Sunday, October 07, 2018

What's That Caterpillar?

This year it seems there are an abundance of caterpillars about and some of them are unusual. Here are two that friends and family have been seeing and were new to me. They are both are native species!

ceanothus silk moth, photo by Joleen Lutz
The ceanothus silk moth caterpillar is typically found on our native ceanothus, but will also eat willow, manzanita and other chaparral plants. They are large plump green caterpillars. Charles L. Hogue's classic book "Insects of the Los Angeles Basin" says they can reach up to 4 inches. They are different from monarch caterpillars in that instead of stripes they have funky tubercles or fleshy bumps that stick up like warts. 

This green caterpillar will become a beautiful rusty-brown moth with dramatic white markings. As an adult it will be almost the size of a hummingbird. It's life as a moth will be fairly short because as an adult it does not eat at all.

white-lined sphinx moth, photo by Sherri Seymer
The white-lined sphinx moth is also quite large, but it feeds on nectar like a hummingbird. It's dramatically colored caterpillar eats a variety of chaparral shrubs and introduced plants. Hogue says they are often found on fuchsia. Down in Orange County there seem to be a large number of these striped caterpillars with red heads, horn, and legs. The sphinx moth is an important plant pollinator and always good to have in your garden.

Some other local caterpillars and their butterfly or moth adulthood.
mourning cloak butterfly and caterpillar
chocolate looper moth
what's that butterfly?
monarch butterfly
anise swallowtail
painted lady butterfly


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Rat Poison Kills More Than Rats

Two turkey vultures were circling overhead this morning riding the thermals of warm air rising over the valley. 

Every fall, turkey vultures migrate through Southern California on their way to wintering and breeding grounds to the south. You would think that passing through the Los Angeles area would be safe, but a silent threat is in our streets and neighborhoods, a threat to predators and especially carrion eaters: rat poison.

Just the other day a friend snapped this photo of a young turkey vulture on the ground in her backyard. It is unusual for a turkey vulture to land on the ground in a confined space. Getting off the ground is not easy for these large birds. 

When the young vulture didn't leave and seemed like it needed help, she contacted the Ojai Raptor Center - a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey. The rescue people came out, contained the young bird and promised to keep my friend informed on the bird's status.

Before the end of the day, she found out that the young vulture died due to rat poison in it system.

A rat had taken poison bait from one of those black, green, or beige bait boxes that are all over town. There is one at the drive-through Starbucks at my corner. They're in the parking structure at the mall. Sometimes they are around people's homes. Twice now, I've seen dead poisoned rats in the drive through at Starbucks; their toxic bodies laying there to be found by another animal. When a rat takes toxic bait, it doesn't die in the box. It wanders out into the world, a poison-laced meal for the animals we need to keep rodents in control. 

red-tailed hawk, photo courtesy of Brad Tanas

From coyotes to mountain lions, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, to turkey vultures and pets, rat poison kills much more than rats. Let's stop this. Let's find another way to deal with rodent populations. Rat poison doesn't stop rats, it indiscriminately kills other animals.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Allen's Hummingbird Leaves Nest

Arrow points to Allen's hummingbird chick
OK, it is a poor photo, but I had to maintain a distance so the chick wouldn't become scared and take flight before it was ready. If you look closely, to the right of the arrow is a leaf and then a pale spot–the pale breast feathers of a Allen's hummingbird fledgling. The nest is about a foot beyond the right side of the photo.

Last week, this young hummingbird and its sibling were still in the nest.

Yesterday, the older chick fledged. If flew to the far side of the toyon bush. Though it stayed in the 'home' bush all day. It definitely was out of the nest.

The smaller chick, was actually from an egg laid two days later than the first. Usually Allen's hummingbird eggs are laid on two consecutive days. It has always been quite a bit smaller. Because of its pale brown coloring, I've taken to calling her 'Mouse'.

Though her sibling was calling and mom was encouraging, Mouse stayed in, on or next to the nest all day yesterday. She tried exercising her wings, but it was obvious she just wasn't ready to fledge. Early this morning she was still sitting on the nest's edge.

But after an hour or two, the morning sun has encouraged her to be brave. She has fluttered into the shade and away from the nest. (The dead leaves are on the branch we added to the toyon to shade the chicks over a week ago. That extra branch is still offering valuable shade to the hummingbird youngster.)

It is a scary, yet exciting thing to leave the nest. These chicks are less than a month old. Before the week is over, they will be on their own. 

Other Fledgling Hummingbirds
Rescuing a baby hummingbird
Other bird parents and their fledglings

Monday, April 30, 2018

Are You Watching a Hummingbird Nest?

Allen's hummingbird female
It is the last day of April and we have four active Allen's hummingbird nests in our yard. (Selasphorus sasin)

Two nests have eggs. 

Allen's hum nest in butterfly bush

Allen's hum nest high in Catalina cherry
One is in an ornamental butterfly bush (Buddleja). This nest is awfully low to the ground and poorly covered by vegetation. It is not a good location and the female will need good fortune to be successful. Her chicks may be vulnerable if summer temperatures over 100 degrees come early.

