Salton Sea

Audubon's Budding Scientists Spread Their Wings at the Salton Sea

"It isn’t this nasty swamp that people make it out to be; it is an area that is teeming with life that sees almost more than half of the total different North American avian species and on a clear day is one of the most beautiful sunrises or sunsets you will ever see."

The study:

The Salton Sea is a complex wetland habitat and the largest body of water in California. For millenia, the Sea has hosted hundreds of species of migratory birds flying along the Pacific Flyway, and the past century has seen hundreds of thousands of people move into the surrounding area. As the shoreline recedes due to shifting water usage and climate change, the Sea becomes more saline, creating an environmental challenge for wildlife. With waters that now double the salt content of the ocean, it has become uninhabitable for many fish and invertebrate species, in turn jeopardizing the integrity of the entire food web and the public health of hundreds of thousands of nearby residents.

As a result, our Audubon Salton Sea team has worked to investigate ecological changes in order to produce sound data and subsequent recommendations to the state as plans for restoration are developed. Efforts to date have included regular bird counts; however, more recently we have begun taking water quality and macroinvertebrate samples to see how food webs are changing and its long-term effects.

We are surveying seven sites around the Sea, including both the north and south ends. At every site, we are collecting nine samples of the soil at the shoreline and three samples of surface water to analyze for macroinvertebrates. Additionally, we use a water quality-monitoring device to record live data, including parameters such as salinity, pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, etc. Afterward, we sort the samples and send them off to a laboratory at the Bureau of Reclamation for analysis and a report. Ideally, this will continue periodically throughout the year in order to arrive at more conclusive interpretations of the ongoing changes at the dynamic Salton Sea.

Our experiences:

Due to the ongoing pandemic, our sampling team remained small this season, including only Director Frank Ruiz, and us: interns Hunter and Camila.

Get to know us:

Audubon intern Camila Bautista Photo: Hunter Harger

Camila: My name is Camila Bautista and I was born and raised in the Coachella Valley. I have been fortunate enough to go to college and receive my bachelor’s degree in Biology from the University of California, Los Angeles. After graduation, I found work locally as an intern with Audubon, where I have been able to learn more about my community and the environmental injustices we continue to face. With this experience in mind, am pursuing my master’s degree in hydrology at California State University, Los Angeles.

Audubon intern Hunter Harger Photo: Hunter Harger

Hunter: My name is Hunter Harger and I am currently pursuing a bachelor’s of science in geology at California State University, San Bernardino. I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to explore work in STEM while I am an intern with Audubon California. A native Texan, getting the opportunity to explore a diverse area that is the Salton Sea has been truly rewarding and I cannot wait to explore it further with the work that our team is doing at the Sea.

How would you describe your overall experience collecting data at the Salton Sea?

Even though we both spent the entire day together collecting invertebrates and testing water quality, we each had a unique experience and perspective about our first day conducting research and collecting data in the field.

Camila: Although I have taken field biology courses in my undergraduate studies, this is a first-time opportunity for me to apply biological principles to a place near and dear to my heart. I realized that preparing for our field day in advance would be ideal, considering the triple digit temperatures we would have to endure. This came natural to me because I like to keep data organized, and I had the opportunity to carefully think about every site and every sample we might need. I found the biggest hurdle in sampling macroinvertebrates to be the frequent quicksand shorelines at the Salton Sea. We used rubber boots to account for the mud rising up to our knees; however, in the end we realized that even boots aren’t enough. We used wooden planks for a surface area boost that day, but we are still in search of a better method to use for the future.

Actually collecting samples and later sorting through them allowed me to make observations on what the birds might be eating. We observed an abundance of water boatman bugs and not much else, but the results are up to the laboratory interpretations (which we have yet to receive and analyze). As for the water testing, we used a water sonde that interprets water data instantaneously to a connected phone via Bluetooth. For us to get the instrument out deep enough (the Sea is generally very shallow at the shore), we improvised using a pool cleaning stick to extend the instrument to where it needed to be. This functioned well, and we were able to quickly collect information on salinity, oxygen, pH, and other values. This data has yet to be analyzed, but I am excited to see how the macroinvertebrate dynamic and water quality will change as restoration efforts begin in the coming years.

Hunter: Overall, going to the Salton Sea to collect macroinvertebrates was an amazing and unique opportunity that really made me realize that this is the work that I want to do. While I’m  still pursuing my undergraduate degree, going to work in the field for the first time helped me to better understand the work environment I might encounter after graduation. Being organized and working as a team were the most important parts of the day. Having all of our collection equipment pre-labeled helped us be more efficient and take less time in the field so we could stay as cool as possible in the intense Imperial Valley summer heat. Once we got to each site we took a moment to observe where the birds that were present were feeding so we could gather samples at those locations to hopefully find what they were most likely eating. Building these observational skills was important to me on my first day in the field. I quickly learned that going with more than one person was central to navigating the natural hazards that surround the Sea. Not only was it extremely hot, the playa around the sea in many places has become quicksand and made collection that much more difficult. Although we were well equipped with knee high rubber boots they did not prevent us from sinking when collecting our samples. Once we navigated the quicksand with our rubber boots and wooden planks to help keep us above the surface testing the water and gathering our samples was very straightforward, thanks to Camila’s great organizational skills and knowledge of our water quality equipment. It was a hot, mud filled and very rewarding day.

