A Little Rain Can Do Wonders

By Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education

Western Tanager Vol. 80 No. 5 May/June 2014

Although it now seems like a distant memory, our parched part of the world did receive a significant amount of rain during the first weekend in March. This one storm save this season from being one for the books with lowest rainfall ever recorded. At Ballona the effects of the deluge were immediately apparent. The Ballona watershed covers a large swath of the west side of our town. We tell the students that tour the wetlands that every drop of rain that falls from the Hollywood sign to Santa Monica will end up in Ballona Creek, much of it passing through the wetlands before it reaches the sea. Of course, when we receive an inundation like the one that kicked off the month of March, some of that water will remain at Ballona for weeks-it is a wetland, after all! The following photos were taken two days after the last drops fell, and in that brief time span wildflowers exploded into bloom, ponds filled, and animals had a field day hunting for insects and nectar.

1-spring-at-Ballona-Linda-Doebel-water-sample by-cindy-hardin

Ballona docent Linda Doebel scoops a water sample from our freshly filled vernal pond. This sample is destined for our microscope station, where students will have a chance to view aquatic creatures. Dragonflies, Midgeflies and mosquitoes all lay their eggs in this pond. The larvae look great under a microscope. They will soon burst forth into their adult insect form, providing food for lizards, warblers, phoebes and a host of other insectivores that can be found at Ballona. They are also a great teaching tool to illustrate the different types of life cycles found in the animal world, and a source of fascination for our visiting school children.


The purple flowers of the Dune Lupine contrast with the red colored pickleweed of the saltmarsh. Most of these flowers have now morphed into seed pods. We are keeping fingers crossed that next year will bring enough rain to allow for germination! The pickleweed stores salts in its tips, which turn red and then fall off, ridding the plant of excess salt. This adaptation allows it to thrive in the salty habitat found in the marsh. During years in which we receive a lot of rain the pickleweed will absorb enough freshwater to turn the entire plant a verdant green. As the photo illustrates, this year was not one of those years!


A wide shallow pond forms at the site of an old riding rink, a reminder of the days when a horse stable occupied the wetlands.


The seedpods are the clue to how Bladderpod got its name!


Tour leader Emily Reed shows her group of students the channel through which rainwater flowed into the saltmarsh at the height of the storm.


Different shades of green, from the silvery tones of the Croton to the Technicolor green of the willows, create a tapestry of color where the sand dunes meet the riparian area of the wetlands.


The Allen’s Hummingbird takes a break on a convenient snag after swooping after insects feeding on the newly blooming flowers.

8-Deerweed-Dune-Primrose-spring-at-Ballona by-cindy-hardin

Deerweed and Dune Primrose rise above last year’s dried out undergrowth, creating quite a buzz amongst the local bees.


The Say’s Phoebe intently scans the surroundings for her winged lunch.


A Western Fence Lizard makes an appearance, attracted by both the prospect of a protein filled meal and the post rainstorm warmth of the sun.

At the moment there are still splashes of color and some standing water to be found at Ballona. The seeds are setting earlier than usual, and migrating birds are beginning to move through quickly, taking advantage of the fodder made more abundant by that one good storm. Is there an upside to this paucity of rain? Far fewer weedy introduced grasses have sprouted this year, leaving more resources for our native wildflowers. In fact, for the school tours, the Restoration Station, a part of the program since its inception, has been temporarily replaced by a Migration Station. There simply were not enough weeds for the students to safely remove without trampling native plants. The children now learn through a series of activities how the loss of 90% of California’s wetlands negatively impacts wildlife and migratory habits of birds. But, as we tell the students, Ballona is still here, and whether we receive four inches or forty inches of rain, this habitat will remain in perpetuity, providing open space and respite for all kinds of creatures, including those of the human variety.