School Is Now In Session!

By Cindy Hardin, Environmental Education, Photographs by Leslie Davidson

The last time you heard about the Audubon Education Program volunteers we had taken a summer field trip to the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology. Well, summer is long gone, and our field trip season at Ballona and Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is in full swing. However, before the student field trip visits begin, the docents in both programs spend the first part of the fall attending our annual Docent Training Programs. The trainings are a great way for all of us to recharge, see each other after a summer hiatus, and greet new Audubon volunteers and interns. The sessions feature guest speakers who cover various aspects of the unique habitats found at the sites of our programs. This year we were especially fortunate to have a terrific roster of speakers. Some were returning favorites, and others were brand new additions. All of our guest lecturers generously share their knowledge and enthusiasm about the natural world, and how to interpret this information to visiting schoolchildren.

1-Black-Phoebe web
As the pickleweed takes on its crimson hue of autumn, and the Black Phoebe searches for late season insects, Audubon Education Program docents return for Fall Training.

2-Margot Web
Margot Griswold takes the time to discuss the virtues of a slow and thoughtful approach to habitat restoration.

Audubon’s own Margot Griswold did double duty, speaking to both the Ballona group and the crew at Kenneth Hahn. Margot has many years of experience doing large scale habitat restoration projects, and she spent time with us describing the goals and mechanics of the restoration process. For the Ballona group this included a walk through the wetlands and discussion of the essential role that native plants play in the functionality of a natural habitat. At Kenneth Hahn we were able to see firsthand the results of Margot’s handiwork at the Native Plant and Wildlife Garden. The Kenneth Hahn volunteers also received instruction from Margot on how to test rate of drainage in different soil types. This is a demonstration that is part of the curriculum for all sixth graders who visit the park. It opens up discussion with the students about soil composition and origin, and its effect on determining the type of vegetation that will be found at a particular site.

3-Larry-Allen-1 web
I was very excited to have Larry Allen teach us about the wonders of the avian world!

Since Ballona is a designated Important Bird Area, it is a given that every year we have one of our training days devoted to birds and birding. This year we were lucky enough to have birder extraordinaire, Larry Allen, as our bird expert. Larry’s vast knowledge of birding combined with his cheerful and encouraging demeanor served to inform and inspire even the most novice birders in our group. All of us were charmed by the Black Oystercatchers and their “glowstick bills” that were sighted on the creek as we walked with Larry. Egrets of both the Great and Snowy variety, Great Blue Herons and Red Tailed Hawks were all present to dazzle the crowd. It was great fun to see the reaction of some of the new volunteers, several of whom had never birded before, to these charismatic species. For several docents, the learning continued even after the session concluded, as there was a post-lunch expedition out to the breakwater to see the Blue Footed Boobies that had been hanging around the area during early fall.

We continued to take advantage of the knowledgeable folk of LA Audubon with a visit from Travis Longcore. Travis was kind enough to take time from his hectic schedule to teach us about the natural history of the Ballona Wetlands. We learned about estuarine systems, both open and closed (Ballona being in the latter category for hundreds of years), and the tricky business of restoring coastal wetlands in our state. A special emphasis was put on approaches to restoration processes this year at the Ballona training, as there are currently some controversial plans in the works regarding the Ballona Wetlands. Presenting both the history of the site and examining restorations at other similar locations serves to inform our volunteer staff about the appropriateness of various proposals. Travis did an excellent job of enlightening us to the possibilities for Ballona’s future.

Next up at Ballona was the always fabulous Tracy Drake, manager of the Madrona Marsh in Torrance. Tracy is tremendously skilled at interpreting nature to the public. Her energy is contagious! She is a presenter every year, and with good reason: she effectively conveys teaching techniques that make education fun for both the volunteer staff and the students that visit us. This year included a training exercise that broke us into small groups and required us to do an on the fly (pun intended!) presentation on butterflies. Long-time volunteer Lynn Bossone did an imitation of a butterfly that was particularly entertaining! As we all know, a little humor goes a long way in helping to educate people, and our morning with Tracy was filled with learning and laughs.

4-Tracy-and-Her-Students web
Tracy Drake oversees the volunteers as they prepare their butterfly presentations. The training sessions are always well attended, and we often run out of chairs!

5-Crab-Spider web
Martina Ramirez helps us to scout arachnids in the field. Can you find the Crab Spider hiding in the Goldenbush?

