Friday, December 23, 2011

A Watershed Gives Birth To Rivers

Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve
We think of streams and rivers as flowing bodies of water, but we tend to give little thought to where the the water comes from. For the Los Angeles River the water collects in rolling mountains high above the valley floor. But because our climate fluctuates between drought and flood, the water coming into the Los Angeles River is historically intermittent.
valley oak
I recently had the opportunity to explore the mountains and valleys of the Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve at the western end of the San Fernando Valley. These rolling hills with ancient oaks have been ranch land and also the testing grounds for all of the major rocket engines that have taken Americans into space.

Up until a few years ago this area was closed to the public and the land was in dispute between developers, conservation groups and activists concerned about toxins (nuclear and chemical) that had been left on the land. Unfortunately, technology often comes with a price and in this case toxins in and on the land are being cleaned up, but some of the waste is best left undisturbed. The positive side to that uncomfortable notion is that development plans were shelved and the land was purchased by the state to become parkland and a wildlife corridor. 
white-crowned sparrow
The Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve offers beautiful vistas and an opportunity to stroll a more wild side of California. In December, small flocks of migratory meadowlarks forage in the tall grass while a harrier hawk flies ominously just over their heads. A coyote watched us from the rim of a hillside. While acorn woodpeckers were so busy stashing acorns in every nook of a twisted valley oak, that they didn't even notice they were being observed. 

When the rains come and drops gather on this open area, tiny streamlets will flow in three different directions. Some will flow slightly north and down into the Simi Valley wash, some will head directly west toward Malibu Creek and the ocean, and some will flow down Bell Creek in Bell Canyon to become part of the Los Angeles River.

To reach the Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve drive west on Victory Blvd. until it dead ends. There is a nice gravel parking lot and a $3 fee helps to maintain this slice of open land. Walk the watershed are get a feeling for how important open land is for gather wildlife and water.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Is That A Bat or A Bird Flying Over the LA River?

A lot of people are interested in the bats that we have in the Los Angeles area. Bats in LA. That's a good thing, because bats need friends. Bats provide a great service by eating tons of insects. But not everything you see with pointy wings flying at dawn or dusk is a bat.

I recently had a comment from a reader asking about groups of 20-30 bats flying over the Los Angeles River in the Burbank area early in the morning. An observant eye can frequently see nature attracted to the Los Angeles River as you make your slow commute on the Ventura Freeway. I've seen these wheeling silhouettes as well, but probably what this traveler saw were birds and not bats. 

Bats typically return to their roosts before dawn. Seldom do you see our local bat species in a group unless it is right as they are emerging from their roosting location in the evening. 

At specific times of the year when there are insect blooms along the river, you can see swallows or swifts in groups flying quickly over the river catching insects. These small birds can look similar to bats. Both have narrow wings that help them maneuver quickly so they can catch insects on the wing. Both are dark in silhouette and some swallows and swifts have minimal tails that may make them appear batlike. 

But if you look closely you will see a difference. Bats typically have a faster wing beat and seldom glide. Swallows and swifts on the other hand will glide in between wing beats. These birds frequently are seen in flocks ranging from 10 to 1,000s of individuals. One evening along the banks of Utah Lake just south of Provo, we watched hundreds of thousands of swallows feeding on swarming insects just before a storm. I've never seen so many birds in one place in my life. 

These two animals bats and swallows (or swifts) are filling a similar niche in the ecosystem; they are flying predators feeding on small flying insects. And they share the workload, bats at night and the birds during the day. Occasionally, when the insects are plentiful and the weather is just right the two shifts will cross and you may see the furry and the feathered creatures sharing the sky. Both are doing their best to reduce the numbers of mosquitoes along our river and around our neighborhoods. All they ask in return is habitat to roost and nest in and insects that haven't been poisoned. Birds and bats need you to be their friends.

Swallows and swifts you are most likely to see in the Los Angeles area:
white-throated swift, chimney swift,Vaux's swift, barn swallow, cliff swallow, northern rough-winged swallow, violet-green swallow and tree swallow

For more about these bird species check out Cornell University's About Birds website:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

11/11/11 Calabasas Creek Park

Did you take a few minutes on 11/11/11 to go adventuring?

I’ve become fascinated by the Los Angeles River. I want to explore it from its trickle out of the mountains to its tumble into the sea. I think there is much to be discovered especially in relation to birdlife.

Yesterday morning we headed out to Calabasas Creek Park in old town Calabasas. It is a small bit of land tucked next to the Ventura Fwy just east of the Sagebrush Cantina. A hundred years or so ago, Calabasas Creek ran past Leonis Adobe and headed east to join with Bell Creek and Chatsworth Creek to form the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.

Forty years ago, Calabasas was a dusty half-block of old clapboard buildings and the creek was seasonal and forced into a cement drainage system. Today there seems to be a steady flow of water down the canyon. As long as that flow is a well-mannered creek, it is allowed to flow under the road and through Calabasas Creek Park.

