Tuesday, December 10, 2019

A Living Christmas Tree With A Twist

A living tree has become a tradition for us. For the past twelve years we have pulled a potted living tree into the house for the winter holiday season.

First we had a blue spruce, which became lovely and wild looking. A California redwood came in for six years running. Then last winter we planted the redwood in the yard, where she is doing very well.

This year we couldn't find a redwood small enough for the house. A spruce or fir might be pretty, but our longer, hotter summers make it impossible to put one of these conifers into the ground successfully.

What to do?

We put on our creative hats and thought outside of the box. What could we find that would live in a pot for five or six years and then join our wildlife habitat yard?

We considered:
  • Catalina ironwood - beautiful, but it was already too big
  • Podocarpus - possible, but not native
  • cedar - lovely, but it was going get very big
  • juniper - lovely, but more bush like than tree 

 Ultimately, we decided on a juniper. The juniper will be quite pruneable and we chose a female that will provide berries for wildlife. 

A live tree is a sustainable tree. It will be planted in the yard and continue to do its job sequestering carbon, producing oxygen, and providing food and shelter for wildlife.

We have a tree in the house to bring wildness into our home. It is so much more magical when that tree (or bush) continues to be part of your life for years to come. 

This spunky juniper looks lovely in its holiday decoration. Think outside of the box and bring a living holiday plant into your life.

Other live Christmas Trees:
Stone pine

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Book Review: "The Big Ones" by Lucy Jones

Could there be a more timely book?

The Big Ones; How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Humanity (and what we can do about them) 
by Lucy Jones
Penguin Random House 2018

If you are paying attention in Southern California, you are familiar with both "The Big One" and Lucy Jones. Jones is the voice we hear following any large earthquake in Southern California. She is the former U.S. Geological Survey seismologist that can explain the complexities of an earthquake in a simple, but relevant manner to any audience. When we hear her voice, smart Californians, quiet their fears and listen.

Imagine my surprise when I came across Jones' book in a small book store in London. Despite luggage weight limits, I snatched it up and began reading.

In California, "The Big One" refers to the next expected massive earthquake on the San Andres Fault that jogs up through most of the state. When it hits, will we be ready for the shake and the aftermath? We will try to be ready, just like the people in Florida and the Bahamas attempted to be ready for hurricane Dorian. With Jones' help, Los Angeles has seriously considered how our response will play out.

What Jones adds to this discussion is historical perspective. There have been other Big Ones around the world–big earthquakes, big storms, big volcanic eruptions, even big floods that Californians have forgotten about. It behooves us to look back to these other events so we can understand how a city or community survives and successfully rebuilds. One of the necessary factors: people, public-minded people willing to make a positive difference.

There are some simple, but vitally important lessons detailed in this book. No matter the threat we must curtail corruption, put aside politics, and prepare intelligently. When catastrophe strikes, successful survival comes from making informed decisions, helping those that can be helped quickly, then recruiting those survivors to be part of the long-term solution for those who have suffered the most.

Worried about earthquakes? Read this book. You will have a better understanding of the real threat. Concerned about climate change impacts that will challenge what we know about storm response? Read this book. Looking for real world ways to approach problems? Read this book. Learn from those who succeeded and those who did not. Whatever "The Big One" is in your life. This book will give you insight and be a good read.

Other Good Books:
Survival of the Sickest

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Juvenile Cooper's Hawks Staying Cool

If you want to attract wildlife to your backyard habitat...provide water.

Especially in the west, where summer temperatures continue to rise each year, water is a vital resource for wildlife. We have a new pair of Cooper's hawks that have recently fledged. Their parents taught them to come to our backyard for water and ...

...to keep cool. For these young birds of prey the option to stand in cool water, helps them cool down. These two have been daily visitors for the past two weeks. At first they stood and watched the house finches and lesser goldfinches on the bird feeder. Now they are beginning to understand that these smaller birds are their prey.

Sometimes they stand in the water for 10-15 minutes at a time. Their mottled feathering really helps them camouflage in the dappled shade.

We provide both still and flowing water in a fountain. We don't want to provide habitat for mosquitoes, so we change out the still water every other day and the fountain's well of water is covered. Mosquito-borne diseases can be deadly to birds and people. Keep your water clean. 

Adult Cooper's hawk in birdbath
Previous Cooper's hawk juveniles 

Monday, June 17, 2019

Epiphyllum Blooms Boldly

Sometimes a simple walk through the garden brings a new discovery. This lovely white epiphyllum is from a cutting that I bought at a flower show a few years ago. 

It is uplifting to see something beautiful that wasn't there before. It is also amazing how the moment of discovery clears your mind of everything else. For a few moments life is suspended in bliss.

No matter how challenging human life has become. Take a moment to go outside and discover what brings you joy.

More about epiphyllums or orchid cactus
Propagating  epiphyllums

Discover the rainbow of color in these tropical cactus

Monday, April 29, 2019

Peace Rose in the Garden

There is peace in the garden. 

