Nature Notes from Big Creek, 2002

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February 2002 April 2002 May 2002 June 2002 July 2002 September 2002 October 2002

February 2002

The other day I was hiking through the north part of the reserve and saw two does, each with two fawns. This is very reminiscent of when I first moved to Big Creek after the 1985 Rat Creek fire. Then, between 1987 and 1990, I saw many sets of twin fawns. Our does respond to better forage and improved nutrition by birthing and raising twins. Another thing reminded me of the years after the Rat fire - there are many juvenile red tail hawks. Our own resident hawks have two juveniles that look healthy and strong. In addition, there has been another pair of young red-tails that are probably siblings, since they stay together. They have been perching down on the slopes above the highway. They came into our yard to investigate our chickens. One attacked "Buster", my daughter Sonie's rooster, but failed. Buster got a few scratches on his neck. The next day I found one of the red tails dead under a tree in our yard, as if it died and fell to the ground. I saw no wounds but it had abnormal growths on its feet. The sibling comes around and visits the yard frequently.

After the "Big Creek 2000" rockslide, Caltrans covered an acre of so of ground with 20,000 yards of material. Just south of the Big Creek bridge, the site now has "soil patches" surrounded by rocky slide material. I have been monitoring the site and removing invasive exotic plants as needed. Now the soil patches are covered with either native species such as sagebrush, lizard tail, hedge nettle and lupine, or have relatively non-invasive exotics such as mustard. Thistles, hemlock and fennel, which could potentially cover the natives, are rare. The other day, to my surprise, I found that a small fragile clover had covered the soil patches almost completely, like a lawn between the larger plants. I suspect that this bodes well for soil development and future germination of seeds. The slide material between the soil patches is also slowly growing over, mostly by a species of grass that grows on the surrounding bare slopes.

Other notes….The other day reserve steward Feynner Arias was watching a doe on the slope by his cabin when he saw a scrub jay perch on her back. As he watched the jay began picking her over as if removing and eating parasites such as ticks…I just saw a flock of eight California Condors soar up Highlands Ridge and circle for 5 minutes before zooming off to the south. My thanks to the condor recovery team and everyone who has worked to save the condors from extinction (and the condors themselves!) for making this dramatic sight possible… (1-18-02)

April 2002

Last week I looked at the first years' results of our volunteer roadkill survey. The purpose of the survey is to gather roadkill observations on highway 1 and use the results, first to understand the magnitude of the problem and second to guide efforts to reduce effects on local wildlife. The survey depends completely on local residents, who take the time to record roadkill observations, and who transmit the observations to me. I then transmit the handwritten notes, phone messages, email printouts, and verbal messages to Caltrans and their consultants, who have typed the data into computer files for further analysis. Some of their findings may be found in the Highway Corridor Natural Qualities Inventory publication which may be obtained from Caltrans. The analysis I am summarizing here can be seen on the Big Creek web site (, or I can print out a copy if you call the reserve.

The first year of the survey revealed some interesting patterns. Approximately 150 roadkilled animals were reported, including 34 deer, 4 bobcats, 3 coyotes, 7 gray foxes, 15 raccoons, 9 opossums, 3 pigs, and 2 turkeys. Among smaller animals were 33 rabbits, 19 snakes, 22 squirrels, 5 skunks and several other species. A total of 24 species were reported. In May 2001 there was a peak in the number of roadkilled small animals (rabbits, snakes and squirrels), and in August and September of 2001 there was a major peak in the number of roadkilled deer and other larger animals as well as small animals. These seasons probably correspond to the times when animals are more likely to come down to the coast and/or wander out on the highway. When I looked at the number of roadkills along different sections of the highway there were also interesting patterns. Some sections such as the "Partington Coast" (between J.P.Burns S.P. and Castro Canyon) and the "Lucia Coast" (between Wild Cattle creek and Lucia) had relatively few roadkills in comparison with surrounding areas. These happen to be relatively rugged parts of the coast with the highway being more winding. The slower traffic speeds may contribute to the observed reduction in roadkill, or there may just be fewer animals coming down to the highway. One unknown factor is" how many animals were killed but never reported?" My guess is that we captured only a representative fraction, probably less than half and maybe only 20% or so. Of course the larger animals are more easily seen and are more likely to be reported.

