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Keep your connection to nature in your own backyard at these virtual events

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In these uncertain times, nature remains a rare place we can turn to for respite (safely, with social distancing), usually within reach of where we live. Research shows nature helps build resilience in times of crisis and provides solace, especially when we’re isolated from one another.

To offer a connection to nature while we’re stuck at home, a team of local scientists and educators at Sonoma State University’s Center for Environmental Inquiry has created a series of online events focused on getting us outdoors to explore, even if it’s just in our backyards.

“We want to give people experiences that let them feel that human nature and nature are connected,” said Kerry Wininger, the center’s enthusiastic educational outreach lead.

The center’s 450-acre Fairfield Osborn Preserve sits atop Sonoma Mountain, where acorn woodpeckers swoop among coast live oaks.

Normally, visitors can take guided hikes there during the center’s Dig into Nature public education programs, begun in 2017 to reach a broad audience and promote equal access to nature.

This spring’s events were originally scheduled to be held on-site.

But with the coronavirus threatening public health, the center closed the preserve to visitors and brainstormed to create the series of online events that use Zoom and other tools.

“Anything and everything we can do to help on this shelter-in-place journey,” Wininger said.

Miwok, Wappo land

Historically, Coast Miwok, Wappo and Pomo Indians hunted and gathered on the land now covered by the preserve.

The land was variously part of a Spanish land grant, then homesteads, then a sheep and cattle ranch.

In the 1950s Joan and William Matson Roth bought the land, eventually donating 450 acres through the Nature Conservancy and Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to what is now Fairfield Osborn Preserve, in honor of Joan’s father, environmentalist Fairfield Osborn.

Its diverse landscapes, from chaparral to grassland, host wildlife such as red-crested pileated woodpeckers and red-tailed hawks, puma and gray fox.

Pale grey lichen, fungi, miner’s lettuce and wildflowers are scattered about the oak woodlands.

California slender salamanders, threatened red-legged frogs (California’s state amphibian) and banana slugs frequent perennial Copeland Creek, draining into the Laguna de Santa Rosa.

But with the center closed for now, visitors will have to wait for a chance to spot such wildlife, in person at least.

As COVID-19 rapidly advanced, the center’s team pivoted to make hourlong virtual events showcasing creative ways to connect with nature in our own backyards.

Events include live presentations and local nature exploration, lectures from experts, virtual preserve visits and citizen science data gathering from home.

At the first event on April 10 — Citizen Science Intro and iNaturalist — biologist Julie Wittmann of the center gave an overview of citizen science as a powerful tool to aid scientific research.

Volunteers can collect abundant data and photograph plants and animals, she said.

“Anyone can help by contributing photos to iNaturalist” and Fairfield Osborn Preserve’s project database, she said.

Attendees learned about the biodiversity app, how to photograph their own “slices of nature” and how to upload observations of animals, plants and other natural organisms seen in daily life.

Share observations

Sheltering in place, attendees observed and shared the discoveries they made in their gardens, on plants growing in sidewalk cracks, even indoors.

The virtual events are free, but registration is required and there are limits on the number of attendees.

You’ll receive instructions and Zoom meeting details once you register. Go to cei.sonoma.edu/calendar to see the full calendar of events and for more information on each.

Here are some of the upcoming virtual events. You can find the complete list online.

April 23 — Benefits of the Outdoors: Center Education Manager Suzanne DeCoursey will talk about how nature affects us as individuals and review literature on how experiencing nature can improve our learning and provide us with mental and physical health benefits.

She’ll cover how our local natural environment, including our backyards, can help us feel calm and refreshed.

April 24 — Dragonflies: Learn about the strange and fascinating lives of dragonflies with naturalist Kevin Munroe.

He’ll talk about dragonflies’ bizarre behavior and impressive adaptations and tell viewers how to identify and attract them.

May 7 — DIY wildlife shelters: This will be a fun event if you have naturalists-in-training at home who would enjoy a project.

Munroe will talk about how to make sanctuaries for salamanders, butterflies, lizards and songbirds in the backyard.

There will be several DIY projects, including how to create salamander and lizard refugia, nesting for native bees and a quick-and-dirty bird feeder, all with materials you have at home.

May 11 — Listen for birdsong: This event is recommended for people ages 15 and older. The center’s Chris Halle will talk about how understanding sound waves can help us observe birds.

With less traffic on the streets during the pandemic, it’s a perfect time to listen for birds in your backyard.

May 15 — Aqua bugs and water quality: biologist and SSU lecturer Wendy St. John will discuss aquatic insects and other invertebrates that can indicate water quality.

Learn about what’s found in our lakes and streams and how to identify them with the Aqua Bugs app.

May 16 — Backyard wildlife cameras: Ben Bravo, the center’s preserve resources manager, will talk about how this widely used tool allows scientists to monitor wildlife and landscape changes.

Participants will learn about wildlife cameras at the Fairfield Osborn Preserve and even how to set up cameras in their backyards to discover wildlife.

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