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Odin The Brave- A Tale Of Friendship And Survival Amid The Horrors Of A Wildfire

Northern California firefighters have spent the last week battling 14 separate infernos that claimed the lives of over 40 individuals. With 88 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The fires, which began on October 8th, have charred over 220,000 acres of land and displaced thousands from their homes. Warming Northern climates and unusually high wind speeds of 50mph accelerated the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa into a raging blaze that scorched mountains and destroyed nearby homes. Now, a little over a week since the fires began, the story of a heroic dog named Odin, who risked his life to protect a herd of goats, arises from the ashes of the blaze.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

As the deadly flames of the Tubbs Fire tore through his property, Roland Tembo Hendel loaded his family, cats, and dogs into the car. At least, the dogs that would follow him. Odin, the family’s stubborn and fearless Great Pyrenees refused to abandon the goats that he was responsible for. Faced with the decision to leave behind his beloved dog or put his family in certain danger, Roland bid a sad farewell to Odin.

Roland described via Facebook that “even under the best of circumstances it is nearly impossible to separate Odin from the goats when he takes over the close watch from his sister Tessa after nightfall. I made a decision to leave him, and I doubt I could have made him come with us if I tried.”

Escaping with their lives and the contents of their pockets, Roland wrote on Facebook, “when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats.” But Odin—whose is named after the Norse God— proved to be the family’s “miracle”.

Preparing for the worst, Roland recounted via Facebook that as they returned to the “smoldering wasteland” and ruins of their home, they were miraculously greeted by a limping Odin and the eight goats that were left in his care. Odin survived the flames that took the life of one of Hendel’s neighbors — Lynne Powell — with burned fur, melted whiskers, and several deer who huddled around him for safety.

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

odin and goats

The remains of the Hendel Family home. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Send in the Goats

Meanwhile, suburban hillsides across Southern California have seen an increase in goats working to chomp away at overgrown brush and dry vegetation. As population growth pushes human habitation deeper into fire-vulnerable areas, risk of structural damage, injury, and even death are on the rise.

Traditional clearing methods like the prescribed burn— a fire deliberately set to clear out the threatening dry fuel— can too easily get out of hand. While some fire-prone terrain can be too rocky for mechanical equipment or expose expensive workers to uneven poison oak infested grounds, goats are almost always up for the job.

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This past summer, the Havasi Foundation snapped a photo of goats chomping away at the grass on the hillside. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Since the story has gone viral,  Odin’s family has been showered with love and support and Odin himself enjoyed a large steak dinner. Other victims of the recent fires have not been so lucky.  Currently, wildfires continue to burn through Northern California, Portugal and Spain— claiming the lives of over 100 innocent victims unable to escape the flames.  As the climate continues to change, it is important to keep areas of dry grass manicured and educate yourselves on your local fire plans. If you hear of a wildfire burning in your area, please don’t wait—evacuate as soon as possible.


 

Urban Coyote Conflicts

Growing up in the suburbs, my friends and I spent many weekend nights powerwalking through our neighborhoods, deep in conversation. It was an excellent way to process through our angst-laden teenage years while maintaining our physique. Though a few street lamps could be seen scattered about the city’s larger streets, the blackness of night was for the most part unfettered by light. In my youth, I appreciated this obscurity and reveled in the fact that most nights we had the streets to ourselves. One night, as we walked towards an intersection lit only by the red hand of the cross walk sign, we heard the sound of movement in the nearby leaves. Realizing that we were no longer alone, I turned my head in the direction of the noise and saw two yellow eyes peering back at me. My first thought was to run. My second was to scream. Ultimately, fear kept me frozen in place and silent as a mouse. The eyes grew larger and as the body they were attached to came closer, I found myself within feet of a large coyote.  I watched in amazement as the coyote made its way through the crosswalk, keeping within the lines.

