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Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Rabbit that Sat on Dad's Shoulder & Other ANIMAL TALES by Keri Dearborn is there a rabbit perched on that man's shoulder? 

Where else would it sit to watch TV?

My family is notorious for its Animal Tales and I've just finished compiling them in this book.

From California desert tortoises to red-tailed hawks, there were always more furred, feathered, and scaled creatures in our home than people. Travel wasn't worth the destination if it didn't include a skunk, a black bear, or a day dodging cattle on my uncle's farm. I learned parenting from a grizzly bear and survival from a goldfish.

Have you ever wondered what gifts a love-besotted hawk gives to his beloved? Do you know the "truth" about hamsters? Have you met my uncle the goat?

Dogs, cats, goats, bears, tortoises, even teeny tiny rabbits can bring love, wisdom, and laughter into your life. 

The Rabbit that Sat on Dad's Shoulder &
Paperback edition BUY Now

Kindle edition BUY Now

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Diversity in Epiphytic Plants - Orchids and Epiphyllums

hybrid epiphyllum
People love flowers. We don't generally eat them. They don't provide us with shelter. Yet, humans are drawn to the beauty of flowers.

Thousands of years ago, when people began living closer together and sanitation was less effective, the fragrance of plants and flowers helped us mask our own stench. Roses were hybridized for their perfume. In the modern world, visual appearance is the main attraction to flowers and two groups of flowering plants have formed a mutualistic relationship with humans: orchids and epiphyllums.

Orchids are ancient flowering plants; species are found all over the world–typically with small flowers. 

The ancestral plants of epiphyllums live in the forest of Central and South America. While their flowers are fairly large, coloring is minimal because their pollinators are usually nocturnal creatures–bats and moths. 

Both orchids and epiphyllums are epiphytic plants. They depend on another plant host to provide  a safe location up off of the forest floor. Their seeds settle into the debris caught in the crouch of a tree branch and the epiphytic plant lives happily with little soil on the rain water and nutrients washing off its host. 

Living on the fringes of established plants seems to have required an ability to be flexible, to have genetic options. People admired the natural flowers of both these plants, but then found we could selectively breed these plants to create flowers with varying colors, sizes, and shapes. Growing epiphyllums

Both orchids and epiphyllums have amazing diversity.

See Orchid bloom diversity

See Epiphyllum bloom diversity

People have stepped in to replace the forest trees. We provide tended pots and protected patios. We have taken the place of host plants and the genetic plasticity of orchids and epiphyllums has enabled us to create a broad spectrum of hybridized plants with spectacular blooms.

Would these hybrid plants continue to exist in a world without human partners? It is a fascinating question. Could they adapt and attract another evolutionary partner? If there were no flowers, what would we find beautiful? What would take their place?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Earth Day Weekend Events

Limekiln Canyon, San Fernando Valley
Get out and experience the world around you. Here are two family-friendly FREE events and local places to head out to this weekend in the Los Angeles Area.

April 23 - 26, South Coast Plaza
for more info

Display gardens, CA native plants, flowers, fairy gardens, bonsai, if it grows you'll find it at the Flower Show. This is a treat for the senses. Did you know there is an orchid that smells like coconut? No kidding.

Saturday, April 25  10 AM - 4 PM
at Paramount Ranch
for more info Science Fest

Hikes, presentations with live local wildlife, booths from LA County Natural History Museum, Friends of the Island Fox, National Parks, Del Air Rockhounds and much, much more. Explore the old Paramount Studios lot for filming westerns and discover local wild California.

Walk to The Getty
Take a Hike
Visit one of L.A.'s Hidden Gardens

Don't get stuck indoors!

Monday, April 06, 2015

Backyard Bird Journal by Keri Dearborn

The visiting winter birds are leaving, long distance travelers will soon be passing though and summer visitors will be arriving.

I know who to look for because I keep track in a Backyard Bird Journal. It is a spiral-bound book that lets me document four consecutive years.

