Monday, November 04, 2013

Warm Autumn Impacting Tortoise Hibernation

There are signs of autumn all around. The leaves of the peach tree are daily turning red and golden.

The toyon fruit (aka California holly) is turning red and attracting the attention of the hungry hermit thrush.

But the on-again, off-again autumn weather is making someone grumpy. The angle of the sunlight signals autumn–time to hibernate–but the warm days keep tempting the desert tortoise to stay up.

As you can tell from the photo, this guy is not asleep. His son, has gone in for the winter. Typically, the old guy is in by mid-October, but this year he can't seem to commit to hibernation. He comes out, sits in the sun, takes a few bites of food then grumbles back into his den. Today he stuck his head out and immediately turned around.

He wants to be asleep, but the warm weather is confusing. Some of the migrating birds have been off in their annual cycles as well. For this desert tortoise who has been in captivity, since the mid-1970s, fluctuating climate is an irritation, but for desert tortoises in the wild there can be serious consequences. If they miss time hibernation, they can get caught away from a protective den when the weather does turn cold. They could use up food reserves before they hibernate.

They do not digest food well without basking in the sun and having hot temperatures. They need to stop eating and completely digest what is in their stomachs before going into a deep sleep. Undigested food in their system can rot while they are hibernating, causing them problems. When tortoises awaken in the spring they have expectations of flowering plants and new greenery that they depend on to replenish themselves after months of not eating or drinking. Changing climate can impact all of the timing in this delicate dance making survival even more of a challenge for wild tortoises.

This grumpy guy has us as caretakers to make sure he has food and vitamin supplements. Wild desert tortoises are on their own. Tortoises around the world need our help. They are important members of their ecosystems and all too frequently they are taken out of the wild, both to their detriment and that of the other plants and animals that depend on them.

Tortoises in Turkey
I recommend book Life in a Shell

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

White Film on Bird Bath Water

Have you ever had your bird bath instantly go from clean to layered with a gray filmy scum?

It's ash. Not necessarily ash from a burning fire, but often from a bird that has come through a burned area.

The first time I saw this was several years ago when a group of white-crowned sparrows arrived during fall migration and we had just had a wildfire that burned miles of hillside north of us. The white-crowns seemed to line up at the bird bath and when they were done the water was almost soapy. 

This past spring a large swath of the Santa Monica Mountains at the Camarillo Grade was severely burned. The area is northwest of us, up the coast. When I saw the state of the water I had changed the evening before, I knew that a bird had arrived who was flying down the coast. The amount of water splashed around suggested something larger than a white-crowned sparrow.

Then we heard an unfamiliar call, an American kestrel. This is a small bird of prey, much smaller than our resident Cooper's hawk or red-tailed hawk. We spotted the female kestrel sitting in the top of a dead tree calling. It's been years since we've seen kestrels in our neighborhood. It could be that this bird was returning to territory that was burned out. It will be interesting to see if she stays or moves on.

Rinsing out the ash only took a moment or two. It was nice to know we helped a traveler freshen up. That is what being an oasis of habitat is all about.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Painted Lady Butterfly

The milkweed and the butterfly bush are blooming and providing nectar for butterflies.

This beautiful painted lady butterfly stopped to rest and eat before continuing on its travels.  Some springs we have seen mass migrations of these butterflies.

In the past week I've also seen a mourning cloak, monarch and a checkered white in the yard. I'm hoping that the drift of nectar producing native plants we've added to the front hillside will attract and nourish a growing number of our native butterflies. Creating habitat for wildlife begins with providing natural food, shelter and water.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Cooper's Hawk Comes for a Bath

We had a visitor this morning: an adult Cooper's hawk. Typically they come to hunt the mourning doves and band-tailed pigeons, but this morning the bird bath was the main attraction.

Even birds of prey need a drink or a bath now and then. Both the red-tailed hawks and the Cooper's hawks seem to prefer the still, raised bird bath over the bubbling fountain 20 feet away. The juncos and the hermit thrush prefer a shallow dish placed under a rose bush. Water is vital for creating habitat.

Placing water in an open space enables birds to see any lurking dangers and frequently allows them to feel comfortable enough to happily splash and play in the water.