A cement dam creates a gentle pond under wide-spreading ancient oaks and on this day the pond was dappled with mallards. The male mallards are just starting to take on their breeding plumage and they were looking quite smart.  As we overlooked the pond we noticed two fascinating things.

  • Whenever the fox tree squirrels in the coast live oaks dropped an acorn into the pond, some of the mallards, mostly males, dashed to snatch it up. They were grabbing the inch-and-a-half long acorns and swallowing them down. It was amazing. I’d never heard of ducks eating acorns. And they weren’t all doing it. Some swam to the dropped fruit only to be disappointed and confused as to why others were eating these big hard things.
  • The second thing we noticed was the pattern of the ducks in the water. The spacing was amazingly regular. As we watched it became apparent that the male mallards were maintaining a minimum of 1.5 feet between themselves. A male that compromised that “personal space” was either chased away or was purposefully forcing other males to move. Females were allowed to swim in between the males without comment. This wasn’t just ducks floating on a pond, this was a very organized social gathering.

While the mallards commanded the pond and the creek flowing out of the park, overhead bushtits, oak titmice, yellow-rumped warblers and an unusual sight, a summer tanager moved through the trees. A downy woodpecker feasted on insects in an oak gall. While in the well-manicured front garden a western tanager and house finches bathed in the fountain. In all there were 11 species of birds, a western fence lizard, a huge orb spider, one gardener and us in the park.

Calabasas Creek Park offers easy access, manageable size and a quiet escape. Discover one of the watery fingers that reaches down to become the Los Angeles River.

Calabasas Creek Park is open 1 PM - 4 PM Wed. - Friday & Sunday, and 10 AM - 4 PM Saturday. For more information visit

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Big Year - Movie Review

A Big Yes for "The Big Year" with Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Finally a movie that offers intelligent humor with realistic characters and conflict. Three men with the goal to see the most bird species in North America during a calendar year. While it may seem crazy to some, it was a real contest of perseverance, character and skill. Yes, the facts have been aided to enhance the dramatic structure and this drama isn't giant transforming robots or explosive terrorist plots, its what most of us really can relate to: transforming moments in our lives and the plot twists in our personal relationships.

Personally I'm tired of outlandish comedies aimed at teens that are based on ridiculous hyperbole. It is a pleasure to travel along with these characters on an adventure that you can take with any member of your family and not be worried about the language or situations on the screen. Hopefully this film will stay on screens long enough for family holiday movie going.

I was out birding with some people this morning and everyone was eager to see this movie, but they couldn't find places where it was playing. This is a quiet movie that has the potential to build an audience, but only if the marketing people understand that not every film brings in its biggest box office in the first weeks.

There is more to "The Big Year" than birding. Everyone has a dream that is important to them that might be seem absurd to someone else. Maybe I'm biased because I am a birder and the notion of doing a Big Year seems like a holy grail, but even if you look beyond the birding quest, the characters in this movie are seeking personal fulfillment. They are trying to find something within themselves. Maybe we would all be better off if we stopped reaching for the bright and shiny things that got our economy into the mess it is in and started looking at our own internal goals. There is no big villain and no crazy slapstick in this film, instead there is wit, creative imagery, beautiful locations and wonderful characters played by a cast of experience actors that know what it is really like to be flawed humans all trying to find the best of themselves.

Plus it motivated me to go birding this morning. 54 species at Malibu Lagoon State Park!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween and Haunting Stories

Looking for something spooky? Check out the free download of the "Ghosts of the Internet" live broadcast from last night. 

There are scary tales, original music and bits of haunting humor. I even wrote a new ghost story for this year.

The Trick is the Treat. Ghost of the Internet on itunes.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Birding Jewel in Los Angeles

The wonderful thing about birding is that you can do it anywhere. I saw my first green woodpecker on the lawn of a hotel just under the wingtips of planes landing at London Heathrow Airport and a Eurasian jay in the ruins of Troy, in Turkey.

But I identified my first white-crowned sparrow in my backyard in the suburbs of Los Angeles. You can travel all over the world looking for exotic bird species, but sometimes the places close to home can offer even greater diversity.

great blue heron
One of my favorite birding locations is in the middle of the suburban bustle of the San Fernando Valley. The Sepulveda Wildlife Refuge is a flood basin along the Los Angeles River. Formerly a sod farm, the low-lying area has been set aside by the Army Corps of Engineers to collect water in the years when we have unusual amounts of rain and the basin floods. 

The sod farm is gone and now native scrub surrounds a pond and riparian habitat. The refuge has become an amazing location to see a wide variety of southern California's bird life and a major stopover for migrating birds. Recently on a Saturday morning in early October, I spotted 37 bird species during a short 2-hour walk.  There were the locals: California and spotted towhees, lesser goldfinch, Anna's hummingbird and black phoebe. The pond provides feeding areas for five species of herons and egrets, and now a belted kingfisher pair. There was even a lone white-faced ibis hanging out with some mallards.

