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Cassini-The Wonder of Saturn  

At the California Science Center’s latest Lunch and Learn, Project Manager and Mars Specialist, Devin Waller, walked a group of around 25 financial contributors of the CSC from the Sun to Saturn.  The distance from Saturn (the sixth planet from the sun) and the actual sun spans approximately 891 million miles. Our stroll through a mock model of the solar system built by Science Center employees wasn’t quite as far as that. The walk itself could have been completed in no more than 5 minutes had Devin not gifted us with the engineering and scientific perspectives involved in replicating our universe. Models like the one pictured below help students and visitors of the California Science Center understand the intricacies of space.

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller Give Insight Into Our Solar System. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller share insights into our solar system. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

We began at the Sun– a 4.5-billion-year old star that accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in our solar system. Given its size, it is estimated that over one million Earths could fit inside of the sun! This giant ball of gas is composed of 70 percent hydrogen and 28 percent helium. As the two gases react, intense amounts of energy and heat are created. Without this energy,  there would be no life on Earth.

 An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.


An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.

 

Next we arrived at the smallest and innermost planet, Mercury.  Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days, making the shortest orbit of any planet. Each complete orbit around the sun represents one “year,” while a rotation on a planet’s axis represents one “day.”  Its temperature ranges from -297 on the side opposite the sun to + 800 degrees on the side facing the sun. Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it is hard to directly observe from Earth except during the hours of dawn or twilight.

The second planet we visited was Venus, a celestial body located 67 million miles from the Sun. Known as the rocky planet, Venus has the longest rotation of the solar system family and has a scorching temperature of 896 degrees.  It takes 224 Earth days for Venus to experience one “day.” Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in a counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (this is called “retrograde” rotation).  Our home, Earth, is the third planet in line from the sun. One rotation on Earth takes 24 hours with a complete orbit around the sun lasting 365 days. Our planet’s average temperature is a balmy 61 degrees. In contrast, Mars is a rocky planet 141,700,000 miles from the sun that has a temperature of -81 degrees. With its thin atmosphere and lack of liquid water, winds drive the global conditions. NASA space projects have been studying Mars since the 1960s. According to NASA, the goal of the Mars Exploration Program has been to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully-selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars represent the terrestrial planets: inner planets closest to the Sun that are composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals.

As our tour moved on to the outer planets, we stopped at a replica of the gas giant known as Jupiter—the largest planet in our Solar System.  Like the Sun, Jupiter is composed of hydrogen and helium yet it is a cold planet (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit). Its massive size and distance from the sun (483,500,000 miles) makes it so that it takes 11.86 years for Jupiter to complete an orbit. It has 67 known moons and like Saturn, Jupiter has rings.  Unlike the vivid, icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s rings are subtle, sandy structures.

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

 

Our final stops on the walking tour took us to Saturn, one of the most visually stunning celestial bodies in our Solar System, and a replica of the spacecraft Cassini, which spent over a decade studying Saturn. We had the great privilege of listening as Dr. Jo Pitesky, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked with Cassini from 2001 until 2017, provide details about Cassini and its twenty-year mission.  Cassini was the latest NASA spacecraft to explore Saturn, completing its journey on September 15th, 2017. Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later. In that time, the spacecraft captured stunning photos of the planet’s weather systems (including the changing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere), magnificent rings, and it’s 62 moons while providing invaluable data on Saturn and its atmosphere.  Cassini viewed, listened, smelled, and even tasted Saturn’s moons– and what it learned about them is nothing short of remarkable. Probing Saturn’s icy moons, Cassini discovered that water is continually spewing out of jets around the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It also found liquid water on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.   These extraordinary discoveries indicate that Enceladus and Titan have all of the ingredients necessary for life and make future space exploration all the more exciting. The “Grand Finale Orbits” that carried Cassini to its end helped solve longtime mysteries such as the planet’s rate of rotation, the length of a day on Saturn, and the mass of its stunning rings. Dr. Pitesky made her commitment to the project transparent, explaining that she could spend weeks describing Cassini accomplishments.

The start of Cassini’s final voyage began on September 12th, 2017.  Cassini continued transmitting messages as long as possible until the force of Saturn’s atmosphere overpowered the spacecraft thrusters and Cassini could no longer make contact with Earth. At 3:31 am (PDT) on September 15th, 2017, Cassini’s final signal was received. As Dr. Jo Pitesky narrated the extraordinary life of Cassini and its final descent to Saturn, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room.  Showing us photos of the thousands of men and women involved in the Cassini mission– to provide information and educate the world– she likened its journey to the following quote.

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

J. R. R. Tolkein

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?

For the second time in two weeks, an earthquake has struck Mexico, leveling sky rises, splitting freeways, and killing over 270 people.  The 7.1-magnitude quake that occurred Tuesday afternoon has overwhelmed residents and officials of Mexico City.  Located in a region known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile U-shaped ring of Pacific coastline that stretches from the Indian-Australian Plate to the South-American Plate, Mexico City is an area that is notoriously at risk for major earthquakes.  Linked to 80 percent of global quakes, the Pacific Ring is considered one of the most seismically active areas on the planet.

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes. Photo By DFID (John Ball with rescue dog Darcy in Chautara, Nepal) via Wikimedia Commons

What Causes Earthquakes and Can They Be Predicted?

An earthquake occurs when massive blocks of the earth’s crust known as tectonic plates, suddenly move past each other, releasing built up pressure and energy in the form of seismic waves.  These seismic waves are responsible for making the ground shake.  Currently, seismologists have not figured out a way to predict earthquake far enough in advance to avoid the mass casualties that accompany colossal quakes. Though extensive research and scientific support has yet to approve these theories, many suggest that animals have the capacity to foreshadow earthquakes before they occur.

