Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Documenting Life With E-Bird

Two more Allen’s hummingbird chicks fledged today. L-1 is sitting at the top of the Lady Banks’ rose chirping for mom to bring lunch. It can’t quite fly, but it can hover a few inches at a time.

This afternoon the mother Bewick’s wren brought the first youngster of 2010 into the yard on a foraging expedition. She showed it a few prime hunting areas then went off to take care of the younger kids still in the nest. Junior Bewick’s wren has been left in the yard. Sometimes it feels like our yard is a playpen. Today there are 3 young hummingbirds and 1 young wren safely hidden in or exploring the confines of our yard.

This month I’ve been trying to increase my awareness of local biodiversity and participate in making others more aware as well.

I’ve started to really participate in e-bird. This on-line birding site allows birders across the country to document bird species. What you see in your backyard is recorded with the same scientific interest as rare species migrating through a wilderness area.

I’ve committed myself to expanding my observations from Project FeederWatch to e-bird as well. For e-bird I am making a weekly observation in my yard, a weekly observation at my local foothill park and a monthly observation at a state park.

E-bird offers a variety of ways to look at the data you collect and to see compiled information from other birders as well.

The program compiles the data you enter and it creates histograms showing when species are most likely to be seen at your location. It keeps lists of the species you’ve seen annually and life list.

Looking at everyone’s entered data, e-bird offers a way to search a species and see where it has been seen by other people. For example if you wanted to see a red-shouldered hawk, you could use the data to find out which month of the year it was most likely to be seen and then view a map with specific locations.

It is kind of fun that I can go to the map and see a specific location where I made an observation. My contribution to documenting the bird species in my neighborhood is right there on the map for everyone to see.

The young hummingbirds and the young wren were all inputted into e-bird as well. All three of these Allen’s hummingbirds are the offspring of Fik, the male hummingbird that my dog and I rescued in the summer of 2008.

Check out e-bird. Become a citizen scientist. It is hard not to care about local wildlife when you know their family stories as well as your own.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

More Citizen Science Opportunities

Citizen Science projects are vastly increasing the amount of data that can be recorded across the country. More eyes means more observations of plants and animals, their occurrence, migrations, species interactions and behavior.

I am a long time participant of Cornell University's Project FeederWatch. Once a week from November to April, over a two day period, I count birds in my yard for FeederWatch. When I started to watch and document, I started to really see what species were living in my yard, who was coming for dinner, and which species migrated through. I began to really watch behavior. More on FeederWatch.

Now FeederWatch has an additional project looking at the gender balance of certain species at the feeders. Are male house finches keeping the females away?

It will be interesting to see what the data reveals. At the moment, I'm realizing that at my feeders, there does seem to be a pattern of like sexes feeding together. I never really noticed that before.

If you counted birds for Great Backyard Bird Count, you might enjoy Project FeederWatch too. It is a great way for families to participate in active science together.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Habitat for Wildlife in the City

A desert cottontail dashed frantically across the street. Where ever she stopped she seemed exposed and threatened. She seemed the perfect analogy for all of the native residents of our neighborhood this morning.

The warm days have brought an unseasonal beginning of spring. The cottontails are breeding. The reptiles and butterflies are emerging from their cool weather slumber. And the birds are heavily invested in nesting. This male Bewick’s wren is busily collecting food for a family of chicks.

But it is February. This morning city workers are drastically pruning streetside trees as another storm is headed our way. The sound of chain saws cuts through the afternoon air. It brings a feeling of angst and worry. Add in the gardeners with their blowers and electric pruners chewing through what was this morning’s safe habitat and you have wildlife scattering like frantic rabbits.

How many early nests in those trees are already occupied with youngsters?

How many overgrown shrubs are harboring hummingbird chicks just about to leave the nest?

A dead liquid amber tree on the corner died over the summer. It is slated for removal. As I walked by I noticed a woodpecker hole high on a main branch. A timid head peered out. Parent or chick? For cavity nesters, finding an appropriate tree can be nearly impossible.

For once the city is trimming trees in winter. But this year, the plants and animals have a different calendar.

The trees need to be trimmed and a dead tree at a major intersection is a danger. But we seem to have forgotten that plants have other reasons for existing rather than pleasing our eye. Plants provide food and shelter. Trees are bedrooms and nurseries. They are restaurants and hotels.

Take a look at your yard–your trees and shrubs, flowers and grass. If you aren’t providing habitat, you aren’t part of the real neighborhood.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spring in February

I could feel it yesterday, but today I can smell spring. It has arrived mid-February.

I'm not the only one who senses it. The western fence lizard is out sunning on the roof top of its favorite summer home.

