Nature Notes from Big Creek, 1999

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February 1999 March 1999 April 1999 July 1999 August 1999 October 1999 November 1999

February 1999 Last September I was invited to look at the ocean bottom from the little yellow submarine "Delta." This is a tiny boat in which the observer lies down and looks out portholes while the pilot steers along the bottom. The Delta has made many dives in and around the marine reserve, counting fish and observing habitats in deep waters. My dive went quickly down to 150 of depth, where it is fairly dark but not black.
On the way down I saw millions of "shreddy" white particles and filaments called marine "snow", which I believe are the marine equivalent of the "dust bunnies" that build up in the corners of my cabin. At the bottom, the boat's lights showed the sandy ocean floor as we motored along at walking speed. I saw lots of 12" long sea pens and large areas of sand ripples about 18' apart, but few fish. Then I saw about 5 fish hovering near a boulder about 2' high. As we approached more rocks I saw more and more fish. There were very many small rosy-colored rockfish and lots of silvery blue rockfish. The rocks had spotted colonies of crusting algae that looked a lot like patches of lichen, but red or orange rather than yellow of green. There were a few crabs and starfish visible.
After a few minutes the "Delta" starting threading its way among large rock faces and sand-bottomed canyons. Here the rock surfaces were covered with brilliant patches of algae, sponges, anemones, and other encrusting organisms. The marine snow was thick and the pilot had difficulty avoiding rocks, so we went slow and gently bumped along the bottom. The number of fish increased, until I always had 5-15 fish in view. The most common fish were blue rockfish, which look silver under water, and olive rockfish, which have spots on their backs. I also saw many yellow and black patched china rockfish, and a vermilion rockfish. We began to climb up the sand canyons and rocks to shallower water, and the light increased. The layers of encrusting organisms thickened, and I began to see kelps at about 100' depth. The dive ended at the edge of the kelp beds, at about 80' of depth.
My 45 minute dive was truly spectacular, and I wish anyone who wanted could experience the richness and beauty of the ocean bottom. It makes one realize the value of having marine reserves and parks where this amazing habitat is protected from exploitation. But running a deep-diving submarine safely is very expensive, and I count myself lucky to have had the opportunity.
Other notes: Although the creek rose 12" last November, it quickly fell back to summer levels, and remains low in January. The extreme cold seems to have brought flocks of hermit thrushes and other birds down to the coast, probably in search of food. The other day I saw a flock of yellow and black Townsend's warblers and they looked as if they were starving, flying weakly and sitting on the ground. (1/13/99)