Animal Instinct

Since the time of ancient Greece, some historians have maintained the belief that animals have the ability to predict the arrival of earthquakes. After a devastating earthquake decimated the Greek city of Heline in 373 B.C, townsfolk reported that snakes, rats, centipedes and weasels were seen fleeing the city in the days leading up to the quake.

Similarly, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with over one million residents, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake in the winter of 1975. This order came after a large number of snakes in the area interrupted their hibernation and emerged from their burrows. Normally this surfacing would not be a cause for concern, but winters in Haicheng can be brutally cold and temperatures at this time were below freezing levels. Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles who must maintain a warmer body temperature to survive. During winter months, they tunnel themselves deep within the ground and remain there until spring. As witnesses in Haicheng reported the snakes leaving their burrows and exposing themselves to the frigid cold, officials became alarmed and evacuations began.  When the earthquake arrived two days later, a small portion of the population who failed to evacuate were hurt or killed while close to 150,000 evacuees were spared.

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Arguments from those who believe that animals have the ability to predict natural disasters rely on the understanding that earthquakes generate electrical fields and magnetic fluctuations.  Since many animals have the ability to hear infrasonic sounds like the low rumbling of an onrushing earthquake, it is possible that they can sense a quake before we can. Additionally, changes in the mineral and chemical composition of  groundwater have been measured before the onset of a quake. Historically, instances of entire amphibian populations (frogs and toads) abandoning their swampy homes before an earthquake have been reported. In 2010, the Journal of Zoology published a study in which a colony of toads deserted their mating site three days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila in Italy. The toads did not return back to their homes unit the last aftershock hit 10 days later. Studying a pre-quake mass exodus like the one in Italy could help scientists dechipher the connection between animal instinct and natural disaster. However, the US geological survey says there is just not enough evidence to conclusively determine that animals are accurate predictors of a quake well enough in advance.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

A New Way Forward

Seismologist Joseph L. Kirschvink suggests that an animal’s instinctual fight or flight response may provide a sort of early warning system for seismic events.  Building on his theory, the German-Russian lead project, Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) uses a satellite-based monitoring system to track the response of mass migrations of birds as they pass through the epicenter of an earthquake. Icarus researchers are counting on migrating birds to cross the path of at least one of the 100 large scale earthquakes that happen each year. If the birds sense the epicenter and re-route their traditional migratory paths away from it, positive evidence that animals have the instinctual ability to foretell the coming of an earthquake can be examined.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

Earthquakes can cause serious damage in the homes and lives of the people that you love. If you live in an earthquake zone,  you should prepare an earthquake kit and check on its contents every few years.

Ecosystems: Kelp Forest Part 2

Last week’s adventures took us through the California Science Center Exhibit- Ecosystems. Continue the Journey with us this week as we learn about life inside wild Kelp forests. 


In the wild, the bottom level of the ocean is known as the benthic zone. All bodies of water have a benthic zone where creatures like snails, sea stars, oysters lobsters, and other crustacean reside. Organisms living in the benthic zone are called benthos and play a fundamental role in ecosystem management. Since light does not often penetrate the benthic zone, benthos feed on the dead and decaying matter found on the ocean floor, benthic algae, and young kelp.  Areas outside of the ocean’s benthic zone are either a part of the supratidal and subtidal zones (the areas found on the coastline that are impacted by high and low tide), the neritic zone (the shallow part of the ocean that extends to up to 200 meters in depth) or the pelagic zone (the area between the benthic and neritic zones). Most of the sea life that lives away from land or outside of the benthic zone is found in the pelagic zone.

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Often miscategorized as a plant, kelp is actually a species of brown algae (Macrocystis pyrifera), that grows in dense groupings, similar to the way a wooded forest grows on land.  The strands of kelp found in the controlled environment of the California Science Center grow to an impressive height, but are significantly smaller than the wild kelp forests, which can reach up to 175 feet in length. Kelp is prolific in growth and in ideal circumstances, can gain anywhere from 10 and 12 inches in a single day.

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Canopy. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Kelp. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Much like a buoy, the gas-filled bladders located at the base of the kelp leaf are responsible for holding up the kelp as it spreads from the bottom of the ocean floor to the surface of the water. Once the kelp has reached the surface, it forms a dense canopy that provides shelter and food for thousands of invertebrates, fish, and marine mammal species.

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Gas-Filled Kelp Bladders. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp forests cross the benthic, pelagic, and neritic zones, and are home to a diverse group of marine life. In fact, the kelp forests found off of the California coast can accommodate over 1,000 species in a single forest, and are among the most diverse ecosystems found on earth!  Many organisms use the dense blades of the kelp to hide from predators and rear their young. Seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, fish, gulls, and other sea birds are some of the many animals found in the canopy’s armor.  Rich in varied food sources, the kelp forest ecosystem offers a perfect example of the hierarchical nature of the food web. As numerous species thrive in the shelter of the kelp, predators have greater access to food.  For example, kelp is eaten by tubeworms who are then gobbled up by birds and fish. Fish are the principal food source for baleen whales and sea lions.  Sea lions become the prey of the ocean’s top carnivores including sharks and killer whales (pictured below).

Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Killer Whale on the Hunt. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

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Killer Whale Captures its Next Meal (a Sea Lion). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Like the tubeworm and other small invertebrates, the primary food source of the sea urchin is kelp.  However, urchins present a huge problem in kelp forest management because of the alarming rate in which they consume the algae matter. Sea otters and spiny lobsters are the natural predator of the sea urchin, and as such their role in the ecosystem is vital.  When an urchin population balloons, kelp forests run the risk of depletion and the animals that use the canopy as shelter become vulnerable to predation. In order to manage urchin populations and conserve the delicate ecosystem, California Science Center staff and volunteer divers have joined local forces to remove over 100,000 sea urchins from the Palos Verde Peninsula. Considered a delicacy in fine dining cultures around the world, these sea urchins are often captured and sold to the restaurant industry.

