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

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.