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Student Blog: Valente Ayala

Valente Ayala is a second year MCRS student, who graduated from UCI with a B.S. in Biology and Chicano Studies. He now works as a park naturalist where he provides the public with interpretive knowledge of the Angeles National forest and its flora and fauna. His goals are to develop the knowledge, skills, and experience to work with a government agency doing field work or a nonprofit conducting impact reports.

During the first year of the masters in conservation and restoration sciences program, we as a cohort went out to the Sentenac Cienega in Anza Borrego, where we got hands-on experience with different techniques ubiquitous to this field of work. While I already had experience doing fieldwork from my two years of work following my undergrad and restoration in undergrad, many of the tools and techniques we used on that day were novel. Our overarching goal in going to the Sentenac Cienega and doing this work was to help understand why the hydrology of the Sentenac was/is changing.

On the day that we were expected to leave for the Cienega, I had my personal reservations on going out and spending two days doing data collection and site maintenance. One of my biggest fears was not being able to effectively manage my time between my assignments, work, and this trip. With enough methodical planning, I was able to achieve the best results in all of these aspects. Other reservations during this trip involved the fact that I would be with my cohort members for an extended period, and this was very daunting to me, as, at the time, we were still relatively newly acquainted with one another. This fear, however, I found to be unfounded as working out in the Cienega and sharing dinner with them really set the stage for all of us to get closer.

During our first day in the Cienega, we were introduced to some of the State Parks staff and then split into our different groups to work on different parts of the Cienega project. There were three (four if you count the weeding that we were all expected to do at the end) primary jobs that needed to be done at the Cienega. While I wanted to do all parts of the project so that I could get the experience, I only had the opportunity to do two parts of the project. Like many of my classmates, the first task I was assigned was taking data points from various transects throughout the Cienega. While we had learned what transects broadly are and how they are put together, this was the first time that I had ever participated in creating one and collecting data from them (1). This included using a dowel to identify which plant species we would count towards the overall percent of the transect. At the Cienega, we used a 5×5 meter transect. At each meter along the square, we took a “point” using our dowel, all so know as the “intercept.” This resulted in 25 unique points in each transect.

One of the things that we learned about the placement of the transects is that we needed them to represent the Cienega and the different alliances (i.e., we needed to represent the nonnative stands, the native lower wetlands, upper wetlands, and arroyo stands). Unfortunately, because this was fall and most of the annuals were dead, the Bassia (a nonnative weed) was particularly irritating for my allergies and my skin. I should note that the Bassia that was coming into this area was a secondary invader following tamarisk removal (2). Later in the day, we had the opportunity to switch our tasks. I worked with one of our professors to collect soil moisture data with a Hydrosense (3), a tool used to determine soil moisture content. Although very informative, this was not the highlight of data collection for me–I’m not much of a dirt guy.

I guess some questions folks have at this point in the story are, “why does this matter? Why does this matter to you? Why should I care about your work in the Cienega? Transects are cool, but I’m not a plant person, what would I have gotten from that trip?” All of these are great questions! And to these questions, I would say that the work we were doing was for the benefit of the wildlife in the Sentenac Cienega! One such animal is the Desert Bighorn Sheep, a large charismatic endangered species that is endemic to the area. Another endangered species that I was actively looking for while we were there was the Tricolored Black Bird. Sadly, because this bird is endangered, I was unable to find it, though we did see plenty of Killdeer and Red Winged Blackbirds (4). There is also the fact that one of the foundational techniques we used is critically important in sessile animal monitoring, the transect, (5). This trip showed me that just within this one small area, there are a lot of endangered species dependent on the water and vegetation that collects in the Cienega. If you’re someone who has had little fieldwork, this is a highly effective way of being exposed to a lot of different data collection techniques in this field of work. After we collected our data, it was time to head back to campus and begin our analysis.

Working collaboratively, we were able to tease out a few things from this trip to understand some of what was happening at the site. Our data analysis showed that the percent cover of Bassia was correlated to a lower soil water content in the Cienega. One of the main questions that we were trying to answer was, “what is causing the change in the water table in the Cienega?” Although we weren’t able to answer this question, we were still able to support the research of the Cienega, to get valuable field experience, and to bird while collecting the data.  If you’re considering the MCRS program at UCI as one of your master’s programs, you’ll have opportunities to put in-class restoration techniques into practice with field trips. You’ll also be working on projects that have real-world implications for partners, wildlife, and the ecology of an area.


1.Reisch, C. et al. (2018) A comparison of methods for estimating plant population size. Biodiversity and Conservation. [Online] 27 (8), 2021–2028.

2.Ostoja, S. et al. (2014) Short-Term Vegetation Response Following Mechanical Control of Saltcedar (Tamarix spp.) on the Virgin River, Nevada, USA. Invasive Plant Science and Management. [Online] 7 (2), 310–319. [online]. Available from: http://search.proquest.com/docview/1543048236/.

3. Larson, E. et al. (2012) Disaggregated water sensing from a single, pressure-based sensor: An extended analysis of HydroSense using staged experiments. Pervasive and Mobile Computing. [Online] 8 (1), 82–102.

4. Beedy, E. C. & Hamilton, W. J. (1997) Tricolored blackbird status update and management guidelines   / prepared for Nongame Migratory Bird Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and California Department of Fish and Game, Bird and Mammal Conservation Program ; prepared by Edward C. Beedy and William J. Hamilton. Sacramento, CA: California Dept. of Fish and Game, Bird and Mammal Conservation Program.

5. Skellam, J. G. (1958) The Mathematical Foundations Underlying the Use of Line Transects in Animal Ecology. Biometrics. [Online] 14 (3), 385–400.

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