A Brief Stopover in the Santa Monica Mountains

I am back on the West Coast of the US for a few weeks before I fly off into tomorrow sometime in November.  The specific part of the west coast I am in is the Santa Monica Mountains, a rugged stretch of steep sided hills perched over the Pacific Ocean covered with blanket of dense chaparral.

Evening sunbeams in Topanga

The precipitous, heavily weathered mountain slopes are eroding from ancient sea-floor uplifted and broken by geologic stresses, frequently manifesting in the form of earthquakes.  The region is dry, though fog is common and periodic rainstorms can quickly drench the area, causing local flooding and landslides.  The dusty ground is colored a dull orange/tan with angular, flat, broken pebbles peeling out of shallow, soft bedrock with occasional anemonite and bivalve fossils.  Under the twelve foot chaparral canopy the gritty soil is overlain by several inches of slowly decomposing leaf-litter and twigs, loose in some places, held together by dense mycelial mats in other places, particularly under the scrub and live oaks.

Infrequent damp, cool places are home to massive coastal live oak (Quercus agrifolia) and California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) while a bewildering variety of woody shrubs make up the body of the chaparral cloaking the rest of the mountains.  Here and there small meadows, potreros in the southern California vernacular, and wind-blasted rock outcrops break up the gray/green vegetation.

Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) flower buds

Chamise, Toyon, Scrub Oak, Lemonade Berry, Ceanothus, Yucca, and various sages make up much of the more common large shrubs with Black Walnut, Elderberry, Coastal Live Oak, and California Sycamore making up the primary larger trees.  The softer vegetative plants of the understory tend be short-lived, only appearing to bloom and set seed after the rain.

The thick, leathery leaves of the Lemonade Berry (Rhus integrifolia) in the image above are fairly typical of chaparral plants in that they are mostly evergreen and have evolved to husband moisture.  Some plants steal their nutrients from other plants, Dodder (Cuscuta californica) is common in the chaparral, some years blanketing their hosts with yellow-orange leafless vines sporting nearly invisible flowers.

Dodder (Cuscuta californica) on Lemonade Berry. Dodder is most active after rains.

For such a dry region the diversity of both plant and animal life is astounding.  The most obvious animal life during the day are the birds.  Birds of all sizes everywhere, year round.  Little tiny acrobatic birds such as the Bushtit traveling in small noisy flocks.

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus) on scrub oak

Large birds of prey soaring overhead in search of thermals or their next meal.

Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) riding the wind

Meadowlarks, finches, wrens, thrashers, scrub jays, woodpeckers, hummingbirds quail, and a host of other birds flit about within earshot, if not within eyesight.

Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) atop a Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) shrub, a popular food bush for many birds. Toyon is also known as Hollywood, the plant Hollywood owes its name to.

Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) perched on a non-native Tobacco Tree (Nicotiana glauca)

Mammals abound as well.  Small rabbits scatter like frogs in a pond in the evenings, and in the mornings I find fresh coyote, fox, bobcat, skunk, raccoon, deer, and mountain lion tracks on the unused dirt roads.  In the potreros badgers are not uncommon, large woodrat piles abound, bats fly through the canyons in the evening, and ground squirrels are everywhere.  Sometimes, if you have a quiet foot, a lot of patience, and good deal of luck you sneak up on these animals.  A few years back I was out here and found a coyote sleeping in the sunlight.

Coyote (canis latrans) sleeping in the sunlight

This being a dry area there are numerous lizards and snakes, mostly hidden from sight, and insects of all sorts.

I prefer wet places, places that stay green, but I do appreciate and enjoy the diversity of life here in the steep chaparral.  It is strange to be here between damp New England and my next home in Borneo where I will receive 3-4 meters of rain a year.

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Some of these photos are taken with a Nikon D80, some with a Nikon D90, and several with a Nikon D600.  I am still learning the latter camera, but if any of you out there are debating buying the D600, I can honestly say I recommend it.  The Meadowlark and Hummingbird images were taken with the D600 and are cropped from much larger images.

