Tuesday, October 26, 2021

What's Happening in Wisconsin?

A new bill has been proposed in the Wisconsin Statehouse: SB-620. It would expand hunting for a range of wildlife, including sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis).

I've seen sandhill cranes in Yellowstone National Park and Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming. Notice something in common between these locations? Federally protected land. The only other place I've seen these North American cranes is flying over the Rock River at sunset in Wisconsin.

whooping crane
Baraboo, Wisconsin, is home to the International Crane Foundation, an organization that began with two young biologists determined to save the whooping crane (Grus americana) from extinction. In 1950, there were only 34 individuals in the wild. The total whooping crane population in 2021 numbers just over 800. (There were more students in my high school graduating class.) 

The International Crane Foundation has become a leader in crane conservation around the world. They not only breed these magnificent birds, but the organization mitigates conflict between people and the fifteen species of cranes around the world.

black-necked crane
Now conflict has come to their front door. Wisconsin is one of the southern-most breeding areas for sandhill cranes. Some breed as far north as Alaska and Eastern Siberia, most breed in Canada. Seen across North America, sandhill cranes migrate south as far as Texas and Mexico in the winter. More about sandhill cranes. State Bill 620 would have people believe that shooting sandhill cranes is the only way to reduce their impact on some corn crops in Wisconsin. But there are other non-lethal options that ICF has implemented in other parts of the world. ICF's statement on SB-620

This bill isn't about cranes. It isn't about science or practical ways to resolve issues between farmers and wildlife. This is about a small group of people who want to force their privilege to do whatever they want despite the costs or consequences. It's about politics, not corn or cranes.

blue cranes

Cranes need a voice. We have developed their habitat, drained their wetlands. If farmers in third world countries can find ways to share the land with cranes, surely we can too. 

Cranes mate for life. They are lucky if they raise a chick to adulthood every third year. What can seem like a large population today can be quickly decimated. Support conservation that works. Raise your voice with the International Crane Foundation.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Protecting the Urban Forest

Anna's hummingbird
A week ago the ironwood tree across the street burst into bloom. It was one of the few ironwood and eucalyptus trees in the neighborhood that was doing well. Most have been severely impacted by CA's continuing drought.

The blooming tree was an oasis for migrating birds - Hutton's vireo, Anna's hummingbirds, yellow-rumped warblers, Townsend's warbler, a black-throated gray warbler, and ruby-crowned kinglets. All of these species were documented in a single morning last week. The resident Allen's hummingbirds were also imbibing of the flower nectar. This single tree was providing natural food and sanctuary.

This morning the ironwood and its neighboring red gum eucalyptus are savagely reduced to skeletons. The red gum has been poorly trimmed before. Because of it, its shortened limbs have been forced to send out new growth that is unstable and tends to break off in winds. To reduce the dropped limbs the home owner made the same mistake again, repeating a cycle of mismanaged trimming that will cause this tree to regrow fragile limbs and result in shortening its life. Each chopped off limb is now open to insect and fungal invaders. It is a cycle I have witnessed throughout my neighborhood for twenty-five years.

Twenty-five years ago our neighborhood was renowned for its tree-lined streets. We were typically cooler than other neighborhoods. Today 90% of our large trees are gone and Woodland Hills frequently records the hottest temperatures in the west San Fernando Valley.

In the remnant of a single blooming branch a small Hutton's vireo sat bewildered. (circled in green)

How do we stop deforesting our urban forest? How do we teach people the value of their trees and the shade they provide? What steps can we take to plant trees that both provide habitat for native wildlife and are compatible with urban needs?

Who speaks for the urban forest?

Friday, September 24, 2021

Water - A Vital Resource for Wild Birds

This morning we awoke to this...


... a swirl of ash on the water dish on the ground. A bird coming south from the fires in northern and central California, stopped for a bath or at least a drink.

