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THE HIKE TO FORTY-NINE PALMS OASIS

The passage  below is from my Nature Journal from APRIL 1, 1987.

Late in the day, I began hiking the dusty, rocky trail over the ridge to Forty-nine Palms oasis. The sun was beginning to get low over the jutting rocks of the barren mountainsides, but I was sure the oasis could be reached before nightfall.

The narrow canyon walls closed in. Creosote bushes, saltbushes, and every manner of gray, thorny shrub dotted the hillsides of this winding canyon. Most spectacular were the fat barrel cacti. Thick and robust, they thrust their plump forms entwined in curved spines from beside the trail. Their rusty color and cylindrical shape gave an ominous touch to the surroundings, as the canyon wound deeper and deeper into the mountains. Read more »

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One of the most fascinating habitats in the desert is the oasis.  Oases originate from old underground earthquake fault lines, which allow the groundwater to bubble up to the surface. The water forms pools, streams, and springs. Plants  that ordinarily require a great deal more water to flourish can be found here.

Besides the more characteristic plants — mesquite, Fremont Cottonwood, and willow–the oases are marked by groves of the large, native California Fan Palm.  The immense height and shaggy fronds of these palms provide shade, and nesting and roosting places for birds seeking refuge in their fan-shaped greenery.

The greatest concentration of birds in the desert is at these oases during spring and fall migration.  On any given day between mid-April and mid-May, flocks of colorful western warblers fill the palms and willows.  Orange-crowned, Wilson’s, and Yellow Warblers sip from the shallow pools, flashing shades of yellow as they bathe. A Nashville, Townsend’s, Black-throated Gray, or Hermit Warbler may suddenly plummet from the sky, intent upon a moment’s rest from its arduous journey.

On this recent visit, I was disappointed to find that one of the oases at Joshua Tree National Park–Cottonwood Springs–was closed to the public.  Evidently, a late summer thunderstorm in 2013 had done some damage there by bringing to the surface toxic minerals used in the mines.  This desert country is riddled with old mining claims, and early prospectors had some pretty primitive ways of extracting the gold they sought.

As a result, we couldn’t visit Cottonwood Springs, which is located in the eastern portion of the Park, and at a lower elevation.  This oasis, which could also be easily reached from the Palm Springs area by car, would have had more plants blooming and more bird activity, since it was around 2000 feet elevation.  The higher portions of the park (elevation ~ 4000 feet) where the Joshua Trees were just beginning to sport their white, waxy blooms, was cooler.  Spring comes later to this area, and desert plants were not flowering yet.  Bird migration was still several weeks away.

The account in my Nature Journal from a hike I took many years ago to Forty-nine Palms Oasis describes the thrill I felt at coming upon the only natural oasis in the Park that still retains the remote quality of the desert.

( TO BE CONTINUED )

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I returned to Joshua Tree for a quick visit last week.

Once again, I’m astounded at the strange beauty of the Joshua Trees, the views out to snow-capped Mount San Gorgonio and Mount San Jacinto in the distance, and the wonderful diversity of our natural world here in Southern California.

The contrast between habitats on the gentle coastal plain where I live and those of the stark Mojave Desert where I visited strikes me as being unique.  Where else can you drive a few hours and be suddenly immersed in those dry, dusty washes, outlandish forests of Joshua Trees, and giant stacks of granite boulders?

I last visited Joshua Tree before it became a National Park.  The interpretive signs are great now, and the Visitors Center and Headquarters building in the town of Twenty-nine Palms is fantastic.

Before arriving at Twenty-nine Palms, we began our explorations at Big Morongo Canyon Preserve.  This is a fascinating small preserve complete with a guided nature trail following a boardwalk through several habitats.

Morongo is an oasis that was used for centuries by the Serrano and Cahuilla Indians.  Tall bright green Fremont Cottonwoods form a small forest that shelters a marshy area.  The precious water attracts all sorts of migrating birds in spring and fall.  Nestled in the barren hills of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, this oasis is one of the best in Southern California for attracting birds.

Alas, we were too early in the season to experience the spring bird migration (which starts in early April and spreads into May), but the cool temperatures and lack of crowds more than made up for it.

At the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park, we stopped to check out the Visitors Center and Headquarters.  As we walked into the building, we saw a Cactus Wren and heard it’s “churr, churr, churr” call.  Right there where people were coming and going at the entrance, the wren was busily carrying nesting material into a large cholla cactus that grew beside the path.  The devilish spines of the cholla don’t bother the Cactus Wren, but they’re a great deterrent to predators.

