Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Ceanothus - California's Native Version of Lilac

Ceanothus, commonly called wild lilac, is a chaparral plant that takes the form of a shrub. The clumps of small flowers arranged on the tips of its branches create inflorescences similar to lilacs, but that's where the similarity ends. True lilacs are deciduous and thirsty, while ceanothus are evergreen and drought tolerant.

Ceanothus can also take a variety of shapes: ground-hugging prostrate subspecies, like the popular 'Carmel Creeper', or  shrubs like 'Yankee Point'. Their blooms can range from white (like the 'Snow Flurry' pictured above) to a deep blue-purple ('Julia Phelps').

The ceanothus hybrid 'Ray Hartman' can be shaped into a small tree and this one spent a December indoors in a pot as our decorated holiday tree before it was planted in the yard. In three years, it has nearly tripled in size and is helping provide a natural screen between yards. A prolific bloomer, it attracts a range of bees and butterflies and as it branches out it's creating more shelter for birds.

 The 'Ray Hartman' has become one of my favorite ceanothus and a dependable spring bloomer.

Friday, March 08, 2024

Early Spring Flowers in Southern California


Throughout the yard, winter rains are promoting early California flowers. The Mexican redbud (Cercis canadensis var. mexicana) showcases lush magenta blooms on naked branches.


Inflorescences of tiny bright blue flowers tip the spreading arms of the 'Ray Hartman' ceanothus.

These are the shapes and colors of the kinds of flowers we typically find beautiful, but they aren't the only flowers. 

The California coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) unveils clouds of rusty-brown star-shaped flowers. They aren't the flowers of bouquets, but they will attract pollinators and hopefully produce fruit for birds and other wildlife. If you look closely you'll see specks of pollen spilled across the coffeeberry's leaves. 

This large mushroom is a fungi flower–the fruiting body of an underground web of life. 


Identifying mushrooms is challenging, but I think this is a giant leucopax (Leucopaxillus giganteus).

Since the beginning of the rainy season, we've had just under 28 inches of rain. Generally, in the Los Angeles area we hope for 12–18 inches over the course of a year. The abundant moisture has promoted the growth of pincushion moss (Leucobryum glaucum). Our north-facing garden walls look more like England than dry Southern California.

Mosses reproduce via spores rather than seeds. The fringe of tiny stems rising up from the moss are the sporangium, the pods holding the spores. They aren't your typical flowers, but these too will bring new growth.   

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A Fresh Bumblebee

An unexpected creature sat warming itself in the sun on the patio this morning: a yellow-faced bumble bee (Bombus vosnesenskii)


Its long yellow "hairs" and textured black body appeared fresh and new, as if it had just emerged into adulthood. No pollen clung to its body. Every wing and limb shone iridescent black in the sunlight. Where did it come from? 

Bumble bees typically nest in a cavity in the ground. Waxy cells, each packed with food resources, house the eggs and then developing larva. Once, 14 years ago western bumble bees nested in a birdhouse.

Where did this yellow-faced bumble bee emerge from? This area of the patio is edged with a concrete brick wall along one side and the house on the other. The cold bee was not able to fly; it would've had to walk a distance of 10 or more feet to find this dappled place in the sun.

The large bumble bee sat basking for a good 10 minutes before its body was warmed up enough to fly. Then off it went.

Identifiable by its fuzzy yellow head and a black abdomen with a narrow yellow band on the fourth section (nearly the tip), the yellow-faced bumble bee is a valuable pollinator. Like all bumble bees, however, they struggle to find suitable habitat. The mother of this bumble bee must have appreciated the native plants and undisturbed areas of soil that could provide for her offspring.

On this cool February morning, it seems early for bumble bees to be leaving the safety of their nests. Yet, the morning also brings the spring's first western swallowtail, fiery skipper, and California sister butterflies down into the yard. I wish the bumble bee well and hope we will see it among the sage and coffeeberry. 

Thursday, December 01, 2022

What's That Duck?


One nice thing about a spotting scope: it isolates your focus down to one or a couple of individual birds. If it's on a tripod, you can hold a birding book in one hand, while you look for distinguishing characteristics.

At a glance, what stands out:

  • orange yellow legs
  • black beak (on the one that is visible)
  • dark eye
  • a fairly large rounded head that is a bit squared at the back
  • a black rump on the two brighter individuals
  • two sets of a bright individual and a drab individual, so possibly two pairs
  • a white patch on the secondary wing feathers–near where the wing is close to the body; both the possible males and females have this white wing patch
  • and if the two brighter ducks are drakes (males), they are not flashy and colorful like mallards

It doesn't seem like a lot, but it is. Additional important info is the location and the time of year.

Malibu Lagoon on the Southern California coast in February.

A quick paging through ducks in my Sibley Guide to Birds finds just a few typical western ducks with bright yellow orange legs:

  • mallard: But the beak is yellow. Males have black at the tail area, but with white tail feathering, and of course males have distinctively dark green or blue iridescent feathering on the head. In addition, they have a white line above and below iridescent blue feathers on the secondary wing feathers. There is no blue visible here.
  • gadwall: Black rump and white wing patch. Male has black beak in breeding coloring. But the book notes "puffy head" on the breeding male and darker gray chest feathering. Hmm.
  • northern shoveler: Male has a black beak in breeding colors, but both the male and female have large wide beaks–hence the name "shoveler." The beak is longer than the length of the duck's head. In his breeding colors the male is high contrast with a black iridescent-green head, yellow eye, white chest, back and reddish brown flanks. No white wing patch, but there is a thin "bar" of white.