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Sea Urchin Population Boom. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Close-Up of the Urchin's Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Close-Up of the Urchin’s Spines. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Currently, the California Science center offers visitors the opportunity to pet urchins, sea slugs, eninimes, and other invertebrates. During our visit, I felt like a child who had returned to the coastal tide pools I loved so much as a kid. Using two gentle fingers (as advised), I stroked the back sides of sea slugs, explored the spines of urchins, and shook tentacles with an anemone.

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Kelp Forest Ecosystems Exhibit. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Throughout history, humans have devised numerous uses for kelp.  During World War I, kelp was harvested to make potash, a manufactured salt that contains potassium in water soluble form. During the war, potash was a major component of fertilizer and gunpowder. Following a German embargo on potash in 1914, American scientists and businessmen turned to the sea to extract potash from California’s giant kelp. By the 1930s, food and pharmaceutical corporations began extracting algin, a thickening, stabilizing, and gelling agent from kelp. Currently, algin is a popular additive used in a number of processed foods.

Visiting the synthetic kelp forest at the California Science center was truly a treat. Now, it is time to put on my fins and explore the wild forests off of the California Coast. I know that not everyone will have the opportunity to dive into the ocean ecosystems, but no matter where you live, some form of wilderness is available to you. Remember to get outside, ask questions, search for answers, and explore your world!

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

Inside the Ecosystems- Kelp Forests Part 1

The Ecosystems exhibit at the California Science Center is a permanent fixture of their wide-ranging offerings. Visitors of the museum can explore eight diverse environments and ecosystems alternating between the “Extreme Zone” and “Rot Room” to the “Forest”, “Island,” and “River” zones. On Saturday August 26th, 2017 the Havasi Wilderness Foundation was given a private tour of the Kelp Forest exhibition, which has been open to the public since 2010. Dr. William Johns, Director of Life Support Systems at the California Science Center, acted as our personal guide for the day.


Beneath the floors of the California Science Center a deep humming emanates from a complex electrical grid that powers much of the facility. Thick pipes carrying water to and from the 188,000-gallon salt water tank housing the Kelp Forest Ecosystems exhibit line the walls and ceiling of the ground level. The area is cooler, wetter, and louder than most other parts of the museum, but the constant purring of water rushing through the pipelines had a soothing effect on me.

The kelp forest at the California Science Center is home to hundreds of marine animals across dozens of species, ranging in size from a microscopic crustacean to a five-hundred-pound giant sea bass. To feed the animals, on-staff divers and volunteer divers are employed to enter the tanks. Some fish require spot feeding methods (picture a scuba diver using tongs to feed chopped pieces of fish or crustacean to other carnivorous fish) to ensure that they receive the proper nutrients. The marine life in the kelp forest ecosystem exhibit eat and excrete several times a day, generating a sizeable amount of waste. Engineers and Technologists at the California Science Center work to develop systems that manage all of the waste.

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Sea Bass at the California Science Center. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Just around the corner from the bottom floor elevator, sits an intricate filtration system comprised of giant cylinders measuring eight feet round and sixteen feet long. Dr. Johns explained that these tanks are packed with pressed gravel to filter out large and small waste matter from the water so that it can be recycled back into the kelp forest ecosystem. Unlike the Long Beach and Monterey Bay aquariums which discharge their marine exhibit waste back into the ocean, the California Science Center relies on sophisticated equipment to recycle and treat their wastewater. After the wastewater is filtered from the aquatic tanks, it starts a complex process wherein the concentrated salt byproduct from filtered saltwater must be flushed with fresh water to avoid an over-concentration of salts, maintaining the delicate salt to water ratio in treatment facilities.

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Giant Filtration Tanks. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Fifteen minutes into the tour, the elevator dings and the doors slide open, inviting us to move on. We exit and begin our exploration of the dark rooms that provide an ideal viewing space for the saltwater tanks that make up the kelp forest installation. The exhibit itself is two stories tall. At the bottom level, visitors discover the ecosystem from the perspective of the marine life inside of the kelp forest.  As we approach the glass, I see two giant sea bass weaving between the leopard sharks and bright-orange garibaldi that surround them. In the corner of the tank, a moray eel pops its head out from behind a rock and floats, one eye locked warily on visitors to its home.  Three large splashes coming from the top of the exhibit indicate that it is feeding time. The divers, who are extensively trained to distinguish between different species of fish, pull out their tongs, grab a chunk of fish meat, and get to work. When we meet with a shivering volunteer diver later that day, he explains that the challenges of spending an hour in 56-degree water include being extremely cold. “However”, he says, “I love coming to the California Science Center to learn more about the marine life that we feed, and cold or not– I would gladly give up a few of my weekends to keep doing it.”

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Scuba Divers Feeding the Fish. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Stay tuned next week as we explore the bottom level of the ocean floor and take an educational tour through the wild kelp forests.

 

CALIFORNIA SCIENCE CENTER POCKET CAMERA-9

To learn more about our world, visit the California Science Center Ecosystems exhibit.

Kelp Forest Exploration!

Find out what it’s like to experience the kelp forest from inside the tank and you will get a chance to talk first-hand with a diver! Don’t miss the Science Spectacular Kelp Forest Exploration dive show that happens twice daily. Divers interact with animals in the tank and also take questions from guests in the audience—like you! Visit California Science center online

Exploration times:

Monday – Friday: 11:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.

Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

 

Total Eclipse– Or a Part

Predictions of animals behaving strangely during the solar eclipse have made it into the news for weeks prior to today’s event. In preparation for the eclipse, I read about spiders deconstructing their webs, chickens heading home to roost, bees returning to their hives, and goats gathering in groups during the diminished sunlight that is brought about by an eclipse.  Southern California news sources reported that the best time to view the “Great American Eclipse” was 10:15 AM Pacific Standard time. In an attempt to witness some of the odd animal behavior,  I ventured out to the Abundant Table Farm Stand in Camarillo, California during the reported height of the eclipse. Dawning a pair of paper glasses used to filter the light from the sun, I set my eyes to the sky and marveled in wonder and amazement as the moon passed in front of the sun. As the enchantment that comes from witnessing the magic of our solar system passed, I traveled towards the animal enclosure. The goats at the Abundant Table Farm were eager to munch on the weeds and carrots tops that I fed them, and though hungrier than normal, their behavior did not seem unusual in any way. The same holds true for the chicken, pigs, and sheep that I traditionally visit when there.

