Sunday, October 07, 2018

What's That Caterpillar?

This year it seems there are an abundance of caterpillars about and some of them are unusual. Here are two that friends and family have been seeing and were new to me. They are both are native species!

ceanothus silk moth, photo by Joleen Lutz
The ceanothus silk moth caterpillar is typically found on our native ceanothus, but will also eat willow, manzanita and other chaparral plants. They are large plump green caterpillars. Charles L. Hogue's classic book "Insects of the Los Angeles Basin" says they can reach up to 4 inches. They are different from monarch caterpillars in that instead of stripes they have funky tubercles or fleshy bumps that stick up like warts. 

This green caterpillar will become a beautiful rusty-brown moth with dramatic white markings. As an adult it will be almost the size of a hummingbird. It's life as a moth will be fairly short because as an adult it does not eat at all.

white-lined sphinx moth, photo by Sherri Seymer
The white-lined sphinx moth is also quite large, but it feeds on nectar like a hummingbird. It's dramatically colored caterpillar eats a variety of chaparral shrubs and introduced plants. Hogue says they are often found on fuchsia. Down in Orange County there seem to be a large number of these striped caterpillars with red heads, horn, and legs. The sphinx moth is an important plant pollinator and always good to have in your garden.

Some other local caterpillars and their butterfly or moth adulthood.
mourning cloak butterfly and caterpillar
chocolate looper moth
what's that butterfly?
monarch butterfly
anise swallowtail
painted lady butterfly


Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Rat Poison Kills More Than Rats

Two turkey vultures were circling overhead this morning riding the thermals of warm air rising over the valley. 

Every fall, turkey vultures migrate through Southern California on their way to wintering and breeding grounds to the south. You would think that passing through the Los Angeles area would be safe, but a silent threat is in our streets and neighborhoods, a threat to predators and especially carrion eaters: rat poison.

Just the other day a friend snapped this photo of a young turkey vulture on the ground in her backyard. It is unusual for a turkey vulture to land on the ground in a confined space. Getting off the ground is not easy for these large birds. 

When the young vulture didn't leave and seemed like it needed help, she contacted the Ojai Raptor Center - a nonprofit that rescues and rehabilitates birds of prey. The rescue people came out, contained the young bird and promised to keep my friend informed on the bird's status.

Before the end of the day, she found out that the young vulture died due to rat poison in it system.

A rat had taken poison bait from one of those black, green, or beige bait boxes that are all over town. There is one at the drive-through Starbucks at my corner. They're in the parking structure at the mall. Sometimes they are around people's homes. Twice now, I've seen dead poisoned rats in the drive through at Starbucks; their toxic bodies laying there to be found by another animal. When a rat takes toxic bait, it doesn't die in the box. It wanders out into the world, a poison-laced meal for the animals we need to keep rodents in control. 

red-tailed hawk, photo courtesy of Brad Tanas

From coyotes to mountain lions, red-tailed hawks and great horned owls, to turkey vultures and pets, rat poison kills much more than rats. Let's stop this. Let's find another way to deal with rodent populations. Rat poison doesn't stop rats, it indiscriminately kills other animals.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Allen's Hummingbird Leaves Nest

Arrow points to Allen's hummingbird chick
OK, it is a poor photo, but I had to maintain a distance so the chick wouldn't become scared and take flight before it was ready. If you look closely, to the right of the arrow is a leaf and then a pale spot–the pale breast feathers of a Allen's hummingbird fledgling. The nest is about a foot beyond the right side of the photo.

Last week, this young hummingbird and its sibling were still in the nest.

Yesterday, the older chick fledged. If flew to the far side of the toyon bush. Though it stayed in the 'home' bush all day. It definitely was out of the nest.

The smaller chick, was actually from an egg laid two days later than the first. Usually Allen's hummingbird eggs are laid on two consecutive days. It has always been quite a bit smaller. Because of its pale brown coloring, I've taken to calling her 'Mouse'.

Though her sibling was calling and mom was encouraging, Mouse stayed in, on or next to the nest all day yesterday. She tried exercising her wings, but it was obvious she just wasn't ready to fledge. Early this morning she was still sitting on the nest's edge.

But after an hour or two, the morning sun has encouraged her to be brave. She has fluttered into the shade and away from the nest. (The dead leaves are on the branch we added to the toyon to shade the chicks over a week ago. That extra branch is still offering valuable shade to the hummingbird youngster.)

It is a scary, yet exciting thing to leave the nest. These chicks are less than a month old. Before the week is over, they will be on their own. 

Other Fledgling Hummingbirds
Rescuing a baby hummingbird
Other bird parents and their fledglings

Monday, April 30, 2018

Are You Watching a Hummingbird Nest?

Allen's hummingbird female
It is the last day of April and we have four active Allen's hummingbird nests in our yard. (Selasphorus sasin)

Two nests have eggs. 

Allen's hum nest in butterfly bush

Allen's hum nest high in Catalina cherry
One is in an ornamental butterfly bush (Buddleja). This nest is awfully low to the ground and poorly covered by vegetation. It is not a good location and the female will need good fortune to be successful. Her chicks may be vulnerable if summer temperatures over 100 degrees come early.

The other is high in a native Catalina cherry shrub (Prunus illcifolia). This is an excellent location.

Allen's hum chicks, 10-15 days old
'Fairy Tree' nest with hum chicks
Two of the nests have chicks. The 'Fairy Tree' nest has already seen two chicks fledge in March. The female rebuilt the nest and these two should fledge toward the end of May. 

This mother is experienced and has used this Catalina cherry as a successful location in the past.

Allen's hum nest in toyon

The fourth nest is in a native toyon.  (Are you seeing a pattern? Native shrubs are more likely to house successful hummingbird nests.)

Native plants not only provide native insects as food, they also grow at a rate similar to the growth of the chicks. Nests in fast growing ornamental plants sometimes are torn apart by the growing plant. The chicks can become homeless before they are ready to fly.

These two chicks, yes there are two tucked in close together, should fledge soon.

These four mother Allen's hummingbirds are busy. This is the second nest of the year for each of them. Two were successful the first time and two were not.

So far in 2018 that's eight Allen's hummingbird nests in our yard. I monitor my hummingbird nests for NestWatch, part of Cornell University's Citizen Science bird data program. To date, my Allen's hummingbirds are the only nests where data has been collected on the reproduction of this species in 2018. 

I know there are more of you out there watching hummingbird nests. NestWatch needs your data. Successes and failures are equally important. This year we had eggs that shriveled and a chick that died when the weather turned from unusually warm back to cold winter weather. 

Early nesting attempts can lead to failure. This is the insidious impact of warming winter temperatures. Plants and animals take signals from the weather to begin reproduction. Record warm temperatures in January can lead to chick deaths when February brings a return to cold weather and rain.

How do I spot the nests? I watch the females:
  • Females gathering nesting materials will fly right back to their building locations. I put out natural nesting materials.
  • Females sitting in one place with their beak angled down and making an up-and-down movement with their head are most likely nest building or feeding chicks.
  • Females catching small flying insects are typically craving protein because they are about to lay or have laid eggs or are gathering protein for newly hatched chicks. Watch where they go. 
  • When eggs or chicks are present females typically do not fly directly to a nest. They fly to the home bush or tree, then make several short movements approaching the nest.
Several friends, especially those on the Pacific Coast hummingbird migratory path, have told me they are seeing far fewer hummingbirds. Data will help figure out if these birds have changed their migratory path or if their numbers are declining.

Join me.  Collect data on your hummingbirds for eBird and NestWatch. The greater the data, the better the science. 

What to do with a baby bird?