Interpreting Nature

Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Interns Find Nature in the City

By Stacey Vigallon, and the 2011-2012 Greenhouse Interns

On a warm summer day in August 2011, this school year’s Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Interns began their summer training. For some, it was the first time they had ever used a compass, for others it was the most time they had ever spent outdoors. Fast-forward to Spring 2012… now in the implementation phase of their research projects, each intern has already worked a minimum of 100 hours - writing a project proposal, collecting data, participating in habitat restoration events, and working with elementary school students. For all of them, participation in Los Angeles Audubon’s Baldwin Hills Greenhouse Program is hopefully the start of a life-long interest in the environment and a push to become environmentally aware members of the community who value wildlife conservation. In their essays below, Greenhouse Interns reflect on what their experience in the program has been like so far. Stay on the lookout for their research project results in a future issue.

Greenhouse Interns work with Dr. Margot Griswold to sample soil at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

Greenhouse Interns work with Dr. Margot Griswold to sample soil at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

I Thought They Were All Pigeons

By Monica Anderson

Working in this program so far has been an extraordinary learning experience for me. When I first got accepted into the internship, I became excited just at the thought that I would be given the opportunity to conduct a year-long science project - not only was I doing something I love, but I was also getting paid to do so. Prior to the summer training for the program, interns were sent packets of things we should familiarize ourselves with before the actual work started. In that packet was a CD of bird names and their songs. My whole life up until opening that CD, I had thought all the birds that I saw in the city were all pigeons! I never knew of a bird called the Cactus Wren until that day. I immediately became enthralled with the fact that there were more bird species than just pigeons, gulls, and crows. I imported the songs onto my iPod, adding pictures so that an image of the bird would pop up on my iPod when its song played. From that point on I knew I wanted my project to revolve around birds.

Once school started, we started meeting for work at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook every Tuesday and Friday after school. And, every Tuesday and Friday, I traverse an urban corridor from Dorsey’s campus to the greenhouse, mentally and physically journeying from academic stress to natural relief. Sometimes we’d study Coastal Sage Scrub and the different plants and animals we’d expect to see at the park. Other times we’d do habitat restoration, weeding invasive plants and planting more native plants in the demonstration area. About three months ago, I began working on my bird project. My project involves studying how bird abundance varies with human abundance in the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, and how the variation of vegetation varies with bird abundance. When I take bird surveys, I’m consistently amazed with the park’s species diversity. And, if the diversity in this urban park is this remarkable, what might a rainforest be like?

A Greenhouse Intern surveys for birds at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

A Greenhouse Intern surveys for birds at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

Plants Can Be Friends

By Jessica Sosa

The image that always pops into my mind when I think of plants being friends is plants holding each other’s leaves. Plants can’t actually hold each other leaves; however, they can be companions. This bonding “friendship” between plants is called companion planting. Companion planting is a gardening tradition that consists of two plant species planted close together in order to generate some type of benefit. These benefits can included enhanced aroma, growth, or taste. My project for the Baldwin Hills Greenhouse program for the past three school years incorporates companion planting between plants from California and food plants. This project aims to address the issue of restoring native plants to the Los Angeles area but also producing highly nutritious food.

Where I live, there is very little native habitat and as a result I grew up not seeing much wildlife. When I became an intern I learned that this lack of native habitat greatly affects native wildlife, and the native open space that is available creates an island effect for wildlife. Therefore, my project was aimed to address this issue of restoring native habitat. If gardens contained the type of companion planting method I used in my project, city gardens may help provide wildlife corridors and provide highly nutritious food for our own benefit.

Before beginning my companion planting project I had to do research and then write a proposal explaining my project and stating its importance. Writing my first proposal was probably one of the hardest things I had ever written at that time. However, after having to walk up the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook stairs on my first day of intern training, writing a proposal felt like a piece of cake. This internship has allowed me to work outdoors through hands-on learning rather than just read about environmental science from a book.

A Greenhouse Interns digs through highly compacted soil to help plant native species at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook.

A Greenhouse Interns digs through highly compacted soil to help plant native species at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. 

Could Microscopic Fungi Save This Park?

