May 24, 2022

Spring 2022 UCNRS California Ecology and Conservation Field Course

This spring quarter was my last quarter as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I had already completed all of my graduation requirements before this quarter, but there was still one major course that I was lined up to take. Early on in my undergraduate experience, I heard about a field course for biology and environmental science majors that was based out of the University of California's Natural Reserve System (UCNRS). I read about how this course brings together around 30 undergraduate students from across the University of California system to spend 7 weeks in the field learning how conduct field research in the fields of ecology and conservation. I instantly knew this was for me. I applied for the spring of 2022 run of the course in Fall of 2021 and was lucky enough to be accepted.

While the purpose of the field course was to learn about conducting scientific research, I was mostly excited about that fact that we were going to be visiting 5 unique ecosystems in California, all with a great diversity of animal species. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to familiarize myself with the natural history of several regions in California that I had not spent much time in previously, and that is exactly what I did.

At the start of the field course in late March, we all met at Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, just East of San Jose. Although we never conducted any research projects at this reserve, it was my favorite by far. Not only did I love the rolling hills of oak savannahs, but the wildlife viewing there was unparalleled by similar habitats I had been in. California Quail and brush rabbits and were literally everywhere and it was often easy to get close to them. An enormous colony of California ground squirrels surrounded the main barn and many individuals allowed me to get within a few feet of them before running to their burrows. There were also several blonde (leucistic?) individuals, with light patterns. California Thrashers, Acorn Woodpeckers, and Northern Flickers were also commonly seen around the barn. But by far the best part of Blue Oak Ranch Reserve was the field herping. Not only were rare species like the California red-legged frog and Western pond turtle present at the reserve, but there were so many common amphibians and snakes that could be observed by flipping cover, walking roads at night, and by checking the edges of ponds. There were also rattlesnakes everywhere and they were extremely tame, allowing close up, yet safe views. In total, I observed 16 different reptile and amphibian species on the reserve in just 6 days of being there, making Blue Oak Ranch Reserve the single best herping location diversity wise that I have ever been to.

Next up was Kenneth Norris Rancho Marino Reserve along the central coast in Cambria. The main highlight of this reserve was the rich tidepooling offered by the rocky intertidal zone. In our time at Rancho Marino, we observed octopuses, ochre sea stars, black abalone, nudibranchs, sea urchins, mussels, barnacles, bat stars, pickleback, crabs, brittlestars, and cling fish. There was also a large sea lion rookery along the coast there, and that was the topic of my first group's research project. We investigated if the rising tide causing increased levels of aggression in the sea lions at the rockery, but we found this not to be the case, although further studies would need to be conducted to verify this. The best moment of this project was when a Steller's sea lion showed up and started bullying the California sea lions on the rockery. In addition to the coast, Rancho Marino also had vast expanses of coastal bluffs. Deer were everywhere here, as were Turkey Vultures and Brewer's Blackbirds. We also observed three gophersnakes crawling around in the grasslands on just our second day at the reserve, which blew my mind. Finally, there was also a large pond in the middle of a monterey pine forest on the reserve. Walking through the woods produced glimpses of unusual forest birds like Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Pygmy Nuthatches, and Steller's Jays. But the best part was the pond, where a Sora was hanging out. I spent several days with the other birders in our group trying to get a picture of this elusive and skittish bird and only got a barely IDable photo, but it was worth it for the adventure.

The next reserve we visited was James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve near the Northern tip of the penninsular ranges. Overall, this was my least favorite reserve, as wildlife in general was fairly hard to observe here. Part of me thinks that something funky was occurring in the ecosystem while we were there, as we never saw any deer, never heard any insects at night, and only heard a single owl during our entire stay, even though were knew for a fact that there were several owls living in the area. To me, the place seemed dead in a way. However, we did manage to see a few things of note while at James Reserve, the coolest of which was a coast mountain kingsnake, which was ironically found by someone other than me. We also saw several unusual birds, including the White-headed Woodpecker and Black-throated Gray Warbler. The Mountain Chickadees and Steller’s Jays were also really abundant here, and they become the study subjects of my next group research project. Specifically, we investigated whether or not bird foraging patterns varied between densely covered and open sections of forest and if this variation differed between bird species. We found that neither species was affected by such variation in forest structure.

