Who's Visiting the Pond?

May 10, 2012

On the tails (mammal and bird tails that is) of last week's post, I thought I'd continue to focus your attention on our wonderful new pond. Sam Easterson has set up some of his trusty camera traps next to the waterfall to see who might be visiting the pond. Check out the following images to see what he has found so far.




Nighttime is busy at the pond!




 Stray cat...sorry, there aren't any fish in the pond yet

and no you can't eat them when there are!

Opossum...no tin foil in the pond either.


Although these night time endeavors are interesting, I think the action during the light of day is even more so. Over the last few weeks, Sam's traps have captured over 50 images of birds hanging out by the pond.


American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

That is one good bath!

Black-headed Grosbeak, Pheucticus melanocephalus,

 stops by for a moment.

 Western Gull, Larus occidentalis, going in for a drink.

Camera shy Swainson's Thrush, Catharus ustulatus.


Male Western Tanager, Piranga ludoviciana


For the grand finale, watch three bird species drinking from the pond at once! We've got a Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura, on the far left, a Western Kingbird, Tyrannus verticalis, center frame, and a Warbling Vireo, Vireo gilvus, doing a fly-by.




Want to see more creatures caught on camera trap? No problem, check out lots more pictures and videos on our flickr pool.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


North Campus DIY

March 30, 2012

This week I've been working with Jared Nielsen, one of the Museum's Exhibit Technicians, who also happens to be a DIY (Do it Yourself) enthusiast. With his help we've managed to build and install two nest boxes and launch our first garden surveillance balloon!

Jared installing a nest box in the Shadow Garden

The other nest box in the Home GardenThe nest boxes we chose are made of PVC and designed to be particularly appealing to certain cavity nesting birds such as Western Bluebirds, Sialia mexicana.  These birds have been spotted in Exposition Park by Kimball Garrett, the Museum's resident ornithologist, and we hope they'll stick around to use our new nesting sites. The boxes are also designed to be minimally appealing to other species of birds that we don't wish to encourage, such as introduced European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, and House Sparrows, Passer domesticus.We ordered the boxes from the Gilbertson Nestbox Company and Jared brought all the materials necessary to assemble and install them in the North Campus. The cost for all materials including the nest box is approximately $30 each. Instructions for installation and how to properly monitor birds that move in are available on the Gilbertson website.I'll keep you posted, and let you know as soon as any birds move in. Of course Sam Easterson, our resident video naturalist is also waiting in the wings. As soon as a nest is built, he will install a video camera and we'll hopefully be able to capture images of eggs being laid and nestlings hatching!As if that wasn't exciting enough, today we launched our first garden surveillance balloon.

Affixing the surveillance camera to the balloonOur garden surveillance balloon is a project Jared discovered through the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. Their Grassroots Mapping project provides instructions on how to build your own balloon mapping kit, or you can purchase a kit for $85 from their website!Jared opted for the DIY approach and sourced all of his own materials, including the 2 meter wide weather balloon and a rental helium tank! Following the Grassroots Mapping instructions, Jared rigged the balloon to carry a camera and tethered it to a 1000 foot long string which he held onto as we walked it around the site. The camera was also adapted to continually take pictures every second until our 16 megabyte memory card was full (about 2 hours). Over the next few days Jared will take all the images and stich them together using a free online software that will create an aerial map of the North Campus gardens. Not only will this map look really cool, it will also help us to keep track of all of the plants in the gardens and see how it changes over time. Yes, we are going to do this again, maybe even every few months!

We needed a lot of help from staff to make sure the balloon didn't float away as we were filling it with helium!(Jesse Daniel, Jared, Briana Burrows, and Karen Ewald)

Karen celebrates a successful launch

Our first aerial view of the North Campus.Can you spot us in the bottom right corner?

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



American Goldfinches Find Feeders and Get Counted

February 17, 2012

American Goldfinches, Spinus tristis, have found our bird feeders! Flocks of them have been visiting the nyger seed feeders that the Museum's live animal caretakers fill on an almost daily basis.

