October 18, 2012

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

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 knowledeable 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 filiming 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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