Sunday, December 16, 2007


On Saturday my friend Paula and I went to a nice little area called Placerita Canyon. It is about 30 miles from my home in Culver City, which still makes it accessible without spending half a day driving to find a fairly quiet natural setting. We packed some food for a light lunch, brought layers of outer garments in anticipation of possible temperature fluctuations and the canyon setting, a Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds (a new acquisition—and one of the best & easiest guides I’ve ever used), binoculars, and digital cameras. I had planned to take my film camera, but haven’t used in so many years that I didn’t want to tale the time to re-learn all its functions prior to the trip. As we will see later, it proved yet again to be a big mistake to leave it behind.

We arrived at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center at about 9:30 AM. It was a gorgeous day: the sky a clear deep blue, the air clean, fresh; and scented with sage and sycamore. There is nothing on earth like the pungent, heady smell of the California hills when the warmth of the sun releases its perfumes. There were only a few cars; all belonging to volunteers who were beginning a project to build cement benches at various scenic spots along the trail.

Scorched Bark and Golden Leaves

Peeling Bark - California Sycamore 

Tree Spirit of the Canyon

Golden-leafed Sycamore--Who says California doesn't have seasons?

The blackened bark tells of past fire damage, but the new green growth bespeaks of regeneration.

It didn’t take us long to get out of the car and get moving, as we’d both been anticipating this trip all week. We headed up the Walker Canyon trail, spotting American Goldfinches and Acorn Woodpeckers right away. I also noted that since the last time I was hear about 10 years ago, a fire had burned through here in 2004; many of the oaks and sycamores had scorched, black trunks. But I also noted with amazement how Nature had triumphed, because there was new green growth sprouting from almost all of these fire-ravaged trees!


We went about ¼ up, only to find the way in shadows and the air very chilly, so we decided to turn round and fine a sunnier and warmer trail. We did see some California Towhees scratching in the duff along the base of the hill, but it appeared that the birds also found the deep shadows of the canyon too cool for comfort, as we did not hear or spot many here. There was another trail that split off from the Walker Trail that went up a hill and looked like there were more sunny spots, so we took it with pleasure.

The bark of this determined oak is completely black, yet new growth sprouts forth form every branch.

Along this route there were many oaks with fire-blackened trunks, their dark skeletal arms reaching into the blue sky. I was further amazed to see that even these trees showed signs of renewal; there were areas on the trunks and branches that were cracking and falling off, like humans that had a bad sunburn shedding skin. We saw no birds here either, but continued up the trail.

"The Aerie"

At the summit we were treated to stunning views and a pair of hawks circling over the opposite hill. There was a nice rock outcrop a little ways down the path and it looked like a perfect spot to use as our aerie. Once there, we scrambled over the boulders and unencumbered ourselves of packs and jackets, as the air was quite warm here. To the right we could gaze up-canyon, ablaze here and there with golden leaves of sycamores; to the left was the encroaching Santa Clarita suburbs pouring over the foothills—an incongruous and sobering sight. After watching circling hawks and Acorn Woodpeckers flitting from treetop to treetop in the oak and sycamore canopy below, we continued down the trail and came out again at the trailhead.

Looking south up Walker Canyon.

The urban beast slinks ever closer...

Mr. Walker's cabin--when the nearest neighbor was miles instead of feet away.

From here we proceeded to “The Oak of the Golden Dream.” On the way we passed the restored cabin that once was the residence that Frank Walker built for his family in 1920, the namesake of Walker Ranch Trail. It looks like a cozy little roost, and back when it was inhabited the area was no doubt filled with more species of birds than are found now. After a brief visit to the oak, we decided to have a bite to eat.

I couldn't resist a photo of this poor little plant. Looked like all of its sugar was gone!

Twisted sycamore branches crowned with gold; fire raced through the lower reaches of the park as well, yet these old giants still claim ruler-ship over the oak groves.

The photo above the plaque is the "Oak of the Golden Dream."

On the way to the car we saw some people pointing and looking up into a nearby tree and one of them said, “It’s a Red-shouldered Hawk—No! Look! There are TWO of them!” Paula and I stopped immediately and glassed them (bird-speak for looking at them through binoculars) and sure enough, a pair of Red-shoulders. A woman who was part of the nearby group turned out to be one of the docents and she told us the Red-shouldered Hawks breed in the area. I had never seen any perching before, though I had seen many circling in the sky (several times this past year over UCLA). It was quite a thrill to get a really good look at these beautiful and magnificent birds of prey. [for your own close look, follow this link to the Cornell Ornithology website:] The first photo shown on this page is exactly what they looked like.


We ate our lunch in a little garden area with hummingbird feeder and small pond under a big spreading oak tree. We watched the hawks off and on, who were periodically taking off from their perches and circling. A few Anna’s hummingbirds used the feeder, while a couple of good-sized Scrub Jays foraged in a nearby tree and on the ground. Behind us in a little gully were a pair of Spotted Towhees and some Golden-crowned Sparrows (which I’d never seen before).

The docent had told us that there was going to be wildlife presentation in the amphitheatre under some big oak trees near the trailhead, so we decided to stick around. And I’m glad we did, because we were treated to up-close and personal looks at an American Kestrel (aka Sparrow Hawk) and a Great-horned Owl! What a treat! The Kestrel had been rescued ten years before by a family whose cat had attached it and mangled its wing. A vet was unable to mend it properly, so the poor thing was condemned to spending the remainder of its life grounded.  The owl was raised from an abandoned hatchling and had been raised by humans and ‘imprinted’—which means it could no longer be returned to the wild because owls need to spend two years with the mother to learn all their owl survival tactics. These two birds, though denied the freedom to spread their wings in the wind, nonetheless serve a valuable purpose in educating young people (and adults) at the center. It is still a sad, sad thing to see a bird that can no longer fly.

We left the park around 2:30 PM and the shadows were already deepening in the canyon. One of the docents said that they have gatherings around a campfire in the evenings (when it’s not windy) and people are welcome to take a night hike on the trail. Those that did, he said, might be treated to owls hooting from the trees. I for one plan to go back and try that out!

The Placerita Canyon Nature Center is located off the 14 Freeway. There website gives more details about directions and a calendar of activities:

American Kestrel (note damaged wing)

Docent and Bird Expert Roger McClure with Great Horned Owl

Mr. Hooty

Near-quarter moon - at 2:00 in the afternoon!

Our list of sightings for the day included:

  • Acorn Woodpecker
  • American Goldfinch
  • Dark-eyed Junco
  • California Towhee
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Anna’s Hummingbird
  • Scrub Jay
  • Nuttall’s Woodpecker
  • Wilson’s Warbler (female only)
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Red-Shouldered Hawk
  • Golden-crowned Sparrow

Not bad for a day of birding!

This will most likely be the last post for a while, since I leave this coming Thursday on my trip to Seattle for the holidays. Here’s wishing you and yours Happy Holidays and a peaceful New Year!

I Wish You Good Birding,



[Blog Sountrack: Dave Mason “World in Changes” “Sad and Deep as You” “Look at Me, Look at You”; Delerium “Gateway”; Emerson Lake and Palmer “Lucky Man”  “From the Beginning” “Still You Turn Me On”; Hans Zimmer – soundtrack “The Last Samurai”; Jan Michel Jarre "Equinox"; Jeff Buckley "Mojo Pin" "Grace" "Hallelujah"]

Friday, December 14, 2007


I love Cedar Waxwings. Next to the Wood Duck, they are some of our most beautiful birds. They are elegant and dignified in a way that other birds are not and their flocking behavior is a real treat to watch. They have been regular visitors to UCLA this year, too. I first noticed them in January and the last time I saw them was Dec. 5. On November 13, I observed a flock of over 100 of them swarming around in the Rusty Leaf Fig at the front of the Law Bldg., feeding on the pea-sized fruit. But perhaps the most magical sighting of all was early one morning when I saw about 50 of them sitting in the topmost branches of a eucalyptus tree, and all of them turned towards the rising sun, their yellow breast seemingly aglow. It was an incredibly beautiful sight.