The travelers have begun to pass through and the wildlife area provides important refuge, food and water for migrating species. A beautiful adult male yellow warbler came within a few feet; close enough that I could see the red streaking on his breast without my binoculars. The first of the white-crowned sparrows were in the underbrush, while double-crested cormorants were sizing up the island for nesting and three species of grebe were patrolling the water.

Birds of prey are numerous here as well. I can't think of too many locations where in two hours time you can see an osprey, red-tailed hawk, red-shouldered hawk and an American kestrel.

Sepulveda Basin never disappoints me. Whether it is the osprey diving for fish or a family of 22 bushtits making their way through the underbrush, there is always something to thrill and amaze. Take a Mini Birdwalk with video. This birding jewel in the middle of Los Angeles offers numerous bird species anytime of the year and provides easy access to some of California's unique species. Sepulveda Wildlife Refuge in Feb.

Oct. 8,  2011 Species List
domestic mallard
pied-billed grebe
eared grebe
western grebe
double-crested cormorant
great blue heron
great egret
snowy egret
green heron
black-crowned night heron
white-faced ibis
turkey vulture
red-shouldered hawk
red-tailed hawk
American kestrel
American coot
mourning dove
yellow-chevroned parakeet
Anna's hummingbird
belted kingfisher
Nuttall's woodpecker
black phoebe
Say's phoebe
Bewick's wren
northern mockingbird
European starling
common yellowthroat
yellow warbler
yellow-rumped warbler
spotted towhee
California towhee
song sparrow
white-crowned sparrow
house finch
lesser goldfinch 

Other So. Cal birding areas: Bolsa Chica, Malibu Lagoon, Serrania Park

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Be EcoPositive - Meeting Change Head-On with the Environment in Mind

Change is constant and sometimes overwhelming, but if you focus on little things, occasionally you can have a positive impact.

An international corporation has purchased two of our local shopping malls and for the past 5 years, or more, they have been working on a project to create a shopping "Village" with a network of walkways and mixed use areas that would connect the two remodeled malls. Many long-time residents of our suburb were up-in-arms. The increase of traffic and people was not welcome. 

I went to the planning meetings that were open to the public and I must give credit to the local city counsel office and the multi-national corporation for giving the local residents an opportunity to speak.

From the very first meeting I realized this change was coming. Whether I liked it or not, a shopping "Village" was going to be built. What could I do to make this change more ecopositive? I've seen similar projects by this owner in other areas of the city and the world. They usually are well laid out with beautiful landscaping. But one thing stood out to me, the landscaping was sterile; there were no native plants.

At that first meeting comment boards were put up around the auditorium with ideas pre-printed on them. We were all given stickers to express our priorities for the items that were important to us, green for positive, red for negative. We were encouraged to add ideas as well. I walked up to the comment board with the heading "Landscaping" and I wrote "Native plants that will be drought tolerant and provide habitat."

As I wrote, someone beside me said, "Yeah, why not?" If there was going to be new landscaping, why not restore habitat for birds and butterflies with native plants. I watched the green stickers of support multiply. This was an ecopositive suggestion with no downside.

I stayed on the mailing list and any time opinions were solicited I continued my mantra, "Native plants in landscaping."

The project has been through many transformations and slowed with the economic situation, but yesterday I saw a full page add in a local paper titled "Sustainability at the The Village, Coming Soon!" Change is moving forward. There were three bullet points on the page. The third one started "Native landscaping..."

There are little victories in making a positive difference. When it is an ecopositive difference all living things benefit.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Arctic Ice Cap Melting

photo from Polar Bears International,
Why is global climate change a controversial issue? Why are Americans unwilling to accept their share of the responsibility for increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and admit that burning carbon based-fuels contributes to the problem?

Are we petulant children who refuse to be held accountable for our actions? Is it easier to believe the voices of power/money that depend on our addiction to fossil fuels? The corporations that sell these resources pay huge sums to create siren songs telling us that we aren't responsible, that oil creates jobs, that other energy sources aren't worth investing in. 

This summer southern California was fairly mild and beautiful. It would be easy to believe that climate change was a fairy tale. But global climate change is global, it is a big picture change.

NASA is a science-based branch of the American government/military. Just watch the video of satellite images of the Arctic sea ice from March to September 2011. The images are fact. The northern sea ice is melting at a greater rate than before and a major change has come with the disappearance of old ice.