Especially in the dry weather we are having water is a vital resource for wildlife. On an especially hot dry day, two weeks ago, we even had this great horned owl drop in for a drink.

great horned owl in ground water dish

For long-distance travelers, known stop overs are vital to successful migration. In the past week we've had a female western tanager and a male black-headed grosbeak. Two other migratory birds arrived here in the last 48 hours: a white-crowned sparrow and a male Townsend's warbler. The white-crowned sparrow stopped for food and water, but the warbler stopped to take a bath in our fountain this morning. The native plants may provide him with an insect snack, but we don't directly provide warblers with food. Water and shelter in native vegetation are the draw. 

CA towhee on raised birdbath

You can make a difference for long-distance traveling birds. 

A running fountain, a raised birdbath, or even a shallow dish of water on the ground. 

Different birds and animals have different preferences. Always make sure that the location is safe from domestic cats.

While I was writing this a Cooper's hawk came and drank from the dish. It may be one of the youngsters that spent hot summer days here in 2019. Sitting with their feet in the cool water helps birds cool down. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks prefer the raised bird bath. Rabbits and desert tortoises prefer the ground dishes.

Juvenile Cooper's hawks

Climate change challenges wildlife survival. Provide clean water and give back to the natural world. (Still water should be replaced every day or every other day.)

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Unexpected Wild Carrot - Native or Introduced?

Gardening with native plants can be a challenge. Natives don't always thrive in the site you assign them. For example, the sedge below is growing, but it isn't thriving. Right beside it, the coyote mint (Monardella villosa) pictured above is thriving. 

This toyon grew from seed on its own and is the most robust toyon in our garden.

I noticed the lacy-leaved plant, below, coming up last winter and I let it grow, because I wasn't quite sure what it was. It was sprouting from the dirt of a nursery raised native that had petered out.

It got bigger and bigger. I've tried to let go of the term"weed," sometimes native plants come and they grow where they're suited, not where we want them. It looked too pretty to be a weed, but what was it?

It reminded me of a plant I had seen in wild meadows, commonly called: Queen Anne's Lace

 As it started to bloom, the answer was clear: wild carrot (Daucus carota) also called Queen Anne's Lace.

With a little investigation, however, I discovered wild carrot is an introduced plant from Eurasia. It is indeed the ancestor of domestic carrots and most likely came with early European immigrants to North America. The USDA Plant Database map reveals that it is found throughout the North East to the Mississippi Valley, expanding into the South, and all along the West Coast of the U.S. Some sources site it as growing in all fifty states. In some states, according to the Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States, it is considered an aggressive invasive. Like the carrot in your refrigerator, it has a thick taproot, difficult to pull out.

Some states villainize it and make it illegal to transport or sell the seeds. At the same time researchers are investigating the possible health benefits of its volatile oil. Wild carrot has long been considered a medicinal herb with diuretic properties. 

Where did this lovely specimen in my yard come from? I have no idea. Most likely, birds transported the seed, which have tiny burs on their edges. Birds occasionally bring black nightshade into the yard. Or maybe it was in the soil that came with that nursery plant. 

Will I remove it? The biggest claim against it is that it takes hold in disturbed soils and out competes native plants or grasses grown for livestock. It can be mildly toxic to livestock, in other words: this plant has evolved to protect itself from grazing animals. Because of its deep root, it holds unstable ground, but after several years all sources say that it gives way to the natives. Controlled burning doesn't reduce it, because it grows back from the deeply established root. 

Right now it is beautiful and somewhat contained. I think I'll leave it. We'll pick the flowers and not let it go to seed.

Another surprise nonnative - lawn shrimp 

April was Native Plant Month

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Monarch Caterpillars!

What a surprise this morning, monarch caterpillars! And they are an inch and a half long.

We've been seeing an adult monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) a couple of times a week. The last few years we have been growing native narrow-leaved milkweed (Asclepias fascicularis) and the introduced tropical species (Asclepias curassavica) that is readily available at garden stores.

We've had little caterpillars in the past, but they seemed to get eaten by either a bird or a predatory insect. This is the first time that we have had caterpillars reach this size in years.

The group of monarch butterflies that live in California (west of the Rocky Mountains) do not migrate to Mexico with the main population from the southern Central and Eastern part of the U.S. This Pacific population overwinters along the coast in Southern California down into Baja. 

