Tag Archives: storms

Surprised by Turkeys in the Berkeley Hills!

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Last Friday the rain gods were busy, so instead of tramping the mud on the fire trails, I decided to take a walk up Centennial Drive to the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) in the Berkeley Hills above UCB campus.

Maybe it’s because I grew up in the desert, but I love walking and hiking in the rain. The colors of the plants and earth seem more vivid, and the gray skies somehow make the green hills seem even more green. I’ve also noticed that I usually see more wildlife on a rainy day than a sunny one. Maybe it’s because there are fewer humans out, or maybe some animals like foraging in the rain.

So, I expected to see some animals on the hike, but was happily surprised to come upon this on Stadium Rim Way just above the California Memorial Stadium:

Wild Turkeys—not your typical Thanksgiving gobbler!

Wild turkeys! I am a huge fan of this native American bird. I consider it the American peacock:

But I didn’t always appreciate what amazing birds turkeys really are. Like a lot of people, my early impressions of turkeys were from the standpoint of Thanksgiving. I remember being told as a kid that turkeys were so dumb, they’d look up in the sky during rain and drown, and other nonsense. (See the debunking Snopes site: http://www.snopes.com/critters/wild/turkey.asp)

The problem is, as the Snopes article points out: “Domesticated turkeys are not necessarily ‘stupid,’ but because they have been bred in captivity for so many generations, they lack the survival skills of their wild cousins: They’re weak, they’re fat, they’re not agile, they can’t run very fast, and they can’t fly.”

[Update 2010-02-04 – There’s a fascinating article on the domestication of wild turkeys at ScienceNOW called the Turkeys: So Good People Tamed Them Twice.  It explains what molecular anthropologists have been able to figure out about who first domesticated turkeys and when it occured.]

The turkey—one remarkable bird

The wild turkey is the very antithesis of our domesticated Thanksgiving bird. It’s wicked smart (“cunning” is a term hunters often use), illusive, and agile. And it’s a big, powerful bird.

An adult wild tom turkey typically weighs between 10 and 25 lbs and can be over 4 feet tall.  That’s one big bird!  Females typically weigh half as much and can be up to three feet tall.  The wingspan of turkeys range from four to nearly five feet.  The record-sized adult male wild turkey, according to the National Wildlife Turkey Federation, was 38 lb!

Despite its size, a wild turkey can run over 20 mph and uses that five-foot wingspan to hits speeds of 55 mph in flight. The wild turkey can defend itself, too. The spurs on a 20 lb. tom turkey make it a formidable foe, as many a hapless dog has found out when cornering one.

The turkeys one encounters in the Berkeley Hills are fairly used to humans, and it’s amazing how close you can get to them. This rafter (flock) of turkeys seemed to be all the same size and age —they seemed to be from the same brood. They walked up Stadium Rim Way for several hundred feet and then nonchalantly moved up the hill away from the Stadium, feeding as they went.

Centennial Road—beautiful lichen and black-tailed deer

As you head up Centennial Road up Strawberry Canyon, you’ll see some wonderful examples of lichens on most of the trees. I plan on doing an in-depth post about lichens later. They are fascinating plants, but identifying lichens is much more difficult than identifying vascular plants. Each lichen is a complete microscopic world with unique characteristics, and they can be very hard to tell apart.

The rain made the vivid green and yellow of two species of lichen quite striking:

About a quarter of a mile from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, I spotted two black-tailed deer grazing on the new grass that’s been springing up with our late fall rains:

Late Fall storm from Lawrence Hall of Science

It’s a pretty steep hike up to the Lawrence Hall of Science, but the view is always worth it. Even on a stormy day, unless you’re fogged in, the vistas can be wonderful, especially if you’re a fan of dramatic clouds.  In these shots, you can see Sather Tower just coming out of the low clouds, with the distant San Francisco Bay mostly hidden:

Compare these views to this one from midsummer:

And here’s a view looking over to Oakland:

That golden stream in the distance is Highway 24, the Grove Shafter Freeway, curving through Oakland. This picture doesn’t do it justice; It looked like a river of molten gold—magical!

Going home—caressing clouds and a talisman

On the way back down Centennial Drive from LHS, the rain lifted some, and there were beautiful views of Strawberry Canyon. I alway love to watch the interplay between low clouds, fogs, and the Berkeley Hills.

