Thursday, December 06, 2012

Wild Mushrooms in a California Yard

fairy ring mushrooms
After a few days of misty drizzle there is a burst of bloom in the yard; not flowers–mushrooms.

Winter (and sometimes spring) is a time for mushrooms in California and the variety is quite amazing. Mushrooms and lichen are still an area of exploration for me, but I got out my fungi book and tried to figure out what they all were.

I tried to blame the compost we spread in the yard for the outbreak of these small buff-colored shrooms, but it seems they are more likely from a fungus that has been growing underground for some time. The fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades) is, in fact, growing in a circle about four feet across. As the fungi grows underground it spreads out looking for nutrients. The mushrooms are a bloom, like a flower, the reproductive, spore-carrying part of the fungi. In California, this mushroom blooms year round under the right conditions and some rings have been found to be 600 years old.

At the base of the blue spruce there was a cluster of these small mycena (Mycena arminta?), a fragile mushroom that is typically found in connection with decaying wood.

This lovely white mushroom is probably a member of family Agaricus. It could be a pleasantly edible mushroom or a highly deadly one. This is the challenge of identifying mushrooms. You have to really know what you are doing to collect wild mushrooms for eating.

There were brown mushrooms 2-4 inches across in the areas of the yard with pine needle debris. And here is another challenge of identifying mushrooms: They change in appearance as they mature. The bell shape of this species gradually becomes a flat, classic toad-stool shape. I believe these are shingled trich (Tricholoma imbricatum) but here again they are very similar to other mushrooms species, some of which are highly toxic if eaten.

For the novice, like me, it is best to admire these blooms in the garden. This bounty of biodiversity will not be visible for long. The sun has come out and mushrooms are much shorter lived than flowers

Go native with your yard and create habitat.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wild Lizards of Australia

skink in tree at Mossman Gorge, QLD
I've just returned from Australia where we were fortunate not only to see over 185 species of birds, but we also saw at least one new species of lizard every day.

Skinks were everywhere, from the hillsides of Sidney's suburbs to the remote forests of Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territories. Skinks are the most numerous family of lizards in the world.  

We saw copperhead skinks, arboreal skink species, and tiny little species only a few inches long. At the other end of the spectrum we saw a large female lace monitor about 4 foot long.  Lizards were everywhere. Enjoying them as wild creatures was magical.

wild lace monitor
Yet many of these lizards - water dragons, skinks, geckos and monitor lizards - are heavily sought for the pet trade.  People just do not realize the important jobs these animals have to do in their habitats. None of these creatures can complete the role they were meant to fulfill if they are taken from the wild and kept in a cage.

The illegal pet trade is a black market that robs wild places of their residents and destroys ecosystems around the world. Unfortunately, the United States is one of the largest participants in this devastating trade.
gecko catching insects on the wall of our hotel
Enjoy your wild neighbors and don't rob other places in the world of their wild residents - lizards, fish, birds, amphibians or mammals. Become informed about the pet trade and how it impacts wild populations. Check out a post by my friend Sandra Cruze on the black market pet trade.

If you want to experience wild animals, create native habitat where animals live naturally of their own free will. I have a snake, two lizard species, various spiders and over 76 species of birds that visit the natural habitat in my yard. Value your wild neighbors, don't be a wildlife kidnapper and destroyer.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Early Arrival of Winter Birds

It is that time of year when I start to look for the migrant birds that arrive to spend the winter in our garden.

This summer has been gruelingly hot. We have had weeks of temperatures over 100˚F. This week of the Autumnal Equinox we have had two record-setting days of high temperatures.

So this morning when I saw our first Oregon dark-eyed junco of the season, I was especially surprised. September is an early arrival for this species. Typically we see them arrive in October. So I got out my bird journals and put together the graph below. (10.01=Oct. 1 of that year)

data compiled by Keri Dearborn

Indeed this is an early arrival for the juncos and this is the second year in a row that they have arrived early. They are coming from local mountains and northern coasts. 

I compared their arrive dates to the rainfall data and interestingly, the heavy rainfall year correlated with the year they didn't arrive until November. The pattern with early arrival isn't as easy to discern. But one thing is certain, in twelve years of recording these arrival dates, this is the first time we have had consecutive years of early arrival in September. Are they coming for resources? Influenced by temperature? Or have two years of minimal average rainfall pushed them out of the hillsides earlier?

