This is one of the noteworthy days of the year, the fall equinox and the first day of fall. Like the spring equinox six months from now, day and night are roughly equal in length. The Bewick’s Wren is singing a more joyous song and the Oak Titmouse sings a combination of their spring halleluiahs with their raspy call notes. Nothing will come of it, of course, and the days will continue to grow shorter by two minutes a day until we are jolted by darkness falling by 7 PM.
In Santa Barbara on the south coast, a 100 miles west northwest of Los Angeles, fall doesn’t really show up until October, when the California grapevine turns red on the fence and the winter birds show up in the coastal gardens.
Over the last few days, Bay Area birders are plucking my heart strings by reporting the first Golden-crowned Sparrows of the season. I remember those chilly mornings in the Berkeley Hills when I would walk up the street towards the pasture whistling their song. If they had arrived in the early morning hours after a long night’s flight, they answered me with one or two minor key notes. I would yelp with joy and dance a quick jig. When I returned home, I made an entry in my notebook, circling the date in red.
It would be a few more days before the little flocks worked their way into the neighborhood to settle into their winter territories. I wondered if these birds were the ones that had come last year and maybe several years before. The good news was that they remained until mid or late April, developing the bright yellow crown, before departing for the far north. During the winter you could count on them singing just before it started to rain.
As far as I know there are no golden crowns in this neighborhood or even in Oak Park. They are most often reported in weedy fields in open areas like the upper Elings Park.
A single mature male has spent the summer feeding with several Song Sparrows in a clearing near Los Carneros Lake. Apparently, it declined to join the others of its kind for the migration north in April. Was he damaged in some way or simply lacked the normal instinct, the irresistible urge to migrate?
Hearing the Western Tanagers on the move, I will start listening for our winter birds, though I know it’s probably too early. I arrived at Samarkand as a reluctant migrant from Northern California at this time nine years ago. It was during the lull between the seasons. I was disconsolate. I looked for one familiar bird. Finally, there it was — a California Towhee scratching in the leaves alongside the pathway.
Something did arrive early this year, a substantial rain but with hardly a sprinkle here. Elsewhere, it was enough to signal the annual nuptial flight of the termites when some of these subterranean creatures grow a pair of gossamer wings for a day’s fling above ground in the bright air. The queen ascends high in the sky pursued by ardent males eager to mate with her. Then as quickly as it began, it was all over and the termites resumed their lives in the dark with a pregnant queen, leaving behind a shimmering carpet of discarded wings.
I had assumed this early storm was like the ones to follow, moving down the coast from the north. But the cause was Hurricane Kay, an extensive, well-organized storm which had originated off the coast of Baja California, slowly weakening as it moved north to bring varying amounts of rain.
Nature sent us a consolation prize though — a double rainbow which felt more like a gateway to grander things.
When webmaster George Dumas pushed the button to publish “Summer Doldrums,” I suggested that we take a month off as nothing much was going to happen during the summer months. Then, on the morning of June 24 I woke to a day that both felt and looked different. Cumulus clouds were heaped up against the backside of the Santa Ynez mountains and flotillas of small white clouds with lacy edges stretched across the sky. Listening to my weather radio, I learned that a monsoon brought violent storms to the Los Angeles basin and the surrounding mountains.
Monsoon season most often occurs in July and August and brings most of the annual rainfall to the Southwest. We were experiencing the edge of the first one today.
Most monsoons occur when the hot summer sun heats up the land and the wind shifts to the south drawing up the moist, unstable air from the Gulf of California or the Gulf of Mexico.
Along with rain came strong wind gusts and even some hail in Los Angeles. The electrical storms produced an estimated 3,600 lighting strikes, one igniting a brush fire in the Tehachapi and another tragically striking and killing a woman and her two dogs who were taking a morning walk along the San Gabriel riverbed. Fatal lightning strikes are rare with this being the first one of some 20 occurring each year.
Only the northern edge of the monsoon reached Santa Barbara. I spent the day outside with my camera, my eyes always on the sky. The air was silken, not too humid without any of that sharpness we associate with the typical onshore flow from the ocean. It was the kind of day that makes you feel like a different person.
