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 www.bbc.co.uk/nature/animals/wildbritain/autumnwatch/

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.