After conducting our research at James Reserve, we then travelled to the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center in the Colorado Desert for our course’s writing retreat. Other than writing a scientific paper on our previous project, my time at this reserve was entirely spent exploring the desert and getting to know its wildlife. There were washes on both sides of the research center that provided glimpses of black-tailed jackrabbits, coyotes, and Black-throated Sparrows. Behind the research center was a rocky hillside where several chuckwallas watched over the nearby washes. The research center itself had a several palm trees, desert bushes, and a pond that attracted a wide variety of birds. A resident Greater Roadrunner, a pair of American Kestrels, and several White-winged Doves were easily observed from the center. We also visited the research center during the peak of the spring bird migration season, and migrant songbirds such as Yellow Warblers, Wilson’s Warblers, Warbling Vireos, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks could be seen every day in the trees and bushes around the research center. In addition to exploring the research center, we also got a chance to explore several public locations in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, which allowed me to observe even more birds and several lizard species that I had never seen before.

But our time at the Steele/Burnand Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center ended all too soon when we travelled to the last new reserve of the trip: the Sweeney Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in the Mojave Desert. This was it: the last reserve where we would be conducting field research. What would I choose to study? What would the challenges be? As it turned out, the Granite Mountains tested my ability to problem solve and think outside of the box. After much trial and error, my group ended up studying how woodrats affect the health of buckhorn cholla, as common plant species in the area that woodrats build their middens (nests) under. We found that middens were more commonly seen under larger chollas and that larger chollas were on average more stressed, but these results were found independently of each other and we did not find an effect of woodrat presence on cholla health. In addition to the woodrats, a lot of other unique desert species occupied the area surrounding the research center. Western whiptails were everywhere and we even got to observe a pair mating. The area also had a lot of night lizards that could be found under the fallen yucca branches. I also observed a few jackrabbits that allowed me to get really close to them. But by far the best part of the reserve was the birds, as not only was migration season still well underway, but there were a bunch of other unusual desert birds found in the Granite Mountains, such as the Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Woodhouse’s Scrub-jay, Phainopepla, and Scott’s Oriole. Additionally, we also traveled to the Kelso Dunes and Amboy Crater during our free days to explore other sections of the Mojave Desert. The Kelso Dunes in particular was an exciting place to explore, as you could clearly see the tracks of anything and everything that traveled on the surface of the dunes.

Finally, we returned back to Blue Oak Ranch Reserve to write our papers on our final project and present our results. In the gaps of the hard work, I made sure to get out and take advantage of what could potentially be my last visit to Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, and it was so worth it. As I had predicted at the beginning of the field course, Blue Oak Ranch Reserve had changed in subtle, yet significant ways since the beginning of Spring. Other than most open areas being much drier than before, there were also differences in which plants were flowering, which residential birds were more commonly seen, and the greenery in the trees. I also observed several migrant species of birds in the area that were not there earlier in the spring. It was genuinely enlightening to see how much a habitat could change in just a matter of weeks.

Taking the UCNRS California Ecology and Conservation field course was without a doubt the single best part of my undergraduate college experience. Not only did I actively practice scientific skills and get to know 5 unique California ecosystems, but I also met a lot of passionate, like-minded students from across the University of California system and had so much fun along the way. I now have a much more wholistic view of the state, its ecosystems, and how to learn more about it all on my very own.

Posted on May 24, 2022 16:04 by tothemax tothemax | 110 observations | 2 comments | Leave a comment

February 02, 2022

Detecting 200 Bird Species in Santa Barbara County!

