Exploring the Wild Side of Eagle Rock with Occidental College

April 7, 2016

**This week's blog is written by students and faculty from Occidental College** This year, at Occidental College in northeast LA, we decided to do something about documenting the nature on our campus by organizing a BioBlitz (an event that focuses on documenting as many species as possible in a place over a short period of time). It seemed like the perfect time to get people engaged in documenting the biodiversity on campus, seeing as the theme for this year at Oxy is sustainability.  As part of that commitment to sustainability, the college supported the BioBlitz in several ways, including a new Spring semester class that focused on citizen science to help us prepare.

Co-author Marlaina and fellow citizen scientist get excited about the BioBlitz! Los Angeles is one of the most biodiverse cities in the world.  Its geographic location makes Los Angeles a biodiversity hotspot, and some of the species living here are found nowhere else in the world. It is also incredibly urbanized, with a population of over 10 million people in Los Angeles County! This poses a lot of challenges for documenting nature in such an urbanized area: for example, a lot of the land is private property, and biologists can’t just walk into people’s yards to see what lives there. Even if they could, the sheer number of people it would take to pick through people's yards, blocks of houses, and hidden gardens and parks is huge!  Citizen science is one great solution to large-scale monitoring problems.  Getting people involved in scientific data collection promotes community education and empowerment, while providing usable data for ecological projects.   We spent most of the semester listening to guest speakers (including citizen science experts from the Natural History Museum), reading scientific papers, combing through iNaturalist and eBird (two citizen science data gathering platforms), and taking our own pictures of the organisms on campus.  Then on April 2, we left the fate of our project in the hands of the citizen scientists who showed up. Nature gets up early, so we started at 6:30 am!

Oxy students use the iNaturalist app and field guides to identify and upload their observations.  The bird diversity on Oxy’s campus has been well documented and is designated as an eBird hotspot, with 97 species known from campus. Impressively, in a single day, student citizen scientists documented 45 species—nearly half of those on the list! We also found something surpristing--a new species for our campus, a Cassin’s Vireo, Vireo cassinii. As dozens of citizen scientists scoured Oxy’s nooks and crannies for birds throughout the day, the species continued to roll in, while students and community members got the chance to learn from experts from Oxy’s Moore Lab of Zoology about local bird species, and spot some exciting birds themselves.

Cassin's Vireo, a new species record for campus! Early participants got great looks at a flock of eight Yellow Chevroned Parakeets which landed in a small tree on campus. We also heard the raucous chatter of groups of Red-Crowned and Lilac-Crowned parrots overhead. These parrot and parakeet species are native to Central and South America, but over the years, escaped and released pets have established wild populations. We recorded five non-native bird species including parakeets, parrots, red whiskered bulbuls, and house sparrows. That means roughly 10% of the bird species recorded on the day of the BioBlitz were non-native, which tells the tale of human influence in the Los Angeles area. It will be fascinating to see whether the prevalence of non-native and invasive bird species increases or decreases going forward, and hopefully future BioBlitzes on campus can help document these indicators of human influence. Mid-morning, participants spotted four different species of warblers, including an all-time campus high count of 30 Yellow-rumped Warblers. These species are all currently in the midst of their spring migration, and their presence may indicate that the lush foliage of campus serves as an intriguing stop-over spot for migrating birds.

Black-throated Gray Warbler found during BioBlitz Later sessions had the privilege of observing three species of raptors around campus. Red-tailed Hawks were seen soaring overhead in the warm afternoon sun. A breeding pair of Cooper’s Hawks perched in a Eucalyptus tree overlooking the entrance to Oxy’s Campus, and a pair of Red-shouldered Hawk’s patrolled their territory near Oxy’s organic community garden. The presence of these birds indicates that the mature trees lining Oxy’s campus for the past century provide quality habitat for multiple raptor species. With continuing expansion of campus infrastructure, and issues of disease and infestation currently affecting campus trees, it will be fascinating to see whether our resident birds of prey relocate their territories in the near future. In addition to multiple bird surveys, we documented several other species. We had some of our first sightings of the native Valley Carpenter bee, or as some people like to call it, the flying teddy bear. If you have ever seen a giant black or yellow buzzing ball of fuzz zipping around, you’ve seen a carpenter bee. They are fairly harmless unless you have found holes in your home from their nests. Our bee-research lab on campus had been looking for them and EUREKA! We found both females (the giant black fuzzballs) and males (giant yellowish-brown fuzzballs). We were able to net some to add to Oxy’s insect collection which dates back to the 1980’s.

Citizen scientists ready to go find some insects

Citizen scientists look for bees The most common reptile on campus was the Western fence lizard that you can find all over Southern California, but we did find a few exciting things in the reptile and amphibian surveys. Not one, but two(!) species of slender salamander—the Garden and Black-bellied slender salamanders—co-exist in Sycamore Glen, a wooded area just behind our Biology building. We also found a gopher snake.  While the gopher snake seems like a reasonable resident of the restored habitat area attached to campus, no recent records exist of snakes being found there, so this was an exciting find!

A young citizen scientist finds a gopher snake! Over 100 people showed up to help out, with a total of 344 observations made, and at least 80 species identified.  We’ve officially declared the 2016 BioBlitz at Occidental College a triumph.  Because of the amazing turn out that we had, we are hoping to make the Oxy BioBlitz an annual project, and continue educating citizens and fostering the relationship between Oxy’s science department, the Natural History Museum, and the community. We hope that annual BioBlitzes will continue to gain popularity with both Oxy students, and members of the surrounding communities. In the future, we also hope to enhance our ability to document campus biodiversity by integrating camera traps, a bat call detector (the same one NHMLA uses!), and pitfall traps for insects, into our efforts. With thanks to Occidental College, the Center for Digital Liberal Arts at Oxy, and the staff of the Natural History Museum, and everyone who came to the BioBlitz and helped make it a great day! Photos credited to James Maley, Beth Braker, Amanda Zellmer McCormack, and Jessica Blickley                      

(Posted by: Marlaina Bemis, Devon DeRaad, Hannah Hayes, and Kristine Kaiser)

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