By Cindy Hardin, Director of Outdoor Education

The days are long; the nights are warm — it’s summertime in beautiful Southern California! Of course, outdoor activities are a year-round option in this part of the world, due to our mild Mediterranean climate. But the bright mornings and long golden evenings that are emblematic of the season bring a special call to make the time to step outside and enjoy a slice of nature, near our homes and farther afield.

There is mounting evidence, both anecdotal and research based, that indicates that time spent outdoors in a natural setting is conducive to mental, emotional and physical health. Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principal”, has long been an advocate of keeping and/or re-introducing nature in our lives. As the role of technology in society continues to grow at an unbridled rate, the real world of the great outdoors is slipping further and further away from large segments of the population. This is particularly true of young people, many of whom have had access to electronic devices like smart phones since early childhood. It has been reported that school age children spend on average 7.8 hours daily viewing electronic screens of some kind.

The greening of the school yard is one tool to counterbalance this obsession with images on the screen. Los Angeles Audubon has been a key player in bringing nature to our local schools through the creation of a thriving native habitat at Leo Politi Elementary School and a pending project at Esperanza Elementary School. A Canadian study showed greening of school grounds improved academic performance of students, lowered exposure to toxins and increased teachers’ enthusiasm for being teachers (James Raffan, “Nature Nurtures: Investigating the Potential of School Grounds”, The Evergreen Canada Initiative). LAAS’s hands-on experience with campus greening has seen similar positive effects at Leo Politi.

Of course, contact with green spaces is important for all age groups. But where to go? Los Angeles is indeed a huge, sprawling metropolis. According to The Trust for Public Land, we have the dubious distinction of being one of the most “park poor” cities in America. One of the ways this rating is determined is by tabulating which percentage of the population is within a 10 minute walk to a park. Our largest parks, Griffith Park and our beaches, are positioned on the perimeter of the city, and are in no way located within a 10 minute walk for most residents. However, the sprawling nature of LA, disparaged by many for good reason, was in part driven by the notion that most residents would have their own “mini-park”, i.e. the backyard. This style of civic planning has left us with hellish commutes, a dependence on the automobile and isolation from the city core. But, it has also created vast tracts of housing with lush backyards and tree-lined streets.

In many areas, the canopy created by these “street trees” is quite dense. Older neighborhoods, constructed in the post World War II building boom, are veritable urban oases of mature trees, and home for many of our avian friends. For example, the neighborhoods around Slauson and Vermont do not immediately come to mind as a location for prime nature viewing. But I have taken students on birdwalks on campuses located in this area, and spotted Hooded Orioles, Bushtits, nesting hummingbirds and all manner of finches, amongst other species of birds.

My own neighborhood, which is block upon block of apartments, is also filled with street trees. Hummingbirds nest six feet from my kitchen window every year, Cooper’s Hawks are regularly sighted during the early evening hours, and Dark-eyed Juncos forage amongst the undergrowth in the mornings. This year, towards the end of May, a flock of 50 Cedar Waxwings passed through to fortify themselves as they continued their migration to Western Canada.

Louv recommends at least 10 minutes a day of what he calls “Vitamin N” (Vitamin Nature). The National Wildlife Federation suggests an hour a day in the fresh air. Stepping outside your door and really looking at your own neighborhood is an easy way to get your daily quota. Exploration of your personal locale might yield some nice surprises. In East LA one could get to know Hollenbeck Park or Hazard Park. Mar Vista has a collection of cardio challenging stairways. Montecito Heights is adjacent to Debs Park. There is a lovely restored section of Compton Creek in Compton, and south LA has a fabulous wildlife park, complete with a nature center, built on re-claimed industrial land, at Compton and Slauson. And of course, there is the wildly popular Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, at the western edge of the Baldwin Hills. This California State Park, located in the middle of the city, is enjoyed by hundreds of people every day. Habitat improvement and restoration that is being done there by LAAS continues to amplify the native plant pallet, and attract more and more native species of birds and other wildlife.

