Friday, February 27, 2009

Oh, My! Dinosaurs


If you haven't been to the LA County Natural History Museum recently, it's time to give it another look. 

On a recent visit, my friend and I were as thrilled as the kids to encounter this dinosaur puppet. It's a life-size juvenile T-Rex. Little and big kids alike enjoyed the interactive session, in which our host asked and answered a lot of dino questions. This replica renders T-Rex with a coat of downy feathers. Our guide discussed the link between these prehistoric giants and their smaller avian relatives. 

The Dinosaur Encounters program also features a juvenile Triceratops. We'll definitely return to see him. Note that this program is loud: the guide uses a mic at high volume. It may be too loud--and perhaps too scary--for a small child. 

Exposition Park has raised the parking rate to $8 (gulp), and the street parking is gone due to Expo line construction, so get the most for your money by exploring more of the museum. Downstairs you'll find a sweet Discovery Center that features live animals, including turtles, an iguana named Cecil, a python, fish, amphibians, and insects. The Discovery Center offers a story time and live animal presentations, during which a curator displays and discusses small animals.

Also, don't discount the taxidermy. It's a great way for kids to get an up-close look at critters they might not otherwise encounter--like this giant polar bear in the Discover Center. Or the permanently perched birds in the museum's excellent Hall of Birds. 

And look for the reopening of butterfly pavilion--outside the museum near the entry. I took my son there when he started running and talking. He was ecstatic. But I couldn't figure out why he was saying, "Meow! Meow!" Then I realized he'd heard the educator talking about CATerpillars. 

Also, check out some of the museums many educational programs:
900 Exposition Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90006
Adults: $9
Under 5: Free
5-12 yrs: $2
Students: $6.50
Parking: $8.00

Monday, February 9, 2009

Getting to Know You

My Favorite Field Guides for Southern California
And Tips on How to Get Started

Learning about local plants and animals is exciting, but can be frustrating when you first start out. For years, I hiked around with a backpack full of field guides, stopping frequently and furiously thumbing pages. And I bought many books that didn't have sufficient or good photos for identification. I'm going to share some of my favorites with you. But first some tips:
  • Take guided walks whenever possible. For bird watching, join your local chapter of Audubon. Chapters usually offer regular walks lead by an experienced birder.
  • When you visit parks and forests, look for interpretative trails. These offer some plant identification and basic ecological information. For plants, also visit Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the Theodore Payne Foundation nursery (it has a short, landscaped trail), or Tree of Life nursery in San Juan Capistrano. While not impressive, Descanso Garden also has a native section. 
  • Hike in places with nature and visitor centers, such as Eton Canyon, Monrovia Watershed Park, Stough Canyon, Placerita Canyon, Franklin Canyon Park, Topanga State Park, Will Rogers State Park, Malibu Creek State Park, and Debs Park. Volunteers or staff can help you identify things you've seen. 
  • Get as local as possible. When trying to identify flora and fauna, it helps to narrow things down. Look for bird and plant lists at nature centers, and troll their bookshelves for local field guides. 
  • Support you local nature center. Parks are chronically underfunded, so donations and volunteer help are greatly needed.
Following are some of the books I find most helpful for identifying species and understanding ecosystems. 

Birds of Los Angeles (including SB, Ventura and OC Counties), Chris C. Fisher and Herbert Clarke.This guide has great illustrations, and because it only lists birds found here, you can save yourself hours of frustration, for example, trying to figure out which of the many North America Sparrows you've seen.
Kaufman Focus Guide: Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman. This is hands down my favorite book, but it does include all of North America, so if you're a beginner, use it in combination with local guides. Once you get to know some of the basic categories of related birds, it will be a wonderful guide for you.
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. This book has gorgeous drawings and brief descriptive information created by this famous ornithologist. Above I've posted a link to the smaller volume of just Western birds. For more about the life and times of these tweeties, buy the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Bird Behavior. For birding tips, try Sibley's Birding Basics.
Bird Songs of California by Geoffrey A. Keller. This is a CD from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Some birds refuse to show themselves. If you're haunted by the twitters, this CD can help you ID some 220 species. Still, you have to have a pretty good idea of what you think you heard, because cycling through hundreds of calls without any notion of what bird it might be would be incredibly frustrating. To get you started, search the CD for a few of your favorite birds, and become familiar with their calls.
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Not a book, but an important website. 

An Introduction to The Plant Life of Southern California by Philip Rundel and Robert Gustafson. This book won't help you identify every plant, but it's a great overview of local plant communities. Once you know the types of plants we have here, and where they're found, it's a lot easier to figure out what you're looking at.
California Native Plants for the Garden by Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O'Brien. Not a field guide, but one of the best reference books on natives. Plus, a good way to learn is to plant a few in your yard.
Flowering Plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, Coastal and Chaparral Regions of Southern California by Nancy Dale. Comprehensive, more useful once you already have a little knowledge of the plants. 
Wildflowers of the San Gabriel Mountains by Ann and Gerald Croissant. A nice introductory book.
Nature Guide to the Mountains of Southern California by Bill Havert and Gary Gray. This, too, I think is out of print, but available used. It includes plants and animals. I'm partial to this book as short, sweet, introductory guide. I hauled it on many hikes, and still appreciate it. No color photos but good drawings.