What can you do to change your carbon use? It has taken us 7 years to completely change over our vehicles, but now both of our cars are hybrids. For more ideas on how to reduce your impact on climate change visit Polar Bears International.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

"Feathers; The Evolution of a Natural Miracle"

Book Review
Feathers; The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson Basic Books, Philadelphia PA. 2011

Discovery, questions and the search for possible explanations, such is the joyous nature of science. Thor Hanson immediately engages the reader as a friend and invites you to share his journey of discovery about feathers. His comfortable voice weaving scientific accuracy and engaging story reminded me of another of my favorite science writers Bernd Heinrich (The Geese of Beaver Bog). When Hanson began to mention a professor with a cabin in the Maine woods, I knew it was no coincidence. Thor Hanson studied under Heinrich and carries on with his professor’s insightful way of making science accessible to a broad audience.

From dinosaur fossils haloed with imprints of their feathers to specially dyed and designed feather costumes worn onstage in Las Vegas, Hanson explores the origins, function, miraculous qualities, beauty and yet undiscovered abilities of fluff and quill. Did you know that the reason Dickens's Tiny Tim was anticipating a holiday goose dinner was because the number of geese needed to furnish the feathers for quill pens meant that there were a lot of geese available at the butcher shop? With the replacement of the quill pen, geese gradually moved off our menu.

Feathers have driven people to do amazing things. They encouraged us to take to the air ourselves and public outrage at the excessive consumption of birdlife to decorate women’s hats with feathers led to the first conservation movement in the United States. The Audubon Society and the Migratory Bird Act are all interconnected with feathers.

If you love birds, have ever worn a feather in your hat band or wonder how human use of resources can impact the world, pick up a copy of Feathers. Hanson will reveal truths about these downy delicacies that you have never dreamed of and will inspire you to ask more questions yourself. This is one of my favorite books of the year.

Other Book Reviews:
Alex and Me
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Survival of the Sickest

Friday, September 09, 2011

Remembering 9/11

I keep a journal. Not everyday, but on occasions when I feel the need to document. On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was not at home. I had spent the night at my sister's so that I could drive to San Diego and take care of my cousin's children while her husband had surgery. It wasn't until the next day that I wrote the following:

Thousands of people in New York and Washington D.C. are dead. Terrorists commandeered commercial aircraft and crashed them into the two towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. An attempt to crash one into Camp David failed and the innocent people on the plane crashed into a rural area in Pennsylvania. This is one of those moments, like Pearl Harbor, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that marks the ending of a generation.We have a President who is not up to the leadership necessary for the moment. While the country still reels from the events that unfolded yesterday, Muslim fundamentalists are being identified as the perpetrators. The balance in the world teeters and nothing will be quite the same again.

Vengeance toward fundamentalist zealots is like trying to discipline a chicken, it only feeds chaos. People who have nothing will follow a zealot, hoping to gain something. The anarchists early in our own country in the last century were foiled not by increased police, but by the growth of labor unions and living wages. People who have something are less likely to threaten their neighbors, because they do have something to lose.

Yesterday as the horror unfolded, as the World Trade Towers collapsed killing perhaps as many as 40,000 people, I was taking care of J's four-year-old Matthew, while the other kids were at school and E was recovering from surgery on his neck for a ruptured disc. Then, the whole events were unbelievable. But last night driving home, the skies were amazingly dark. There were no planes flying. John Wayne Airport was a parking lot of airplanes. They were side-by-side, wing tip to wing tip. Others were parked even on the runways. LAX was vacant, nothing. 

People are gathering at centers in New York to fill out forms with identifying information about their loved ones. The Pentagon is still burning. Five stories of rubble fill the streets of the financial district in N.Y. and the two towers that I can remember walking beneath and looking up at, are gone. 

Here on the west coast we are safe, but are we? In my 2-story house with more bedrooms than we need, can there be safety when other people have nothing? I don't think so.

I look back at the past 10 years and I am saddened that rather than become global citizens many Americans have become more insular. We deny that we are the greatest consumers of unreplenishable natural resources. The planet suffers at our hands and now that the years of waste and want have come to an end for 90% of the population, so many look back clinging to the past rather than looking forward to a future where we must behave differently for the planet. Americans are acting like the southern aristocracy after the Civil War, we want the luxury we had and are unwilling to accept that it was unsustainable. This year global climate change is impacting food and water resources. We thought that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed our lives, but the change ahead of us in the next ten years is unimaginable.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

House Finches

Have you seen a bird slightly larger than a house sparrow fluttering under your eaves? Or maybe they are investigating under your patio roof. The male has purplish-red breeding coloration splashed brightly on his head and chest in the spring. The dowdy female is more mottled brown with white streaks on her chest.

I recently received a question about these delightful little birds and it was a good reminder that just because a species is common, it doesn’t mean that everyone knows about them. House finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) are frequent visitors and residents in Southern California backyards. 