American Goldfinch (upper left) and Lesser Goldfinch (lower right) feeding on nyger seedLike most finches, American Goldfinches are primarily seed eaters, making them some of the most readily-attracted birds to feeding stations. They are fond of the small seeds of grasses and annual plants, especially a type of thistle seed called nyger. Within 24 hours of putting up our first nyger feeders, we recorded both American Goldfinches and the very closely related Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria. Of the two species, Americans are slightly larger and more numerous, but are usually only present in Exposition Park from October to April. Thanks to Museum ornithologist, Kimball Garrett's hard work (uploading his regular Exposition Park bird lists), you can explore the seasonality of birds around the Museum. Check out the seasonal abundance charts in eBird; you'll find the goldfinches at the very bottom of the chart.In the spring when American Goldfinches leave the park, they often head over to nearby streambottoms to nest. Some do travel a bit further afield, heading all the way to northern California or beyond. In contrast the Lesser Goldfinches can be found hanging around the park year-round. We haven't yet documented any nesting here, but now we have planted the North Campus, we hope to observe some soon. In an effort to record the birds at our feeders and in the newly planted areas of the North Campus, this year we are participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). So this morning at 10 am Kimball tromped around the Museum's grounds and counted all the birds he could find. This is what he recorded:1 Western Gull                  1 Rock Pigeon1 Mourning Dove3 Yellow-chevroned Parakeet4 Allen's Hummingbird (one female nest building)1 Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker2 Black Phoebe3 American Crow10 Bushtit6 Yellow-rumped (Audubon's) Warbler20 House Finch13 American Goldfinch15 House Sparrow

Kimball Garrett and Briana Burrows checking out the finches

Kimball Garrett is one diligent bird list maker!Feeders and seed are generously donated to us by Wildbirds Unlimited in Torrance, CA

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Unusual Bird Sighting: Common Yellowthroat

January 27, 2012

Sam Easterson has caught a relatively unusual occurrence on camera. On New Year's day Sam's camera trap discovered a Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas) skulking behind one of our sheds (I should add that this is the same shed the opossums have a den underneath). It is relatively unusual only because of the season, this is only the third time a Common Yellowthroat has been sighted here in winter!

New Year's day sighting of female Common YellowthroatAccording to Kimball Garrett, our Ornithology Collections Manager, the Common Yellowthroat is a widespread North American wood-warbler, breeding in marshes and wet meadows and scrublands over most of the continent. In Exposition Park, Kimball usually observes yellowthroats in the Rose Garden, where the dense beds of roses provide good places to hide. Of course we hope that as the vegetation in the North Campus becomes established we'll begin to find them here too.

Same bird caught on camera 14 days laterAll told Kimball has spotted the Common Yellowthroat 66 times in Exposition Park since he began surveying the area in 1984. Sixty-two of those sightings occurred during the bird's fall migration, between 27 August and 2 December. Kimball has also recorded two additional sightings during the bird's spring migration in April. Prior to this year's winter sighting, Kimball has observed the yellowthroat twice in mid-winter  on 27 January 2010 and 6 January 2011. This is why it was a bit of a surprise when Sam's camera trap recorded the visit of a female Common Yellowthroat earlier this month. According to Kimball, "modern technology is clearly better than an old human field ornithologist in keeping track of more secretive birds!" Regardless of the mode of sighting this record is good news. It suggests that the plantings in the North Campus will provide an important habitat that is lacking in the urban core. We are planting dense low vegetation that is the domain of wrens, Geothlypis warblers, various sparrows and other bird species that are rarely seen in your common urban park that is dominated by trees and lawns.Thanks Kimball for your detailed bird records and natural history information of the Common Yellowthroat!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


The Twelve Days of Christmas

December 23, 2011

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas the North Campus gave to me...

Twelve skippers skipping


Eleven pill bugs pillaging

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas the North Campus gave to me...

Twelve skippers skipping



Eleven pill bugs pillaging





Ten fritillaries a-feeding





 Nine gulls a-diving (dumpster diving that is)





Eight mantids a-milking





Seven caterpillars a-crawling






Six ladybugs a-laying



Five phorid (fly) wings





Four calling crows





Three French hummingbirds





Two turtle fox squirrels





 And an oak gall in an oak tree!







