Spring is prime time around the University of California Natural Reserve System. As winter thaws, and skies dry, scientists and students alike start migrating to the protected lands of the network’s 41 reserves. Field stations bustle with university classes on field trips, who rub shoulders with faculty and student researchers, and may intersect with buses of schoolchildren on day visits.
Then came the coronavirus shutdown. To comply with physical distancing requirements, UC closed its campuses and facilities to all but essential activities. The order extended to reserves as well. Researchers suddenly required special dispensation from campuses to visit reserves, while classes canceled in-person field trips and went online.
At first blush, the hillsides, shorelines, and meadows of reserves might seem extremely safe places to be during the outbreak of an airborne pathogen. But the limited facilities at reserves mean visitors typically share close quarters. And the same communal bathrooms and kitchens that give field stations the capacity to host whole classes also require everyone to mingle indoors.
Pivoting to virtual
“We’re nowhere near our normal capacity,” says Cathy Koehler, director of McLaughlin Natural Reserve south of Clear Lake. The reserve’s field station is closed to prevent users from unwittingly spreading the coronavirus. Like many other reserve directors, Koehler is still accommodating day users when possible. “There’s no reason to refuse someone who needs to walk across the landscape to study bumblebees,” she says. Those visits must be brief, however; even the portable toilets are now padlocked.
As at McLaughlin, the majority of NRS reserves are still hosting visits by a trickle of researchers. Those granted exceptions to visit include graduate students who need to complete their thesis research, researchers on a timetable with their grants, and those who work on seasonal phenomena for whom a pause means a fatal gap in their data.
Yet staff at many reserves are going above and beyond to keep people connected with nature. Their creativity is bringing reserves to students online, keeping research projects running, and even developing nature lessons for schoolteachers.
“I would expect nothing less of our dedicated personnel,” says Peggy Fiedler, executive director of the NRS. “It’s a community of people who make lemonade out of lemons.”
Internships from afar
Younger Lagoon Reservehttps://ucnrs.org/reserves/younger-lagoon-reserve/ typically hums with a dozen or more undergraduate interns from UC Santa Cruz every quarter. Usually, interns help student employees with all aspects of the reserve’s extensive restoration and land management programs. That involves collecting seeds from wild native plants, propagating seedlings, planting , and weeding at the 72-acre reserve at the north end of Santa Cruz.
“We’re really missing our interns and their efforts!” writes reserve director Beth Howard. “Our staff are in good health and spirits, but definitely scrambling” without the extra hands.
Rather than cancel the internships, reserve staff have moved the experience online. Instead of getting their hands dirty at Younger Lagoon, interns are completing six hours of work online each week.
“We have asked them to research local restoration efforts near to where they are sheltering in place and are encouraging them to participate in restoration activities with local groups if feasible,” Howard writes.
Other assignments include readings, watching videos, keeping a journal, and participating in weekly discussion sections with reserve staff and restoration experts. Vaughan Williams, the reserve’s restoration field manager, has been creating videos that showcase the reserve and activities the interns would normally be performing, as well as managing instruction via Google classroom.
“It’s selfie time all the time these days; we purchased selfie sticks so staff can share what they’re up to while maintaining social distancing,” Howard says.
In addition, the reserve is conducting virtual visits for classes that would normally visit on field trips. For example, Williams has already held a virtual class visit for San Jose State University’s Coastal Field Studies course.
Birding for schoolchildren
At Hastings Natural History Reservation, located in the middle of Carmel Valley, the lockdown has had a gentler impact. The reserve has ten different buildings that can house researchers, allowing multiple users to stay on site while observing public health distancing requirements.
That’s especially good for long-term researchers, including those participating in the acorn woodpecker study that’s been continuing at Hastings for more than 50 years.
Hastings director Jen Hunter is sheltering at the reserve with her husband and two school-aged children, plus her own parents. She is grateful that her parents chose to stay at Hastings during the shelter in place orders.
“My parents, retired teachers, are here homeschooling my kids,” Hunter says. “So thought I would do a bit of service for the local school.”
Hunter reached out to teachers at the local elementary where her daughter attends second grade. “The teachers were up for the help. They were struggling a bit trying to ensure the students were engaged and interested in and retaining the material online,” she says.
To help out, Hunter provided birdwatching lessons for two classes of fourth graders. She developed a tally sheet for the students to track five species common to the area, and asked them to record what they notice about the birds they sight in the morning or evening for five days running.
Hunter has been impressed with the observations of the budding birders. “The kids are noticing all of these differences among the species I didn’t necessarily think they would notice,” she says.
Students who send Hunter a photo of their bird tally are receiving a reserve sticker as a reward.
Keeping the research flame alive
A number of other reserves are assisting researchers who can’t visit reserves in person.
“Many of our reserve managers are well-trained scientists who can step in to conduct research when people can’t visit,” Fiedler says.
At Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center, located in the eastern Mojave Desert, assistant reserve director Tasha La Doux is lending her botanical expertise to collect seeds from the jumbo-sized flowers of the desert dandelion. She’ll ship the material to scientists in Canada who normally visit every year to study the jumbo yellow flowers.
