Southern California Wild Posts

Selected SoCalWild Posts 2011- present

A Tale of Two Squirrels

Alan Muchlinski looked out his window in the 1990s and knew something was wrong. There was a squirrel in his West Covina backyard that wasn’t supposed to live in Southern California. An Eastern fox squirrel – not the native Western gray – was eating from his apricot tree. The grays don’t like the taste of fruit, but the Easties are indeed a different story.

It’s two squirrels in SoCal. One local, one imported. One, a big fluffy-tailed specialist with a penchant for pine trees and tree nuts that used to rule the roost in SoCal. The other, a red-furred sleek generalist from the East Coast, a fast procreator with an appetite for everything.  To call this a mismatch would be an understatement.

WEST VS EAST - The Western gray squirrel (left) is a native SoCal critter; the Eastern fox squirrel (right) was introduced in the area a little more than 100 years ago...and is causing all kinds of trouble.
WEST VS EAST – The Western gray squirrel (left) is a native SoCal critter; the Eastern fox squirrel (right) was introduced in the area a little more than 100 years ago…and is causing all kinds of trouble.

As a biological sciences professor at Cal State LA, Muchlinski took on the task of discovering how this non-native species was affecting SoCal’s resident Western gray, a critter that hasn’t been under the microscope much. It’s a squirrel, after all, a taken-for-granted species that doesn’t have the powerful draw of a mountain lion or big-horned sheep.

“So many people would say, ‘What’s the big deal? One species replacing another? What does it matter?’ But the reality is introduced species cause problems with the natives and affect the ecosystem,” he says. “We just don’t know what the complete consequences are.”

The frisky Easties found passage to Los Angeles around 1904 to the Veteran’s Hospital in West LA where they were “pets” to residents. At first, no one seemed to mind when a few escaped into the ‘wild’, but then damage to local fruit and nut trees became apparent and the pets quickly turned into pests.

Henry Huntington also put out the call to import Easties into his nascent San Marino Gardens for atmosphere flavor (unfortunately, they were DOA on the local train).

Through the years, Muchlinski has been a faculty advisor to many grad students wanting to uncover more details about Squirrels in Our Midst.

In 2004, graduate student Julie King, tracking Easties distribution patterns in SoCal, discovered many folks were trapping and dumping them in other locations thus exacerbating the bigger problem. Easties followed human development and slowly made their way along SoCal lowlands, setting up shop while grays in their pathway, quietly retreated into pocket populations.

Even with a few studies on the grays, it’s apparent their numbers are decreasing.

Today, Muchlinski is faculty advisor to another grad student, Chris DeMarco who has been immersed in the squirrel world for three years; his thesis project involves collecting and interpreting genetic samplings of gray populations. He’s targeted populations in the Santa Monica Mountains, Griffith Park and Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens. Within those areas – especially Griffith Park – grays have become isolated into smaller subgroups.

ON THE MAP - Charting Griffith Park's gray squirrel populations.
ON THE MAP – Charting Griffith Park’s gray squirrel distinct sub-populations.

“Gray squirrels are also an indicator species of how well a natural oak/conifer habitat is doing,” says DeMarco walking through Griffith’s Ferndell. The fluffy mammal also plants trees (hiding/forgetting nuts and through their feces); they also eat a particular fungus that, when dispersed through their feces, allows oak and pine tree roots to better absorb water.

Ferndell is just one Griffith Park area on DeMarco’s radar. Grays have been found in Boy’s Camp, Vermont Canyon and the Roosevelt Golf Course. He enlists help from citizen scientists who record observations via I Naturalist to find squirrels for his studies.

DeMarco collects genetic material from strategically placed “hair tubes” that are stuffed with walnuts and other squirrel delights.

FREE LUNCH - Gray squirrels and hairtube. PHOTO: Craig Olson
FREE LUNCH – Gray squirrels and hairtube. PHOTO: Craig Olson

When the critter enters to enjoy an easy meal, some of its hair brushes up against sticky tape inside the tube and is left in the tube. These hair follicles contain DNA which DeMarco uses to chart lineage of the grays, estimating how genetically diverse these populations are and if there is any genetic flow between populations.

A LIGHT BRUSHING - Hair samples contain DNA. PHOTO: C.DeMarco
A LIGHT BRUSHING – Hair samples contain DNA. PHOTO: C.DeMarco

Comparing gray maternal genetic profiles in Griffith Park, DeMarco is discovering disturbing trends – basically, gray squirrels’ genetic makeup is similar because they are inbreeding.  Even though squirrels are known for their acrobatics and wire walking abilities, the grays find it difficult to branch out beyond their original homes. Traffic and human development keep them stuck. Besides isolation, grays are up against other factors: poisons, roadkill, destructive fires and competition with the Easties.

“Studies have shown it’s possible for grays and Eastern fox squirrels to coexist,” says DeMarco explaining that in areas with a wide diversity of tree species – like Ferndell – there is a higher proportion of Western grays. “There could be a way to sustain these two species if there were more pine, walnuts and sycamore trees in the area, trees the grays like. Here in Ferndell, grays and Eastern fox squirrels seem to coexist for the most part.”

But the question is for how long? Muchlinski isn’t sure, but he does know that if the Easties move into SoCal’s forested areas – Big Bear, Mt. Wilson – that could be catastrophic for SoCal grays. “It helps if people understand that it’s not good to move non-native animals around,” he says.

All in all, Griffith Park is snapshot of SoCal squirrel-ness. “By seeing what is happening here, we can start to target and suggest ways to circumvent any potential extinctions of one of the sub populations,” says DeMarco. “If populations become so isolated and are in a dire downward spiral, it may mean special action.” Conservation possibilities: adding more gray-friendly trees, introducing grays from other areas into that population to beef up the gene pool, and create corridors for squirrels to scamper in and out of isolated habitats.

When his research wraps up next year, DeMarco will share it with local agencies like LA Park and Rec, National Park Service, etc. “Genetic studies have been done on the gray squirrel in Washington and Oregon but not here,” he says. “We, California, need to catch up.”

TRYING TO SURVIVE - Western gray squirrels PHOTO: Alan Muchlinski
TRYING TO SURVIVE – Western gray squirrels are competing for space and food in SoCal. How long can they hold out against Eastern invaders? PHOTO: Alan Muchlinski

Greening the Ocean With Abalone

It’s a good thing that green abalone aren’t prone to sudden jerky movements – especially when you are trying to delicately affix a millimeter-size color coded circle on them using a tiny squirt of super glue. The intensity level rises when the goal is to tag 1,000 sea snail subjects in one day.

DON'T SNEEZE - It's delicate work affixing a tag on an inches-long abalone.
DON’T SNEEZE – It’s delicate work affixing a tag on an inches-long abalone, now known as orange 22 and orange 23.

Many hands were doing that recently: working feverishly in a small shed at Redondo Beach’s SEA Lab facilities for this inaugural task; the project will attempt, for the first time, to outplant green abalone raised in captivity into the Southern California marine ecosystem.

Among the casual banter and the steady sound of filtered water running, folks were measuring and recording tagged abalone, organizing completed batches and retrieving new ones.

HOW BIG? - Biologists will track how these abalone thrive in their soon-to-be ocean home.
HOW BIG? – Biologists will track how these abalone thrive in their soon-to-be ocean home.

David Witting, a NOAA Restoration Center fish biologist, walked over to holding tanks and pulled out a wavy piece of plastic substrate where 3 and 4-year-old abalone were feasting on red algae, their preferred diet at this age. These youngsters – and hundreds of relatives – were raised at the SEA Lab specifically for this purpose.

ATTACHED ABALONE - Dave Witting examines a new batch of abalone to be tagged.
WHAT HAVE WE HERE?- Dave Witting examines a new batch of abalone to be tagged.
YUM...ALGAE -- Hungry sea snails have an appetite for algae.
YUM…MORE, PLEASE– Hungry sea snails have an appetite for red algae.

“If the weather cooperates, we are hoping to outplant all these abalone the last week of May,” he says eyeing the inches-long snails.  “We’ve been working toward this particular day for some time now. It’s very exciting. There has been a lot of behind the scenes permitting, scheduling all manner of things that leads up to this day.”

It took a consortium of effort to ready these older juveniles for their new homes; the new residents will be placed in newly restored kelp forests off the Palos Verdes coast.

Joining Witting at the tagging table are representatives from the Montrose Settlement Restoration Program, The Bay Foundation and the L.A. Conservation Corps’ SEA Lab; the overall green abalone program partnership also involves the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, Vantuna Research Group, California Science Center, and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium.

Why all the attention on one kind of mollusk? It’s all about ecology, environment and economics.

For thousands of years, abalone flourished off SoCal coastlines; archeologists have discovered 12,000-year-old red abalone shells in the Channel Islands. The Chumash and other indigenous people used red abalone shells to make hunting tools, ornaments and other artifacts.

Abalone was also very tasty for European settlers and would become the source of a huge commercial fishery industry in Southern California for decades. It was also a darling of recreational collecting by divers. But over-harvesting in the 1970s, habitat loss and the debilitating Withering Syndrome disease decimated the general abalone population to today’s small communities of certain species.

GOOD OLD CAPITALISM -- Over harvesting contributed to the abalone's near demise in SoCal.
GOOD OLD CAPITALISM — Over-harvesting contributed to the abalone’s near demise in SoCal. 1920s postcard.

Currently black and white abalone are in danger of extinction while green abalone are listed as only critical. (Why all the color names? Just a species designation – for all its multi-colored iridescent qualities, abalone shells do have certain hues.)

Witting explains that methods done today to prop up the population of the green abalone could be the future template for restoring white and black species back into the wild. Sea snails that thrive in kelp-laden waters have a dual goal for both nature and man.

“Our hope is not only to restore these animals because they are an important part of the ecological community but they are also part of our socio-economical community as well,” explains Witting adding that “lots have been learned over the last 20 years on how to manage abalone fisheries and recreational take in a sustainable way.”

The tags on the outplanted abalone will allow biologists to identify and track their growth and survival rates. If all goes well, these critters will live 20 to 30 years, spawn numerous times, and repopulate their communities.

“Abalone need neighbors in order for their populations to survive and to successfully reproduce,” explains Witting. “They are broadcast spawners; both males and females shoot their gametes into the waters and they meet together in the water column. External fertilization.”

(In addition to captive spawning at the Sea LAB, biologists are doing wild spawning. Divers find wild abalone and bring them on the boat deck where they induce spawning and then return them to the wild. This method isn’t as taxing as the time-consuming and costly task of raising captive abalone.)

TINY FOR NOW - Green abalone can grow up to 12 feet long.
TINY FOR NOW – Green abalone can grow up to 10 inches long.

As they continued their delicate tasks, taggers discussed the next steps for these youngsters. They will be transferred into PVC houses where they will be acclimated; soon after, these temporary shelters will be put in the ocean waters. “We have to give them a couple of days to get used to the new environments that we are presenting to them,” says Witting.

“Each step could be a little traumatic. We don’t want to stress them. We want to make sure they are ready for this big move. There’s a lot riding on them making it through these first few steps.”

Or in the case of the sea snail called abalone, these first few gliding crawls…

Best Whale Watching Season Ever?, SoCalWild, December 2014

It’s being heralded as the “Best Whale Watching Season Ever” in Southern California, but what exactly does that mean? Abundant whales? Different species of whales swimming about?  Whales coming into closer contact with human observers? Baleen and toothed whales performing their own version of West Side Story?

There are many ways to consider what makes a season spectacular.

“For me it’s all about the diversity of whales that we can find at any given moment in the waters off of Los Angeles,” says Kera Mathes, marine biologist for the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacificwho was accompanying a recent whale watching excursion out of Long Beach.

“We’ve had lot of gray whales, fin whale sightings, numerous orcas, the latest being Dec. 26. There was a pod of five fin whales observed a few days ago. We’ve even seen humpback whales and there even was word of a pilot whale in San Diego recently,” she says. “You never know what you are going to see in the waters this time of year.”


Indeed, rare whale sightings are becoming, well, not quite so rare these days. Over the past few months, folks have also seen sperm whales and even false killer whales. “There is a lot of food here that may be bringing those rare species into our waters,” says Mathes about the bounty of krill, sardines and anchovies not to mention sea lions which orcas enjoy.

Mathes contends that researchers, however, may also label a season remarkable by the sheer number of whales they are studying. Case in point: the gray whales.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger who coordinates that annual Gray Whales Census/Behavior Project for the American Cetacean Society, Los Angeles, has been regularly posting the phenomenal numbers of gray whales spotted at Pt. Vicente Interpretive Center by trained on-shore volunteers. To date, 385 grays – that includes moms and babies – have been counted going southbound to Baja in the month of December.  That number has broken all records since the census began in 1984.

** Gray Whale Update: As of Jan, 3, 2014 the count is 432 southbound (including 9 calves), and 1 northbound, still ahead of last season’s count of 407 southbound  (including 3 calves) and 4 northbound. **

On this particular whale excursion, two individual grays were spotted.  One whale had a craggy notch near her fluke indicating she was a victim/survivor of an entanglement which carved out a deep chunk of her flesh. Photos taken from the whale watching boat were sent to researchers – including Schulman-Janiger who later identified the whale as the same one she photographed in 2009. Those current photos will be sent to watchers in Baja Mexico in order to track that whale’s path and behavior.

WOUNDED WHALE - This photo of a gray whale snapped on a whale watching cruise will be used by researchers. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT
WOUNDED WHALE – This photo of a gray whale snapped on a whale watching cruise will be used by researchers.    PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

Mathes says the aquarium partners with various researchers, supplying them with “opportunistic data” about specific whale species. Photos are vital components – researchers match flukes (as individual to whales as thumbprints to humans) to follow a specific whale, like this wounded one.

The craggy notch wound, however, didn’t seem to stop this particular whale; she was swimming at a good pace, blowing, diving and deep diving for krill and other goodies from the SoCal buffet line.

