The woodland docents of PWKD

Eyes on the trees view changes ahead

Solano County is fortunate that the community acted to protect an oak woodland with the size and variety found at Patwino Worrtla Kodoi Dihi Open Space Park. Hike in, sit in the shade, and you feel worlds away from the interstates and big cities nearby.

But the docents who walk the woodlands here know this park is hardly safe from the pressures of the present. When you work among three-hundred-year-old oak trees, news isn’t always pleasant. During historic periods of drought, bad news comes more often.

“We lost Annie’s tree, Woody’s tree,” docent Cathy Christo says, taking stock as she walks the All People’s Trail. “Three-hundred-year-old trees have gone down.”

Cathy made these trees’ acquaintance collecting data for the National Phenology Network. Phenology studies how organisms change throughout the seasons. Year to year studies of when acorns form and when they drop can offer valuable perspective on changes in climate.

And it happened to be the first day of Autumn when Cathy and her husband Richard joined nine other park docents for a coffee break. It was an occasion to thank the group, gift them hats and water bottles, tour the recent construction, and check in on the land.

Since 2012, this stalwart crew of woodland docents have been pursing projects that increase our understanding of the plants, animals, and geology of this 1,500-acre space. When this park opens to the public, the docents will have served a key role in making this park a place where people find inspiration and knowledge at every turn.

The docents have maintained bird boxes for Western bluebirds, removed invasive thistles, and compiled data about the park’s blue oaks, live oaks, and buckeyes. On the weekend hikes they lead, they awaken others to the wonders of the park—and describe the challenges even protected woodlands face.
Already the blue oaks of the park have shed most of their leaves. Blues shed early, but their bareness is striking.

“These trees are stressed,” says Steven Chun. A fallen oak rests on a hillside behind him, its branches surprisingly full of unshed crisp leaves.

“It’s not necessarily from the wind,” Cathy says. “In March, something looks good and then it will crack.”

Massive boughs require a strong, healthy trunk to support them. When the crotch of a tree—the area where the trunk splits into two large branches—splits, the cavity softens, decays, and admits animals who damage it further.

At the end of the day, when dry trees become brittle ones, geometry and gravity do the rest.

Project Manager Jasmine Westbrook-Barsukov and her department have been considering a mitigation plan to plant acorns from oak trees selected from hotter and drier climates—a form of assisted migration.

“The blue oaks are the most ‘delicate flowers’ of the oak tree world,” says Jasmine. “I don’t think they like 115-degree days.” She notes a few acorns relocated to the park have become healthy seedlings.

Throughout the early phases of the pandemic, the docents’ trips to the property kept some routine and variety. Even when life slowed down, things stayed lively here, and two trail cameras kept on the property collected the proof.

Docent John McVicar emailed us images of bobcats, skunks, golden eagles, Great horned owls, and a mountain lion (spotted 2019) that show the land supporting the wildlife it should.

Even when the eagles aren’t flying, there is always much to marvel at: atop the trail, Steven Chun traces out the Green Valley fault line that runs through the park and marks the easternmost slipstream of the San Andreas. The fault gives what Steven says PWKD offers in abundance: “A catalyst for the curious.”

That is what he hopes for: a park that lends itself naturally to learning, with informative signs, QR codes, and enough facts for people to continue learning at home, whether about the native Patwin inhabitants, the geology, or the rare Harmonia Nutans growing on Harmonia Hill

You’ve protected more than a park. You’ve protected a biodiverse space where hikers can become naturalists—and where naturalists can become docents.

The woodland docents are ready to grow to their group. “We’re not getting any younger,” Cathy says.

But you could forgive fellow docent Edwin Osada for feeling differently.

For Edwin, being here really is like being a kid again: he grew up wandering the area when it was open grazeland. He remembers riding pallet-rafts with neighboring kids across the pond at neighboring Rockville Hills Regional Park.

Edwin drives in from Concord. He is excited that this will be an artery of the Bay Area Ridge Trail, contiguous with the trails near his home.

The sense of adventure and connection to nature Edwin developed in his youth has never left him.

By conserving places like this, your community protects land where these qualities can blossom.

From left to right: Sam Adams, Bob Panzer, Steven Chun, Diana Panzer, Michelle Dickey, Carole Paterson, Laura Livadas, Miranda Sanborn, Carole Levin, Craig Paterson, Christine Kenaston, Cathy Christo, Rosa Landeros, Richard Christo, Edwin Osada, John McVicar, Kathleen Catton

Photography by Tom Muehleisen and Sam Adams

Would you like a volunteer role monitoring the plants and animals of a beautiful open space?

Do you want to help others develop their appreciation for and connection to the outdoors?

Join our docent training on Saturday 10/29/22 from 9:00 to 12:00 at our Vacaville Office!