Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bark Beetle Invasion

"Is that a deciduous tree? Look, I found a little, black insect! Why is that pine tree brown?" These questions and comments have been a common occurrence throughout the school year.  The S.O.S. forest is changing and students are taking notice.  The change has brought up insightful discussions about forest health and management by the students.        

The little black insect stimulating so many questions and concerns is actually native to California.  The Mountain Pine Beetle and the Western Pine Beetle can be found in western North American forests.  Previously, these beetles (no bigger than a cooked piece of rice) caused little harm to the healthy forests of California.  However, California’s years of drought have brought the pine beetle to the front of the stage.  

Figure 1. Mountain Pine Beetle
A student asks, “Ewwww, what’s that red ooze on that tree?”  That red ooze is a sign that the Ponderosa Pine is unsuccessfully trying to fight off the bark beetle.  As previously stated, the bark beetle is native to California but seemingly becomes ‘invasive’ as trees become weakened by drought.  The previous freezing winters of the Sierras use to keep the bark beetle manageable, but warming winters enable the bark beetle to thrive. (1)  The bark beetle attacks the tree by borrowing through the tree’s bark and laying their eggs in the tree’s phloem (Phloem transports nutrients throughout the tree).  The beetle and its larvae survive off of the tree’s nutrients and inhibits the tree to spread valuable nutrients throughout.  The weakened tree can not push the beetle out with its sap and thus becomes a victim.

Figure 2. Aerial View of S.O.S. 2017
Sierra Outdoor School has seen the vast effects from the bark beetle.  Hundreds of ponderosa pines have been cut down since the beginning of the school year. Environmentalists, foresters, and land managers are in a bind of what to do with all the dead trees.  Do we remove the dead trees from the Sierra and initiate environmental damage from logging?  Do we keep the dead trees and increase fire fuel? (1)  The die-off is so catastrophic it is hard to predict what will be best for the environment.        

Although the browning of the trees is aesthetically unappealing, the ponderosa pine die-off has initiated different teaching opportunities and conversation in classes.  The die-off offers hands on ways to approach topics on natural resources, conservation, forest management, and decomposition.   

Figure 3. Aerial Video of Campus 

The forest will adapt to these changes like it has throughout the years.  Sierra Outdoor School will adapt to these changes as well.  On May 6th, S.O.S will be holding a BioBlitz; a public event where volunteers gather to catalog as many species possible to determine the biodiversity of an area.  The goal is to have another BioBlitz in the future to figure out how the biodiversity of the forest is adapting due to the ponderosa pine tree die-off.  

If you would like to attend the S.O.S. BioBlitz you can sign up at: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/sos-bioblitz-2017-tickets-32102915685 or go to www.eventbrite.com and search for SOS BioBlitz 2017.     


(1) http://legal-planet.org/2016/10/27/the-steadily-dying-sierra-nevadas/

Figure 1.
Figure 2. 
Angel Olavarria
Figure 3. 
Angel Olavarria

Thursday, March 30, 2017

                         Flower Flower Give Me Your Nectar

Ahh yes!  For many of us the winter months are a time for flu shots and watching movies.  Then the birds start singing their lilting tunes and the days become a little warmer and longer.   Creatures of the forest begin to emerge from their winter hiding spots and previously dormant plants wake up.  Humans wake, stretch and bask in the spring sunshine, and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of the first flower of the year.  And Oh My! That little firework of color swimming amidst a sea of brown leaves always makes us so happy!  So, with spring in mind, let us talk about flowers!
                      The Dodecatheon jeffreyi or sierra shooting star  Photo: sierrawildflowers.org

Little Sierra Shooting Star, why are you so pretty?  The question may seem simple, but underneath are some complicated natural phenomenon, and it all starts with the birds and the bees.  Every living thing will die someday and, before it does, that living thing must reproduce in order for the species to continue.  For a plant rooted in place the task of finding a mate is particularly challenging.  With this in mind, plants have a secret up their sleeves, flowers!  These vibrant petals and tantalizing aromas attract animals who act as the plant’s legs, moving genetic material from one plant to the next.  You may think, “Whoa, plants are manipulating animals for their own benefit!” and it is true.  However…there’s more. Flowers also make jokes.  “What did the old flower say to the new flower?  What’s up bud!”

