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Friday, February 28, 2014

Staff Interview: Jen Browne

Jen helping with a bird count on the Ranch. What doesn't she do?
Jen is the Operations Manager for Tejon Ranch Conservancy. She has worked for this organization since its inception, having been recruited from Tejon Ranch Company. Her attention to detail and ability to multi-task are what enable us to do the work that we do!

Where are you from? What’s your background?
I am a California native and third generation Irish, born at the original Cedars Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. I lived the first 6 years of my life in La Crescenta, CA, but with Doctor’s orders, the family moved me, the only child, to the much better air quality of Ventura County. I grew up in a pretty small town, Newbury Park, CA and stayed there until my early twenties. Growing up, I was a total “tomboy”… never scared of dirt or potential injury. I owned and trained horses for many years in Newbury Park and Hidden Valley, CA and successfully competed in many classifications including Hunter/Jumpers, English & Western Pleasure and Equitation.

After I graduated high school, my mother sent me off to Europe for three months with a passport, some money, and a Eurail pass. I was reluctant to return home. Once I returned, I attended Moorpark College where I earned my Associates Degree in Humanities. I ventured on to San Francisco State University to study International Relations because I had fallen madly in love with travel. The thought of being some sort of international attachĂ© intrigued me…like a female 007!

Well, life doesn’t always turn out the way you dream, so I wound up working full time. I landed a job as a manager at Abercrombie & Fitch in San Francisco, and alas this took over, and I didn’t finish school. I wound up missing home, and the San Francisco fog wasn’t helping. I moved back and opened up the Abercrombie & Fitch in Century City… not single-handedly, of course.

As I was looking for something with a shorter commute, I stumbled into a little shop called Marlow Artistic Furnishings in Westlake Village. It was their first day open, I think. I asked if they were hiring, and I started that same day! For about a decade, I had worked as a manager, designer, furniture and lighting restorer for a very large celebrity clientele, managing Westlake Village and Studio City locations off and on. After leaving Marlow, I was a design and construction assistant for a 17,000sq/ft estate in Bel Air, CA.

In 2006 I was on my way up to Pine Mountain Club with my new wonderful dog, Miss Caddie (Cadillac) to help my mother with my ailing grandfather. I was lucky enough to find a job in the area and at none other than Tejon Ranch Company! I worked there for over two years, and as a project manager, helped with the coordination of the 2008 Tejon Ranch Conservation and Land Use Agreement. This led to the formation of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy for whom I now work as the Operations Manager.

I currently live in Simi Valley, CA with my fiancĂ©, Davin, and dog (same one, Miss Caddie) and happily commute to Tejon. I love the drive, actually…I get the beauty of Tejon Ranch by day and the pleasure of living back in my home county.

You are the only Conservancy staff member who has worked for both Tejon Ranch Company and the Conservancy. What is your perspective on the collaboration between the two organizations?
It’s AMAZING! Who would have thought that Tejon Ranch Company would ever even consider 90% of their land for conservation? It’s an historic agreement between a landowner of a “working landscape” (meaning, the entire 270,000 acres are still grazed. They have mining, agriculture, filming, hunting, oil and mineral extraction, industrial development, etc…) and environmental groups. The two worlds, normally polar opposites of each other, attended meetings (some happier than others) for two years to come to this… and even remained friends. I am most impressed and honored to have been a minute part of this process, and I hope that others can learn from it.

Since the Agreement in 2008, the Tejon Ranch Company and the Tejon Ranch Conservancy have worked extremely well together to maintain this relationship and coordinate all access to the Ranch and its beauty. It’s like a marriage now, in a way. Or a dance, if you will. If we want to have a research group out on a Saturday, and there is a hunting event going on, we have to coordinate to ensure the safety of all parties. If we want to put fence around a riparian area (stream) to keep cattle out, we work closely with the Ranch and the cattle lessees to make sure everyone’s needs are met. We work together. It’s really cool to be part of growing this into the largest contiguous Land Trust in California, let alone this side of the Mississippi.

I hear you put together the lengthy application for Tejon Ranch Conservancy to become a member of the national Land Trust Alliance. How in-depth is it, actually? Did any questions take you by surprise?
I did, with the help of our Executive Director, put together the two 4” binders of paperwork that began the application process. It was very in-depth and time consuming, but will be very well worth it. As a new land trust we got lucky! There are a lot of land trusts out there with age old conservation easements that had to go hunt down paperwork, which we were fortunate not to have to do. The most difficult part was to explain the very complicated agreement and our financial structure. I guess my surprise was that the Land Trust Alliance Commission didn’t think we were as complicated as we thought! Whew!

It is a very helpful exercise and will allow us to keep to a structure of excellence… and I like that part very much. We hope to be accredited by the end of this year! 

Is there anything in particular on Tejon Ranch you are excited to see?
A mountain lion! 

Please describe one amazing nature moment you had in 2013.
Besides all of them? I think it was maybe during one of the bird counts that I saw a golden eagle take out and lunch on a grey fox. Or maybe sitting atop a null looking down on a beautiful field of wildflowers, watching violet-green swallows dive together. Oh, on a driving tour of the Ranch, I saw a young black bear playing in a stream. They are all amazing. I just wish I got out of the office more often to have them, but even then, at least I get to watch deer graze outside my office window.

We at the Conservancy are pretty big audiophiles. Can you list 5 of your favorite albums?

This may be the hardest question! I have always had music in my life. I believe it is food for the soul, and just as diverse as my taste in food, my musical taste runs the gamut. I grew up around my grandmother listening to Gene Krupa and Nina Simone… to my mother listening to the Everly Brothers, Emmy Lou Harris and Linda Ronstadt; my father playing Waylon and Willie and Bob Seger…

If I HAD to pick 5 “favorites” (I will keep to more recent music to narrow it down a bit) they would be Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker, Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More, Paul Simon – Graceland, Sting – Mercury Falling and pretty much anything with Dave Grohl. But then there’s Beck, Morcheeba, Sade, Queen, Tool, Laura Marling… and on and on and on.

We like to talk about how Tejon Ranch is at the intersection of 4 of CA’s major eco-regions (southwestern Ca, SJV, Sierra Nevada, Mojave Desert). Do you have a favorite one?
Again, I don’t really do “favorites.” It really depends on the season for me. One of the fantastic things about this place is that every year, every season, it looks different. I love the desert in the fall… after the rain when the fall colors of buckwheat make you feel warm. I love the “milky way” of wildflowers that blanket the San Joaquin Valley floor, especially when the fog is holding in the liquid color. Atop the ridges you can see for miles and miles... I love the colors of black oaks when the leaves seem pink and the bark, steel grey…  Tejon Canyon, where this lush grove comes out of nowhere and you feel like there MUST be real life hobbits and elves. Tolkien would be proud.
I just appreciate being able to enjoy these places on the Ranch… uninhibited by the hustle and bustle that flanks it.  

Besides Tejon Ranch, can you list 5 California locations you love?
Sure… I’m a HUGE fan of the coast, good wine and food: Big Sur, San Francisco, Cambria, Napa and Santa Barbara. 

Love the dress, Jen!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: San Joaquin Coachwhip

SJ coachwhip closeup. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

                Last week, our Stewardship Manager, Laura was driving around the Old Headquarters area of Tejon Ranch when she saw something in the road. A snake? In February? Yes indeed! Excited, she and her companion jumped out of their vehicle and began taking pictures. It’s a good thing they did, because as it turns out, this was a significant observation for Tejon Ranch. Not only does it represent a new part of the property for this species, it’s also a particularly early sighting. What kind of snake, you might be asking? Well, it’s the San Joaquin coachwhip (Coluber flagellum ruddockii), of course!
                As the scientific name suggests, the San Joaquin coachwhip is a subspecies of coachwhip (Coluber flagellum). Currently, there are four recognized subspecies of this snake in the U.S. and two of them occur on Tejon Ranch. In addition to the San Joaquin coachwhip, the determined herper (one who studies reptiles and amphibians) may find Coluber flagellum piceus, or the red racer. Adults of latter can be distinguished in the field by its dark coloration behind the head. These two subspecies also overlap along the coast in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
                One thing that makes the San Joaquin coachwhip of particular interest to us at the Conservancy is its native range. Robert C. Stebbins’ Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd ed.) indicates that the majority of its range is in the San Joaquin Valley and into the Coast Ranges to the west and extends along the south coast. Throughout its range, urbanization and industrial-scale farming have contributed to decreasing suitable habitat. Here at Tejon, we have a significant amount of grassland, desert-like, and chaparral habitat that these creatures love.
San Joaquin coachwhip in arid grassland habitat. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak
                In addition to being listed as a California species of special concern, this is a particularly beautiful serpent. A sharp eye will immediately identify its slender profile, striking scales, and delecate coloring that is uniform throughout the body (though juveniles can be more banded). Apparently, the braided pattern of the scales and fine taper of its tail make it look like a whip employed by horsemen. Its narrow head has a large yellow eye. While beautiful, the San Joaquin coachwhip is also notorious for being aggressive, so don’t get too close a look! This behavior comes in handy as this snake hunts all kinds of prey from ground mammals to birds to carrion. They will even eat bats (! 
Coachwhips can grow to be quite long! Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