This shot was the next in sequence from the one above and has been altered to give it a more mystical feel.

Cedar Waxwings are quite common in the L. A. area, but few folks recognize them or even see them; they often stay hidden in a densley-leafed tree. On somewhat rarer occassions they will perch in bare trees such as the one above and on the fig mentioned previously, which had lost most of its leaves. One will often hear them rather than see them; their high-pitched squealing call makes it unmistakeable for any other bird.

The photos above were taken in Culver City in January 2004, on an overcast, chilly day. I was surprised to see them, but I think there is alarge flock that are year-round residents of the West Los Angeles area because I tend to see them almost every month of the year either at home or up on campus. A recent check of the Cornell Ornithology website shows a range map for them that this particular group seems to contradict. But our winters are getting milder and milder, so it is possible that they have simply adapted to our climate. My list of sightings for the past year logs them for every month.

If you would like to know more about this magificent and elegent bird, please visit the Cornell website's listing for lots of cool facts, photos, and song recordings:

[Blog soundtrack: David Gilmour: "Where We Start" Pink Floyd: "One Slip" "Sorrow" "Marooned"]

Thursday, December 13, 2007


It's hard to comprehend that it's almost the end of the week. The holidays are looming on the horizon and this is the month when time seems to be going at warp speed; before we know it, it's a new year. This morning there was a gorgeous sunrise and when I went out to get the paper a flock of ducks and some shorebirds flew by at the same time, their black silhouettes racing across the orange and pink clouds. At the end of my street is what remains of Ballona Creek; once a long meandering river that supported a rich variety of wildlife but is now only a concrete abomination. It still supports a lively population of water birds though, most of which spend their days in the remaining wetlands at the end of the creek.

Things have been busy at work due to finals, so I haven't had much time to post. I do get out every day and walk around campus, and Wednesday was no exception. There is a place on campus that I've been wanting to check out and it was a nice day so I headed on down there. It is a stream remnant that they managed to leave when they built, added to, and modified the campus over the years called Stone Canyon Creek. It's located on the west side of the grounds, just below the Anderson School of Management. I think it's kind of ironic that it also sits adjacent to the Real Estate School--home of future developers. But I digress...

The stream is probably a 1/4 mile long, with the head of it somewhere that I can't get to due to fences and the terminus is a huge drainpipe that diverts it underground. Lord knows where it ultimately ends up, but no doubt it's the Pacific Ocean.

The riparian habitat here consists of numerous large Bald Cypress and quite a few oaks. The oaks are native to the area. There were plenty of acorns on the ground--all eaten by squirrels, of which I saw about four working over the trees for whatever acorns remained attached.

I had hoped to see some interesting birds here, but there weren't many and they were all warblers. I saw a few Yellow-rumped and one Townsend's in the oak trees, and in some bushes nearby I saw a female Wilson's warbler. One Anna's hummingbird made a brief appearance and that was it for that birding adventure. I imagine in the spring there is way more activity down here, or perhaps earlier in the day when there are fewer humans about.

No bird watching trip is wasted, however. One learns something new each time and hopefully one increases their patience and sharpens their observations skills. Like anything else, it takes time and practice. For me, it's not work but a pure pleasure. The only thing negative about it for me is that if I go during lunch I have to quit and go back to work when I seldom am ready to!

I hauled out my old film camera the other day and I plan use it for some bird photos. I have a Nikon N90S with a Nikon 300 mm AF lens--and I'm hoping it will be adequate. I bought the outfit about five years ago for surfing photography, so I know it will be suitable for action shots--those birds rarely sit still for long! Stay tuned for test photos...

Saturday I am going birding with a friend of mine who wants to learn more about it. We're heading out to Placerita Canyon, which is a bit north of where I live. It is mostly oak forest and chaparral and I am uncertain about what birds may be around that area this time of year. But I've never come back disappointed from any outing, so I am eager to see what this one brings.

