Thursday, December 21, 2006

Last Minute Gift

Today is the shortest day of the year. Have you been outside today? Did you take a minute to stop and revel in the splendor of the natural world around you?

Whether it is a geranium in winter, a wisp of white cloud or a relationship with a loved one, life is fragile. The soft gray mourning dove on the bird feeder today may be a Cooper’s hawk’s lunch tomorrow.

It is easy to take for granted the tree you walk by every day, the spider in the corner, the family member that is only a phone call away.

If you are rushing to buy those last minute gifts, ask yourself “Why?” If your answer is “To prove you love them.” Stop.

Love doesn’t come in a box.

Love is time together. Love is listening. Love is placing value on a relationship itself.

In the new year, put your efforts toward protecting and preserving the things you cherish–your family, friends and this planet that nurtures us all.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Podcast Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 2

Recently we spent two Saturdays at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve birding for shorebirds. 75% of the bird species in North America migrate and a large number of these species are shorebirds. Part of what makes Bolsa Chica so exciting is the variety of birds that pass through or who come to spend the winter. Some of these birds fly all the way from Canada and Alaska.

You might ask, “What is so special about a reddish egret?”

“What does a little island of dry ground with sandpipers have to do with Bolsa Chica?”

Or “What are those willets doing?”

Listen to
our first PodCast - Bolsa Chica Audio Adventure and find out.

Click Here to listen to the Podcast!

Bolsa Chica located along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, CA.

The pathways are easily accessible and the birds are close. Give the Gift of Tranquility - Take your loved ones to go watch the birds for an hour.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 1

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California is a one of Southern California’s birding gems. We spent a morning there learning to identify the variety of shorebirds. Sometimes this can be a tricky task because many of these migrating birds are visiting Southern California when they are in their drab non-breeding coloration. That means you have to look harder at their behavior, their beaks and feet.

Some birds like the long-billed curlew have a very distinctive feature.
The long downward curving beak on this large shore bird helps it stand out in a crowd. To the far left of the two curlews is a willet in its winter plumage. A somewhat larger sandpiper, gray with a medium-length, straight beak, the willet may not stand out at first, but in flight they flash very distinctive bands of black and white on their wings.

The whimbrel is the most widespread member of the curlew family in North America. It’s long bill also droops downward, but it isn’t as long as the long-billed curlew and the lower mandible or lower part of the beak is pinkish at the base. The whimbrel typically forages alone and, while small groups may fly together, they do not tend to mix with other species. We saw this individual foraging on its own. The whimbrel has two bold dark stripes separated by white at the crown of the head. The whimbrel also tends to probe around with its beak more than the other curlews as it looks for food in the mud.

Tiny sandpipers like the western sandpiper and the least sandpiper can be a real challenge. The large flocks at Bolsa Chica that swirl like schools of fish, are mostly western sandpipers. Westerns tend to flock in larger groups than the least sandpiper. But a large flock can sometimes have several different species milling together. If you see them feeding on the shoreline, the western sandpiper has black legs while the least sandpiper has pale greenish-yellow legs. Both are brownish on the top and white-bellied.

CLICK HERE to WATCH a flock of sandpipers.

Bolsa Chica is a wonderful place to experience sandpipers, ducks, pelicans and more. Give the Gift of Adventure this Holiday Season. Take your loved ones to a nature preserve and explore.

More Information and Directions to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve.

Next week we’ll post our first
AnimalBytes PodCast - Bolsa Chica Audio Adventure

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Birds and the Art of War

There is wisdom in an owl sitting motionless in a tree, wisdom and a lesson to be learned.

It was a seemingly quiet morning. A few mourning doves and house finches dabbled at the feeder. A band-tailed pigeon perched on the precarious tip of a slender cypress along a nearby driveway. Up the hill in the neighbor’s yard, a lone scrub jay called with urgency.

The jay’s alarm squawks became frantic, a second scrub jay joined in. Then a harsh “caw” took up the warning. Within minutes a single crow became a mob of 20.

High in the upper branches of a young eucalyptus tree perched a dark brown figure. Crows rushed the dark villain. Their sleek black bodies plunged toward the still figure but always maintained a safe six-foot distance. Other crows sat like glossy sentinels in adjoining trees cawing raspy threats. The air became a kaleidoscope of black wings and pointed beaks.

At first I thought one of the red-shouldered hawks was using the tree as a vantage point; frequently crows will mob a hawk and drive it off. But the shadowy bird in the tree didn’t move, didn’t give any ground.

The crows grew to a murder of 40. Black voices raked through the air.

This threat was personal, it was a great horned owl.

HEAR the Crow Alarm Calls.

The great horned owl is one of the few creatures that poses a threat to crows. In the dark of night, this large bird of prey can steal a sleeping crow right off its perch. Identifying danger in their midst, the crows were determined to drive away the predator while the light of day still offered them protection.

And here is where the situation became more than just black birds squawking. Typically, scrub jays do not share space with crows by choice. Crows, after all, are known to take the hatchlings of smaller birds as food for their own youngsters. Similarly, crows and ravens compete for territory. I have watched the local family of 15 - 20 crows mob the pair of ravens that have been checking out real estate in our neighborhood. Jays, crows and ravens are all intelligent birds and they prefer to keep their distance from the competition.

But in the owl, these birds had a common foe. The pair of scrub jays did not have the size or number to drive off the great horned owl. The jays not only attracted the attention of the crows, they continued to work alongside the crows aiding in the harassing cacophony. The crows sent for reinforcements, extended family members arrived, expanding their usual number well beyond 40. If the mob could press the owl out of the tree and into the air, they could drive it off, chase it out of their territory.

After an hour of constant effort, most of the crows moved on. But the owl was not forgotten, four stouthearted defenders perched in the tree encircling the threat. Throughout the day, crows arrived to take their turn at the watch.

The owl moved closer to the tree trunk, its tawny feet with dagger-like talons gripping the smooth gum bark.

By 3:00 PM the day was slipping away. The approaching night brought renewed urgency. The black mass returned and they brought with them the calvary, ravens. Bigger and bolder, one raven flew right into the treetop. With menace it croaked and waved its pointed beak within a foot of the owl. Several times it rushed the quiet predator, while crows raucously filled the air. Still, the owl did not move.

Here it was, two forces in direct opposition. Each side knew themselves and their abilities. The jays, crows and ravens looked danger in the face and declared its presence. They put aside their conflicts of similarity and banded together against a shared threat. The crows had the strength of numbers. If they could maintain their harassment of the enemy, they might be able to unsettle the owl, press it to make a mistake and take to the air. On the wing in daylight, the owl would be playing by the crows’ rules, they might gain the upper hand.

But the owl knew the best strategy for a lone predator was patience. Its back was safely against the tree trunk. Its sharp talons and beak posed a great enough threat to keep even the large raven at bay. If the owl could maintain its position, it was safe. The harassment and threats never ruffled its soft brown feathers.

