Vertical Zonation

A Tour Up Mt. Baldy and San Antonio Canyon

As you rise from the valley floor up a mountain range as tall as the San Gabriel Mountains, everything changes. Gravity pushes the air molecules, which carry heat energy, downward, so higher elevations are much colder than the valley floor. On the cismontane, or ocean, side of the range, water evaporates off of the ocean, and rises as it hits the mountain wall. As it rises it gets colder and condenses, so falls as rain and snow, leaving a desert on the other, transmontane, side. The change in rainfall, temperature, and elevation changes which plants grow, and which animals can live there.

The San Gabriel Mountains peak at Mt. San Antonio, commonly known as Mt. Baldy, which stands 10,064 feet tall.

The images in this collection show just a few of the species that live in each elevational band on the cismontane side of Mt. San Antonio.

Coastal Sage Scrub

Elevation: 1,000 to 1,800 feet

Stop 1: Padua Park

34.144199, -117.698446

Elevation 1,790 feet

The first plant community that you encounter as you work your way up the coastal side of the San Gabriel Mountains is the coastal sage scrub, which grows on the alluvium at the bases of coastal foothills. It is home to short, flexible plants such as California sagebrush, California buckwheat, black sage, and lemonade berry, white sage on adobe slopes of the foothills, grasses in damp hollows or clearings, and dense patches of prickly pear cactus in disturbed areas. The coastal sage scrub is home to the coyote, the gray fox, rabbits, striped skunks, kangaroo rats, woodrats, and many species of mice.

Southern Oak Woodland

Canyon Floors and Mouths: 1,000 to 4,000 feet

Stop 2: Evey Canyon

34.165490, -117.682562

Elevation 2,415 feet

The second plant community from the bottom is the southern oak woodland, which, like the coastal sage scrub, is limited to the coastal side of the range. Along canyon floors and mouths, oaks interlace to form an overhead canopy. Streams are bordered by alders, willows, and blackberries, where meadow mice and shrews make their home. Open canyon floors house the western gray squirrel, which is dependent upon the trees that grow over the currants, lemonade berry, and sugar sumac. Racoons are the most important predator in the oak woodland, where they prey upon berries, nuts, insects, rodents, frogs, fish, and birds eggs. Rattlesnakes, constrictors, bobcats, and mountain lions also make the oak woodland their home.


Elevation: 2,000 to 6,000 feet

Stop 3: Stoddard Canyon

34.214702, -117.664471

Elevation 4,170 feet

The chaparral, a dense forest of plants from three to ten feet tall, is characteristic of the Pacific slope of the San Gabriel Mountains. Its interlacing branches form nearly impenetrable thickets that were once interspersed with grizzly trails, but the grizzly bear, which adorns our state flag, has been extirpated from California. Fire, slope, exposure, and elevation help create microclimates within the chaparral. Lower, arid slopes house nearly pure stands of chamise, Less dry exposures host sumac and California lilac, which grows a few years after a fire. The granite talus holds scrub oak and California bay laurel, and small groves of bigcone spruce stand above it all. A few species of mice and woodrats make their home in the chaparral, but compact, rocky soil seems to limit burrowing rodents. Black bears and rarely seen ringtails pass through.

Yellow Pine Forest

Elevation: 6,000 to 8,500 feet

Stop 4: Manker Flats

34.265169, -117.630806

Elevation 6,043 feet

A significant change occurs when we reach the yellow pine forest, well within the snow line. Jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, and sugar pine form dense stands with little undergrowth. Due to the small amount of cover, most mammals make their homes in adjacent habitat, but birds are abundant in timber, while ground squirrels venture onto the open ground to forage. One night in the campground can reveal passing deer, black bears, raccoons, gray foxes, bobcats, and ringtails.

Alpine and Boreal Habitat

Elevation: 8,500 to 10,064 feet

Stop 5: San Antonio Peak

34.288942, -117.646776

Elevation 10,064 feet

Several elements conspire to make Mt. Baldy bald. The timberline ends around 8,500 feet, at which point most of the air’s water has already fallen as snow. Conditions are dry and windy, and the thin air provides little UV protection. Soils are thin because, like the air, gravity has pushed it down below. Only the toughest species survive on the high mountain peaks, including the lodgepole chipmunk, which lives among the snowbrush, bush chinquapin, and manzanita at the top. Reintroduced Nelson’s bighorn sheep make their homes along the rocky slopes. At the upper limit of tree growth, the lodgepole pine grows as a krummholz tree, branches shaped into one direction by the icy wind. Here it grows more like its Latin name, Pinus contorta, than its common one.

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A Color Changing Insect in Joshua Tree National Park: Who is Cysteodemus armatus?


Hiking around the Cottonwood Campground in Joshua Tree National Park this April, I found a crazy insect with a black body and a bright yellow head. It’s abdomen stuck high into the air, making it look like a very round stink bug. I snapped a photo and returned to camp as the sun was going down. As I walked I found another, with no yellow on it at all. I found one after another as the evening wore on, but none had the yellow of the first.


‘What is this insect with its balloon like body?’ I wondered, and, ‘Why was the first one’s head yellow? Was it the only male? The only female? Did it just have pollen on its head?’

The sun set, and I examined my photos by the fireside. The insect in question seemed to be covered in grooves, and had a hint of iridescence that hadn’t been evident to the naked eye. In person, it looked perfectly smooth.


The next morning I found dozens of these insects, each with more yellow on it than the last, in large patches on their thoraxes and abdomens. I began to suspect that the yellow was in fact pollen, and that the insects were getting covered while harvesting during the day, but were left black when the flowers they ate closed up for the night.


I was almost right. It turns out the insects are desert spider beetles, Cysteodemus armatus. They are related to blister beetles, which were also prevalent in Joshua Tree this weekend. (Read about their fascinating lives here.)


The Desert Spider Beetles were in fact coated in pollen during the day, but it was not an accident. They were gathering a layer of pollen in pits in their elytra, or wing covers, for insulation. The pollen traps a layer of air in what is called a boundary layer, which helps insulate the beetle. The area below the elytra themselves acts as another boundary layer to keep them nice and cool in the hot desert air. The desert spider beetle has one of the most original methods of keeping cool in the Sonoran. Take a trip soon to see Cysteodemus armatus for yourself!


Schoenherr, A. A. (1992). A Natural History of California. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

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If You Feel the Same Twenty Years Hence: The Legacy of Colonel Charles Young

"Yours for Race and Country, Charles Young. 22 Fey., 1919" From the Library of Congress via

“Yours for Race and Country, Charles Young. 22 Feb., 1919” From the Library of Congress      via


They wanted to name a tree for our captain but he refused, saying they could do so if they felt the same way, twenty years hence and they compromised on one for Booker T. Washington.” —Philip Winser


Sequoia and General Grant National Parks were created in 1890. They were assigned to the Interior Department to manage, but no funds were appropriated to run them. This led to a host of problems that allowed serious damage to the now-protected land — Poachers entered the park and killed protected wildlife, lumber was illegally cut, fires burned out of control, and livestock devastated the forests and meadows by either stripping foliage with grazing or by trampling the plants flat, compacting the soil, and eroding stream sides. It seemed as if the park might be doomed in infancy — until the U.S. Army Cavalry entered the fray in the summer of 1891 and made the laws protecting the park a physical reality. They protected the park with their presence, their vigilance and sometimes with force. Since they had little power beyond giving warnings or expelling those who violated the rules, the soldiers got creative in their enforcement techniques. They would expel sheepherders out of one end of the park and then herd the sheep out of another. They confiscated tourists’ rifles on the way in, then returned them on their way back out.