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The Urban Coyote

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are smart. In response to shrinking wild spaces, these cunning creatures have migrated from their origins in the American southwest to nearly every corner of Northern and Central America (save for Hawaii). This forced migration has encouraged new survival instincts in coyotes obliged to thrive in pastoral and suburban regions as well as densely populated urban landscapes.  A coyote’s versatility extends to its diet, which changes based on what’s available in its environment. Typically, their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, insects, reptiles and wild berries. In the wild, coyotes generally keep their distance from humans. Yet, as natural predators and barriers of habitat shrink, the interface between wild and domestic begins to expand. Over the past two decades, America has seen a swelling of inner-city coyote populations. In that time, generations of coyotes who have never known undeveloped spaces have been born into metropolitan areas that lack green landscape. These native city-slickers have become adept at surviving in urban settings- foraging through dumpsters and compost bins, navigating crosswalks, and consuming small domestic pets. Weighing anywhere from 15-50 pounds, their smaller frames allow them an agility that makes hopping an eight foot fence in the suburbs nearly effortless.

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A Canine Confrontation

Every year, local police and wildlife organizations receive thousands of reports of coyotes disrupting the domestic sphere. For the most part, human encounters with a singular coyote or a small pack have not proven consistently dangerous. However, as urban coyote populations rise, reports of attacks on individuals and pets have amplified. In 2009, 19 year-old Taylor Mitchell died of blood loss after coyotes bit her while she was walking on a trail in Eastern Canada. Though not an urban attack, sensational media often draw from the experience with Mitchell to illuminate the perils of human-coyote interaction. Experts indicate that the keys to maintaining safety are to keep coyotes from getting accustomed to humans and to limit interaction. Hazing, the practice of scaring off coyotes with deterrents- shouting, clapping, blowing air horns, or spraying with water- is considered the basis of coyote management plans which seek to discourage coyotes from becoming too relaxed in their urban surroundings.  Pupping season lasts from August until January. During these months, protective mothers are more likely to act in defense of their dens. If you encounter a coyote at this time, the best thing to do is to slowly and calmly walk away without turning your back on the coyote. Stay tall and assertive as you leave the area, even if it means walking backwards.

This Way Forward

The relationship between human and coyote is extremely complex and warrants a deeper look. It is significant to note that human development continues to displace wildlife from their homes.  While property on the foothills is desirable, one should prepare themselves to encounter emigrant wildlife. The Urban Coyote Initiative is a group of photojournalists who aim to shed light on the lives and behaviors of coyotes living in close proximity to humans.  Organizations like these remove the mystery of urban coyote behavior and lay the foundation for a more harmonious inhabiting of shared space. You can see some of their work here.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

After the Hurricane- Wildlife Watch

All week reports from a water-logged Florida, Texas, and the Carribean have been pouring in. Torrential downpours and massive flooding have devastated communities as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma passed through.  Many in the world watched in shock as the sea stormed the barriers, rushing through the streets of Miami to climb the lower levels of high-rises and tearing a path through the Carribean. Without discrimination, the maelstrom claimed humans, homes, and history for its own, leaving piles of debris as the only reminder of what formerly stood. Emergency services were called in to rescue evacuated families and their pets as their homes became victims of the flood.

Accounts of the next storm system, Tropical Storm Jose, have made their way to headlines  and the East Coast of the US is bracing itself for its projected touchdown later this week.

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

Flooded Homes Near Lake Huston After Hurricane Harvey. Photo Courtesy of NBC News and Getty Images. 2017

 

It has been nearly three weeks since Harvey flooded 28,000 square miles of Texas, and almost a week since the Irma struck the Caribbean and Florida. As the flood waters recede, over 200 million cubic yards of debris have been revealed in Texas alone. The extent of damage from Irma, which is still rolling through the country as a smaller tropical storm, has yet to be determined. Today the death toll for Harvey and Irma stands somewhere around 125 people, and hundreds of billions of dollars in property damage has been reported thus far.

