The Carrizzo Plain

The Carrizzo Plain (KQED Perspective aired September 1993)

I am in one of the loneliest places you can imagine. I bet there are only about 8 other humans within 30 miles of me. Everything is golden, baked hard by 110-degree days. The mountains to the West are the Caliente Mts, the hot mountains. To the distant north I see the Diablo Range, the devils mountains and close to me with the sun just rising over are the Temblors. The Spanish called the trembling ones. Hot, devil and tremblors. Great descriptive names for the boundaries of immense valley, 8 miles wide by 50 miles long. The Chumash Indians believed that if someone ventured in here the spirits became angry and the earth shook. And sure enough the San Andreas Fault runs right through it and you can easily see at the surface, where the two plates grind against each other. It is hot it is dusty, and it is the first day of autumn.

I saw yesterday four rare species — San Joaquin antelope ground squirrel, the blunt-nose leopard lizard, the giant kangaroo rat and the Kit fox. There’s more endangered vertebrates here than any other place in the state. I also saw two golden eagles, a prairie falcon, 3 roadrunners, a lot of kestrels, and flocks of lark sparrows. I even saw pronghorn antelopes and tule elk. I startled three very, large western rattlesnakes. And last night coyotes were howling everywhere. The Cal. condor used to fly over this desolate valley until 1986. Maybe they will return. Shimmering toward the north is the largest remaining alkali wetland in the state, home for thousands of overwintering sandhill cranes.

Sunset magazine said that this area has one of the best wildflower displays in the entire state. But in September greens and blues and oranges are but a distant memory; it rains but 8-10 inches per year.

I haven’t named this place but I have given you plenty of clues to find it. We can thank the Nature Conservancy, the Bureau of Land Management and the State of California for recognizing its biological value and taking efforts to protect it. I’ll be back here next April for the flowers.

David Douglas

David Douglas (KQED Perspective aired November 2004)
By Michael Ellis

In California we have the Douglas iris, the Douglas-fir and the Douglas squirrel. There are also many plants whose species name is douglasii. So who was this person all these things are named for? David Douglas was a Scottish botanist who collected mostly plants and some animals in the New World. His first visit to North America was in 1823 to the Hudson and the Mohawk River Valleys collecting new varieties of apples and plums for the Royal Horticultural Society.

They were impressed with him and the following year he was sent to the Columbia River. It was here he first collected the Oregon Pine, which we would later know as the Douglas-fir. He tried to befriend the local Indians everywhere he went. The rest of the white people were trapping beavers, looking for gold but Douglas was living off the land, rarely had a tent and was shooting pine cones down out of the trees and pressing plants. The Indians tended to leave this crazy fellow alone most of the time. He covered over 6000 miles in this rugged region, became the first European to climb the Rocky Mountains and collected over 200 species of plants. Upon his return to England he was celebrated and made a fellow of the Geological and Zoological Societies of London. But Douglas was anxious to return to his work and sailed back to West coast in 1829.

This time he spent 18 months collecting many plants in California including the coast redwood. Many of his seeds were germinated in the Glasgow Botanical gardens. The tallest tree in the British Isles right now is a Douglas-fir at 212′. He was planning on traveling north to Alaska but instead had to travel to the Sandwich Islands, that is Hawaii. It was here he met his death in a very ironic way. This man who had faced all sorts of dangers accidentally fell into a large hole in the ground that was dug by the locals to capture wild bullocks. Douglas was stomped and gored to death. This was the first victim of a pit bull along the West Coast. OK, bad joke but that is how this well known intrepid traveler came to an end; he was only 34 years old.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

















KQED Perspective series

By Michael Ellis

I am watching one. The head turns, giant multifaceted eyes rotate skyward, watching, waiting and suddenly he takes off, transparent wings glistening in the afternoon sun… flies upward and snags a giant crane fly and comes right back to the same exposed perch. Through binoculars I can see him chewing as the insect slowly disappears into the gut of the flame skimmer, one of 7 species of dragonflies that I have identified at my house in Santa Rosa. By the way, I can say “he” because this one is a male. And while it ain’t lions in the Serengeti, these fierce predators are fun to watch and helps keep my backyard clear of gnats, mosquitoes and flies and for that I am thankful.

Dragonflies and damselflies make up the order Odonatas, as this group of insects is called. Dragonflies have large eyes that often touch, they are big, robust fliers and when they land they keep their wings held straight out. Damselflies are smaller and more delicate, with clearly separate eyes and when they alight the wings are held together, up over the head. To those of us in the know they collectively are called od’s and when you go out searching for them, you are oding.