And their presence made a difference. In 1898, when the cavalry had to travel to fight in the Spanish American War, an estimated 200,000 domesticated sheep were brought into the park to graze illegally and did an untold amount of damage in the cavalry’s absence. Additionally, wildlife populations recovered when visitors were disarmed.

The role of the soldiers didn’t end at protection, however. They also had a huge hand in guiding the early development of the park system. The national parks were set aside both to protect the “natural condition” of the resources, and to provide a “pleasuring ground for human beings”. The paradoxical tasks are still a huge challenge to the national park system, but they were particularly difficult early on, as no infrastructure was built so that people could access the parks. The residents of Tulare County, in the valley below Sequoia National Park, lobbied Congress for funds to develop the parks until 1900 when Congress finally agreed to appropriate $10,000 to the parks per year.

The soldiers began the reconstruction and extension of an old wagon road into the Giant Forest. The work was slow from 1900-1902, until 1903 when they brought in Captain Charles Young and his soldiers of the I and M troops of the 9th Cavalry. Young commanded one of only four regiments in the U.S. Army in which African Americans were allowed to serve, which meant that many of the initial defenders of the park were among the first African Americans in the United States Army. That summer, Young’s troops finished the road to the Giant Forest and built a trail system almost all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the nation at the time, and still the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. These huge achievements make Young’s impact on the parks and on military history indelible — these accomplishments are especially stunning given Young’s incredibly difficult struggle against prejudice and racism as he worked toward his stewardship of the parks.

Charles Young was born in Kentucky to enslaved parents, Gabriel and Arminta Young, on March 12th, 1864. His father escaped slavery the year he was born, and joined the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery of the Union Army, until the Civil War ended. The three moved across the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio, the center of abolitionism, where Charles Young attended and later taught school. Young was a musician and polyglot who learned Latin, Greek, German, French, and Spanish in addition to his native English.

"Portrait of Cadet Charles Young by Pach Brothers, NY" From the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio, via

“Portrait of Cadet Charles Young by Pach Brothers, NY” From the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural                Center, Wilberforce, Ohio              via

In 1882, Young applied to the United States Military Academy, West Point. Though he scored the second highest on the entrance exam, he was placed on the alternate list rather than being admitted that year. He was accepted in June 1884, the following year, when the candidate ahead of him dropped out. Eventually, he was the only black student at West Point, as all of the other black students were discharged. He had to repeat his first year when he was found deficient in mathematics, and was held back again his senior for failing an engineering course. When he graduated on August 31, 1889, he was one of only three black men to, at that point, have ever graduated from West Point. It would be almost fifty years before it happened again.

After serving on the plains in the Indian wars, as a professor in Ohio, and in the Philippines, Young led his troopers from the Presidio of San Francisco to Visalia in April 1903. Young was the only black captain of the U.S. Army, and all but three of his troops were “buffalo soldiers”, black as well.

The crew began working to finish the road to the Giant Forest earlier in the season than past years had, and worked faster than previous crews. They completed the road in just one and a half months, having constructed more than the past crews did in the three previous years. Young threw a party to thank his men for their hard work. Around 100 people attended, including a visiting party from Visalia. Representatives from Visalia proposed naming one of the giant sequoia trees after Charles Young as thanks, but Young refused, saying that they could name a tree after him in twenty years if they still felt so inclined. Instead, he nominated, “that great and good American, Booker T. Washington,” for the tree’s namesake. A Charles Young tree wouldn’t be named until 2004.

Charles Young Tree Photo by Crumblin Down on Flicker

Charles Young Tree
Photo by Crumblin Down on Flicker

Young left Sequoia in 1903, never to return. He served the U.S. in Hispaniola, Liberia, Haiti, and Mexico, where he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and served on a “punitive expedition” after Pancho Villa. In 1917, Young opened an officers training school for enlisted men at Fort Huachuca, as he knew that if the U.S. entered the war in Europe more African American officers would be needed. He expected to be promoted to General and to serve in World War I. However, because of the perceived reluctance of white soldiers to serve under a black officer, he was retired for “disabilities” in 1917 and denied the opportunity to fight in Europe, despite having ridden a horse from his home in Ohio to Washington D.C. to demonstrate his fitness for duty in 1918. In 1919, Young was asked to serve as a military attaché in Liberia. On a reconnaissance trip to Nigeria, he grew ill and died of Bright’s Disease, chronic nephritis. Joel E. Springam, W. E. B. DuBois, and Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., spoke at his memorial service. 50,000 people lined the streets of Manhattan to honor Young’s achievements for our country when his body was returned to the United States. One of his men once recalled, “He was a father, brother, teacher and a real true friend at all times under all conditions. I really loved him.”


For more information, please see In the Summer of 1905 Colonel Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia National Park by Ward Eldredge.



Charles Young: Cavalryman, Huachucan, and Intelligence Officer. (2016, December 22). Retrieved July 19, 2018, from

Duncan, D. (2017). The National Parks: America’s Best Idea An Illustrated History. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Eldredge, W. (2003). In the Summer of 1905 Colonel Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia National Park. Three Rivers, CA: Sequoia Natural History Association.

National Park Service. (2018, May 21). Colonel Charles Young. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from

P.B.S. (n.d.). Captain Charles Young. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from  From A Film by Ken Burns: The National Parks America’s Best Idea

Reynolds, C. (2004, September 14). A bow to a man who made his mark. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved July 19, 2018, from

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Drawing Inspiration from the Parks

Drawing Inspiration from the ParksEvery year John Brantingham, Ann Brantingham, Scott Creley and I teach art, science, and poetry at a weeklong volunteer camp in Sequoia National Park. We watch bears, hike to see marmots and the world’s largest tree, and help with park maintenance or meadow restoration, and reflect on our explorations in drawing and writing. The work you produce may be used in media published by the national parks, and constitutes the bulk of your volunteerism. John Brantingham’s writing and poetry is featured this summer on the Visitor Guide that you get when you enter Sequoia or King’s Canyon!

One of the most exciting aspects of the trip is that we get to stay in Wolverton volunteer campground, which operated as a boyscout camp from approximately 1939 until 1975. The Camp Wolverton’s history goes back much farther than that though, a grinding mortar from the Native Americans who used the area is found within the camp. Beginning in 1939 Wolverton was used as a summer camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program that helped pull the U.S. out of the Great Depression. From 1942-1945, during World War II, Wolverton and other CCC camps housed soldiers for summer training, rest, and recuperation. Concientous objectors, primarily Mennonites, may have used Wolverton as a base for National Park construction and maintenance projects as well. has an exceptional history of Camp Wolverton for further reading.

We are full for this year, but if you would like to find out when sign ups begin for next summer, please join our mailing list.

John on SEKI Visitor Guide

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Help Map Puerto Rico

As of today, 31% of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have running water, and those that have it cannot trust that it is clean since Hurricane Maria hit. Only 16% of the island has electricity today, and nearly all 3.5 million people are still without basic necessities as food, water, shelter, and power.

FEMA and the Red Cross need maps that show where buildings are, or were, on the island so they can help people on the ground. That’s how YOU can help. Mapping is easy, and you can make a significant contribution in an hour. Follow the Mapping Instructions to find out how!

If you have questions or would like me to walk you through the process in a virtual classroom, email me at


Puerto Rican Flag

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The San Gabriel Mountains National Monument: From the Bottom to the Top

The rugged San Gabriel Mountains overlook 10 million people in the Los Angeles Basin, but few venture into their reaches. This might not be the case much longer — On October 10th, 2014 President Obama established the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument to protect the natural, cultural, and scientific resources of the range.

Baby black bear, Ursus americanus, in San Antonio Canyon

Baby black bear, Ursus americanus, in San Antonio Canyon

Take a unique trip into the mountains by exploring the changes from the bottom to the top. You can travel from less than 1,000 feet above sea level to 10,064 feet in your venture.

At the lowest elevations, chaparral and desert habitat thrive in arid conditions while at middle elevations, cooler climates and more rain lead to oak and coniferous forest. At the top of the San Gabriel Mountains is Mt. Baldy, which gets its name because only low statured alpine species are adapted to live in the high elevations where winters are frigid.

Take a Google Earth tour that shows the changes from the desert in Valyermo to the top of Pine Mountain here.

Cross the range this weekend, or venture into the front country after work. Every trip reveals new wonders.


1,400 feet: San Gabriel Canyon Off Road Vehicle Area

San Gabriel Canyon’s lower reaches host a variety of activities you won’t find in the wilder parts of the range. After the amazing engineering of Cogswell Dam, you reach the San Gabriel Canyon Off Highway Vehicle Area, where motorists splash through the mud every weekend.


2,289 feet: Tunnels to Nowhere

As you walk up an abandoned section of Shoemaker Road you come across two tunnels.

Tunnel to Nowhere

Tunnel to Nowhere

The second suddenly ends, truncated in the mountainside. These tunnels were built during the Cold War to provide a direct route across the mountains, so that valley residents could flee a nuclear attack. The project was abandoned, however, as the cost was high and the plan impractical.


2770 feet: Bridge to Nowhere

Just below the Tunnels to Nowhere lies the Bridge to Nowhere, a remnant of the historic East Fork Road that washed away in the great flood of March 1938. The hike to the bridge is invigorating, but the truly adventurous can bungee jump off!


4,750: Devil’s Punchbowl  

Explore multicolored, sedimentary rocks tilted over the desert. Devil’s Punchbowl is a fascinating geologic area created by uplift from the San Andreas and other local faults.


5,280 feet: Chilao

The Chilao-Horse Flats area was the favorite hideout of the San Gabriels’ most infamous bandido, Tiburcio Vasquez. Vasquez ran thousands of horses up his secret “Horsethief Trail,” to Chilao’s long, narrow valley where his men rebranded them and sold them in the desert below.


5,500 feet: Crystal LakeDSCN3132

At Crystal Lake you can stay in a cabin, fish in Crystal Lake, or hike the gorgeous trail up Windy Gap to Mt. Islip. This area was closed to human visitation from 2002-2011 following a fire and flood, so enjoy a region that is more natural than the rest.


5,712 feet: Mt. Wilson and 6,812 feet: Lookout Mountain

Physicist Albert Michelson measured the speed of light by bouncing a beam 22 miles between Mt. Wilson, famous for housing equipment that sends TV signals throughout the Los Angeles area, and Lookout Mountain, a relatively unknown peak near Mt. San Antonio. Today, visit the famed Mt. Wilson Observatory and the Hubble Telescope.


6,400 feet: San Antonio Falls

Visit this 75-foot, multi tier waterfall with the family, or proceed to the strenuous hike up the Ski Hut Trail to San Antonio Peak.


6,900 feet: Bighorn Mine

The mountains are filled with mines and remnants of mining towns. The Bighorn mine is perhaps the most spectacular.


View from the Bighorn Mine

View from the Bighorn Mine

7,691 feet: Mt. Waterman

Ski the slopes of Mt. Waterman in the winter, or enjoy a game of disk golf in the summer.


8,000 feet: Blue Ridge Campground

Blue Ridge Campground lies atop the ski slopes of Mountain High. It is a magnificent place to camp and take photographs, as it overlooks the desert to the north, and the lights of the San Gabriel Valley to the south. The Pacific Crest Trail Passes through Blue Ridge as it wanders 2,663 miles from Canada to Mexico.


The San Gabriel Valley from Blue Ridge Campground

The San Gabriel Valley from Blue Ridge Campground


8,210 feet: Ski Hut Trail

Watch for bighorn sheep as you pass this Sierra Club waystation. The recovering species is common on the Ski Hut Trail.


10,064 feet: Mt. San Antonio Peak- Mt. Baldy

This is the highest peak in the range! Watch for a crashed plane as you ascend from the Baldy Bowl, or take the ski lifts part way up for an easier trip.


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The Karl Marx Tree

Sequoia Wolverton History Article 4

Giant Sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum

In the Fall of 1885 a group of socialist utopians created The Kaweah Colony in the Giant Forest in what is now Sequoia National Park.  Their community was based equal work and equal compensation for men and women.  The colonists filed a claim for 160 acres of public land under the Timber and Stone Act of 1878. This law granted 160 acre tracts of timber-producing land to private parties at no less than $2.50 per acre in an effort to bring into ‘best use’ land that was widely believed to be an inexhaustible resource.  The Kaweah Colony named the largest tree the Karl Marx Tree after the 19th-century social philosopher.


Despite the Kaweah Colony’s claim, Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, and the Kaweah Colony was evicted on questionable legal grounds.

Sequoia Wolverton History Article 5

National Park Service Ranger, 2015

At the time, there was no National Park Service, so in May of 1891 Troop K of the Fourth U.S. Cavalry arrived with orders to protect the park, primarily from squatting and poaching.  The parks were not designed, nor yet intended, for visitors.

The era of public visitation would begin in 1915 when Stephen Mather, the marketing genius who made Borax famous, accepted a position as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior. He convinced Congress to create the National Park Service in 1916 and he became its first director. Mather created a professionalized ranger force and led a crusade to “democratize” the parks by improving roads and accommodations to make them accessible to the American public.

Sequoia Wolverton History Article 7

Sequoiadendron giganteum in the Giant Forest

The story of the Karl Marx Tree’s renaming to General Sherman is deeply embedded in oral tradition — but despite the prevalence of the legend, the popular account is most likely inaccurate.  According to tradition, a cattle rancher and trapper named James Wolverton discovered the tree on August 7th, 1879 and named it after his revered Civil War general, General William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sequoia Wolverton History Article 3

The Giant Forest

One of the problems with the folk story is that the likelihood of a cowboy (one who spent months in the wilderness) having recorded the specific date on which he discovered a large tree is extremely low. The man was not there on a mission where he might have kept logs or recorded findings.  Furthermore, it is impossible to tell from visual inspection that Sherman is the largest in the grove, so it is impossible to know if the cowboy had even christened the correct tree.

Sequoia Wolverton History Article 1

The Giant Forest


No historical documents exist from this date.  In fact, the first documented reference to the tree as “General Sherman” occurs in a solder’s report from 1897.


1897 happens to be the same year in which a plaque naming the tree General Sherman was erected. U.S. Army troops had come each summer since 1891 to protect the trees, so one should expect to find earlier documentation of the name if it was actually named by Wolverton. It seems more likely that the soldiers who expelled the Kaweah Colony renamed the Karl Marx Tree.  In fact, the story of Wolverton naming the tree was not published until 1921, when it appeared in a park guide.  Wolverton is still memorialized, nonetheless, by the Wolverton Campground, now a volunteer camp and formerly the only Boyscout Camp in any National Park that bears his name today.



Curry-Roper, J. (1989). The Impact of the Timber and Stone Act on Public Land Ownership in Northern Minnesota. Forest & Conservation History, 33(2), 70-79. Retrieved September 8, 2015

Stephen Mather (1867–1930). (2009). Retrieved September 8, 2015.

Tweed, W. (2010). A Famous Name and a Mystery. Retrieved August 10, 2015.

Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Kaweah. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2015.




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Current Exhibitions

Some Crust Bakery

Now through October 3rd, 2015


My paintings and photographs will be featured at Some Crust Bakery in the Claremont Village from now through October 3rd.  Stop by for breakfast, lunch, or coffee to check it out.  Please join us as well for a reception on Friday, September 25th from 4-6 pm.


Some Crust Bakery

119 Yale Avenue

Claremont, California 91711



Courthouse Gallery of the Arts

Opening September 9th, 2015

An exhibition of artwork created during the 2015 summer course, “Poetry In the Shadows of the Giant Trees.”

Screen Shot 2015-09-01 at 10.03.46 PM












Courthouse Gallery of the Arts

125 S. B Street

Exeter, California 93221



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Why are there so many bears in the Wolverton Campground? A History

George Melendez Wright Conducts an Early Biological Survey

Anyone who camps at Wolverton in Sequoia National Park is likely to see a large number of black bears during their stay. Although Wolverton was a Boy Scout Camp from 1939-2011, today it is reserved for volunteer groups, so its use is less common.

Mother Bear Tears Into a Log- Long Meadow

Mother Black Bear Tears Into a Log,                 Long Meadow

With all of the popular human attractions nearby, bears seem to use this rarely visited campground as a highway to get to important food sources. How do biologists know, however, if keeping the campground empty allows bears to use it more than they otherwise would?

Data was never collected on how frequently bears passed through during the Boy Scout years. Wildlife biologists are constantly faced with this kind of challenge when attempting to analyze changes in species distribution. Historic records often don’t exist.

Luckily for the Sierra Nevada, however, a young park naturalist working in the early days of Yosemite National Park was determined to document all of the mammals that lived in the region at that time.

Bear and Cub

Black Bear with Cub, Long Meadow

In 1929 George Melendez Wright persuaded his supervisors to let him conduct a four-year plant and wildlife survey in the Sierra Nevada parks. Park Director Horace Albright strongly supported the program, but Wright had to use his own funds until the program’s value could be proven. Luckily, Wright was from a wealthy family: his father was a ship captain and his mother was from one of El Salvador’s most prominent dynasties. The survey was the first of its kind, and lead to two reports that urged the park service to stop intervening in natural processes through programs such as predator killing, or feeding bears at dumps.

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear

The information he collected is now invaluable in examining the effects of human visitation, climate change, and other impacts on the region. His data provides a rare baseline with which to compare current species distributions.


Researchers recently resurveyed the area George Melendez Wright investigated back in 1929. Today, about half of the species are at different elevations than they were back then, on average about 500 yards higher. Worldwide, 143 separate studies have shown that species are changing where they live. More than 80 percent of the documented changes show species moving to more polar latitudes or higher elevation where temperatures are cooler, a pattern congruent with adaptation to a changing climate.


UPDATE: No bears were seen in the Wolverton Campground during the week of August 10-17, 2017. The bears may have learned that the campground is once again human occupied during the summer months, but the variation could be due to cyclic population fluctuations or other factors.

Black Bear with Cub, Long Meadow



Glick, F. (2010). About Camp Wolverton. Retrieved August 10, 2015.

National Park Service. (2009). George Melendez Wright (1904–1936). Retrieved August 10, 2015.

PBS. (2009). George Melendez Wright (1904–1936). Retrieved August 10, 2015.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. State Fact Sheet: California. (n.d.). Retrieved August 10, 2015.

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The Island Fox

Santa Catalina Island, is one of the eight Channel Islands, off the coast of Southern California.  The Channel Islands are semi-arid coastal sage scrub communities, but many of the islands have been heavily damaged by farming, mining, military operations, and invasive species that have significantly altered the ecosystem.

Catalina Island Fox

Catalina Island Fox, Urocyon littoralis clementae

Island populations are inherently isolated, so unique species tend to evolve on them.  One such species  is the Island Fox, Urocyon littoralis.

Organisms that live on the Channel Islands often exhibit one of two traits: gigantism or dwarfism.  Small organisms tend to grow larger than their mainland counterparts because there is less competition for food and space.  The Island Night Lizard,


Anacapa Island

Xantusia riversiana, for example, grows far larger than mainland night lizards.  Additionally, many small, nonwoody plants, such as a woolly sunflower, Eriophyllum, and Santa Cruz Island Buckwheat, Eriogonum arborescens, reach shrub stature on the islands thanks to the mild climate, moisture from the air, lack of grazing animals, and small number of competitors.

Large animals, on the other hand, tend to become smaller over generations.  Islands have a limited food supply, so smaller individuals within a species have higher survival rates.  A pygmy Exiled Mammoth, Mammuthus exilis, once lived on the Channel Islands.  The remains of its full sized relatives, Mammuthus columbi, are found in the La Brea Tar Pits.  Today, however, we find the Island Fox, a smaller relative of the Gray Fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus.


The six largest of the eight Channel Islands has its own subspecies of island fox.  Each subspecies is endemic, meaning that it is found nowhere else on earth.  The two smallest islands, Anacapa and Santa Barbara, do not have foxes.  They probably reached the Channel Islands through Native Americans bringing Gray Foxes from the mainland as pets.  After many generations on the islands, the progeny of the Gray Foxes were so different from those on the mainland that they became a new species, the Island Fox.  In addition to differing from their mainland cousins, the foxes on each island are so different from each other that each is considered its own subspecies.  This means that each island population has been isolated from the others for a very long time.

Catalina Fire Road Campground to Wrigley Center

Isthmus Cove, Santa Catalina Island

As indicated by archaeological, anatomic, and DNA studies, foxes first arrived on the northern Channel Islands at least 16,000 years ago.  Colonization probably occurred during a period of intense global glaciation that made the sea level lower.  Lower sea levels made the islands functionally closer to the mainland, and connected the four northern islands, San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa, into one, called Santa Rosae Island.  When the sea level rose, water filled low lying areas on Santa Rosae Island, and isolated three fox populations, which gradually differentiated into unique subspecies. Remains indicated that Native Americans carried the foxes from San Miguel Island to San Nicolas Island 5,200 years ago, then to San Clemente 3,400 years ago.  The foxes on San Nicolas Island have almost no genetic variation, which suggests that they arose from a very small founding population, perhaps only two individuals.

Campground Overview

Sunrise Over Two Harbors Campground

The main alternate theory as to the origin of foxes on the Channel Islands is that they arrived through the vicariant distribution mechanism and are actually more closely related to three small species of foxes from Yucatan, Mexico and Guatemala.  In this case, as the North American tectonic plate moved south and Pacific plate moved north, foxes were carried with them to disparate locations.


Western Gull Rookery on Anacapa Island

At about the size of a housecat, the island fox is the smallest fox species in North America. They stand approximately 12-13 inches high, and 23-27 inches long, including the tail. The island fox weighs 3-5 pounds, with males slightly larger than females.  The island foxes are gray on top with rusty, black, and white markings.  They differ from the gray fox in that they have more rust color on their backs, a dark stripe on the tail, shorter legs and one
less vertebrae, giving them shorter tails.  They are active both day and night, but usually forage in the early evening.  The Island Fox has four toed feet with non protractable claw, strong jaws, and excellent low light vision.

The foxes spend their time foraging from lizards, fruit, small insects, and birds, and eggs. Animals that have been isolated on islands often lack fear of humans: the Catalina Island Fox, Urocyon littoralis clementae, is no exception.  The one pictured above came to investigate dinner during a Cal State Los Angeles Marine Ecology field trip.

Cove Crash Catalina

Isthmus Cove Dawn, Santa Catalina Island

All of the Island Foxes are species of special concern.  The subspecies on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Santa Catalina islands are Federally Listed Endangered Species.  The Santa Cruz island fox lived without predators until around 1990, when Golden Eagles arrived to prey upon feral pigs that roam the island.  The foxes, however, were unaccustomed to avian predators and became easy prey.  The Golden Eagle quickly became the main cause of population decline.


Geologic Survey Marker

The population fell from 1,500 to less than 100 in less than ten years, a 95% population reduction.  On Catalina Island canine distemper virus caused a population collapse.  In order to help the populations recover, foxes were bred in captivity and released on Santa Cruz, San Miguel, and Santa Rosa Islands from 2001 through 2008. Additionally, programs to relocate Golden Eagles to the mainland, reestablish Bald Eagles to chase off the Golden Eagles, eradicate feral pigs, and immunize foxes against canine distemper and rabies have successfully helped populations stabilize and begin to recover.




Schoenherr, A., Feldmeth, C., & Emerson, M. (1999). Natural History of the Islands of California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Menard, Y. (2015, January 4). Captive Breeding Program that Prevented Extinction of Endangered Island Fox Ends.

Schwemm, C. (2014, March 1). Fact Sheet: Island Fox (Urocyon littoralis).

Saving the Santa Cruz Island Fox. (2015, January 1).



More information is available in the document:

Coonan, T. (2003, August 1). Recovery Strategy for Island Foxes (Urocyon littoralis) on the Northern Channel Islands.



Special thanks to:

Professor Kurt Leuschner for his course, The Natural History of the Channel Islands, through the University of California, Riverside Extension


Dr. Carlos Robles for his course, Marine Ecology, at California State University, Los Angeles.

All of the photos and inspiration for this article were created on trips hosted by these professors.


Santa Catalina Island

Wrigley Cove


Crash 2 Catalina-2


Santa Cruz Island








Anacapa Island

California’s Primary Western Gull Rookery











Anacapa Island Seagull Rookery

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Davidson Arch

Big Pines, California

Why is there a castle tower on the roadside as you pass the visitors’ center in Big Pines, California?

Inside Davidson Arch Tower External 5

In the early 1920s, R.F. McClellan, the chairman of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, decided that Big Pines, the area west of Wrightwood that includes the Mountain High and Table Mountain ski slopes, should be a county recreation area.  He convinced the board to purchase 760 acres from local landowners for an estimated $60,000.  Los Angeles County began construction on recreational facilities in 1923, including an administration building, coffee shop, hall, lodge, employee residences, campgrounds, picnic areas, and trails. The Chief Mechanical Engineer, William Davidson, designed an archway of native stones with a pedestrian walkway on top, which he presented to Los Angeles County in 1922.  This bridge was known as the Davidson Arch.  It’s northern tower is the castle turret you drive by today.

Big Pines Visitor Center


Today only the north tower remains.  The south tower and arch were removed in 1950 to allow the highway to be widened, but the road expansion never occurred.


According to John W. Robinson, renown historian of the San Gabriel Mountains, “The twin towers contained barred cells in which drunks and rowdies could be confined until the sheriff arrived.”



Now the tower holds firewood, and intrigues visitors on their way to ski or hike.  Bars have been added to the windows to keep modern day visitors from reliving the unruly days of the past.

Davidson Arch Underpass





Inside Davidson Arch Tower External 2

Robinson, J. (1977). Wrightwood and Big Pines. In The San Gabriels: Southern California mountain country (pp. 294-295). San Marino, Calif.: Golden West Books.

Krig, P., & Houten, B. (2004). Wrightwood & Big Pines (p. 72). Charleston, SC: Arcadia.

Tillitson, G., & Graham, T. (n.d.). Playground forAngelinos.

Inside Davidson Arch Tower Door 2


Inside Davidson Arch Tower External 3Inside Davidson Arch Tower External 4

Inside Davidson Arch Tower Door 3Inside Davidson Arch Tower 3Inside Davidson Arch Tower Firewood 3Inside Davidson Arch Tower Window

Inside Davidson Arch Tower Window 2

Inside Davidson Arch Tower StairwellAngeles Crest Highway

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Art Walk December 13, 2014

Loft Beats Art Walk December 2014 Winter Chill Session

Come check out my latest work, along with poetry by Scott Creley and John Brantingham at Loft Beats this Saturday night!



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This American Life: Act Four- Rancho Cucamonga Parks

Image from This American Life

Image from This American Life

This week’s This American Life               Episode 534: A Not so Simple Majority, illustrates how important it is that we share responsibility for the goods that benefit us all.

It mirrors the campaign to split the West side of Rancho Cucamonga into eight streetlight and park funding districts perfectly.

Episode 459: What Kind of Country, does the same thing.

Please listen to this week’s episode, then get involved.


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No to Park Districts in Rancho Cucamonga

One City, One Community:

Why the West Side of Rancho Cucamonga Should Not be Split into Eight Streetlight and Park Funding Districts

The West Side of Rancho Cucamonga should not be split into eight streetlight and park funding districts.  We live in a community, an incorporated city, so that we can share resources, create a pleasant environment surrounded by other pleasant environments, and work together to provide equal opportunities for our citizens, particularly our children.

The southern portion of the west side of the city has lower housing values, and lower income than the northern parts of the region. Income is positively correlated with latitude.  Eight new districts would create a series of city services that match this income distribution, with limited or no services in the southern part of the city where $100 per year is a tremendous amount of money, to abundant services in the north where each household can absorb far more than $100 per year without notice.  The southern part of Rancho Cucamonga has fewer parks, less access to green space, low levels of access to grocery stores, and lower elementary school test scores than the northern part of the city.  We need to reduce these disparities to provide the opportunity for every resident to reach their full potential, to make Rancho Cucamonga a better place to live for all of us.


Figure 1: Income Distribution in Rancho Cucamonga (1) RC Income Distribution Map



Park Access

The southern portion of the city has far less access to parks and open space than the northern portion of the city.  The area from Arrow Highway to the southern border of the city has three parks total, including Bear Gulch Park located on the north side of Arrow Highway. There are 12 Parks from Foothill Boulevard to Baseline Road, and 14 north of Baseline Road, not including Central Park, which is located on Baseline Road, so is included in the area from Foothill to Baseline. The northern area, the area that also has access to the city’s equestrian trails, North Etiwanda Preserve, Cucamonga Demen’s trail, Baseline Road Trail, Cucamonga Creek Trail, Day Creek Trail, Frontline Trail, Deer Creek Trail, and Edison Schaefer Connector. (2)

Additionally, the three parks in the southern portion of the city are already devoid of the services in the north.  It will take far more money to create parks and make those we have, such as Bear Gulch, with its non-reservable picnic tables and basic playground equipment, worth visiting, whereas Heritage park, with its trails, numerous athletic fields, and equestrian facilities will take minimal investment to maintain or enhance.  If revenues are lowered in the southern part of the city, a disproportionate amount of the funding will go to streetlight maintenance instead of parks.  Because streetlights reduce crime, shouldn’t be provided only for the wealthy. (3)  Moreover, streetlight funding should not come at the expense of park funding.


Figure 2: Parks in Rancho Cucamonga (4) Park Map Rancho Cucamonga

Grocery Access and Food Deserts

The southern part of the city contains two food deserts, defined as a census tract with a substantial share of residents who live in low-income areas that have low levels of access to a grocery store or healthy, affordable food retail outlet, by the United States Department of Agriculture.  The first food desert is the census tract bordered by Foothill Boulevard to the north, Archibald Avenue to the west, the canal nearing Haven Avenue to the east, and 8th Street to the south. The second is bounded by Grove Avenue on the west, Foothill Boulevard to the north, Baker Avenue to the east, and 8th Street to the south (5)


Figure 3: City of Rancho Cucamonga Food Deserts Food Desert 3

Figure 4: Census Tract bordered by Foothill Boulevard, Archibald Avenue, the canal nearing Haven Avenue, and 8th Street Food Desert Map 1

Figure 5: Census Tract bordered by Grove Avenue, Foothill Boulevard, Baker Avenue, and 8th Street Food Desert 2



School Test Scores

A similar disparity in services and opportunity provided to residents in different parts of the city is reflected in the Annual Percentage Increase in test scores of the elementary schools.  Test scores indicate a clear increase as you move from south to north on the west side of the city.6-7


Figure 6: Alta Loma and Central School District Elementary School APIs arranged from South to North 2012-2013

School                                        API

South of Arrow

Los Amigos Elementary              808

Cucamonga Elementary              775

Arrow to Foothill

Bear Gulch Elementary                882

Foothill to Baseline

Central Elementary                     847

Coyote Canyon                           836

Valle Vista Elementary                 860

Dona Merced Elementary             860

Terra Vista                                 894

North of Baseline

Alta Loma Elementary                 833

Carnelian Elementary                  877

Victoria Groves Elementary          894

Jasper Elementary                      856

Deer Canyon Elementary             885

Banyan Elementary                     886

Hermosa Elementary                   903

Floyd M. Stork Elementary           931


Why We Need to Provide Equal Access to Parks

The southern part of the city has significantly fewer parks, less open space.  People move out of the city because of these issues.  Many choose never to live here in the first place because of the lack of access to basic services, such as parks, grocery stores, and high quality education.  This hurts property values and the reputation of the entire city. Conversely, parks provide numerous physical, social, and economic benefits.  They increase health, reduce obesity, increase neighborhood cohesiveness, decrease crime, reduce pollution, reduce flood control costs, raise property values, and thereby raise property tax revenues, which can allow parks to pay for themselves.


Figure 7: Why do we want everyone to have equal access to parks? (8)


Parks Increase Health

– Parks reduce the risk of obesity related diseases, such as heart disease, certain kinds of cancers, depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

– When people have access to parks they exercise more.  Creation of or enhanced access to places for physical activity led to a 25.6% increase in the percentage of people exercising one or more days per week. Centers for Disease Control

– Access to a place to exercise results in a 5.1% median increase in aerobic capacity, a reduction in body fat, weight loss, improvements in flexibility, and an increase in perceived energy.

– When people have nowhere to walk they gain weight.  Obesity is more likely in unwalkable neighborhoods, but goes down when measures of walkability go up.

-Contact with the natural world improves physical and psychological health.  Park-like settings are associated with feelings of peacefulness, tranquility, and relaxation.  They decrease fear and anger, and are associated with enhanced mental alertness, attention, and cognitive performance. American Journal of Preventative Medicine

-People living near green spaces report fewer health complaints and have better mental health than others.  The study showed the same benefit from living near city parks, agricultural land, forests, and nature areas.

-A 10% increase in nearby green space is found to decrease a person’s health complaints in an amount equivalent to a five year reduction in the person’s age.


Parks Make Economic Sense

-People are consistently willing to pay a larger amount for a property located close to parks and open space areas than for other properties. John L. Crompton, Texas A&M University

-The higher value of homes near parks leads to higher property tax revenues.  These additional revenues can be used to pay for the parks.

-Green areas increase property values.  A study of the proximity of homes to green spaces in Boulder, Colorado showed that, all other things being equal, homes on the green area had an average value 32% higher than those 3,200 feet away.  The green area added $5.4 million in total property values of one neighborhood.  The value lead to an additional $500,000 per year in additional property taxes, which paid for the green space in three years.

-50% of survey respondents would be willing to pay 10% more for a home located near a park or other protected green space. National Association of Realtors, 2001

-An 11 % increase in the amount of green space within a radius of 200-500 feet from a house leads to an approximate 1.5% increase in the expected sales price of the house. University of Southern California

-Arts festivals, athletic events, food festivals, and other events held in parks bring positive economic impacts and bring customers to local stores.


Parks Reduce Pollution

-Trees provide pollution abatement and cooling, including oxygen production, pollution control, water recycling, and prevent soil erosion.  Trees remove significant amounts of ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide from the air.

-Trees and their roots filter water.  Their leaves, trunks, roots, and associated soil remove particulate matter from the water before it reaches storm sewers. They also absorb nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium that otherwise pollutes streams and lakes. American Forests

-Trees act as natural air conditioners that keep cities cooler. United States Department of Agriculture

-Trees manage the flow of stormwater runoff more effectively and inexpensively than concrete sewers and drainage ditches.  The unpaved areas in parks absorb rainwater and allow it to soak into the ground, instead of into storm sewers.

-Access to public parks and recreational facilities is strongly linked to reductions in crime and in particular to reduced juvenile delinquency. Parks keep at risk youth off the streets, give them a safe environment to interact with their peers, and fill up time within they could otherwise get into trouble.