The other is high in a native Catalina cherry shrub (Prunus illcifolia). This is an excellent location.

Allen's hum chicks, 10-15 days old
'Fairy Tree' nest with hum chicks
Two of the nests have chicks. The 'Fairy Tree' nest has already seen two chicks fledge in March. The female rebuilt the nest and these two should fledge toward the end of May. 

This mother is experienced and has used this Catalina cherry as a successful location in the past.

Allen's hum nest in toyon

The fourth nest is in a native toyon.  (Are you seeing a pattern? Native shrubs are more likely to house successful hummingbird nests.)

Native plants not only provide native insects as food, they also grow at a rate similar to the growth of the chicks. Nests in fast growing ornamental plants sometimes are torn apart by the growing plant. The chicks can become homeless before they are ready to fly.

These two chicks, yes there are two tucked in close together, should fledge soon.

These four mother Allen's hummingbirds are busy. This is the second nest of the year for each of them. Two were successful the first time and two were not.

So far in 2018 that's eight Allen's hummingbird nests in our yard. I monitor my hummingbird nests for NestWatch, part of Cornell University's Citizen Science bird data program. To date, my Allen's hummingbirds are the only nests where data has been collected on the reproduction of this species in 2018. 

I know there are more of you out there watching hummingbird nests. NestWatch needs your data. Successes and failures are equally important. This year we had eggs that shriveled and a chick that died when the weather turned from unusually warm back to cold winter weather. 

Early nesting attempts can lead to failure. This is the insidious impact of warming winter temperatures. Plants and animals take signals from the weather to begin reproduction. Record warm temperatures in January can lead to chick deaths when February brings a return to cold weather and rain.

How do I spot the nests? I watch the females:
  • Females gathering nesting materials will fly right back to their building locations. I put out natural nesting materials.
  • Females sitting in one place with their beak angled down and making an up-and-down movement with their head are most likely nest building or feeding chicks.
  • Females catching small flying insects are typically craving protein because they are about to lay or have laid eggs or are gathering protein for newly hatched chicks. Watch where they go. 
  • When eggs or chicks are present females typically do not fly directly to a nest. They fly to the home bush or tree, then make several short movements approaching the nest.
Several friends, especially those on the Pacific Coast hummingbird migratory path, have told me they are seeing far fewer hummingbirds. Data will help figure out if these birds have changed their migratory path or if their numbers are declining.

Join me.  Collect data on your hummingbirds for eBird and NestWatch. The greater the data, the better the science. 

What to do with a baby bird? 

Monday, December 04, 2017

Dismantling National Monuments and American Values

Today Donald Trump is in Utah to begin an unprecedented destruction of American values; the dismantling of protected historic, cultural, scientific, and environmental treasure.

Zion National Park
This isn't just about Bear's Ears National Monument and its energy resources. There's no respect here for the Native American peoples who have interacted with this landscape for thousands of years. Nor does this have anything to do with state's rights or individual loss of a western-ranching lifestyle, which really has a history less than 200 years old.

This is about lies and obfuscation. The people after this land don't care about Native Americans or any other Americans. They only care about their own personal monetary wealth.

If the oil, coal, and gas resources on these public lands, or the oil and timber on other public lands, are so vital for development, why won't the individuals and corporations that want to exploit them come forward out of the shadows? Why do they put politicians forward with silver-coated talking points? Why don't they participate in an honest discussion about what they want and how they plan to extract these resources? How many local jobs will they really provide? What is the actual cost to the land, the water, and local communities?

Historians have clearly documented the fact that coal mining leaves towns and villages impoverished for multiple generations. Whether it is in Wales, England, southern Illinois, Pennsylvania, or the Appalachian Mountains of the U.S., coal mining leaves the local people with poorer health, less income opportunity, and polluted land and water less able to produce healthy food.

We have lived it here in California, the boom towns of the gold rush, the cities that grew up around the gold and silver mines are mostly ghost towns. You've probably never heard of Aurora, Bodie, or Cerro Gordo, cities built on men digging in the ground and smelting ore. Places where toxins piled up and forests were consumed. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Sacramento became successful metropolises as suppliers to these towns, not as mining producers.

Across this country, families that struggle economically are so desperate for help they will believe shadowy thieves and the third-rate con-man they've put forward to speak for them. Struggling Americans are willing to believe that undermining their future will somehow provide them with a brighter present. The Republicans in Washington are trying to push through a similar empty promise with their flawed Tax Bill. 

From the dismantling of the National Monuments to the pending Tax Bill, if the supporters truly believed these were good moves for the country, they would be happy to honestly lay out all of the details. They aren't. What kind of a future are we accepting?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Do You Really Want To Dismantle U.S. National Monuments?

Sequoia National Monument

President Trump’s Executive Order 13792 to review national monuments “created under the Antiquities Act” may seem innocuous, but it threatens who we are as Americans.