Wishing you a happy holiday season!



(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


First Owl Recorded in North Campus

November 18, 2011



Yesterday ,we recorded the first owl in the North Campus. This adorable Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia, was observed perching on the footbridge surveying the patrons in the Museum Cafe. However, this is not the first time a Burrowing Owl has been recorded at the Museum. A few years ago, a Burrowing Owl actually roosted in a T. rex skull that was stored on our fourth floor patio. According to Kimball Garrett, the Museum's Ornithology Collections Manager, "these owls are migrants that are coming in from more northerly or interior breeding areas the breeding population in Los Angeles Basin is gone, or virtually so."  


Coincidentally, yesterday was also the date of Kimball's annual bird walk in Exposition Park. Between 8:10 and 9:45 am the group recorded 27 species of birds including the second ever record of a Wilson's Snipe, Gallinago delicata, for the park. Not that I registered that the brown blur flying away from me was a Snipe, let alone a bird, but I took Kimball's word for it!


Looking at American Goldfinches on the Museum Feeders

(photo courtesy of Brenda Rees)


Here's the entire list including numbers of individuals seen:


Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1

Wilson's Snipe (Gallinago delicata)  1

Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)  6

Rock Pigeon (Columba livia)  8

Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  22

Yellow-chevroned Parakeet (Brotogeris chiriri)  4

Anna's Hummingbird (Calypte anna)  3

Allen's Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin)  4

Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii)  1

Black Phoebe (Sayornis nigricans)  5

American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  10

Common Raven (Corvus corax)  1

Bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)  20 

Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1

Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana)  7

American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  6

Northern Mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)  4

European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  8

Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum)  20

Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata)  1

Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon's) (Setophaga coronata auduboni)  20

Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)  1

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  1

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)  10

Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)  1

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  20

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  10


Other notable sightings:

Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) 2

Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus niger) 5

Korean Air Airbus A380 1 (It seems Kimball is adept at identifying aircraft also!)




(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



Dirty Work: Dead Birds, Skulls, and Macerating Flesh

October 27, 2011

Today a small group of volunteers showed up at the Museum to gut, skin, flense, and macerate birds (flensing is the process of stripping an animal of its skin).  It isn't because Halloween is next Monday; they actually do this every week.Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager, runs this unique volunteer program and supervises all gutting, skinning, and skeletonizing. Dead birds are acquired by the Museum through salvage on a regular basis and this group does the very dirty work of  turning the limp lifeless carcasses into scientifically useful specimens that will live in the Museum's collection.

This Loggerhead Shrike, Lanius ludovicianus, has just been gutted and had the carcass removed. Next it will be stuffed with cotton, mounted on a small wooden dowel, and labeled.  

These are leftover bits and pieces from the Loggerhead Shrike. Kimball and the volunteers call this snarge. The lab's centerpiece is the snarge bucket with the bits and pieces of the various birds prepared that day.  

Bacterial maceration jars!Not all birds that come into the lab are made into study skins; some are kept for their skeletons. After the majority of the flesh has been removed by the volunteers, the remaining carcass is placed in a jar of water. Naturally occurring bacteria remove the leftover flesh and leave clean bones behind. This process takes a few weeks to a few months and gives the lab a very distinct aroma!

Harpy Eagle skull after bacterial macerationThanks to Kimball and his volunteers for letting me take pictures in the lab!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Bird Crashes into Museum Building and Dies For Science

September 29, 2011

Soras, Porzana carolina, seem to be really poor fliers. So much so that last week one flew into the side of the Museum and killed itself. This brings the Exposition Park Bird List, maintained by Kimball Garrett, our Ornithology Collection Manager, up to 167 species. "But wait," I hear you crying, "what about bird number 166?" In my previous post New Bird For North Campus List, it clearly stated that the Rufous Hummingbird was species 165. No I didn't forget to tell you about bird 166, and no Kimball didn't miscount, funnily enough bird 166 was documented the same exact day the Sora died. Bird 166 is in fact a Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni, that Kimball saw migrating overhead.