Cooper's hawks are frequent visitors and have even nested next door. This, however, was a pleasant surprise, a special moment shared because wild creatures see our yard as a safe and natural place to visit. Create habitat in your yard and you'll expand your own experiences.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Planting CA Natives in Fall

I love the autumn weather in California. The hot dry summer has come to an end and the promise of rain means it is time to plant native vegetation.

This past weekend we traveled north to the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden to take advantage of their Fall Plant Sale (going on through Nov. 3). It is a wonderful place to see the enchantment of native plants and the habitat they create for animals; We saw a variety of birds, butterflies, lizards, a gray squirrel and two deer. We strolled through areas of the garden most like our yard and looked for plants that would thrive in a few of our problem areas: dry, sunny slope and dry partial shade under oaks.

We've discovered that native plants from the Channel Islands, especially San Nicolas Island and Santa Cruz Island, seem to do well on our dry, sunny slope. This beautiful pink yarrow is from San Nicolas Island. We planted yarrows between the Mexican mountain marigold and the San Nicolas buckwheat that we planted two years ago.

This native aster is a low-growing ground cover that we hope will thrive on our front slope.

With the buckwheat, sage, yarrow and milkweed, the front slope is becoming a nectar garden for butterflies.

In the spring, I always have itchy fingers to put plants in the ground, but too often, the summer heat pounds those plants and they do not survive. Autumn is California's season of renewal. Plant now and tender new plants will have nurturing winter rains to help them establish.

A monarch butterfly has been visiting our newly planted milkweed!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Ant Lions and Pocket Gophers

Have you ever seen one of these perfectly conical pits in the dirt?

This is an ant lion pit trap. It is about the circumference of nickel. The ant lion larva waits down at the bottom of its beautifully constructed pit waiting for an ant or other insect to wander in. The angle of the pit's sides make it difficult for the insect to get out easily. As grains of sandy dirt roll down the sides of the pit, the ant lion springs to action and grabs its prey.

In order to make this beautifully formed pit, the ant lion needs a specific texture of sandy dry soil. This summer I have been cursing a gopher that has eaten my wild roses and some of my wild currants. But in the midst of planting new plants, I noticed that everywhere there was a pile of dirt kicked out by the gopher there were ant lion pits.

This soil had the perfect consistency for the the ant lions. Hmm. The gopher's work turning the soil was facilitating the right habitat for the ant lions who are trying to control the ant population.

There are plants that the gopher seems to avoid: lemonade berry, Catalina and hollyleaf cherry and toyon. I'm also trying Cleveland sage and milkweed. There has to be something the gopher doesn't like.

These ant lion larva will survive the winter underground and emerge as winged adults that look somewhat like a small dragonflies in the spring.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Hermit Thrush Arrives Early in Southern California

For the past 12 years I have been documenting the birds that daily frequent our yard, the migratory birds that travel through and the species that visit during a specific season. The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) is one of my favorites. On the small side, this bird typically arrives alone or with a single companion. It stands with its head raised like an American robin, but it is slighter in size has brown spots on a white chest, a gray-brown back and a russet tail. Spending the winter here in southern California, the hermit thrush is shy and elusive. By the time I spot it, there is no chance to grab the camera. It slips in and out of the shrubs, plucking a toyon berry or any of the variety of reddish round berries on the vegetation.

The only vocalizations are typically soft chirps in the early morning. (Imagine my surprise this summer in Alaska when I heard this beautiful singing bird and it turned out to be my quiet friend. In its breeding grounds, the hermit thrush is known as the songster of the forest.)

Another surprise was that this year the hermit thrush arrived on October 4th. It seemed early and it was. I graphed the arrival dates for the hermit thrush that I have recorded annually since 2001. The vertical axis shows dates with numerical values (November 15 = 11.5).

It's a graphic demonstration of gradual change. The arrival date of the hermit thrush varied dramatically in the first years of the century, fluctuating between mid-October and mid-November. However since 2007 the hermit thrush has been arriving in October. This year was the earliest date I've recorded. 

This corresponds somewhat with our rainfall levels. Since 2007, we have not had the dramatic years of heavy rainfall that we used to have. Another interesting aspect is where did this hermit thrush come from? Did it leave its summer breeding grounds early because of a factor in that far away place?  Is it a different individual bird?

Other migratory birds are passing through and arriving. Last Week. This weekend a female black-throated gray warbler stopped to rest and hunt for insects in the elm tree.

