Coast to Cactus by the Canyoneers received a feature in the new San Diego Visitor Planning Guide! Check out the entire guide for free here!
Author Linda Gallo Hawley is a former elementary classroom teacher and adjunct college professor. In 2004, she completed trail guide training at Mission Trails Regional Park in San Diego, CA and later created and taught her “wildly popular” nature classes at the park for nearly 10 years. Busy with the recent publication of the new book based on these outdoor courses, Nature Adventures!, she continues to volunteer as a trail guide, and offers presentations in other San Diego parks, schools, libraries, and senior centers.
Thrilled with the opportunity to publish this celebration of San Diego County’s natural wonders, staff at Sunbelt Publications chatted with the author and adventurer about her journey thus far.
Q: Tell us the story of how you became involved with teaching at Mission Trails Regional Park and how that led to writing Nature Adventures?
A: My husband and I relocated from upstate NY to San Diego in 2001, after having lived and worked on the east coast all our lives. Back east I had been a teacher of elementary, middle school, and community college more than 20 years; now I was ready for a new adventure.
I loved gardening back east, and needed to learn what to do with the very different plants in my San Diego yard, not to mention the animals. The first lizard I grabbed, its tail broke off; I thought I’d killed it! (Now I know better.)
In Dec 2003, I saw an advertisement for trail guide training classes at Mission Trails Regional Park; I registered for the program, figuring I’d learn about the flora and fauna. March 2004, I completed the training, became a volunteer trail guide and found my favorite job was teaching and leading young children on the trails. MTRP already had a wonderful, ranger-led education program in place for K-6 students. I saw a need for a preschool program, so I wrote a curriculum, made up some songs about the animals, and my Nature Adventures! program was born.
My boss, Jay Wilson, Executive Director, says I’ve introduced thousands of people to the park. Teaching has been such fun for me all these years! Parents continually begged me to write a book with all my songs in it, so the family could sing them at home. I took a 2-year sabbatical from teaching to refine my writing, approached Sunbelt Publications, Inc., and now I have a book for San Diego families.
Nature Adventures! is very popular with teachers, especially those involved with STEM and STEAM. Homeschooling parents love it because it encompasses science, art, music and vocabulary-building. My talented illustrator, Linda Gilbreath, used pen and ink so that children can color the animals. She also provided musical scores for budding musicians to play on piano or violin, as they sing my lyrics to well-known children’s songs.
Q: You’ve taught these songs to children for years. Do you ever hear about them singing the songs even after they’ve left your classes? Are there any new compositions on the horizon?
A: Oh, yes! Years later I hear from moms who tell me that their children break into song on the trails, or while coloring a picture of an animal. They also remember all the little details I’ve taught them about the animals and their habitats. The songs are teaching tools that help children remember the facts.
Many “graduates” of my program are buying my book for their now middle and high school-aged children! It’s a wonderful compliment, and a joy to see them show up at signing events. I always have new compositions popping into my head, whether walking alone or on the trails with my students.
Q: The children you typically teach are quite young, the promotional materials specifying ages four and up. How do the younger kids handle some of the advanced vocabulary taught in your book and songs? For example, we’re trying to imagine a first grader pronouncing the scientific name for American white pelican, Pelecanus arthrohynchos.
A: This is what makes my book unique! The songs appeal to the younger set, and the factual material to the older students and adults, and the music and illustrations to all.
However, you’d be AMAZED by the retention and usage of new vocabulary of the very youngest children! Especially if the words are used in a catchy tune, or a funny puppet “talking” to them, they learn and remember metamorphosis, camouflage, echolocation and more.
For example, when we sing the “Spider’s Anatomy Song,” we all stand and move our hands on our body parts, demonstrating where the cephalothorax & abdomen are found on a spider. Pronunciation of difficult scientific names is not a priority; I included them for the students and adults who wish to explore further online or in books. The proper scientific name is important when researching, as there are many subspecies of similar animals that are not found in San Diego.
Everyone finds it interesting to learn why insects need to be categorized differently, depending on the type of wings they have, and that the suffix, “-ptera”—as in Coleoptera and Hemiptera—means “wing”. (You’ll need to read my book to find out what “coleo” & “hemi” mean.)
And, isn’t it interesting that the bats’ order is Chiroptera; how is it related to chiropractor? This is a fun way to learn word etymology, too. Yet, we’ve all heard children pronounce hippopotamus and Tyrannosaurus Rex, right? We must never underestimate children; challenge them instead.
Q: The native flora in San Diego County is much drier than in the natural areas you would have known in your native New York. How did this western landscape capture your heart?
A: I have come to love and appreciate the western plants—their simplicity, their smaller, delicate flowers, and incredible ability to adapt to dry conditions, by shrinking or curling their leaves, going dormant, and by depending on animals to help disperse seeds, pollinate and grow anew. Even the pungent aromas of the native salvias, sagebrush, laurel sumac, and mulefat have captured my heart!
Q: Obviously you’ve found a way to translate that appreciation to children. What excites them the most on the trails and what do you do to develop their awareness and observation skills in nature?