Our National Parks and National Monuments protect wilderness, natural landscapes, historic, cultural, and scientific treasures so they will out last any single generation and benefit all Americans into the future. So what is going on with EO 13792? 

The Executive Order is asking for a review of national monuments that encompass 100,000 acres or more. Apparently size is the only reason to question the value of a monument. A letter sent by 17 members of Congress to Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, containing their recommendations regarding 27 current national monuments, reveals the real reason for the reevaluation. Read the Letter.

The national monuments being recommended for either rescission (which means repeal of national monument status) or dramatic reduction in size, are not just Bears Ears National Monument, which was designated at the end of the Obama presidency, but national monuments established or expanded over the last 20 plus years by the past three presidential administrations–Clinton, Bush, and Obama. 

Sequoia National Monument
You’ve probably visited some of these national treasures. Here are a few of the recommendations I find particularly troubling:

Giant Sequoia National Monument, CA - (designated by Clinton in 2000) We know so much more about giant sequoias than we did 20 years ago. These unique and ancient trees depend on the forest and watershed that surrounds them. They are not single trees, but organisms interconnected with their entire ecosystem. Recommendation: reduce the current size “so that the monument is ‘confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected’.” Harvest “timber resources.”

Craters of the Moon National Monument, ID - (established 1924 by Coolidge, expanded by Clinton in 2000) Expanding the monument protected three lava flow areas, Native American cultural sites, and unique wildlife. Concessions were made to allow continued hunting in some areas. In 2017, even the Idaho State Senate voted in favor of petitioning congress to designate Craters of the Moon as a National Park. Recommendation: reduce the current size “so that the monument is ‘confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected’.”

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, UT - (designated by Clinton in 1996) We visited this monument for the first time this August; the geology was stunning. New dinosaur fossils are being discovered here every year and the record of human habitation goes back nearly 2,000 years. Concessions made to ranching allow continued grazing by cattle. Recommendation: “total rescission” of the National Monument. Pursue mining of coal and gas exploration.

Carrizo Plain National Monument, CA - (designated by Clinton in 2001) Largest expanse of native grassland remaining in California; home to pronghorn, tule elk, endangered kit foxes, and a variety of birds. San Andreas Fault crosses the plain. BLM land and land purchased by the Nature Conservancy were combined to create monument. Recommendation: reduce the current size “so that the monument is ‘confined to the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected’.” Develop fossil fuel resources. (45 oil wells remain on monument land and 15 are active; future development is prohibited by current monument status.)

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, AZ and Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, AZ - Both of these monuments are part of the Grand Canyon area. Vermillion Cliffs is to the north and Parashant is along the north rim of Grand Canyon. There are no paved roads accessing Parashant, it was initially BLM land, part of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, 23,000 acres of AZ state lands and ~8,000 of private land. It is a designated a Dark Sky Park. Cliffs was initial protected by the Desert Wilderness Act of 1984. Both areas are vital wildlife habitat: elk, mountain lion, desert bighorn sheep, and CA condor. Recommendation: “total rescission” of the National Monument. Pursue mineral and geothermal development at Vermillion Cliffs and mineral resources at Parashant.

Yellowstone National Park
What would Yellowstone National Park look like today if 50 years ago, we as a country had abandoned the idea of preserving natural places and wildlife, and reduced the Park to a small area around 'Old Faithful' and developed the rest for geothermal energy? 

Yosemite National Park
What would Yosemite National Park be today if it went the way of Hetch Hetchy and was dammed to generate hydro-power? 

Developing these unique landscapes for short-term gain is shortsighted. When you think of a place that feeds your soul, makes you happy to be alive, what do you think of? A coal mine? An oil field? Or do you think of a natural place?

We protect and preserve too little. We treasure too few. Stand-up for preserving our National Monuments. If we don't, the National Parks will be next.

See what other groups are saying about Executive Order 13792:

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation: Letter regarding Bears Ears

letter from 121 law professors

Letter from the US Senate committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry
Letter from the International Dark-Sky Association

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Cassini's Legacy

NASA image taken by Cassini Spacecraft from Saturn looking back at Earth

A bright round planet distantly twinkling in a vast dark sky. 

The image of Earth as photographed by Cassini looking through Saturn's rings gives me shivers. It is the same feeling that I experience during total solar eclipses. The Earth is a small place in the vast cosmos; a special garden and watery wonder.

Space is a cold and hostile place, yet here on our rock veiled in water and atmosphere life thrives in great diversity.

The spacecraft Cassini and its international support team have given humankind an invaluable gift: vision. Vision of a global community of scientists working together. Insight into Saturn's moons with their hints of possible life. But also, they have given us a vivid visual reminder of Earth's fragility. While we search for other life forms in the cosmos, may we work harder to preserve the unique place we call home.

Farewell Cassini and thank you for the images: 

More about this NASA Cassini image: