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Monarch Tagging

Our brightly colored  “Migrating Monarchs,” are a common sight in Southern California. But the real question is how far do they actually go?


Male Monarch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

With so much food available locally and the milkweed along the route being less frequent, it is a high possibility that Migrating Monarchs may be more Local Los Angeles or Southern California Monarchs. But they would not be the first animal to stop its migration because of the climate. Canadian Geese have been observed to remain year round instead of migrating because of the available resources and the warm weather, and certainly many people feel the same, considering the population of California!

Moth Eaten

I don’t know about you but the fact that the sun sets so early has been confusing my internal clock. I’ve been taking longer to adjust, so several days ago when I got home from work in the dark and clicked on the light switch in the

Moths come in different shapes and sizes

Moths come in different shapes and sizes. Photo Credit: Makena Crowe

kitchen, it took me several minutes to realize something wasn’t right. There was a fluttering and a movement that I don’t normally see inside my house. . . Moths. The kitchen had moths fluttering around, walking on cabinets and sitting on the walls and fridge. I was horrified. I love animals, insects, moths. . . but I really do not like it when they are in my house. And I especially do not like to be surprised.

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Sticking to the Mountains: Nature’s Tiny Actors

Hiking back, a bit breathless and winded from the crisp mountain air and altitude, my eyes were drawn to a light tan stick on our window. We had just hiked through mountain trials and there was plenty of sticks and leaf litter everywhere but there was something about this particular twig . . .

This little guy was on our window

This little guy was on our window

For one thing it was vertical on the window screen and the oddness of it made me stop to take a closer look. Quickly looking around for a source plant, I noticed that there weren’t any trees nearby that would match that type of thin light tan stick. The closest trees where more evergreen and oak-like than this reedy looking tan twig. As I drew closer, I grinned. I had fallen for the illusion–it was not a dead twig as I had originally thought. It was not even from a plant. It was a living moving and incredibly fragile stick insect!

This wild “stick bug” was almost as long as my hand and was just hanging out on our screen. We had walked through forests and trees for hours earlier and had only heard some bird calls from a distance. I had been a bit disappointed that we hadn’t seen much of anything interesting or unusual on our hike. But now here I was right back at our cabin and here was an animal I had never seen in the wild. And it had never even crossed my mind to think that stick insects were native to Running Springs, California. Did you know that stick insects can live in most of the world? They are found (in different shapes, sizes, and colors) from North America to Southeast Asia, the tropics to the subtropical regions of our world.

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Getting Antsy!

It’s hard to imagine how something like coffee coming from Argentina could have any other effects on California, other than on the delicious flavors of coffee at places like Starbucks. But our love of coffee (as well as trade) can impact our wildlife on the local level! In fact we have quite a few hitchhikers that have altered local ecosystems. True it’s rare for you to see some large exotic animal. . . and more often it is those smaller animals (the animals we almost don’t notice) that make an incredible impact on our environment!


Ants play an important role in the health of an ecosystem.

Insects are the largest and most biodiverse group of animals/species in our world today! But don’t freak out, having lots of insects doesn’t mean they will all be swarming into your house or biting you. . . In fact insects play a key role in pollination (we probably wouldn’t have fruit), decomposition, and being a food source (among many other things).

ants team work

Ants working together to move seeds.

Ants are really interesting insects because they can carry incredibly heavy loads for long distances and are very “team” or “family” oriented. In California, we are losing the native ants! These less aggressive harvester ants have been completely displaced by larger more aggressive ants (invasive species which were brought in on coffee beans) aka hitchhiking ants. Continue Reading →

The Language of Flowers: A Valentine’s Day Tradition

Even though Valentine’s Day has recently passed us by, every year as Valentine’s Day approaches the stores are becoming increasingly stocked with large red and pink hearts, chocolates and. . . flowers! We hope everyone had a lovely Valentine’s Day with someone special with family members, good friends or a “sweet heart.”

Flowers communicate so many things

Flowers can communicate so much more than just beauty.

