Monday, December 20, 2010

Red Jumping Spider - Backyard Tiger

I love spiders. They are fascinating in behavior. Their webs are works of art. Females are devoted mothers, risking their lives for their offspring (Green lynx spider, trapdoor spider). Yet I have to admit this large jumping spider startled both my husband and me.

Jumping spiders in California are typically the size a pencil eraser. They prowl the rosebush like ocelots stalking prey in the forest. With the best eyesight among spiders, most books say they can see up to two feet away from themselves, in vivid color. And when they call them jumping spiders, they are referring to their ability to jump about six inches, leaping rapidly to grab any insect prey before it can escape. 

But this red jumping spider (Phidippus formosus) surprised us with its size and capabilities. It was climbing up the outside of the house when it decided to walk across the second-floor bathroom window. When you compare it to the corner of the window, you can get an idea of its size. It would have easily covered a quarter with its body and legs. (It was close in size to the trapdoor spider that came in the house a few months ago.) The brick red of the top of its abdomen identifies it as a red jumping spider. If a typical jumping spider is like an ocelot, this spider was more like a tiger.

We got a great look at its underside and then it spotted us. It looked at us through the window and when I approached it outside, it spotted me coming when I was at least six feet away (3 times further than the books say they can see). It struck a defensive posture like a boxer, holding its pedipalps up in front of its eyes. I didn't really want to see how far it could jump.

Once it realized I wasn't a threat it continued its journey up the side of the house. I don't know where it was going. They supposedly build their burrows at ground level. This large female was headed toward the peak of our second story roof. Fast moving and on the prowl, she was climbing toward a golden polistes (Polistes fuscatus aurifer) wasp nest at the roof line. I don't think I would have wanted to be a wasp facing off with this voracious spider. But that is what natural balance is all about and the more we create a chemical-free habitat with native plants, the more biodiversity we are seeing in our backyard wildlife sanctuary.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Building a Native Bee Box

I've been wanting to do this for over a year, build a nesting box for native bees and other insects. My friend Doug Welch from A Gardener's Notebook had sent me various plans and ideas. I had a wooden wine box with a sliding lid and it seemed perfect.

Finding the western bumble bee nest in one of my bird houses finally prompted me to just do it.

I drilled holes of 3/8", 1/2" and 5/8" in the lid. Different bee species prefer different size holes. Then I filled the box with hay and dog hair. These were the kinds of fibers in the bird house that the bumble bees had liked.

I mounted two hooks on the back of the box so I could hang it on the fence at the side of the garden. 

In this location we can see any activity at the nest box, it is near the vegetable garden, but it is out of the way enough that people won't be crossing any bee traffic. We probably won't see any action until spring, but we finally have our bee nest box up.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Western Bumble Bee Nest

When I went to clean out one of the bird nest boxes, I was surprised to find that a western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) had made its nest inside. Typically this kind of bumble bee makes its nest in the ground. But here was the clump of waxy cup-shaped cells described in the books nestled in the dog hair and sticks that the Bewick's wrens had been using to build their nest. (This could explain why the wrens decided to move out and rebuild their nest in the pot next to the back door.)

Alarmingly, all of the bumble bees, adults and juveniles, still developing in their wax cells, were dead. What killed them? Was is the cold weather snap we had in October/November? There was a garden spider in among the corpses. Had this small spider preyed on the bumble bee nest? I can't imagine that it could have gotten to the juveniles in their waxy cells. Was there some kind of mite or fungus that caused the death of all ages? I don't know.

During the winter the queen bumble bee hibernates in a protected location all alone. She will emerge in the spring to start a new colony and then usually die. I hope that there was at least one survivor from this western bumble bee nest. (More on bumble bees: Our native bees are vital pollinators and typically are not susceptible to the same diseases and environmental conditions that threaten European honey bees. Most are not aggressive and are not a threat to people.

We have noticed carpenter bees nesting in the yard before but this is the first time for bumble bees. I've wanted to create a native bee nesting site for some time. It seems now is the time to finally take on that project.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wild Christmas Tree

Last December I did 31 days of Green Holiday Actions. One of my favorites is our live holiday tree. This is our 5th year with our live spruce tree. (2nd Year photo)

Is she a little wild looking? Yes. And we love her all the more for it.

Has she grown over the five years? Yes, and this is probably the last year we will be able to bring her in. But when you consider we have invited her in for five years, she was a great investment financially and environmentally. She is a carbon sink, storing carbon in her wood as she grows. How to bring in a live tree.