Now, at almost 4 PM, the show is mostly over. The heaps of clouds over the highest mountain ridges have withdrawn or simply melted away leaving behind a few cloud fragments.
Although failing to bring us rain, the monsoonal visit was a delightful change from the usual coastal weather.
It’s been several weeks since the Summer Solstice, but the days grow shorter so slowly at first that you’re not apt to notice. Because of the earth’s tilt toward the sun, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Cancer at a latitude of 23.5 degrees north. The Tropic of Cancer passes over Baja California as it circles the globe, or more precisely, over the small seaside town of Todos Santos, an hour’s drive north of Cabo San Lucas where a planted stick casts no shadow.
Because of the slow heating of the land by the sun, the highest temperatures will be several weeks later in mid-July.
Within the Arctic Circle, at the Summer Solstice, the sun will shine for 24 hours while darkness will prevail at the south pole.
Over the millennia, various cultures have celebrated the Summer Solstice in different ways. Here in Santa Barbara we have a parade with imaginative handcrafted floats, bands (emphasis on drums ) and costumed dancers moving to the beat. For me, butterfly wings glowing in the sunlight epitomizes summer.
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After a rainless January and February, we were excited to learn that a storm was moving our way. I read that it was being carried down the coast by our old friend the “jet stream,” that fast-moving river of air moving from east to west which circulates around the globe often delivering weather systems to our coast. Or at least it used to.
The possibility of a storm deserved a morning sky watch. Soon after sunrise, I stepped outside on my balcony and aimed my camera at the sky and would continue to do so at hourly intervals until noon. As a long-time sky watcher (or storm watcher) in the Bay Area, the evidence was not encouraging.
Though winter storms generally form in the Gulf of Alaska and move down the West Coast, the winds that accompany them blow counterclockwise, so approaching storms are preceded by winds from the southeast. This morning the wind blew consistently from the northeast and was cold and dry, rather than moist and mild.
What I loved about most winter storms was the buildup that preceded the arrival of the storm itself. From my Bay Area hilltop house, I could scan the horizon from the south of San Francisco north past Mt. Tamalpais to Sonoma County. Not much escaped my attention.
The classical winter storm usually begins with high cirrus clouds often in fantastical shapes like wispy feathers. The clouds spread across the sky from north to south. At some point the wind begins, fluky at first before settling into gusts from the southeast growing in strength as the clouds thickened and lowered.
After years of living in Berkeley, I knew the wind direction without looking. An early October storm carried the strong, acidic odor of cooking tomatoes coming from the Heinz catsup plant in southwest Berkeley. If the wind was blowing from the northwest, it would carry the strong petroleum odors coming from the Chevron distillery in Richmond.
In Santa Barbara, where I have lived for 10 years, I smell mostly the odor of cooking tortillas and the scent of flowers. Sometimes the alarming smell of burning chaparral tells me there is a fire in the mountains. When the wind blows from the northwest during in the long summer, the air smells vaguely like ammonia or slightly salty of kelp drying on the beach. It feels heavy and damp.
I’ve often wondered why I am so exhilarated just before a storm. I dash around, bringing in outdoor furniture, rolling up outdoor shades and tying them tight. Hankering for the feel of soil, I plant that final sixpack of pansies ahead of the rain.
Now I’ve learned the likely cause of this joyous energy – negative ions. Negative ions associated with clouds and wind facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the cells. No wonder I’m so exhilarated. After a storm has passed, denied this extra oxygen, I descend into what I’ve always thought of as a post-storm slump.
None of this energy was associated with today’s morning’s storm watch which began with a few isolated clumps of white clouds and a wind that never shifted around to the southeast. Instead of the air warming as it usually does with an approaching storm, the wind rattling in the dry foliage was cold and odorless. By noon the clouds had mostly disappeared leaving only a few shards to help color the sunset.
