Natural Perspectives: Corp members get to know critters

Last week, I enjoyed a pleasant walk around the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in the company of a rather large crew of new recruits from the Orange County Conservation Corps. Normally, my classes have eight to 10 young adults in them. This crew numbered 23, a record large class of new hires. Vic joined us for lunch.

I joked to Javier Cabrera, my supervisor, that if I had known the class was going to be that large, I would have called in sick. In the past, I've found that classes of new corps members as large as 17 or 18 people are unmanageable. I have to tell you, I had my concerns about how the day would go.

Keep in mind that corps members are generally male high school dropouts aged 18 to 24 and that many have gang affiliations or have been in trouble with the law. Some have behavioral issues that kept them from succeeding in regular high school. It can take them a while to settle in at the corps. I get them the first week that they're with us, so they're about as wild as they get. I actually enjoy their enthusiasm and free spirits, but I prefer my challenges in small doses.

I needn't have worried. This group was delightful. No problem at all. We had a great time doing our wildlife survey of Bolsa Chica and filling out worksheets later in the classroom at the Bolsa Chica Conservancy. This group particularly enjoyed handling the king snakes and coastal rosy boa at the conservancy. But for me, the highlight of the day was finding an unusual critter at Bolsa Chica. I'll tell you about that rare find later.

I started the morning with a short safety lecture about dehydration, mountain lions and rattlesnakes. These are some of the hazards that the corps members may face if they're on a crew working along the roads after wildfires or on restoration projects.

But these days, many of our corps members work on green job projects, weatherizing houses to save energy for homeowners. Others work in retail sales while they're with us, or on recycling crews. Sometimes their only exposure to nature is what they get in my day with them. So I try to make the experience memorable.

They say that people won't save what they don't love, and they won't love what they don't know. I try, in one day, to instill a love of the environment in these mostly inner-city kids. I think the day they spend at Bolsa Chica has a positive impact on them.

After my introduction, we walk around the ecological reserve with checklists of some of the common animals that can be seen there. We look for a number of invertebrates, fish, reptiles, birds and mammals that are on the list. But in January, we don't usually find much except wintering birds.

The California sea hares are in deeper water now, and not likely to be seen. The gray smoothhound sharks that cruise the shallows in summer have also gone deep. Winter can bring huge schools of topsmelt under the walkbridge, but we didn't see them last week. However, the warm days brought out a number of small Western fence lizards. And we found one suicidal ground squirrel. I say that because it was perched atop the rock pile where the rattlesnakes den. Rattlesnakes love to eat ground squirrels. Fortunately for the ground squirrel, the rattlesnakes are hibernating, too.

Unfortunately, we found a few large periwinkle snails. As I reported in this column several months ago, someone illegally dumped a bucket of large snails plus a channeled whelk and a few Dungeness crabs into the wetlands. The whelk and crabs quickly died and are still lying on the bottom under the walkbridge. The periwinkle snails, which don't belong at Bolsa Chica, survived and began to spread. Vic and I removed as many as we could. Biologists from the California Department of Fish and Game have been removing them since, but a few still remain.

The most unusual species that we saw was near the north parking lot. When the new footbridge was constructed last year, heavy machinery compacted the soil near both ends of the bridge. When it rains, there are now standing ponds of fresh water where the ground has been compacted. And that is where the interesting critters were found.

When Grace Adams, executive director of the Bolsa Chica Conservancy, saw me, she announced with a great deal of excitement that they have fairy shrimp in the tiny vernal pool on the west side of the footbridge.

Fairy shrimp are about a half-inch to an inch long. With nearly clear bodies, they can be quite difficult to see. These invertebrates swim on their backs using 11 pairs of legs. Several species of fairy shrimp are known to live in Orange County, and many are threatened or endangered.

These fascinating creatures live only a few weeks in a type of ephemeral wetland known as a vernal pool. This is one of the rarest wetland types in southern California. Vernal pools dry up after a few weeks, but while they are wet, they can support fairy shrimp. The eggs of the fairy shrimp can survive during the time when the pond dries, hatching when rain fills it the next year. The eggs can hitch a ride from one pond to another on feathers or fur of birds and animals that bath in or wade through the pond.

Although these pools were created by accident, they are valuable resources and should be protected. Unfortunately, someone attempted to drain the larger pool on the east side where the Bolsa Chica Land Trust Stewards have planted sages. This person or persons dug a channel from the freshwater pond toward the saltwater channel. Water drained out of the pool for days, gushing over the edge of the mesa. Fortunately, the pond was too large and the drainage channel too shallow to have completely drained it. The pond persists. And while it is there, fairy shrimp, maybe even endangered ones, can thrive and survive.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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