Chickens on the Farm

Chickens on the Farm

Since California is out of the line of vision for the total eclipse, it is likely that the animals barely noticed the dimming of sunlight. Though impossible to be sure what was happening internally, I can report that from my viewpoint, the animal’s routine did appear to be disrupted by the partial eclipse. While I am slightly disappointed to have missed the absolute eclipse,  I have truly enjoyed the influx of comical photos showing dogs enjoying the eclipse (see below).

Photo from Petslady.com

Photo from Petslady.com

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Photo courtesy of Reuters

The US has experienced several partial eclipses in recent history. However,  today’s eclipse marks the first time in nearly a century that a total eclipse has been visible from both ends of our country (the last total eclipse for the North American continent was recorded in 1918). According to Nasa.gov, the path where the moon completely covered the sun stretched from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. Observers like myself, who were located outside of this path, were still treated to a partial obscuration of the sun. Those lucky enough to be inside the path of the total eclipse experienced two full minutes of daytime darkness.

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

SOLAR ECLIPSE-73

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Though the moon orbits the Earth monthly, a precise alignment is necessary for an eclipse to transpire. Nasa.gov reports that an eclipse occurs only when the sun, moon, and Earth meet at the “line of nodes,” the imaginary line that represents the intersection of the orbital planes of the moon and Earth. A total solar eclipse, where the sun is entirely covered by the moon, occurs when the moon passes directly between the sun and the Earth. During this time, spectators in the line of this phenomenon can see the brighter stars and planets briefly emerge in the sky.

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Solar Eclipse. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Regardless of your position in the world, witnessing an eclipse in any way is a truly momentous event!  The next solar eclipse should pass through South America in July of 2019, and in the early spring of 2024. Anyone in the US who missed today’s eclipse will have another opportunity to experience this wonder.


Looking directly at the sun is incredibly damaging to the sensitive tissues and complex systems of your eyes. Please take caution when viewing an eclipse and only do so through specialized lenses. NEVER look into the sun.

“Thar She Blows”- a Whale’s Tale

The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are abounding with wildlife.  A recent whale watching expedition gave the Havasi Wilderness Foundation the opportunity to interact with some of the 27 species of whales from the family cetacean who call the Channel Islands their home.


Somewhere around 26 miles from the Santa Barbara coastline, calls of “thar she blows”, a popular expression among whalers that is used to sound out the appearance of a nearby whale, could be heard from a choir of young children abroad the Condor Express. Spinning around to secure a spot on the starboard side (a nautical term that signifies the right side of the boat), I could see the short geyser of water that jetted from a whale’s spout.  As we readied our cameras, three humpback whales took turns surfacing for air. The sea around the whales was alive with movement. While dolphins and sea lions could be seen jumping enthusiastically out of the water nearby, the whales themselves were not as easy to see. Their large backsides surfaced long enough for a spout of water to shoot into the air before they bobbed beneath the sea again.

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Coming up for Air. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Cetaceans are a diverse grouping of carnivorous aquatic mammals that are widely distributed through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.  The family includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga, and whales, and is separated into two groups: toothed and baleen whales.  As their name suggests, toothed whales (or odontocetes) have teeth which they use to trap their food. Examples of toothed whales include the great white whale (most famously depicted in Herman Melville’s 1981 biopic Moby Dick), the sperm whale, and dolphins. Dolphins can be found swimming deep in the channel as well as in areas around surfers close to the California shoreline. They are some of the friendlier toothed whales and are renowned for their intelligence, curiosity, and complex communication style. Their sophisticated communication capabilities have been described to sound a lot like a whistle which allows them to exchange information with other members of their pod.

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Common Dolphins. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

The baleen whale (or mysticetes) derives its name from the thick stringy layers of baleen that attach to the whale’s gum line. Baleen is made of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of). Unlike toothed whales, who use sonar to track down food and capture prey with their teeth, the baleen whale vacuums gallons of water from the sea and relies on the straw-like baleen to filter fish and krill from the mouthfuls of water that they ingest.  Austin MacRae, a naturalist from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and our guide for the day, explained to us that in one gulp, a large baleen whale can swallow enough water to fill a medium-sized swimming pool! As I absorbed this information, I wondered aloud, how do whales carry and then expel such great amounts of water?  Austin provided the answer: ventral pleats.  Similar to a pelican’s pouch, the ventral pleats that line the abdomen of baleen whales, expand and contract like giant accordions. In one movement, they help push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish and plankton become trapped inside of the baleen where a whale can swallow them whole.

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Humpback Whale. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

The boat rocked violently in a moody sea as we continued watching the three humpback whales. Known for their particularly large pectoral fins, humpbacks often use the technique of pectoral fin slapping (commonly referred to as “pec slapping”) to attract the attention of the opposite sex during mating season. When slapped against the ocean’s surface, their fins produce a spectacle of booming sounds and massive waves. Though we did not witness any pectoral slapping on our trip, we were amazed to see one of the more high-spirited humpbacks lift its tail high out of the water and smack the surface of the sea. As its tail plunged back into the dark ocean, Austin explained to us that like the human fingerprint, the humpback’s tail fin (called a fluke) is unique to each whale. Currently, researchers use high definition photography to capture images of flukes and add them to a database managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). These images help identify individual humpbacks, monitor their health, and track their whereabouts. This tracking system is significant because, according to NOAA, Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes and occasionally shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may demolish humpback whale congregation areas.

