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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Psycho Spider Killer: What is It?

I've been waiting an entire month to write this post, and maybe my entire life to entomologically riff off a Talking Heads song title! On Monday, October 1, I found a large tarantula hawk wasp (a.k.a Pepsis wasp) on some flowering Baccharis in the North Campus. This blue wasp with orange wings was the first of its kind spotted in our new gardens, and is indeed a spider killer.

Tarantula Hawk on Baccharis

This is what Insects of the Los Angeles Basin has to say about tarantula hawks preying on spiders:

"When a female wasp finds a tarantula, she alights and engages it in battle. The wasp then stings the spider on the underside between the legs and usually succeeds in paralyzing but not killing it. She has previously dug a shallow burrow, using her mandibles and legs as a pick and shovel, or selected an earth crack, rodent burrow, or even the burrow of a tarantula for a nest, and she now drags the paralyzed prey into his hole, lays an egg on the victim, and then seals the tunnel with soil. A supply of fresh food is thus insured for the developing larva."

Oh and let's not forget that a sting from one of these wasps can be very painful to us humans too! According to awesomely geeky entomologist, Justin O. Schmidt, this wasp's sting is among the most painful in the world. He described the painwhich lasted for about 3 minutesas, "blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream)." He also rated the pain as a 4, which is at the very top of his 0-4 scale of pain. That's right folks, he has documented the pain induced from over 100 insect stings in his lifewhat a scientist!

Friday, October 26, 2012

What's Up Goatsucker?

Yes, the first Goatsucker has been found in our new wildlife gardens! No, I'm not talking about a weird new species of goat parasite, I'm actually talking about a type of owl-like bird. Goatsuckers, a.k.a. nightjars, are members of the family Caprimulgidae, which comes from the Latin word Caprimulgus, literally meaning goatsucker. The Latin name came about because of the mistaken belief that these birds would swoop under milking goats to steal milk from the teat!

Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttalli,
found on North Campus
Here's what Kimball Garrett, our awesome Ornithologist, has to say about the Common Poorwill (the specific type of Goatsucker) we found:

"It certainly appears that October is the month to find Common Poorwills (Phalaenoptilus nuttalli) around here.  The previous two Exposition Park records are for 1 October 1973 (a specimen in the collection), and 12 October 2005 (a bird seen by me and some of my volunteers along the NW wall of the Rose Garden),

Poorwills catch insect prey (mainly moths and beetles) by sallying from the ground up into the air, especially from dusk through the evening.  They’re often seen on paved roads on warm summer and fall evenings – presumably taking advantage of the warmth retained in the asphalt and perhaps elevated numbers of insect prey in that warm microenvironment.  The species is named after its call, often heard on warm evenings on the breeding grounds.

Although some individuals seem to be year-round residents, others individuals (especially those from more northerly or interior breeding populations) are migratory.  Observations and specimen evidence suggest that the main fall movement into/through the lowlands of the Los Angeles Basin occurs in October.  The nearest breeding areas are on dry chaparral slopes of Griffith Park and elsewhere in the Santa Monica Mtns. (and poorwills are even more common in rocky desert and mountain areas farther inland).  In some parts of their range poorwills are known to undergo torpor on cold winter nights, some even hibernating for extended periods."

Whoa! Did Kimball just say these birds hibernate? Remember that tidbit for your next trivia contest!
But wait there's more! Did you know birds pant sometimes, to keep themselves cool just a like dogs do? To be more precise, scientists call it gular fluttering and Sam Easterson caught a video of it:

Wow, that's an impressive gular you have there
Mr. Goatsucker!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The L.A. River is Alive: From Mudbugs to Mallards

On Sunday, I joined two amazing people, Jenny Price and Lynn Garrett, on the Hidden L.A. River Tour. Yes people, L.A. does indeed have a river, one with real flowing water, real wildlife, and people like Jenny and Lynn, who are really passionate about it. It was an awesome adventure to explore our river with such knowledeable and enthusiastic people!

The morning started bright and early at 9 am at the L.A. River Center and Gardens, where many river-based non-profits have their offices. We quickly figured out the carpool situation, since it was a driving/walking tour of the river, and got a brief introduction that outlined the six rivery stops that were ahead of us. Without much further ado, we piled in our cars and headed to our first stop on the river.

