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

Dead Sea Scrolls, The Tidings, March 2015

Overwhelming. Fascinating. Thrilling. The newly opened Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition conjures up many superlative adjectives — none of which can completely describe the historical, religious and spiritual importance you encounter when you step into the exhibit, now at the California Science Center in Downtown Los Angeles.

Mounted in cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the exhibition presents the largest Dead Sea Scrolls collection ever assembled outside of Israel; these are pieces from the actual scrolls and manuscripts written and hidden in caves 2,000 years ago and first discovered in 1947 by local goat herders.

On display are sections from 10 scrolls which shed light on the formative years of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. More than 600 ancient artifacts are also part of the exhibition that runs until Labor Day.

Letting such treasures out to the public from their safekeeping vault in Israel was no small feat, explains David Siegel, the Consul General of Israel. Choosing the right venue for the exhibition was critical.

“We had to make sure we have the right climate control, security and lighting,” he says, adding that the scrolls and pieces currently on display will rotate out after three months to ensure their integrity. “People who come today will have the chance to see a new display three months down the line.”

The journey to the scrolls for visitors begins with a short film and multimedia presentation that sets the historical stage. Once the lights come up and doors are opened, the feeling of stepping into the past is overpowering.

“Here we walk back in time,” concurs David Bibas, the Science Center’s curator of technology programs. He points to dates which have been illuminated on the floor and corresponds to the artifacts on display, such as coins, jewelry, pottery shards bearing royal seals and ancient sling-stones and arrowheads, some dating back 3,000 years.

A display of a typical four-room home in the Holy Land features the types of tools people used daily.

Elsewhere, other artifacts help illuminate the ancient culture: four-legged altars and small deity figurines represent a time when multiple gods were worshipped; ossuaries (burial bone boxes); and numerous jugs, some “mass produced” for royals or the wealthy, as well as others created for commoners that would hold grains, water and other foodstuffs.

“Look here,” says Bibas as he moves to a terracotta bath tub complete with a hued seat. “It’s a 3,000-year-old Jacuzzi.”

Visitors enter the darkened inner room with a hushed reverence. Surrounding the scrolls are wall display cases which contain even more artifacts: a peek of a Greek-influenced mosaic tile, a glimpse of a Holy Land kitchen and a close-up view of ancient miniature leather phylacteries or tefillin (cases which contain biblical passages and are bound to the head and arm during Jewish morning prayers).

There is also extensive information about the significance of Knirbet Qumran, a community on the northern shores of the Dead Sea where the scrolls were uncovered.

Presented in a circular arrangement, the scrolls are the exhibit’s centerpiece.

Pieces and fragments are gently illuminated and visitors often get extremely close to the texts, their noses nearly touching the protective glass.

In addition to parts of the Old Testament, this exhibit features non-biblical books (like the Book of Giants), liturgical texts and other manuscripts, including a ketubah, a Jewish marriage contract.

Bibas points out the selections from Psalms; that book made up the greatest number of scrolls found in the Dead Sea Scroll caves. This case holds perhaps the oldest of all Psalm scrolls discovered and one with as many as nine different psalms preserved.

Here visitors can see Psalm 71:1-11, which begins: “In you, Lord, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness, rescue me and deliver me; turn your ear to me and save me.”

The lettering appears fresh and strong; anyone who reads Hebrew can make out words and phrases, says Siegel. “It’s the same characters we know today.”

The reverential spirit continues when visitors encounter the three-ton stone from Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Paper is available nearby and visitors of all ages write, fold and place prayers into crevices near the stone in quiet contemplation.

Written prayers will be gathered and sent to Israel to be buried with the others rountinely collected at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Nearby, a television monitor presents a live feed from the wall, furthering the connection to the Holy Land.

“Overall, this is an emotionally moving exhibition,” says Siegel, who adds that he hopes Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders encourage their congregations to visit.

“The Holy Land is beloved by three major religions that share much of the same Holy Scripture that is on display here. This exhibition has the power for uniting us, reminding us of what we have in common.”

Vessels and Channels, The Tidings, January 2015

“A sacrifice for the good of humanity is a story that happens in every culture,” explains Toparovsky, whose artwork celebrates the breadth of the human condition — the difficult, the painful, the sublime and the wondrous.

