The resident hawk
Repeats its urgent calls.
Where is the rain?
The temperature is above eighty.
Night falls with red skies
Color caught by the high cirrus clouds
Too thin for rain.
With darkness comes
The cricket stridulations,
The final notes of the fading season
After midnight I step out on my porch,
Looking high to the south.
Orion waits, trailed by Sirius,
The hunter’s faithful dog.
Venus will soon separate itself from the rising sun
And before month’s end will shine alone
In the eastern sky.
Once I’d imagined spending my final years
In the town where I was born
In a tiny house of my own design
One room only
With alcoves for bathing, sleeping, fixing tea
A steep roof with a skylight or two
A generous porch under a sheltering eave
High in the Berkeley Hills,
But instead, my final years
Will be spent in Santa Barbara
in a spacious apartment
One of many apartments
For elders like myself,
Close to family,
a hedge against loneliness.
The geographer in me
Wants to tell you
That Santa Barbara is located
At the southern end of central California.
Maybe 50 miles below Pt Conception
Where the coast bends inland
Thanks to the San Andreas Fault
Flexing its muscles.
So now the coastal mountains run
From east to west,
and most confusing of all
You look south if you want to see the ocean.
For me, the ocean has always been to the west,
And the direction of the setting sun
Where if you sail far enough
You’ll bump into China.
The high Santa Ynez Mountains to the North
shield the town from certain cold draughts.
But in downpours, the mountains
Shed all manner of debris
From silt to sandstone boulders
As big as cars.
Now as an amateur geologist,
I’ll tell you that this knoll
I call home, is surrounded
By flatter land referred to
As an alluvial fan,
Crossed by creeks that
Only show up when it rains.
Locals brag about the mild climate
Forgetting about those vehement moments
Of gale-force winds
Or what about the microbursts
Which have been known to knock a plane
Out of the sky?
And there’s nothing mild about my landscape.
Never still — it twists, heaves and cracks.
Worse, it is said that all the commotion
Is bringing Los Angeles ever closer.
Once we were covered by a warm sea
With dinosaurs wandering the shallows.
Later mountains rose up,
Full of seashells.
Now it seems that our future is drought.
I look out the east-facing windows
Down into Oak Park with its
Pale limbed-sycamores and faded foliage.
It’s a peoples’ park
With mariachis on the weekend
Birthdays with piñatas
Quinceaneras, sometimes a funeral
Look up to the first ridge
To St. Anthony’s towers
And to the two rosy domes
Of the old mission.
Higher yet is the bulk
Of the Santa Ynez mountains
and the conical shape
Of my mountain – Montecito Peak
See how the angled sun
Deepens the canyons.
Slide your eyes sideways
To where the mountains
Slip into the blue line of the sea.
Now face south
Over our native garden
Bordered oaks from the park
To the silent creek bed.
I look for hummingbirds, bush rabbits
and worry about coyotes
The east hills, called the Mesa
Holds off the fog
Until after dark,
when the hills are breached.
Oh yes, my garden off the front door
The narrow porch of a garden,
Hung with red geraniums
And softened by pots of ferns
I lie in my bed beneath the windows
Hoping for wind to move the chimes.
I lift my head at dawn.
Do I see the silhouette of the mountains
Against the lightening sky?
Or are we cocooned in the fog
That drips from trees
Almost as welcome as rain.
And what is the first bird this morning?
The clink of the towhee
The querulous wren
The sweet ring of sparrows’ song?
Now you are hearing the voice of the birder
Leaning on every song
In the absence of good eyesight.
Acorn woodpecker, flicker
With strong beak and loud call,
Or the relentless caw of the black crow,
Boss of the neighborhood?
Will I be lucky enough
To have an owl’s hoot rouse me
In the early morning hour?
I feather my nest
With a down comforter
Bouquets of pungent sage,
Baskets of lichen.
How do I finish this short tale?
A day ending, I suppose.
With the dark coming on by five
A tale of rain arriving?
A gusty wind from the southeast
In the early morning hours
Between midnight and dawn
The rain falls
I smell it first
And then sweet fragrance of hope
Could this be
The beginning of a season
Of abundant rains
Enough to end the drought?