How did you sort the samples you collected?

After collecting mud and water samples from each site, we had to sort through each one, hoping to find what the birds that visit the Salton Sea are eating.

Camila: Our day was split into two-- we spent the morning and early afternoon traveling to each site around the Sea to collect, and then the late afternoon to sort through our samples. I was responsible for organizing our sample containers beforehand, considering we had 60 samples to collect and sort. Luckily, we were able to sort through our buckets of raw mud under a shade structure with running water. Sorting was when I personally realized just how many water boatman bugs there are at the Sea, considering we didn’t see very many different creatures. We used tweezers and pipettes to place the bugs into sample tubes filled with alcohol to preserve them for later analysis. This experience was rewarding considering we are able to make a hypothesis on the current state of the food chain at the Sea.

Hunter: Sorting the samples we collected was one of the more simple parts of the day. Splitting the day into two parts where we collected the samples and sorted them after helped us stay cool. We were able to sort them under a large port where we had access to running water which allowed us to gently break up the mud we collected to look and sort for invertebrates.. I don’t have a background in biology or entomology but I found it interesting to see just how little diversity there was in the samples we were sorting. I hope that as we build new habitat and start to manage the sea that we have we will start to see more diversity. Using tweezers, pipettes, and other fine tools we were able to extract each invertebrate from our samples. I learned here that organization was a tremendous help. Again, Camila labeled our sample tubes in advance so we simply filled them with alcohol to preserve the samples- effectively streamlining the process.

Do you have any words of advice for other budding scientists?

Camila: My time with Audubon’s Salton Sea team began before COVID-19, giving me the chance to view the Sea from the perspective of public policy via meetings with the community and officials. I was focused on learning more about water policies and public health at the Sea considering that despite growing up here,  I didn’t realize the extent of environmental and health issues plaguing the Coachella and Imperial Valley.

After the pandemic struck, my shift in work changed because public meetings stopped for months and are only just starting to resume now. Therefore, giving me a chance to focus on the scientific data collection at the Sea, which I am more familiar with considering my bachelors degree in Biology. I realized yet again how much I love science and can see myself working as a field biologist someday. However, I found that it was extremely valuable to develop an understanding of the policies and public health that surrounds the Salton Sea to give me a well-rounded perspective. I realized that science at a place like the Sea cannot stand alone, and data must come back in terms of how it affects public health and environmental systems alike.

Some words of advice that I wish I heard in high school and my undergraduate studies would be to explore any and every interest you may have. Time always seems to be a restricting factor in terms of choosing your future career, but if possible, it shouldn’t be. After I graduated, I realized that while I do love science, I wanted to explore different career paths. I am working on this by taking internship opportunities, ideally those that are multidisciplinary (like this one with Audubon!). Take that extra class in college that interests you, even if it doesn’t count for credit in your major. It might change your life!

Hunter: My experience collecting data at the Salton Sea has been truly unique. Unlike Camila, I am not native to the Coachella Valley and before I moved to the area I never heard of the Salton Sea and never expected to be doing the work that I am right now. It has truly been eye-opening how so many social and environmental justice issues can quickly be swept under the rug and ignored just a few miles away. In Palm Springs, a city roughly 60 miles from the Salton Sea, no one is talking about the issues and how the surrounding communities are struggling. One of the things that I think has affected me the most is being able to see the Sea for myself. It isn’t this nasty swamp that people make it out to be; it is an area that is teeming with life that sees almost more than half of the total different North American avian species and on a clear day is one of the most beautiful sunrises or sunsets you will ever see. After COVID-19 began a few months into my internship I learned to be flexible and resourceful. I think this is important because it is something that I think can truly only be learned from experience and cannot be taught. The work I do at the sea is fieldwork, and being outside, we were restricted and not allowed to meet for months. Shifting focus helped me see my work from a different perspective and helped me learn to think outside the box in ways I never would have thought imaginable.

If I had to give any advice to budding scientists or people interested in STEM it would be to try new things and explore your interests. Along with trying to expand your horizons, learning to network is also very important. Don’t be afraid to “shoot your shot” and try to get yourself out there! Just because you don’t have a degree or are at a junior college does not mean there are not opportunities out there for you. Talk to your professors, join clubs, try to meet professionals in the field that you want to get in and you will be amazed at the opportunities that can open up to you.

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