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National Day of Service - Habitat Restoration Project

Saturday, January 19, 2013

As you might have heard, today has been designated as the National Day of Service - a day when people are asked to 'give back' to make the world a better place. This is actually something I try to do often as it's something that gives me a really good feeling. And heck, we like to do things that make us feel good, right?

So my project today was to work on a land stewardship project, planting prickly pear cactus to establish/restore habitat for a bird called the Cactus Wren. It's not officially 'endangered' but it has been declared 'threatened,' which indicates there is definitely concern about the long-term survival of this tiny little bird. I'm definitely not an expert but I do know that they nest in cactus plants that are at least 3-4 feet tall, they 'marry' - that is, they form a permanent partnership - and the pairs establish a specific territory where they live. They don't travel very far from their birth place so if something happens to destroy it such as a wildfire or urban development, the pairs hang around until they are killed, often by a cat or coyote because their safety zone in the cactus has been removed.

Anyway, we have had a few big wildfires in our area as well as other types of development that have disturbed cactus wren populations. One local population had gotten physically separated and isolated so there's been some concern that the genetic pool could weaken because the birds will have to keep inbreeding with close relatives. Currently, the nearest suitable habitat is too far for them to move so our project today was the first step to help the situation.

We went to an area close enough to the 'edge' of the isolated territory, which was across a freeway from our site, and planted cactus pads. Boy, did we ever plant them!! I don't know how many we planted but I think 200-300 are now in the ground. We are not just building a habitat, we are creating an entire Cactus Wren Nation!!!

The actual planting process was pretty interesting - we used a hand-ax or a hammer to gouge out a hole, then picked up a cactus pad with BBQ tongs, put it in the hole and shoved the dirt around it. They had some 'scientific formula' for planting in a grid and it started out being pretty straight lines.....but the neat, evenly spaced rows of the grid got a little sloppy in quite a few places so we started joking that we were using a carefully designed random pattern so the wrens didn't know it was a planned development!
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When we got to the second patch, everyone was hot, tired and in desperate need of large doses of morphine [just kidding about that last one but we were definitely feeling the effects of bending over or crawling around for a couple of hours by that time!!]. As you might imagine, the project manager decided not to try to measure out precise locations [7/10ths of a meter apart!!] and we just 'eyeballed' it - then we went back and filled in the gaps with extra cactus pads until we ran out of them.

Fortunately, it actually wasn't quite as 'back-breaking' as I anticipated it would be and I really enjoyed talking with various people as we kept switching around positions. It seemed to work best to have one person go along and gouge out a bunch of holes while another person followed to do the planting - so that gave most of us a chance to have a little more personal communication with several people as we changed 'partners' throughout the project. Somehow good company and good humor seems to make hard work seem fun and the time flew by - I was actually surprised when our project manager announced we were done! Of course, there are still 3-4 more patches they plan to plant but they will be done another day.

It will be a few years before the cactus are large enough for the wrens to start nesting and probably a certain percentage of what we planted will not take root, others will not be strong enough to survive the long haul. The plan is that next year we will go back to the same site to plant some native grass and shrubs in the areas between the cactus patches, along with some elderberry trees and a few other native plants typical of the immediate area, to create an attractive environment for the insects the cactus wrens like to eat.

According to the botanist who was with us today, the cactus should be big enough in 2-3 years for the cactus wrens to start nesting - some of the pads we planted were very small and others were somewhat tall, already close to a foot above the ground, and there will be different growth rates for individual plants, too. Obviously, when the cactus patch is completely filled in and fully grown, more new plants will have started so the thought is that the whole area will develop fairly naturally - there are actually several 'natural' areas of coastal sage scrub very nearby that will eventually be indistinguishable from this large section we rehabilitated today.

The 'experts' said that once the cactus wrens start nesting, the two bird populations that are currently separate will intermingle, creating a larger gene pool and of course an overall healthier population. I can't say that I'm a 'bird enthusiast' myself but I do see the value of a biologically diverse selection of plants and animals and see its importance to me as an individual as well as 'mankind' in general. When we start eliminating this and that, tinkering here and there, I think it always results in unintended consequences - perhaps some that we don't realize until it's too late to do anything about it. So when I'm asked 'why do you do this?' I reply that I've taken so much pleasure from the environment around me and have benefited so much from hiking, etc, it seems natural to participate in the maintenance of that environment. Plus - it just feels good to make the world a better place - it may seem like a small thing but in a few years, there will be some cactus wrens whose entire world will be better because of what we did today!

It was actually a pretty good group of volunteers - ages ranging from 3 students and a recent college grad up to several retired people and an assortment of people in between. One volunteer was a secretary, another was an attorney, another was a physical therapist - so it was really great to see the wide range of people who were drawn to this service project! I think there were 12 of us - 3 females and 9 males.

Sorry I didn't get any pictures - I intended to but got so carried away with the project [plus I was a driver and 'lead land steward' so I had to help organize activities], I never got around to it. We did have a professional photographer clicking away, however, and there may be a newspaper article about our project. If that actually occurs, I'll let you know!

So that was my Day of Service - if you haven't 'given back' recently, I highly recommend it, although I know the SparkMembers here seem to be a lot more helpful than the 'general population' so I suspect most of the people reading this have done something to make the world a better place either today or in the recent past - if so, I'd love to hear about it!
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