Humpback's Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback’s Tail. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Humpback. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

A Spy Hopping Humpback Takes a Look at the Boat. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

Weighing in at a whopping 150 tons, the blue whale holds the record of the largest mammal on the planet. To sustain such a massive creature, 9000 pounds (4.5 tons) of fish and krill must be consumed each day.  Though we did not encounter any blue whales on our expedition, they can be found feeding in the waters off of the Channel Islands during the summertime before heading to the warmer waters of Mexico to have their babies. Austin shared his thoughts about blue whales with me, explaining:

“I always like to talk about blue whales because they are the biggest and heaviest of animal ever to live on the planet! Bigger than any dinosaur even! The heart of a blue whale is the size of a Volkswagen and so, hypothetically, a child could crawl through its arteries. The tongue of a blue whale is as heavy as a bull elephant and their lungs are as big as a school bus. Essentially, they are gargantuan! They weigh 200+ tons and can reach sizes of up to 110 feet long in the Antarctic Ocean.”

Waters off of the coast of California vary drastically from those in the Arctic Circle. A cold northern current and a warm southern current collide in the waters off of the Southern California coast and create large nutrient pockets. These pockets of dense nourishment act as ideal feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals who use the summer months to build up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter.  Like human mammals, whales must maintain a body temperature of 99 ° Fahrenheit (37 ° Celsius). In order to preserve this temperature, they migrate from cooler waters in the summertime to warmer waters in the wintertime.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Sea Lions Take a Break From Eating to Sunbathe. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

 

As humans, we rely on our autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath. This allows us to breathe involuntarily, without ever having to think about it. Unlike human beings, humpback whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. To ensure that they remember to surface for air, cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping. Researchers studying dolphin and whale populations in captivity have noted that dolphins seem to shut down half of their brain and sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close.  It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourages continual consciousness among cetaceans.

Like dolphins, humans have been historically curious about the world that surrounds them. With less than ten percent of the world’s oceans having been explored,  there are still entire ecosystems that remain a mystery to us.  Rather than succumb to a life of uncertainty, it is important to feed your curiosity, get outside, and explore your world!

Until next week,

Lola


Interested in whale watching? The Condor Express (Click link to view) is an excellent option for a whale expedition. The leave from the Santa Barbara Harbor and guarantee that you will see whales. If for some reason the captain cannot find any whales during your day trip,  then you can return without a fee to go on an expedition until you do see one. Remember that when you’re exploring, you should take plenty of sun screen, a hat that shades, long-sleeved clothing, and (if you tend to get as queasy as I do) find some Dramamine and bring along a carbonated beverage as this helps sensitive stomachs. Take it from me, you should never go out on a boat without having something in your stomach.  

Anchors up and full steam ahead!

Panama Adventures Part 2: Going Bananas!

From Europe and Asia to the American and African continents, consumers are united by their love of bananas. On a global scale, bananas are the world’s most consumed fruit and the fifth-most traded agricultural product. What’s not to love? Bananas are portable, versatile, and in developing nations they provide much of the nutrition needed to sustain life.  In my home, bananas are a staple. My partner’s mother practices a morning ritual that includes splitting a banana in half, consuming her portion and sharing half with our banana-loving dog, Margot. The mere mention of Margot’s favorite word, “banana”, causes her ears to stand at full attention as she waits for someone to throw a slice or two in her direction.

Recently, I had the pleasure of touring the La Loma cacao farm on Panama’s Isla Bastiemientos. Going in, I expected to learn primarily about the chocolate-making process but was surprised to walk away with a deeper understanding of contemporary bananas and their significance in the formation of the Panamanian cacao trade.

It is important to note that wild bananas look nothing like the bananas found in grocery stores today. With thick skins, gooey flesh, and bodies filled with seeds, a wild banana seems anything but appetizing when compared to its breeded counterpart. Though seeded bananas make for easy reproduction in nature, banana farmers discovered that consumers prefer bananas without seeds, and began using the genetic material in plantains to breed a seedless banana variety. On contemporary plantations, bananas propagate (grow) vegetatively and are sterile clones of the previous generation. Like succulents and other vegetative plants, next generation banana growth extends from existing plants through shoots called suckers. As soon as the fruit is harvested from the primary growth, the plant must be pruned back so that the new growth can collect the nutrients and water stored inside of the base of the plant. People often use the word “tree” to describe the structure that bananas grow on, but the plant is actually an herb that produces berry-like fruit– the banana!

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana Stem. Photo Credit: Lola West

Prior to the 1950’s, much of the agricultural land in Panama was reserved for growing America’s favorite tropical fruit. Humidity, high temperatures, and a cooling off-shore breeze provide an ideal growing environment for bananas, which thrive in such settings. By 1940, bananas were one of Latin America’s main exports and large-scale banana operations supported the Panamanian islands collectively known as Bocas Del Toro, where I toured the cacao farm. Though the majority of land today is under cacao production, a history rooted in banana growth can be seen peaking out from beneath a canopy of cacao leaves.

In the first half of the 20th century, the Gros Michel variety was the primary banana available on the market. Smaller and sweeter than today’s Cavedish bananas, Gros Michel bananas were the victims of a deadly strain of fungal pathogen known as Fusarium Wilt, or more commonly as the Panama disease. The disease, which produces a fungus that affects the vascular system of host plants, wiped out nearly all banana plantations in Central and South America. Other vulnerable crops include tomatoes, legumes, tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. When fusarium wilt infects crops that reproduce by seed, the disease is easier to manage. However, when it attacks a crop that is a clone of its parent plant, an entire generation can be destroyed and suffer extinction. As such, Panama’s Gros Michel plantations were barren by the 1960’s. For an economy dependent on the export of its bananas, the Panama disease was a devastating blow. New generations of resistant fruit were developed to replace the diseased Gros Michel crops. However, the still seedless Cavedish banana suffer from the same problem– lack of genetic diversity. Presently, a new strain of fusarium wilt is plaguing banana plantations across the globe and threatening the banana industry once again. As humans use selective breeding to produce more favorable qualities such as large size and ease of growth, offspring have less genetic diversity and thus an increased susceptibility to natural selection.