By Alexis Hernandez

My corrhizal fungi, tiny foot soldiers already connected to approximately 90% of all plants discovered. These specific fungi have been able to create a symbiotic relationship with their host plant: retrieving nutrients for the plant and gaining phosphorus, sugars and other nutrients in return. These fungi species have been able to continue their life since the prehistoric era through their handy sidekick, the wind. Using this natural occurrence, the fungi drift through the wind until they snag onto an exposed root of any plant, from a small sunflower to an over grown oak tree. Once captured, the fungi, depending on its variety of methods, will seep inside the root of the plant, creating a symbiotic connection.

Because of its unique ability to create a relationship with plant communities, I am utilizing these fungi in an experiment at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. My experiment will be to develop a method of trying to restore the coastal sage scrub plant community at the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. My strategy of attack will be to create 3 plots on the hillside next to the greenhouse. Creating these plots on a hillside with an approximate slope of 60 degrees was not easy. In fact, creating these plots was one of the most labor demanding experiences of my life, and I thank my fellow interns for their help. Plot one will contain the fungi species and various seeds. Plot two will only contain the various sees. And Plot 3 will be labeled as control.

The park and I have been able to create a symbiotic relationship too. It receives a restored plant community and I gain valuable work experience. Working with in various weather conditions such as blazing sun, rain and everything in between, it has allowed me to gain a better understanding of how the world works in terms of an ecological career. Not only has it been able to increase my strength mentally but also physically. Through the demanding labor traveling to and from the greenhouse and also the work associated with the internship, I have been able to increase my speed in competitive swimming and water polo.

I Never Get to See the Animals I Study

By Chelsi Carr

I rarely see the animals I study for two reasons: the park closes at five and nocturnal wildlife is hard to see. Instead, I play detective, relying on only clues and evidence on the ground that mammals are present. Recently I have spotted the distinctive track and scat of Procyon lotor. Ground squirrels, feral cats, and gophers have been observed during my surveys as well. The data I collect from my project will help determine mammal presence in the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park. Overpopulation of small predators can affect the plants, small insects, and the ecosystem within the park.

I document my findings in my “Rite in the Rain” all weather journal. Usually, I survey the trailside along the greenhouse and the small picnic area along the main road of the park for tracks and scat. Occasionally, I will survey all park trails identifying clear evidence of mammals. Sometimes tracks are clear enough to use Plaster-of-Paris to get a cast of the track. Using Plaster-of-Paris was one of the coolest experiences for me as an intern, but I am excited to soon use motion sensitive cameras as well. Although I have a great interest in science and wildlife I never had a hands-on opportunity to be as involved as I am with my project until now.

Working at the Greenhouse is a study in contradictions. The Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook is a peaceful environment compared to the city below. But, it also attracts many visitors for diverse reasons. While working I see families with children, dog walkers, exercisers, meditation, prayer, amateur and professional photographers, and even visitors who just gather information about the park itself. It makes me feel contented that this park is so close to home, and that it’s a refuge from the city.

I Go to the Park to Count Dead Things

By Elric Siufanua

Before becoming an intern I didn’t know what to expect. When I applied it was only because my biology teacher told me to. Once I saw my name under the interns acceptance list though I was extremely happy. At that point I thought I could tackle anything… until I had to write a project proposal. I was completely lost and confused – my project was about road kill, and I suddenly felt like I was road kill. Because it was my first time ever writing a proposal, I didn’t know where or how to start, but with help and a lot of hard work I finished. Honestly, writing that proposal was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. My project is about road kill and how wildlife is affected by the roads and trails at Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook State Park. Oddly enough, I go to the park to count dead things. Through this project I get to experience the outdoors, which I didn’t get to do that often before. It also gives me a little insight into the environment that surrounds me. Basically what I do is count how many dead animals I find on selected trails and on the main road through the park. There are days when I find a lot of dead wildlife and some days when I don’t find any. Rainy days seem to produce a lot more road kill, mainly snails. It’s kind of cool studying road kill because I’m observing things most people don’t care about. I hope that this program stays at Dorsey High School because not too many students get the chance to explore wildlife in a job while in high school. I’m so happy because becoming an intern has really boosted my level of work experience and has me more involved in my community.

Published Western Tanager Vol. 78 No. 4 March/April 2012