In addition, if one chooses a regular time of day for these neighborhood forays, there’s a good chance that you will begin to notice others doing the same thing. We are creatures of habit. I walk every morning between 5 and 7 am, and have many “pre-dawn friends” as a result of this routine. Traversing the same routes at approximately the same time on a daily basis gives opportunity to be an eyewitness to seasonal changes in light, vegetation and presence of animals, and build community with your human neighbors!

Well, you may say, I live in a place that truly is a concrete jungle. There are definitely parts of Los Angeles that fit this description. Fortunately, there is open space to be found, some within the city limits, and lots adjacent to our borders. And your Los Angeles Audubon Society is here to help! As you probably know, we offer regularly scheduled birdwalks and nature activities on most weekends. We encourage one and all to come and join us. Each of these events is staffed by volunteers who love to share their knowledge and enthusiasm about the natural world with others. Some of your options:

OPEN WETLANDS: On the first Saturday of every month, from 9 am to noon, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve is open to the public. Attendees can borrow binoculars, view aquatic invertebrates through microscopes, and stroll through the dune habitat and out to the creek to look for birds through our high powered scopes.

The Microscope Station at Open Wetlands always hold interesting surprises. Regular visitor Maddie helps docent Diana Spurlin search for invertebrates found in our tidal channel water sample. Photo by Cindy Hardin 

The Microscope Station at Open Wetlands always hold interesting surprises. Regular visitor Maddie helps docent Diana Spurlin search for invertebrates found in our tidal channel water sample. Photo by Cindy Hardin 

TOPANGA CANYON: We host a guided birdwalk on the first Sunday of every month, from 8 am to noon, in the wilds of Topanga Canyon. Historic Trippet Ranch is the starting point, and wide open spaces, native plants and mountainous surroundings are all a part of this excursion. The quiet of the canyon on an early Sunday morning is just the antidote to hectic urban overload!

FRANKLIN CANYON: An amazing swath of hidden wilderness is the site of a birdwalk that takes place on the second Sunday of every month, from 8:30 to 11:30. A lake, a pond, hillside trails and all manner of wildlife is found in this park-you won’t believe that Los Angeles is just over the hill.

KENNETH HAHN STATE RECREATION AREA: Sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin are part of the package during this birdwalk on the third Saturday of the month, from 8 am to 11 am. No walks in July August, but walks resume in September, just in time to catch the return of our wintering birds and migrating species as they swing through on their way to points south.

BALLONA WETLANDS: This walk focuses on Del Rey Lagoon, the ocean and Ballona Creek in its search for birds on the third Sunday of every month, from 8 am to noon. No walk in December.

Although birding is a component of these events, there is also a focus on native plants and habitats, and general enjoyment of nature and its wonders. Our volunteer guides welcome folks with all levels of experience, including those with little to no familiarity of our local wild habitats! LAAS is committed to encouraging every citizen to learn more about the environment, with the belief that better knowledge leads to better stewardship of our precious open spaces. More details can be found about each of these events at losangelesaudubon.org. In addition, there are listings of trips that will take you further afield; the above walks are meant to explore the urban wilderness that abounds in Los Angeles.

But perhaps you are already a nature enthusiast. If that is the case, you should know that we are always looking for volunteers to help us with our endeavors to de-mystify nature to the general public. In fact, our fabulous volunteers are the lifeblood of these programs, and frankly, we could not do it without them. Training is provided, and, as you can see by the above descriptions, commitment of your time might be as little as once a month. Please contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you would like to get involved.

Urbanites are often conditioned to think that one must travel to experience nature. But in fact, it can be as close as your front porch. Take the time during this most juicy of seasons to step outside, feel the sun on your face, look for insects and the beautiful songbirds that are hunting for them, watch the play of light and dark on the leaves of the trees, and listen for the call of the mockingbird and other avian neighbors. You will be amazed at the enduring resilience and presence of the wild things, even here, in our big giant city.

Dirt roads in West LA?!! Yes, indeed. This is a part of my own "neighborhood nature", which I did not discover until I was tipped off by a long-time resident in my area.

Dirt roads in West LA?!! Yes, indeed. This is a part of my own "neighborhood nature", which I did not discover until I was tipped off by a long-time resident in my area. Photo by Cindy Hardin