• taggertbutterfield

Excursion to Santa Barbara!

Nov 19th, 2020 – Nov 22nd, 2020


Like many around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic forced us (Alejandra and I, Taggert) to cancel our plans to visit Sabinito Sur in March 2020 and July 2020. The main goal of these visits was to track the progress of the scholarship students and help them organize a presentation about the data that they have been collecting over the past year. We took advantage of this setback by saving our money, buying a 4x4 truck, and driving it from Washington State, USA to Sabinito Sur so that the turtle team can use the truck to move around the reserve. Before this, the team (Felix and four students) were using two motorcycles to move between field sites within the reserve.


To avoid bringing the COVID-19 virus to Sabinito Sur, we maintained social distance during our trip to Sabinito Sur by camping in national forests in Washington, Oregon, and California. This trip took about three months and Alejandra had to return to Morelia, Michoacán to begin teaching classes at UNAM before we made it to Sabinito Sur. For this, I crossed the border on my own in Sonoyta, Mexico on Sunday November 15th. In Sonoyta, I picked up a fellow biologist Abel Domínguez who is a student and ornithologist from the Universidad de Sonora (UNISON) and with a one-night pit stop in Hermosillo (in Mexico it is advisable to drive at night to avoid criminal activity), we arrived to Sabinito Sur on Wednesday November 18th.

On Thursday November 19th, Felix, Abel, and I went to Alamos where we are currently tracking five individuals of the Alamos mud turtle (K. alamosae). Given the extremely dry season that we have had in 2020, the turtles have remained inactive and have moved very little since 2019 (see future post of K. alamosae). To our surprise, we encountered an adult male Thornscrub tortoise (Gopherus evgoodei) that was tucked up underneath a tilted tree on a steep hill side (left photo). Unfortunately, we did not bring the equipment to measure tortoises and we had to safely set it back instead of take measurements. After the field, we ran errands around town to prepare for the weekend excursion with the scholarship students to the field site in Santa Barbara.


After the scholarship students finished with classes on Friday November 20th, we packed up the truck and made our way up to Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is a field site at 1300m elevation in pine-oak forest that is three hours away from Sabinito Sur. It was a long steep drive to Santa Barbara, and for the first time we got to feature the 4L in the Nissan Pathfinder. The slow steep crawl up the sierra was no problem for the Pathfinder and we made it to the field site/house at Santa Barbara around 1700hr. Right photo: the turtle team taking a break on a ficus tree at the halfway point up to Santa Barbara.

Since it is entering the dry season and there is very little turtle activity, our main goal in Santa Barbara was to organize two field excursions with the students. and observe their progress on taking field notes. The first excursion on, Saturday November 21st, was to Arroyo Verde, which is a box canyon that is 2 hours walking from Santa Barbara. We left camp early Saturday morning and descended the beautiful walk down to Arroyo Verde, which was surrounded by huge canyon walls, views of the Sierra Madre Occidental (left top), wildlife, and even cave paintings (left bottom). When arriving down to Arroyo Verde we sat down as a group and did focal observations. Focal observations are inspired by Joseph Grinnell's style of taking field notes, and students were asked to pick a spot and sit down for fifteen minutes and describe their surroundings, noting any wildlife they observe and general features of their surroundings. This canyon was vey different from the tropical dry forest vegetation near Sabinito Sur, where these students live, and when reviewing their notebooks after returning to camp I was impressed by the detail that students were able to contrast the differences between the tropical dry forest and Arroyo Verde vegetation. For example, there were huge Bursera simaruba in Arroyo Verde, which are not found in lower tropical dry forest or pine-oak forest, and students recorded these differences in their notes. After spending an hour looking around Arroyo Verde, we made our way back to camp.


On the last day, Sunday November 21st, our main goal was to look for the Sierra box turtle (Terrapene nelsoni) and have the students make two animal and two plant observations in their field notebooks that are not turtles. We didn’t have much hope for finding turtles, but to our surprise, the local leader from Sabinito Sur, Felix García, found a marked turtle that turned out to be a turtle named Felix (right). This turtle was named Felix because it was first found by him on our first field excursion to Santa Barbara in 2018. This turtle provided the opportunity to see the students in action, and to no surprise each student knew exactly how to record the data (Photos below).



After finding Felix the turtle, we headed back to the field station and Alfredo, the oldest scholarship student, noted a Madrean alligator lizard (Elgaria kingii) resting on a rock. This beautiful sub-adult alligator lizard was very timid and let us gently pick it up. This lizard is special to me because my very first opportunity to conduct independent research was with the Northern alligator lizard (Elgaria coerulea) when I was an undergraduate student at Central Washington University. The Madrean alligator lizard has an extremely long tail and looks like a slithering snake while it runs. We headed to the field house in Santa Barbara after this observation and I reviewed the students notebooks to see how well they performed in writing two animal and two plant observations, an assignment I assigned on Friday night when we arrived to Santa Barbara. To close the trip, I gave students a presentation that I gave at the World Congress of Herpetology in Dunedin, New Zealand in 2020. This presentation allowed me to show the students how a presentation is structured and prepare them for presentations that they will give in the local community of Sabinito Sur in March 2020. Around mid-day we packed up and headed back to Sabinito Sur. I went back to Morelia on Nov 24th, 2020.