Occidental College Laboratory is for the Birds – all 65,000 of Them, The Eastsider LA, April, 2015

EAGLE ROCK — Why would anyone want to spend Saturday (May 2) – the first-ever Bird LA Day – inside an Occidental College laboratory looking through cabinets containing 65,000 dead birds? Answer: Because it’s science and because it’s awesome.

The Moore Laboratory of Zoology at Occidental College is participating in the birding festivities on Bird LA Day with public tours of its massive collection of avian specimens that run the gamut from the Cuban bee hummingbird  (the smallest bird in the world) to the impressively large golden eagle.

“What we do benefits conservation of these species because basically you can’t protect something [if] you don’t know if it exists,” said director and curator John McCormack.

The lab, with the largest single collection of Mexican birds in the world, attracts researchers from all over the globe. Biology and grad students use the cotton-stuffed birds to study genetic traits, biology, etc.; art students also use specimens as models for sketching and inspiration.

“One of the things about natural history collections is that they are used in ways that the original collector never could have anticipated,” McCormack said. “This bird,” he said referring to a toucan, “was collected in 1929 – several decades before DNA was even discovered – and now we are able to sequence this bird’s entire genome if we wanted to.”

The specimens are stored in wooden trays packed into 111 large gray cabinets that have been around since the 1950s. From one of those gray cabinets, McCormack pulls out a wooden tray to reveal a sparkling rainbow of hummingbird specimens. Here’s a sword-billed hummingbird, a giant hummingbird and, upon closer examination, a toothed hummingbird. “If you look under the microscope, it’s terrifying,” he says of the species that boasts a little hook and teeth.

Photo by Robyn von Swank

The specimens, some of which are more than a century old, are all simply preserved with cotton inside, which makes the birds easier to handle and measure. “If you keep them temperate controlled, you can keep them this way for 100 year or more,” he says.

The Moore Lab specimens were originally acquired and donated to the college in 1950 by Robert T. Moore, Pasadena businessman, adventurer, poet and ornithologist who was fascinated by new bird species and subspecies.

Saturday’s Bird LA Day might be the last opportunity for the public to tour the lab and see the specimens in the vintage, wooden trays as the facility prepares for a renovation that could begin later this year

What draws visitors to snoop into the lives of a research biologist?

“First off, it’s the beauty of birds,” says McCormack. “But we try to teach them about the role of a natural history collection and the research we do here and why we have so many specimens and numbers of birds.”

Specimens in wooden trays are stored in large metal cabinets | Marc Campos

Courtesy Occidental College

Coyote Lady Turns 101 Years Old, The Eastsider LA, March 2014

The Coyote Lady’s glamorous side | Brenda Rees

5 Questions For Glassell Park’s 101-year-old “Coyote Lady”

By Brenda Rees

For decades, Lila Brooks spoke on behalf of the wild urban coyote, a critter that was easily trapped and killed in Southern California from early settlers through the 1980s. Known affectionately as the “Coyote Lady,” this tough and scrappy Hungarian native recently celebrated her 101st birthday. Brooks may be a little fuzzy around the edges, but when you start talking wildlife with her in her Glassell Park residence, she is sharp as a tack.

It’s hard to get Brooks – a former hotel executive – off topic: she is as passionate about keeping wildlife wild today as she was in the 1970s when she advocated for L.A. City Hall to outlaw coyote trapping with steel-leg traps and to ban the public from feeding wildlife. Her California Wildlife Defenders was one of the first wildlife advocacy groups in the area.

“Coyotes are important to our ecosystem and Lila’s work was important to help support L.A. County’s natural resources,” says Tony Bell, spokesperson for Supervisor Michael Antonovich who publicly commended Brooks years ago. (Note: Being 101 years old has its perks. You are allowed to talk about what you love for hours and you also can deny reporters from taking your photograph.)

When did you first realize that wild animals were important to you? I think I knew all my life. We lived in Budapest, Hungary. I was born there. I was born loving animals. I have been vegetarian all my life.

How did you know that coyotes needed your help? Coyotes have been vilified for so long. A coyote was accused of killing Kelly Keen, a three-year-old in Glendale in 1981, but I think that coyote did not kill that child. In a frenzy, they slaughtered 55 innocent coyotes. It was never proven that the coyote killed that child. I got death threats for speaking out. [Note: The official cause of Kelly Keen’s death is listed a broken neck and blood loss as a result of a coyote attack. A controversial subject of the times, Keen’s death brought the issue of responsibly living with urban wildlife to the forefront, including the then routine practice of the public feeding wildlife. )

What do you want people to know about wildlife in Los Angeles? Leave them alone! Let them be unmolested. Let them be wild. Do not feed them and do not kill them. Coyotes have been here since the Pleistocene epoch, three and half million years ago. And then they come and tell me, ‘Oh, there was a coyote in my back yard,” and I tell them, ‘No, you were in the coyote’s back yard.’