While Schulman-Janiger is keen on seeing huge numbers of gray whales, she also shares Mathes delight in witnessing the diversity of marine mammals in the area. In fact, her gray whale census volunteers routinely records marine mammals they observe and has counted more than 20 species of marine mammals in their census along with the migrating cetaceans.  “This is the most amazing season due to both the sheer diversity of rare species encounter AND the current record high gray whale counts,” she sums up. “An outstanding whale watching season is not just the occasional rarely sighted species, but being able to see a good number of whales and a variety of species and behaviors on a regular basis.”

Booming numbers of whales, species none withstanding, means a happy public and business, says Captain Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises who has been bringing folks out to the waters since the 1990s. “Having good whale numbers means you have a good chance of seeing something to make that trip worth your while,” he says. “So far, it’s been a fantastic season.”

Record whale numbers of any kind (“this year we have seen more humpbacks than we have ever seen in our 15 years of whale watching boats”) means an exciting experience for Salas’ guests, many who maybe making the trek for the first time.

Salas credits fishing and shipping regulations as making SoCal coastlines more inviting for fish and marine mammals. “I started out 30 years as fisherman and I’ve never seen this kind of life here back then,” he says. When shipping lanes were moved a year and a half ago to accommodate the whales’ migratory paths, “our whale watching numbers went through the roof.”

While newbie whale watchers should experience some kind of cetacean action this winter season, it’s best to keep expectations appropriate. You may think you will see numerous sights like this:

BIG BREACHES - Not all whales breach like this humpback. PHOTO: NOAA
BIG BREACHES – Not all whales breach like this humpback. PHOTO: NOAA

But you actually may see this (which is still cool, but not as dramatic).

THAR SHE BLOWS - Gray whales have a heart-shaped blow. PHOTO: MARTHA BENEDICT
THAR SHE BLOWS – Gray whales have a heart-shaped blow. PHOTO: MARTHA BENEDICT

Be advised, too that whale watching is often more whale WAITING. When the captain hollers “Thar she blows,” be prepared for the paparazzi of camera clicks as the whale briefly slides up and out of the water.

WHALE WATCHING? - Patience is vital. Leave instant gratification at home. PHOTO: MARTHA BENEDICT
WHALE WATCHING? – Patience is vital. Leave instant gratification at home. PHOTO: MARTHA BENEDICT

Thank goodness for dolphins (which are small whales) that can be counted on for stealing the show on any whale watching excursion. Bounding up and out of the water with spectacular spiraling leaps and spins, these marine mammals certainly embody the joy and freedom of the ocean.

On the flip side, many whale watch trips include the traditional drive-by the buoy covered with snoozing sea lions. While dolphins show off their acrobatic side, the sea lions (equally energetic in the water) are content to display their relaxed, groovy and mellow personalities, giving humans a small taste of multifaceted life in the wild Pacific Ocean.

TAKING IT EASY - Sea lions conserving their energy.
TAKING IT EASY – Sea lions conserving their energy. PHOTO: MARTHA BENEDICT

Critter Corridors in the Classroom, SoCalWild, December 2014

RARING TO GO — Students try to contain their enthusiasm.

Wiggling, fidgeting and anxious. The sixth grade class at Sun Valley Magnet Middle School were painfully waiting their turn to step to the front of the class. They tried to contain their nervous energy and nearly lost the battle. Busting at the seams? An understatement.

One by one, groups of three and four came forward in front of fellow classmates and students from neighboring classes. The Science Dudes, The Animal Finders, the Bobcats and more. Each group had a presentation that, while similar in topic, reflected different facts, personal narratives, and elaborate Powerpoint flourishes.

“Urban sprawl affects our indigenous animals,” presented one student while an image of a bobcat on a tree flashed on the board.

Later, another group came up, and showed a photo of three young cougars. “Three baby mountain lions were killed on the 126 freeway,” described the student. “The solution is we need to stop the road kill.”

“Wildlife corridors are needed for animals to move from one habitat to another,” declared another student about the proposed passageway over Liberty Canyon on the 101 freeway. “The importance of biodiversity is to keep our ecosystems stable.”

PRESENTING THE PROBLEM - The Science Dudes discuss the benefits of a wildlife corridor.
PRESENTING THE PROBLEM – The Science Dudes discuss the benefits of a wildlife corridor.

Most presentations were electronic but one group, the Thunder, created a handmade model of what a proposed wildlife corridor would look like. Plenty of cardboard, construction paper, milk cartons and glue were put into the model that depicted a green bridge spanning a concrete freeway with buildings off to the side.

“Animals need to move around to expand their territory and find a mate,” stated one Thunder member. “These bridges need to look natural and blend into their surroundings so animals will use them. They need California native plants like coyote bush and California lilac.”

HANDMADE CORRIDOR - The Thunder created a vision representation of the Liberty Canyon overpass.
HANDMADE CORRIDOR – The Thunder created a vision representation of the Liberty Canyon overpass.

Using a real-world example of the current wildlife corridor fits in well with the Project Based Learning (PBL) that’s the norm at this Environmental Studies Through Arts Academy magnet school.

The Wildlife Corridor lesson was more than two months in the making and involved vocabulary words, research on the internet, interviews, a trip to the Natural History Museum and, perhaps the most inspiring aspect, a tour of Liberty Canyon with Anne Dittmer, CSUN professor who is intensely interested in the proposed corridor.

Students learned first-hand about the problem and solutions, said teacher Joceyln Medina who first heard about the plight of habitat-boxed mountain lions and bobcats two years ago when Professor Dittmer was her instructor. “The issue was just perfect for the type of learning we advocate here in the classroom,” she said. “Active, real world and participatory.”

“We actually walked the same route that the mountain lions would have to take to get from the north side of the freeway to the south side, and I think that got their attention,” said Dittman. “It was just an ordeal for them to get across without getting squished.  Cars, and noise, and all suddenly got more real.  I had hoped that the walk would impart just how scary the whole experience could be for larger predators…and how much we needed a real corridor in the area.”

In addition to touring Liberty Canyon, Professor Dittmer brought the youngsters to explore nearby Malibu Creek to understand the landscape – which is home to many critters that could potentially use the corridor.

After the presentations, students – now a bit more relaxed – were eager to share their knowledge and discuss their experiences related to the project. Many still had the image of Liberty Canyon in their heads. “There were just mountains there.” “How long will it take to build the corridor?” “I wish they could just dig a hole for the animals to move around.”  “I saw lots of little holes in the ground. I think it was the under-squirrels.” “What does the P stand for in P-22?”

ACTIVE DISCUSSION -- Students think and talk about local wildlife. As always, questions were bountiful.
ACTIVE DISCUSSION — Students think and talk about local wildlife. As always, questions were bountiful.

Students knew the sad story of seeing dead animals on the street – raccoons, squirrels, even birds. Many advocated in their presentations that adults (including parents) should drive cautiously when they know that wildlife is around. Still, even with careful human eyes, that doesn’t mean a critter won’t take a chance at crossing.

The students were shocked to learn that often young mountain lion cubs in the Santa Monica Mountains have been killed by their father in the juggle for territorial dominance.  “That’s just wrong.” “Why?” “Sick.”

Yes, the ways of nature can be hard to grasp, but this fact sealed for the student’s the pressing need to establish the corridor.

“We just need to share what we have with the animals,” said one very wise sixth grader. “We should just do it. Now.”

BLUEPRINT FOR A SOLUTION - Students realize how valuable a wildlife crossing over Liberty Canyon would mean to humans and critters alike.
BLUEPRINT FOR A SOLUTION – Students realize how valuable a wildlife crossing over Liberty Canyon would mean to humans and critters alike.

— Story by Brenda Rees, photos by Martha Benedict

A Forest of Possibilities, SoCalWild, November 2014

Finally. A SoCal forest that’s been lying in ruins since the 1950s is getting proper attention and love.

Not a trees-on-land forest; this SoCal oceanic giant kelp forest off the Palos Verdes Peninsula coastline represents seaweed at its finest and is a testament to the power of nature to rebound after devastating decimation.

It’s estimated that this PV Peninsula forest has declined 75 percent in the past 100 years — but things are about to change thanks to a five year program headed up by The Bay Foundation (TBF).

Thanks to a hodgepodge partnership of trained volunteers, nonprofit organizations and fishermen associations along with federal and state agencies, the Palos Verdes kelp forest is once again thriving and beckoning local wildlife.  At last count, more than 700 wildlife species including fish, crabs, sea birds, arthropods, sea lions and more, depend on the flowing undulating fronds of this ocean plant – and divers are now seeing many of these critters  (such as the kelp bass, garibaldi, California sheephead, California spiny lobster and the two-spot octopus) returning.

CHECKING OUT NEW DIGS -- Fish swim the newly restored kelp forest in the PV Peninsula.
CHECKING OUT NEW DIGS — Fish swim the newly restored kelp forest in the PV Peninsula.

“Rich, fat and happy,” is how Tom Ford, Executive Director of TBF describes the giant kelp plants that have taken root and sprung upward 30 feet to the surface.  Ford explains that because the kelp has grown so quickly (the plant can grow about 2 feet a day), much of the new kelp has spread across the top of the water thick and strong enough to support hungry egrets walking searching for a slippery snack.

An urchin barren before restoration (top) and healthy kelp regrowing after restoration (bottom). Photos by Tom Boyd.
NIGHT AND DAY  — An urchin-choked landscape before restoration (top) and healthy kelp regrowing after restoration (bottom). Photos by Tom Boyd.

And guess what? It’s only been less than a year that this remarkable transformation has taken place, proving that nature doesn’t need complicated programs or intricate procedures to replenish what was lost.  Often, the right jump start gives nature all it needs.

At one time, kelp so thick and tall was the norm in Southern California and provided many a marine critter home, food and more, but the post WWII building boom brought pollution, urban and storm water runoff, non-conservationist construction practices and sediment unceremoniously dumped into the ocean.

The kelp choked and wildlife left, except for scrappy sea urchins. With no kelp, the urchin’s natural predators – spiny lobsters, California sheephead and sea otters – disappeared leaving the urchins to multiply like crazy creating barrens which crowded out most other sea life.

Launched in July 2013, the restoration project brought 35 scientifically-trained SCUBA divers to cull down the urchins to a manageable number. Nearly 2 million purple sea urchins were removed from two coves: Underwater Arch and Honeymoon Cove.  All in all, this 12 of acres have seen a dramatic kelp explosion with hundreds of plants stretching 25 feet or more.  Urchin barrens, no more! This is pretty dramatic footage:

The resilience of the kelp helped the divers who didn’t need that extra step of planting plugs and starting the kelp from scratch. The kelp was just waiting for room which allowed it to spring up.

Project partners include: California Sea Urchin Harvesters, Vantuna Research Group, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), Southern California Marine Institute, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, California Science Center, and TBF.

This is only the beginning. Only 12 of the 150 acres were part of this initial project and work will continue for the next four years to complete the transformation. Along the way, scientists and researchers will monitor the kelp growth and the return of wildlife.

Ford says that the Santa Barbara and Anacapa Islands are next in line for local kelp restoration but that researchers in British Columbia, Japan, Iceland and France are keenly watching the SoCal progress and will apply the same methods to their own kelp restoration projects.

“What we do here can affect ecologies around the world,” says Ford. “When you change a foot at a time on the ocean floor, you can recreate what was lost. And we are seeing that here in a wonderfully dramatic way.”

COMING SOON? - The California State Fish, the garabaldi, could soon be a local resident off the PV Peninsula.
COMING SOON? – The California State Fish, the garabaldi, could soon be a local resident off the PV Peninsula.

Less Poison in the Parks; More Owls in the Sky?, SoCalWild, October 2014

The recent news that one type of dangerous poison has been discontinued in Los Angeles parks and open spaces was welcomed by Alison Simard of Citizens For Los Angeles Wildlife (CLAW), an environmental group that would like to see all toxic rodenticides (aka rat poison) eliminated completely from city boundaries.

But, she conceded, this news is a great first step in obtaining that dream.

“Wildlife is the barometer of the health of our environment,” said Simard after the recent special Arts, Parks, Health, Aging and Recreation (APHAR) committee meeting called by the Los Angeles City Council in response to increasing evidence that Los Angeles wildlife have been regularly poisoned from anti-coagulant (blood thinning) rodenticides.

The catalyst for the motion came earlier this year when beloved Griffith park resident cougar, P-22, was found sick from mange as a direct result of eating prey that had ingested anticoagulant rodenticide.

P22 after being treated for mange. Photo by NPS.
P22 after being treated for mange. Photo by NPS.

Representatives from the LA Department of Recreation and Park reported to the APHAR committee that they were voluntarily phasing out the use of second generation rodenticides in all 420 parks and wilderness areas in LA – an announcement that brought hushed cheers from Simard and friends.

“We have completely removed second generation rodenticides from all of our facilities as a policy decision in response to the motion brought forth and in review of our integrated pest management program,” said Laura Bauernfeind, Grounds Maintenance Supervisor Director of Facilities.

Bauernfeind explained her department still wants first generation rodenticides in its arsenal against the peskier pests – mainly ground squirrels – that multiply and cause a ruckus in rec centers and may carry infectious diseases like the plague and the hantavirus. It’s for health reasons, she argued.

Bauernfeind continued that her department is considering alternative non-toxic methods to “avoid the use of rodenticides” with rat zapper boxes discussed as a possible method. This ingenious little Box of Death uses high voltage to ‘humanely’ kill pests that enter it. No poison. Quick zap. Limp rat. Easy disposal. Still, her department would have address concerns about killing and removing what is technically a wild animal within city boundaries. More to come on that…

Quick Death -- Rodents of all sizes are welcomed in the Rat Zapper.
Quick Death — Rodents of all sizes are welcomed in the Rat Zapper.

Finally, Baurenfield said first generation poisons are being used in about 15 locations, about 3 percent of the total available park and open land spaces in Los Angeles but didn’t list specifics sites.

