Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Weather Changes In Southern California

Today the thermometer climbed to 102 degrees F. in our shaded backyard. At a 9:00 PM it is still over 80 degrees F.

Only a week ago the temperature was a cool 65 degrees F. and it was raining. In drought challenged Southern California that should be a good thing. But to have almost an inch of rain at the end of May is odd. Usually our measurable rain falls between October and April. When change comes gradually it can be hard to see, but this year the small changes are becoming more noticeable if you take time to look.

In 2005 our autumn rain, never arrived. The native sycamore trees didn’t seed. When the flocks of lesser and American goldfinches arrived in January and February, the food they were looking for wasn’t available. People who have finch feeders in their backyards saw record numbers of goldfinches.

Quenching rains came in December and January, but unusually-warm February weather raised the temperature into the 80s for two weeks. Plants bloomed early, many of the local birds shifted into breeding mode.

Now, it is May 31st.
The Allen’s hummingbird is close to hatching her second clutch of eggs. The California towhees, the black phoebes, the house finches and Northern mockingbirds have already fledged their first batch of offspring and are working on their second. The Bewick’s wrens are sitting on their third clutch.

In 2005 the house finches raised three separate families of offspring by late summer. Midway through August the population was exploding and avian pox ran rampant through the house finches and goldfinches. I even saw a spotted towhee with the telltale tumors of avian pox. The combination of disease and a dry fall, which made food less available, crashed the house finch numbers back to normal by December. But what will happen this year?

On a larger scale, we are seeing a huge increase in some species of migratory birds. For the past four years, in my yard, I have spotted one black-headed grosbeak, typically for a single day as it passes through in the spring. This year I had six individuals for over two weeks. I’d like to think my bachelor has found a girl and told a few friends how wonderful my yard is, but the reality is everyone I know who feeds birds has at least one black-headed grosbeak frequenting their feeder. Several have four or five, one woman has between 10-15 daily. Brilliant blue lazuli buntings are becoming frequent visitors at feeders, (though I must admit I haven’t had one). And there have been two confirmed sightings of Northern cardinals in the San Fernando Valley in the past two weeks. While it is exciting to see these birds, this obviously is not their usual migratory path. Where do they usually migrate to? Why aren’t they there? Has something changed in Central America or Mexico where they are coming from?

An hour ago, I caught sight of the hermit thrush. For seven years he has arrived in late October and migrated north in March. Last fall, he dropped in three weeks early. Now, it is nearly June and he is still here. Why? If he doesn’t travel north will he fail to find a mate and breed this year?

The hillside behind my house is dotted with native Catalina and holly cherry. Typically by late May these deep green shrubs are covered with dime-sized lime-colored fruit which will ripen to a dark red morsel by autumn. Only a few bushes have the peppercorn-sized beginnings of cherries. The fruit will ripen months later than the birds and other animals expect.

At a casual glance the Southern California hillsides are green, there are birds at the park and a swallowtail butterfly glides between the sycamore trees. But look closely, glance at a few notes you jotted down last year, or the year before, and there are small changes. How will all these small changes add up in the next few years? I don’t know. But change is an active force. Just as a snowball rolling downhill can suddenly become an avalanche, small changes may become massive before our eyes.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Water - How Much?

Water, turn on the tap and gurgling life gushes forth. How easy it is to take this luxury for granted. Do you know how much water you use in a day? Have you ever given it a thought? Most people in the world must know; for them clean water is not readily available.

It was an eye-opening experience traveling in Turkey to be responsible every day for the water we wanted to consume. Water streamed out of the facet in our comfortable and modern hotel room, but the water was not consumable. In the picturesque heart of Istanbul’s old city, our room had a sign taped above the bathroom sink warning us not to drink the tap water or use it for brushing our teeth.

If you had a bottle of drinking water to last you 24 hours, would you remember to save enough for brushing your teeth or for a swallow or two when you wake up in the middle of the night? How much water do you need to brush your teeth?

The Turkish travel company that arranged our trip had a unique policy: every lunch included in our tour package came with drinking water. For all of the other travelers we encountered water was treated like any other beverage, it was an additional charge.

How much are you willing to pay for drinking water? Do you know how much it weighs? Are you willing to purchase water in 3 liter bottles to ensure a better price, knowing that then you will have the burden of carrying the extra weight?