Loss of milkweed habitat has caused declines in this population. Most butterfly species lay eggs on a specific plant species and their caterpillars are dependent on that plant for food. Native milkweed can be a challenge to grow. I didn't realize that narrow-leaved milkweed dies back each winter. I thought I had killed it and took it out. Now I understand that it will grow back in the spring. Until my native milkweed is established, I supplement with the tropical species in a planter, to avoid it becoming invasive.

These hot days, with temperatures above 100 degrees are a challenge for plants and wildlife. I hope that our caterpillars make it to chrysalis. It would be great to contribute to a new generation of monarch butterflies.

Other caterpillars you might see in your CA yard

Backyard Butterfly Quiz

Mourning Cloak Butterfly

Monarchs and Jerusalem Crickets

Monday, April 19, 2021

April Is Native Plant Month!

Did you know that the U.S. Senate has found something to agree on: Native Plants!

On March 25th, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced a resolution declaring April as "National Native Plant Month." Amazingly, the Senate passed the declaration by unanimous consent. They all agreed!

Wherever you live, native plants are vital to your local wildlife. 

Flowering native plants provide the pollen and nectar vital to native insects. 


This mallow was one of the first native plants we grew successfully. It provides food for native insects, which in-turn provide food for the Bewick's wren and bushtits that regularly nest in our yard. 

A family of western fence lizards live in the protection of its branches and leaves.

The mallow also helps hold our hillside. We know it is in the right location because it has grown from a single plant to patch of plants.


This cultivar of California fuchia (Epilobium canum) feeds our Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds. I love the brilliant red flowers.

Ceanothus has long been some of our favorite native plants. Also known as California lilac, they bloom in a range of purple to white flowers. This new specimen is a 'Ray Hartman'. It will grow to the size of a small tree. We used it as a living Christmas tree in a pot this past December and now it is filling out nicely to become a screening plant between us and our neighbors. 

The purple to blue flowers feed a variety of bee species, including valley carpenter bees. It has grown six inches in the past four months. We are thinking of adding a second plant beside it.

The Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana) (in white and purple) are showstoppers in the spring and their ground cover provides a year-round home for a lovely alligator lizard, another insect eating native species.

Native plants are adapted for their location and native wildlife is adapted to interact with them. Planting native plants can change your yard from sterile landscaping to a wildlife refuge.

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Joys of Providing Wildlife Habitat

This morning some traveling friends stopped in for breakfast. Three migrating black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) were at the bird feeder. (A female is sitting on the right side of the tube feeder above.) They have spent the winter in Mexico or Central America and now they are headed north. They may nest somewhere near-by or they may migrate all the way up to British Columbia, Canada.

It's rewarding to know that they can find our oasis of habitat in the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. For more than ten years, black-headed grosbeaks have been stopping here for food and water as they pass through in April and then again in late July or August as they head south. I know this because I keep track in a bird journal.

Especially when the California hillsides are dryer than they should be, our yard provides food, water, and shelter for these migrants to stop and rest for a few days. 

The birds who live here year round are nesting. The native plants are providing nectar for at least four nesting Allen's hummingbirds. 

These Allen's hummingbird chicks hatched on April 10th. (The nest wasn't finished when the first egg was laid.) If you look closely you can see the bits of eggshell inside the nest cup just to the left and above the naked chick.

Two full days old and the chicks still have closed eyes, but they raise their little beaks to be fed whenever a shadow falls across the nest. (See the tiny beak raised for food.) This nest is on our patio. 

Another female nesting in a native hollyleaf cherry shrub in the front yard urged her fully feather chicks to fly on April 10th. (She has been successfully nesting in our yard for several years.)

So far in 2021 we've had four Allen's hummingbird nesting attempts. Two were successful - one with one chick and the other with two chicks.

Creating wildlife habitat is vital for migrating and nesting birds. Too much of their native habitat has been developed and changed. We have watched our yard transform from a sterile suburban yard to a small wildlife reserve. Birds in California face a huge loss of habitat due to development and climate change. You can make a difference with native plants and water.