A few months ago, I decided to challenge myself to raise my bird life list for Santa Barbara County up to 200 species. I have been visiting the Santa Barbara area for almost as long as I have been living in California (~9 years at this point), but it was only when I started out as an undergraduate student at UC Santa Barbara in 2018 that I really was able to start exploring the area and looking for its bird life. Since then, I have thoroughly explored many of the region's open spaces and have gotten to experience the great plethora of bird diversity present in this unique part of California. The area has so many kinds of habitats: coastal scrub, chaparral, wetlands, shoreline, pelagic, grassland, oak woodland, riparian woodland, you name it! It is all here.

Up until this past Fall, my life list for the county was around 180 species, so I was very close to reaching my goal of 200. However, getting those last few birds meant looking for unusual birds and learning how to identify rarer species from morphologically similar ones. As a result, I greatly improved my birding skills and became much more active in this form of wildlife watching. On January 18th of this year, all this hard work and dedication payed off when I found my 200th species for the county: the Common Merganser. Along this journey, my favorite of the more unusual species that I saw were the Ferruginous Hawk, Summer Tanager, Little Blue Heron, Lewis’ Woodpecker, Burrowing Owl, Short-eared Owl, Sora, Wilson’s Snipe, Green-tailed Towhee, White-throated Sparrow and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.

After getting to know the bird life so well in Santa Barbara County and visiting other parts of California, it is my opinion that Santa Barbara County is one of the best counties overall in the state for birding. There are just so many different habitats in such close proximity to each other, virtually all North American bird groups are present at least part of the year, and both warm and cold weather species visit the region. If you live in California, are a passionate birder, and have not already visited the Santa Barbara area, I strongly recommend that you visit this region at some point.

Below is the list of bird species that made it onto the list. Birds were added to the list when they were detected by sight or sound by me. Non-native species counted.