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Of Woodchucks (and Lawns)

Lawns.  I am not a big fan of them.  I love meadows, or even lightly tended fields.

Summer rain over a Vermont field full of buttercups (Ranunculus spp.)

I prefer to have a yard rather than a lawn, that flat expanse of close trimmed grass we call a lawn has never been all that appealing to me.  A “yard” does not carry the implication of maintenance that a “lawn” implies.  Lawns are an integral part of American life though, and are found even in places completely unsuited to their presence.  In some areas neighborhood associations mandate how your lawn must look, what you can and can’t have on it, and, in extreme cases, what shade of green it must be and how many inches tall it must be.

There are many theories behind why lawns exist, some people claim that it is a relict of animal husbandry, particularly sheep and how a grazed landscape looks.  Others claim that it taps into some deep species memory of living on a savanna, that the flat, open land is visually soothing and  provides a sense of safety and removal from danger and the unknown.  Some claim that lawns are a symbol of our control over nature, our own private, manufactured landscapes.

The most interesting idea I’ve heard for the prevalence of lawns in the US is in Charles C. Mann’s excellent book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  He suggests that wide, expansive lawns may have been an anti-malaria survival strategy.  A house on a rise on the landscape with cleared land around it would catch the breeze and prevent malaria carrying mosquitoes from getting into the house.  Lawns became embedded in the social consciousness of the emerging United States and spread with the population, as symbolic as the flag or fireworks, though more subtle and having greater practical value.  It is an interesting idea and makes as much, or more, sense as any other idea concerning lawns that I have read.

What bothers me about lawns is that they tend to be uniform monocrops with little three-dimensional texture.  This lack of diversity limits what wildlife visits a lawn, and I, as an ecologist and someone who is always investigating things, love diversity.  My yard here in Vermont is diverse, but my landlord likes a short lawn and cuts it down to an inch or two in height.  Every time he does so all the insects, birds, and mammals flee, taking weeks to return.  I like all those mobile visitors.

Dew covered Funnel-Web or Grass Spider webs (Agelenopsis spp.)

One of the visitors to my lawn is a plump woodchuck (Marmota monax).  It only crosses the road to my lawn when the vegetation reaches 6-8 inches, then it visits nearly every evening and some mornings a well.  This rotund fellow is wary and alert, standing up and peering about at the slightest out of place sound.

Woodchuck (Marmota monax) alert for danger

The name Woodchuck is actually a derivative of a Native American name wuchak, and has nothing to do with either wood or chucking, despite generations of woodchuck chucking wood tongue-twisters.

Woodchucks, also known as Groundhogs, Land-Beavers, and, my favorite, Whistle-Pigs are marmots, large rodents related to ground squirrels.  Most of the marmot family are alpine dwellers, commonly found in high grassy places from Europe to Asia and through North America, but the woodchuck is a lowland species wide-spread in the northeastern and central United States, and through Canada up to Alaska.  Like other marmots woodchucks have a piercing alarm call, a sharp whistle that carries far, sometimes with a bit of a burbling quality to it.

Woodchuck from the rear

Most often a woodchuck will appear as a furry lump on the grass, something like a cross of a loaf of bread, a caterpillar, and a fat otter pretending to be a cat.  Many people have a particular dislike for woodchucks because they eat garden vegetables and ornamental plants.  A good friend of mine has been driven to distraction by one that is eating her hydrangeas.  The one that visits my lawn (but only when it has not been cut for a while) eats the dandelions and fleabane, basically weeding the yard for me.

Woodchuck eating weeds from my yard

During the spring, summer, and fall woodchucks pile on as much fat as they can, much like small bears.  Come winter they retreat to a specially dug winter burrow to hibernate.  Marmots are some of the few animals that enter true hibernation.  They radically slow all their metabolic processes and remain oblivious to the world until mating time, often beginning in February or March, possibly later the further north they live.