Finally, in the grass along the road, I found one this lone feather, a final reminder of the rafter of turkeys I’d seen earlier. For me, it was a talisman of a remarkable bird that makes the Berkeley Hills such a wonderful place to explore.

 

Ladybugs Swarm Again in Strawberry Canyon!

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Welcome, friends of the Berkeley Hills and nature lovers!

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Just like last year, we had some powerful October rains, though nothing like record breaker on October 14th of 2009, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

The Great October Rainstorm of 2009

“It was the worst October storm the Bay Area has experienced since 1962, when terrible weather famously disrupted the World Series between the Giants and the New York Yankees.

San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October. Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year.

And just like last year, after the record storm, I found a number of very large ladybug masses in Strawberry Canyon along the fire trail:  (Note, you can click on any of the images below to see a desktop-sized image.)

Compared to last year’s massing, however, this was a rather modest gathering, maybe several thousand. But in October of 2009, the gathering was monumental!   The swarm thickly covered  plants for at least 20 yards, compared to about 4 feet this time. As I wrote in that post:

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three hundred thousand! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

This was just one small portion of the huge 2009 swarm, which covered blackberry bushes for over 20 yards!

Perhaps this gathering will grow in the days ahead. I’m very curious to see if the numbers build, and I still wonder, as with the 2009 storm, if the big rains had anything to do with the gathering, or whether the ladybugs always head up into the canyons in late October.

By the way, last year’s post includes a ton of fascinating information and folklore on ladybugs that I think you’ll really enjoy if you haven’t read it yet:

See:  They Are the Ladybugs of the Canyon

One of the best things about the rain, especially the first big rain after nearly half a year of typical summer drought, is how wonderful it smells in the Hills and how vibrant the colors are!  The mosses and lichen, especially, almost seem to glow in deep greens and yellows:

Looking at the moss and lichen, I also found discovered I was being eye-balled by one of the many Fox Squirrels in the Canyon:

“You lookin’ at me?”

This orb spider web was especially beautiful in the sun:

Another beastie you will usually see after a good rain are the beautiful—and often, huge!—banana slugs:

A lot of people go, “Ugh, slimy slugs!” and I know that banana slugs can be a pest, but I you get down on the slugs level, and watch it move, it’s an incredibly graceful animal. It’s very responsive to its environment and is far from stupid, a term I’m reluctant to use looking at any marvel of nature, no matter how humble.

This banana slug was almost 10 inches long and twice as thick as my thumb!

When I find slugs in the middle of the fire trail, I always move them to the side of the trial they were heading for, because, sadly, I’ve seen way too many smooshed slugs by runners and walkers who didn’t see these little wonders.

This particular day, after the rains, I noticed hundreds and hundreds of small, fluttering creatures in the air. Clearly, flying was not their forte, and yet, the air was filled with them. On closer examination, I discovered that they were some kind of termite.  My camera doesn’t have a close-up lens, but they looked very much like this:

Termite Alates

At first, I wondered if they might not be flying ants, but I did a little research and was able to confirm from their body shape and wing structure that they were in fact termites:

I also learned that in areas like ours, which have a distinct dry season, the winged (or “alate”) caste members of termite nests leave in large swarms after the first good soaking rain. The alates are the reproductive caste. They fly off to find a new nesting sight, shed their fragile wings, mate, and start a new colony. I noticed alates all through Strawberry Canyon and over into the Claremont Canyon as well. There must have been tens of thousands of them, fluttering precariously in the air.

I was not the only one noticing this mass exodus. When I came to the sunnier parts of the Canyon, I started seeing lots of Western Fence lizards, running from cover to snap up some hapless alate that landed too close:

Western Fence Lizard hunting alates—and watching me!

There must have been a lot of stuffed Western Fence Lizards that evening, because the alates seemed endless in numbers—natures way of making sure that enough termites survived to carry forward the species.

On my way down Claremont Canyon, I came across this lovely, but rather faded and battered butterfly:

I believe this is a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), one of the many lovely butterflies you will often see in the Canyons. (Kudos to Kay Loughman’s wonderful Wild Life in the North Hills website, which has some great images and information to help nature lovers identify plants and animals of our area.)

