Summer Skies

Fog off mountainSanta 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.

Do we need to be reminded that water is our lifeblood?More clouds

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.

Sunset with FogBy 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.GD06162015

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

Luke_HowardA 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.

howard_anvil
Cumulus with anvil

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

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FOR THE LOVE OF BIRDS

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.

My original copy of “Birds of the Pacific States”; a gift from my parents in the 1930s
My original copy of “Birds of the Pacific States”; a gift from my parents in the 1930s

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.”

An illustration of a Brown Towhee from Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States”
An illustration of a Brown Towhee from Hoffman’s “Birds of the Pacific States”

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.”

Hoffman from a “Natural History” article in 1982
Hoffman from a “Natural History” article in 1982

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.

View of the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara
View of the Channel Islands from Santa Barbara

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.”

Hoffman’s home on Glendessary Lane in Santa Barbara
Hoffman’s home on Glendessary Lane in Santa Barbara

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.

 

Hoffman with Albert Einstein at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Hoffman with Albert Einstein at the Santa Barbara Museum 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.