Woodchucks have marvelously thick and soft fur, as do other marmots.  I have a hat I bought in western China with a marmot fur ruff that is too warm for me to wear in nearly any weather.  Despite putting on a tremendous amount of fat their flesh is lean, most of the fat is in a subcutaneous layer, just beneath the skin, with the rest stored in the body cavity between the internal organs.

Woodchucks are the most solitary of marmots and are said to be aggressive.  They can be hand raised to be cuddly, but it takes a great deal of effort to overcome their feisty nature.

Surprisingly, woodchucks are reputed to be agile climbers in an emergency, though I have yet to see one scale a tree.  Most often what I see is one popping up to look about:

Wary woodchuck watches for danger

Followed by a rapid retreat if I am not careful, quiet, and slow moving:

Just too dangerous around here…

I like this occasional visitor to my yard, and, given the option, do not mow my lawn as if I do it will not come by to visit.

Mainly because it is silly – if the animation is not working, click the image

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A note:  my posts may become a bit erratic for a few months, I am in the midst of finishing one job, moving (maybe twice), and will hopefully be beginning a new job in a different country.  Eventually this will provide great material for the ongoing exploration of nature, but the route there may be a little irregular and unpredictable.  Bear with it, I will not abandon my writing and photography.

The Frontenac Arch a Critical Linkage

(this is an article I wrote for the summer 2012 newsletter of A2A – Algonquin To Adirondacks Conservation Association – a bi-national conservation association I am an adviser for – I wanted to wait until it was included in the newsletter before posting it here as well)

Between the Algonquin and the St. Lawrence a finger of the Canadian Shield, called the Frontenac Arch, reaches down from the north.  The Canadian Shield is an ancient formation of rock, heavily weathered, marked with meteor craters, and bearing the polishing scars of the ebb and flow of glaciers miles deep. Soils are shallow on the Shield, in many places nonexistent.  Nutrients are hard to come by and wetlands abound.

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

The bedrock to the east and west of the Frontenac Arch is old seafloor with thicker soils that are rich in minerals and nutrients. Groundwater flows through breaks in the flat bedding planes and does not become trapped in pockets as easily as it does on the Canadian Shield.

When we look at a landscape we often look at the plants growing on the surface and leave our thoughts on the surface with them.  Plants grow where they do because of the chemistry of bedrock, soil, water, and temperature.

On the Frontenac Arch the chemistry of the northern and the southern Canadian forests mix.  This mix shows in the wide and unusual range of plants growing in and around the Frontenac Arch.  The diversity of plants attracts a corresponding diversity in animals. All these plant communities are separated and connected by the dense wetlands, and many animals are drawn to the wetlands.  Frogs, fish, ospreys, turtles, feeding moose, waterfowl of all sorts, beavers, blackbirds, otters, sparrows, loons, and many more.

Male Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta)

Healthy wetlands are rich in species, both in number and diversity; plant, animal, insect, and bird.  Wetlands are the kidneys of the planet; they filter water and keep it clean.  They slowly recharge aquifers with cool, pure water, they keep rivers and streams clear, they trap sediment, and they eventually fill in, becoming rich, complex soils full of nutrients.

Oddly, perhaps counter intuitively, all this life, more specifically all this diversity, of living things in wetlands is what keeps the water clean.  The water is strained at a molecular level for nutrients by all those living organisms.  Each looks for different things and uses them differently.  Toxins and chemicals are swept up and broken down by this process, but only as long as the diversity of life is present.

When that fabric of diversity is broken the health of the land suffers.  A healthy environment is like good glass, so clear you don’t see it and tough enough to withstand storms.

A large male Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) and feral biologists

The Frontenac Arch is one of the gems of the region and is critical in connecting the northern and southern forests.

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For those who are interested the Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association website is here, and a map is below:

Algonquin to Adirondacks Conservation Association map of the Frontenac Arch