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Last week, a busload of 65 fourth graders, four teachers and two chaperones arrived from a Santa Ana elementary school at Willow staging area for an interpretive hike. Each school year, Laguna Canyon Foundation hosts 75 or so of these trips (depending on weather and red flag alerts), and thanks to the generous support of our grantors and donors, they’re offered at no cost to the students or schools.

The bus was buzzing with children’s laughter and squeals of excitement. It was a long drive and the students were ready to break free! After the logistics of chatting with the adults about trail safety and dividing the students into four groups, our trained and passionate field educators took them on an amazing journey, a hike to investigate: What is a Habitat and How is it Sustained?

The children learn that in this habitat all creatures have a “job:” movers, fertilizers, soil looseners, garbage decomposers, and population controllers.

Students may go through the “magic portal” (one of the caves) and become a scientist. Or, with their leader, they may ponder what it really means to be a scientist and come to find out that scientists don’t need a lab, goggles or a microscope. They just need their brain, an inquisitive spirit and a fertile area to research.

The cave at the entrance of Willow trail and the mysterious rock formations along Laurel Canyon provide that fertile ground that inspires visiting students to wonder about this wild land. These trails also allow our field instructors to use their naturalist expertise to turn any wildlife encounter on the trail into an exciting learning experience for the students. Fourth graders – like most children – want to see megafauna. “Will we see coyotes…lions…deer? Will we see snakes?” the children ask.

The field instructor explains what native animals live in this coastal sage scrub habitat and lets the students know that yes, sometimes we do see these animals, but we will surely see evidence of them because this is their habitat, their home. The children learn to use their scientific minds and alert senses to find that evidence: scat, tracks, nibbles off of branches, nests in high caves and under coast live oak trees.

The students walk along Laurel Canyon trail. The field instructor points out some scat. “Ewww,” the children say. Of course, they would, but as they look closer, in the scat they observe seeds and fur and the deductions begin.

“What is an animal that eats both plants and meat?” the field instructor asks.

Required in fourth grade is the study of living things, their structures and how they interact with their environments, so they know this answer: “Omnivore!” shout the students.

“What native animal lives here that is an omnivore?”

“A coyote?” ventures one student.

“Correct!” And with that answer, the educator can discuss several phenomena with the student-scientists in the wonderful laboratory of the wilderness. They can deduce that this scat is likely a coyote’s. Perhaps the coyote ate a bunny or a gopher as well as some plants. What jobs did the coyote perform? Clearly the coyote scat is moving seeds. What about population controlling?

Coyotes may be a rare sight in the park, but Field Instructor Chrisha Favors snapped these shots when this week’s class was lucky enough to see one.

As the children hike on, they might see gopher holes (soil looseners), a wood rat nest, a stink bug (decomposers) or snake tracks. Why are there no acorns on the oak tree? Why is it greener along the right side of the trail? Might water have flowed here? Students may hear the call of a raven as it chases away a red-tailed hawk – or is it the other way around? All these observations provoke questions and conversations about what creatures do to survive and how each of the plants and animals has a role in creating and sustaining habitats both big and small.

Through these conversations and inquiries, the students begin to understand that everything in this habitat is connected. This lesson is essential because it inspires students to develop a deeper understanding of the value of this natural wild place, and their important role in protecting it.

They are becoming our future environmentalists.

“Look!  Look!  Look deep into nature and you will understand everything.”  –Albert Einstein

Springtime is here on the trails! The canyon has transformed to hues of green, the flower petals have begun to reveal their bright colors, the birds sing in the shrubs and trees. An exciting time of year to be on the trails in our wilderness parks.

Of course, the overall portrait of spring is spectacular here, but this season I encourage you to slow down on the trail and keep your eyes open for the small, yet mighty, lifeforms that begin to show up this time of year. Many of them camouflage and are no bigger than a dime!

Deerweed (Acmispon glaber) is an incredible native commonly seen along the trails. In the spring, its broom-like shape begins to green after its long winter slumber. Its flowers paint the stems with a fiery palette of red, orange and yellow. At first glance, you may notice the glorious details of the flowers and their harmonious ombre colors. You may see the European honeybee pollinating joyously – in fact, deerweed is an essential food source for many of our native bees and butterflies.

But if you stay a little longer, look a little closer, you may see what you thought was a leaf wiggle its wings! This is the lotus hairstreak (Callophrys dumetorum), a tiny butterfly with iridescent green wings that calls deerweed its host plant. If you stay still and quiet, this small butterfly will let you hang around for a bit!

The delights of deerweed don’t end here. You saw a leaf come to life, maybe now it’s a flower! Introducing the yellow crab spider, also known as a flower spider (Mecaphesa californica). They can change their color to blend in with the plant or flower they are living on. Their exceptional camouflage is their main survival technique. However, it also helps with catching food, usually in the form of an unsuspecting pollinator. The spider is quick to catch its prey, using its slender fangs to deliver paralytic venom. Note: these spiders are not poisonous to humans, but can bite when provoked. This amazing spider is a sight to see!

There’s so much to see here in our diverse coastal sage scrub community. But this is just a friendly reminder to take it slow on the trail – even on the tiniest of flowers, a whole world awaits you!

Share your camouflage finds with us on social media! Tag @lagunacanyonfoundation to be featured on our page!

Did you know that California is one of the world’s 25 biodiversity hotspots? Our coastal sage scrub wilderness contains high numbers of different species of flora and fauna alike, creating this unique and resilient habitat. So this week we’re putting the spotlight on some of our favorite flora to celebrate Native Plant Week!