It will be interesting to see if other migrating birds also arrive early. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Red-tailed Hawk in the Bird Bath

This morning a new youngster was dropped off by its parents. Yes, the bird bird sitting on the bird bath is a juvenile, a red-tailed hawk that has just recently left the nest. Unlike its parents, the tail of the juvenile is not a rufous red, but dark brown and somewhat banded. The overall coloring is also more mottled and streaky than the parents, providing camouflage as it sits waiting for its parents to return with food.

It is actually interesting how similar the coloring is between the juvenile Cooper’s hawks and this red-tailed hawk. The Cooper’s hawk kids are now spending their days with their parents. However, they drop by for a drink or a rest during the day.

But this new baby that has taken their place is at least 4 times the size. The large size of this juvenile red-tailed hawk suggests that it is a female; female birds of prey are typically larger than males. In the Los Angeles area this is the largest hawk species that we see. Typically, they are the large hawks sitting on lampposts along the freeway looking down into landscaped areas for rodents of all kinds: squirrels, rats, mice. They are rodent specialists.
When the red-tailed hawk took a bath this morning, she filled the whole bowl.

As she sat preening on the wires above the bird feeders, she had an audience of smaller birds and a squirrel watching her.

The birds interest her, but they are typically to small and fast to be considered prey. The fox squirrel, however, caught her eye.

And then the climbing rodent was concerned that it had. Her parents would have been proud that she focused in on the squirrel.

She must not have had breakfast, because she has steadily called for her parents for the last half hour. I just hope she is better at keeping hold of the food they bring than the young Cooper’s hawks were. Untidy hawklets.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Green Lynx Spider Stalking Yellow Jackets

What killed this yellow jacket wasp?
Yellow jackets are a kind of wasp and many people fear them. Their black and yellow coloration is mistaken for honey bees and people are afraid of being stung. 

We have a low number of yellow jackets in the yard, but when you see them at a protein food source, like a hawk cast, it appears they are numerous. Video. When we first moved to this house 18 years ago, we couldn't eat on our patio without being harassed by 10-20 yellow jackets. We put out traps for them.

The problem was that we didn't have a balanced ecosystem. The previous owners sprayed for insects, baited for snails and planted mostly non-native plants. Gradually we have restored a more natural flora, which in turn attracts native animals–from insects to raccoons.

The Cooper's hawks are feeding their youngsters in the backyard. The young hawks are dropping bits of meat, this feeds the yellow jackets. But the yellow jackets are also eating the caterpillars that show up on my tomatoes. And the yellow jackets have a predator too.
Green lynx spider feeding on a beetle

This lovely green lynx spider prowls the vegetable garden leaving behind the dried exoskeletons of yellow jackets and other insects. Egg sac. We do less and the natural balance of biodiversity does more.

More on California spiders:
red jumping spider
trashweb spider
trapdoor spider 
cobweb spider 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Insects Feeding on Hawk Leftovers

The young Cooper's hawks are becoming the center of their own ecosystem. Their overworked parents bring food, drop it off and leave again, just that fast. With four juveniles that eat as much as they do, each parent is having to catch three times its normal prey. 

They aren't restricting their hunting to birds, they are bringing back whatever they can find. Rats have definitely been on the menu.

The juveniles eat their fill and then, similar to owl pellets, they cough up clumps of hard to digest bones and fur.

These "casts" are a bit gory, but they are in turn providing food to carnivorous insects like the yellow jackets in the video here. Listen and you will hear one of the young hawks calling in the background. Ants and flies are eating the leftovers, while western fence lizards are then pouncing on both species of insects. Spiders also will benefit. The ring-necked snake benefits from the success of the lizards.

Our yard is alive with biodiversity. Thanks to Eclipse-1 Media.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pre-School for Cooper's Hawks

young Cooper's hawk
The Cooper’s hawks have had a huge family this year. They first mated back in March. They must have lost the first clutch, but they are making up for it. There are four recently fledged juveniles hanging out in the backyard. In the morning and late afternoon they raucously call for their parents to bring them food.

Two of the larger juveniles are starting to follow the parents. It would be fascinating to see if they are watching their parents hunt.

Catching enough food to provision the four youngsters, who are now as large as their parents, is a Herculean task. The parents aren’t being picky about prey; rats have even become part of the fare.

