Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rainy Day, Trashy Day

I love a rainy night. A rainy day, too. But I'll never forget the mountains of trash that wash into Southland waterways after storms. It's particularly depressing to see trash strewn in the branches of trees and shrubs, as you can see behind the ducks in this picture of the Glendale Narrows stretch of the LA River.

I took the photo above (and the one below) a couple weeks ago along the Rio Hondo, a tributary of the LA River. In addition to the ubiquitous shopping carts, plastic bags, styrofoam cups, soda cans, etc, there was a surprising number of rubber balls.

Film plastic is so light-weight that it blows out of trash cans and recycle bins easily. People who live near the Puente Hills landfill have watched the white baggies blow into their neighborhoods for years.

So to help you with a New Year's resolution to not lose sight of any plastic, following is a transcript of a radio story I reported a few years ago about the ecological implications of plastic accumulating in the environment.

KPCC ANCHOR: California has a reputation as a green state: a place where people care a lot about the environment. So you’d think that we’d have solved a basic environmental problem like litter. But public works crews haul tons of litter out of waterways every time it rains. Much of it is plastic. And, as KPCC’s Ilsa Setziol reports in the third part of our series on trash, some of the plastic is ending up in the ocean.

(sound up on: splashing, scraping, women chatting

“we need another bag”)

SETZIOL: After a fall rainstorm, nine women inmates haul trash out of a channel that flows into Newport Bay. Gloria Sauer with Orange County public works oversees the crew.

SAUER: Girls, get all of the floatable stuff. All of the trash and debris you see, the styrofoam cups and the glass, okay.

SETZIOL: The trash is caught behind a net that public works has installed to try to keep it from flowing into the bay and out to the ocean. In about an hour, the crew hauls out a couple hundred pounds plastic cups, water bottles, broken furniture and other trash. Orange County is still trying to get a handle on the total amount of trash is blowing or washing in county waterways—and where exactly it’s all coming from. Vince Gin is with the OC watershed division.

GIN: It could be a trash bag blown of a trash truck, or it could be a cup that didn’t make its way to a trash can. Sometimes, unfortunately it could be litter that someone has thrown out of a car and onto a street.

SETZIOL: Despite local efforts to capture trash, some of it ends up in the ocean. Of most concern is the plastic, because it’s so durable.

(sound of bubbling water)

In a lab in Redondo Beach, Charles Moore with the Algalita Marine Research Foundation is examining what’s in the stomach of an Albatross from the Hawaiian islands.

MOORE: Here we have a lid of some kind of bottle cap to a pen…different types of caps…Here’s a piece of jewelry.

SETZIOL: And lots of pieces of red, yellow and blue plastic. Big ones.

MOORE: Look at this we’ve got a toy bear

SETZIOL: An entire miniature, plastic toy bear.

SETZIOL: Moore says the birds didn’t evolve with plastic, so they have no way to distinguish it from food.

MOORE: They’re filling up on maybe a large percentage of non-digestible,non-nutritive plastic and feeding it to their chicks. So the chicks have what’s called a satiation reflex—it’s getting fuller and fuller and finally it stops demanding food from the parents.

SETZIOL: Moore says about 70 species of sea birds have been found to eat plastic. Researchers have also documented sea turtles and whales killed or injured by ingesting plastic bags and mylar balloons.

The Algalita Foundation thinks southern California is a major source. It sampled ocean waters at the mouths of the LA and San Gabriel Rivers and found 2 and a half grams of plastic for every gram of plankton at the surface--much of it very small pieces.

ANDRADY: Smaller particles I contend would be far more damaging from an ecological perspective.

Dr. Anthony Andrady is a polymer scientist with the research company RTI International. He says UV light gradually breaks plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. His research has found that krill and other zooplankton will eat significant amounts of microscopic plastic.

ANDRADY: That is particularly disconcerting because the food pyramid rests on zooplankton health. But whether that has an effect on them we don’t know.