On this day the owl prevailed, it stayed on its eucalyptus perch until evening drove the crows to roost.

Know your enemy and know yourself. Fight your battle, not your opponents. Study the travails of others, bird or human, strategy is strategy.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Project FeederWatch

It’s that time of year again! Not Halloween, not autumn, not back-to-school.

It is FeederWatch time!

All across North America, backyard scientists are cleaning up their bird feeders, restocking their bird seed and preparing for a winter of counting native birds for Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch.

Project FeederWatch offers a unique opportunity for anyone with a willingness to participate: the chance to be a citizen scientist collecting valuable scientific data on wild birds. In backyards and school yards across the continent, people like you are vital to gathering information on migratory bird movement and population density.

Field biologists can only be in a limited number of locations, informed citizens can provide valuable eyes and ears for science. Data collected by school children and birding hobbyists for Project FeederWatch has identified specific bird species expanding their territory north in response to climate change. Last year varied thrushes were documented further east than ever before and western hummingbird species were spotted on the east coast. Observations at bird feeders typically identify the first outbreaks of avian disease and provide vital information on the pattern by which the disease spreads.

Scientists around the world use Project FeederWatch’s 20 years of data to study population cycles, migration patterns and the effects of human activity on the natural world.

Can you make a difference counting birds visiting a feeder on your apartment balcony? YES!

When your sightings are combined with those of thousands of other FeederWatchers, every bird you see, or don’t see, helps scientists have a more complete picture of bird populations across the country.

Even if you are just beginning to recognize your local birds, your observations are valuable. In October I gave a workshop on how to participate in Project FeederWatcher at the Wild Birds Unlimited store in Woodland Hills, CA.

In its 20th year, Project FeederWatch needs you more than ever. Whether you count on a ranch, an office balcony or a school yard, information on wild birds is vital to understanding the effects of global warming, how avian flu might travel across the country and, most importantly, the health of our planet. Wild birds travel around the globe, they are “the canaries in the coal mine.”

The effect of West Nile virus is decreasing in my neighborhood. How do I know? Because I have been a FeederWatcher for six years. We went from seeing scrub jays every time we counted to recording NONE for 2 years. Now, we see an occasional young pair. The scrub jays are making a come back. The ruby-crowned kinglet has returned for the winter, but this time it has a friend. I have come to know the birds that visit my yard as neighbors and individuals. Get to know your wild neighbors and Make A Difference–count birds for Project FeederWatch.

To learn more about Project FeederWatch or to register, visit or call the Lab toll-free at (800) 843-2473. In return for the $15 fee that supports the program ($12 for Lab members) participants receive the FeederWatcher’s Handbook, a poster of the most common feeder birds, a calendar, complete instructions, a subscription to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s newsletter, BirdScope, and the FeederWatch Winter Bird Highlights. The season runs from November 11 to April 6, and participants may join at any time.

It’s our 20th year, and we’re counting on citizen scientists to help us track birds for the next 20 years.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Beauty of Monarchs and Jerusalem Crickets

Beauty comes in many forms. For me the Jerusalem cricket is just as beautiful as the monarch butterfly. I know. You think I’m crazy. How can I compare the delicate finery of a dazzling butterfly with its bold black-and-orange stripes and clown-like, white polka-dotted body to the naked brown of an earth-burrowing, spiky-toed “potato bug.”

It’s easy really, if you get to know them as individuals.

Yes, the monarch floats through the air on elegant wings, but look closer. The monarch sipping from my buddleja has been around the block. There is a chunk missing from its right lower wing–possibly a bite taken by a predator during the summer. This tough guy is probably headed to a temperate spot to spend the winter with some of his buddies.

The black dot in the thicken stripe on his posterior wings, shows that this is a male. Those dots are scent glands. Each flutter of his wings spreads a pheromone calling card to females looking for love. He doesn’t beat his wings to look angelic, his agenda is sex.

Can you really call him delicate? No. I have helped tag pugnacious monarchs. They are strong little creatures that wriggle and push their way out of your grasp. Rub the colored scales off their wing and the resulting clear chitin window provides a resilient surface for a stick-on tag. This monarch is a tough guy, a scrapper, a butterfly that can migrate hundreds of miles one 6-inch wingspan at a time.

Now look again at the Jerusalem cricket. Her glossy round, honey-colored head with small brown eyes can look somewhat human, hence the name “NiƱas de la Tierra” or earth child. Many in the Hispanic community see her head as skull-like, a death head. But she isn’t poisonous, she isn’t a killer. Typically the Jerusalem cricket spends her days underground in moist soil emerging at night to munch on plant roots and decaying matter. Some call her potato bug, though this female wouldn’t touch potato.

I had this girl in captivity for two weeks while I was teaching a class on arthropods. We found her out for a late night stroll hunting for a suitor. Jerusalem crickets don’t waft their scent like butterflies, instead they drum their abdomens on the ground to call in a mate with irresistible tribal tunes. Each subspecies drums their own rhythm.

During the day, she slept buried in dirt. Her diurnal slumber was deep. The first time I checked her during the day, I thought she had perished. When she awoke with a start, we both jumped. Once I understood her routine, I knew to expect this party girl wasn’t raring to go until 10:00 at night.

Yes, she has large jaws which could give you a nip, but she needs them to gnaw. Of the food we offered, carrots were her favorite. Her feet are spiky and her claws can appear threatening if she is flipped on her back. But a Jerusalem cricket is a tasty high-protein snack for a skunk, bat or island fox. She needs those claws for digging, climbing and protecting herself. She isn’t toxic like the monarch.

While her carmel-colored body appears slightly chunky, her long flexible antennae wave about with the fluidity of a Hawaiian dancer. With six legs in motion, she moves rapidly, especially on a smooth surface.

She was at her most beautiful, however, climbing over bark and branches, making her way back into the night when we released her. Her clawed feet purposefully carried her across the rough terrain. Her antennae flicked out in front of her recognizing the nooks and crevasses of her neighborhood.

Both the monarch and the Jerusalem cricket are adapted perfectly for the lives they lead, I can’t think of a better definition of beauty.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Effects of the Day Fire

Is a wild fire 50 miles away really effecting the birds in my backyard? Yes.

The “Day Fire,” which began on Labor Day and grew to be one of the largest wildfires in Southern California history, continues to smolder. Over 200,000 acres have burned, much of it in the Los Padres National Forest. NASA photo from space.

Sunday, another white-crowned sparrow arrived. After gobbling down some food, the tiny wanderer hopped into the bird bath and scrubbed. When it was done, a scum of ash floated on the water.

The white-crowned sparrows, migrating south, seem to be traveling through the ash cloud and/or the charred hillsides of the Day Fire. Perhaps that is why we are seeing individuals and not the family groups that typically arrive together. The fire has added to the rigors of their migration.

Fire greatly alters the terrain. Roads and access to much of Los Padres National Forest remain restricted because of continuing fire danger and possible landslides. Even before the rains arrive, landslides threaten water drainage and habitat for invertebrates, amphibians and fish.