If you are thinking about a live Christmas or Holiday tree, take the plunge. The Earth will thank you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Missing Ladybugs

Ladybugs are insects that even a toddler can identify. Their red and black markings are distinct and their rounded shape appears nonthreatening. As predators of aphids and other garden leaf-eaters, ladybugs have one of the most positive insect profiles. Everyone loves ladybugs.

But across the country native ladybug populations are declining. What is happening to these important and beloved insects? Citizen scientists can play an important role in helping scientists sleuth out this environmental problem.

Go looking for ladybugs or just keep your eyes open and aware during your daily activities. When you see a ladybug, take its picture and report it to the Lost Ladybug Project

I spotted this ladybug on a lavender plant on December 9th. Ladybugs hibernate over the winter as adults and typically they group together in a protected location. One year we cut down a live Christmas tree and brought it into the house only to find that there were about 100 ladybugs hibernating in a clump at the center of the tree. The ladybug I took a photo of was out in the warm winter weather. (Climate Change in California) If it gets caught without a protected place to stay when the temperature turns cooler, as it is expected to do this weekend, will it survive the colder temperatures?

Scientists need your eyes to help solve this mystery of Missing Ladybugs.
Other Citizen Science Projects.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Climate Change in California

I know most people think of Southern California as having year-round warm weather. And while it is true that we don't have snow in the lower elevations, we do actually experience cooler winter temperatures with a winter rainy season.

Over the past few years I have been noting the signs of autumn: leafing out of the wild currants, ripening of the toyon berries. The winter hibernation of the western fence lizards and desert tortoises mark the seasonal change as well. While the tortoises are fast asleep, this morning I saw a young fence lizard out warming itself in the sun.

I've also been recording signs of spring: hummingbird nesting, blooming of the manroot and more.

Last year the Allen's hummingbirds in our yard started to seriously nest in January. The earliest date we have recorded. A lone chick survived from these early nests because winter storms did arrive in early February. Winds tossed youngsters out of nests and sudden cold temperatures overwhelmed young chicks. The one Allen's hummingbird chick was the earliest recorded wild bird hatchling in North America in 2010. 

This year we had some early autumn rains, cold weather and then December has had some record warm days. Last year we recorded the manroot blooming the first week in January. On Sunday, December 12th I took these photos of the manroot not only emerging from the ground, but getting ready to bloom. Will this plant survive to fruit in summer if it emerges so early from the ground?

The male hummingbirds are performing breeding displays. Will we see nesting even earlier this year? If so, will the chicks survive when winter temperatures return?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Green Holiday Decorations

Are you looking for a unique and green way to decorate for the holidays? How about lighting your tree with eel power?

Check out the following story and video on "Christmas Eel Makes Tree Lights Electric."

For other ideas that are a little less fishy and closer to home:
Bring a Living Tree Inside
Living Trees
Recycled and Artificial Trees 
What's Wrong With Mylar?
Creating Holiday Decorations From Your Garden

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Identifying Individual Hummingbirds

I had a comment the other day regarding how I tell the difference between the different hummingbirds in the yard. It is somewhat true that they look alike. However, we have been fortunate enough to have a small group of resident Allen's hummingbirds. While some of the marking are slightly different between individuals, especially females, behavior is the main clue to the individual identity of these tiny birds.

The Allen's hummingbirds have divided up the yard into specific territories.

This is "P" (Patio) on her nest. She was a resident for one summer.

Each male has a specific home tree and 3 or 4 specific places that it perches to watch over its territory. Fik was rescued as a fledgling. He knows me and trusts me. I can approach him and get quite close, he in turn will come up to me. He has perched on the same branch, in the same tree, since the first day he learned to fly. Bif perches on the tip of a succulent, he's the only one in the yard that will do that. Canyon is the most timid of the males and rarely comes down in the lower part of the yard.

The females are specifically territorial about nesting sites. These Allen's hummingbird females will nest in the same tree / shrub time and again, especially if they are successful. If it isn't the same tree, it usually is within 10 feet of that tree. One female, DR, (DRiveway) tends to rebuild directly on top of her old nest. She is the only female that has shown this behavior in my yard.

