Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Helping the Island Fox

Do you find yourself overwhelmed by the negative news about the world we live in? I know I sometimes do.

Helping to preserve diminishing rainforest in South America, saving great apes from the bushmeat crisis and even polar bears that are being threatened by global warming, can all seem distant and unsurmountable problems. We can give money, but do we personally see the difference that we have made?

I just finished writing up a website entry for Friends of the Island Fox at islandfox.org about riding along with biologist Julie King of the Catalina Island Conservancy as she did health checks on endangered island foxes. How did I get this great opportunity?

Three years ago a close friend asked me to join her on the board of a conservation organization working to save a local endangered species, the island fox. Friends of the Island Fox, Inc. works to save a local Southern California species that is found only on the Channel Islands.

In the past 2 years we have:
  • raised funds to provide 17 radio tracking collars for island foxes to be returned to the wild.
  • created school outreach programs and an Island Fox Ambassador Program that helps kids become active in saving this local endangered species.
  • we've raised awareness about this little known animal at community events in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
  • We've created a video on island fox releases. Link to the video.
  • And we have started an Island Fox Talk podcast. Listen to the podcast.
Are we making a difference?

Yes. People are becoming aware of this native Californian and reaching out to help the island fox. Across the four islands where the island fox is endangered, population numbers are increasing. All of the land managers on the Channel Islands are seeing greater support for their efforts.

Check out the Friends of the Island Fox website.

If you are interested in getting involved and making a difference, we need volunteers to help with classroom visits and manning booths at educational events. If you have a skill that you are willing to share, let us know at islandfoxnews@gmail.com

If you know a school, class, youth or adult community group that would be interested in learning about the island fox, drop me an e-mail
at islandfoxnews@gmail.com and we will set it up.

You can make a difference and the best place to start is by helping a neighbor.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Real Poop

I can't help it. One thing that fascinates me is scat. That's right the remains of what something ate the day before. (That is unless you are a hummingbird and then its only a few hours before.)

On a recent trip to Catalina Island, I had the honor of tagging along with the fox biologists for the Catalina Island Conservancy as they did annual trapping of island foxes to give them health checks. One of the things we came across even before we found an island fox, was their scat.

Look at this scat closely and what do you see?

Is it plant or animal matter? If you want to find out the real scoop on this poop, follow the link to Friends of the Island Fox.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Autumn Has Come

There is something in the air. A crackle of dry leaves, a cool morning breeze. It just happens. The parching hot days where the temperature soars over 110 degrees, disappear overnight. You awake one morning and autumn has come. I know most people in Southern California don't notice the change, but I do.

This is my favorite time of year. Oh, there still may be a few days of high temperature, but the air has a different taste. It brushes your cheek with a gentle stroke. The season has turned and now I start to look for the return of my winter migratory bird friends.

Watching the Kinglet

A white wingbar laces through
Green and golden leaves.
Pointed beak leads fluttering wings
over limb, past a mourning dove
up under a crinkled bough
to dart a gnat.

Pausing for a wingbeat,
The tiny kinglet chitters.
A warning? A scolding?
Then disappears behind a leaf
Weaves up through autumn heavy limbs
Plucks caterpillar from barky twig, then
Tilts his head at me just long enough
To flash a coral crest.

With raucous rant
He skips up out of sight.

The rose nods in silent observance.
The squirrel ponders the flavor of acorn.
Desert tortoise shovels last foot full of dirt
Before settling in for the winter.

Emerald green oxalis shoves
Up between geranium and rock
Attempting to overpower green brethren.
House finches dabble in the bird bath.
Orb weaver spins a spiral death net
Between two delicate stalks,
While her neighbor, funnel spider hides
Waiting for prey to approach her webby lair.

Unwary ant tumbles down the delicate slope
Of a cone-shaped pit and into the jaws of an ant lion.
Slender salamander silently stalks
Earthworm venturing from the safety of soil.
Shy rabbit passes by,

A crimson leaf surrenders to the breeze,
And the Cooper’s hawk swings low
scattering doves and finches.

The world is busy.
Stand in one place and its stories unfold.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Gray Bird Grasshopper ?

There is a green grasshopper in the ornamental plum tree. It’s rich velvety green color suggests a gladiator katydid, but binoculars reveal its antennae are more like a creosote grasshopper. No, that’s not right either, there are no markings on the legs.

With its green image seared into my memory I type “green grasshopper” into Google and the hunt begins. Eventually, I’m at BugGuide searching through the taxonomic trees of grasshoppers. I finally come across a photo that matches and the name in the caption surprises me completely.

This green beauty is a nymph or juvenile form of my old friend the gray bird grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens).

The gray bird seems to appear out of the ether in mid-to-late summer, when actually like any good magician it was hiding in plain view. The young gray bird grasshopper looks completely different from the long, hard, gray body it will have in a few months.

Because the grasshopper’s exoskeleton carries its color, new markings or even completely different coloration can appear with each molt of the exoskeleton. As the grasshopper grows it will molt multiple times. It is a typical and successful natural strategy: blend in with the background when you are young and vulnerable, change your appearance with adulthood so you can attract a mate and reproduce. When you are a creature born in an ecosystem that is green in spring and dries to a crackly brown by late summer, its a huge plus if you can change your coloration to fit in.

This year, southern California skipped through its green phase and went directly to parched brown. Irrigated yards are the greatest outpost of green. Perhaps that is why this young gray bird grasshopper appeared. The food possibilities are much greater this year along suburb sidewalks. But this little guy jeopardized invisiablity by chosing to snack on purple foliage. On these leaves, it was definitely not camouflaged.

