Starr Ranch Field Ecology Programs

Field ecology is a branch of biology that focuses on the outdoor study of the relationships among animals, plants, and their environment

Ecology Programs

Our 1 – 2 hour Ecology Programs focus on a wide range of animal and habitat topics and offer groups of all ages an opportunity to experience nature hands-on as wildlife biologists.

Starr Ranch Field Ecology Programs are an innovative approach to environmental education, created in 2000 by Research & Education Director, Dr. Sandy DeSimone. Our programs connect people with nature through participation in ecological research at Audubon California’s 4000 acre Starr Ranch Sanctuary in southeast Orange County. Ecology Programs are 1 – 2 hour sessions that offer an opportunity for groups of all ages to experience what it’s like to be a wildlife biologist. Most programs, described below, are offered in three different versions: light, research and advanced research. In light versions, groups have fun with techniques biologists use for studying wildlife. In research versions, we take groups through simulations of actual research using the scientific method. We begin inside posing a study question, then go outside to gather data on animals and habitats, and end with a discussion of results. Advanced research versions introduce the relationship of study questions to ecological theory. Staff are all biologists with graduate degrees. Numbers for all programs are kept small (15 – 20) for safety and program quality. Minimum total group size is six, maximum 175. Larger groups usually choose 2 – 3 ecology programs then break into smaller groups that go through each program together. We offer very flexible scheduling and build outdoor experiences to meet group needs during the day, evening, or overnight. Our aim is to instill a love of nature, so we try to create exciting programs that reach all individuals and types of groups. Following are our current Ecology Programs:


Songbird Monitoring: Catch and Release
The program begins with an introduction to songbird monitoring, its importance for conservation, and the Ranch’s most common bird species. Participants then join biologists outside to see and identify wild birds up close, take data on age and sex, and aid in release.

Western Screech-Owl Survey
How many Screech-Owls live in Starr Ranch’s Bell Canyon? Learn how biologists answer this question while participating in a survey using a “call playback” method. Groups do their survey at night while riding on benches in the back of our flat-bed truck and usually hear and see owls.

Hawk Research Program
In this simulation of hawk research, participants first learn how to identify, by sight and sound, the common hawks of Starr Ranch. Outside, they have a “hands-on” experience with the radio telemetry and GPS equipment that raptor biologists use to track hawks and map their nests.

Predators and their Prey: Owl Diet
Their strong feet and grasping talons are just two features that make owls some of the most formidable predators in the bird world. To investigate the diet of Starr Ranch owls, participants search for pellets then examine contents under a microscope. There is also a close-up visit with a live Great Horned Owl.


Cougars, Bobcats, and Coyotes
Experience how wildlife biologists study large mammals in southern California. All versions utilize actual scent-baited stations (scent stations) placed in the wild and provide participants with the skills to identify signs such as tracks and scat left by large mammals when they visit the scent stations. During our research versions, groups have the opportunity to use these skills to investigate a research question that asks if different large mammals are found in habitats near the houses bordering Starr Ranch versus habitats that are farther into the Ranch.

Evening Wildlife Survey
This nighttime program introduces groups to how biologists study nocturnal wildlife. Participants explore Bell Canyon from benches in the back of a flat-bed truck making stops to call for owls and coyotes and, in the winter and early spring, listen for chorusing frogs in nearby Bell Creek. Other wildlife is frequently seen, and it is not uncommon to observe Common Poorwills, small mammals, and tarantulas on or around the canyon bottom. Upon returning from the ride, we use a black light to survey for nocturnal insects and other invertebrates.

Insect Research
Use the scientific method to investigate whether different types of insects and other invertebrates are found in different parts of a grassland habitat at Starr Ranch. Groups employ multiple techniques to make comparisons of samples collected from the ground and from grassland vegetation. Participants are provided with the skills for basic identification and have the opportunity to examine their catch using magnification boxes and microscopes. All insects are treated with care and respect then released back to areas where they were collected.

Nature Magnified
Participants use microscopes to examine the usually hidden world of plants and insects and are introduced to how these tools assist biologists during research. Before venturing into the field, groups have the opportunity to learn some of the more common plants and insects of Starr Ranch as well as their basic anatomy. While outside, participants collect plant samples and use multiple techniques to gather insects from different habitats for viewing under microscopes.

Reptiles and Amphibians
Learn how biologists monitor changes in the diversity, distribution, and abundance of the reptiles and amphibians (herps) of southern California. Groups spend a short time indoors learning about trapping techniques and the common species of Starr Ranch before heading outdoors to check actual reptile and amphibian traps. In the research version, we detect changes in herp communities across different habitats by examining trapping arrays in coastal sage scrub and oak woodland.


Stream Biosurvey
Investigate and answer questions about the aquatic environment and some of the organisms that live under and on the surface of the water. Our light program introduces groups to the concept that streams are a mosaic of habitats (riffle and pool). In this version, participants use dip nets and underwater viewers to explore and make observations about the insects and other invertebrates living in these habitats. During our research version, we use the scientific method to make a more in-depth investigation of different creek habitats. The advanced research version introduces the concept that aquatic invertebrates can be used as indicators of stream water quality. Participants use standardized procedures to collect invertebrates from a pristine stream for use in comparison with data previously collected from a polluted portion of the same stream. By sorting and grouping organisms according to their pollution tolerance, we often see clear distinctions between the pristine and polluted sites.

Stream Water Chemistry
In a program that complements our Stream Biosurvey (above), groups examine how urban runoff affects the chemistry of streams at Starr Ranch and how biologists measure such effects. We collect water samples from a pristine section of stream for comparison with water samples collected by staff biologists from a section of the same stream impacted by urban runoff. Water quality testing kits and detection equipment are used to measure specific chemical variables from each sample. Results are ultimately compiled and discussed with emphasis on how they may affect the biological communities of each stream section.

Stream Water Quality
Combines both Stream Biosurvey and Water Chemistry in a half day program that introduces groups to the standardized protocols used to monitor stream water quality nationwide.

We also offer educational and research opportunities through our other program areas: Starr Ranch Junior Biologists, Ranch Research, Family Nature Workshops, and Starr Ranch Bird Observatory. For more information on programs and how to schedule your group call Sandy at 949-858-0309 or see “Starr Ranch Field Ecology Programs” brochure and other links on the homepage.