If I saw Fik a block away feeding from some flowers, would I recognize him? Probably not. Coloration can change on birds, from juvenile to mature, from breeding to molting. I have a small group of eight very enigmatic Allen's hummingbirds that live in my yard. They each have their own personalities and behaviors in the yard, that is how I tell them apart.

My friend has 30-50 hummingbirds visiting her feeders during the day. Telling them apart, without bands, would be a completely different matter.

Monday, November 29, 2010

California Native Plants Flowering in Late Autumn

While cold weather and snow are settling in across the country, late autumn is awakening the California natives.

The native wild currant has burst its first blooms. Our rain comes in autumn and winter, so now is the time for our native plants to produce fruit or blooms for a summer crop. Many like the toyon have been holding their fruit in a green stage for months and are now ripening just in time to feed winter migratory birds.

The wild currant lost its leaves in the summer heat and now has regained its green adornment. The natives are bursting to life while the exotic plants are dropping their leaves and going dormant. It is a strange mixture really. Perhaps this is why so many people don't think we have seasons in California, they don't realize that the green of summer and the green of winter are provided by completely different plants.

On New Year's Day, people see our green hills rising behind the Rose Parade and they think that we have beach weather all year round. The reality is that we have cold winter days, but this is the only time we have real rain. Plants that want to survive in our climate have to be frost and cold tolerant. The cold season is the only time they can really grow.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Allen's Hummingbirds Staking Territory

Brisk days have ratcheted up the territorial behavior of the Allen's hummingbirds. Each feeder has its own despot determined to possess its liquid energy.

We have had a complete change over in most of our backyard Allen's hummingbird population. "A," who nested in the yard for several years and was hatched here, has either moved on or has vanished (A's nest). Three of the four feeders are now the domains of resident males. That means that females are battling over one feeder. I'm afraid that we may see fewer nests this coming spring, because the females are competing with the males for resources. 

For years we rarely saw males, now they are the dominate characters.

Fik is entering his third winter. He has been the dominant male since 2009. (Fik as father; Rescuing Fik) He is growing older and sometimes I worry about his sons pushing him out of his territory. Fik was so busy breeding this spring that by summer he was nearly worn out.

Bif and Canyon, his two sons were both hatched in 2009. This is Canyon at his feeder.

The weather has been warm then cold, warm and then cold. Already Bif has been performing breeding displays. If the females are convinced to breed this early, they may lose nests to erratic weather and rainstorms. Last year, we documented the first successful nest in North America. (DR's Feb. nest). Unfortunately other early nestings were not successful. I'm hoping that the weather stays consistent so that the females will resist starting their families too early and losing their chicks to an unpredictable climate.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving Toyon

There is a special reward for planting native plants: watching habitat being restored in front of your eyes.

Five years ago I planted a 3 gallon toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia). It started out just 2 foot tall. Today it is about 8 foot tall. The dark green leaves are prickly and in late autumn its berries ripen to a brilliant red. It's no wonder European immigrants to California were reminded of holly and called it "California holly" or "Christmas berry."

In fact this is the holly that gave the name to "Hollywoodland" and therefore Hollywood. (Decorating with toyon)

The native Chumash, Ohlone and other coastal peoples in California roasted or dried the berries and ate them. They also used the strong, rot-resistant wood for a variety of implements and ceremonial markers. But people weren't the only species that depended on the toyon. Numerous animals eat the berries as well, rodents, foxes (including the endangered island fox), probably the extinct southwestern grizzly bear did as well. A wide range of birds also look for this easy-to-spot, chaparral delicacy. 

Sunday morning I watched the hermit thrush picking one red berry at a time and swallowing it down. A hermit thrush has been coming to my yard every winter for the last seven years. I believe it is the same bird, but I don't absolutely know that for sure. For the second year in a row it arrived with a friend. I wonder if the thrush has been waiting for the toyon to grow up and become the beautiful berry-producing plant that it is now?

One thing is for sure, the toyon has created a valuable source of winter food for the hermit thrush, cedar waxwings and other berry-eating birds. The hermit thrush seemed to be thankful for its bountiful meal and I was heartened that I had made a positive difference for the local wildlife and migratory birds.

Now is the season in California to plant native plants, they are the Foundation of Habitat. Plant a few natives and help make a positive difference.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Discovering Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge

great egret and coot by Michael Lawshe
Take a mini-bird walk through Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge.
Click on the link below for a 4 minute video that was shot for "One Day On Earth" 10/10/10. Video courtesy of Michael Lawshe and  Eclipse-1 Media.