The white-crown sparrows arrived somewhat early too. Interestingly the snowbirds that usually arrive first in our yard are the Oregon juncos, and they have yet to show up. They had been arriving earlier and earlier each September. I wonder what their story is?

Saturday, September 28, 2013

An Oasis of Habitat in Los Angeles

Food, water and shelter–these are the three requirements for all living things. Provide them in your yard and you will create a vital oasis for wildlife.

Taking a suggestion from The California Wildlife Habitat Garden by Nancy Bauer (book review), last weekend I planted a drift of milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). This species of milkweed (also called “blood flower” according the Western Garden Book) is actually native to South America, however it is the easiest species of milkweed to find at garden centers. I planted five plants on a slope, between some native sage and California fuchsia.

caterpillar on the underside of leaf
Milkweed is a host plant for monarch butterflies and apparently my plants came with tiny caterpillars already on them. I found the inch-and-a-half-long caterpillar, pictured above, on the underside of a leaf. (Yellow arrow points to leaf with the caterpillar just visible on the underside.) Because the caterpillars eat the plant leaves, placing several plants together in a “drift” creates a sustainable habitat for the future butterflies.


young white-crowned sparrow in background

This week we also had migratory birds arrive. Three white-crowned sparrows flew in: an adult and two youngsters. I would love to know if the adult is one of the white-crowns that spent the winter here last year. This small family of white-crowns has arrived about a 2 weeks earlier than in past years. I thought they might be traveling through, but they have stayed all week.


'sooty' fox sparrow
A second sparrow species, a ‘sooty’ fox sparrow arrived on Friday. 

This is the first time we’ve had a fox sparrow in the yard since 2000. It seems to have settled in, searching for food under the coffeeberry and hollyleaf and Catalina cherries. The native plants provide habitat that other plants do not.

Especially in the dry weather, the water in the bird bath and the fountain provide much needed water for migrating and local birds. Even birds of prey need a drink in hot weather.

It always amazes me when these migrating visitors stop in our yard. How do they find us? Do they see other birds going in and out of the yard? Do they hear or see the running water in the fountain? Are they attracted to the reptiles or native insects?

Do the butterflies smell the bloom of their favorite plants? This morning a bright yellow butterfly traveled through the yard investigating the milkweed and the flowering mallow. In the past, we have occasionally seen monarch butterflies. Perhaps with our addition of the milkweed we will become a habitat oasis for these butterflies as well.

Monday, September 23, 2013

"The California Wildlife Habitat Garden"

Book Review of

The California Wildlife Habitat Garden; How to attract bees, butterflies, birds and other animals by Nancy Bauer 

2012. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA.

CA native plants in our front garden
We all know it: habitat loss is a major cause of plant and animal diversity decline. Typically, the first examples that come to mind are exotic animals like Asian elephants pushed into diminishing forests by growing human populations in India or China. Some people might think of charismatic golden-lion tamarins, small primates, struggling to share coastal forests with the sprawl of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. But few people, especially those living in California, realize our urban growth is creating similar habitat destruction and decline in our unique California biodiversity.

Nancy Bauer’s book places a well-needed spotlight on creating wildlife habitat specifically in California yards. In five chapters highlighting specific kinds of habitat, she lays out easy to emulate ideas. Each habitat type, whether bird habitat or wildlife pond, includes beautiful photos and a “Garden Profile” of a real garden transformed into a living landscape.

Western swallowtail butterfly on native hollyleaf cherry
If a pollinator garden peaks your interest, succinct appendices provide focused information like “Common California Butterflies and Host Plants” or “Top Nectar and Pollen Plant Families.” The watering and mulching information for “Oaks in the Landscape” provided tips that I hope will help our young oak trees be more healthy in the future.

Whether you are up for a dramatic change or willing to gradually create more natural plantings, Bauer’s book is a well-written and valuable resource. For ten years we’ve been gradually replacing exotic ornamental plants in our garden with California natives. Our water use has dropped and the biodiversity in our yard has tripled. With the native plants have come native insects, followed by the birds and reptiles that prey on those insects. If you create an island of habitat, wild creatures will find your oasis. You’ll not only have the pleasure of experiencing the butterflies and birds, but you will know you are providing them food and shelter vital for their survival.  

