Sweetwater Safari Backpack


BirdsIntroduction from Handbook

Handbook CoverWelcome to the San Diego National Wildlife Refuges which was established to protect, restore and enhance rare and endangered habitat, fish and wildlife and is the largest remaining salt marsh on San Diego Bay. Rare eel grass beds are nurseries for fish. Rare and endangered species such as the Light-footed Clapper Rail, California Least Tern, Western Snowy Plover and a state-listed bird, the Belding's Savannah Sparrow, all make their homes and raise their young here. Salt Marsh Bird's Beak, an endangered plant, grows at Sweetwater Marsh. Hundreds of thousands of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway twice each year use the Refuge as a place to rest and feed before continuing on their long journeys north to Alaska and down to South America. Sweetwater Marsh is home to over 270 species of birds, hundreds of thousands of invertebrates and fast-diminishing marsh plants which support much of the wildlife.

MammalsThis curriculum opportunity was created through a joint venture of the San Diego Zoological Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service San Diego Refuges and the Chula Vista Nature Center to provide an educational adventure for local students to learn about science and the local environment in a hands-on manner. The curriculum program was designed for fourth grade students and matches the state educational science standards for fourth grade.

The program includes step-by-step information on how to arrange for your field trip, pre-visit teaching lessons, on-site curriculum and equipment, and a post-visit curriculum to further the learning process. The on-site curriculum is taught by the teacher and chosen chaperones. The Chula Vista Nature Center will coordinate your visit and greet you upon your arrival. PlanktonThe Chula Vista Nature Center is not able, however, to provide on-site teaching or supervision of students. Please note that this unique field trip is only available to a teacher and his/her class once the teacher has attended a mandatory workshop, provided quarterly and free of charge at the Chula Vista Nature Center.

The Refuge's first priority is to conserve the wildlife and wildlife habitats of the San Diego National Wildlife Refuges. Therefore, this field trip opportunity is only open to one classroom of approximately 32 students per day. While ensuring that the reserve is not overly impacted, this also provides each visiting class the opportunity to enjoy this experience in a quiet natural setting. The refuge trails are flat, wide and wheelchair accessible. The hiking distance is about a mile maximum and would be considered an easy trail. Comfortable, sturdy shoes are recommended, however.

Before visiting, students should be divided into four research teams: Clapper Rail, Least Tern, Savannah Sparrow and Peregrine Falcon.

Each bird group will rotate among four 45-minute research stations: Plankton, Plants, Animals, and Birds.

During each station, students will learn about the living and nonliving components of the Refuge ecosystems and how these components interact. The field curriculum consists of an interactive activity designed to promote exploration and learning and a data collection worksheet to be completed and saved for the post-visit curriculum in the classroom. Each station is conducted in a different area of the refuge. See Refuge map for the location of each research area.

Pre-lessons were organized to prepare the students with necessary background knowledge to enhance their learning experience once on-site. A post-visit curriculum is provided to guide students as they review, organize and publish their field data. This real-life experience provides authentic assessment of gained science knowledge.

For further information about this unique educational experience, please contact the Chula Vista Nature Center at 619-409-5903.


PlantsThe San Diego National Wildlife Refuges has several distinct wildlife habitats.

The salt marsh is characterized by salt-tolerant vegetation such as Salt Marsh Rosemary, Alkali Heath, Pickleweed, Cordgrass, Arrowweed and Batis. All of these plants have developed strategies for dealing with the daily inundation by tides and the salinity of the water. The soil is always wet and permeated with burrows of fiddler crabs, clams and other burrowing creatures. On the surface you can see California Horn Snails and Channeled Basket Shells. Many large shorebirds like willets, curlews and godwits take advantage of the rising and falling tides to feed on these invertebrates. The endangered Clapper Rail constructs its floating nests in the cordgrass and the endangered Savannah Sparrow needs to nest in the pickleweed.

Tidal channels meander through the salt marsh bringing the life-giving salt water. In the channels live the long-jawed mudsuckers and yellow-finned gobies that make up the food of the Great Blue Heron and the white Snowy and Great Egrets. Round stingrays and halibut can be seen swimming in the channels and terns, Black Skimmers and Osprey can be seen hovering over them in search of fish.

Mudflats are exposed at low tides. They are riddled with the burrows of ghost shrimp, worms, clams and other invertebrates. Then thousands of shorebirds of all sizes can be seen intently probing into the mud for food. The birds have different leg and bill lengths and each species searches for different foods

The beach here is often covered with dead eelgrass and human items (such as trash, chemicals) that wash down from the watershed. At high tide it is used as a roost by the larger shorebirds. As the tide recedes, hundreds of tiny sandpipers scurry along the edge of the water looking for isopods and other morsels on the surface.

The Coastal Sage Scrub habitat of the uplands of Gunpowder Point has been degraded over the past century by human activities. When the Kumeyaay people were living here, they were able to utilize the plants and animals that lived here to make a decent life. With the coming of the kelp processing factory that employed 1500 people to make the components of gunpowder, the creation of two levees to impound water, the cottonseed oil storage facility and then the farming, most of the native mammals, birds, reptiles and plants disappeared. The Nature Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are now working together to restore the uplands.

Plants of the Coastal Sage Scrub community such as lemonadeberry, toyon, sagebrush, black, white and Cleveland sages and bush sunflower are among those being planted by volunteers. In time it is hoped the plants will mature enough to provide shelter and food for displaced native mammals, birds and reptiles such as the San Diego Coast Horned Lizard, Gray Foxes and California Gnatcatcher.

Contact Barbara Simon for more information.


Curriculum Development Team
Chula Vista Nature Center
Barbara Moore, Program Director
Tina Matthias, Program Assistant
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
San Diego National Wildlife Refuges
Barbara Simon, Information and Education Specialist
Brian Collins, Wildlife Biologist
Zoological Society of San Diego
Christine Andersen, Conservation Education Assistant
Lauren Pollock, Writing Consultant
Sheila Van Metre-Jones, Artist
Mary Zanotelli, Editor
Melissa Nyiri, Editor
Deborah Ogburn, Design Consultant
Field Testing
Kassie Williams and Fourth Grade Class, Chet Harritt School
Allison Wheeler, Bonsall Elementary School
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