We walked around behind the cholla and saw that large pieces of straw and other fibers lined a sort of tunnel that led down into the globular nest of sticks.  The wren made several trips in and out, once carrying a feather with which to line the inner portion of the nest.

In 1922, Florence Merriam Bailey, a pioneer in early Western bird observation, wrote:  ” In form, the Cactus Wren’s nest suggests a retort [ a bulb of glass with a bent beak used in laboratories ], having a large globular chamber about 6 inches in diameter approached through a long passageway or entrance, the whole normally about 12 inches in length, the mouth of the entrance being about 3 inches above the base of the globular chamber.  This nest chamber in course of years becomes a thick, felted mass of gray, weathered plant fibers so hard that saucer-like sections sometimes crack off from the back, showing the solid bottom of the nest.  The entrance, on the contrary, is made of long straw-like plant stems, which may easily get blown about and so often need replenishing,”

Comparing the nest before me with this description, I was delighted to note the wispy, long grasses of the nest tunnel we saw at the Headquarters and the tight ball of sticks it led into, and I was pleased that the technique of the Cactus Wren’s nest building hadn’t changed much since 1922!

(TO BE CONTINUED)

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A DAY AT COAL OIL POINT WITH THE BIRDING CLASS

 

MARCH 5, 2014:

Today a group of us walked from Isla Vista along the bluffs to Coal Oil Point, Devereux Slough, and back.

It was a perfect day for birding, with gray skies and no wind.

At our first stop, we looked down on Isla Vista beach.  It was low tide and there were few shorebirds.

Big waves came rolling in.  Surfers and paddleboarders were the main attraction.

“There’s nothing here.”   Hmmm…

Well, let’s set up the scopes and scan the ocean and see what’s going on.

So we began to study the situation.

On the floating kelp beds, a Great Egret and a couple of Snowy Egrets  walked around.  We could see them through the scopes, and then we spotted a pair of Mallards, of all things — way out there dabbling away.

Common Dolphins churned the water beyond.  Surf Scoters and Brandt’s Cormorants came and went, their dark forms scudding just above the surface of the breaking waves.

A mystery bird:  Dennis Ringer asked me to come have a look.  Wow!  A Common Murre preening just beyond the surf line.  Its black head, thick bill, and white underparts were diagnostic.  Murres aren’t often seen from shore along the south coast.

So, that was really exciting!

Down on the wet sand,  large flocks of Marbled Godwits and Willets appeared to probe for morsels beneath the surface.  Suprisingly, no Sanderlings today.

We walked on along the bluffs, loving the mud and the puddles after our recent rainstorm.  Western Meadowlarks and Red-winged Blackbirds foraged in the wet grass.

At Coal Oil Point, the rocks held California Gulls and Heermann’s Gulls, along with a few Western Gulls and 11 Royal Terns.  It was exciting at the Point, with the Gray Whales Count group censusing the whale migration and the low tide revealing the tidepools below us.  I was surprised to see no turnstones on the dark rocks.

At Sands Beach, the effects of the storm were evident:  the dunes where the Snowy Plovers nest were eaten away by the huge waves.  High tide had breeched the sand bar blocking Devereux Slough.  A thin channel of water streamed out to sea between the sandy banks.

What a difference a week makes.  Last week, we’d looked east from Ellwood Mesa and seen a wide, stable band of dunes.  But high tide and storm surge had sculpted and changed the landscape.  I love this unpredictability.

At the slough itself, it was as though a large lake had been quickly drained.  Dried algae hung from the edges of the salicornia marsh.  Huge pieces of kelp had been washed in and lay floating on the shallow water.  The water was low enough to support shorebirds and some ducks, although many ducks had left for other watery areas after the storm.

Green-winged Teal and Northern Shovelers hugged the margins of the slough.  A beautiful Northern Pintail stood out from the crowds of Ruddy Ducks.

This is really shorebird habitat now.  A huge flock of Semipalmated Plovers flew in.  I wouldn’t be surprised if way over on the northern shore we’d have seen some Snowy Plovers, but they were too far away to i.d.  A Greater Yellowlegs and a Black-necked Stilt foraged beside a couple of Least Sandpipers.

From time to time, we heard the high, thin song of a Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, when it T’d up on a sprig of pickleweed to stake out a spring territory.

As we made our way back through the West Campus, somebody in the class spotted an adult male Hooded Oriole.