It took us a few days and a couple of experiences paying for expensive small bottles of water from the hotel minibars to get an understanding of how much water we, two adults, needed over the course of a day. Without taking in to account, cooking, bathing, lavatories or laundry, we each simply drank 2 to 3 liters of water every day. We bought large bottles and poured their contents into small bottles for use during the day. We stocked up when we found it at a good price. We bartered for it when fellow travelers misjudged their own liquid needs. It was an ever-present concern, did we have enough drinking water? Did we need more? When we needed more, would be able to find it?

Looking out my office window at the verdant trees, gardens and lawns designed to mimic an English countryside in a Mediterranean climate, I know all of this green is dependent on a tap that turns on and delivers water. An ever-growing human population in southern California requires more and more water. Where will it come from? Who or what will we take it from?

My great grandfather was born in a small high-desert town in the Owen’s Valley. He was a young man when the residents there decided to lease their water rights for 99 years to the burgeoning metropolis of Los Angeles. He said he always knew the people of the Owen’s Valley would regret selling what they couldn’t replace: water.

When I watch the goldfinches waiting in line to sip from my neighbor’s slowly leaking sprinkler head or observe the California towhee splashing gleefully in the bird bath, I see in them a true understanding of the precious nature of water. As summer heats up, more species of birds will visit my backyard for the small pool of fresh water than for the birdseed in the feeders.

Clean water, most living things can’t survive without it. How much did you use today? If you couldn’t turn on the tap, if you couldn’t buy it, where would you get it from?

Monday, May 01, 2006

Guardians of Apollo – The Starred Agama (Laudakia stellio)

Something is watching–something still, silent, ancient. Dark eyes glare from beneath a ridged gray brow.

How long had they been studying me? What were they thinking?

In the Temple of Apollo, on a hillside in Turkey, a gathering of starred agamas (Laudakia stellio) stood their ground. They observed–heads raised, muscles tense. Their clawed feet clinging to the stones surrounding the heart of the temple, the site of the oracle. For centuries, humans had come to this place asking questions, seeking wisdom.

I took a slow step forward.

The largest among them, an adult male, gazed right through me. The female, lifted her head, stretched her neck, making her nearly foot-length body appear even longer.

Climbing the marble steps and descending into the inner vault of the temple, my attention had been riveted on towering columns and rising marble walls. I had looked right past the prickly gray creatures that seemed as one with the weathered stone. But now I was face to face with these guardians of ancient truth.

After the Greek engineers and architects had spent their brilliance and later generations promoting “modern” beliefs had lost the genius of these ancient pagan builders, who was left to guard the old ways? The starred agamas.

Agamids in general are considered one of the oldest families of lizards. They have primitive teeth and tails that typically can not be regenerated if broken. They are ambush hunters who stoically wait for prey. When a starred agama visually spots an ant, bee, or wasp, they move quickly to capture it in a single bite. While agamids range throughout Asia, Africa and Australia, only one group is found in Europe, Laudakia stellio. There are various subspecies of L. stellio in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, but they all share a large head with a visible ear opening, a long tail composed of segments with evenly spaced spikes, and a generally flattened body. They also frequent ruins–the ruins of ancient human civilizations. Coincidence? I wonder.

The lizards before me were displaying a high level of territoriality, typical of agamids. The ruff of jagged scales around the neck stood out, especially on the female. But what was she guarding, just a crack in a piece of marble? Then I realized this was not a haphazard group of lizards, there was an adult male, adult female and numerous subadults of varying sizes. (The male is to the left, female on the left edge of the crack, one youngster just to her right and one just above her head to the left.)

A researcher has recently determined that similar groups of Cunningham’s skinks in Australia are actually family groups, where offspring stay with their parents for up to seven years. Was this a family of starred agamas? There are suggestions in the scientific literature that they may form family groups, but no one has really studied the topic.

I took a slow step forward. The female and the youngsters dashed for the protection of the stone crevasse. But the male stood his ground. Beneath the rays of Apollo, the starred agama and I came to an understanding, we both revered the warming fingers of the sun on this cool spring day. Basking was something we had in common.

As I laid a reverent hand of the warm marble, the energy of the place filled me. “Open your heart,” the oracle said, “and you will find your place in the world.”

As we traveled through numerous ancient sites in Turkey, I spotted starred agama families time and time again. Most human visitors seemed to overlook these reptiles among the tumbled-down stones of ruins, just as they overlooked the subtle power of these ancient places. We humans like to think we know so much. But who has been watching whom longer. The starred agamas stand in witness over our lost past. Perhaps they know us, far better than we understand them.