Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Santa Ynez River Beavers Pulling Through in the Drought

It was with some trepidation that I returned to my study site on the Santa Ynez River on Sunday October 12th 2014. The good news is that a water release was ongoing from Cachuma Reservior (senior water rights is a powerful thing even in drought years!), what I was worried about was that the period of no water was potentially devastating to the beaver. After all the last time I went to this area in late July it was bone dry - so dry the willows and cottonwoods were prematurely shedding their leaves and the only water left was a greasy little pool.

Dry Santa Ynez River late July
In areas where I had found abundant and fresh beaver sign - freshly knawed/felled trees, pulled up cattails, bank burrow slide marks - I found no sign of recent beaver activity. Do they move up or down the river to other sources of water? There is always some release from Cachuma to feed a steelhead creek and there is wastewater release year round further downstream. Or do they seek refuge in golf ponds? There are several golf ponds nearby. Both hypotheses are possible and not necessarily mutually exclusive at this point and not outside the adaptive potential of this animal. The golf pond hypothesis seems more tenable given that upstream and downstream movements towards water would entail movements of several kilometers, with kits in tow potentially, and traversing through other beavers territories. But then again although this drought is exceptional there is always some degree of drying of this river annually after the winter/spring rains and before the first release from Cachuma (usually Sep/Oct). Given that this beaver population, descended as it is from a few individuals released by CDFW in the middle of the last century, is more or less kissing cousins - perhaps territorial claims are lessened a bit in drought times? But that this population has adapted to this unusual water regime over several decades, and survived other droughts before, gave me some glimmer of hope that they indeed had found ways to survive the drought conditions and came back.

The beavers did not disappoint.

The first tentative signs of beaver activity were adjacent to a large beaver pond which can actually be seen to the right in the picture above. Beaver have siphoned off a little side channel to the right and created a nice big pool.

As you can see the vegetation/trees are brown - a testament to how dry the river got. As I investigated the pool I found several trail marks and side channels suggestive of beaver movement between this pool and the main river channel.

They might not be too obvious from the pics these were definite trails/paths created by something going from the pool to the river. That they were created by beaver most likely was substantiated by a recently knawed tree:

All together this was some very promising observation of beaver sign and good evidence hat they had came back into this area of the river. But I was very eager to revisit an interesting area upriver where over the last several months I observed some very suspicious rock piles appearing on the river. Yes these rock piles were either the work of beaver, people, or the Blair Witch.

Here are some pics from May when the river was already well underway in drying up:

From May 2014
As you can they are definite piles of rocks and many people who saw the pics felt that humans had constructed them. What argues against these three rock bridges being constructed by humans is; they are not on a path or hiking trail; on the other side is a steep unscalable oak shrouded hill and cattail marsh; and interestingly as seen on the bottom pic there are two adjacent rock piles. Why would people create two adjacent rock walkways so close in an area of the river that is easily traversed anyways?

from July 2014
With the return of substantial flows to the river on this trip I had my answers and I can almost unequivocally say that these rock piles were created by beaver.

The above pic is actually the single rock pile seen in the pic above. Obvious that the rocks placed down were actually the foundation for what is now seen to be an obvious and growing beaver dam. Not only was the rock pile created by beaver but they were making it as the river was drying up and anticipating the return of water flows. Very Cool.

But what about the twim set of rock piles? Just as it is hard to imagine why humans would construct such a weird design, why would beaver make such a funny design - surely in this stretch of the river, moving at high velocity, it was not an ideal spot to place a dam?

Well if you want to know what my working hypothesis is for those strange Blair-Witch beaver rock pile designs you will just have to tune in later as I will explore this facet and other things I saw on the Santa Ynez River in a later post!!!

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Sespe Creek is Hurting in the Drought

Sespe Creek. Duane Nash 9/29/14
In the Ventura county back country is a special creek and wildlife area - the Sespe wilderness area. Not only is it undammed and relatively pristine compared to other southern Californian watersheds - the creek and it's surrounding watershed serve as critical habitat for California condors, desert bighorn sheep (following a successful reintroduction campaign), southern steelhead trout, arroyo toad, red-legged frog, western pond turtle, pacific lamprey, numerous threatened riparian/chaparral birds and many other species. This wilderness was also a last holdout for California grizzly and today still hosts black bear, puma, bobcat, coyote, and badger among other predators. And oh yeah, the story of beaver in California - and especially southern California - is intimately linked with the Sespe (from Lanman et. al. 2013):