Mini-Bird Walk

Turkey Vultures at Sepulveda Basin

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Something Lurking in the Garden

 The warm autumn weather has brought a few surprise encounters. The photo shows a pair of mating praying mantises. Notice how the male (on top) is slightly smaller and measurably slighter in build. He also appears to have much longer antennae.

I came across this pair at dusk as I was running out of the house. I wasn't the only one startled by the large insects. Fik, one of our male Allen's hummingbirds, was quite disturbed to have the pair on his feeder.

I'm not sure why the large female praying mantises tend to hang out on the hummingbird feeders. Are they hunting insects that might come to the feeders or are they really set on grabbing a hummingbird? Fik wasn't taking any chances, he stayed on the far side of the feeder.

I know you are probably wondering, did the female mantis consume her male companion following mating? I don't know. I took the photo and had to run. I saw the female the next evening, but have yet to locate her egg casing. I wonder if she is one of the offspring that emerged in the back yard in June. Praying mantises.

Meanwhile a new mother-to-be has attached her tan-colored egg sac to the scented geranium, a green lynx spider. This is the second year that one of these free-living predators has stopped to have a family on the geraniums in the garden. Last year, winter storms destroyed the egg sac despite the mother's attempts to keep the nursery safe and dry. It will be interesting to see what happens this year. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Alex and Me" by Irene M. Pepperberg

Alex and Me; How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence–and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process

Irene M. Pepperberg. (2008). HarperCollins Publishers. NY

Did you know Alex? If you saw this intelligent African gray parrot on television or read about Irene Pepperberg’s avian cognition studies with this amazing bird, you may have felt that you did know Alex. I know I did. Apparently thousands of other people did as well because Pepperberg’s book opens with the outpouring of affection and communal loss expressed when Alex died suddenly in 2007.

If you didn’t know Alex, the combined personal emotion plus the attention from international media upon his death creates a basis for you to understand the importance of this bird; not everyone has their obituary published on the front page of the Economist.

When you sit down with Alex & Me, it is as though you are sitting down with a friend telling you about her work with an insightful colleague. Pepperberg takes you through the origin of her interest in avian intelligence and weaves her scientific findings with Alex into the story. While I occasionally wanted more specifics about the science, the story format allows Pepperberg to include examples of Alex’s understanding and intelligence that occurred outside of structured research.

One thing is certain, if you think “bird brain” means dumb or unable to use higher cognitive powers Alex and his avian colleagues will challenge your assumption. Humans frequently hold up the size of our brains as proof of our intelligence, but not all brains function in the same manner and the researchers are always a step behind with structuring studies to delve the capabilities of Alex and his “walnut-sized brain.”

What made Alex so unique was his ability to vocalize his thoughts and understanding in a way that humans could comprehend. When the hermit thrush and the ruby-crowned kinglet reappear each October in my small yard in Woodland Hills, I am always struck by the fact that they have found their way back. Do I know these are the same individual birds? Yes, because both of them announce themselves to me specifically upon their return. This year the kinglet came right up and nearly perched on my hand. Where did they spend the spring and summer? What did they see and experience on the trip? How did they navigate their way back?

Unfortunately these birds can not speak in a language I can understand. But there is intelligence here that goes unexplored. Alex was not bred to be an avian genius, he was just taught to speak clearly so that humans could have insight into his avian intelligence. Alex & Me will make you laugh and cry, it also will challenge you to appreciate the intelligence of non-human animals.

Other Book Reviews:
The Geese of Beaver Bog
Survival of the Sickest

Monday, November 08, 2010

Amphibians of Autumn

A cool autumn day and a nighttime shower, this is my favorite time of year and a time for California’s precious amphibians.

We think of cold-blooded or ectothermic creatures as sun lovers, but amphibians must balance temperature with moisture. Summers in California are hot and dry, but our autumn and winter climate is moderate with occasional showers.

On these mild nights rain invites amphibians out of their hiding places to frolic. This California toad has been visiting a friends’ yard.

We’ve spotted our young garden slender salamanders born last spring. And students of mine have seen Pacific tree frogs and a different species of slender salamander in their yards. 

This species of slender salamander has distinct rings along its body giving it a striking resemblance to an earthworm. It is much larger and stockier than the garden slender salamanders in our yard.

