Friday, January 29, 2010

The Arrival of a New Species

A new plant has appeared in the yard. It stands about 2 feet tall and is growing beneath some established native holly cherries. It is the perfect example of how the biodiversity in our backyard is constantly changing.

While many species like the trapdoor spiders and slender salamanders have been here since
we moved in 16 years ago, others are gradually appearing as the yard becomes home to more native plants. Chocolate looper, western fence lizard and Allen's hummingbirds.

Some plants, like this non-native asparagus fern, have spread to other areas of the yard because the native hermit thrush that visits over the winter eats its berries and moves the seed in its droppings.

The native manroot, on the other hand, has moved into the yard from the surrounding hillside. The manroot or wild cucumber has a large seed pod that explodes with mature seeds helping the plant venture into new territory.

Within the last month I have noticed a new plant. This volunteer arrived via seed either carried by the wind or a visiting animal. The berries on it could be food for a bird, but they have the appearance of something that might be toxic to mammals. Each berry is about the size of a green pea.

I've been looking through California plant ID books and on-line sources, but I have yet to figure this one out. A friend thought it might be pokeweed, but it doesn't have a red stem and the berries are quite different. If you have an idea as to what this might be, please let me know.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Damage to Homes After California Rain

A stroll through the yard revealed that the recent rains affected residents in the yard even more than they affected us. Oh sure, we were concerned with diverting water and the mud flow that came down the canyon. Mud.

But this trapdoor spider had the door of her home slide down the hill and completely off her tunnel.

If you look closely, however, you can see she is connecting a new tunnel to the soggy door. Apparently, the well-constructed door is more difficult to replace than the tunnel. Rather than make a new door, she is building a new home beneath the relocated door.

Even the slightest erosion of the clay substrate reveals the soil that has been reinforced by the trapdoor spider's handiwork. Here a burrow door sticks up, slightly raised, from the surrounding level of the dirt. This spider didn't loose its home, but some of its security has been temporarily washed away. Trapdoor spiders

For both spiders the ground, and therefore the trapdoors that protect them, remain soggy and soft. With their tunnels exposed and damaged, they have suffered much more than we have from the week-long rain.

Meanwhile the green lynx spider has survived, but her offspring have not. Will she lay another egg sac? And the preying mantis eggs laid in November? They remain safe on the twig where their mother laid them.

Eight inches of rain on a southern California hillside over 6 days can be a challenge for the creatures living on that hillside. We humans tend to think only of ourselves when we are faced with challenges or discomfort. But extreme weather events can be life threatening for smaller creatures. They are directly connected to a small area of habitat. For them the ramifications of climate change are more immediate.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shopping for Sustainable Meat Choices

Grocery shopping has become a challenge. Five Green Food Actions

Are you stopping to really look at ingredients? Are you putting back products with palm oil and unpronounceable preservatives?

I found that my shopping cart had fewer items, but more fresh fruit and veggies. Shopping for meat products has become a journey into reality. I could not find any meat from an animal raised on natural food. The beef and pork were labeled as having a vegetarian diet, and the fine print on the organic roasting chicken spelled out that that vegetarian diet was corn and soybeans. Chickens will naturally eat corn, but having raised chickens, I know it isn't their first choice. They would much rather eat greens and small protein items, insects, worms, etc.

Pigs will eat most anything. Cattle however do not digest corn and soybeans well. I've finally gotten around to reading the Omnivore's Dilemma by Micheal Pollan. I recommend it. It will explain to you how cheap corn is being used to make large corporations wealthy, while making animals and people less healthy.

So what to do? I bought an organic roasting chicken and one small steak. Then I whipped out my Seafood Watch guide and found two types of fish on the Preferred listing. I wasn't the only one reading labels and putting back pieces of meat. A European couple was doing the same thing. They had more resolve than I did. When they found nothing "grassfed," they bought nothing.

It is time to check out the local farmer's coop and their meat choices. Time to really say 'No,' to the corporate production of unhealthful animal protein.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sustainable SeaFood Choices

Eating sustainably is a new way of thinking. It isn’t just what you eat, it also means considering the origin of that bunch of grapes or the shrimp on your salad.

The sea has been so bounteous throughout human history, it seems almost incomprehensible that we are over consuming its populations of fishes. Yet for some species that is the reality.

Here in Southern California we have experienced firsthand the decline of local fish and sea life populations. Pacific sardines fed the soldiers and civilian populations during WW2. But this thriving sardine fishery crashed with the combination of natural population cycles and over harvesting. Not only were fish impacted, all of the canneries on Monterey’s famous Cannery Row were closed down. Jobs and livelihoods were lost.

More recently we’ve seen the near disappearance of abalone and giant sea bass. But both of these creatures have been aided by human endeavors to assist with raising juveniles, specific fishing regulations and providing marine sanctuary areas where reproducing populations can reestablish themselves.

Seafood is an important part of a healthy diet. But some seafood is not caught or raised in ways that assure long-term survival of species. You can make environmentally important choices that support sustainable fishing and aquaculture practices. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide has just been updated with the current seafood choices that are best for the planet.

They even have an ap for the iphone. Check it out.