The 'Peace' rose is associated with World War 2 and has a very dramatic and interesting story. Ludwing Taschner tells it well on Gerbera.org

Its beautiful bloom is a spring and late summer highlight. I love how the glowing yellow is fringed with delicate pink. Peace is one of the most planted roses across the US because its large blooms are hardy in most regions.

With all of the angst in the world, from politics to civil unrest, the garden offers a place to escape and to see hope. We should all spend more time there than at our computers.

Other Backyard roses
Lady Banks rose
Hidden Gardens of LA

Monday, April 22, 2019

Second Nesting Attempts by Allen's Hummingbirds

While most birds are working on their first nests of spring, the Allen's hummingbirds in our yard are on round two.

This nest has two newly laid eggs. It isn't the best constructed nest, but it is in a shaded and protected location. The novice female hasn't been sitting on the nest as much as the more experienced moms.

The female in the front yard has been the only mother to successfully bring two chicks to fledging. See her first chicks just before they flew. Now she's back on the same nest with two new eggs. Last year her second nest was in a different location and nearly lost to the sun.

The nest on the patio successfully produced one fledgling. (The second chick died a day after our big wind storm. Amazingly the survivor lived for a week beside it's desiccated sibling. We considered trying to remove the dead chick, but the location of the nest made that difficult. The survivor was developed enough to try to escape and there was nothing, but cement, 12 ft beneath the nest. Ultimately, it was the right choice; the surviving chick is flying around the yard.)

In the canyon part of the yard, we discovered a nest with two healthy chicks just after they had hatched. The two chicks are just starting to develop their elongated hummingbird beaks. You can just see the second chick's beak at the left side of the nest. These two should be flying in a week and a half to two weeks.

So far this year all of the nests have been in our native Catalina cherry and its mainland relative the hollyleaf cherry. Only the patio nest was not in these specific plants. That is our key to having so many hummingbird nests in our yard–native shrubs. The growing pattern of the plants match the needs of the hummingbirds. Native plants also flower when the hummingbird mothers need food.

If you are keeping track, in 2019 so far, we've had :

  • 8 nests
  • one pair and three singleton Allen's hummingbird chicks successfully fledged - total of 5
  • 2 chicks currently in a nest
  • 4 eggs still being incubated 
Rescuing hummingbird chicks

Monday, April 15, 2019

Cistus and Sage in a Wildlife Garden

rock rose (Cistus salviifolius)
For years the rock rose (Cistus salviifolius) was a lush green plant with no flowers. It grew in dappled shade under an ornamental plum tree. For the past year, the tree has been gone and the rock rose has received more sunlight. This spring it is blooming for the first time in fifteen years. I had forgotten it's blooms were white.

Sometimes, you just have to be in the right place at the right time. You can survive and even do well, but one small change can transform existing to thriving. It is an important lesson to keep in the back of my mind. A moment in the garden always brings enlightenment and a new perspective. 

'hot lips' sage (Salvia microphylla)
While Cistus are not natives, as Mediterranean plants they are well suited to California's typical Mediterranean climate. There's another lesson: not every plant in the garden has to be a California native.  

The 'hot lips' sage (Salvia microphylla) is stunning this year. It's a North American native frequently visited by both our Allen's hummingbirds and valley carpenter bees.

The California natives continue to bring waves of beautiful blooms. The redbud has transformed to green leaves. It has passed the flower baton to the Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana). These native California iris have really rebounded with the winter rains. The garden speaks clearly if you listen: change is constant.

 I found three new Allen's hummingbird nests this weekend. More hummingbird stories to come.

Monday, April 08, 2019

The Snake in the Garden

ring-necked snake juvenile

Today was the day to see our resident snake. It's a ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus). This serpent is harmless to people and an important member of our backyard ecosystem. It eats lizards and their eggs, salamanders, and a range of invertebrates.

The first time I spotted one was in 2012. A year later we found part of a dead individual, though it appeared to be smaller. The last time we had a good look was in 2015 when we found a juvenile. More about ring-necked snakes (2015)

Video of ring-necked snake

clivia provides shelter for the shy snake
Last year there was only a fleeting glimpse as it slide between some plants and disappeared under a large rock. 

Today the ring-necked snake was about 45 cm or 1.5 feet long. I don't know for sure that it is the same individual, but it's not impossible. If it was, it had grown from the width of a slim pen to that of a fine felt-point marker. It still is thinner than a human pinkie finger. 

The ring-necked snake was reclining on a warm garden stepping stone until I came walking along and disturbed it. Quickly it fled for the protection of the clivia. Snakes are generally shy creatures trying to survive in a world where they are demonized. Most snakes are not a threat to people at all.

I admit that I am just as startled as anyone else when a slender snake moves past my blundering foot. But then, I stop, observe, and see that it is my ring-necked friend and I have nothing to fear. The ring-necked snake is a beautiful creature. I watched it go about its business and marked the day because it will probably be 365 days or more before I see it again.