Amphibians are part of our local wildlife, but too frequently they disappear first when development or human impacts alter nature’s delicate balance. Frogs, toads and salamanders eat insects and other arthropods. They also are an important food source for mammals and birds. An ecosystem without amphibians is missing a main pillar of balance.

There is something remarkably resilient about amphibians. They have evolved from an ancient line of creatures that first left the primordial seas to live on land. They’ve survived major cataclysms including the end of the dinosaurs. Shouldn’t your yard be safe for them?

The next time you reach for insecticide or herbicide, pause for just a moment. If your yard isn’t safe for amphibians, is it safe for you and those you love? 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bring Your Scary Story to Ghosts of the Internet

Have you had an encounter with a strange creature in the wee hours of the morning? Maybe you’ve heard the wail of an unsettled spirit or your dog has pointed out a ghost.

Eclipse-1 Media is presenting its 4th annual Ghosts of the Internet live web-cast radio show this Saturday. Members of the public are invited to participate at:

The Platt Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library
in the Community Room
Saturday, October 30
2:00 PM sign- ups; 2:30 PM Go Live

For more information on story length and ideas on classic spooky tales you can read, as well as directions, visit:

You can also hear past Ghosts of the Internet productions, including my true story last year of animal esp.

Spooky comes in all ages! Original music, jokes, poetry and stories bring families together to put the Treat back in Halloween. 

Come get your spooky on.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Trapdoor Spider Came In From The Rain

With streaks of lightning and claps of thunder an October storm brought well-needed rain to Southern California. While the rest of the country is preparing for the white blanket of winter, our native plants are waking up from a dormancy that helps them survive the hot dry breath of summer.

In the rain the mallow rejoiced and unfurled new blooms.

The katydid rode out the storm on her rose perch. While the days are growing cooler, she still has a month or so to enjoy the new growth.

One hillside resident, however, did not welcome the rain. Damp and homeless, she wandered in under the kitchen door seeking shelter. She stumbled into the web of a cobweb spider and was stuck there about an inch off the ground.

I was startled at first by the size of this visitor. Including her legs, she is about the size of a quarter. At first I thought she might be a young tarantula, but upon closer inspection she has the glossy brown cephlothorax of a trapdoor spider. While a relative of the tarantula, this spider has a softer, more vulnerable appearance. She’s kind of like that geeky cousin with the pale skin that seemed allergic to the sun.

The trapdoor spider colony on our hillside has included 17 locatable and occupied borrows. I haven’t counted in resent months, but it’s usually easy to spot 4 or 5 at any given time. While chance encounters have occurred when underground burrows were mistakenly dug up, I have never seen one of these homebody spiders out walking around.

I’ve seen them holed up with a brood of offspring. Baby trapdoor spiders.

And last spring, heavy rains caused one poorly placed burrow to be damaged. Damaged trapdoor spider burrow.

Did this young female trapdoor spider loose her home in the rain? There doesn’t seem to be any major mud flow areas in the yard.

Was she uprooted by the gopher that has been tunneling on the hillside and relocating dirt where no one wants it? It could be. But if she came from this far section of the yard, she walked at least 50 yards to get to the back door.

Maybe she lost her home to a foraging skunk some time ago and had yet to find a suitable hole when the rain came? Yet, she seems plump and healthy, not a spider on the edge of survival.

A female trapdoor spider spends her whole life in the protective confines of a tunnel. Walking around, she is vulnerable to the California towhees hunting in the leaf litter, skunks prowling at night, and even the wolf spider that seems to have devoured all of the cobweb spiders in the chicken house. While a male might go out looking for a mate, the large rounded abdomen and small pedipaps between her front legs and fangs tell us she is indeed a female.

What is this shy young girl doing wandering about in the big wet world? I don’t know.

While it is fascinating to see out of her tunnel, the yard needs her as a predator and she needs a natural location where she can build a comfortable tunnel burrow. When the rain stops and night falls, I’ll return her to the hillside where she belongs.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


In the long sigh of the afternoon the hot wind reaches through the trees and sends the first leaves of fall tumbling to the ground. There is much on the Internet and in the media about the significance of this date. Couples have chosen today as an auspicious date to marry. I image that there will be an abnormally high number of induced births today as well.

But if you take a moment to listen to the quiet and watch the sun filtering through a spider web, you’ll realize that the natural world knows no alignment of man-made dates. Eons have come and gone, oak trees have watched the California grizzly go from the most formidable creature beneath their limbs to just a distant memory.

