Posts tagged urban wildlife

Hill St and 5th Street (Creative Commons photo via Wikipedia)

As Los Angeles has evolved over the last 150 years, so has its ecology. Once a pristine mixture of ecotones, including chaparral, coastal sage scrub, and annual grasslands, it is now dominated by a naturalized urban forest and a blanket of concrete. Humans have introduced a variety of fantasy landscapes from faux-tropical paradises to Midwestern suburbs, and created the layered, modified landscape we are all familiar with today.

As Los Angeles has become the densest city in the United States, it has maintained its status as a biodiversity hotspot due in part to these complex microclimates and its location in the western hemisphere migration. However, development of the city has led to a critical loss of open space threatening flora and fauna diversity. Recognizing this issue, members of the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion last year to support biodiversity. City agencies have since come together to develop a biodiversity plan, starting with an index of existing ecology and leading to implementing policy and action. The index, presented at the end of April by the Bureau of Sanitation, is based on the Singapore Index.  It quantifies indicators of ecological health such as natural areas, pervious surfaces, urban forest canopy, and native birds in built areas. By evaluating these criteria, they hope to support both ecological and human health in Los Angeles.

It is necessary to understand the impacts of historical and current land use changes caused by humans. By replacing open space with buildings and infrastructure, we are removing the benefits provided by soil, water infiltration, tree canopy, and wildlife. Los Angeles’ signature sprawl, which admittedly has its own issues, has also allowed for a complex patchwork of open spaces from private yards to the sides of freeways to vacant lots. These spaces play an important role in the ecology of the city, but are being lost to urban infill.

In the course of the city’s history, green open space and tree canopy have favored the white and wealthy.  Poor and working class neighborhoods of color are still tremendously lacking in tree canopy and parks, and these ecological deserts create physical and mental health disparities. By focusing on improving biodiversity especially in these communities, habitat becomes an issue of environmental social justice. But establishing a value for biodiversity and native ecology, without monetizing these life essentials, is difficult. How can the city evolve to support population growth, a healthy ecology, and environmental equality?

This Yellow Breasted Chat was seen in Downtown LA under a large field of reflective windows, an assumed victim of the urban ecosystem. If we seek to increase bird populations in the city, we must be sensitive to how design affects them. Photo by Katherine Montgomery

While we cannot restore all species to their pre-1850 populations, we can better support those that have adapted to urban spaces, and lure back some that might be able to adapt. The presentation at the Bureau of Sanitiation last month was titled “Conserving Biodiversity when Land is Developed” and several presenters discussed the varied methods of considering how non-humans use our shared space. The presentation focused mainly on birds as indicator species for overall habitat health.  Los Angeles is the “birdiest” county in the United States, with 527 recorded species.  The birds have complex seasonal roles, using our region for wintering, breeding, as a stop-over, or a year-round home. Some require large contiguous areas of open space while some are happy in urban fragments. Scientists are currently studying bird habits and the connections between them, plant species, and insects. This important information will then guide policy as well as design of open spaces to support those complex avifauna behaviors.

The 2018 Biodiversity Report is the start of a very important conversation that landscape architects will play a huge role in. As we work on commercial, residential, and civic developments, we can advocate for design that values natural systems and their performance benefits. One of our greatest influences is in the design of schools, introducing kids to nature as early as possible. The city must also institute policies that support a diverse density and not just a capitalist drive towards development. An interdisciplinary approach, using engineering, green infrastructure, policy and cultural awareness will enable Los Angeles to thrive in a changing climate and evolve into a healthy city for humans and wildlife.

Photo: Katherine Montgomery

One of the reasons I love Los Angeles is its blurred line between urban and wild life. Hawks are often sighted soaring above the 101 freeway, and P-22, our Griffith Park resident mountain lion, has become a new kind of Hollywood celebrity. It is easy to champion these interspecies citizens from a distance, but we must also support their habitat as part of our community.

Living so close to wildlife is becoming unavoidable as humans encroach more and more upon their territory. I have encountered many coyotes on my early morning runs through Highland Park. A friend of mine just posted a video of a bear in his neighbor’s pool in Altadena. We’ve all seen the video of the mountain lion in a Los Feliz basement. These animals are charming, but they are also doing their best to live in altered and often hostile environments. As landscape architects and planners, it is our job to assess the impact of our proximity, and adjust our designs and methods to support coexistence.