An Introduction to Southern California Butterflies by Fred Heath. Lots of color photos and good, local info.

Mammals of California by Tamara Eder. This guide has nice color photos and drawings. Plus, drawings of the animals' footprints, and information on the their habitats and life cycles. Since the number of mammals you're likely to see is small, don't buy this unless you're a wildlife nut like me. Just visit local nature centers for information on the furry creatures that live in the area. But if you love field guides, this is a good one.

Beyond the Beach Blanket: A Field Guide to Southern California Coastal Wildlife by Marina Curtis Tidwell. Hooray for this book! I own several authoritative tomes on marine ecosystems that are good textbooks, but not accessible or fun. I recommend this one for beginners. It's a small press book, so if you're interested, buy it while you can still get it. 
California Marine Life by Marty Snyderman. A lovely introduction to marine ecology. More enjoyable even than the Tidwell book above, but doesn't have as much local information.

Got a favorite guide? Please let us know.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Do Try This At Home


Here's an easy way for your little one--and bigger kids, too--to get an up-close look at birds: Add at bird feeder to your yard. Among the species that frequent feeders in the LA area are house finches (pictured above), lesser goldfinches, mourning doves (they'll probably handg out on ground below the feeder and catch the spill), house sparrows (these are not native), scrub jays, and--if you're lucky--banded-tail pigeons (no, not the sidewalk pests, lovely native doves).

There's no real trick, but here are my tips:
  • Buy a long feeder like the one above. I've had squirrels breach every kind of bird feeder except this one. Yes, I tried the kind where the doors slam shut if a heavier critter perches there. The little gymnasts just hung from their back legs and reached their paws in without tripping it. This feeder is simply too long for them to reach from the branch to the opening. Of course, you need to hang it away from other branches. Mind you, I don't have a problem with the squirrels, but they gobble up my seed budget fast.
  • Hang the feeder on a limb that reaches over a flower bed, not your lawn. That way most bird poop stays away from where kids play.
  • Fill your feeder with 100% black sunflower seeds. The little ones. You can buy them at OSH. Sure, you can use the other stuff, but you will probably end up with weeds in your yard. These little sunflower seeds are nutritious, and the only accidental plant you get is a sunflower.
  • Clean your feeders occasionally to prevent the spread of disease from one bird to another. The same goes for bird baths.
  • If possible, hang your feeder where your kid can watch from an indoor window, for closer viewing.
  • Add a bird bath. Put it where your child won't play in it. Make sure it is cleaned and emptied regularly, in part, to prevent mosquitos breading there in warm months. West Nile virus is still a threat. Still, unless you are constantly topping it off, in the summer, a shallow bird bath will likely dry up before mosquitoes can hatch. 
If you want to do more for birds, add native plants to your yard. Visit the Theodore Payne Foundation to buy them. Ask for their list of bird-attracting plants. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

City Views

Get A Good Look from Elysian Park

Okay, I gotta be honest: Elysian it ain't. It's nice, but certainly not endlessly blissful. However, here's a simple hike that affords good views of the city, from Glendale to East LA. Yes, that concrete canal near the 5 freeway is the Los Angeles River.  

Start at the trailhead at the northwest corner of Stadium Way and Elysian Park Drive, just shy of the Grace E. Simons Lodge.  It's about a 2 mile loop from start to finish. Without kids, you could walk the entire thing in about 40 minutes. With them, who knows!

Most of the trail is smooth and wide, but there is a hill near the end. With little kids, the loop may be too long. Just go as far as you think they'll be able to amble back and turn around. On a recent trip, I saw a mom pulling two tikes in a wagon. You could also trek this trail with a kid in a jogger, or a baby in a carrier. 

The view is really the thing here. The trees are mostly eucalyptus (nonnative), and the weeds have run amok. Still, some natives, such as red-berried toyons, persist.

There's one confusing spot on the trail. Near the end you'll hit a two-way junction that soon leads to another split, pictured below. To avoid a short but steep downhill scramble, take one of the two right-hand trails. They end at a big lawn near a gate. Head downhill on the lawn and the trailhead will be on your left. But all routes return you to the beginning. This trail is popular, so you shouldn't have to worry about getting too lost.

The trail is also a favorite of dog owners, and quite a few let their dogs off-leash. 

If your child--like mine on a recent visit--does not want to hike, there's a nice, new playground across the street from the Simons Lodge.

835 Academy Road
Los Angeles, CA 90012

The park can be confusing if you're not familiar with it, so bring a map. From Stadium Way, look for signs pointing to the Grace E. Simons Lodge and the Arboretum. Park along the road that leads to the lodge, as close to the intersection of Stadium Way and Elysian Park Drive as possible. The trailhead is on the northwest side of this intersection, about a quarter mile from the Lodge.