Dragonflies were the first animals to take to the air and 400 million years ago there was one with a wingspan of 2 feet! And while the dinosaurs came and went, dragonflies have remained relatively unchanged. There are now 4800 species in the world.

The first part of the ods lives are spent underwater. This nymph phase may last from 6 weeks to 6 years depending on the species. And let me tell you, these guys are the bad-asses of the pond bottom. They have a giant lower lip studded with teeth, which they use to lash out at unsuspecting prey. They eat fish, frogs, tadpoles, crawdads, other insects and even each other. When they emerge from the water, shed their skin, pump up their wings and take to the air, they may only live for 3 weeks as adults.

So what are you waiting for?? Get out to your local pond and begin oding.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Drumming Woodpeckers

Drumming (KQED Perspective aired March 2004)
by Michael Ellis

I live in sub-urban Santa Rosa and in my life as a naturalist I am aware of the fabric of wild things that drape over my local landscape. One of my favorite signs of spring is the drumming of one of our common woodpecker species – the Nuttall’s Woodpecker This bird is almost wholly associated with the oak woodlands, especially live oaks, and is confined to mostly California. They mate for life and are present throughout the year; they don’t migrate in the winter. And as long as there are plenty of oaks, they thrive. But when oaks are cleared for development, these woodpeckers soon disappear.

Our Spanish speaking neighbors to the south call woodpeckers, Carpenterios – the carpenters. And what a perfect name that is, because they are the little home builders for many other species of birds. The Nuttall’s peck a large hole in a tree and then only nest in it for one year. So the following year another home becomes available on the bird real-estate market, so to speak. Some of our local birds that rely on these woodpecker-created holes are Western Bluebirds, Violet-Green Swallows, Bewick’s Wrens, Chestnut-Backed Chickadees and White-Breasted Nuthatches.

There are three situations in which you may hear a woodpecker pecking on wood. The first and most common is the daily activity of these birds searching for beetle grubs or other insects buried in the trunk of a tree. These sounds tend to be very irregular, as the bird simply explores the area for food -tap, tap, t tap ttttap. Then there is the nesting cavity excavation which is a lot of sounds indicating a lot of work being done but not in a regular beat. And finally there is the drumming. Woodpeckers often choose a hollow tree, a metal gutter, or even a tin roof – any substrate with good acoustics. This is a rapid tattoo. Bddddddddtttt. Dbddddddddddtttttttt. It is a self promotional announcement. I am here and you are not. I hear this only in the spring and it’s associated with breeding activity and in many ways corresponds to the singing of testosterone-laden male birds. But both male and female woodpeckers drum.

I am happy to know that I live around enough oaks to support the Nuttalls and they are busy building houses for my other feathered friends. This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

EL Nino

EL Nino – Perspective KQED aired in August 1991

Recently a friend was rejoicing about what a fog-free summer we have had so far, she loved it. But I know what that really means. No fog means there’s no cold water right next to the coast, no cold water means there has been no upwelling of deep ocean water, no upwelling means there has been no recycling of nutrients up to the surface, no nutrients means there has been little production of plant life or phytoplankton, no phytoplankton means nothing for the little animals, the zooplankton, to eat, no zooplankton means there are no blue or humpback whales feeding off our coast and it means no schooling fish, no schooling fish means no salmon, it means hungry sea lions, it means sea birds unable to breed. In other words it looks like we are having another El Nino.

The last big El Nino we had was ten years ago. Remember those days? Huge storms and waves washing away Malibu. Barracuda were caught in Monterey. Salmon fishermen’s boats were repossessed by the banks. The population of sea birds crashed. Scuba divers were reporting over a 100′ visibility, unheard of in central California. And I went swimming nearly every day at Muir Beach in water that was 68.

El Nino is primarily a southern hemisphere event. Off the coast of Ecuador and Peru upwelled nutrient rich waters support the largest single source of protein in the world, the schooling fish called anchoveta. Every year around Christmas the productivity of the waters cease and the fish disappear. The fishermen call this time El Nino, after the Christ Child. Periodically, every seven years or so, the entire anchoveta crop fails to develop and this is also called an El Nino.

Now whenever there is failure of upwelling or an intrusion of warm water anywhere in the world we call it El Nino. So I don’t mean to suggest that us coastal dwellers should not luxuriate in the balmy, fog-free environment but just remember while you’re soaking up the rays, some poor baby cormorant is dying of starvation. But heh, this environmental calamity is a apparently a natural one and for this one at least we cannot blame humankind.