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"