Last weekend during an afternoon walk, my husband and I crossed paths with a coyote suffering from a serious case of mange. He was thin and disoriented, with barely any hair. A neighbor said he had already called the city wildlife hotline. Concerned about the coyote’s fate, I also called and was told he would be caught and euthanized. One more phone call to the California Wildlife Center, and I learned I could email their vet and request a dead, medicated mouse to leave for the coyote. With one to several treatments, he could be cured of the mange. Unfortunately, the city captured him first.

In the last few years, there has been increasing research on the link between wildlife mange and rodenticides. Even P-22 has suffered the negative effects of rodenticide. Many animals along the food chain are natural rodent predators, including mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, as well as owls and hawks. All of these animals are poisoned second-hand when they eat poisoned rats, mice, or rabbits.

This month AB-2242 – a bill banning all anticoagulant first and second generation rodenticides in California – will be moved forward to the Committee of Water, Parks, and Wildlife for approval. You can submit a public comment by April 23 by following the directions on the Project Coyote website. This bill is also supported by RATS (Raptors Are The Solution) and Poison Free Malibu. Much like the historic ban on DDT that saved the bald eagle, this movement has the potential to save California’s iconic wildlife

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Growing up in Northwest Louisiana, my dad taught me all about hunting, fishing, repairing pick-up trucks, and paddling a pirogue, as well as some survival skills that Girl Scouts may have glossed over. Honestly, I wasn’t much into being a sharpshooter, and I failed as an auto mechanic, but I did pay attention when my dad tried to teach me about plants.

Whenever he took me to his deer camp he’d show me a barren fence where the cold hardy passion vine (Passiflora) was supposed to grow. He collected the Louisiana Iris (Iris virginica ‘Shrevei’) from the swampy waters. I’d religiously relocate them against a fence. The plants eventually spread into the neighbor’s yard to his great displeasure.

Photo by Frank Mayfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Photo by Frank Mayfield (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Someone recently told me that you can no longer collect these plants from the wild, even though someone originally collected the plants, and planted them around the cabin to dress it up. I wanted my dad to load up on plants instead of watching my mom prepare yet another mystery dish using the ample supply of venison filling our freezer. Any good hunter builds themselves a nifty deer stand built for one. From there, you sit up as high as you can go in the Loblolly Pines (Pinus taeda) of Louisiana to watch wildlife for many solitary hours.

Around the the time my father turned 50 years old, he realized he found photographing nature more rewarding than hunting. I have a couple of theories behind this late-life epiphany: doctor’s orders, one too many bouts of kidney stones from eating too much venison, or simply the neighbors filled up the giant freezer with enough venison to last a lifetime (I remember whenever anyone opened the freezer door, rock hard frozen meat would tumble forth).

I found lots of high altitude sky photographs within the trays of slides, but I have yet to find those elusive images of wildlife captured using a telephoto camera lens. I would have really liked to have seen a photo of the snake that can swim and fly, or bullfrogs so large they could be walked/hopped around using a leash, or a photograph of the rare Louisiana panther jumping from one bald cypress stump (Cupressus taxodium) to another, feasting upon juicy catfish along the way.

This holiday weekend I somehow found myself acting like my late father, watching wild animal kingdom webcams in the comfort of my own Southern California living room. Our favorite is the Dick Pritchett Real Estate SWFEC bald eagle webcam, a site monitoring a family of bald eagles situated in a 60-foot high nest. This nest is set inside a slash pine (Pinus elliotii), surrounded by what looks like a church, a busy freeway, and a back drop of  Southwest Floridian skyscrapers. The nesting bald eagles seem to be more harried by the plethora of noisy birds and swarms of flies than the continuous drone of the nearby freeway.

This particular nature webcam has attained viral popularity and national news coverage, scoring over 60 million viewers who’ve quietly enjoyed watching the treetop dramas unfold using their cell phone, laptop or internet-connected television in the middle of the night. Stationed only 6 feet away from the nest, the webcam is equipped with infrared night vision to prevent disturbing the family of eagles. The lens follows the action, moving with the family of eagles. Close-ups regularly showcase the cute white and fuzzy fledgling, and viewers take great pleasure watching the mom eagle feed her baby with fresh fish deliveries made by both parents (dad regularly takes over nesting duties while mom hunts).
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Watching a snoring eagle after a hard day of work is really just the cutest. My husband and I have oddly enjoyed prying in on this feathered family as they build and tend their eagle’s nest – LE026-B as defined the Florida State Monitoring Program – situated within the tall pine trees. Dressed with branches and surrounded by a layer of soft pine needles, the pair constantly clean out the nest, keeping tidy their tiny 200 square foot loft and avian nursery. A makeshift refrigerator for the rodents and fish caught by the eagles is conveniently tucked neatly to one side within the soften base of torn pine straw, with spent feathers placed to keep the flies at bay. Watching each of the parents carefully feed the fledgling is really interesting, but I have yet to figure out why the eagle uses her beak to stick her head deep into the nest. Maybe to make a window into the world below?

Of course, nature can be brutal with unexpected violence and tragedy, so if you rather have the PG-rated version for the family to watch, try one of the major news networks for a delayed transmission. In any case, you cannot help but care about the cold, harsh beauty of nature after watching these wild animals endure. It matters!

The large urban parks around Los Angeles provide a chance to step into another world, and my favorite is Debs Park in Montecito Heights. The park’s network of trails wind up hillsides through black walnut groves and under large oak trees, some leading to rewarding views of Downtown Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Mountains. It is a 282-acre pocket of wild in the city, and I’ve encountered coyotes, bobcats, owls, and rabbits on my hikes. Becoming part of their world provides respite from my own.

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Adjusting my focus from the large vistas to the immediate setting, I started noticing patterns in the vegetation that were not of a human scale. Grass tunnels hinted at another creature’s experience of the open space, and the more I looked, the more I saw the park as a network of animal thoroughfares. I began photographing these routes as a way to actively observe and meditate on the sensitive connection between wildlife and our shared landscape.

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02040011As a designer, I know there is much to learn from adjusting my perspective and seeing the landscape from a different point of view. These photos are just a glimpse into another side of LA, and another experience of our environment.

My brother-in-law visited me recently. During his stay he excitedly told me about spotting several bat boxes in my neighborhood. Although my initial reaction was, “Bat what?”, I was quickly intrigued about learning whether the bats I’d noticed flitting about my tiny backyard were an urban anomaly or not.

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Bat Box – photo by Christina Lynch.

While some people shudder at the mention of bats, these flying mammals fill several ecological roles. In addition to dispersing seeds and pollinating fruit trees and flowers, bats play an important role in controlling insect populations. Primarily insectivores, bats have the ability to consume more than 600 mosquitos in an hour!

Like many species, bats worldwide aren’t fairing well in response to rapidly expanding urban environments. Habitat loss, degradation, fragmentation, diminishing prey, limited access to water, light pollution, and echolocation disruption are some examples of how urban areas can disrupt bats’ ability to forage and roost. Because bats are widely distributed throughout the world and are sensitive to ecological changes, scientists consider them bio-indicators in the study of the effects of/and adaptation to urbanization in a species.

The Big Brown Bat. Creative Commons photo by Angela C. Barry.

The Big Brown Bat. Creative Commons photo by Angela C. Barry.

Even as many bat populations are declining in urban areas, scientists are also finding species whose morphology and ecological ‘plasticity’ provide advantages in cities over less adaptive bats. Bats with long, narrow wings, which provide greater lift, are well adapted to the open but unprotected spaces of many towns, feeding efficiently upon insects drawn toward light pollution. Some species are showing adaptions to drinking from artificial water sources such as pools, a favorable behavior in drought-stricken environments such as California. And with the disturbance/loss of roosting habitats – caves, mines, or trees – bat boxes provide opportunities for the tight roosting quarters bats prefer, which minimize the energy required to keep their body temperature stabile while at rest.

Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave. Creative Commons photos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mexican free-tailed bats exiting Bracken Bat Cave. Creative Commons photos by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of the 27 bat species found throughout California, bats found locally in Southern California include the Western Mastiff, the big brown bat, the Mexican free-tailed bat, and the Canyon Bat. You can learn more about local bats and listen to their calls at KPCC’s “Everything you didn’t know about bats in Los Angeles“.