Category Archives: Nature Study

Hey Penny, About Those Acorns…

…looks like your bumper crop might be a rarity this year. Anyone noticing a dearth of acorns as described in this WaPo article?

"I'm used to seeing so many acorns around and out in the
field, it's something I just didn't believe," he said. "But this is not
just not a good year for oaks. It's a zero year. There's zero
production. I've never seen anything like this before."

Sounds like it might be a good year for my East Coast bird-loving friends to put out some nuts for the squirrels, too.

San Diego October

My blogroll is bursting lately with beautiful autumn posts and
pictures. After so many years on the East Coast, I’m still not used to
fall here in Southern California.

Around here, autumn is blue and green

and hot pink

and candy-apple red

and sunny gold.

It’s definitely fall, though: nippy mornings, Santa-Ana-hot afternoons, fruits ripening on the neighbors’ trees.

The bees here are pink and white this time of year, did you know that?

This one could be a New England forest floor carpeted with pine needles

but really it’s a close-up of a palm tree’s trunk.

Ah, here’s an honest-to-goodness autumn color shot:

This one seems more like spring-comes-to-the-woods than suburban-yard-in-October.

But these are San Diego’s true colors:

We took these photos on a walk around the block earlier this week.

It wore some of us out.


I jotted down some notes at Bonny Glen Up Close the other day about the hummingbirds that are in love with our feeder. We think they are Anna’s Hummingbirds.
(Someone please correct us if we’re wrong.) The one above is the male:
emerald back, ruby throat. These next two photos show the female, more
modestly attired in shimming green without the crimson ascot.

How we have marveled to see them perching on the feeder instead of
hovering, wings aflutter! Besides their coloring, the reason we’re
pretty sure they are Anna’s Hummingbirds is because they sing:

This bird is
most often found singing a series of scratchy sounds, including a sharp
"chee-chee-chee", from a high perch. This is the only California hummer
to sing a song. When moving between flowers they make a "chick" sound.

Our trio—we’ve counted two females and a male at once—are quite the
musical bunch, chittering away all day. They seem to live in a tree
right behind our backyard fence. We’ve seen them perched on a branch
there (more perching!) and zooming back and forth to our feeder.

Don’t be fooled by the female’s demure attire. "Though she be but little, she is fierce." Should a weary sparrow happen to pause on the feeder’s perch for a moment, she will fly in his face and scold him furiously.

Reminds me of someone else I know.

Places I’ve Learned about Plants

Genevieve asked:

Okay.. maybe this is a silly question but how do go
about learning about plants? We are surrounded by some beautifully
landscaped areas but I have no clue how to start. The Peterson’s and
Golden Guides are for “wild plants”. I seem to in the mood of firing
off questions at your blog, Lissa. :)

Not a silly question at all. Great question. I’m sure others will have lots of advice here, so please chime in, folks.

My best advice is to start with a good nursery in your area.
Spend some time just browsing the aisles, especially looking out for
plants you’ve seen in your neighborhood but don’t know the names of.
When we moved here, that’s how I learned that the big, wide-leaved
plants in our front yard with the spires of beautiful purple globes are
agapanthus, or "lilies of the Nile." We see them all over town, purple ones and white ones. (I snapped a photo yesterday for our Challenge, but haven’t uploaded it yet.)

You could even take some pictures to the nursery with you—on your
cell phone or iPod perhaps—to show the knowledgeable workers there and
ask for identification help.

Something I did in both New York and Virginia, but haven’t done here
in California, was to make a visit to the local branch of the cooperative extension agency.
This is a governmental organization funded by the Department of
Agriculture. You can find the number in the blue pages of your phone
book, or try the Cooperative Extension System website.
This is a fantastic resource and almost everything there is free. You
can take in a sample of your soil for testing to see how you might need
to amend it for certain types of gardening. There will probably be lots
of information—booklets, fliers, etc—about native plants, invasive
plants, wildflowers, and such. We took home stacks of fliers from the
Charlottesville, Virginia branch, I remember. There was also a lovely
garden there of native plants, all clearly labeled (bring a camera when
you visit!) and a how-to display on composting. And there were "Master
Gardener" volunteers on hand to answer our plant- and bug-related

Actually a trip to the county extension agency is a great field trip for anyone, would-be plant identifiers or not.