Unaccounted for in the post-storm figures are the wildlife populations that could not relocate to higher ground when flood waters were rising. Over the past three weeks, the World Animal Protection Charity has sent emergency teams to Texas and Florida to rescue and care for wildlife. Teams of professional rescuers and volunteers have spent countless hours locating and rehabilitating injured animals following the storms. While clean up efforts in affected areas are well underway, it will take months for teams of experts to understand the full scale impact on wildlife.

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Chickens perch on the roof of a hennery to escape rising floodwaters after Typhoon Utor hit Maoming, Guangzhou province August 15, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Reuters. 2017

Pets Rescued From Flooded Homes. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

 

Hurricane Irma Leaves Manatees Stranded 

Last Sunday, Hurricane Irma was still 100 miles away from Tampa when it sucked the water out of shallow Sarasota Bay, an ideal habitat for manatees. The Florida Wildlife Commission had received several calls about stranded manatees, also known as sea cows,  when a passerby and two sheriffs noticed two manatees beached in the newly-dried bay. In a heroic effort to save the protected marine animals, the sheriffs rolled the 1000 pound manatees onto a sheet and dragged them over 100 yards to the sea.

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

Beached Manatee In Sarasota Bay During Irma. Photo Courtesy of @ManateeSheriff on Twitter. 2017

 

When a Tree Falls

Trees provide a habitat for already vulnerable species. During a hurricane, high winds can uproot trees and displace the animal tenants living within. Many bird species that use trees as a convenient shelter have the ability to migrate to drier areas, and often times they are aware of a storm before it arrives. Ornithologists describe that most birds can sense even the slightest changes in barometric pressure, which makes them a kind of a living barometer. Once the message has been received that barometric pressure is low, they take flight and head for dryer areas. However, powerful winds can blow the migrating birds off of their course. At best, these birds can reroute themselves back to their homes once the storms have ended, but often they are injured or weakened and have been deprived of food so many do not survive. Both Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma intersected the beginning of the annual fall migration, which according to ornithologists, guarantees some level of bird displacement.

In certain cases, birds do not have the opportunity to migrate away from the storm. Take the red-cockaded woodpeckers in South Carolina’s Marion National Forest for an example.  When Hurricane Hugo hit the area in September 1989, approximately 60 percent of the 500 groups of birds perished when 87 percent of the trees containing cavities where they lived were destroyed. Thanks to extensive rehabilitation efforts, populations have been returned to their numbers in the years since Hugo slammed the state.

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. Photo from Flickr. 2017

How Are Hurricanes Formed? 

As deep layers of warm ocean waters stoke an emerging thunderstorm into a mature state, a hurricane is born. Sea surface temperature is one of five factors that influence the formation of tropical cyclones, defined as rapidly rotating storm systems categorized by low-pressure centers, the presence of thunderstorms, heavy rain, strong winds, and low-level atmospheric circulation. Specifically, a hurricane is a tropical cyclone occurring in the Atlantic and northeastern Pacific Oceans.   The warm water temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico make it a notorious landing point for hurricanes. According to oceanographers, temperatures of the oceans in the Gulf of Mexico are the highest that they have ever been in recorded history and these spikes in temperature can account for some of the increase in hurricane potency. Warm water is only one of the ingredients needed to produce a full-fledged hurricane. Humidity, wind shear, and a generally unstable atmosphere are also required to help craft the “perfect storm.”

Ironically, the “perfect storm” is just that for certain plants and animals that survive its force. While hurricanes can be devastating to many wild animal populations, other animals manage to survive and thrive during and after the event. Orchids, gopher frogs, raccoons, and brown bears are among the animals that are generally positively impacted by a hurricane (so long as they survive).  Orchids use intense winds to spread their seeds, frogs breed in heavy rainfall,  raccoons scavenge for food, and bears use the fallen trees as shelter.

Sea turtles, marine life, small ground animals, livestock, and domestic pets can all fall victim to the destruction of habitats and the scarcity of food sources that are associated with hurricanes.