Yes, the fire trails in the Berkeley Hills can be muddy after a big rain, but there are many rewards for braving the mud. As I said, the fresh smell of the wet earth and vegetation is simply wonderful.  The washed and soaked plants and lichen are so vibrant. I’ve also noticed that, for some reason, one tends to see more wild animals out right after a rain than at other times.

I hope enjoyed this post and that you will take find time to explore for yourself the amazing and beautiful ecosystem, that is the Berkely Hills. Hope to see meet you on the trails some day!

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The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 2

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This is the second of a two-part series I’m calling “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills. You can see Part 1 here:

The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills-Part 1

As I said in Rethinking Berkeley, Naturally! I’m going to try to post more often and have less of a “hard science” aspect to these posts, unlike my Extreme Science blog.

In this second part, I’ve included some of the animals you can run into in the Hills—some you see all the time, and others, like the gray fox, are quite illusive. There are also some amazing skies in this series of photos. As a self-confessed weather nut, I never get tired to seeing the play of clouds over the San Francisco Bay and the Hills.

And so, let’s kick off Part 2 with some images of magnificent Bay Area clouds!

If you click on any of the images below, you can see a higher resoltuion 1600 x 1200 image.

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These clouds, of course, are cirrus, which in this area so often are the heralds of distance storms marching in from the North Pacific for Gulf of Alaska. Cirrus clouds typically form above 23,000 feet (about 7,000m), in the cold region of the troposphere and are typically composed of ice crystals.  In the view looking at the North Bay, you can see both the sweeping cirrus unicus and the denser cirrus fibratus.

This sunset was really dramatic and foreboding. I was in the Hills directly above the UCB Campus, looking across the Bay, past the Campanile (lower right) and toward the Golden Gate Bridge.  A big Pacific storm was approaching, as the rapidly lowering sky foretold.  The clouds in this picture are mostly altostratus and altocumulus, which are medium-level clouds.

This is perhaps my all-time favorite summer picture that I’ve taken in Strawberry Canyon.  To me, it captures just about everything I love about the Berkeley Hills—the Eucalyptus and Oak trees, the beautiful golden hills, and a sky with gorgeous, puffy cumulus.  It was hot, it was summer, and I was on my way up Centennial Drive to my beloved fire trails!

The color of the lichen on the trees in Strawberry Canyon are especially deep and brilliant after a rainstorm.  I love how this yellow species contrasts with the moss.

I’m always amazed at the different moods of the Bay throughout the day.  This grey sunset marked the end of yet another heavy late spring rain storm.

California poppies!  Just seeing them makes me smile.  Did you know Native Americans used  poppy leaves medicinally?  They also ate their seeds.  Extract from the California poppy acts as a mild sedative when smoked, although apparently the effect is much milder than that of opium, which contains a much more powerful class of alkaloids.

If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve probably seen one of these little critters. The Eastern Fox Squirrel (Sciurus nigris) is actually a non-native species, probably introduced to California around the beginning of the 20th century.   You can see them throughout the Berkeley Hills, and there’s quite a population of them on the Berkeley campus.  I’ve yet to see a native Western Gray Squirrel on my hikes, but I keep looking for them.

Eastern Fox Squirrel (left) vs. Western Gray Squirrel (right)

I met this young female Fox Squirrel on the North Campus near the Life Science Building.  If you stop and make a “tchi tchi” noise, you can almost always make a Fox Squirrel stop and see if you have some goodie for them.  Having raised a squirrel from the age of a blind pup, I know lots of squirrel communication sounds, and she seemed amazed at my vocabulary!

This fat and muscular male lives in Strawberry Canyon.  He too was intrigued by my squirrel talk, and stopped to observe me, although the squirrels in the Canyon are much more wary of humans than the ones on campus.

A gray fox!  I wrote about this encounter at this post:

Gray Fox in Strawberry Canyon and a Mother Fox’s Wisdom

I made a lot of noise to get the fox to turn lift its sleepy head and turn toward me.  No doubt he wondered what the crazy human was doing! But I was so excited to see a gray fox  that I didn’t want my picture to be nothing but a gray lump on that fallen tree.  I wish I had had a telephoto lens to see more of this magnificent creature, which apparently, is one of the few foxes that can climbs trees.  This one was sleeping at least 20 feet off the ground. (Be sure to click image for close-up!)

