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Bio Blitz
Gotta Count 'Em All
24 Hours, April 1-2, 2016

by George Phillips, Land Conservation Manager

Golden morning side sun rays illuminated the jagged eastern slopes of North Peak. My imagination was brimming and my curiosity piqued en route to my introduction to Save Mount Diablo as a volunteer – BioBlitz 2009. Enthusiasm was contagious at the event. Expert naturalists tallied several hundred species observations and buzzed around trading experiences of rare wildlife encounters. I was hooked. Little did I know that in three years’ time my role there would change from laborer to leader, coordinating the event this year and helping experts to document a staggering 737 species in a mere twenty-four hours.

BioBlitz’s purpose is simple: performing ground level resource surveys provides important baseline species information which guides stewardship and land management decisions. The event has resulted in rerouting a trail away from newly discovered rare plants, targeting non-native weeds in sensitive resource areas and contributing rare wildlife occurrence records to regional databases, thereby affecting development proposals. Curry Canyon, the last privately held major canyon on the southeastern slopes of Mount Diablo, has been the site for BioBlitz over the past several years because of the high quality habitat found there. For this year’s event we decided to return to the 2009 location in upper Curry Canyon after fine tuning our search parameters to hopefully rediscover a few species that have been presumed extinct in the Diablo area.

The main event was held in May, but due to strange weather this spring, our friends from the Essig Museum of Entomology at UC Berkeley requested to survey in late April, a time more favorable to the species they were after. With specialties including bees, gall wasps, spiders, moths and beetles, the group traversed hillsides during the day and set up tent-like malaise traps which collected tiny wasps into the night. If insects make you squirmy, you’re lucky you weren’t out with us at dusk as an abundance of black beetles rustled through leaf litter covering the forest floor (see inset below).

Strategies for finding organisms differ based on what the target species is, but often times the most difficult ones to spot are mammals. In an effort to outsmart our warm blooded counterparts we deployed state of the art motion/heat activated camera traps in several locations around the property that captured images of coyotes, bobcats, foxes, deer and skunks. Over 100 small mammal traps were set up with the hope of trying to rediscover the Berkeley kangaroo rat, a species that may be extinct. No luck this year, we’ll keep searching.
Cutting edge sound equipment was focused on areas near ponds and confirmed the echolocation calls of three species of bats: western red bats, hoary bats and Mexican free-tailed bats. Taped calls got responses from great horned and screech owls. A team of herpetologists found several species of snakes but were eluded by the Diablo mountain kingsnake, a species known from Mount Hamilton that is rumored to appear on Diablo. Grasshopper sparrows, golden eagles and a prairie falcon were a few of the special status bird species observed.

Nothing thrills me more than finding rare species on the mountain; it gives me an immense sense of pride, purpose and excitement for the work our organization does to preserve land and protect biodiversity. As the event was coming to a close, I made a quick trip to Curry Creek where I encountered two juvenile red-legged frogs, a welcome sight for a species that is threatened by habitat loss and degradation. The unlikely last find of the day was icing on the cake; we spotted the lightning fast federally protected Alameda whipsnake, cruising with its head elevated like a cobra, near Curry Creek.

Expert naturalists and professional biologists donated hundreds of hours at this year’s event, helping to produce a baseline species list that would have cost upwards of a $100,000. We extend huge thanks to the following sponsors and organizations who made the event possible; LSA, Nomad Ecology, UC Berkeley Essig Museum of Entomology, REI, URS, EBRPD, Swaim Biological and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Wildlife Society.

The Smallest Creatures Can Tell Us the Most
Kip Will, Associate Director, Essig Museum of Entomology, UC Berkeley

Even the casual observer can see Curry Canyon’s many different habitats but a closer look at the biological diversity, beyond the plants and larger animals, reveals a rich diversity of arthropods, particularly insects. Entomologists use insects to build a fine-grained understanding of biodiversity and monitor changes in distributions that might be due to a changing climate. The huge number of beetles on the property include some real oddities like primitive bombardier beetles (Metrius contractus), which use a clever mixture of chemicals expressed from a pair of glands that produce a hot, predator-deterring explosion. New records of insects found on the property during BioBlitz, such as a moth (Neocrania bifasciata), which was previously known only to occur as far north as Monterey County, add important information in our database of distributional knowledge. Also found on the property was another moth (Barbara colfaxiana) that represents the first population thought to feed on knobcone pine. In total, the insect diversity in Curry Canyon is extraordinary and a great example of the East Bay’s biodiversity.