We had wild-caught Pacific salmon last night. Not only was it good for us, we supported sustainable fishing practices.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Surviving the California Rain

Five days of drenching rain.

The green lynx spider continues to hold on to her geranium stem.

But her egg sac? It looks as though it may be completely saturated. Her drive to produce viable offspring may have been thwarted by the wet weather. Still she holds on and stands guard. Before the rain

Throughout the week, the bird feeders have been a center of activity. The feeders have provided food to birds even in the rain. This afternoon, however the Cooper's hawk was also using the feeders. I caught him just after he had made an attempt to catch one of the doves eating at feeder. He stopped for just a moment on top of the feeder before heading up into the wet trees. Video of a Cooper's hawk.

How the tiny hummingbirds survive the driving rain amazes me. I've been looking for nesting attempts. So far I haven't found any. I'm sure that any initial nests will have been abandoned because of the weather.

Thursday morning we spotted a disoriented California towhee sitting beside the neighbor's brick wall. The towhee's feathers were tattered. It may have been an older individual. It wasn't injured. It just seemed exhausted. We shooed it away from the street and open sidewalk and up into the bushes along our yard. At least there it had shelter from the elements. At times there have been several species of birds sitting on the patio to escape the worst of the rain and hail.

Since Monday, our tiny niche of biodiversity in Woodland Hills, California has received over 7 1/2 inches of water. I'm sure that isn't much in many other places, but in California it is a fair amount. Our annual rainfall averages only 16 inches.

A two-foot wall of mud flowed down our little canyon and was stopped by our fence. No disaster, but enough mud to close off the cottontails' regular path under the fence.

A sunny moment and a rainbow. The rain has quenched our drought parched landscape, but for some the intensity of the rain has been too much.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Rain on the Move in California

The rain continues to fall in Southern California. Fortunately, it is mostly a gentle rain. But the hillsides and landscapes are saturated. Temporary streams wind their ways down streets and canyons.

The one aspect of the rain that truly becomes apparent is how water moves things. Water flows off yards carrying with it anything sprayed or spread on the plants and earth.

Man-made debris collects in street gutters. Despite grates that block large items from the street-side drainage, bits of plastic and other debris make their way down the Los Angeles River and toward the Pacific Ocean.

Walking just a few blocks we picked up beverage containers, food wrappers, sharp pieces of plastic and plastic bags. All were being carried by the water.

Those bits of trash on the sidewalk and the street, they are all finding their way into the ecosystem and sometimes the bodies of other animals. We can all make a big difference by picking up these items, not letting them fall on the ground in the first place, and limiting our consumption of products that add to the growing pile of unrecycleable waste.

Just Say "No" to the Shiny

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eating Lower on the Food Web

This month my Green Life Action has been to change my eating habits to reduce the amount of meat I consume. I've been following Veggie Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Directly depending on plants which transform the sun's energy into calories reduces the amount of resources you use. It has been easier than I thought. On a rainy day like today, a corn and roasted pepper soup with a salad is an easy and satisfying meal.

Dinners are harder. But now that my husband has committed himself to Veggie Tuesdays and Thursdays as well, meal planning has become a joint effort. Michael had a great idea and we are having roasted vegetables with tofu meatballs over pasta and stuffed mushrooms on the side.

Monday, January 18, 2010

True Californians Surviving the Rain

Finally, Southern California is getting the rain it needs. While people are running around placing sand bags and fearing a deluge, the native plants and animals seem to be taking it all in stride.

The house finches and lesser goldfinches were busy at the feeder in the rain. While the white-crowned sparrows were rubbing their feathers on the damp foliage to bathe. When the rain was at its hardest, the finches and an Allen's hummingbird took shelter under the patio. But it was only for a short time.

One neighbor couldn't come out of the rain.

No matter how hard the drops fell, the green lynx spider was in the middle of it. In the past two days she has moved her egg sac closer to some leaves for greater protection. Still, she and the hazelnut-sized bundle are quite exposed to the downpour. This afternoon, the egg sac seemed to be quite wet. Are the eggs inside soaked or dry? I don't know. It will be interesting to see how she and her offspring fare over the next few days.

Just under two and a quarter inches of rain fell today. This evening the sky is clear and the stars are icy white. Tonight feels like winter. We'll see if the predictions of more rain come to pass.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Early Signs of Spring

This year I was hoping to really do some coverage of the signs of spring here in California. The problem is spring is arriving much earlier than I expected. Though it is only the second week in January, there are already early signs of spring all around the yard. (Past Springs 2008)

The manroot is not only sprouting up out of the ground, it has begun to bloom. Also known as the wild cucumber, the root lies dormant most of the year, but early in spring after a rain and warm days the vine emerges from the ground.

The vine twines away from its source, helping to keep the location of its large root a secret. Typically, seeing the vine emerging mid-February is a surprise. This year the blooms are already opening on January 11.

The manroot isn’t the only early sign of spring. The native coffeeberry is blooming and the French pussy willows are budding. The birds are also responding to the warm days. Yesterday a pair of Bewick’s wrens were checking out one of the bird houses in the yard. Two years ago they successfully raised 4 chicks in this house, but it was April - June.