Sunday, August 05, 2007


They emerge from the soil, crawl out of their skins and make a droning buzz that eats away at human sanity. For many people it is hard to appreciate the charm and beauty of the cicada.

Across North America various species of cicadas in a range of sizes and colors, fill the summer with a variety of buzzing frequencies. These alien-looking creatures spend most of their lives underground feeding on sap from plant roots. But, after a preordained time and usually urged on by a soaking rain, they dig up out of the ground. With oversized front claws they pull their plump nymph bodies up onto bush branches, tree trunks, even lawn furniture and front porches. They find an elevated location to shed their ground-dwelling persona and emerge as creatures of the air–complete with large, glassine-looking wings.

This spring and summer a special group of cicadas has been completing their cycle of life. These cicadas have been underground for 17 years. That’s right insects, old enough to drive in most states.

When you are crawling up out of the ground and plan to spend an hour or two in the vulnerable position of cracking open your skin and resting while your new exoskeleton hardens up and your wings unfurl, it is always wise to embark on such a venture with as many friends as possible.

Seventeen-year cicadas emerge by the thousands, even tens of thousands. Some groups cover multiple square miles. The husks of their old bodies cling everywhere like aged and discard rice-paper lanterns. The vibrating hum of their mating song overwhelms all other sounds. It is a mass invasion. For the insect-phobic, it can seem like a B-movie nightmare.

But the cicada’s time is short and their numbers over the centuries have been declining as more and more of their native habitat disappears. It is hard to move out of human development’s way, when you are a small creature living quietly underground.

The 17-year cicada is a marvel. Rather than disparage, we humans would do better to appreciate and embrace what we have in common.





Up through the morning crust

of yesterday’s mud

Clasp tight
rugged bark

Drag alien body into unknown worlds

Through silken air

Toward whispering leaves

Brilliant greens intoxicate

Beguiling sun caresses

Enticing you to shed

Suit of earthen armor

Decades of terrestrial brown


for velvety black

for luminous silver

for ruby eyes

The comfort of dirt

tossed aside

For precious days of blue skies

Blushing breezes

And a chance to sing

songs of summer love.

- by Keri Dearborn

First published in Cicada magazine in September/October 1998 and republished in July/August 2007

For more on cicadas, check out cicadamania.com

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Creatures of Summer

Summer meanders through hot days and warm windless nights. A new visitor appears against the screen in the bathroom. It is a chocolate looper, identifiable by its rich brown color and the distinctive white spot on its wings. The book claims it looks like a “man’s slipper;” a perfect example of how one person’s perception can become attached to a creature for decades. It doesn’t look like a “man’s slipper” to me. Who wears slippers?

A native moth, the chocolate looper should have been outside feeding from one of our native plants. We found two and released both back into the night.

The baby birds have all hatched and left their nests, but there are still new babies appearing. Sitting in the morning sunshine, someone new has appeared in the garden. Can you see it in this picture? Look closely right in the center of the picture at the top edge of the cement bricks, just to the right of the seam. This baby is only about the size of your little finger.

It’s a young Western fence lizard. We’ve had two pairs of adult fence lizards this year. The pair living closest to the house appears to have been successful in producing at least one youngster.

Western fence lizards are a boon to the garden. Find out why they are Superheros.

We’ll be watching for this little guy as he grows up.

As evening creeps across the hillsides and the freeway traffic drones, a desert cottontail wriggles under the fence and feeds on the grass that I was thinking about pulling. I’d rather watch him eat it.

Allen's and Anna's hummingbirds race to visit the nectar feeders one more time before bed and the hooded oriole has returned for a late snack. (See the Allen's hummingbird family)

As the evening sky darkens, two big brown bats swoop and circle through the streetlight glow, snacking on a variety of insects. Bat Video.

Bats consume mosquitoes and moths and other insects all night long. Perhaps that’s why the chocolate loopers took refuge in the house.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"The Geese of Beaver Bog" by Bernd Heinrich

Book Review:

The Geese of Beaver Bog

by Bernd Heinrich
HarperCollins, New York, NY 2004

Looking for a summer read that has intertwining romances, intrigue and an uplifting ending? Then get your hands on Bernd Heinrich’s “The Geese of Beaver Bog.”

Heinrich is one of my favorite authors. He combines the scientific insight of a biology professor, the lyric wordsmithing of a poet and the curiosity of child with the artful unraveling of complex concepts that is the gift of a true teacher.

In addition, Heinrich’s books stand out for me because of his passion for fieldwork. He wades through the muck to get close to the nesting geese. He clutches a cup of hot coffee while observing on a frosty morning. He is the one who is struck by a defensive gander while patiently trying to establish a relationship with several pairs of wild Canada geese.

Less scientific than previous works, like Winter World, The Geese of Beaver Bog is Heinrich’s very personal saga of a Canada goose named “Peep.” This female Canada goose was raised by Heinrich and his family and then returned to the wild.

Could a gosling imprinted on humans lead a normal life in the wild? Would it remember its human family years later? Heinrich chronicles his life with Peep and in the process reveals some myths about Canada geese. Do they mate for life? Do they build their nests in communal groups? Do male geese dominate their female partners?

You will count the days along with Heinrich waiting for the eggs to hatch and hurry through the pages to find the geese when they disappear. You’ll hang on the successes and failures, and try to listen in as the parents communicate with the hatchlings still inside their eggs.