-Parks increase the cohesion among neighborhood residents.  Neighborhoods with strong cohesiveness and shared public space have low rates of violence regardless of socio-demographic composition.

-For small children, playing is learning.  It helps kids develop muscle strength, coordination, language, cognitive thinking, reasoning abilities, and cooperation.

-Exercise increases the brain’s capacity for learning.  Voluntary running boosts the growth of new nerve cells and improves learning and memory in adult mice.  1999 Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

-Residents of neighborhoods with greenery in common spaces are more likely to enjoy stronger social ties than those who live surrounded by concrete.

-Vegetation and neighborhood social ties are significantly related to residents’ senses of safety and adjustment. University of Illinois and the University of Chicago



So why should we keep the west side district together?   If we want to keep our city a desirable place to live we should ensure that the areas surrounding our immediate neighborhood are similarly appealing.  We want our children and all residents to have access to healthy activities.  We live in a community where we can use all of our strength to be better, to constantly improve our city and provide more opportunities for all of us, but only if we work together.  We are one city, one community.


How to Help

Please, share your thoughts at


Attend, and speak, at a City Council meeting.


Write to your City Council and government:

Mayor L. Dennis Michael- 

Mayor Pro Tem Sam Spagnolo- 

Council Member Bill Alexander- 

Council Member Marc Steinorth- 

Council Member Diane Williams- 

John Gillison, City Manager- 

Linda Daniels, Assistant City Manager- 

Dean Rodia, Parks and Landscape Maintenance Superintendent- 

Lori Sassoon, Deputy City Manager/Administrative Services- 

Bill Wittkopf, Public Works Services Director- 

Francie Palmer, Community Services Department Marketing Director- 



1. Rancho Cucamonga, California (CA) income map, earnings map, and wages data. (2009, January 1). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

2. Open Space: A Plan of Open Space and Trails for the County of San Bernardino. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

3. Welsh, B., & Farrington, D. (2008). Effects of Improved Street Lighting on Crime. Campbell Systematic Reviews,2008(13), 2-2. Retrieved September 10, 2014.

4. Park and Facility Locations. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

5. Food Access Research Atlas. (2014, May 28). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

6. School Ranks, API scores and a Color Coded Map for the city of Rancho Cucamonga, CA. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

7. School Ranks, API scores and a Color Coded Map for the city of Alta Loma, CA. (n.d.). Retrieved September 10, 2014, from

8.  Sherer, P. (2006, January 1). The Benefits of Parks: Why America Needs More City Parks and Open Space. Retrieved September 10, 2014, from tpl.pdf

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Squirrel Species Mapping


California Tree Squirrels

Download the App

Photo by Alan Muchlinski

Photo by Alan Muchlinski

Have you seen me?

Participate in a real scientific research project that will map tree squirrels throughout California!

Why help?

Two of California’s four day active tree squirrel species are native to the state while the other two species have been introduced over the past 130 years. You can participate in a real scientific research project that will map the current distribution of squirrels throughout California to determine where an introduced species may negatively impact native species.


Just download the app on your Android phone, or visit California Tree Squirrels on Facebook.
The iPhone app is coming soon!

Or email us the species, date observed, and location observed (GPS coordinates OR street address) at


The Two Native Species
Western Gray Squirrel

Western Gray Squirrel

Sciurus griseus

White fur on the abdomen, gray fur on sides and back. Tail is longer than body, very bushy with white-tipped hairs.


Douglas Squirrel

Douglas Squirrel

Tamiasciurus douglasii

Fur on abdomen is light to dark orange, grayish-brown fur on sides and back, found in coniferous (pine) forests.

The Two Introduced Species
Eastern Fox Squirrel

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Sciurus niger

Orange to rust colored fur on abdomen, reddish-brown colored fur on sides, back, and tail.


Eastern Gray Closer

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Sciurus carolinensis

Color Variant 1: White fur on the abdomen, light gray to rust colored fur on the sides and back, tail is light gray with rust coloration and hairs have white tips.

Color Variant 2: Black fur all over animal.

Similar Species

Remember that tree squirrels are found in trees.  Don’t confuse them with ground squirrels or chipmunk!


California ground squirrel

California ground squirrels are approximately the same size as tree squirrels, but have a more rounded topline, and often have a white area along the back behind the shoulders.  Their bodies are 9-11 inches long, with tails adding 5-9 more inches.


California ground squirrel
Spermophilus beechyi


Golden-mantled ground squirrel

Golden-mantled ground squirrels are similar in size to the California ground squirrel.  However, they have a more golden color and stripes along the sides of their bodies.  Tree squirrels do not have stripes.


Golden mantled ground squirrel
Spermophilus lateralis



Chipmunks are smaller than squirrels, at 4-7 inches long, with a 3-5 inch tail.  They have stripes that run from their bodies to their faces, unlike the Golden-mantled ground squirrel, whose stripes end before the face.


Tamias spp.



How to Report Sightings- It’s easy!

1. Flip through the photos of the squirrels in your app to identify the species you see.

2. Click “Saw it!”

3. If you are out of the cell coverage area your phone will still record your GPS coordinates. Just click “Send Saved Sightings” from the upper right drop down menu when you return to the coverage area to submit your sightings.


Download the app here: California Tree Squirrel Android App

Download a reference sheet here:  California Tree Squirrel Poster

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Mt. Baldy Mudslide

Photo by Al Seib, Los Angeles Times

Support the Mt. Baldy Flood Relief Fund

Created by Caylee Mitchell

A summer storm this weekend caused huge mudflows in Mt. Baldy and many other Southern California communities.  In Mt. Baldy, six homes have been red tagged for demolishment, and many others have sustained significant damage.  Every home you see is flooded with mud, rocks, and boulders. People are out clearing debris all day and long after dark, and, worst of all, one man lost his life. Please support my former student, who created this campaign, in helping everyone put their lives back together.

Click here to help!


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Vertical Zonation Tour: Mojave Desert to Pine Mountain

Vertical Zonation Tour Mojave Desert to Pine Mountain

     Enjoy a Google Earth tour featuring the vertical zonation, or changes in ecosystem and species composition, as you rise from the desert floor in the Mojave near Valyermo, California, and climb to the subalpine fell field at the top of Pine Mountain.

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The Unique Love Between a Sequoia, a Squirrel, and a Beetle

How does a giant sequoia, Sequoiadendron sempervirens, spread its seeds?