(Confused about first and second generation rodenticide? Here’s the nutshell: first generation have chemicals with shorter half-lives and require higher concentrations and critters have to consume them over consecutive days to reach a lethal dose. About a 5 on the Kill Scale. They are less toxic than second generation which are applied in low doses and are deadly after just one ingestion. About a 10 on the Kill Scale.)

PICK YOUR POISON -- Rodenticides come in a variety of names and forms.
PICK YOUR POISON — Rodenticides come in a variety of names and forms.

Simard said that this small victory for CLAW – her group was the one that originally brought the concern to Councilman Paul Koretz who enthusiastically backed it in the committee along with Councilmen Mitch O’Farrell and Tom LaBonge – will propel her group to now work more to educate citizens about the dangers of using rat poison.

After all, what good does it do if parks and wilderness areas are poison-free but homeowners continue to use rodenticides? First generation rodenticides are still available over the counter. Second gens were banned this year for sale to the public, however, professionals can still use that double deadly poison anywhere if they are paid to do so.

In addition to raising awareness and passing up rodenticides, Simard says her group is going to educate homeowners to consider other natural ways of handling pest by introducing and encouraging owls to take up residence. A single pair of barn owls can consume over 2,000 rodents a year – and they do so without chemicals or traps. Just keep their food clean and, in theory, owls can take care of the problem.

UP IN THE SKY -- Owls could be the answer to LA's pest problems.
UP IN THE SKY — Owls could be the answer to LA’s pest problems.

Councilmember Koretz asked Bauernfeind about installing owl boxes in Griffith Park, but she explained it was too problematic given the hillsides and terrain. Here, Simard disagrees and hopes that through grassroots organizing, reaching out to service groups and energizing residents, one day parks and wilderness areas in Los Angeles will boast minimal mice, rats and ground squirrels populations, kept in check by a natural and chemical-free way.

“Barn owl boxes are a positive way to address this problem,” she said adding that the cost is small compared to chemicals and traps. “You’ll be hearing more about this soon.”

What's for dinner, LA? Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
What’s for dinner, LA? Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Fishing the L.A. River – No Joke, SoCalWild, September 2014

Rosi Dagit was pleased. The environmental scientist was at the banks of the Los Angeles River near North Atwater Park in Atwater Village waiting for anglers to bring over their catches in large orange buckets. “This is the best citizen scientist program,” she said adding that often she’s the one wading in rivers and streams catching critters for surveys and research. “I have it easy today!”

Indeed, Dagit and her cadre were tasked with weighing, measuring and cataloging the fish that were caught as part of the first ever Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR) “Off tha’ Hook” fishing derby.

The catch and release event took place on September 6 which was designated as one of the “free” fishing days (aka no license needed and therefore open to all) from California Fish and Wildlife the entity that governs fishing on the river.

FoLAR organizers say that the derby strengthens the vision that the river is a living, breathing entity worthy of recreation, wildlife viewing and, yes, fishing. Members of the Los Angeles Rod and Reed Club were on hand to show off their fly casting prowess– some actually hiked up the waders and make it an immersive experience.

THE WATER'S FINE -- Who needs hip waders?
THE WATER’S FINE — Who needs hip waders?

There was an official contest (most fish caught, biggest catch) but that was just an excuse for fishing folk to be out in the picture perfect postcard early morning. Anglers casted off amidst the lush river surroundings with horseback riders on the Griffith Park hills in the background. Birds swooped over the water – Canada geese, mallards, black-necked stilts along with assorted shorebirds and immature egrets.

Deep in the river bank, you could hardly tell you were in one of the world’s largest cities.

WHERE ARE WE? -- Oh yeah, right next to the 5 Freeway....
WHERE ARE WE? — Oh yeah, right next to the 5 Freeway….

Helping Dagit compiling the data was Sabrina Drill, Natural Resources Advisor for UC Cooperative Extensive who worked on the FoLAR 2008 fish study in the L.A. River. That study was eight days long and involved four locations. The fish most seen from that study? Mosquitofish, tilapia and green sunfish.

“Of course our methods for catching fish were different today,” she says describing how using a drag net yields different fish than using a rod and reel. Its bottom feeders vs fly catchers.

That was evident by the fish caught at this derby – one large carp and the rest were large-mouth bass, albeit on the small size.

CARPING AROUND -- The first official fish of the contest was a big ol' carp.
CARPING AROUND — The first official fish of the contest was a big ol’ carp.
OPEN WIDE - Big mouth bass was the fish most caught at FoLAR's Derby.
OPEN WIDE – Large mouth bass were the fish most caught at FoLAR’s Fish Derby.

“That was the first data that we have on the fish life in the Los Angeles River,” chimed in Dagit about the 2008 study. “How lame is that? The river is right here. We have to pay attention to what we have in our own backyards.”  (Note: another fishing derby is planned for Oct. 4 in the LA River near Long Beach.)

Dagit spends a lot of energy patrolling the coastal streams for the steelhead trout; that fish used to be found in the Los Angeles River along with arroyo chub, stickleback and maybe even speckled dace.

BACK YOU GO -- All fish caught at the derby were released back into the L.A. River.
BACK YOU GO — All fish caught at the derby were released back into the L.A. River.

Both Dagit and Drill are enthusiastic but realistic about seeing a bounty of fish return to the L.A. River. Right now, there are too many physical barriers (not to mention dam gates) that would prevent the ocean–swimming trout to make its way up freshwater streams for spawning. Still, that didn’t stop folks from sporting t-shirts that declared, “Fishing for carp, waiting for steelhead” in anticipation of the return of that historic trout.

On that day, one could imagine heading down to a river that could be alive with flapping fins and rainbow scales. Stay tuned. Stranger things have happened.

NOT EASY LIFE -- Fish in the L.A. River can survive, but it's not the optimal environment.
NOT EASY LIFE — Fish in the L.A. River can survive…but more work needs to be done to make it a better environment.

 — By Brenda Rees, photos by Martha Benedict

Filling SoCal Skies, SoCalWild, August 2014

One after another, cars arrive as if on cue. They pull over on the shoulder of this two-lane highway near an endless orange tree grove here in Valle Vista on the outskirts of Hemet in Riverside County.

ORANGES, ORANGES, ORANGES -- agriculture rules in Valle Vista
ORANGES, ORANGES, ORANGES — agriculture rules in Valle Vista

Old couples, parents of small children and families with grown kids sheepishly exit their cars, wander to the chain-link fence at the Bautista Creek flood control channel (aka Bat Bridge) and eye the soon-to-be setting sun. “Have you been here before?” “Nope, it’s my first time.” “How about you?” “I have always meant to come out here and now I’m finally doing it.”

“I saw it last week when I was crossing another bridge and I didn’t know what it was. It scared me at first,” says one young woman who came with her older parents. “I did a little research and found out about them. That’s how I’m here tonight – to really see them.”

“They” are bats, Mexican free-tailed bats to be exact. Underneath this small bridge probably tens of thousands of the flying mammals are getting ready for their nights’ forage of insects, drawn to the sweet smell of orange.

Close up of Mexican free-tailed bat from National Park Service.
Close up of a Mexican free-tailed bat. PHOTO: National Park Service.

Home to the largest bat colonies in the area, this nightly bat swarm is one of Southern California’s amazing natural wonders.

Valle Vista’s bats haven’t achieved the notoriety of Austin, Texas’ Congress Avenue Bridge (those too are Mexican free-tailers), and maybe that’s a good thing. The easy good-natured camaraderie of fellow bat watchers (some bring folding chairs and snacks), the unmarked location, the agricultural small-town road – all make sharing anticipation with fellow strangers a goose-pimple experience.

WAITING FOR THE MOMENT - Bat watchers hold their breath
WAITING FOR THE MOMENT – Bat watchers hold their breath

The bats are only in town for the summer which makes their appearance this evening all the more extraordinary. They are migratory critters, arriving in SoCal in late May/June to mate and to raise their offspring. In fact, the bridge is a maternity ward with mothers and pups; females only have one baby per season and those youngsters are ready to fly 4-5 weeks after birth. Males are off in bachelor colonies nearby, and many theorize they hang out in local caves (better known as bat man caves?)

When the fall cold hits (usually late September/October), all bats return to their Mexican caves and dream again of the Californian insects come the following summer.

“They’ve been recorded there since the 1990s,” says Dan Taylor, a bat biologist from Bat Conservation International who adds that it’s not just this bridge, but two others that the free-tailers use for their summer vacation. All in all, it’s estimated that more than 20,000 bats are part of this extraordinary colony.

The Valle Vista location is perfect bat real estate: near a bountiful food source (i.e. insects lured to the orange trees in this almost endless grove) and the underside of the bridge has little crevices which, according to Taylor, “keep them safe from predators. The concrete collects the heat during the day and it expands and warms them. This is one time where we humans have built a good habitat for wildlife, all unintentionally of course.”

Walking over to the bridge before the big show, two things are apparent: a steady din of bats chirping/buzzing to each other (“Wake up!” “Five more minutes!” “No! Now!”), along with the overpowering smell of bat guano on the cement floor below.

“That smell is like fertilizer with a kick of fruit punch!” remarks one bat waiter.

By now, more folks have arrived, many armed with cameras and cell phones.  The sun reaches the golden line in the horizon at the far west end of the San Jacinto Valley and the first bat (a scout?) flitters out to test the air.

SUNDOWN - Time to get up, you furry mammals
SUNDOWN – Time to get up, you furry mammals

“Just watch,” says a seasoned bat watcher. “When it starts, it doesn’t stop. They keep coming out for minutes.”

Finally, the flag is dropped and the bat signal is given. Tiny flappers zig and zig out from the bridge into a swirling living cloud high above the orchard. They can fly 20-30 miles per hour and reach heights of up to 10,000 feet. “These guys are the jet fighters of the bat world,” sums up Taylor.

THE RACE IS ON - Who can eat their weight in insects first?
THE RACE IS ON – Who can eat their weight in insects first?

A low cheer comes up from the watchers who “ooh” and “ahh” the spectacle like a fireworks show. Kids jockey for position at the chain link fence and wish that “one would come closer and slow down. Oh, I think they are cute.” A very young toddler tells the flying bats, “Bye bye!”

There is no talk of bats sucking blood, getting tangled in hair or being rabid. In fact, most bat watchers are grateful for bats keeping the insect population at bay. “They can hang out at my house anytime!” someone says. “I hope they don’t use pesticides in this orchard.” “They don’t need to, they have the bats.”

The parade continues with more bats emerging into the coming darkness. Instead of a loud flapping, these bats are quiet fliers, hitting the air with a velocity that’s purposeful and powerful.

Finally after less than 10 minutes, the last of the flappers leave the bridge empty for the night. Traveling up to 100 sq. miles in a single night, these bats will consume their weight in insects and then return to this bridge to digest, huddle and sleep.

Happy bat watchers pack up their chairs and head back to their cars.  “That was something wasn’t it?” “Oh, I’m so glad I saw this.” “We are coming again for sure.”

Summed up in one word: Bat-tastic.

The Fairview Avenue Bat Bridge is located east of Hemet in Valle Vista between Mayberry and Stetson Avenues and South of Highway 74.

— Story by Brenda Rees, photos by Martha Benedict

WAKING UP - Bats start the evening off in a swirling living cloud.
WAKING UP – Bats start the evening off in a swirling living cloud.

Birders Among the Books, SoCalWild, May 2014

Raising Birders – and More – at Leo Politi

The students were breathless. “Mr. Rumble! We saw something in the bush! Come quickly!” Bradley Rumble, principal at Leo Politi School near downtown Los Angeles was intrigued and followed the fourth graders out of the outdoor shady area into their once concrete-and-Bermuda-grass-plot-now-turned-native-plant-and-wildlife-habitat.

After all, there *could* be a critter out there. It’s not unusual in this 5,000 sq. ft. plot for students to encounter wildlife among the bladder pods, salt bush, buckwheat and coastal oaks. It’s been four years since the garden celebrated its “Plant Day” and the old saying “If you plant it, they will come” has rung true here in this urban neighborhood.

Notable birds like the Western meadowlark, Cooper’s hawks and yellow rumped warblers have been seen here along with the regulars: Little Leo (an Allen’s hummingbird that pays homage to the school moniker), carpenter bees, monarch butterflies and American kestrels. A while ago, students –and adults – thought they spied a slithering alligator lizard but that wasn’t completely verified.

So when the students dragged Rumble along the dirt paths that swirl and up around a large patch of sage, all eyes were on the *thing* that was crunching leaves and moving ever-so-slowly. Rumble bent down and the kids were whispering in excited anticipation. And then…

Look over here Mr. Rumble! PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT


SKREE-FLOP! The rubber snake leapt out and made everyone – but especially Rumble – holler. Shrieks of laughter erupted and Rumble good-naturedly embraced the prank. “Oh, you guys are good! That is a classic!” he told them as students grinned ear to ear. Fourth grade teacher Linda Dowell explained that this joke had been planned for a long time. “Welcome to our school!” she exclaimed.

Indeed, the culture at Leo Politi is inviting on many levels – it’s a school that many adults probably wish they could have attended back in their day. This outdoor habitat, used practically every day by students of all ages and their teachers, is the connector that fuels much of the education query…but that’s just the beginning.

After the excitement of the joke wore off, the students are back to their booklets, making observations, writing and drawing pictures of their favorite plants and checking the micro-habits (carefully placed rock piles) and bee house for new residents.

Wondering and wandering. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

Later, students may spend time in the Audubon Classroom where cross curriculum studies connect art, poetry, current events to science, nature and local wildlife. Second graders are learning such vocabulary words as: limited exposure, carcass, toxic element and extinction. Older students study the history of scientific drawings that include cave drawings, illuminated manuscripts and the bathysphere. Here, studying the intricacies and diversity of the natural world isn’t just for youngsters – it’s a serious endeavor that takes its cue from the learning laboratory growing in their own back yard.


Current events about nature-related issues. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

At the school, science scores have gone from 9 % proficient, 0 % advanced in 2009 to a healthy average of 47 % proficient/advanced. In 2005, 11 students were identified as gifted; in May 2013, 95 were in the gifted program, more than 10 percent of the school.