Few structures were consumed in the “Day Fire” due to the tireless efforts of firefighters, but the home range of many plants and the foraging area of countless animals have been greatly altered.

Interestingly, the arriving warblers, a Townsend’s and numerous yellow-rumped, are clean. They must be traveling a different route, possibly along the coast.

What a challenge it must be for a small migratory bird to travel countless miles with hopes of stopping in the wilderness of Los Padres Forest, only to find the streams are clouded with dirt and ash, the plants and insects are gone, and the oasis they planned on is a charred landscape. How many perish unable to continue their journey?

The juncos and the hermit thrush have yet to arrive. I can’t help but wonder if the fire will have an effect on them?

Monday, October 09, 2006

White-Crowned Sparrows Arrive

Perhaps people in Southern California overlook the changing seasons because we have surrounded ourselves with plants and animals from other environments that don’t reflect California's natural landscape. Reintroducing native plants to our hillside has magnified our appreciation of the changing seasons.

This afternoon I had a distinctly California-autumn moment. As I stood on the path, a Bewick’s wren hopped up from the ground to snatch dried fruit from between the carmel-brown leaves of a native ribes (wild current). The tiny dried currents were few, but they were the food of choice for the diminutive wren. Dried leaves crunched ever so slightly beneath the bird’s light steps.

Finding only a few morsels, the Bewick’s wren then flew up into a feeder dish to check out what I had made available.

Friday morning, Oct. 6, the white-crowned sparrows returned for the winter. An adult and a juvenile have been sitting high in the lavatera. In the mornings the adult calls loudly.

These seasonal visitors are about a week late. Last year they arrived on September 22 and in 2004 they appeared on September 30. Usually, a small family shows up together. I can’t help but wonder it their delay is related to the appearance of only two birds. Did something happen to the white-crown’s mate? Was there more than one offspring? Will we see the rest of the family appear in the next few days?

It must be time to travel south, because a female black-headed grosbeak stopped in on Saturday. She ate, rested all day in the tree mallow, ate some more, and then continued on her journey. Now I’m keeping an eye out for our other winter residents, the dark-eyed juncos and the hermit thrush.

The desert tortoises have found their favorite winter burrows and are close to settling in for a long sleep.

The male red-shouldered hawk has returned to roost each night in the pine trees. Apparently his fathering duties are over for the year. The Cooper’s hawk however is not happy about the potential competition. This afternoon it tried to chase off the larger hawk.

Autumn is a season of change. Perhaps that is why it is my favorite time of year. Each morning has a crisp edge of possibility.

Early this AM autumn offered a surprise. Coyotes frequent our neighborhood most of the year, but this morning we had a new predator in between our suburban homes. Around 4 AM the dog ran outside to bark. In the middle of the street stood a reasonably-sized bobcat.

It could be a lack of available wild water or the abundance of small prey milling around suburban homes. My hope is that some wild creatures are adapting to survive in a world choked with humans. The wild is adapting to us, can we adapt to them? Can we put aside having to be the dominant creature and find a way to just be good neighbors?

I’m going to plant more wild current and scatter some native grass seed. What are you going to do to be a good neighbor?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Autumn Watch

It has begun.

Signs of autumn are accumulating even here in Southern California.

The sycamore leaves are fringed in golden brown. Lesser goldfinches are increasing at the feeder. Green berries are forming on the toyon, the air tastes of dusty pollen and the poison oak is putting on its cloak of cautionary red.

I’m not the only one noticing the seasonal change, the desert tortoises are contemplating winter lodgings. And across Britain people are watching for ripening blackberries and flowering ivy. They aren’t just taking note, they are recording scientific data on 6 specific natural signs that autumn has come to the British Isles.

After the success of a BBC program Springwatch, that chronicled and monitored the arrival of spring, the same producers are now gearing up for Autumnwatch.

This is true reality programming. Naturalists, biologists and researchers pointing out the changing season and inviting viewers to participate - to collect data on:
  1. first ripe blackberry
  2. first ripe conker (a type of nut)
  3. last black swift sighted (migrating bird)
  4. first flowering of ivy
  5. first ripe hawthorn berry
  6. first sign of color change in oak leaves.

Findings are posted to the BBC’s Autumnwatch website

Here you can also follow the travels of ten individual brent geese as they migrate south. Radio transmitters allow researchers and the public to monitor the geeses’ progress and understand the perils these birds face in their long-distance seasonal commute. When I checked today, strong winds had forced several of the birds to remain in Greenland. They will have to wait for the weather to improve before heading on to Iceland.

In my mind this is what television and the internet should be, a creator of community.

The AutumnWatch community isn’t meeting around the water cooler or the school bench to discuss the huge explosion at end of episode one. They are comparing notes about the world they are actually a part of, “Is the hawthorn ripe yet at your house?”

Here in California our markers for the season are vastly different than 5, 000 miles away in Britain. Or are they? Fruiting plants, turning leaves, the arrival and departure of migratory birds and hibernation of certain species for the winter.

For centuries, marking the seasons was a vital part of human cultures. But today our modern lifestyle has become a run through the year. We hesitate only to nod at the winter holidays with a focus on being good consumers and to wink at spring just long enough to binge on a second spate of purchasing. Ironically these “religious” holidays are placed in their positions on the calendar to coincide with the seasonal celebrations they usurped.

There is nothing in the celebration of Autumn that says ”go forth and purchase.” Quite the contrary the celebration of the harvest is a rejoicing in the bounty provided by the Earth - appreciating what you have.

I am a bit envious of the Autumnwatchers in Britain. I want to be part of their community, working together to collect information on the moments of autumn unfolding around them, coming together to share that information and understanding more about the planet as it is and as it is changing.

In my mind the world could only be better if we all took time to note the everyday signs of autumn and then came together to share the wonders we have seen.
Go out into your yard, your neighborhood, and LOOK. Are leaves of autumn appearing? Is the ivy forming flowers? LISTEN. Has a winter bird arrived? Take a deep breath. The air is different as autumn rolls across the land. How does it feel on you face? How does it smell? Share your perceptions with others.

Let’s build a community that rejoices in the beautiful realities of our planet.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A Family of California Quail

Let me start by saying, “We do not live in a rural area.” Our house is two short blocks from a major boulevard and one of the busiest highways in the country, the Ventura or 101 FreeWay. Topographically, our backyard nestles into a small canyon, but all of our fences are shared with other yards. Beyond the neighbors up the hill, streets and houses stretch out for a half mile before you reach the chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains.

The other afternoon as we worked in the yard, we heard a bubbling birdcall. There, moving through the shrubs and trailing down the steps into the yard, was a family of California quail (Callipepla californica). Father, with his dark brown cap and dangling topknot, was in the lead. Behind him trailed four medium-sized chicks and mom.

While we watched with silent excitement, they explored beneath our young oak and sampled morsels between the toyon and holly cherry. Within minutes they located the scraps beneath the bird feeder and scratched at the ground searching for seed.

