Watsonville Wetlands Watch has been growing native plants in a native plant seed farm since 2009. Starting in June 2011, the seeds of these plants were harvested for use to restore coastal prairie habitats in the slough areas around Watsonville. We were able to harvest close to 100 pounds of native plant seed! The plants included Purple needlegrass, California brome, Blue wildrye, Meadow barley, California oatgrass, California poppies, California buttercup, Soaproot, Common yarrow, and more. These perennial species were chosen to begin the gradual establishment of native grassland species while allowing us to manage the mostly annual non-natives through mowing and, in some locations, managed grazing.
Though there has been little rain this year, planting of native plants on our habitat restoration projects is underway. Restoration staff, volunteers, and our work crews are in the midst of planting about 36,000 native plants along Struve, Hanson, and Watsonville Slough, and at the native seed farm. We are also re-seeding and restoring three acres of native grasslands along those same sloughs, in partnership with the City of Watsonville, the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. A dry few months has meant extra work for our restoration staff, as all of our plantings need hand watering until either the rains come or their roots establish in the soil. By spring these plants will begin to create the new habitats that make our sloughs such rich places for all that make them their home.
The native plants project is an expansion of a successful pilot project begun on the High Ground Organics farm several years ago in a partnership with them, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County. The farm is located on the Santa Cruz Land Trust’s Watsonville Slough Farm. The restoration projects where we seed include the California Red-legged frog pond, the Last Mile of the Watsonville Slough restoration, the grazing program, the Fish and Game restoration, and the ESHAs restorations. In 2011 we built a new seed drying house which was donated to us by the Return of the Natives program at CSUMB.
Coastal Prairie habitat in California and throughout the United States has been declining rapidly, giving way to agriculture and development. Healthy upland grasslands play a vital function, harboring many insect and prey species for larger predatory animals such as hawks, golden eagles, and coyotes. They are also an important breeding and nesting habitat for ground nesting birds such as mallards and western meadowlarks. Here on the ESHA grasslands you will be able to see coyotes, snakes, white-tailed kites, voles, ground squirrels, red-tailed hawks, and even burrowing owls!
Burrowing owls have been using the ESHA grasslands for the last several years as a wintering ground before migrating to breed in the early spring. The burrowing owls often use abandoned ground squirrel holes as homes and hunt from dusk to dawn for insects, rodents, and amphibians. Visiting the ESHA grasslands, you are very likely to see these little owls perched on the ground by their burrow as they are often active in the daytime. Due to loss of habitat, the owls are no longer known to breed in the area. Working with an Eagle Scout this past year, we installed two burrowing owl nest boxes on the ESHAs in the hopes of encouraging the owls to return to the area to breed.
During spring 2010, students replanted natives and removed non-native plants as a part of the 80 acre restoration project surrounding Pajaro Valley High School. The work focused on upper Hanson Slough. There have been many signs of recovery in this new habitat (formerly a strawberry field), such as good growth from 4 and 5 year-old native trees, and a healthy raptor population, including Red-shouldered hawks, White-tailed kites, and Burrowing owls. Click here for more information about this project. (Photos by Integrated-Science teacher Rob Hoffman.)
The Red-legged frog is a threatened species. There are many reasons for this: habitat removal, stream degradation and divisions, non-native predators, farming and hunting activities, collectors and disease. The restoration project described here is an important step in efforts to reverse the frog’s decline.
This major restoration program ran from June 2009 to March 2010. A road was removed and the site prepared and mulched to kill invasive species and facilitate planting with natives. For better equipment access and to begin the restoration process, invasive species growing on the site were removed with a bulldozer. A chisel plow was used first to break up the hardpan left by many years of use of the area as a road. Roto-tilling was used to break up remaining invasive roots. A wood chip and rice straw mulch was spread. Drip irrigation was laid out. The first flush of weeds that came up in areas where the mulch was spread too thinly were removed with a flame torch.