“What we have here is pride of ownership for these students right on their campus,” says Rumble. “They have gained specialized knowledge of the natural world…and once they realize they can be experts in one thing, they can then see themselves as experts in others ways.”

Third grader Francisco is one such expert. Clutching his own notebook and a copy of Sibley’s Guide to Birds, he’s practically memorized the pages and taxonomy of area birds, not to mention how bird species differ. On a recent field trip, he and Rumble discussed the difference between the Western and Eastern meadowlarks. “In Arizona I saw a painted bunting and I want to travel and see birds,” he explains. “I like spending most of my time out here.”

Portrait of a birder as a young man. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

It did take a village to create this outdoor habitat. L.A. Audubon worked with the school to receive aSchoolyard Habitat Restoration Program grant through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. They also received a grant from Toyota’s Together Green program. Restoration ecologist Margot Griswold and the students at Dorsey High School were on board to help students/faculty study soil samples and determine the school’s ecological  location in the LA watershed  (coastal sage scrubland) along with prepping the soil and final planting. Parental involvement was instrumental.

“Native plants are a lot of work to establish,” says Griswold who regularly visits the school to see what’s growing – and that’s not just the plants, but the students also. “We are starting to see the links between providing students these kinds of learning opportunities to higher education,” she says explaining how a recent Politi grad has now enrolled at Dorsey High and joined the Eco Club.

Griswold is quick to point out that not every student who graduates will want to pursue a career in sciences, but that “giving them this kind of exposure will provide them with not just an appreciation of nature but will allow them to be open to the world around them.”

Griswold is part of the LAUSD Instructional Schoolyards Task Force that will next month offer recommendations on how schools can create outdoor learning centers, much in the vein of what goes on at Leo Politi. Maybe one day school habitat gardens will be a normal part of every school’s campus, just like swing sets and lunch tables.

Far from the maddening classroom. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

Currently, 400 out of 800 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District has some kind of green space, be it a vegetable plot, garden or boxed planting area. Chief Facilities Executive Mark Hovatter is excited about the way schools are incorporating gardens in Los Angeles but says that many of these habitats are dependent on certain volunteers. “The problem comes when those volunteers move on, and then the garden disappears,” he says. A new program Sustainable Environment Enhancement Development for Schools (SEEDS) kicking off this June aims to provide schools with resources as well as partnerships to keep green spaces going.

Overall, Rumble shares his vision for Los Angeles schools that, given the success at Leo Politi, doesn’t seem that far-fetched. “Why couldn’t all the schools in Los Angeles become an urban flyway for migrating birds?” he wonders. “Every school in every neighborhood. That would really be remarkable. We could all be connected with the birds.”

– Brenda Rees, editor

Green in the concrete. PHOTO BY MARTHA BENEDICT

Have Camera, Will Snap, SoCalWild, February 2014

Camera Trapping Masters

“Science doesn’t belong only to the people who go to school for it, today, it’s available for everyone to become a citizen scientist,” says Denis Callet, a Montrose-based photographer, as he hikes up a secluded trail in the Los Angeles Forest.

It’s bright and early on a Saturday morning and Callet is joined by fellow outdoor enthusiastic, Johanna Turner who has been recording trail cam images of SoCal mountain lions, bobcats and other local critters since 2007. Turner’s well behaved dog Ripley joins the duo who connected about two years ago through their fierce love of local wildlife.

ON THE TRAIL -- Ripley accompanies Calett and Turner on their regular excursions into local mountains. PHOTO: BRENDA REES

Callet and Turner wouldn’t have met in their normal 9-5 world; he works retail and she’s in the entertainment business. But together they are slowly transforming the science of the trail camera – now a must for any outdoor research biologist – into a template for art.

Today, the two are hiking to check their four cameras hidden in the forest; they also have cameras in remote local areas. Sure, they have the standard Bushnell cameras that collect video images, but these camera trappers are anxious to see is what Callet’s homemade DSLRs – which yield high quality color images – have clicked in the past two weeks.

ON THE TRAIL -- Johanna Turner and Denis Callett are always talking cameras and wildlife. Nonstop.

Callet and Turner each carry big backpacks full of equipment, hardware, batteries, cords, zip-ties, duct tape and more. Turner also carries her laptop so the two can check on how the cameras are positioned, if the lighting, sensors and triggers are working, etc. etc.

It’s hard to gauge what’s the main topic of conversation on the trail – the refinements they are going to make to the camera and camera set-up or the wildlife that surrounds them.

Big ticket cameras are “not in our budget; we’re not using top of the line stuff,” says Turner about camera trapping that was original marketed toward hunters and landowners.  But Callet’s prowess with photographic equipment and his MacGyver-like ability to jerry-rig pieces and parts (“eBay is a very, very, very good thing,” he says) is yielding fantastic results.

USING PATIO LIGHTS -- Tuner and Callet are masters of the jerry-rig.

“He’s so picky about the images, things that I think are wonderful, but he wants them perfect,” says Turner about Callet’s perfectionistic streak.

These remote animal portraits are difficult to come by. Remember, it took National Geographic photographer Steve Winter a year and a half to get that now famous shot of Griffith’s Parks P-22 with the Hollywood Sign in the background.

“And that cat had a collar so they knew where he goes and his regular paths,” chimes in Callet in his thick French accent. (He came to SoCal 27 years ago.) “Winter also had a team who would go out and check the cameras,” adds Turner. “It’s just us doing this.”

Indeed, Turner has been camera trapping for a long time. On her popular CougarMagic blog, Turner shares images taken with her remote cameras that she’s set up all around SoCal wild areas. These days, she’s posting more frequently on CougarMagic’s Facebook page. Years ago, she posted images of a collar mountain lion – P-12 – in the Santa Monica Mountains that caught the attention of National Park Service ranger Jeff Sikich. That photo revealed a broken radio collar which helped Sikch understand why he was having trouble tracking the big cat.

“Citizen scientists can provide some real important data for us,” he says adding that, “There are not that many people out there doing this. Cameras can get stolen or damaged. It’s hard work. But Johanna has such a passion and is so dedicated to it. She’s been able to cover areas of the mountains that I haven’t been to.”

Equally enthusiastic about wildlife behind a camera, Callet admired Turner’s popular Cougarmagic blog/YouTube Channel for years. He finally sent her an email about collaboration and encouraged her to check out his personal blog of nature photos, many taken in the Hahamonga Watershed Park, the Arroyo Seco and surrounding terrain. Dramatic photos of ospreys, great horned owls and videos of red shoulder hawks feeding their young. “I knew he was for real and serious,” she explains. “He has the eye and passion for this.”

After a 45 minute hike from the parked car, the pair finally reaches the first cameras that are secured tightly in Pelican boxes and fastened with strong ties.

HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT -- Trail cameras are not just for biologists these days. Artists are finding ways to manipulate and create.

“Look at this…112 videos. That’s a lot!” remarks Calett as Turner takes out her laptop to pop in the SD card.  It’s a lot like Christmas as the two scroll through images of squirrels, squirrels and even more squirrels, some cavorting in a recent snow storm. Will it be a disappointment? “It’s never a disappointment when you are out in nature,” says Callet emphatically. “Even when we don’t get anything, we can learn how to set it up better.”

Turner chides him: “I have seen you disappointed! Right when the sensor missed by a second. You get frustrated then.”

“Well…yes, that’s true…” reluctantly admits Callet with a sheepish grin.

WHAT DID SANTA BRING -- Scrolling through the images is like Christmas. PHOTO BRENDA REES

Near the end of the SD card, the duo strikes gold. “Yes!” exclaims Turner, fist in the air and emotion leaking from her eye.  It’s King Arthur, a big mountain lion that Turner has camera captured in the area over the past three years. She carefully observes the cat’s walk, how he stops to smell the scent (Obsession by Calvin Klein) and then wanders out of view. It’s like seeing an old friend, she explains. Jackpot, three times over.

After replacing batteries, repositioning lights and triggers, the duo checks the other cameras. Once again, squirrels and foxes are racking up valuable photo space (“It’s like the show should be called, ‘Fox and Friends,’” jokes Callet), but an image of two foxes playing in the snow is noteworthy.

Clicking through the SD faster, Turner suddenly stops. It’s images of a mama bear and cub – in one image they are rolling in the snow. “Do you think it’s the little guy from last year?” she wonders. “Mama looks great! Very healthy. Oh, it’s so good to see her.”

All in all, it’s been a good morning camera trapping for Callet and Turner. Over the years, they’ve spent thousands of dollars, countless hours hiking back and forth from remote locations, often coming back only with bad batteries, empty shots and unusable images.

But the times that skill, expertise and luck all clicks together to produce Olympic gold images make up for any frustration or disappointment. Hands down.

“This is more than a hobby, it’s about conservation because these guys need all the help they can get,” says Turner. “Camera trapping is like a religion,” agrees Callet. “You just have to believe.”

– Brenda Rees, Editor

Below are just some of the images that Callet (along with Turner’s help) have produced. We advocate that any sane photographic gallery sign them up for an exhibition…stat!!

Bobcat2 2014


mtn wilson female lion

fox and fox2

Finding Flutterers in Ventura, SoCalWild, November 2013

Counting Monarchs in the Rain

The rain was fierce, pouring down in steady sheets on this cold morning in Ventura. What kind of day is this to count butterflies, I wondered as I pulled into a small neighborhood park to meet Donna Grubisic, a volunteer with the Vista-based Monarch Program. Fat drops fell on our heads as we shook hands underneath our umbrellas and walked passed playground equipment to a fence overlooking a grove of eucalyptus trees.

“Do you see ‘em?” she asked pointing to a low hanging branch.


“Right there.”

OOOOHhhh…that low hanging branch was not covered with leaves…but rather was filled with butterflies, monarchs with dull under-sided folded wings.  Huddled together motionless, the clump of monarchs were finding strength, protection and warmth in numbers.

Soggy butterflies. Photo by Brenda Rees

An average monarch weighs about 500 milligrams and large raindrops have a mass of 70 milligrams or more. Michael Raupp, professor of entomology at the University of Maryland compares raindrops splashing on monarchs to humans “being pelted by water balloons with twice the mass of bowling balls.” Ouch.

Grubisic demonstrated how she counts this particular butterfly grouping – she uses both 2D and 3D estimates then adds for those hidden flappers that are inside of the monarch mass. “It’s about 750-800 butterflies,” she says about this particular clump. “Give or take.”

This location is one of seven that Grubisic has overseen for this year’s annual Western Monarch Thanksgiving Count which has been around since 1997. Taking its cue from Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count and the North American Butterfly Association’s Fourth of July Butterfly Count, the monarch tally is a way for citizen scientists to measure the health of the country’s most beloved winged insect that overwinters in the (usually) warm climates of SoCal and Baja. (Not today!)

The count starts in late November since that’s traditionally when most monarchs in the West convene along Pacific coastlines in individual trees or in huge groves. There are about 200 sites in California but only 100 are counted (not enough volunteers. Contact the Western Monarch Thanksgiving Countto learn how you can help). Monarchs typically hang out in our turf until early spring when they mate, lay eggs and then…die. Only 3 percent of the monarchs eggs will make it to butterfly-hood and they will carry on the age-old migration pattern.

Only 3 percent of all butterfly eggs reach maturity. Photo by Megan McCarty.

Grubisic counts at locations in Ventura, Carpentaria and Summerland and her numbers will be added to the ongoing tally sponsored by the Xerces Society in Oregon. (The official numbers from this count will be released in early spring.) She’ll not only count, but make notes about roosting trees, eroding habitats, any new development in the area and other new butterfly behavior.

In addition to counting butterflies, Grubisic is a docent at Ellwood Butterfly Grove in Goleta, where, among the sprawling eucalyptus trees, she welcomes visitors, answers questions and learn about butterflies in the ecosystem.

So far, the count at Ellwood has been down, she says. “It was 17,000 last year and as of about [mid-November] only 2,000” she explains. Monarch Program intern Charis van der Heide at Ellwood concurs in an email saying that “this year is shaping up to be very intriguing.” While the monarch numbers are indeed low for Ellwood (last year there was a peak of 40,000 in December), up further north folks are seeing record numbers at Pismo Beach Monarch Grove. More than 34,000 were counted very early in the season.

“The butterflies seem to be shaking things up this year,” van der Heide concludes. “It will be really interesting to see what the numbers look like throughout California.” Climate change theories anyone?

Overall, should California count its blessings when it comes to the western monarchs? A recent article by Jim Robbins in The New York Times “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear” describes the incredibly low numbers of monarchs that made it to Michoacan, Mexico this year. As of mid-November, only 3 million had arrived at their wintering home – last year it was 60 million and even that was a pretty low historical number.

Donna Grubisic keeps track of where the monarchs roost. Photo by Brenda Rees

Grubisic notes that her counting areas have either yielded more, less or the same numbers of flutters. “Maybe they are roosting in other areas we just don’t know about,” she offers as we tour another one of her locations. The rain is letting up and it’s easier to see the hanging clumps of butterflies high above. They look so vulnerable, clinging to one another, braving the wet and cold, waiting for the sun and spring flowers.

Every year, more of their habitat is destroyed along with their beloved milkweed, the only plant they will lay their eggs on. According to the Loose Leaf blog of the American Forest Association, “the world’s monarch butterflies now fit into an area smaller than four football fields.” It’s the smallest space in 20 years.

With a background in ornamental horticulture, Grubisic became interested in butterflies when her kids were little. As a family, they raised caterpillars, watching the transformation and later tagging the flappers to see how far they would travel. Slowly, Grubisic added nectar flowers into her garden which today, she says, is overflowing with ceanothus, lantana, star dusters and of course, dozens of varieties of milkweed.

When you plant milkweed for the butterflies, she says, expect to find sticks in the spring from all those hungry caterpillars. “People who want pretty gardens need to know that if they plant milkweed,” she says. “But the plant comes back.” (See where to purchase milkweed in SoCal.)

