Crowdsourced Science: Condor Watch

CondorWatchIn line with the Essig Museum of Entomology’s CalBug project, a collaborative effort between California museums to digitize and geo-reference their entomological specimens fueled by the crowdsourced Notes from Nature citizen science project reported here last year, this April the folks at Zooniverse are at it again with one of California’s flagship species, the critically endangered California condor.

The fledgling Condor Watch program gives air time to the down time when California condors move in on a meal. With over 10 years of photographs to process, researchers are turning to the public to achieve the lofty goal of identifying individual birds by reading and recording the vinyl patagial tags, placed on the birds’ wings by researchers before they are released in the wild, as well as the birds’ behaviors as they gather to feed around carcass. The candid condor photographs are captured by motion-activated cameras at release sites and feeding stations, and each site is baited with an uncontaminated carcass to lure in passerby diners.

In addition to tracking individual condords, the program also hopes to be able to detect real-time eating or social problems early on that could indicate lead poisoning or other health issues. Condors are particularly at risk of lead poisoning when they ingest bullet fragments after feeding on carcasses hunted with lead ammunition. Sick birds require early medical attention, but they must first be recaptured before they can undergo chelation for lead poisoning. Ancillary data collected along the way – including the variety and numbers of adjunct scavengers species, including ravens, coyotes, golden eagles, and turkey vultures – may provide additional insight into the ecology of carcass feeding sites.

From the comfort of your own home, your task as a Citizen Scientist is to carefully identify and describe all species present in a stream of digital imagery by first ‘marking’ and identifying individual species (not so different from ‘tagging’ friends in a photograph on social networks), and then recording their distance from the carcass. If you are lucky enough to get a condor in the frame, you are also asked to record whether they are an adult or juvenile (there’s a field guide available to walk you through how to identify such particulars) and to record the details marked on their patagial wing tags (identification number, colors, etc.).

Researchers hope to better understand from this study how to predict foraging associations among condors at wild locations, to evaluate the social structure and dynamics at play in feeding groups, and detect whether age, sex, and captive rearing methodology play a role in such associations and feeding station attendance. They also hope to develop a social network map for free-flying condors that describes which individuals within a population interact, a rarity in and of itself.

If ever there was a species and a project that needed help getting off the ground, the California condor and Condor Watch are two prime candidates. With Condor Watch, every click counts towards the recovery of California’ charismatic scavenger.

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Alameda County Conservation Partnership: 2014 Alameda Striped Racer Workshop

whipsnakeworkshopThis spring the Alameda County Conservation Partnership, together with the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Coastal Training Program, is sponsoring the Alameda Striped Racer Workshop with presenter Karen Swaim. The workshop, slated for May 13, 2014 at the Martinelli Center in Livermore, CA, will provide a comprehensive review of the species’ natural history and habitat management with both classroom lecture and a field training session in racer habitat. Among the topics covered are species identification, natural history, habitats and ecology, predators and prey, distribution, threats, strategies for conservation and recovery, and trapping and field study and marking techniques, including an afternoon training practicum in the field to observe trapping and handling techniques.

Space is limited, so act now! This year’s registration deadline is April 30th.




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Western ‘Fens’ Lizard? – Occidental Tourist Helps Herpetologists Mend Fences

HERP BSAcross the Pacific West Coast, the western fence lizard is today an ubiquitous fixture in the landscape. Heedless of its heritage, this bucolic blue-belly, a true blue-blooded ambassador among reptiles, basks with reckless abandon in flagrant disregard for its purported preferred niche – western fences. Be it gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse, or doghouse, be the surface vertical or horizontal, this gravity defying swift of the sun-burnt savanna has colonized habitats that defy its very nomenclature. Until recently, scientists had long wondered about the etymological origins of a species so Catholic in its present distribution it has been called the street pigeon of the oak savanna. This year, startling new research at last answers the age-old question, “What was a fence lizard before there were fences?”

According to field notes recently discovered in the collection of Occidentalis College, it appears the answer originates from a divine comedy of errors involving the species’ discovery by the heretofore unknown naturalist Ebrill Ferst Fens coinciding with the passing of an agricultural era. Writing in the new academic journal, Herpetological Errata, Redactum, and Polemics: Biological Sciences (B.S.), Occidentalis College Professor Skóla Per-Hús Degrasse’s carefully researched monograph recounts Fens’ early fall from grace and later claim to fame.