The grass spider has opened its doors and is inviting in any unsuspecting insects.

The photinia (a non-native plant) has sent its flower buds reaching for the sun.

And this morning the Allen's hummingbird chick left its nest. (earlier photos) It isn't quite ready to fly and mom is still feeding it, but it is days away from taking to the air. I had a feeling today would be empty-nest day.

Amazingly, the mother came right over to me this morning as if to announce her success. When I went to look out the window to see if I could spot the chick in the tree, the mother appeared again and showed me where her chick was sitting hidden in the leaves.

She fed it and then came right up to the window. There was an impatient scold in her gestures. I had looked long enough. For the past two weeks I have been documenting the status of this nest and this is the first time I have seen the mother near the chick.

AllenshumDR-1 is the earliest hummingbird to fledge in our yard in Southern California since I started keeping track nine years ago.

Are the birds nesting earlier in your yard or neighborhood? Are more or fewer chicks surviving? You can report what you observe at

The weather is predicted to turn stormy again this weekend. Is this just a burst of spring doomed to be thwarted by a plunge back into winter? Will the blooms open only to wither?

By Saturday the chick may be on its own. Instead of warm weather and nectar rich flowers, its first days may be learning to cope with an inclement and changing world.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Turkey Vultures In Los Angeles

Over the past 4 days people all across North America have been counting birds for science. Great Backyard Bird Count.

I submitted seven lists in the Los Angeles Area. They ranged from the seashore at Malibu Lagoon to Griffith Park in the heart of Los Angeles, to the Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve and a parking lot at a strip mall.

Some of the data recorded:
  • 31 brown pelicans at Malibu Lagoon and 24 dead pelicans, one of the theories is that the ocean currents have altered the availability of fish. The fish have gone deeper and brown pelicans are not deep divers. Dolphins push fish to the surface where seabirds can also benefit, but this isn't happening. The brown pelicans that have stayed locally are starving.
  • decreased numbers of double-crested cormorants and white pelicans (other fish-eating bird)
  • spotted towhees, shy birds that I rarely see only in my yard, sited at 6 locations
  • large populations of hummingbirds, including a chick in a nest in my yard
  • migrating turkey vultures

Video of turkey vulture warming in the sun.

Turkey vultures migrate through the Los Angeles area every year. A number of these large black birds roost in a group of tall trees beside the Ventura Fwy near the intersection with Balboa Blvd. As the morning air warms and begins to rise, the turkey vultures circle over the freeway. As they circle, they ride the rising thermals up high into the air. This is called kettling. Turkey vultures eat carrion or dead things. They aren't a threat to humans or pets and they are vital members of the Earth's clean up crew.

Get to know the shape of the turkey vulture as it soars overhead. These birds travel all the way down into South America to breed during the winter and then return. When I see the "TV"s soaring over the freeway in the morning, I always wonder: Where have they come from? I know some of them have been places I would love to see. And where are they going?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Counting Birds At Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Reserve

Los Angeles isn't just a big city. Here and there, treasured jewels of wildlife habitat have been preserved or in the case of Sepulveda Basin, rehabilitated. Nestled up to the Los Angeles River in Van Nuys, the basin is an important rest stop for migrating birds. It is also a vital slice of native habitat for wild birds that live in the San Fernando Valley year round.

My husband Michael and our friend Douglas Welch joined me counting birds on Sunday at the Basin. We saw 40 species of birds. It was a wonderful morning of discovery and tranquil shared experience in the midst of a bustling city. An enjoyable morning that also provided important data for scientists because the information we gathered will be part of the record for the Great Backyard Bird Count 2010.

You can share in watching an osprey (a fish-hunting hawk), listening to Canada geese and the splendor of a variety of hummingbirds by watching some of the video from our morning count for Great Backyard Bird Count.

Michael Lawshe's photos of egrets, white pelicans, osprey, hummingbirds and Sepulveda Basin

Canada Goose - 14
American Wigeon - 1
Mallard - 8
Hooded Merganser - 1
Pied-billed Grebe - 20; including 3 chicks just out of the nest
American White Pelican - 3
Double-crested Cormorant - 52
Great Blue Heron - 2
Great Egret - 4
Green Heron - 1
Black-crowned Night-Heron - 12
Turkey Vulture - 17
Osprey - 1
Cooper's Hawk - 1
Red-tailed Hawk - 1
American Coot - 15
Ring-billed Gull - 1
Mourning Dove - 5
Yellow-chevroned Parakeet - 2
Anna's Hummingbird - 4
Rufous Hummingbird - 1
Allen's Hummingbird - 2
Downy Woodpecker - 1
Black Phoebe - 1
Cassin's Kingbird - 2
American Crow - 2
Bushtit - 15
Ruby-crowned Kinglet - 1
American Robin - 1
Yellow-rumped Warbler - 5
Common Yellowthroat - 1
Spotted Towhee - 1
California Towhee - 2
Lark Sparrow - 20
Song Sparrow - 6
White-crowned Sparrow - 13
Red-winged Blackbird - 1
House Finch - 26
Lesser Goldfinch - 10
American Goldfinch - 6

Green Chocolate

Happy Valentine's Day

Are you giving your sweetheart a sweet gift?