• Lewis’ Woodpecker
• Acorn Woodpecker
• Northern Flicker
• Red-breasted Sapsucker
• Nuttall’s Woodpecker
• Downy Woodpecker
• Hairy Woodpecker
• Burrowing Owl
• Great Horned Owl
• Short-eared Owl
• Barn Owl
• Belted Kingfisher
• Eurasion Collared Dove
• Rock Pigeon
• Band-tailed Pigeon
• Mourning Dove
• Sora
• American Coot
• Turkey Vulture
• California Quail
• Wild Turkey
• Surfbird
• Sanderling
• Western Sandpiper
• Dunlin
• Least Sandpiper
• Short-billed Dowitcher
• Long-billed Dowitcher
• Willet
• Greater Yellowlegs
• Whimbrel
• Long-billed Curlew
• Wilson’s Snipe
• Black Turnstone
• Marbled Godwit
• Red-necked Phalarope
• Spotted Sandpiper
• Royal Tern
• Elegant Tern
• Forster’s Tern
• Bonaparter’s Gull
• Herring Gull
• Western Gull
• Heermann’s Gull
• Mew Gull (Short-billed Gull)
• Ring-billed Gull
• California Gull
• Black Skimmer
• Snowy Plover
• Killdeer
• Semipalmated Plover
• Black-bellied Plover
• Pacific Golden Plover
• Pigeon Guillemot
• Common Murre
• Cassin’s Auklet
• Scripps’ Murrelet
• Black-necked Stilt
• Pacific Loon
• Common Loon
• Red-throated Loon
• Eared Grebe
• Western Grebe
• Pied-billed Grebe
• Northern Fulmar
• Sooty Shearwater
• White-faced Ibis
• Brown Pelican
• American White Pelican
• American Bittern
• Little Blue Heron
• Snowy Egret
• Great Egret
• Great Blue Heron
• Black-crowned Night Heron
• Yellow-crowned Night Heron
• Green Heron
• Peregrine Falcon
• American Kestrel
• Merlin
• Common Poorwill
• Anna’s Hummingbird
• Allen’s Hummingbird
• Rufous Hummingbird
• White-throated Swift
• Vaux’s Swift
• American Wigeon
• Gadwall
• Blue-winged Teal
• Cinnamon Teal
• Green-winged Teal
• Northern Shoveler
• Mute Swan
• Mallard
• Northern Pintail
• Bufflehead
• Red-breasted Merganser
• Common Merganser
• Hooded Merganser
• Snow Goose
• Ross’ Goose
• Greater White-fronted Goose
• Surf Scoter
• Ring-necked Duck
• Greater Scaup
• Lesser Scaup
• Redhead
• Ruddy Duck
• Canada Goose
• Osprey
• Sharp-shinned Hawk
• Cooper’s Hawk
• Northern Harrier
• Ferruginous Hawk
• Red-shouldered Hawk
• Red-tailed Hawk
• White-tailed Kite
• Double-crested Cormorant
• Brandt’s Cormorant
• Barn Swallow
• Tree Swallow
• Northern Rough-winged Swallow
• Cliff Swallow
• Brewer’s Blackbird
• Browned-headed Cowbird
• Yellow-headed Blackbird
• Red-winged Blackbird
• Hooded Oriole
• Western Meadowlark
• Great-tailed Grackle
• Loggerhead Shrike
• Oak Titmouse
• Chestnut-backed Chickadee
• House Sparrow
• White-breasted Nuthatch
• Red-breasted Nuthatch
• European Starling
• Wrentit
• Canyon Wren
• Rock Wren
• House Wren
• Bewick’s Wren
• Marsh Wren
• American Robin
• Hermit Thrush
• Western Bluebird
• Townsend’s Solitaire
• Hutton’s Vireo
• Warbling Vireo
• Ruby-crowned Kinglet
• Dark-eyed Junco
• Lark Sparrow
• Lincoln’s Sparrow
• Song Sparrow
• Fox Sparrow
• White-crowned Sparrow
• Golden-crowned Sparrow
• White-throated Sparrow
• Green-tailed Towhee
• Spotted Towhee
• California Towhee
• Rufous-crowned Sparrow
• Savannah Sparrow
• Northern Mockingbird
• California Thrasher
• Blue Grosbeak
• Black-headed Grosbeak
• Summer Tanager
• Western Tanager
• Scaly-breasted Munia
• American Pipit
• Wilson’s Warbler
• Yellow Warbler
• Yellow-rumped Warbler
• Townsend’s Warbler
• Hermit Warbler
• Common Yellowthroat
• Nashville Warbler
• Orange-crowned Warbler
• Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
• Bushtit
• Cedar Waxwing
• California Scrub-jay
• Island Scrub-jay
• Common Raven
• American Crow
• Steller’s Jay
• Yellow-billed Magpie
• Lesser Goldfinch
• American Goldfinch
• Lawrence’s Goldfinch
• House Finch
• Purple FInch
• Ash-throated Flycatcher
• Western Wood-Pewee
• Pacific-slope Flycatcher
• Cassin’s Kingbird
• Tropical Kingbird
• Say’s Phoebe
• Black Phoebe

Posted on February 02, 2022 03:46 by tothemax tothemax | 3 comments | Leave a comment

September 11, 2021

Studying Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs and Bd in the Sierra Nevada

The cold, rugged, and exposed peaks of the high mountains are not the sort of place that you would expect to find ectothermic animals. However, in the high Sierra Nevada in California, amphibians not only survive these harsh conditions but thrive. Some species have become so well suited to the high Sierra Nevada that they are found nowhere else in the world. One such amphibian is the Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, which is often the most numerous amphibian in the alpine and subalpine lakes and creeks where it occurs. Due to the unusual nature of the habitats that they live in, these frogs have very peculiar life histories. For starters, they live much longer than similar species of frogs, sometimes living as long as 15 years! The tadpoles also take longer to metamorphose, usually taking 2-3 years to transform into juvenile frogs and becoming gigantic for tadpoles in the process. For comparison, the tadpoles of most frogs species in the U.S. only take a fraction of a given year to complete metamorphosis. Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs also behave weirdly. In addition to being active at much lower temperatures than most frogs can tolerate, they also bask on rocks, logs, and the ground during the Summer to increase their body temperatures. During the Winter, they remain underwater as their water sources freeze, spending time moving around to the warmest patches of water and hunkering down in the mud at the bottom of the lakes and creeks. Evolving to survive in such a harsh habitat has made these frogs different from almost every other and resulted in a truly unique type of amphibian.