The installed was completed in 2011, but on-going stewardship will be needed for many years to ensure the successful establishment of the native habitats. The photo shows the pond after the restoration. To see a detailed photo report of the restoration process, click here (8.5 MB pdf file).
In early March 2011 the Watch, aided by students and volunteers, completed the planting of over 3000 native plants, creating a habitat of Coast Live Oaks, coastal terrace prairie made up of perennial grasses mixed with wildflowers, native scrub with California Wild Rose and California Blackberry, and wet meadows of rushes and sedges surrounding the sediment basin and pond.
The students and volunteers had the opportunity to participate and learn more about habitat restoration, invasive plants, native plants, and, of course, Red-legged frogs. Students from the Pajaro Valley High School’s Workability program, the Service Learning and Environmental Justice classes at California State University Monterey Bay, and Gavilan College Service Learning classes, Americorps interns, the California Conservation Corps, volunteers from the Community Restoration Program of Santa Cruz County and the California Department of Corrections all helped with moving and spreading mulch, weeding, and planting.
This part of the restoration project began last fall with the removal of the invasive weed poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), the establishment of a sediment basin and enhancement of a freshwater seasonal pond to create natural filters for the water entering the Red-legged frog breeding pond.
The Last Mile of Watsonville Slough Restoration and Enhancement Project is designed to restore native salt marsh and dune habitat, remove invasive species, and provide opportunities for outreach and volunteer participation for local high school students and community members. The project began in 2007 with an extensive survey of the site, hand removal of iceplant, and an outreach component. It has continued for the past three years. Click here to read The Last Mile of Watsonville Slough Restoration and Enhancement Project 2009 Monitoring Report.
The Last Mile of the Watsonville Slough is the south-western most portion of the Watsonville Slough System. Within its boundary is the confluence of the Watsonville Sloughs with the mouth of the Pajaro River and the Pacific Ocean. This area represents the only salt marsh habitat in the Pajaro Valley and the sloughs environment. There are a number of species that are found or are potentially found in this habitat, whose population decline is recognized by the Federal and State government, including the Tide Water Goby, Monarch butterfly, and the Smiths Blue Butterfly.
In August, 2010, the Watch began Phase IV of this project, to be completed in December, 2011. We continue to remove the existing areas of iceplant, perennial pepperweed, and other exotic species throughout the project area. We also educate students, community stake-holders, and volunteers about the importance of wetlands, estuarine habitat, and the benefits of environmental restoration.
We use erosion control structures as needed to avoid any impact to the wetland. There is approximately 0.8 acre of iceplant remaining in this area; it will be removed partly by hand and mostly with a backhoe. This phase of the project includes continued monitoring and removal of iceplant that has re-sprouted after the initial removal.
Where iceplant has been removed, we plant natives and implement erosion control measures. Native seed is scattered under erosion control blankets. In past years, the native seed bank has been productive and has responded favorably once iceplant is removed. Perennial pepperweed removal is anticipated to occur in the spring of 2011. We will monitor and map the population of perennial pepperweed. Local student and community volunteers assist with on-site maintenance and removal of iceplant during the restoration and enhancement process. Volunteer support is essential to this process and we greatly appreciate all our volunteers!
In 2009 we received over 100 applicants for our position of Trails Restoration Specialist and at yearend the Watch hired John Moreno. John is a Watsonville High grad, and grew up on a farm in the Royal Oaks/Watsonville area. He will be working three days a week for us and two days a week for the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County’s Community Restoration Project. He began work on December 2, and has hit the trails running!
Under the contract, the Watch maintains the six miles of trails and does native habitat restoration adjacent to the trails. The work includes setting up a demonstration restoration area behind the Ramsey Park Nature Center and recruiting and working with volunteers on the sloughs and uplands adjacent to the trails. This contract reflects our successful partnership with the City and our recognized expertise in restoration.
