Saturday, June 29, 2019

Invisible Birds of Malibu

Malibu Lagoon

People come to the Santa Monica Mountains to be with nature, to get away from the concrete jungle that is Los Angeles. They know wildlife lives here, too, that squirrels will be their neighbors, and that coyote & owls will call out in the night.  But there are many critters that are rarely seen, even by old-timers. Sometimes it’s because they are nocturnal.  Other times it’s because of dwindling population from loss of habitat or poisonous rodenticides. Some animals avoid humans altogether by living in the less populated parts of the mountains. Then, there are critters we can’t see because they are camouflaged. You can be looking right at them and not even know it. So it is with Invisible Birds.

Invisible birds, are so rarely seen, so how do you know they are there? Why, by their calls.

Virginia Rail, (Rallus limicola) Photo Credit: Dave Menke USFWS

The Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola) and the Sora Rail (Porzana carolinaare marsh birds found at the Malibu Lagoon. “Thin as a rail,” the Virginia Rail has a compressed body, an interesting survival adaptation by this elusive wetland bird, that makes it difficult to see them as they slip through the marsh tule reeds (Scripus acutus Tule).

The Virginia Rail prefers to evade intruders by running through marsh vegetation where it is safe rather than flying away. When it does fly, it only flies a few yards before disappearing again, once more invisible in the marsh.

The Virginia Rail’s Latin species name, “limicola,” means “mud dweller.” True to their name, Virginia Rails usually nest in muddy areas in shallow fresh water marshes with new growth, rather than salt water marshes.

Sora Rail, (Porzana carolina), Photo Credit: Dave Menke, USFWS

The Sora Rail (Porzana carolina), also found in the Malibu Lagoon, is a small, secretive bird. It’s wonderful, musical “whinny call” can be easily heard from deep within the tule reeds, but trying to see the little bird is a different matter as it is well camouflaged in the reeds. “sor-AH” “sor-AH”

Common Poorwill, Phalaenoptilus nuttallii, Photo by Allan Sander, CA GBBC

Another Invisible Bird is the Common Poorwill (Phalaenoptilus nuttallii).  The Common Poorwill is not a rail and is not a marsh bird. They are nightjars of the arid West, the smallest members of their family. They prefer the dry grassy Malibu canyons like Zuma and Trancas Canyons. Their cry of “poorwill” is familiar to residents there.

It requires keen perception to see the Common Poorwill, as they look just like “Dirt and Twigs”. Great camouflage! They won’t run from humans if you happen to approach; they assume you can’t see them!  

Along with the sounds of Hawks, Owls and Coyote, the calls of these birds join in the magical symphony of the Santa Monica Mountains. Whether seen or unseen, bird calls give us an unmistakable sense of place.  You don’t have to see the Invisible Birds of Malibu to know where you are.. It is all in their song~

There’s a symphony going on where you live, too.  Take a moment to stop to listen and enjoy each member of the orchestra. We’d love to hear ‘what’s playing’ in your back yard.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

When Old Men Plant Trees

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.
Greek Proverb

California Live Oak, Quercus agrifolia
Photo by Kathy Vilim

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Get in the Dirt

Ocean View Farms Community Garden, Photo by Kathy Vilim

~Gardening not only puts food on the table, it also feeds my soul~

Usually I write about things to do in the backyard garden.  However, with the high cost of housing in SoCal, for many having a backyard garden is but a distant dream. After I sold my house, I missed gardening so much and wondered where I could garden. Then I discovered Ocean View Farms, a non-profit community garden in Mar Vista.

Community gardens are a wonderful resource.  They feed the need to see things grow, to nurture new life, to get in the earth and get soil under your fingernails.  When I am at my garden plot, I feel the sun warm my skin and the breezes pick up my hair.  All around me things are growing.  The place is alive with busy insects and butterflies and the splashes of color that flowers add. Here I can make a difference.  I can grow my own food.  Tomatoes simply are not the same in the store, after you’ve tasted hand-picked organic tomatoes.  And, I can give back to pollinators by planting nectar rich flowers and milkweed.