Their nests are half-grapefruit-sized works of art woven of dried grasses and plant fiber. Protected locations under house eaves and on patios are a strong attraction for these builders of delicate nests. As seed-eating song birds, house finches have flourished in suburban landscapes and their numbers have increased as more and more of the American Southwest has been developed.
Today, house finches are found across the United States, but it wasn’t always that way. House finches are originally residents of the Southwest. The male’s coloration is striking and his song is beautiful. People arriving in the Los Angeles area in the 1920’s took to capturing these charismatic finches and sending them east to sell as “Hollywood finches.” Captive birds escaped and founded east coast populations. Today house finches are one of the most observed species at backyard feeders in 48 states. (See the trends for house finch populations for your area at Project Feederwatch)

House finches are not picky feeders. They will eat black sunflower, millet and especially the nyjer seed that also attracts goldfinches. They are also attracted to native plants that produce fruit, like hollyleaf cherry and Catalina cherry. (Creating a yard for wildlife)

Every birder starts with a species that catches their eye and makes them look at birds in a different way. For many people a singing male house finch may be that first bird. While they may be common, house finches are an important species in our local biodiversity.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day Gift

Happy Earth Day!

I've been too busy lately; busy at the computer, busy with projects. I haven't taken my own advice. I haven't been out in the yard. 

This morning the dog was barking at something and I went up the hill to see what had attracted her attention. It could have been a rabbit, a coyote, a raven. I didn't see anything but then, there on the ground was a butterfly clinging to the dirt. The mourning cloak butterfly, with its wings closed, looked like a dead leaf.

Was it dead or alive? I picked it up. It was motionless, but gripped my finger with surprising strength. I headed toward the house to take a picture. As I held the butterfly on my finger it started to vibrate, just slightly. It was like a shiver. It only lasted a moment, but before I reached the house the tiny creature shivered two more times. Each time the strength and length of the shivering increased. It was waking up.

Of course the batteries in the camera were dead and I couldn't find the extra set.

With a final quivering the mourning cloak awakened from its nighttime torpor, a mini hibernation. In the 50 degree evening temperature, the butterfly had gone into resource conservation mode. It's resting place, on an eastern-facing slope, had it positioned to warm up with the morning sun. But I had come along and disturbed it. 

Before I could get new batteries in the camera, the mourning cloak began to flutter its wings. I quickly scooped it up and released it outside. It flew up into the Chinese elm tree. Mourning cloak caterpillars.

The Bewick's wren chicks are begging for food from their haggard parents. The first lesser goldfinch chick of the season is learning to fly. And I held a wild butterfly on my finger and watched it wake up. Go outside and the wild creatures will show you what life is really about. Happy Earth Day!

Thursday, March 31, 2011

I’m Liking Lichen on a Brick Wall

Zone 1 in our front yard is just a sliver of planter and concrete beneath the entrance stairs, but the biodiversity is amazing. One of my surprise discoveries is this clump of yellow-green lichen growing on an old brick planter.

Lichen are amazing living organisms. The Lichens of North America web page explains that lichen are fungi that do not make their own food so they have found a way to include algae or cyanobacteria in their systems to internally grow their own nutrition.

These joint efforts of life have the ability to live in harsh conditions - on rocks & sidewalks, in deserts or tundra, on cliff faces and human ruins. They survive under snow providing food for caribou and arctic rodents. Some thrive on wet tree bark and create food and nesting materials for forest creatures.

Lichens grow slowly and some may be among the oldest living things on the planet. The lichen on this brick never really caught my eye before. I don’t know how long it has been there. And that is the tricky thing about lichen: small and typically low to the ground, it is easy to miss. But because lichens protect themselves by producing chemical herbicides and even antibiotics, they could provide important pharmacological discoveries for humans. Small life must be mighty to survive. But if they are slow growing, how fast can they adapt to climate change?

Lichen are also beautiful. Check out the Lichens Home Page for some stunning photos. I think I even found my lichen, it may be Caloplaca feracissima.

Something ancient, lichen, and something new, the Internet, working together to help us see the biodiversity in our own backyards.

Lichens of North America

Friday, March 18, 2011

Low Level Radiation Reaches California

Radiation from Japan has reached California in low levels. Can there be a more important time to watch the natural world around us and observe changes to our "canaries in the coalmine" – wild birds and amphibians?

Get to know you wild neighbors and they will help us all to really understand the environmental ramifications for ourselves.

This morning the Allen's hummingbirds are tending to spring. A Spot took a quick bath in the fountain. BIF is drinking at his feeder while his father FIK is moving in on his son's territory and dominating the courtship field with the females. (Hummingbird Territories and hummingbirds and climate change)

The Bewick's wrens are building a new nest in the lariat house. The House and Last Year's Nest.

The rain that has been forecast has yet to arrive. Will it be the life-giving resource that the blooming plants are hungry for or will it bring an unseen radiation taint?

Two weeks from now will the hummingbirds be nesting or will life be greatly altered?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Shark Fin Soup and CA (AB 376)

Can you image killing a leopard for its ear?  Of course not.  Cutting the fin off a shark and throwing the fish back into the sea to die is basically the same thing. You have a piece of cartilage and the shark forfeits its life.

