Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Puente Hills are a beautiful place….so let’s keep it that way!

One of the great perks of my position with the Habitat Authority is being able to explore the various trails of the Puente Hills. These hills are a great resource to people, and will remain that way as long as that resource is respected and people act responsibly. A few weeks ago I was hiking the Coyote and Ahwingna Trails in the Hacienda Hills and I came across multiple acts of vandalism. Unfortunately it is all too common to find our trail signs and other structures sprayed with paint. As bad as that is, at least those things are relatively easy to replace or cover up. However, the acts of vandalism that I witnessed were to trees and shrubs, including tagging all over the trunks of several oak trees. What was once a beautiful tree is now lost forever.

For anyone that hikes, bikes, and rides horses in the hills, please report any acts of vandalism that you witness in progress. Do not make any effort to approach individuals or try to stop them. However, you can call our emergency number at (562) 698-1446 anytime to report people in the act of vandalizing, or any other illegal activity on Habitat Authority lands. Please help us to keep the hills beautiful. Thank you!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Why do we restore habitats?

One of the major aspects of the Habitat Authority’s management of open space in the Puente/Whittier Hills is the restoration of degraded habitats. The term "habitat restoration" refers to the process of restoring the functional aspects of a given ecosystem to a semblance of its pre-disturbed state. As a result of more than 100 years of human land use, the majority of the Puente Hills contains disturbed habitats, including those dominated by non-native vegetation. Past and ongoing land uses that have created or contributed to disturbed, altered habitats include livestock grazing, development, oil extraction, the intentional planting of non-native vegetation, and the use of non-native invasive vegetation on properties adjacent to open space where invasive plants spread into natural areas. The Habitat Authority actively restores degraded areas by removing non-native vegetation (such as non-native grasses, mustard, thistle, castor bean, tree tobacco, etc.) and planting native vegetation that would have been present prior to the disturbance.

Approximately 190 acres of Habitat Authority lands have been or are currently being restored in some manner, including 130 acres initiated by the Habitat Authority, and another 60 acres of mitigation conducted on Habitat Authority lands to mitigate for local development projects. Restoration projects include coastal sage scrub and sycamore riparian habitats at the Hacienda Trailhead; riparian restoration in Sycamore Canyon; coastal sage scrub restoration on the former Unocal property (east of Colima Road); coastal sage scrub restoration near the Hellman Trailhead; the restoration of coastal sage scrub at the Arroyo Pescadero Trailhead; and the restoration of oak and walnut woodland, coastal sage scrub, native grassland, and riparian habitats in Powder Canyon.

Though it makes us feel good to be a part of successful restoration projects, that feeling is a byproduct of the broader goal….to improve the overall the health of the ecosystem. Through the restoration of degraded habitats, the Habitat Authority and other participants have created (and continue to create) native habitats offering shelter and food for wildlife that otherwise would not exist in the degraded habitat. For example, the federally listed coastal California gnatcatcher is nesting in coastal sage scrub vegetation at the former Unocal property where the patch of habitat did not exist just two to three years ago. Gnatcatchers have occupied that property in the past, but we have expanded the habitat to allow for the establishment of new territories and the growth of the gnatcatcher population. Besides rare species, we are providing habitat for all sorts of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.

Earlier this week I visited our former Diaz property on the far eastern edge of the preserve near Harbor Boulevard. Five years ago this property contained a house and other structures, an avocado orchard, and countless more non-native vegetation. Since then we have restored nearly 25 acres to coastal sage scrub and oak/walnut woodland. During my visit the other day, I came across a family of mule deer that are regular residents of the property. As I walked through the site, I was treated with the appearance of two fawns that calmly walked out from the shelter of a grove of walnuts (see photo above). It is rewarding to know that the habitat was restored for them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Just finished a hike? Time for a tick check!