                                              The mariposa lily  Photo: sierrawildflowers.org

The animals that flowers attract are pollinators, and each plant is trying to attract a specific set of animals.  For this, the plants employ a number of different strategies.  Visual cues are probably the most striking.  Many flowers have a dark center spot, or target, to indicate their location in the environment and stand out amongst their surroundings.  Other plants attract pollinators who see in different sets of colors than humans.  A bee’s vision is in the ultra violet spectrum and consequently sees a flower completely differently than a human.  Cool!    

                  Silverweed:  Left is how humans see and right is how bees see.  Photo: Bjørn Rørslett

Smells also attract animal pollinators.  How a flower smells and when a flower smells affects what pollinators it will be visited by.  Flowers trying to attract bats and moths will release a majority of smelly compounds during the nighttime, while flowers attracting bees and butterflies will smell most strongly during the day.  Some flowers attract pollinating flies by smelling like rotting meat or dung.  Finally, there are flowers that pollinated by birds.  Since birds have a very poor sense of smell, these flowers are often odorless.  Next time you stop to smell a flower, see if you can tell what kind of pollinator the flower is trying to attract. 

                                           Mountain Misery  - photo credit: Andrew Massyn

Have you ever seen something that no one else did?  Perhaps a rogue snowflake, a deer scampering off, or a tiny flower peaking up through a crack in the pavement.  As we move throughout our busy lives there are many things vying for our attention, and often the little things go unnoticed.  These little things and the glimpses of the rare lessons to slow down, take a deep breath, and observe nature’s magic.  After several very dry years, California has had a healthy dose of rainfall.  Many plant seeds can wait several years underground for just the right conditions to sprout.  This year those conditions for flowers are ideal.  Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California is in a super-bloom right now with an abundance of flowers bursting from the ground.  With this in mind, it is time that we all get outside and enjoy some spring sunshine.  Strap some shoes to your feet, walk to a sunny spot and enjoy some flowery magic.   Happy spring! 

                                        Photo by Kirk Christ, Orange County Register/SCNG


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Gold Leaf Mine (Gold Cabin)

"Is it haunted...?"

The Miners Cabin at Sierra Outdoor School (SOS) is known as the Gold Leaf Mine. The mine was founded in the 1890's by two brothers from Modesto, CA. The brothers believed that gold was coming out by means of a spring and began mining into the hillside. They ran the mine until the 1940's when during WWII all pit mining was shut down. After WWII the Forest Service took over the land. The brothers went to court for the mine, but were unsuccessful in reacquiring the land.

 The cabin sits on a rock pier foundation with sill (horizontal timber) and wire nails. It measures approximately 19'3"x 28'1/2 with front and back porches. The cabin is basically in good shape except for the floors which have been deteriorating these past years. The doors, with original key locks, came from a Hotel in Columbia. The cabin was fitted with electricity, heating, and insulation when SOS (formerly Regional Learning Center) began to use the cabin as a classroom.


Behind the cabin is where evidence of old trash from the       miners has been found. A former staff member, Norm           Borden, stated on 12/7/01 that a glass bottle, old round cans, and even beads have been found in the dump.



Located on the Gold Leaf Mine are mine shafts which are deep narrow vertical holes, or sometimes a horizontal tunnel, that gives access to a mine.  While heading down towards the adit (horizontal passage into the mine's entrance) a covered 90' deep vertical shaft is just off the trail. The shaft is separated from the trail with barbed wire. There is a second vertical shaft on the opposite side of the trail with a smaller visible opening. 

