FALL IN SANTA BARBARA

imagesTake 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.

library-023By 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.

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Photo by Bob Lewis

 -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.

north-pacific-high
Illustration by Peter Gaede “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region” by Joan Easton Lentz

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.liquidambar

Image result for images of native sycamores

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.

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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.fall1

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.

fogYesterday, 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.

lightningAround 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.2015-06-26-20

Some of the birds which arrive in the Fall

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White-crowned Sparrow
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Hermit Thrush
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Townsend’s Warbler
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Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Photos by Tom Ginn

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THE VARIOUS FORMS OF FOG

 

over SB
Fog over Santa Barbara and the harbor

Fog

The fog comes
On little cat feet.

It sits looking
Over harbor and city
On silent haunches
And then moves on

–Carl Sandburg

 

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.

from book
The movement of fog onshore on a typical summer day (“A Naturalist’s Guide to the Santa Barbara Region” Joan Easton Lentz.  Illustrator: Peter Gaede)

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 exoticdecreasing 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.

northernI’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 covback to sbering 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, collectinggreen 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.

Harvesting 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.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.

end 1The newly-planted 700 tara trees will be able to eventually collect their own water.  Tara trees produce valuable tannin.end 2

Okay, I’m convinced.  Bring on the fog and no more grumbling about gray mornings.

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