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.