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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Report from the Field ... and the Desk

Have you ever wondered how many earwigs can live inside a bear-proof camera box? No? My name is Amy List, and let me tell you: the answer is more than you can imagine in your wildest nightmares. My job here at the Conservancy as a Wildlife Technician is to maintain an array of 48 wildlife cameras placed on a 48 km square grid located in the heart of Tejon Ranch. This study area contains some of the steepest, densest, and most interesting terrain on the ranch. It stretches from windswept Martinez Ridge, along the rolling hills of Tunis Ridge, and down into the deep Incense-Cedar forests of El Paso creek. 

Winters Ridge in February - the high country portion of the study area

Aside from a thriving earwig population, this area of the ranch is also home to a host of wildlife species, including wild pigs. Developing techniques of monitoring and managing wild pigs is the focus of this research, which is being conducted through a new partnership between the Tejon Conservancy and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Animal Health and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS), and their cooperative partner Conservation Science Partners (CSP).

A typical day in the life of a cow.
All the cameras are strategically placed along wildlife corridors such as game trails and roads - no bait needed. These cameras take a high quality photo every time they are triggered by heat and motion. I then sort through the photos, categorizing and archiving them for future use. Wading through over 100,000 photos a month, the majority of which contain dopey-eyed cows and frolicking squirrels, is an endurance exercise in boredom. Occasionally, however, something truly wonderful appears and we are allowed a glimpse into the behaviors of elusive and fascinating animals. These camera have captured some incredible moments so far - a bobcat carrying her kittens to a new den site, tiny bear cubs taking their first steps, young pumas playing tag, and recently a staggering amount of piglets. 

Here for your enjoyment are some of my personal favorite wildlife photos from the last five months.
A sounder with a crowd of piglets on Tunis Ridge. 
Spotted skunk on Hunter Ridge. 
A puma relaxing near Pastoria Creek 
Bobcats often appear intrigued by the camera's bright flash 
This striped skunk, on the other hand, had a defensive reaction to the flash. 
Bobcat mama on Hunter Ridge carrying her kitten. She returned a bit later for the other kitten. 
Young pumas playing on Winters Ridge.

Coyote on Martinez Ridge.

Bobcat eyes catching the light on Tunis Ridge. 

Puma walking with purpose on Hunter Ridge.

Young black bear cubs play at a popular spot for wildlife on Winters Ridge.

A trio of bear cubs walk across the Haul Road.

Mule deer fawns on Winters Ridge.

A grey fox in a patch of wildflowers on Tunis Ridge.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Lions, Condors, and Buckwheat, Oh My! By Dr. Mike White, Conservation Science Director

At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I’m going to say I have one of the greatest jobs in the world.  How many people can say that their job allows them, no requires them, to explore one of the most amazing conservation properties in California?  Well, that’s me!  At 270,000 acres, spanning four major ecological regions that support dozens of unique and special status species, Tejon Ranch is one of the most remarkable landscapes where I have ever had the opportunity to work.  I also get to explore and share it with other like-minded people, which makes it even more special.  And when you get to see and experience the natural world in a way that one rarely has the privilege of experiencing, and seeing things that you can’t see anywhere else on Earth, well that makes for a pretty good day at the office.  I want to share a few recent experiences that I have had at Tejon Ranch that makes me wonder if I should be paying the Tejon Ranch Conservancy rather than the reverse.

Early last week, I was showing a colleague from out of town around the Ranch.  It was about 8:30 am and a warm spring morning.  I was driving and we were deep in conversation.  As we came around a bend in the road, what do we see but two young mountain lions resting in the shade on the side of our road not 20 yards in front of us!  Now mountain lions are not rare in California, but those of you that have spent lots of time outdoors will agree that this is not a common species to see.  In fact many naturalists, hikers, hunters, and other outdoor enthusiasts have never seen a mountain lion in the wild, and there may be no other animal in California that folks would like to see more when out in natural areas (from a safe distance of course!).  But lions appear to be abundant on Tejon Ranch based on the frequency with which we capture them in our remotely triggered wildlife camera traps (for example, see the video below).  The two I saw last week were the fourth and fifth mountain lions that I have seen in my life, and the other three were also on Tejon Ranch.  Am I lucky?  I would say incredibly so.

