Early in June, we were lucky enough to be led to a wonderful population of Blanketflower in Minnesota. By our third visit in August, the seed was ripe and ready to collect! I’m a big fan of this species for many reasons. Its deep red disk flowers and multicolored ray sepals are guaranteed to stun, and I find its latin name, Gaillardia aristata, easy to remember. To me, aristata looks like “artist” which I find easily associates with the colorfully painted inflorescence.
Bracts are my new identification besties, at least when it comes to identifying thistles and Liatris spp. Bracts are reduced leaves, or leaflike structures at the base of an inflorescence. Bracts can look so many different ways, even within a genus.
Identifying thistles can be hard. People say the leaves of many natives have fairly white leaf undersides. After I check the leaves, I check the bracts to help lead me to species ID. For example, if the bulbous scaly part beneath the florets (in this case I think you can call that an involucre), is wooly, it may be Cirsium muticum!
Blazing stars (Liatris spp.), of which there are quite a few native species in the Midwest, were relatively easy to key out once I learned to observe them for their inflorescence silhouettes and bract characters rather than their florets or leaves.
Early in the growing season, aka during the cool season, I found it difficult to identify big bluestem. All the grasses looked basically the same to me, short…and grassy… Big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii, is a native warm season grass that doesn’t flower until July. It’s spikes are often compared to the foot of a turkey- so people sometimes call it turkeyfoot. By July, I was starting to get familiar, and by August I was surrounded by turkeyfeet sometimes up to 7 ft tall. The specimen pictured below had a nice green silly-looking conehead insect on it.
Phacelia hastata sits there taunting me. One side still has its purple, curly inflorescence while the other side is dull brown – dried and perfect for collecting. A few more sit just 5 ft away from the first, but all are at least 10 feet above me. Phacelia loves to grow in hard to reach places where there is little competition and plenty of access to the sun. Perfect for the plant, but difficult for the seed collector.
I grab everything I need from the truck – radio, paper bag, a glove – and glance back at the obstacle before me. This specific site was a steep, rocky slope next to the road made up of sheet rock. Slowly and carefully I start climbing the slope. Every two steps I took counted as one as the rocks shifted beneath my weight, but at least I was making progress. I sat low to the ground with my knees on the slope whenever I could in order to keep my center of gravity close to the slope itself and used my hands as additional support as I climbed. I made it to each plant and lightly ran my gloved hand along the dried fruits – allowing some to easily fall into my palm before throwing them into the paper bag. I had to wear a glove for this endeavor because the common name “Scorpionweed” for Phacelia hastata is very fitting as the fruits have hairs that are irritating and prickly to touch. I adjust my footholds and continue to make my way across the slope to the many Phacelia plants growing in this difficult terrain. I volunteered to go up to this height – my partners for today, Madeline and Stella, choosing to collect from the plants lower to the road.
I found this collection to be a fun challenge and enjoyed the accomplished feeling as I successfully transversed the steep slope. Some areas were easier than others. At some points I could stand up and carefully walk diagonally up the slope, while at other points I would slide down a few feet before having to find another path to go on.
By the end of the collection time, I had collected half a paper bag of phacelia fruits/seeds and gotten covered in dust from the slope but felt very accomplished by overcoming the challenge. I was happy to have been able to get the genetics from the higher individuals to include into our collection and happy that I could climb this slope at all – one of the other sites which we wanted to collect Phacelia was even more difficult to climb and we had stayed to just the lower individuals because of this.
*Plop*. A grasshopper hops onto the windshield of our truck. We stop, but it seems as though it has no intention to leave. Slowly, we continue on our path. The grasshopper faces the same way that we are headed, his yellow body braced against the movement of the truck. We make our way past a small meadow and to another forested area when the grasshopper finally hops off of its own volition. I could not help but wonder if it knew what it was doing. If it was just using us as a way to create its own adventure and explore a new area just as we are using this opportunity to explore as well. I can only wish the grasshopper well on its future travels.
Battle of Geum
For a few weeks now, my mentor, Victor, and I have been debating the identification of a specific Geum plant growing outside the office door. In the beginning of the summer, Victor told me that this one was ‘Geum macrophyllum’ which is one of the species on our collection list. At the time I did not question it, but this past month we ran into a couple other Geums that look very similar – especially now that they are fruiting instead of flowering. The three are Geum macrophyllum, Geum aleppicum, and Geum rivale. Rivale flowers are pink and nodding while the flowers of the other two are yellow – allowing easy distinction between the three when there are flowers present but all of their fruits are ‘spiny with achene beaks’ as stated in our plant key and look very similar at a glance. All three of these plants also grow in very similar habitats: moist sites next to rivers. Luckily, even with just fruits the rivale flowers still keep their purple sepals which is the key difference between rivale and the other two and also has the longest achene beaks.