Why native plants? Our native plants provide the right food and habitat for local wildlife, and in return the wildlife helps spread the seeds of our plants! Many of our birds and pollinators rely on specific plant species for resources. When those native species disappear, so will our beloved wildlife. Our native plants are the foundation of this thriving ecosystem.

Meet the Mariposa Lily (Calochortus splendens), commonly known as the Splendid Mariposa. This perennial native wildflower unveils its beautiful pale pink flowers in the height of spring. The Mariposa Lily provides a rich source of nectar for a variety of our native insects. This elegant spring bloomer is staple of the season in our wilderness parks, inspiring many who encounter it to look a little deeper into studying the plants of this habitat.

Meet California Sagebrush (Artemisia californica), commonly called ‘Cowboy Cologne’ because of its historical use of ranch hands rubbing the aromatic leaves on their hands after a long day of work before heading into town. This native is an essential part of this plant community, providing critical resources such as food and habitat for a number of reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds, including the federally threatened California gnatcatcher. Enjoy its stunning aroma on a misty morning on the trails.

 

Meet the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica). A true celebrity of our native habitat and California, the California Poppy is our state flower! This beautiful flower attracts many of our native pollinators such as bumblebees, sweat bees, and mining bees. Enjoy this beautiful fiery orange wildflower as it paints the hills of the canyon this spring.

Meet Lemonadeberry (Rhus integrifolia). This evergreen shrub’s name derives from the berries it produces in the summer that are coated in a sticky coating with a sour flavor! Lemonadeberry is a hardy drought-resistant plant commonly seen across northern-facing slopes, providing great habitat for many animals. It produces a quaint pink blossom in the early spring.

Meet the Willow Tree (Salix spp.), an essential tree in our riparian woodland habitat which requires a permanent source of water. There are many native species of willow in our local wilderness parks; most commonly seen are the Arroyo Willow, Red Willow and Black Willow. When hiking under the shade of our willows, take time to listen to the many songs of nesting birds that utilize these trees for habitat. This includes the Least Bell’s Vireo, listed as endangered by both the state and federal government.

How can you protect these native plants? Stay on trail and never pick any plants! Want to learn more about natives? Join our next Restoration Stewardship event for hands-on learning about these native species!

#ProtectWhatYouLove and #KeepItWild!

This week, enjoy a blog post from Restoration and Outreach Coordinator and long-time restoration technician Cameron Davis. What does being a restoration technician really mean?

“What we contemplate here is more than ecological restoration; it is the restoration of relationship between plants and people. Scientists have made a dent in understanding how to put ecosystems back together, but our experiments focus on soil pH and hydrology—matter, to the exclusion of spirit.” — Robin Wall Kimmerer

When I introduce myself as a restoration field tech, the immediate reaction of sideways head-cocking or eye squinting demands further explanation. As I continue to describe some of the different tasks I work on throughout my eight-hour day in the field, I begin to lose my audience’s interest. Weeding, planting, irrigation building and mulch spreading are not the most glamorous sounding responsibilities. In fact, to most this sounds like a manual labor nightmare. “You do this more than one day a week?!” I spend about 30 hours of my 40-hour week outdoors in the field. But the real shock always comes when I proudly announce that this is my dream job.

Instead of trying to convince you that manual labor year-round in all types of weather is truly the most rewarding work I’ve ever done, let me show you through a day in the life.

PSA: It’s planting season. We are currently planting on four different projects. We receive plant deliveries of about 300-400 plants at once. On average, I plant around 50-60 plants a day. My current record is 74. A repetitive process: dig a hole, fill it with water, let the water absorb, insert plant, water plant. Repeat.

But let me start my day from the beginning.

When I arrive on site, the canyon is slowly waking up as the sun creeps over the ridge. Coffee in hand, I head to the tool shed and my first treat of the day is the fresh bobcat tracks that lead to and from the area I planted last year.

My hands are cold and my tools ready – it’s time to set out the plants. Plants are not placed at random – fun fact. Many species like to grow near their peers. For the most viable habitat structure (the one best suited to make a good home for wildlife), you need both understory species – shrubs and bushes low to the ground – and overstory ones like taller bushes and trees. The assortment of plants we choose is intentionally selected to mirror the surrounding healthy habitat. Choosing the plants’ location is a thoughtful task that requires an artist-like mindset – I try and paint the picture of a biodiverse plant community where all the native animals will thrive. After carrying the plants up the hill and picking just the right spot, I start to dig.

It’s easy to get lost in the repetition, but planting is a meditative practice to me, as well as a time to observe the plants up close and personal. I notice that the blue-eyed grass I planted the day before is starting to unfurl its petals. The black sage planted last season is visited by a monarch butterfly, who lingered long enough for me to reach for my phone and snap a photo.

The next few holes I dig reveal all kinds of neat finds. From snakeskin, a slender salamander, scorpions and centipedes – the soil tells its own story of the world below the roots.

I take a break from planting to eat some lunch and collect data for our monthly site reporting. The monthly observation forms require the close examination of certain areas to assess what plants have been the most successful, if they were grown from seeds or plants we brought in ourselves or sprouted naturally from seeds of the surrounding vegetation. What wildlife is using the area and evidence of this is noted.

By the end of the day, my hands are tired and my body sore. I clean my tools and return them to their dusty shelves while listening to two noisy red-tailed hawks circling above me. There are still 250 plants that need to go into the ground, which I remember anxiously but look forward to the days of planting ahead.

Of course, there are many days that are not as romantic as this one – you should hear what I have to say after a day’s work in the height of summer!

As a field tech, my callouses and body aches are a small price to pay to be a part of this habitat’s story, and most importantly, a part of its future. Please come join me at any of our upcoming restoration events. I have so much more to tell you.

Sign up for one of our public restoration events (scroll down) and experience “a day in the life” for yourself!