March 1999 I have been editing a book chapter about Big Creek insects, based on a talk given by Berkeley entomologist Jerry Powell. Jerry has been surveying moths (and butterflies) at Big Creek since 1984, with the goal of discovering all the species present, and finding out where they live and what they eat. It is an extremely challenging task, since there are so many kinds (about 1000 species) and many of them are very hard to find. The problem is made worse by the fact that the moths are difficult or impossible to identify once found. In fact, the whole study is a humbling lesson in the complexity of nature, and our inability to catalog, let alone comprehend, the diversity outside our door.
Jerry is a renowned expert on Lepidoptera (the order of insects containing moths and butterflies), and has made every effort to survey all the species at Big Creek. The butterflies are relatively easy to survey; there are only about 55 species at Big Crmmmmmeek and they are highly visible and relatively easy to recognize. Moths are a different story. Jerry has to look for moths during the day as well as at night, because many moths are day-flying. He also looks for the sign left by caterpillars when they chew or tunnel their way through plant tissue. Some species on the list have not even been seen as adult moths. There are also many species of tiny moths, so small that several can fit on an M&M candy. The majority of species, though, are collected at night using a "black light" to attract them to a sheet or trap. Jerry has spent over 200 long days and nights sampling at Big Creek.
The Rat Creek fire, which burned through Big Creek in 1985, provided an additional dimension to the study. In fact in gave Jerry the opportunity to ask the question: how long does it take the biological community to recover its biological species diversity after a major wildfire? This question has been partially answered with vegetation studies and wildlife recovery studies, but not for a major group of insects such as the moths and butterflies. Yet these little creatures are a critical part of the natural community, keeping plant growth in check and providing food for birds and other animals higher in the food chain. They are particularly important because they are so specialized and so diverse. Each one has a different effect on the community.
Jerry's surveys revealed an interesting pattern for species re-entering the area after the fire ("new arrivals"). After the fire, a species would be absent for a few years, then suddenly become fairly abundant as it recolonized its former habitat. Following a season of abundance, the species would then begin to decline, as if its natural enemies were bringing its numbers into balance. This pattern repeated itself many times for about 7 years (about 100 species per year until 1992-93). Then the number of post-fire arrivals declined sharply, so that now Jerry finds only a few (5-10) each year. In fact, it seems that the natural community at Big Creek regained most of its former diversity 7 years after the Rat Creek fire, and that we have a total of about 1000 species of resident moths and butterflies here. It will be very interesting to see if, in the future, the numbers hold steady. Of course another fire or other natural event could cause big changes again.
This was only one survey, after one fire, at one site in California. This makes it difficult to generalize these results to predict recovery rates after other fires in other areas. Still, this was a beginning, and until Jerry did the survey, no one had any idea whether it would take 2 years or 20 for the community to recover its diversity.
What is disturbing to me is that our universities and colleges are training fewer and fewer scientists with skills like Jerry's. In fact, about 40% of the moths in the Big Creek survey remain un-named owing to a lack of scientific expertise. Either the moths are new to science and have never been named in the first place, or there is no one alive who knows them well enough to identify their species. The tragedy of this is that the interesting things that Jerry observes, or anyone else observes, are going to remain hidden unless they can be attached to a name. Another researcher who wants to build upon Jerry's findings is going to be frustrated because they can't find the information they need. The information retrieval system for natural history biology depends upon nomenclature, yet we (including our science policy makers) are letting the science of nomenclature disappear.
Other notes: Feynner has seen huge flocks of Band-tailed Pigeons in recent weeks. They were probably attracted to the area by the huge crop of Canyon Oak acorns in the high country…. I am still seeing voles (short-tailed meadow mice, which only eat, green vegetation) in the grasslands. Voles are relatively easy to catch and our local predators are probably having good hunting…. I have never seen such a bloom of California Bay Laurel flowers - nearly every tree is fully laden with blossoms. If they get pollinated, we may have a big crop of Bay fruits next fall. (2/18/99)

April 1999 Last week I saw a pair of huge steelhead trout in Big Creek. These were the first full sized adults I have seen in years. Brett Smith, the researcher who found them, had seen them spawning the day before about 50 meters upstream. He had seen the female lay her eggs, and the male spreading his milt over them, in little patches of sand and gravel in a swift-flowing part of the creek. They were very difficult to see in spite of their size because they were swimming in riffles. When Brett approached to take a picture, the two fish startled and swam up into even swifter water where they were impossible to see. Although the fish have been reproducing well in the creek, the occurrence of full-sized fish indicates that at least a few fish are surviving in the ocean and returning to spawn year after year. Fish of that size (about 36" long) are probably five years old.
The flowering season seems to be a little delayed this spring. It has been very cool and flowers like shooting stars, trilliums, peonies and coltsfoot are in bloom. But two species have the most blossoms I have ever seen: the California Bay trees and the redwood sorrel. The "milkmaid" butterflies, as Sonie call them, are laying eggs on the milkmaid flowers, and I've seen a few monarchs as well. Just today I saw a Sara Orange-tip butterfly, with white wings and bright orange wingtips.
"Spring" with a capital "S" happened on March 5 this year, or so it seemed to me. On that day I saw our dippers foraging together as a couple, staying within sight of each other and often side by side. Before, they were usually seen chasing each other up and down the creek, as if staking out their territories. Now, they seem domestic, ready to build and provision a nest. I watched one "standing guard" while the other searched in a crack in the rocks near an old nest site from previous years. On the same day the ground squirrels came out of hibernation. We have an "extended family" of ground squirrels in our yard, and they were out looking on a warm afternoon. (I'm sure they didn't come out on Feb. 2, "ground hog" day.) That afternoon I heard the first song sparrow song of the year. Song sparrows are very melodious singers and their song usually ends in a pretty trill.
Even though spring seems delayed, we are expecting warm weather after April 1. Drawing an analogy to the El Nino weather of 1983-84, and the following cold winter of 1984-85, we might have a warm spring and hot summer. Hopefully there won't be a repeat of the 1985 Rat Creek/Gorda fire of 1985, but it might be prudent to get prepared. The weather folks at the Naval Postgraduate School are predicting a warm spring also, with early snowmelt in the Sierra Nevada. (3/21/99)

July 1999 The Harbor Seals, who come to Big Creek every year to have their pups and teach them how to swim and hunt, are back in large numbers this year. The other day I counted 53 pups and about 100 older seals on the beaches in the reserve. Last year I counted only 14 pups, and the previous year, about 20. I think what has happened is that the cold water upwelling has returned after last year's unusual weather. The marine food chain is restored, and the seals have lots of food. The seals I saw were very fat and healthy-looking. The Big Creek kelp bed is truly back to being a Harbor Seal nursery this year.
The intertidal zone looks very different from two years ago. The big storms last year pulverized the intertidal zone, removing and killing mussels, limpets, and barnacles. Now you see the new recruits, little individuals about 1/2" long, covering the rocky surfaces in the splash zone. The algae have grown back faster, and are quite abundant in some places. I looked for owl limpets, the big species that grows here. I could not find any bigger than about 1" long. In previous years 3" limpets were common.
The boulders lining Big Creek went through a bloom of diatoms, which coat the rocks with a slippery golden-green coat. This happens nearly every spring, when the water is still high from the spring rains, but the grazing creatures are still too few and too small to gather up all the diatoms. Now the diatoms are gone, but there is still a bloom of a filamentous green alga called Cladophora, like green hair attached to certain rocks. There is also a brownish-gray coat on the rocks up the Devil's Creek fork, which in other years has seemed greener. In previous years I traced the green color to a spring source up the middle, or Cuevas, fork of Devil's Creek. I wonder what is happening there this year.
Other notes: We have seen very few deer this year, as if they have moved up to higher elevations. Perhaps the cool weather and sparse spring growth are affecting their foraging preferences. The male deer are now growing their antlers and are probably seeking out the richest food sources, such as old acorns or good spring flowers, and the females and young may be following....The swallows arrived from the south the last week of April. This seems to happen on about the same date each year. Other new arrivals include the Olive-sided Flycatcher and big lines of Pelicans flying up the coast....We have found dead shrews in the yard, skinny as if they starved to death. I wonder if the cold weather is involved. Shrews have a very high rate of metabolism and must eat frequently to stay alive. (5/22/99)

August 1999 I just read an article written by Terry Jones, "our" archaeologist who has just moved to San Luis Obispo to teach at Cal Poly University. Terry has collected many mussel shells from ancient middens in Big Sur and the central coast. From these he took the most complete shells and drew a line down the center. Then he removed bits of the shell every 2 mm along the line, and analyzed the bits in a lab. By doing this he was able to look for changes in oxygen isotope composition as the mussel grew. Oxygen isotope ratios change in proportion to water temperature, so Terry was able to estimate ocean temperatures at the time the mussels were growing. What he found was that the oceans were much (2-3 degrees) colder here between the years 1500-1700AD, were about the same as now between 0-1300AD, and were highly variable, both warmer and colder, between 1300-1500AD.
During the time of variable temperatures, native California cultures went through dramatic changes in technology, diet, and trading practices. Fighting increased, and most archaeology sites were abandoned (at least temporarily) and many new ones were started during that time. The Interpretive Trail Midden at Big Creek shows signs of temporary abandonment then, and the Harlan Springs site just over the hill blossomed. Fish remains (particularly anchovy remains) from the sites suggest that fishing was an important source of food during these cultural upheavals. Terry believes that unusual climate changes were at least partially responsible for the changes in native cultures, and that the Big Sur coast may have been an important refuge for people seeking food and, perhaps, safety from enemies. These studies are a reminder that we cannot take climate for granted; it can change at any time, with possible serious consequences for people as well as wildlife.
Other notes: The weather was poor (again!) for our annual butterfly count....In general the seasons are still delayed, with late spring species still flying and the summer species just getting going. This year with light spring rains and relatively cool temperatures, everything has dried out at upper elevations but the coastal slopes are a huge flower garden. It's a great summer for bees on the coast; they are very abundant and have lots of flowers to drink from....We have started testing Big Creek water for bacterial colonies and have found a low, natural level of 2-3 "fecal coliform" colonies in each 100ml sample. These bacteria come from warm-blooded animal feces, and are commonly used by the health department as an indicator of pollution. We hope to characterize the natural amount of such bacteria in our wilderness streams for comparison with other, more polluted streams elsewhere. (7/23/99)

October 1999 We have experienced the most amazing month since I moved here in 1986. The lighting storm of September 8 caused an estimated 4600 strikes to hit the ground or water, and many strikes hit trees in the reserve. One started a fire about 500' below the road near Highlands Camp, which Feynner and the local firefighters put out. Another started the Kirk Fire burned for over 5 weeks. Numerous other lighting-struck trees can be seen around the reserve. It was inevitable that the land would start burning. I have seen summer-long burns in Yosemite Park and have read of past times in which the California hills and mountains would burn until the fall rains, but have not lived with it until now. It makes sense to think of the fire as if it were another type of weather, like the drought we had a few years ago, and like the El Nino weather of last year. It has strong effects on the landscape, flora and fauna, and is renewing as well as destructive. And of course, we residents need to prepare for this kind of weather as much as any other.
The big fire started near Kirk Creek and Hare Canyon, about 6 miles southeast of Big Creek, and burned north and east. It has crept toward Big Creek and around it, taking weeks to move a few miles. The fire front moved rapidly whenever it encountered a patch of chemise chaparral, and also more quickly on the few hot, breezy days in late September. Overall we have had an unusual amount of cool weather and/or a very thick marine layer.
The fire displaced a lot of deer and other animals, pushing many of them toward the coast and lower elevations. One evening, my daughter Sonie and I saw two beautiful wood rats eating acorns in the road. They seemed healthy, but were undoubtedly homeless. Feynner and I disturbed several groups of deer as we walked around the interpretive trail surveying the effect of the burn. These animals need a chance to adjust and find food without human interference, so we decided to close the trail until after the rains come this fall. We have also seen lots of hawks, of all species, some hunting in pairs, and at least one of the condors has been down to check things out. Feynner and I also saw tracks of what seems to be an "outsider" mountain lion on the road. The outside toes of this animal make a slight impression compared to those of other lions. The only animal casualties I have seen were either road kills or reptiles dug up by the bulldozer work, and for the most part the fire was slow and cool enough for animals to escape. There are also many unburned areas so they have a good chance of finding food if they can travel a half-mile or so, at least within reserve habitats. (10/19/99)