SETZIOL: Researchers in Japan have found that pieces of plastic placed in seawater will absorb PCBs and other toxins. But scientists don’t know if marine life that eats plastic would absorb any of the pollution.

ANDRADY: It’s an unanswered question and when you have an unanswered question of this magnitude, it’s worrisome and we need to find an answer to this.

SETZIOL: Plastic doesn’t just breaking down in the ocean. It fragments on land and in rivers. The Algalita Foundation points out that the nets public works departments use capture trash don’t snag the small stuff.

(Clean up sounds up)

GIN: We can only pick up so much.

Vince Gin of the Orange County Watershed Department.

GIN: Trying to fight the problem by combating it after it’s already in the system is a losing battle. We have to work on reducing how much trash we create; prevention is absolutely key.

(trash hauling sounds)

In Newport Beach, Ilsa Setziol, 89.3, KPCC

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rancho Santa Ana

I frequently advise would-be native plant gardeners to start with a trip to Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. It's a beautiful place to see the California flora in a garden setting.

On a recent weekday, I strolled through the garden in a state of bliss. With trees and wildlife far outnumbering people, and an abiding quiet--aside from the chatter of birds--it was as exhilarating as a wilderness hike. California fuchsia was in bloom

toyons were heavy with berries

and wooly blue curls were, well, just their gorgeous selves.

I spotted some (Oregon) juncos, rested under some twisting oaks, and, yes, had a little chat with this Western gray squirrel. Notice that compared to the non-native fox squirrels, its tale is bushier and grayer, and its belly is white, not yellow.

The garden is handicap accessible and stroller friendly. It's a great place for children to toddle or run, and explore.

Rancho offers a free monthly Native Plant Clinic, in which experts answer your gardening questions.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thar's Gold

Precious Hike: Placerita Canyon

For years, Placerita Canyon, on the northwest edge of the San Gabriel Mountains, has been on my list of places to go. On a windy day late this fall, we finally made the trip.

Gold was discovered here in 1842--six years before Sutter's Mill. The gold rush didn't last, but Placerita later became a popular location for film and TV shoots.

Placerita is a lovely sycamore-filled canyon. This time of year, the gold is in the yellowing leaves of the trees.

To hike the canyon, take the main trail (on the right if you're facing the nature center). When you come to a fork, keep left to stay in the canyon. If you turn right, you'll loop back to the nature center--up a small hill with views of the Santa Clarita Valley.

I mention this because, strangely, the nature center offers descriptions of trails, but no trail map.

My son and his friend enjoyed observing a captive great-horned owl at the nature center. But otherwise the center itself was a bit of a disappointment: Few interesting exhibits; the staff was lurking in an office instead of with the exhibits or some place the public gathered.

Still, according to its website, the park offers family nature walks and live animal presentations.

Our son still naps, so for longer trips like this, we break up the return with a lunch stop. This keeps him from cat-napping in the car and missing a longer nap in his bed. For this trip, we lunched in downtown Montrose.

Getting There
From the intersection of the 5 and 14 Freeways, head east a few miles to the Placerita Canyon Exit. Turn right on Placerita Canyon Road and travel 1.5 miles to the park entrance.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Future of Forests

I was delighted when Emily Green asked me to interview Ronald Lanner for her website Chance of Rain. I adore his beautiful book "Conifers of California" (Cachuma Press). Of course, I proceeded to propose a really depressing topic: how global warming might effect California's forests. It wasn't a cheery conversation, but, if you care about trees and the animals that live amongst them, you should give it a look.

IS: Several studies have found animal species are shifting their ranges northward and upslope in response to warming. Are we seeing changes in conifer distribution?

RL: It’s hard to know for sure. Unless you do a controlled experiment over long period of time, you’ll not get definitive answer, but there are strong indications. At high elevation, where lodgepole pinegrows, it has, for a good number of years, been invading meadows. And mountain hemlock has also done that in the Sierra. It’s believed that ponderosa pinehas had an increasing mortality rate at its lower elevation and is tending to do best at higher elevations.