 Today the western swallowtail has an urgency because the season is changing. Eggs must be laid soon or its caterpillar-children won’t have time to reach chrysalis stage in time to overwinter. The earth’s creatures have no interest in our human preoccupation with our own created numbers.

The western fence lizard on the wall is missing her tail. Her life-changing date was several days ago. For the pied-billed grebe at the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area this morning, her special day still looms in the distance. No matter how she tries, her chick won’t be ready to go off on its own for at least another week. For the desert tortoise who closed a grumpy eye last week and settled in for a winter sleep, what we humans do for the next six months is of little interest.

The only trouble is we humans tend to see the world only through our own eyes. We modify the landscape, from the highest levels of the Earth’s atmosphere to deep within the planet’s crust, without considering our neighbors or even our children.

Today I did the most important thing I could think of to do, I walked an area of local wild lands with three young minds. Three young souls, wide-eyed and excited to experience their wild neighbors. We watched an osprey dive and catch a fish, spotted a great blue heron standing motionless at the water’s edge and learned to recognize a black phoebe. The spider webs between the trees were Halloween perfect, beautiful, not scary. If the next generation doesn’t cherish this planet more than we do, all of the calendars and auspicious dates will amount to nothing.

We have made such a negative impact on our world. How many oil spills and toxic chemical spills will we accept?

May we all step forward and lead the next generation to value a healthy world over personal wants, comforts and desires. 

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Identifying Local So. California Birds

What's That Bird?

Tonight Thursday, October 7th, 7:30 PM
Del Air Rockhound General Meeting
Northridge United Methodist Church
9650 Reseda Blvd., Northridge CA 91324 

Learning to identify local birds is easy if you start with the basics. I'll be doing a basic class on how to identify local species, tonight at the General Meeting of the Del Air Rockhounds. The meeting is open to the general public and everyone is welcome.

Mourning doves, like the one pictured above, have become one of the most common birds seen across the country. In fact one of the families that attending one of my birding classes was able to identify that the bird nesting on their front porch was a mourning dove.

Come join me at the
Northridge United Methodist Church tonight for a FREE program and discover the birds in your backyard.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Repurposing Lumber

This summer we've been taking on some large re-thinking projects:
We also applied an old mindset to a new addition. We rebuilt a stairway on the side of our house with repurposed lumber. The 2x4s that we used were all leftovers from someone's building project that hadn't been used and had been set aside. Instead of adding this perfectly good lumber to a landfill, we brought home.

Yes, there were some rough edges here and there that couldn't be used, but this lumber was seasoned (thoroughly dried) making it less likely to warp or twist. We even were able to scrape down the old hand railing and reuse it. Primed and painted our new staircase should last for years. 

Sustainable thinking applies to small things like reuseable shopping bags as well as big things like using wood that has already been harvested. Lumber is a precious resource. Wood shouldn't be wasted to end up in landfills and trees shouldn't be cut down without good reason.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Easy Energy Saver

We did something quick and easy to reduce our energy bill. We put up an old fashioned laundry line. Well not "old fashioned," actually we used a pole along the side of our car port.

By air drying half our laundry, we are cutting the use of our dryer in half. Who convinced us that on dry summer days we needed to use a machine to do what Mother Nature does just as well? Besides, air drying is gentler on clothing and helps maintain clothing color.

The drying pole is mounted between the car port supports on curtain rod hardware. When not in use the pole is unnoticeable to most people. 

Letting your laundry air dry is a quick and easy sustainable life choice. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Six, Seven, Eight - Yellow-Breasted Chat

This morning while videoing hummingbirds for an upcoming project, I had an exciting surprise: my 678th Life Bird - a yellow-breasted chat.

We haven't traveled to many new destinations this year and that can make it difficult to see new bird species. On a weekend trip to San Diego I did spot my first black skimmer and a California gnatcatcher, but this sighting was truly rewarding because it was in our own yard.

The chat was feeding in some of our dense native shrubbery and taking a quick bath in the water pooled on some leaves. I didn't get a photo, but the bright yellow chest and long tail are printed in my mind.

We have now seen 71 species of birds in our yard in suburban Los Angeles. A perfect example of how recreating and restoring native habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity. A wildlife refuge is possible in your own backyard.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

From Mongolia, to Turkey, to Southern California

It's hard to believe that it was two years ago this week that we were in Mongolia to see our fifth total solar eclipse.

