Patience and Luck Are Required to Spot Secretive and Seldom Seen Species
BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN
New Malibu residents learn quickly that they share the neighborhood with a wide variety of wildlife. However, while many species are a familiar sight—pelicans cruising at eye level along PCH, deer grazing at dusk, great horned owls performing muted duets in the garden at night–there are a number of species of Malibu birds and animals that are so skilled at eluding detection that even most longtime Malibu residents never see them or know that they are there.
"Thin as a rail" may be the current epitome of haut couture, but it's a survival adaptation for a secretive wetland bird called the Virginia rail, and its cousin the sora rail. Both species can be found at the Malibu Lagoon, but are more often heard than seen.
"[Nature photographer] William Burt calls them 'shadow birds,' biologist Robert van der Hoek told the Malibu Surfside News. Van de Hoek used a recording of the sora's call–a musical cry of "SoooooRa, Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!"–to lure the shy birds out of tule reeds where they live. The News saw two of the elusive soras and heard three additional individuals.
The same technique has been used to document Virginia rails at the Malibu Lagoon. However, van der Hoek cautioned that re-corded calls should be used only sparingly, so as not to interfere with the rails' activities.
Although the sora and the Virginia rail are described as uncommon visitors in some of the older bird lists for the lagoon, birdwatchers say that both species have been observed on a regular basis for several years, and that the sora currently appear to be established residents of the lagoon. The Virginia rail has also been observed with increasing frequency.
Rails aren't the only invisible bird species in the area. Birdwatchers report that the lesser nighthawk is also occasionally sighted at the Malibu and Zuma lagoons and at Nicholas Flat.
Effectively camouflaged during the day, this insectivorous bird is active at dusk, snatching insects on the wing.
The common poorwill's clear, onomatopoeic cry of "pooooor-will" is a familiar sound to residents and visitors in western Malibu, including Zuma and Trancas canyons, but it requires keen perception and good luck to spot this master of disguise.
On the ground, this bird is so well camouflaged that even if one is looking straight at it it is almost impossible to distinguish it from dirt and twigs.
Most Malibu families are used to seeing–and hearing–the resident coyote tribes, who enliven spring evenings with their song and are a frequent sight at dawn and dusk, and the local raccoon and possum populations, but few human inhabitants of the area ever see the much shyer and more elusive gray fox, Urocyon cinereoargenteus. This small member of the canine family has been described as "the cat of the dog family." It is an expert at climbing fences and even trees, and makes a living eating mice, rats, insects, reptiles and fruit.
Gray foxes are more common in undeveloped areas but some appear to have also adapted to being urban carnivores and can be found in some unlikely places.
Gray foxes still live on Point Dume, despite substantial habitat loss and the presence of coyotes, which will prey upon foxes. Early morning beachgoers occasionally observe a fox in the remnants of riparian habitat that still exist in the canyons that are used as beach easements. Gray foxes have also been observed on the beach at Point Dume.
An adult female was recently struck by a car and killed on Selfridge Road. Two more dead gray foxes were observed last month on Kanan Dume Road at Newton Canyon. However, the biggest hazard for the gray fox is rodenticide. Like mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes, gray foxes are vulnerable to secondary poisoning.
Much less common is Bassariscus astutus, the ring-tailed cat, a small carnivore with a pointed, fox-like face and an enormous, bushy striped tail that is longer than its body. The ring-tail is a relative of the raccoon, but its unusual appearance and vocalizations–ranging from growls and metallic clicks to an eerie ululation–have led more than one observer to think they have caught sight of an escaped exotic.
Wildlife authorities say that a "lemur" on the loose that was reported by Calabasas media last year was almost certainly a ring-tailed cat. Malibu residents have had a similar response. "I thought it was somebody's escaped pet," one resident told the Malibu Surfside News after a ring-tailed cat sighting. "I've never seen or heard anything like it. I was all ready to call animal control and then I remembered reading about these a long time ago, but I'd never seen one before."
The ring-tailed cat is nocturnal, intelligent, solitary and extremely shy. Its preferred food consists of rodents, small reptiles and insects, but it will also eat native fruits and berries. Roadkill can tempt this increasingly rare animal onto mountain roads where it is, in turn, vulnerable to being struck by vehicles. Although the urban carnivore research project has not specifically studied the impact of rodenticide on ring-tailed cats, they are also thought to be negatively impacted by the use of anti-coagulant rat poison.
Still abundant in other western states, the ring-tailed cat appears to be declining in California due to habitat loss and population fragmentation. It is classified as a fully protected species in the state.
The American badger, Taxidea taxus, is another Malibu resident that is seldom observed by humans. Never present in large numbers, this member of the mustelid-weasel-family has been severely impacted by habitat loss and secondary poisoning from their preferred prey species, which include gophers and ground squirrels.
Powerfully built and large—about the size of a cocker spaniel dog, the badger is a fierce fighter who can usually stand up to dogs, coyotes and even bobcats, but is no match for traffic.
Malibu's badgers prefer the less developed portions of the Santa Monica Mountains but are occasionally sighted on the outskirts of more urban areas, including Malibu Park and Pepperdine University. Badgers are currently listed as a species of special concern by the state of California.
The long-tailed weasel is a distant cousin of the badger who also makes its home in Malibu. Small and long, swift and agile, this sleek mustelid is a fierce hunter and can tackle wood rats, gophers and ground squirrels bigger than itself. Long-tailed weasels are obligate carnivores who prey on all types of rodents and reptiles but will also eat insects.
Although it prefers to stay away from humans, the long-tailed weasel has been observed making its home in backyard woodpiles or even under outbuildings. Like the area's other carnivores, it is at risk from secondary rodenticide poisoning.
Perhaps the most bizarre unseen animal in Malibu is the rare Riverside fairy shrimp, a small aquatic crustacean that inhabits ephemeral ponds, pooled water that collects in depressions in stone, and even human-modified depressions, including Chumash mortar stones, along coastal southern California to northwestern Baja, Mexico.
The fairy shrimp reportedly only hatches when conditions are right. The eggs, which may be transported on the feet of birds, or carried on the wind, remain viable for several years. During a wet winter, when water fills the area's ponds and rock depressions, the fairy shrimp hatches. Its life cycle is approximately two weeks. By the time the pools dry up, the next generation of fairy shrimp eggs have been laid, in expectation of future rains.
The Riverside fairy shrimp is a federally listed endangered species. One site where the shrimp have periodically been observed in Malibu is protected as part of Charmlee Wilderness Park. Another, located near Topanga Canyon may one day be a multi-million dollar house, instead of a habitat for tiny fairy shrimp.
According to Laurel Klein Serieys of the Urban Carnivores project: "There are many things we can do to alleviate the stress of human development on wildlife populations. A great thing to do is educate yourself about what animals live near you. Be aware of their presence and how we may affect them. We are neighbors to local wildlife. Obey leash laws in parks that require you to keep your dogs on leash. And be aware that domestic cats roaming free outside have detrimental effects on our native wildlife. They can be a source of disease for native wildlife and they kill our native birds, lizards, and small mammals. Finally, don't use rat poisons. There are no safe rat poisons that do not have potential secondary poisoning of native wildlife. There are many other things people can do such as support local land conservancy groups and research teams and promote broader public education."