If you are interested in the natural world and understanding creatures different from yourself, spend some quality reading time with Bernd Heinrich and discover the complex and fascinating world of Beaver Bog. You’ll never look at a Canada goose the same way again.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4th of July Audio Play

Happy Independence Day !

It's 100˚F in the shade, but still cooler than yesterday. While I'm happier in the house, the Western fence lizards and the alligator lizards are frolicking.

To celebrate the 4th of July, my husband Michael Lawshe (soundzgood.info) researched historical documents and eyewitness-accounts and prompted me to write an audio-play. We gathered some friends and neighbors and reenacted some of the historical events leading up to 1776. We call our LIVE CAST recording "Prelude to Revolution."
(1 hour in length)

CLICK HERE to link to Eclipse-1.com and hear the voices and events on the road to American Independence. (Yes, we did really reenact the New York Riots and the Boston Massacre in our living room.)

Why is my personal Liberty important to the lizards in my backyard? It means with my voice and my vote, I can support conservation issues and environmental protection.

As more and more of the world is degraded by human activity, it becomes increasingly vital that we stand up and speak out to preserve our democracy. If we do not, if our government is owned by the highest bidder, we will not have the ability to stop those who would threaten the entire planet for temporary profit.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Near Natives

Many of the plants in Zone 2 have been planted in the last two years.

Earlier observations revealed that the exotic African daisy that previously filled all of the front planter was home only to exotic pests–brown garden snails, common pill bugs, gray slugs and Argentine ants. The few native spiders and insects were found primarily on the few native plants.

So I began gradually replacing the African daisy with native flowering shrubs and ground covers.

But here’s the rub: Now, as I am identifying each of these new plants with their full scientific name, I am beginning to grumble. Yarrow is a native plant, but the yarrow, blooming in bursts of yellow in this photo, is a Mediterranean subspecies not the native.

Are insects visiting these heady blooms? Yes. But it isn’t really a California native.

The Santa Barbara daisy growing in two small clumps is flowering and providing habitat for a corner spider. But this ground cover is native to Mexico. Once again, close but California native.

Am I going to rip them out? No. I’m accepting them as near natives.

The Heuchera and the Ceanothus are hybrids, natives with a twist of vigor. They are growing and doing well.

Going Native with your landscaping can be a challenge. Several times I have become disgruntled with the goal because it seemed so daunting. Strict native plants from specialty native plant foundations are expense and frequently less than half survive. Recently, I’d become encouraged because the “natives” had become easier to locate, less expensive and more successful in the garden. Now? Well? I’m a little disheartened, but the hybrids are doing well.

When I total up the data for Zone 2 and 3, the hillside planter, we will see if the “native” plants are making a difference.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Here Be Spiders!

Zone 1 is the Realm of Spiders! I’ve tabulated and entered the data collected counting plants and animals in Zone 1 for the Backyard Biodiversity Project.

The area consists of the cement walkway with steps to the front door, the wall, the eaves and the planter under the stairs. As you can see, there is minimal habitat.

I have collected data on this Zone three other times, October 2001 and January of 2004 and 2005. I couldn’t understand why it was taking me so much longer this time around, but there was a good reason.

Previously the highest species count was 19 different plants and animals.

This time, I found 63 species living in Zone 1 or traveling through it. There are 47 different animal species and 16 plant species.

I think the major difference with the species count comes from the fact that it is summer. During January counts I only saw 4 species of spider, but in June there are 2 species of mites and 14 different spider species.

They range in size from adult corner spiders (Hololena curta) about the size of a quarter to a tiny delicate spider only a millimeter in size that is gray in color and sways like a dancer on the filaments of its web. Young wolf spiders roam the stairway while 7 juvenile black widows (Latrodectus mactans) are trying to grow up unnoticed at the corner of a step or in between bricks. Though they are feared by many people, the odds are against any of these youngsters making it to adulthood. Most likely, they will become food for someone else.

Seven cobweb spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes) stake out the high overhangs while another exotic, a sow bug killer spider (Dysdera croctoa) hides under a brick in the planter waiting for one of the common pill bugs (Armadillidium vulare). The pill bugs have increased in number, so it is fine with me if this girl hunts the planter.

There is a house spider (Achaearanea tepidariurm) on the stairs. A predatory red mite dashes across my data sheet. And if I count early in the morning, I see this young common orb weaver (Neoscona oxacensis), before she roles up her web from the previous night and retreats to the Boston ivy for the day. Currently, she’s only about 5 mm, but come the end of summer she will be a plump beauty snaring insects in her web each night.

A mourning dove, an alligator lizard, a desert cottontail and a striped skunk occasionally pass through this small Zone. The dove and the lizard bask in the sun, the cottontail uses the steps, while the skunk seems to be dining on the occasional brown garden snail.

Since I removed some of the nonnative plants and have reduced the water in this area, the exotic brown garden snails and the Argentine ants have decreased. In fact I haven’t seen an Argentine ant in this Zone since 2004.

The weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) is a perfect example of an exotic species severely damaged by this year’s winter frost. While it is slowly recovering, native plants weathered the frost and are a better option. To help Zone 1 provide more habitat, I plan is to add more native plants and create a small rock pile that will offer shelter to slender salamanders and alligator lizards.

See what was in Zone 17

Animalbytes Annual species directory

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Saving the Island Fox

For two days I've been in the classroom and not counting creatures in the yard. I've been out talking to school children about biodiversity in California and the endangered island fox.