From Rocks to Roots
Heath Bartosh, Principal of Nomad Ecology, Research Associate at University & Jepson Herbaria

Although Mount Diablo is considered relatively young (1-2 million years old) the rocks that form it can be very old. The bedrock of Curry Canyon is comprised of sedimentary rocks formed during the Mesozoic Era (145.5-65.5 million years ago). The erodibility of this substrate has provided the variety of slopes, aspects, elevations, and exposed rock formations that support an abundance of vegetation communities in the canyon. Save Mount Diablo’s co-founder, Mary Bowerman, described 16 vegetation types associated with the mountain, 12 of which we recorded in upper Curry Canyon. This diverse mix of bedrock, topography, and vegetation provide suitable habitat for many rare plant species. Four of the five rare plants listed by the California Native Plant Society found in the canyon are regional endemics: Mount Diablo Manzanita, Contra Costa Manzanita, Diablo sunflower and Mount Diablo fairy lantern. These rarities are a must-see for botanists from around the state who travel here to see our endemic treasures. The area is a botanical wonderland and a microcosm of the mountain as it encapsulates much of the plant diversity found throughout our cherished prominence.

The stage was set for an unforgettable twenty four hours on the “morning side of the mountain,” Diablo’s east face.  1,525 acres of breathtaking landscape rising from 800’-2300’ ft. including ten ponds, countless creeks, springs and a secret twenty foot waterfall. The occasion?  It was SMD’s BioBlitz event, held May 20-21, when twenty expert naturalists methodically traversed four spectacular parcels to collect, call, capture and count as many species as possible in one day and night. Data from the event helps establish a baseline snapshot of biodiversity and provides information which helps us better manage sensitive resources.

The event was based at SMD’s Wright Canyon property, which we share with its former owner Dorothy Wright, who has life estate to live on her family’s land.  Viera-North Peak, SMD’s 165-acre treasure rising up the slopes of Mount Diablo, was one of the survey areas for the event given its diverse habitat types such as chaparral, oak woodland, grassland, riparian, rock outcrops and serpentine grassland. We were also honored by the opportunity to survey more than two square miles of private land owned by the Ginochio ranching family, rising from Curry Canyon south to Windy Point and north to Prospectors Gap.  Very few scientists have ever seen these properties.

Discoveries began immediately. En route to dropping off the first group of scientists we documented four species of raptors in twenty minutes, a juvenile golden eagle, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk and a northern harrier. Turning over logs, a group looking for reptiles discovered a Gilberts Skink, southern alligator lizards mating, and a four foot gopher snake. As the sun set through Prospectors Gap, camera traps captured images of curious coyotes and a large bobcat. Veins of serpentine, California’s state mineral, support dozens of rare plants we found including Brewers Dwarf Flax, Mt. Diablo jewel flower, Mt. Diablo globe lily, Mt. Diablo sunflower and Diablo manzanita.  The properties are excellent habitat for California red-legged frogs and Alameda whipsnake, both threatened species.  Western pond turtle and kingfishers are found at Wright Canyon.  Viburnum ellipticum, a white flowered shrub discovered by SMD co-founder Mary Bowerman below Windy Point in 1933 and known from just a handful of East Bay locations, was confirmed again and in good health.

By coincidence a realtor had contacted us about a new property three days earlier and several of us stopped at it on our way to BioBlitz.   Scientists at the event ID’ed volcanic rock we’d collected there and one knew about rare plants onsite.  Twelve days later, because of its biological importance, we signed a contract to purchase the property:  Marsh Creek-V.  It’s a great example of the value of resource evaluations such as BioBlitz.

A sunny day got chilly as fog divided around Windy Point and filled Curry and Riggs Canyons.  One of our most magical experiences took place in an eerie setting along a heavily wooded stream canyon during the dark, foggy night.  After playing taped owl calls from a boom box for nearly twenty minutes, a faint response call was heard downstream. As the melodic trill moved closer we became hyperaware of sound and movement. Time seemed to slow to a stop, then click – as a spotlight illuminated the gnarled branch of a valley oak hanging across the road, faster than the blink of an eye a screech owl glided through our field of vision.

As the event drew to a close Saturday afternoon, John Ginochio discovered what turned out to be the most unusual find of the event, a night snake with elegant copper colored eyes and vertical cat-like pupils.  John was elated about his find because, despite having spent his entire life exploring and appreciating wildlife on the mountain, neither he nor anyone else at the event had ever seen this species before in the wild.

A formal biotic survey of the properties would have cost thousands of dollars.  Twenty scientists participated in BioBlitz this year, lower than usual especially for such a large rugged area, but 305 species were documented in twenty-four hours. We greatly appreciate the time volunteered by our expert naturalists, permission by Dorothy Wright to base the event at Wright Canyon, and the Ginochio family’s permission to survey their land.  It was a treat.  These properties’ ecological health is a testament to the care the Wrights and Ginochios have taken with their land for generations.

  Credits | Legal StatementCopyright 2012 Save Mount Diablo. Designed by Alison Martin. Funded by Clif Bar.