Berkeley’s newest field site, Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, gets a facelift

By Robert Sanders

On the first weekend of spring, UC Berkeley’s newest research station, the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, threw an open house to show off its new facilities, nestled amid rolling green, flower-studded hills east of San Jose.

Todd Dawson, faculty manager of the Blue Oak Ranch Reserve, explains how the upgraded research and educational facilities will expand research use of the field station. Videos by Roxanne Makasdjian and Stephen McNally.

The pristine reserve, operated by the campus for UC’s Natural Reserve System, has become a field research site for biologists interested in California’s oak woodlands, and comes complete with an embedded wireless sensing network that rivals many urban networks. Each of the nodes spread over the 3,280-acre reserve measures temperature, rain, sunshine, soil moisture and more, sending it back to the campus to be processed and analyzed.

“We can actually sense much more broadly the variation in those environmental conditions over the landscape than if we stuck a single weather station out there,” said Todd Dawson, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology and the reserve’s faculty manager.

Donated to the campus in 2007, the reserve came with buildings that were a bit run-down and uncomfortable for the many students and scientists conducting research there. Over the past eight years, that included several thousand students and numerous UC faculty members, many of whom shivered on cold nights in unheated tents. So the campus found the money – nearly $5 million from the State Wildlife Conservation Board provided through state Proposition 84 – to renovate a barn into a classroom and meeting space, replete with kitchen and bathrooms, and build warm dormitories as well as tent spaces and screened cabins for use during the warm summers.

What happens when rattlesnakes stalk ground squirrels? UC Davis grad student Bree Putman chose Blue Oak Ranch Reserve to find out.

Bree Putman, a graduate student at UC Davis and San Diego State University, chose to do her research on how rattlesnakes and ground squirrels interact at Blue Oak specifically because of its wireless network. Video cameras capture images of snakes stalking squirrels and the network feeds it live to her and her team at the reserve or a remote campus.

“It’s really like cutting-edge behavioral research of animals,” she said.

The March 19 open house, hosted by reserve director Mike Hamilton, attracted about 170 people from various UC and Cal State campuses, eager to find out how the reserve can further their research or just to enjoy the music, food and camaraderie.

“I really see the research activities and educational activities just getting a real surge of new users and new people to visit the reserve,” Dawson said.