A Charm of Hummingbirds in DTLA

September 10, 2015

Downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) is cast as one of the most iconic concrete jungles, with skyscrapers, cars, and miles of concrete. Many think of this as a place bereft of nature. But, over the last number of years pocket parks have been built, landscapes have been changed (think City Hall), and street-side planters have been added (though the habitat value of the plants in the Broadway bump-outs is questionable at best). Nature has always been here, and will continue to be so. But the often cited examples of urban nature, rats, pigeons, and ants, aren’t the only ones calling DTLA home.

At our recent BioBlitz L.A. event at City Hall we worked to document the wildlife in downtown. With a dedicated crew of 9 citizen scientists, we managed to document 28 species in 1 ½ hours. From orb weaver spiders and argentine ants, to flower flies and fox squirrels.

At that event I met Michael. Michael is one of our repeat citizen scientists. This year he participated in our ButterflySCAN project and I’ve often seen his posts on our L.A. Nature Map. As you can imagine, I was pretty excited that he was going to join us.

Michael had walked over to the event from his nearby apartment where he lives on the fourth floor.  We got to talking and he told me about the wildlife he sees every day from his living room windows. Michael has two window gardens with 2, 24-inch wooden planter boxes outside of each window. Each planter box contains different types of flowers. Michael knew his garden would attract the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators he’d seen flying around DTLA.

Shortly after putting in his window garden, Michael looked out of his window and began thinking about installing a bird feeder.

“I was trying to decide if I wanted to put up a feeder with seeds in it, or a hummingbird feeder. I was pretty much resigned to putting up the seed feeder because I hadn't seen any hummingbirds in the area of downtown where I live. I hesitated though, because seed feeders can get pretty messy. Suddenly, just as I was about to make my decision, a hummingbird flew up from below my window, stopped about 3 feet from me and stayed for about 10 or 15 seconds while looking straight at me, as if to say, "Of course there are hummingbirds here!’”

Inspired by this nature sighting, Michael purchased and installed one hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds found the feeder (and his garden), and overtime Michael increased his feeders to four. At times there have been over a dozen hummingbirds visiting at once. As Michael put it, “I’m visited all day long by the beautiful flying citizens of downtown Los Angeles.”

Michael has documented two species of hummingbirds using his feeders: Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna) and Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin). Michael thinks that he may have seen a Rufous Hummingbird, but he couldn’t verify it since it didn’t stay long.

When Michael shared that he had four hummingbird feeders installed, I was a bit surprised since that seemed like a lot. I asked him what the largest number of hummingbirds he has ever seen feeding at one time.

“One cloudy spring afternoon earlier this year, at dusk, there were 26 hummingbirds feeding or perched in my south-facing garden, and another 10 or 11 were doing the same outside my west-facing window. I was so awed by so many hummingbirds in my garden at the same time that I just stood there and stared, counting. I don't think I even got any photos of that special afternoon!”

Can you imagine seeing 36 hummingbirds outside a window in DTLA? I wonder if people walking on the sidewalk below had any idea there was a charm (yes, that’s what a group of hummingbirds is called) of hummingbirds flittering around above their heads.

For those of you who have or had hummingbird feeders, you know that it can be a lot of work to maintain them. It is recommended that feeders are cleaned and changed every 5 days to prevent bacterial growth. Michael works hard to follow that protocol.

“Now, with so many birds feeding here… I end up cleaning and refilling them about every two or three days because the birds have eaten all of the nectar already! Sometimes it's a lot of work keeping up with my little, energy-hungry neighbors.”

Clearly this must be a labor of love for Michael. He doesn’t have to work so hard to maintain a healthy habitat for these DTLA hummingbirds. So why does he do it?

“They make me happy. I love to listen to them all day long while I'm working in my home office, and love to watch them dance through the skies here. In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm sitting 3 feet from a hummingbird outside my west-facing window.”

Michael’s story resonates with me, because it shows that if wildlife friendly habitats are built then wildlife will come. The window gardens that Michael installed are visited by bees and butterflies, and his feeders help provide food for hummingbirds. I want to thank Michael for beautifying DTLA with his gardens, for providing habitat for wildlife, and for inspiring me to do more to help nature in L.A. I live in an apartment in Hollywood, and surely I can create a mini-garden of my own. I wonder what animals will visit me and my garden.

Check out Michael’s Flickr page to view more of his stunning photos.

Michael posted some of his hummingbird photos, and other wildlife photos, to NHMLA’s L.A. Nature Map.

(Posted by: Richard Smart)


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

October 18, 2012

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 knowledgeable 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 filming 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.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Vaux's Swifts and Ghetto Birds

September 23, 2011

This past Monday a few of us embarked on a real urban nature adventure. We traversed the city streets of Los Angeles to witness one of the coolest nature spectacles I have ever seen in downtown Los Angeles, 6,500 Vaux's Swifts, Chaetura vauxi, spiraling into an old building shaft!

Ghetto bird and swifts share L.A.'s skyline alike!According to Kimball Garrett, NHMLA's Ornithology Collections Manager, these swifts stop in L.A. during their spring and fall migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and their overwintering sites in Mexico and Central America. While in L.A. they gorge themselves during the day on flying insects found in areas such as the L.A. river and Griffith Park, and roost at night in various shafts and chimneys around the city.In recent years the roost of choice for thousands of these birds is the Chester Williams building, on the northeast corner of Broadway and 5th Street, near Pershing Square. The parking structure next door to this building is where myself and a few other Museum staffers found ourselves at 6:00pm on Monday evening. At approximately 7:30 the swirling masses of swifts began entering the shaft. Although it is impossible to count every individual, Kimball was able to estimate the number of birds entering the roost site. They enter the shaft at a remarkably constant rate of about 10 birds per second. We watched birds enter the roost for about 11 minutes (660 seconds), yielding a rough estimate of about 6,500 birds. Thanks Kimball!

Vaux's Swifts spiraling into the Chester building's shaftOf course Sam Easterson was one of our party, he managed to capture this footage of the swifts entering their roost.As a final note, its not all easy living for the swifts. Common Ravens, Corvus corax, have learnt to hang out at the shaft opening and prey on individuals entering their roost site. I managed to catch a picture of this Raven flying away with its dinner!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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