What a great mix of passerines and waterbirds on this trip — over 60 species.

Here’s a complete list: Read more »

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The Nature Journal entry below is one that didn’t make it into the final version of A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region, but it is still one of my favorites!

Nature Journal, March 6, 2001:  A Rainy Night at the Farm Pond

 

Tonight is clear and starry after 3 days of rain.  The ground is saturated.  Every drainage has become a rushing creek; every creek a roaring stream.  Mud puddles and full ponds:  a perfect night to watch toads and frogs at their mating antics.

By the light of the moon, Marilyn and I notice that the pond has risen 6 feet since we visited last week. The water is about level with the top of the steep, muddy bank.

We shine our flashlights along the edge of the pond.  On one side of the track, a dozen Black-crowned Night-Herons are lined up waiting.  We’re surprised.  Western Toads are normally distasteful to predators.  But night-herons aren’t known to be too picky.

Another sweep with the flashlight along the edge of the pond.  Aha! Spaced along the edge, their eyes and heads protruding from the murky water, are many, many Western Toads (Bufo boreas).  It is romance night!   About every 3 feet along the rim of the pond, the males station themselves, waiting for the females to arrive so they can grab and mate with them.  The males crouch patiently, half-submerged— with  their bulbous black eyes, carbuncled skin, and blotches of green, brown, and black on their legs and backs.  The identifying mark:  the thin yellow line reaching from the crown down to the tail end. Read more »

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FEBRUARY 20, 2014 –  What is the “Sixth Extinction”?

 

A couple of nights ago I went to an event through the Arts and Lectures program at UCSB.

The speaker was Elizabeth Kolbert, an investigative reporter for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and other magazines.  Her topic was centered around her recent book:  The Sixth Extinction:  An Unnatural History.

I had wanted to hear her, and I was not disappointed.  She has a lot to say, and has traveled all over the world gathering evidence for this latest book.  It is not for the faint of heart!

Ms. Kolbert didn’t originate the phrase “the sixth extinction”.  That’s been around for awhile.  But her premise is that over geologic time there have been five mass extinctions, usually caused by various natural phenomena, such as the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs millions and millions of years ago when it collided with our planet at the end of the Cretaceous.

The difference now is:  this sixth extinction event is being caused by humans.  Whether you consider that “natural” or not is a good question.  It certainly hasn’t occurred before in the history of the world.

She gave three important causes for this alarming situation.  They were familiar to me, but I gasped at the implications. Read more »

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LOOKING BACK ON THE ‘MARCH MIRACLE’ OF 1991

 

 

As we struggle through a drought cycle in our region this winter, I recalled March 1991, when I wrote the following:

 

Nature Journal – March 28, 1991:

The drought has ended!

Since February 28, when a huge storm hit, we have had 13 inches of rain AT LEAST!

The storm door opened and soon after, in early March, we had a succession of storms, some born in the Gulf of Alaska and some originating off the California coast.  The high pressure system that has dominated our weather in recent winters has now moved off to the northwest.

At last, wonderful storms are able to swoop down the California coast.

One particularly memorable one was in early March.

Dubbed ‘the March miracle’, it was a real gulley-washer that plopped down off Point Conception and sent sheets of rain straight towards the central coast of California.  At the end of that storm, we measured 6.9 inches in the rain gauge.

It’s heavenly. From dry, parched earth and empty creeks and reservoirs, we now luxuriate in water everywhere.  The ground is soaked and sopping wet.  Water oozes out of the banks and hillsides and trickles across roads and pastures.  I never thought I’d be so glad to see MUD.

Only those of us who pay attention to the rhythms of nature can understand the relief I feel as I look at the land, bathed in life-giving water. The feeling of rebirth and renewal is complete.

Gibraltar dam is spilling, Juncal dam soon to do so, and Cachuma Lake is filling fast — one of the wettest months of March on record.

Not since 1983 has the spring been more beautiful.

Every plant, tree, and hedge sparkles after the downpours.  Even the birds shine brilliantly, their feathers washed clean.

It has indeed been a March Miracle!

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February 6, 2014 – NATURE JOURNAL

 

Counting Birds:  What is Citizen Science telling us?

 

Last week I got a call from my friend Melinda Burns, a fine local freelance journalist.  She wanted to know if there was any connection between the Santa Barbara Audubon Society’s recent Christmas Bird Count results and the current drought conditions in our region.  She ended up writing a wonderful article in the online journal “Mission & State” which you can read here: http://www.missionandstate.org/features/wild-things/

She also wanted to know what I thought about Citizen Science — wherein volunteers census populations of insects, birds, and mammals in the wild.

Second question first:  I think volunteer Citizen Science efforts are enormously helpful to scientists, who can’t be everywhere, and who need the input of informed helpers to “see what’s out there.” The combined efforts of Christmas Bird Counts, Breeding Bird Surveys, and The Great Backyard Bird Counts, to name a few, have enabled ornithologists to track trends in bird populations over time.

The key word here is TIME.  We need years and years of data to map trends in bird populations.

In Santa Barbara, another friend, Mark Holmgren (former UCSB Biology Dept. staffer), has compared data from the CBCs of 1903-1940 era with those of the 1962-2012 period (our local Audubon chapter wasn’t active between 1940 to 1962, so those years are missing.)

What species showed the greatest declines?  Not surprisingly — the DUCKS.  Our wetlands are vulnerable, and these species are threatened on their breeding grounds elsewhere. The figures below are AVERAGES from the early and late comparison periods:

Northern Pintail:  437 vs. 183

Northern Shoveler:  411 vs. 207

Canvasback:  83 vs. 31

White-winged Scoter:  51 vs. 16

These figures are interesting, because they span the years from when the Bird Count was very small, to the present size of over 275 participants.  Other species that have declined within the Count circle, according to Mark’s analysis, are Mountain Quail, Yellow-billed Magpie, Horned Lark, and White-throated Swift.

Melinda Burns queried Rebecca Coulter, chief compiler of the CBC, and she echoed what many of us felt:  “my area on the Count was like a tomb.”

So how do we explain the 222 total number of KINDS of birds seen — the species total — as being the second highest ever recorded?  Was that balmy, dry, warm Count Day (typical of the drought) helping us to get all those different birds recorded?  The numbers of INDIVIDUALS  were only down 10% from last year’s.  And the lowest number of individual birds in the last decade was achieved on the rainy Count Day in 2005, certainly not a drought year.

So you see there are many factors — an important one being WEATHER ON COUNT DAY — that affect Christmas Bird Count totals!

Throw in increasing urbanization, overly-groomed gardens, and a dearth of blossoms on many Eucalyptus trees and you might end up wondering whether you can even begin to draw any conclusions, much less spot trends.

Citizen science is here to stay.  It’s an invaluable tool for ornithology and other disciplines.

But spotting trends is much more difficult than spotting birds.

I think I’ll just go birding and let the experts analyze the data!

 

For more on historical CBC results go here: http://casbbirdcount.org/ and click on “Historical Since 1991”.

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We hop into the back of the farmer’s pick-up, scopes and all, and hitch a ride to our car.  Then, we follow the rancher a couple of miles to his property.  Opening the gate, he proudly ushers us onto the dirt track running through his green pasture.

“See…there are the curlews!” the rancher gestures expansively at the flock of Whimbrels.

Hurriedly, we set up the scope and scan the flock.  Suddenly a bird flushes.  It is half the size of the other Whimbrels and its delicate bill has a slight curvature.

THAT’S IT!

Karen and Robbie are beginning to say “That’s it!  That’s the bird!” but I refuse to be talked into it that soon, while secretly admitting to myself that this DOES look like the bird Jon has just shown us pictures of in a British field guide.

Yes.  It must be.  A dainty little whimbrel with a slightly curved bill, nice barring and splotches down the side, a white eyebrow over a big dark eye.

Not twenty yards away this long-necked little shorebird from Siberia is marching around in the grass, and we three are the only birders who know its whereabouts! Read more »

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Nature Journal, January 23, 2014

 

A Visit with Jon Dunn Brings Back Memories of A Super Rare Bird

 

A few days ago our Santa Barbara Audubon Society hosted Jon Dunn, who gave a lecture on shorebirds to an enthusiastic audience of local birders.

Jon has been the chief consultant for the National Geographic Society’s renowned field guide “The Birds of North America” since it’s first edition way back in 1983, and he is a world class birder.

Jon is also a close friend and mentor — largely because he lived in Santa Barbara in the 1980s, rooming with Paul Lehman, another top birder.

I was lucky enough to be around during those exciting times.  Imagine being able to go birding with these two experts, who were finding birds all over our region and who let me tag along.

Seeing Jon’s slide show on shorebirds triggered memories of those “good old days” of birding: no cell phones, no internet postings, no e-bird.  How did we manage? Read more »