Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cambria Audio Adventure

LISTEN to the PodCast

Over New Year’s, Michael and I visited three wonderful natural sites along California’s central coast.

The Elfin Forest
in Los Osos

The elephant seal rookery near Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

Moonstone Beach, Cambria.

To hear the sounds made by the large male elephant seal ...

and the calls between the females and their pups...

Or to hear why it is called Moonstone Beach
and why the boardwalk is so important.

LISTEN to the PodCast -
Cambria Audio Adventure

The Central Coast is a great get away for a long weekend. The birding is fantastic and the elephant seals will be in residence through February.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Delisting the Gray Wolf

Yesterday, January 29, 2007, the United States Federal Government delisted the gray wolf in the lower 48 states. Since 1974, the gray wolf has been protected as either “threatened” or “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act. But today, that protection is gone.

As Americans populated the continent, they saw the gray wolf as a threat and competitor. Whether it was wolves preying on naive domestic animals, hunting prey humans wanted for themselves or because wolves would not relent to human domination, these top predators were exterminated from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In California, the last known wild wolf was trapped in Lassen county in 1924.

Since an experimental reestablishment of wolves began in Yellowstone National Park in 1995, there have been avid supporters and vitriolic opponents. While the humans debated, the wolves multiplied and reestablished balance in the ecosystem. In short, they did what humans could not. They controlled the elk population by eliminating the sick and weak. They resurrected damaged plant communities by reducing an overabundance of browsers. And they helped a growing list of species recover in the Park–song birds, beaver, fox and others–because of the improvement to the habitat.

But while the Park was returning to a wild balance, wolves were leaving to colonize beyond its boarders. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, Canadian wolves were crossing the boarder to colonize the areas, long devoid of top predators, that offered prime habitat. While the movement of these wolves is good for the natural environment, human fear of a top predator has again taken over rationality.

Now that the gray wolf is no longer designated as an “endangered species,” states will be able to “manage” wolf populations as they see fit. Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin will decide if wolves will be protected, shot on sight, poisoned, trapped or shot with a license as trophy game. Residents of Alaska have been trying to express their desires to their public officials for years regarding rational treatment of their wolves, yet despite votes to stop it, gray wolves are still shot from planes because of the power of the hunting lobby.

What will be the fate of the gray wolf in the 21st century. Will 21st-century humans use their intellect to learn to live with a top predator for the betterment of the land and ecosystems or will we react with primal fear and greedy short-term gain to once again drive the wolf to near extinction?

Is living with a large predator difficult? Yes. But we conservation-minded Americans expect Africans to share space with the African lion and Indian villagers to find ways to live with the Bengal tiger. We haven’t pressed as hard to save gray wolves in Europe or Mexico. Maybe it is because we secretly know it would be hypocritical.

All of our eyes should be watching these states where wild wolves are now in the cross hairs. The Great Lake states have been allowing their wolves to recover naturally, the Rocky Mountain states seem poised to stop wolf recovery.

Will we repeat the bloody past or will we find ways to live beside America’s top animal predator? We should all be ready to speak up.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Native Plants Beat the Freeze

Cold weather has destroyed citrus and other agricultural crops across California. Frost damaged plants can be seen in most residential yards. But if you look past the destruction, there is something important to note: the native plants are fine.

When I began to investigate the damage in our yard, I was struck by the resilience of the native plants. Not only had they survived the frosty cold, but some, like the white flowering currant (Ribes indecorum), were blooming and happy.

In this photo you can see the cascading white currant flowers, while the blackened foliage at the bottom of the picture is one of many frost damaged spider plants (Chlorophytum).

On January 13, 2007, Los Angeles recorded its lowest winter temperature. In Woodland Hills, we had several nights between 26 - 30˚F. On the morning of the 13th there was a quarter inch layer of ice across our bird bath. I removed the layer of ice and put it on the ground. Throughout the day, the ice never melted; unheard of in sunny California.

Not only was the disk of ice still on the ground the next morning, the water in the two-inch-deep bird bath was frozen solid. The band-tailed pigeons were walking on their own ice rink, quite mystified.

Throughout the yard, even in protected areas, exotic species, like the Mexican agave (Agave attenuata), were drooping with frost damage. While only two feet away, the newly planted native Channel Island tree poppy (Dendromecon harfordii) was unscathed.

On the exposed hillside, the California holly or toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) thrived, unconcerned with the bitter temperatures.

Even in the more protected front of the house, it was quite obvious that the brilliant green foliage of the “Yankee point” California lilac (Ceanothus gloriosus horizontalis) was unharmed by the frost while the African daisy (Osteospermum fruticosum) turned yellow and wilted.

If creating habitat around your home for native animals isn’t enough of a reason to change your landscaping over to natives, consider the changing weather. Native plants are not only more adapted to the dry hot California summers and require less water, they also are more resilient to freezing cold.