COMING IN THE SPRING: The Best for Last: The Nature of Santa Barbara by Phila Rogers. Includes the blogs and a number of short pieces.
Take this week – in the middle of October. All day the clouds continued to build up against the mountains. And at bedtime, I heard an unfamiliar sound. Opening the door, I was surprised by rain. Pulling open the window next to my bed, I fell asleep to the comforting sound of rain falling, while breathing in that indescribable fragrance of earth refreshed. The morning that followed was the freshest we’ve had in this endless season of harsh drought.
By Wednesday, the temperature rose to 95 degrees, the humidity descended into the single digits, the red fire danger flags were posted. By the weekend the scene changed again. I could joyfully proclaim fall as it should be – a sky full of clouds of every shape in shades of gray and white. I’ve cracked open the door so I can feel the cool breeze and hear the birds as I work on my computer.
Nothing energizes the bird population like a change in the weather, especially when there is the possibility of rain. If you trust forecasts, rain may be moving our way, coming from the north, the most reliable direction.
Being an incurable nostalgic I remember days like this in the Bay Area we called the “second spring.” The first rain of the fall brought up sprouts of green grass on the hills, certain native plants set buds or even bloomed, and the birds began singing again. I guessed that maybe they were fooled by day and night equaling in length, the way it did during the spring equinox.
More knowledgeable birdwatchers than me, call this “second spring” “Autumnal Recrudescence,” a word new to me. Looking the word up, I read that it was most often a medical term meaning the return of an illness after a remission. Or it could mean the recurrence of an unpleasant feeling like doubt.
Naturalist give the word a happier meaning.
The Autumnal Recrudescence of the Amatory Urge
When the birds are cacophonic in the trees and on the verge Of the fields in mid-October when the cold is like a scourge. It is not delight in winter that makes feathered voices surge,
But autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
When the frost is on the pumpkin and when leaf and branch diverge, Birds with hormones reawakened sing a paean, not a dirge. What’s the reason for their warbling? Why on earth this late-year splurge? The autumnal recrudescence of the amatory urge.
-Written by Susan Stiles, copyright December 1973
After the mostly silent late summer, I was delighted with the bird chorus. I also attributed it to the completion of energy-robbing activities like nesting followed by molting where in most species, every feather had to be replaced with a new one.
The arrival of the winter residents certainly energized the local, year-round population. The regulars and newcomers set about declaring and defending their winter territories.
Wanting to better understand fall in Santa Barbara sent me back to Joan Lentz’s “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region,” my bible on all things local. She says that the distinction between summer and fall is more pronounced than between spring and summer. Enter our old friend or nemesis The North Pacific High. If the atmosphere behaves as it should, this zone of high pressure which held sway over the summer, producing the northwest winds blowing down the coast and causing coastal fog, should begin to move south following the sun. Winds cease and with them the fog. A rain may even sneak through as it had last Sunday evening. With less fog, the skies are clearer and the blue skies are a palette for the extraordinary clouds of fall.
In the Berkeley Hills where I’ve lived most of my life, we especially dreaded the August fogs with their frigid winds when the gloomy, damp overcast could persist for days on end. When late September brought relief, we were ecstatic. Both in the Bay Area and in Santa Barbara, fall winds sometimes blew from the north and northeast, coming from the Great Basin, bringing the odors of sage and when passing over the mountains, the tangy smell of conifers.
Though Santa Barbara, by its location and topography, is spared the full impact of the Santa Anas (unlike the LA basin), we often have the offshore winds, heat, and lower humidity.
In my drives around town I look for autumn color to further affirm the change of season. Sycamores, which grow wherever there is a little ground moisture, have been dropping leaves all summer and even in the best of years are only a dusky gold, showing their best color when back lit by the sun. Liquidambars, also called sweet gum, a native to the southeast, are beginning to show their autumn color, but we will have to wait until late November for their best display.