Valentine’s Day is a holiday we Americans celebrate with incredible gusto every year, with lavish gifts, chocolates. . . and flowers. But how do you know what kinds of flowers to get? Is it random? Do you pick their favorite flower? Do you know their favorite flower? Do flowers even matter? If you are asking yourself any of these questions, it is not too late. When stress is running at an all-time high for making a “perfect day” a very comforting and traditionally special gift is flowers. Continue Reading →

Wilderness Observation: Drought in California Chaparral

When I visited my grandparents for Thanksgiving a couple weeks ago, we took a family hike up in the chaparral region near Ojai and Lake Casitas. Growing up we visited that area incredibly frequently, but I had not been there in over 3 years! My grandparents had lived there for many years and I was very familiar with the trees and the wildlife that live there. If you have never visited, I highly recommend it. It is an incredibly beautiful example of our native California wildlife and of the incredible native plant species. While we were hiking we saw quails, migrating birds, pomegranate trees, mistletoe, California live oaks, western sycamore trees, coyote bush, and many other plants and animals.


Lake Casitas boat ramp far from the water level

But as we walked, it became increasingly apparent that the California drought we have been experiencing has taken a toll on the native plants. While the open grasslands were beautiful and amber colored, the dry grasses only scratched the surface of the lack of water. The drought is evident in the withered plants, in the stressed leaves, and in the dry grasses. Then there were the trees that broke up the dry grasses. The tall oak and western sycamore trees and others broke up the dry yellowed stalks of grasses. But their green leaves were curled up or clustered in small bunches. Many trees had lost a good majority of their leaves prematurely—not due to fall. Those that were still with leaves upon closer inspection had marks of struggle, the leaves were browned or broken or insect eaten/diseased. These trees are fighting so hard to survive in an extended four year (at least) extreme drought period! Continue Reading →

Wilderness Journal: International Journey to Braunschweig, Germany


Amazing fall trees in Germany

I just spent the past week recuperating from jet lag but I wanted to share some of my international nature observations! I spent about a week in a relatively urban/suburban German town and really was able to see so many animals and plants thriving in an urban setting. Everywhere I looked there were cobbled streets with grasses and dandelions or other green things sprouting up. And then there were the trees! Germany is so much greener and full of trees than California. There were big tough trunks and large deciduous trees that were beginning to shake off their leaves. I was in heaven, it was finally fall! Not just the time of the year for fall, but the fall weather was in full swing. It took my breath away, both literally and figuratively. The dry cold wind blowing was enough to make you gasp for breath, but added to the fall beauty. The crisp breezes caught and tugged at the clinging yellow and orange leaves, tossing them into the gray sky and onto the gray road. It was a refreshing break from the excessively hot and humid fall we have had in California this year, which has felt more like summer than fall.

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Wilderness Journal: Bolsa Chica Observations

Hello everyone! Today I wanted to share with you all my latest wilderness experience. I am hoping to make this wilderness observation journal a more regular posting on the blog, and I hope you will enjoy the different wilderness explorations as much as I do!

Just this morning, on Columbus Day October 12th at 9:03 am, I embarked on a wilderness exploration in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands. I wanted to make sure to go in the morning because it has been so incredibly hot lately here, and because most animals are active in the morning. As I walked from my house to the wetlands I walked along a suburban road of houses, blacktop, and manicured yards. Even in the suburban housing tract which backs up to the Bolsa Chica Wetlands I could hear the trilling and calling of different unidentified bird species.Black Phoebe Over the hum of a lawnmower and the far off roar of a large jet, these birds chattered and went about their lives arguing and singing—not all that different from the lives going on in the human houses along the same road.
When I came to the place where the sidewalk ends and the gravel wilderness paths through the wetlands began, I took a deep breath. The smell of the salt water was crisp in the already warm air around me. Another scorching day was ahead for us in Huntington Beach. But it was only the beginning of the nature observations ahead of me. The gravel path crunched under my feet and I could still hear the sssssing sound of a sprinkler in a backyard nearby. It’s amazing how close our lives come to such an incredible suburban (or perhaps even a little urban) wetland. A dragonfly flitted lazily across my path and off in the distance birds lined the little shorelines created by pools of saltwater in the estuary. A phoebe flicked her tail at me before bobbing away into the blue sky. Continue Reading →

The Cheapest Eco-tourism Trip Ever: Wet-lands

Great Egret with Lizard

Great Egret with a tasty snack at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

Many times when we think about incredible wildlife or biodiversity we think about exotic places. If only we could go there if only we could visit places that are in the travel magazines and National Geographic and get to see those amazing animals ourselves. But one of the greatest and most diverse ecosystems in the world today exists very close to us. In fact we don’t have to hop on a plane or pay that much to get there. All we have to do is pay attention. Wetlands are known today as an incredible home for many different kinds of animals.