The discussion continues on Chance of Rain.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

In Praise of Lili

Plant lovers rejoice! Lili Singer is once again writing for Los Angeles Times Home. Singer knows more about gardening and Southern California friendly plants--both natives and exotics--than anyone I've met. What's more, she shares her knowledge with enthusiasm, lucidity and lovely prose.

So look for Singer's new column online and in the paper.

She teaches at Theodore Payne (where she serves as special projects coordinator), the LA County Arboretum and other venues around town.

I'm a huge fan of the Arb's Thursday Garden Talks with Lili Singer. This winter's series looks fantastic. Singer's guests will include irrigation expert Bob Galbreath, edible landscape pioneer Rosalind Creasy, and native plant guru Bart O'Brien. Also, Jerry Turney will cover the fundamentals of landscape diseases and Jan Smithen will lecture on great Australian plants for So Cal gardens. To sign up for one or all of the 8-class, Thursday-morning series, call 626-821-4623.

(The photo above is from the LA County Arboretum.)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Critical Habitat Expanded

This lovely and rare brodiaea (Brodiaea filifolia) was afforded additional protection this week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expanded the acres designated as critical habitat for the endangered species. (This photo was taken by David Bramlet.) The flower only grows in isolated pockets of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego Counties.

Under the Bush administration, the agency had registered less than 600 acres as critical habitat for the species. Nearly 3,800 acres will now be official labeled as "essential to the conservation of the species."

“We’re glad the thread-leaved brodiaea will get more protection than the Bush government proposed, but we’re worried that the new proposal still fails to include 33 of the 69 locations of this very rare lily,” said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Also, this proposal wants to remove protection for 16 more locations.”

According to the Center, the flower is threatened by a combination of urban development, off-road vehicles, grazing, and plowing for fire clearance and agricultural conversion.

The critical habitat designation doesn't fully protect the flowers (a corm). According the Stanford Environmental Law Society (in it's 2001 publication The Endangered Species Act), critical habitat designation can affect private land, "but only to the extent that a future activity on that land is subject to federal permitting." And only uses that "destroy or adversely modify" the habitat are restricted. (Hence, much ensuing debate over what constitutes an "adverse modification.")

The designation has the greatest effect on public lands, where federal agencies, such as the US Forest Service, usually take some additional steps to protect the species.

Anderson says since the plant was listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1998, entire populations have been extirpated, Anderson says. She adds the plant is still extremely vulnerable. “Anything but an expansion of final critical habitat is a recipe for extinction.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the agency to overturn or revise Bush-era decisions affecting more than 50 species.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Rain Captured

The results are in: Our rain barrel, Urna Therma, isn't just a beauty, she gets the job done. When we installed her, weren't sure how much water we'd capture. But that one late October rain filled her shapely figure to the brim. So Urna may get a baby sister one of these days.

I use that tap on the bottom to fill my son's tiny watering can and water seedlings. For my two-year-old, it's a good alternative to the hose, i.e. he can't blast mommy with a hose.

With a little planning you can forego a rain barrel and channel rainwater directly into your garden. You can find details on a page of the TreePeople website.

Either approach can keep water from flowing off your property. Once it hits the street, runoff picks up pollution that can be transported into waterways and out to the ocean.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Ride & Play


Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area is a large flood control basin that straddles the San Gabriel River as it descends from the San Gabriel Mountains into the valley near Irwindale.

The more than 800 acres here feature a large lake for fishing and paddling, a nature center, picnic areas with barbeque pits, playground structures, and miles of smooth, flat biking trails. In the summer, you can swim in a water play area.

We recently spent a Sunday morning biking the top of the dam, then played in the park/picnic area.