I attempted to pinpoint "hotspots" where roadkill seemed particularly concentrated, and where remediation efforts might be most valuable. The task is difficult because we don't always use a consistent way to describe location along the highway, and because it may be difficult to remember exactly where a roadkill was seen. Caltrans and their consultants made a great effort to convert all the observations into milepost numbers, and this is what we used for analysis. I identified 12 candidate hotspots: Pacific Valley, Lopez Point, Vicente Creek, Big Creek, Esalen, Grimes, Post Grade, Andrew Molera, Point Sur, Hurricane Point, Bixby/Rocky Creek, and Palo Colorado. I believe that these zones in particular need a closer look and more accurate information, so that we can provide Caltrans with the data they need to design and implement possible solutions. Would anyone in the community be willing to pay particular attention to one or more of these areas? My hope is that, in addition to continuing our survey for another year, each hotspot would have someone assigned to it who travels it regularly. This person would learn the stretch of highway in enough detail that they could easily provide us with detailed location information on each roadkill observed. Please contact me if you are interested (667-2543) and we can discuss it further. I can also give you a list of what has already been observed along each stretch of highway. I also thank everyone who contributed to the survey in 2000 and 2001, and want to encourage you to keep sending in observations! Special thanks go to CHP officer Frank Packard who probably contributed half the observations, and to Kim Smiley who keeps watch between Big Creek and Vacific Valley.

Other notes: the dry spell in January-February has allowed the creek to fall below 2' on the gauge. The falling water has encouraged the growth of golden algae and green algae in the creek, something that normally happens in April or May (2-20-02)

May 2002

I recently hiked up Dolan Ridge through the reserve to check the 1999 fire lines and see the spring flowers. There is an unbelievable bloom of annual lupines up on the ridge, particularly in the burn areas. Even though it has been quite dry, there has evidently been enough rain to get the flowers in full bloom. I heard turkeys gobbling on both sides of the ridge, and saw a golden eagle fly overhead. I saw where a wild pig had been rooting up the grassland, the first pig sign I've seen in the reserve in many years. The fire line itself has blended in to the surrounding grassy ridge landscape almost perfectly, and I saw no evidence of weed invasion beyond what is already established on the ridge.

A couple of weeks ago reserve steward Feynner Arias and told me he'd seen several large steelhead trout in the creek. He counted six, including several redds or nests, where the female trout stirs up gravel to lay her eggs. We have been looking for ocean-run trout all year, and these are the first large ones seen in two years. Apparently they came up the creek at about the same time in early April. They must be responding to some unknown environmental cue, or perhaps they gather somewhere out at sea and travel up the creek together to spawn.

The Big Creek cove raccoons emerged from their winter sleep the other day, and have began patrolling the cove and the lower creek. We also saw a pair of new fawns up in the reserve…it seems as if the deer will keep twinning this year. The same thing happened 2-5 years after the 1985 Rat Creek fire. (4-24-02)

June 2002

pleted our 14th annual butterfly count on the last day of May. In spite of cool, cloudy weather we saw about 800 butterflies comprising 30 species. The species we saw tended to be spring rather than summer species, indicating that the onset of summer conditions is delayed this year. There were lots of California tortoiseshell butterflies, a beautiful species which is abundant during some years and extremely rare during others.

During the count UC Berkeley professor Jerry Powell brought a couple of moth traps designed to attract spruce budworm moths. The traps employ a pheromone, a chemical that the female spruce budworm releases to attract males for mating. When Jerry put the traps out at Big Creek to see if there were any spruce budworms, the traps filled up with a new, unexpected species of moth that was previously considered to be extremely rare. Only 2 had ever been collected, and it has not been described in the scientific literature.i.e. Jerry believes that its caterpillars feed on redwood trees, and so plans to eventually name it after the redwood tree "Syndemis sequioiae." Now Jerry has hundreds of specimens. It is so common around my cabin at the reserve entrance that if I take the trap out of the plastic bag in the refrigerator, and hold it in the parking lot to show people, within 5 minutes 100 moths are flying around my head and landing on my shirt! In fact the moth is not rare, it just is seldom collected because it doesn't come to lights. It is a day-flying moth who by chance is attracted to the same pheromone as the male spruce budworm.