After touring Grubisic’s sites, we are back at the first location. As if on cue, the sun comes out and the butterflies start moving, stretching and even leaving their clusters. A man and his dog come to the playground and he stops to watch the monarchs. He tells us that as a kid his class would visit this spot regularly during the migration and he remembers one year the trees “were orange. So many butterflies. You couldn’t even see the trees.”

Sunshine on the monarchs in Ventura. Photo by Brenda Rees

Bold Birds, SoCalWild, November, 2013

Captured with serious, bold and unflinching poses, the new exhibit “Nature LA: Birds of Prey” running into Jan. 5, 2014 at the G2 Gallery in Venice showcases Southland feathered flappers from the lens of Culver City-based photographer Jennifer MaHarry. These are the not the happy chirpers helping Cinderella that you’d see in a typical Disney movie; no these are raptors, serious and unflinching, thoughtful and daunting, birds that make you instantly realize how close genetically they are to their dinosaur ancestors.

Red Tailed Hawk - Jennifer MaHarry

Red tailed hawk eyeing the scenery – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

MaHarry is best known for her poignant and intimate images of wild horses; she’s a long-time advocate against the government sanctioned roundups of wild mustangs and burros, events which, she says, allows for many organizations to buy these magnificent creatures and profit from their slaughter.

MaHarry’s current exhibition, however, features the beauty and power of local birds of prey; and it all came together by missed opportunities, an afternoon of 100+ temperatures, and perched turkey vultures eyeing her in the Arizona wilderness.

Earlier in the year, MaHarry had made arrangements to photograph a wild horse and burro roundup in Nevada; but unlike other times where she was allowed in to snap and capture images, BLM officials there denied all photographers from the event. “Everyone was hopping mad,” she recalls wondering how she could salvage this trip with some images. (MaHarry’s day job is a graphic designer working in the motion picture marketing arena.) She knew of a natural horse habitat in Arizona and thought, ‘Maybe I can find some,’” and booked a quick flight there.

So MaHarry was in the starkness of Arizona on an incredible hot afternoon. She didn’t find as many horses as she had hoped; but she was the object of interest from a group of turkey vultures that watched her from high above a rocky perch. “I watched them for a long time,” she says. “I saw how curious and social there were with each other and when I came back and read up on vultures. I was fascinated with them.”

MaHarry took that fascination to a broader scope and decided that if she couldn’t photograph horses, maybe another critter was calling to her camera. She contacted officials at local wildlife rescues – theOjai Raptor Center and the California Wildlife Center – to see if she could photograph any birds of prey there. For months, she visited the centers to snap rehabilitated birds, many that would soon be released back to the wild.

Setting up a simple giant scrim as a backdrop, MaHarry found personalities of each of the birds of prey she photographed. The kestrel was skittish, the great horned owl was intimidating (“I read his talons, when clenched, exhibits 4,000 pounds per square inch of bone-crushing power”) and the screech owls were overwhelming adorable (“I had to keep hands in the photo so you could see how small they really are.”)

MaHarry's golden eagle -- Photograph by Martha Benedict

MaHarry’s golden eagle — Photograph by Martha Benedict

Cute-factor aside, these birds of prey impressed MaHarry with their wild and powerful nature. “I wanted to capture a soulful look from them, something that expressed who they are, these beings completely covered with the most beautiful feathers. No fighter pilot can achieve the natural agility and speed these birds possess without blacking out from the extreme G forces that the birds are able to endure.”

Among the portraits of local raptors – red tailed hawk, merlin, barn owl, short eared owl and more – at the exhibit, MaHarry’s image of the Arizona turkey vulture hangs as a testimony to her photographic journey.

MaHarry and the vulture that started her avian quest - photo by Martha Benedict

MaHarry and the vulture that started her avian quest – photograph by Martha Benedict

Also, a raven is present, and while not necessarily a bird of prey, a bird that MaHarry wanted to include because of its intense intelligence.

Raven - Photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

What is this raven thinking? – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

MaHarry says she will continue to photograph wild horses and be a voice against their destruction, but this side road down the path of local raptors was a welcomed diversion. “I’d love people to realize that not all birds are cute little songbirds,” she says. “The world these birds live in is fierce. They are fighting every day for their survival. They are amazing creatures, worthy of our awe.”

– Brenda Rees, editor

Great Horned Owl - photograph by Jennifer MaHarry

Great Horned Owl in a pensive moment – photograph by Jennifer MaHarry


Home on the Pickleweed, SoCalWild, August 2013

Countless birds fly under the radar in the Endangered Bird World these days. Many birds don’t get the full court press like their flashier “rock star” cousins, flappers that require extraordinary measures to ensure their survival in the wild.

We hear about the superhuman efforts  (and big $$$) to save the California condors, bald eagles and other notable birds; scaling the sides of mountains to remove viable eggs, creating floating islands so mama birds can safely nest, closely monitoring every movement, flight and meal in the wild. Some birds are almost living a Truman Show existence.

But consider the Belding’s Savannah sparrow – a seemingly innocuous, unassuming federally threatened state endangered bird that has managed to eke out survival in one of L.A.’s seriously decimated habitats: the coastal salt marsh. “Based upon the 2010 surveys, Belding’s are doing well within their range in California,” states the most recent report by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on the bird which was surveyed from Goleta to Baja, Mexico. “This is the highest state total reported since periodic counts began in 1973,” sums up the report.

(A Belding's Eyes the Territory...Photo by Matt Sadowski)

(An Acrobatic Belding’s Eyes the Territory…Photo by Matt Sadowski)

Since 1973, the numbers of Belding’s have increased three-fold statewide despite that its’ preferred home has shrunk considerably from its once majestic acreage.

Bits and pieces are all that remains of the once giant coastal salt marshes that stretched from Santa Barbara County to Mexico. It’s estimated that today we’re only seeing between 5-10 percent of the marshes that once bogged the area. Dredged and bulldozed over for development, it’s a wonder we have anything left of these soupy prairie-like lands where wildlife – especially birds – flock.

The remarkable story of the Belding’s Savannah sparrow is how closely intertwined the bird is with the landscape. Coastal salt marshes are the ONLY place you’ll find this bird and they are not known for migrating from marsh to marsh. They live, eat, mate, nest and die in pretty much the same neighborhood. They create strong family units with hatchlings and even dad helps take care of the young.

The last remaining coastal wetlands in Los Angeles County, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve in Playa del Rey has been a consistent home to a small but plucky group of Belding’s that just wants to keep peace among sea-blite, salt bush, salt grass and, its favorite plant, the pickleweed that, like the bird, is only found in salt marshes.

(Photo: Friends of Ballona Wetlands)

(The Ballona Wetlands today….photo: Friends of Ballona Wetlands)

This little songbird didn’t require conservation acrobatics to stabilize its population – the needs of the Belding’s were simple: pickleweed, seeds, insects, a mate and…. oh, yeah….a coastal salt marsh. An endangered bird in an endangered landscape.


Considering the cost of what it takes to bring back other species, the Belding’s is “a bargain bird,” says biologist Dan Cooper who has recently surveyed and reported on the birds’ current state of affairs at Ballona. “The land is the thing for the Belding’s’,” he says. “They have a little stable population there without any real management to speak of but they are a real conservation success story.”

“There were about 13 pairs in the late 80s and now we are seeing about 20 pairs,” says Cooper who adds that numbers have fluctuated up and down over the years but they are steadily trending upward. “With the pickleweed expanded in recent years, so has the population of Belding’s.”

Cooper says that no one really has studied the mortality rate of the youngsters. After all, these birds are fighting non-native red foxes and domesticated cats and dogs that find their way into the reserve. If Fido and Fluffy are kept at bay, who knows how many more Belding’s may grace the wetlands? Probably a lot more. Homeowners: take note.

(House cats roam Ballona...Photo by Martha Benedict)

(House cats roam Ballona…Photo by Martha Benedict)

“There is certainly room at Ballona for more Belding’s,” says Cooper. “The land can accommodate them.”

“They are cute little strappy guys,” says Kathy Keane, biologist who surveyed the Belding’s from 2006-2010. “They seem so much in their element when I observed them,” she says describing how the birds’ nest and care for their young from about late April through August.

(Strappy Enough for You?....Photo by Matt Sadowski)

(Strappy Enough for You?….Photo by Matt Sadowski)

Keane talks fondly about the songs that the male sings to the female during mating and the occasional altercation between males when they have a “fluff-up face-off.”  Even with the roar of airplanes overhead, traffic from nearby boulevards and predation, “These birds manage to go on with their daily lives,” she says. “They are really persistent.”

Indeed, both bird and landscape have tenacity for…well, just being here.

The Belding’s hopeful story mirrors the hope for the revitalization of Ballona landscape which has been constantly changing since European settlers embraced the area decades ago.

Over the years, this once-lush wetland has been a cattle ranch, a race track, agriculture plots, a recreational boating and fishing site, a riding stable, a massive oil rig operation and an airport runway. In the 1950s, the Army Corps concreted over many of the nearby springs/creeks that fed into the area. In the 1960s, 900 acres of wetlands was destroyed for the construction of Marina del Rey.

(Grazing Livestock at Ballona in the 1800s...Photo from Friends of Ballona Wetlands)

(Grazing Livestock at Ballona in the 1800s…Photo from Friends of Ballona Wetlands)

When scientists, environmentalists and citizens woke up and smelled the burnt coffee in the 1990s, they realized that in exchange for roads, apartment building and shopping centers they had, for all practical purposes, killed freshwater ponds, vernal pools, wet meadows, freshwater marshes and numerous springs. Efforts to save what little of the Ballona was left kicked into high gear.

Today, the Ballona landscape is set to change once more. The reserve has been owned by the State of California since 2003; the area is managed by Fish and Game with the California Coastal Conservancy and the California State Lands Commission part of the equation; the volunteer-basedFriends of Ballona Wetlands also has a stake in the upcoming discussion about tidal flushing.

(Ballona Landscape...Photo by Martha Benedict)

(Ballona Landscape…Photo by Martha Benedict)

A true wetland would have regular tides coming in and out giving the area a good salt water bath which would help the pickleweed and other plants grow – but such flooding could mess up nearby Culver Boulevard not to mention the Belding’s’ and other species garden level habitats. It’s not just a question of “To Flush or Not To Flush,” but how much, when and where. In addition, some Native Americans are also concerned about disturbing land that they claim is sacred. Stay tuned.

Until that decision comes, life continues for the birds of Ballona. On a recent August morning, the Belding’s weren’t coming out to sing since mating season has long past, but you could scan the expansive marshland and see the pickleweed tips turn summer red. Mockingbirds, herons, gulls, pelicans and other flappers take to the skies above.

(Pick a Patch of Pickleweed...Photo by Martha Benedict)

(Pick a Patch of Pickleweed…Photo by Martha Benedict)

Thriving only in a salty habitat, the Belding’s continued presence at Ballona may not be the heart-pounding, high-stakes conservation story of some of its feathered cousins. But its’ tale is just as profound: when given the right conditions – aka, space and freedom – nature can quietly reclaim both landscape and critter as one, bringing back into the fold what was once lost.

(Ballona Trailer Art...Photo by Martha Benedict)

(Ballona Trailer Art…Photo by Martha Benedict)

– Brenda Rees, editor

Special thanks to Karina Johnston, restoration ecologist of the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission,  Kathy Keane of Keane Biological Consulting, Dan Cooper of Cooper Ecological, and Lisa Fimiani of the Friends of Ballona Wetlands.


Reptile Hunting at Malibu Creek, SoCalWild, May 2013

It’s not every day you get to watch two grown men wrestle a young Southern Pacific rattlesnake from its hiding place underneath a pile of sticks into a Plexiglas tube.

All in the name of education – and with a certain amount of scientific machismo – Drs. Robert Espinoza and Greg Pauly held up the anxious and finally squeezed-in reptile to the gaggle of folks who had joined these two for a Lizard Walk in Malibu Creek State Park.

It's real snake!

“Stand back and get in line,” they directed as youngsters and oldsters obeyed. After all, who wouldn’t want to touch the rattle end of a wild, just-caught rattlesnake? This was no ordinary traveling reptile show that you’d find visiting libraries or first grade classes. No, this was a nature in nature experience.

A program from the Natural History Museum, this family-friendly trek got kids squealing with delight as some adults shirked back, happy to let the little ones go first, get close and touch whatever critter was discovered. And a LOT was discovered on this half-mile trail.

In fact, the regular hikers and outdoor folk who were enjoying the trails around the popular park probably didn’t realize the reptile potential that lurked underfoot and just a stone’s throw away from their….feet. If you’re not looking for wildlife, you probably would have missed it slither, zip and zoom away.

The outdoor excursion started off on a high note: young Andrew procured a Western yellow-bellied racer snake, a reptile not often seen in the area. (“Wow, I don’t remember the last time we found one here,” said Espinoza.) In fact, fearless Andrew was the star of the morning also catching more than his share of beasties.

Other young snake wranglers-in-training were not as lucky as Andrew whose mother confessed that she probably will have to buy him a snake stick (long pole with a flipped end to catch slippery snakes) to encourage his uncanny reptile connection.

Somethings Here

Since it was an overcast and cool morning, reptiles were not out basking – which meant more digging for lizard lookers. It seemed critters were found…well, everywhere.

Side blotched lizards were acquired from a hole near an open space; a Western skink was lifted from a pile of rocks; an extremely large Western fence lizard (male with a bright blue belly) was caught hiding under a pile of logs; and a California king snake was peacefully enjoying his stack of sticks before being presented to the group.  (All reptiles were released back where they were found – much to the dismay of many youngsters who wanted to hold and/or take the treasured critters back home.)

A skinky find

Side blotched lizard  Side blotched lizard

The King of snakes

The only common SoCal lizard not found was an alligator lizard. Newts, said our lizard leaders, used to be plentiful in the area, but aren’t typically found anymore in the Santa Monica Mountains anymore. Introduced crayfish and bullfrogs found newt eggs a delicacy. The newts have moved on.