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Baby Sea Turtle on the Florida Beach. Reuters. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

Wild West Wildlife Rescuers Rehabilitate Over 200 Baby Squirrels After Harvey. Photo from Facebook. 2017

As another Tropical Storm Jose matures in the distance, rescue efforts are still underway for the countless animal victims of the latest natural disasters. While it’s too early to fully estimate impacts of Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma on wildlife, it is important to recognize that recovery efforts will need to extend beyond far beyond human development. Locals in affected areas have begun reporting injured animals to their local officials and people around the world are making donations to support habitat conservation and protection efforts. You can help provide relief for human and wildlife foundations by donating to organizations that you trust.  For more information on individual organizations, click here.

Until next week, remember to appreciate your life, give to those in need,  and keep exploring your world.

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!

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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.

“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 Stories Part 1: Feeling Antsy

With its ever-changing landscape and an expanse of tropical rainforests, the Central American country of Panama offers visitors and residents the opportunity to travel from a cityscape teaming with wildlife to the crystal blue waters of a Caribbean paradise in little to no time at all. Millions of years before the formation of Panama, North and South America were two distinct landmasses separated by vast ocean waters.  A shift in tectonic plates and the eruption of several underwater volcanoes aided in the construction of a slender land bridge called an isthmus, which joined together the two American continents. This change took place over the course of millions of years, and at its constitution, the isthmus rerouted the global ocean currents that once flowed freely between continents. As a result, the world experienced a transformation in marine habitats and oceanic species were divided between the Pacific and the Atlantic sides.

The land barrier known today as the country of Panama has provided the backdrop for one of the most biologically diverse spaces in the world.  Join me over the next few weeks as we journey together through the rainforests, jungles, and cities of Panama to explore their wildlife and learn more about a diverse ecosystem that could one day provide a cure for some of humanities most serious illnesses.

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

Jungle Photo on Isla Solarte. Photo Credit: Lola West

 

It had only taken seven minutes for my shirt to begin show clear signs of saturation after stepping off of the plane. Thrust into clouds of night and a thick layer of concentrated humidity, it felt as though every pore on my body was precipitously aware of itself in a new place. We landed in the middle of Panama City, an urban atmosphere where skyscrapers tower over neighboring one-story homes and stand in stark contrast to the surrounding wooded forests. Though it was nearly midnight, the air outside of Tocumen International Airport was alive with the buzzing and chirping symphonies of winged insects, frogs, and cicadas that harmonized somewhere in the distance.

While Panama City offers an impressive index of tropical wildlife, my travel companion and I knew we wanted to position ourselves deep in the rainforests and explore some of the country’s more rural wilderness. A 10-hour ride on the night bus landed us in the middle of Bocas Del Toro, a series of tropical islands solidly shrouded in towering trees and green vegetation.  Once settled into our lodgings (aptly named ‘Jungle House’), we strapped on our boots and set out to uncover the secrets of the forest around us.  Our first hike was led by three clever dogs who spent most of their days trudging through murky waters and up slippery slopes like truly wild beings. Polo, a large, yellow Labrador Retriever presented himself as the leader of the pack, guiding us through tangled branches and rough terrain.  Hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare bird, our gazes were locked on the skies when suddenly, Polo called our attention to the floor beneath us. Refusing to immediately believe what I had seen, I rubbed my eyes ferociously, finally allowing them to focus on what appeared to be a moving surface.  I watched open-mouthed as hundreds of tiny leaves traveled around the forest floor, carried on the backs of astonishingly strong little ants.

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

Looking to the trees. Photo Credit: Jeannette Ban

The leafcutter ant (Atta cephalotes) is one of the many species found in the rainforests of Panama. As their name suggests, these invertebrates have the instinctive ability to cut through dense greenery with their powerful jaws and to transport the heavy trimmings back to their nests. This is no easy feat as larger leaves can weigh up to 50 times their body weight! Once they have returned to their nest, these farmers of the insect world turn gathered leaves into a paste by chewing them, and then use them as a food source for their cultivated fungus gardens. As soon as the fungus has had its fill of the proteins and sugars produced by the broken down leaves, it is harvested it is used to feed a colony of millions.