The following weekend, I was out with our friends from the Kern California Native Plant Society (CNPS) chapter.  I generally visit parts of the San Joaquin Valley side of Tejon Ranch with Kern CNPS, because it is a shorter drive for them and there are lots of rare and endemic plants on that side of the Ranch.  But particularly given our drought conditions and how late in the season it was, we decided to drive around to the Antelope Valley to look for Tehachapi buckwheat, which is a later blooming plant. Tehachapi buckwheat (Eriogonum callistum) is an endemic species, which means it is a species restricted to a specific area, and is considered seriously endangered in California by CNPS.  In the case of Tehachapi buckwheat, the area it is restricted to is limestone outcrops on certain ridges on Tejon Ranch – this is the only place on the planet that you can see this plant species.  Well we found it alright! (see below).  While it is considered “seriously endangered” in California, it is actually quite abundant where it occurs, and all of the known locations on Tejon are on conserved lands.  It is a beautiful plant, growing in a really unique habitat type, and unlike mountain lions not hard to see.  So here is a very cool plant that occurs nowhere else in the world that I can essentially drive to on my lunch break. 

Tehachapi buckwheat growing on a limestone outcrop.  Photo by Mike White.

Tehachapi buckwheat growing out of a limestone outcrop with manzanita and chamise above. Photo by Mike White.

Five California condors roosting in a large white fir.  Photo by Mike White
 But it gets better.  That same weekend I had the pleasure of taking two good friends of the Conservancy, Loi and Adele Nguyen, on a tour of the Ranch.  Adele is one of our California Naturalist-trained docents and Loi is a great photographer with a love of raptors.  After unsuccessfully looking for a family of long-eared owls that nested in one of our desert canyons earlier in the year, we headed up to the high country to look for California condors at a location with large white firs that they seem to have adopted over the past few years as a roosting area.  Loi very much wanted to get some pictures of condors when the morning light was still good.  As we pulled into the area, my heart sank as there were no condors to be seen!  We drove around a little more looking for some raptors for Loi to photograph without much luck, and decided to head back to a hill top from which we could see the known condor roosting area.  Still no birds in sight.  But as I start thinking about Plan B, I am surveying the roosting area with my binoculars, and I see two condors rise over the ridge!  As we drive back to the roosting area, the condors settled into one of the large firs.  We have a great view from the ground below, a pretty special sight indeed.  However, now things just get, well, incredible!  A couple more condors fly in, then a couple more, then a couple more, until I can see 11 condors either sitting in trees or flying overhead.  I mean right overhead!  It was if they were circling over and watching us while we were watching them.  If you have heard the sound that the wingbeats of a large bird make when flying nearby, even something as small as a raven, you can only imagine what the sound of a bird with a 9-foot wingspan can make! Kind of makes you feel like you’re back in the Pleistocene (who needs Jurassic Park?!).  We sat in one location for over 2 hours as 13 condors took turns cruising over us, roosting in trees, and interacting with each other.  I have seen quite a few condors at Tejon Ranch in the 7 years I have been here, but have never experienced anything quite like this.  It was definitely one of my most memorable wildlife experiences, but you could also say it was “just another day at the office!”

A condor coming in for a landing.  Photos by Loi Nguyen.

A condor leaping from its perch.  Photo by Loi Nguyen.

For me, being in wild places gives me great pleasure, and is why I have worked hard in my career to protect, enhance, and restore them.  However, as I have had the opportunity to explore and learn about Tejon Ranch, I am increasingly realizing what a truly exceptional place this is, and how incredibly lucky I am to be able to spend a significant amount of time here.  I hope that you all will take the time to come visit us and experience it for yourselves.  Who knows, maybe you’ll have the experience of your lifetime too!

“Condor Love” by Loi Nguyen.  The juvenile has a black head and the adult an orange head.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Stop and Smell the Evening Primroses, By Tania Jogesh, PhD Postdoctoral Researcher Chicago Botanic Garden

Plants are constantly conversing with the world around them; however instead of words they use a prolific array of chemical signals.  Perfumes and the pungent flavors in spices are all chemical compounds that have evolved to attract pollinators or ward of insects from eating them. In our research, we try to decipher why plants produce different floral scents and in particular we are interested in how interactions with insects have shaped the different scents produced by plants. 

We are a travelling circus of field biologists comprised of a postdoc (or two) and 2 to 3 research technicians. We live and work out of a research truck and travel throughout the western US to collect data on the floral scent and ecology of 16 species of evening primrose (family Onagraceae).

