Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hike Los Angeles


Elyria Canyon Park is a lovely refuge in NE Los Angeles. This undeveloped patch of the southwestern side of Mt. Washington is surrounded by city. But it preserves a fairly intact parcel of native walnut woodland.

California walnuts (Juglans californica) are important nesting trees for birds and a food source for ground squirrels and Western gray squirrels. They frequently mingle with coast live oaks in shaded canyons. Sometimes, like here, they are the dominant tree species.

We recently enjoyed a peaceful Sunday morning stroll in Elyria Canyon. At 9:00 a.m., we were the only people on the trail. We encountered plenty of fall color--in the form of poison oak.

I thought my two-year-old would be bored here. There's no stream, no nature center. But he was enchanted by the simple act of hiking with a walking stick--fashioned from the dried stalk of an invasive mustard plant. (No native species were harmed in the making of walking sticks.) He also liked the views of the city, the Verdugo Mountains, Griffith Park, the LA River and--boy that he is--the 5 Freeway.

We listened to scrub jays squawking, and watched yellow-rumped warblers and white-crowned sparrows dart through the elderberry bushes.

I was charmed by a small patch of California fuchsia (below).

I hear there are remnant patches of native purple needle grass (Nassella pulchra), but, with toddler in tow, didn't try to identify them. In the 19th century, sheep and cattle grazed Mt. Washington, so the persistence of anything herbaceous is a pleasant surprise.

After our hike, we took the boy for a train ride at nearby Griffith Park. Even closer is the playground at Rio Los Angeles Park.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Picture Perfect

My garden is home to many spiders. With the exception of the black widows, I'm happy to see them. But, unlike the birds, they've never set me rushing, breathlessly, to reach for a field guide. Until a couple weeks ago. That's when I sauntered onto my patio and saw the image above.

From a glance at my copy of Insects of the Los Angeles Basin (published by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County), I'm guessing it's a Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans). The book says the adults do not entrap their prey in webs, but rather pounce on them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Transitions in the Garden

This blog has been a bit thin of late. In part because I've been clicking away at prose that pays, but also because--do I need to say it?--it's fall! My son and I have been enthusiastically sprinkling, poking and tossing seed. More on this in a minute. But first, a farewell to summer.

The pumpkin bonanza is winding down. Our Renee's Garden Antique French Pumpkins have yielded a wonderful crop, on which we've feasted for nearly four months now. In addition to the previously chronicled goodies, we've also made several rounds of pumpkin bread and two kinds of pumpkin soup. We saved the misfits for jack-o-lanterns.

We've finally said farewell to the Amazing Super Zucchini. Here's a shot from a month before its demise. Note how it has overflowed the raised bed by four feet.

Back in late August we seeded some broccoli (pictured below next to basil) in pots and kept it partially shaded on the back porch. Next it was carrots, peas, then pak choi, beets, arugula and lettuces. Peas are among our favorites. Their roots host bacteria that pull nitrogen gas (N2) from the air and convert it to a form that peas and other plants can absorb (thus benefiting us all). And my son enjoys the instant gratification of plucking the pods and eating them right off the vine.

Next we'll plant turnips, spinach, leeks and garlic. We purchased our seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds, Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, and Franchi.

When my son--a mere two-year-old--recently asked me, "Mommy did I come in the mail? Where did I come from?" There was a discussion of tummies--and seeds.

Pictured above: peas started in porous, biodegradable pots that can be placed directly in a bed when the seedlings are more established and less vulnerable to being uprooted by backyard wildlife such as possums.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Red-Tailed Hawks



These are the days when Birds come back —

A very few — a Bird or two —

To take a backward look.

Emily Dickinson

HOPE is indeed a thing with feathers. In a landscape entombed in cement, the sight of a wild bird soaring — circling over the freeway, alighting on the towers of high-tension power liness — offers a sudden thrill.

If it’s a majestic bird, it’s probably a hawk.

In urban Southern California the two most common are the litheCooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii), which lurks in yard trees and jets out to nab little birds, and the larger red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The latter is the one you see coasting around in lazy circles, buoyed by upwelling currents of hot air called thermals.

Wanting to know more about these birds, I called conservation biologist Dan Cooper, the consultant behind Cooper Ecological. Cooper has been observing LA birds since he was a teen. He’d know where to find a red-tail.

He took me to the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, which dates back to the 1880s. As we strolled among century-old gravestones and towering pines, Cooper pointed out that the West Adams area is one of the most densely populated parts of the city. “This cemetery is one of the few big green patches. Any one who’s been down here knows it’s solid urbanization.”

It’s not a place you’d expect to see a lot of wildlife, I said.

“There’s not a lot here,” he agreed, “but a few things that have adapted and we just saw one, the western bluebird. The common birds here are going to be house finch, mourning dove, and [European] starling.”

But as we drove in, Cooper had spotted a red-tailed hawk perched atop one of the pines. So, binoculars in hand, we went looking for it.

“They like tall trees to place their nest,” said Cooper. “And they’ll often roost in tall trees, sitting right at the top. But when they hunt, they hunt by circling and soaring around, diving down on things; they’re not sit and wait predators.”

How do they hunt?

“The adults will circle,” explained Cooper. “When they see something, they nose dive. Just before they hit the ground, they’ll pull up, stick out their feet and land on their prey and squish it on the ground, and kill it with one hit–they land on it with their talons extended. After they land, they’ll fan their wings out a bit, take off to a perch with the prey in their feet and start pulling it apart with their beak.”

hawk pairIn addition to favoring cemeteries and other places where tall trees skirt open areas, red-tail hawks also seek out trees rooted on hillsides or even slight rises like the one the Rosedale Cemetery blankets. “You think of LA as being flat,” said Cooper, “but there are actually these old ridges and little hills all through the city. And birds still do select for this topography. In the depressions, where you have a lot of sycamore trees, you’ll see riparian species, like red-shouldered hawk, are still there.”

Cooper can identify birds flitting by so fast that most people barely see them. He pointed out darting swallows and a black phoebe perched on a headstone (a stand-in for the boulders the bird evolved with). But the hawk was eluding us.

Red-tailed hawks are native to the LA basin. Some are resident; others drop in for the winter. Before the ranch era, nesting and roosting trees were far less common in the area. “The hawks may have nested in sycamores where Echo Park Lake is or MacArthur Park is,” said Cooper, “then foraged here on the plain.” As people planted eucalyptus and other large trees, the hawks moved in.

As human development proliferated, so did introduced species such as theeastern fox squirrel, rock doves–a.k.a pigeons—and possums. “We’ve have garbage all over the city, squirrels eat our garbage,” said Cooper, “So we have this inflated prey base. If every one fed their cats inside, we wouldn’t have possums, squirrels, and rats everywhere. We’d have a lot lower population of prey for hawks.”


Click on the image to be taken to the US Fish and Wildlife Service forensic laboratory

An echoing “CHEEeeev” pierced the sky above us. A brown bird with broad wings spanning four feet glided past, its rust-colored tail fanned. “That’s a red-tailed hawk,” said Cooper. The bird circled, cutting in front of a distant airplane, then disappeared behind a tree.

A few minutes later the hawk was back in view—with a mate. It folded its wings into its body and plummeted, headfirst. Then the bird pulled up—as if that death dive was just a joke–and joined the other hawk. The two zigzagged in unison, yellow legs dangling, giving the impression of a pair of hang gliders.

“That’s their courtship,” said Cooper.

“What’s the deal with the dangling legs?” I asked.

“It means I like you,” Cooper guessed. “I like your style.”

It was spring, the birds were courting, so we searched for a nest. No luck.

A couple days later, I met Cooper on a suburban road in La Habra Heights. A large bowl of sticks was nestled in a two-story eucalyptus. Squinting into some binoculars I saw two motley young hawks—downy heads and partially feathered bodies—preening their newly sprouted wing feathers. (A sibling lay in the nest.)

One of the juveniles tottered to the nest’s edge, gingerly unfurled its wings, and looked down.

Cooper told me that a red-tail’s first flight is really a hazardous jump. “They’ll sort of flop to the ground,” he said. “At that point really vulnerable to being eaten by cats and coyotes, or just killed in the fall. But they do have a little foliage between them and the ground so they may hit the crown of one of these [native] walnut trees.” The fledglings will flap and crash around nearby trees until they learn to fly.

The young hawk apparently thought the better of it and stepped back from the edge. A good decision considering its parents soon returned. The big babies plead for food with a breathy calls sounding something like pweese, pweese, pweese!

As the female—the bigger of the two adults—wheeled around the nest, Cooper told me, once the young birds fledged, they would leave the area. “They might stay a few weeks, but eventually they’ll disperse,” he said, “find their own mate, and set up shop somewhere else–maybe in the Puente Hills, maybe somewhere far away. It’s pretty amazing where these birds will make a home.”

This web story first appeared on Chance of Rain. Thanks to editor Emily Green.

Click here for an earlier audio version from KPCC's Off-Ramp.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sparaxis flowers bright and easy

Gardeners who like a touch of the exotic need not despair in these water-conscious times. Many of Earth's loveliest flowers can get by with less.

Sparaxis elegans
Take sparaxis, a group of bulbs -- underground stems called corms, to be precise -- that hails from South Africa. It grows to about a foot high and can be so alluring, it will have you crouching for a closer look.

My story continues in Los Angeles Times Home.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

El Dorado Nature Center

Call me a geek, but virtually nothing excites me more than finding a new patch of Southern California to explore. The survival of the natural world amidst the miles of concrete is thrilling. 

I'm still aflutter weeks after my family's first trip to El Dorado Nature Center in Long Beach. (If you don't live nearby, this place is worth the drive.) 

The nature center sits on nearly 100 acres of parkland sandwiched between the 605 and the San Gabriel River. Two miles of easy trails wind through a mix of exotic and native plants.

You'll enjoy easy bird and turtle watching around the two lakes. I never tire of watching snowy egrets (below). 

Park staff--and volunteers, no doubt--have done some admirable restoration of native plants here. You'll know you've reached a good patch when the air becomes especially fragrant. Be sure to have any kidlets take a good whiff. (Below, my son is sniffing white sage.)

On our recent visit, we enjoyed watching a red tailed hawk land on a nearby power tower, ground squirrels filling their cheeks with acorns (below), and checking out the rosy boa inside the nature center.

In addition to two snakes, the nature center features animal pelts, live bugs, animal shells and skeletons, and other educational exhibits. My son did not want to leave.

If you've got more time, take your bikes or a picnic to the adjacent El Dorado Regional Park. Or simply watch men piloting sail boats in the little lake. Your seven dollar admission ($5 on weekdays; free if you don't arrive by car) is good at both locations.

We had so much fun, we've made a note to return with bikes and pick up the San Gabriel River Bike Trail from this spot. 

Directions to El Dorado Nature Center.