Shark fin soup is a delicacy in Asia and Asian communities here in California.  Making soup from the fin probably goes back to people using all parts of an animal that was caught because the resource was valuable.  I had shark fin soup years ago at a wedding reception for a Chinese friend of the family.  Unfortunately, the growing number of people wanting to consume this unique dish has seriously impacted shark populations because the fins are cut off of the sharks and the rest of the animal is tossed back into the sea.

This conservation problem has an easy solution. People can make the choice not to eat shark fin soup.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is supporting the California Bill (AB 376) to make it illegal to import shark fin. You can send a quick note to your state congressman to express your opinion on the matter through the Aquarium's Take Action page.

You also can make the choice to try an alternative recipe, Faux Shark Fin Soup created by chef Peter Pahk.

When we can't moderate our actions, we have to legislate them.  Let's give sharks break for a while.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Cooper's Hawk in the Garden

Water is a vital element to a habitat. The fountain that we added this winter has attracted a variety of birds including this adult Cooper's hawk. It stood in the bubbling water for 10 minutes. Later the same day, an immature Cooper's hawk took a turn standing in the exact same location.

Did it observe the older hawk or was there some communication between the two birds about the interesting new water source?

Monday, February 28, 2011

Mini-Gardens or Fairy Gardens

Sometimes you just need to have a little fun. My sister and I took a class to create “Fairy Gardens” or mini-gardens in a pot.

In my mini-garden, I landscape and create my own little manageable garden. 

I made little hearts to decorate for Valentine’s Day and a Tramp character to go with the cocker spaniel Lady that my sister had given me.

Even if you have a confined space or limited mobility, a mini-garden in a pot is a growing living environment that can reconnect you with the beauty, wonder and constant change of nature.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Arrow-Headed Flatworm in Zone 1

I’m still entering all of the data for species in Zone 1 for my Backyard Biodiversity Project. But there is an unexpected resident in this small Zone of stairs, cement and a narrow planter. Zone Map

This is an arrow-headed flatworm (Bipalium kewensis) a species of planarian. These are the kind of creatures that you may have experimented with in biology class dividing their bodies in a variety of ways to see that they can regenerate themselves if they have some part of a head.

The arrow-headed flatworm is an exotic species thought to be an Indo-Malayan import that came to the U.S. via Europe.

How did this creature come to be in my planter? How long have its ancestors frequented my neighborhood?

I found it under a brick in the planter. Interestingly, when I looked at the photos I realized that it appears to have some nasty gashes along its sides. And actually it seemed to be regenerating most of its head. How did it come to have these injuries? Did it encounter some kind of a predator? And what was that predator? Was it the resident of the cave?

It amazes me the stories you can discover when you look under a rock.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Climate Change and Hummingbirds

Again this year Southern California experienced abnormally warm weather in December - January. The Allen’s hummingbirds in our yard set about breeding.

The female who has staked out her territory in the driveway, DR, built a beautiful nest in a native Catalina cherry shrub. DR's territory.  Last year, DR had the earliest successful chick reported to NestWatch in North America. But the consequence of the early nesting was that only one chick survived when winter weather returned.

This year, DR once again responded to early days of warm weather and began nesting. Just a few days after laying her two eggs strong winter winds came up and lasted for several days. She rode out the first day keeping her eggs safe in the nest, but on the second day she must have gone off to get some food and wind tossed one of the precious eggs out and onto the pavement.

The remains of the tiny hummingbird egg were smashed on the driveway.

The next day she was on the nest, but the weather turned and became not only windy but cold. DR abandoned the single egg. After several days it was clear, she had decided to cut her losses and build a new nest in a more protected location.

Unusually warm winter weather patterns convince the female Allen’s hummingbirds that spring has arrived. They begin nesting and for the second year, those early nests are unsuccessful. For the tiny hummingbirds it means reproductive opportunity wasted.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count, Los Angeles

I was out bird watching this morning in the heart of Los Angeles. The rain was fairly steady, not pouring, but soaking. The humans were few but the birds were many.

Birds enjoy a gentle rain and actually so do I.

Why would seven adults tromp through puddles to count birds?

I can give you several reasons:
  • There is always the thrill of the unexpected, like the great blue heron we spotted flying low through the mist,
  • The opportunity for discovery, we watched a pair of red-shouldered hawks putting the finishing touches on a new nest,
  • Moments of peace and beauty like the female Allen's hummingbird taking a bath in the rain and the elegant nest she has built edged in bright green moss,
  • There is always something new to learn, today I learned how to identify a male acorn woodpecker from a female,
  • There are smiles and laughter, and real human friendship
  • And the 35 bird species we counted will be reported to Cornell University through so scientists can track changes in bird populations
Friday Feb. 18 - Monday Feb. 21 is the Great Backyard Bird Count an opportunity for you too to go out and count birds for science. You can count in your yard, walking to school, in a park or a parking lot. For four days people across North America will be taking a snapshot of the birds across the continent. Everyone is invited to participate. Click the button to go to the Great Backyard Bird Count website for more information and to enter your data.

