Exiting the Drought

Well, that was interesting. We’ve had just a tiny bit of rain in recent weeks, but that qualifies as a droughtbuster ’round these parts. Up next, a relentless and destructive deluge, no doubt. But we have a few days of relative calm before that kicks in, so let’s reflect for a moment on the long dry days we have endured.

First off, I want to acknowledge the plants that made it through, and those that did not. That pretty much covers all of the plants, doesn’t it? Maybe I should just highlight one or two. The tall pine in our neighbor’s yard fell to the drought about a month ago. Not literally “fell”, fortunately, as it might have landed on some of Mellowcat’s valuable personal effects. It remains standing: tall, proud, and quite dead. It was astonishing to see how quickly this happened. One day it’s a big green pine tree, and a few days later it is a vibrant orange. It didn’t take long for the local insectivores to discover it. There were Black Phoebes and Audubon Warblers all over it, along with every other opportunistic bug eater in the vicinity. You really wonder how the word gets out about a new food source like this. I hope that our neighbor lets the tree stand as a snag, as it is now an attractive food and habitat source for birds that otherwise wouldn’t have given it the time of day. Actually, it was a dependable producer of bird sightings. I booked quite a few backyard birds in my eBird tally out of that tree when it was alive. My hope is that it will draw in some new birds as it relaxes into decay.

Many of our plants died as well, but that’s likely due to the fact that I didn’t water them. Not supposed to do that during a drought. Some did make it though, with seemingly little extra effort on their part. The pittosporum, podocarpus, ceanothus, toyon, and a few others just went about their business as if nothing was happening. We had a whole row of California Sword Fern at the front of the house, and the did really well all summer long, until about late September. Then they all died, pretty much simultaneously. Except for one, that continues to thrive. It just happens to be planted right above where the main water line goes into the house. (Hmm.) The new plants that went in the front yard, where the lawns used to be, have done themselves proud. I did have to give them a little water this year, because they were new, but next year they’re on their own.

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We’ve just been birding for a few years, so we only know drought birding. It will be quite interesting to see how the birds react to having more food, more standing water, more wind and rain. Already I’ve seen one good bird that has not visited for almost two years, the Red-breasted Sapsucker.

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He’s a real nice bird, and based on the number of sap wells in the Coast Live Oak behind our house, has been a frequent visitor in past years. But I suppose the lack of ground water might have some effect on the amount of sap in trees or something, because they’ve been elsewhere during the drought. This is just the kind of bird we could really use around here.

Speaking of ground water, that’s probably the reason why our neighbor’s pine tree died. Not that he was watering around the tree, but most of his neighbors would have been. Those who had lawns, anyway. And the roots of that pine were under all of our lawns. The neighborhoods of California have been importing a summer rainy season for several decades, but decided to turn that off this year. I was very proud of all of my neighbors and their dead lawns, and hope that this signals a permanent shift to more sensible water use, regardless of how much rain we get. But there will be an impact on the urban forest, for sure. It’s already happening.

What happens next? The wheels are now in motion, and I would expect to see more dead trees, more bugs, more insect eaters, more woodpeckers, more cavity nesters, more rodents, more birds of prey, and so on. And, of course, violent storms unlike anything seen within living memory.

Stay tuned.

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