With four youngsters to watch over, it's understandable that while the parents were off with the bigger chicks when they first left the nest, they missed that the little one didn't want to be left behind. The little hawk was not yet able to fly and ended up on a neighbor's front porch, just steps from the sidewalk. The flurry of humans wanted to "save" the little guy. But these hawks are devoted parents, like most birds, I convinced everyone to give the parents time to collect their youngster. I relocated the juvenile a short distance from its landing spot to an area that was away from the sidewalk, shaded yet visible to the parents. The parents did return and communicated to their little one what it needed to do, to get safely up into a tree.

He is flying a little, but still not well enough to follow the parents. The smallest of the juveniles he's pictured here. He's hungry enough that he has started trying to catch his own food. His movements are not skillful and his attempts seem to be in slow motion. He went toward a group of house finches, who stayed just out of his reach, then he turned to go after a fox squirrel. The squirrel couldn’t believe its eyes at first. It moved just out of the young hawks reach, then actually came back to taunt the young bird.

When he isn’t calling for his parents, the young hawk sits watching the small birds that one day will be its food staple. He’s learning how they fly, their alarm calls, how they respond to threats. His sharp eyes are ever watchful.  Cooper's hawk on fountain.

Meanwhile the California towhees are taking no chances. They are teaching their youngster to fly under the covered patio and carport. No use tempting the young Cooper’s hawk to make its first self-caught meal a young towhee just learning to fly.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sometimes biodiversity surprises you by appearing in unexpected places. Walking through the garden from the garage, this juvenile or nymph katydid jumped onto a load of clean laundry and rode into the house.

Katydids are herbivorous insects and they do nibble on my roses at night. But they also are important food for many of the bird and lizards that eat insects in my yard. As long as predators can find clean, safe food in our yard, they come and maintain a balance. Only two or three katydids seem to survive to adulthood.

Two species of katydids, common in the Los Angeles area, are both residents in our yard.

This nymph is a fork-tailed bush katydid (Scudderia mexicana); it will grow up to be all green with long, thin leaf-shaped wings.

The other species we see is the broad-winged katydid (Microcentrum rhombifolium) To see a photo of this classic, katydid with wide, green leaf-shaped wings.

Insects that eat your plants are best kept in check by a balanced ecosystem with predators. Put the insecticides aside and attract insect predators to your yard.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Evidence of a Cooper's Hawk

This morning the Cooper’s hawk was in the yard. I didn’t see it or hear it, but like any visitor it left behind evidence.

Apparently, this Cooper’s hawk is molting. A variety of feathers were loosely scattered about. Fluffy underdown here, a flight feather there. This wasn’t the explosion of feathers left behind when a Cooper’s hawk plucks a mourning dove it has caught, but instead random feathers in our yard, one on the sidewalk out front and another down the block.

Feathers wear, get damaged and breakdown. Most birds will loose and replace all of their feathers annually either in sections or all at once (called a catastrophic molt, when a bird looses too many feathers at one time to be able to fly). Just as many mammals shed their heavy winter fur, it is natural for birds to molt their feathers.

Many living things pass through a habitat. In this case the Cooper’s hawks come for water and food. Often you may not see these visitors directly, but if you look for evidence you may realize that the biodiversity in your yard is greater than you think.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Wild Gopher Snake Feeding

Seeing a snake in the wild is unusual, spotting a wild snake that has just caught its prey and is in the process of feeding is rare.

While fishing on a stream in the Eastern Sierra mountains, we happened on a gopher snake that had just constricted a pack rat and was starting to swallow it. You can see the bottom edge of the pack rat's stick nest in the top right of the photo.

When a snake is swallowing its food, it is vulnerable to predators. It was evening and this gopher snake was not happy when it initially realized it was being observed. But we kept our distance and just watched and the large gopher snake settled into consuming its catch.

The snake was approximately 1.75 inches in diameter, while the rodent was about the size of my fist. It took 5-10 minutes for the six-foot snake to swallow it's large meal. 

Once the large rodent was swallowed, several of the observers were surprised that there wasn't an equally large lump in the snake's body. But a snake body is very muscular and unless a meal is supersized, the food is compressed down and sent on its way to the very efficient digestive system. Most likely, this snake will not need to feed again for at least 3-4 weeks.

Amazingly, within 20 feet of this sizable adult gopher snake, we also saw a new hatchling (about the width of cotton yarn) swimming up the stream and a yearling (about the width of a pen and 2 ft long). Obviously this stream-side ecosystem was providing enough varied-size prey for multiple generations of gopher snake.

