Monday, April 12, 2021

The Joys of Providing Wildlife Habitat


This morning some traveling friends stopped in for breakfast. Three migrating black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus) were at the bird feeder. (A female is sitting on the right side of the tube feeder above.) They have spent the winter in Mexico or Central America and now they are headed north. They may nest somewhere near-by or they may migrate all the way up to British Columbia, Canada.

It's rewarding to know that they can find our oasis of habitat in the sprawling suburbs of Los Angeles. For more than ten years, black-headed grosbeaks have been stopping here for food and water as they pass through in April and then again in late July or August as they head south. I know this because I keep track in a bird journal.


Especially when the California hillsides are dryer than they should be, our yard provides food, water, and shelter for these migrants to stop and rest for a few days. 

The birds who live here year round are nesting. The native plants are providing nectar for at least four nesting Allen's hummingbirds. 


These Allen's hummingbird chicks hatched on April 10th. (The nest wasn't finished when the first egg was laid.) If you look closely you can see the bits of eggshell inside the nest cup just to the left and above the naked chick.


Two full days old and the chicks still have closed eyes, but they raise their little beaks to be fed whenever a shadow falls across the nest. (See the tiny beak raised for food.) This nest is on our patio. 


Another female nesting in a native hollyleaf cherry shrub in the front yard urged her fully feather chicks to fly on April 10th. (She has been successfully nesting in our yard for several years.)

So far in 2021 we've had four Allen's hummingbird nesting attempts. Two were successful - one with one chick and the other with two chicks.

Creating wildlife habitat is vital for migrating and nesting birds. Too much of their native habitat has been developed and changed. We have watched our yard transform from a sterile suburban yard to a small wildlife reserve. Birds in California face a huge loss of habitat due to development and climate change. You can make a difference with native plants and water.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Cymbidium Orchids - Thriving in CA with Sublime Neglect


The cymbidium orchids began to open their blooms yesterday. 

It is amazing how a plant can thrive with sublime neglect if it is in the right place. This yellow cymbidium was cultivated by my husband's grandfather over 40 years ago, before cloning made orchids abundant. It was one of the few orchids in his vast collection that stayed in the family after he passed away. 


We've been lucky to find the right micro-climate in our yard where it flourishes without much attention. Living in the San Fernando Valley, hot summers might wilt or scorch this specimen, but we have an area in the yard we call "the canyon." Part of a natural stream bed, it is the "v" where two north-facing slopes meet. It can become an actual stream in a down pour. 

Here a native elderberry, hollyleaf cherry, and a redwood tree (a previously living Christmas tree) are growing well and providing mottled shade most of the day. The orchid gets just enough sun to burst into bloom each spring.

I don't feed it. I don't bring it in during the winter; other plants protect it from possible frost. It gets rainfall or water once or twice a week. It currently has four flower spikes.

native hollyleaf cherry
 

When I fail with various native plants, I blame myself. The most common reason for a plant to fail is that it just isn't in the right place. Southern California yards can have a range of micro-climates. The front of our north-facing house has pockets where the plants never have direct sun: cool dry shade. The very top of our hill slope has an area that experiences direct sun most of the year combined with heavy clay soil that repels water: hot dry sun. The hollyleaf cherry can survive in both micro-climates, but most plants can't. 

Even a change in the other plants can alter a micro-climate creating opportunity for plants that weren't thriving before: Cistus begins blooming.


Success can help us repeat success - a second cymbidium has joined the elder honorable bloomer and it too is thriving. If a plant is struggling, don't be afraid to move it. We planted a desert willow in the canyon and it wasn't happy. Out on the front slope it has doubled its size. Maybe we've found the right place for it. 

Native plants are by definition in the right place. They have native pollinators and are accustom to California's weather patterns. Find the right place for them in your yard and they too will thrive with sublime neglect.

 Orchids in the Yard and Upclose 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Book Review: "Braiding Sweetgrass" by Robin Wall Kimmerer

I heard about this book through some independent booksellers on the PBS Newshour. While it isn't brand new, it is vital reading if you want to make a positive difference in the world.

Braiding Sweetgrass; Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Milkweed Editions 2013

Imagine how different the daily operations of our federal government might be if each convening of the U.S. Congress began with our elected officials first agreeing that all people and all living things had the right to clean air, clean water, and a sustainable life. How could they build solutions, if they agreed that the water had an obligation to be clean and to flow naturally so that it could play the roll it was meant to play for the planet and for the living beings. How different would we look at our planet if we saw ourselves as part of its natural processes and not separate from them?


Robin Wall Kimmerer is that rare human who lives both in the world of modern science and indigenous culture. Can the two intertwine and compliment one another? Kimmerer reveals her own path to combining new knowledge with ancient wisdom. She provides insight from ancient language that can name challenges our English language has no words for. 

There is no lecturing here, but there are challenges to a Western European mindset of conquer and subjugate. The Earth gives all that it can to us, what do we give back?

hummingbird nest in native Catalina cherry
 

This book has won a spot on my nightstand. I know that I will go back to it time and again, finding greater depth in my understanding and discovering new layers in its wisdom. For now, I have put my hands back into the earth to grow some of my own food. I renew my efforts to bring native plants into my yard to feed and shelter the flying families and "four-legged peoples." I will tend my "standing people" because the trees provide shade from the summer heat and clean the air for us all. 

Channel Island fox
 

"Reciprocal" is the word you will walk away with. In Kimmerer's stories I found insights into my own relationship with island fox conservation and the human relationship with island foxes.