The island fox is found only one place in the world–the Channel Islands off the coast of southern California. This endangered creature is the perfect example of a neighbor that is in desperate need of help.

I got involved with Friends of the Island Fox because they are local conservation in action– people working together to save a local endangered species. Check out their website www.islandfox.org

You can make a difference. And it starts with one small creature and one small habitat at a time.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Backyard Biodiversity Project - Steps and Spiders

Zone 1 is a narrow strip of cement steps and a raised planter dominated by Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata ‘veitchi’). Amazingly, the piles of debris that collect in the corner of the steps are alive with creatures, while the Boston ivy is a wasteland.

This exotic plant does not seem to provide food or shelter for native creatures. Most of the spiders live above the ivy or along the walkway.

I’ve noticed this before and that is why I have planted hybrids of native Heuchera or coral bells in this planter. The plants are taking hold but have yet to attract a community of native creatures.

Zone 1 is a transition zone–too close to the house to be truly inhabited by wild creatures. Anything bigger than a dime, just travels through.

Cobweb spiders (Pholcus phalangiodes) are the only exception, they thrive beneath the rafters. These are not daddy longlegs, they are long legged spiders–the spiders you see up in the corner of your living room. They are not a native species, they are a European import. They probably arrived with the first English colonists at Jamestown. Cobweb spiders are just as tied to human structures as we are. They like the environment people create and need the protection of human habitation to survive here.

Seven cobweb spiders in this small area. Hard to believe? No.

Just wait until I compile the list of all the creatures I recorded in this Zone. It was truly the Realm of Spiders.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Backyard Biodiversity Project - Day 8

Who knew that five cements steps leading up to the front door could be such a challenge. This seemingly sterile landscape shelters communities tucked in cracks and along the edges where debris collects.

There are the remnants of a European honey bee, a lone pill bug marching along, clusters of springtails breaking down the debris into soil.

Everything is small here. My loop reveals that the tiny spider with its web among the brick edging is a young black widow. One springtail stands out from the rest. It is larger, honey colored and has longer antennae.

Then I stumble across the truly unusual. In this brown and grey world, a lime-green maggot only 4mm long. Is it masquerading as a caterpillar? What is it doing among the dead leaves? What is it?

I search through my books and find nothing. I go back to take a photo and it is gone.

Searching the Internet I finally find that it is a larva from the Syrphid fly family, a kind of flower or hover fly.
This green guy was looking for aphids or other insects to eat.

Just as importantly, I found two wonderful insect identification resources:
  • The Bug Guide - scientific source with a great search capability
  • What's That Bug - two "save-that-beneficial-insect" like-minded folks also from Los Angeles helping people all over the world identify insects

A driving force of the Backyard Biodiversity Project is becoming aware of the living things that are sharing this small piece of the planet with me. Be INFORMED before you squash! Most bugs, even my green maggot, are beneficial to humans and the planet.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Spider Diversity in Zone 1

Today I started on Zone 1 of the Backyard Biodiversity Project.

The stairs to the front doorway are populated by a variety of spiders. For a small insect it is a predatory mine field. Some of the hunters are only a millimeter in size while others are giants at a quarter of an inch.

There was a juvenile black widow, a corner spider, cobweb spiders and more. All of them valuable insect predators. In their webs were moths, earwigs, gnats and a click beetle.

This small spider is 2-3 millimeters and hiding in a hollow on the stucco wall.

There was no web. Identifying these small arachnids is a challenge. If you know what this spider is let me know. Leave a comment.

Other spiders:

Monday, June 04, 2007

Backyard Biodiversity Project - Zone 17

Part of surveying the plants and animals of Hummingbird Hill is recording all the data. I’ve divided the property into Zones. The Zones are different sizes but each is a type of habitat.

Zone 17 Description

  • Location: Planter in front of house on a North facing slope, from driveway to the eastern property edge. Includes driveway in front of house.
  • Soil Condition: Poor, concrete and gravel over clay
  • Water Availability: Manual hose irrigation and rain
  • Climate: Dry, sun
  • Human Traffic: Minimal, but daily car traffic across driveway
  • Animal Traffic: Minimal canine passing through

I’m interested in Native vs. Exotic species - who is surviving, who is not. Who is feeding on whom. What animals are interacting with which plants. The hardest task is finding a good source for identifiing the small creatures and the “weeds.”

Zone 17 General Notes:
  • Densest populations of animal species were found in specific areas. Dominant species are scale and aphids; exotic cottony cushion scale (Icerya purchasi) [on Native holly cherry] and exotic oleander aphid (Aphis nerii) [on exotic oleander] 170; and Native rose aphid (Microsiphum rosae) 50 [on exotic oleander]. Small milkweed bugs (Lygaeus kalmii) constituted a reproducing population of natives on the ground among the gravel. Spiders were found on the oleander stumps. All other animals were singletons or deceased populations.
  • Dominant plant species is unidentified. Most successful plants are volunteers in cracks of driveway.
  • Exotic snail and crustaceans only represented by deceased bodies possibly due to drought.
  • The greatest species diversity was among spiders, 7 species and insects 10 species.
  • 31 species identified - 25 animals, 6 plants
  • Greatest population - cottony cushion scale (Icerya purchasi) 200 individuals and yet-identified volunteer ground cover, 34 plants.
  • Currently no birds, reptiles or mammals live in this Zone, though birds have nested here in the past.
  • Animals out number plants. Natives out number Exotics.
Native Insects:
  1. rose aphid, Microsiphum rosae, 50 (feeding on oleander)
  2. California carpenter bee, Xylocopa californica, 1
  3. small milkweed bug, Lygaeus kalmii, 67
  4. gray bird grasshopper, Schistocerca nitens, 1 (body parts left by predator)
  5. black gnat, Bradysia impatiens, 1
Exotic Insects:
  1. oleander aphid, Aphis nerii, 170 (feeding on oleander)
  2. Argentine ant, Iridomyrmex humilis, 1 (one the garage door)
  3. cottony cushion scale, Icerya purchasi, 200 (feeding on holly leaf cherry)
  4. oleander scale, Aspidiotus nerii, 1 (feeding on oleander)