The next step, to separate out macrophyllum, is dependent on whether the lower portion of the style is minutely glandular or not at all. My partner, Tori, and I have had quite a lot of trouble deciding whether something is glandular or not throughout this summer – even with the use of a hand lens – and so while we do check for this step, we also looked to see if there were some other differences between the two. One of the Botany techs on the Helena side of the forest, Nate, responded to this question by saying that the macrophyllum receptacle is hairless while the other two possibilities in the key are not. Those other two being Geum aleppicum and canadense. Canadense is automatically crossed out as an option due to it having white flowers and no known cases of it living in the south west side of Montana – where we are collecting at.
I took Nate’s shortcut and ran with it – informing Victor that our plant outside the door was indeed aleppicum rather than macrophyllum. Victor did not believe me at first – especially since Nate’s difference was not in the key that we used. He looked up pictures and tried to compare the species that way. In the past few weeks, he changed his mind on what species that plant was about 5 times before finally deciding today that I was right. The mystery Geum growing by the office door was indeed Geum allepicum – now added to our collection list along with Geum rivale.
Day in and day out as we travel along the back roads of the San Bernardino National Forest the remnants of human festivities could often be found underneath the lush green pines, unauthorized campfire rings. The large dark stones and black ash contrasting starkly against the lushness of the forest announcing their presence and staining the earth black with soot. Oftentimes increasing in frequency during holidays such as 4th of July, Memorial Day, or Labor Day the sighting of these rings has brought continual frustration on our part as the summer heat continues to beat down and dry the flora surrounding it. While our main goal is seed collecting and target species monitoring another responsibility of ours is to destroy the rings to prevent further use, in hopes of preventing a fire from sweeping through the area. The process of destruction relatively simple, in that we disperse the rocks throughout the area and break apart the ash in an attempt to wipe its presence away for good. While the potential for fire spread itself is our main concern these rings oftentimes have large shards of melted or fractured glass in them that can be hazardous to others as well. Even after a site had been cleared of its rings the remnants of their presence still could be seen throughout like messy smudges drawn into the earth.
One site in particular known as Lytle Creek was filled with these unauthorized rings and in one day, we destroyed a total of 20 after a busy holiday weekend. Concerning as is, we discovered also that one of the rings was still hot to the touch even days after its previous owners had abandoned it. The last fire that ran through Lytle Creek was only a few years ago and was started by an unauthorized campfire ring such as this. While the continual finding of these rings proves frustrating it is rather beautiful to see how the forest regrows after a fire. Places that were once burn scarred or barren now begin to blossom again with native flora. During our drives through the various habitats in the forest we’ve stumbled upon a handful of burn scarred areas that are slowly recovering with time and restoration efforts. While it can be disheartening to see these beautiful habitats be abused or destroyed it is incredibly rewarding in playing a part in aiding in their recovery. During my time working in Big Bear with the restoration team I’ve taken part in two Green Thumb events on the forest that utilize both staff and volunteers to aid in restoring damaged habitats such as these. With the help of volunteers, we’ve been able to replant 100s of native species into areas that were once bare plots of earth. This work could not be done without the help of the volunteers that work in these events and we are incredibly grateful for the time they spend in helping us restore and preserve the forest for future generations to enjoy. Overall, it’s been a blast being a part of these restorations’ projects on the forest and I look forward to the month of September where we will be having a large volunteer event taking place that will involve the planting of around 400 plants!! Until then, I hope everyone is having a lovely time working out of their different locations and I look forward to reading your blogs!
This month Ana Karina and I had the opportunity to join the California Department of Fish & Wildlife and members of U.S. Fish & Wildlife in surveying for the Unarmored Three Spine Stickleback fish (UTS). These little fish, about the length of your pinky finger when mature, are a federally listed endangered species and a State of California Fully Protected Species.
For some background, these UTS have a very limited distribution in California so the presence/absence survey we worked on was part of a bigger project for the future relocation of these fish. CDFW’s plan for the future translocation project was to first re-survey the locations in Big Bear where UTS presence had been recorded in the past. Then, once they had a better idea of the quantities of fish in each of these locations, they would plan how many fish they would relocate from each place.
On the day of our survey, we got to the pond and noticed we were in for quite the challenge! The surface of the pond shimmered a beautiful Shrek green… While the blanket of duckweed covering the pond had a sort of swampy beauty to it, we quickly realized it would be working against us in surveying for the UTS. So, we got in our waders and began working with our dip nets to try and clear some of the duckweed from the pond.
Dip netting served to both clear the surface of the pond to make our surveying easier, and as our first method of searching for the fish. As our second method, we tried seine netting the pond several times in different locations.
Whenever we scooped any debris out with our nets, we carefully combed through the contents in search of the elusive fish. We also made notes of other pond dwelling critters that we found, like various insects and toads!
