Natural Perspectives: Corps members help with species IDs

HB Independent

I just love working with the young men and women of the Orange County Conservation Corps. I had a crew of new hires at Bolsa Chica last week for an introduction to wildlife, habitats and conservation. Vic often joins my classes for lunch, but he was heavily engaged in final exams at Golden West College and wasn't able to participate in the fun.

Part of my morning program is a wildlife survey of the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve. Over time, we've accumulated valuable data on what time of year certain species of wildlife are likely to be seen.

The corps members choose a captain who is responsible for making sure everyone sees our target species. The captain appoints five lieutenants, each one in charge of a different family of animals: invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds or mammals.

Each lieutenant uses a photo sheet that I created to help with species identification. The mammal person has the easiest job, as we're only likely to see Audubon's cottontails and California ground squirrels. I also have coyotes on the list, but they're usually holed up during the day and active only during the early morning or late afternoon. The raccoons and opossums that live at Bolsa Chica are nocturnal and we've never seen them.

This particular group of young men was exceptionally motivated to find, identify and check off wildlife species. Crew members were John Angulo, Julio Alvarado-Martinez, Louie Bravo, Jose Bernal, Robert Herrera, Manuel Martin, Martin Martinez, Isaiah Myers and Miguel Reyes. I asked them if I could take their picture for the newspaper, inquiring jokingly if any of them were in a witness protection program.

"Dead witness program, you mean," one of them quipped.

I have to explain that corps members are young adults at risk. Many of them are gang members, and many are on probation for various offenses. One of their values is that they don't snitch. My corps members are such an interesting group. I dearly love them.

Another young man was quite excited at the prospect of having his photo in the newspaper.

"The only other time I had my picture in the paper, it was a Sheriff's Department photo," he said.

That part of their lives is behind them, and I like them to get recognition for the good things that they do in this new phase of their lives. They change during the time that they're in the corps. They move in new and better directions, and it's really exciting for me to be just a tiny part of that transformation.

This group was the best one I've had so far in terms of finding and identifying wildlife. But sometimes the corps members find an animal that stumps me. This time, they found dozens of woolly caterpillars crawling all over the salt marsh vegetation. The caterpillars were as fuzzy as woolly bears, but were all black with red on the bottom around the feet. Woolly bears, which morph into Isabella tiger moths, have a broad reddish brown band around their middles. These caterpillars lacked such a band.

It wasn't until I got home and could look them up in my "Peterson First Guide to Caterpillars" that I discovered their identity. They were salt marsh caterpillars, a relative of woolly bears. They'll hatch into white, fuzzy salt marsh moths.

This group of young men was really good at finding reptiles. We saw several side-blotched lizards as well as Western fence lizards. They didn't see the rarer alligator lizards nor the seldom-seen California legless lizards, but they found an interesting snake. We sometimes see rattlesnakes, but generally only in March when they've just come out of hibernation. Due to time constraints, we don't hike along the mesa where gopher snakes are more common, so they're not on my list. What they described was an even more unusual snake, a twin-striped garter snake. These benign little snakes spend a lot of time in water, generally fresh water, eating fish. I've seen one in all the time I've worked at Bolsa Chica, so they're not very common.

When we conduct our wildlife surveys in winter, we don't find California sea hares. But starting in April and throughout the summer, we generally find many of them by the boardwalk or tide gates. On this late May survey, we found about 20.

Sea hares are giant marine slugs that grow to about the size of a football. True hermaphrodites, each one acts as both male and female. All summer long, they form mating circles of five to 10 sea hares, each one mating with the one in front and being mated by the one in back. The corps members declared such behavior "sick." Hey, they're sea hares, not people.

A very special find was a half-grown ring-spotted dorid that one of the corps members spotted by the tide gates. Measuring about 4 inches long, these cream-colored mollusks have rough, bumpy skin with brown rings and spots on their backs. Like sea hares, they are gastropods (snails) that have no shell.

Ring-spotted dorids are the most commonly seen nudibranch at Bolsa Chica, but they are too rare to have made it onto my wildlife survey sheet. It's easier to see their delicate, cream-colored, egg case rings attached to rocks near the tide gates than it is to see the adult nudibranchs. I suspect that they hide in the rocks during the day, coming out more at night.

One real treat was seeing endangered California least terns incubating eggs behind the fence at the end of the boardwalk. I've been walking around Bolsa Chica for 29 years, and it's the first time I've seen nesting terns up close. My lucky corps members got to see them — and their eggs — on their first visit. But I'm going to save that story for another column.

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