Are you interested in finding a place to garden? has provided a list of the 10 best community gardens in Los Angeles County (compiled by Will Cooley)

Ocean View Farms Community Garden, photo by Kathy Vilim

Ocean View Farms:

I was happy to see that the garden I belong to, OceanViewFarms, is on the 10 Best Community Gardens list. A non-profit community garden in Mar Vista (established in 1977), it earned mention for having the “Most Impressive Compost.”  I would have to agree that their compost set up is extensive and impressive.  The “black gold” that results makes for a rich, organic garden compost that is available for all members to use.  In return, the members all contribute their spent vegetable plants to the compost pile.

For me this is a very important resource.  Your vegetables will only be as good as the soil that goes into growing them.  In Southern California it can be difficult to keep dry, sandy soil rich and fertile enough for a good harvest all by yourself.  Having a garden community to work with is a benefit I certainly appreciate.

Ocean View Farms is a large (500 plots) well-established community garden providing many resources for its members, including: a tool shed where tools are made available, a greenhouse for seed starting, and an orchard with fruit for the enjoyment of all members.

Did I mention that this garden is organic? Everything is grown organically. No pesticides whatsoever are used, and the bees say, “Thank you.”

Santa Monica Main Street Community Garden, photo by Kathy Vilim

Santa Monica Main Street Community Garden:

Located on Main Street between Hollister and Strand, this community garden has (73) plots and is also on the 10 Best Community Gardens list mentioned as “Most Integrated Into the Community.” Available exclusively to Santa Monica residents, this garden has a long waiting list. If you’d like to apply, fill out their application here:

When I visited this month, the Main Street Garden was holding a breakfast with featured speaker Christy Wilhelmi of GardenNerd. She spoke on Practical Pest Control for Small Space Gardens. It was a good chance to get to know the folks that garden there and discuss what to be growing this spring. The garden was alive with blooming flowers, planted to attract pollinators.  Recent rains have meant more butterflies, in particular Painted Ladies! It has also been a big help to the winter vegetable crops, such as cauliflower, broccoli, and lettuces.

Wattles Farm Main Path & Greenhouse, photo courtesy of
Wattles Farm:

Mentioned on the 10 Best Community Gardens list as “Most Unlikely Oasis,” Wattles Farm has a very interesting history. Located in the heart of Hollywood, this community garden was built on the grounds of a 40-acre estate named “Jualita,” the winter home of businessman Gurdon Wattles. His mansion is designated as City of Los Angeles Cultural Monument No. 579. The mansion with its lush landscaped gardens was built in 1907.

In 1975, an organic community garden was started on 4 of the acres It was one of the first gardens begun through the initiative of Mayor Tom Bradley’s community gardening program. Volunteers cleaned up the previous garden which had fallen into neglect, clearing brush and putting in plumbing for the first plots. They saved hundreds of original avocado and citrus trees in the orchard.

Today the Wattles community garden has 300 members and 172 plots.
Someone loves this garden and has lent it to you.  
Please respect this kindness and leave it as beautiful as you find it.” 
The spirit of the members is reflected in this sign posted at the entrance to the grounds. It is this spirit of community that has saved the land from developers in this highly-prized part of Hollywood. 

The only problem with community gardens seems to be there are not enough of them! According to the Los Angeles Community Garden Council (LACGC), there are approximately 125 community gardens in Los Angeles County. You can find one near you by visiting their website: To learn the membership requirements of each, the application process, and the waiting list contact the garden manager.

If you want to get your hands dirty right away, you should consider volunteering at a local community garden hosted by Los Angeles Community Garden Council.  LACGC has a list of gardens that are looking for volunteers.  You don’t need experience to get started learning to garden. Check them out here:

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Californians Go Crazy Over Super Blooms

California Poppies Eschscholzia californica, Photo by Kathy Vilim,
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

It's windy, and gusty winds are chilly.  But we are patient, waiting with our small dog, for the winds to die down so we can photograph the blooms of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) Waving orange in the sun, poppies stretch by the thousands up hills and ridges welcoming spring. 

