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Curiosity at Kester Elementary- Blue Bellied Lizards and the Wilderness Within

Over 20 small hands flew to the sky after students at Kester Elementary were asked who thought they could do more push ups than a blue bellied lizard?

“I know I can,” shouted a young student towards the front of the class!

“Well how many push ups do you think a lizards can do,” I asked.

My question was met with a puzzled chattering among students who guessed anywhere from 19 to 1,000 pushups.  They were surprised to find that I had no idea how many pushups a blue bellied lizard could actually complete. But the point of my question was not to calculate the exercise habits of lizards but rather to encourage kids to start asking the questions to which they have no answer and to not be afraid of discovering an answer for themselves.

Kids at Kestler Elementary proudly display their medals

Kids at Kestler Elementary proudly display their medals

Western Fence Lizard a.k.a Blue-Belly Lizard

To maintain high body temperatures, Western fence lizards climb toward the sun— scaling rocks, trees and fences— hence the name! More commonly referred to as the blue-belly, this reptile gets its nickname from the blue or turquoise patches of color that can be found along its abdomen and throat. If you spot a bright-blue colored lizard, it is likely a male, as colors in male lizards intensify to attract a female mate. On its top side, the Western fence lizard is covered in sandy brown, yellow, and light colored scales to blend in with their environment.

Like the blue markings, pushups are used as a mating display to show off the bold blue of their bellies. Lizards have also been observed doing push ups when they feel that their territory is threatened by an outsider.  When frightened by an approaching predator the blue-belly will detach its tail, which continues to twitch, to distract anyone who might want to make a meal of it.

Kids love to catch blue-belly’s, either with a little grass leash or by hand. When caught and gently rubbed on the belly, the Blue-belly can enter a hypnotic state for up to five minutes. But it is important to remember that if you catch a lizard, you must be gentle with it — wild lizards enjoy their outdoor spaces and you should avoid capturing a free lizard and keeping it as a pet.

Western Fence Lizard. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Western Fence Lizard. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

If I have learned anything from our school visits, it is that children have a natural born curiosity about the way things work, especially when it relates to the natural world.  Infants study their surroundings and it seems like young kids can ask hundreds of questions about why things work the way they do in an attempt to expand their understanding of the world. Sometime between infantry and adulthood, Western society encourages people to move indoors, meet production goals and spend less time with their hands in the dirt. As people move inside, the disconnect between humans and nature becomes more prevalent.

For this reason, the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is grateful for the opportunity to visit with young students and remind them of their connection to the wild. Founder, Alex Havasi, explains to every classroom full of students that the wilderness begins inside of each an everyone of us. After all, we are made of the same salty water that you can find in our oceans and the same bacteria decomposing matter in the forests can be found inside our bodies. It is because of this special relationship with the outside world that we have an obligation to live responsibly and care for the natural world.

A special thanks to Donalynn Baba and Irene Dorsey, the teachers at Kester Elementary for encouraging their kids to explore the world around them!

Foraging, Field Ecology and Friendship— A Weekend with Topanga Canyon Docents

Field Ecology Weekend in the Malibu Creek State Park

Beneath the towering Santa Monica Mountains, a group of dedicated volunteers from the Topanga Canyon Docents gathered for their annual Field Ecology Weekend. From Friday to Sunday the grassy meadows at Malibu Creek State Park hosts some of the most enthusiastic volunteer ecologists in Southern California.

For the docents at Topanga Canyon, talking about nature comes, well… naturally! This past weekend, the Topanga Canyon Docents celebrated the 35th anniversary of this event.  Over the course of two days, environmentalists of all ages can spend a weekend in nature learning about history, conservation, and ecology.  As volunteer naturalists, this group of friendly docents has endured extensive training in environmental history taught by specialists from a variety of fields.  Once their training has been completed, docents are a liaison of sorts between humans and nature— leading informative hikes through southern California’s dense chaparral and providing visitors to the Topanga Canyon State Park with information about the environmental and cultural resources found in the landscape of the Santa Monica Mountains.

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During the two day event, attendees participated in a number of interactive lectures and hikes throughout the Malibu Creek bioregion (see schedule above). Finding it hard to choose between topics such as “Fascinating World of Tidepools” and “Monkeyflower Diversity”, I began the weekend with the intention of splitting my time as often as possible. Ten minutes into Dr. Harris’s fascinating tidepool presentation (imagine 20 jars of floating tidepool creatures), I had the realization that splitting my time was not an option.

Jars from the tidepool exhibit.

Jars from the tidepool exhibit.