Other notes: The ridges around the reserve are covered with yellow deerweed in full bloom. It looks like a yellow snowfall on some peaks above 2000' elevation….This is the time of year when we are likely to see a lot of roadkilled wildlife on the highway. Please contact me at the reserve (667-2543 or email if you observe any. We need to know the kind of animal and the location, as exactly as possible, along with your name and the date. (6-22-02)

July 2002

I just finished reading an archaeological site report contracted by Caltrans after they found a prehistoric site while retrofitting the Big Creek Bridge in 2000. The site was fairly recent as compared with many sites in Big Sur, and quite rich in plant and animal remains, giving some good ideas as to what kinds of plants the aboriginal people gathered for food. The site lies under the bridge in the flood plain of the creek, right above sea level and within 100' from the beach. The archaeologists carried out a sophisticated soil analysis which showed how the stream has eroded and redeposited sand, gravel and cobbles over the site. In spite of the complexity, carbon and shell remains at the site revealed some clear dates belonging to three phases in Central Coast archaeology: Highland (1100-1300 AD), Early Dolan (1300-1500 AD) and Late Dolan (1500-1800 AD). It is quite possible that evidence of earlier occupation at the site has been washed away in floods and that the site was in fact occupied for a much longer period of time.

The archaeologists carried out an unusually detailed analysis of faunal and floral remains, thus giving us a uniquely detailed look at the kinds of plants and animals that the people were bringing into their camp site on the beach. Mussels and other shellfish are common at the site, and when analyzed by size, reveal that shellfish harvesting was intensive and ongoing during the hundreds of years that the site was occupied. The most common mammal remains were those of deer and rabbits. However, during the Late Dolan phase sea otter remains became common, indicating the rise of an economic reason to hunt these fur-bearing mammals. The bones of a pigeon and a pelican were also found. Rockfish, cabezon and greenling dominate the fish assemblage, species which are easily caught with hook and line from the rocks. During the Early Dolan period large numbers of anchovies and small schooling fish appear, species which require the use of nets and (probably) boats. Large nuts and berries dominate the plant assemblage, including acorns, California Bay nuts, wild cucumber (spiny gourd) seeds, Coulter Pine and other Pine (probably sugar pine) nuts, manzanita berries, buckeye (chestnuts), hazelnuts, and Clarkia seeds. Smaller seeds and plants include a long list (24 taxa), including Phacelia, fiddleneck, sage, nightshade, fescue grass, other grass seeds, and many others. Many of the plants were probably gathered several miles away, such as the hazelnuts, buckeyes, Coulter Pines and sugar pines, while others are available in the canyon near the site. The report also has a wonderful table showing the probable use, seasonal availability, and habitat for the 30 plant taxa.

Other notes: Kim Smiley and Shawna G. took a group of 4th and 5th grade students from Captain Cooper School down to the Big Sur River to sample stream insects. They found 18 species with a water quality index of 76, which is excellent .....Back at Big Creek the leopard lilies and the giant stream orchids are in full bloom, along with a host of other late-blooming species, while the maple leaves are beginning to turn color and fall to the forest floor! The coastal climate is confusing to many species. (7-13-02)

September 2002

At the end of August each year a group of commercial fishermen and women ("fishers") get together with reserve staff to talk about the Big Sur Skiff Fishing Survey. Coordinated by the reserve, the fishers participating in this survey weigh and measure fish taken from Big Sur coastal waters between Lopez Point and Fuller's beach. This year we presented the 11th consecutive year of data, which makes this an unusually long-term study. The data were from fish caught last September-December, 2001. Two species seemed to be declining in length, copper rockfish and olive rockfish, while eight other species, including gopher, black and yellow, grass, vermilion, and kelp rockfish, and cabezon, showed increased lengths as compared with previous years. Comparing the length-weight ratio to previous years, 2001 was a fairly "fat" year for vermilion, olive and blue rockfish, and "average" for black-and-yellow rockfish and cabezon. This bodes well for the surviving fish, growing faster and laying more eggs in the breeding season. However, the biggest subject of discussion was the closure of the near shore commercial fishery. This closure is expected to last until January 1, 2003, and effectively cancels the fishing season for our survey for 2002. We are discussing changing the survey dates so as to make them coincide with times when the fishing season is open.

Several investigators have begun looking in Big Creek Reserve for signs of Sudden Oak Death, the disease caused by the fungus Phytophthora ramorum. The researchers took leaf and bark samples and sent them to a lab in Berkeley to see if the disease organisms were present. So far the results are negative and the spots and discolorations are being caused by a benign relative of Phytophthora ramorum. Nevertheless, the researchers predict that, in the next few years, the disease will arrive in the reserve and begin killing trees, particularly tanoaks. With this in mind, they have begun setting out study plots and taking soil samples, so as to have a picture of what the habitat was like before infection. One wildlife-oriented study is putting out acorn traps to measure acorn production, and another study of beneficial fungi is looking at the roots of tanoaks to see how well tanoaks may recover after being devastated by Sudden Oak Death. Yet other studies are looking at the disease transmission and spreading rates. All these are helping to improve knowledge of the disease and hopefully will suggest methods of controlling its spread or limiting its effects. The researchers have prepared a 15-page color informative brochure called "How to recognize symptoms of diseases caused by Phytophthora ramorum, causal agent of Sudden Oak Death." I have a copy of this and can print out other loaner copies if anyone would like to see it. Just call me at 667-2543.

Other notes: Last September2001 was the worst month ever for road kill in Big Sur. This September appears to be similar. Please record any road kill observations, including date, species of animal, and as precise a location as possible, and mail, email or phone the information to me at Big Creek (; 667-2543). I will be preparing an updated report in November. The information will be used by Caltrans planners and others to help improve safety for people and wildlife along the highway corridor…..The creek is quite low this fall and still declining. We had an unusual bloom of orange-brown algae in the stream which seems to have its origin up the South (Canogas) fork of Devil's Creek. …We may be offering some volunteer-led hikes through the reserve in upcoming months. Please call if you might be interested and I'll put you on a contact list. Also, we have moved our open house date next spring to Saturday May 10. This is a change from our traditional date of the first Saturday in April. (9-23-02)

October 2002

Volunteer researcher David Casterson, a biology and photography teacher at Soquel High School, has been conducting a 3-year survey of steelhead trout coloration in Big Creek. Two color forms seem to be present. There is a "light" form with whitish belly and sides underlying a row of 7-8 dark spots or bars running along the side, and a "normal" form which lacks the light coloration and the bars, and instead has a reddish, spotted stripe running down the side. I have photos of these forms on the Big Creek web page
By snorkeling with mask and wet suit, David and co-workers have counted fish in selected pools, and have recorded the color form and age class for each fish seen.

The biological significance of the color forms is uncertain, but having a diversity of forms may make it easier for the fish to hide. Many kinds of animals are believed to form mental "search images" to help detect enemies and/or their prey, and behavioral studies on animals (and people!) have shown that it is much easier to find things if they are uniform in appearance. A trout which looks different from the others may have a great advantage in survival and reproduction, thus passing its unusual coloration to the next generation. This trend might continue until the new coloration becomes common in the population. What David found with the steelhead was that the "light" form was very common in August 2000, and that in 2001 and 2002 the number of "normal" fish increased while the light form declined. This suggests the possibility that something in the environment may have changed in the past few years, favoring the "normal" form. One possibility is that the fire of 1999 changed the creek in such a way as to favor the "light" form (for example, by dirtying the water and changing visibility), and that subsequently conditions have returned to "normal." There may be other explanations as well, and David plans to continue his survey in future years.

Ammon Corl, a researcher from UC Santa Cruz, is studying a similar phenomenon in Side-blotched lizards, a species which inhabits dry hillsides on the coast and in the interior valleys. In most localities, males of this lizard have three color forms while females have two. Work in the inland valleys has revealed that the numbers of the different forms cycle in frequency so that every few years a different form becomes common before cycling back. However, for this kind of cycling to work, there must be enough lizards in the population so that the rare forms can survive to become common later. The populations of side blotched lizards at Big Creek seem to be very small, and Ammon could only find 12 individuals. The males all had blue throats and the females all had orange throats, suggesting that the populations may be too small to support color variation for any length of time. However, Ammon plans to spend more time looking and he may yet find a larger population of lizards at Big Creek with more than one color form. (10-22-02)



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