A MaNIS search combined with
direct inquiries to California museums for pre-1923 Castor specimens located only a single
vouchered specimen. That specimen, a beaver skull (catalogued MVZ Mammals 4918)
was collected by John Hornung on 19 May 1906 on Sespe Creek, a tributary of the Santa
Clara River, Ventura County. Grinnell (1937) was hesitant to accept the provenance of
this specimen and placed a question mark by its location on his range map. Hornung, an
NHMLAC zoologist, had collected many specimens for the MVZ as well as the American
Museum of Natural History (Loomis 1901, Osborn 1910) and CAS (Howell 1923). Recently
digitized correspondence between Grinnell and Hornung has become available and settles
this longstanding question. When Grinnell wrote Hornung asking for further details regarding
the specimen; Hornung (1914:1-2) wrote back: “... In reference to the beaver, I will say
that I murdered the specimen in question 3 miles east of Cold Springs. I was on horseback
and saw on the river, enormously swollen as the date which you have [19 May 1906], what
appeared to me as a dead large dog surrounded by branches of a big stump. This stump
was swimming in the water, but anchored in a tangled mass of some kind of a vine. After
some maneuvering I could reach this animal with a stick. As soon as I touched it, it showed
its teeth, and I knew then what unexpected find I had made…A shot ended the animal’s
sufferings, and I secured the skull which you have…”. Hartman Cold Springs Ranch (34°
33’ N, 119° 15’ W) is located on upper Sespe Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains at 1,025
m elevation and the creek along this stretch is quite low gradient, i.e. suitable beaver habitat.
Interestingly there is a Beaver Camp on the USGS GNIS at 1,000 m elevation about 1 km
east of Hartman Cold Springs Ranch, although its toponomastic origin is not known (Figure
3). In addition to the 1906 Sespe Creek beaver specimen, Hornung (1914:2) told Grinnell:
“There are still quite a few beaver in Southern California, myself being so lucky as to get
hold of one as late as Dec. 24, 1913, 3 weeks ago.”

Interestingly sporadic/anecdotal beaver sightings occurred right up until the 2000's. My own middle school biology teacher, Tim Peddicord, recalls seeing a beaver in Lions Creek ( a tributary to Sespe) in the 1960's. Whether or not the sightings are due to remnants of an original population or translocations that the CDFG did in the middle of the 20th century is anyones guess. And whether or not beaver are still holding out in isolated pockets of the Sespe is a (remote) possibility as well. I did notice some interesting and suggestive features on the Sespe when I recently went up and down it with GEOlocate.

Now most likely the suggestion of beaver activity in these pictures is just that - a suggestion - but there is the possibility that these features are the result of ancient beaver dams. The Sespe is known for deep pools that retain water during the dry season and which serve as refugia for fish and other aquatic organisms. Below is a picture of one such pool in wetter times after the last rainy season.

Such deep, permanent and snow melt fed pools (it is at about 3000') of course are the exact sort of place rainbow trout - or a beaver - can make a home of. And altogether the relative isolation (i.e. lack of conflict with agriculture/man), abundance of habitat, historical occurrence there, potential benefit to fisheries/other riparian species, low gradient, and history of species reintroduction in the area (desert bighorn sheep/California  condor) puts the Sespe wilderness high on my personal list of watersheds in southern California that beaver SHOULD be put back into.

Potential difficulties include the lack of political will on the part of the CDFW services to 1) finally admit they are native 2) come up with a comprehensive management/restoration plan.

And as noted earlier there are abundant predators in the Sespe so any reintroduction should be into spots with year round water/deep pools/hiding spots/alluvial banks for bank burrows.

And another difficulty for beaver in the Sespe, indeed all of California: Is this drought simply the new normal?

Now I know that is a disturbing and alarming thought but a controversial paper from Stanford scientists suggests that the stubborn high pressure ridge diverting storms away from California might be here to stay. Well at this point there are differing opinions and data - we shall see. Although it would not hurt to  plan for the worse.

But back to the Sespe. I got word from a friend on facebook that the pools were drying up and concentrating fish. Not just the small pools that may normally go dry... but the big, deep ones that generally always retain some water through the year. This was scary but, given that the Sespe is about 45 minutes away from me, I had to go check it out. Things did not look promising, when, as I drove through Rose Valley on the way to trailhead I noticed some failing pines (sugar pines?).

I honestly don't know if the trees are failing due to the drought or Japanes bark beetles - but as I was driving by a gun club I did not get out of my truck to investigate further. Depressing either way.

And when I got to Sespe Creek itself it has in fact, gone underground for long stretches.

The last picture is near the confluence of Lions Creek with Sespe Creek. For comparison below is a picture in the same area, in wetter times.

As I found out there were several deep pools that remained and offered hope for surviving fish and drinking water for the wildlife. I found one particularly nice, deep shaded pool after doing a little bushwhacking (and constantly checking for ticks/lions/bears).

And also the better known "Piedra Blanca pool" a well known swimming, diving pool was reduced to a grimy little wallow full of bullhead catfish and some unidentified fish (non-native) that kept biting and nibbling my hand when I put my hand in. I did not see any native trout but they were probably deeper amidst the rocks.

Anyways I have some youtube videos  I posted to my channel, feel free to subscribe and you will be my first subsribee!! I would post them here but blogger is giving me grief right now and not allowing that... 

Until I post again Cheers and Pray for Rain!!!

Black Bear paw print. Piedra Blanca Pool 9/29/14 Duane Nash

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