A: Most exciting for children on the trails is discovery and observation through sensory awareness. We all rely on sight, and finding scats, tracks and habitats is always a huge thrill for them. But to teach them to use their sense of smell, or to touch the variety of leaves experiencing what the flora have to offer, to STOP talking and listen to the voices of birds, or of lizards rustling leaves, or of a rattlesnake rattling its tail before we spot it—these are special moments for all of us.
I ask them to examine carefully and identify the signs of animal life, rather than tell them immediately; I love to make them think and analyze before speaking, and they DO! Before heading out on the trails they’ve first had a lesson in the classroom. Teaching with puppets, pelts, replicated tracks, scats, skulls, and specimens makes the class more interesting, and holds their attention. Then they are prepared to observe, and each class builds on the next.
By the end of the year they can recall nearly every detail taught! They learn to appreciate the gift they have here in San Diego’s nature, and to be good stewards of the land. Children soak up knowledge, and I LOVE teaching them about their big backyard!
A recent Desert USA article on Cathartes aura, more commonly known as the turkey vulture, made us wonder: Why is it that the noble turkey vulture is so ubiquitous tin North America and especially the southwest deserts, while the iconic California condor (Gymnogyps californicus) has struggled against extinction? Both bird species are Falconiformes, or diurnal birds of prey, and are members of the Cathartidae family of New World vultures and condors. Both breed in the caves and cavities of cliff faces. Both scavenge carcasses.
Unfortunately, while turkey vultures remain a relatively common sight in California skies, the California condor has experienced population decline such that it even went extinct in the wild in 1987, with a captive population of only 27 adults and eight captive-bred chicks. According to Arnold Small’s California Birds: Their Status and Distribution, “These 35 condors were housed at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park, as part of the condor recovery program’s captive breeding program, which would eventually result in the releasing of condors back into the wild.”
As a result of those efforts, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species reports a total wild population of 231 individuals as of 2012, which is certainly a success worth celebrating. Nevertheless, the species remains on the list of “critically endangered” species—just a single ranking up from “extinct in the wild.” In fact, their position is so tenuous that in Birds of Prey of the West Field Guide, author Stan Tekiela recommends checking for a colored wing tag to distinguish between California condors and turkey vultures because, “Every California condor is marked with a numbered, colored wing tag on each wing.”
As with many cases of species decline, the reason behind one species faring more poorly than the other is likely a multifaceted one. For instance, the fact that the turkey vulture inhabits a much wider range than the California condor would be one factor in favor of its survival. While contemporary sources list the California condor as inhabiting only limited areas of the central California Coast and the Grand Canyon region of Arizona and Utah, even their historic range was primarily in the coastal mountains from southern Biritsh Columbia to northern Baja California, compared turkey vulture whose range spans North America.
Factors attributed to the decline of the California condor cited by Small include shooting, lead poisoning from ingested fragments of bullets in scavenged carcasses, habitat encroachment and disturbance, the consumption of baited poison meant for rodents and coyotes, and egg shell thinning from DDT exposure. But according to the “All About Birds” blog at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, DDT exposure and lead poisoning have similarly affected turkey vultures, and it’s likely the other factors would have, as well. Yet, the blog goes on to say, “Migrating [turkey vulture] flocks can number in the thousands.”
So is a smaller range the primary distinction between the success rates of these species? According to the Ventana Wildlife Society, no. Their website details the way a long life-cycle with a slow reproductive rate is a major factor distinguishing the vulnerability of the California condor. “Condors, like any species with this reproductive strategy, cannot withstand persistent high mortality rates.” In fact, in the 1980’s when concern about the species was mounting, mortality rates were so high that the birds were not living long enough to begin their reproductive stage and their lifespan was mis-gauged by more than forty years.
And turkey vultures? They begin to breed at a much younger age and have multiple chicks per nest, compared to the single-chick strategy of condors. Therefore, what we’re looking at is not necessarily lower mortality rates amongst condors, so much as significantly higher reproductive rates amongst vultures.
For more information about condors, vultures, and other North American and southwest birds, visit or call Sunbelt Publications in El Cajon, CA. We publish, distribute, wholesale, and retail a plethora of guides and texts about Californian and North American Birds, including:
According to author Mark Jorgensen, “Desert bighorn sheep are well adapted for extreme temperatures. Studies have revealed that rams and ewes can withstand dehydration rates of over 20% of their body weight. By comparison, a human will usually lose consciousness at a water loss of 5-7% of body weight.”
The sheep also lose heat to the air. “If the air temperature on a sunny day were 103 degrees Fahrenheit and a bighorn temperature were 105 degrees Fahrenheit, body heat would be released from the sheep into the air, rather than be absorbed from the air as it would be in a human.”
Nevertheless, the summer heat ties the sheep to permanent water resources. “In the long run, reliable surface water is needed to maintain a healthy population of desert bighorn in a mountain range.”
Learn more in Desert Bighorn Sheep: Wilderness Icon.