On a blustery, unseasonably warm February morning, Kaitlin Backlund, Janet Zipser Zipkin and I travelled down a bumpy dirt road through a forest of pines and firs to Sagehen Creek Field Station. Operated by University of California, Berkeley, the site is a research station and teaching facility located about ten miles north of Truckee, CA — a sanctuary set aside for wildlife, science, education and environmental art. Today, Backlund and Zipkin, both Sagehen volunteers, were going to teach me about a program called iNaturalist which connects a worldwide community of people in documenting the natural world using smartphones, cameras and computers.
Sagehen Creek Field Station, a cluster of red and brown buildings surrounded by forest, was founded in 1951 by Starker Leopold, son of famous conservationist and author Aldo Leopold. Starker’s brother, Luna Leopold, a famous geomorphologist, also spent time at Sagehen Creek. The station has bunkhouses for visiting researchers, a caretaker’s cabin, a kitchen and cooking area, a library, a fish observation house with underwater viewing chamber and webcam, and various other buildings. Sagehen Creek, which flows through the property, is a tributary to the Truckee River: from here, water flows east into Stampede Reservoir, then Boca, then eventually into the Truckee.
A walk in the digital forest: If John Muir could see us now
After a brief introduction to the iNaturalist program and tour of the buildlings, Backlund, Zipkin and I headed into the field, armed with the tool of the modern-day naturalist: the smartphone. We crossed Sagehen Creek, and followed a narrow path through the forest and into a large meadow. Janet demonstrated proper iNaturalist observation technique on a lodgepole pine, then I sampled a willow. My phone had lost contact with cell towers, but to my surprise, the woods had wi-fi. This field station, Backlund explained, is well connected.
Through the iNaturalist.org website, people can record species observations, keep personal species lists, and help each other to identify unknown species. “I’ve found that it’s an incredibly great tool for connecting to other people who love the natural world, and an incredible tool for learning, and for learning from others,” says Backlund, who is the volunteer coordinator for Sagehen’s iNaturalist program. Since 2012, 84 volunteers have recorded over 2,700 plant and wildlife observations in iNaturalist’s Sagehen Creek Basin Biota Documentation Project. These observations then become part of a database that can be used by environmental scientists from around the world.
Kaitlin Backlund leads the way, at Sagehen Creek Field Station. Feb 5, 2015.
Janet Zipser Zipkin demonstrates how to submit an iNaturalist observation. Photo by Kaitlin Backlund.
Sagehen Creek Field Station, as mapped by iNaturalists. From iNaturalist.org.
Wolverines and River Otters at Sagehen Creek
iNaturalists at Sagehen Creek have an abundance of wildlife to document, and although scientists have been working at Sagehen Creek for over 60 years, they continue to make new discoveries. In 2008, the first wolverine seen in the Sierras in 82 years was photographed on a field camera at Sagehen Creek Field Station. And in January of this year, a tracking class found otter tracks. “This is the first time any of us have been aware of [otters] being out here, and people who manage the station have been out here for twelve years”, said Backlund. According to Faerthen Felix, the Assistant Manager at Sagehen Creek Field Station, otters did not appear on the original Sagehen Creek species list from the 1950s, and are a new arrival to the site. Otters have been seen in Sagehen Creek by staff, and photographed by a Forest Service employee in Alder Creek, a nearby tributary that leads into Prosser Reservoir.
This poster is as close as we came to seeing a wolverine, but in 2008, the first wolverine seen in California since 1922 was photographed on a field camera at Sagehen Creek Field Station.
In addition to their work with iNaturalist, Backlund and Zipkin have both completed the California Naturalist program, a series of classes that take place at Sagehen Creek Field Station each summer. “It was absolutely life changing,” said Zipkin of the experience. “It gives so much more purpose to what I see outside when I’m out hiking, like understanding why lodgepoles grow near the water, and why things are the way that they are,” Zipkin explained. Today, Backlund and Zipkin each teach portions of the California Naturalist class.
Backlund and Zipkin both light up when they talk about their time spent at Sagehen Creek Field Station. “This is a place where science happens. It’s not a public recreation area, and it’s not a park. To visit, you have to be participating in a program,” said Backlund. “The researchers are very respectful of each other’s projects, and everyone seems to take an interest in everyone else’s work”, she explained. That is a wonderful thing about volunteering at Sagehen, Zipkin and Backlund agreed.
For more information on the California Naturalist Program or to volunteer with the iNaturalist Program at Sagehen Creek Field Station, visit http://sagehen.ucnrs.org/.
Kaitlin Backlund shows a plant sample that researchers have preserved at Sagehen Creek Field Station. Feb. 5, 2015.
The fish observation building at Sagehen Creek has an underwater viewing window. Feb 5, 2015.
Eye to eye with fish: Sagehen Creek Field Station. June 2014. Photo: Kaitlin Backlund.
Native to the Truckee River Basin: A Paiute sculpin at Sagehen Creek Field Station. June 2014. Photo by Kaitlin Backlund.
I drove away from Sagehen Creek Field Station feeling elated to know that this sanctuary for science exists, and privileged to have been able to visit. In my happy haze, I didn’t notice until I was halfway home that I (a most inexperienced iNaturalist) had dropped my phone somewhere in the woods .
A big thanks to Janet Zipser Zipkin and Kaitlin Backlund for showing me around Sagehen Creek Field Station. An even bigger thanks to Kaitlin, who returned to Sagehen Creek the next day to help me look for a lost white iphone in a forest in a snowstorm, which we found!