Habitat comes in all sizes; Even a few will-chosen host plants on a terrace can create habitat. A couple of “Seasonal Plants for Hummingbirds” will transform a sterile patio. Creating habitat is like drops of water collecting to become a stream. Your small habitat connects with a neighbor’s and gradually we create corridors for wildlife. Be inspired by Bauer’s book to make a positive difference. What species will you help save with your wildlife habitat garden?

Other Book Reviews:
"Life in a Shell"
"Feathers; The Evolution of a Natural Miracle"
"Alex and Me"
"The Geese of Beaver Bog"
"Survival of the Sickest"

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Responding to a Common Threat

This morning I awoke to a family of western scrub-jays vocalizing alarm calls. Looking out the window I was intrigued to see a crowd of birds gathering rather than fleeing. Perhaps they only understood the call to mean “trouble” and they wanted to see the source for themselves or perhaps they comprehended specifically what the scrub-jays were alerting and wanted to verify the veracity of the declaration.

Within moments two adult ravens arrived and they took to immediately hazing the threat that seemed to be about 40 ft up along the trunk of a large eucalyptus tree.  Birds of all shapes and sizes–California towhee, spotted towhee, northern mockingbird, Nuttall’s woodpecker, Bewick’s wren and three Allen’s hummingbirds–gathered to see the troublemaker. Some, like the courageous hummingbirds, flew in and out of the foliage near the threat.

My first thought was: great horned owl. A great horned owl has been hooting from the pine tree in the evening and early morning for most of August. We’ve seen the commotion crows and ravens will make as they try to drive a great horned owl out of a tree.

As the ravens took turns diving past the thick growth covering the tree’s trunk, I could hear rustling and occasional strips of bark falling. Then through the foliage I caught a glimpse of the threat: the masked face of a raccoon. An egg thief had been discovered in its daytime refuge and the birds wanted it gone. The young raccoon was slowly making its way down the tree, trying to find a thick patch of branches to hide in for the day. This teenage raccoon has been prowling the area at night.

The political astuteness of birds always amazes me. A scrub-jay poses a predatory threat to a nesting hummingbird. Scrub-jays chase ravens away from their own nesting territory. But here, the birds all saw the raccoon as a greater threat and they quickly banded together in an alliance against a common foe.

If only we humans could trust our long evolved instincts. When one among us breaks the social contract and kills using agents of mass destruction, the benefit of all should be an aligning force encouraging us to make political alliances of the moment. Those who do not act together against such a threat will all suffer the consequences down the line.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Desert Tortoise with a Friend

This discovery in the garden made me laugh. Our young male California desert tortoise has a friend. Can you spot it?

Yes, there is a young western fence lizard sitting on the tortoise's back. They were both basking in the morning sun. You might think the lizard had mistaken the tortoise for a rock. But I don't think so. When the tortoise walked, the lizard held on. Later in the day, the two were in a different location by side-by-side.

 Interested in turtles and tortoises? I recommend Life in a Shell.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

California Praying Mantis

The praying mantis is a vital garden predator; the equivalent of a mountain lion in the chaparral insect world. As a top predator, it helps to keep a natural balance of pollinating, plant-eating and decomposing insects in our restored habitat.

Too often, these predator insects are imported. I have done it myself at times when native species of praying mantis and ladybugs were rare in our yard. I have also guarded egg casings to help make sure that these predators reproduced in our yard.

When I spotted this praying mantis, it looked unusual. The wide abdomen and short wings made me think it was an introduced species–such as a Chinese mantis or Carolina mantis.

Much to my surprise, the deeper I went in to the Bug Guide, the more I realized this is actually a California mantis (Stagmomantis californica). It has been so long since I have seen one of our natives in the yard, I didn't recognize it. I believe it is a female, because of the large size of the abdomen. (male vs female mantids)

Where did I find this native mantis? It was on one of our native sages, hunting for native insects. Native plants are vital to native insects of all kinds.  

Friday, August 09, 2013

Discovery in the Night Garden

Even at night, the yard is filled with biodiversity to be discovered. This common orb weaver spider was getting an early jump on Halloween and building a foot-wide web along the stairway. This wasn't a chance event. This spider specifically was building its web across an area busy with insects attracted to our porch light.

There was another more unexpected visitor at dusk–a young raccoon.