For three consecutive days the little family stopped in for a meal. One morning, as we watched, they demonstrated the difference in their survival skills and those of our other feeder birds.

A young California towhee swooped toward the feeder. A mourning dove mistook the diving towhee for a hawk. Doves, house finches and lesser goldfinches scattered.

The quail froze.

They stood still as stones. Whatever position they had been in, they held for five minutes. Finally, when a house finch returned to the feeder above them, father quail turned his head and slowly the crew of six began moving again.

How and why have these quail wandered out of the hills? I hear they tend to explore in the late summer when raising their brood. Perhaps they were looking for food or water.

The other factor may be cats, or the lack there of. Eight years ago we had a cat that spent his days outside. Our neighbors had a cat. The woman four houses down had five cats. Today, neighborhood cats are kept indoors. The threat from coyotes has become too great. The unforeseen benefit has been that without cats prowling the neighborhood, quail have been able to reestablish themselves in the lower foothills and feel safe dining in our suburban backyard.

For ground-nesting birds and other small creatures removing an exotic predator, like the domestic cat, can make the difference between extinction and survival. Without the cats present, a cottontail rabbit freely hops along its evening rounds between a couple of neighbor houses. Alligator lizards prowl beneath our roses while fence lizards doze in the sun on the wall.

California quail make the 62nd bird species we’ve seen in our yard.

While the family only stayed a short while before heading back up into the hills, I’m hoping they will remember our oasis of native habitat. I love the notion of living in one of the world’s largest cities and having wild quail in my backyard.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bats In Los Angeles


Dance of a butterfly.

Bite of a fox.

Flutter of leathery wings.

Airborne wolves,

Stalking moth and mosquito,

Skimming through marmalade skies.

Mysterious, malicious, misunderstood. Why is it that Western culture thinks so poorly of bats? These hunters and pollinators of the night are vital for controlling populations of insects, especially mosquitos, and instrumental in pollenating fruit crops like banana, mango and avocado. Mother bats are devoted to their offspring and some species will provide food to injured individuals even if they are unrelated, a trait all too infrequent among humans.

Two out of every 10 species of mammals are bats–only rodents are represented by more species. I’ve seen bats at twilight in Istanbul, skimming over a lake in northern Canada, and a friend saw one from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Bats are found globally except at the poles.

As a child in Los Angeles, I watched them slip in and out of pools of lamplight in the park snatching insects on the fly. Now when I walk at dusk, I see only one or two bats patrolling our neighborhood streets. As mosquito-born diseases, like West Nile virus and malaria, become growing threats you would think people would embrace mosquito predators like bats. Instead, the shortsighted solution is to spray toxins that effect the food web and have short-term effects on the mosquitos.

Bats can live ten to twenty years, with a documented longevity of thirty-two years for a wild little brown bat, while mosquitos typically live 10-100 days. Kill off a generation of bats and mosquitos at the same time and the mosquitos will be back in swarms before the bats can attempt to recover. The resilience of insects to toxins makes this situation even worse. Even the U.S. Center for Disease Control states “There are over 125 mosquito species with documented resistance to one or more insecticides.”

Are there any mosquitos with resistance to bats? No.

A few years ago a mixed colony of big brown bats, little brown bats and Brazilian free-tailed bats were discovered at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens. Here, in the heart of Los Angeles, 100 - 150 bats set out on their summer-evening foray into Griffith Park and along the Los Angeles River to hunt insects.

It isn’t the spectacle of Carlsbad Caverns or Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, Texas, but watching the small colony emerge in the twilight is exciting. This was the second year Zoo Docents have hosted a Bird & Bat Walk for Zoo members.

Each of the three nights unfolded with similar magic:

As twilight approaches a few bats drop from their daytime roost. An electronic “bat detector” lowers the frequency of the bats' ultrasonic vocalizations to clicks so we can hear them. A few scattered clicks alert us to the emerging “scouts.” They take a look around and then signal to the colony. If the air space is safe, if the barn owl or great horned owl isn’t perched nearby waiting, the clicks will become constant and over the next 10 minutes the majority of the bats will embark on their night of hunting.

Watching bats is something I could do every night. So we have put up a bat box in hopes of attracting our mosquito-eating neighbors. We’ll keep you posted.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Bird Houses and Nesting Birds

Some people can put out a bird house and have it occupied immediately. I call that blind luck. I’ve tried a number of bird houses: wooden, gourd, rope, square, round, oblong.

I’ve had woodpeckers spend the day enlarging an entrance hole, only to have a mate take one look at the structure and say “Ummm, no.”
Last year the male Bewick’s wren built a nest in both a gourd and a coiled “lasso” bird house, but the female was not impressed with either.

For three years I’ve been putting out a titmouse house. The oak titmouse is a smallish gray bird with a crest. As cavity nesters who do not make the cavity themselves, the titmouse is dependent on finding old woodpecker cavities in dead trees. Such real estate is hard to find. City-dwelling humans readily cut down old and dead trees. With few nesting sites, the oak titmouse is in decline in southern California.

With this in mind, I purchased a bird house specifically designed to meet the needs of the titmouse pair that frequent my backyard. Many birds have a preference when it comes to bird house size, opening diameter, location height, and the direction the opening faces.

I came across a Cornell University publication that said most cavity nesting birds prefer their houses facing toward the northeast. With compass in hand, I aligned my houses. I raised the height, lowered the height. Put them in open areas, relocated them to overgrown areas. Occasionally, birds would do walkthroughs, but no one moved in.

When I read the titmouse prefers a nesting height between 11-15 feet. I went out and moved the nest box again. Within a few weeks, Bewick’s wrens moved in.

I think the deciding factor for the wrens was I had also added insect-laced suet to one of my feeders. The wrens were immediately attracted to this offering. For busy parents this was a readily available and dependable food source.

The wren pair worked diligently bringing food to their nestlings and once the youngsters fledged, taking them around the yard showing them where to hunt for insects. It was wonderful to watch the wrens as they raised two broods this spring in the titmouse house.

Now that everyone has fledged, it is time to be a good landlord and clean out the house.

It is amazing how two tiny wrens can build such an elaborate structure using only their beaks. The bottom layers are sticks, then twigs. Once they built up the height of the floor to the right depth from the entry door, they made a nest of soft grasses and leaves with a lining of dog hair and tufts of squirrel fur.

I thought the wrens were just chasing the squirrels to keep them away from the nest. Now it looks like they were actually plucking tufts of hair from squirrel tails.

It is amazing how clean the nest is. The parents take out the droppings in bundles and dispose of them away from the nest. This makes it harder for predators to find the hidden nest.

After cleaning it out, I carefully replaced the bird house back in its successful location. The wrens may be back next spring, but I have to admit I’m still hoping for the titmouse pair.