Ebrill Ferst Fens: Inventor, prospector, naturalist, poet.

Ebrill Ferst Fens: Inventor, prospector, naturalist, poet, and fence lizard namesake.

As a young man growing up in Paris, Ebrill Ferst Fens (1822-1873) was an avid outdoorsman, entrepreneur, and inventor. His first inventions included the ‘froide fusion’ bandage wrap, a cloth binding whose adhesive would persist in below-freezing temperatures. This was later followed by a children’s toy he dubbed the ‘flying saucer,’ a tea dish capable of flight. Fens’ trademark neck beard – another of his innovations, grown to prevent mealtime ‘crumblies’ from encroaching below his chin to intrude beneath his shirt collar, causing an unsightly nipple rash - was a vanity of his that set the young man apart from the flock. But it was Fens’ controversial ‘water dousing’ – the process by which he purported one could manufacture concentrated Holy Water by thrashing it with a divine rod – that ultimately sent Fens abroad fleeing his queue of debtors. Impoverished and disillusioned, in 1849 Fens struck out for the boom-towns of California to find his fortune.

But throat-frocked Fens was no gold-standard among Sierra miners. By 1850, having burned through his limited savings in the goldfields, the down-on-his-luck entrepreneur-turned-Forty-Niner packed in his pans and returned to the coast to retire and regroup in bustling San Francisco. There Fens found himself on the streets, taking shelter beneath vegetable carts in the many great open-air market stalls throughout the city by night, wandering the countryside by day. Having heard that ‘scientifics’ at the Smithsonian Institution’s U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History) were endeavoring to make a collection of California natural history objects, Fens began collecting curiosities discovered during his walks. On one of his many perambulations, Fens one day recorded a species of lizard he thought new to science:

April 1851

On this the First of Fourth-month, I today discovered a terrestrial, rough-scaled lizard of unusual markings. This specimen I have collected bears upon it an azure tiling upon the venter the likes of which remained by me unseen until today. This skye-dyed creature so reminds me of the mythic blue rock lobster of the Atlantic waters in colouration and scarcity, I have come to think of this creature like a terrestrial rock lobster. In my travels here outside the city limits, I have seen it with some regularity on sunny days at but a single location, perched upon a forgotten fence rail where elsewhere the fence has fallen into disrepair and is no longer. There upon its salient overlook, it performs a display both comical and intriguing. I can only describe its rhythmic dance as a sort of ventral-thrusting, erecting and then prostrating itself alternatingly on the axis of its forelimbs, much like a pugilist training before a match. For what reason it performs this behavior it is beyond me to ascertain, as it clearly has no brethren here upon this lichen-laced fence with which to communicate, court, or threaten. I can only speculate how much greater in numbers this spiny saurid might be were there more miles of fence upon which to perch. Then, perhaps it could be said good fences make more neighbors.

Western Fens' Lizard

The Western Fens Lizard

Fens collected the lizard and mailed the specimen – pickled in a jam jar of rotgut whiskey – back east to naturalists Spencer F. Baird and Charles F. Girard along with a transcription of his field notes. In 1852, Baird and Girard published a note in the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia entitled “Descriptions of New Species of Reptiles.” Therein, they dubbed the species the ‘western Fens lizard’ after its discoverer, a common name they thought superior to the alternative name proposed, the  ‘blue-bellied lizard’.

Fens had returned from the gold fields destitute, but the correspondences he established with Baird and Girard developed into the occasional exchange of floral and faunal specimens he shipped back east to supply their studies (i.e., the Fens dingo [coyote], Fens whale, purple Fench, sweet Fennel). The reimbursements for these specimens paired with various odd jobs payed for the itinerant some-time naturalist’s next undertaking in 1860, poetry. Fens soon became a florid fixture in early San Francisco markets, where he became known among market-goers as the ‘lizard king.’ But Fens’ life of sundry accomplishments was cut short in 1873, when he succumbed to one of San Francisco’s inclement summer nights. A grocer who frequented the markets knew enough of Fens’ eclectic life to collect his few belongings, among them Fens’ journal, and mail them to the grocer’s brother-in-law, a professor of natural sciences at Occidentalis College. And there Fens’ work was accessioned, then inexplicably lost for more than a century until 2012, when the beet-juice-stained journal was rediscovered by an enterprising sociology graduate student who stumbled across the jumble of poetry and natural history field notes cataloged with manuscripts about 1960′s counterculture under ‘beet poetry’.