Farther north, at Fort Ord Natural Reserve near Monterey, reserve director Joe Miller and colleagues are enabling graduate student Jon Detka to continue his study of disease ecology in maritime chaparral. Detka lost the three interns who were helping him last winter due to university coronavirus restrictions. But the UC Santa Cruz graduate student been able to get the aerial vegetation mapping he needs thanks to a combination of assistance from staff at the reserve and the NRS’s California Heartbeat Initiative.
For Shane Waddell, director of Quail Ridge Reserve, helping out researchers is now “definitely a family affair.” When he goes out to survey reptiles and amphibians, his sons Ash, age seven, and Hale, age three, tag along.
Waddell is also keeping the research flame alight for a multi-year experiment investigating how climate change will affect the development of insects.
“The hypothesis is that warmer temperatures will accelerate the development of dragonfly larvae to adults, because of temperature cues indicating the pond is drying up,” Waddell writes.
Waddell built the elaborate experimental setup seven years ago for a researcher from New Mexico. It includes 24 heated tanks for rearing the aquatic insects, each topped with mosquito netting to prevent emerging insects from escaping. Waddell and his boys check the tanks daily to collect new dragonflies—something a graduate student staying at the reserve would normally do. Waddell will measure the insects’ body parts to see if hatching faster in warmer water affects their adult dimensions.
“This project is a new masters’ student’s, so it’s pretty crucial not to miss a year’s data,” Waddell writes.
Providing sites for quarantine
Some NRS reserves are even being deployed to ease the spread of the coronavirus. Both Yosemite Field Station and Point Reyes Field Station were established in partnership with the National Park Service. When the pandemic hit, staff at Yosemite National Park and Point Reyes National Seashore realized they might need places for infected employees to isolate from other resident park staff. Since both reserves are currently closed to student and researcher use, the parks asked to borrow field station buildings for quarantine purposes.
“We’re more than happy to offer the use of the field station to keep park staff healthy,” says Allison Kidder, director of Point Reyes Field Station. “This was an easy decision to make as part of our strong relationship with the National Park Service and Point Reyes National Seashore.”
Like the good partners they are, the NPS has agreed to disinfect the field stations afterward if they are used to for quarantine purposes.
Teaching via drone broadcast
Don Croll had planned to spend spring quarter 2020 outdoors. As instructor of a field methods course, he wanted his students to practice ways to ecology and animal behavior at NRS reserves and other field sites.
When the coronavirus forced him to toss that idea out the window, the UC Santa Cruz professor had to find an engaging plan B. His answer: drone flights.
With the help of Año Nuevo Island Reserve director Patrick Robinson, Croll came up with a way for the 20-student class to collect actual experimental data in real time over Zoom.
The late-April class opened with Croll teaching from home, and Robinson alongside his flying machine at Año Nuevo State Park . As Robinson piloted the drone over a pre-programmed set of locations, he was able to share the controller’s view with the class over Zoom.
“They were able to see real time what the area looks like, what data collection looked like,” Robinson says.
Croll wanted the students to use the video to study vegetation vegetation succession growing on fields fallowed for 13 years and fields fallowed for more than 60 years. On another day, Robinson conducted a similar flight over Younger Lagoon Reserve to compare coastal scrub areas treated with different habitat restoration programs.
Having the students participate during the flights got them more invested in the resulting data, Robinson said, but also helped him improve the flights. “The class came to the conclusion while watching that I needed to fly lower to see the plants.”
Given the constraints of the times, Croll is pleased with the simulcast compromise. “So far it’s working great,” he said. He’s also thankful for Robinson’s drone skills. “It would have been impossible to do without Patrick’s amazing input.”
Video portal for field stations
NRS reserves aren’t the only field sites grappling with how to stay relevant during pandemic restrictions. Other field stations around the world are also looking for new ways to keep students engaged and provide alternatives to in-person nature experiences.
To meet this need, members of the Organization of Biological Field Stations have applied for and received an emergency grant from the National Science Foundation. The funds will help develop a portal for virtual field station experiences. The portal will aggregate educational materials, video reserve tours, and field technique lessons from many reserves. Reserves across the NRS and around the world will contribute content. The rest of the grant will go toward encouraging multi-site virtual experiences and research, and evaluating the teaching effectiveness of virtual field programs.
No rest for reserve staff
Despite the fact that many reserves have few to no visitors, staff aren’t spending their shelter in place time relaxing.
Joy Baccei, who started her tenure as the new director of Merced Vernal Pools and Grasslands Reserve during the shutdown, is using this downtime to develop a field guide to her site. Modeled on the popular field guide to the NRS’s Jepson Prairie Reserve, the book will help visitors identify plants as well as other species such as birds, amphibians, and mammals.
At Landels-Hill Big Creek Reserve in Big Sur reserve personnel are catching up on the vegetation and trail maintenance required to keep the far-flung corners of the reserve reachable. “That work can’t stop even though we have no visitors,” says reserve director Mark Readdie.
What the future holds
If reserves are to survive, they must reopen at some point to more use. Reserve budgets sorely need the revenue from use fees to continue operations. To that end, reserves and their campuses are developing protocols for how to operate in a socially distanced world over the longer term.
When travel restrictions do loosen, NRS staff are crossing their fingers that demand to use reserves will be stronger than ever. “There’ll be a flood of backlogged requests to visit once we reopen,” predicts Bodega Marine Reserve director Suzanne Olyarnik. Everyone at the NRS certainly hopes she’s right.