You don’t have to have a bird house to have nesting birds. Hummingbirds, California towhees, orioles and larger hawks build nests in trees and bushes. This year alone we had:

  • two nesting Allen’s hummingbirds, one on a low elm branch, one in a photinia shrub
  • red-shouldered hawks, in the high branches of a large eucalyptus
  • bushtits, high in a pine tree
  • California towhees, about 5 ft. high in an oleander
  • and of course the Bewick’s wrens in the titmouse house 12 ft. high in a Mexican pepper tree
Adding shrubs and trees to your landscaping will increase the real estate appeal for nesting birds. Provide reliable water and food, and your avian neighbors will abound.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

A Deer A Day

In the past few months we’ve traveled by car across about 1000 miles of Turkey and nearly 1000 miles of California. Both have similar climate and terrain, and we explored both inland and along the coast. Each has large metropolitan areas, agricultural regions, and protected wilderness–but there was a stark and eye-opening difference. We saw NO wild mammals during our travels in Turkey. None.

You may be saying, well, but really what wild mammals do you see traveling Interstate Highway 5 through central California?

Traveling for five days in California, including driving the “barren” and straight Highway 5, we only had one day when we didn’t see at least one mule deer.

For the past 15 years, I have kept travel diaries. Each day I record the wild animals species we see. Driving from Los Angeles to Sonoma County in northern California and through Sonoma to the coast, over the course of five days we saw:
  • cotton-tail rabbit (4)
  • western gray squirrel (2)
  • raccoon (1)
  • gray fox (1)
  • mule deer (12)
  • harbor seal (~200)
  • Steller’s sea lions (50)
  • Pacific treefrog (1)
  • northern alligator lizard (1)
  • Pacific pond turtle (1)
In both Turkey and California we saw numerous species of birds, but still more in California.

The most obvious reason for this difference in wildlife is that humans in large numbers have lived longer in the Mediterranean than they have in North America. People have farmed, hunted and harvested natural resources longer in Turkey and have had a more deleterious cumulative effect on the land.

What we have in North America, and especially in California and the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., is a treasure of plant and wildlife. Our increasing population must make important choices:
  • We can go the way of the past, battering and pillaging our wild places until the treasure is gone.
  • We can work to preserve the bounty that is still here, still flourishing, still holding on.
In the United States we have laws to help us preserve the glorious bounty of plants and creatures, but private citizens must make their voice heard to enforce those laws. The Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Act both afford protection to creatures, plants and habitat, but our wildlife protection agencies have been financially cut to the bone by our current political leaders.

You and I are the eyes and ears that must report offenders that destroy our precious natural world.

When I read “All Birds Deserve A Safe Harbor” by Kimball L. Garrett and Kathy C. Molina in the 7/12/06 L.A. Times about Caspian and elegant tern nests and fledglings being maliciously destroyed and killed, I decided it was time to step up and demand that other living things not be destroyed for human convenience.

Most of the birds in your neighborhood are protected by the Migratory Bird Act (check the list). City tree trimmers can not hack down trees during nesting season, destroying nests and baby birds. It is a violation of the Migratory Bird Act. Violators can be fined up to $15,000. Betty Dunbar of Huntington Beach, CA, has persevered in getting that city to not trim city trees during nesting season.

Saving tigers and elephants is important, but look around you. How much of the native habitat and its animals are gone from where you live? We can’t ask Asian and African peoples to preserve their wildlife if we aren’t leading by example.

Be informed about endangered and threatened species living in your area: Southern California -

Saturday, July 08, 2006

For the Birds

The red-shouldered hawk fledglings have learned to fly. They are off hunting the hillsides with their parents. The Bewick’s wrens have fledged. A tidy compact oval, delicately lined with black dog hair, tucked on top of a bed of sticks is all that remains in the nest box.

We recently discovered the California towhees nesting in an oleander bush. Despite our rude trimming of a few branches, the pair is still keeping house in their somewhat less hidden nest.

The summer days are long and hot. Nearly every day is over 100˚F. Birds of all shapes and sizes are stopping to drink and bathe in the birdbath. (Some of them are furry and brown with a long fluffy tail. Fox squirrels are also drinking from the bath.)

To hear more about how your backyard habitat can be an important oasis for wildlife, check out the third installment of the interview I did with Douglas Welch of “A Gardner’s Notebook.”

We hope to start our own podcast in the near future, beginning with our adventure on Santa Rosa Island. We stood beneath a stand of Santa Rosa Torrey pines, some of the rarest pine trees in the world. Stay tuned.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Embracing the Los Angeles River

It is hot in Los Angeles. For the last two weeks the temperature has been hovering at or near 100˚ F.

Today is day three of “trying to fly” for the three red-shouldered hawk fledglings hatched in a nest above our yard. The heat, however, has complicated their flying lessons. Thirst is driving them to land beside the neighbor’s pool. They are vulnerable on the ground and risk falling in the pool while trying to drink.

We quickly mobilized and moved our patio fountain out next to the birdbath. The splashing movement helped the hawks recognize the available water in the bird bath and, carefully, one at a time, they are coming down to drink the fresh water rather than visiting the danger of the chlorinated pool.

Water in our dry Mediterranean climate is beyond valuable. The small canyon into which our house is built is one of many emerging from the Santa Monica mountains that in the past carried water down to the Los Angeles River. But these streams and creeks have been paved over, built on and made inaccessible to the wild creatures that depend on them.
Instead, the animals that can adapt find water at pet bowls, leaking sprinklers and swimming pools. The lucky ones find an oasis in landscaped ponds and well-maintained birdbaths.

Mention Los Angeles has a river and people scoff. They envision a glorified concrete storm drain. But in the half century since the river was confined to a cement straightjacket, nature has valiantly tried to reclaim the sanity of its once wild and meandering waterway.

Not all of the Los Angeles River is concrete. Sections of the riverbed are “soft-bottomed”: natural mud with cemented sides. A three-mile stretch known as the Glendale Narrows is just such an area. The river bottom couldn’t be cemented at this low spot because underground aquifers carrying water from the San Gabriel Mountains, Santa Monica Mountains and the San Fernando Valley meet in the narrow valley where the city of Glendale is located. The water from these aquifers bubbles up to the surface in this region. If the river bottom had been cemented the power of the rising water would have lifted up the concrete.

Today the soft bottom regions of the river are lined with trees and riparian habitat attracting abundant wildlife. Here’s a list of what we saw in a short section along the Glendale Narrows of the L.A. River on 6/24/06:
mourning cloak butterfly, Western tiger swallowtail, European cabbage butterfly, pastel skimmer dragonfly

mallard, cinnamon teal, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, osprey, red-tailed hawk, killdeer, black-necked stilt, western gull, mourning dove, black phoebe, American crow, northern rough-winged swallow, barn swallow, bushtit, northern mockingbird, red-winged blackbird, house finch, American goldfinch; Exotic Imports: domestic Asian ducks, rock pigeon, European starling, house sparrow, nutmeg mannikin

Various organizations like Friends of the L.A. River and North East Trees are working with the city and the state to create parks and environmentally inclusive development along the rediscovered Los Angeles River: Pocket parks in Studio City, Elysian Valley and Atwater Village invite access to bike trails and walking areas along the river. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan calls for greenway development along the length of the L.A. River and its tributaries from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach where the freshwater flows into the Pacific Ocean.