Wild animals are essential for the food chain and the balance of nature. Coyotes are beneficial, they devour rats, carrion, diseased ground squirrels, the vector of the plague.

I was at a backyard barbecue at a house in Bel Air. The owner had a fast food station and she was feeding about 60 coyotes. Every night, they came to feast on chicken backs and chicken necks! See, the people create the problem. Let them stay wild in the hills. They don’t belong in backyards.

I had to fight for that. It took me years to get that into law. Now, it’s all over the United States. (L.A. City originally turned down an ordinance against public feeding of wildlife, but adopted it later, joining with Beverly Hills, Burbank, Glendale, South Pasadena and Pasadena.)

How did you get your message out to the public in the age of the non-existent Internet? I had lots of demonstrations. I would set up my paraphernalia in front of the zoo, shopping malls, wherever. I sold coyotes t-shirts and passed around my literature. (Brooks had a full-sized stuff coyote dramatically poised as dead in a steel-leg trap which she placed on top of a shopping cart draped with a black cloth. She often brought this display to schools and other organizations for educational purposes.)

In 1972, I came up with non-lethal alternatives to trappings and wrote about them. My publications had dos and don’ts for homeowners. It was the first one ever. So many people were accusing animals of wrong behavior, but I exonerated the coyotes and told people they needed to see things differently. (Brooks’s California Wildlife Defenders created and distributed thousands of brochures about the coyote. L.A. County Agriculture Commission Weights/Measures office has adopted much of her “Coping With the Urban Coyote” in their current website: http://acwm.co.la.ca.us/scripts/coyo.htm)

Did you ever see coyotes in the wild? At night I used to go up into the hills above Glendale with my tape recorder to get the coyotes’ song and I could never get it. (After playing a YouTube video of coyotes howling on a smart phone, Lila has tears in her eyes. “This is beautiful,” she says, kisses her finger and touches the coyotes on the screen. “This is how they are meant to be.”)

Coyotes Lila Brooks Glassell Park

Coyote brochures from Brooks’ Glassell Park home | Brenda Rees

Lila Brooks coyotes Glassell Park

Lila Brooks coyotes Glassell Park

“Save The Coyote” posters in Brooks’ home | Brenda Rees

Everyone Into the Water! The EastsiderLA, May, 2013

L.A. River to open to kayakers, bird watchers, anglers and hikers this summer

Here Come the Kayakers…Maybe? | Martha Benedict

Rangers will help manage river recreation area./Brenda Rees

Story By Brenda Rees
Photos by Martha Benedict This weekend, the L.A. River will no longer be something to contemplate from only the shorelines, bike paths and freeway bridges.

In an experiment that could change Angeleno’s perception of the river, The L.A. River Pilot Recreation Zone officially kicks off on Memorial Day, Monday May 27, allowing the public to walk, watch birds, kayak and fish (with permits) on a 2.5 mile stretch of the Glendale Narrows waterway in Elysian Valley.

The summer-long program runs during daylight hours until Labor Day (September 2) and anyone can access the river free of charge for a Class I river rapids ride that will take about 2 ½ hours. (Note: organized groups will need a permit and that can take up to five days to secure.)

Only non-motorized, steerable boats – like kayaks and canoes – are permitted on the river. Sorry inner tubes and inflatable rafts, back to the pools with you.

Vendors offering guided excursions are hoping that Northeast Los Angeles gets bitten by kayak fever and sign up for an upcoming tour (most vendors will start their tour season on the weekend of June 1). Indeed, many challenges face individual kayakers who want a L.A. River experience:

  • You’ll need two cars – one at the put-in location at Rattlesnake Park and one at Confluence Park near the take-out.
  • There are only 40 parking spots at Rattlesnake Park that stretch from Ripple to Riverside off of Fletcher Avenue. You may have to portage your kayak across busy Fletcher.
  • The trail from Fletcher is narrow and steep, especially when you are carrying a kayak.
  • Kayakers must pull-out at Steelhead Park on Oros Street. You’ll have to walk up a steep trapezoidal slope, cross a bike path, pass through the small parklet and down a block to reach Oso Park.
  • From there, you will leave kayaks to board a shuttle bus – which runs every 15 to 20 minutes – that will take you to the parking lot at Confluence Park (near the Home Depot parking lot on San Fernando Road). You will pick up your car and then drive back to Oso Park where you will load the kayak into your car in the five-minute loading zone.
  • The river itself can be difficult. The flows are between Class I and II but water conditions can change overnight. You might have to walk kayaks over low flow areas. Other spots can be 6-feet deep. Even if you scout ahead – or study the river map – there are no guarantees the river will be flowing the same way the next day. Rain cancels all river activity.

