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Urban Raptor

One of our artists lives by the Los Angeles River. This week some wildlife (unrestrained by quarantine travel restrictions) came to visit. Here is her account of the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) that lives on her street.


A few weeks ago I was FaceTiming with friends while walking to the mailbox, when something big and silent flew right over my head. My jaw dropped. It had a long narrow tail like a falcon– I knew it wasn’t a Red Tailed Hawk. I decided to do some Birding from Home and see if I could catch sight of this elusive newcomer again.

In the morning, I sat on the porch with my coffee and kept a keen eye out. I noticed a huge crowd of little birds. Aside from a noisy pair of mockingbirds, there are Cedar Waxwings, mourning doves, fighty little hummingbirds, bright yellow Western Tanagers, phoebes, sparrows, and even blackbirds. I kept coming back at 7:45, but no hawk.

One morning, I slept in a little bit, and came outside to an eerily quiet street. Aside from the constantly noisy mockingbirds, the other little birds were being veryyyyy quiet. Interesting. Someone must be hunting… I took a seat and waited.

..and finally spotted a Cooper’s Hawk!

Over the next few weeks I kept coming out to check on my new neighbor, but she was too good at social distancing!

Finally I got my chance.

I couldn’t believe she was perched so close by.

Then I tried to get closer by taking pictures *through* the binoculars, with interesting results!

Looks like I shot it with a Holga! 

Here you can see how the head shape is so different from a Buteo (Red tails and Red-shouldered). Tiny little beak! Long, narrow tail. Amazing flat top hair style!

These pictures don’t do justice to her deep amber eyes, which have a fierce red gleam in the sunlight.

Accipiters are known for their agile hunting style. Unlike Red Tails who drop down suddenly on their prey from above, Accipiters often hunt in wooded areas, turning tightly around trees to pursue small birds.

My neighbor was perched with one foot lifted, looking around and listening carefully. Suddenly she launched herself from the branch and wheeled around to silently dispatch some unlucky squawking thing in the next tree over, which sadly I couldn’t see!

Stay tuned for updates on this fascinating neighbor. And remember–be like the Cooper’s Hawk and practice social distancing!

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OGRs in the Garden

Ogres are fairy tale creatures, meant to scare the listener or reader with their fearsome looks or behavior. A charming exception to this image are the movie characters, Shrek and Fiona.

To a rose lover and history buff an OGR is an Old Garden Rose! Generally, these are roses that were known to cultivation prior to 1867, at which point the first Hybrid Tea rose, “La France” was introduced. This was the beginning of modern Hybrid Teas, Floribundas, Grandifloras, Miniatures and Shrub roses.

Old roses existed in Europe long before but were generally once-blooming per year. These include the Alba, Centifolia, Damask, Gallica and Moss roses. The famous “Apothecary’s Rose” or “Red Rose of Lancaster” is a Gallica.

In the late 1700’s there was fierce competition by explorers, collectors and botanists (plant scientists) to bring back the newest and rarest of botanical “finds” from their distant travels. In the mid 1790’s several China roses made it to Europe causing a sensation with their ability to be ever-blooming. One of the botanists active during 1843- 1861 was named Robert Fortune. He worked in China, Japan and Taiwan collecting some 250 plant species.

Fortune’s Five Colored Rose (before 1844) also known as Smith’s Parish (red), rediscovered in Bermuda in the 1960’s.

Once China Roses (and “Tea-scented China Roses”) were introduced, their ability to bloom multiple times per year brought them into breeding programs resulting in the Bourbon, Hybrid Perpetual, Noisette and Hybrid Tea roses.

Rosette Delizy a charming Hybrid Tea Rose with tea fragrance. Nabonnand, 1922
Monsieur Tillier, lovely multicolored Hybrid Tea rose of salmon, pale pink and purple. Berniax, 1891

Bermuda Mystery: Priscilla’s Rose, found in the garden of Priscilla Brewer

Lovers of OGR’s and Antique Roses know that rare or varieties thought to be extinct can be found in surprising places like old homesteads, very old church grounds, towns and countries with a long, sea-faring history such as Bermuda. Bermuda Mystery Roses include candidates for “Hume’s Blush”, locally known as “Spice”, “Slater’s Crimson China”, locally known as “Belfield” and five others.

Bermuda Kathleen (a sport of Mutabilis) on left; Mrs. B. R. Cant and Mons. Tillier at center; Bermuda Trinity at right.

Older roses have a soft charm to them, are scented, and are remarkably care-free; requiring little pruning, are hardy and remarkably disease-resistant. Organic rose gardening is a balancing act, allowing beneficial insects, using compost tea, mulching with compost, amending the soil to feed the plants and the beneficial soil microbes.

My thanks to Antique Rose Emporium, helpmefind.com (rose search), Dave’s Garden, Wikipedia, Monticello.org, Smithsonian.org and the Bermuda Rose Society for their websites and published works. Any omissions or mistakes are my own.

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!

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Tomato Times!

We love a good organic tomato; preferring a home-grown and heirloom variety or from the Farmer’s Market. Growing your own food is a great activity with kids, a satisfying way to teach organic gardening and the value of feeding the soil.

Do a little research to find out which plants do best in your climate. Our incredible propagating (plant growing) friends at “Island Seed and Feed” in Goleta, help us to figure out which tomato plants did well last year and what might be better this year. Of course, the amount of rain may be too much (fungus problems) or too little. We use a drip system linked up to a controller for reliable watering even if we’re busy or away.

Ask a few local irrigation companies if you’d like recommendations for setting up a drip-irrigation system with a controller. There are many ways to do-it-yourself and with help.

We use a good organic _potting_ soil in 15 gallon pots because the gophers will destroy our tomatoes if we plant in-ground. (Don’t reuse last year’s potted tomato soil to avoid transferring diseases; use that old soil with other non-tomato plants.) Be very cautious not to use contaminated soil or pesticides on your food plants.

Dr. N stirs in a few handfuls of organic plant food.

Then, hand waters with a B vitamin liquid + water to prevent “transplant shock.”

He leaves enough room at the top for an occasional deep watering by hand, and a sturdy tomato cage. He always puts the plant tag in the pot so we’ll remember which ones did well at the end of the harvest.

Just planted.
The original four tomato plants at 3 weeks and a new one on the right, at 2 weeks! Happy growing times.

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!

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Birding from Home

Enjoy this picture of a cheeky fellow visiting our neighbor’s tree.  He is a Hooded Oriole who, with his mate, like to set up a nest in the Spring.  This orange flowered tree is a favorite of the Orioles and the Hummingbirds.

Sometimes we take birds for granted.  We think they’re always there, all the time.  Unfortunately, songbirds are in decline due to serious predation by house cats, air pollution and various avian diseases like the West Nile virus.  Habitat loss is another serious problem.

However, many bird species are seasonally occurring.  Whether they are migrating through, stopping over or searching for nesting habitats you can study who’s here this month and who is coming soon.  Sometimes fellow birders will tip you off that a rarity or unusual visitor has been spotted.

Local birders said there was an unusual Mexican Red Egret at the slough.  It taught some of our local egrets to flap their wings while wading, herding little fishes into the shallow waters to become an easy dinner.

If you’d like to investigate your avian (bird) neighbors you’ll be more successful in the very early morning and late afternoon as birds are feeding.  You may find them going about their business any time especially when their preferred food and fresh water is available.  But, be careful not to set up a feeder or water dish where cats can attack. There should be a good 6’ clearance from shrubs or other cover where cats can hide.

A pair of binoculars (binocs) are very helpful and so are local bird guides. 

Ask family and family friends if they are birders and can help you get started.  Birders are great friends to have!

Here are some of my favorite guides and some of my favorite college level books.

Front and center:  Dr. Joel Carl Welty’s famous “Life of Birds”, 3rd ed.

Left front: “Life of Birds”, 4th ed.; Dr. Welty and Dr. Baptista

Left upper row: National Geographic “Birds of North America”

Upper row, center: “Audubon Society, Field Guide to North American Birds, Western Edition”

Upper row, right: The Shorebird Guide”, O’Brien, Crossley and Karlson

Lower row, right: “The Birds of Lake Los Carneros”, Millikan and Lewis

Why am I recommending “old” editions of Dr. Welty’s book?  Because it’s a classic college textbook and the old editions are more affordable!  Dr. Welty was my mother’s college professor.  He and his wife, Susan, were wonderful and caring people.

If you read older editions, please understand that names and classifications may change or be updated as new information is discovered, but, the beautiful line drawings are priceless. Many functions, parts or situations can’t be photographed clearly enough for viewers to understand.  (I used to be a Natural Science Illustrator!)

For the new birder, the color index and color photographs in the Audubon Society Field Guides are wonderfully helpful. Buy the guide new or used for your region! Often, you’ll see photos of both male and female breeding coloration which can be somewhat different than their round the year plumage. There’s plenty of information about the range where certain birds can be found, their preferred habitat, feeding habits and lots more.

I recommend that you start an informal field journal.  A simple “Composition Book” with wide-ruled lines is fine.  Practice your handwriting to be legible and neat so you can write your observations with an indelible (permanent ink) pen.  Keep that pen and a good number 2B drawing pencil with your Field Journal and binoculars at all times.  Wildlife biologists in earlier days would have used Acid-free paper and India ink in their field journals, so you’re off to a good start!

Find a good location where you can sit, comfortably, and observe the birds in the environment around your home.  Call this space your “field station” or “blind” (staying hidden so birds or animals are not disturbed by your presence).  

Tell your family that you are doing Science at a particular time of the day and to please not distract you as you are taking observations.

Among the many things you may want to record is the date, time of day, weather, wind and temperature.  You should try to be observing at the same time of day.  Note which birds are present, note what they are doing.

Start drawing as much as you can.  A quick impression is just fine, birds are rarely still.

Whether living in an apartment, in the city, in the suburbs or a more rural area, your home is essentially your habitat.  You are part of the local environment.  Lucky city dwellers in high-rise buildings may get to see Peregrine falcons “stooping” on pigeons, catching them for dinner.  Lucky hikers can sometimes see Peregrines in the windy habitat of the Chimney Rock Trail on Point Reyes, or, see Ospreys nesting on new nest platforms along Tomales Bay, CA. 

Don’t be too upset if you see a bird of prey (raptor) eating its dinner.  As I say to my kids, “Everybody needs to eat.”

During my ornithology (study of birds) course at University of California Santa Cruz, I didn’t see a lot of species (types) of birds at my field site as it was late in the year (no nesting going on).  I was patient.  One day I saw a huge dark raptor at the top of a redwood.  It could only be a Golden Eagle! My classmates doubted my observation, but on later days, I saw two Golden Eagles- one flying and another on a telephone pole at sundown.

In that class, we took field trips to the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO)and the California Academy of Sciences.  This was a chance to see mist-net capture of live birds, measurement and banding of their legs at PRBO.  The Academy had fixed (stuffed) bird specimens.  Your local Natural Science Museum will give you the chance to see fixed specimens on display.  Ask if you may sit, study and draw them!  

Here are some drawings that I made of a California Condor specimen at the Carrizo Plain Visitor Center, and, sketches I did of live juvenile condors at the Santa Barbara Zoo.  I guess I was hooked on Condors since my early teens when I saw a giant bird with wings wider than a picnic table flying in the wild over the Central Coast of California.

Last year, we noticed folks with binocs and cameras with long lenses staring down toward a remote beach. We stopped and these friendly birders said there are Condors on the beach!  Larger than big turkeys, they were walking on the beach then flying overhead!

If you get the “birding bug” you’ll have fun the rest of your life.  We have friends who travel the world trying to complete their “life lists” of birds seen and heard.  You can help with the Christmas Bird Count, helping observe and tally up all the species in your area.  

Thank you for joining us as we do Pandemic Projects, meant to keep you energized, curious and learning!