Video of Mongolia.

Two years before that we were in Turkey.

Both of these locations highlight the importance of water, the impacts of long-term human habitation on the environment and the dramatic effect climate change can have on the natural world and human cultures.

This August we are at home. Summer 2010 has been moderate, only a few days over 100 degrees. But as we approach high summer, this is the dormant period for our native plants and animals. Still the western fence lizard babies are emerging from hidden nests in the ground and the California towhees hatched out three chicks yesterday morning.

More on our native populations in summer to come. We're out in the field documenting our wildlife on video.

Monday, July 19, 2010

New Life for the Los Angeles River

What recycling/rehabilitation project is larger than reestablishing the Los Angeles River as a living river? In the last two weeks the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has declared that the Los Angeles River is a waterway deserving of the protection of the Clean Water Act–in other words a real river.

For all of my life the Los Angeles River has been confined between concrete walls. But in recent years we have seen sections of the river reclaim its freedom. In forgotten corridors vegetation has flourished, wildlife has returned.

Many L.A. residents who have relocated here from the east regard the Los Angeles River as a glorified storm drain. They cite flooding in the 1930s and use it as evidence that the river only flows seasonally and is "dangerous." But if they would look back in history a little bit further, they would realize that there were human settlements along the river long before tract homes were built and agricultural lands were sectioned off. The native people and the Spanish lived here because there was water and they built on higher ground up from the meandering and somewhat marshy river because they respected the natural forces that caused the waterway to fluctuate seasonally.

I grew up in West Hills (when it was still Canoga Park) along Bell Creek, one of the three small streams that start the Los Angeles River. Though wild in the hillsides, the creek was cemented in by developers once it met the valley. Still, was a place where you could find tadpoles and raccoons. Though it trickled in the heat of summer, Bell Creek always flowed. Local folklore tells of a Native American village that stood here at the base of the foothills above the flood plain of the central part of the valley.

Leonis Adobe in Calabasas is built along Arroyo Calabasas which joins Bell and Chatsworth Creeks to form the River (just east of Canoga High School). At its beginnings this stream has been cleaned of debris in recent years and bubbles freely past the ranch house built in 1844. That is until it flows into Los Angeles County, where it too is confined in concrete. Topanga Mall is actually built over it.

The first house that my husband and I lived in was in Van Nuys along Bull Creek, another tributary confined by the Army Corp. of Engineers. This stream was contained so that Van Nuys Airfield could be built. In the last two years, the lower section of Bull Creek, just before it joins the river, has been rehabilitated. If you want to see what our waterways could have looked like prior to the paving of the San Fernando Valley visit Lake Balboa Park and stop at the dirt turnout before you reach the lake area. Walk along newly liberated Bull Creek and you will be surprised at the wildlife. This island of habitat is home to ground squirrels and desert cottontail rabbits. The sandy cliff banks are perfect nesting areas for swallows. Ducks and herons thrive.

To experience what marshy wetland areas were like and the myriad of birds that lived there, visit Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Area. The surrounding grasslands, just slightly elevated above the wetland, feed a variety of native sparrows and finches visiting in the winter. These areas are flooded following storms, just as they should be, so the grasses can grow in the silt enriched soil.

Travel down the Los Angeles River beyond Burbank and you will come to areas where you can see the ground water bubbling up in the channel. In some areas it is lifting the concrete. The natural river is trying to return. Embracing the Los Angeles River.

Yes, applying the Clean Water Act is going to mean that each of us as individuals is going to become legally responsible for what runs off of our property and into the river. If you needed more than ethical and health reasons for limiting pesticides and herbicides sprayed on your property, this is it. For me, I'm excited. I have always loved the Los Angeles River, even when it was nearly dry. It could become the green heart of our city if we can all come together and find the positive thread that connects us together, the Los Angeles River.

For more on the recent status change of the Los Angeles River visit our local state representative, Julia Brownley's webpage.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Recycling Furniture with Paint

I gave new life to my old dining room chairs with a real recycling project–redoing the old upholstery.

Another idea is to paint older furniture and give it a new identity. Check out some ideas on what you can do with paint to breathe new life into your beloved furniture at The Decorative Paintbrush. I think you will find Mary's work inspirational.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bull Thistle - A Real Weed

Most people regard all thistles as invasive weeds. I happen to think they are beautiful and I have taken photos of them all over the world.