Fens never learned his rock lobster had been named in honor of his contributions to science, nor did he live to see his prognostications concerning the perceived scarcity of the species bear fruit. During the last few years of Fens’ life, there developed a shift in the local economy beyond San Francisco’s city limits, from cattle farming to grain farming. With this change came the passage of California’s “No-Fence Law” in 1874, which repealed the Trespass Act of 1850 and resulted in the exponential growth of fences as ranchers hastened to fence in their livestock. As miles of posts and wires were laid, a habitat was born that would bridge the rolling grasslands like a superhighway, allowing the western Fens lizard to expand its range across the western United States.

Fens’ legacy was short-lived as naturalists and passersby alike – seeing an explosion in the number of blue-bellied lizards along the countryside’s fence lines – adopted the malapropism ‘fence lizard’ in place of the honorific ‘Fens lizard’. Museum catalogues and field guides were quick to follow suit. In less than a decade, the western Fens lizard had been replaced by the western fence lizard. The damage was done, and Fens’ contribution to science faded into the background. Nevertheless, this etymological mystery had not yet run its course. Following World War II, the United States closed a chapter in its agrarian life-style as urban sprawl and automobiles facilitated the suburbanization of the countryside. At the risk of extinction, this one-time niche-specialist quickly adapted to novel, non-fence surfaces, at long last trivializing its own trivial name.

Audubon Barn Owl

Bjarne’s owl

Such etymological evolution is not uncommon. A similar transcription error was uncovered in the early 1950′s after it was discovered that what we commonly refer to today as the ‘barn’ owl (Tyto alba) was originally first described as Bjarne’s owl, after Reyes de Bjarne, the famed Spanglo-Dutch naturalist, botanist, and occult-phrenologist. It wasn’t until 1820, when clock towers, bell towers, and hay lofts associated with California’s early Spanish settlements and the suburban sprawl that followed in the wake of the 1849 Gold Rush began subsidizing the Bjarne’s owl’s natural cavity nests, that Bjarne’s owl underwent a similar vernacular, backward slide toward the more vulgar ‘barn’ owl common today.

In hindsight, Fens called it true when he wrote “good fences make more neighbors,” for the western Fens lizard proliferated in step with every board foot of fence laid. So too, however, did Fens’ contribution diminish with every board foot, until the common parlance trivialized not only a species, but the role their namesake played in herpetological history. Still, history has a way of righting itself, in this case mending Fens’ good name. In overturning the malappropriate defenestration of the west’s emblematic lizard, we are left with nothing but the best of Fens. Speaking at an April 1 press conference this week about Degrasse’s careful work restoring Ebrill Ferst Fens’ reputation, Occidentalis College Dean of Admissions Annie Ella remarked, “Degrasse was always keener on the bona fides of that Fens.”

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Dr. Robert C. Stebbins: Happy Birthday

March 31st is California’s esteemed herpetologist Dr. Robert C. Stebbins‘ birthday. Dr. Stebbins passed away last year on September 23, 2013, at the age of 98. Whether you knew him in person or were an admirer from afar – even if only through the pages of his trusty field guides – this is as good a time as any to remember him not only for his great accomplishments, but also his kindness.

Robert C. Stebbins, Kensington Residence Studio, 2004                  Museum of Vertebrate Zooology, UC Berkeley

Robert C. Stebbins, Kensington Residence Studio, 2004 Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley (by Charles W. Brown)

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Alameda County Conservation Partnership: 2014 California Tiger Salamander Workshop

This spring the Alameda County Conservation Partnership, together with the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Coastal Training Program, is once again sponsoring the California Tiger Salamander Workshop 2014 for the 9th year running with presenter Christopher Searcy, Ph.D. The workshop, slated for May 6 and 7, 2014 at the Martinelli Center in Livermore, CA, will provide a comprehensive review of the species’ natural history and conservation efforts with both classroom lecture and a field training session within the Los Vaqueros watershed. Among the topics covered are species identification, natural history, habitat requirements, management practices, habitat assessments, pond designs, equipment demonstrations, larvae and egg identification, geographic distribution of native and hybrid salamander populations, project impact assessments, avoidance and minimization approaches, and survey methodology, including a training practicum in the field.

Space is limited, so act now!

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