Not yet identified:
  1. long-legged fly, Dolichopodidae ssp type, 1
Native Spiders and Crawlies:
  1. round snail, Discus whitneyi, 3 dead
  2. soil mite, Oribatei spp., 1
  3. corner spider, Hololena curta, 3
  4. trashweb spider, Cyclosa turbinata, 10
Exotic Spiders and Crawlies:
  1. brown garden snail, Helix aspers, 6 dead
  2. common pill bug, Armadillidium vulgare, 4 dead
Not yet identifed Spiders and Crawlies:
  1. snail, cone type, longer than wide, 1 dead
  2. spider unidentified, ‘1 mm’ brown, 1
  3. spider unidentified, ‘3 mm’ brown no web, long front legs, 2
  4. spider unidentified, ‘ant-sized’ black, 1
  5. spider unidentified, ‘ant-sized’ black with web, 1
Native Birds:
  1. band-tailed pigeon, Columba fasciata, feather
  2. California towhee, Pipilo crissalis, 1
Native Mammals:
  1. desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii, scat
Exotic Mammals:
  1. fox squirrel, Sciurus niger, 1
Native Plants:
  1. sow thistle, Sunchus ssp., 15 (volunteer in driveway cracks)
  2. spotted spurge, Euphorbia maculata, 1 (volunteer in driveway cracks)
  3. annual bluegrass, Poa annua, 2 (volunteer in driveway cracks)
Not yet identified:
  1. ground cover with white flowers, 34 (volunteer in driveway cracks)
Exotic shrub:
  1. oleander, Nerium oleander, 4 (recently cut to the ground)
Native tree:
  1. holly leaf cherry, Prunus ilicifolia ilicifolia, 2 (volunteers)

Backyard Biodiversity Project - Day 3

I started on what I thought would be the most sterile “zone” on the property - Zone 17, a barren, gravely planter next to the sidewalk and the lower driveway. To my astonishment I logged in six species of plants and individuals, or remnants of individuals, from 24 animal species!


What’s that bug? This is a small milkweed bug (Lygaeus kalmii). I came across 9 adults.

And if you look closely at the gravel.

In between leaf litter and seeds from the now cutback oleander, there were 58 juvenile small milkweed bugs. That means this population is living and reproducing in this small planter, along the driveway.

These bugs typically feed on milkweed, but there is no milkweed in the area. What are they feeding on? Could it be the oleander? It seems to be the sterile oleander seeds they are eating. It will be interesting to see if there are milkweed bugs near the other oleanders.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Backyard Biodiversity Project - Day 1

From rainforests to deserts biodiversity has become an important environmental issue. But what is biodiversity? In simple language, it means the variety of living things. Rainforests are home to many different kinds of plants and animals and therefore have great biodiversity.

But biodiversity isn’t just something that happens far away in remote or exotic places. No matter where you live, biodiversity is all around you. You are a part of it.

Whether you live in the city or the countryside, you share your environment with plants and animals. The animals may be small, the plants may be struggling to grow between cracks in concrete sidewalks, but still they are there trying to survive. Who are these neighbors we often do not notice? That is what the Backyard Biodiversity Project is all about.

Around the world biologists and botanists are documenting the types of animals and plants in distant jungles and remote badlands. In many places, they are discovering plants and creatures that no one has identified before or they are redicovering living things we thought had disappeared. But who is looking in your backyard?

Today I started documenting the plant and animal species here on one small piece of the planet.

Field Notes:
This morning Zone 17, the driveway . I thought the first species would be a plant, but right now a fox squirrel is looking at me beligerently from the zone. She is the first living thing recorded on this first day – an alien species, aggressive and thriving. Above me a mourning dove watches from the phone line, calm, native and wondering what I'm doing on the driveway on my hands and knees looking at snail shells and spider webs. It's a good start.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Backyard Biodiversity Project

Summer is rolling across the Southern California landscape. Mornings are cool, but the clouds burn off to a haze by midday.

Like a seedling feeling the sun’s warmth and pushing up to the surface, I feel like June is time to do a little growing. So I’m bursting out of my shell and plunging forward with a project that is near to my heart.

The Backyard Biodiversity Project

For the past couple of years I have kept track of plants and animals over, on, in and under the ground here at Hummingbird Hill in Woodland Hills, California. Some of these records have been detailed, others have been sporadic. For example:

  • My record of bird species visiting our yard goes back 7 years. Originally, it was simply noting on a pad which birds I had seen during a month. Now I know which week in May to expect the hooded orioles to return. I know that a year ago today the red-shouldered hawks were just about ready to leave the nest (hawklets). As of May 2007, 64 different avian species have lived at or visited Hummingbird Hill.
  • I’ve identified 13 species of spiders, including our colony of trapdoor spiders. (trapdoor spiders)
  • We have a breeding population of California slender salamanders. Our only amphibian species.
  • We’ve seen three species of lizards, eight species of butterflies and four different species of bees.
We don’t live in the wilds somewhere, we live in suburban Los Angeles. We are close to the Santa Monica Mountains, but only two blocks from one of the busiest freeways in the U.S.

