Archive | January, 2015

Beautiful California Perennials

California-PoppyCalifornia is home to a few perennial plants, flowering with vibrant color in the spring while lying dormant most of the year, ephemeral plants that are all the more beautiful for the brevity of their appearance.

Golden Poppy

California’s most famous perennial is the state flower, the Golden Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica), also known as the Flame Flower and Copa de Oro. It grows throughout California, blossoming on 12-inch plants into 2 to 3 inch cups of gold, scarlet, rose, white and bronze. Golden Poppy flowers, which feature four fan-shaped petals, can be seen blooming in large numbers from February through September, with sufficient rainfall.

The Golden Poppy blooms in open areas and grassy slopes such as the Antelope Valley in Southern California and Bear Valley in Northern California; although it’s not just a California flower , its range extending as far north as Washington and as far East as Texas. It was valued by the Indians as a source of food and oil. It’s also known for its sedative properties.

Fortunately for gardeners, the Golden Poppy is drought-tolerant, self-seeding and relatively easy to grow, although it will require occasional maintenance.

Prickly_PhloxPrickly Phlox

The Prickly Phlox (Leptodactylon californicum), a native of the Santa Monica and Verdugo Mountains, is a low-growing shrub found on dry slopes and low elevations from San Luis Obispo down to the Santa Ana mountains. It’s one of California’s most beautiful small shrubs which, true to its name, features spiny narrow green leaves and blooms with fragrant, bright-pink flowers in the Spring. A silken texture also gives them a distinctive sheen.

Theodore Payne introduced the Prickly Phlox into cultivation in 1941. It is related to the granite prickly-phlox, a native of North America from British Columbia to Baja and found in pine forests, mountain passes and even desert shrubland. Like the Golden Poppy, it is drought-tolerant and capable of growing in poor soil and dry climates.

With Spring a few months away, remember to seek them out. Their vibrant colors will be memorable but short-lived.

The Phainopepla

Phainopepla-maleThe Phainopepla is a crested songbird of the deserts and woodlands of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It’s the most northerly representative of the tropical Central American family of silky flycatchers. Phainopepla means “shining robe” in Greek, on account of the glossy black plumage of the male. When the males fly, their distinctive white wing patches are clearly visible.

The Phainopopla can be found in the deserts of California, Nevada, Arizona and Baja, although they range as far north as the San Joaquin Valley. Like other flycatcher species, the Phainopepla eats a variety of berries and insects. What makes the bird unique is a specialized mechanism in their gizzard that improves the digestion of berries. This means Phoradendron californornicum, commonly known as the desert mistletoe, can form a substantial part of their daily diet.

Few birds have as close a relationship to a plant species as Phainopepla has with the desert mistletoe. The mistletoe benefits just as much as the Phainopepla because seeds pass through the bird’s digestive tract unharmed, only to land on another tree in the bird’s droppings, sticking long enough to germinate. This ensures a continued food supply for the Phainopepla.

With Phainopepla so reliant on the mistletoe diet – eating as many as 1,100 berries a day, using the mistletoe for water intake and even using mistletoe clumps to place their nests – it’s easy to spot them perched atop trees, vigilantly guarding their favorite clumps of mistletoe

Phainopepla are also unique for the imitations of 13 other species, a defense mechanism designed to confuse predators. Unfortunately, habitat loss due to agricultural use has caused large reductions in their numbers.



White and Golden Crowned Sparrows

Golden-Crowned-SparrowDuring winter, there are three migratory birds we can expect to see more often in California before they return to the tundra and shrublands of British Columbia and Alaska. Some breeds of White-crowned sparrows, however, spend all year in the West Coast.

Golden-Crowned Sparrow

The Golden-crowned Sparrow sports a bright yellow crown flanked with black bars covering part of the eyes. The wings are also brightly-patterned with white bars. During migration and winter, the Golden-crowned Sparrow can be seen on the ground in the open, feeding on the seeds of grasses and weeds as well as berries. Insects are a key food source during summer.

The Golden-crowned sparrow is known for its mournful song, prompting Yukon minors to dub the bird “Weary Willie.” It spends more time in its California wintering home than most other bird species.

Lark Sparrow

Lark-SparrowA number of bold features distinguish the Lark Sparrow from other birds, including a long tail with white triangles, a clear white breast with a black dot and an alternating chestnut, white and black head pattern. During breeding season, males sing from perches, strutting back and forth on the ground to attract females. The Lark Sparrow feeds mostly on seeds during the winter, but in summer eats insects as well as seeds.

Unlike other songbirds, the Lark Sparrow walks on the ground, hopping only during courtship. Instead of building its own nests, it often takes over unused mockingbird nests.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Crowned-SparrowThe White-crowned Sparrow can easily be identified by the black and white stripes on its head, a grey breast, long tail and wings marked with white bars. They can be found in flocks, fanning out in open ground to feed near sheltering bushes, hopping through low foliage and using a two-footed scratching maneuver to locate food. During winter, White-Crowned sparrows eat seeds, grains and insects, although insects make up a large part of the diet during the breeding season. Although populations are still large, they’ve declined by a third since 1966.

During spring, you may hear the bird’s thin whistle. Male White-crowned Sparrows do most of the singing, and they learn the songs in the first few months of life.




The Loggerhead Shrike

Loggerhead-ShrikeThe Loggerhead Shrike is a songbird the size of a robin that hunts from elevated perches like a small hawk, feeding on insects, lizards and small mammals. It can be identified by its hooked beak, grey back, black and white wings, white chest and belly, black tail and the distinctive black stripe mask across the eyes. Its large head, relative to its body, may be the source of the name “loggerhead” which means “blockhead.” There are 11 subspecies of Loggerhead Shrike, all spanning the North American continent.

The Loggerhead Shrike can typically be seen in open habitats replete with brush and thickets, perched atop utility wires and fence posts, occasionally swooping down to scout prey, and flying with fluttering wings followed by long glides. It’s a useful bird that consumes grasshoppers, field mice, meadow voles and other agricultural pests, killing vertebrate prey by breaking their necks with its hooked upper beak. To immobilize larger prey, the Loggerhead Shrike impales them on sharp objects like thorns and barbed wire before feeding. Known to carry animals as large as itself, the Loggerhead Shrike also waits to consume poisonous prey, until the toxins break down.Loggerhead-Shrike

Northern populations of Loggerhead Shrikes typically winter in Mexico, the gulf coast states and the Central Valley of California, leaving colder climates of Canada, Washington and the prairie states from September to November and returning in March and April. They travel individually and mostly at night, moving short distances at a time and feeding en route. Loggerhead shrikes in southern regions like southern California don’t even migrate at all, and are year-round residents.

Although still numerous in the South and West, Loggerhead Shrike populations have fallen sharply over the last 50 years, particularly in Canada. The decline coincides with the increased use of chemical pesticides, although other causes of decline may include urban development, collision with vehicles and general habitat destruction. Fortunately, the high reproductive rate offers some hope that declining numbers may eventually increase again.