Each calendar day has a space to write specific sightings and weather information. 

This is where I document nesting hummingbirds. March 3, 2014 there were two active nests: H1 and DR. The chicks hatched within 24 hours of each other. This year we found no nests in the yard. We have heard and seen recent fledglings, but they were hatched somewhere else.

The Journal also enables me to see patterns because four years of the same date are side-by-side. Here you can see that March 4th is typically when the Bewick’s wren are out comparing potential nesting sites. Bewick wrens build a nest

Entries for March 4, 2012, 2013, 2014 & 2015

You can also see that March 4 was a day that I noted winter visitors–the hermit thrush, Oregon dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows–were still with us.

There is space for additional notes on every other page and at the end of the month. June has been busy with Cooper’s hawk nesting for the past several years. (You can also see that I don't enter data absolutely every day.)

A species listing, with four years of monthly data, at the back of the Journal provides easily accessed information on each bird species.

At a glance I can see that since 2012 (the first row of squares) the hermit thrush has arrived in October and typically left by the first week of April.

Adding this information to the journals I have kept since 2002, I’ve documented gradual changes in hermit thrush migration. You can also see that 2015 (the last row of squares) was the first time in four years that we have seen American robins in our yard, and that was just flying overhead.

From small notations of observations, I know to expect the black-headed grosbeaks this month as they pass through my neighborhood.

While the hooded orioles should soon be arriving to spend the summer.

Occasionally, I have the thrill of noting something very unusual, like the sighting of an orange bishop.

I enter bird lists electronically through, but this Backyard Bird Journal allows me to casually note who I saw that day and keep four-years of information handy at all times. I put this journal together for my own use (focused on Southern California species), but I have a limited number available for purchase. Purchase Backyard Bird Journal

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Benefits of Creating Wildlife Habitat

A walk in a natural place clears the mind and invigorates the senses. When you create wildlife habitat in your yard, you not only provide homes and dining areas for creatures, you build a natural oasis for yourself.


Take a minute and experience a morning in my California habitat. The plants attract insects, birds, reptiles and the occasional mammal. They also provide a healthy home for the California desert tortoises in my care.

Creating habitat means adding native plants, some for food and some for shelter. Planting natives isn't always successful in the way you envision. 

The lupine I started from seed was growing quite well until the tortoises roused from their winter slumber. I guess a lupine snack was a spring tonic. In moments, my months of nursing the seed to a vigorous plant was chomped away. However, native plants help to keep the tortoises healthier. 

Wildlife habitat also means staying away from insecticides and herbicides, and managing dead wood so that animals have places to nest or hide, while still eliminating fire threat. A small water source is also very important.

To see more creatures living in our wildlife habitat check out the lizards, Valley carpenter bees, gray bird grasshopper, Bewick's wrens and more on The Earth Minute - wildlife.

This week marks a year of one-minute videos sharing biodiversity and wild places from around the world on

To inspire your own gardening choices check out one-minute visits to L.A.'s Hidden Gardens like the Pierce College Botanical Garden pictured below.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Climate Change Impacts on Valley Carpenter Bees

While our unseasonably warm January/February weather was enjoyable for us humans, it challenges normal life cycles for some of our native California insects. 

mourning cloak butterfly
The warm weather convinced many butterfly and bee species that spring had arrived. Then, just as suddenly, winter returned with cold damp days challenging their survival. Typically insects overwinter in one developmental stage. Some butterflies like the monarch and the mourning cloak overwinter as adults, while others overwinter as a chrysalis waiting for spring to metamorphose into an adult. Preying mantises overwinter as eggs.

The female Valley carpenter bee (Xylocopa varipuncta) overwinters as an adult, her male counterpart does not survive the winter. When the female emerges from a winter torpor in the spring, she starts laying eggs to start a new generation. It takes 40-45 days for the young bees to mature from egg, to larva and then emerge as adults. 

