Thursday, April 23, 2009

Water World

A Visit to the Aquarium of the Pacific
Long Beach
This excursion isn't just for kids. Everyone in our family likes the Aquarium, including Grandpa. It's a great place to pick up a little marine biology, and just ooh and aah over the critters. 

Our recent visit started with a stop at Blue Cavern. It's that huge exhibit at the far end of the main hall. (Be sure you pick up the visitor guide when you enter the Aquarium.) When you go, take a look at some of the local fish: giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas), California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher), leopard sharks, white sea bass, and kelp bass. Sheephead live in kelp forests and around rocky reefs, especially around the Channel Islands. These large wrasses all start life as females (orange to red colored) and change sex to male at around four of five years of age (when they develop the bold blue-black head and tail coloration). Large, old males are rare these days, but these fish can live 50 years.

The impressive black fish are giant sea bass. Used to be sport fishermen were especially keen to land these big guys. Now, because the animal has been fished to near extinction, it's off limits. (People often blame commercial fishing for declining marine life, but sport fishing--especially in populous Southern California--has also taken its toll.) Giant sea bass can live up to 70 years and grow bigger than 7 feet, 550 pounds.

Next, we helped our son reach into a touch pool in the Northern Pacific Gallery, upstairs. He felt a few starfish and anenomes. He also enjoyed meeting puffins--familiar from his Little Polar Bear bath book. And, of course, the southern sea otters thrilled us all. I never tire of watching these cuties. California’s sea otters were nearly hunted to extinction by fur traders in the 18th and 19th century. A few survived near Monterey, and the animals have made a slow comeback. But they haven't recovered as well as scientists think they should, and biologists continue to puzzle over the reasons In part because of an agreement the federal government made with fishermen, today most of the state's otters live along the central coast. 

Be sure to check the "Today at the Aquarium" insert in your Visitor Guide. It will tell you the times of special presentations. Most of these consist of staffers discussing the species and how they care for them. 

It was great fun to watch the seals and sea lions being fed. The surfaced, jumped, slid on and off the rocks. The most common pinniped in Southern California is the California sea lion. They're easily distinguishable from harbor seals by the their brown color and longer front flippers, which allow them to be more agile on land. Plus, sea lions have external ear flaps, seals don't. I confess it's harbor seals that steal my heart. There's something about their liquid black, puppy-dog eyes, kitty-cat face, and sleek silver-black coat that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

We also enjoyed touching rays and small sharks in the outdoor pools. While you're in the area, check out the nearby Our Watersheds exhibit. If you care about the animals you've just seen, you'll want to protect them. These exhibits will broaden your ideas on how to do that. Even if you live 50 miles from the beach, things you do inland affect the ocean. (More from me on that topic.)

Finally, while the noisy lorikeets attract a lot of attention, a quieter nook also merits a peek. Get a close-up look at some local birds in the Shorebird Sanctuary (near the seals). I adore black-necked stilts, pictured below on the left. They lend a touch of elegance to our degraded rivers. On the right is another lovely bird found in our remaining wetlands: the American avocet.

Be sure to get a glimpse of the western snowy plover (pictured below), while you may have seen birds that look similar (killdeer, for example), chances are you haven't seen this little darling because it's endangered. 
100 Aquarium Way
Long Beach, CA  90802
Open Daily 9 a.m.-6:00 p.m.
Adults: $23.95
Children (3-11 yrs) $11.95
Under 3: Free
Check the Los Angeles Times for coupons
Check Aquarium website for special discounts

Monday, April 20, 2009

Growing Population Threatens Southland Coast

In the next 30 years, southern California is expected to grow to a population of nearly 24 million. That will likely put increased pressure on the environment. Over 70 percent of Californians already live in coastal counties. The result has been a flood of pollution and trash flowing into the ocean. A couple years ago, in a story for KPCC-FM, I looked at how population growth might make it harder to protect the Pacific. (This is a transcript of the broadcast.)

SETZIOL: A few weeks ago, scientists and policy makers gathered in Long Beach to discuss the growing crisis in the oceans: overfishing, invasive species, power plants that kill fish larvae, and bacteria, nutrients and trash that wash off of streets. The list was long, and it all traced back to human activity.

UCLA ecologist Rich Ambrose studies southern California’s rocky inter-tidal habitat. He worries more people will mean more damage to tidepools.

AMBROSE: People are loving the rocky inter-tidal to death. Basically, there are so many people—already—with the population we have coming to visit the intertidal, walking through, turning over rocks. To see animals, picking up rocks, taking home as souvenirs having a major impact. It’s effecting sea slugs, star fish. It would effect abalone if we had any abalone left. …It’s affecting sea anemones, crabs, probably urchins, algae.

