Two men look up into the branches of a spreading coastal live oak
OLD-GROWTH FOREST: TNC ecologist Larry Serpa, left, surveys a stand of coast live oaks with Dangermond preserve Director Michael Bell. The preserve contains 6,000 acres of oak woodlands. © Bill Marr/TNC

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Life in the Coastal Oak Woodlands

An abundance of life occupies the nooks and crannies of coastal live oaks on the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.

Winter 2018

Brendan Borrell is a correspondent with Outside magazine based in Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic and many other publications.

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This is a companion article to The Crown of the Coast, about the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve.

With one hand, Larry Serpa holds a small wooden frame, draped with a white tarp, under the branch of a coast live oak tree. Using the other hand, he strikes the branch with a stick, making leaves and twigs fall into the tarp. Then Serpa, an ecologist who has worked at TNC for 42 years, points out spiders and weevils that he caught. “You either love the little stuff, or you’re missing most of the universe,” Serpa says as photographer David Liittschwager herds the catch, which will be photographed, into little clear jars.

The Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve protects approximately 6,000 acres of coast live oak woodlands, one of California’s most iconic and threatened ecosystems. Oak woodlands once covered an estimated 10 million to 12 million acres of California, but have been reduced to about 7 million to make room for farms, ranches and housing.

With their twisting branches and trunk hollows, these oaks provide all kinds of nooks for wildlife to build their homes. The understory allows plants like hummingbird sage to thrive, offering its pink blossoms to abundant nectar feeders. And a single oak tree can produce thousands of calorie-rich acorns, which support animals ranging from beetles to black bears. “Oak woodlands are our most biodiverse forests in terms of insect and vertebrate diversity,” says Mark Reynolds, lead scientist at the preserve. Out of California’s 632 species of amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, more than 300 of them depend on oaks.

The Conservancy is growing oak seedlings in a nursery for restoration efforts and will be collecting acorns in the coming year to enrich the forests on the preserve.

Photos below by David Liittschwager

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Brendan Borrell is a correspondent with Outside magazine based in Los Angeles. His writing has also appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic and many other publications.