Its glowing eyes prompted us to call it "zombie coon."

The flash from my friend's camera reflected perfectly off of the raccoon's tapetum lucidum. This is an adaptation that allows night-time creatures to see well in the dark. Light that did not directly strike the retina is reflected off of a substance in the back or along the side wall of the eyeball so that it has a second chance to pass through the retina. This allows the greatest amount of available light to reach the optic nerve for vision. 

Tapetum come in a variety of shapes, are located in a variety of places in the eye and are made of a variety of reflective substances. The amazing thing is that this adaptation has evolved in many different nocturnal animals. Alligators and crocodiles, canines (dogs, wolves, coyotes), felines (cats, big and small), ungulates (prey animals like cattle, antelope, deer), rodents and rabbits, sharks, owls and dolphins all have tapedum. 

As members of Order Carnivora, we think of dogs and cats as being closely related to each other. What fascinates me is that the tapetum in a cat (Tabby or African lion) is formed by riboflavin in the tissue along the sides of the inner eyeball, while a dog's tapetum (terrier or wolf) is formed by zinc crystals in the back of the eye. This is a wonderful example of evolution in these two different branches of Order Carnivora.

Raccoons are in the Suborder Caniformia with canines (the same evolutionary branch) and therefore what you see in the photo is the white light of the flash reflecting off the zinc crystals at the back of the eye and streaming back through the pupil. Amazing isn't it? 

In another example of evolution, the tapetum in members of Order Artiodactyla (hippos, deer, antelope and bovines) is formed by collagen in the back of the eye. Whales and dolphins have a tapetum with the same collagen structure. Fossil evidence and DNA have now demonstrated the close evolutionary relationship between whales and hippos.

Most primates, including humans, are one of the few groups of mammals that do not have tapetum. Without fire, or man-made light, humans do not see well in the dark.

Discovery is all around you!

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Valley Carpenter Bee

It may be hard to believe but the 1/2" diameter holes, that have been bored in the trunk of our bottlebrush tree and in a dead apricot stump, were made by valley carpenter bees (Xylocopa varipuncta).

These large bees are not bumble bees, though they do make a loud buzzing sound. And while they are large in size, only the females have a stinger and they are very reluctant to sting. These are bees you should try to attract to your yard. 

male valley carpenter bee
Carpenter bees are native insects and important pollinators. They are more efficient at pollinating than European honey bees, but these native bees are dependent on some of their food coming from native nectar-bearing plants. Many of our sages evolved with these bees.

female valley carpenter bee
There are several species of carpenter bees in the Los Angeles area, but the valley carpenter bee is the largest–typically an inch long. Females are shiny black while the males are a golden yellow.  These large bees are solitary, they do not form a hive.

 The female valley carpenter bee drills into wood, gnawing with powerful jaws. I've watched them and they seem to gradually rotate so that the hole comes out perfectly round. This tunnel into the wood is where she lays her eggs. She places pollen and nectar at the end of the tunnel and lays an egg. Then she closes off the rear section with a pulp wall. In this manner she creates 5-6 small chambers for larva to develop in the tubular nest. When they mature the young bees gnaw their way out of the tunnel and into the world.
female valley carpenter bee arriving at nest tunnel
Females also tunnel into wood to create a hibernation chamber to sleep away the winter. New males will be born in the spring. 

We regularly see several females and an occasional golden-colored male in our garden. They usually follow a regular schedule, visiting specific parts of the yard at the same time each day.

This spring for the first time, I saw two males at the same time. The males were wrestling mid-air struggling over territory. In the end, one of them went off to find a different location.

I love seeing these big bees in the garden. They are gatherers of abundance, yet they are also vital philanthropists spreading pollen as the foundation of tomorrow's garden. 

Plants for native bees:
small bracted dayflower (Commelina erecta)
giant coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantea)
coffee berry 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Monday, August 05, 2013

California's Native Cherry

Native plants are the basis for creating wildlife habitat. The scarlet blush spreading across the Catalina cherry fruit alerts birds, insects and even mammals that this important native chaparral fruit is ripening.

Frequently introduced fox squirrels will ravage the fruit before it can ripen, but as more of our native plants mature there is more fruit for all of our wild visitors to discover. Today the house finches, hooded orioles and mockingbirds are beginning to enjoy these plump cherries. And of course the plants themselves provide nesting locations for birds (Allen's hummingbird).

