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Friday, July 25, 2014

Hidden Gardens of Los Angeles

red-legged frog sculpture at Malibu Legacy Park
Here and there in the corners of the city, there are wonderful public gardens.

I'm spotlighting a few of them on The Earth Minute ( Each profile offers a one-minute video of the location and details on parking, accessibility, and amenities.

The Malibu Legacy Park offers native plants, a host of birdlife, and mosaic sculptures of California wildlife.

Orcutt Ranch Park is a quiet stroll through California history–complete with lemons, adobe, and an ancient oak tree.

Orcutt Ranch Park rose garden

Friday, July 18, 2014

Where Would You Spend Your Last Day?

Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The world is filled with beautiful places. 

I love Paris, London, and Istanbul. 

Walking along the beach is heavenly whether it is Maui or Malibu is truly tropical.

I love the Sierra Nevada Mountains with their big trees and the variety of both Alaska and Australia, from the Great Barrier Reef to the rainforest.

But if I had just one day left on this earth, I would spend it on Squanga Lake in  Yukon Territory, Canada.

We've posted two short videos of this slice of wilderness heaven on The Earth

Check out Squanga Lake and floating down the outlet stream

Stunning scenery and wildlife. I hope you have a place that fills your heart as this one does mine.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Encountering a Wild Lace Monitor

When we began our trek to the beach at Cape Tribulation in Queensland, Australia, we hoped to see wildlife among the exotic foliage. Butterflies were varied and numerous. A chorus of forest birds called out all around us. 

In the dim forest light, spotting this rufous night heron (Nycticorax caledonicus) was exciting. This was the wildlife we expected. Amazing how similar it was in appearance and behavior to the black-crowned night heron we frequently see in the Los Angeles area.

But our thrill came when a rustle in the mangrove leaves revealed a 5-foot-long lace monitor (Varanus varius). Monitor lizards are primarily predators, hunting birds, small mammals and other reptiles. Some species also eat insects and crustaceans. The lace monitor is the second largest monitor species in Australia, and Australia is the land of lizards. In a country where most of the marsupial predators have become extinct, monitors are important mesopredators (predators of small prey).

Southern California's equivalent mesopredators would be the gray fox, island fox, coyote, bobcat, and red-tailed hawk. Predators are much fewer in an ecosystem than prey species, making the sighting of one an unexpected pleasure. However, like our mesopredators, lace monitors are adaptable and with the decrease or extinction of large predators, mesopredator populations increase. The more resourceful species can sometimes get in trouble frequenting campgrounds and picnic areas, or even cities, where people create an opportunity for food. While this lace monitor might scavenge in the near-by park, we watched it exhibiting natural behaviors–using its forked tongue and Jacobson's organ to sense for food and other monitors. Watch the Video at

Monitor lizards have a deeply forked tongue like a snake and a keen chemosensory ability. As solitary creatures, they use this sense to communicate with others of their species. We watched this lace monitor mark its territory by rubbing glands, on the head and near the cloaca, on a tree trunk. Another lace monitor traveling this trail would be able to tell the gender, size, and probable health and mating status of this monitor from its scent marking. 

This behavior is very similar to that of wild felines, which also mark territory with chemical scents. (Your cat is actually marking you as its territory when it rubs its cheeks against your leg. Watch the lace monitor video and see if it doesn't remind you of your cat.) In Australia and Indonesia where there are no wild feline species, monitors are large lizards that fill the same niche. They are able predators, moving rapidly, tracking prey, climbing trees, and living in a variety of habitats.

In North America, our largest lizards are fairly small (under 2 ft or 70 cm, snout to tail tip) and the second largest, the chuckwalla is primarily herbivorous. There is no niche for a large predatory lizard because we have wild felines, bobcats, mountain lions, lynx, and the occasional ocelot or jaguar. I've only seen local bobcats on rare occasion and only felt the watching eyes of a mountain lion. Seeing this lace monitor was a reminder of the importance of predators in a healthy ecosystem and how special it is to see a mesopredator in the wild, especially when you are just taking a walk to the beach.