Unfortunately, as with many frog species around the world, the Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs have experienced severe population declines due to the emergence of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), a species of chytrid fungus that appears to attack the skin and heart of frogs. This fungus, along with the other causes of Mountain Yellow-legged Frog population declines, had such significant effects that the populations in the Sierra Nevada have been Federally listed as an endangered species. At one point, it was thought that the species would eventually go extinct. However, to the surprise of many, Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs have not only survived into the present day, but they are also thriving in many parts of their range. While Bd is still a significant threat and the endangered species ranking is still warranted, the future of these frogs looks much more secure than it did several years ago. But exactly how are these frogs persisting in the face of a deadly disease? What factors are contributing to their survival? And why are some populations still declining while others are persisting? Is there some sort of immunity that the frogs have been evolving, or is it possibly environmental factors?

The answers to these questions are unclear and researchers are trying better understand the struggle between Mountain Yellow-legged Frogs and Bd. The Briggs Lab at UCSB is one of the organizations at the forefront of Mountain Yellow-legged Frog research and has devoted a lot of time and effort to gaining a better understanding of this relationship. As part of this research, the lab sent a small group of students from the university into the Sierra Nevada to collect data on these frogs as part of a new study aimed at investigating the role of genetics in how frog populations and Bd interact. I was fortunate enough to be one of the assistants in that group and spent two full months conducting fieldwork in the Sierra Nevada this Summer. To collect our data, we backpacked out to remote locations across the Central and Southern Sierra Nevada on overnight trips, sometimes for six days or more at a time. We would then conduct a visual encounter survey of every site (population) we visited and tally up every Mountain Yellow-legged Frog adult, juvenile, and tadpole that we saw in order to get a better idea of the current population size. We then caught 10 adult frogs from each site and took both skin and tissue samples from them to retrieve their DNA as well as that of any Bd that was on the frogs. All of this work was done with the proper permits and done as efficiently and humanely as possible in order ensure that our impact of these endangered frogs was kept to a minimum. With the samples all collected at this point, all that is left is for the grad student in charge of the project to analyze the data, interpret the results, and write up a scientific report on the study.

This was an amazing experience for me in so many different ways. For one, it was so cool to be able to explore such remote and scenic wilderness areas and find these endangered amphibians in the middle of them. I got to handle endangered species, learn precise field methods, and engage in profession fieldwork that was completely different from anything I have ever done. I also got to see the wholistic view of a research project and make the connection between the big picture and the specifics that make it up. But perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of this experience was getting to know such a unique ecosystem at such an intimate level. Like everywhere I explore, I saw lots of wildlife, but spending 2 months in the Sierra Nevada did more than that. By paying close attention to the environment, I was able to detect changes in the rhythms of the ecosystem, such as when the transition from Summer to Fall occurred and when the birds started to migrate South. I was so in tune with the ecosystem that I could detect subtle changes that I never experienced in any other ecosystem. Thanks to this opportunity, I have become more passionate about the subtleties of the environment and have developed a great appreciation for one of the strangest frogs in the world.

For more information on the Mountain Yellow-legged Frog, please see my video on its biology and conservation. (

Posted on September 11, 2021 17:30 by tothemax tothemax | 22 observations | 1 comment | Leave a comment

May 17, 2021

Herping Away the Pandemic: The 2021 Herping Season

Field herping, or the act of searching for reptiles and amphibians in the wild, has been one of my favorite outdoor activities every since my first survey with the Southwestern Herpetologist Society. Reptiles and amphibians are just such beautiful animals and the intimate knowledge of their life histories that is required to find many of them makes this process so much more rewarding than other forms of wildlife watching. In 2019, I decided to conduct a personal field project all on my own while working on my undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara in order to learn how to find wild reptiles and amphibians in Santa Barbara and what conditions were most suitable for different species. The 2019 and early 2020 seasons were very productive and taught me a lot about field herping and herp biology. Unfortunately, the middle of 2020 season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. I was forced to leave campus and move back in with my parents. Although I was able to make a few trips back out to Santa Barbara to collect data that season, I was mostly restricted to the Western Los Angeles County area where I live. This forced me to broaden the scope of my project from a focus on Santa Barbara to Coastal Southern California more generally. This transition also resulted in me finding a bunch of new sites to look for herps, although the herping season had ended before I found most of them. As a result, I prepared and waited for the 2021 season to arrive.

