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Monitoring Wildlife for Healthy Forests

Monitoring Wildlife for Healthy Forests

On the Land, Water, and Air

Protecting and restoring the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz mountains is no small task. Especially after all they have endured–clear-cut logging and fire suppression–and what we hope they can continue to endure: climate change. And as our Land Team can tell you, it's not always straightforward. While the size and majesty of a coast redwood often dominates the landscape, like all ecosystems, there is so much more than meets the eye–a complex, delicate, and intricate web of life comprised of the reciprocity of thousands of life forms from the microorganisms in the soil, fungi and insects, to the plants, trees, and wildlife. A bit like taking a temperature, monitoring wildlife can give us an indication of the health of the land and help to inform stewardship needed to restore its vitality.

What can monitoring wildlife on the land, water, and air tell us about recovery and recreation in the forest? Read on to learn more.

photo by Pathways for Wildlife

Why Wildlife?

Unlike statuesque and stationary redwoods, the wildlife they help provide habitat for can be rather difficult to see–whether they’re well-camouflaged, super speedy, ranging across huge habitats, seasonal, or prefer to move under the cover of darkness. Monitoring wildlife can help to assess overall ecosystem health and give us a sense of what species are using different parts of the property, so we can plan projects as needed, coordinate with researchers, and assess areas and seasons to reduce use. Although wildlife often shy away from people, science has developed many ways to uncover the presence of wildlife on the land, in the water, and in the air.

End of the Range

The Santa Cruz mountains are close to the end of the range for redwoods, endangered coho salmon, and endangered marbled murrelets. This southernmost habitat marks the edge of favorable conditions like temperature and precipitation that these species need. And of course, climate change is pushing those temperatures higher and pushing the water cycle further into extreme undulations between drought and deluge. Monitoring these species here in the Santa Cruz mountains can not only give us invaluable data for the species as a whole but also inform adaptive management stewardship strategies.

Multifaceted partnerships with experts help to gather and analyze data to guide whether action is needed to better restore the natural processes altered by recent human impacts such as clear-cut logging, damming, and the introduction of invasive species.

“Protecting wildlife that are there is a part of our goal. Understanding where they are, what they are doing, and when helps us to manage the land holistically,” our Natural Resource Manager Beatrix Jiménez-Helsley explains. We monitor wildlife across our protected lands but San Vicente Redwoods has been a research hotspot–a living laboratory for field studies–for over a decade and with the upcoming opening of its new trails, we’re poised to learn even more.

Redwoods and Climate Part 3 Present Vs Historic Coast Redwood Range Map by Jane Kim, Ink Dwell

illustration by Ink Dwell.

San Vicente Redwoods

San Vicente Redwoods was protected in 2011 as a dynamic partnership with Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League, and the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County. Since then, San Vicente Redwoods’ nearly 9,000 acres including old-growth redwoods, oak woodlands, grasslands, and eight creeks have hosted a plethora of research from geomorphology studies on its unique karst systems underground to the many species that soar, roost, or nest in the redwood crowns and cliffs above. Countless things make San Vicente Redwoods extraordinary but with the partnerships’ plans to open San Vicente Redwoods for public recreation, being able to monitor wildlife before and after it opens is extremely valuable data.

Through various research approaches to wildlife monitoring, we are able to get a glimpse behind the curtain at the creatures in the land, water, and air.

Wildlife Monitoring San Vicente Redwoods By Ian Bornarth

photo by Ian Bornarth.

Land

photo by Ian Rowbotham.

Click a topic below to learn more about monitoring wildlife on the land:

As our communities grow and habitat becomes less and less available, ensuring our time in nature has as little impact as possible on wildlife is paramount. Monitoring wildlife on our properties can help us adapt management plans based on the actual behaviors and needs of wildlife.

Wildlife Photo Index

In 2019, wildlife monitoring equipment was strategically deployed across San Vicente Redwoods to gather baseline data on how wildlife actually use the land. Motion sensor cameras positioned in key areas to capture wildlife presence and behavior have returned a treasure trove of data–as well as pretty fantastic wildlife selfies. Here are our Top 12 shots of wildlife at San Vicente Redwoods so far:

Wildlife monitoring photos with our San Vicente Redwoods partners Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League, and Land Trust of Santa Cruz County by Pathways for Wildlife.

Click below to learn more about the next steps in monitoring wildlife on the land:

Motion sensor cameras have truly increased our ability to detect wildlife on the land we would rarely see otherwise. But what about wildlife in the water or air? Especially for species that are already rare to begin with?

Water

photo by Ian Bornarth.