Cape Tribulation, Queensland, Australia

Monday, June 02, 2014

Take An Earth Minute

Step outside and take a minute to reconnect with the other living things that share our world. 

You can do that close-by at a quiet neighborhood location like one of Los Angeles' Hidden Gardens at Orcutt Ranch Park in the San Fernando Valley.

Or travel far away, like outer Mongolia - Listen to the wild wind and see the extreme terrain of Western Mongolia.

island fox footprints
No matter where you go, if you look closely you will see what other people miss: A wild tortoise living among ancient Roman ruins (Temple of Aphrodite, Turkey); flying fox bats in downtown Cairns, Australia; the endangered island fox on California's Santa Cruz Island.

When you take the time to engage with the world around you it will bring you peace, wonderment and inspiration. My husband and I are posting a minute of adventure - large and small - at each Friday.

Sometimes you can find a minute of wonder at your back door, like the Bewick's wrens that built a nest on our patio

This Friday I'm posting a moment with some of my favorite micro-carpenters. Subscribe to the e-mail that tells you when a new Earth Minute has been posted; you won't want to miss these bee-autiful builders.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Celebrating Rachel Carson's Birthday

Today is Rachel Carson's birthday - a time to reinvigorate the challenge she posed to all Americans. 

We are part of the environment in which we live. The health of our air, soil and water is just as important to humans as it is to bald eagles, island foxes (video), humpback whales and monarch butterflies.

Rachel Carson's early books celebrated the sea, coastal habitats and the variety of interdependent life  in the ocean: Under the Sea Wind; The Sea Around Us; Edge of the Sea. Through her study of coastal habitats and in her work as a writer for the Bureau of Fisheries and eventually the Editor-in-Chief of publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson saw what most Americans did not have access to: scientific reports on the toxic impacts of overused pesticides.

Carson was not a political person, she believed that science fact crossed political lines. In the years following the publication of Silent Spring, the Clean Air Act (1963), Clean Water Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973) were enacted by Democratic and Republican administrations.

New science facts have been laid before us all: our use of fossil fuels in altering the global climate. Will we come together and act for the benefit of all humanity or let the well-financed voice of a few subjugate us into self-destructive inaction?   

Your life is already too busy to take on a topic that seems insurmountable? Like all of us, Rachel Carson had personal responsibilities that consumed her everyday life. From the time she was a graduate student during the Great Depression, until the day she died, she was the sole financial support for her parents, her sister, her nieces and her grandnephew. She worked a full-time job and was the head of a household, while writing her first two books. She suffered from a variety of illnesses, including breast cancer that would take her life only two years after the publication of Silent Spring. She was determined not to let the world she loved be destroyed for future generations, are you?

In Silent Spring, Carson took scientific information to the American people and challenged us to be engaged as advocates for our local environments, to question short-term commercial gain that disregards long-term damage to life forms and habitats, and to demand accountability of our government officials, from local representatives to the President.

If we all did these three things, we could change the future in a positive way.

More on Rachel Carson.


Friday, May 02, 2014

Mourning Cloak Becomes Butterfly

In April, mourning cloak caterpillars (Nymphalis antiopa) matured in our ornamental plum tree and became chrysalises.

I brought one into the house in a bug box hoping to catch the moment of transformation as it emerged as a butterfly. Resources said the metamorphosis should take 10-14 days. On the 12th day after forming a chrysalis, "Morty" emerged. As you might have guessed, one minute the chrysalis was hanging motionless, a half hour later I walked by and he (it) was pumping fluid into unfurled wings.

We missed the moment of emergence, but we still had the thrill of seeing how the black spiky caterpillar metamorphosed into a delicate winged butterfly. On the bottom of the bug box was a drop of fluid from inside the chrysalis. Some sources say this is extra pigment. Amazingly, when I washed out the box, the water turned an orange-pink. 

I always think twice about bringing a wild thing into the house because they belong outside. They have evolved to survive warm days and cool nights (saving a bird). We were diligent to maintain an even temperature and humidity, and to keep the enclosure out of direct sunlight.

At the same time, we watched a second chrysalis that was outside. The caterpillar had attached to the bottom of our "Welcome" sign 36 hours after the one we had in the house. We hoped to catch this second butterfly as it emerged, but...