Peace & Good Birding,

[Post composed while listening to Tangerine Dream "Force Majeure" and "Stratosfear." Some really fine early electronic music from the late 70s]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Another beautiful day! The air is crisp (for L.A.) and I think we are finally done with the little surprise heat waves, which makes it seems more like winter. There were some scattered clouds this morning, including one big one that looked like the underside of a cumulo-nimbus; it was tinted a rosy-orange from the rising sun.

It’s been so cool in the mornings that I’ve switched around my walking schedule from early morning to lunch time. Of course there was quick reward in this as I witnessed the most amazing bird display ever yesterday.

I was walking over near Moore Hall (one of the original buildings on campus) and I heard some strange knocking and croaking noises, which sounded like the strange noises crows sometimes make; only this was louder and weirder. I followed the sound by walking up the lawn on the north side of Moore until I got to a large tree next to the building. There, on a top-most branch, was a pair of Common Ravens (Corvus corax), one a bit larger than the other, and they were obviously in the midst of some courting behavior.

They sat very close together and took turns vocalizing this odd croaking-knocking sound that ended in a kind of soft whistle and when each did, it would spread its wings slightly, ruffle its neck feathers and dip down in a sort of curtsy. I watched them for about fifteen minutes and this activity continued nearly unabated. Yet another time when I wished I had a video camera with good sound. This was really an amazing and unforgettable sight!

To confirm what I’d seen, I went online to see what I could find about this unusual-looking behavior. It took a bit of sleuthing, but I found the following, which was exactly what I observed:


“Courtship displays…include bowing with elongated neck and fluffing throat feathers. Male has fanned wings and tail, stretching its neck upwards while is bowing with bill downwards. Sometimes it…performs preening on female’s head.”

“There is little information on when or how pair formation occurs. Displays occur between individuals throughout the year, some of which may be courtship. These displays are most intense in the fall and winter. There is evidence that pairs stay together throughout the year but no concrete evidence that mating occurs for life.” (
Boarman and Heinrich, 1999)

[Berg, R. and T. Dewey. 1999. "Corvus corax" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web at]

“Common ravens are very vocal animals, with a diverse suite of calls and non-vocal sounds for different purposes and social contexts. From 15 to 33 categories of vocalizations have been described in this species. There are alarm calls, comfort sounds, chase calls, and calls designed for advertising territories. Common ravens may be able to mimic sounds of other animals but this has not been unambiguously documented. It is also possible that they are simply capable of a huge diversity of sounds and innovation enough to create calls that sound like those of others. Young birds engage in vocal play, in which they seemingly go through their entire repertoire of sounds, pitches, and volumes for minutes or hours at a time.” (
Boarman and Heinrich, 1999)

Nature surrounds us, even when no one is paying attention. I am glad that I am blessed with curiosity and that my senses have always been attuned to the wonder that surrounds me, even in places that most people would not even suspect or be aware of.

So get out there folks! Open your eyes and ears! Take a walk to clear your mind and renew your spirit. You will be rewarded, as I so often am, with little glimpses into Nature’s wondrous cabinet of curiosities.

Have a wonderful day!


[Written while listening to Dead Can Dance "Into The Labyrinth."]

Addendum: On Friday, Dec. 14 I spotted the same pair, in the same tree. I was out walking and heard the strange knocking call as before, but only once. In the ten minutes that I watched, the two birds sat quietly but really close together, while one appeared to be brushing its head against the other's. They are obviously a mated pair.

I also saw a huge nest of twigs and leaves in the uppper branches of Italian Stone Pine on the S. side of the Janss Steps. Could this be their nest or is it an older one? I don't recall seeing it before. I shall have to keep a close watch on these two!

Sunday, December 9, 2007


Looking East Towards LA with Snow-covered San Gabriel Mtns. in Background

I did manage to get outside today and went about four minutes away from my house to the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. This little gem is so close--yet miles away in terms of allowing one to get a nice dose of Nature right in the middle of sprawling Los Angeles. This was my first trip here and I was pleasantly surprised to see how large the park is. Although primarily geared towards family recreation, including the obligatory play areas and fishing pond, they have nonetheless created an environment that is Nature-friendly. The old adage, "If you build it, they will come" is very true of places like this; the critters show up, too, and make their homes here.

I started out near the large 'lake' near the parking lot and I'm glad I did, for I was treated to a spectacular show put on by a juvenile Osprey! It is my profound regret that I did not take my good Nikon 35 mm camera with the 300 mm lens, because I could have had some amazing photos. Alas, the memory of this must remain trapped in my memory where I cannot share it with you.

But I shall describe what I saw and hope the words will enable me to share this spectacular event. I heard the bird before I saw it, it's sharp cry telling me that a bird of prey was close by. Then I saw it circling over the lake. Around and around it went, circling high, then swooping in lower. At first I thought it was another type of hawk and that it was about to grab one of the coots swimming in the lake. I grabbed my binoculars, glassed it, and made the positive ID. This was a BIG beautiful bird, too.

I watched it for a long time, about 45-minutes, as it alternately hunted and stopped to perch in a eucalyptus tree very close to me. I had a sort of reverse-bird's eye view looking up at him. He repeated the flying and resting behavior until about an hour into the watch he did a slow swoop over the lake near some cattails, went into a stoop and dove right into the water! He came back up immediately grasping a good-sized trout (at least 12") in its talons and flew off. He made the circuit of all the trees surrounding the lake until choosing a stout eucalyptus branch to plop his lunch down on. He sat there with it, just standing on it, until the fish expired, which I think the bird did to avoid losing it when it eventually flew off with it. It was quite a show and one that I will long remember.

Other birds seen:

  • Cattle egret
  • Cormorants
  • American Coots
  • Mallards & Geese
  • Immature Black-crowned Night Heron
  • American Widgeon
  • Yellow-rumped warblers
  • Rock Pigeons
  • Crows
There were also a number of medium-sized Red-ear Slider Turtles sunning themselves on rocks and stumps along the lake.

Nice [Artificial] Stream Environment

Running water soothes the soul and calms the spirit. Sitting next to this burbling little stream lulled me into a pleasant torpor; like I'd taken a tranquilizer...

[Man-made Waterfall] - But Close Enough to the Real Thing

At the head of the stream is this man-made waterfall. It is using reclaimed water, which I deduced from the characteristic smell of it (hard to describe, but let's just say it's 'unnatural' yet not unpleasant).

Algae Design on River Rock

Nature's little artistic touches are everywhere, even in the most seemingly unlikely places. This algae creates an interesting abstract design.


Water moves. Water flows. It is life.

Spent Sycamore Leaf

One of the many fallen leaves scattered on the ground, reminding me that the hardwood varieties of trees are preparing for winter.

Leaf Pile

Leaves collect in all the nooks and crannies now. Their brown husks crunch under foot and scatter along the ground in the wind.

American Coot

This little guy came over to me and I wondered why when all the others seemed so skittish. Then I noticed that the poor little feller had a wad of fishing line wrapped around its leg. The leg was rubbed raw and the bird was limping. I felt like it was asking me to take it off and I sure wish I could have. This is a vivid reminder of the damage that callous and inconsiderate people take on wildlife. It kind of put a damper on the day for me.

American Widgeon - Male & Female

In the center of this photo you can see a pair of American Widgeon. They are wintering here from their normal range, which is the far north of Alaska and Canada. These were the only ones; I wonder where the rest of their flock was?
As can be seen by this outing, there is abundant wild life sometimes with minutes of home. So the next time you are feeling worn out, stressed, tired, upset, despondent, or depressed--please drag yourself to a nearby park or the beach and get outside for a gentle dose of Nature's healing energy!

[Composed to the haunting music of Lisa Gerrard, from her "DUALITY" CD. Highly Recommended.]


A Peaceful Sunday Morning

It's a peaceful Sunday morning after a night of rain. The clouds have disappeared and the sun is shining brightly on the newly washed landscape. I think the trees and plants are very happy this morning! I'm not sure how much rain we got since it started this past Friday morning, but everything in the yard looks well-soaked. I know it snowed in the mountains. Whatever we get in the way of moisture is most welcome and needed.

The little stone Buddha in the photo above sits peacefully on an old steamer trunk in the living room. This morning I was captivated by the shaft of light that seemed to accentuate the tranquility of his meditating countenance. It made me feel peaceful just looking at it. And grateful, too, that I am able to live in a neighborhood that is so quiet in the morning, a place where you can actually hear the wind in the trees and the birds singing.

These moments of peace are so important to us as humans and they are so often missed or ignored because we are busy or just plain oblivious. Our human ancestors were creatures of the outdoors, who lived in Nature's lap and earned our existence from it. We could read the seasons in the sky and know the weather by smelling the wind and watching the clouds. We still carry cell memories of our lives as hunter-gatherers and some of us who are compelled to spend large chunks (or whole lives) 'getting back to nature' through activities such as hiking and birdwatching are, I think, responding to an ancient call. There are some who are compelled to 'play outside, if for no other reason than it makes them feel good. And it is probably why I feel more whole when I am outside in a natural setting.

But now many folks mark the seasons by holidays marked on a calendar and cultivated by retail. They rarely (if at all) take the time to just stop a moment and listen to the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree; to hear the sweet song of a house finch. They rarely let themselves become immersed in the natural world around them to glean the renewing energy that it can bestow. I myself am often guilty of this when I get too wrapped up in activities that necessitate staying indoors and thus shuts me off from the natural stimulation of breathing fresh air and going for a walk even if it's just around the neighborhood. So today I've vowed to get outdoors and 'air my pants' as my mom used to tell us kids to do so often.

The the air is so crisp and cool this morning and smells so fresh; there is an earthy, pungent smell of wet leaves and dirt that lets me know that Mother Nature has finally done some housekeeping! It's so beautiful out, in fact, that I think I am going to get out from in front of the computer and go for a hike in a nearby regional park. I was inside too much yesterday and my senses are dulled, so I know that my batteries need recharging.

So get outside! Smell the air! Listen to the birds singing! And I hope your day is beautiful and tranquil!


[This post was written with a complete absence of music for a change. The tranquility was too nice to spoil.]

Thursday, December 6, 2007


Patio Garden, Summer 2007

N. Copelandi, Highland Sumatra
Dec. 6, 2007

S. alata + orophelia (Sarracinia Hybrid)
May 2006 - shortly after arrival

Sarracinia with Blossom
Summer 2007

The Carnivores
Dec. 6, 2007

I don’t have a whole heck of a lot of room to keep plants on my little patio outside the back door. There are two houses on the lot and my landlords (who are the coolest on earth) live in the back. My backyard is really their front yard, and it’s a paved patio really. My front yard has limited growing space, all enclosed in brick planters. I have front steps as well, on which I keep potted plants. I also have a few cactus and succulents in pots under the kitchen greenhouse window at the head of the driveway.


But I love plants and became interested in so-called ‘carnivorous’ plants in 2006. I was especially intrigued with the tropical pitcher plants of the Nepethe family and the North American pitcher plants called Sarracinias, which are mostly native to the Southern US. These strange and beautiful plants are truly fascinating and having them is like bringing a bit of the tropics into one’s home. I bought a small selection of specimens from an online seller and eagerly awaited their arrival.


They came quickly and were packed well; they set the 4” pots inside large Styrofoam cups (I know, I know—not very eco-friendly) and another cup inverted taped to the top. And they only ship one of several very fast methods to ensure that they don’t spend too much time cooped up on the road.


I set up a little area with some wrought iron table frames and miscellaneous squares of slate. I put out an old plastic litter box for the Sarracinias, whose pots need to be submerged in about 2” of water. And not just any water—it has to be distilled water because the minerals and salts in tap water will kill the plants. This goes for watering the Nepenthes; only distilled for them, too. The Nepenthes, because their pitchers hang down from the pots, had to be elevated. My plan is to hang them from the rafters of the patio when they get bigger, but they are still pretty small for that. So for now they are on the shelf arrangement I made for them (see photo above).


The growers recommend adding dead flies, etc. to the pitchers of Nepenthe if they don’t appear to be attracting them on their own, for purposes of fertilizing and nutrients. I have not had to do that with mine; they seem to be thriving without the addition of food. This summer they threw out pitchers like crazy and grew quite large. I think they might be ready for a 6” pot and ready to hang, but I won't be able to transplant them to bigger pots until spring.


The Sarracinias have grown, too, especially the alata hybrid. I put it in a 6" pot and it really took off. These plants DO attract flies and last fall when I was trimming down the old pitchers, one of them was positively crammed with dead flies! Yuck! But that’s what they do, so who am I to squirm about it? At least I don’t have to feed them mice or something like I would with a snake.


I was amazed at how easy these plants are to grow and take care of. It is a marvelous thing to be able to have something exotic like this to watch right outside my back door. The cost wasn’t much to get started and it only requires buying a couple gallon jugs of distilled water every couple of weeks. A small price for so much enjoyment!

[Composed during a musical romp by Tangerine Dream entitled "Poland" -- a live performance in Warsaw]

Wednesday, December 5, 2007


Unknown Water Plants / UCLA Botanic Gardens

Mr. Bushy Comes Out Of The Ferns

Whatta Ya Lookin' At?

Gettin' A Drink

Yesterday at lunch when I was down at the Mildred Mathias Botanic Gardens here at UCLA I came upon this tree stump that had a plastic container full of some sort of water plant. I have no idea what it was. But as I was looking at it and taking photos, the ferns below started rustling and up pops a squirrel. The photos tell the story from here—and surprised me, I must say!

There is a stream that runs through the gardens, but they are rennovating them at the moment and have cut off the flow of water to the lower portion of the gardens where this little feller lives. I can only assume that this has become his private watering hole during this project.

The koi and turtles that live in different areas of the stream have been sequestered in those areas by damming them off and proving fresh water via an industrial-sized mister placed above each. I spoke with Henry Varney, the head gardener and botatanist, who told me that the stream should be flowing soon, which will be good news for the other critters.

At the head of the stream is a small waterfall, which flows into several bends and turns until it reaches the turtle's home. A few turns more and it flows around a slower bend (that is also deeper), which is the koi's hangout. There are quite a few in there, too, including some that a fisherman might call 'whoppers.' I have also seen birds bathing at the shallow edges of the stream, including the little Dark-eyed juncos.

If you are ever in this part of the world and want a little dose of nature right in the middle of bustling Westwood, the Mildred Mathias Botanic Gardens is the place to go. It's free! Check out their website here:

Have a great day!


[This post was written while listening to the soundtrack "Looking for Richard" by Howard Shore]

Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Grandma Meets Mr. Bushy, 1951

Mrs. Bushy Comes to Call
The Neighborhood Squirrel


I’m not an expert on squirrels but I have a great fondness for them despite the fact that many people regard them as pests. For me they are an endless source of entertainment whenever they are present and I tend not to trust people who don’t like them. I suspect my fondness of them is genetic; my maternal grandmother could have been the patron saint of squirrels because her love for them was so great. The photo above says it all: Grandma kneeling roadside somewhere in the mountains near Crestline, CA, making nice with a squirrel. I imagine she either spotted one and shouted at my grandpa to pull over quick or they had stopped at a lookout viewpoint and one scrambled up to say hello. Either way, Grandma was always welcoming.

I remember, too, all the family outings to Crestline, Big Bear, Lake Tahoe, and Idyllwild that included a healthy dose of squirrel feeding as an activity, with—you guessed it—Grandma leading the way. To this day I swear I am channeling my grandmother whenever squirrels are around and they will often come to me and not others.

The first day of work here at UCLA I was walking down from the parking structure through the sculpture gardens and saw some movement in my peripheral vision. I turned my head just in time to see a squirrel coming up out of a trash can with an entire bagel in its mouth. He looked like he was struggling to control it, but he managed to get into a nearby tree and up he went with his prize. It’s just like that with squirrels—always good for a laugh.

A few weeks ago I was having lunch on one of the patios under some large Canary Islands Pines and Jacarandas and spotted a squirrel climbing down the trunk of the pine head-first. I can usually hear them before I see them because their little claws make such a racket when they move over tree bark. So here comes this bushytail down to the ground and it immediately starts foraging around in the grass. It was not long before it came up with a large piece of toasted and buttered French bread toast that someone had discarded. It picked up in its tiny paws, spun it around while sniffing and tasting it, then clamped down on it and carried up the tree. I watched it happily munching away in the safety of its tree branch al fresco snack spot, and I am quite sure that that little feller thought he’d struck the mother lode!

Speaking of squirrels eating, I was down in the botanic gardens yesterday at lunch, where there is a significant squirrel population. There is a veritable army of squirrels and they look like they've been livin' large--some of them are just the fattest little butterballs! And no wonder: a lot of people eat their lunches here and no doubt some of it falls prey to the squirrel’s wiley charms. I'm glad I took a bag of peanuts myself, because these guys come barreling out of the bushes and just stop right in front of your feet, sit up, and look you in the eye. You can almost hear them saying via mental telepathy, “Alright lady--hand over those nuts or I’m gonna run up your leg and scare the hell out of you!” It would be downright unnerving to someone who didn't like or understand them, but I find it delightfully amusing. Not sure about the running up the leg part though...

There is one squirrel activity that makes me smile more than any other: the ring-around-the-tree trunk chase. Again, I usually hear it before I see it; the clattering of little claws on bark. Then you see them going round and round, sometimes squawking at each other. Usually I can tell if it’s a playful chase or something territorial—but since squirrels are solitary animals, my guess about play is probably way off the mark. It is still pretty funny to watch.

This morning I got to see four squirrels mixing it up in the bushes and trees near Royce Hall. Up and down, across the branch of one tree into another, down again. It was a squirrel rodeo! It lasted a full five minutes (and who knows how long it had been going before I stumbled across it) until a couple of them scampered down into the ivy, looking like they’d just come to their senses.

There are squirrels around my house that come occasionally to sit in the big Twisted Chinese Juniper Tree out front that is near the living room windows. There is one that will sit and harass the cats, scolding them and swishing its tail wildly. The boys get a big charge out of this of course; they can’t figure out if the squirrel is a small cat or just what it is—all they know as it’s in their yard and they want to chase it!

Another little female has been coming around lately, one that has taken up residence in the eucalyptus trees across the street. She is very unafraid of humans, so I suspect she is fairly young. She often comes scampering across the street (which makes me nervous—our street is sometimes like Daytona on raceday) when she sees me in the yard. She comes right up to my feet, sits up and looks for food. I have a bag of roasted unsalted peanuts in the shell that I keep for them and she knows this now.

I take some out of the shell for her to eat, then giver her whole ones which she takes off to bury. At one point I had quite a few craters in my lawn and flower pots. After a while I just line some up on top of the brick wall. She comes and picks one up, sniffs the next one in line as if to take inventory, then runs off to bury the one in her mouth. She will repeat this activity until they are all gone and I cut her off (otherwise I’m sure she’d do it until the bag is empty).

Today I read this interesting little tidbit online:

“Gray squirrels play an important role in forest regeneration because the nuts they bury have a chance to sprout into trees. Across the Midwest, however, gray squirrels are being replaced by a different species, the red squirrel, which hoards nuts in piles rather than burying them. This type of hoarding prevents those nuts from sprouting and may affect the future composition of forests.”

And people just think they are pests!

So be kind--Share your lunch with a squirrel today!


P.S. (Nearly) everything you ever wanted to know about squirrels can be found here:

[This post was created to the tunes of B-Tribe "Sensual", Nick Drake ("Things Behind the Sun", and Traffic ("Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys"]