Here is a small cluster of ladybugs I saw this spring.  In October of 2009, after our record rainstorm,  I came upon an astonishing gathering of what had to have been hundreds of thousands of ladybugs along the fire trail off Centennial Drive.  I wrote about this amazing ladybug gathering here:

They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

Here is an amazing insect you are apt to run across in the Berkeley Hills, especially after a rain, the aptly named banana slug.  This one was nearly 10 inches long and as big around as a small banana.  Many people find them “gross,” and I know it can be what we humans call a “pest,” but I think it’s a beautiful animal.  I watched this one for about 10 minutes as it gracefully moved about 3 feet from the pavement into some vegetation.

Down on its level, laying on my stomach to watch how its muscles propelled it along on a layer of mucous, I was reminded of a majestic (albeit, miniature) ocean liner as it glided along the pavement.

I came across this small (maybe 10 inch) snake walking down from the North Gate of the UCB campus.  I’m not sure what species it might be, but my best guess is some species of Sharp-tailed Snake (Contia tenuis)—maybe a Forest Sharp-tailed snake.  If some herpetologist wants to weight in, that would be great! It was moving very fast to try to take cover, and I barely caught it on camera before it disappeared into the foliage.

Here’s another view of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge near sunset.  A Pacific storm was heading our way, and the high cirrus and cirrostratus clouds that appeared in the West at the beginning of the day were beginning to give way to lower level altocumulus and stratocumulus.

The height of some of the redwoods in Strawberry Canyon is astounding.  I estimated that most of the trees in this grove were well over 110-120 feet tall.  Now that I live in Northern California, I hope some day soon to see the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest trees on earth, at Redwood National and State Parks.

I loved how these California poppies found a way to grow out of near solid rock along the upper fire trail at Strawberry Canyon.

When spring arrives in the Berkeley Hills, you really should climb up into them and see for yourself  how deep, rich, and varied the greens are.  After being brown all summer and through much of the winter, the hills are transformed by the winter and spring rains into an emerald wonderland.

One of the delights of walking up the streets that head up into the Berkeley Hills above the City of Berkeley are the little paths and well-kept lanes and walks that connect the lower and higher levels of the hills.  Here’s one of my favorite paths (for privacy, I won’t say where.) If you don’t have a copy, I highly recommend getting the Map of Berkeley Pathways which is put out by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association.

More spring green near the top of Claremont Canyon.

I’ll end this post with a photo of a glorious sunset taken from the hills right above the UCB campus.  (You can see the Campanile behind  one of the Eucalyptus.)  I hope this two-part series, “The Beauty of the Berkeley Hills” will inspire you to explore the Hills yourself and with loved ones and to always be alert for ways to preserve and protect this amazing natural treasure right at our doorsteps.

May we meet as friends, some day, in the Hills of Great Beauty!

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They are the Lady(bugs) of the Canyon

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“Trina takes her paints and her threads
And she weaves a pattern all her own
Annie bakes her cakes and her breads
And she gathers flowers for her home
For her home she gathers flowers
And Estrella, dear companion
Colors up the sunshine hours
Pouring music down the canyon-
Coloring the sunshine hours
They are the ladies of the canyon”
~ Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

The Big October Rainstorm

A couple of days after the big October 2009 rainstorm, I headed up Centennial Drive to catch the fire trail up into the the hills of Strawberry Canyon.

Heading Up Centennial Drive to the Fire Trail

The Fire Trailhead on Centennial Drive

As San Francisco Bay Area residents will recall, that October 13th storm was epic—the heaviest October rain in nearly 50 years! San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Livermore all set rainfall records for a single day in October.

The Big Rain of October 2009

Nearly 4 inches fell in downtown Oakland, almost 20 percent of what the city usually gets during an entire year! In the Santa Cruz Mountains, rainfall totals approached 10 inches, and Angel Island record 77 mph gusts. At one point, 193,000 residents were without power!

The fire trail up Strawberry Canyon showed a lot of erosion, and there was still heavy runoff in Strawberry Creek itself. Especially near the higher part of the fire trail, where the winds had been higher, there were good-sized tree limbs littering the trail.  Interested to see what I’d find, I started up the trail head, only to come upon:

In Strawberry Canyon, an Amazing Sight!