A ride atop the dam affords great views of the San Gabriel Mountains. (My son preferred the views of the 210 & 605 Freeways.) I also enjoyed watching a gorgeous white-tailed kite fluttering and diving down on rodents.

Well-maintained, smooth trails--perfect for little kids on their own bikes--skirt the lake. Slightly older kids can also ride the dam top. One note: there is no shade atop the dam, so I would not ride here midday in summer. Trails around the lake are shadier.

We plan to return for swimming, fishing, bird-watching, and chilling.

From May to October, there is a fat $10 fee to drive into the recreation area. (No charge the rest of the year.) But it's money well spent; the park is well maintained.

For more dam biking, try Hansen Dam.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Winter Veg

Our fall/winter vegetables are taking off. The lettuce in the bed pictured above finally sprouted, after three tries. The seed I started in fiber pots in a shadier spot took off immediately, but this bed with afternoon sun was slow to go. Next time around, I'll try a trick Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden Seeds told me about recently: put the seed in the fridge for a day before planting it.

I interviewed Shepherd recently for a short piece on arugula I wrote for the LA Times. I've planted four kinds of arugula this year because--need I say it?--I love it, and it's so easy to grow. You can buy both annual and perennial arugula. Extra! Read all about it in my arugula report.

Some summer treats still linger, including bell peppers, a lone watermelon I hope will ripen, a few strawberries, and basil.

Some of our pak choi (below) is ready to harvest, and the broccoli is bursting. The peas are producing their first pods (above).

I've also started cilantro, parsley, beans, beets, and chevril. I highly recommend the latter. I like to toss this delicate-flavored herb into salads; it also complements all things eggy quite well. Chevril doesn't dry well, so it's best to grow it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Essential Herbs

You know you're talking to a plant person when you ask to take her photo and tells you she wants to do a little grooming first--not herself, mind you, just the plants.

Snipping some wispy brown leaves off a couple chives, Shirley Kerins, manager of plant production and plant sales for the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens, told me it was more important that the plants look good.

I went to talk to Kerins for a recent piece on alliums I wrote for the LA Times. It's a huge genus--some 500 species--and, alas, I only had room to discuss the ornamental kinds.

But they have plenty in common with their culinary brethren. Kerins searched among a vast field of flats for some of the long, slender leaved onions, chives and garlic that make up this group of plants. "It’s a monocot," she explained. "You can tell a monocot because the [leaf] veins run parallel, as opposed to a dicot where the veins are netted."

Among Kerins' favorites are chives. "Every one who cooks should have chives in their garden. Because it is so easy to run out and snip off the leaves," she says. She recommends snipping the leaves down at the base, taking an entire strand, rather than just trimming the top of the plant. New leaves will sprout up and the plant will look better.

Kerins introduced me to a new variety of garlic chives (Allium Tuberosum) called Nira. Like other varieties it has an oniony taste with a tinge of garlic. But it's flattened blades fan out like a palm frond.

Kerins says the poofs of white or purple-pink flowers chives produce are a pretty addition to a kitchen garden or the front of flower bed.

Plus, she advises, "you can pull those flowers apart and sprinkle them on your salad, and you get a crunch you don’t get from the leaves, but you get the same flavor."

To learn a bit about ornamental alliums, including the native species, click here.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Beautiful View, Beautiful Park

Vista Hermosa Natural Park
Last Sunday, my family strolled this gorgeous 10-acre park just west of downtown LA. Unprompted, my husband commented, "Every neighborhood should have a park like this."

With my heart aflutter over the large palette of mostly native plants, I was thinking something similar. Kudos to landscape architect Mia Lehrer for a gorgeous design. I can't help wishing some of the degraded stretches of Griffith Park looked more like this.

Vista Hermosa offers sweet views of downtown, including Disney Hall. We enjoyed strolling through the young sycamores, alders

and willows.

Larks scurried along a grassy gully, yellow-rumped warbles flashed their buttery backsides, and white-crowned sparrows seemed to be playing hide-and-seek under some alders.