Martina Ramirez, a faculty member at LMU, got us into a Halloween mood with her terrific talk on spiders. She always brings interesting items for viewing, like the large exoskeleton that was shed from a molting Tarantula. She also finds fantastic live specimens out in the field, and this year was no different. As we hiked through the dunes we found Crab Spiders, Trash Spiders and the very showy Orb Weavers that abound at this time of year. The big finish was watching one of the Orb Weavers trap an insect in its web and wrap it in silk, to be saved as a later snack. One of the intents of our spider training session is to de-mystify these fascinating creatures, and to help others appreciate, rather than fear, them. As I always say to the students, if you hate spiders, you must love flies!

Our last Ballona speaker was Greg Pauly, staff herpetologist at the Natural History Museum. There are loads of reptiles at Ballona, and we see lizards on almost every walk with the students. Therefore, it was high time to have an expert talk to us about lizards, snakes and their ilk, and Greg fit the bill perfectly. He went into action with his telescoping lizard lasso, and it was something to behold. Greg was able to temporarily capture and display the three types of lizard common to Ballona: the Alligator, Western Fence and Western Side-blotched Lizard. It was a treat for the group to see and compare each of these up close, and also to observe Greg’s prowess in lizard hunting. Greg is also promoting a new NHM program that relies upon citizen science to track the reptiles and amphibians that might be found in our own backyards. It is known as the RASCals project (Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern California), and has two goals. One is to find out how man-made change has affected distribution of species in our area, and the other is to discover and track introduced species of reptiles and amphibians in Southern California. Anyone who has a camera with a time stamp and e-mail capability can participate. If you would like to know more you can go to www.nhm.org/rascals.

6-Greg-Pauly web
Greg Pauly is the staff herpetologist at the Natural History Museum, and dazzled us with his proficiency at lizard catching. Here he displays a reluctant guest to the crowd.

7-Lizard-Scat web
Even if we don’t actually see a lizard, we can find evidence of their presence. What is the evidence that Greg is holding in his hand? (Look for the answer at the end of the article).

Concurrent to the Ballona training were training sessions at Kenneth Hahn. As mentioned above, Margot Griswold spent a great morning with us at the park in the habitat garden. We continued to mine the vast knowledge of Audubon folk with a visit from Stacey Vigallon. Most of you are aware that Stacey is an incredibly talented artist, and she spent her time instructing us on the subject of Scientific Illustration. At Kenneth Hahn we have an Illustration Station that is a part of every student tour. The children observe flower and insect specimens, and then record their observations by drawing what they see. This exercise prompts students to think about the structure of an organism, and how these structures help them to survive in their habitat. For example, the long legs of a grasshopper enable it to leap away from predators, and the fuzzy leaves of the white sage allow the plant to trap moisture on foggy mornings. Our volunteer staff and interns were sent off into the field to make their own observations and drawings as part of this training, which helped all of us to find new appreciation for the habitat at the park. We also had our own project to take home, just like the students who experience our field trips.

Bob DeGroot, of the Southern California Earthquake Center, rounded out our speaker roster at Kenneth Hahn. The SCEC is the group that puts on the annual earthquake preparedness drill known as the Great Shakeout, and Bob has a vast knowledge of our local geology and its effect on our region. It is a particularly relevant subject for the program at Kenneth Hahn, as the park itself is perched directly upon the Newport Inglewood fault. The thrusting action of this fault has resulted in the uplift that created the Baldwin Hills, and the close to the surface presence of natural gas and oil in the area. The state science standards for sixth graders puts a heavy emphasis on natural resources, and the tectonic plate movement that creates and makes these resources accessible. Kenneth Hahn Park is a perfect living laboratory to illustrate this, and Bob helps us to translate it to the middle school set. His demonstration that utilizes an Oreo cookie to represent the movement of tectonic plates is effective and delicious!

8-Tools-Illustration-training web
Stacey Vigallon shows off some of the tools of the trade for our illustration training.

We were all grateful to have the chance to learn from such a varied and brilliant set of presenters. Although this year’s training has concluded, we continue to educate ourselves by leading walks, asking questions, and keeping abreast of information that is continually being published both on-line and in print. If you have an interest in learning along with us, please feel free to come down to see a field trip in action at Kenneth Hahn or Ballona. All you need to do is contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. We’d love to see you!

Finally, have you guessed what the lizard left behind? Those are the part of the meal that the lizard could not digest: ant exoskeletons.

Published Western Tanager Vol 80 No. 3 January/February 2014