Be water wise, habitat wise and climate wise, plant natives.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Gift of Trapdoor Spiders

Not every spider builds an aerial masterpiece like Charlotte in “Charlotte’s Web.” Many spiders stay close to the ground and some, like tarantulas and trapdoor spiders, live underground.

Trapdoor spiders are found worldwide, from Africa, Australia, and China, to North and South America. On our hillside in Los Angeles, we are fortunate to have a colony of California trapdoor spiders (Bothriocyrtum califonicum) a native Pacific Coast species. The heavy adobe soil poses a gardening challenge, but creates prime real estate for burrowing spiders. The native clay is structurally strong, while the hillside slope allows rapid runoff of water. This combination has prevented humans from planting exotic landscaping, which in turn has allowed these trapdoor spiders to thrive.

This photo shows the first trapdoor home I discovered in our yard. Though the spider camouflages its door with dirt and debris, the large size of this protective door allowed me to spot the distinctive “D”-shaped covering.

The back edge of the “D” creates the web-constructed hinge, which allows the spider to open it’s door when it detects prey on its doorstep. The spider lifts up the door, grabs the cricket, spider or other unwary arthropod, and pulls in down into its tunnel. Layers of webbing make the eight-inch deep tunnel a cozy home for the California trapdoor spider.

The door also provides protection. From inside, the trapdoor spider can hold the door tightly closed. The precision of the door’s closure makes it almost impossible to open without damaging the door. This was the first time I was able to open this door. Unfortunately, it was because the large adult female spider must have passed away. Female trapdoor spiders are believed to live up to 12 years. I have known this spider to reside in this large tunnel for 13 years.

Trapdoor females are homebodies, preferring to spend their lives in one location. Males may wander past her door, but the female spends her life quietly underground. She is also a good mother, raising her spiderlings in her web-lined tunnel. She protects them and provides them with food for a year until they are large enough to strike out on their own.

All around the hillside matriarch there are tunnels and doors of younger trapdoor spiders. Some are eaten by other predators and their tiny doors have broken off to reveal the narrow tunnel without an owner.

Others are approaching the size of their mother’s tunnel.

Spiders are ancient creatures. The fossil record shows evidence of spiders 350 million years ago, long before dinosaurs or the first mammals. How long has this colony of trapdoor spiders lived on this hillside? Probably, long before humans lived in this valley.

The experts don’t believe the shy and secretive trapdoor spider lives in the built-up city of Los Angeles anymore. But in little fragments of native habitat, these ancient creatures survive. I am in awe of this colony of spiders. I am careful not to plant too many plants on the bare earth they prefer. I knock on human neighbor’s doors when their overwatering threatens to flood the spiders. I try to preserve their plot of hillside so their colony can continue on long after I am gone.

Native wildlife is a treasure, a gift. Big or small, plant or animal, this year make it your mission to preserve and protect.

For great PICTURES of trapdoor spiders, including a mother with her young, visit

Monday, January 08, 2007

Live Holiday Trees

Yesterday we packed up all the winter holiday decorations and stored them away for another year. One thing we didn’t have to worry about was stuffing the holiday tree into the recycle bin, because this year we had a live tree.

January is the perfect time to be thinking about a live tree for next year. Trees that were too small or just didn’t find homes are now reduced for clearance. Last year, I purchased two small spruces for $ 5.00 each.

While my little trees were still too small for this year, they are growing well. Because they are in pots, I can move them around in the yard to find the best seasonal location. Growing under my care in an organic backyard, these future holiday trees are not sprayed with insecticide or chemicals. When they come into my house, I know what they bring with them.

Have there occasionally been insects on the trees? Yes, and when insects are apparent, I move the trees into an open area where the birds frequent. Our native titmouse, bushtits and ruby-crowned kinglets are more than happy to scour the trees of bugs.

This fall we did purchase a larger tree, a six-foot Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens glauca). Weighing over 200 lbs. in its large black plastic tub, the tree had to be slid on a ramp into the house, but it was well worth the extra effort. Instead of a gradually drying dead tree, our living tree delighted us and our visitors with brilliant green growth. It was amazing to watch the unfurling buds at the tip of each branch.

Tomorrow, the blue spruce will go back outside with its smaller brethren I’ll miss it greeting me each morning when I come downstairs. My grove of living holiday trees are not just winter decorations, they have become members of the family. Each species is slightly different in color, stature and texture, but when they come into the house, they all succeed in bringing the outdoors in.

Some of our growing holiday trees:
  • Giant sequoia (Sequoia gigantea); seed from 2000, a mighty giant in its infancy (10 inches tall, 3 inches growth in a year)

  • Black Hills spruce (Picea glauca ‘Densata’) spruce with somewhat soft, deep green needles; growing well (22.5 inches tall, 4 inches in a year)

  • Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca ‘Conica’) short stiff needles; not growing robustly (22.5 inches tall, 1.5 inches in a year)

  • Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens glauca); beautiful blue green with chartreuse new growth (6 feet tall); this year's Holiday tree in the house.