As day 14 came and went without the color changes we had seen in the chrysalis in the house, we wondered if the cool night-time temperatures had delayed the transformation. We continued to watch the chrysalis and as the daytime temperatures warmed up, I started to see the yellow coloring coming through the chrysalis wall that had heralded the emergence of Morty. 

Then hot dry winds began to blow. I kept hoping the butterfly would emerge, but yesterday the color seemed intensified. (see original coloring) It appeared to be dehydrating. 

This morning the story ends. The photo shows a small hole gnawed into the side of the chrysalis. Some other insect has preyed upon the unlucky mourning cloak before it could complete its metamorphosis.

Morty is flying about the yard and hopefully some of its siblings are as well. I hope they will contribute to the next generation of mourning cloak butterflies.

On a recent trip to Orcutt Ranch Park, I saw a number of butterflies: mourning cloak, painted ladies (Vanessa cardui), western swallowtail (Papilio rutulus), and anise swallowtail (Papilio zelicaon).  Check out a video of this Hidden Garden in Los Angeles at

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Bird on the Ground

Not all birds on the ground unable to fly are babies. Spring is definitely a time when people find and try to rescue baby birds, but just because a bird is small and grounded doesn't mean it is a fledgling.
 This bird was found on the ground and her inability to fly made people think she was a lost baby bird.
But this is actually an adult female white-throated swift (Aeronautes saxatalis). As their Latin name suggests most of their life is spent in the air. They catch insects in flight, drink by scooping up a mouthful of water as they swoop over a pond, and even mate in the air. Some sources cite them as the fastest flying North American bird because they have been documented out flying their predator the peregrine falcon. White-throated swifts are considered the most aerial land-based bird; they land only to nest on vertical cliff faces and sometimes freeway overpasses (man-made cliffs).
Because they are an aerial bird, swift legs are tiny with feet for gripping vertical surfaces. On the ground a swift is out of its element, it can't really walk around. This female was found in an atrium at the hospital where my neighbor works. The hospital staff gave her water in a cup and bits of cracker. Unfortunately, both were completely foreign to this bird.
Why was she on the ground? We don't know for sure. There was no sign of a predator attack.  but she most likely struck a window on the multistory hospital and then fell into the atrium surrounded by high walls.  Fortunately, she did not break a wing or come to serious bodily harm. 
When the neighbor first handed her to me in a box, my first thought was a violet-green swallow that had fallen from a nest. But once I had her in a quiet place and could evaluate her closely, I realized the amazing creature climbing up my hand was a bird I had only seen flying high overhead–a white-throated swift. Their long pointed wings slice through the air and the white belly and white flank spot make them easily identifiable from below. Most references only depict their appearance in flight because no one is going to see them on the ground. Yet, here she was.
With a little water offered from a dropper, she drank and rehydrated. She has a short stubby beak, but her mouth opening is large. She also has a pouch in her throat for carrying insects back to nestlings. 
With her gripping claws she climbed up this brick wall and she spent the night sleeping while clinging to a vertical surface, much like a bat. (Insectivorous bats and swifts have similar lifestyles; one fills the ecological niche during the night and the other during the day.) 
Injured wild birds frequently do not survive long. I didn't expect her to survive the night. But come morning she was still looking at me with shiny eyes. Most rescued swifts are juveniles that have fallen from nests and there are several excellent Internet resources.

Swift First Aid & Carers (Britain, but excellent info.)
Commonswift (German based, but excellent info.)

An adult swift in your hand is a very unusual gift. As I held her I knew what a rare moment it was.
The female swift was much improved by midday and when a breeze came up she was able to take to the air with the help of our long sloped driveway. She caught an updraft and flew. I watched her circle over the neighbor's house and then head east. I can't think of a better Earth Day moment. I didn't have a camera to capture it, but it was definitely an Earth Minute I will cherish.
A swift is as different from a sparrow, as a cat is from a rabbit. The more you know about the wildlife in your area–bird, mammal or reptile–the greater assistance you can be to a fellow creature in trouble. Get to know the birds in your backyard. 
Cornell University All About Birds website