Each colony of leafcutter ants encourages a complex social system that separates the aunts by class, or castes. Within the caste system, individuals are distinguished as workers, soldiers, or reproducers. Aside from the reproducers, all other ants in the colony are female and none of them are fertile. Mediae workers, who are responsible for cutting and transporting the leaves, are stronger and more larger-bodied than the minims, workers who use their small bodies to labor inside of the fungus garden. Soldier ants, or majors, are also grand in size and use the bulk of their bodies to protect the nest and all of its residents. The ant that requires the highest level of security is the queen, who is responsible for birthing an entire colony. Entomologists have estimated that a single colony can contain anywhere from one million to eight million ants! Interestingly enough, male ants are only born when the colony needs to reproduce. Like the young queen, male ants have wings to allow for easy travel and more widespread mating opportunities.  Prior to leaving her parental nest, a virgin queen will carry bits of the fungus in her mouth so that she is able to start a fungus garden of her own. The queen relies heavily on this mouth-packed fungus to help build her budding colony’s food supply. For young queens, the stakes are high. Should her packed fungus fail to produce more fungi, her entire colony of young ants will starve.

Hitchiking leafcutter ant, courtesy of https://commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Researchers have determined that next to humans, leafcutter ants form the largest and most complex animal cultures on Earth. They suggest that leafcutter ants consume nearly ten percent of all tropic greenery, making them the single most destructive pest in the world tropics. However, many tropical plants have evolved with defense mechanisms that prevent total defoliation and instead encourage a pruning by the ants which helps to stimulate plant growth. These incredible ant colonies have populations that parallel or extend beyond human populations, and their role in the Panamanian ecosystem should not be overlooked.

As we walked away from a conga line of leafcutter ants working diligently to dissect the forest, I thought about what it would look like to pick up something 50 times my own weight.  picturing myself pinned beneath the wrinkled hind quarters of an enormous elephant,  I realized what unbelievable achievements these ants make every day.

Follow us closely to hear more about our incredible wildlife adventures in Panama, and stay turned for next week’s blog about the Panama Virus that swept through massive banana plantations and led to the emergence of the cacao movement.

As always, don’t forget to get outside and explore the world around you!

 

 

 

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!

 

Migrating Monarchs

What does a flash of orange and black wings in the sky, a chubby white and black and yellow lump on a leaf, a delicate light green translucent jade container with flecks of iridescent gold trim, and a microscopic light green cone on the underside of leaves have to do with one another? If you have ever seen any one of the three then, you have seen one of the unique life stages of a Monarch Butterfly, an intricate and

Monarch Butterflies taking a rest on their long migration. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

fragile California Native Insect. While the different life stages of a Monarch are fascinating, it is the endurance and incredible distances that this lightweight insect travels that is truly astonishing.

 
Monarchs are a common site in California, and if you’ve ever been outside on a bright spring day in a garden surrounded by flowers, you’ve probably seen one of these taking a sip from a flower, hovering and then gracefully floating on and over the wall aimlessly. But in reality these insects have a greater sense of direction than you would expect. Monarchs have been known to travel from Mexico to Canada! Technically it is not the same individual Monarch butterfly to make the entire trip, but each generation of Monarch picks up where the last generation left off. Talk about a family purpose and vision!
 

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Nature Journal: Ice and Elegant Eagles

This past weekend I was able to see an American icon! It wasn’t at the Superbowl or on the streets of Los Angeles, but at a frozen and snow-covered Big Bear Lake I saw the famous bald eagle.

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Bald eagles are American Icons. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

The San Bernadino Mountains were perfect that weekend. I was there for a retreat and the snow had built up perfectly. In the early mornings, you could hear the sounds of the ice cracking on the lake and as the day went on little miniature streams broke open in the ice on the lake and flocks of geese and ducks could be seen far off in the distance paddling around in the frigid water. These birds have amazing insulation and feathers which help to keep them warm and allow the water to roll right off their backs. When I stepped outside to get a closer look, I went downward up to my knees suddenly finding myself in three feet of snow! Continue Reading →