With such a complex and exhausting process, river kayakers may consider signing up for a guided tour which should eliminate many obstacles. Just a heads-up: you may still have to do your share of portaging.

Ducks will have to share the L.A. River with people this summer./Martha Benedict

For two years, summertime kayaking on the L.A. River was offered at the Sepulveda Basin area and kayak organizers there  seeing kayak opportunities in the Elysian Valley section of the river.

“The first year we had a few hundred people, but once people realized what we were doing, we sold out tours that second year,” says George Wolfe of L.A. River Expeditions. “Between our group and Paddle the L.A. River [another kayaking organization], we had close to 3,000 people kayaking on the river last summer.”

For Wolfe, exploring the Glendale Narrows section of the river will be a treat because of the moving water. “It’s going to be sportier and not just flat water,” he says describing most of the run at Sepulveda.

“This will have more rifts and rapids with more obstacles. It’s going to be a longer ride also. I think people are going to love this,” says Wolfe. “It’s going to be a lot of fun and a great way to spend a summer day.”

Wolfe’s experiences at Sepulveda Basin parallels the build-up to opening day, with community members worrying that the river program would bring in more traffic, trash and parking problems. “We did encounter a bit of NIMBY but we sought to find a way to make a solution to make everyone happy.”

The Mountain Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) – the organization administering the Glendale Narrows pilot program in cooperation with city and county of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Flood Control District and the Army Corps of Engineers – has, in Wolfe’s opinion, been very “sensitive to the issues of safety and security [in Elysian Valley]. In the end, this program can only be a boon to the area.”

In addition to potentially more traffic in the area, Elysian Valley residents are dismayed that dog walking down by the river won’t be permitted in the recreation zone during the pilot program. “People will still be able to take their dogs alongside the bike path and into the parks,” says Fernando Gomez, chief ranger for the MRCA. “But we can’t have them bring the dogs into the water or five feet of it.”

Gomez says that the MRCA will be monitoring the recreation zone from sunup to sundown daily once it is opened to the public. One MRCA ranger as well as up to a dozen  MRCA volunteers will be on patrol duty either on foot, bike or boat. “The LAPD will have the initial authority and city police will respond to any calls, but we will also be on hand to assist if necessary,” he says.

Oso Park sculpture./Martha Benedict


The extra security should be welcomed in the neighborhood where recently a biker was attacked on the bike path.

Still, the question remains: Will Anyone Kayak the River?

“Everyone that I know is excited about it,” says Steven Appleton, president of the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council who, along with being a professional artist, will soon be adding kayak guide to his resume.

Appleton, along with fellow Elysian Valleyite Grove Pashley, will be leading L.A. River Safari kayak tours, an operation that will give Appleton a chance to introduce people to the history, nature and community of his neighborhood. “There are some places in the river you really have no idea you are near downtown L.A. Herons, egrets, carp jumping up. It’s mind-boggling.”

Appleton intends on employing and training local youth to help with the operation. In addition, he plans on reaching out to community and youth groups, offering them river trips at reduced rates. (Both L.A. River Expeditions and L.A. River Safari trips will run about $60-$70 per person.)

Both vendors will employ a novel way for kayakers to return to their parked cars at Rattlesnake Park. Once they are back on land at Confluence Park, participants will jump on bicycles and cruise the river route from a different perspective.

All in all, opening day of the recreation zone will write a new chapter in the continuing saga of the L.A. River.

Like many, Appleton is an optimist that a river experience can be radically energizing.

“I think once we bring people to the river and show them what it is, they will fall in love with it,” he says. “It really can be a river for all of us.”

Click here for more information about the L.A. River Pilot Recreation Zone.

Sorry, no dogs will be allowed in the river. Dogs will be allowed on path at the top of the river channel./Martha Benedict
Bird watchers will have plenty to look at along the river./Martha Benedict
Kayakers will have to navigate around some urban obstacles./Martha Benedict
L.A. River path runs along the Elysian Valley side of the waterway./Martha Benedict
Steve Appleton at the River Access point on L.A. River Recreation Zone./Miguel Luna

Brenda Rees is a writer and resident of Eagle Rock. Martha Benedict is a photographer and resident of Montecito Heights

Lettuce Office Profile, The Eastsider LA, January 2013

Michael Chung (left), Kara Bartelt and Nicolas Saez of Lettuce Office/Photo courtesy Lettuce Office

A unique project such as Occidental College’s solar array needed a unique design team, which the school found with Lettuce Office, a small firm comprised of three principals, two whom live in Highland Park.

