. I’m often in one project location, so I build a rapport with people.
Meet these great new staff members at a park or preserve near you, and be on the lookout for more Measure A progress reporting at maricountyparks.org
When the winter rains come, some of us head indoors, preferring not to venture out on muddy trails. But there are other creatures who feel and smell the first rains of autumn and do just the opposite, they leave the shelters in which they have been hiding for many months and venture out into the cold wet world to feed and breed and generally celebrate the season. Marin is home to six species of salamanders, all of which are common and can be seen if you visit a forest during the rainy season.
Newts are probably the most familiar of our local salamanders. We have two species: the California newt which is usually associated with temporary ponds and creeks in warm habitats, and the rough-skinned newt, most often found in cooler forests. After the first significant rain, newts come to the surface and travel to the pond or stream in which they were born. Males usually arrive first so when the first females show up in the water, they are swarmed by the amorous males. After mating, females lay eggs (rough-skinned newts lay single eggs, California newts lay clusters of 5-12 eggs) which are attached to submerged vegetation. When the young newts hatch they are like tadpoles with 4 tiny legs and a pair of small feathery orange gills. These young newts feed on insects and other small underwater creatures for 2 to 6 months. By summer’s end they lose their gills and leave the water looking like tiny versions of their parents. Adult newts are dark brown on the upper surfaces and have bright yellow or orange bellies. These bold contrasting colors serve to warn predators to avoid eating them. Newts have toxic compounds in their skin that are among the most potent naturally occurring substances. A slight taste of a newt will cause illness, swallowing a newt will kill any healthy adult human.
The world’s largest terrestrial salamander is also found in Marin, it is the California giant salamander. These salamanders breed in cold streams and can be found in nearly every creek in the western part of the county as well as all of the watercourses on Mount Tamalpais. This species can grow to almost a foot in length, but they usually don’t exceed 8 inches in our area.
Three of our salamanders are completely terrestrial, that means that they don’t need to find water (streams or ponds) in which to mate and lay eggs. During the wet season these species come to the surface from deep underground to feed and breed. The most familiar of these are the slender salamanders, a well named animal which sometimes appear more like earthworms than the tiny vertebrates that they are. Slender salamanders are common in well watered yards, and are easy to find under logs and stones in virtually any Marin habitat. Another terrestrial species is the arboreal salamander. These are large (3-5 inches long) and usually have a relatively large head. Their color ranges from maroon to dark grey and they usually have a scattering of small yellow flecks on their sides. Arboreal salamanders are common in oak woodlands, and as their name implies, they sometimes can be found at night climbing around in trees hunting for insects. A similar species is the Ensatina. The Ensatina is a pinkish-brown salamander that is more common in redwood–Douglas fir forests. Ensatinas resemble newts to most people. Scientists believe that this resemblance is no accident. By mimicking the dangerous newt, the Ensatina gets a free pass.
So there you have it, a brief introduction to the entire salamander fauna of Marin County, all of which can be easily found in the creeks and forests of our open spaces.
Photo by Gina Risso
Today, we introduce you to one of our park rangers, Adam Craig. Since 2005, he has worked tirelessly to keep our parks safe and well-protected for future generations.
1. How long have you worked for Marin County Parks?
I began working for Marin County Parks in the summer of 2005 as a seasonal assistant. My primary assignments included invasive species abatement and fire fuel management on park lands. Which was a great assignment for me, because I was able to physically work on virtually every square foot of our agencies land. The work gave me a big picture view of Marin’s parks. Before that, I was a seasonal firefighter for the Marin County Fire Department.
2. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in San Anselmo, Sleepy Hollow actually. I couldn’t have asked to grow up in a better place. The Sleepy Hollow is a box canyon, surrounded by open space: undeveloped ridge tops, fire roads, hiking trails, rocky outcroppings filled with blue belly lizards, creeks teaming with newts, hawks and owls patrolling over head. I rode my bicycle everywhere and played pretty much every sport a young boy could play.
3. What inspired you to pursue your career with Marin County Parks (or in general)?
I spent about six months on Maui and my experience there was dominated by natural cycles, by the earth, the ocean, and the constellations. When I returned home to Marin, I wanted to keep connected to those cycles, I wanted to work outside. And I wanted to wear flip flops (my better judgment steered me towards prioritizing adult responsibilities, but I’m still working on a steel toed sandal prototype). I really felt, and still feel, that my biggest contributions to my community would come through land stewardship and recreation.
4. What is your favorite preserve and why?
That’s a tough one, because every year, every season I discover something new. The preserve that nurtured me as a child is Sleepy Hollow/Terra Linda divide, wrapping all the way around Loma Alta. So a part of my spirit and personality will always have been influenced by her. But this Winter/Spring, My daughter and I discovered the water falls in Ignacio Valley. It’s just a magical place when the water is flowing.
5. What is your favorite free time outdoor activity?
Surfing. The only thing to have humbled me more, taught me more, or delivered so much joy and fulfillment, is my daughter.
6. What makes Marin so special?
It’s the people. It’s the way the people interact with the natural. It’s the parks, the preserves, yes. But more so, it is the greater spirit of good, the credence of supernatural that results from putting good people in a great natural setting like Marin. Heck, the world’s greatest city folk built the world’s largest suspension bridge to get here faster. Enough said eh?!