Dog Doodles enjoying Super Bloom, 2017

We are visiting the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve (15101 Lancaster Road, Lancaster), the only parkland dedicated to California's state flower (designated March 2, 1903). Each spring, flower lovers drive up to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve to see the California Poppies (Eschscholzia californica) in bloom. 

This year visitors are in for a treat. They can experience the Super Bloom, which was brought on by heavy rainfall this winter.  For the next 3 weeks visitors can still view the Super Bloom. To best enjoy the poppies, time your visit for mid-day on a sunny day because the petals close up when it is overcast or during late afternoon. 

Kathy Vilim Photographing California Poppies Eschscholzia californica,
Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

What's blooming:

California poppies are not the only wildflowers blooming this year.  There are also filaree (pink), fiddleneck (yellow), slender keel fruit, wild parsley and lacy phacelia (light purple).  Soon goldfields and cream cups are expected, according to a recent Poppy Reserve/Mojave Desert Interpretive Assn. field report.

Another place to go to view wildflowers is the Saddleback Butte State Park, (17102 E. Ave. J in Lancaster) which is a bit higher up. Besides the wildflowers mentioned at Antelope Valley, they also have Joshua trees flowering now.  

North of Mojave, visit Red Rock Canyon State Park, on California Highway 14. It has a few slopes heavy in poppies, coreopsis and desert sunflowers and patches of other flowers, according to an email Wednesday from a state park ranger.
Saddleback Butte State Park, also in Lancaster, is a little drier and higher in altitude than the reserve. Still, wildflowers such as fiddlenecks, coreopsis, Mojave suncups, woolly daisies and red maids are blooming, according to the park's Facebook page. You can also see Joshua trees flowering as well. The park is at 17102 E. Ave. J in Lancaster.

for contact info:

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Desert Rains Bring Eruption of Painted Ladies to Southern California

            Vanessa cardui, Painted Ladies Butterfly,
                  photo credit:

The other day while I was sitting at a bus stop, I observed a number of tiny shadows flying toward me. I looked up to see butterflies, a whole flock of them!  They were small, almost moth-like.  Later walking to a friend's house, I observed more of these little butterflies, flying up her driveway and then up over the house, heading north.  What the heck was going on?

All over the Southland people have been observing these small orange creatures flying hard in gusty winds. Where did they come from, and where are they headed?  Some people thought they are monarchs migrating north from Mexico.  But, no, monarchs are much bigger. Then I read about the explosion of Painted Lady butterflies! 

Researchers have advised that the Painted Lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) overwinter in deserts, such as the Mojave and Colorado deserts, before embarking on their annual migration to the Pacific Northwest. The profusion of butterflies happening right now coincides with the super blooms in the desert following all the rainfall we just had. In a normal year, for example, Anza Borego desert gets 3 inches of rain per year. but this year they got 3 inches just over Valentine's Day!  

In the past six drought years California has seen a huge decline in butterflies in general. Probably the most watched are the western Monarchs. Painted Ladies are not in such dire straights as the Monarchs. One of the advantages they have over the Monarchs is that they can eat the nectar of a wide number of plants, so they do not have to search for Milkweed. The usual nectar sources visited by Painted Ladies are nettles, mallows and borages, but they can also enjoy lupine, sunflowers and poppies if rains make them available. They can also ingest a large number of plant toxins. 

Painted Ladies can fly at speeds of up to 25mph. They can travel a distance of 2500 miles. They use the abdominal fat they stored as caterpillars to fuel their flight. Their small 2-3 inch size leaves them largely unnoticed during normal years. It is this year's eruption that have brought them front and center to the attention of Angelenos. 

There is something magical about the flight of the Painted Ladies, en masse during this year's migration. In the urban environment we are thirsty for nature. And these orange winged beauties remind us that all around us, no matter where we are, we can find nature.  And nature never fails to be amazing.

