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Merced River group leaves lasting legacy

The Merced River Alliance’s final get-together was for the birds — and the bugs, and the fish.

The group’s sayonara revealed in stunning detail the rich variety of wildlife dependent on the local river. And the alliance will leave a valuable legacy for researchers and amateurs alike to study.

A recent dinner bid goodbye to a three-year project to build connections between the upper and lower parts of the Merced River, and get children out into nature for hands-on education about the watershed.

But the largest focus of the Merced River Alliance project — made possible by a 38-month-long grant from the state — was to examine birds, fish and aquatic bugs that live around the river.

The life patterns of these creatures are a telling sign of the river’s health, said Maia Singer, a scientist and project manager for Stillwater Sciences, which helped conduct the study.The work is meant to create a base of information researchers can use in the future. It’s about halfway done and should wrap up with a draft report for public comment in May. The final report is due in August.

The study will be finished near the official end date of the entire Merced River Alliance project — Sept. 30, said Nancy McConnell, project director. Those involved with the past three years would like to keep the river partnerships and nature education going, but will have to find another means to do it, she added.

Participants said farewell with presentations, slideshows, a song and reports from five Snelling-Merced Falls Elementary students about what they learned from the program.And Singer gave an update about the biological study of the river’s creatures. “It’s a valid indicator of how the river is doing,” she said. “Is what the fish doing similar to what the bugs are telling us?”

Each of the three species has been studied since 2005 at about 40 different sites along 131 miles of the Merced River.

Results are separated by season and between the upper altitudes and lower parts of the river.

“We’re including data sets beyond the Chinook,” Singer said of the fish study. This type of salmon has recently received much attention because of its declining population. “They are important, but there are other species. We’re looking at where the fish are spending most of their time.”

Some 30 species of fish were found during 2006-2007 in the lower Merced River, such as the hardhead catfish, California roach, bass and mosquito fish, she said: “What do we see in the fish community? Well, there’s certainly diversity.”

The summer of 2007 saw more mosquito fish, and the warmer, low-water fall season last year saw the population of sucker fish drop. However, there were more hardhead and pikeminnow.

Eleven species were identified in the upper part of the Merced River. Trout, bass and Sacramento pikeminnow were found in fall 2006, while the dry fall 2007 saw fewer trout — but more bass — than the good-water year before it.“It gives you an interesting picture,” Singer said. “What are the effects of flow/season on habitat?”

The bug surveys so far have collected 385 samples — identifying 192,500 insects and 70 families. The most common aquatic bugs were mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies. Scientists look at which species are more tolerant to poor water quality, Singer said.Back in October she explained to Snelling students at Henderson Park the importance of aquatic insects to the river.

Her photographic display chronicled where scientists find these bugs and collect them before they’re identified and sent to a lab for further study.

And in September bird watchers in the upper part of the Merced River, near El Portal, got to see how the bird surveys are being conducted.

The demonstration was led by Julian Wood, staff biologist for Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science, which is helping Stillwater and the Merced River Alliance with the bird part of the study.Singer presented this week what the bird surveys have discovered so far. There were 127 species found in the upper and lower river watersheds combined — 64 in the upper, and 80 in the lower (some species repeated in both locations).

Biologists picked 15 species to focus on. In riparian streamside habitat, which hosts dense shrub cover, willows and cottonwood trees, they will further examine the black-headed grosbeak, song sparrow, tree swallow and warbling vireo. In oak habitat they will look at the Nuttall’s woodpecker, oak titmouse and Western scrub-jay.

And in upland habitat where conifers grow, they will take a closer glance at the brown creeper and Oregon junco.

The results of these examinations will be posted online when the study is completed, Singer said. And it will be available to future scientists and river stakeholders for many seasons to come.

Reporter Dhyana Levey can be reached at (209) 385-2472 or dlevey@mercedsun-star.com

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