Cuyama River Incident: Notes from the Field

“Hey, wait…listen”. I whispered. “Did you hear that?” Wendy and Danene were on the opposite bank, directly across from me. Dressed in Tyvek, a safety vest, lifejacket, a raincoat and a hard hat on, an N-95 mask and safety glasses covering their face, a spotlight and net in hand, the two of them looked like something out of a cartoon.

cuyama team

Our Field Team: Wendy, Danene, Jennie

They stopped walking and listened. The rain was still coming down, but the birds were just beginning to chatter, and the first rays of sunlight could be seen on the horizon. And then there it was again, that throaty vocalization (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4xTYkG8fM0). “What in the world is that?” I asked. “Is that a red-legged frog?” We knew there was a possibility that this threatened species could be in the area and had listened to their calls online, but none of us had ever heard them in the wild before. I turned on my spotlight and scanned the bank near where they were standing. “I don’t see any eyeshine, but it sounds like it’s coming from behind you guys, up near the trees”. I crossed the river and joined Wendy and Danene on the other side. The three of us started heading back toward the newly created dam that had been erected to contain the oil, but also acted as a nice path across the river where we could easily get back to the truck.

western toad1

A Western Toad

We each took a different path through the trees in hopes of catching sight of this odd sounding species. Just before reaching the dam, I shined my flashlight into a little cave in the rock face we were passing. “Guys!” I shouted in excitement “I found something!”. I placed my net over the entrance, shined my light into the cave to make sure there were no other occupants, and then with Wendy’s help, slowly coaxed the Western Toad out of the cave and into the net. Realizing we needed to get going if we were going to make the morning safety tailgate briefing, we placed our new friend in a container we had brought, entered the data into the Wildlife Recovery App, and boogied back to the truck.

 

cuyama pic1

Searching for Wildlife

This spill response was very different than any others I have been involved with. California was (and still is) under quarantine due to COVID-19, so this spill response was limited as far as staffing numbers to make sure people were kept as safe as possible. In addition, everyone was required to wear an N-95 mask at all times. No exceptions. There were numerous port-a-potties and hand-washing stations set up at each staging site, including several pink “women only” ones. There were people stationed at the river access points that would wipe down your vehicle door handles for you. Lunch was individually bagged and delivered to reduce the potential for germ spread. A six-foot separation was required when working in the field, unless it was absolutely necessary to be in closer contact. All of this made the response slightly more difficult, but the hardest part was with everyone wearing a mask it was a lot harder to hear what they were saying! Despite all the challenges that we were facing during our first COVID-19 spill response, keeping people safe was always our top priority.

Because we suspected we had red-legged frogs in this specific area, challenges or no challenges, the search was on! With the energy level spiked, onto the riverbank we went, determined to capture any affected wildlife. After much searching, I grabbed onto some old wood debris that was pushed up against the bank.  As I did, I heard a plop and saw a frog jump into the water. I scooped it up with my net and, with Wendy’s help, we examined it to see how oiled it was. Based on how much oil was in the water where we captured it, we expected it to be very visibly oiled. However, while it didn’t appear visibly oiled, substantial product came off onto our gloves, so we carefully boxed it up and transported it back to our staging area.

frog2

A CA Red-Legged Frog

Upon getting it back to our Mobile Animal Stabilization Hospital (MASH), we did a more thorough examination. While its hind legs were more yellow than the tell-tale red that is common, it turned out to in fact be a red-legged frog (but probably a young one). We provided it food, water, and some rest, and the next day gave it a Dawn(r) bath, a new home to recover in, and lots of earthworms. It turns out they really like earthworms! We continued to house and feed our threatened patient until it was able to be released back into the wild.

Overall, this response was a great experience for all of us. There were so many nuances (and some significant challenges), but we further refined our response procedures during unique circumstances, continued to develop more inland-specific techniques, and found ways to improve our field data collection tools. In total, we collected 21 animals (9 Western Pond Turtles, 3 Mallards, 1 Belted kingfisher, 1 fish, 4 Baja California Tree Frogs, 1 Western Toad and 2 California Red-legged Frogs) and successfully released almost 90% of the live ones collected. It just goes to show that pre-planning, adaptability, resilience in the face of uncertainty, and having and working with a great team leads to great success!!

-Jennie

OWCNJennie01_0

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