In early January I was surprised to see a female Valley carpenter bee active and stashing supplies in a carved-out wooden den. Now in the last few days, these young Valley carpenter bees have begun to emerge. Unfortunately, instead of the warm spring weather they were expecting to find they have emerged into crisp winter days with cold nights. 

Tuesday evening walking home from voting, I found this newly emerged female Valley carpenter bee listless on the sidewalk. She was cold and appeared thin.

She was just able to cling to a stick that I used to pick her up. I found some native ceanothus flowers and other blooms that I have seen Valley carpenter bees frequent. I put the flowers with the bee in a bug box. We kept her in the house over night.

female Valley carpenter bee with a dusting of pollen

In the morning I was afraid she had not survived the night, but she showed a bit of movement. We opened the box and put her out in the sun in the yard adjacent to flowering plants. By mid-morning she had warmed up and flown off.

The weather is warming again. I hope she survives to pollinate the spring flowers and raise a family of her own. When thousands of years of evolution have timed your entrance into the world to coincide with specific weather and blooming plants, small changes in that series of events can challenge your survival. These are the small impacts of climate change that many of us do not notice, but which will eventually add up to large change.

Hummingbirds challenged by weather changes.
Climate changes to native plants and the animals that depend on them.
Alaskan glacier melting

Video of busy Valley carpenter bees on The Earth Minute.
 Compare them to European honey bees.

Monday, February 16, 2015

What Kind of Junco?

My friend Douglas Welch of a Gardener's Notebook recently asked me this question:  

What's the current name for, what I knew as, the Oregon Junco?

male Oregon dark-eyed junco
Sometimes it does seem like bird names are constantly in flux. However, this is a different situation. There are several, what Sibley refers to as "regional populations" of dark-eyed juncos.

Dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) are found across North America. These are migratory birds traveling long or short distances in seasonal north-south migrations. Some regional populations, such as in southern California, migrate within a region by elevation. These forest birds don't like cold, but they aren't keen on hot weather either. They tend toward a moderate climate. (I think I might be a junco.) Most dark-eyed juncos spend the winter in a moderate climate, then migrate north or higher in elevation to breed in a forested area.

The most common dark-eyed junco in California and along the west coast is the Oregon dark-eyed junco. These are the small sparrow-type birds with brownish bodies, white bellies, and a distinctive blackish hood on their head. The males hood is more distinctive, females may appear to have a more gray or "sooty" hood.

Occasionally, we also see slate-colored dark-eyed juncos in the Los Angeles area. We have had a slate-colored junco visit for a short time in 2012 and again this February. These juncos are slightly larger. Their appearance is similar except the dark coloring tends to be more all-over slate gray and the hood is less defined or not defined at all. This junco population is found across the U.S. during the winter and summers in the Taiga forests of Canada, Alaska, and the northeastern U.S. 

In our southern California backyard, we have 2-10 Oregon dark-eyed juncos that spend the winter in the native habitat we've tried to recreate. They tend to arrive late September or early October. In 2014 and this year they arrived Oct. 15 and Oct. 7 respectively. They stay through March. (However, in 2013 they stayed until the first week in April and in 2014 one lingered until May 1.) Initially we had two males that came in 2000. Now we see males and females, but always more males. These individuals always leave to breed somewhere else. They may be only migrating to spend the summer at higher elevations in our neighboring Santa Monica Mountains or they may be going as far as southern Alaska and Canada's Yukon Territory.

I was thrilled in 2013 to see a female Oregon dark-eyed junco raising two chicks in Alaska. I'd never seen dark-eyed junco chicks before. This industrious mom was leading her two flightless youngsters along the ground through the black spruce forest. She was constantly catching insects and stuffing them into open mouths. There was no male around. All of the junco families I saw were single-mom affairs.

In 2014 we saw pink-sided dark-eyed juncos in Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. White-winged, red-backed, and gray-headed dark-eyed juncos are all still on my "to see" list.

For more on identifying dark-eyed juncos check out Cornell's All About Birds.