California Deserts

CALIFORNIA DESERTS
Michael Ellis

Deserts are generally defined as regions having less than 10″ of precipitation per year. But more important than the lack of rain is the unpredictability. Sometimes there are flash floods and then it may not rain for a decade. Deserts have extremes of temperature. Death Valley regularly gets to 125 in July but some deserts are bitterly cold (Antarctica for example). Powerful wind and intense sunlight dominate. The soils are poor in nutrients and plant cover is sparse.

In California we are lucky to have three different types of deserts. In the far south in San Diego and Imperial Counties is the Coloradan Desert. It is part of the Sonoran Desert. This region has low elevations ranging from below sea level to 2000′, the winters are frost-free, summers are brutally hot, most of the rain in the form of summer storms brought by warm moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. The plant most associated with these desert is the bizarrely wonderful octotillo.Heading north we come to the Mojave Desert. This is the smallest desert by area in North American but the largest in California. From Lancaster to Needles and way north past Death Valley. It mostly ranges between 2-4,000′ with some mountaintops peaking above 10,000 and some valleys below sea level. The summers can be hot: the winters cold with much of the moisture falling as snow. The characteristic plant is the Joshua Tree, a fantastic member of the Lily Family. And finally there’s the Great Basin Desert. It is found from the north end of Owens Valley at Bishop all the way up to the extreme northeast corner of the state in Modoc County. This is the high desert, the elevation ranges from 4 to 7000′. Winters are bitterly cold. Precipitation is distributed throughout the year both in winter and summer storms. It has a very limited growing season and the dominant plant is the Great Basin Sagebrush.

In all these deserts human population is low, plant and animal diversity high, aesthetic appeal is off the chart, and solitude in great supply. What a grand state.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Right Whales

Right Whales
Michael Ellis

I have had the great pleasure of leading nature trip to two places in the world where you can still see right whales.
It used to be according to humans there were only 2 kinds of whales in the world- the wrong whales and the right whales. The wrong ones were the ones that when killed sunk to the bottom. The right whales were so named because they were in nearshore waters; slow and lumbering, therefore easy to hunt and full of fat so that when you killed them they floated and could be easily dragged to shore. In the Northern Hemisphere these whales were widely distributed in the Mediterrean in the Baltic and were one of the first whale species to be hunted to local extinction.

Even though they were one of the first whales to be protected in 1935, the north Pacific stocks were so depleted that biologists have not seen on in the n the Northern Pacific in over 40 yrs.
In New England there are a very few seen every summer but because of a low birth rate their populations have not recovered like the humpbacks.

But the best place to see the right whales, albeit the southern variety is off the coast of Patagonia in southern Argentina’s Peninsula Valdez and in the South African town of Hermanus, just southeast of Capetown.

In both places a booming eco-tourist economy has vitalized the economy.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Rattlesnakes

RATTLESNAKES
Michael Ellis

In addition to Buddhism, rock-climbing and psychoactive drugs, one sure way to achieve total awareness is to startle a rattlesnake. Years after nearly stepping on a Mojave Green I can still vividly recall in intimate detail every single aspect of that moment.

We only have one species in the Bay Area – the Western Rattlesnake. This is by far the most widely distributed species – ranging from the west coast east to the Mississippi River valley, Baja to Canada. There are many color and pattern variations and therefore many subspecies. Our local one is called the Northern Pacific rattlesnake and is quite a handsome reptile.

Snakes, especially poisonous ones, elicit more fear and distrust in humans than any other wild animal. This is somewhat understandable but still unfortunate because many snakes are killed just because they are snakes. If you want to totally avoid snakes then stay indoors and shop on line or you could move to Alaska or Ireland. But to venture out into the wilds of California, there are a few simple DON’Ts that will minimize your chances of being bitten by a rattlesnake.

First of all don’t be a male (this is hard for some of us). And don’t be between the ages of 18 and 25 (no problem there). Don’t be drunk and this is the most important of all – don’t pick rattlesnakes up!