Another great resource is your local native plant society.
This is something I usually look up within the first month of our
living in a new place. In Virginia, the local NPS offered guided nature
walks at a nearby preserve, as well as a perfectly wonderful annual
sale of native plants grown by NPS members. If you saw my big butterflies post from a few years back, you heard me gushing about how awesome that plant sale was.

April, 2003

Yesterday I took Jane to a native plant sale at a nearby nature
center while the other girls were napping. It took us forever to even
get into the building where they had the plant sale, because there were
a lot of booths set up for various nature clubs and societies, and she
was fascinated by all of it. At every table she struck up a
conversation with the people running the booth. The old lady at the
Invasive Plant Display could not have been more delighted to have this
little kid seeming so genuinely interested in how to avoid nasty
invasives like multiflora rose and ailanthus tree. The lady gave us a
really nice booklet with color photos, saying, “I don’t usually give
these out to people, but you really seem to care!”

But the topper was the butterfly table…

Oh my gosh, 2003. Five years ago. That does not seem possible.
Pardon me while I shed a nostalgic tear or two for Ivy Creek and the
Saturday morning butterfly walks guided by the very same man I
described meeting in that post.

:::sniff::: OK, I’m better now. We made that plant sale every year
we lived in Virginia. I picked up some treasures there: a wood poppy, a
spicebush, a hackberry tree. I have to stop now or I’ll get weepy again.

Here in San Diego, I joined the NPS email list immediately and
receive regular notices of nature walks and other events. It’s also a
good place to ask any questions I might have about a plants I’d like to
identify. These groups are full of enthusiasts who are eager to
help—and experience has taught me that most of the members tend to be
older, retired folks who are thrilled to see some "young blood" (e.g.
my children) showing an interest in their favorite topic. You can make
wonderful friends this way.

And finally, I would recommend visiting local public gardens or nature centers.
Most places will have sections of plantings with labels. We’ve learned
a ton from visiting Mission Trails Regional Center, a vast expanse of
hiking trails on the scrubby hills in East San Diego County. Not that
my kids and I have spent much time on the trails themselves: it’s just
not something I can manage with Rilla in the sling and Wonderboy in the
stroller. But the visitor center at the main entrance is a treasure
unto itself, and we’ve made several visits there. The grounds around
the center are full of labeled plantings. In fact, item #1 on our 100
Species list (the only entry so far) was identified and photographed

Here are more posts I’ve written about visiting Mission Trails:

"Some Breezy Open Wherein it Seemeth Always Afternoon"

"At First I Could Only Hear People Sounds"

Busy Days

So, to recap:

• local nurseries
• cooperative extension agency
• native plant society
• nature centers and public gardens

And I’ll add:

• befriend a neighbor with a beautiful garden. Usually this kind of
neighbor will spend a lot of time outside working in his or her yard,
and if you stroll by with your children often enough, sooner or later
you’re bound to strike up a conversation. There’s a nice old gentleman
who lives next to an intersection on the edge of our neighborhood. We
see him out tending his front yard, a mini-landscape of
drought-tolerant plants, several times a week. He has a whimsical touch
when it comes to landscaping, artfully incorporating suncatchers,
pinwheels, bits of broken pottery and glass, and even some old
sun-bleached bones into his plantings. He is always wearing an enormous
straw hat. There’s a four-way stop at his corner, and my kids always
wave when they see him. He grins and waves back. In the winter there’s
a breathtaking row of tall poinsettias—really!—lining his driveway. In
summer, sunflowers. One of these days I’m going to get up the nerve to
pull over and tell him how much I enjoy driving by his garden. Maybe
this winter he’ll let me take a picture of his poinsettias for our
Challenge list, too. I’ll bet he could rattle off a hundred species in no time…

Anyone care to add to this list? How do you learn about plants in your neighborhood?

Anyone Got an ID For Me?

Not the best photo but it’s all I had time for before he flew away. This is a new visitor to our yard; he was supervising the rowdy finches at the feeder this morning. He’s bigger than a finch, almost robin-sized.

We don’t get anything like the variety of birds to our feeders here that we got in Virginia, at the feet of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gone are the charcoal-colored juncoes, the chipper titmice, the sweet chickadees, the nuthatches and downy woodpeckers and flickers. We used to have a nesting pair of bluebirds right outside my office window, and two cardinal couples who came for dinner every evening. Now and then a huge pileated woodpecker would dazzle us from the neighbor’s tree, and sometimes a hawk would swoop low and scare the mourning doves.

Here in the suburbs of San Diego, in this particular yard at least, there are only finches: house, purple, gold; and sparrows; and arrogant crows; and one inquisitive phoebe, a Say’s Phoebe, who likes to perch on our side-yard fencepost and survey the action in the street.

Oh, and parrots! A raucous flock of them, green and squawking in the treetops, fluttering up en masse and swirling together to the next tree. Always, by the time I’ve run for my camera, they are gone.

There is an elementary school on the other side of our back fence (I know, the irony is delicious), and last week my parents were walking along along the schoolyard fence with my three youngest bairns when they encountered a science teacher carrying cages of cockatiels. He let the kids play with the birds and told my parents he is putting a nesting box for the parrots in the big tree right behind us; he’s hoping for eggs so he can raise a pair.

So: parrots we’ve got. But I miss my Eastern birds, I do.

This fellow, the newcomer: I hope he’ll return. I don’t know what he is—yet. Any thoughts?

Almost Time for Another Season of Project FeederWatch

When Scott and I moved out of our little 2nd-floor Queens apartment to a rental on Long Island with a real back yard, the first thing I did was buy a bird feeder. And when we moved to Virginia two years later, the box with the bird feeder was—I’m not kidding—the first one I unpacked.

I am nutty that way. We love to feed the birds.

We’ve been participating in Project FeederWatch since our very first Long Island winter, paying an annual $15 for the privilege of helping track bird populations in North America. It gives the kids experience with collecting and tabulating data, hones their powers of observation and perseverance, and provides our whole family with the immense joy of getting to know our local feathered friends. Even baby Rilla is part of the fun; standing at the patio door watching the birds is one of her favorite pastimes.

The new FeederWatch season begins November 10th, so if you’re interested, flit on over and sign up!

Friday Morning Fire Update and Other Stuff

Well, I think the Union-Tribune sums up today’s status nicely with this headline: "No new evacuations, but fires far from out." They have a very good update (with links) this morning if you’d like today’s top fire stories.

Laurie at Sea Glass Hearts
has a nice update too, as well as a thought-provoking look at what impact the fires are likely to have on the Diocese of San Diego. I urge all my Catholic friends to read her post—those of you who live outside this Diocese could certainly help with your prayers.

We ventured out of the house yesterday afternoon for the first time since Sunday. Our young friend had a birthday to celebrate, and it would take more than a little particulate matter in the air to thwart such important plans. The air was pretty clear in their neighborhood (though probably still not terribly healthy to breathe—"dangerous air quality" warnings are in effect all over the county. Here at home, our eyes and throats burn when we step outside to water the plants. At least, they did yesterday. I haven’t been outside today.

After spending all week poring over San Diego County fire maps (Click to download a PDF of the county’s latest version), it was a welcome change of pace this morning to visit the Journey South Monarch Butterfly Migration map. (Be sure to change the "Week Ending" date to October 31st for the most recent version of the map.) The monarchs are on their way south to their wintering ground in the little mountain town of Angangueo, Michoacan, Mexico. I have to say it gave me a little thrill to look at all those "monarchs were here" dots on the East Coast and know that some of those might have been "our" butterflies, thanks to Sarah, who made sure our milkweed lived on after our move.