I hadn’t gone far up the trail from the Centennial Drive parking lot, when I noticed something very unusual looking on the alongside the trail.  Something that was subtly moving. Lots and lots of something was moving:

Ladybugs! But not just hundreds, but thousands of them. I could scarcely believe me eyes, the plants were so thick with them.  The more I looked, the more I found:

Hundreds of Thousands of Ladybugs!

I had heard of lady bug gatherings, but I had never seen one myself, and this one was massive. They were mostly in blackberry bushes along the trail, and for at least 20 yards, the plants were thickly coated with them.  (I wish I could convey more of the extent of the swarm, but because the ladybugs were in the bushes, they disappeared in any distant photo I tried to take.)

I read that a gallon jar will hold from 72,000 to 80,000 ladybugs. If that’s the case, then the number alongside the fire trail had to be way, way over a hundred thousand, maybe two or three! It was astonishing, and somehow touching, to see so many little creatures in a brief moment of community.

The Most Beloved Bug in the World

What we call the ladybug is a beetle of the family coccinellidae. In the UK, Ireland, Australia, Pakistan, and South Africa they are known as ladybirds.

“Ladybug, ladybird, by any name, I’m wonderful!”

If there is a more beloved insect in the world than the ladybug, I don’t know what it would be. It is certainly the all-time favorite insect of children. Few English-speaking people haven’t heard the nursery rhyme, Ladybird, Ladybird:

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home
Your house is on fire and your children are gone
All except one, and that’s Little Anne
For she has crept under the warming pan.

I remember as a child being rather troubled by this poem. Why is her house on fire? And where have all her children gone? Poor ladybug! At least Little Anne was able to escape unharmed!

“Hey, where did everybody go?”

Here’s another ladybug poem I learned as a child, which some of you may know:

Five Little Ladybugs

Five little ladybugs climbing up a door
One flew away then there were four

Four little ladybugs sitting on a tree
One flew away then there were three

Three Little ladybugs landed on a shoe
One flew away then there were two

Two little ladybugs looking for some fun
One flew away and then there was one

One little ladybug sitting in the sun
She flew away and then there were none

Ladybug Names and Folklore

The beloved ladybug, or ladybird, seems to have some sort of affinity in people’s minds with cows and, well, God. In Ireland, Wales, and Russia, the beetle is called “God’s Little Cow.” In Croatia they are called “God’s Little Sheep.” In Romania, the ladybug is the “Lord’s Cow,” the “Lord’s Oxen,” and even “God’s Hen!” The French call it “the Good Lord’s animal.”

Moo! Moo! Moooooooo!

How did the humble ladybug attain such godliness—and “cow-ness” in the eyes of people all over the world? I did lots of research, but couldn’t find anything definitive. But there is something about a group on them on a plant does somewhat remind me of cows grazing.

Or maybe it’s cow-like the spots? Who knows!

God’s Cow? Wait, that’s me!

Not only does the ladybug have many Godly names, it also has much happy folklore associated with it. As Wikipedia notes:

“In France, ladybirds are considered to be bringers of good weather. In parts of Northern Europe, tradition says that one’s wish is granted if a ladybird lands on oneself (this tradition lives on in North America, where children capture a ladybug, make a wish, and then “blow it away” back home to make the wish come true). In Italy, it is said by some that if a ladybird flies into one’s bedroom, it is considered good luck.

In central Europe, a ladybird crawling across a girl’s hand is thought to mean she will get married within the year. In some cultures they are referred to as fortune bugs. In Russia, a popular children’s rhyme exists with a call to fly to the sky and bring back bread; similarly, in Denmark a ladybird, called a mariehøne (“Mary’s hen”), is asked by children to fly to “our lord in heaven and ask for fairer weather in the morning.”

And of course, Ladybugs are famous for being friends of gardeners and farmers:

“OK, which way to the aphids?”

They have a voracious appetite for aphids and scale insects, especially when the ladybug is in the larval stage:

“Love dem little aphids; aphid’s what I likes to eat”

I remember seeing these little monsters when I was a kid and never realizing they were going to metamorphose into my beloved ladybug!

“Hey, I may be ugly now, but wait until I grow up!”

