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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

WILDLIFE WEDNESDAY: Guest Blog- Susan Gilliland of Pasadena Audubon

“There is no other place like Tejon Ranch in California….and perhaps in the world.”

That’s the leading line in the Tejon Ranch Conversancy website page. (Be sure to check it out for yourselves. On April 12, 2014 about twenty lucky members of Pasadena Audubon Society visited Tejon Ranch and can absolutely vouch that statement is true. At over 422 contiguous square miles, or 270,000 acres, Tejon Ranch is the largest piece of privately held property in California. Tejon Ranch Conservancy is the result of a 2008 agreement reached by Tejon Ranch Company, Audubon California, Endangered Habitats League, Natural Resources Defense Council, Planning and Conservation League and the Sierra Club to preserve and protect this hotspot of biological diversity. In fact, the Ranch lies at the confluence of four major biogeographic regions.

 Our day started with a visit to a Burrowing Owl colony in the open grasslands. As we headed west toward Los Alamos Canyon we encountered a group of Pronghorn Antelope – including a male and his three females. As we drove through the Ranch we were delighted to see so many species of wildflowers in bloom– even in this severe drought. We saw California poppies, bush lupine, phacelia, tidy tips, coreopsis, blue diks, and fiddlenecks – and later that’s where we saw (and heard) the Lawrence’s Goldfinches. (Photos of Burrowing Owl and wildflowers by F. Gilliland)

We hiked in Los Alamos Canyon, which has oak woodland and riparian habitat, and we were treated to a Gray Flycatcher, the first of the season for the Ranch. The Ranch is home to 11 varieties of Oak and is a genuine “Disneyland” for Oak researchers. Although they have scales, and not feathers, we got up close looks at an adult Gilbert’s Skink.

 As we moved east to Little Sycamore Canyon (although the Sycamores are huge today) we went for a short hike and had an adult Golden Eagle fly from his perch in the canyon and disappear over the ridges. During our hike we heard and had good views of a pair of Rock Wrens and a very large Gopher Snake sunning on the path. Our group enjoyed a short hike up to Tunnel Springs, where we were rewarded with a singing Rock Wren, and several Anna’s, and Selasphorus type (likely Rufous in that location?) Hummingbirds. We also had a pair of Costa’s Hummingbirds with the male displaying and making his very high pitched thin call. There were a few migrating warblers, including a beautiful Black-throated Gray and Nashville.

The Joshua tree forest provided good habitat for a lone female Scott’s Oriole. Later while driving through more Joshua tree habitat we had a Ladder-backed Woodpecker and a distant view of a pair of Cactus Wrens plus a Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s, Lark and Chipping Sparrows. As we continued up to the crest of the Tehachapi, through Bronco Canyon, we observed a second Golden Eagle, this one an immature, who provided great views while he walked on the hillside before lifting his wings and soaring off. (Photo by F. Gilliland) On the way to our fantastic lunch stop at Eagle’s Roost, some of the group stopped for a flyover Lewis’ Woodpecker and while searching for the woodpecker, they heard a Mountain Quail. While the rest of the group birded while waiting for others to catch up, we heard Scot yell over the FRS radios, ‘CONDORS!” Wow! Three California Condors soaring over the ridges.

It was an incredible sight. We really enjoyed watching them and as they drifted off over the mountains, we considered ourselves very lucky to have seen even one. As we settled in for lunch and we were enjoying the hallowed views of the mountains at an old Native American site, the Condors returned again and provided more great looks at as they soared over the landscape. (Photo on left by F. Gilliland and photo below right by P. Richardson)

 We watched as a Common Raven harassed one of the Condors. The contrast in size was truly impressive. The Condors disappeared from view all too soon. As we relished our second sighting, and the last of our lunch, a large shadow crossed over us. “Huh? What was that?!” “Look up! The Condors! Right over our heads!” Wow! Where did they come from? They are huge birds (they weigh in at an average of 23 pounds and have about a 9 foot wing span!) and yet they were able to soar in silently and fly right over our heads. Well, needless to say, there was a lot of shutter snapping and mouths agape. We didn’t even need binoculars to read the wing tag on number 57. The pair that flew directly over our heads were definitely checking us out. (Tip: Always remember to keep moving when amongst Condors.) We were among the truly fortunate to have fabulous views of a total of four individual California Condors! What a gift. (Photo of Common Raven and Condor by F. Gilliland. Photo of #57 by P. Richardson)

At Ray’s Perch we had spectacular views of the future Pacific Crest Trail route. From here we could see the San Joaquin Valley, the Tehachapi’s to the north and Blue Ridge to the east that forms the boundary with the Antelope Valley. To the west we could see Mount Pinos. (Photo below by S. Gilliland) The wind was kicking up most of the day and likely kept some birds down and hidden from our view and it certainly made it hard to hear, but all in all we saw and/or heard about 60 species. Thanks so much to the Tejon Conservancy for working so hard to preserve and protect this true gem. A special thank you to Scot Pipkin, a great birder, naturalist,
educator and public access coordinator, and all the docent/volunteers, who competently and patiently answered our endless questions and drove us safely around the Ranch in 4WD vehicles. It was one of the best days of birding we’ve ever had. (Photo by F. Gilliland)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Job Opening!