Note the pattern on the gopher snake, kind of checker-board black with yellowish. Frequently, gopher snakes are mistaken for rattlesnakes and killed without hesitation. These snakes are important rodent predators and not dangerous to humans.

I am hoping that one day a gopher snake will one day take up residence in my yard. However, we do have a ring-necked snake that has moved in. But we have what gopher snakes are named after, more on that soon.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Small Blue Flower in Garden

The small bracted dayflower (Commelina erecta) on the hillside creeps close to the ground and is inconspicuous to humans. But it’s fleshy leaves are enjoyed by the tortoises that live with us. The tiny flowers bloom for 1-4 days attracting the native carpenter bees and pollinating flies.

It grows in disturbed soil and is a highlight of our garden in dry shady areas. Finding a ground cover for dry shade is not easy. The intensity of the blue flowers is like the burst of flavor from a ripe blueberry.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

California Spiders

On this longest day of the year, I'm looking for biodiversity.
American house spider
Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring that in a healthy environment there should be at least one spider within 3 feet of you at all times. Spiders are the Earth’s dominant predators. On any day I can surprise myself with the variety of spiders I can find.

Look for the fragile webbing strung under this dead flower.

A small American house spider (Achaearanea tepidariorum) has constructed a web beneath a spent bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae) bloom.
While a trashweb spider (Cyclosa turbinata) may stay hidden, but it’s web is purposefully visible stretched between the branches of a dwarf lime tree. Several generations of this spider’s great grandmothers have called this tiny tree home. The collection of debris in the center is wrapped with silk that reflects ultraviolet light waves and is therefore believed to attract flying insects. This spider truly lures in its prey.

These spiders are important predators eating insects, providing spider web that is used by many birds in constructing nests, and the spiders are in turn eaten by larger animals.  If you have spiders you are on your way to healthy habitat.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Discovery in the Garden

For the past few weeks I’ve been crazy busy with work, tasks generated by the wants of people. It sucks you in until it seems important, urgent, even vital. But in reality the pushing of paper from one pile to another, the sprinkling of well-placed words and the measuring of spaces between lines of text is a never-ending job without surprise or discovery. In other words, most of us humans are engaged in lifeless pursuits.

This morning, I went out into the yard for just a few minutes and watched two different species, a valley carpenter bee and an Allen’s hummingbird drinking nectar from the same “lipstick sage.” The amazing thing was they each approached the plant in a different way. The hummingbird drank directly from the red trumpet flower. The bee grabbed onto mature flowers that had turned white and licked at the outside base of the bloom. When it did this, the flower trumpet dropped under its body and the bee was put in a position where its legs went into the flower thereby delivering pollen.

The variety of species that are living in this small suburban plot of land has increased dramatically since I first started documenting and replacing “traditional” landscaping with plants and features that would create habitat. (hummingbird territories)

Discovery is a daily occurrence in a natural habitat; and that natural habitat doesn’t have to be a distant rainforest. Everyday the habitat that surrounds my home offers me real moments of life–survival, birth, death, discovery and change.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Annular Solar Eclipse May 2012

It is an absolutely amazing mathematical match up–our sun and moon. The size of the moon and its distance from the Earth make it possible for the phenomena know as solar eclipses.

Sunday, May 20, 2012, as the moon revolved with us, it moved between the Earth and the sun. Because the moon was further from the Earth (smaller in our sky), a complete ring of the sun peaked out from behind the moon. This is an annular solar eclipse. The amount of sun blocked caused the daylight to decrease, but you still couldn't look at the sun directly without hurting your eyes. Amazingly, it actually seemed to get brighter during the maximum of the annular eclipse and the shadows did the opposite of a total eclipse. Shadows became elongated but diffused almost doubled. The shadow from my hand looked like a monster's claw.

The photo here was taken by my husband Michael Lawshe, using a solar filter. We traveled to Whiskeytown Lake in northern California, so that we would be directly in the moon's shadow and experience this Earthly wonder.

Later this year, in November, the moon will slide between the Earth and the sun again. But this time the moon will be closer to Earth and block out more of the sun's disk. The alignment will be so perfect that entire sun will be blocked out.  But the size and distance of the moon will be so perfect, that flares reaching out from the sun's surface will be visible, as will the sun's corona. This is a total solar eclipse. During a total solar eclipse day becomes evening, stars can become visible.  The shadows become crisp to the point of being surreal. Eclipse Turkey 2006, Eclipse Mongolia 2010.

This was our first annular eclipse and well worth traveling to see. If the size of our moon or sun were just slightly different or their distances from the Earth altered, these astronomical events would be very different or nonexistent. An eclipse is a big universe moment; it makes you realize that humans are small and insignificant.

Friday, May 11, 2012

An Anna's Hummingbird Nest

May 11th and finally I've spotted a hummingbird nest. Some years there have been multiple in the yard at one time. Nests in 2010

This nest is a special find. It is an Anna's hummingbird nest. Fiesty little Allen's hummingbirds took over this territory about 10 years ago. Hummy. FIK. This smaller species has been pushing the Anna's out of residential areas in Southern California.

But we have had a lone female Anna's that has stuck it out and now the tide of Allen's seems to be waning a bit.

What makes this nest doubly exciting is the two tiny eggs tucked inside and the fact that it is built almost completely out of the natural cotton fiber that I put out a month ago. The Anna's hummingbird laced the natural cotton into this perfect egg cup using that strong and pliable fiber, spider web. Hummingbird nests are always a marvel, but this one is stunning.

I've seen nests in the past that have failed because female hummingbirds used man-made polyester fibers they found–probably sticking out of patio furniture in someone's backyard. These man-made fibers don't compress, don't provide the sturdy construction that is needed for a successful nest. They also don't react with water and weather the way natural fibers do.

I've been watching the bushtits and the goldfinches taking beaks full of the cotton fiber, but I never saw the Anna's girl. Yet, obviously she was making multiple trips.

Offering birds water, food and habitat can attract them to your oasis of a yard. Provide plants that offer shelter and they will take up residence. Go one step further, offer natural building materials that are hard to find in our human crafted landscapes and you will be rewarded with watching life renew.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

"Life in a Shell"

Book Review

Life in a Shell; a physiologist’s view of a turtle

Donald C. Jackson, 2011 Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA

protected California desert tortoise
OK, I love turtles

Let me just put that right up front. That said, Professor Donald C. Jackson’s Life in a Shell is a book destine to become prominent in my library. Between these pages, science, discovery and wonder all come together. Professor Jackson invites you into his laboratory and the scientific process, while always keeping you in awe of his subject–turtles.

Jackson spent the majority of his career at Brown University as a Professor of Medical Science, where he researched how some freshwater turtles survive for extended amounts of time without oxygen. One of the greatest charms of this book is that it offers insight from the scientist himself and is clearly referenced when referring to the scientific work of others.  With ease and anecdotal accounts, Jackson weaves his studies together with the work of other researchers and students to clearly explain the respiratory wonders of turtles.

  • How do turtles breath when they are the only vertebrates with a ribcage that can’t expand? Remember their ribs form part of the shell.
  • How can painted turtles hibernate in the bottom of iced-over ponds without access to the surface to breath? This isn’t holding your breath for a few hours, it is finding a way to slow down your metabolism, alter your body chemistry and acquire available oxygen in the water so you can survive for months.
  • And then there is the ultimate turtle survival skill, maintaining life without oxygen at all. 

If you think of turtles as slow and irrelevant, think again. If you regard the 3-chambered heart of a turtle as less capable than a racing 4-chambered human heart, you’ll be stunned. A turtle heart can beat 100 times a minute in a warm, exercising animal or slow to once every ten minutes in a cold individual surviving without oxygen. Our own hearts struggle to fluctuate four times their resting beat and fail quickly without access to oxygen. If you don’t think understanding the complexity of a creature that can manipulate its metabolism is important, then you’ve never consider human space travel or the numbers of trauma patients that could be saved if their bodies could be slowed down in the face of severe injury to keep them alive until they arrived at a medical facility.

Turtles are a wonder; ancient survivors that now face serious challenges because of human mistreatment, unsustainable harvesting and habitat loss. Life in a Shell will give you renewed respect for the unique creatures that are turtles.

Other Book Reviews

Feathers; The Evolution of a Miracle
Alex and Me
The Geese of Beaver Bog

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Cornell's Baby Blue Herons

great blue heron
Baby birds are everywhere. 

Check out the Great Blue Heron nest with its five chicks at Cornell's Sapsucker Woods. Heron Cam

There are also bald eagle chicks on the California Channel Islands. Bald Eagle Cam

Unfortunately our fluctuating weather has caused our Allen's hummingbirds to start nests and abandon them. So far no nests to watch in the yard. A on her nest in 2010.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What To Do With a Baby Bird

Baby birds, we see them out of the nest, shudder at their vulnerability and immediately think they need our help. But STOP! 

Before you do anything with that baby bird, stand back, watch and listen. 

CA towhee chick, fuzzy grey in the center in the grass
There is a baby bird, all fluff and down, in some tall grass in my backyard right now. It doesn't have flight feathers and its little legs are wobbly. But this little bird did not fall out of a nest. It's parents pushed it.

California towhees are ground-feeding birds. They like their chicks up and on the move ASAP. Amid a flutter of brown wings and successive chirps, I watched this morning as the pair of California towhees were leading this tiny youngster out of the chaparral and into our yard.

Once the little one was in the yard and accidentally sheltered in the grass, the parents took turns guarding it and occasionally bringing food. I say it was accidentally sheltered in the grass because it took a tumble off a short block wall and into the grass. Don't worry, it's fine.

The towhees however are having a stressful day. Without the protection of the nest, their chick is vulnerable and they are working together to protect it. When a Bewick's wren and an Allen's hummingbird both stopped to glance at the youngster, the towhee pair tolerated their presence. But when a fox squirrel was passing too close, the towhees acted as a team to drive the squirrel off. They chased that rodent completely out of the yard. 

I've looked a few times to make sure that the tiny chick is OK. At first glance it appears to be a lone, distressed nestling on the ground. But the parents are close-by. If I don't see them, I hear them. Bird parents are devoted. This pair seems to be putting all of their efforts into this lone offspring. Do they sometimes need help? Yes. But most of the time they need us to stand back, watch, listen and let them do their job.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Vampire Printer

I drive a hybrid and I try to use sunlight as my light source during the day. But it turns out my office printer sucks as much energy in stand-by as when it is printing. By turning it off when I don't need it, I'm saving electricity.

Day Two - using less energy produced by fossil fuels

Day One of 20 Ways, 20 Days, 20% less carbon
Take the Union of Concerned Scientist's 20/20/20 Challenge

Monday, April 23, 2012

20 Ways, 20 Days, 20% Less Carbon

The Union of Concerned Scientists is challenging us all to find 20 Ways over the next 20 Days to reduce our carbon use by 20%.
I took the short quiz about my daily habits and they generated a specific list for me with things I can do to reduce my carbon use.

One suggestion concerned my activity in the garden; use woman power instead of generated power. This morning I quickly raked the grass I cut yesterday instead of getting the blower for a small job.

It's only Day One and I feel I've made a difference. 

Check out the Union of Concerned Scientists 20/20/20 campaign at:

We are all part of solving climate change.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Snake in the Yard

Some people might run screaming if they looked down to see a snake in their backyard, but for me it was a moment of soaring gratification.

Our yard is in the suburbs of Los Angeles. Most wild creatures have to be pushy to find a piece of real estate not overwhelmed by people. Gradually over the 19 years we have lived here we have restored native plants and tried to recreate habitat for California wildlife. Our goal was to create a wildlife refuge in our small yard.

CA slender salamanders, food for ring-necked snake
First the California slender salamanders made their presence known. Allen’s hummingbirds and Bewick’s wrens came to nest. Band-tailed pigeons and California towhees started making daily stops, while white-crowned sparrows, dark-eyed juncos and ruby-crowned kinglets began coming to spend the winter.

The birds brought native plant seeds, black nightshade, and attracted predatory birds like the Cooper’s hawk and red-shouldered hawk. The red-shouldered hawk dropped a western fence lizard into the yard. It took up residence. The western fence lizards have thrived.

And now a ring-necked snake, just a bit bigger around than a pencil and about 18” long, has arrived to hunt the young lizards and the salamanders. There is a natural balance settling over the yard. It  just proves that if you create habitat, wildlife will come.