What will you find in these pages to enlighten your own journey? 

 

 

 

 

Other Book Reviews:

"The Big Ones" by Lucy Jones

"Life in a Shell" by Donald C. Jackson

"Feathers; The Evolution of a Miracle" by Thor Hansen

"The Geese of Beaver Bog" by Bernard Heinrich

    

Monday, March 22, 2021

Hummingbird Egg Laid Today

I'm always happy when I find a new Allen's hummingbird nest. I know this egg was laid this morning because it wasn't there yesterday. A second egg will probably be laid tomorrow or the next day. It typically takes 19 days for them to hatch.

Allen's hummingbird nest P1-3/22/2021

This nest is actually last year's patio nest refurbished. The nest is a bit incomplete and even unstable, but that is a trait of this female. She is a bit haphazard in her building and her mothering. I knew she was rebuilding the nest, but it didn't seem finished. The egg this morning caught me by surprise.

This female was successful with her first nest last year. The second attempt both chicks perished just after hatching and the third attempt came too late in the season. The chicks did not survive the multiple days of temperatures over 100 degrees that we had in late June into July. Despite our attempts to provide shade, the heat was too much.

We've had two nesting attempts by other Allen's hummingbirds this season. One chick successfully fledged on March 14th. The other nest with two chicks was taken by an unknown predator. March is typically when second nesting attempts are started, but we are way behind the 5 successful chicks by March 2019. Nests 2019

The weather has been cold. Most females have waited to nest.

I discovered a fourth nest a few days ago, in a location also previously used. This female has a type "A" personality. Her nest is pristine. She was on the nest constantly for the past four days. She was keeping hatchlings warm in our cooler than usual weather. So on this first Monday in spring - one hummingbird egg and two tiny chicks. 

Spotting hummingbird nests 

Monday, March 15, 2021

Lawn Shrimp - Really I'm Not Kidding


Have you ever moved a pot on your damp California patio and seen quarter-inch-long critters hopping away? They look something like shrimp, but propel themselves on hopping legs–sort of like a flea. 

For years we've seen these tiny creatures and wondered: What are they?

It just happens that new findings on island fox diet on the Channel Islands is showing that island foxes are eating small hopping crustaceans on the beach called "beach hoppers." These little guys are the critters erroneously labeled "sand fleas." Beach hoppers are decomposers. They live in burrows in the sand and eat kelp washed up on the beach. Find out more about island foxes at islandfox.org.

I wondered if the crustaceans in my backyard were related to these beach hoppers.

They are, but it turns out they are exotic relations. They are known as "lawn shrimp"–kind of a fun name. Arcitalitrus sylvaticus is in the same family as the native beach hoppers that we see on CA beaches, but the lawn shrimp is native to southern Australia.

It is believed these Australian crustaceans arrived in California in the early 1900s in the damp soil surrounding blue gum eucalyptus that were being imported and planted as wind breaks on ranches and agricultural land. While most of those large old eucalyptus trees are gone, their descendants and the lawn shrimp are still with us.

As decomposers, lawn shrimp contribute to the breakdown of organic matter into the soil. They are not known to have a negative ecological impact. In fact, some birds may eat them. 

Despite being crustaceans, these little gals drown in water. When moisture levels fluctuate, the lawn shrimp move from soggy soil to sidewalks, where they escape drowning but may become dehydrated and die. When it is dry, they may end up in pools or water dishes and drown. 

While they may come into buildings to escape too much rain, they pose no threat to people or pets. They perish quickly in dry areas and turn red when they die. That's when they really look like "shrimp." 

Other creatures displaced by rain:

spider 

salamander

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Allen's Hummingbird Nest Taking Form

It isn't the prettiest nest, but this Allen's hummingbird is on day 8 of building her nest.

Allen's hummingbird nest on wisteria vine 3/15/2020
Three other Allen's females fledged their chicks between Feb. 27 and March 7th. The dry weather helped the five viable eggs all hatch and five chicks successfully flew from the nests. (Two pairs and one singleton)

This nest is part of the second round of chicks in 2020. It is nice to watch a positive bit of life happening in the yard.

So far 2020 is a much more productive year. 
The girls were challenged in 2019. 
The chicks of 2018 

Rescuing a baby hummingbird

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Living Christmas Tree With A Twist

A living tree has become a tradition for us. For the past twelve years we have pulled a potted living tree into the house for the winter holiday season.

First we had a blue spruce, which became lovely and wild looking. A California redwood came in for six years running. Then last winter we planted the redwood in the yard, where she is doing very well.

This year we couldn't find a redwood small enough for the house. A spruce or fir might be pretty, but our longer, hotter summers make it impossible to put one of these conifers into the ground successfully.

What to do?


We put on our creative hats and thought outside of the box. What could we find that would live in a pot for five or six years and then join our wildlife habitat yard?

We considered:
  • Catalina ironwood - beautiful, but it was already too big
  • Podocarpus - possible, but not native
  • cedar - lovely, but it was going get very big
  • juniper - lovely, but more bush like than tree 

 Ultimately, we decided on a juniper. The juniper will be quite pruneable and we chose a female that will provide berries for wildlife. 

A live tree is a sustainable tree. It will be planted in the yard and continue to do its job sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, and providing food and shelter for wildlife.

We have a tree in the house to bring wildness into our home. It is so much more magical when that tree (or bush) continues to be part of your life for years to come. 
 

This spunky juniper looks lovely in its holiday decoration. Think outside of the box and bring a living holiday plant into your life.

Other live Christmas Trees:
Stone pine