Now, as the 2021 season draws to a close, I can say that the wait was worth it. Both as part of my study and just for fun, I did more herping and saw more herps this year than I have ever done in one season. The weather was not optimal this year, with comparatively little rain and extreme temperatures for Spring, and yet I still saw more than ever before. What rain did fall was enough for chorus frogs and slender salamanders to be found in oak woodlands. I was also able to find my first Monterey Ensatinas, a species that is very spotty in its distribution in Southern California. Thanks to a few sites in particular, I was able to find dozens of gophersnakes and rattlesnakes, including some very unusually patterned and colored individuals. Unfortunately, several of my encounters with rattlesnakes this season were close calls, so I will be meditating on those experiences in preparation for future expeditions. I also found several nightsnakes this year, a species that I have not seen many of. Skinks and alligator lizards were found in great numbers as usual, but I was also able to find them in new places. Despite the dry weather, I found a decent number of Ringneck Snakes this season, including some of the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. This season was also my personal record for the most kingsnakes in one season, with three of them being striped-phase kingsnakes that I found in San Diego County. Additionally, I spent a decent amount of time walking creeks this season and have become much more experienced in looking for Pacific Chorus Frogs, California Tree Frogs, Two-striped Gartersnakes, and California Newts in such habitats. Other amazing finds for this season included a black-headed snake, a legless lizard, a striped racer, a whiptail feeding on a jerusalem cricket, my first arboreal salamander, and a rattlesnake feeding on a pocket mouse.

With the exception of finding Western Toads, I saw every species I wanted to see this season and then some. It was an amazing experience and I will not forget it, as it is probably the only season of Coastal California Herping that I will ever be able to experience as fully. I learned so much from all my encounters and I can't wait to reflect back on these experiences again when I finalize my project in 2022.

Posted on May 17, 2021 17:49 by tothemax tothemax | 38 observations | 5 comments | Leave a comment

August 03, 2019

Reptiles and Amphibians of Santa Barbara County INat Project

Today, I have founded a new INat project entitled Reptiles and Amphibians of Santa Barbara County ( This project is meant to increase our knowledge about the reptiles and amphibians that inhabit the Santa Barbara Region, one of California's great biodiversity hot spots. Please join the project and submit any observations of reptiles or amphibians you have seen in Santa Barbara County, California. The inclusion of details, such as behavior, temperature, humidity, weather, # of individuals, location in habitat, and any other information relating to the observation is highly encouraged.

Posted on August 03, 2019 00:28 by tothemax tothemax | 3 observations | 0 comments | Leave a comment

5,000 Observations!

I have uploaded over 5,000 observations to INaturalist as of today. It has been nearly two years since I first got involved with this amazing citizen science outlet and contributing to it today feels as exciting as it did when I first started. Not only am I able to making a difference by helping progress scientific research through INaturalist, but I am learning so much about the animals that I encounter as I explore their worlds. As an aspiring zoologist, this is simply thrilling to me. I must make a big shout out to Greg Pauly of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum and Founder of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California (RASCals) INaturalist project. I remember when he came to the Southwestern Herpetologist Society to give a talk about the RASCals project and talked about how he was doing important research with INaturalist data and how this data is created by ordinary people. It was then that I learned about INaturalist and that I became interested in getting involved. Looking back on it now, I am very glad I did.

Posted on August 03, 2019 00:18 by tothemax tothemax | 0 comments | Leave a comment