After a steep descent the 'adit' comes into view. The 6' tall and 10' wide entrance is secured with rebar. According to Borden, approximately 10' into the entrance of the adit is a wooden structure along the east wall. The adit is cut into the hillside approximately 120' where it then T's. One end of the T is connected to the larger vertical shaft previously mentioned. There are more vertical shafts in the floor of the tunnel, but they are usually covered by water.

 In front of the entrance is a leveled area                              with gold troughs where visiting schools,                                    here at SOS, can learn the history and skill                                of gold panning in California.

A very common question we are asked by visiting students is if the cabin is haunted?! 
As far as we know it's not, but.....

Information was greatly appreciated by: E. Potter and S.VanBuskirk, USFS
USFS personal communication with Norm Borden 12/7/01
Photos by Angel Olavarria

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Seasonal Metamorphosis of a Pond

Imagine you are looking at a pond. What do you see? Many would say water, plants, fish, maybe a few frogs.  But there is much more to a pond ecosystem than just meets the eye.  In the spring, a pond is an area teeming with life, while during the winter, everything seems to go still.  So what exactly is happening just below the surface?

During the winter, it may seem like everything in a pond has been put on hold.  This is partially true, as activity is slowed greatly during this season.  Turtles and frogs have retreated into the cozy warmth of the mud.  Insects are no longer skimming across the surface.  The metabolism of organisms in the pond as well as the amount of photosynthesis that is taking place is greatly decreased during the winter.  This is an important adaptation as both food and sunlight are in short supply.  In areas where ice is able to form on a pond, several changes occur. Since ice is less dense than liquid water, ice will form at the top of the pond and will even provide insulation for the water underneath.  Just below this icy layer, life still exists, but in a much more lulled state.  The ice prevents a lot of sunlight from reaching the bottom, and with shorter daylight hours, very little photosynthesis takes place.  The layer of ice also prevents normal gas exchange within a pond from occurring. Without access to the atmosphere, there will be much less dissolved oxygen.  Luckily, colder water holds more oxygen, and pond animals are adapted to use much less oxygen in the winter than they would in the summer.  This is what makes a winter pond seem so tranquil, as the pond organisms are trying to use as little energy as possible.  Although everything is still during the winter, the pond organisms are getting ready for a season that is anything but still. 

As the air temperature warms and the ice cracks and thaws the pond seems to spring to life again.  During this season, the pond is open to normal gas exchange processes and the dissolved oxygen content begins to increase.  The pond is also opened up to more sunlight, which leads to a cascade of life processes beginning again.  The first sign of the affects of spring in the pond is that the pond will become murky.  This is due to bacterial and phytoplankton blooms.  Then the decomposers of the pond will begin breaking down dead matter and releasing important nutrients into the body of water. With the presence of sunlight, ammonia, and carbon dioxide now readily available, algae will begin growing.  This is an important food source for herbivorous micro- and macro-organisms.  Amphibians are drawn back to the water source from which they are born, and soon the calls of frogs and toads will ring out from the edges of the pond as they begin their reproduction cycle.  The fish and aquatic invertebrates will also come to life after their long resting season.  Spring is the season of new life and action in a pond.
Photo credit: Macroscopic Solutions
During the summer, the pond becomes calm again.  Turtles bask lazily in the sun, as fish catch insects on the surface of the water.  Frogs and salamanders are entering their adult stages and leaving the water, as aquatic invertebrates go through metamorphosis and sprout wings.  Most of the oxygen that is now in the water is provided by the abundant plant life soaking in the sun.  Insect catching birds soar across the water in search of their next meal.  During hot summer days, water temperature may increase greatly.  Fish will retreat to the depths of the pond in search of cooler temperatures.  Amphibians rely on bushes and other plant coverage on the edge of ponds for shade from the sun.  The summer provides a warm resting period for the pond after a long season of activity and reproduction.