Weary of my endless comparisons between Berkeley and Santa Barbara, my daughter decided it was time for a drive over the mountain to the Santa Ynez Valley, for a change of scene. And change of scene, indeed! What a difference a mountain range makes. The Santa Ynez Valley is hotter in the summer and colder in the winter. The continental influences prevail, moderated somewhat by the proximity to the coast and the ocean. But the sub-tropical trees in Santa Barbara’s parks and gardens would not succeed here.
This is the wide-open country of vineyards and olive orchards where the horse is king. Some ranches provide individual horse casitas with white stucco walls, tiled roofs, and individual corrals.
And, yes, I did find the color I was hoping for in the bright yellow cottonwoods growing along the dry Santa Ynez River watercourse. We like to be drenched in the fall brilliance of yellows, oranges, and red – this intoxicating dazzle – the final flaring before the bare trees in the dimming light and short days of winter.
But what pleased me the most were the ambers of the vineyards, the pale grasses long spent and all the other shades of gray-greens, ochers, umbers and shades of color for which I have no names — and the swirls and small bunches of white clouds against a soft blue sky.
Once I yearned to live in open country with only distant neighbors if any at all, under a curving sky with stars beyond counting, winds that travelled long distances unobstructed, and the distant yips and howls of coyotes.
But I was content enough to return back over the mountain, to the marine air which is kinder, and to a town of neighborhoods where lights in other windows comfort me. On the weekends, music and voices of children come up the hill from the city park below. Once the winter rains begin, I will hear the music of Mission Creek.
Yesterday, at the end of the month, the clouds thickened during the day. In the afternoon, a few large drops fell. The air felt dense and heavy, maybe rich in negative ions which some say lifts the spirits.
Around 3 am, we awoke to a long roll of thunder. For the next hour, lightning and thunder alternated, until the lightning seemed to rip open the heavy undersides of the clouds releasing a torrent which in a few minutes left behind a half inch of rain. At the end of the day, the clouds had retreated back to the mountains.
It appears that at last I have the intemperate Santa Barbara I had expected – a Santa Barbara of sundowner winds gusting down canyons, landslides, firestorms and debris flows, floods, thunder ricocheting off the
mountain sides, and on the coast, high surfs which rearrange beaches.
Is this the fall and winter which will end the drought? Such secrets are closely held. In the meantime, I look often at the sky, sniff the air, and even conger up promising clouds. It can’t hurt.
I’m drawn to canyons with their cool shade and generous vegetation, especially in this dry, mostly mountainous country of sun-struck rock.
And so is all life. Birds and other animals come to where there is moisture, abundant food, and places to raise young.
The view from my apartment above Oak Park
I look northeast to the Santa Ynez Mountains. The mountains are a transverse range, one of several ranges so named because they trend east and west rather than the usual north-south of most coastal mountains. The town of Santa Barbara occupies the narrow alluvial plain between the ocean and the mountains
The mountains are composed mostly of pale sandstones often embedded with fossil shells from the distant past when the mountains were under a warm sea. Reflecting the low winter sun and protecting the region from the chilling north winds, the mountains have a profound effect on the local climate.
My bedroom window perfectly frames Montecito Peak, the most symmetrical of all the named Peaks. At midday, when the mountains are evenly lit, they resemble a jigsaw puzzle of pale rock and mats of olive green chaparral. I look hard to try and distinguish a canyon, but it’s when the sun is low in the sky before sunset that the mountains reveal their contours. Purple shadows fill the canyons while ridges and peaks glow in the late light. I learned by studying a map that the deep shadow in the saddle west of Montecito Peak is the top of Cold Spring Canyon.
Most canyons have a stream, often an ephemeral one which appears only briefly after a rain. Others, like Mission Creek, are considered perennial, but in fact water persists only in the foothills and mountains. Because of the steepness of the Santa Ynez Mountains, most streams, beginning as springs near the top of the range, may drop four thousand feet from their headwaters in a few miles to where they join the Pacific Ocean.
My plan was to hike several of the canyons so I could write about them with affection and authority. On my first try to the San Ysidro Trail on the almost level Ennisbrook Trail, I fell and cracked my ribs.
I saw two solutions – send my two grandchildren with their stout hearts and strong legs into the canyons where they regularly walk. Or I could narrow my canyon and stream observations to Mission Creek, one of the most accessible of the perennial stream which runs (when it does) through Oak Park just below my apartment. So Mission Canyon it is.
Mission Canyon and its Creek
Mission Creek and its canyon have a rich history dating back to the Mission days in the late 1700’s when the waters were captured behind a stone dam built with Indian labor in 1803 and stored in sandstone reservoirs just above the mission itself. The water irrigated the sloping garden of fruit trees, vegetables and wheat. When Spain defeated Mexico in 1830, the missions lost their authority and most of the Indian labor. The garden quickly fell into ruin along with many of the adobe buildings.
Like most of the streams which flow down the south slope of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Mission Creek begins as springs near the ridgeline and then emerges as a series of cascades and pools, accessible from the Tunnel Trail.
Following James Wapotich’s directions in his weekly “Trail Quest” column in the News-Press, I located where the Tunnel Trail begins along East Camino Cielo Road, just beyond the intersection with Gibraltar Road. The trail is marked by an aging metal sign and three large boulders across the dirt road. The trail – the dirt road – continues just beyond the level section when it becomes a narrow trail dropping steeply down to where Mission Creek begins. The Falls are a popular destination for hikers, most hiking up from Tunnel Trail off Tunnel Road. I’ve never hiked up far enough to reach the falls so I have to rely on the reports of others and the photos they took.
At The Botanic Garden
It’s in the Garden where most of us become familiar with Mission Creek. Before the present four-year drought, regular releases from the Mission Tunnel (which brings water from Gibraltar Reservoir to Santa Barbara) kept the creek refreshed, so one season seemed like another. Now the stream is mostly small ponds, growing green with algae.
Standing on the uneven stones at the top of the Indian dam is a good place to look up and down the steam and to admire the
feat of building the dam with hand labor. Once, the stored water was carried down stone aqueducts to the Mission where it not only provided irrigation and drinking water, but filled the stone basins (still there to see above the Rose Garden) where hides were soaked prior to tanning.
Rocky Nook Park
A couple of blocks above the Mission is a charming county park – known by the locals simply as Rocky Nook. And rocky, indeed. Boulders, scattered generously everywhere, were deposited a thousand years ago by a debris flow that roared down the canyon depositing boulders along the way. A Chumash Indian legend says the boulders are the bone remains of the Indians
drowned by the slurry of water and sediments. I felt as if I were photographing family groups. In late May at the
beginning of the long dry season, the creek is surprisingly active though its flow will most likely decline as the season advances.
At Oak Park
Since I moved to Santa Barbara three years ago, a four-year drought has reduced Mission Creek at Oak Park to mostly a dry creek bed. Only after a rain of an inch or more would the creek come to life as a muddy noisy, torrent which finally reaches the sea by curving a path across the beach just south of Stearns Wharf.
Within a day, the creek at Oak Park becomes a series of clear pools joined by rivulets of gurgling water. It is then that I walk slowing along its banks, imagining the water circulating through my veins, refreshing my worn and tired body. And I would then know deep peace. The following day, the creek disappeared leaving behind only drying mud where the pools had been.
The creek bed once again is laid bare and often weed-filled. By late spring, the stream even in the foothills at the Botanic Garden, is often reduced to a few algae-filled pools.
Mission Creek leaves its canyon just below the Garden where it is joined by Rattlesnake Creek. Together they meander several miles across the gently-sloping plain (called by geologists an alluvial fan) to the ocean. Over the years, the creek has flooded the town several times during the rainy winter months.
My father, who as a boy lived between Oak Park and Cottage Hospital, remembers those
times when the only high spot in their neighborhood was their garden, where the neighbors came and stood until the flood waters receded. During the floods, the creek waters filtered slowing down through the rock and soil replenishing the groundwater. Today, the creek, often contained by concrete sides, seldom floods, so it flows directly into ocean carrying with it pollutants, often closing for a time the surrounding beaches as unsafe for swimming.
