Sad to leave Fort Ord

It’s finally time to end my internship with the BLM at Fort Ord National Monument. I had a huge number and variety of experiences here, and I’ll definitely miss all the people, places, plants, wildlife, and ecosystems that I’ve gotten to know.

I’ve learned a lot during my time at Fort Ord, way more than I would be able to describe in this post. Some of the main things, though – I gained a lot of experience with plant, wildlife, and ecosystem identification, as well as plant anatomy and taxonomy. I’d be able to tell anyone how to ID a Fort Ord grass based on its ligule, or the subtle differences between Ericameria ericoides and Ericameria fasciculata seeds (not that anyone would ever ask haha). I’ve also seen first hand what conservation work is like, as well as work in a federal agency, which has been invaluable in helping decide the next steps for my career.

And, one last lesson Fort Ord taught me before I left was how to respect and deal with poison oak. I’d touched poison oak before and gotten small rashes here and there, but a week ago I carelessly worked through a stand of it while repairing goat grazing plot fences, and sure enough now I have big angry rashes across my arms, shins, and stomach (even after washing with Tecnu!). I now realize just how nasty and uncomfortable poison oak can be, but I also feel that I deserved it to an extent – I didn’t really respect it enough until that experience set me straight.

Overall though, I am really glad to have had this amazing opportunity. I feel very grateful for all I’ve had a chance to learn and do, and to all the wonderful people I got to work with, especially my mentor, Bruce, who guided and supported me in more ways than I’d possibly be able to articulate.

Last month and a half

Right now there are 1000 goats on Fort Ord. BLM brings them in order to reduce fuel loads for potential fires, as well as to cut back on coyote brush that encroaches on coastal grasslands. They are hilarious animals – they climb on top of each other trying to get to higher branches, flutter their mouths as they reach for food, and complain at you with a chorus of goat meeeeehhh‘s if you call out to them. Being in the midst of 1,000 of them is awesome.

One of many goats

making eye contact

Last week I helped out Ranger Tammy with a few of her puppet shows that she gives at local elementary schools. This particular puppet show was to teach the students about fire ecology. It was a bit of a flashback being inside an elementary school classroom/gym again. I realized that I haven’t been since I was in 5th grade, and it brought back some old memories.

Ranger Tammy in her element

Ranger Tammy in her element

Every Wednesday we have students from the local Community Day School come volunteer at Fort Ord. The community day school is a school for students who have been expelled from other schools or who have problems with truancy or behavior – a lot of them have a ton of energy and have never been out in a wild place like Fort Ord before. One day we were pulling up non native mustard when we found a baby gopher snake and an ornate orb-weaver spider.

Little gopher snake

Baby gopher snake

Ornate orb-weaver


At one of our trailheads we had an eagle scout project plant a bunch of native plants a few months ago. I’ve been weeding and maintaining those landscaped areas, and one day while weeding I came across an arboreal salamander.

Arboreal salamander

Arboreal salamander

Sean Pagnon, BLM Fort Ord National Monument, CA

Kids at Fort Ord

This past week I led three outdoor education classes of children age 5-12 at Fort Ord National Monument. It was my first time directly interacting with children that age in what feels like years, and it was a really heartwarming experience. The young children were really unfiltered and enthusiastic, and it was really enjoyable and comedic at times to spend time with them. I led them on nature hikes pointing out any interesting animals, plants or fungi that I saw, and showed them BLM’s domestic California legless lizards and gopher snake, two reptiles found on Fort Ord.

Kids taking time to journal

Kids taking time to journal

Old man's beard

Old man’s beard

Before those nature classes, I was helping a group of CSUMB capstone students do transects of old restoration sites in order to monitor their vegetation coverage. While in the field, we stumbled upon a very large orb-weaver spider in one of the plant basins.

Orb-weaver spider with his meal

Orb-weaver spider with its meal

Fun with Acorn Weevils

Over the past few days I have been collecting acorns with another intern, as this year is looking like a better acorn harvest than the past few. We noticed that about half of the acorns had perfect 1/8″ circular holes in them, and tried to avoid them assuming some insect larvae had burrowed its way in. The next morning, while sitting at the computer, I heard a very subtle chewing sound reminding me strongly of one time when a rat tried to chew through under door carpet into my room. I looked at the paper bag holding all the acorns, and saw a fat little larvae wriggling its way through a perfectly round 1/8″ hole near the base of the bag.

Acorn Weevil Larvae

I did some research online, and it turns out these are the larvae of the acorn weevil. A female acorn weevil lays an egg into a young acorn, and as the larvae hatches and develops it feeds on the inside of the acorn. Once the acorn drops, the larvae emerges from the acorn and burrows into the ground, where it will eventually develop into an adult.