Young males that have been drinking and pick up rattlesnakes are the ones often bitten. You could think of this as improving the human gene pool but the foolish boys rarely die. People often receive more damage from faulty first aid treatment than the actual bite. Most healthy adults survive this species just fine.

I think that it is quite considerate of these snakes to make a warning sound. I am often in South America or Africa where there are some very venomous and aggressive snakes that don’t make a noise. Biologists reckon that rattlesnakes evolved a rattle to warn heavy, hoofed mammals of their location. Therefore both the buffalo and the snake got to live another day.

I am reminded of that early American flag, a warning to the British. Rattlesnake posed in strike position, tongue out, tail up, DON”T TREAD ON ME. I wouldn’t think of it.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Quail

Quail
Michael Ellis

Every morning lately I have been waking to the repeated single note call of a male quail. This is good because I live near downtown Santa Rosa and it is not exactly prime quail habitat around here. For the past two years a pair of these delightful birds has successfully raised some offspring near me. In my local world of house cats, fragmented habitat and speeding automobiles this is a real accomplishment. That guy makes my heart sing with every one of his notes.

I reckon my first encounter with quail was via the movie – Bambi. Walt Disney’s cartoonists of southern California must have been inspired by these birds as they looked out the window onto then-rural Burbank. They drew cute little fuzz ball chicks running behind mom and dad with the chunky adult birds displaying the prominent top knots.

They illustrated the birds pretty well but they missed sure on Bambi. According to the way his antlers branch Bambi and his dad are actually white tailed deer. This is a species not found in the southern California. Our local species is the Black tailed Deer, but that is a story for another day.

Male quail during early courtship can be seen perched in prominent places like fence posts or bushes singing something that sounds a lot like “Chicago, Chicago, Chicago.” I remember hearing that call once in the background of the TV show, MASH. I guess it must have been a Korean Quail.

At the recommendation of the Audubon society, in 1931 the California state legislature voted the California or Valley quail as the state bird. It seems odd to me that our State bird is also a game species. You can get fined for picking a poppy, our state flower, but you’re encouraged to shoot quail. Every year thousands of them are blasted out of the sky by hunters. It doesn’t seem to affect the population though; California quail are numerous everywhere throughout their range.

And, according to the fellow serenading me, even in urban Santa Rosa.

This is Michael Ellis with a perspective.

Possums

Possums
Michael Ellis

Last week I found a large rat-like creature furtively sneaking through my back yard. AHA! a new mammal species for my Santa Rosa yard list. (I count all the wild things I find). It was a Virginia opossum. Not a native California animal, possums were allegedly brought from the eastern US in 1910 and released in San Jose. For what purpose I have no idea, unless it was nostalgia for that possum stew Granny used to make in the hills of Kentucky. These distant relatives of the Kangaroo like the Bay area and have  been pioneering their way into new territory at an  amazing rate.
Captain  John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) is credited with  first writing about these critters. An Opassom hath a head like a Swine, and a taile like a Rat, and is of the bignes of a Cat. Under her belly she hath a bagge, wherein she lodgeth, carrieth, and sucketh. The native Algonquian word was  probably “pasum  and was preceded by  a  grunt ­-something like ug-pasum. It meant, “white beast”.

The bottom line of survival is reproduction and possums have that  down pat. With á life span of only two years they  must reproduce  constantly  and  that  is  precisely  what  they   do –
sometimes raising two or three broods á year. Consider that just twelve  days and eighteen hours after mating `possum babies  are born!  An  entire  litter could fit inside  á  teaspoon!  
The newborns are basically a mouth and two forelimbs that’s  it. Immediately  after  birth  they must crawl three  inches  to  the mother’s pouch. That’s the equivalent of á human infant scaling á
thirteen  foot hairy wall. After attaching to one of thirteen nipples they suckle for 60 days until they are big enough to make it on their own. They stay with mom a while hanging on her but eventually wandering off to forage on their own.

Anything is considered food until proven otherwise – dead animals, insects,  rotten apples, and compost and cat food.  These habits  in  addition  to its appearance make possums  an  object  of derision. But what an amazing animal, it has  survived and thrived alongside that other notoriously successful  pioneer – Homo sapiens.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.