Not a snake! Look closely and you'll see legs. Alligator lizard.
Other snakes - gopher snake; wild gopher snake eating rodent
Lizards: western fence lizard, alligator lizard
Slender salamanders

Creating Native Habitat for Wildlife and You

Monday, April 01, 2019

Desert Tortoises Awakening in Spring

Can you imagine not taking a drink of water for four months?

The desert tortoises have just emerged from their winter sleep. Sitting in a puddle of sun-warmed water is obviously a welcome moment of renewal.

They dug down into the earth in late November, when the world was dry, brown, and brittle. They've awoken into a landscape of lush green and flowers. They all seem a bit dazzled by the brilliant colors.
Lady Banks rose
Western redbud bursts into bloom
Video of desert tortoise taking a long first spring drink
More on desert tortoises drinking
More on turtle adaptations

Monday, March 25, 2019

Success With a Native Plant - Western Redbud

Isn't it beautiful?

This western redbud (Cercis occidentalis) is blooming in our north-facing front yard. Our success with native plants has been sporadic. Planting this redbud was part of a long-term plan to replace an ornamental plum tree that was declining. We loved the spring blooms, but the increasing summer heat in the San Fernando Valley had become too intense for the plum.

Five years ago I planted a 5 gallon redbud in the dappled shade of the older tree. Gradually the plum was thinned to provide the redbud with more light. I wasn't sure that the plan was working. The redbud was still small and didn't flower much.

Just over a year ago, the plum became precarious. We were sad to see the old tree go, but it was dying and riddled with termites. The tree trimmers carefully removed the old tree without harming the four-foot redbud.

Over the summer and fall, the redbud grew several feet and really came into its own. With the winter rains, it has burst into brilliant purpley blooms. The redbud hasn't completely filled into the spot in the yard vacated by the ornamental plum, but it will. Finally, a real native plant success.

other natives doing well:
white ceanothus
Douglas iris
Douglas iris and gophers 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Nesting Allen's Hummingbirds Spring 2019

This nest of Allen's hummingbirds are nearly ready to fledge.
These two little guys should take their first flights in the next 3-5 days.

It is hard for Cornell University to imagine, but this is our third nest of Allen's hummingbirds this 2019 season. (We enter data on our nesting birds in Cornell's NestWatch data base.) The first eggs were laid in a poorly placed nest in early January. That nest was completely soaked in a rain storm and failed. 

2nd nest with one chick
The second nest was established by a more experienced female and she was able to raise one chick to fledge on March 9th. The second egg never hatched. A record cold February may have played a role.

Another chick in a fourth nest hatched on March 16th, its sibling should hatch sometime today.

All of these Allen's hummingbird nests are in native hollyleaf cherry shrubs. The plant is slow growing. It's wide leaves are waxy to survive in hot dry summer temperatures and therefore provide protection when it does rain.

The first female, however, has taken a bold step and built her second nest under the protection of the patio. Anna's hummingbirds build nests on man-made objects fairly frequently. It is rather unusual for our Allen's hummingbirds. She has two eggs in her new nest.

This location should be protected from wind, rain, and even most predators. The biggest issue may be that when chicks first start to flap their wings, they won't have neighboring branches to flutter to. They won't be able to sidestep back to the nest. The location is also about 20 ft off the ground. That is a long way for a curious youngster to fall.
Have you lost count? In 2019, so far:
  • 5 nests
  • 1 successfully fledged Allen's hummingbird
  • 4 chicks currently in nests
  • 2 eggs still being incubated
Unexpected fluctuations in weather can cause nests to fail. Strong wind, pounding rain, cold snaps, can all take a toll on young hummingbirds. A rain storm is expected on Wednesday. Hopefully it will be lite. A heavy rain could make the first days of flying and survival without the protection of the nest a challenge for these youngsters.

The half siblings of these chicks from 2018 
Climate change and hummingbirds 

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Painted Lady Mass Migration in So. California

They are back! Thousands of painted lady butterflies migrating overhead. Right now 72 butterflies a minute are passing over our house and down into the San Fernando Valley. Isn't that amazing! In an hour that will be more than 4,200 butterflies!

The winter rains have created the perfect conditions for masses of these medium-sized butterflies to take to the air. 

Where are they coming from? Probably somewhere near the California-Mexico border or down in Mexico.

Where are they going? They are headed in a northwest direction. When this happened in 2012, scientists were trying to follow the painted ladies to see where they went. Michael tells me that they are going to Oregon. What a long way for these butterflies to travel.

Go outside look up or 10-20 feet off the ground. It is a fantastic natural phenomenon, a mass migration of butterflies. Go take a look, who knows when or if it will happen again. 

More local butterflies: Butterfly Quiz
Mourning Cloak
Anise Swallowtail