Later I learned that the storm track was inland, bringing a dusting of snow to the higher coastal peaks while delivering generous, dry fluffy snow to the Sierra. I was disappointed after high hopes for a good rain, but I did enjoy the variety – a welcome relief from the still warm air from sunup to sunset.
TWO BOOKS FOR THE SKY WATCHER
The first book, sumptuously illustrated with clouds from around the world is titled: “The Cloud Collector’s Handbook,” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. It is the official publication of The Cloud Appreciation Society. The Brits do love their weather. Some photos and descriptions are of familiar clouds. One is so rare you have to travel to the north-east corner of Australia to see it.
Early November 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 Called sundowners. 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 Shouting children, 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 Books, 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 Testing itself.
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.
After having lived most of my life in the Bay Area, California mountains meant only the Sierra Nevada. My earliest memories are of Lake Tahoe with the bands of blue, the color deepening the further you were from shore. I remember the translucency of the water, the whiteness of the beach sand and the way the sun shining through the water left a dazzling pattern on the sandy bottom. And the granite, always angular and glistening with feldspar.
Vacation in the mountains was a reprieve from home and the rank eucalyptus odors. Now it was sage and pine, and brilliant, hard edged cumulus instead of the dull sheets of stratus.
But it was time to put all that behind and turn my thoughts without aversion to the Southern California Mountains, another transverse mountain range like the Santa Ynez range. The deep power of the San Andreas fault had twisted the mountains sideways, contrary to the northwest trending of the other California ranges.
With some of the family now living in Southern California, a three and a half hour drive to Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardinos won the day over nine hours north to Lake Tahoe.
The San Bernardino Mountains rise abruptly on all sides out of its arid landscape. The curving road makes a quick ascent passing occasional coulter and knobcone pines, dried stalks of yuccas and chaparral. In a land of few lakes, only dams can create a body of water, gathered mostly from snow melt. Big Bear Lake, no exception, occupies its own shallow valley set in low mountains and open conifer forests. Unlike the Sierra, where millions of trees have succumbed to the long drought and insect attacks, Big Bear’s trees look healthy, perhaps being accustomed to dry years.
While noticing the distinct differences between the appearance of Sierra Nevada and the San Bernardinos, I remembered reading of their similarities. Both began as batholiths formed of cooling magma deep underground before being uplifted some three million years ago. Older rocks overlain the newer granites. But in the Sierra Nevada, the old rock eroded away with the heavier rains and the extensive glaciation. In the Santa Bernardinos, with glaciation only on the highest peaks and less rain, more of the old rock remains.
Because we were nine people, we rented a large, recently remodeled house which is currently on the market for three and a half million dollars. While the family took to kayaks and paddle boards, I settled in on the deck to figure out this place.
The dominate pine is the Jeffrey – a close relative of the ponderosa (yellow) pine, which along with the coulter pine, are all members of the yellow pine family distinguished by packets of three long needles which produce nice harmonies in the wind.
The fir family was represented by white fir growing, at the deck rail, with short, dense needles which point upward. Each species seems to have its own distinct odor. Press your nose into the cracks between the plates of bark on the yellow pine and you smell vanilla. Sniff the white fir and you get an essence of pine and citrus. Be like the native American Indians, brew a cup of tea with the needles and you have your daily requirement for vitamin C.
But what took my fancy was the pair of sugar pines above a neighbor’s roof. Aside from being both the largest and second tallest in the pinus family with uncommonly long pine cones, I love this pine. John Muir savored the exuded gum which he said was sweeter than maple-syrup. The branches are arranged on the straight trunk often symmetrically, but sometimes a branch will shun order and stretch out further than the rest. Cones hang near the tip of the branch. I remember watching them in a winter wind swaying as if they were extravagant ornaments. Once, while examining a cone a foot and a half long lying on the ground, I remember someone telling me that the scales expand and contract with the change of temperature and the prickles make a grove in the soil for the seed. I’ve never been able to find another citation for that charming “fact” since.
The forest, at least in the neighborhood of our house on north-facing shore is knitted together by an understory of a tall manzanita called Pringle Manzanita. The season for its pink urn-shaped flowers is long past and only a few dried berries remain.
Time to shake off the lethargy that comes with an occasional fleecy cloud drifting across the blue and then dissolving or the soft song of pines, and explore the rest of the lake. The dam is a modest one required only to hold back the snow melt and the marshy waters in the shallow basin. Once around the corner to the drier south-facing shore, sages and the sturdy Sierra juniper make an appearance.
At the visitor’s center, we take literature on the trees of the region and the description of a champion lodgepole pine further up the mountain which sounds almost reachable by a short trail.
It appears there would be no avoiding the walk once my daughter learned of it. Children, no matter how old themselves, are reluctant to entertain the ills (real or imagined) of their elders. I did bring my boots so maybe I can avoid a compound fracture when I turn my ankle on the inevitable loose rock.
Once we turned off the road that circles the lake, we were in the forest headed uphill. We pitched and heaved over the bumpy road. But once in this sub-alpine forest we felt like we were back in the forests above Lake Tahoe. Though I am considered the chief exclaimer in the family, we all exclaimed over this familiar beauty. No more yellowish rock. Here the granitic core of the mountain revealed itself. The understory became varied – sometimes tender green fields of bracken ferns, other times corn lilies.
We parked at the end of the road where a sign pointed downhill to the lodgepole pine and to the Bluff Lake Preserve. I recognized this kind of trail – decomposed granite made “interesting” by rocks and exposed roots. My grandson Stuart walked close behind me and my daughter ahead of me. I focused on what was underfoot allowing only sidelong glances at the creek next to the trail over hung with wildflowers, the first such sight in these mountains. The trail leveled out as we approached the lodgepole pine grove. Lodgepole pines are uncommon in this southern forest. They hark back to a cooler era. My joy was somewhat tempered by remembering that I had to walk back out. I didn’t care. I hadn’t expected this gift in my 89th year.
The old giant was closely encircled by younger trees (as I am by my family). The tree overlooks a broad green meadow—a meadow which not so long ago had been a pond. In the Sierra, the Lodgepole pine is the first to show up as the pond becomes a meadow. As other trees move in, the meadow becomes part of the forest.
The noble tree is a part of a national registry of the largest known of its species in a particular geographic area. A nearby Jeffrey pine is several hundred years old, an “old growth” survivor in a forest that had been heavily logged
The champion lodgepole pine from its meadow and two oldtimers.
When one of my friends fell on an icy path this morning and Gibraltar Dam flowed into its spillway, the first time since 2011, I decided that winter could not be ignored.
I hadn’t considered writing about Santa Barbara in the winter thinking that the season had been mostly passed by in these years of drought. Then yesterday, December 23, we had a storm that was worthy of qualifying as a winter storm in every way. The day began with a thin cloud cover which built during the morning to promising layers of clouds and brief gusts of wind, which by noon led to rain. After slacking off in a way that I had become used to during these dry years, the rain built again as if to defy my pessimism. By mid-afternoon the rain built to a real gully-washer. I was lucky enough to be in my car so I could enjoy splashing through flows of water at every intersection and best of all, seeing Mission Creek coursing down its creek bed after so many months of being bone dry.
From the sound of my bamboo wind chimes during the night, I knew the storm had passed to the east and the wind had shifted to the north as it does along the coast after a rain storm. The cold wind continues today pushing around remnant clouds, now empty of their contents.
I know storm must follow storm to make the creek a winter feature and the soil be soaked enough to start recharging the depleted water table. Lake Cachuma which lies in the valley between our mountains, the Santa Ynez, and the higher range to the east, is the reservoir which holds our water supply. At present, it’s almost no lake at all, having shrunk to less than 7% of its capacity. Vultures have taken to roosting on the rim of the dam.
December ended with the rainfall slightly above normal.
January was another matter altogether thanks to massive storms brought across the Pacific by an atmospheric river — a new word in my weather lexicon. An atmospheric river can be several thousand miles long to a few hundred miles wide. Drawing up moisture from near the Hawaiian Islands, the warm air can transport large amounts of rain. It’s what we once called the “Pineapple Express.’
