Tuesday, December 22, 2009

'Tis the season for mistletoe and "holly"

Plants play a big role during the holiday season, from Christmas trees to Poinsettias, holly and mistletoe. Our hills are also celebrating the season with some of these plants.

One of these is not hard to find: Toyon. It is also sometimes called “Christmas berry”, and when you see its bright red cluster of berries this time of year its easy to see why. Settlers to California compared toyon to holly, which is not native to our region, and apparently used it for Christmas decorations instead. A few benefits of using toyon over holly is that its leaves aren’t nearly as prickly, and the berries are not toxic if accidentally ingested. (However, keep in mind that collecting plants from the Preserve is not allowed.) As some of you may have heard, “Hollywood” was actually named after the toyon bushes that grow in the Hollywood hills. Toyon berries serve as an important food source for birds this time of year, and were also eaten by Native Americans.

Another seasonal plant can be a bit harder to find: Mistletoe. Commercially-grown mistletoe is likely the kind that is native to Europe, but the mistletoe generally seen growing here in our sycamores and walnuts is native. Mistletoe is a hemi-parasitic plant, meaning that its roots grow into a tree or shrub which it gets nutrients from, but mistletoe is also green because it has chlorophyll, so it can make its own food as well. The scientific name for the type that grows here, Phoradendron, actually means “tree thief” in Greek. Mistletoe is also evergreen, but you generally don’t see it until the winter when deciduous trees lose their leaves, like in this picture of a local black walnut. Generally mistletoe does not kill the tree that hosts it, but if there are too many mistletoe plants in one tree it could weaken it and make it susceptible to other diseases, fungi or insects, which may eventually kill the tree. So the next time you’re on a hike with that special someone, peek up into the trees and maybe you'll find some mistletoe!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Recent wildlife sightings

Earlier this week, a Peregrine falcon was seen hanging around the Core Habitat area of the Preserve, just west of Arroyo Pescadero. At first glance these birds look like a smallish hawk, such as an Accipiter (i.e. Cooper’s hawks) or a Buteo (i.e. red-tailed hawks). But the Peregrine falcon has a distinctive black cheek patch and black and white chest barring, as well as the tapered body shape typical of falcons (see photo taken by Robb Hamilton, regional bird expert). Peregrine falcons can be year-round residents in the western U.S., but many migrate farther north to Alaska and northern Canada in the summer, and to South American in the winter. They actually have one of the longest migrations of any North American bird, potentially migrating more than 15,000 miles in one year! Peregrine falcons were placed on the Federal and California Endangered Species Lists in the 1970’s due to population crashes from the pesticide DDT, which weakened egg shells. However, since the ban of DDT, Peregrine falcon populations have recovered so well that they were removed from the Federal list in 1999, and from the California list just this past month in November 2009. However, they are still protected by other state and federal laws, such as the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They often nest on cliffs, but also now nest on ledges of tall buildings and sky scrapers in urban cities. It is likely the Peregrine observed in the Preserve is a migrant just passing through, but we could only be so lucky if it decided to stick around and set up a nest this spring – we’ll be keeping an eye out for sure.

Another interesting wildlife sighting happened just today – I observed a gray fox in upper Turnbull Canyon, not more than 100 feet below a road with residences. It was alone, and grooming itself before curling up to nap near the edge of a large prickly-pear cactus patch. Gray foxes are native species, as opposed to the red fox which was imported for sport hunting and fur trapping. Gray foxes are often shy and elusive, and so are not seen nearly as often as coyotes. They are also fewer in number than coyotes. However, gray foxes are similar to coyotes in their feeding habits (omnivorous) and activity times (usually from dusk to dawn). They even look similar to coyotes at first glance, but are smaller, have proportionally larger ears, and have a reddish color under their chin and body (but are mostly gray and brown on top and on their tail). Unfortunately, it was too far away for me to take a good photo, but here is one from Calphotos (calphotos.berkeley.edu) for reference (photo credit: Gerald and Buff Corsi © California Academy of Sciences).