In June, I am going to do what I’ve wanted to do for years. One quadrant at a time, I am going to inventory the plants and creatures on our .75 acre of property. I think the diversity of insects, worms, arthropods, birds, reptiles, and even mammals will surprise you.

Here’s a taste of the creatures I’ve mentioned before:

Creating a Garden that Attracts Wildlife

Urban Wildlife

Native bees; Trapdoor spiders; Jerusalem cricket; gray bird grasshopper; mourning cloak butterfly; monarch butterflies

Reptiles: western fence lizard; spur-thighed tortoise, Turkey; starred agama lizard, Turkey

Birds: goldfinch; red-shouldered hawk; crows and owls; white-crowned sparrows; Bewick's wren; CA quail; Allen's hummingbirds & babies; bird houses.

Mammals: desert cottontail; mule deer; bats; harbor seals.

Native Plants: frost and CA natives; autumn

Cambria Audio Adventure - elephant seals, Elfin forest (podcast)
Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 1
Bolsa Chica Wetlands - Part 2 (podcast)
Solar Eclipse 2006 Turkey

Counting starts tomorrow. Get ready for a June of DISCOVERY.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

“Survival of the Sickest” by Dr. Sharon Moalem

Book Review -

“Survival of the Sickest”
by Dr. Sharon Moalem

HarperCollins Publishers, New York NY 2007

Evolution is a long process played out over multiple generations. Not necessarily.

Dr. Moalem’s book “Survival of the Sickest” touches on a number of evolutionary adaptations in humans which allowed populations to survive catastrophic disease. But there is a price to pay for this protection–in the absence of these environmental challenges or malevolent diseases such adaptations can result in chronic health conditions.

Do you believe that as a human you are on an elevated position on the evolutionary web of life? Then pay attention the next time you sneeze. Are you sneezing by choice or is a microbe manipulating your behavior for its own purposes?

Moalem also challenges common thinking about how animal populations adapt to survive by discussing the field of epigenetics. Scientific evidence is building to show that dramatic physical variances can occur from one generation to the next by means of genes that are turned on and off. Behavior of the parent, before and during fetal development and at certain specific windows after birth, can actually change which genes are activated. Such changes can then be passed on to later generations.

Moalem’s “Survival of the Sickest” is thought provoking science presented for a lay audience. He explains complicated ideas clearly and challenges you to think outside the box. For me, I was making connections to how individuals from a single finch species on the Galapagos Islands can have completely different beak structure from one generation to the next in response to environmental changes in food supply. Biologists are trying to understand how a specific Asian wolf population made the leap from wolf to dog. Perhaps epigenetics played a role.

There is growing evidence that major evolutionary changes happen in bursts. Epigenetics seems to support these theories. If so, global warming may be a catalyst for dramatic change in the natural world as species must adapt quickly or perish. If indeed evolution can happen over the course of just a few generations, the changes that occur my shock us all.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Beneficial Wild Creatures In Your Garden

When my friend Douglas Welch of A Gardener's Notebook read the post about the benefits of western fence lizards in our garden, he proposed a joint effort on beneficial wild animals you should attract to your garden.

To find out why it’s important to attract this valley carpenter bee to your yard, read my post Beneficial Wild Creatures In Your Garden on A Gardener’s Notebook.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Creating a Garden That Attracts Wildlife

For many people the idea of wild creatures in their garden means rabbits and deer eating plants to the ground while birds and squirrels pilfer the fruit trees. While this can definitely be true, if you create a balanced ecosystem in your yard, the plant eaters will be moderated by the predators.

Get Clean and Green
Before you can think about attracting beneficial wildlife, clean up your act. If you wouldn’t drink it or eat it - Don’t Put It On Your Yard. “But there are aphids on my roses,” you say. Spray and the aphids become resistant, their numbers wax and wane. You continue to spray and take on the mindset of a Four-Star General mired in a losing battle. STOP!

No one wants to eat an insect packed full of insecticide. If the aphids get really bad spray them off with the hose. Aphids are not transportation wizards. Knocked off their home plant, many won’t survive. I noticed a group of aphids starting to flourish on my roses the other day, but so did the bushtits. These small birds, the size of a hummingbird, are voracious insect eaters. They scour my roses every few days and voilá, no aphids. I do nothing but watch. Did this happen all a once, NO. So get started today. Stop with the insecticides and herbicides, no one wants to live in or eat at a toxic waste dump.

When Reestablishing An Ecosystem Start Small
Think of your yard as an island, an oasis. As on all islands, the foundation of an ecosystem is the plants. Go Native with your plantings, like this beautiful Fremontia or flannel bush. You will save water, avoid frost damage and begin to attract the smallest wild voyagers, insects and spiders.

If your first response is “No way, insects mean infestation,” let’s talk. White flies infesting your favorite hibiscus? Japanese fruit beetles on your apricot tree? I have two things to say: nonnative insect on a nonnative plant. Native plants have evolved to defend themselves from native insects. Infestations typically occur on plants that have no natural defenses and with insects that are out of control because they have no predators.

If your response is “Uck I don’t want insects, I want to attract birds and real animals,” Let me give you a moment to rethink. A yard without insects and spiders is a Dead Zone.