Recently we had a thistle sprout in the driveway. I decided to let it grow. Several species of thistle are native to Southern California and their nodding flower heads provide seed for our local lesser goldfinches and house finches. The down that creates the parachute to help spread the seed is used by a variety of birds and small creatures to provide plush comfort to their nests and homes.

The thistle in the drive has flowered and I think it is lovely–prickly, but delicate.

However, after consulting a few books and two reliable websites Oregon State University and, I have identified my thistle as a bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) a European / western Asian import. The “vulgare” in its scientific name means common. This imported thistle can be highly invasive and problematic.

For the sake of my local wild environment, this thistle must go.

Some “weeds” are welcome additions to your backyard biodiversity, others are not. If you have a thistle find out if it is a beneficial native or a problematic invasive and act from a position of knowledge.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Lion in the Yard - Ant Lions

There are tiny death traps in my front yard–ant lion pits.

One of the components of an integrated pest management plan is understanding the natural predators of a "pest" species. Ants are a common pest in suburban Los Angeles. Ants are attracted to the sweet and fat food stuffs abundant in our modern human diet. Invasive exotic species like the Argentine ant are also attracted to the water that people make available beyond natural amounts.

One ant predator is the descriptively named ant lion. This member of the ancient order of nerve-winged insects, Neuroptera, voraciously eats ants that tumble into its funnel-shaped pit made in loose sandy dirt. The hungry ant lion larva sits at the bottom of its excavated cone of loose soil. When an ant or other small insect troubles into the pit, grains of tumbling sand alert the ant lion that prey has entered its trap. The steep sides make escape difficult. Without warning the ant lion's fierce jaws snatch the frantic ant and consume it.

In several areas of the yard, small patches of sandy soil provide the perfect spot for these hidden ant traps. Throughout the summer little ant lion pits appear and disappear as the ant lions hunt, mature and eventually become delicate flying adults with elegant wings.

One of the rewards of not using pesticides, is the variety of insect predators that live in and visit our yard. Praying mantises, green lacewings, trapdoor spiders and ant lions are part of that biodiversity that maintains the natural balance in our yard and keeps the "pests" under control.

The next time you see an unusually perfect little pit in an out of the way place, take a second look. It could be an ant lion lair and an important insect predator.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Recycling Furniture - Part 2

The scariest part of reupholstering your own furniture is the day you take it apart to start the project and the moment you commit and put scissors to the new fabric.

Quality fabric is an investment and we calculated our needs pretty close. When you cut the fabric you don’t want to make any mistakes. We used the old fabric removed from one of the chairs as our pattern plus an additional 1.5-2 inches along all edges. You want to have enough fabric to hold on to and pull it, and you will trim off excess. Also remember that you will need extra fabric if there is a specific pattern to the material. The new fabric had a definite pattern and we wanted to make sure that the diamond shapes were always going the same way.

We started with the chair seats because they seemed the most straightforward. We had redone the support of the chair seat with jute webbing. Here you can see the fabric placed upside down, the new layer of foam (white) and then the wooden seat frame with the jute webbing and the remnants of the old fabric that was cut off (blue).

Recovering requires pulling the fabric snug before you staple it down. As novices, this was a two person job. I pulled the fabric tight and my husband manned the electric staple gun. We started at the back edge then pulled the opposite side taut, the front, then the sides, always working in opposition. We left the corners and then went back to them. Each corner was neatly folded, like wrapping a package.

We had carefully removed the black fabric from the underside of the chairs and saved it because it was still in good shape. Stapling it back in place finished the chair seats.

Next we took on the padded chair backs. We added new batting to the front of the chairs and carefully stapled the fabric on in the same way that the original fabric had been placed. It took four hands to keep the fabric smooth and tight, easing it over the rounded corners. The back was recovered last. We replaced the 1/4” foam, then pulled the fabric firmly and stapled it down.

The last step was folding over the fabric to make a smooth edge at the bottom of the chair back.

The final step was putting the back in place and attaching the seat.

It took weeks to take all of the chairs apart and remove the old fabric and staples. An afternoon to clean the wooden frames. An afternoon to redo the seat webbing and a day to upholster with the new fabric.

Our dining room chairs are beautiful and comfortable again. They look like new and we did it all ourselves! We saved money and natural resources and tried to reduce the amount of materials that were chemically treated. Best of all, we have a sense of accomplishment.