115th Annual Christmas Bird Count @NHMLA!

January 27, 2015

On December 28, everyday people from all over Los Angeles flocked to the Natural History Museum to help count the bird life of L.A.! Some came as beginners ready for an intro to birding from Kimball Garrett, one of the best and most well-known birders in town, who also happens to be the Museum’s Ornithology Collections Manager. Others came because they were interested in contributing to this important bird census, but didn’t plan to see any surprising or remarkable species in our small urban oasis.  Little did they know they were in for some surprises.

Kimball started off the morning explaining what the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is all about. He hyped up the activity by reminding everyone that it is the oldest citizen science survey in the world and provides invaluable information on bird population trends.  Another fun fact that Kimball shared was that the count began as an alternative to the Christmas “Side Hunt.” As its name implies, this annual activity brought hunters together to compete over how many birds they could kill that day! As concern grew about declining bird populations, the CBC was developed by the Audubon Society as another competitive yet non-lethal alternative to hunting birds. In that first year alone, 25 locations were counted recording 18,500 birds.

Cut to 2015, and the numbers are up significantly with over 377 million birds recorded from over 1,265 counts (check CBC as the numbers keep growing). After Kimball’s brief, but inspiring intro and birding tutorial, we went outside to do our own bird count. Thirty three citizen scientists split into two teams and covered the entire Nature Gardens. We counted 207 individual birds representing  21 species within about an hour. This may seem like a drop in the bucket, but the variety of birds and our urban location made the count meaningful and memorable.

The day ended up being full of surprises including finding a new Allen’s hummingbird nest (Selasphorus sasin), seeing a majestic American kestrel (Falco sparverius), and finding some birds that don’t often show up in the Nature Gardens—a Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), and a black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens)! However, by far our most exciting record that day was of a Common poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii).  As described in Lila’s 2012 Poorwill blog, although this is a common nocturnal bird of southern California foothills, it isn’t often recorded in the CBC. You see, Common poorwills are hard to find during the day you can hear them vocalizing at night during the breeding season). This nocturnal bird relies on the coloration/texture of leaf litter to hide in. As you can imagine, looking for a silent, barely-moving bird that is the exact same color as the brush and leaves around it is like looking for a needle in the proverbial haystack.   

Fortunately, in the Nature Gardens we have lots of observant eyes, and the perfect habitat for these awesome birds to hang out in. As a result, we’ve recorded a Common poorwill (very likely the same individual) visiting the Nature Gardens every year since 2012. 

As scientists and citizen scientists continue to explore more of the urban landscapes more species patterns will become clearer. Surprising species detections like the urban-sensitive poorwill and red bat are trying to remind us that Angelenos still have the opportunity to make L.A. and other urban areas more conducive to human-wildlife coexistence. Will we answer the call?

Written by Miguel Ordeñana


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



Selfie Sticks and Hummingbird Nests

January 7, 2015

We found another hummingbird nest in the Nature Gardens! On December 28th Miguel Ordeñana, Museum Citizen Science Coordinator, found an Allen's Hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, nest in our cork oak tree.

Female Allen's Hummingbird, photo courtesy of Felipe Lepe.

As you can see she's (only female hummingbirds build nests and care for the young) sitting pretty in her nest, but are there any eggs? Over the last few weeks we've observed her sitting in the nest for extended periods of time. This behavior led us all to believe that there were definitely eggs in there. But, we wanted to be sure. As luck would have it, I received a late Christmas present last night–a selfie stick.

It was sort of a joke gift, I am a vocal selfie stick hater! I mean, I just can't imagine using one without feeling like a total idiot! However, upon opening this metal and plastic item made in China, my mind immediately went to the hummingbird nest. Would it be long enough to help me see inside, to find out how many eggs were in there? This was something I wouldn't feel like an idiot doing.

First thing this morning, I excitedly walk over to the cork oak and telescope my selfie stick out to its maximum length. I get my remote ready, but the thing just wasn't long enough! I trudge back into the Museum, retrieve a step ladder and head back out.