Arthropods, the class of animals that includes insects, spiders, millipedes, crustaceans, etc., make up 85% of known living animal species. Their biomass is greater than ALL other animal species combined. That’s right, all the whales, elephants, fish and people in world do not weigh as much as the ants, flies, bees, beetles, spiders and krill. You can not have an ecosystem without them.

Open for Business
Think of your island of habitat as a resort with a reputation to maintain. You need three basics: clean water, safe food and safe living quarters. Water can be as simple as a low dish on the ground rinsed and refilled every other day. Moving water is more visible, but not necessary.

For shelter, provide rock mounds or logs for reptiles. Trees are a must for birds, but shrubs are important too. Many native birds, prefer to nest at a mid-height 5’ - 20’ off the ground. If trees aren’t possible a perch that offers height and a good view will help birds feel safe. (Trees provide roosts for birds of prey also.)

Native plants and insects will provide food. Adding a bird feeder or bird house bumps you up from a four to a “five-star” habitat, but they aren’t necessary. A bird feeder, however, will quickly bring seed-eating birds. Bird activity attracts insect-eating birds. They know the seed-eaters will watch for predators. Besides, it’s like choosing between a restaurant that is busy and one that is empty. Which one would you tend to try first? Fruiting or nectar-producing plants will also add to the variety of your visitors.

Safety is a priority. If you want lizards, amphibians or birds you can’t have an urban tiger, a domestic cat, prowling the grounds. Most dogs have less of a need to hunt and can get along with non-mammalian wildlife. Our dog actually watches the hummingbirds at the feeder.

Like any resort, word of mouth, can make or break you. Stagnant water, poisoned insects or a cat lying in wait by the bird bath can turn visitors away. And they will tell their friends. Here again, when you have a bad experience at a restaurant, you think twice before returning.

Something Furry
This is where a backyard habitat becomes more complicated. Humans have reduced native mammalian predators because of our own fear. These larger predators are frequently our predators. Wolves, bear, mountain lions, heck even bobcats and coyotes scare us. I’ve had a coyote looking in my French doors and one night while I was home alone, I could sense something was watching the house. It was a coyote out front.

A coyote is generally not a threat to humans, but it can be disconcerting to have something fairly large hunting in your backyard. However, without these predators rabbit and deer populations can get out of control. We are just in that foothill zone where we occasionally have a rabbit and it is typically preyed upon by someone’s dog or one of the hawks or owls.

Bats however are mammals you can attract to your garden without worry. As insect predators few birds can match them. To attract bats, open water, like a pond or pool, is a plus. Nocturnal insects often fly over water. A bat box or large trees can provide shelter.

Nonnative brown rats and mice can be a problem. They depend on human castoffs, but rats will also prey on the eggs and young of reptiles and birds.

Raccoons, skunks and introduced opossums can also be a challenge. As occasional visitors, raccoons and skunks are valuable snail and grub predators, but you don’t want to feed them. They will be healthier and live longer as wild creatures. To ensure that you aren’t feeding them or attracting coyotes, feed your pets in the house. Pet food bowls can be very attractive to wildlife.

Saving the World
When you create habitat in your backyard I believe you are helping to save the Earth one small piece at a time. Global warming, species extinction and toxic pollution seem insolvable problems, but look out at your yard, the solution starts RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW. Restore the native habitat in your yard and help save the world.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Western Fence Lizard - Super Hero

Spring doesn’t just warm up the ground for seeds to grow and flowers to bloom. The sun heats the rocks and gravel and invites the lizards to emerge from their winter hiding spots. The most visible lizards in our yard are Western fence lizards (Sceloporus occidentalis). There is a pair in the herb garden and this large individual in the driveway. They seem to prefer elevated basking sites where they can keep an eye on their territory and watch for insects.

The female in the garden frequently jumps up several inches to catch flies. She’s an efficient insect eliminator and fun to watch.

You may know these lizards as “blue-bellies.”
Males, especially, have bright patches of blue on their bellies and sometimes at the throat. The fence lizard does push-ups displaying his bright breeding colors to admiring females. The brighter the blue, the healthier and more attractive the male is as a mate.

We haven’t always had lizards in our yard. When we first moved in, garden snails infested the African daisy planted along our front hillside. Blindly, we used the box of “snail bait” poison left behind by the previous homeowners. Did it get rid of the snails? No. It would decrease them for a while, but then they would multiply and return in greater numbers.

When the poison ran out, we tried beer traps, copper strips and a variety of organic methods. After several years of “Earth friendly” snail deterrents, we began to notice there were fewer snails but it wasn’t because of anything we were doing. Something was eating them.

Now that our snails were “clean” and tasty, predators were picking them off. A skunk was crunching them on the porch and alligator lizards (Gerrhonotus multicarinatus) moved in to dine as well.

As we remove the African daisy and replaced it with native plants, we have less and less non-native garden snails. The snails don’t like the thick waxy leaves of the ceanothus or the aromatic taste of sage. But these native plants have attracted native insects.

In May of 2004, we spotted the first western fence lizard in the yard.
Since then, there has been at least one batch of youngsters. Rock piles and concrete walls soak up the sun’s rays and create warm stopping places for lizards. The nooks and crannies between the rocks make it easy for a lizard to hide from a hungry red-shouldered hawk.

A place to live and a safe food source were all the lizards needed to move in.
Western fence lizards patrol the herb garden, eating a variety of bugs. They warm themselves on the driveway and run up the walls, clinging with their long strong toes.