Me, I'll be counting again on Saturday Feb. 19 at the Los Angeles Zoo.  Zoo members are invited to join in on a bird walk before the Zoo opens. We will meet at the glass doors north of the main entrance between 7:45 and 8 AM. To make reservations please phone 323/622-8114 or e-mail (including “Bird Walk” in the subject line) with the following information: your name, membership number, members in your party, age of attending children, and your phone number.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Here Be Dragons?

Zone 1 always surprises me. Zone Map

If I asked you what wildlife I might find in this small area of the yard, you might say a few ants and a spider or two. In the past this strip of cement walkway, stairs and a narrow planter has revealed numerous species of spiders. Zone 1 in summer 2007.

So far this February the variety of species has been down, probably due to the season. But the winter-blooming berginia is looking lovely, see blooms.

This short retaining wall at the edge of the walkway has an intriguing little cave. At the left side, where there is a triangular opening, a pile of debris is stacking up. Are these the remains of someone’s meals?

It is an interesting collection that the cave’s resident has pushed out its door. There are empty brown garden snail shells; some fragmented by strong jaws. Could the owner of the lair be a southern alligator lizard? A foot-long individual was seen in this area last summer.

But there are also holly-leaf cherry pits that have been gnawed open and the seed inside eaten. Is some kind of native mouse living in this dark dwelling?

Some animal is living in this tiny cave and if you are snail, you might just consider it a dragon.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Winter Blooming Flowers

While much of the rest of the country is white with snow, Californians can still delight in a variety of winter-blooming flowers.

In Zone 1, along the walkway and protected by the front steps, winter-blooming bergenia (Bergenia crassifolia) sends up flower stalks in January. This isn't a native plant. However this small patch was planted here when we moved into the house years ago. A native of the Himalayas, they thrive in poor soil and tolerate drought in a shady location. Under the steps seems the perfect location for them, and occasionally, native slender salamanders can be found in the leaf litter that builds up beneath the plants.

Zone Map

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mapping Hummingbird Territory

Before I can gather new biodiversity data, I have to format my data collection and tabulation. That means creating a species data base, determining the data to be collected and finalizing the areas where data will be collected. I've already updated my Zone Map.

But this time around I've decided to map out the territories of my resident hummingbirds. I plan to update these territory maps monthly. As we start off this January, one of the males, FIK, has expanded his territory.  I have a special connection to FIK a male Allen's hummingbird. He was hatched in 2008 in the same plum tree that is the center of his territory. When he was a chick, a predator attacked the nest. His sibling did not survive, but FIK fell 20 ft. to semi-safety in the foliage below the tree. My dog, Inali, found him and with a little bit of ingenuity, she and I saved this tiny fellow. The whole story.

In 2009, FIK bred with a number of females and we had over a dozen chicks. Only one of the females in the yard, DR, has been here as long as FIK. 
Last year FIK was the dominant male and he spent so much energy breeding, by the end of summer 2010, he was spent. His son, BIF (blue), almost pushed him out of his territory.

Now with the warm weather, the male Allen's hummingbirds are beginning to perform their breeding displays for the females. FIK is back up to fighting strength and he has reclaimed his former territory. His territory (green) is once again the largest. At the front of the house, he has the greatest visibility to visiting females.

DR is the oldest female and she has the largest territory of the girls (red), however, she does not have the prime territory. There is no feeder in her territory. However, she does have nectar-bearing and insect-attracting plants, and two native Catalina cherry trees where she has nested successfully for two years. 2010 nest.

A daughter of the long dominant "A" family of females, A-Spot, holds the prime female location with a feeder (orange). A young female, F, who's first attempts at nesting failed last year, maintains a small territory (yellow).

With three adult male Allen's hummingbirds, all in their prime, we could be in for territory challenges. Canyon (purple) also a chick from 2009 and probably a son of FIK, maintains a small territory at the back of the yard. And there is a newcomer, an immature Anna's male that has established his territory at the back of the yard (lime) next to Canyon.

More males, most likely will mean fewer females will nest here. But there is a large area of hillside territory with nesting locations that is unclaimed. Will a new female move in? It should be a fascinating spring.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Mapping the Backyard Biodiversity Project

The first step in documenting the biodiversity in our backyard ecosystem is dividing the landscape into Zones.

I have mapped the yards (front and back) into 18 Zones with an additional Garage Zone and House Zone.

