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Audubon Program Features UCM Natural Reserve

MARIPOSA – The University of California at Merced now boasts a newly designated natural reserve. Last month the UC Board of Regents approved the formal addition of UC Merced’s Vernal Pool and Grassland Reserve to the university’s Natural Reserve System. At 756,000 acres, it is the largest university-administered reserve system in the world.

The new UCM reserve, one of 39 reserves in the statewide system, encompasses 6,500 acres of rolling grasslands, gentle hills and thousands of vernal pools adjacent to the campus.

This expanse of protected land and water is now available to students and faculty for studies of fairy shrimp, endemic plants, wildlife and some of North America’s oldest soils–a rich resource for research and experiential learning.

UCM reserve director Chris Swarth, a Mariposa resident, will introduce foothill neighbors to this extraordinary area in a slide presentation, “UC Merced’s Vernal Pool and Grassland Reserve,” at the monthly program of the Yosemite Area Audubon Society (YAAS) on Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Mariposa Methodist Church parish hall at 6th and Bullion streets in downtown Mariposa. The program will begin at 7 p.m.

Swarth notes that most of California’s vernal pool habitats–more than 90 percent, according to the California Academy of Sciences–have been destroyed, making the new reserve a critical refuge for rare and endangered plants and animals such as the fairy shrimp and the California tiger salamander.

The pools form when clay soils underlain by a layer of impervious hardpan cause winter and spring rains to pond on the surface rather than percolate into the ground. This temporary inundation brings life to the pools, providing many plants and animals the conditions they need long enough for them to reproduce.

As the pools evaporate in the spring, native wildflowers bloom in concentric rings of blue, white and yellow around the shrinking edges. Young salamanders lose their gills and leave their birth pools to seek a nearby protective burrow.

The reserve also offers habitat for a diverse population of raptors and songbirds such as horned larks, loggerhead shrikes, Say’s phoebes, savannah sparrows and western meadowlarks.

As the reserve director Swarth is developing research and education guidelines for the area, monitoring biological conditions and leading field trips for students and the public. He is also an instructor in the School of Natural Sciences, teaching earth system science and conservation biology. He has previously been a biology instructor at several other institutions of higher learning.

Swarth received his B.S. in biology from Humboldt State University and holds an M.S. in biology from CSU Hayward. His research experience has included positions, among others, as staff biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and field biologist with the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. He served as director of the Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary in Maryland for 23 years before moving back to California last year.

Swarth has served in various capacities with a number of conservation organizations and scientific societies. He has been vice president of the Golden Gate Audubon Society, education chair of the Audubon Naturalist Society in Washington, DC, site manager of the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, president of the Atlantic Estuarine Research Society and board member of the Estuarine Research Federation.

Like all YAAS programs, Swarth’s presentation is open and free to the public, although donations to defray program costs and to support Audubon’s local activities are welcome.

Swarth will also lead YAAS’s free monthly field trip Saturday, Feb. 15, to explore the UCM reserve on foot and by car, followed by birding at nearby Lake Yosemite. Participants will meet at 8 a.m. at the Mariposa rest area adjacent to the Mariposa Museum and History Center just off Highway 140 to carpool to Merced. The trip is open to the public and suitable for beginners. Bring binoculars, field guides, lunch, snacks and beverages. Dress in layers, bring rain gear and wear comfortable, waterproof walking shoes.

Call (209) 742-5579 or (209) 966-2547 or visit www.yosemiteaudubon.org for more information about the program or the field trip.

The mission of the National Audubon Society, the namesake of noted 19th-century naturalist and bird painter John James Audubon; its state affiliate, Audubon California; and local chapters such as the Yosemite Area Audubon Society is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity.

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