But these western fence lizards are doing something else for us besides insect patol. You see the western fence lizard is a Super Hero. Not only can they run straight up a wall, they fight disease.

Lyme’s disease has made its way to Southern California from the east coast. But this debilitating illness is less of a threat to humans here than in other places. Why? Because of the western fence lizard. The tick’s that carry Lyme’s disease are small, tiny actually. These ticks will hop on a western fence lizard as easily as a mouse or a person. And here is where the Super Hero comes in: If a tick carrying Lyme’s disease bites a western fence lizard, something in the the lizard’s blood neutralizes the disease. When the tick leaves the western fence lizard it is no longer a carrier of Lyme’s disease.

If you have western fence lizards as neighbors, they are protecting you from potential disease. What other wonders are these lizards capable of? Who knows. Perhaps they carry a natural antibiotic in their blood like Komodo dragons or American alligators that could be beneficial to humans.

For now, I’m happy to watch them basking in the garden. And to inspire them to stay we’ve created a few more rock piles and added some novel resting places. The female fence lizard has moved into a dark-colored, resin gargoyle-shaped drain spout. For a lizard it’s a cool place to live.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Hummingbird Soap Opera

Well, there is no doubt about it. Having the scrub jay frequenting the yard made our little female Allen's hummingbird reevaluate the nest she created on top of her mother's deserted nest from last year. (See the nest)

She stayed away and abandoned the tiny lone egg. When I checked the nest late Tuesday night, there was no mother incubating and the cool temperatures were too much for the egg to survive.

When I checked the nest Wednesday morning, the egg was gone and the side of the nest was slightly torn–probably by a bird larger than a hummingbird sitting on the edge.

Some nests are made in unsuccessful locations. This was the second batch of eggs lost in this one specific nest site.

The fascinating thing to me is this tiny hummingbird with a brain the size of this "O" realized she had made an untimely choice. Rather than fight against brutal odds, she abandoned her hard work rebuilding the nest and the resources committed to the egg. She let it go.

Then she disappeared for three days. Where did she go?

I think she went off to mate again. She's back now and fervently trying to drive off her last batch of youngsters. She's also building a new nest somewhere in the holly cherry shrubs. I haven't spotted it yet. This time she is being very secretive.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Of Mourning Cloaks and Hummingbirds

The more I watch the life dramas that play out in my backyard the more aware I am of how interconnected life is.

Spring has come barreling across the Southern California landscape. Plants that survived the frost leafed out in record time.

The Chinese elm went from leafless to brilliant green in five days. The first hummingbird babies of the season took to the air March 23.

With her first brood of youngsters out of the nest, Alena, a one-year-old Allen’s hummingbird, began renovating a nest her mother, Hummy, built last year. This location, in a downward hanging elm branch, was not successful for her mother. Hummy’s second brood was discovered and eaten by a predator, probably another bird. (See Hummy on original nest)

When Alena chased off a group of bush tits that were eyeing the potential building materials available in this old nest, I thought she was anxious about the activity near her fledglings. I had no idea Alena had decided to build her second nest on top of her mother’s old nest.

If you look at the picture, you can see the cone-shaped bottom of the old nest. The rounded, upper half of the nest is new construction.

Enough with the background.

The real story begins with frass. That’s right, frass, the poop from insect larva. If you’ve ever grown tomatoes and had tomato worms, actually tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta) you know what large-caterpillar frass can look like–tiny chunks of black charcoal. You may not see a tobacco hornworm or a cabbage looper but the trail of leaf damage and frass will lead a discerning eye right to the munching, pooping source.

Well, there was a lot of frass on the patio under the elm tree. Something was up there munching away on the new green leaves. Something that was numerous and rapidly getting larger.

For the past three years, western scrub jays have been infrequent visitors to our yard. West Nile virus has decimated the scrub jays, mockingbirds and American crows in our neighborhood several times since its arrival. But suddenly Saturday morning, a scrub jay was making a racket as it made it’s way through the trees.

Spiny elm caterpillars, the larva of mourning cloak butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa), were marching down out of the elm tree across our patio and up the walls of the house. Some of them were done eating and pooping and they were looking for a safe place to enter the chrysalis stage of their development. The jay had found a banquet .

While searching for roving caterpillars, the jay stumbled across another delicacy–hummingbird nestlings. From the far side of the yard a second female Allen’s hummingbird frantically voiced alarm calls. The scrub jay had found her nest in the eucalyptus tree. Alena and two other female Allen’s hummingbirds came to their cohorts aid. The foursome buzzed the jay and tried to drive it off, but it was too late. The jay consumed one youngster and flew off with the second. It was probably taking the morsel back to its own offspring.

The next morning, Alena laid an egg in her new nest.

But now the nest that seemed safe is in a dangerous place. Caterpillars continue to march down out of the elm and this morning two scrub jays were on the prowl.

The hummingbird egg sits quietly alone in the nest. Alena is not sitting on it.

Is she staying away so as to not draw attention to the nest? Has she decided to abandon the egg, realizing the nest is not in a safe location?

If the caterpillars hadn’t been so successful and their numbers so great, the jay might not have spent any time in the yard. The hummingbird nests might have been safe all summer. If Alena had made her second nest in a different tree or avoided the location that was probably raided by a jay last year, brooding her second clutch might have been as easy as the first.

Now everything is more complicated.

Life is a delicate dance. The living constantly effect each other. The weather benefits some and challenges others. No action or inaction is without effect.