Just a reminder that when you are spending time outdoors in natural areas, you should periodically check yourself for ticks. Ticks are small parasitic arachnids that live on the blood of their hosts, which include mammals and birds. More importantly, ticks can carry a number of diseases, including Lyme disease. All ticks have three different life stages (larval, nymph, and adult), though only the nymph and adult stages are of concern for transmitting diseases. The adult stage is the most common that people hiking on trails in the Puente Hills may be exposed to. Adults find their hosts by hanging onto the tips of shrubs, grasses, etc. while waiting for an unsuspecting animal (such as yourself) to come along. Ticks don’t jump or fly, they simply grab on as you pass by. The smaller nymphs (about the size of a poppy seed) live within leaf litter on the ground. Because of their smaller size, the nymphs are the most difficult to detect, though a person would be far less likely to pick one up if only hiking a trail.

There are many different kinds of ticks in California, with two of the more common ticks being the black-legged tick and Pacific Coast tick. In California, the black-legged tick is the only one known to transmit Lyme disease, although ticks in general can carry other diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Found elsewhere in the United States, the other carrier of Lyme disease is the deer tick. Most sources report that on average, 1 to 2 percent of adult black-legged ticks are infected with Lyme disease, as opposed to 2 to 15% of nymph ticks, though the percentage can be much greater in higher risk areas such as northwestern California and the northeastern United States. In addition, with infected ticks the risk of transmission increases the longer that the tick is attached. Therefore, it is important to regularly check yourself for ticks while outdoors in areas where ticks can be found, and also give yourself a very thorough check when you return home.

Don’t let the potential for ticks keep you from getting outdoors. There are many things that you can do to reduce your risk of getting bitten by a tick.

  • Dress appropriately. Wear light-colored clothing so that you can spot ticks easily. Wear full-length long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats to keep ticks off of your skin and out of your hair.

  • When hiking a trail keep to the middle of the trail and avoid brushing against vegetation (although this is often difficult depending on the trail).

  • Periodically check yourself on the trail for ticks, or better yet have a buddy help you. Ticks may be hiding in the seams of clothing. When are finished with your outdoor activities, give yourself a very thorough tick check, and then once again when you get home. Be sure to check your pets for ticks if you take them outdoors with you.

  • As an added precaution, repellents are available that can be sprayed on your clothing.

If you find a tick attached to you, remove the tick immediately with a pair of tweezers. Research suggests that it takes from hours to one or two days for ticks to begin transmitting disease-causing bacteria. Do not use chemicals, heat or anything else that might irritate the tick and cause it to regurgitate disease-causing agents into your skin. Grasp the tick’s head/mouthparts with a pair of tweezers as close to your skin as possible. Be careful not to squash the tick, as this may force fluids from the tick into your skin. Using the tweezers, slowly and steadily pull the tick straight out. It is important not to leave any mouthparts in your skin, as this could cause a secondary infection. If you are unsure which species of tick that bit you, keep the tick in a plastic bag or vial of alcohol for later identification.

After removing the tick, consult with a physician. Your doctor may prescribe a brief treatment of antibiotics out of precaution. Regardless, if you develop any flu-like symptoms within a few days to weeks of being bit, consult with your doctor. One of the common symptoms of Lyme disease is a characteristic “bulls-eye” rash that develops at the site of the bite, and then later can spread elsewhere. The technical term for this rash is erythema migrans. Other symptoms include headache, fever, fatigue, etc.

In 15 years of being a field biologist, I have literally picked hundreds of ticks off of me, and have probably had 6 or so that have attached, though I have caught them quickly. So, like anything else, the key is to be aware, educated, and responsible. Just add ticks as one more thing to your list of things to watch out for. Make a tick check a part of your regular outdoor routine!

Here is a link to a document from the California Department of Public Health website for more detailed information on ticks and Lyme disease:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lizard Boot Camp

Human behavior is an interesting thing. Spending an afternoon watching people in a local shopping mall will give a sociologist/psychologist a wealth of behavior to observe and interpret. The behavior of other animals can be just as fascinating, if not more so if you know what to look and listen for. For those of you that hike in natural areas such as the Puente Hills, there are great opportunities for you to be the amateur animal sociologist.

Just as with humans, the behavior of other animals is used to attract mates, threaten or warn potential adversaries, or just to be social. Individual bird species possess a range of calls for these purposes, from a warbling melodious song, to a harsh rasp. Lizards, on the other hand, use their bodies.

Have you ever seen a lizard doing “pushups” and wondered what that was about? If you have ever come across a lizard, then either you have seen this, or the lizard was doing this but you missed the signal. No, they are not getting exercise like you are, or training for the next “Survivor – Puente Hills”. If you come across a lizard doing pushups (such as the western fence lizard in the above photo), then likely it is doing this in response to you. For various reasons, lizards will do what appear to be pushups, a series of jerky up and down movements with their head and forelimbs. However, depending on the slightest nuance in the way they move, a lizard could be saying anything from “Get off my rock now!” to “Will you be my valentine!?!” In your case, the lizard is probably not trying to select you for a mate, but instead it is warning that you are trespassing on its territory.

So, the next time you want to tell a friend or family member to get out of your favorite chair, try it with body language!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Snake season

For the last couple of months or so, snakes and other reptiles have been coming out from their winter dormancy in response to the warmer weather. As the temperatures increases through the spring and into the summer, so does the chance for an encounter with a rattlesnake. However, this does not mean that people need to take an alarmist approach to rattlesnakes. These non-confrontational reptiles are a great benefit to the ecology of our natural environments, as with other snakes; and with a little awareness on the trails and/or in homes adjacent to or near open space, everyone can enjoy spring and summer in the hills.

Snakes are often unjustly viewed as scary and dangerous, but in fact they are one of nature’s greatest allies in maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Snakes serve as a great means of natural pest control through their consumption of rodents and insects that are otherwise often treated by people with poisons that are harmful to other wildlife. Biologically, snakes serve as important regulators in their complex food web by controlling the populations of rodents, insects, and other reptiles.

The Puente Hills is home to approximately 10 to 12 snake species, though only two of those species (both rattlesnakes) are venomous. Of the rattlesnakes, the most common is the western rattlesnake, though the red-diamond rattlesnake is also present. Several weeks ago I happened upon my first rattlesnake of the season (a western rattlesnake) coiled up in the hollow stump of an old avocado tree. For residents of the hills (particularly those immediately adjacent to open space) it is fairly common for people to get snakes of all kinds in their yards, on their driveways, and perhaps even in their garages.

For those on the trails, a rattlesnake encounter is always a possibility, but the likelihood of actually getting bitten by a venomous snake is very low, particularly if you hike safely and responsibly.
  • Be sure to stay on the open trails. The chance of encountering a snake greatly increases if you wander off the trail into the brush or rocks. Avoid areas where you cannot see the ground around you.
  • When hiking, wear long pants and appropriate shoes. Do not wear sandals or other open or thin-material shoes that make it easier for a snake to bite you.
  • When on the trails be sure to watch where you are stepping. Always watch the ground for several paces in front of you, since rattlesnakes will sometimes be stretched out or coiled up on the trail.
  • If you do hear the distinct sound of a rattlesnake, be sure to avoid its location. Hike away from the sound of the snake. A rattlesnake is very unlikely to strike unless it is provoked, and if you leave the snake alone it will leave you alone. If you have a close encounter with a rattlesnake, freeze or back away slowly to allow the snake to get away.
  • Do not turn over rocks or otherwise put your hands where you cannot see what is hidden.
  • And of course, do not try to touch or pick up a snake. Do not throw objects at snakes, or otherwise do anything else that might provoke them.

Here are some steps to minimize the chance of snake encounters around your home if you live adjacent to or near open space:

  • Clear planters, hoses and other objects from around the house.
  • Don't leave your garage door open or leaky faucets running. Snakes often are seeking water or a shady place to rest.
  • Never let your children or pets play in the yard without first checking to make sure there are no snakes around.
  • Don't go outside barefoot.
  • Be especially careful when stepping out of the light into a shady area.
  • When walking at night or dusk always use a flashlight. Snakes and other reptiles will lay on warm roads, sidewalks and driveways after dark to absorb heat left over from the daytime.

If you are bitten by a rattlesnake, the most important thing is not to panic. Do not run or otherwise get excited, as that will speed up the circulation of the venom through your system. Calmly seek immediate emergency assistance, including calling 911 if you are unable to get yourself to a hospital. If possible, wash the bite area with soap and warm water. Keep the bitten portion of your body below the level of your heart, and remove any constrictive jewelry or clothing around the bite area.

If you have any other questions or concerns about snakes, feel free to contact us at the Puente Hills Habitat Authority.