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Banana fruit. Photo Credit: Lola West

Following the first wave of fusarium wilt, the Panamanian government offered banana growers the opportunity to keep their land in production by cultivating a new crop. Hundreds of free cacao plants were offered to any grower willing to farm them. In the 60’s, Hershey’s Chocolate was king and global tastes favored milk chocolate over the dark, bitter treat that pure cacao helps produce. As artisanal chocolates increase in popularity, international cacao production is in high demand and the Islands of Bocas Del Toro are back on the map!

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Roasted Cacao Seeds. Photo Credit: Lola West

Tune in next week to find out more about the intricacies of cacao production and how pirates used Breadfruit trees to locate buried treasure!

Explore the wonders of your world!

The Gibbon: An Amazing Ape!

As I walk through the gates of the the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center (GCC), I catch a blur of rapid movement in the distance. Heading towards the action, I can just barely make out the long arms and fast moving body of a captive gibbon, swinging speedily from branch to branch within its enclosure.  I had done a bit of research on gibbons before our scheduled tour and learned that gibbons, like the chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan, are apes, not monkeys. If ever faced with the question: ape or monkey, you can resolve the query by taking a peak at a primate’s hind quarters. If there is no tail present, then the primate is likely an ape.  With 20 species divided into for genera, gibbons are the most diverse group of any apes. Although all apes are threatened, some of the gibbon species are presently on the brink of extinction.  Facilities like the GCC provide safe and caring environments for some of the rarest group of apes in the Western Hemisphere.

GIBBON CENTER 2017 JUNE 10-58

U Mynt Swe, Eastern Hillock Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Currently, the GCC is home to 41 gibbons spanning five different species.  Located in the Santa Clarita Valley, temperatures at the GCC can reach into the hundreds. During our visit, the morning is cool and foggy, and the gibbons who have finished breakfast are eager to interact with us.  Our small group of four is greeted by a cheerful woman who warmly welcomes us. She introduces herself as Gabi Skollar, director of the Gibbon Conservation Center. A native Hungarian, Gabi tells me that she has dedicated the last twelve years of her life to caring for captive gibbons at the GCC. She lives in a tiny transportable home within the encampment; and while her house is smaller than some people’s washrooms, it has been well cared for and is surrounded by a multitude of rocks and succulents that she has collected over the years. Staying onsite allows Gabi to give the gibbons around the clock attention whenever they need it while offering her the unique experience of living among the gibbons.

Our tour continues through the facilities, where Gabi informs us that gibbons are well known for being the “song birds”of the apes. According to her, gibbons sing up to three times a day. Before the information could really sink in, I catch the soprano melody of the first singing gibbon calling out to 40 others. Varied in pitch and tone, gibbon’s songs are unlike anything my ears have ever heard.  Within minutes of entering the GCC, the air is flooded with a choir of low hums and high-pitched chants that build into a symphonic masterpiece, striking the chords of my heart.  Holding back tears, I stand still and allow their music to envelope me. A gibbon’s song is loud and impressive, and, as Gabi articulates, a single song can be heard at a distance of up to two miles away. Gibbons use these songs to mark territories, ward off predators, and to call out to the start of a new day.  Each species of Gibbon has its own unique vocalization, and while partnered males and females of the same species often sing duets, their harmonies are quite different from one another.

Click to View a Video of Gibbon’s Early Morning Song

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo credit: Sandor Havasi

Marlow the Siamang Gibbon (left) and U Mynt Swe the Eastern Hillock Gibbon (right). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

For mates, Marlow, a Siamang gibbon, and U Mynt Swe, an Eastern Hoolock gibbon, their species division changes the pitch, tone, and style of their singing. Gabi explains that as two distinct species, Marlow and U Mynt Swe cannot copy one another’s song, and are incapable of vocalizing in the same language, so one can only postulate about whether they understand what the other is saying. this news drums up a pang of sadness within me. I turn to Marlow, who is munching enthusiastically on a large kale leaf, not yet ready to join the other singers. As she finishes her meal, I notice a large, round pocket inflating in her throat.  She locks eyes with U Mynt Swe, who has been singing for the last two minutes, and compliments his high-pitched crooning with her own deep, throaty song.  It is a spine-tingling experience to observe a gibbon’s throat expanding and filling with air before producing a deep humming resonance that sounds a bit like the hum that comes from blowing air into a large empty bottle. Siamang gibbons like Marlow, are the loudest land mammals on earth.  Both male and the female Siamong gibbons have gular sacks, a throat pocket which allows them the greatest range in their song of any gibbon. Other gular sacked gibbons include the Northern White-Cheeked gibbons, whose throat pockets are reserved for the male population only. As we move on to visit the other gibbon species, we discover that when Marlow is tired, she inflates her gular sack and uses it like a pillow. What a wonderfully convenient addition to her anatomical form!

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Howard, a Baby Plieated Gibbon. Photo Provided By: Gibbon Conservation Center

Though they are bipedal mammals (bipedal means that one has the ability to walk on two feet), gibbons spend the majority of their lives high up in the trees. The anatomical structure of their shoulders and their highly extendable arms help make them some of the world’s best acrobats, and it is not uncommon to see them spinning wildly among the branches.  In their natural habitats, wild gibbons propel themselves through the dense forests of Southern Asia through a process known as brachiating. Brachiating, or the swinging movement from branch to branch, requires elongated arms, curved fingers, and strong, rotating wrists. At GCC, gibbons also brachiate energetically throughout the many branches spread across their spacious enclosures.  Elevated in the trees of the Asia’s many jungles, wild gibbons can move at speeds of up to 35 mph and can be found as high as 200 feet above ground.

All in the Family: Javan Gibbons

While exploring GCC, I cannot help but notice that gibbons act a lot like humans. From their movements and posture to their facial expressions and behavior, the resemblance at times is uncanny. This shouldn’t really surprise me, as the Chimpanzee, another ape, has recently been revealed as the closest mammal (genetically speaking) to humans. As we approach the Javan gibbon enclosure, Gabi tells me a story that further affirms my position. After raising five children together, the staff at GCC noticed that mates, Shelby (male) and Chole (female), were spending time on opposite sides of their enclosure, with little to no interaction between them. Having grown apart, GCC staff believed it best to separate Shelby and Chloe and offer them the opportunity to find new mates. Though gibbons are monogamous, meaning they live with one partner at a time, they are not limited to one partner in a lifetime. Hoping to find Shelby a new and exciting partner, staff members introduced him to Khusus, a Javan gibbon just a few paces away from the place that Shelby and Chole once called home. Khusus, who had a son from a previous paring, is actually Chloe’s cousin, so when Shelby revealed his interests in Chloe’s cousin, he kept things pretty close to home. Ever the gentleman, Shelby adopted Khusus’ son, and together, the couple had two children of their own.  Following the birth of their second offspring, GCC staff detected that the energy levels of Khusus and an ageing Shelby were quite dissimilar. Shelby was removed from their shared enclosure and given time to allow his progressive arthritis and diabetes to be regulated.  He is now being cared for near the Center’s main office, where his conditions are monitored, while Khusus is raising their children.  To me, their story seems like the kind of thing you would find on a television soap opera.

Gibbons are amongst the scarcest primates in the wild and many of their species are on the verge of extinction. With only 25 individuals left, the Hainan gibbon is one of the rarest mammals in the entire world.  Currently, the biggest threats to gibbons in the wild include deforestation, escalating change in the climate worldwide, and poaching for pet trade, food, and medicinal purposes in Vietnam and China.

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Northern White-Cheeked Gibbon. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

How the Gibbon Conservation Center Makes a Difference

According to Gabi, the GCC uses their knowledge and experience to improve the lives of captive gibbons by assisting and advising zoos and rescue centers in better captive management. They offer consultation, caregiver training, and enclosure design and construction services free of charge, to zoos, and gibbon rescue centers throughout the world.

Each year, they provide educational tours for veterinarians, anthropology students, graduate students, K-12 school children, scout troops, and animal lovers of all ages. Additionally, the GCC encourages noninvasive behavioral studies to increase public knowledge and understanding of gibbons, both captive and wild. The GCC also works with its international partners to maintain healthy stable bloodlines for five endangered gibbon species. The northern white-cheeked gibbons are down to less than 1,000 in the wild. Thankfully, they are a part of the GCC’s successful captive breeding program, so the work is being done to help rehabilitate dwindling populations.

What You Can Do

Understanding these magical creatures whose habitat is threatened by deforestation and human activity is imperative. Learn more about gibbons by visiting www.gibboncenter.org and if you are ever in the Southern California region, set up a tour.

Tours & Events

PUBLIC TOURS: The Gibbon Conservation Center is open to the public every Saturday and Sunday morning from 9:30 a.m. to noon (except for rainy days and holidays). No reservations are required. A tour is given at 10:00 in the morning. Admission: $15 (adults); $12 (Teens and Students); $10 (seniors); $5 (children 6-12); $0 (Children under 5). Checks, cash, and credit cards are accepted. No need to Book for the Public Tours! Just come and enjoy! See you at 10 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

PRIVATE TOURS: Private tours can be arranged for any day of the week, in advance, for a minimum charge of $120 (covering 8 people). For information and scheduling, contact us directly. See contact information below.

Contact Information for the Santa Clarita Gibbon Conservation Center

Physical address: 19100 Esguerra Road, Santa Clarita, CA 91390

Mailing address: PO Box 800249, Santa Clarita, CA 91380

Direct line: 661-296-2737

E-mail address: Info@gibboncenter.org

Our Group in Front of Gabi's Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi.

Our Group in Front of Gabi’s Beautiful Home (from left to right: Jeannette Ban, Hwee Tin Ban, Marilyn Fordney, Gabi Skollar, Lola West (rear)). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

 

Big Fish, Small Beak

A silvery light shimmered in the distance, and as I turned my head towards it, I encountered the arched neck of a slender Snowy Egret. The Snowy Egret is a medium-sized bird with an impressive wingspan, and though the morning sky at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands was shrouded in fog, one could easily make out the white-feathered frame of its magnificent body and the brilliance of its yellow feet. Sandor Havasi and I approached the bird quietly, hoping to capture the moment on film and further investigate the origin of the shimmer. Standing just twenty feet from the Snowy Egret, we watched as the light bounced off of the silver scales of a flat-bodied fish (see image below).

Snowy Egret. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Though the Snowy Egret is very similar in form to its larger cousin, the Great Egret, their hunting styles could not be more different. Great Egrets patiently perch on one foot while stalking their prey, preparing to strike with a single fluid movement. The more animated Snowy Egret, who uses its bright yellow feet to stir up surrounding waters and herd tiny aquatic animals, can be seen continuously plunging its head in the water. On this particular occasion, a few shakes of the foot secured a fish larger than our Egret friend could swallow. I observed a frustrated Egret who repeatedly tossed the fish up in the air, like a spinning coin, and strained to force the meal down the length of its narrow beak. In the end, the fish was too great a match for the Egret and the elegant bird stalked bitterly away from the rocky shoreline where his abandoned meal lay.

The Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California are teeming with wildlife, including some of the most spectacular avian species I have ever seen.  In addition to the Snowy Egret mentioned above, we saw Great Blue Herons; who look a lot like small airplanes when their wings are fully extended, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets; who, along with the Snowy Egret, are relatives of the Heron,

and several Caspian Terns who allowed us to photograph them while they were hunting for food.

