Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Warblers and Weather

Something is in the air. It isn’t just autumn and it isn’t just smoke from the Station Fire. (Which is still burning in the Angeles Forest).

We are seeing a number of migratory bird species that we typically do not see in autumn:
  • Cassin’s kingbird (previously 12/06)
  • warbling vireo (previously 4/07)
  • Wilson’s warbler (annually, February and May)
  • black-headed grosbeak (annually, April to early August)

If it were just one unusual siting, I wouldn’t think much of it. A Wilson’s warbler arrived last week. After seeing it in the yard, I later found it sitting on the window sill. It seemed exhausted and gagging on our smoke-filled air. I easily scooped it up and brought it inside for a few hours. It was out of my cage in a moment, (they are smaller than you think), and it spent the day sleeping perched on a quiet bookshelf. In the late afternoon, we opened the window and gently shooed it out.

I was thrilled, this morning when three warbling vireos passed through the yard. They stopped for food and water. But it made me start to wonder: Why are we seeing these birds?

Would they usually stop in the Angeles Forest and they’ve found the habitat they depended on gone? All of the birds I have been seeing are species that have been here in our yard before, just at different times of the year. Are they individuals that remember this place?

But, none of these birds have been ash-covered. Two years ago following the large fires to the north of us, birds migrating south that stopped here were covered in ash, exhausted and hungry. Every time a new group arrived, we had a to clean the film of ash out of the bird bath. That isn’t happening.

When I looked at my past bird logs, I found that September of 2005 also had a variety of birds, migratory and non, that were unusual: a Costa’s hummingbird, house wren, song sparrow pair, brown-headed cowbird, a very late hooded oriole, and a black-headed grosbeak. The black-headed grosbeak made me wonder about the weather in 2005.

But the September weather in Woodland Hills in 2005 had a median low of 56˚F and a median high of 85.5˚F, while this year, 2009, the temperatures have been much higher: median low 62˚F and median high 95˚F. The winter of 2005 was cool, but dry. That isn’t what we are hoping for this winter.

Another marker of 2005 was that the white-crowned sparrows arrived very early. Rather than mid to late October, the white-crowns arrived on September 30th. It will be interesting to see when they return this year. 2008 white-crowns return

The meteorologists are predicting a wet El Nino year. Do the birds know better? Are we in for another cool, but dry winter?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Badlands National Park & National Park Foundation Video Challenge

This summer we visited Badlands National Park in South Dakota. When we came home we discovered that the National Parks Foundation was doing a video competition.

You can support our 2-minute entry by watching the video and then voting for it.

When you click the "vote" bar it will take you to the National Park Foundation website. They will ask you to "sign-in" so that there is only one vote a day from an e-mail address. They assure us that they will not sell e-mail addresses and you can opt out of being on their e-mail list. FaceBook members can use their FaceBook accounts.

When you go to the "Log-in" page the link to the "Sign-up" page is in the upper right hand corner where it says "Register." (I didn't design their website.)

Thank you for your Vote.
We could win a trip to a National Park of our choice.

Use this link if you can not see the video here.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Battling Insects

Inali and I went for a walk this morning and came across an exterminator at a neighbor’s house. This always raises my hackles.

  1. How can people think that spraying chemicals to kill one kind of animal doesn’t have an unintended affect, in some way, on other animals, including humans?
  2. If they have to keep doing it on a regular basis, why don’t they question the usefulness of the practice?

Anyway, in this instance the bigger frustration was that emblazoned on the “we kill bugs” insignia was a green lacewing (Chrysoperla plorabunda).
This insect is an important predator species. As a juvenile it eats aphids and other insects.
This is an example of an insect you should encourage to live in your yard. You will not do that by spraying insecticide which kills

My neighbors right next door have an exterminator service that sprays all around their house every four months. (I know this because I stand at the side gate, making sure they do not spray into my yard.) The neighbors have been doing this for 15 years and they continue to have an ant and roach problem. And here’s the topper, their three grandchildren, all under the age of five, play in that sprayed grass.

Right next door, we do not have a problem.

Because of our tortoises we have never used sprays in our yard. For the first few years that we lived here we did put out ant bait in containers and snail pellets in the front yard. The pest species populations would ebb, but always return. Then we stopped completely to see what would happen.

We also started removing the water-hungry, exotic ornamental plants and replaced them with native plants. Our ant problem began to decline. The ants that cause problems all along coastal California are an invasive species, Argentine ants (Iridomyrmex humilis). Our native plants are less willing to give away sweet sap to insects. They have tough waxy coverings or hairs that thwart Argentine ants. This South American ant species also requires water. Routine shallow watering provides the perfect habitat for them to thrive. They don’t create deep nests, they stay close to the surface. A dripping faucet beside a stepping stone is their idea of paradise. Reduce that regular watering, fix leaky plumbing, and it becomes harder for them to make a living.

I do still have ornamental roses, but if my roses are insecticide free the green lacewings and the lady bugs, as well as the bushtits and wrens keep the insect population to a minimum.

When you build a house, you are building it on land where other creatures lived before you. Like any landowner, they will try to reestablish their right of ownership. Other insects will come if habitat is offered. If you create a water-dependent English garden in a southern California Mediterranean climate, you are creating an oasis for invasive exotic pest species.

Native plants are just as beautiful and native insects have predator species that keep them in check without my lifting a finger.

So stop spraying and the next time you see a green lacewing thank it for the job it does in your garden.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

One Yard in a Great Big City

It is an amazing thing. I can stand in my kitchen in the San Fernando Valley and eat a bite of lunch while watching a desert cottontail munching on a blade of grass and a young southern California alligator lizard hunting a bug. Both of these creatures are about fifteen feet away from me, albeit on the other side of the glass window.

I live in one of the world's largest cities, but this morning 10 species of native birds were in my yard:
In another month as the migratory birds start passing through, that number will increase dramatically. All kinds of avian visitors will drop in for a day or for the winter.

This morning western fence lizards, adults and juveniles, were hunting insects. An anise swallowtail butterfly was laying eggs on the citrus trees and a tiger swallowtail stopped in for a snack.

What is truly amazing is the same thing isn't true at my neighbors' across the street. Their grass may be green and thick, but few native creatures live there. Our yard didn't start out this way, we have gradually introduced more native plants and added available water to our yard. We are an oasis of habitat in the city.

If you gaze out the window of your car or house and think, Los Angeles is a pretty green place? I challenge you to look at a satellite photo. The green you see is the Santa Monica Mountains and protected land. Photos from space reveal that the greatest area of land in Los Angeles is comprised roof tops, streets, asphalt school yards and parking lots. None of these provide habitat for beleaguered wildlife.

Now, the Station Fire has scorched large tracts of wildlife habitat in the Angeles Forest (just north of Los Angeles). Animals large and small are searching for new areas to find food, water and shelter.

But, every year the city expands and evicts similar numbers of plants and animals. It doesn't have to be that way. A yard can be habitat for wildlife. A narrow strip of land around a parking lot or a school can be planted with natives to provide shelter and food. It might take a little work and a change of priorities, but it is worth it. Every year our species list increases. I don't have to turn on the television to watch a "nature show," its happening right outside my kitchen window.