Sora, Porzana carolina, ready to be prepped in the bird lab


Sora study skin after being prepped and accessioned into the collection


Soras are secretive yet fairly common birds in the rail family. They live most of their lives in the dense vegetation of freshwater or brackish marshes, and are usually thought to be reluctant flyers. However, in the spring and fall they take to the wing, some individuals migrating up to hundreds of miles. During these times they are often found after colliding with various built objects such as communication towers, wires, and buildings just like the one we found in the loading dock! 


Swainson's Hawk, Buteo swainsoni, surveying the land 

(note this is not the individual documented for our bird list)


As with Soras, Swainson's Hawks aren't very visible in the urban core of Los Angeles. However, they can easily be seen migrating along the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains during their fall and spring migrations. The individual Kimball spotted over the Museum was on its way south to its overwintering site. Although we don't know where this individual will stop, we do know it will be somewhere between western Mexico and Argentina.


Thanks to Kimball for providing natural history information and pictures of the birds and also to Michael Wilson and Jerome Brown for finding the dead Sora!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)



Vaux's Swifts and Ghetto Birds

September 23, 2011

This past Monday a few of us embarked on a real urban nature adventure. We traversed the city streets of Los Angeles to witness one of the coolest nature spectacles I have ever seen in downtown Los Angeles, 6,500 Vaux's Swifts, Chaetura vauxi, spiraling into an old building shaft!

Ghetto bird and swifts share L.A.'s skyline alike!According to Kimball Garrett, NHMLA's Ornithology Collections Manager, these swifts stop in L.A. during their spring and fall migrations to and from their breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and their overwintering sites in Mexico and Central America. While in L.A. they gorge themselves during the day on flying insects found in areas such as the L.A. river and Griffith Park, and roost at night in various shafts and chimneys around the city.In recent years the roost of choice for thousands of these birds is the Chester Williams building, on the northeast corner of Broadway and 5th Street, near Pershing Square. The parking structure next door to this building is where myself and a few other Museum staffers found ourselves at 6:00pm on Monday evening. At approximately 7:30 the swirling masses of swifts began entering the shaft. Although it is impossible to count every individual, Kimball was able to estimate the number of birds entering the roost site. They enter the shaft at a remarkably constant rate of about 10 birds per second. We watched birds enter the roost for about 11 minutes (660 seconds), yielding a rough estimate of about 6,500 birds. Thanks Kimball!

Vaux's Swifts spiraling into the Chester building's shaftOf course Sam Easterson was one of our party, he managed to capture this footage of the swifts entering their roost.As a final note, its not all easy living for the swifts. Common Ravens, Corvus corax, have learnt to hang out at the shaft opening and prey on individuals entering their roost site. I managed to catch a picture of this Raven flying away with its dinner!

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


Feral Parrots

July 29, 2011

Have you ever seen a wild parrot in L.A.? Like many other North American cities, Los Angeles has a healthy population of many species of parrots, the most commonly seen of these species in Exposition Park is the Yellow-chevroned Parakeet, Brotogeris chirri.

Yellow-chevroned Parakeets feeding on coral tree nectarJail Break!People like to keep parrots as pets. To satisfy this demand, literally hundreds of thousands of parrots have been imported legally (and untold numbers illegally) into the United States over the past 50 plus years. In some cases this demand has lead to demonstrable drains on natural populations and even endangerment of some species. Inevitably, imported birds escape or are released, and over the decades enough free-flying parrots have survived to establish breeding populations in the U.S.A., particularly in metropolitan areas of south Florida and Southern California.Time to Get Liquored UpIf you’ve never seen a feral parrot around L.A. you might start looking for them in trees. At this time of year the parrots can be seen feeding on blossoms and nectar in flowering coral trees in the genus Erythrina (see picture above). This behavior is not unique to feral parrots as coral trees also appear in their native range. However other food sources they exploit in this region, such as Eucalyptus, are not found in their native range which is another example of adaptation to our altered L.A. landscape.Yellow-chevroned Parakeets are native to Brazil and adjacent areas, and were introduced to L.A. earlier this century. No one knows exactly how the introduction happened, but we do know it was from parrots that were imported here for the pet trade.

(Posted by: Lila Higgins)