Welcome to Malibu Creek State Park

Hiking through the Chaparral with docent, Tom Kaplan, whose broad knowledge of the Santa Monica Mountain terrain became apparent after just a few feet of walking, was an enlightening education in Botany 101. Accompanied by Fred Nuesca, a Malibu Creek docent with decades of wilderness experience, Tom began our hike by pointing out the brilliantly-colored wildflowers that lined our flat, rocky trail.

Fiddleneck flower (Amsinckia menziesii)

In some circles, the brightly-colored fiddleneck flower photographed below is actually considered a weed! But don’t let this categorization fool you, the beautifully curled fuzzy fiddleneck has a stunning composition.  Comprised of two rows of delicate flowers which curl into a swirl towards the top of the plant, the fiddleneck bears a striking resemblance to its instrumental namesake.  As one of the very first wildflowers to appear in the Spring, you’re likely to encounter this beauty on any stroll through the chaparral during this time.

Fiddle neck Flower--Robb Hannawacker, while working for Joshua Tree National Park

Fiddleneck Flower–Robb Hannawacker, while working for Joshua Tree National Park

Horehound (Marrubium vulgar)

Despite a modern uptick in synthetic medicines, most prescribed medicines used in industrialized countries today are still derived from natural compounds found in plants, animals, and microbes. Cue Horehound, a flowering plant whose square stem and opposite leaf structure allow passersby to determine a link to the mint family— for whom these characteristics are dominant. Ancient Egyptian priests referred to this herb as the “Seed of Horus” and may have used it as part of an antidote formula for poison. Docent, Fred Nuesca, explains that today, many people use horehound to soothe a sore throat or stomach ache.

Horshound by Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia. Wikimedia.

Horehound by Harry Rose from South West Rocks, Australia. Wikimedia.

Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Hemlock is a poisonous plant that grows wild throughout the chaparral. If ingested, it will shut down your respiratory system. The most infamous poisoning by hemlock is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who died after drinking a tea made from hemlock and water. Socrates willingly consumed the poison after being sentenced to death for refusing to refute his controversial beliefs.

The docents explained that plants with a pungent (bitter) odor should give a warning about toxicity to anyone foraging for a snack. Though many in our group reported a sour, somewhat repulsive smell, to me, hemlock smelled a bit like stale peanut butter.


Flowering in spring, location: Fredericksburg, Virginia along the Rappahannock River. Wikimedia commons.

Black Mustard (Brassica nigra)

The leaves on a black mustard plant, or as Fred Nuesca calls it “the hot dog plant of the wild,” taste exactly like spicy mustard. According to Docent, Tom Kaplan, when mixed with the enzymes in the saliva on your tongue, the chemicals inside of the plant create a heat response.  This black mustard variety is the same plant whose seed is used to make the mustard we spread on hot dogs and sandwiches, so the name hot dog plant of the wild is not too far off.

Black Mustard by Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA. Wikimedia.

Black Mustard by Matt Lavin from Bozeman, Montana, USA. Wikimedia.


Despite growing up in the land of a 1000 oak trees (Thousand Oaks, CA), I was only made aware of the notable distinctions between oak tree varietals in Southern California by the docents. As we continued our hike through the chaparral, we stumbled upon a towering oak tree. Docent Fred Nuesca explained that the intricate root system of the oak tree can expand up to three times its height!

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia)

After habitually surviving without rainfall for nearly nine months out of the year, the coast live oak tree has evolved a few innovative water-saving techniques. Its leaves are small, thick and cupped inward, which helps reduce exposure to the sun. Unlike the valley oak, the coast live oak tree does not shed its leaves.  Instead, it uses the shade of its giant, spanning branches to protect the water in the soil from being evaporated. Its woven root system extends deep below the surface of the ground, in search of stored water from subterranean aqueducts.


Valley Oak (Quercus lobata)

The valley oak can live for over 600 years and is a deciduous tree species— meaning each year it sheds its leaves. Found throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, the leaves of the valley oak are flatter and less sharp than the coast live oak.

Valley Oak by Eugene Zeleny. Wikicommons

Valley Oak by Eugene Zeleny. Wikicommons

After a weekend with the docents, I still feel like there are volumes more that I could learn from them. It takes a special kind of personal to dedicate their time to teaching others about the natural world.  If you are interested in getting involved, the Topanga Canyon Docents have an excellent training program that begins this fall. The Havasi Wilderness Foundation and the docents both believe that the best way to get in touch with nature is to get outside and explore your world!