Sorry there’s no photo. When I saw the snake moving gracefully through the grass, I thought about getting the camera. But I decided to just watch it gradually disappear into a bush and relished a moment of wildness in my “city” backyard.  Next time I'll take a picture, until then, check one of my favorite herp websites for photos

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Sleeping Snow Leopard

Conservation organizations that successfully save wildlife also engage with the problems faced by the people that are neighbors with endangered plants and animals.

camel yarn and yak wool that support snow leopard survival
One of the organizations that I have tried to emulate with my work with Friends of the Island Fox is the Snow Leopard Trust. SLT creates programs that support mountain herders so that they are less likely to regard the endangered snow leopard as an obstacle. We saw some of the villages where they are making an impact when we were in Mongolia. I love the camel yarn and yak wool produced by the women of Snow Leopard Enterprises, a program of SLT.

One of SLT's successful research efforts includes camera traps that take photos of wild animals as they near the camera. With this technology they have documented mother snow leopards interacting with their cubs, identified individual animals and their territory, and now they have documented a snow leopard preparing to bed down for the night. You can watch the images of a wild snow leopard curling up on a rocky trail to sleep for the night Snow Leopard Video.

Snuggling into a warm bed; every night, all over the world, creatures large and small find a safe place to sleep. The more we know about the Earth's creatures, the more we can see how similar we all are and how we all share basic common needs.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Santa Cruz Island - A World Away and Right Next Door

Sometimes you don't have to go far to experience a different world. 

road coming up from the harbor and wetland
Santa Cruz Island is larger than the island of Manhattan. It is part of Channel Islands National Park and home to many rare and endemic species. Yet, few people visit this island only 26 miles off the coast of busy, bustling Southern California. 

A day trip out to Santa Cruz is like traveling back in California's history, when people were few and weather and sea molded the landscape. Last Thursday we took a trip on an Island Packers boat to Prisoner's Harbor on Santa Cruz Island.

brown pelican
There were sea birds, dolphins and migrating gray whales (including a gray whale calf). Picture of bottlenose dolphin with calf.

native blue dick
The wildflowers were in bloom.

And we found the tracks of an endangered island fox.

Santa Cruz Island was greatly impacted by the ranching of domestic sheep, goats and pigs during the 20th century. These large herbivorous animals nearly grazed the island to death. Today all of the domestic animals are gone and the wild plants and animals are making a strong come back. Before the day was over we saw not only the rare island scrub-jay, but also a healthy island fox. 

the island fox is only 12 inches tall
I'm the Education Director for Friends of the Island Fox. We've worked hard supporting conservation efforts to save this tiny rare canine from extinction. Just 12 years ago, you could not see an island fox on the northern islands running free in the wild. Only 15 individuals survived on San Miguel Island, 15 on Santa Rosa Island, and less than 100 on Santa Cruz Island. To see a healthy island fox in the wild at Prisoner's Harbor was a thrill.  For more about the island fox, visit

A day trip to Santa Cruz Island is a beautiful get away / adventure. For more pictures (including a dolphin calf), see my Island Journal at Friends of the Island Fox. You can take a trip to Santa Cruz Island with Friends of the Island Fox. We will be leading a group to the island on May 5th, 2012. Information on Trip to Santa Cruz Island.

The Channel Islands are also home to numerous bird species including island subspecies. Here's My Bird List for 3/29/2012 to Santa Cruz Island:

Eared Grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)
Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)  ~1000     in large rafts of individuals
Clark's Grebe (Aechmophorus clarkii) 
Surf Scoter (Melanitta perspicillata)  125     in a raft
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) 
Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) 
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) 
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) 
Red-tailed Hawk (Western) (Buteo jamaicensis calurus) 
American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)      
Pigeon Guillemot (Cepphus columba)   
Royal Tern (Thalasseus maximus) 
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura) 
Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) 
Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)       island subspecies
Acorn Woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus)
Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)  carrying food from wetland area to west side of barn structure, nest not seen
Say's Phoebe (Sayornis saya)      in restored wetland area
Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)  in willows
Island Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma insularis)  3     pair together east of wetland area, single bird on the hillside up by the lookout, all visible at the same time
Common Raven (Corvus corax)
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) 
Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)
Bewick's Wren (Pacific) (Thryomanes bewickii)  island subspecies
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus) 
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)       island subspecies
Dark-eyed Junco (Oregon) (Junco hyemalis [oreganus Group]) 
Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) 
Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) 
Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Pair of Cooper's Hawks

immature Cooper's hawk in the rain
It is official, the Cooper's hawks are trying to start a family. 