Oak Park is not a nature park, it’s a people park where neighbors walk their dogs and on weekends, it’s crowded. Piñatas are hung from the oak branches, musicians tune their guitars and horns, kids play in noisy swarms, and men sweat over the barbecues. In the winter when the days are short and sometimes rainy, Oak Park returns to a more natural environment.
Mission Creek Outfall
Most of the year, the creek trapped behind its sand berm from continuing to the ocean, forms a quiet lagoon favored by water and shorebirds, especially during the winter. When the creek is in flood stage, it carves a curving course through the sand to the ocean.
My love of canyons goes back to a childhood living in the Oakland Hills. There were no houses across the street because at the bottom of the slope was an electric train, part of the Key System, which ran across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco. The dense slope on the other side of the track was a no man’s land until I was old enough to venture further afield. What drew me there was an ethereal bird song, I didn’t recognize.
The slope was too steep to navigate on foot so I slid on my behind through what I would later discover was mostly poison oak. After an almost vertical slope of slippery clay, I found myself at the edge of a creek. And there was my bird, silent now, who fixed me with it’s round eye, made even rounder by a circle of white feathers. Late in the spring, the creek was reduced to a series of dark pools, laced together by threads of running water. Water striders skated across the surface while dragonflies darted about occasionally touching the water.
I couldn’t stay away from this newly discovered world until a painful rash spread across my body after each foray.
I later learned that the creek was called Trestle Glen Creek or Indian Gulch Creek named for the Ohlone villages along its margins. Instead of flowing into the ocean, the creek brought its water to Lake Merritt, a tidal sanctuary with an amazing array of winter water birds, attracting enough attention so it became the first waterfowl sanctuary in the country.
In my twenties, we moved to the Berkeley Hills and my stream became Strawberry Creek. The stream like so many coastal streams rose in springs near the top of the Berkeley Hills, flowed through the Botanical Gardens, which I came to love and where I meet a dear friend and with him led monthly bird walks. The garden was paradise and a number of birds thought so too. In the spring, the bird song was almost overwhelming. Thrushes again, including the dearest of all – the American Robin, the Black-headed Grosbeaks, Warbling Vireos – on and on – singing an intoxicating symphony of melodies unlike any other stream canyon I know.
I have also learned a new concept for understanding ones place on the planet by determining ones watershed. Our house was on a slope near the top of the Berkeley Hills where the most of the water drained toward Strawberry Creek which I liked to claim as defining my home place.
Since moving to Santa Barbara three years ago, my watershed is unequivocally Mission Creek, as was it for my parents who lived nearby more than a 100 years ago.
Phila’s Team: George Dumas, Webmaster Nancy Law, Editor Roger Bradfield, Artist
Ralph Hoffman begins the introduction to his wonderful bird book, “Birds of The Pacific States,” first published in 1927, with a paraphrase from one of Cicero’s orations extolling the delights of studying literature and how it enriches life. Hoffman then paraphrasing further, applying Cicero’s words to the study of birds:
“It (the study of birds) develops keen observation in youth and is a resource in old age, even for the invalid if he can but have a porch or a window for a post of observation. Birds become the companions of our work in the garden and of our walks…”
He concludes with:
”If a parent wishes to give his children three gifts for the years to come, I should put next to a passion for truth and a sense of humor, love of beauty in any form. Who will deny that birds are a conspicuous manifestation of beauty in nature?”
I keep next to me my copy of “Birds of the Pacific States” given to me by my parents in the 1930s. I was smitten with birds, thanks to my Girl Scout troop and the work we did towards our bird badge. From experienced teachers, we learned the birds of the garden, and, on a nearby lake, winter waterfowl. It is no exaggeration to say that my life was transformed forever.
And it may have been inevitable that in my old age I moved from Berkeley to Santa Barbara, Hoffman’s home where he wrote my treasured book.
His book has a way of truly experiencing a bird rather than simply identifying it. A simple system of identifying a bird alone would have to wait for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, published first in 1941 (also given to me by my parents) where the salient features of a bird were indicated by arrows. Further description was minimal, stating only that, in the case of a Brown Towhee: “A dull gray-brown with a moderately long tail; suggests a very plain overgrown sparrow.”