Grasses don't usually thrill me. But the fine texture of the bunch grasses here on a misty, soft-lit morning was magical. I also enjoyed the intermingling of red-blossomed California fuchsia with petite roses bursting with red hips.

In the children's play area, my son enjoyed walking atop this snake, and sliding down a giant turtle.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy created Vista Hermosa with funding from two state water bonds, and LA's proposition 12. An amiable park ranger was on hand the day we visited.

After the park, we lit out for lunch in Japan town. It was a sweet itinerary for an increasingly beautiful city.

100 N. Toluca Street
Los Angeles 90026

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Casting Seed

I've been peering anxiously at little sprouts in my garden. I usually scatter wildflower seed before, during or immediately after the first fall rain. This year, dreaming of spring, I joyously tossed seed on a drizzly day.

But my hopes started to wither with the subsequent Santa Ana winds and two heat waves. Yes, the poppies had reseeded on their own, but, aside from the nonnative corn flowers, there seemed to be few other species.

I started to pull some of the overabundant poppies. Sheltered underneath I found clarkias, lupines and other seedlings. Those I'd strewn in shadier spots had survived, too.

California poppies seem to thrive just about anywhere in Southern California. (Just don't expect them to grow if you sow them in summer. In my experience, they'll wait for fall.) As Barbara Eisenstein said in a recent class at the LA County Arboretum, these annuals with long tap roots seem to condition the soil, breaking it up and making it more hospitable for future generations of plants. The first year I ripped out lawn and replaced it with natives, poppies were the only native annual that made a go of it. But as the years have gone by, more of them have taken root in the garden.

In nature, poppies plants mingle with lupines, creating a gorgeous carpet of blue and orange. Lupines also improve garden soil by hosting bacteria that convert nitrogen gas in the air into a form other plants can use.

The lupines sprouting with poppies in my parkway are probably not native to California, but they reseed in this hard-to-grow spot. (I do grow native lupines elsewhere.) I think their origin is a lovely Botanical Interests mix called Sweet Baby Blues. This wildflower mix includes several California natives including desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) and five spot (Nemophila maculata).

Elegant claria (Clarkia unguiculata) also self-sows in my garden, though I've thrown more down this year to ensure it's presence. I adore its tall spikes of pink and magenta flowers. I've also scattered farewell to spring (Clarkia amoena) and plan to try some Clarkia purpurea (look them up on Theodore Payne's fabulous California Natives Wiki).

Harder to grow--at least for me--are the two Nemophila species pictured below, Nemophila maculata and Nemophila menziesii. I've tried them in several shady or part-shade spots, but so far they favor only one nook.

I enthusiastically recommend two other plants that aren't annuals but low-growing natives that reseed easily. First, blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum). I'm at a loss to explain my passion for these petite, purple members of the iris family with grass-like foliage (below). They look lovely clustered around one of my bird baths.

Blue flax (Linum lewisii) produces similarly shaped and sized blue flowers, also in clumps. Various species of Linum are native to much of the American West. I planted it to bring a little blue to my very purple native plant palette. You can find blue flax and the desert bluebell seeds on racks in many mainstream nurseries.

For more on spectacular wildflowers, click to my recent piece on the rare flowers that bloom after wildfires.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Soil for Pots

We've been enjoying some delicious strawberries this fall. They used grow in an inch-high raised bed, but I was constantly battling slugs and pillbugs. They're faring much better in two pots, including the strawberry pot pictured above.

This year, I filled my containers and raised beds with Tim Dundon's legendary compost from the Altadena horse barn he manages. By next year I hope to have enough of my own compost. Decay is happening in my bin, Green Johanna, but ever so slowly. (My red wiggler worms are also doing their part.)

Wondering how to fill your raised beds and pots? I offer three possibilities in a recent piece for the Los Angeles Times: Experts Give the Scoop on Potting Mix.

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.