The native cherries of California’s chaparral are related to the bing cherries and other varieties that humans cultivate, but these are wild growing plants. The Catalina cherry (Prunis ilicifolia lyonii) is found across the southern California Channel Islands (Santa Cruz Island). It is closely related to the holly-leaved cherry (Prunis ilicifolia ilicifolia) found along coastal hillsides on the mainland. But as the name implies, holly-leaved cherry has a leaf with holly-shaped prickles. The chaparral plant evolved this protection to reduce browsing by deer and other large herbivorous animals.

We have both holly-leaved cherry and Catalina cherry growing in our yard. Their close ancestry means we also have hybrids of the two. The Catalina cherry has evolved over the last 10,000 years without a large herbivore. In the Channel Island ecosystem there was no need to protect its leaves from large browsing animals, so the plant stopped expending energy on prickly leaves. The edges of the leaves are smooth.

Instead the Catalina cherry put more resources into larger fruit to attract the Channel Island fox (Urocyon littoralis). The small omnivorous fox relies on fruit for much of its late-summer-to-autumn diet. It can swallow the large pit of the cherry and transport the seed to areas distant from the parent plant in its scat.

While the fruit of the Catalina cherry looks similar to a cherry you might eat, I had my own moment of discovery when I tasted one. This cherry has not been cultivated to western human tastes. It is edible. The skin is somewhat sweet, but the pale flesh is astringent. Only when it is almost over ripe does it lose its bitterness and become palatable. According to Jan Timbrook in her book, Chumash Ethnobotany, the fruit of the cherry or “islay” was more valuable to the native peoples than acorns.

The fruit was used two ways. On occasion the thin layer of very ripe flesh was eaten directly or was mashed and dried to create a kind of fruit leather. However the most valuable part of the fruit was the seed or pit. Typically the fruit was collected in large quantities and allowed to rot. The flesh was then removed and the pit was cracked open to reveal the seed kernel inside. Like acorns, these kernels were poisonous if eaten directly and they had to be specially treated. The kernels were washed a number of times, either in hot or cold water, to leach away a form of cyanide. Once the bitter-tasting poison was gone the kernels were boiled, made into a mash and formed into balls or cakes. According to Timbrook’s sources the cakes are bean-like in texture and taste. 

So valued were islay cakes that they were frequently placed as offerings at sacred locations.

I wonder how the Chumash discovered the process to take advantage of this resource? Why did they even think the seed was valuable? Did they observe bear, deer, rodents, birds or other animals that made use of this plant?

I have often seen the pits opened and the kernels eaten out by some animal, but I’m not sure who. Still more to be discovered in my own yard.  

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Social Life Among Fence Lizards

We think of lizards as individual creatures, loners. For some lizards that lifestyle is true, like the lace monitor that we saw in Australia. Yet the social life of most lizards is unknown.

Western fence lizards are thought to be territorial, keeping other individuals out of their area unless there is reproduction in the air. But I am starting to wonder about the notion of lone individuals.

These two lizards not only have been sitting on the wall together, when they dashed off the wall they went in the same direction. Baby fence lizards hatched out of their eggs over a week ago after weeks of incubation. Are the adults still in the mating mood? I'm not sure.

More investigation is needed here.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

A Lizard in the House!

Today, a lizard found me again - this time in the house!

hatchling western fence lizard
This hatchling western fence lizard was in the doorway to my office. Though he is only about two inches long, he looks pretty plump. I'm not sure if he has been eating spiders in the corner of my office or if he just wandered in this morning.

We carefully scooped him up and relocated him to the back yard. In Southern California we don't have any lizards that are dangerous. In fact, this little guy is highly beneficial as an insect predator. We want him around, though not in the house.

What's really amazing is how clearly you can see this little guy's "third eye" or parietal eye. It is the small yellowish dot in the center of the back of its head. This slight depression has light sensitive cells that help lizards protect themselves (it alerts them to shadows passing overhead), its provides seasonal information with the amount of daily sunlight and it is important for stimulating hormones and timing reproduction.

A lizard in the house can be surprising, but it is great to have them as part of our healthy ecosystem. 

Friday, August 02, 2013

A Second Chance for Tomatoes

A glance at the tomato plant and all looks dried and done for the summer. Temperatures over a hundred in June and July tinged much of Southern California in brown.