Wildlife Recovery Efforts Persist After the Thomas Fire Claims 273,400 Acres of Chaparral

From the ashes of the Thomas Fire come stories of displaced human and wildlife. The wildfire has threatened an already sensitive California condor population, torn a mountain lion cub from its mother, and sent birds on an unusual migration. 

Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the Thomas Fire burned with an intensity that scorched over 273,400 acres of land. The fire, which has burned for over three weeks, swept through areas of Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, and the Los Padres National Forest to become the largest fire in recorded California history. From the ashes of the flames come the heartbreaking stories of the destruction of entire communities. The news is rife with accounts of human displacement and families spending the holidays at the Ventura County Fairground’s evacuation facility, but the stories of the wildlife—whose already limited open space has been torched—also deserve our attention.

It has been suggested that wildfires can have some benefits to nature— Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, allows for more sunlight, and nourishes the soil— but the toll the fire takes can be colossal on the general population of animals who count on existing conditions to survive. Many creatures can be seriously injured or killed by the flames, but perhaps the greatest impact of fire is the loss of habitat and smaller prey that help balance ecosystems and feed larger animals.

Condors, mountain lions, and red-tailed hawks make up just a few of the animals impacted by the Thomas fire. Here are their stories:

California Condors- A Story of Hope

With a 9 1/2-foot-wingspan, the federally endangered California condor is considered the largest scavenging bird in North America. Condors are carnivorous birds who travel widely to feed on the carcasses of deer, rabbits, sea life, and pigs. In the 1980’s, condor populations were down to an astounding 22 birds and on the brink of extinction. Since then, rehabilitation efforts and captive breeding have re-introduced over 230 free-flying birds to the California skies.  As the Thomas Fire made its way through Fillmore, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became concerned for the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest where the endangered birds nest and roost.  Before the fires, a condor chick known as No. 871 was being monitored by biologists as it prepared fledge (fledging, describes the period of time when a young bird develops wing feathers that allow them to leave the nest and fly for the first time). The blaze made its way to the entrance of No. 871’s cave, and the outlook for life seemed bleak.

According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, scientists spent the days after the fire working hard to locate No. 871 and other condor survivors. Telemetry devices which receive a signal from a tracker attached to each protected condor were used to track movement. For several days after the fire, a weak signal had been transmitted through the trackers, but it was not until Wednesday, December 27th, that crews received the welcomed news of No. 871’s survival. As the condor parents of No. 871 circled their chick, the biologists celebrated their victory. Still, the condors face a hard road ahead as many of the animals they feed upon did not make it through the fire.

Injured Mountain Lion Cub Rescued

Out of Santa Paula comes a rescue story that brings tears to the eyes. Like the California condor, mountain lions in Southern California have been closely monitored for years. As the long-term survival of mountain lions in densely populated areas was increasingly threatened, conservation biologists began a system of tagging and tracking the large cats to study their survival in an urbanized landscape and to help protect them. The majority of older cats living in the Santa Monica and surrounding mountains have been located and tagged, but many young cubs have yet to undergo tagging procedures. Such is the case of newly-discovered mountain lion cub who was injured and likely orphaned during the Thomas Fire. Santa Paula residents reported several sightings of the cub shortly after the blaze, but it wasn’t until the cub was captured off of the bike path that caretakers understood the extent of its injuries.  As a result of the fire, the cub’s paws were badly burned.

The five-month-old cub who weighed in at 32 pounds was tranquilized and lifted into the rescue truck before being turned over to veterinarians working at UC Davis. The vets are working to treat the injuries sustained during the fire and will determine when it is safe to re-release the cub into the wild. Generally speaking, young mountain lions learn to hunt on their own sometime between the ages of six and eight-months-old.

Squirrels and rabbits make up the bulk of a mountain lion’s diet. Since squirrels and rabbits are not as mobile as bigger animals like deer or coyotes,  many either die in the fires or starve to death afterwards in the sparse, charred surroundings. Loss of smaller wildlife not only impacts the individual animals themselves, but also the larger animals on the food web who hunt the smaller prey to sustain their lives.

Fighting For Air Space

In a lot of ways, birds benefit from fires over the longer term. Charred surroundings encourage an overflow of bugs and Bark-and wood-boring beetles will arrive in droves and lay eggs in charred trees—a feast for birds! However, shrinking habitats after a wildfire can encourage competition for land and airspace. Following a wildfire, some birds migrate from their hillside residences to the city. As Havasi Wilderness Foundation’s founder, Alex Havasi, explored the Ventura area after the burn, he captured photos of a red-tailed hawk and a crow in what seemed to be a battle for rights to the sky. 