Kara Bartelt and husband Michael Chung started Lettuce in 2004 with offices in Hollywood; they have since moved to downtown Los Angeles and added a third partner, Nico Saez. Bartelt and Chung have lived in Highland Park since 2006, having moved into the area because of “the great community and plenty of historic houses. We love seeing all the families walking their kids to school, too.”

The team jumped on the chance to create new thinking for Oxy’s installation of ground-based solar panels rather than the utilitarian designs that are typical for large scale solar projects. Bartelt, an adjunct associate professor at USC’s School of Architecture, is fascinated on the integration of technology and architecture in the environment.

“For us, this [project] was a perfect example of that blending,” she says.

First and foremost, the team wanted the design to be pleasing to the eye from whatever direction it was viewed. After the swooping curve pattern was approved, they painstakingly created intricate renderings and canvassed various neighborhoods to see how the finished product would be seen. That hard work is paying off, thinks Bartelt.

While some of the more than 5,000 panels are installed above a canopy over a campus parking lot, the most eye-catching element of the Occidental array will be the panels that are mounted two to three feet above the ground and  hug the topography a hillside  in a curving design based on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material.

“Just the other day, I came up Ave 49 from York and had a good view of it,” she says. “It’s not a typical array; it’s more art than array.”

Involved in the project for now three years, the team meets at the construction site every two weeks to make sure that the 20 x 30 foot panels are being installed according to plans. Joining them is Oxy’s Professor of Physics Daniel Snowden-Ifft, who has been involved in the project nearly since its beginnings.

“We have walkie talkies and go back and forth saying, ‘Tilt it to the left a bit, now up, to the right,’” says Bartelt about getting the angles just right.

Right now, the firm is active in residential and business designs as well as graphics for branding and marketing. While the Oxy solar array is scheduled to be completed this spring, Bartelt says the team would welcome more solar projects.

“It doesn’t take much to make a big impact,” she says. “I can’t wait to when that final panel is placed and it’s all done.”

Oxy Solar Array, The Eastsider LA, Jan. 2013

(Photo courtesy of Occidental College)

Occidental College prepares to plug in to solar power

By Brenda Rees

After experiencing a series of setbacks to the initial schedule, the $6.8 million 1-megawatt solar array at Occidental College continues to move ahead with the plan to have the entire project plugged-in, hooked up and generating power by the college’s Founder Day on April 20, 2013.

Construction of the ground-mounted array began about a year ago with the hopes it would have been completed by the spring. However, engineering issues and construction details have delayed the project. According to Oxy Communications Director James Tranquada, the unique design of the array and the fact that city and city planners don’t have specific standards for array projects has made for “a lot of back and forth with details we didn’t expect. There are not a lot of ground-mounted arrays in urban areas. This is completely new.”

Indeed, once completed, Oxy’s solar array will be the largest ground-mounted solar arrays in the City of Los Angeles and one of the largest arrays in the country on a small college campus.

The nearly 5,000 panel project is divided into two parts –  one-third of those panels have been installed atop shade structured in a campus parking lot near what is known as Fuji Hill. (It’s anticipated that those panels will be hooked up and operational in the next month or so.)

The rest of the panels are placed nearby on a southwest-facing hillside. These panels are mounted two to three feet above the ground and will hug the topography of the slope in a curving design base on a hysteresis loop, a mathematical expression that describes the result of an alternating magnetic field applied to ferromagnetic material. (For those mathematically and/or scientifically-challenged, the project resembles either an elongated comma or a fancy paisley design.)

Either way, Oxy is taking aesthetics into account in the creation of large solar arrays; most arrays – especially the BrightSource project in the Mojave Desert – are creatively boring and very utilitarian in scope.

Once both systems are up and running, the system will  provide about 11% percent of the college’s annual electrical usage and cut its electric bill by more than $200,000 a year.

The creative design for the array – envisioned by the firm Lettuce Office in collaboration with college art faculty – uses SunPower panels, known for their efficiency in the trade.

Tranquada said that the ground-mounted panels were not first on the list for Oxy. They wanted to use as much rooftop installation as possible. But with so many historic buildings with red tile (can’t install panels on that), the idea of solar had to go down-down to the ground.

More electrical news at Oxy:

Related to the solar array are new electrical metering devices recently installed on campus classrooms, dorms and other school buildings. It’s the first time the campus is looking at energy (water and electricity) usage. “We can begin to track and accumulate data on where our energy is going,” says Tranquada. “This way we can establish a baseline and encourage reduction as seems fit.”

Watch how high you crank your stereo, students! And turn off that bathroom light!