This is a season of change, not just in the trees, but in the pond as well.  It is a time of transition, where the pond ecosystem is getting ready for the still, cold winter.  As the pond's temperature decreases, it will absorb more oxygen.  This is a cue for the organisms in the pond to use less oxygen and energy.  Fish will produce less ammonia so that it doesn't get trapped under the ice during the winter.  In place of the summer birds, geese and ducks will migrate in.  The berries that were produced in the end of summer will be picked clean by small mammals preparing for winter.  This is a season of preparation, so that each species is able to survive a harsh winter.

A pond is constantly going through changes, as life circulates in and out of the ecosystem.  Everything that lives there depends on the water.  Each small change in the water means a change for every life form living there.  The pond ecosystem is an exciting and fascinating example of the ebb and flow of life throughout the seasons.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Crystal Award Winners at Sierra Outdoor School

The Crystal Award, is Clovis Unified School District's highest employee recognition award, has landed at the Sierra Outdoor School!

The Crystal Award is a prestigious award that honors employees of Clovis Unified School District for their above-and-beyond work.  This peer nominated award recognizes those making a significant difference in the lives of Clovis Unified students.

Superintendent Dr. Janet Young sums up the spirit of the Crystal Award as, “The Crystal Awards celebrates these winners who are true examples of the values and character that make Clovis Unified so special. Their passion, innovation, dedication and dynamic work ethic help our students reach their full potential in mind, body and spirit.”

While CUSD has almost 6,000 employees, only 32 employees were selected as 2016 Crystal Award recipients.  It is an honor to have two Sierra Outdoor School employees be selected for the Crystal Award in the same year:  Sharon Bush and Mike Olenchalk.
Sharon Bush and Mike Olenchalk hearing the news that they were both selected as Crystal Award  Recipients. 
Sharon is the school’s baker and a breakfast cook. If you ever had any of the delicious cookies at lunch or dinner, then you have tasted her handiwork. No matter how early it is in the morning, what the weather was like driving here, or how many students are eagerly awaiting breakfast, Sharon always has a smile on her face and something positive to share with our visitors. A graduate of Clovis High, Sharon has been at Sierra Outdoor School since 2002.

Mike Olenchalk has been part of Clovis Unified since 1985 and embodies Clovis values. After teaching high school biology for many years, he became Sierra Outdoor School's Director in 2001. He may not have realized when he took this position that he wouldn't only be directing this school, but also overseeing the renovation of almost every building on campus, navigating an economic downturn, getting legislation passed in Sacramento, plowing roads at all hours of the day and night, assisting with plumbing emergencies, and leading mountain bike classes, and he has done an outstanding job of it!

The SOS staff would like to congratulate Sharon and Mike for being recognized and honored with this special award. We thank you both for your hard work and dedication to Clovis Unified School District and Sierra Outdoor School. We are so proud to have you as part of the SOS team.

Steve France presenting the Crystal Award to Mike Olenchalk and Sharon Bush.  All winners will be honored at a special presentation in Clovis.   In addition each winner receives a monetary award to use at their school site.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Wait, do bears really hibernate?! Waking up to the truth about winter's sleep

Imagine yourself going for a hike through the vast Emigrant Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. You stop to look out over a field covered in the first light snowfall of the year. You’re captured by its beauty. One snowflake falls on your nose, then two, then more cover your hair. It’s mid-November. A crisp breeze rolls over the field and makes you shiver. What would you do next? Being a smart hiker, you probably brought a warm cozy jacket. Maybe it’s fleece, and if you’re experienced in the wilderness, it’s probably waterproof.
Now imagine yourself on this same field of freshly fallen snow, but instead of two feet in wool socks and hiking boots, you now have four large paws covered in dark brown fur. Your five claws are sharp from climbing trees to reach nuts, berries, and seeds. Your fur has thickened in the recent months. The snow is falling gently, covering your snout and ears. That same crisp breeze rolls across the field… but you hardly feel it. That 350 pounds you put on in the recent months is really paying off now. And it will continue to pay off in the months to come. You have been eating up to 20,000 calories per day, which is like eating 40 Big Mac burgers per day! Foraging takes up 20-23 hours per day, leaving you only 1-4 hours to sleep per night. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to sleep later.[1,6] Some wildlife biologists call this foraging the “fall shuffle” as bears will search up to 60 miles away from their home for food to prepare for winter.[6] Now, you turn away from the field, and journey back to your winter den. You find your warm waterproof cave nestled under three large boulders. You enter and curl up on the ground. Every part of your body begins to slow down. Your heart beat, your breathing, and your body temperature drop lower and lower. You fall into a deep slumber that may last for days or weeks at a time. You won’t eat, drink, urinate, or make scat. Instead, your body is adapted to keep your bones and muscles strong by cycling calcium, and using nitrogen from fat metabolism to build protein for muscle mass.[2,7]

