Thursday, March 27, 2014

Managing Your Backyard Treescape

Daintree Rainforest, Cape Tribulation, northern Queensland, Australia
When you look into a forest, like the rainforest in northern Queensland Australia, it can be hard to see the individual trees from the forest. 

In man-made woodlands around our homes and workplaces, we get used to a specific look–big tree with smaller shrubs and ground covers. But a wild forest is forever changing and there is a progression of plants: small trees growing up under still standing larger trees. Too often we forget that trees have a lifespan or can be compromised by drought, disease, or poor management.

In our neighborhood we have seen these three variables reduce the large trees dramatically over 20 years. Our once tree-lined streets, now are sunny and mostly treeless.

During a botany walk a few years ago with representatives from some of the major botanical gardens in Southern California, I learned a valuable lesson–think like a forest and plan for succession of large trees. Several of these destination gardens had learned the hard way that wind storms and unexpected disease can wipe out your man-made forest in short order and regrowing those valuable trees takes time.

I know I have two trees that are past their prime. Our flowering plum tree (Prunus cerasifera) can put on a beautiful display in spring, but it is not a long-lived species and termites are now compromising this tree. She probably has a few more years, but it is time to think about succession. What will take this tree's place? Five years ago I planted a native redbud (Cercis occidentalis), just down hill of the plum tree. Finally, it is really taking hold and starting to grow. It too will offer flowers in the spring, but it will also offer food to native birds and insects. And three years ago I discovered a native coast oak (Quercus agrifolia) coming up as a volunteer. I'm grooming these two trees to take the place of the flowering plum.

Last year the arborists discovered a hollow in the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) that threatens to weaken the tree over the next few years. It will be a loss to our backyard shade when it goes, but we are planning ahead. We planted a native California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) just uphill to eventually take the elm's place.

Succession is natural in wild landscapes and with a little thought, you can make it natural in your landscape as well.

green ant from Australian rainforest
Intrigued by the Australian rainforest

Take a 1 minute escape to this far away landscape at

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Desert Tortoise Takes a Drink

After a winter snooze of over four months, a desert tortoise can wake up thirsty. 

They walk right into a shallow pan of water and submerge their head for few moments. Here you can see the water is over his nose and eyes.

They drink through their mouth, but this guy also blew bubbles out through his nose under water. Especially after a dry winter, it probably feels good to rise out dry nasal passages. He relaxed with his head under the water for a while, periodically taking large gulps of water or lifting his head slightly to take a breath. Then he would resubmerge his head.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that Aldabra tortoises, on dry islands in the Indian Ocean, can draw water up their nostrils to drink. A flap in the nasal passage closes off the pathway to the lungs and allows the tortoise to use its nose somewhat like a straw to drink from shallow puddles of rainwater.

I'm wondering if North American desert tortoises might have a similar adaptation. They also live in a dry habitat where rainwater is sporadic. When they drink, they prefer to include their nose in the process. I have never observed them drinking with their mouth submerged and their nose above the water's surface. Can they drink with just their nostrils pressed down into a shallow film of water? I don't know, but it is definitely worth investigating.

Note - Don't confuse this with breathing underwater. Desert tortoises are land animals. They can not swim and the weight of their shell causes them to sink in water. They may drown if they fall into a pool or pond. Because turtles have slow metabolisms and very complex circulatory systems they can survive without access to oxygen longer than mammals, but they can still drown.

Desert tortoise and western fence lizard
Plants for desert tortoise
More on turtle adaptations 
See the similarity with tortoises in Turkey

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A Cow Skull Nest

The Bewick's wren is nest building. Do you see him about 6 inches to the right of the Nature's Nest raw cotton nesting material?

Look for his black eye and the white stripe of an eyebrow. About an inch to the right of his eye, the cotton fuzz in his beak is sticking out from behind a leaf.

The wren has already built a nest in the lariat house. Now he is building a second nest in the brain cavity of the cow skull that hangs on the patio wall.

He has been considering this location for several years. This year he decided to go for it.

The male Bewick's wren builds two nests and then tours his mate through the two sites. He's hoping one will meet with her approval. 

Will we have baby wrens in the cow skull? We'll see.

Allen's hummingbirds have already successfully nested once this Spring 2014.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Yellow is the Color of Spring

Spring has definitely come to Southern California. A little bit of rain and the sticky monkeyflower has bloomed. This native monkeyflower hybrid with light yellow-orange flowers was a fall purchase from the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden.

Warm days are bringing out the creatures that hibernate–desert tortoises and western fence lizard. The longer warmer days have also enticed a male valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) out of the wooden tunnel where he hatched and grew as a grub. He is all golden and pristine on his first day out in the world.

His mother burrowed a tunnel into the trunk of our bottlebush. Then she laid eggs in the tunnel (each with a supply of food) and  sealed up the tunnel. The young male had to burrow his way out of his nursery.

It is easy to tell males and females apart, because the females are black and the males are golden. 

Spring promises more discoveries.


Monday, March 03, 2014

Animal Craft Using Repurposed Materials

March is supposedly craft month. So what can be better than a gathering of creatures made with socks and gloves?

Two friends and I spent a rainy Saturday creating critters. With odds and ends we fashioned some pretty fun animals. This is my Horse of a Different Color and Ready Pup.

Socks, gloves, buttons, yarn, ribbon, and fabric remnants. It was joyful recycling.

We've made mosaics for the yard in the past. Mosaic Birdhouse. This time I'm glad the rain kept us indoors.