November 1999 Reserve Steward Feynner Arias and I have worked on the Kirk Complex wild fire nearly every day since the fires began in early September. Early on we worked at Whale Point on fire clearance and evacuation of irreplaceable items, with the help of friends and volunteers. Later, as the fire slowly approached, we worked mostly with firefighters. We have met and worked with literally hundreds of professional firefighters, giving them orientation, advice, and help. We have met a lot of great people, and nearly all are ready to put themselves on the line to help out our property and our community. Controlling fire in this country is extremely challenging, and requires skill, coordination, and dedication. I observed and experienced a number of challenging difficulties and exciting new developments in dealing with fires.
Many of the firefighters are not from our area, and many have great difficulty working in this landscape. The combination of extremely steep slopes and thick brush is very intimidating, and I saw many crews decide that they could not safely traverse the terrain off-trail. As a result most fire fighting activity is concentrated on roads and ridge tops, with some work on hand lines down the steep slopes. Air support was crucial in dealing with hotspots and smokes on the slopes. Bulldozer lines were used to quickly create firebreaks, but hand lines were used more often, apparently with equal effectiveness.
The firefighters have extremely poor maps. The base maps are out of date, showing roads where they existed 50 years ago. Modern roads are omitted, and the poor quality of the photocopy compounds the problem of finding yourself on the ground. However, the maps usually have up-to-date information on the location of the fire front, so if you can figure out where you are on the map, you can also figure the location of the fire. I spent a great deal of time giving orientation and advice about the terrain, as well as giving out copies of our reserve map whenever appropriate. (I am grateful to American Blueprint in Pacific Grove for reproducing our map at no charge for this purpose.)
Nearly all the firefighters were eager for information, and listened attentively to what we had to say. They were also were very responsive to our need to treat the reserve as a wilderness. For example, they planned to make a bulldozer line up Highlands Ridge through the reserve, using the non-existent ridgetop jeep trail shown on their maps. After talking with their planning team it became apparent that there was no need to use bulldozers. I also worked out a compromise for Dolan Ridge, in which they were to use only the corner of the blade to create a fire line, and not to use the blade at all on steep slopes. This was, in the words of the bulldozer strike team captain "to save the tired crews from having to dig the lines by hand."
Except for one time when Mike Boone called to warn me that crews were about to start work in the reserve, I was never called for consultation (or even warned) about major activities taking place in the reserve. This failure led to many avoidable mistakes. Crews cleared over a mile of road by hand within the reserve, only to abandon the line after they realized it was indefensible and in the wrong place. The hand line down Devil's Canyon was put in 1-200 meters west of its optimal location. A later team, unaware of the situation and the earlier agreements, ignored the established bulldozer strategy for Dolan Ridge. I didn't get to them in time, and they cut a wide, deep track up Dolan Ridge through the reserve grasslands and up steep slopes, causing damage which will take years and a lot of hard work to correct. The same crew had tried and failed to gain access up to Rust Point from the reserve, and did not realize they could gain access to this section from the Santa Lucia road. I had worked out this access with the owner to the west several days previously, but word of this never made it to the people on the ground. Similarly, the landowner of the Rust Point property was never contacted until the fire was over. A timely phone call (or better yet, a recognized working relationship) could have prevented these problems, and probably many others.
As the fire front descended from Highlands Camp toward the Stewart cabin, a team went up and sprayed "barricade" gel on the cabin. A couple of days later they applied the gel to the private owners' cabins at Devil's Creek Flat. The gel is something like transparent Elmer's glue, and seems to stick to any surface. It needs to be rehydrated by sprinkling water on it, but lasts for many days. When the fire came through a few days later the Stewart cabin survived. The Devil's Creek Flat cabins also survived when the fire descended from the north. The gel was washed off the cabins a couple of weeks later with no visible effect on the wood. These new techniques for fire fighting open up a practical, low-cost avenue for dealing with wildfires: save structures individually and let the brush burn.
The latest statistics I have for the fire is 85,000 acres burned, and $57 million spent on fire suppression (note: the final figure I heard in December was $71 million).. No structures burned in our area, at least. The nature of the fire, the season of the year, and the prevailing weather conditions conspired to make this a cool, slow burning fire. Relatively few structures are found in the region of the fire, and the vast majority of these were on the lower coastal slope where fires burn slowly. The Kirk fire was a situation where a "let burn" policy could have worked well while saving tens of millions of dollars. I have been told by the firefighters that this was not an option because we have no fire management plan in place for the region.
We probably should put together such a plan. Based on these and other observations, I have some ideas to incorporate in the plan. First, make our local captains a central part of the fire command structure, and give them the means to develop working relationships with landowners and other local experts. Second, produce better maps, update them with better information, and get cleaner copies to the crews on the ground. Third, adopt a "let-burn" policy whenever feasible, and concentrate on structure protection. Fourth, investigate new ways to enhance structure protection services and make new technologies available. I envision teams of small, highly mobile trucks combining evacuation procedures with structure protection teams and technology. In this way the land can rejuvenate and recycle on its own without human intervention, and we can save a lot of taxpayer dollars at the same time. (10-19-99)

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