But here’s the question: Are you really “hibernating” or are you only sleeping through something we call “torpor”? The answer to this question will show you that the world of winter sleeping is a far more complex one than you may have thought.

Hibernation is a process where an animal falls into a deep sleep that lasts several days to several months. They may only take one or two breaths per minute. In small mammals like the ground squirrel and hedgehog, body temperature will drop to almost freezing – temperatures around 37 degrees Fahrenheit (F). Heart rate slows in bats from 600 beats per minute (bpm) to 20 bpm.

Left: Two chipmunks snuggle for warmth during a fall nap.
Right: A bat sleeps in a torpid state in the basement of an abandoned house.
Chipmunk photo credit: Pinterest. https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/736x/43/d8/62/43d8627054594cd0c23ce22a39e4fee9.jpg Accessed 2/1/17.

Bat photo credit: Five Valleys Ecology. “Bats: Bat Biology.” http://www.fivevalleysecology.co.uk/page.php?pageid=botanical-surveyor-protected-species Accessed 2/1/17.

Torpor is a state that many animals, like the chipmunk, will enter on cold winter days. It’s similar to hibernation in some ways. Breathing slows, body temperature lowers, and heart rate goes down. Unlike hibernation, however, animals in torpor will usually sleep for only a day or two, then wake up to forage for food. In torpor, body temperature only lowers a few degrees.[1] Animals that enter torpor may do so simply to take a break from the cold winter day, saving energy for hunting later.

An Alaskan bear showing off some serious snoring during hibernation.

*If you’re using CUSD internet, here’s the sciencemag article where you can watch the video: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/02/secrets-bear-hibernation - scroll halfway down the page.

Bears land right on the line between hibernation and torpor. Their body temperature lowers at most 12 degrees, staying above 88 degrees F. [2] This is not nearly as low as smaller mammalian hibernators. Bears often wake up several times during hibernation, too, which looks like torpor. Thus, if we only look at temperature drop and length of sleep cycles, bears may not be considered “true hibernators.” In fact, before the 1980s, some people shunned the term “hibernator” to describe bears, preferring the term torpor to describe their winter sleep.[4] It wasn’t until 1981 that biologists redefined hibernation in mammals as “a specialized, seasonal reduction in metabolism concurrent with scarce food and cold weather.”[4,5] Once they realized that there was a whole lot more to hibernating than just body temperature, the definition of hibernation extended to many animals, not just those whose temperature dropped to near freezing. Today, many physiologists say bears hibernate, while some prefer calling it extended torpor.[4] In the end, it’s all a matter of how you define hibernation. Torpor usually refers to shorter sleeps, while hibernation lasts longer.

By the end of this we hope you have gained at least two things:
1)   An appreciation for the complex world of winter sleep.
2)   At least one new fancy word to show off to your friends.