We have a job opening for a new Director of Development! Click the link below for more information.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Just Another Day at the Office- by Jen Browne, Operations Manager

I don't think this is in Laura's job description.
Photo courtesy of Ben Teton
So, in walks our local friend, wonderfully helpful docent, licensed critter rehabber and recent graduate of our California Naturalist Program, Ms. Vicki Bingaman, with a small cat carrier...and we are excited!  We learn that inside this carrier is a baby squirrel!  It was found near the local vet’s office in Lebec (they called Vicki to come get it and properly care for it until it’s old enough to be released back into its natural environment.) 

Vicki is participating in pronghorn surveys for us and can’t take this little guy out in the field all day so, our staff offers to take care of it until she returns. Now we have an adorable little critter sleeping under Laura, our Stewardship Manager’s, desk!  Yay!

Lunchtime rolls around and it is feeding time! Laura happily warms up some milk and feeds the baby squirrel with the syringe...And we can’t take enough pictures! Ha! I bet all of us post photos of this on our personal Facebook pages! 

Ain’t it so stinkin’ cute?!?!  Laura wants to keep it now and we have considered its status as a Conservancy mascot...
Yep... Just another day at the office!
Did you know that despite having perfect vision as adults, baby squirrels are blind at birth? Many mother squirrels can have two to eight babies at once. These young ones must also depend on their caring mother for food and drink (mostly milk) for about a couple of months. After that, these individuals grow mature and can fully hunt for food themselves.  Baby squirrels are called kittens and kittens are born only twice a year.  Once in the spring time and once at the end of the summer.
Does it get any cuter? Photo courtesy of Ben Teton
Here are some more interesting facts about squirrels:
Squirrels can jump a distance of up to 20 feet. They have long, muscular hind legs and short front legs that work together to aid in leaping.
The hind legs of squirrels are double-jointed. This helps them run up and down trees quickly.
A male squirrel can smell a female in heat up to a mile away. Mating season is February through May with a 44-day gestation period. Typically 2-4 young are born per liter.
Squirrels have 5 toes on their back feet and 4 toes on their front. Their front toes are very sharp and help in gripping tree bark for climbing.
In addition to residing in the Eastern US, Eastern Gray Squirrels can be found in many Western states, Great Britain, Ireland and South Africa.
Squirrels in general are found on every continent except Antarctica and Australia.
Squirrels can eat their own body weight (approximately 1.5 pounds) every week.
Squirrels can fall up to 100 feet without hurting themselves. They'll use their tail both for balance and as a parachute.
The hibernating artic ground squirrel is the only warm-blooded mammal able to withstand body temperatures below freezing.
Squirrels eyes are positioned in such a way that they can see some things behind them.
The word "squirrel" means "shadow tail" in Greek.

Friday, April 4, 2014

I Got the Porcine Blues- Dr.Mike White, Conservation Science Director

I’ve been thinking a lot about pigs lately, which seems crazy for someone whose job is to “protect, enhance, and restore the native biodiversity of Tejon Ranch.”  As most of you know, the pigs on Tejon Ranch and throughout California are not native, but are an Eurasian species introduced to North America by people.  (These feral pigs are not to be confused with the javelina or peccary, native to the Americas but in a different family.) So why am I spending so much time thinking (and worrying) about a nonnative species?  Because like many nonnative species, feral pigs have the potential to cause negative impacts to the native species that we are trying to conserve and, in the case of pigs, we suspect the magnitude of these impacts to be extreme. 

Feral pigs (also called wild pigs, hogs, Eurasian wild boars, Russian boars) were first brought to the Americas by European explorers and settlers.  Some animals escaped domestication or were intentionally released into local habitats as a fresh meat supply.  Over the centuries periodic human-introductions and the natural expansion of established feral pig populations have resulted in a very broad distribution.  Feral pigs are currently found in at least 38 U.S. states, and in California, they are known to occur in 56 of the State’s 58 counties.  At Tejon Ranch they can be found in virtually every habitat, ranging from open arid grasslands, to dense high-elevation forests and chaparral, and even into Joshua tree woodlands and other desert habitats.