Acorn weevil larva at home

Acorn weevil larva at home

Acorns with holes

Acorns with holes

At the bottom of the bag we found a couple dozen larvae squirming around. They are almost comical in the way they move, they are so fat and legless. We fed them to my mentor’s black legless lizards, which I’m sure enjoyed the feast of what is likely their natural prey after many years of eating pet store crickets.

Then we used float/sink test to try to separate the infested from the intact acorns, assuming that the acorns with larvae would be more hollow and therefore float. It seemed to work ok, because all the acorns that floated either had holes or looked generally unhealthy. However, every time we look at the bottom of the bucket with the remaining acorn there are a dozen or so more larvae wiggling around, so there are many infested acorns that the test did not filter out. But I’m sure the legless lizards are very happy.


Acorns floating or sinking

Acorns floating or sinking

Rein Orchids and Restoration

The past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time working a restoration site located in the coastal grasslands of Fort Ord. After filling in a gully that was threatening to damage a nearby road, BLM planted a few thousand native plants in order to populate the barren earth and prevent future erosion. I have been monitoring the survivorship of those plants, as well as watering them by means of a large water tank truck and a few hundred feet of hose. I often work alone amid dense morning fog, which burns off to spacious afternoon views, with mice, mantises, beetles, grasshoppers, vultures, hawks, spiders, and plants for company.


Pillarcitos restoration site and water tank truck


Friendly mantis

Black widow inhabiting one of the plant basins

Black widow inhabiting one of the watering basins

Meanwhile there has been a huge wildfire raging in northern Big Sur, 30ish south miles from Fort Ord. Luckily the prevailing winds are NW, but there has been some lingering haze and smoke smell in the area, as well as a few days of ash fall. One day however I accompanied our recreation manager to BLM campsites in the valleys inland from the fire, and fire’s effect there was surreal. Everything was enveloped in a yellow-sepia haze, which when coupled with the hot, barren oil field landscape created the atmosphere of a zombie apocalypse.

Smoke plumes visible from Fort Ord

Huge smoke plumes visible from Fort Ord

More recently I accompanied a longtime volunteer who conducts vegetation inventories across Fort Ord. We looked for elegant rein orchids in the coastal dunes, and ended up finding twelve individuals. It was incredibly refreshing to work in the smell and view of the clean, windless morning ocean, and trampling across the mats of invasive ice plant in search of scattered natives was fun too.


Elegant rein orchids amid ice plant

Sean Pagnon, BLM Fort Ord National Monument, CA

First weeks

My first two weeks working at Fort Ord National Monument were exciting, extremely varied, and a tremendous amount of learning compressed in a short amount of time. In those two weeks I watered native plant restoration sites, exterminated stands of invasive mustard, hemlock, and thistle, mapped the location of oaks using GPS and GIS, tracked a collared ground squirrel using telemetry, attended meetings planning heavy equipment projects and a central California invasive weeds symposium, collected native lily, silk tassel, and venus thistle seeds, and drove 4wd trucks on dirt roads around Fort Ord, waving at passing hikers. Needless to say, it was a lot – something new every day, or sometimes every half day. Tiring, but also fun, challenging, and rewarding.

Watering a young oak within a stand of thistle

Watering a young oak in a stand of dried up thistle

One of the highlights of those first two weeks was using telemetry to find the ground squirrel collared by a research team from CSUMB (California State University, Monterey Bay). It involved hiking a steep canyon while carrying an antennae over my head and using the volume of a steady beeping as an indicator of proximity to the squirrel. In the end we were able to pinpoint the squirrel’s location to a tunnel underneath a bush, and laid down a trap baited with a smelly peanut butter and tuna sandwich.

In my second week, while hiking through rolling hills covered in yellow grass, we came across a few white praying mantises frolicking in the grass. They really are some odd creatures:

A beautiful and odd insect

A strange and beautiful insect

Another one

A whiter one

The purpose of the hike was to reach an old goat grazing plot where Ranger Manny had remembered seeing lily plants in need of seed collecting. However, when he last saw them it was springtime and the lilies were in full bloom, but now in the middle of summer the dried up lilies camouflaged perfectly with all the other dried up plants, so finding them was a bit of an easter egg hunt. But the whole time we were surrounded by beautiful sweeping views:

"KYAWW!" -red tailed hawk

Eye candy

More eye candy

“KYAAWW!”  -red tailed hawk

The landscape really evokes feelings of a cowboy roaming the wild west, what with the swaying yellow grasslands littered with coyote brush, the turkey vultures circling overhead, and the occasional cry of a red tailed hawk. That was the setting of a lot of my field work during those first two weeks, along with some oak woodland and maritime chaparral. Not too bad of an office.

Sean Pagnon, BLM Fort Ord National Monument, CA