Archives for posts with tag: birds

When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

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One of the fringe benefits of a heavy snowfall is that because the ground is continually covered, I can literally track the variety of animals that live in our neighborhood.  Most of them I am already aware of—we see deer, squirrels and birds on a daily basis—but when they leave their footprints in the snow, I can get a clear picture of their movements.

For instance, earlier in the winter I observed a set of tracks leading up to our potted hibiscus plant, now leafless, and then continuing off into the woods beyond our yard.  When I went down to inspect the tracks more closely, I was able to confirm that yes, deer had in fact munched the tender ends of the exposed hibiscus branches.

Similarly, the ground around the birdfeeder is littered with bird, squirrel and chipmunk prints along with the discarded shells of sunflower seed (birds can be messy eaters).  Last year, a flock of wild turkeys added their tracks to the clutter (and they are even less tidy).

But otherwise unbeknownst to me, many of these critters come very close to the house.  The floor of our back porch (a semi-enclosed space) has been scattered with dainty bird tracks in what looks like the aftermath of an avian dance party.  Of course, the tracks alone cannot provide a definitive record of the number of birds involved or when they occurred; for all I know, the tracks were produced by one crazed nuthatch.

I’ve been a lot more interested in tracks left by larger animals that I have found on all sides of the house.  They may have been left by local dogs (one of our neighbors cannot seem to keep their spaniels from getting loose) or cats (there are plenty of feral cats around).  But there is a beautiful red fox in the area and I have seen (and heard) coyotes as well.  Mountain lions have also been reported near here.

Whoever it is, what are they looking for?  Unlike the case of the deer and the hibiscus, there is no obvious answer and I will probably never find out.

Trees are a treasure, a joy to have around.  They provide a habitat for birds, insects and other critters; act as a buffer against wind, rain and snow; and are the main generator of atmospheric oxygen and consumer of carbon dioxide.  Plus, they are beautiful to behold.  If they are not the focus of a picturesque view, they are probably framing it.

But sometimes they get in the way.  Usually, this is merely an annoyance, such as when they block the view (see, for example, August 12, 2013).  Other times, though, trees can block solar exposure, often to detrimental effect.  I’ve become painfully aware of this phenomenon in the garden as the summer has wound down.

I noticed this morning, for instance, that the garden is still in the shade long after 8:00 am, the hour at which it came into full sun at summer’s peak.  Two months after the summer solstice, however, the sun is already quite a bit lower in the sky and as a result, the tall trees to the east of us are obstructing its direct rays.  It is light in the early morning but it is not exactly sunny.

Similarly, this afternoon, the tips of the fir trees on our neighbor’s property, just to the southern side of our pool fence, are casting a shadow on the south wall of the planters.  The inclination of the sun will only get lower as the days pass while the trees will only get taller with each passing year.  Soon, the shadows will pass across the vegetables shortly after midday, further shortening the growing day.

This is in spite of the fact that we removed two large trees in the spring (see May 17, 2013 and May 17, 2013, part 3).  Their absence has made a huge difference in the garden’s afternoon sun exposure but as it turns out, the impact’s duration is limited to the period starting a month before the solstice until a month afterwards.  Outside of that two-month range, we will feel the effects of the changes in solar exposure in the house more than in the garden.

Which brings us around to the beneficial aspects of solar shielding (to end on a positive note, lest anyone think that I am hostile to trees).  In warm climates, properly placed trees prevent solar gain within buildings and reduce their cooling load.  Where the weather is warm the year round, evergreen trees maintain a constant screen.  Alternately, where winters are cold, deciduous trees conveniently drop their leaves, allowing solar radiation to pass and provide natural heating.

We’ve been very fortunate this year to have two featured players in the local orchestra that produces the sounds of nature.  The concerts occur daily but the new musical artists are appearing for a limited time only.

Since the beginning of June (see May 31, 2013), we have had a daily serenade from the 17-year cicadas.  They start just as the sun rises above the mountain ridge to the east, about seven o’clock this time of year.  I’m not sure whether it is the direct sunlight (the trees are in the shade until that hour, after which they become illuminated from the top down) that gets the cicadas going or the increase in ambient temperature that accompanies it (they are very sensitive, thermally).  Either way, their tune is our audible signal that the day has begun.

Once cued, they keep at it diligently throughout the full-sun hours and do not take a rest until the sun lays down its baton on its final approach to the horizon, at around seven o’clock in the evening.  That’s twelve hours of continuous music-making, every day.  Despite its similarity to sci-fi special effects, the melody—bass continuo might be a more apt term—is comforting.  It is a love song, after all.  We will miss it when it comes to an end.

Starting at about the same time each morning, birds perched in the weigela and forsythia that form a hedge between our yard and the road begin a complex aria of some of the most exuberant birdsong I have ever heard.  I suspect that there are several bird families nesting within the shrubs’ dense foliage and based on the energetic and animated chirping, warbling and trilling, they must be very proud parents indeed.  I’m not sure what species they are but these divas would put the fanciest canary to shame.

Like the cicadas, the birds carry on all day and sometimes into the evening (unlike the cicadas, they must not be unionized).  It is only when the sun is completely below the horizon and the sky has become fully dark that they tuck the little ones in and settle into bed.  Shortly after that, the orchestra now quiet, we do the same.  (When the crickets and frogs start their summertime gigs next month, I’m not sure we’ll know when to go to sleep.)