What's under this rock?

As kids perfected the rock flipping (“Make sure you flip the rock in front of you; you don’t want some thing to run into your legs!” was the instruction that most kids forget in their zeal of discovery), parents were thrilled to have pro biologists validate their child’s fascination with reptiles (“You should see what his/her room looks like”).

And just as the group was walking back to the parking lot, there as if on cue, the rattler was discovered. Espinoza and Pauly channeled their inner Steve Irwin as they carefully grappled the annoyed snake into the show tube with rattle end exposed.



In you go!

Sure the kids lined up first to touch the dry rattle (who learned it made up of hollow keratin segments), but the adults were there as well – even some adults not part of the group but who witnessed the earlier wrestling match and just had to see the temporarily restrained snake for themselves.


After the snake was released back into its home territory and the walk officially ended, many parents were still wrangling their kids who continued to search, hunt and turn over rocks and logs. “He’d stay here all day,” said Andrew’s mom, who while watching her intent and determined boy. She was probably was imagining that one day her son would be leading such an expedition of his own with a new flock of eager-eyed, reptile-crazed youngsters. Yup, it could happen…

Future herptologist Andrew

– Story by Brenda Rees – Photographs by Martha Benedict

Wildlife – Present and Absent – at the Sepulveda Basin, SoCalWild, April 2013

About four months after the Army Corps of Engineers ripped apart 48 acres of the Sepulveda BasinWildlife Area in the San Fernando Valley, wildlife continues to surprise and amaze – even though the absence of so many birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians still serves as a reminder that nothing in this life is ever a sure thing.


I took a recent bird walk through the North and South Reserves of the wildlife area led by Kris Ohlenkamp from the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society who, for more than 30 years, has guided monthly excursions for seasoned birders and newbies like me. (Next bird hike is slated for May 5, 2013. Click for details.)

From the moment we set foot in the North Reserve, we see birds flittering, fluttering and flapping everywhere. White crowned sparrows on the ground, yellow-rumped warblers belting out tunes on a sycamore. Is that an Allen’s or a rufous hummingbird on that branch? My fellow birders thumb through well-used books to answer each other. Half of the fun of birding, it seems, is discovering what bird it was that you actually saw or heard.

Quick. Is it Allen's or Anna's?

Get out your bird book for this one.

We wander through the riparian and woodland areas of this natural place that was designated in the 1970s and then later developed in the 1980s with help from Audubon and the Native Plant Society.  Towering hedges of wild roses flank our pathway that runs parallel to Haskell Creek, an original tributary of the Los Angeles River.

A large “Mr. Big” birder announces, “Hey, aren’t we near where the mythical cardinal lives?” Ohlenkamp agrees but adds that it hasn’t been seen in a while, and usually folks spy that red-feathered wonder earlier in the day. In other words, don’t get your hopes up, fella.

We wander to a pond and an island where large birds preen and perch on tall trees. Red-winged blackbirds, grackles, green herons and other shorebirds cavort in the tall grasses, cattails and reeds at the pond’s edge. The cacophony of tweets, chirps, songs and trills often drowns out the sounds of the nearby freeway. IT’S LOUD. What? LOUD.

A great tailed grackel strikes a pose.

A female grackle can't help by be impressed by his...great tail.

Ohlenkamp gets an osprey in his scope followed by a kestrel. Both seem to strike a pose for us as we peer at them. “Well, we are in Los Angeles after all,” someone jokes.

Then, right on cue, someone points up and gasps, “the cardinal…here!” Sure enough, high in the sycamore that deep red, pointy crest cardinal was watching us check out his bird cousins. A flurry of camera clicks and then…he was gone. (As luck would have it, Mr. Big birder failed to get a glimpse of the famed cardinal. Next time, buddy.)

Not an animatronic. A real live cardinal.

Our wanderings in the North Reserve end at a darken tunnel which leads us to the South Reserve – the scene of the crime, as it were. Ohlenkamp prepares us for what we will see once we step out into the light.

The landscape change is dramatic. The near claustrophobic thickness of plant life in the north yields to an agoraphobic expansiveness of 48 acres of tree stumps, dirt mounds and wood piles. Only tall native oaks and cottonwood remain along with a stand of non-native eucalyptus. I could tell the wound is still fresh for Ohlenkamp and many local birders. It’s hard to look at the space after just experiencing a rich, noisy, lush land, only steps away.

Some of the few trees that now remain in the South Reserve.

Yes, a lack of noise. It was oddly quiet here…probably because so many birds are gone, having lost their nesting, hiding, perching and food sources. Residents and migrants will not be nesting here this year, Ohlenkamp tells us. And probably for several years to come.

“California thrashers were an abundant all-year resident of the South Reserve and they have been extirpated, just prior to their breeding season,” he says. They have not been seen here since January. The South Reserve was also nesting home to the endangered least Bell’s vireo that has gone incognito as well.

It’s hard to say specifically what else besides birds were displaced when numerous native willows, mule fat, coyote brush and elderberry trees were destroyed. No official records were kept as to a wildlife list, although an appendix to an Army Corp document lists 35 birds as common (experts say more than 200 birds species have been seen here) and only four mammals – coyote, squirrel, skunk and raccoon – but they didn’t count rabbits which we saw on our walk. No mention of reptiles, amphibians or even insects that for sure were here at one time.

Ohlenkamp points to an area for a proposed pond, lake and winter seasonal marsh, all part of the original 1981 Master Plan for the South Reserve. The 7-acre lake was previously dug but never filled with water.

In fact, it’s that original Master Plan that Audubon, along with other community groups (Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, Sepulveda Basin Wildlife Areas Steering Committee and Encino Neighborhood Council) wants to see reinstated and used as the template to restore this section.

A meeting of those groups with the Army Corps is slated for April 23, 2013 and Ohlenkamp says he’s pretty confident that the Corps will adopt that original Master Plan. “Even so, it probably will be five years before this space is back to what it was just months ago,” he says.

Creek beds were once lush and full of greenery. Now netting holds ground back.

Along the path to the confluence of Haskell Creek to the LA River, birders discuss the ramifications. Some think of the good that will come from this. One woman says that this tragic episode brought together community groups that normally wouldn’t know each other.  That Master Plan is now high priority whereas it wasn’t just months ago.

Part of the proposed new plan would also target three species of birds (greater yellowlegs, white-faced ibis and blue-winged teal) to act as “indicator species” – canaries in the coal mine, as it were – to physically represent how the South Reserve is ecologically faring. These three birds have all been seen in the basin – as recent as this month – but not in the South Reserve. It will be a celebratory day when those flappers decide to “set up shop” and start to reclaim the area.

Flying stilts. Acrobatic wonders over the water.

We head down to the merging waterways with the Sepulveda Dam framing our horizon. We watch sandpipers, killdeers and black neck stilts poking through the riverbeds. A group of coots confer with each other in the middle of the river. Three stilts rise up and zoom with break-neck precision over the water.

“Maybe it’s a good thing this happened,” one birder suggests. “Now people will pay better attention.”

Well, time is the great healer, but more than likely, time won’t erase every trace of misunderstanding and miscommunication that resulted in this man-made destruction and death of so much plant and wildlife…and maybe it shouldn’t.

–  Brenda Rees, editor

– All photos by Martha Benedict (c)

Sheeper Peepers: Looking for Big Horn Sheep, SoCalWild, March 2013

Channelle Davis was trying her best, but I was getting nervous. The wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife was giving us newbies a crash course in how to identify big horn sheep, particularly the delicate differences between the young males and the females.

It’s all about the horn size, Channelle told us, as she posted slides up at the Forest Service Headquarters in Arcadia on a Saturday night. How far the horn curls around the animal’s head determines if it’s a class one, two, three or four.  I was guessing three instead of a four, one instead of a two. Oh, how was I ever going to accurately do my job the next day? I didn’t want to fail…


Along with about a hundred or so fellow volunteers, I was getting an overview of a herd of big horned sheep that call the San Gabriel Mountains their home.  This workshop would prepare us for the annual Big Horn Sheep Survey that has been taking place since the 1980s. Citizen volunteers trained in spotting and categorizing the hoofed mammal, help biologists learn more about the herd that has a mountain top view of Azusa, Rancho Cucamonga, Duarte and other eastern San Gabriel suburbs. Often helicopter counts are held in conjunction with ground counts – but not this year.

We volunteers were pumped up with information (“Rams can be as large as 300 pounds,” “They only eat grasses and shrubs”) but the most interesting facts was the herd had been as big as 700 in the 1980s. A big crash in sheep numbers from 1986-1993 brought the herd to dangerous low numbers of 100 or so.  Since then, sheep population has been on the upswing every year. Last year, the estimate was 418. (2013 numbers will be soon available. Watch this spot for updates!)

The reason for the decline and upswing? Old growth and fire, we were told. In the late 80s, the hills and mountain tops were getting too thick with vegetation, making it hard for the big horns to move around, let alone reproduce and care for young. With the fire of 2003, the area was cleared out, new growth came and with that, higher numbers of sheep.  As strange as it seems, fires can be great for wildlife.

We sheep spotters also learned that we may see collared sheep, big horns that are part of an on-going research project. More than 60 were collared in 2006 – about 14 still have radio-activated collars.

Before the workshop concluded, we signed up for our research group locations. Did I want to scramble over boulders, hike through streams or blaze through thickets? Naw, I wimped out and opted for the relatively “easy” location off Highway 39 near Crystal Lake. Six viewing sites were available on a three-mile paved road, not used anymore by the public. Yeah, I wasn’t ready to do the Hard-Core Get-Up-At-Crack-Of-Dawn-Loaded-Down-With-Gear-And-Hike-For-Hours route. Not this year, anyway.

Next morning, driving up to the location, I saw snow in the distant mountain tops. Little did I realize that the temperature conundrum I was about to enter. Sure it’s 80 degrees down in the basin…but up near 5,500 feet, life is completely different.

Arriving at our rendezvous point, big chunks of snow lined the side of the road. A fierce Santa Ana wind was blowing, swirling snow crystals up and around. The higher we walked up the road, the stronger the wind blew nearly knocking us off our feet.


The recent snow, we were told, may give us peepers an advantage. Snow at higher elevations should bring the sheep down to hunt for food. But we soon learned that blowing, below-freezing wind would just keep the sheep in our area hunkered down and immobile.  I imagine them snuggling together, reading a good book with a cup of hot chocolate. (“No scampering for us today!”)

Still,  trained sheep spotters were here and we had to try. I opted to join Group Number Three about two miles up the road, a spot where historically sheep have been recorded. I stomped through snow piles in my tennis shoes to find a rocky overlook where I placed my foamy garden kneeling mat and was set for spotting action.

Where are you? Sheep? Sheep? PHOTO: BRENDA REES

The wind was torrential, but I was up for the challenge. Binoculars in hand, I scanned the hills, the bushes, the brush, the erosion lines of the surrounding landscape.  I looked for white rumps, long legs or anything that moved. Alas, in the hour I sat there, I only witnessed a car moving up on Highway 2.

Fellow Sheeper Peepers scanning the landscape. PHOTO: BRENDA REES

I kept imagining the moment when I would see a small group emerge from underneath a grove of Coulter pines. I envisioned me grandiosely recording the number, accurately categorizing the males with no hesitation and then, and then, even spying a lamb. I thought if I imagined it hard enough, I could will it to happen. No such luck.

After more than an hour, I attempted to eat my lunch, but because of the bitter wind, I didn’t want to take off my gloves. I regrouped with my fellow sheep-less peepers and we finally decided to head back down.

And that’s when it happened.

Group Two was packing up their site, when one volunteer thought she’d scan the nearby hill one more time. As we approached, we heard her joy in discovering a small herd. My camera and binoculars were around my neck and, Halleluiah, I spotted them, too. Far off in the distance, they effortlessly moved over a thick rock slab and wandered between trees. Three rams, I saw, but more were out there. “I counted eight,” said someone. “I counted 10,” said another.  “I just saw wild sheep!” I told myself.

Sheep spotters discover a small herd. Halleluiah! PHOTO BY BRENDA REES

I was overjoyed on the ride back down and the rest of the day. Later, I heard from Chanelle Davis that her group saw sheep right near their rendezvous location.  Sheep were everywhere at her location…and no blowing snow‼! “We just looked up and there they were!” she said. “Don’t rub it in,” I told her.  Of course, she had to gloat and sent me photos from her excursion. Show-off.

Chanelle's group of 8 (7 visible) sheep seen in Middle Fork Lytle Creek near the trailhead. One sheep with PINK COLLAR. Note the lack of snow! PHOTO: CHANELLE DAVIS

Still, as Chanelle and I talked, I realized that even though I didn’t hit a mother lode of sheep my first time out, the experience reinforced the notion that wildlife is everywhere around us in Southern California. Maybe as I was sitting there in the freezing wind, a sheep was observing me from a high perk. We humans just need to sit still more and observe.

Yes, there is something to be said for being in the quiet of nature, even when the wind whistles through the pine branches and stings your face. You know what nature is saying? I’ll tell you what nature is saying: “Where is your scarf, you big dope? Don’t you know it’s cold up here? What an idiot….”

That said, yeah, I probably will sign up for the survey next year. I mean, come on. Nature can’t certainly have the last laugh, can she?

To register for the next big horn sheep survey, visit here.

Record Number of Cal Sea Lions Need Help, SoCalWild, Feb. 2013

They have loose, rolling skin and their ribs show through their tiny brown bodies. There is a glaze in their large round eyes. When they flop or lay down on the cement dry areas, it’s not the normal lounging that healthy California sea lions typically do for hours on end.  Even their whiskers seem droopy. These pups are sick.

What’s more is there are a record number of sick pups this year. The biggest number in 20 years. Officials at the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro say that the number of emaciated and dehydrated young sea lions is at the highest it’s recorded for 20 years for this time of year. Usually in January, the center receives maybe 11 or so strandings but so far, the center has admitted more than 60…and counting. (UPDATE: As of Feb. 11, 2013 the center has received more than 100 pups.)