After several hours of scooping duckweed out of the pond, we moved on to our next survey method. For this method, we baited some traps with blue cheese and set them out on the west side of the pond. We let the traps sit for about 90 minutes while we began our final survey method, electrofishing, on the east side of the pond.
This project is on-going and, as it turns out, the results of the survey are actually pretty sensitive information. But, as someone who has never been in waders before and never conducted a wildlife survey, I wanted to share my experience with this incredible opportunity! With this being a federally listed endangered species, the reality is, not many people have had the pleasure of ever seeing these fish. I had a blast learning about the work that the CDFW and U.S. Fish & Wildlife do and am excited to see where the translocation project goes in the coming weeks!
About a week into August, we were asked to help the alpine botany crew with a species composition plot. Since I had started this job, I had been dreaming about working with the alpine botany crew. I knew very little about their job, but I knew they hiked into the alpine every day and that sounded amazing to me!
That first day with them we hiked above 11,000 ft which was the highest elevation I had ever been to by at least 2,000 ft. To put that height into perspective, the highest peak in Oregon in 11,200 and we weren’t even at a peak! The site was at a saddle between two peaks and had me in awe the entire next two days. I couldn’t stop thinking that the two alpine botanists had to be the luckiest people alive to have places like this be their office every day!
The species composition plot consisted of three vegetation transects that were about 36 meters long and we would log vegetation every 0.5 meters. At the end of each transect we would set up three 1 square meter plots and find what percentage each plant present took up of this square.
On our way down on the last day we saw a group of mountain goats. I learned that one of the main reasons the alpine vegetation needed to be monitored so closely in the La Sal’s was that the goats were introduced here as a game species, and they were monitoring what effects they had on rare alpine plants.
After working with the alpine crew for a couple of days we went back to business as usual: building fences, collecting Heterotheca villosa and scouting for Heliomeris multiflora. We don’t expect to begin collecting Heliomeris multiflora until mid September and are nearing the end of our Heterotheca villosa collection which meant we had a little extra time for other projects.
The last week of August, one of the alpine botanists had the week off and they requested me to fill in. I was over the moon excited! I was going to be helping with the rare plant surveys that they complete every day, which are smaller and quicker than the species composition plot I had helped with before. The rare plant surveys are either a single 10 meter or 15 meter transect, where we place four 1 square meter plots at equal intervals along the transect and mark where within these plots a rare plant is seen. We also do a pellet count to gauge goat, deer and elk presence within the study area.
The La Sals are on of only three areas on the Colorado Plateau where you can find true alpine tundra communities, making the plant life super fascinating. One interesting plant they study is called Silene acaulis and is a mossy plant that gets covered in tiny vibrant pink flowers. Studies have found this plant to live to over 300 years old! Another interesting species we saw was Erigeron mancus which is a little yellow button flower that we spent most of the week studying and is endemic to the area.
This was easily one of the best work weeks I have ever had! We hiked over 30 miles and gained over 8,000 ft in elevation total. The highest peak we summited was 12,600 ft with some of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen.
August is when I truly fell in love with these mountains. I can’t wait to summit more in September!
Another great month done, and sadly, the end of this amazing internship. I started the month sampling Five Mile Creek. This creek is in a burnt area that has a plain stream with little habitat. We electrofished this creek to see the abundance of fish and the species. We caught a large Redband trout that was the largest I’ve ever got while electrofishing. We also got lots of sculpins, which are really cool-looking fish that look like small lincod. The following week, we helped the aquatics crew at Crater Lake National Park. We went to this beautiful meadow with lots of wildflowers. We set up block nets and ran multiple passes to remove fish from this stream that historically had no fish. We did more electrofishing the following week at Crater Lake and Demming Creek.
For the next two weeks, we helped the Partners Biologist from the office, which was one area of the office I wanted to learn more about. The Partners biologists meet with local landowners to create and fund projects on their land to improve fish and wildlife habitat. We watched the ground be moved to make two small wetlands and layed pipe in-between to move the water. At the other project, we did stream restoration on Five Mile. First, we moved a large tree into the stream using a grip hoist, and then we built a bank buster by adding multiple logs to the creek at an angle that caused the stream to make a more prominent bend. We also created a rino jam and a beaver analog dam.
In August, I also helped the Tule Lake Refuge band ducks. This was the most fun thing I did all summer. At night, I kneeled in the front of an airboat while we floated around the marsh, shining a light on the ducks as we zipped by I reached out and caught ducks in my net and then placed them in a cage. After filling our five cages, we headed to the shore, where we placed the bands, on then headed back out for more duck. We finished up as the sun came up.
For the last two days of the internship, I went camping at Miller Lake. Each year, a group of biologists from multiple agencies gather to sample Miller Lake Lamprey, which was once considered extinct. Some biologists have been retired for several years, and others are still working and learning from the experiences of lamprey biologists who have been studying them for many years. Sitting around the campfire was like listening to a live version of a podcast on Lamprey.