If chocolate is on your list, take the opportunity to use your economic voice for more sustainable chocolate growing and harvesting.

Organic, free-trade and shade grown are all better options for the planet. All are more likely to be grown with reduced pesticide use, to pay growers fairly for their harvest and to protect more of the surrounding forest ecosystem.

For more on green choices when buying chocolate, check out the Fair Trade USA. Make your Valentine's effort a gift for two loves, your sweetheart and the earth.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Counting Birds for GBBC

Are you counting birds?

One baby Allen's hummingbird. Doing fine, having survived last weekend's storm. Three adults flying around the yard.

One of three mourning doves.

Today is the first of four days to count birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count.

One Oregon junco beneath the feeder.

One not a bird (introduced fox squirrel).

No wrens in the nest box.

Just a half hour of counting on my lunch break. Plus - eight house finches, one lesser goldfinch, three white-crowned sparrows and an oak titmouse in the tree. Not an impressive list, but every list is important.


Great Backyard Bird Count

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are You Ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 ?

Get out your binoculars, your walking shoes and a bird book or two.

It's time for the Great Backyard Bird Count 2010.

This Friday, Feb. 12 through Monday, Feb. 15 people across the country will be taking a few minutes out of their day to stop and count birds for science. Whether it is a long list of many species seen at a wildlife area or just two English house sparrows and a crow seen from your apartment patio, every bird list is IMPORTANT.

Even if you watch your yard and you see NO BIRDS. That is important too.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way for family members of all ages to come together in an outdoor event. You enter your data via the Internet and can watch the interactive map on the website change as data comes in from across the country.

Take a minute and schedule at least 15 minutes sometime over the President's Day weekend to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count. YES, pigeons count.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gray Wolves - A Conservation Issue

Gray wolves are an important part of the biodiversity across North America, but their legal status as a species (endangered, threatened, hunted) currently varies from state to state. Some people revere wolves, others demonize them. As of January 2010 a variety of legal actions and efforts to reinstate federal protection are at the center of financial drives and activist letter writing on both sides of the “wolf issue.”

Someone just asked me, “ What do you think about this?”

Unfortunately, wolves are the perfect example of how appealing to human emotions is the worst way to address conservation problems. We humans are hard pressed to change our beliefs or our practices when they are deeply invested with emotions.

Wolves are neither angels of the forest nor bloodthirsty devils. They are top predators with an important role to play in balancing ecosystems. Science has demonstrated time and time again that healthy wolf populations contribute to healthy stable populations of large herbivores that are also hunted by humans (deer, moose and elk). When these herbivore populations are more naturally balanced, other species, plant and animal, benefit as well. Long-term studies at Isle Royale and Yellowstone National Parks, as well as in Alaska have shown that the site of a wolf kill measurably increases the fertility of the ground for as much as ten years. The wolf brings the food web full circle.

But wolves challenge the human position of dominance. No animal likes to feel vulnerable, least of all humans. Sitting in California, where we exterminated our wolves long ago, it is easy for me to extol the wolfs beneficial role in the environment. I’m not going to look out my window and see one stalking my cattle. On the other hand, I have had coyotes stalking my backyard chickens in the middle of the day. I have looked out the window late at night to see coyote eyes looking back at me. Our growing hawk population brings predator/prey interactions into my yard on a daily basis. Whether it was protecting chickens, a small puppy or a tortoise hatchling, it was my responsibility to provide safe, completely fenced in areas for my animals without blaming local predators.

In Africa, the Cheetah Conservation Fund works with ranchers and livestock owners to help them protect their animals in a sustainable way that does not endanger cheetahs. Throughout some of the poorest tribal areas of the world, the Snow Leopard Trust engages local herders by listening to their fears and their needs in order to replace myth with knowledge and to build community-based conservation. These organizations succeed because the needs of the people and the wild animals involved are both taken into account.