The atmospheric rivers produced five days of good rains. At the end of January, rainfall for the month was 8.96 inches rather than a normal 2.86 inches. Even the lawns, most of which were allowed to go brown over the summer and fall, were green again.
The rains continued intermittently until Friday, February 17. The papers were advertising that the biggest storm of the season was on its way. Over the years, I have learned to be suspicious of such a build-up which often leads to disappointment. I believe in sneaker storms – the ones which arrive with little or no advance warning. That may be the old days before sophisticated weather-measuring equipment and computers, which can put together predictive models, eliminated much of the guesswork.
At 5 AM heavy rain was falling, serious, confident rain. By mid-morning the velocity of the rain continued to increase. Coarse and dense raindrops were being driven by gale winds from the south-east. By early afternoon, the rain had slackened enough to allow me to drive down to the Mission Creek just below us. Others had already gathered. Some of us stood on the bridge itself which was trembling with the force of the volume of water pouring a few feet beneath. On the opposite side of the bridge where the stream bed is narrowed by rock walls, boulders were being slammed together. The percussive, booming sounds resembled thunder. Some people, unnerved by the violence, hurried back to their cars. As a fan of such drama, I stayed put.
The storm finally moved on leaving 5-inches of rain downtown and heavier amounts on the mountain slopes. Mission Creek up Mission Canyon left its stream bed and temporarily carved out a new route. Further engorged by a cargo of mud, the stream poured over the old Indian Dam.
The gift for me was that Mission Creek became a real stream, a winter stream which flowed for weeks on end, not just for a day or two after a rain.
Now it’s early April and the creek has ceased to flow. It survived for few more days as isolated pools, until it disappeared altogether. I like to think that it continues to flow underground bringing moisture to the roots of the sycamores and to the other streamside plants.
Rattlesnake Creek, a tributary of Mission Creek in flood conditions.
Credit: Ray Ford
(Please note the material following the video is not part of this presentation.)
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.
It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on
I’ve lived in coastal California for all of my 87 years, so you think by now I would have developed at least a tolerance for the fog which arrives each summer. But I’m one of those unfortunate people whose moods are dictated by the weather. Awaking to sunshine fills me with good cheer. A gray beginning sets a similar mood for the morning.
Yes, I’ve heard the arguments – fog delivers at least some moisture in this driest of seasons during perhaps this most serious of droughts. And the cloud cover protects plants from the desiccation by the summer sun.
I’m also aware that taking the perspective of a naturalist delivers me from being a victim of moods (moods are nice enough when they are cheerful ones). I’ve spent the last few days doing research, reacquainting myself with my library including historical books like “Up and Down California,” Brewer’s fascinating account of doing a geographic and geological survey of the state in the 1850’s, and going a century back to the classical account of California’s coast by Richard Henry Dana in “Two Years Before the Mast.” I’ve also been mining Google for gems of information.
Dana didn’t mention fog as he was more concerned about the winter when the anchored ship could be caught by a southeast storm gale and be blown ashore before they could set sail for the open ocean.
At the risk of sounding pedantic, here are some basic facts. Our fog – advection fog – comes mostly in the summer months when the Northern Pacific High is in command. That zone of high pressure that squats over the eastern Pacific, fends off storms that might come in from the north, and establishes summer wind patterns. In the late spring and early summer, the wind picks up speed and blows down the coast. The wind displaces the warmer surface water causing an upwelling of the deeper, cold water. When the warmer wind passes over the chilly water, the moist air condenses into tiny liquid droplets suspended in the air, forming fog.
Often the fog is drawn inland by the low pressure lying over the hot the Great Central Valley. The fog usually retreats back to the immediate coast where it may persist all day, and sometimes for days on end. In Santa Barbara, those foggy days may be called May Gray or June Gloom. In Northern California the winds and chill air at Pt. Reyes makes it one of the foggiest places in the world with an average of 200 foggy days a year.