But the last week of cool mornings, has given the tomato a second lease on life. 

I was about to take these plants out, but now I'll just trim and pamper. With luck this discovery will lead to late summer tomatoes!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

When a Fence Lizard and an Alligator Lizard Meet

When you're traveling, discovery comes easily. But wilderness in our own backyards and neighborhoods can offer discovery as well.

I went out this morning looking for something unexpected and two lizards found me. 

Lizards in my yard are not unexpected. Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis) have become abundant over the last 10 years. This year we have already seen at least three new babies. The more native California vegetation we have, the more we attract native insects and the greater the resources for the lizards.

Alligator lizards (Elgaria multicarinata) like the one pictured above, have been resident in our yard since we moved in 19 years ago. But I have never seen these two lizard species interact. 

Fence lizards are sun lovers, frequently basking out in the open. They communicate with each other visually with displays of head bobbing and revealing their blue chests. The alligator lizards, on the other hand, are shy creatures slipping through the shadows and feeding into the night on warm summer evenings.

This morning I happened upon an adult western fence lizard and a sub-adult alligator lizard. The fence lizard was trying to chase the alligator lizard out of its territory. The alligator lizard (about the girth of a pencil and 7"-8" long) took refuge on a branch in a bush about a foot off the ground. It turned, like its namesake, with an open mouth and hissing. It tried to scare off the fence lizard.

It was a miniature primeval world moment - wild lizards unencumbered by the actions of people. I ran to get the camera, but only got a picture of the fence lizard. While the fence lizard is primarily an insect eater, a larger alligator lizard could prey on the two-inch-long western fence lizard hatchlings. 

If you just take a moment to observe, you'll be surprised what you can discover close to home. This August Discover yourself.

(Australian wild lizards, Turkish wild lizards)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Find Your Self This Summer

Summer is a time for reconnecting with your true self. It's not how far you travel, just how open you are to listening and seeing. 

Since I was a child, Alaska and the Yukon Territory of Canada have been a touchstone of pure joy for me. The vast forests and interconnecting waterways offer exploration of nature and spirit. 

We left behind cell phones and computers and traded them in for bird calls and sunsets. 

Some of our discoveries were old friends, like the chocolate lily. The first article I sold to a magazine was about Alaskan flowers and highlighted this contrary lily. Alaskan winters are too harsh for most bee species. Many flowering plants of the north depend on other insect pollinators. The chocolate lily is beautiful, but its scent is horrible. Its aroma of decaying flesh attracts pollinating flies.

Some of the animals we went looking for were huge, but the best way to find the humpback whales was to turn off the boat engine and listen. In the calm air of Icy Strait, just outside Glacier Bay National Park, we could hear the blast of whale spout (their exhalation upon surfacing) over two miles away.

As more and more of us live in cities around the world, we lose touch with our natural state of being. We are part of the ebb of tides, the change of seasons, the gathering of creatures that collect fall berries. The only thing that separates us from the whales and chocolate lilies is that we think we are different. 

Take a walk or sit outside and watch evening fall across the world. Find your touchstone that takes you back to your best self.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Fingerling Potatoes

I love it when something is more successful than I hoped. Voila a bowl of fingerling potatoes.

Sometime in March I discovered the last few potatoes in a bag were a bit beyond eating. I hate that. I hate when food goes to waste.

My friend Douglas Welch at A Gardener’s Notebook stuck a few old potatoes in the ground in his garden and the plants were growing well. So I decided there was nothing to lose. (See our adventure to a local Garden Show).

My six old potatoes were cut into pieces with visible eyes (the beginnings of new plant growth) and stuck in two rows in my raised beds.

I’ve watered them occasionally and added additional soil around them as they grew. Really, it was minimal care. About a week ago some of the plants started dying back. So this morning I went potato digging and what did I find? Fingerling potatoes!

I only dug up about half of the plants and I already have more than twice the amount of potatoes I put in the ground. Potatoes are amazing. And perhaps this is a lesson for me: Potatoes seem to grow well in the soil and amount of light in my vegetable garden. Perhaps this is a crop I should plant more often.

This is what sustainability is all about. Reducing waste, growing food in a minimal footprint. Tonight we will have fresh potatoes for dinner. It is a good start to the day.