The Marine Mammal Care Center has never seen this many sick Cal seal lions at this time of year. (photo: Brenda Rees)The Marine Mammal Care Center has never seen this many sick Cal seal lions at this time of year. (photo: Brenda Rees)

The staff, including an extensive volunteer organization, has been working overtime to care for and fatten up these normally active pinnipeds so they can return to the ocean. But the center’s enclosures are getting full and every day it seems, another thin and confused sea lion is brought in.

“We estimate that most of these pups are about 8 months old,” says David Bard, director of operations. “We really aren’t sure why we are seeing so many now. Usually January is a relatively quiet time for us. This has taken us all by surprise.”

Indeed, officials gave the go-ahead to start an extensive revamping of the center’s drainage system last month considering January is “downtime.” That’s all been put on hold since staff and volunteers are working round the clock to assess, treat and care for the skinny pups.

There are many theories as to what is causing so many malnourished young sea lions, but overall, scientists are stumped.

“We currently do not know the reasons for the poor condition of California sea lion pups,” says Sharon Melin, research biologist for NOAA currently based in Seattle, WA.

Scientists are stumped as to what is making so many Cal sea lion pups sick. (Photo: Brenda Rees)Scientists are stumped as to what is making so many Cal sea lion pups sick. (Photo: Brenda Rees)

It could be a few factors or a combination. “Starving pups at this time of year usually means that the mothers are having trouble finding enough food to support the energetic cost of lactation,” says Melin. “It could also mean that mothers are dying from disease…but we do not have evidence that suggests this is occurring.”

Melin and fellow scientists are currently sampling dead and live pups to see if there are anything unusual that would explain low weights and the poor condition of the pups.

Another factor maybe the warmer-than-normal sea surface temperature that took place in Southern California in the fall of 2012. Warm temps could have relocated sea lion prey so mama sea lions were struggling to find food and produce milk. “At this time of year (February), most pups are not weaned completely and are still largely dependent on their mothers for nutrition,” she says.

Back at the noisy and bustling care center, healthier pups (ones who have been at the center the longest) are frolicking in a pool, barking and snapping at one another in true sea lion form. Others are draped protectively over their buddies as they sprawl on the sidelines. This wildly active scene is a sharp contrast to the nearby weak pups that still look, for lack of a better word, shell-shocked.

These pups will soon be released back into the ocean. (Photo: Brenda Rees)These pups will soon be released back into the ocean. (Photo: Brenda Rees)











“[The sick pups]seem to be responding to the food and the medication,” says Dr. Lauren Palmer, on-staff vet, who along with Bard and the volunteers are hopeful they can weather the storm of sick pups. “So far, we have lost very few of them. That is encouraging.”

Indeed, Bard explains that the mandate of the Marine Mammal Care Center is to accept any sick or injured marine mammal found in the boundaries of Los Angeles County.  “We are prepping in the back of our heads for the ‘worst case scenario’ if this condition still persists,” he says. “We’re taking it day by day.”

As a non-profit, the Marine Mammal Care Center relies on public donations for  financial support. They also have a wish list of items that can be dropped off for use at the facility. Household bleach, safflower oil with vitamin E, bottled water and other items listed here are greatly appreciated.

The center is also opened for tours and school visits. Call to schedule a tour or to get more information.

Go on. The water is fine. (Photo: Brenda Rees)Go on. The water is fine. (Photo: Brenda Rees)

Burbank Mountain Lions…One Year Later, SoCalWild, Jan. 2013

They were once malnourished, fearful and full of parasites, but now these former SoCal two mountain lion cubs have grown into strapping young cats ready for the world ahead of them, a world that doesn’t involved being poked at with sticks by strangers on the streets of Burbank.

Found in December of 2011 under a parked car in Burbank (where residents were thrusting broomsticks at them to shoo them away), this feline duo “was rescued just in the nick of time,” says curator Katelyn Cottle of Zoo to You, a conservation educational facility in Paso Robles.

The young cats were first brought to the California Wildlife Center in Calabasas for medical care and evaluation before they were transported to Zoo to You. Wildlife experts agreed that such young cats were not good candidates to be released back into the wild because they haven’t been properly trained to hunt and they’ve been overexposed to human contact. Where was their mother? Why were they alone? Hard to say…

Olive and her brother Leno were rescued in the "nick of time." Photo couresty of the California Wildlife Center.Olive and her brother Leno were rescued in the “nick of time.” Photo couresty of the California Wildlife Center.

The 3-month old cubs were only 9 and 11 pounds when they arrived at the facility a little more than a year ago. Now, they are packing in between 75 -80 pounds, a more adequate weight for carnivorous cats.

Olve -- in between cub and cat. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Olive — in between cub and cat. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.

They were first named Olive and Magnolia (Burbank streets, dontcah know) until it was discovered that Magnolia was a boy.  Now known as Olive and Leno (yes, after Jay Leno whose Tonight Show tapes in beautiful downtown Burbank), the not-so-cubby cats spend a good chunk of their days working with trainers and resolving trust issues.  It’s hoped the duo will become traveling educational ambassadors, taking the mantel from the facilities’ two other “elderly” cougars that are 15 years old.

Training is “a long process and with large cats, we usually start when they are only a few days or weeks old,” explains Cottle. “With these cubs being three months old, we are working through a lot of fears they have – fear of being killed, being eaten, starving. These two still have that ‘fight’ in them, but we are making very good progress.”

Olive growing up. "What? I'm not in Burbank anymore?" Photo courtesy of Zoo to You.Olive growing up. “What? I’m not in Burbank anymore?” Photo courtesy of Zoo to You.

Consider the plight of the three trainers who work with the cats – everything is positive reinforcement which means praising and acknowledging good behavior and totally ignoring bad behavior. “So when the cats, claw or bite you, you just have to ignore it. You can’t react when they do that,” says Cottle. “That can be really hard to do when they are in attack mode.” Soon, the cats will realize they aren’t “getting a rise” out of the human and decide to do something else…something that may get them a treat or other goodies.

Training Olive. Always positive reinforcement. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Training Olive. Always positive reinforcement. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.

Scientists have DNAed the duo’s mother and father as part of a small contingency of mountain lions that live in and around the Verdugo Mountains near Burbank.  Camera traps in that area snap and record wildlife; researchers were excited about a video recorded only a few weeks before the cubs were discovered in Burbank. They thought the images were of the brother sister pair.

But, it turns out, that video captured yet but another pair of cubs foraging the hillsides. “Scientists were just blown away by that,” says Cottle. “It just goes to show that wildlife is right here in our own backyard.”

Olive and Leno’s journey is the subject of a documentary crew which is using the cat’s story to illustrate the bigger picture of mountain lions living in and around dense urban areas, like Los Angeles.  (See sidebar on David Elkins and Elkins Eye Visuals.)

The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) estimates that there are between 4,000 – 6,000 mountain lions in California; they are not endangered, but they’re considered a “specially protected species” and cannot be hunted.

Mountain lions are the ultimate boogie-man of urban predators. They are painted as the vicious creatures that stalk the shadows for hikers on the trail, children in playgrounds, old people at the bus stop, or pampered pets in backyards.

However, a DFG record of mountain lion attacks in the state of California reveals that since 1890, only seven people were killed by mountain lions and 16 nonfatal incidents were reported. Yes, you are more likely to hit by lightning twice then be attacked by a mountain lion.

Mountain lions are not the blood-hungry cat of our collective human nightmare; in truth they are solitary hunters, elusive and shy. They don’t hang out in prides and only meet up with others of their kind for mating. They want to be left alone and far away from humans as possible.

Still urban and rural folk need constant reminders that the big cat is not their enemy. The folks at Zoo to You are sure these two mountain lions – which have garnered a lot of public sympathy and local fame – offer a unique chance for conservation education.  Anyone can see the pair when they visit the center which is only a few hours away from the Los Angeles area.

Having a pair of wild cats with a dramatic backstory may soften the hardest of hearts and allow their real identity of the mountain lion to shine through the fear.

Cottle says that Zoo 2 You often brings animals to the Tonight Show to interact with Jay Leno.  It would be the perfect ending to the Hollywood story if Olive and Leno could travel back to Burbank, meet their namesake and help the cause of mountain lions everywhere. “It would be just the best,” she says. “We would love to see that happen. Really. It would be just the best.”

 Olive today. Not a scrawny cub anymore. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.Olive today. Not a scrawny cub anymore. Photo courtesy of Zoo To You.

Riding the Thermal High, SoCalWild, October 2011

It’s hard to figure out which is more impressive to watch – the magnificent California condors effortlessly gliding overhead or the enraptured faces of bird lovers gathered here to spend some quality time with the largest terrestrial bird in North America.

“I have tears in my eyes!” exclaimed one delighted visitor. “This just makes my day, no my week!”

About 30 folks signed up to venture into the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (normally closed to the public) for a guided walk to see the condors in action.

Bitter Creek is located just north of the Grapevine near the towns of Taft and Maricopa in the San Joaquin Valley foothills of Kern County. Sure it’s a schlep from the Los Angeles area, but once on the small roads, it’s a kick-back ride into some mouth-dropping country. All this beauty off the 5 near the Grapevine? Who freaking knew?

The walk was organized for National Wildlife Refuge Week, held the second week in October, when such entities put out the welcome mat and do a little showing off. (Want to participate next year in these walks and other events? Pencil Oct. 7-14, 2012 in your calendar.)

On that Saturday, there was plenty of showing off by the winged wonders at Bitter Creek Refuge. After a short jaunt down from the parking lot, past an old apple orchard…

…and into Bitter Creek Canyon, walkers were stop-in-your tracks mesmerized as various condors circled above and kept the crowd’s attention for more than an hour.

Photographers were clicking away like crazy especially when numbers 216 and 452 flew directly overhead. (216 is an 11-year-old female; 452 is a 4-year-old male.)

Not to be outdone, a band of ravens pestered their winged cousins, flapping up to bother and “touch wings” with the condors.  (Why do they do that? Theories were bandied about but with no clear reasoning, the only explanation was pure “short kid” annoyance.) Overall, the birds supplied a fine aerial show with no causalities.

“This historically has been a place for condor territory mainly because of the thermal air currents,” says Michael Woodbridge of the Fish and Wildlife Service. But the site also significantly marks condor history – it’s the site where the last wild female condor was trapped in 1986.

Bitter Creek was established in 1985 as one SoCal area for condor recovery; nearby Hopper MountainWildlife Refuge is another local site.

Like many wild things, at one time, condors filled the skies, invoked reverence from local Native Americans and found life pretty darn easy. Thousands of condors ranged the west coast from British Columbia to Baja, but with the advent of the Europeans in the area, the birds faced a downhill battle. They were shot at and poisoned, they collided with man-made structures and died, their once endless territories eroded to a few parcels of land.

Beginning as early as the 1950s, conservationists rallied around the bird; however, their protests often fell on deaf ears.  But in 1982, when a mere 22 condors were left in the world, folks decided to reverse the trend. Now, trying to recreate a species, captive breeding programs in California, Arizona and Baja California have been successful in upping the bird’s number. From the 27 birds in the original captive flock, today nearly 400 birds have taken in the breath of life.

Here at Bitter Creek, 47 condors call the 14,000 square feet of sloping hills and deep canyon home. All birds have transmitters and are closely watched. The public isn’t allowed into their territory. “New release” condors receive supplemental feeding (aka carted in carcasses) to help them adjust to the thrill of finding large animal remains (non-native wild pigs, cattle, sheep and deer) in their territory. Gone are the days when herds of Tule elk, pronghorn or mule deer would suffice these first-rate scavengers, but with the advent of ranching and farming, the condors have found new menus. Pickins maybe slim, but there is enough natural death for the condors to survive.

Indeed, despite the joy of seeing the birds soaring in the clear sky, there is a profound melancholy. Their existence is so depended on humans, from birth to death – even living in the wild. We take eggs of wild condors and replace with captive eggs to ensure new hatchlings will be viable. We monitor their every move, especially parents in the nest. We feed them and try our dardest to keep them from ingesting lead from hunter-killed critters or micro-trash that tarnishes our wilderness areas.

Is this collective psychic guilt from what we did to them long ago? A poetic selfish dream to see them again up high? A biological determination for diversity? Whatever the reason, the move to protect and propagate self-sustaining California condors is a massive undertaking that won’t be fully realized in our lifetimes.

Woodbridge announced to the walkers that the FWS is working on a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) that will cover management of three condor-related national wildlife refuges (Bitter Creek, Blue Ridge and Hopper Mountain).  In January 2012, the first draft will be issued and the public is welcomed to add their comments and suggestions.

In the meantime, the California Condor Recovery Plan has outlined goals and bench marks for a successful condor population.  One of the first goals “is to have two separate groups of wild condors in Central California and Southern California of 150 each,” he says. “We have to take this program one step at a time.”

For the condors, it’s just one flap at a time as they swoop and soar on the updrafts, holding on as they glide higher. One thing for sure, the landscape would surely seem emptier and even sadder without them.

– Brenda Rees, editor

– Condor photos by Ron Merkord

Winging It: Migrating Vaux’s Swifts, SoCalWild, September, 2011

Only in the asphalt jungles of downtown Los Angeles can one witness the powerful and mouth-dropping mysteries of nature from atop a simple parking structure. And we’re not talking the leery-peeping-Tom, things-you-don’t-want-your-grandma-or kids-to-even-KNOW-about brand of wildlife. No, we’re talking authentic feathers, beaks, talons and razor sharp bird brains. Real-time 3-D wildlife.

The flight of the petite but speedy Vaux’s swifts from Southern Alaska to their Central America winter home is just as astonishing as the great migration of the wildebeests across the Serengeti-Mara plains – perhaps not as thunderous and with, thankfully for the observer, no chance of being trampled underfoot.

No, the only real danger of watching these amazing flappers take their evening roost in a single chimney of the nearby Chester Williams Building is that where there’s 14,000 birds overhead in one concentrated place, there’s bound to be some, er, um, “avarian leakage” frosting the scenery. (Forcyringoutloud, people wear a hat when you come to see them.)