#rainfall #pollinators #butterflies #SoCal

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Forest Bathing for a Spiritual Reboot

Walking through the Forest, Friends Share Forest Bathing

When you walk through a forest you are not just looking at trees.  Forests are an ecosystem in and of themselves. They are full of life, from the earthy smell of leaf litter, green moss and mushrooms, insects that fly or crawl, to wildlife like birds and squirrels that make their homes in the forest. Observing the interconnectedness of the forest, we can submerge ourselves and realize that we, too, are part of the natural world. We are one with Nature already, but we have forgotten. Walking in a forest gives us a way to reconnect.

The Japanese recognized the importance of forest walks for healing both our bodies and our spirits. Called Shinrin Yoku, or Forest Therapy, forest bathing simply means taking in the atmosphere of the forest for its healing benefits. Some of the health benefits of Forest Bathing include boosting immunity, improving mental clarity, and decreasing anxiety. 

Much has been written on the benefits of spending time quietly under the canopy of a living forest since Shinrin-Yoku Forest Medicine was developed. Thanks in part to the Association of Nature and Forest Bathers, people all over the world are now experiencing the health and spiritual benefits that time in Nature provides. 

But you don’t have to travel the world over to experience the spirits of the trees and reconnect with Nature. It is possible to walk in a forest right here in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Arcadia, for example, offers walks through the grounds with a certified Forest Bather to guide you.  Certified by the Association of Nature and Forest Bathers (ANFB), the spiritual guides are trained in the ancient Japanese practice of Shinrin-Yoku. 

This Spring, there are ongoing 2-hour Saturday walks through the forests of the Arboretum with a spirit leader to guide you. Valentine’s day is coming. Why not celebrate your relationship with your partner by bringing him or her to the forest for an intimate spiritual reboot~ 

Visit: Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden (

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Gimme Shelter

Butterfly Grove, Pismo Beach, CA, Photo by Kathy Vilim
Gimme Shelter

A shadow passes overhead.  I look up to see orange wings.  A monarch butterfly is passing overhead, slowly, playfully with another monarch butterfly.  I am working in the OVF gardens, and I stop to watch them. They fly so free that it lightens my heart.  They are flying over a plot that contains one milkweed plant and one sage plant, the perfect combination for the monarch butterflies.

The milkweed plant (Asclepias) is not so much a nectar source for the monarchs as is the sage, but the milkweed attracts them because it is a host plant, a larval source. The female monarch will lay her eggs on the milkweed knowing the young caterpillars will have food when they emerge.  She can lay hundreds of eggs on a single plant, and they will take in milkweed toxin that will protect them from being eaten by birds.

When autumn is in the air, the great monarch migration begins.  Unlike their east coast cousins, our California monarchs do not migrate to Mexico.  Instead, they migrate to overwintering groves on the California coast. Along the coast there are no freezing overnight temperatures.  The monarchs cluster together high up in Eucalyptus trees, wings closed, to keep warm when the sun is not out. One of the largest of these overwintering groves is close by in Pismo Beach. Now, in  January, there will be a mating frenzy at the overwintering groves, and the females will depart with eggs to lay. They will fly low looking for milkweed host plants.

While the monarch butterflies are traveling to and from their California overwintering grounds, they need waystations where they can rest.  On their way out to the grove, they will continue to fatten up on nectar, and on their departure from the grove they will be looking for milkweed.

I have had the great pleasure of camping next to Pismo Beach’s Monarch Grove.  For several weeks I lived among the orange ballerinas of the sky, observing their daily routine of resting all together at night and then dancing in the mid-day sun.  I felt so free then, as they were free. And I left there committed to caring about what happens to them. How can a female butterfly find milkweed in the city?

The answer is private and community gardens. Places like the community gardens at Ocean View Farms are wonderful resources for the monarch butterflies.  The organic garden is full of life. What a great California waystation we could have by planting for the monarchs at our community gardens. I can envision monarchs flitting about the vegetable plots.  All they need is milkweed and a nectar source like sage. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if each of us planted just one of those plants and gave our traveling monarchs a rest stop?

Remember: If you want to help the monarchs, it's best to grow native milkweed plants that die back and encourage the monarchs to migrate rather than tropical milkweed that can interrupt their breeding cycles.