The Allen’s hummingbirds are also showing signs of early nesting. Females are collecting spider web for building and they are chasing the male. This concerns me greatly. Last year we saw hummingbirds start to build nests on January 12, two weeks earlier than in 2008. Nesting attempts that started prior to mid-February ended in failure. Late January or early February storms destroyed nests and offspring. One of the females that got caught up in this cycle of early nesting and failure did not survive the year herself.

When I looked at my recorded temperatures for January 10 over the last six years, I found that while the temperature highs have gone up, the low temperature has increased as well. Rather than nights that dropped to the 30s and 40s, the nights have been warmer than 50 degrees F. Perhaps this is why the birds are fooled into thinking that the worst of winter is past and spring breeding should commence.

Unfortunately, despite these warm days and evenings it remains highly likely that we will experience a storm or frost before spring actually arrives. All of the plants and animals that have jumped forward will be faced with threatening cold or rain. And if the rain doesn’t come, the drought will worsen. Since the “rainy season” began in October, we have had less than six inches of rain. Connection between rain and migratory birds.

Are you seeing early signs of spring?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Five Green Food Actions

Because there are so many people on the earth, our food choices are changing the balance of life around the globe. Human consumption is the main threat to species ranging from Asian turtles and forest primates, to sharks and wild ginseng. Even more species loose their habitat to agriculture. Farms to produce palm oil, corn and soybeans displace creatures ranging from orangutans, to bison and jaguars. The raising of domestic animals for meat uses a vast amount of resources. At the same time over-harvesting of sea life threatens the largest ecosystem in the world, our oceans. We can all make a difference by increasing our awareness of what we eat.

So I'm making a life change with Five Green Food Actions.
  1. Veggie Tuesdays and Thursdays - I started this in December. For the most part it is easier than I thought. I will admit dinner is the hardest meal for me to eat vegetarian.
  2. Harvesting food from my own yard and buying locally produced plants and animals
  3. Buying food items that only contain ingredients that I would use myself
  4. Eliminating products with unsustainably harvested palm oil
  5. Pledging to adhere to Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch - Monterey Bay Aquarium offers guidance regarding which seafood species are being sustainably farmed or harvested. They do the fact finding work and make it easy to be an informed seafood consumer. They have specific species watch lists by geographical location, including a sushi watch list. They also offer Sustainable seafood recipes
I picked lemons this morning and made lemonade. The earth gives to us, it is time we think about the big picture of the earth's health when we use its bounty.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Lessons from a Spider

Awareness. Over the course of this year I intend to focus on awareness. Not the level of being where you are familiar with the existence of something outside of yourself, but an intimate consciousness of how you are connected to everything else.

I can realize intellectually that my daily actions affect the world around me, but not until that knowledge becomes innate, not until I can look at every pen on my desk, every morsel on my plate, and every bottle on the shelf as an extension of myself, will I truly change my behavior.

The time has come to question our food, our daily actions and the economic systems of the late-20th century. The earth can not afford our excesses any longer and neither can we.

But true awareness is difficult when there is so much surrounding us, bombarding our senses on a daily basis. I can’t begin to count the number of things on my desk, little alone in my office. Living in the moment, being responsible for your actions can be impossible when your mind and your life is cluttered with so many things.

I thought I was focused on the world around me while I was cutting some flowers yesterday. Having put the roses and geraniums into a vase, I casually noticed a dried leaf on the geranium. When I pulled it off and it seemed to stick, I quickly realized there was spider web involved.

At that point I stopped to really look. A beige egg sac was stuck to my garden glove. Without a second thought I took it back outside and transferred it to the geranium. If I had really been paying attention, I wouldn’t have been startled when I came back to find a quarter-sized green lynx spider anxiously looking for her egg sac.

My thoughts were elsewhere as I snipped the stalks of geranium and I had destroyed the carefully constructed nursery of this lovely spider.

I’ve never seen a green lynx spider in my yard before. Honestly, she was much larger than I expected. The green lynx spider is a new species to add to my growing backyard biodiversity list. (trapdoor spiders, other spiders)

I returned the mother spider to the geranium and put her beside the egg sac. It didn’t take her too many minutes to recover from the disaster and start reattaching her precious offspring to the plant.

There couldn’t be a better lesson about awareness. The green lynx spider is preying on insects in my garden. Her webbing is providing building materials for the hummingbirds who are beginning to look for nest sites. This spider has taken up residence because our yard is a pesticide free zone with native plants that attract native insects. Everything was balancing out just fine until I blundered along not paying attention. Fortunately, like most of the natural world, she seems fairly resilient. The egg sac has been reattached and she has renewed her vigilant position as guardian.

Focusing on Green Holiday Actions for the thirty-one days of December, reinforced for me the variety of active choices we can all make toward living wiser on the land. I intend to offer ideas that have worked for me and my family to make a positive change toward living a greener life. Each month I will offer up a life-changing practice that I am attempting. It should be a year of discovery and, hopefully, increased awareness.

My yard is blessed with spiders weaving intricate futures, may I learn from their industry.