In my opinion this is the ONLY valid use of a selfie stick, notice how my face is NOT in the shot!

As I get back to the nest the mother hummingbird was nowhere to be seen. I erect the ladder, slowly wobble upto the top step and hold my selfie stick aloft. It's really hard to keep a long pole with a smartphone steady, but after a few seconds I get a number of shots. I carefully lower my monopod device and look at the pictures. Right there, in the heart of her nest sat two tiny and perfect eggs! Soon after this the mother returned to the nest, and began incubating the eggs again.

Although a bit blurry, the image also gives a great view of the fluffy inner lining of the nest. This soft, inner sanctum in comprised of varying natural materials collected by the mother and includes spider webs. That's right, hummingbirds use spider webs to line their nests so they can stretch over time. As the eggs hatch and the two nestlings grow, the nest becomes, as you can imagine rather full. The spider webs help the nest to stretch with the babies!

Over the coming weeks (eggs take about three weeks to hatch and the young take just over another three weeks to leave the nest), we'll be keeping a careful eye on this nest. We'll keep you posted and let you know if the eggs hatch successfully, because who doesn't like cute little baby birds? In the meantime, I hope that you, just like me, have a warm fuzzy feeling right next to that selfie stick loathing!

p.s. Please feel free to share any nature related #selfiestickhacks #naturespy!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Blooming Agaves

February 11, 2012

More plant news from the North Campus. Recently some of our blue lotus agaves, Agave ceslii 'Nova', have begun to bloom. This is an impressive sight as these plants send forth long spikes, (between four and six feet long), that look a lot like giant asparagus stalks. This type of agave is monocarpic, meaning that it only flowers once, and this particular selection happens to flower at a relatively young age compared to other species. Incidentally, the genus is commonly called century plant because it can take decades for them to flower. The entire stand of this agave (approximately eight plants) is flowering at the same time, because they were all propagated from the same tissue culture, which is a common nursery practice for certain landscape plants. Although flowering signals the end of the plant's lifespan, we can expect to enjoy the flowers and fruits for the next several months!

Agaves reaching up to the floss silk treeThere are over 300 species of agave in the world, with 100 species native to North America. This large array of species includes well known agaves such as the tequila or blue agave, Agave tequilana, and the sisal or hemp agave, A. sisalana. Other species are also farmed to produce agave nectar, which is sweeter than sugar and honey. The blue lotus agaves we have planted are native to Mexico and are becoming more common in the nursery trade. As with all agaves, the flower stalks possess literally hundreds if not thousands of individual blossoms, which are visited by many kinds of pollinators. The flowers will be a pale yellow color and will hopefully attract the numerous Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds that are already resident in Exposition Park. Unlike other agave species, the ones planted on the North Campus will not attract mammalian nocturnal pollinators, aka bats, which is a shame since we will be very soon putting up a bat box (more on that to come later)!

Four stately stalks!Stop by the North Campus and check them out today! They are close to the Dueling Dinos on the North side of the Car Pak along Exposition Boulevard.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Hummingbirds: Born to be Sword Swallowers!

May 26, 2011

We've got more bird babies at the Page Museum (you know the one at the La Brea Tar Pits)! We were informed about an Allen's Hummingbird, Selasphorus sasin, nest in the atrium about two weeks ago, and jammed over to scope out the scene. When we arrived we found two tiny eggs in a beautifully crafted nest, suspended about ten feet up in one of the plants.

This past weekend Sam Easterson captured the footage below. I really like the way you can see the nest stretch as the nestlings move around. This is because the nest is partially constructed from spider webs! When constructing the nest, the female hummingbird collects materials such as plant fibers, moss, lichen, and small bits of bark or leaves. She also collects the spider silk for its elasticity. As the nestlings hatch and grow the nest can stretch with them! Check out the video to see it and then be wowed with feeding time. The first time I watched this footage, I couldn't help thinking about a sword swallowing circus act. Enjoy!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)