by Julian Meisler
Walk the new Eliot Trail at Sears Point and you’re almost certain to see a diversity of raptors, shorebirds and ducks. On clear days, you’ll be treated to distant vistas spanning from Mount Diablo to Mount Tamalpais. But mostly, you’ll see water. Beneath the surface, there are things that most of us will never see.
The bay’s underwater ecosystem is a veritable wilderness full of sharks, rays and fish of all sizes. The more I learn, the more appreciative I become of the habitat that Sears Point provides now and into the future.
Recently, I was fortunate to be part of a group that included staff from SLT, Ducks Unlimited, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on a boat trip from the lower Petaluma River into the restored Sears Point tidal restoration area. Our group was led by consultants who were demonstrating equipment that would enable us to see firsthand the life beneath the murky bay water. It’s a technology driven by sonar that, unlike a fish finder, enables us to look tens of meters horizontally through the water column instead of simply straight down.
It’s important for us to know what marine life is present and how they are using the site so we better understand its habitat value as it matures into a tidal marsh. We have questions about some of the interesting physical features that make up the site. For instance, are fish interested in the topographic relief provided by the five hundred marsh mounds? How do they use the six miles of excavated channels? Do they hide in the cover of the 30 tree stumps that we embedded in the sides of the channels? What about the acreage that was covered in coyote brush before we flooded it? Are those woody skeletons providing habitat? All of these questions can inform how we design future projects.
But sampling fish is not easy in murky salt water with so many logs and stumps that might snag a net. We hoped that the new sonar equipment would provide a glimpse of what is there — and indeed it did.
We saw dense schools of fish whose behavior and movement resembled flocks of shorebirds. We watched predatory fish nearly two feet in length as they followed and attacked the smaller schools. While my untrained eye couldn’t tell what species these were, even I could identify the graceful flapping wings of the bat ray which glided through our field of view multiple times. Check it out below.
There is wildness in the bay and it is spreading into Sears Point. With the help of technology, we saw it firsthand that day. But it’s evident every day when we watch terns and osprey dive suddenly from the air to attack those same fish. We’ve seen the carcasses of sturgeon in the levee’s wrack line. Sturgeon! These fish that can reach enormous lengths are in the bay and might be at Sears Point.
Have a look for yourself. You might not see a sturgeon, but you might glimpse an otter, a harbor seal or even an errant elephant seal. What’s certain is that there is, indeed, a wilderness beneath the sea surface. We have wonderful interpretive signs along the trails and will soon launch an audio tour accessible from your mobile device. Perhaps, best of all, our docents are on the levee with spotting scopes and a wealth of knowledge every Saturday morning from 9am to noon. We hope to see you there, too.
Julian Meisler is Sonoma Land Trust's Baylands program manager.
by Joe Kinyon
We often talk about our ‘five senses.’ Any ability to perceive that is not sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing is called a ‘sixth sense,’ usually associated with the paranormal. However, having more than five senses is completely normal. We have at least nine ways to feel and perceive the external world. Some argue that we have as many as 20 or more senses when we include internal senses that give feedback on the function of organs. Other organisms have additional senses and specialized organs that humans don’t have, built to perceive or extend into additional wavelengths.
The unique senses that humans possess are our windows of perception. What we perceive is organized in our brains into relationships that create a model of our world. Everything we do is checked against that model -- it is how we orient ourselves to everything else. We have additional perceptions not based upon a single or specific sensory organ. We also have perception of patterns or relationships that are fluid, and the ability to organize nebulous things or fill gaps to interpolate complex information. These can be culturally constructed such as a sense of timing with humor, strategy in a game or a sense of fashion with garments.
Somewhere between our five senses and our fashion sense is a sense of place. I’m not refering to the sense of place one might call decorum or knowing one’s place in a caste or hierarchy. A sense of place has two parts. It consists of the characteristics of geography that some locations have and others do not — or it can be the feelings or perceptions associated with the place that may strengthen attachment or identity. In addition to a sense of place are the meanings we assign to locations. For example, a bend in the river can be recognized as a historic mill site or sacred place.
The geography that gives a place its characteristics may also make it feel placeless. Mountains are a good example of this. They can be distinct landmarks like Sonoma Mountain or they can take shape as many indistinguishable mountains in all directions, creating a disorienting (or inspiring!) sense of being in the middle of nowhere. Some people find strip malls disorienting as placeless regurgitations of indistinguishable chains or franchises and architecture -- the opposite of landmarks. Some places are gone, transformed or lessened. “There is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein once quipped.
When I make maps for Sonoma Land Trust, I have a dialogue with my sense of place. With every map made, I critique it for its ability to convey that sense. Every map is a drawing of a sense of place that we are trying to share with our staff, board or constituents. Sometimes, our maps are filtered and streamlined to more efficiently convey a message. Other times, the information on maps is saturated and rich in order to mirror characteristics of the landscape. Sometimes, the map is exact and precise so that it may give directions and start the process of taking action.
An unwritten rule of the importance of mapping in our organization is as follows: “If we know it, we’ll love it. If we love it, we’ll protect it.” For this reason, maps are essential to that key step of knowing a place and, therefore, an essential part of the loving and protecting that we engage in as an organization.
Joe Kinyon is Sonoma Land Trust's GIS manager and mapmaker extraordinaire.
by Kyle Pinjuv
Like the grizzly bear, the wolf or the shark, plant and animal species in nature are often misunderstood. As humans, we occasionally focus our attention on the harm that these oft-maligned animals can cause to ourselves, our tents, our livestock or our beloved surfboards, forgetting that every plant and animal in our natural world plays a very important role in the balance of the greater ecosystem. So, how can we peacefully coexist with plants and animals that can cause us or our loved ones harm? We can learn more about them, of course.
More often than not, the process of education illuminates the dark, scary places in our minds and allows us to more freely (and safely) enjoy the natural world that surrounds us. In Sonoma County, we enjoy a beautiful, temperate Mediterranean climate with picturesque rolling hills and oak savannas as well as some of the most spectacular coastal landscapes in the country. But all landscapes come with challenges, Sonoma County’s included. Many of us have spent a day recreating or volunteering out on the land, only to wake up in the middle of the night itching and scratching with the despairing realization that we have been exposed to one of Sonoma County’s most infamous misunderstood species:
Poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum)
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.