But read what Hoffman has to say about the Brown (now the renamed California) Towhee, a common bird found in the countryside and in most of our gardens:
“Can even a bird-lover become enthusiastic over a Brown Towhee – a plain brown bird that hops stolidly in and out of brush heaps…with no bright colors, no attractive song and no tricks or manners of especial interest? The bird is a rustic with the stolidity of the peasant and apparently lives its entire life near the spot where it was born.”
Now there is the “essence” of the towhee!
And how grateful I was that within a week of arriving at my new home, I discovered a towhee scratching in the dry leaves.
Inserted into the pages of my copy of Hoffman’s book is an article from “Natural History” magazine written by Harold Swanton in 1982 titled “Ralph Hoffman: Unsung Guide to the Birds” subtitled “Early bird guides concentrated on birds in the hand: a New England schoolmaster produced the first for birds in the bush.”
The earlier publication in 1904 of Hoffman’s a “Guide to the Birds of New England and Eastern New York” was considered to be the first true bird guide.
After teaching Latin is several private schools in the east, Hoffman came west in 1919 to again teach Latin at the Cate School for Boys in Santa Barbara. As a graduate of Harvard and the son of a distinguished Latin and Greek scholar, Ferdinand Hoffman, who ran a boy’s school in the East, Hoffman came by the classics naturally.
For the next six years, Hoffman lived in nearby Carpinteria where he had a clear view of the Channel Islands. The islands would draw him across the channel often, first to study birds and later plants. The northern-most island, San Miguel, would be where he met his untimely death.
The Pacific Coast was a new territory for Hoffman and he began almost immediately doing the research which would lead to the publication eight years later of the “Birds of the Pacific States.”
Swanton writes that “Hoffman had no formal training in ornithology or botany, and although he became an expert in both fields, he retained his amateur status. He brought an amateur’s excitement and joy to his work, reflected in every line he wrote.”
Hoffman left teaching only when he was given the job as director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, an ideal job for a man who loved both teaching and the study of natural history.
After the publication of his bird book, Hoffman turned his attention to botany. He took the opportunity on July 21, 1932 to go to San Miguel Island to pursue his study of buckwheat. When he failed to return to the group, after an eight-hour search in heavy fog, his crumpled body was found at the base of an almost vertical cliff. His broken trowel was found next to him. He evidently tried to use his trowel for support.
He is remembered especially at the Museum where a plaque memorializes him. Though now found only through specialty booksellers, “Birds of the Pacific States” remained in print for 50 years.
Joan Lentz, a Santa Barbara birder and author, agrees that Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States” is one of the finest field guides every written.
For every lover of birds and nature, his book is an essential part of one’s library.
I don’t think I could have written these words even two months ago because I was still unreconciled to my move to Santa Barbara. This is NOT my home, I would have told you. And then I would begin my rant. Where are the robins to sing up the dawn? Where are the chickadees chattering in the oaks, or the Great-horned Owls hooting at dusk from the eucalyptus?
Nothing was right. Here, it is a cacophony of crows – an unholy chorus – from dawn to dusk. The creek next to this retirement “campus” is dry as a bone, lacking the lush streamside vegetation to attract the spring singers like the Swainson’s Thrushes, Warbling Vireos, and Wilson’s Warblers that populated my beloved Strawberry Canyon.
Some days, I would imagine sitting on the bench under the sheltering branches of the oak I had planted 60 years ago. Or I would envision myself at the U.C. Botanical Garden, climbing the path up to the Old Roses garden, and to the fence line where I could look up the steep chaparral-covered slope to the bent tree at the top of the hill. Coming down, I would stop to view the Bay in the “V” of the hills. Of course, there would be robins singing everywhere, and the Olive-sided Flycatcher calling from its perch at the top of a redwood.
There’s no cure for this nostalgia other than to acknowledge that I will always look at what’s around me through Berkeley eyes. I don’t want to surrender that perspective. But maybe I could allow myself to consider the virtues of the South Coast, of Santa Barbara where everyone wants to come and visit and — if they could afford to – stay.
