NRS Day at UC Merced

by Lorena Anderson, UC Merced Communications

Vice Chancellor Sam Traina surveys the landscape as reserve director Cris Swarth leads conducts the tour. Image courtesy UC Merced
SNRI executive director Armando Quintero surveys the landscape as reserve manager Chris Swarth leads the tour. Image courtesy UC Merced

Research, teaching and public outreach were all on display this Thursday at UC Merced’s celebration of the University of California Natural Reserve System’s 50th anniversary.

The inaugural celebration of the 39-reserve system’s golden anniversary featured a driving tour of the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, which covers nearly 7,000 preserved acres adjacent to campus, followed by afternoon talks about the NRS and reserve research.

Led by reserve Manager Chris Swarth, the guided tour stopped along the way so visitors from the community, the campus and the UC could see landmarks such as the cliff swallow nests at Black Rascal Creek, the stock ponds that serve as ecosystems for many animals — including the endangered California tiger salamander — and a few of the more than 100 birds that call the reserve home for all or part of each year.

More than 80 people turned out for UC Natural Reserve System (NRS) Day at UC Merced, including faculty members, local naturalists and vernal pool experts, students from the Yosemite Leadership Program, and researchers from other UC campuses.

“I’ve been on a walking tour of the reserve, but I wanted to see how it looks at different times of the year,” Health Sciences Research Institute Executive Director Trevor Hirst said. Although the vernal pools were already dry due to drought conditions, vestiges of spring wildflower blooms could still be seen on some hillsides.

Natural Reserve System’s Newest Member

The vernal pools reserve is the newest member of the UC NRS, and the first San Joaquin Valley reserve to join the more than 750,000 acres the NRS protects and curates statewide.

Researchers at NRS Day shared their knowledge with the tour groups along the way and talked about the projects they are conducting there, including local ornithologist Steve Simmons, who has studied certain types of nesting birds for more than 40 years.

A parent kestrel minds its five fuzzy chicks within a reserve nest box. Image credit: Cami Vega
Nest boxes erected on the reserve by volunteer Steve Simmons and Merced students have attracted a number of American kestrel pairs seeking a place to start a family. Here, a parent kestrel minds its five fuzzy chicks within a reserve nest box. Image credit: Cami Vega

Simmons is working with graduate student Joy McDermot to study the dietary habits of the American kestrel. They’ve installed nesting boxes around the reserve and are trying to determine why kestrel populations are declining across the country despite the increasing use of nesting boxes to offer the birds safe places to hatch and raise their young.

Niall McCarten, a researcher from UC Davis, joined the tour as well, and talked about his soil-sensor project on the reserve lands. He’s studying soils and climates that are unique to this area.

At the reserve’s entrance, UC Merced Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Sam Traina unveiled a new interpretive sign that introduces visitors to some of the key features and inhabitants of the reserve.

Engineering Service Learning students on the Vernal Pools Reserve team spent the past two semesters researching, fact-checking, writing and designing the sign that now stands beside the reserve’s main gate on Ranchers Road.

“We worked to identify the most important species on the reserve,” student Daniel Toews said. “We wanted to include keystone, rare and endangered species, plus maps so visitors can see some of the land’s key features, landmarks and topography.”

The sign pinpoints the locations of thousands of vernal pools, has photographs of endangered plants and animals, and offers information on how to access the reserve via its web page.

“This sign is the first piece of infrastructure associated with the reserve,” Traina said, “although we hope for many more.”

Contributions in Education and Research

UC Merced students and others who helped contribute to the new sign at the entrance to the reserve. Image courtesy UC Merced
UC Merced students and others who helped contribute to the new sign at the entrance to the reserve. Image courtesy UC Merced

Swarth has said he’d love to see a visitor center and perhaps a raised walkway through the reserve, so people can visit without damaging the ancient soils and fragile ecosystems on the land.

“We want to educate people about the reserve and the NRS, the natural history of the land and the organisms that live on it, and the importance of the vernal pools,” Swarth said.

Part of that education will come from the results of NRS research projects like those being conducted by graduate students who received grants from UC Merced NRS to further their studies. Besides McDermot’s kestrel project, Brandon Stark uses unmanned aerial vehicles to map the whole property using regular and infrared cameras to help evaluate topography and ecosystems, Erin Babich studies monkey flower at Yosemite Field Station to see how it adapts to climate change, and Eric Williams examines the reserve’s small mammal population.

The research being conducted on the reserve is emblematic of UC Merced, reserve Director Professor Martha Conklin said.

“It’s really impressive to have engineers, biologists and ecologists all working on the same land, and working together on their research,” she said.

Access to model ecosystems

After the tour, UC faculty and administrators spoke about the value of the NRS in their work and to Californians. NRS Director Peggy Fiedler described the system as the brainchild of professors who sought to prevent development on lands they used for research and teaching. They feared burgeoning development and population growth would destroy what they considered the state’s natural laboratories.

From the first seven reserves made part of the system in 1965, the NRS has expanded to include examples of virtually all major California habitats. From the start, said Fiedler, the NRS was intended to “provide access to model ecosystems.”

Testifying to the importance of the reserve system , UCLA Professor Brad Shaffer described  studying California tiger salamanders for more than 20 years at several NRS reserves. His work has been instrumental in understanding how these federally threatened amphibians use the landscape, and protecting lands required for their continued survival.

The event wrapped up with a discussion led by four Merced faculty on the future direction of the reserve and how to expand education and research efforts on campus and beyond.