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret "fishing" with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Snowy Egret “fishing” with his foot. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Egret catching a quick snack. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Caspian Tern. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Walking through the neatly-carved paths cut from the bluff’s dense shrubbery, I was amazed by the number of birds, lizards, and small animals that call Bolsa Chica their home. Sandor and I spent close to four hours exploring the wetlands, and as we turned to leave he asked, “How many species do you think you saw today.” My honest response was somewhere near ten, but as he recounted each bird, lizard, squirrel, and rabbit, the number quickly surmounted twenty.  The sheer knowledge that such biodiversity exists in the Bolsa Chica Wetlands has inspired me to look to the skies and the grounds and pay closer attention to what I see.  While some of you may have the chance to see Bolsa Chica in your lifetimes, many of our readers are spread across the world, and will not have the opportunity to get there. The truth is that you do not need to travel to a wetland to connect with nature, because the wild is happening all around us. The connectedness that I experienced when exploring my local watershed, can be shared by everyone, no matter their global location.  We, at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation, urge you to get outside and explore the world. Peel your eyes away from the phones, laptops, and tablets that have your attention throughout the day, and instead, open your eyes to the wildlife around you. Pull out those headphones or earbuds and listen to the sounds of the wild- it is, after all, a soundtrack that is 4.54 billion years in the making.

In the wake of accelerated environmental changes, nations around the globe are participating in movements that encourage worldwide awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Equipped with the knowledge that the safety and conservation of the human environment is a major issue, which affects the welfare of global inhabitants and economic growth throughout the world, the United Nations designated the 5th of June as World Environment Day. To celebrate this day, individuals were invited to get outside, connect with nature, and explore the world around them. This year’s theme for World Environment Day 2017 was “Connecting People to Nature,” and the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is proud to share this message with the world.

This year, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation spent World Environment Day exploring the Bolsa Chica Wetlands in Huntington Beach, California.

 

 

 

Birds of a Feather

On May 25, 2017­, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation had the great pleasure of speaking at the Ventura County Bird Club’s monthly meeting. As we walked through the doors of the Ventura Moose Lodge, we met a friendly Cockatoo who greeted us with quick “Hello.”  A regal looking Blue-and-yellow Macaw, an African Grey Parrot, and another lively black-and-white Cockatoo rounded out the list of birds in attendance. While happy squawks and avian chatter filled the air, attendees signed raffle tickets for a chance to win packaged walnuts, a bird swing, or one of two large wooden ladders that were sprawled out on a table at the front of the room. Some birds clung to their humans and nibbled at their necks, as others paced around the folding tables searching for vegetable scraps and putting on a show for anyone who would watch.

Mr. Havasi took the stage to present on three of Southern California’s prime bird watching spots: Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica.  Audience members and our new bird friends listened attentively as he described his encounters with avian wildlife populations locally and globally.

LOTUSLAND

Located in the hills of Montecito, Lotusland was founded by the renowned Polish opera singer and socialite, Madame Ganna Walska, in 1941.  It took the Walska family over 43 years to turn Lotusland into one of the ten best gardens in the world. Today, the Lotusland estate grounds contain several distinct gardens that incorporate bromeliads, succulents, butterflies, ferns, Japanese flowers and orchards into their landscape design. Lotusland’s diverse landscape makes it an ideal habitat for several astonishing birds, including the Anna’s Hummingbird and the House Finch pictured below.

Anna's Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Anna’s Hummingbird. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

 House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi


House Finch. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

 

LAKE CASITAS

Just north of Ventura, Lake Casitas was once a sizeable reservoir that formed following the damming of several branches of the Ventura River. The long-standing California drought has significantly affected water levels and though last years rains were significant, the lake is close to the lowest it has been in decades. In spite of the drought, the riparian habitat where the freshwater marsh and reservoir meet, still supports birds like the Great Egret, the American Wigeon, and the Great Blue Heron (pictured below) as well as a number of other faunae. The land surrounding the reservoir is privately owned and if developed, many of these majestic creatures would find themselves without a home.

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

American Wigeons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Great Blue Heron. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

BOLSA CHICA

In Huntington Beach, California, the Bolsa Chica Wetlands are known as a central migratory stop and nesting grounds for many avian species. In fact, nearly half of the birds discovered in the U.S. have been seen in the Huntington Beach area over the past decade. This impressive offering of birds could possibly be attributed to the distinctive moisture level of the surrounding wetlands, which are fed by an ocean and a river so that water is abundant all year long. On past trips to Bolsa Chica, we have encountered such majestic birds as the Black-Necked Stilt, the Black Skimmer, the Long-Billed Curlew, and the Surf Scoter (pictured below). As more people buy homes in the area, shrinking habitats force wild animals into smaller areas which allow predators like coyotes, foxes, and hawks, to find the birds easily.

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black-Necked Stilt. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Black Skimmer. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Long-Billed Curlew. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Surf Scoter. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

SUMMARY

As an indicator species, birds offer humans insight into the overall health of our planet. Though the number of birds seen at Lotusland, Lake Casitas, and Bolsa Chica is impressive, the global loss of wild bird populations remains an imperative environmental concern. Human activity and development have driven many bird populations to the brink of extinction. While wildlife protection agencies have been diligently working to rehabilitate these populations, it is still essential to understand how our actions impact ecosystems. By exploring your local marshlands, lakes, and beaches, you not only have the opportunity to discover the amazing birds that call these environments home but also have the power to make sure that their habitats are protected!

Join us at the Ventura Moose Lodge, 10269 Telephone Road, Ventura, CA on June 29th at 7:00 PM as Marilyn Fordney and Alex Havasi of the Havasi Wilderness Foundation share stories about the wildlife that they encountered on their journey around the world, a National Geographic trip!