What brings us to the beautiful Tejon Ranch is the enigmatic Oenothera californica avita –the California evening primrose.

Our days at Tejon start at dusk, when the sunlight is almost gone. This is when buds of O. californica avita begin to open to reveal sweet scented, pale-white flowers. In a frenzy, we run from plant to plant to identify all buds which are likely to split. Before the flowers have opened and released their scent we enclose them within a plastic oven bags. We then attach a vacuum pump that will pull the scent away from the flower and into a filter that will trap the volatile scent compounds.

 Photo credit: K. Skogen

Many floral scents have primarily evolved to attract pollinators.  Scent is frequently coupled with sugary nectar so that pollinators associated the scent with a reward. The plant is rewarded in return by having its pollen dispersed to other mates– a mutualism that facilitates sexual reproduction in over 90% of all flowering plants.

So who are these visitors attracted to the scent of these evening primrose flowers? At dusk, after the scent apparatus is setup and turned on, we each find a patch of flowers to sit down next to and watch who visits.  Looking at the flowers’ long floral tube and pale white petals, we suspect that the most likely visitors hawkmoths. Hawkmoths are large moths in the family Sphingidae that hover like hummingbirds and have long tongues adapted for collecting nectar from long-tubed flowers.  Hawkmoths are large moths that make an attractive food source for birds, hence they like to fly in the relative safety of dusk.  For this reason many hawkmoth pollinated plants will typically open in the evening when moths are most active, hence the reason for the “evening” in the name evening primrose.

As we sit and wait, as if perfectly orchestrated, within five minutes of the flowers opening, we see 5 or more hawkmoths fly in and systematically visit every single flower in our view.

Photo credit: K. Skogen

After watching hawkmoths for an hour, we go back to our flowers to collect the filters and flowers and head back to camp. Late into the night, we elute the volatile compounds from the filters into little vials that will be shipped to Cornell University for analysis. This collection method allows us to examine each individual component that makes up the complex scent profile of the evening primrose scent. Using this information we can see how scent composition varies by species, by population and even within plants of one population.

While we predominantly think of floral scent for its role as a pollinator attractant, the signal can be picked up by others.  Much like a birdsong can attract mates and predators, floral scent that is meant to invite pollinators can also signal to potential herbivores that a tasty plant is close.  We think that scent might vary based not only on which pollinators are in the area, but also whether or not herbivores are present to eavesdrop on the flower’s invitation to pollinators.

In the Colorado evening primrose, Oenothera harringtonii, a few of populations produce scent without a compound called linalool. Remarkably, the presence of linalool was found to be correlated with the presence of a tiny caterpillar in the genus Mompha that was eating the seeds.  These caterpillars feed inside developing fruit and reduce the reproductive output of these plants. Thus populations historically associated with high numbers of these moths might be under selection to reduce their advertisement to pollinators to reduce herbivory.

However Mompha isn’t the only problem faced by these evening primroses plants. An interesting dilemma for these plants is that one of its best pollinators, a hawkmoth called Hyles lineata, also uses these plants to raise its young. The Hyles lineata caterpillars can chomp on the buds, flowers and fruits leaving behind a significant trail of damage!

Photo credit: R. Overson

The morning after scent collection we take an inventory of all herbivores on O. californica avita. We look for Hyles lineata eggs and caterpillars and check buds and fruit for Mompha. This year we found no herbivores on these plants. Is this population truly free from herbivory? Or could 2015 have been a bad year for Mompha and Hyles caterpillars in Tejon? Our methods only give us a snapshot into the ecology of O. californica avita at Tejon and we can only speculate on the absence of herbivory until we learn more.

After two nights of data collection, we head out on our next adventure – to find a new population, in a new landscape, to get a glimpse into the ecology and evolution of another evening primrose!


I am a biologist interested in the ecology and evolution of chemically-mediated plant-insect interactions. I am currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, IL working with Krissa Skogen and Jeremie Fant on floral scent-mediated diversification of plants in the evening primrose family. I graduated with a PhD in entomology in Dr. May Berenbaum's lab where I worked on the ecology and evolution of wild parsnips and parsnip webworms in New Zealand. 

Twitter: @TaniaJogesh

Project twitter: @FlowerMoths
Project Flickr: LandscapesOfLinalool
Project website: