Santa Barbara natives know that the early summer months are usually the foggiest months of the year. May fog is often referred to as “May Gray” while June is commonly called “June Gloom.” Meteorologists call fog, stratus. Stratus is defined as a type of low-level cloud, characterized by horizontal layering with a uniform base. I think of stratus simply as a gray lid over the sky.
Though foggy mornings subdue color and are not as cheerful as the days that begin with sunshine, they bring the gift of moisture.
The Coulter Pines, which cling to the rocks along the highest ridges of our mountains, persist because on foggy days their needles comb out moisture, and the accumulated droplets fall like gentle rain. Rain gauges placed under the eucalyptus growing along the ridge tops in the Berkeley Hills collected 10” — almost half of the normal yearly rainfall. Under the trees, green grass persists through the summer while grasses in the open turn brown in May.
We welcome the fog, but without a winter of good soaking rains, the drought will persist, biting deep and hard. Everywhere bird numbers are down. Species that nest along streams are deprived of water. Some sycamores have turned yellow as if by mimicking fall, rains will come early. The live oaks had no flush of new green leaves this spring. Many of the pines on the upper slopes of Figueroa Mountain have died. Trees weakened by the drought lose their resistance to insect and fungus invasions.
I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the sky, less scanning for signs of productive clouds, but because I see the sky as a landscape of infinite variety. Shades of blue depend on where you are looking, the time of day, and the amount of moisture in the air.
Among the most beguiling clouds are the high cirrus clouds, formed of ice crystals and shaped by the high elevation winds into swirls and curls. Sometimes cirrus clouds harbor small rainbows called “sundogs.” In the winter, cirrus clouds are often the leading edge of a storm moving down the coast. This time of year, they may indicate southern moisture from the monsoon weather forming over the deserts or the remnants of a hurricane off the coast of Mexico. In early June what was left of Hurricane Blanca sent us an inch of rain, enough for Mission Creek to flow again briefly.
What excites me the most are the summer cumulus which in early afternoon rise above our Santa Ynez Mountains. Once I thought the front range was responsible for the cumulus and I hoped for a possible shower or at the very least a rumble of thunder. Since, I’ve discovered they float above the higher San Raphael Mountains to the north.
For rain, we would need the cumulonimbus, giant heaps of clouds that rise to near 40,000 feet, often with their tops blown off by the high elevation winds. Moving slowly across the landscape, dark streamers of rain trail from their flat bottoms. Cumulonimbus are the most energetic of clouds containing within, columns of rising and falling air, with water vapor forming around particles which coalesce into rains drops — or in the most extreme form, they can spawn tornadoes.
By late afternoon in Santa Barbara, the heaps of fair-weather cumulus begin to collapse as the sun lowers toward the horizon. During the day, updrafts rising from the sun-warmed earth fed the cumulus.
Recently, I moved into a different apartment in this retirement community. It suits me in every way. With corner windows facing both south and east, when winter storms finally arrive, the brunt of the rain and wind will fall first against my windows.
From my apartment I can look directly down into the canopy of live oaks and sycamores in Oak Park next door, and up into the successively higher ranges of mountains. When Mission Creek once again has water, I will hear it seething over its pebbles in its race to the ocean.
An abundance of sky has given me a chance to learn the flight patterns of various birds. Jays and woodpeckers tend to arrow directly down into the trees. Finches, undulating across the sky, often continue singing even in flight. Crows with their strong black wings with the ragged tips most often fly in groups. Sometimes they crowd together in the tallest trees setting up fearful cacophony of caws, the braver ones leave the gang to swoop down into lower trees in their attempt to drive off the intruder – most often a hawk or owl.
Crows are ingenious nest builders often including chunks of insulation from a building site, or even pieces of fabric pulled off car covers. They are particularly busy on Mondays, scavenging leftovers from weekend picnics in Oak Park.
Many year-round species like the finches continue to have multiple broods well into the summer. The Lesser Goldfinches are the most interesting to look at as they come in a variety of green and gold – the males with a black cap, dark greenish backs and bright yellow breasts. Some years we may have a breeding pair of the big, flamboyant Hooded Orioles who make clumsy attempts to sip syrup from a hummingbird feeder. The males are deep yellow with a black face and bill and black and white wings. These orioles are never found far from palm trees where they often fasten their beautifully woven, basket-like nest beneath a frond. The nests are sometimes strengthened by the addition to the mix of strong palm fibers.
My favorite summer bird is the Yellow Warbler. Where a stream is available they may select a willow as a site for building a nest, otherwise the proximity of a fountain or a bird bath may do. Their song is as bright as their plumage and is delivered in sweet bursts of melody.
The nest is an open cup, often easily seen, and is the favorite target for the Brown-headed Cowbird. The Cowbird has never developed domestic abilities of their own. Historically, they were always on the move as they followed the bison herds, seizing insects from beneath their hoofs or plucking insects from the animal’s fur. They skulk through trees in search of the nests of smaller birds where they lay their egg – producing an egg a day or up to 70 in a season. The outcome can be an unhappy one for the host bird, as the cowbird usually hatches first and because of its size and vigor will seize food first from the adult. In the spring, you may see a harried-looking sparrow-sized bird being followed by a bigger, begging cowbird fledgling. Known to parasitize 220 species, no wonder some of the smaller birds have been reduced to an “endangered” status.
But some birds have learned to recognize the cowbird’s egg and will either crack the shell or roll the egg out of the nest. Our Yellow Warbler has another strategy. Discovering the cowbird’s egg, it will build another nest floor covering the offending egg and lay a new clutch on top. One persistent warbler had to build six new floors before the cowbird gave up!
THE NAMER OF CLOUDS
A 19TH century “citizen scientist,” named Luke Howard was the man responsible for the nomenclature of the clouds – terms we still use today. His names were based on Latin (example: cumulus in Latin is “heaps” or cirrus “a curl of hair.”) Though a successful London manufacturing chemist, his heart was in the clouds.
He began by naming the three main clouds types – status, cirrus, and cumulus and the intermediate types such as cirro-cumulus and coining the word nimbus which he called the rain cloud.
He also published “The Climate of London,” the first book on urban climatology and a publication on the cycle of eighteen years in the seasons of Britain.
Howard’s love of clouds and weather began in childhood and never diminished. For his studies he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1821.
Credits: John Notehelfer for the sunset at East Beach; Roger Bradfield for the cartoon; and George Dumas, Webmaster