While everything isn't perfect, it's pretty clear that the ducks we're looking at are two pairs of gadwalls. The males have yet to completely don their breeding plumage, but they aren't mallards or shovelers.

Don't be afraid to try and identify the birds you see. Note the visual or behavioral characteristics that stand out. Those bright yellow-orange legs or a white wing patch can be the key to ruling out other species. 

Other Bird Identifications:

Raven or Crow

Juvenile hawks

A California Towhee and Its Call

What kind of Junco

Bright Red-Orange Bird in Los Angeles

What's that Bird on the Ground

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Raven or Crow?

A black bird lands on your backyard fountain. Is it a raven or a crow?

courtesy of K. Meyer

There are a couple of physical traits I look for to help me make the identification:

Size - Is the sitting bird generally the size of an 8"x11" piece of paper from its feet to the top of its head? Or is it smaller? Ravens are big birds. Crows are medium-sized birds. But size can be tricky without something to use for comparison. 

Wing to Tail - When perched, a raven's folded long wings will reach nearly to the tip of its tail. A crow's wings are shorter, proportionately, so the tail appears longer. In the photo above, the bird's wing tips almost reach to the tail. Hmm

Beak - Both crows and raven have feathering onto the upper edge of their beak. The beak of a raven however is large and thick. Its also longer than the head. A crow's beak is long, but not longer than the depth of the head.

Throat - Ravens have shaggy looking feathers under their throats. They can fluff up their throat feathers. They also can hold those feather smooth to the body. The raven, pictured at right, has its throat feathering fluffed up while calling to a mate.

Stance - When sitting, a raven's tail and wings tend to stick down well below their perching feet. Notice in the raven to the right, that the tail is hanging long below the branch. A crow's tail is less long. When sitting, the crow's tail is not far below the feet. See crow below.

Crows also have a greater tendency to flick their tail and wings while sitting. (Notice how the crow's beak is as long as the head is wide.)

So the question remains. Is the bird on the fountain a raven or a crow? It's a raven.

There are differences when these birds are in the air, too. More on that later.

To really get an understanding of the size, see a blue bird on the same fountain.

More on crow behavior

More on raven behavior


Tuesday, January 25, 2022

New Birds in Your Yard?

I don't know why, but today new birds were showing up in my yard and in the yard of friends. In both cases the newcomers were at water features.

This lovely photo taken by our friend Kathy shows the two western bluebirds (Stalia mexicana) drinking from her fountain. The male is at the top and the female is in the top tier of the fountain. (I love the house finch that is down at the right looking up at the new visitors. You can really see that the bluebirds are bigger than the house finch (Haemorhous mexicanius).

Bluebirds are cavity nesters. They would like to move into a nest in a tree trunk created by a woodpecker. Bluebirds can't create the cavity themselves, so they are dependent on older trees with abandoned cavities. That is hard real estate to find in a sprawling city like Los Angeles. Nest boxes, however, can make all the difference in the world for these birds. Across the U.S., bluebirds depend on nest boxes to raise their chicks.

Learn more about bluebird nest boxes, including plans for one you can build at Audubon: https://www.audubon.org/news/how-build-bluebird-nest-box

We also had new visitors; a pair of northern flickers (Colaptes auratus). Interestingly the female was a western red-shafted subspecies and the male was a yellow-shafted subspecies, typically seen more to the north and east. They came and sipped water from our fountain with their long tongues used for eating ants.

You don't have to put out birdseed to attract birds. Especially in Southern California, water is an important resource for wildlife.

While we had December rain, the past few days have been dry and windy. Both the bluebirds and the flickers were attracted to flowing water in fountains. In the morning our fountain is frequently visited by hummingbirds, warblers, finches, and on occasion a Cooper's hawk (like the one pictured).

A water feature doesn't have to be big to be important to birdlife; it just has to be clean and reliable. Provide water in your yard or on a balcony and you might be surprised who comes to visit.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Rat Spill

I learned a new term this weekend "rat spill."

Santa Rosa Island, Channel Islands Nat'l Park

Think of an oil spill and then replace the oil with introduced black or brown rats flowing onto an island and threatening the entire natural habitat: animals and plants.

It's quite an image and appropriate for the environmental damage that can occur when these large rat species are introduced to an island ecosystem. California's Channel Islands are constantly threatened by the potential of rat spill. 

Black rats (Rattus rattus) and brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) are the number one cause of extinction for reptile and bird species on islands. These large rodents reproduce rapidly and eat everything, including eggs and hatchlings.  

Because islands are primary nesting locations for seabirds, rat spill can take out entire populations. Brown pelicans, oyster catchers, western gulls, and rare species–like ashy storm petrels and Scripp's murrelets–all nest on California's Anacapa Island. Prior to 1940, however, a rat spill introduced hungry rodents to the island with devastating impacts. Some of the bird species were headed toward extinction.

Beginning with efforts in 2001, Channel Islands National Park spent millions of dollars eradicating the rat spill. The effort was successful, but the process wouldn't be feasible on larger neighboring islands with small endemic mammals–like the island fox and island spotted skunk live.

While you might think an island fox could prey on a large rat, the fox's small size and the rat's aggressive self-protection, make this rodent a difficult catch for the diminutive island fox. Additionally, rats are a disease vector and can bring viruses, which threaten the fox's survival. 

more about island foxes

Across the Channel Islands prevention is the goal. Just like with oil, it is much more cost effective to prevent a rat spill, than to clean up the damage and hope you can restore a habitat. 

Take a virtual visit to the Channel Islands