“At First I Could Only Hear People Sounds”

It was a bit humbling to arrive here on the West Coast and realize much of my flora-and-fauna expertise was now obsolete. I don’t know the plants out here yet. Oh, sure, I could identify a bird of paradise or a palm tree—but what kind of palm tree? Got me.

Of course this just makes for a nice new sort of adventure to have with the kids, and honestly, that’s the kind of thing I like best: having a new topic of study to sink my teeth into.

I picked up a couple of field guides and also buried myself in issues of Sunset magazine, a supercool housewarming gift from a certain other East Coast transplant (which: Thank you again, my dear). Lots of local nature centers and gardens have plant labels along their paths, too, and we’ve been slowly educating ourselves that way. But the biggest coup was meeting Julia.

Julia is a young woman we bumped into at a May Fair last, um, May. She and her friend were passing out fliers for a nature studies summer camp, which sounded wonderful but didn’t fit our summer plans. We got to chatting, though, and it quickly became apparent that Julia was just the person I’d been looking for. I’d had a vague idea of hiring a college student to go on some nature walks with us, or even just walks in our neighborhood so we could learn the local landscaping plants. I’m telling you, we’re starting from square one out here!

Julia, it turns out, is an avid urban forager. This news made Jane light up. Back in Virginia, Jane attended several sessions of a nature studies camp, during which she learned (among a lot of other things) to eat her way through the woods and fields and suburban backyards. She got all the other kids in the neighborhood hooked on chickweed as a tasty, iron-rich snack and violets for vitamin C.

But about Julia. I explained what I was looking for, and we exchanged email addresses, and though it took us a while to coordinate dates, we finally managed to schedule a nature hike at Mission Trails, a large natural area close enough to home that I can take my kids there on a regular basis. We have made several visits there already and have fallen in love with its rugged, scrubby hills and rich history.

Yesterday afternoon, I dropped Rose and Jane off at the park entrance, where Julia was waiting with a smile and a backpack full of surprises. ("Grapes, Mommy! She brought grapes for us!") Of course I would have loved to go too, but this outing was a bit more than my younger set could handle. We went to the Super Exciting Grocery Store instead.

Julia had suggested an evening hike for the cooler weather and more active wildlife. And sure enough, the trekkers came home full of stories about the coyote they’d seen, and bats, and birds.

Rose said her favorite part was the twenty minutes the girls spent sitting in silence on a boulder, listening.

"At first I could only hear people noises, Mommy. But then I started to hear lots of birds, and some crickets, and wind and things rustling."

Jane filled a page in her nature book with what she called "sound sketches"—little pencil marks in waves and peaks representing the different sounds she heard. It was really pretty amazing, the way she could look at her cryptic markings and demonstrate the bird calls for me, or the sound of a bullfrog plopping into a pond.

Rose sketched the things she saw: the San Diego River, a fallen tree, a stump that looked like a dog’s head until she got close, a heart-shaped marking on a tree trunk. "I couldn’t tell whether the heart was made by a person or an animal or just Nature," she told me. During the silent listening time, she imagined a whole story about the heart, and although it was nearly nine o’clock by the time the girls were home and had torn themselves away from Julia, revealer of mysteries, Rose insisted upon writing down her story before she went to bed. She didn’t want to forget. Julia had shown the girls flat stones with rounded indentations where Kumeyaay Indian woman had long ago ground their grain. Rose imagined that the tree-trunk heart was carved by an Indian boy, but his beloved had died before he finished the carving and so the tree had finished the heart itself, curving its bark so as to complete the heart.

How blessed are we? I was looking, you know, for our "breezy open," and here it is handed to us on a stone platter, complete with a gentle and enthusiastic guide who knows the way to open a child’s heart is with grapes and a quiet space in which to listen to the wind, the coyotes, and the stories carved on trees by time and imagination.


Fortuna Peak at Mission Trails Regional Park