SETZIOL: Peter Douglas of the California Coastal Commission told the audience the environmental impact of future growth will depend largely on the type of development that occurs.

DOUGLAS: For the coast, it really turns on whether we will have the strength in terms of our laws and programs to require the concentration of development in areas that have the infrastructure to be able to accommodate it…I think the notion of a detached single family home, out in rural lands has got to be moved into our past, and not our future.

SETZIOL: It’s a bit of a counter-intuitive argument. Most of coastal southern California is already developed, and future growth is projected mostly for less developed areas in inland counties. But UCLA environmental economist Linwood Pendleton says that’s part of the problem.

PENDLETON: The watersheds for LA County and Southern California go all the way up to the mountains. So these people that are moving inland may be far from the beach, but the impacts of the things they do, the way they treat the land, things they drop on the ground. All affect the coasts, and beaches.

SETZIOL: And if people continue to commute long distances, that could create more pollution that washes off roads into storm drains or creeks, including heavy metals from break pads, and rubber from tires. Long commutes would also unleash additional carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that’s warming the oceans, and turning them more acidic.

Linwood Pendleton eats a crab cake dinner at King’s Fish House in Long Beach. He slurps down an appetizer. (sound of: slurp)

PENDLETON: That’s fabulous. We just had an oyster sampler plate. It includes oysters from New Zealand, Canada, and even Baja. But doesn’t include any oysters from southern California. Because water quality on the coast of California is just not up to growing oysters.

SETZIOL: Pendleton says people who live near a natural area tend to care more about protecting it.

PENDLETON: So the concern is as we have more and more people moving farther from the coast, but still in the watershed, there becomes a disconnect between their behavior and the impacts their behaviors have.

SETZIOL: Water quality officials have passed a fleet of regulations aimed at cleaning up the coast. Some cities—especially inland cities—have fought the regulations in court.

PENDLETON: We’re going to have to convince those people that they have to clean up their water quality because it affects these standards that are measured sometimes hundreds of miles away.

SETZIOL: Linwood Pendleton says that won’t be easy. Officials will have to educate more people about how their behavior affects the ocean.

In Long Beach, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Butterflies Are Free

Nature Project for Kids

We released our painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) this weekend. This was a fun and easy project. We raised five of these insects from caterpillars. My son got to see them form chrysalides and emerge as butterflies. 

The manufacturer recommends this project for kids age four and up, but our two-year-old enjoyed it. We purchased our butterfly nursery from Lakeshore; you can also order it from Amazon (search "butterfly pavilion" or see my link below). The nursery package includes a mesh enclosure and a card you send in to get your caterpillars mailed to you. 

Spring is a great time to raise your painted ladies in Southern California; in the wild they migrate to our region from Mexico starting in February (and continuing through April). 

The caterpillars arrive with all the food they'll need until they emerge from their chrysalides. Then you give them some sugar water. We released ours a few days after all five had emerged. As the flew from the nursery, my son exclaimed, "Butterfly come and play with me!"

Painted lady butterflies only live about three weeks, so we wanted them to enjoy nectar from our native plants. Painted lady larvae feed on mallows and lupines. In their butterfly stage they sip from native buckwheats (Eriogonum), yerba santa, and desert lavender (Hyptis emoriyi). More on plants used by painted ladies and other butterfly plants.

All of our caterpillars metamorphosed into butterflies. If yours don't, you can get replacements. And not to worry; this species is common and widespread. (It's sometimes called "Cosmopolitan.")  The experience has increased my son's appreciation for the many butterflies in our yard. He likes to watch them drink from the flowers. 

We're saving our nursery equipment so we can order more caterpillars next year. Want to see butterflies up close with out rearing them? Visit the Natural History Museum's Pavilion of Wings. It recently reopened for the season. 

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Little Sprouts II


Try this easy gardening project with the little people in your life. My son and I sprouted these pumpkin plants indoors earlier this year, but now, in Southern California, you could start them outdoors. My two-year-old placed the seeds in these old baby food containers (punctured on the bottom). I liked how he could see the plants' roots once they sprouted. The containers were too shallow for such big seeds/shoots, so the seedlings were a bit droopy--but fine. I love this shot of them in the windowsill, seeming to gaze longingly outdoors.