After he was satisfied with the rock pile configuration, Toparovsky exited the exhibition space and pointed out that his Prometheus has the legs of a raptor. “Think about it,” he challenged. “If you are having your liver eaten out every day, you would need to embrace your enemy in order to survive.”

That spiritual imagery and more fuels the current exhibition of complex mixed-media, sculpture, photography and digital imaging that spans three unique-shaped spaces in the cathedral. The theme draws upon ancient stories, mythology, historical references and contemporary narratives to convey the depths of the human experience and its transcendent connections.

Toparovsky, an internationally acclaimed artist, is no stranger to the cathedral — he designed and created the life-size bronze crucifix that adorns the altar, a beloved image for visitors and parishioners.

At first blush, it may seem ironic that Toparovsky, who considers himself an observant, if non-practicing Jew, was selected to design the crucifix (his first liturgical commission). But his artistic recognition and sensitivity to spiritual aspects made him the perfect artist to create Christ on the cross, an experience that he recalled was “overwhelming, magical, wonderful and exhausting.”

“With that commission, came a great responsibility,” he said. “Once that was installed, it never felt like it belonged to me anymore. I mean, how could it? It’s not the same. It’s invested with the energy of the world. It’s now an icon for so many.”

Indeed, Toparovsky is often approached and thanked for his work when he is at the cathedral. “They will come up and throw their arms around me, wanting pictures and kissing me and looking so delighted,” he said. “But it’s not me, it’s not who I am that they are responding to. I am just a conduit. A conduit for courage and the vulnerable.”

For this current exhibition, Toparovsky created unique spaces for cathedral-goers to meditate on, consider and ponder. In this first chapel (located at the end of the cathedral’s main entrance), you will find a high, hedge-like structure with leaping creatures popping out of it. Peer into a small window and see a garden of bronze plant life, a shimmering light and … a mysterious elevator door.

A secret garden? A metaphor for life’s barriers? The journey between earth and heaven? All of the above and more, said Toparovsky.

Turn the corner and discover the second art room that Toparovsky refers to as a lararium, the ancient Roman custom of creating a sacred place near the front door where offerings and prayers could be made. Here works of art on paper and sculpture fill up a vibrant blue lacy wall with other artwork — evoking modern and ancient sensibilities — positioned throughout for spiritual speculation.

The bronze torso may seem familiar — it’s St. Sebastian, an early church martyr who is often depicted leaning against a tree, dying from multiple arrows shot into his body. In this instance, St. Sebastian’s body is also melding into the tree to signify his connection to Christ on the cross.

“I wanted to portray him with as much beauty and dignity I could imagine,” says Toparvosky about the saint who did not die from the arrows, but who was ultimately beaten to death.

“I wanted this exhibition to celebrate the breadth of the human condition,” sums up Toparovsky. “To be able to accept that things in life are hard and still carry on. That there are sacrifices to make in order to get that the place where things are wonderful — and to have that personal connection to the sublime.”

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

Spectacular Rubens, The Tidings, October 2014

Installation view of “Spectacular Rubens: The Triumph of the Eucharist” with The Victory of Truth over Heresy, about 1622-1625, Peter Paul Rubens, oil on panel (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid), and The Triumph of Truth over Heresy, 1626-1633, woven by Jan Raes I, Jacob Geubels II, and Jacob Fobert after designs by Peter Paul Rubens, wool and silk (Tapestry © Patrimonio Nacional, Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales, Madrid).

Breathtaking, inspiring and artistically engaging, “Spectacular Rubens: the Triumph of the Eucharist,” a new exhibition at the J. Paul Getty Museum, features the work of master artist Peter Paul Rubens told in both elaborate oil sketches and monumental original tapestries woven in the early 1620s for a Franciscan convent in Spain.

It’s the largest number of works for the Eucharist series assembled in more than half a century and the first time these tapestries have traveled to the United States.

“This is Rubens on a grand scale that we don’t get to see often enough,” said Getty curator Anne Woollett, who worked with the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain, in association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and in collaboration with the Patrimonio Nacional to mount this exhibition. “The complex iconography will grab you by the soul and we hope visitors will revel in the spirituality, joy and exuberance of Ruben’s unbridled creativity.”

Visitors who pass under the large photo realist images of the convent doors to enter the gallery will probably gasp with awe upon seeing the large tapestries, some as big as 16 feet high and 25 feet wide. The scope, content and skilled command of the tapestries harkens to a time when art was intricately linked to royalty and the bold presentation of deep, intimate, spiritual ideas.