Why are pigs such a concern?  They really are a terrifyingly fascinating species.  Pigs are omnivorous, meaning they eat just about anything, including bulbs or tuberous plants, acorns and other fruit (including agricultural crops), game species such as ground-nesting birds (quail) or new-born deer fawns, and reptiles and amphibians, some of which are probably special-status species.  So feral pigs eat or compete with many of the native species that the Conservancy is charged with protecting.  They root for much of their diet and can severely damage habitats in the process.  To make matters worse, feral pigs are an extremely productive species. A female pig can start breeding at less than 1-year old, and have two litters each year with as many as 8 or more piglets per litter.  Talk about exponential growth!  There are currently no effective birth control methods available for feral pigs.  The icing on the cake is pigs are extremely social, smart and wily, quickly learning to minimize their exposure to hunters and traps.  There is even a story from the feral pig eradication project at Santa Cruz Island of pigs “playing dead’ until hunters passed by.  Great, zombie pigs.

Pig rooting in a large population of striped adobe lily (Fritillaria striata), a species of concern. It seems they are sparing that plant in favor of others (Dichelostemma sp.?) Photo courtesy of Mike White

So what are we going to do about pigs?  The short answer is “we don’t know yet.”  To help sort out our options, the Conservancy commissioned a just completed study of feral pigs by a Masters group from the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara.  The Bren group’s work has helped to frame the problem and describe potential tools available to manage it.  We don’t believe that it is currently feasible to eradicate feral pigs from Tejon Ranch, which leaves us with two primary options:  1) exclude pigs from high value areas of the Ranch (e.g., wetlands, special status species habitats) with fences, or 2) reduce the size of the population on the Ranch to a level we can live with.  Excluding pigs requires buying and installing lots of pig-proof fencing and the associated long-term maintenance of the fencing.  By its nature, this approach also requires prioritizing specific resource areas that would be fenced over others that would not.  Reducing populations means killing lots of pigs − unfortunately no other option is really practical at this time.  Preliminary population modeling conducted for the Conservancy by Dr. Kyran Kunkel suggests that pig population control is potentially feasible but very high harvest rates are required.  Oh, did I mention that pigs are considered a “Big Game” species by the State of California?  This means that hunters must treat this highly destructive and invasive species in the same manner they would other native big game species in the state (think deer and elk), potentially limiting the ability of hunters alone to control feral pig populations.  

To better understand the situation at Tejon Ranch, Conservancy Wildlife Technician, Ben Teton, has initiated field monitoring of pig abundance and their ecological damages.  We are hoping Ben’s hard work provides us with a scientific foundation of pig ecology on the Ranch, and a measure of how the Tejon Ranch Company’s successful pig hunting program may serve as a model element of a successful control program.  We would also like to initiate some pig exclosure experiments in the near-term to see if we can better understand the specific impacts to native biodiversity caused by pigs to help formulate realistic management objectives.  In the meantime, we will keep evaluating which adaptive pig management strategies have the biggest bang for the buck, I mean pig.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: Spring Has Definitely Sprung!

Seeing condors is pretty amazing, but 6 condors AND a golden eagle is simply stunning! Photo courtesy of David Schindler

Although we will not know the full impacts of California’s recent drought conditions for some time, there is plenty of cause to be concerned about what is being touted as the most severe water shortfall in centuries. This graphic from the U.S. Drought Monitor illustrates that pretty clearly:
Image source:
These links don't make the outlook any brighter:

With this kind of information, it’s easy to fall into despair and brace oneself for everything to come crashing down. Fortunately, there are some flowers blooming (even if it takes walking with your nose to the ground to find them), the Antelope Valley hills are beginning to turn green, and bird migration is adding incredible color/sound to the landscape. In the last two weeks of public access programs, Conservancy participants have collectively seen:
3 badgers
2 bobcats
12 golden eagles
Almost a dozen condors
2 Lewis’ woodpeckers
Migrating painted lady butterflies
Countless Lawrence’s goldfinches
Migrating warblers, orioles, pelicans, and other birds
And plenty more! Even though California’s state of drought will remain a significant problem for the foreseeable future- as well as a topic we will be discussing in future posts to this blog- we have a lot to celebrate in this magical time of year.

Here are a bunch of photos from the last few weeks of events:

An American badger sauntered in plain view of several participants during our 3/23/14 Intro to Birding trip. 

Two condors in Tejon Canyon 3/28/14. Photo courtesy of David Schindler

An acorn woodpecker peeks out of its cavity, perhaps in an effort to protect chicks/eggs. Photo courtesy of Dave Collins

An acmon/lupine blue in Los Alamos Canyon. Photo courtesy of Dave Collins
3/23 Intro to Birdwatching class. Photo courtesy of Dave Collins

Western kingbird. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble

The view up El Paso Canyon on 3/30/14

Desert figwort (Scrophularia desertorum). 
Barn owl being released back into the wild. Photo courtesy of John Barrios
Red-tailed hawk. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble

Echo(?) azure on Erodium sp. 

California Ground Squirrel. Photo courtesy of Chuck Noble
Cooper's hawk being released back into the wild. Photo courtesy of John Barrios

A great Antelope Valley landscape. Photo courtesy of Dave Collins
Much needed clouds look good on this thirsty landscape.