“Appropriately timed rotational grazing helps mimick the historical grazing of herding animals such as elk which were once common and important to local native grassland health,” says Jonathan Pilch, WWW Restoration Director. “Goats, sheep, and other animals can remove invasive plants and improve the soil so that native grasses, wildflowers, and habitat can thrive. Grazing also keeps the grass short. Many of our native species, such as the burrowing owl, the marsh hawk, and the short-eared owl, favor short grass for nesting and habitat.” Holistic rotational grazing programs have been used successfully to control invasive plants and to create conditions for native annuals to thrive. More about holistic land management.
In 2009, the Watch Restoration staff initiated a trial grazing program for the Watsonville Slough Ecological Reserve to help with the removal of Italian thistle, bristly ox-tongue, and the heavy thatch buildup on the grasslands there. We used 250 sheep and goats for a two-week trial. The animals were placed primarily on the peninsula, where the Italian thistle and the bristly ox-tongue are prevalent. The restoration staff conducted a baseline monitoring of the entire property prior to the arrival of the animals and annually thereafter in the spring to track changes to the grassland’s plant composition as a result of the grazing.
We are working with Laura Kummerer and High Ground Organics on the possibility of rotating animals in between that grassland site and the Dept. of Fish and Game property. We have also just completed the annual monitoring summary data, which will be used as a foundation for student monitoring projects as a part of Project Tierra, our wetlands biodiversity monitoring program (WBMP). Stay tuned for development of the program during the spring and summer.
California’s native coastal prairie is a rarely recognized old-growth type of environment, greatly in need of conservation. Less than 1% remains undisturbed by urban development, farming, and invasive species. The coastal prairie is a short-grass dominated prairie and supports a huge diversity of plant and animal species. This includes many grassland-dependent bird species whose populations are in great decline throughout the State, such as the Burrowing Owl, Short-eared Owl, Northern Harrier, Grasshopper Sparrow and the White Tailed Kite.
Grazing animals, or human practices which mimic grazing animals, are necessary to maintain and restore native diversity of the grasslands and improve the quality of the habitat.
If you would like to help with restoration efforts or volunteer with the WBMP, contact Jonathan by email or call 728-1156, ext. 4.
Another recent discovery in restored areas is the annual wildflower Plagiobothrys bracteatus, or bracted popcornflower. It grows in wetland or riparian areas. As shown at right, it has been seen in abundance at our “Middle Sloughs” restoration site, an area adjacent to Watsonville Slough (map). In addition to the popcornflower, nesting Avocets have been spotted there, as well as Savannah Sparrows, Horned Larks, Black-necked Stilts, and White-faced Ibises. The Savannah Sparrow, Horned Lark, and the Ibis are Species of Special Concern designated by the California Department of Fish and Game.
Restoration on the Middle Sloughs site has included planting native wetland plants while leaving much of the habitat intact to allow for the expansion and continued presence of native plants. Students from the Monterey Aquarium’s WATCH program at Pajaro Valley High School participated in the planting and the restoration of the site in November, 2010.
Watsonville Wetlands Watch has undertaken a multi-year effort to restore and enhance the Tarplant Hill parcel, work made possible by a $35,000 grant from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. WWW is committed to maintaining the site in perpetuity, providing conditions that will create a self-sustaining native habitat. Click here for the annual report of work accomplished during the two years ending Oct. 1, 2009.
Preservation of the grassy knoll was guaranteed when Watsonville Wetlands Watch bought the property in 2006 with a $475,000 grant from the state Wildlife Conservation Board. This six acres of native coastal prairie is essential to the recovery of the endangered Santa Cruz tarplant.
Tarplant Hill is surrounded by hundreds of homes built in the past few years between Ohlone Parkway and Struve Slough in Watsonville. Preserving the site ensures it will remain the home of several rare and endangered species beside the Santa Cruz tarplant, including the threatened California red-legged frog, and the burrowing owl. Other species likely to be found on the property include marsh and northern harrier, short-eared owl, white-tailed kite, peregrine falcon, loggerhead shrike, and nesting cinnamon teal.