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.