Countless residents (including myself) have been displaced from their homes along with wildlife and domestic pets who are looking for homes. Find out more about how you can help some of these pets in need by visiting the Ventura County Humane Society and

Walking With the Dinosaurs: An Exploration of Dinosaur Ridge

One of my favorite things about working for the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is that they share my love and curiosity of all things wild. These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel and adventure for me. From the goliath mountains in Zion National Park to the prehistoric fossils in Morisson Colorado, there has been little time to rest in the presence of such giants.  Follow our upcoming blog and journey together with me through Utah, Colorado, Tulum, Mexico and the ruins of Chichen Itza.

This week’s adventures begin in Morisson, Colorado: home of the Dinosaur Ridge National Natural Landmark. Located west of Denver and approximately 1 mile from the acclaimed Red Rock Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge is one of the world’s most celebrated fossil districts.

Just off of highway C-470, a sign advertising dinosaur footprints caught my eye.  The dinosaur-lover in me prompted a mission to explore the area more thoroughly. The visitor center offered my partner and I a free map and told us that we could either pay to be driven up the mountain or climb it ourselves. Welcoming the opportunity to stretch our legs, we chose the latter.  I was met with a seemingly inconspicuous road and a slow incline of dirt-colored rock that betrayed none of its priceless contents at first glance. As I began the journey up a steep, paved path, my gaze slid over a patch of rock that rippled with a ribboned pattern.  A nearby sign indicated that lines were an impression of preserved microbial mats in which microorganisms turned the sediment layers found in the supratidal zone into spongy, pock-marked mats on the ocean floor.  According to the park, some form of rapid burial helped preserve the wavy shape of the microbial mat while millions of years hardened the sand into stone.  I swung around to study the incline of the mountain on which I stood and paused to reflect on its past-life as an ocean floor.

Microbial mat at Dinosaur Ridge. Photo Credit: Lola West.

Microbial mat at Dinosaur Ridge. Photo Credit: Lola West.

My eyes traveled across the rock to an imprint larger than my head. The deep three-pronged grove was smooth, shaded in black and reminded me of the mark a seagull makes as it walks across wet sand.  I turned to a posted sign nearby and discovered that the print was likely made by an an ostrich-sized carnivore like Ornithomimus.


Alongside this print were more than 330 other prints comprising 37 different trackways. A trackway is a succession of prints made by an individual dinosaur. In addition to the bird-like three-pronged print, I saw a more bulbous print made by an herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur such as an Iguanodon. Each of the dinosaurs lived in the Cretaceous period (145.0 million to 66 million years ago).

There are over 37 different trackways at Dinosaur ridge.

There are over 37 different trackways at Dinosaur ridge.

Ornithomimus fossil

Ornithomimus fossil


While fossils tell the stories behind the way that dinosaurs died, the tracks reveal important information about the way they lived. Colorado has been a hub of dinosaur exploration since 1877, when Arthur Lakes, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, spotted an enormous vertebra embedded in a block of sandstone at Dinosaur Ridge.

As I came to the middle of the rock exhibition, I noticed the layers of rock beginning to peel away. The sign posted implored us to look closely at deep scars hewn into the surface of the stony landscape.  I studied the scars and a 45 million-year-old story began to take shape.  In contrast to the dinosaur footprints the scars on this rock were jagged and long and took the appearance of being scratched from a large, clawed animal. The Deinosuchus was far larger than any modern crocodile or alligator and at 35 feet, this apex predator was likely capable of hunting large dinosaurs. As the crocodile passed its body through the shallow waters of the prehistoric marine environment, it pressed its claws deep into the sand leaving behind an enchanting story.

Prehistoric crocodile markings. photo credit: Lola West

Prehistoric crocodile markings.
photo credit: Lola West

Prehistoric Crocodile

Prehistoric Crocodile


How were these prints preserved?

Though now a sprawling mountainside, Dinosaur Ridge was once an area of marshlands located near a beach. The topography of the marshlands was composed of thick layers of mud-covered sand. As dinosaurs and crocodiles walked through the mud, their prints were depressed into the sandy layers below the mud. The mud hardened into mudstone and millions of years of erosion eventually exposed the sandstone layer that maintained the shape of the footprints. Since Colorado experiences all four seasons, these prints are often exposed to unkind weather conditions. Each time snow covers the prints and melts away it endangers the print itself. In 2010, the community surrounding the Dinosaur National Monument began a campaign to protect and preserve these precious pieces of our prehistoric puzzle.