                                To learn more about this amazing California endemic (that is, it’s an organism that occurs nowhere else in the world), check out these resources:

Nafis, G. “Coluber flagellum ruddocki – San Joaquin coachwhip." 26 February 2014.
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Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: Ladybug Massing

Convergent ladybird beetle ((Hippodamia convergens) massing. Photo courtesy of Ben Teton
        When going for a walk in California’s mountains, there is always the possibility of encountering something eye-catching. One of our favorite phenomena to encounter here in the Tehachapis is the great massing of ladybugs (family Coccinellidae) on stumps, logs, and rocks. These beautiful insects can be found in the hundreds or even thousands at all times of the year, but especially in the winter. Such collections can be as mysterious as they are beautiful and this week, we decided to investigate these creatures and their interesting behavior.
                First, it is important to recognize that in truth a ladybug is not just a ladybug. Technically they’re beetles, but you already knew that, right?  Being beetles, they are extremely diverse with almost 6,000 species occurring worldwide, and around 180 species recognized in California (Evans and Hogue 2006). Apparently, many of the species that now inhabit California have been introduced as biological controls for agricultural pests- a practice that has been occurring since the late 1800’s (ibid). It may be that the introduced species are now negatively affecting the natives by out-competing them for food (aphids and other soft-bodied insects).
Photo courtesy of Ben Teton
                Although there are numerous species of ladybug in California, there aren’t too many that aggregate. Here on Tejon Ranch, it appears that the convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) is the most common species to form these masses. You can tell this species by identifying the two white marks on the pronotum (the “neck” area between the wing covers and head). More specifically, these two spots are elongated and form a sort of V shape pointing towards the back of the insect. Most commonly, these groups are encountered on fallen logs at the head of major stream channels on the ranch, such as El Paso Creek.
 A quick and very non-scientific survey of Conservancy staff suggests that the most impressive masses are likely to be encountered in the late winter and spring, but smaller groups may be seen at all times of the year. Because the upper elevations of the ranch are typically inaccessible in the winter, we do not have much info on winter massing. Presumably, winter is when they are most impressive as the massing may have the effect of reducing heat loss, such as with monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus). It is also interesting to note that many ladybugs will come up to the mountains in the summer to escape the heat. With our friend the convergent lady beetle, it seems that populations from the Central Valley go up to the Sierra Nevada, while south coastal populations inhabit the Peninsular and Transverse Ranges (Evans and Hogue, 2006). If that’s the case, we wonder where the Tehachapi beetles are coming up from!

                One interesting fact about the convergent lady beetle is that it gets parasitized by a wasp species (Dinocampus coccinellae- note that the lady bird family of beetles is called Coccinellidae, suggesting this wasp affects multiple species). While a parasitic wasp is not too much of a surprise, it’s the way they parasitize ladybugs that’s interesting. Apparently, they lay their egg on the underside of a beetle, which carries the larva around through pupation. This practice has two advantages: most obviously, it allows the larva to start eating its host. Second, it seems as though the beetle’s coloring deters predators, thus protecting the larva as well. To find out more about this interesting relationship, check out this article:
                Another species that aggregates is the non-native multicolored Asian lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis). If you happen to notice hordes of beetles spending the winter around (or even in!) your house, it is probably this species. As annoying as their presence may be, these insects have an incredible appetite for aphids, so they’re probably doing your garden and landscape plants a huge favor by being around!

What a beautiful sight! Photo courtesy of Ben Teton


Evans, Arthur V. and Hogue, James N. 2006. Field Guide to Beetles of California. Los Angeles: University of California Press