I favor those late summer and early autumn days of decreasing coastal fogs when the Pacific High begins to slowly shift south allowing for the possibility of an early rain coming down from the north. Or when humidity sometimes moves north bringing the possibility of a thunderstorm and wonderful cloud effects. Exotic weather heightens one’s senses.
I’m also reading about how coastal fogs along the north coast have allowed the redwood forest to persist. Once, when the climate was much wetter, redwoods were common over much of the continent. But as the climate became drier and cooler, the redwood forests retreated to a narrow band along the immediate coast of Northern California visited by ocean fogs in the summer.
I once read that sunny California has more fog than any other state when you consider that the coast in the summer is often foggy and in the winter, damp, ground-hugging tule fogs covering the Great Central Valley can blot out the sun for days on end until the next rain storm sweeps the fog away for a time. The so-called radiation fog often follows the rain when the earth is both chilled and damp and the drier air above it condenses, forming fog. I remember once driving across the Sacramento Valley at night and I could see that the fog came up to the cow’s belly, leaving its head in the clear.
Back to Santa Barbara: In his journal; ”Up and Down California” William Brewer writes on Tuesday, March 12 (1861). “Still foggy and wet. This weather is abominable – now for nearly two weeks we have had foggy, damp weather, tramping through wet bushes, riding in damp, foggy air, burning wet wood to dry ourselves, no sun to dry our damp blankets. I find that it makes some of my joints squeak with rheumatic twinges. Went out this morning, found it so wet that we had to return to camp”.
Five days later on Sunday Evening, March 17, he writes: “We have had a clear hot day, after two week’s fog, and have improved the opportunity to dry our blankets and clothes, botanic papers, etc.”
I don’t recall in my four years of living in Santa Barbara of having a foggy spell in March. What does ring true is the strength of the sun. Even on foggy days, as the fog begins to thin one can feel the heat of the sun. I remember being warned as a child, that I could be badly sunburned by the sun in a light fog.
I’m not sure about this, but it’s my impression that the west coast of the continents at our latitudes often have summer coastal fog. In the case of Peru, Chile and Namibia in Africa, these are deserts with little or no rain, and no surface or groundwater. A certain Namibian beetle sleeps with its hindquarters raised and in the morning shifts its position to allow the condensed moisture to run into his mouth for a drink. Incas, living on the barren slopes off the west-facing Andes, after observing that pots under shrubs and small trees filled with fog drip, learned to string up nets made of small mesh which would sift drifting fog, collecting up to a hundred gallons a day.
In the Bay Area where I lived, researchers measured in the rainless summer the equivalent of 10 inches of rain under the pines and eucalyptus along the ridgeline of the foggy Berkeley Hills. I noticed how on my summer walks in the grasslands, yellow and dry by May, I could count on a circle of fresh green grass within the drip line of each tree. The long narrow leaves of the eucalyptus and the slender pine needles did an especially efficient job of combing out moisture from the drifting fog.
Why not string a series of nets along Twin Peaks in San Francisco? Unfortunately such a meager harvest could only supply the needs of a small neighborhood. But there are small villages in the arid west coast of South America and elsewhere, where enough water was collected with fog nets to grow crops, irrigate orchards and have enough left over for personal use.
One such community is Bellavista, a village of 200 people on the dry slopes above Lima, Peru. With almost no rain, no river, or groundwater, the village had to be served by anto expensive water trucks from Lima.
Conservationists Kai Tiederman and Anna Lummerich, working with a non-profit supported in part by the National Geographic, showed the villagers how to construct the fog catchers — nylon mesh stretched between poles. The villagers did the heavy work, carrying sand bags 800 feet up the steep hill to stabilize the poles and to build pools to store the collected water. With the wind blowing the heavy fog through the nets they can now collect 600 gallons a day.
The newly-planted 700 tara trees will be able to eventually collect their own water. Tara trees produce valuable tannin.
Okay, I’m convinced. Bring on the fog and no more grumbling about gray mornings.
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.
Do we need to be reminded that water is our lifeblood?
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