In the American northeast, lawsuits reinstated endangered species status to gray wolves, yet there were 16 incidents of wolves being illegally killed in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the last two months of 2009. The death of the animals came to light because several were radio-collared individuals in scientific studies. How many other uncollared wolves might have been killed is unknown. While these illegal wolf killings are being investigated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, legal status did not protect these wolves.

At the close of 2008 Idaho was believed to have a wolf population of 846 individuals. In 2009, the state instituted a wolf hunting season with a statewide quota of 220 animals. When the quota was not reached during the prescribed season, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission extended the season to March 3, 2010 in some areas. This isn’t a hunting season, it is a poorly disguised population control based on political influence not scientific data.

Wolves have become an issue because people on both sides have made this an emotional fight. There are real problems here–problems regarding biodiversity and ecosystem survival, subsistence ranching and human safety. None of these problems will be solved in a courtroom, through name calling or illegal slaughter.

If people with nothing but a felt gur on a barren Mongolian hillside, who depend completely on their livestock for survival can learn to value another living thing for the role it plays in the natural world, then surely, Americans can as well. But you can not force respect through litigation. If the conservation organizations involved spent as much money on community-based education and economic efforts rather than lawyers, maybe some real change might be accomplished.

I’ve watched wolves at Yellowstone National Park and listened to the howl of a wolf while camping at an isolated lake in the Yukon. I’ve never been afraid of wolves, but I have always respected them for the top predators that they are. A wolf is not a furry human, it is a wild creature, strong and powerful. The wolf’s goals and needs do not always correspond with human’s.

Would the world be a better place if we let wolves fulfill their natural place in the ecosystem? It would undoubtedly be a healthier place.

Would it be a different and sometimes more complicated place? Yes.

From wolves, to energy, to health care. It is time we came to the table honestly, respectfully, and willing to work together for the betterment of all.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Live Holiday Trees Catching On

When you make sustainable choices, your actions speak directly to others.

A young friend sent me a photo of himself with his live Christmas tree. It’s a tradition in their family for him to have is own small tree that he decorates himself. This year Milo chose to have a live tree that he could enjoy during the holidays and then tend during the year. Hopefully, Milo’s little tree will grow with him for years to come.

Speaking the merits of live trees is one thing, but experiencing our live holiday tree in our livingroom year after year has touched a number of people. The growing pine in the house connects people to the value of this iconic holiday image as a living thing. Our tree is not just a decoration, it is a statement of a sustainable world of interconnected living things.

Next winter is only ten months away. Now is the best time to keep an eye out for a future holiday tree. You might even find one on sale.

Decorating a Living Tree
31 Days of Green Holiday Actions

Rain in Los Angeles

It's been raining all day and I can't help but worry about the hummingbird chicks. Fortunately the rain has been light and there has been no wind.

The mother has built her nest on top of a nest that was successful last year. It is in a fairly protected location, but the cool temperatures and duration of the rain will tax her own survival as well as the chicks.

The green lynx spider has not fared well in the wet weather. She abandoned her egg sac. Whether she survived and moved on or perished, I'm not sure.

The slender salamanders, however, are loving this weather. We spotted a mating pair last night before the rain started. We've seen a total of 5 individuals (including two mating pairs) in the last three weeks. That's more than we've seen in the last 4 years. Perhaps the prolonged periods of rain will mean an increase in their population.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Answer to the Mystery Plant - Black Nightshade

The one thing I love about blogging is that it allows me to communicate with friends near and far and to interact with a community of people sharing information.

Last week I mentioned a new plant in my yard that I was unable to identify. Tristan, a friend who is working in the field as a biologist, sent me the following information:

I saw the new plant on your blog, it looks like black nightshade (Solanum spp.). I see this plant often in the Central Valley. You're right about the berries being toxic to mammals, particularly in large quantities and when the berries are green (although I've seen the seeds of the green berries often in raccoon and coyote scat).

The Photos: From UC Berkeley were a dead ringer for the plant in the yard. Black nightshade is found all over the world, including California.

The interesting part is that we have just recently become aware of a raccoon that has been frequenting our yard. It could be the means by which the black nightshade had its seed carried onto our hill.

So the question I pull it out or let it stay? Some sources say black nightshade is very toxic. Others say that it is not that toxic and an important food for birds. At the moment there are only two small plants in a fairly out of the way part of the hillside, so I will let it stay and watch which, if any, animals interact with it.

Respecting biodiversity means sometimes reevaluating past beliefs about different species. There are no good or evil species, just species interacting with a web of life.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Baby Hummingbird in Winter

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I thought my hummingbirds were building nests despite how early it was in the season. Early Signs of Spring

Today I found one of the well-hidden nests. It is about 12 ft. off the ground, but just under one of our windows. The chick appears to be about 10 days old, which would have the first egg laid around January 25th. (There may be a second chick, under the larger one.)