  1. If starting in a pot, fill it with potting soil and compost. If you don't have compost, make a green manure of cut-up veggie scraps, either from your garden or your kitchen. "Even the best potting soil is sterile," says Marta Teegan of Homegrown Los Angeles. You want the beneficial microbes compost or green manure will provide.Teegan recommends adding some slow-release, granular vegetable mix organic fertilizers such as Dr. Earth or E.B. Stone Organics. If you do all of the above, she says, you shouldn't need to add more fertilizer later. If you use green manure, wait two weeks before planting in the soil.
  2. If you're starting directly in a garden bed, add the mixture above to your soil. You can also try mounding the enriched soil on top of your existing soil.
  3. Make 1/2 inch-deep holes, and place one seed in each hole, laying it sideways. Cover the hole with soil and water. 
  4. Keep soil moist but not drenched. If you use a pot, it needs to have a hole at the bottom.
  5. Put your pot or plant your seed in a spot with full sun, i.e. at least six hours a day.
  6. If you're transplanting to a large pot, you'll need stakes to grow the plant up. In a garden bed, place your little pumpkin where you'll have ample space for the vines to wind. Ours are planted where they can skirt blueberries in barrels and creep over irises as they die back later in the year.
  7. Spread mulch around your plant, but leave an inch or two of bare soil near the stem.
  8. For pumpkins in pot, break off the growing tip of the plant--the very top part--when the plant reaches about two feet.

By the way, kiddie gardening tools are great for starting and watering seedlings. I use my son's miniature trowel to scoop soil for small pots. The fine spray from his watering can is perfect for little sprouts.

Gardening with toddlers is fun--and challenging. Of course, they want to pick everything. I keep a few patches of weedy wildflowers so I channel his plucking energy in that direction.


My son and I like the Let's-Read-And-Find-Out Science book From Seed to Pumpkin. Beautifully illustrated, it describes the life cycle of pumpkin plants.

Currently, there isn't a great one-stop organic veggie growing book for our region. But try a combination of The Vegetable Gardener's Bible by Edward Smith and Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening. Smith's book provides a good overview of organic gardening, as well as growing tips for most vegetable plants. Welsh's book, although a bit dated, will tell you optimal times for planting locally, which you won't find in most gardening books.
I also like The Edible Garden by the editors of Sunset Magazine. 

Last but not least, check out The Urban Homestead by Kelly Coyne and Eric Knutzen. This book has great gardening, composting, water recycling, and canning tips. Plus many DIY projects for your home and garden. The books is widely available, but why not buy it from them at Homegrown Evolution?

Another great way to learn: take a class. Make sure it's an organic gardening class. I recommend Marta Teegan of Homegrown Los Angeles. Teegan also teaches composting. The LA County Department of Public Works offers composting and "water-wise" gardening workshops. Check out it's Smart Gardening website.

More from me on sustainable gardens.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Biking Adventure

River Ride in the Angeles National Forest

By bike or on foot, you won't forget this trip along the West Fork of the San Gabriel River in the Angeles National Forest. 

For those who don't know, LA County has three rivers: the Los Angeles, the San Gabriel and Santa Clara. The east and west forks of the San Gabriel converge in the mountains above Azusa, next to Highway 39, before pooling up behind two massive dams. 

You can ride regular street bikes along the West Fork; there is a paved, closed road that is smooth. On weekends, you'll find quite a few young riders here, as well as dog walkers, and fishermen. 

Our son loved getting his hands in the water. But most of all, he was excited to watch a man and his son catch three small brown trout (a non-native sport fish). For information on native trout, check out Cal Trout.

Remember that you need a license to fish. Please observe posted regulations.

Our two-year-old also caught a glimpse of a frog. And enjoyed climbing a big rock (with a little assistance).

In spring, the hillsides here are covered with blooming ceonothus

Most of the first four miles of this road is fairly flat. The confluence of the West Fork with Bear Creek is a nice spot to stop. The road gets steeper as you approach Glenn Trail Camp (mile 6) and, especially, Cogswell Reservoir (mile 8). But we didn't get that far. We were happy to enjoy the gorgeous scenery.

You can also picnic at tables near the parking lot. They overlook the river.

West Fork, San Gabriel River

From the 210 Freeway, exit Azusa Avenue (Hwy 39). If you don't already have one, pick up an adventure pass ($5) at one of the mini-marts along the road (they display signs). Drive north 8.5 miles, past Morris Reservoir and San Gabriel Reservoir. When the road splits at the top of the second dam, don't turn right onto East Fork Road, stay left and drive a little over a mile. (If you still need a pass, buy one at the Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) area.) Slow as you approach a bridge over the river. The trailhead is on the near side of this bridge, most of the parking spaces are on the other side of the bridge.