A month after I came to live here last September, flocks of Yellow-rumped Warblers arrived, just like the ones in Berkeley. The manicured gardens of lawns, palms, and agapanthus beds were just fine with them. They dove into the palms and out again, forever “chipping.” Then a Hermit Thrush took up winter residency beneath the live oaks below my bedroom window. And then a troupe of cheerful White-crowned Sparrows arrived, singing sweetly, but in a different dialect.
My retirement community is just up the hill from Oak Park, one of the scruffier city parks but with some fine live oaks and sycamores. Sycamores are new to me except for the ones I would infrequently see out around Sunol where they favored the flats near streams. They are the true eccentrics in the plant world – no two trees alike. Gravity often has its way with them, pulling long branches in deep curves that almost reach the ground, while other limbs look to the sky and grow upward in search of the sun. The trunks near the ground are often covered with thick, brown bark that gives way to thin plates of bark that continually shed, revealing patches of pale brown, gray, olive, and bright russet in newly exposed areas. I am always reminded of a pinto pony. The upper limbs — rising high above the companion somber live oaks — are almost pure white, especially stunning against a blue sky.
Sycamores are attractive to birds partly for the opportunities they provide the cavity nesters. The larger holes invite woodpeckers and owls, with the smaller holes attracting House Wrens, nuthatches, bluebirds, and many others. Certain species of hummingbirds gather the down under the leaves to line their nest, while those winged beauties, the tiger swallow butterflies, leave behind eggs that become the voracious caterpillars that find the big palmate leaves to their liking.
Mission Creek, considered the only perennial stream in the area, borders the park. But this part of the creek, a mile or so from where it enters the ocean, is always dry this time of the year. Only once during this record dry winter did a good rain fill Mission Creek with a wild white-and-tan froth of racing water. From its bank, I could hear the torrent rearranging rocks in the creek bed. The next day, the flow had slowed to a few reflective pools connected by a trickle of running water. One day later, the water had disappeared – gone! And it’s been dry ever since.
I walk down the hill to the park most days, crossing a bridge where I often stop to examine the placard describing how the creek bed has been restored by removing tons of concrete that had acted as a barrier to the passage of the endangered Southern Steelhead Trout. In better times, the fish might have entered the creek from the ocean during winter storms, ascending the creek to spawn in the upper watershed where water remains year round. But not this year. Even the upper watershed in the Botanic Garden has been reduced to a few stagnating pools, with only the thinnest trickle of water in certain places.
Sometimes I drive up into the foothills to visit the Botanic Garden, which like the one in Tilden Park is devoted exclusively to plants native to California. The upper part of canyon has its share of live oaks, small bays, and towering sycamores, but none of the dense riparian vegetation to attract the streamside breeders that fill Strawberry Canyon with their joyous songs.
Many of the birds in the south coast canyons are the ones you might expect to see inland in the Bay Area – Acorn Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatch (instead of Red-breasted), Phainopeplas, sometimes Canyon Wrens, and Wood Pewees. Stellar’s Jays are seldom seen in the lower elevations. Swainson’s Thrushes pass through in migration, only breeding in the rare streamside where the vegetation conceals this shy bird that mostly reveals its presence through its song.
Today I visited such a place – Atascadero Creek in nearby Goleta, which is tidal below its check dam. But above the dam, its fresh water section supports a jungle of willows, cottonwoods, a few small live oaks, and the first Big-leafed Maple I’ve seen since coming south. I heard two singing Swainson’s Thrushes, several Wilson’s Warblers, a singing Black-headed Grosbeak with a begging juvenile.
Here at the retirement place, House Finches continue to build nests on any flat surface and the Lesser Goldfinches empty my feeder in a day. But the Orange-crowned Warblers, which sang until a week ago in the park, have ceased singing, confirming that the summer doldrums will soon be upon us with few surprises in the bird world and the uninspiring sequence of daily fog and sun.
Time to look to the local beaches, where shorebirds are beginning to move along the coast. Shorebirds, mostly gray or brown during the winter, are my weak link. With my Sibley open, I’m trying to bone up on leg length and color, beak differences, feeding habits. Best idea is to find a walking companion more knowledgeable than I.