Like the red-shouldered hawks learning to fly, nature is resilient. It doesn’t need us, it just implores humans to be aware. The young hawks don’t want me to give them a drink, they just need a sharing of resources–water made available. The Los Angeles River is restoring itself, but it has so much to offer us: natural cooling, relaxing green views and flourishing wildlife. If Los Angelenos can embrace the river, sharing resources and space, it could be a magnificent natural heart for our city.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Of Black Holes and Ficus

I believe in black holes. I can think of no other explanation for a wrought iron “s” hook to be on the counter one moment and gone the next.

Such events are followed by terse words between those who want the “s” hook and those claiming not to have touched it. The ensuing frustrating search typically fails to locate any sign of said solid-metal hook. Then several days later the metal “s” hook reappears a foot or two from its original location. Where did the missing piece of metal go? How did it find itself in a farcical position that no one claims to have put it in? Perhaps it was there all along, but just in a different plane of reality. Perhaps it traveled through a black hole.

I have tumbled through such tears in the dimensional fabric myself. I submit as evidence the days when I sit down to write at 10:00 AM lean back in my chair and am shocked to find it is 6:00 PM. Hours of time in one plane of reality slip away, while my reality records only a short stream of minutes.

Black holes also transport me back to specific moments in the distant past. With a bit of a blank stare, I can step through such a portal and listen to an Eastern Sierra breeze streaming through cottonwood leaves. Softly green rip-stop nylon flaps against a tent pole thirty-four years ago. Sheperd’s Creek swirls in an eddie and the high desert air is morning cool.

Ficus seedlings in my backyard are yet more proof of black holes. Ficus benjamina, the ever present “weeping fig” found in homes and offices, is indigenous to India and Malaysia. Imported specimens can grow to 20 or 30 feet in landscaped Southern California yards. Removed from their natural pollinators, teeny-tiny wasps, these figs acted as tidy hedges and screens. But now, within the past three years, those tiny wasps have slipped through a black hole and emerged on the other side of the plant. My neighbor’s Ficus benjamina is producing peppercorn-sized, blue-black fruit.

It is one thing to have clusters of dark exotic fruit hanging lusciously in the tree. It is another to watch native birds loving them. This spring the band-tailed pigeons gobbled great masses of F. benjamina figs. The mockingbirds, the house finch, and even the hermit thrush were taste-testing the fruit.

But where there are ripe fruit there are also seeds. What was once a neat landscaping plant is now a verdant menace trying to establish a Malaysian forest in my California backyard. I am pulling up ficus seedlings by the handful. What troubles me more is that ficus and birds have a codependent relationship. The ficus provides fruit with the understanding that the birds will spread its issue far and wide. Even the coyotes have been lured into this business. They are also consuming the wild exotic figs and spreading the tiny seeds in their droppings.

While the dry weather will halt some of the spread, how long will it be before ficus challenges our native sycamores along canyons and streambeds? If I could just find the right black hole that would let me stop that first pollenating wasp and send it back to Asia where it belongs.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Birds in Your Backyard

Should you feed birds in your backyard?

That doesn’t have to mean bird feeders and store bought seed. The real question is should your backyard provide habitat for birds and other wild creatures? My answer is “yes.” Eden was never a place for humans alone.

Check out the podcast interview I did with Douglas Welch at A Gardner’s Notebook.

Create habitat for wild creatures and they will invite you back into the natural world.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

This Gray Bird Grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens)

I found a bug. Not just any bug, a big bug. From head to folded wingtip, she measures 2 3/4 inches. If you take in the whole insect, as I did when I spotted her on the ground, from antennae to the hooks on her outstretched rear legs, she measures 4 inches–an impressive insect.

What is it about insects that doesn’t let us see them for what they are, but inclines us to cringe? I like insects. I teach classes to help people understand insects, spiders, and other crawly arthropod creatures so they will appreciate these creatures and look before they simply smash.

Even so, while out hacking back shrubbery in the garden, the prickle of insect legs on the side of my neck makes me wince. “Yeeh.” This morning, I grabbed the creepy critter off my skin and stopped myself mid-squash. The squirming dark brown insect with long transparent wings and an extended squirming head and thorax was a common snakefly (Agulla sp.). It isn’t an attractive bug, but it is beneficial. Adults eat many of the pest insects in my garden–aphids, mites, scale. I knew it was one of the good guys, still I had to resist the instinct to squish.

Now, in my hand, I am holding a large dead grasshopper. I am amazed at her size. I am intrigued by her coloration and markings because I saw the first of her kind at the L.A. Zoo on Monday. There I caught a glimpse of a live male and female sitting side-by-side on a large wide leaf. The females are typically larger than the males and at nearly 3 inches, this gray bird grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens) is one of the largest insects in California.

Why is this lady gray bird dead on my driveway? I’m pretty sure it is the triple digit heat. The thermometer has risen to over 102 degrees F. for the past two days. Usually June eases us into summer with cool overcast mornings. Unfortunately for this magnificent grasshopper the searing heat came too suddenly.

Sure, as a grasshopper she was inclined to nibble the plants in my garden. But the gray bird is not found in swarms, they do minimal damage. Their size however means they are an important food source for other animals–birds, lizards, even the skunk that will soon be followed by little ones as it makes its nightly quests for worms, insects and other arthropods. I hope the grasshopper had the opportunity to complete her circle of life before the heat cut her time short.

Your instinct might be to squash that large grasshopper munching on the green leaf in your garden, but do you know what species it is? Does it belong in your area? Does it play an important role in the lives of other plants and animals? If you want fewer pest insects, make sure you aren’t driving away their predators. Seek balance and your garden will be filled with life - all kinds of life.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Weather Changes In Southern California

Today the thermometer climbed to 102 degrees F. in our shaded backyard. At a 9:00 PM it is still over 80 degrees F.

Only a week ago the temperature was a cool 65 degrees F. and it was raining. In drought challenged Southern California that should be a good thing. But to have almost an inch of rain at the end of May is odd. Usually our measurable rain falls between October and April. When change comes gradually it can be hard to see, but this year the small changes are becoming more noticeable if you take time to look.

In 2005 our autumn rain, never arrived. The native sycamore trees didn’t seed. When the flocks of lesser and American goldfinches arrived in January and February, the food they were looking for wasn’t available. People who have finch feeders in their backyards saw record numbers of goldfinches.

Quenching rains came in December and January, but unusually-warm February weather raised the temperature into the 80s for two weeks. Plants bloomed early, many of the local birds shifted into breeding mode.

Now, it is May 31st.
The Allen’s hummingbird is close to hatching her second clutch of eggs. The California towhees, the black phoebes, the house finches and Northern mockingbirds have already fledged their first batch of offspring and are working on their second. The Bewick’s wrens are sitting on their third clutch.