It’s not as simple as you might think.  Seed dispersal takes a number of forms involving two different mutualistic relationships.

a. The first, and most obvious, way is when the seed bearing cones dry and release the seeds, which are carried far from the parent tree by small, oval shaped wings.  This method is reliable, and wide dispersal will help prevent saplings from having to compete with its parent for nutrients and light, which is especially important as giant sequoias are very shade-intolerant.  They grow tall very quickly in their early years and consume a large number of nutrients in doing so.

b. Seeds fall in a constant storm during the summer and fall months, but most of the cones from which these seeds fell did not brown from age.  The cones have dried with the help of a special friend, Phymatodes nitidus.  This long horned wood boring beetle lays its eggs where the cone and scale meet.  When the larvae hatch, they eat the flesh of the cone scales.  Each cone scale has two layers of veins, which are often severed when the larvae eat their meal.  Water can no longer reach the cone scales, so they dry up and release the seeds that they were holding in place.  This is a perfect example of a mutualistic relationship, a special kind of symbiosis that benefits both partners in the relationship. The beetle larvae get a delicious food source, while the Sequoia tree gets help spreading its seeds before its cones get so old that the seeds lose viability, or before so many lichens grow on the cones and prevent the seeds from escaping.

c. The other coevolutionary relationship that sequoias use to disperse seeds is with the Douglas squirrel, Tamiasciurus douglasii, also known as the chickaree.  The Douglas squirrel prefers to eat the seeds of pines, firs, and incense cedars when available, but in Sequoia groves these trees may be absent.  In such groves the squirrel will consume the flesh from the scales of green sequoia cones, eating the part that is roughly equivalent to part of the artichoke humans eat.  Sequoia seeds are tiny, too small to provide much nutrition, so they are not a significant part of the squirrel’s feed, but they are dislodged during the cone consumption process, through which they drift to the ground.

d. In addition to the cones that Douglas squirrels consume directly off the branch, the squirrels will store, or cache, cones for future consumption.  Douglas squirrels may bury only six or seven cones in the leaf litter or duff, where space is limited, but along streams or in other moist soil their caches can reach thousands.  Douglas squirrels often displace the western gray squirrel in red fir forests above the snow line because they make such large caches, which pay off the energy expenditure to dig them up.  Western gray squirrels, on the other hand, use small caches, which are too energetically expensive to dig out of the snow for survival.  When the squirrel returns to eat its cones, the seeds spill on the ground, and, after a winter of storage in the cold ground, can propagate in the spring.  The cones the Douglas squirrels forget about will also eventually dry and disperse their seeds.

e. Finally, for reasons unknown, Douglas squirrels cut hundreds of cones off of the trees from which they feed.  One squirrel was actually observed cutting 539 cones off of a sequoia in 31 minutes!  Another team watched a single Douglas squirrel cut approximately 12,000 cones from sequoias in a single day.  While the reason for this behavior may not yet be understood, it certainly contributes to the sequoia’s reproductive success and to the future food supply of the squirrel.


Fire also plays an important role in seed propagation, as it clears open patches that would otherwise be filled by fire susceptible species such as fir, so that young sequoias can access light, it frees nutrients from older trees for use in new growth, and it reduces competition for water, light, and nutrients.  Many sequoias can be seen growing in a row, where they likely propagated under a burnt log that provided a nutrient rich ash bed within which the seeds could grow.  Fire does help more cones to dry and release their seeds, but it is not required for seeds to become viable as it is for some tree species.


Hartesveldt, R., Harvey, H. T., Shellhammer, H. S., & Stecker, R. E. (1975, January 1). The Giant Sequoia of the Sierra Nevada. . Retrieved July 25, 2014.

National Park Service. (2014, July 25). Fire’s Role in a Sequoia Forest. National Parks Service. Retrieved July 26, 2014.

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Mountain Lions and Plane Crashes

It’s been an exciting week in the foothills!

On Saturday, July 12, police shot a mountain lion that had been traveling from yard to yard approximately two miles south of the foothills, well into the suburban neighborhoods of Rancho Cucamonga.  According to KPCC, sightings of additional mountain lions occurred on Sunday and Monday, however, it is important to keep in mind that many people confuse the locally abundant bobcat with the mountain lion.  As highly territorial animals, it is unlikely that multiple cats would wander around the same area at the same time, unless they were courting, which can occur at any time of year but is most likely from December to March.

Image from

Image from

Find more on this story at:


A week later, on Friday, July 18, a small plane crashed into a dirt field after the engine stalled near the top of Haven Avenue in Rancho Cucamonga.  The pilot, 22 year old Ethan Gadis of Glendora, was the only passenger.  He survived with serious injuries after being pulled from the wreckage by a bystander.

Photo by Terry Pierson The Press Enterprise

Photo by Terry Pierson  The Press Enterprise

Find more on this story at: and

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Squirrel in a Hawk’s Talons

March 8, 2013

Visitors along the old road of San Antonio Canyon heard a long series of squeals, as a red tailed hawk carried a squirrel, still alive, down the canyon below Barrett Stoddard Road while a crow darted around the pair.  Apparently the prey animal’s back does not always break when it is picked up.

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Friends Always – Friends Forever

During a recent hike in Eaton Canyon, I passed a group of fathers and sons.  The fathers tended to all of the boys equally, helping them over rocks, telling them the lame jokes all fathers tell, and making sure no one fell behind.  I knew that these must be Indian Guides, the father son version of the Indian Princess group that got me interested in nature.  When they reached the falls one father set a little boy on a rock in front of me, and I got my confirmation.

YMCA Indian Guides

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Mastodons, Mammoths, and Big Horn Sheep

December 19th, 2013

In our attempt to dodge the precipitation that was scheduled all over Southern California we covered a lot of ground and biomes.  We found some interesting places, both natural and man made.

– Riverside south of the 60 freeway: A real life lean-to under a tree in the middle of an open field, with a car pulled along side

-Hemet, Gilman Springs Road east of Highway 79: “Golden Era Productions”, better known as Scientology’s retreat and training center

-Hemet: The Western Center for Archaeology and Paleontology, a pretty cool museum featuring items that were unearthed during the construction of Diamond Valley Lake, including Native American artifacts, recent settlers’ tools, a mastodon, and a mammoth skeleton.  The layout is spectacular, with moveable outlines of California that show the coastline through Earth’s various geologic eras, and the actual mastodon bones embedded in the floor below transparent viewing tiles.

– Mountain Center to Lake Hemet- Snow.  Lots and lots of snow.

– Highway 74 Palms to Pines Highway Overlook- Wind.  Lots and lots of wind.

– Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountians National Monument, Art Smith Trail- Just before dusk, we explored this trail, named after one of Palm Desert’s most active trail creators.  The trail begins in a wash with lots of wild cucumber and cholla.  After a short distance you enter a steep cliffed canyon with dark rock walls narrowing on each side.  After we passed one lone California Fan Palm, our water thirsty native palm that indicates that water is close to the surface, we decided it was time to turn back before it got dark.  As we turned around, a bighorn sheep toppled a line of rocks hundreds of feet down the cliff face to the trail right in front of us.  Luckily, he seemed to have fled, and didn’t topple any more missiles our way.

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Hello world!

Bison Flehming Response

Do you smell that?  The American Bison, Bison bison, exhibits the Flehmen Response after smelling the delicious pheromones coming from the urine or genitals of the next bison over.

This bison was photographed in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley on July 25th, 2013.

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Coyote Hunt

September 21st, 2013

As I drove through Cal Poly, Pomona this morning, I saw a coyote in a pasture across the road, pouncing over and over as he attempted to capture a squirrel.  After five or six bounds, the coyote killed its prey. The coyote tore off a chunk and ate it, took a few steps, and tore off another. It looked at me periodically, until I had to go.

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Yellowstone Falls

Yellowstone Falls 1

The Yellowstone Falls Permarainbow

July 26th, 2013


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September 20th, 2013

It’s tarantula season in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains!

Today’s Sighting: Two fast moving tarantulas on the Hermosa Avenue fire road

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