Tuesday, August 28, 2007

New bird species for hills: Common Ground-Dove

A male (see photo) was singing this morning at the Powder Canyon trailhead. This bird is a very localized resident in southern California, maintaining a small population in our area along the lower San Gabriel River. Has anyone had this bird at their feeder? They are tiny doves, just a little bigger than sparrows.

Side-blotched Lizard

A tour of the old Nike missile sites along the ridgeline east of Harbor Blvd. today produced a male and female side-blotched lizard around the concrete debris at the site. The surrounding vegetation is extensive, open grassland (heavily grazed) with patches of Coast Goldenbush. A recent (2002 USGS reptile study of the Puente-Chino Hills found this lizard only east of Powder Canyon. This is surprising, since I've seen them along the San Gabriel River in Whittier Narrows, along the Arroyo Seco in northwest Pasadena, and at tiny habitat remnants like the Ballona Wetlands dunes in Playa del Rey.

Though they were historically much more common in the L.A. basin, they seem to like sandy soil with barren patches, which is now a scarce commodity. Most of these sites have been developed or have been replaced by different vegetation, and the animals that maintained this habitat (cattle, sheep, jackrabbits) are gone. For example, they were collected at Griffith Park decades ago, but have apparently disappeared from there since, as the vegetation there has matured from low, open buckwheat scrub to high sumac and Ceanothus chaparral.

This lizard is very poorly depicted in illustrations, including the Peterson guide to reptiles and amphibians - I think it's more attractive than our "normal" lizard, the western fence lizard, locally called the "bluebelly" for the blue underparts of the males. Side-blotched lizards are best identified by the gular folds (= loose skin) around the neck, and by the distinctive orange checkerboard pattern on the upperparts. Mature males will show black patches behind the front legs, but on many individuals these are absent or hard to see.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Ford property sightings

While assessing the impact of the recent fire, Andrea Gullo and I visited the "Ford property", a parcel owned by the Habitat Authority at the head of Turnbull Canyon, just north of Turnbull Cyn. Rd.

Two sensitive species were present, a Cactus Wren giving a single "chert" call from the cactus on the slope below (to the west), and a coastal western whiptail moving through the leaf litter at the edge of the property's driveway. This lizard is apparently localized in the hills. I've posted a (poor) photo of the whiptail here.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

New mammal for Puente Hills: Long-tailed weasel

The same yard that brought us the bobcat photo below produced a long-tailed weasel in February 2007, photographed here carrying what appears to be a Norway rat.

The weasel was listed as "potentially occurring" in the Resource Management Plan, and is probably an uncommon resident throughout the Puente-Chino Hills. They are somewhat like ground-squirrels, but are much slimmer, with distinctive dark facial markings. Weasels are most often seen alone, in brushy areas near water (when they are seen at all). They live in burrows excavated by other animals, and are most active at night.

Anyone else ever see a weasel in the hills?

Turnbull Canyon fire

Approximately 80 acres of open space burned yesterday in the upper Turnbull Canyon watershed, ignited by a car that went over the side of the road near the midpoint of Turnbull Cyn. Rd. (the driver escaped with apparently minor injuries). The fire burned a bit of the downhill (northern) slope below the road, but quickly raced uphill to the south and east before being contained at the ridgeline. If you're familiar with hiking or riding in this area, the burn area is mainly south of Turnbull Cyn. Rd., roughly bounded by the Schabarum Trail on the east and by fireroads/trails on the west and south, and includes a portion of Workman Hill.

This fire occurred in the wide portion of the corridor, in an area that has seen frequent fire over the years. Thus, it should not appreciably affect the movement of animals through the hills. As with all small fires, most animals flee the area briefly during the burn, or retreat to burrows, emerging only hours after the flames subside (only the top few millimeters of soil are burned). Plants will start resprouting almost immediately.

Unfortunately, frequent fires, as have occurred here, have resulted in the degradation of the soil microflora over recent decades. Extensive fields of non-native black mustard and thistle - and dense stands of laurel sumac shrubs - attest to a history of disturbance, both from grazing and fire. Still, the upper Turnbull watershed is still very diverse in terms of habitat types, with oak woodland, sumac-elderberry scrub, coastal sage scrub and native grassland occurring in patches of various sizes. Several of these patches were coded as "high quality habitat" by the Resource Management Plan (Fig. 5), a designation that was based on the dominance of native plant species.

Two populations of the rare Catalina Mariposa-Lily and one population of the rare Plummer's Mariposa-Lily (per Fig. 10A) were detected during recent surveys within the area affected by the fire; fieldwork this spring is needed to assess their current status. Fortunately, the unique vernal pool area just to the south (upper Worsham Canyon watershed) was unaffected, and neither were the large prickly-pear/buckwheat patches on south-facing slopes north of Turnbull Cyn. Rd., which are important for many rare plant and animal species.

We will be monitoring the recovery of this area in upcoming years.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Two new insect species for hills: Western pygmy blue and giant darner

Note: by "new", I mean unlisted by LSA and Associates in their Resource Management Plan for the Puente Hills (2007), which included a comprehensive species list of observed and potentially-present species.

Several western pygmy blue butterflies were flitting around their preferred foodplant, Australian saltbush, on the former Unocal property east of Hacienda Blvd. on 14 Aug. 2007. This is a widespread native species closely tied to weedy chenopods (saltbushes and relatives) that is probably fairly common in the hills.

A single giant darner was hunting in a disced/plowed border of one of the restoration sites in the same area today. It was nearly twice as large as the numerous gliders in the area, and showed the long, distinctively drooped abdomen. Usually found along streams, they should be looked for along Arroyo San Miguel and elsewhere.

New bird species for hills: Black Swift

Two Black Swifts cruised low over my head this morning as I was touring one of our restoration sites near Skyline Trail west of Hacienda Blvd. They were in a mixed flock that included other swifts (White-throated and Vaux's), as well as Cliff and Violet-green swallows.

The Black Swift is an uncommon and irregular transient throughout southern California, typically seen with other swifts and swallows in late spring (esp. May) and fall. They are very localized nesters in our area, with Big Santa Anita Cyn. being one of the traditional sites. They nest on the misty, mossy rock walls behind waterfalls.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bobcat, La Habra Hts.

A bobcat was observed and photographed on the morning of Aug. 15 near the intersection of Citron Rd. and Reposado Dr. in La Habra Heights. It was carrying a squirrel, possibly an California ground-squirrel (right).

The bobcat is an uncommon resident of the Puente Hills, occurring in a wide variety of habitats. They are active day and night, and are often seen walking along roads and trails, or stalking rodents on grassy hillsides. Like mule deer (and unlike coyotes), they rarely occur more than about a half-mile from large patches of open space. (Additionally, I observed a bobcat on Aug. 14 on Habitat Authority land east of Colima Rd.).


Welcome to Puente HIlls Nature!

Daniel S. Cooper
Ecologist, Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority
Whittier, CA