The timing of bird nesting is helping to define the impacts of global climate change. In order to help scientists have a greater understanding of large-scale changes in bird nesting behavior, I participate in NestWatch.

This citizen science project invites everyone to report the when, where, success or failure of bird nests across the country.
  • Have you seen a bird building a nest in your yard?
  • Is there a bird nest that you see on a walk?
  • Do you have bird houses in your yard? Are they used or left empty?
All of this is important to science. I've been recording data on the Allen's hummingbirds nesting in my yard since 2007. There is very little data on the nesting behavior and trends of these regional birds.

Last season, a warm spell in January prompted early nesting resulting in 3 failed nests. The timing of later nests was thrown off and fewer successful offspring were produced.

Another winter storm is headed our way this Friday and Saturday. Hopefully, this early chick will survive its untimely hatching. Whatever happens, we'll be watching and reporting it to NestWatch.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Great Backyard Bird Count 2010 - Los Angeles

For over two decades Cornell University has sponsored the Great Backyard Bird Count. Everyday people, young and old, across North America take a minimum of 15 minutes to document the wild birds that they see.

For four days data comes in from across the continent to create a snapshot of bird populations. This information shows where population numbers have increased and where they are down. It documents migration paths and changing territories of species. Every bird is important, even pigeons and house sparrows.

Counting is easy and you can do it in your backyard. You then enter your data via the Internet. For more information click the GBBC button:

When you participate in GBBC you are playing an important role in the collection of data for science. It is a great family, class or school project.

If you would like to count with people who have done it before, here are three opportunities in the Los Angeles and San Fernando Valley area. Bring your own binoculars:

  1. Friday, Feb. 12 at 4:00-5:30 PM - Serrania Avenue Park, Woodland Hills (FREE public park, group led by Keri Dearborn, meet in the parking lot at 3:45 PM. Please send e-mail to so I will know to expect you. Some terrain moderately hilly.)
  2. Saturday, Feb. 13 at 8:00-10:00 AM - Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Garden (Zoo Membership and reservations required, reservations can be made by calling (323) 644-4702 or by e-mailing include “Bird Walk” in the subject line. Include your name, membership number, members in your party, age of children and your phone number.)
  3. Sunday, Feb. 14 at 8:30-10:30 AM - Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge (FREE public park, group led by Keri Dearborn, meet in the gravel parking lot across from the north entrance to the wildlife area at 8:15 AM. Please send e-mail to so I will know to expect you.)
You may count only a few birds in an apartment courtyard, others may count 100s of individual birds in a wildlife area. Every one's information is important. The more people who count, the better our knowledge will be about bird species in North America. If you have questions, send me an e-mail at

Monday, February 01, 2010

Green Action #2 - Understanding Local Biodiversity

Focusing for a month on the sustainability of the food we eat has changed how my husband and I think about food.

February is a short month, but the Green Action I’m taking this month is to become a more active participant in understanding our local biodiversity.

This is a photo of a slender salamander in our yard. We live in one of the world’s largest cities, yet we have a population of these tiny amphibians that make their home on our hillside. Some of their close relatives, other slender salamander populations, are highly endangered because of habitat loss. We’re moving plants and structures around in our yard, but we know that these creatures are part of our specific biodiversity. We always keep an eye out for them when we are digging in the yard and try not to change the natural drainage of the hillside because it could have a negative effect on the salamanders.

If you don’t think there are any wild animals or plants where you live then you haven’t looked up and seen a bird or looked down and noticed the seedling growing up from the crack in the concrete. Living things are all around us, but we have become disconnected from them. Backyard Biodiversity Project

We can teach young students that rainforest and arctic ecosystems are endangered, but unless they can connect their daily actions to cause and effect, they won’t change their behavior. Adults are the best example of this. How many of us donate money to save an animal or an ecosystem far away, but have no idea what lives within 10 miles of our homes and might be endangered or threatened by our daily actions?

February offers several opportunities to learn more about what lives around you and to participate in Citizen Science Projects. You can play an important role helping scientists understand what species live where and how they are doing.

So here are the specific plans I have for this month:

  1. Organize 2 birdwalks for Cornell University’s Great Backyard Bird Count President’s Day weekend.
  2. Establish a site survey bird-counting area at Serrania Avenue Park in Woodland Hills through ebird. (I went out and did my first count this morning, 23 species)
  3. Learn more about local amphibian and reptile species.
  4. Find at least one new way I can help local plant and animal biodiversity.

Tomorrow I’ll post the specific information about Great Backyard Bird Count and how you can participate.