These Zones are determined using physical separations (walls, fences, concrete walkways, gravel paths) and by clumping the natural microhabitats. For example, Zone 1 includes a planter against the house and a concrete walkway with stairs. This area is heavily used by people going in and out of the house. This activity has an effect on the plants and animals willing to live there. I have examined Zone 1 in detail before. Zone 1, 2007

Zone 2 has changed dramatically since I first documented the species living there in 2001, 2004 and 2007. This Zone is a raised planter in front of the house stretching from the sidewalk to the walkway and extending to the western corner of the house. It is landscaped and receives moderate sun in the summer. It was my observation of alien plants attracting alien pest species and creating a dead zone for native animal species that first inspired me to remove the African daisies in this planter and replace them with native plants. It will be interesting to see how the biodiversity in this area compares with ten years ago. Zone 2, 2007

Zone 17 is the lower end of the driveway at the side of the house and a small planter that typically only receives rain water. But this area has offered surprises in the past. Zone 17, 2007

Creating Zones provides manageable areas of observation and also allows comparison between areas that are similar or dissimilar in terrain, physical attributes and water availability. Off to a good start.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Year's Cleaning - Bird Houses

A pair of oak titmouses are checking out the bird houses for a spring nesting site. I've been trying for 5 years to get them to nest in our yard so this year I'm cleaning out the bird houses early. Last year a number of bird species nested unusually early in the yard because of changing climate patterns. (Climate Change in California).
The Bewick's wrens love this rope bird house, but they won't reuse it if I don't clean it out. They fill it to the brim with nesting material to make it cozy. Unfortunately, they won't come back unless all of the previous year's debris is removed.

Cleaning out the titmouse bird house I discovered a western bumble bee nest

If the changing climate alters when the birds begin looking for nest sites, I have to alter when I prepare the bird houses. 

Cavity nesting birds like the titmouses and wrens can have a difficult time finding appropriate nesting sites in cities. Providing suitable housing opportunities for them helps to maintain their populations. Many cavity nesters are insect predators, eating many of the bugs we consider to be pests. Offering them an appropriate bird house invites them to be your neighbors and gives you the opportunity to watch them raise their families.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Backyard Biodiversity Project 2011

Around the world biologists are gathering information on animal and plant biodiversity in wild places, but I can’t help but wonder how much we are missing in our own backyards. We raise money to save distant rain forests and try to change the daily lives of people in far away lands but what actions do we take to positively impact the ecosystems where we live?

I’ve seen amazing transformations in small areas of my yard by removing introduced exotic plants and restoring native plants to the landscape. Native Plants. The Mexican mountain marigold (pictured) provides food for pollen-eating insects even in the winter. I keep trying small gestures to provide more opportunities for native species. Bee Box.

Just in the last two months we’ve seen an amazing biodiversity in spider species without really trying: red jumping spider, trapdoor spider, green lynx spider. In the past I’ve found small areas around the house are home to numerous spider species. Here Be Spiders.

This afternoon I checked on the green lynx spider egg casing. It has survived the December rains, but for the past week the mother protecting the egg sac has been gone. Did she perish in the cold weather? Temperatures have been in the mid-30s to 40s at night. This spider species only lives about a year and adults typically do not survive winter weather.

According to several university websites, females lay their eggs in an egg sac in autumn. We saw this egg sac in the second week of November. The female guards the eggs for 2 weeks until they hatch. The mother opens the tough webbing of the egg sac to release the spiderlings and she provides protection and sometimes food for the next 2-3 weeks. See University of CA, Irvine photos. When the young spiders disperse, her job is done. The youngsters will overwinter, but their mother will die.

Last year we had an unusually warm December and early January. We discovered our first green lynx spider in the yard with her egg sac on the scented geraniums in the vegetable garden. By February, drenching winter rains destroyed the egg sac.

This year it has been almost 2 months since I first discovered the green lynx spider and her egg sac, but again the spiderlings have not hatched. I don’t know if the female realized the eggs were not going to hatch and abandoned them or if she died. Typically, a female will guard her egg sacs until she perishes from starvation. Last week the female was looking very thin.

What happened to these eggs? I decided to open up the egg sac and see whether or not the eggs were viable. Looking through my microscope I could see that about a third of the eggs seemed infertile, they were dark and showed no development. Another third or more appeared plump and ranging from an orangy-yellow to pale white. A few appeared to have been forming into spiderlings, the shape of the carapace was somewhat apparent. But these embryos on their way to becoming spiderlings, seemed slightly dried-up. 

Considering we had nearly a week of rain in mid-December, this seems odd. But something with the weather was not right for these eggs to develop. For a second year in a row beautiful green lynx spiders have failed to reproduce in the garden.

Are there more green lynx spiders in the yard and I’ve just missed them? Are their other spiders failing to reproduce? This leads me back to the Backyard Biodiversity Project.

Are there creatures to waiting to be discovered right here in a backyard in Los Angeles, California? I think so. I plan to take a scientific look at the creatures and plants living in our small yard in one of the largest cities in the world. I’ve started the Backyard Biodiversity Project before only to be interrupted by acceptance to graduate school. Now I’m plunging into the year with the intention of spending the next 12 months on this project.

What’s in your backyard?