And even though the Bolsa Chica Wetlands is just down the street from me. . . it may not be for you and honestly, there are little “wetlands” far nearer than that. Now not all wetlands are the same, but wherever there is wetness, moisture, or water there is life.
Water provides a basic need for all living things from little tiny animals you see under a magnifying glass or microscope, to larvae of different insects, microorganisms, algae, to animals you can see with your naked eye–amphibians, fish, birds and all the larger animals that come to the water sources to drink: house-cats, dogs, sparrows, hawks, deer, mountain lions, coyotes, rabbits, wasps–and these are just to name a few (and a few more typical of Southern California). But wherever there is water there is overcrowding, amazing biodiversity, and large amounts of animals living next to, on top of and inside of one another.

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Farmers Menace to Colorful Hoverer: The Five Spotted Hawk Moth

5 spotted hawk mothThroughout our day to day business most  people will probably see at least one butterfly or moth fluttering through the sky or simply sitting under the porch light at night. Some people may choose to ignore them, some may take note of the insects beauty, but pretty much no one will think about what it was before it became that butterfly or moth. Most of the time the moth’s or butterfly’s predecessor was a simple caterpillar with no special traits or abilities, simply eating leaves until enough energy has amassed for metamorphosis. Some caterpillars though are unique in their defensive capabilities, in their movement and in their diet. The larval form of the Five Spotted Hawk Moth is called a tomato hornworm and as you can guess by the name their favorite food is tomato leaves.

The Tomato Hornworm is local to northern Mexico and throughout the United States. They also happen to be a farmer’s nightmare. This is because tomato hornworms will eat the leaves of tomato, eggplant, potato, pepper, and tobacco plants. This may not seem like a problem since they are only eating the leaves, but unfortunately the plant needs those leaves to survive. Plants survive through photosynthesis which uses the surface area of the plants leaves to collect energy from the sun in order to form sugars. Without the plants leaves, their is nothing to collect energy with and therefore they cannot create their food. Luckily there are a number of ways farmers can combat these pests besides using pesticides such as handpicking them off or using other insect predators such as praying mantises or parasitoid wasps. In addition to these, the tomato plant itself enlists it own defensive mechanism. When the tomato plant begins to get eaten by hornworms, it releases a chemical signal into the wind. If other tomato plants receive this chemical signal they will bolster their own natural pesticide production as to prepare for the incoming pest attack. If the hornworm manages to avoid predation and farmers, then it will cocoon and become a moth in about 2 weeks.

5 spotted hawk mothThis process of metamorphosis is an intense and amazing process where some organs stay intact but others melt down into their proteins and other constituent pieces. They then slowly rebuild into the form of the butterfly or moth. The tomato hornworm rebuilds itself into the Five Spotted Hawk Moth, a relatively large moth with a very unique flying ability. Besides being enjoyable to look at and actually being quite fuzzy the Five Spotted Hawk Moth also has the ability to hover like a hummingbird and even drink from flowers while hovering. Although this uses more energy than simply landing and drinking from the flower, it is extremely advantageous for avoiding would be predators. This is because the act of hovering gives the moth a much faster reaction time and allows for quick sideways movement that would otherwise be impossible. Lastly, these moths do not live for a very long time, roughly around a year. As a result a majority of the caterpillars emerge in spring and are already laying eggs for the next generation by late fall. The eggs then lay dormant during winter and the process repeats itself.

Throughout our lives we tend to take many things for granted, many of which are not given a second thought. For a vast majority, the Tomato Hornworm and the Five Spotted Hawk Moth are two unremarkable unrelated organisms but, with a little bit of context simple organisms, become remarkable ones. This may not really be something to take for granted, but with every piece of contextual knowledge gained, a sliver of the world’s beauty is unlocked.