We didn't have far to travel. The first stop was only five miles north of our starting point, and as we drove we followed the river's course (though we were travelling against the current). We exited the 5 freeway and passed over the historic Los Feliz bridge (built in 1925), hung a right into a sleepy Atwater Village neighborhood, and parked at the dead end of Dover street.

As we alighted from our cars and followed the path to the river, what we saw shocked some of us. Laid out in front of us was our river, and it was so very different from the lifeless, concretized, dangerous place that it is sometimes portrayed as. In fact it was the polar opposite! 

This is what we saw:

Not your stereotypical viewof the L.A. river

As the image shows, this part of the river, a.k.a. the Glendale Narrows, is lush and full of life. It doesn't have a concrete bottomthe water table sits so high, it bubbles up on a regular basisso there are lots of plants growing and lots of animals living in this valuable urban habitat. It was also a great place to play, in fact the kids on the tour even waded in (this made me smile really big) and were looking at all the wildlife that calls this part of the river home.

While we all explored this section of the river, our leaders gave us about half an hour to do this, we saw a lot of bird life including a Great Egret, a Double-crested Cormorant, two Muscovy Ducks, and a few groups of Black-necked Stilts, American Coots, and Mallards. We also spotted some interesting invertebrate life including a few Green Darner dragonflies, 20 or so Pacific Forktail damselflies, a few Fiery Skipper butterflies, and last but not least one kid discovered a one-pincered Red Swamp crayfish, Procambarus clarkii, poking along the river's edge!

Crayfish, aka the one-armed bandit!

Red swamp crayfish, a.k.a. crawdads or mudbugs, are an introduced species of freshwater crustacean very common in the ponds and waterways of L.A.. These lobster look-alikes are edible and originally from the South Central United States where they have been harvested for food for many years. Today these creatures are found all over the world from Asia, to Africa, and Europe too. Their spread can be connected to purposeful introductions as a food source, and accidental introductions for a myriad of reasons including disposal of unwanted pets. Here in California few people "fish" for them (though I have seen families doing it in Ferndell Park), and few predators exist to keep their numbers in balance, consequently their populations are numerous. 

Scientists paying close attention to the impacts of this introduced crustacean have discovered they can negatively impact our local California newt, Taricha torosa, populations. Although poisonous in the adult formthese newts secrete tetrodoxin through their skin, which repels most predatorsthe egg and larval stages are non-posoinous. This renders these lifestages easy targets for predators such as crayfish and other introduced species like the American Bullfrog. Paired with habitat loss and human alteration, this cute newt is on the decline. 

And Now Back to the L.A. River Tour:

After the excitement of finding the crayfish wore off, we all packed back into our cars and meandered down river to explore five other locations. We jumped from Marsh Park in Frogtown, to the Arroyo Seco confluence under the 110 and 5 freeway interchange, then headed downtown to the famous Grease filiming location under the 6th street bridge. We briefly stopped for a cactus and mole filled lunch in Boyle Heights, and then continued exploring the most industrialized part of the river at the Maywood Riverfront park. Last but not least we concluded our tour at the Dominguez Gap Wetlands in Long Beach, a man-made wetland that helps to clean the river's waters before it recharges our groundwater. Phew!

I wouldn't want to give too much of this amazing tour away, you really have to experience it for yourself. I know I'll be taking many of my friends and colleagues down to the river, especially to the Glendale Narrows area. Check out Hidden L.A. to find out when the next L.A. River Tour is scheduled!

Maywood Riverfront Park a la Instagram!
One of the most heavily industrialized stretches of our river.

Friday, October 5, 2012

First Canada Warbler Spotted in Exposition Park

This week I got another e-mail from one of our scientists. This time it was from Kimball Garrett, our amazing Ornithology Collections Manager. He found another bird for our Exposition Park bird list, and my isn't it cute? Here's Kimball's communique from October 3rd at 1:24pm:


Canada Warbler, Cardellina canadensis [= Wilsonia canadensis] along the south edge of the Rose Garden just now.  First for the park, and brings the wood-warbler (Parulidae) list for the park up to 22 species and the park list to 171 species.  Sorry, no photos obtained."

But wait, Kimball, never to be outdone by a bird, sent me this e-mail at 4:38pm that same day:


I went back out late this afternoon and had much better studies of the Canada Warbler and managed to get a few (lousy) photos. Here's one:"

 Wow look at that eye ring! Thanks Kimball.