Lastly, here’s a cool table that shows you the winter survival strategies of many different animal species from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Bugs, amphibians, mammals, and more: http://steonline.org/circles/lessons/energy/PDFs/winter-wildland3.pdf

For more on black bears, hibernation, and what they do to prepare for winter, visit these sites and any of the references listed below:

5.    Watts, P. D., N. A. Oritsland, C. Jonkel, and K. Ronald. 1981. Mammalian hibernation and the oxygen consumption of a denning black bear. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology, A. Comparative Physiology, 69:121-123.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Safety Tips for Prey Animals

SOS Naturalist, Tom, with the Western screech owl
The Western screech owl
Above are some photos of a Western screech owl, a member of the Sierra Outdoor School raptor center.  What is the first word that comes to mind when you see her?  There is a good chance you thought "cute."  Her diminutive stature(not much taller than a soda can) and big eyes make us humans view her in the same way we would view a puppy dog—adorable, harmless and the like.  In doing so it is easy to overlook the fact that the Western screech owl is a raptor, a bird that hunts and kills other animals for its food. 

For the duration of this article, we'd like you to pretend that you are a prey animal of this owl. Take your pick of what you'd like to be.  These owls will take the usual small mammals (mice, rats, etc.) and birds, but are also known for eating reptiles (snakes and lizards) and even insects, sometimes catching them while in flight.  Not even the aquatic animals are safe—these owls have been known to capture and kill trout and crayfish.  If you'd rather be dead than be eaten by a screech owl, know that they've been seen scavenging roadkill.

You are now pretending to be a prey animal of this owl. How would you avoid getting eaten?  Consider that this animal is nocturnal and has a relatively large set of powerful eyes, well suited for hunting at night.  Hiding in the darkest of shadows will not help you.  Do you think that slithering or crawling under the cover of leaves, snow or shrubs will keep you alive?  Consider yourself lunch…owls can use their ears to triangulate the location of their prey without ever seeing it. 

Source: Flickr, Dominic Sherony
Perhaps you are thinking that you could hear or see the owl coming and maybe even fight it when it arrives.  Looking at the owl’s image, you probably noticed that it camouflages well in a forest setting. What you can’t see in the photo are tiny serrations on the owl’s flight feathers that makes the owl's flight nearly silent.  As for fighting back, consider that the owl has incredibly strong talons relative to its body size, allowing it to crush the life from its prey. The rear talon, called the hallux, penetrates the prey’s body, injuring vital organs and potentially severing the spinal cord.   

By now you’re probably thinking that, given no other option, you’re best off leaving the Western screech owl’s territory in search of a safer life somewhere else.  Consider that there are an estimated 400,000 of them in North America ranging from Alaska on down through Mexico.  Hiding in the desert is not an option because they are there, too.  You could try travelling east but you will ultimately meet this owl’s cousin, the Eastern screech owl. 

Since neither running nor hiding is an option, perhaps some knowledge and a little luck will keep you safe.  Keep your ears open for the following sound:

The owl’s name is a misnomer and better suited for its close relative the Eastern screech owl.

If you want to stay alive, be careful around their nesting sites—abandoned woodpecker holes and natural cavities in trees and cacti.  They favor nesting sites near canyons and drainages and will nest up to 6,000 feet above sea level.

An owl in its nest.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps a mating pair of these birds have moved into your neighborhood and recently had offspring. Think the adults will be too busy to eat you?  Think again.  The female bird will be busy with the hatchlings, but the male will still be out hunting and bringing food back to the nest.  Also consider that those little hatchlings will be leaving the nest in a month or less and be out mating within the year.  If you think you can wait out their stay until they die consider that the oldest Western screech owl ever recorded was 13 years old.  As a side note, consider that the single owls are equally as dangerous—the males are known for flaunting their dead prey animals around the mouth of their nest to attract females. 

If by now you are thinking that being 100% safe from a Western screech owl is impossible—you are correct.   If you do get eaten, know that you have become part of the metabolic process of a truly cool animal.  Just consider it’s genus—Megascops—a name that would be equally suitable for a fire-breathing robot.  And the species name? kennicotti, named after the American naturalist Robert Kennicott. 

American naturalist Robert Kennicott.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
If nothing else, we hope that you have a new appreciation for:
1)How great it is to not be a prey animal of a Western screech owl.
2)That while Western screech owls may be cute, they are far from being harmless.