Click a topic below to learn more about monitoring wildlife in the water:

These varied approaches to monitoring aquatic wildlife help to provide a picture of all the species currently present–those we can see and even those we can’t through evidence left in the water. In a similar regard, monitoring wildlife in the air, particularly notoriously mysterious species, can be accomplished through evidence in the air.

Air

photo by Canopy Dynamics.

Click below to learn more about the next steps in monitoring wildlife in the air:

Science Conservation Biology Marbled Murrelet By GBartley

by G. Bartley

When the CZU wildfire burned 86,500 acres, including the first ever recorded location of a marbled murrelet’s nest–in Big Basin Redwoods State Park–it was feared it could be a major if not final blow to the already endangered seabird’s presence in the Santa Cruz mountains. Yet just one year later, another incredible first occurred in Big Basin, a marbled murrelet was filmed fledging its nest. This was a great sign of hope for the resilience of the redwood forest, the Santa Cruz mountains, and for this struggling species in the most southern stronghold of its range.

Marbled murrelets, described as a flying potato, spend much of their life on the ocean but like the coho salmon make their way inland to the forests to lay their eggs. Nesting atop old-growth trees like the redwoods and Douglas-firs in the Santa Cruz mountains, Ornithologist Steve Singer had estimated about 50% of their suitable habitat had been lost in Big Basin Redwoods State Park. While nearly all of the redwoods are expected to recover in time, their canopies were still impacted and a much heavier toll was taken on their less fire resistant Douglas-fir neighbors which are unable to recover through epicormic sprouting as redwoods can. Needless to say, the CZU wildfire left the fate of the seabird looking bleak until a nest was discovered in Big Basin again in 2021.

Adapted to return to the forest for nesting, adult marbled murrelets turn a mottled brown during breeding season, making them more difficult to spot in the canopy. Despite being described as potatoes, they are deceptively fast. Their stubby wings–suited for flying underwater–are also well-adapted for the forest. Beatrix says they can fly up to 100 miles per hour–to help them evade predators in the forest. Their comparatively small wing size means they have to beat their wings constantly and rapidly to stay aloft.

Perhaps more potato-like, is their maneuverability. Although they have fast wing beats, they can’t hover like hummingbirds nor can they make any sudden turns. A hummingbird beats its wings between 10 and 80 times per second. Having been trained to conduct inland field surveys for marbled murrelets the last two years, Beatrix can attest to hearing their fast wing beats–which she says sound like a boomerang– and their calls–referred to as “keers”– across the sky far more often than she could track them flying under the cover of darkness.

Marbled murrelet calling bout spectogram, by Conservation Metrics

While most of our properties burned in the CZU wildfire’s considerable footprint, remarkably marbled murrelets have been detected at 3 out of 5 monitoring locations. So how do we monitor for these rare, elusive birds unlikely to be seen in-person or to conveniently land in front of a monitoring camera? Through the air. Acoustic Recording Units set to record at marbled murrelets’ most active times in the forest–around sunrise and sunset–were set at 5 different locations by staff. The hundreds of hours of field recordings were then processed with a pattern recognition software to specifically detect the “keer” calls of marbled murrelets allowing the researchers to hone their manual review in on high probability calls and check for the sound of wing beats before and after which could indicate proximity to a nesting site.

Sensitive Species, Significant Signs

The presence of marbled murrelets and coho salmon–two sensitive species–after the CZU wildfire are encouraging signs for the continued recovery of the forest, although populations fluctuate naturally and many other factors can come into play that can affect wildlife species. For marbled murrelets and coho salmon in particular, these endangered species rely on two different habitats which doubles the potential impacts from human activity such as oil spills and dams as well as greater shifts from climate change. Monitoring and collaborating with experts and landowners across the region helps to provide the bigger picture of the species as a whole and the potential for coordinating adaptive management across a greater swath of the range, hopefully benefitting more coho, marbled murrelets, and many more species in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Wildlife Monitoring San Vicente Redwoods By Teddy Miller

photo by Teddy Miller.

Monitoring and Management

During the next few years of monitoring, we will gain a better understanding of the wildlife that inhabit San Vicente Redwoods and will be able to see if the presence of people significantly impacts wildlife’s behavior or movement in the forest and how we can minimize the effects. With adaptive land management and data on what species use areas at different times, projects can be scheduled when they will affect less wildlife and can be added opportunistically to support specific wildlife like Large Woody Debris installations for coho salmon. Wildlife monitoring has ever-growing potential to help balance needs in the San Vicente Redwoods through adaptive land management. Thanks to our partners, The Arthur L. and Elaine V. Johnson Foundation, The William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris Foundation, Resource Legacy Fund, and supporters like you, these invaluable projects can inform future trails, land management, and a deeper regional understanding of how land can be shared by people and wildlife for generations to come.

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