Jeff Chapman, director of the Audubon Center at Debs Parks, has been tracking the movement of the birds with his fellow Auddy buddies up and down the coast. Determining when the birds will hit Los Angeles is an unknown science, but he generally expects the birds to reach their peak from the mid to late September on their southbound migration. This year is no exception with the small, cigar-shaped birds with crescent wings currently filling the sky at dusk amid a backdrop of skyscrapers, roaring helicopters and spewing busses.

Perhaps there’s a twinge of jealousy when Chapman talks about when the swifts roost at more bucolic locales. There’s Chapman Elementary School in Portland which boasts a dedicated website, volunteer swift spotters, and grassy beds for bird watchers.  “Here we have the city surrounding us,” he says noting that the urban grittiness only adds to the delight of seeing the thousands of birds circling overhead in a dance of pure instinct and primal drive. “We’re in nature all the time and sometimes we just don’t see it.”

Indeed, the spectacle gives pause to any causal non-bird watcher who unsuspectingly notices the kinetic cloud overhead. “Are those bats?” asks one parking lot patron who sees Chapman and a small group of birders sitting on folding chairs with heads cocked skyward and binoculars in hand. Chapman gives him the low-down. Twice a year, Vaux’s swifts pass through Los Angeles, but it’s only been two years ago they have been found using this spot for overnight housing. Chapman heard that folks used to see them use the abandoned old Nabisco Bakery near the Loft District, but that was years ago.

“There may be other places they roost in the city. We just don’t know,” he says adding that the next big roost for the swifts on their southbound journey is in downtown San Diego. “We know that they can make it from San Francisco to Los Angeles in one day.”

When not plunging into the chimney for the night where they will cling to the walls and keep each other warm, the swifts are extremely active eaters during the daylight.  Vauxies have voracious appetite for small flying insects, beetles and bugs, as they gorge themselves to keep up their strength for their travels. For anyone who’s swatted a fly or cursed a mosquito, these birds are your pals.

It’s nice to know that the swiftly-flying swifts are not technically endangered, but there is concern that many of their favorite man-made roosting centers are disappearing. With many old masonry chimneys being torn down, the birds are without adequate cover for the night and safe from predators, like the ravens that perch on the chimney top, picking off a swiftie evening snack. The birdwatchers on the parking lot roof see the ravens nonchalantly capture swifts and fly away with their prey for solitary dining.

“This is probably why swifts lay many eggs, because it helps their numbers when they migrate,” explains Chapman.

Still, it’s not hard to feel sorry for the few Vauxies that are snatched away; it’s easy to raise a shaking fist at the opportunistic ravens. After all, those black birds haven’t flown hundreds of miles in a single day – they just laze around trash cans or scoop up fallen food here on downtown’s Broadway Avenue. What do they know about sacrifice and endurance?

As the sun finally disappears and blackness settles in, the birds pick up the pace as they enter their nightly lodging. Suddenly, they swirl in unison, a giant whirlpool of feathers flapping, accompanied by small tweets and then, swoop! Down the chimney they zoom and in a flash, the sky is suddenly empty of swifts.

“People pay big money to see the whales migrate up and down our coasts,” says Chapman. “Well, here is another migration that is as equally as impressive that everyone can witness – and it doesn’t cost much at all.”

We agree. We also think that the swifts need a better creative marketing manager. After all, their cousin the swallow has songs, traditions and parades built up around their annual migration.  Musicians, now is your time. We challenge you to write that inspiring song that will tell this bird’s story. Get cracking. They are only here for a few more weeks.

The Audubon Center at Debs Parks will hold two organized public viewings of the Vaux’s swifts from 6 to 7:30 on Friday Sept. 23 and Sept. 30 atop Joe’s Auto Park at 440 Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles. Parking is $3. Birdwatchers are encouraged to bring picnics, binoculars and something to sit on, plus head covering. Park on level just below the top, because if you park your car on top, it will get “painted” by bird poo. We’re not kidding.




“Blue Whale Summer,” SoCalWild, August, 2011

I had the most wonderful opportunity to board a whale watching vessel one morning out of Long Beach with staff and biologists from the Aquarium of the Pacific. We were on search for those lovely leviathans of the deep, our summer visitors, the blue whales. Along with photographer friend, Martha Benedict, we captured what it was like to be on a watery expedition. Here’s our featured post for SoCalWild.

Blue Whale Summer

The tail. Everybody loves “the tail.”

It’s the collective gasp from the crowd aboard any whale watching vessel when the observed whale decides it’s time to forgo the surface and dive deeper. Up its body arches and then, just before the hulking cetacean plunges downward, the fluke emerges from the water, dripping, waving, announcing its presence in a majestic display of form and beauty.

Here in Southern California, whale watching is a 12 month event since certain times of the year brings certain whales to our waters. Summertime, however, has proven especially delicious for whale watchers because the blues have come closer. For the past seven years, the giant blue whales have altered their normal feeding areas and opted to move closer to the coastline, making it easier for whale watching boats to bring folks out to them.

Why did they move closer? A yummier brand of their preferred prey, the shrimp-like krill, here? More predators out in those wilder waters? Scientists aren’t sure, but what they do know is that the summer of 2011 is setting up to be one of the most spectacular summers ever to observe the blue whale, The Largest Creature Ever To Live On The Face of Earth (cue: music sting).

On a recent whale watching trip out of Long Beach, whale watchers were treated to a rare sight – a mother and an estimated 4 to 5-month old calf, resting, feeding and frolicking in the waters only 7 miles from shore. On deck were staffers from the nearby Aquarium of the Pacific who were patiently answering questions about the blues, but who were also on board as part of an ongoing scientific observation about the whales.

Mother and baby. Notice the mom’s spine. She’s losing weight since she is nursing her baby with her super-rich, 35-50 percent milk fat. By contrast, human mom’s milk is a mere 2 percent.

For three years the Aquarium has partnered with Cascadia Research Collective based in Olympia, Washington, providing biologists with data, photos and notes regarding the endangered blue whales that make Southern California their home for the summer months. “We’re out here on their daily whale watching trips, twice a day,” says Kera Mathes, the aquarium’s boat program coordinator who’s handy with a camera, has an eye for the whales and was instrumental in getting the partnership off the ground.

Mathes directed a nearby intern with a clipboard how to chart the data from this sighting – how long the pair were above water, what they were doing, estimates on size and if these whales have been previously recorded. Cascadia has a huge data bank of blue whales from up and down the coastline and what Mathes and company see out here will be added to that information.

Currently, about 2-3,000 blue whales are thought to be in the Pacific waters, but relatively little is known about these mysterious swimmers, despite the fact that they are The Biggest Thing Ever On This Planet (cue: a higher musical sting). It’s not known exactly where they go in the wintertime and their migration paths are very much a blue whale secret.

Back on the boat, after the cow and her calf was spotted, the captain turned the engines off allowing us humans could hear the blow of the blue whale, that powerful breathe of air that translates into a 30-foot plume of mist.

Admire from a distance. Lots of bacteria in that spray.

But today was a trifecta for whale watchers. Not only was a cow/calf pair spotted, but the baby dived, revealing its fluke, another very rare occurrence indeed which elicited big sighs and low cries from all on deck.

Rounding out the “Did I Really Just See That?” the pair was seen lunge feeding at the surface which gave those on deck a good view of huge pleats under their mouths. (Lunge feeding is when whales on the surface open their mouths wide and take in prey and water; then they close their mouths and filter out the prey using their ginormous tongues to squeeze the water through their baleen plates. All that’s left in their mouths is one big tasty gulp.)

Opening up…..

…and rolling over with a flipper wave.

It’s hard not to get emotional when you see one of these creatures up close; equally, it’s hard not to feel a little perturbed by local cargo ships that are infringing on the whale’s krill-eating territory and baby-raising nurseries.  Since the whales have “relocated” their feeding grounds, the ships have not altered their shipping lanes. “That’s why this research we are doing with Cascadia is so important,” says Mathes. “We will have evidence and data that shows we need to move the ships a mile or two away from the area to keep them safe.”

No blue whale/cargo boat accidents have occurred this year – so far.

On the ride back to port, a pod of 100 common dolphins swam merrily alongside the vessel – another glorious sight. But then, once in the harbor, discarded plastic bags, soda bottles and streaks of oil on the waters’ surface disrupted those good images. (Oh, come on guys! Really??) But interruptions aside, the image of the tail, the baby tail, the lunge feeding and the two great creatures living in our waters is a great motivator for change. Because, really, If We Humans Are Not Going To Change Things Now, Then When? (Cue: indecisive music sting).

For more information about whale watching cruises offered daily by the Aquarium of the Pacific and Harbor Breeze Cruises click here. Trips depart daily at 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Combo tickets, which include a whale cruise and aquarium admission, are available on site at the aquarium; admission is $63.95 for adults, $55.95 for seniors and $39.95 for children.

– Story by Brenda Rees; photos by Martha Benedict

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“The Bugman of Mt. Washington,” SoCalWild, June, 2011

When I stumbled upon David Marlos’ wonderful website, “What’s That Bug?”, I didn’t realize that Marlos’ was a neighbor. Only after I submitted a query about identifying a group of bees that every morning clung to a single lavender stalk, did I discover that Marlos lived practically right down the street from my Eagle Rock home. I was happy to profile him in a recent post on SoCalWild.

Here’s the article:

The Bugman of Mt. Washington

The Bugman has a list of top SoCal bugs that he wants to see one of these days: the long-horned California prionus beetle, the luxurious ceanothus silk moth and the lovely Pacific green sphinx moth. He’s also itching to see the rain beetle in action. “The males are the only ones that fly and the females are 8-10 feet underground,” he says. “They mate only during the winter rains in the early morning or late twilight hours.”

Alas, for the Bugman: most of the bugs he sees daily come across to him via emails – usually in the arena of 140-200 per day. As the driving force behind the internet sensation website “What’s That Bug?” the Bugman response to queries from all over the country from folks who have snapped an unidentifiable bug and whose curiosity demands answers.

The Bugman is a nom de plume of David Marlos, a resident of the Mt. Washington area of North East Los Angeles, who has no background in entomology but who does possess a passion for creepy crawlies; thanks to the plethora of insects that inhabit the world, Marlos has managed for the last decade to carve out a secret second life as the Bugman.

As a full-time instructor of photography at Los Angeles Community College in their media arts department and occasional part time teacher at Art Center College of Design, Marlos has infused his wit and boundless enthusiasm into the website for more than a decade.

Because of the success of the popular website – which drew 2 million people last year from 219 countries – Marlos has just published his first book, The Curious World of Bugs: The Bugman’s Guide to the Mysterious and Remarkable Lives of Things That Crawl from Penguin Group publishing.

Marlos will be at L.A.’s Theodore Payne Foundation on Saturday, May 28 discussing his book as well as riffing on insects and sharing buggy tales.

“The book is done in the spirit of ‘What’s That Bug?’ but a little more organized,” he says calling it a Farmer’s Almanac-style book that contains short stories, tidbits and facts. Unlike the website though, there are no photos – just wonderful vintage line-drawings of insects which elevates the book into an artistic celebration of the science of insects.

The Curious World of Bugs is garnering some great reviews: Good Reads says the book “celebrates bugs for what they truly are: strange, mysterious, cute, beautiful, and occasionally disturbing…[it] offers a glimpse into the magical world of bugs that bite, infest, fascinate, repulse, and inform us all.”

Marlos got his first taste of entomological writing back in the 1990s when he helped his friend Lisa Anne Auerbach by writing a regular column about bugs for her zine, American Homebody. “People always want to find out what kind of bug they have discovered in the bathroom, outdoors, etc.” he says. “As a child growing up in Ohio, I had – and still do — a great fascination with insects.”

The ‘zine moved online in 1998, but over the months it was apparent that Marlos’ column struck a chord with readers. People were sending digital pictures of strange and interesting bugs, insects they found in their homes, while on vacation, hiking or just down the street. Everyone wanted to know “what’s that bug?” and Marlos became the self-proclaimed insect expert.

Overwhelmed with the requests, Marlos reached out to the real experts in the field who could help him identify and give information about the critters people have discovered, including flies, wasps, beetles, caterpillars, scorpions, spiders, etc. Marlos quickly learned that the insect world is a complex, specific and almost magical in its depth and breath.

In 2002, “What’s That Bug?” branched out on its own as a unique website with 15,000 posts under its belt and an ability to translate queries from 50 languages, including Arabic and Japanese. Accolades include Yahoo Pick of the week in 2003, USA Today Hotsite in 2004, Earthlink Weird Web in 2006, Real Simple Magazine in 2006, Sunset Magazine in 2007, and a lecture at the Getty in 2008. Google the word “Bug” and the first listing will be “What’s That Bug?”

Marlos is proud that the site is child-friendly even with a section on Bug Love (photos of mating bugs accompanied by the occasional double entendre) and the sometimes-disturbing Carnage section (photos of squashed bugs).

The Bugman is a strong supporter of not killing bugs. “People react fast and don’t realize that just about every bug they encounter is perfectly harmless and not worth killing,” says Marlos. The website, while it celebrates bugs, understands that there are those out there who shriek from them. To that end, Marlos uses the website as a platform to preach tolerance and encourage readers to look more objectively at bugs as natural engineering marvels.

All in all, teacher by day, Bugman by early morning, Marlos sees the world of insects both scientific and artistic.  He can rattle off facts and figures about the iron cross blister beetle but also wax poetic about the charmed life of the Brunner’s mantid, a mantid species of in Texas that have evolved to only be female, no males.  They reproduce by cloning, of all things.

As it goes, Marlos owes a lot to bugs; they have given him a second “glamorous” life as well as a deep appreciation for the natural world.  “It’s all about the interconnectivity of all things on this planet. We can’t eliminate one species without affecting others,” he says.  “We can appreciate these lower beasts and, in the process, get a bigger picture of the world around us.”