In 2005 the house finches raised three separate families of offspring by late summer. Midway through August the population was exploding and avian pox ran rampant through the house finches and goldfinches. I even saw a spotted towhee with the telltale tumors of avian pox. The combination of disease and a dry fall, which made food less available, crashed the house finch numbers back to normal by December. But what will happen this year?

On a larger scale, we are seeing a huge increase in some species of migratory birds. For the past four years, in my yard, I have spotted one black-headed grosbeak, typically for a single day as it passes through in the spring. This year I had six individuals for over two weeks. I’d like to think my bachelor has found a girl and told a few friends how wonderful my yard is, but the reality is everyone I know who feeds birds has at least one black-headed grosbeak frequenting their feeder. Several have four or five, one woman has between 10-15 daily. Brilliant blue lazuli buntings are becoming frequent visitors at feeders, (though I must admit I haven’t had one). And there have been two confirmed sightings of Northern cardinals in the San Fernando Valley in the past two weeks. While it is exciting to see these birds, this obviously is not their usual migratory path. Where do they usually migrate to? Why aren’t they there? Has something changed in Central America or Mexico where they are coming from?

An hour ago, I caught sight of the hermit thrush. For seven years he has arrived in late October and migrated north in March. Last fall, he dropped in three weeks early. Now, it is nearly June and he is still here. Why? If he doesn’t travel north will he fail to find a mate and breed this year?

The hillside behind my house is dotted with native Catalina and holly cherry. Typically by late May these deep green shrubs are covered with dime-sized lime-colored fruit which will ripen to a dark red morsel by autumn. Only a few bushes have the peppercorn-sized beginnings of cherries. The fruit will ripen months later than the birds and other animals expect.

At a casual glance the Southern California hillsides are green, there are birds at the park and a swallowtail butterfly glides between the sycamore trees. But look closely, glance at a few notes you jotted down last year, or the year before, and there are small changes. How will all these small changes add up in the next few years? I don’t know. But change is an active force. Just as a snowball rolling downhill can suddenly become an avalanche, small changes may become massive before our eyes.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Water - How Much?

Water, turn on the tap and gurgling life gushes forth. How easy it is to take this luxury for granted. Do you know how much water you use in a day? Have you ever given it a thought? Most people in the world must know; for them clean water is not readily available.

It was an eye-opening experience traveling in Turkey to be responsible every day for the water we wanted to consume. Water streamed out of the facet in our comfortable and modern hotel room, but the water was not consumable. In the picturesque heart of Istanbul’s old city, our room had a sign taped above the bathroom sink warning us not to drink the tap water or use it for brushing our teeth.

If you had a bottle of drinking water to last you 24 hours, would you remember to save enough for brushing your teeth or for a swallow or two when you wake up in the middle of the night? How much water do you need to brush your teeth?

The Turkish travel company that arranged our trip had a unique policy: every lunch included in our tour package came with drinking water. For all of the other travelers we encountered water was treated like any other beverage, it was an additional charge.

How much are you willing to pay for drinking water? Do you know how much it weighs? Are you willing to purchase water in 3 liter bottles to ensure a better price, knowing that then you will have the burden of carrying the extra weight?

It took us a few days and a couple of experiences paying for expensive small bottles of water from the hotel minibars to get an understanding of how much water we, two adults, needed over the course of a day. Without taking in to account, cooking, bathing, lavatories or laundry, we each simply drank 2 to 3 liters of water every day. We bought large bottles and poured their contents into small bottles for use during the day. We stocked up when we found it at a good price. We bartered for it when fellow travelers misjudged their own liquid needs. It was an ever-present concern, did we have enough drinking water? Did we need more? When we needed more, would be able to find it?

Looking out my office window at the verdant trees, gardens and lawns designed to mimic an English countryside in a Mediterranean climate, I know all of this green is dependent on a tap that turns on and delivers water. An ever-growing human population in southern California requires more and more water. Where will it come from? Who or what will we take it from?

My great grandfather was born in a small high-desert town in the Owen’s Valley. He was a young man when the residents there decided to lease their water rights for 99 years to the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles. He said he always knew the people of the Owen’s Valley would regret selling what they couldn’t replace: water.

When I watch the goldfinches waiting in line to sip from my neighbor’s slowly leaking sprinkler head or observe the California towhee splashing gleefully in the bird bath, I see in them a true understanding of the precious nature of water. As summer heats up, more species of birds will visit my backyard for the small pool of fresh water than for the birdseed in the feeders.

Clean water, most living things can’t survive without it. How much did you use today? If you couldn’t turn on the tap, if you couldn’t buy it, where would you get it from?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Guardians of Apollo – The Starred Agama (Laudakia stellio)

Something is watching–something still, silent, ancient. Dark eyes glare from beneath a ridged gray brow.

How long had they been studying me? What were they thinking?

In the Temple of Apollo, on a hillside in Turkey, a gathering of starred agamas (Laudakia stellio) stood their ground. They observed–heads raised, muscles tense. Their clawed feet clinging to the stones surrounding the heart of the temple, the site of the oracle. For centuries, humans had come to this place asking questions, seeking wisdom.

I took a slow step forward.

The largest among them, an adult male, gazed right through me. The female, lifted her head, stretched her neck, making her nearly foot-length body appear even longer.

Climbing the marble steps and descending into the inner vault of the temple, my attention had been riveted on towering columns and rising marble walls. I had looked right past the prickly gray creatures that seemed as one with the weathered stone. But now I was face to face with these guardians of ancient truth.

After the Greek engineers and architects had spent their brilliance and later generations promoting “modern” beliefs had lost the genius of these ancient pagan builders, who was left to guard the old ways? The starred agamas.

Agamids in general are considered one of the oldest families of lizards. They have primitive teeth and tails that typically can not be regenerated if broken. They are ambush hunters who stoically wait for prey. When a starred agama visually spots an ant, bee, or wasp, they move quickly to capture it in a single bite. While agamids range throughout Asia, Africa and Australia, only one group is found in Europe, Laudakia stellio. There are various subspecies of L. stellio in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, but they all share a large head with a visible ear opening, a long tail composed of segments with evenly spaced spikes, and a generally flattened body. They also frequent ruins–the ruins of ancient human civilizations. Coincidence? I wonder.

The lizards before me were displaying a high level of territoriality, typical of agamids. The ruff of jagged scales around the neck stood out, especially on the female. But what was she guarding, just a crack in a piece of marble? Then I realized this was not a haphazard group of lizards, there was an adult male, adult female and numerous subadults of varying sizes. (The male is to the left, female on the left edge of the crack, one youngster just to her right and one just above her head to the left.)

A researcher has recently determined that similar groups of Cunningham’s skinks in Australia are actually family groups, where offspring stay with their parents for up to seven years. Was this a family of starred agamas? There are suggestions in the scientific literature that they may form family groups, but no one has really studied the topic.