For three hours on Sunday, an immature Cooper's hawk sat on the power line above our bird feeders in the rain. The bird did not seek shelter and looked a bit soggy with a drop of water dripping every few minutes from its beak.

Last year a pair of Cooper's hawks successfully nested in a large jacaranda tree about a block away. This year an immature individual began hanging around about a month ago and was occasionally seen with a mature bird. The immature Cooper's hawk pictured here does not yet have the distinctive gray cap and back of an adult. It is still more brown in coloration around the head and shoulders. Notice the banded tail typical of Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks. These fast maneuvering hawks are bird predators and their appearance in the yard has disgruntled the band-tailed pigeons.

young female Cooper's hawk
I wasn't quite sure of the relationship between the two Cooper's hawks, but yesterday it all became clear.

The immature or young hawk is a female and the adult is a male. He brought her a mourning dove yesterday to seal their relationship and prove his ability as a provider. She accepted the dove and his sexual advances. Occasionally, I see one or the other of them fly past the window with a stick or pine bough. They are building a nest, but I haven't spotted the location yet.

If you are noticing nesting birds in your area, take a minute and consider documenting the nesting attempt on Cornell University's NestWatch website. Scientists can't be in everyone's backyard, but you can play an important roll for scientists; be their eyes, ears and observers. 

The Bewick's wrens were back working on their nest in the lariat house yesterday. And I'm still searching for a hummingbird nest; there have been starts and stops due to the rainy weather. Follow the daily progress of your nesting birds. You'll be surprised by their daily dramas and joys. Document it all with just a few minutes every 4 days and you'll play an important roll for science.

Watching for Warblers

yellow-rumped warbler
Warblers are small birds with narrow pointed beaks that feed primarily on insects. They flit through the trees and frequently sing "warbling" songs.

The yellow-rumped warbler is the most common warbler found in the Los Angeles area during the winter months. However this year, we had an orange-crowned warbler that was hanging out in January and in February I spotted a Townsend's warbler during Great Backyard Bird Count at the LA Zoo and a black-throated gray warbler at Serrania Park. Various warbler species will be migrating through our area in the next two months–yellow warblers, Wilson's warblers, Townsend's warblers and more. A few years ago we had a Wilson's warbler that rested at our house after flying through a wildfire area on its southward migration.

Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge
Areas with native plants that attract insects are prime spots to see warblers: Malibu Lagoon State Park and Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Refuge are two of my favorites.

To see a wonderful video on identifying warblers, check out the Warbler Video from Cornell University's Dept. of Ornithology. While warbler diversity is far greater on the east coast, this video gives great general information on looking for warblers. And because we don't have as many species of warblers here in the west, you won't be overwhelmed with identifying them.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wine Corks to Bird Houses

There is something beguiling about wine corks. Some are beautiful bits of art, some are stained with the kiss of a favorite red wine and some are molded plastic trying to save plant resources (but in doing so become less earth-friendly after their short life as a cork is over).

What to do with them? Wine corks beg to be recycled. I have a cork board in my office that I made of wine corks over 20 years ago and it is still hardy and looking new, despite 20 years of being a pin cushion.

I have made them into trivets. They work wonderfully as a buffer between hot dishes and the tabletop. And here again they seem to last forever.

So what to do with them?

Perhaps a bird house?

I had a wooden bird feeder with a copper roof. The wooden structure was compromised when it fell in a wind storm. I set about repairing it only to find that the wood was badly deteriorated. But the copper roof was still charming and useful.
doorway: corks on sides

Hot glue gun in-hand, I set about constructing a bird house on the old bird-feeder base. I built up an entrance with wine corks on their side. The depth of the wine corks makes it impossible for scrub-jays or crows to reach the small chicks inside; a sales plus for any house-hunting wren.
walls: corks on end topped with a layer of corks on sides
For the walls I stood the corks on end. The corner corks are the plastic kind which allowed me to firmly attach them with a screw up from the bottom. There is an inner row of corks as well, making the structure quite cozy.

The copper roof had three attachment locations. A row of corks were laid on their sides to create firm attachment sites. And to finish it off, I tucked moss in to the gaps and chinks.

The Bewick’s wrens have been building a nest off and on in the lariat house hanging in a tree. This new wine-cork bird house will give them another option.

Wine corks as bird houses? We’ll see. It is better than tossing them into a landfill.

Recycling projects:
Dining room chairs
Electronics and saving gorillas

Holiday Decorations