This exhibit features four of the 20 tapestries that were originally commissioned to Rubens by the Spanish governor-general of the Netherlands, the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. The interconnected the tapestries were intended to be hung in the Monasterio de las Descalza Reals (Convent of the Barefoot Royals) which was located near the royal palace.

The Infanta had a profound sense of religious obligation, and along with her husband, Cardinal-Archduke Albert of Austria, the two established a solid Catholic state after decades of conflict.

When her husband died, the Infanta exchanged her court dress for a Poor Clare nun’s habit (shown in paintings at the exhibit) but continued to wage military and diplomatic campaigns to secure peace. Rubens was probably called upon to broker behind-the-scenes deals and arrangements because of his ambassadorial nature and status as court painter, explained Woollett. “Patron and painter both shared a passionate and almost militant view of Catholicism.”

The commissioning of these tapestries was viewed as a way to convince the masses of the power of the Catholic Church against the perceived heresies of the day (often depicted as Calvin and Luther).

For more than 400 years, these tapestries (one on top of another) decorated the two-storied convent church on Good Friday and the Octave of Corpus Christi as well as other special circumstances. (Art scholars don’t know the specific designation of where the tapestries were hung.) It’s suggested the tapestries may also have been hung outside of the building for other select occasions.

A Closer Look

Overall, the tapestries are illusions within illusions. Powerful figures and small angels unfurl the tapestries amidst a backdrop of architectural details like stonework and garlanded columns.

Good versus evil is the main subtext for theological virtues told with images from the Old Testament, the life of Jesus and other Christian symbols. “These are bigger than liturgical statements,” said Woollett. “They were meant to celebrate the nature of the love of God.”

The wool and silk tapestries, each weighing about 200 pounds, are displayed alongside six of Ruben’s original oil sketches which weavers used to create the final artwork. These modelli have been recently conserved with a grant from the Getty Foundation through its Panel Paintings Initiative.

The modellis, Wollett pointed out, are “mirror backward images” because weavers needed to work from right to left on their looms as they “read” the sketch design. Even though he knew weavers would have to “recreate” his art in a different media, Rubens “showed no concessions when it came to complex scenes,” said Wollett referring to large expanses of skin, intricate illusions and demanding compositions.

Weavers with specialized talent — faces, architecture, etc. — were called upon to construct specific elements, making the tapestries a many-handed creation. They, along with Rubens, did receive artistic credit for the final product.

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.

Mountain Yellow-Legged Frogs in Water-Less World, SoCalWild, August 2014

You don’t have to be a biologist to assume that California’s epic drought is affecting water-loving critters. Frogs and amphibians lazing and splashing around mountain streams and pools are harder to find these days – especially for those endangered ones like the rare mountain yellow-legs frogs which are on both state and federal lists.

A recent survey of mountain yellow-leggers revealed that, yes, indeed these hoppers were showing signs of stress because of the dry conditions up in the San Jacinto Mountains, near Palm Springs. Researchers were checking the frogs which were originally hatched at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and the Los Angeles Zoo. “The drought is adding an additional challenge to their survival, but we are still finding a significant number of frogs that are healthy and growing,” says Frank Santana, a research coordinator for the Institute.

Of the 300 tadpoles that were released, researchers believe about 25 percent continue to survive.

“Every frog counts,” confirms Ian Recchio, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo that has participated in the program to repopulate the mountain yellow-legged frog for the last five years.  Other partners in the recovery program include: the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Once plentiful, the yellow-hued hoppers now number about 200 in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino and San Jacinto Mountains. The natural habitat destruction, the introduction of the hungry “Eat Anything” bullfrog and the drought is causing a “perfect storm of problems for the yellow-legged frog,” he says.

There is talk to expand the program to other locations in the Southland, continues Recchio. “We are looking at areas of the Los Angeles Forest and the San Gabriel Mountains for new populations to add to our breeding programs,” he says. Currently a small BioScience Facility at the LA Zoo has been raising tadpoles and froglets for the past five years. (It’s off limits to guests and visitors.)

No doubt amphibian biologists will be doing their own version of a rain dance for a wet winter in SoCal. But Recchio points out that if zoos “hadn’t stepped in with these programs about 10 years ago, there might not be any frogs at all in the mountains. We have to keep moving forward.”