I took a slow step forward. The female and the youngsters dashed for the protection of the stone crevasse. But the male stood his ground. Beneath the rays of Apollo, the starred agama and I came to an understanding, we both revered the warming fingers of the sun on this cool spring day. Basking was something we had in common.

As I laid a reverent hand of the warm marble, the energy of the place filled me. “Open your heart,” the oracle said, “and you will find your place in the world.”

As we traveled through numerous ancient sites in Turkey, I spotted starred agama families time and time again. Most human visitors seemed to overlook these reptiles among the tumbled-down stones of ruins, just as they overlooked the subtle power of these ancient places. We humans like to think we know so much. But who has been watching whom longer. The starred agamas stand in witness over our lost past. Perhaps they know us, far better than we understand them.

Monday, April 24, 2006

I Saw A Brant! - Malibu Lagoon 4/24/2006

This year the weather in southern California has been unusual–the rains were late, the winter warm, the spring frequently cold. The cedar waxwings typically decrease in number as summer approaches, but I’ve been seeing more. Twenty-three of these crested beauties with their black, bandit masks have just landed in the tree across from my office window.

Many spring and summer birds, like orioles and Western kingbirds, arrived early. Yet, numerous winter residents have yet to fly north. As we pass mid-April, a fair number of local species have already raised their first clutch of offspring–Western scrub jay, house finch, black phoebe, and California towhee. The female Allen’s hummingbird in my backyard not only successfully mothered two nestlings through wet cold days, I caught her this morning with a new paramour. Her next pair of eggs will be filling the nest soon.

It shouldn’t have surprised me then that Malibu Lagoon would also reflect this mixing of migrants. Winter visitors still paddled around the estuary snacking on the aquatic plants and crustaceans. There were American wigeons and a group of six brants. All my books agree the brant, Branta bernicla, is a common bird. This small, short-necked goose appears primarily dark in color with a black upper body and a white “necklace” high on its neck. They may be “common” in specific localities, but I’ve never seen one before.

It is always a thrill to see a new bird species, especially when it is one you’ve been looking for. I’ve been keeping an eye out for a brant ever since I saw the movie, “Winged Migration.” The travels of these feathered wonders fascinates me.

On the west coast, this mallard-sized goose spends the winter along the Pacific Continental United States. When spring arrives, it picks up and flies to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands for a quick stopover before heading to the the northern tundra of Alaska and Canada. Every year they make this grand journey, and most of it is flown over open ocean. In the east, brants winter along the mid-Atlantic coast then migrate to Canada’s most northern tundra. In Europe, where they are called Brent geese, they summer along the coast of the North Sea, in Ireland, Britain, and Denmark, then fly north to the tundra of Greenland or Siberia for the summer.

What an amazing thing to stand on a beach in Southern California and watch a dark-headed goose slurping up a piece of slippery sea greens, knowing that in a month or so that same beak may be nipping at new green growth along the shore of the Beaufort Sea. When the senior U.S. Senator from Alaska, Ted Stevens (R), claims there is nothing but barren “frozen wasteland” along the north shore, he wants you to forget that summer comes even to the tundra. He and the oil companies hope all of us will forget about the thousands of birds that rely on the delicate tundra for their breeding grounds.

I’ve walked on the Alaskan summer tundra and plucked dime-sized blueberries from five-inch tall bushes. You may never visit the far Arctic tundra, but the brant flies there every year.

The female makes her shallow-bowl nest on a small rise in the soggy tundra. Sitting snugly on the nest, the female lays with her head down on the turf. Stretched out flat in this way, the brant is completely vulnerable but she also blends in with the flat tundra. Having no profile makes it harder for predators to spot the nesting goose. Perhaps Senator Stevens just hasn’t looked close enough.

I saw my first brant, today. Soon these six birds will be making their way to the far northern tundra. Wouldn’t it be a shame, if you didn’t have a chance to see one too?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tortoises of Turkey - Spur-thighed tortoise, (Testudo graeca ibera)

Traveling in Turkey I expected to see migrating wood storks, various gulls, and hooded crows, I didn’t expect tortoises.

In California, our state reptile, the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) is threatened. Its numbers in the wild are declining despite conservation efforts. Even field researchers looking for the dinner-plate-sized adults can wander the desert for hours or even days without spotting an individual. The notion that we would casually see wild tortoises, not once, but several times, during our eight days of traveling the Turkish countryside, never occurred to me.

The first sign that tortoises were about was auditory. One of our fellow travelers heard a thumping knock-knock sound and went to investigate. What he found were two tortoises trying to have a romantic interlude. When a shell covers the majority of your body, physical contact of a serious nature is seldom quiet.

As we roamed the Aegean region investigating countless Greek, Roman, and Byzantine ruins, we continued to encounter tortoises. The sunny spring days were filled with lush green hillsides and vibrant wildflowers. The undisturbed landscape around the various ancient ruins provided a sanctuary for tortoises. Even though the Turkish people consider it a sign of prosperity to have a tortoise on their property, it is difficult for the herbivorous tortoises to compete with domestic sheep and goats. Abundant domestic chickens can also pose a threat to tortoise eggs and hatchlings.

The spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca ibera) is small to medium in size–about the size and shape of a pineapple. The shell is slightly elongated with slight flares around the rear legs. We saw individuals light yellow-green in color to a dark gray-black. This species is quite common in western Turkey and appears in various subspecies throughout the Aegean and Mediterranean. The species in general (Testudo graeca) is also referred to as the Greek tortoise.

One thing was true of all of the spur-thighed tortoises we encountered. They were enjoying spring, either procreating or sampling the lush grasses, clovers, and wildflowers, especially buttercups. In either case, they paid us little mind as we observed and then walked on.

During the 20th century, the spur-thighed tortoise was one of the most popular tortoises in the European pet trade. Countless individuals were collected from the wild and some regional populations were completely depleted. Fortunately this practice was made illegal toward the end of the last century. Combined with the Turkish culture which considers it bad luck to kill a tortoise, legal regulation has helped some populations recover.

In a few areas the tortoises appear to be doing exceedingly well. While exploring an Aegean island and attempting to find a trail to a hillside ruin, we discovered six individual tortoises. They ranged from a breeding pair, to a female digging a hillside nest, to a tiny youngster foraging near the pebbly beach. This little guy was probably last year’s hatchling and experiencing his first spring. He was barely 4 cm (1.5 inches) across.

Traversing said hillside for less than two hours, going up and down, trying to find a pathway to the ruin, we actually covered only a small area of the shrubby slope. The fact that we saw six tortoises of varying ages was good evidence of a robust island population.

There is something timeless about tortoises. They have an air of ancient wisdom. Their ancestors waded through primordial swamps before the dinosaurs. The fact that they wander now through the ruins of long-gone human civilizations seems appropriate. In many places around the world tortoises are not protected, not honored, and instead are snatched from their homes to appease a misguided human desire to own them. How wonderful it was to see tortoises basking in the sun, trundling through a carpet of wild poppies, and enjoying a wild life in Turkey.