Some Scientific Facts about Ladybugs

Ladybugs, coccinellidae, are small insects, ranging from 1 mm to 10 mm (0.04 to 0.4 inches). They are commonly scarlet but can also be yellow and orange:

and most, but not all, have their trademark small black spots on their wing covers.

Like your typical beetle, they have black legs, head and antennae. There are 450 species native to North America and over 5,000 species worldwide.

Most coccinellids are predators, and of course are famous for eating aphids and scale insects, as mentioned above:

Aphid: “Hey were did Ed go? He was here just a minute ago!”

But they will also eat eggs and larvae of their own species if prey is scarce. In fact, some species of ladybugs lay infertile eggs with their fertile eggs, apparently to give the larvae something to eat when they are getting started. Momma ladybug is also smart enough to lay her eggs near the prey her larvae need to feed upon. In her lifetime, the female ladybug can lay more than 1000 eggs.

Ladybug Life Cycle – butterflynature.com

The bright, beautiful colors of ladybugs has a purpose: it’s a warning to predators that they taste awful and are even poisonous. Once a predator tastes a ladybug and gets a mouthful of its powerful alkaloid poison, it is not likely to try another one! When attacked, a ladybug will play “dead” and leak foul-smelling toxins from it joints. Some species will even spray a toxin from their abdomen that is venomous to mammals and other insects.

This warning signal is called aposematism, which comes from apo– away, and sematic– sign/meaning. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that benefits both predator and prey, since the warning signal keeps them both from harm.

Monarch butterflies, which we often see passing through the Berkeley Hills, also use aposematism, since they are very nasty tasting.

Aposematism—”Don’t eat me-I don’t taste good!”

The warning signal doesn’t have to be a bright color—the rattlesnakes rattle is an example of sound aposematism, and so is the bad odor of a stink bug.

The Mystery of the Mass Gathering of Ladybugs in Strawberry Canyon

I had heard that ladybug overwinter in huge groups, massing together for warmth (and security, I suppose, given their nasty taste and smell when attacked.) But the incredible mass of ladybugs I found in Strawberry Canyon that day seemed somewhat anomalous to me.

Typically, coccinellids gather on the south (sunny) side of large objects like houses or trees. When they can, they get out of the weather altogether, which can result in them invading houses in the winter, to the dismay of owners:

“Dude, check out the new winter digs!”

These ladybugs were all out in the open, along the side of the trail, and there they would be exposed to rain and the weather. My guess was that the once-in-fifty-year rain had flushed or flooded them out of some overwintering spot. Or maybe, the huge rain has sent the ladybugs of the Bay Area up to the canyon to find their usual overwintering spot. After about 3 days, the mass gathering dispersed. I came up one day, and they were all gone, as mysteriously as they had come.  The ladybugs had “flown away home” and even “Little Anne” was nowhere to be seen!

In the past few weeks, I have started finding small masses of ladybugs here and there in Strawberry Canyon. Their appearance seems to be totally dependent on how warm it has been, which makes sense, since they don’t like to fly when it’s cooler than 55 F°.

Ladybugs of Late Winter

Another Moment of “Faerie” in the Berkeley Hills

Seeing that mass gathering after the October storm may have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. I don’t know. I’ll sure keep my eyes open next fall and early winter for another mass gathering.

What I do know is that seeing hundreds of thousands of beautiful ladybugs coating the blackberry busheswas yet another magical, “faerie” moment in my beloved Berkeley Hills, as I discussed in The Road Goes Ever On-the Berkeley Hill Trails.

If you are ever out hiking about in the Berkeley Hills, keep your eyes open. You bound to see them if you look closely. They are the Ladies of the Canyon!

Here are some great ladybug info links:

http://everything-ladybug.com/ladybug-life-cycle.html

http://www.ladybuglady.com/LadybugsFAQ.htm

http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/ladybug.html

http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef105.asp

And here are some great accounts of ladybug swarm encounters:

http://richwolf.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/the-attack-of-the-ladybugs/

http://naturefiles.wordpress.com/2009/08/14/lady-bug-swarm-turns-green-mountain-red/

And here is a truly astounding, MUST SEE YouTube video of a truly stupendous ladybug swarm:

Ladybugs Invade & Go Wild – Invasion Covers Home And Trees

♥♥♥

Berkeley Hills-El Niño Storms Hit Hard

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All my East Coast friends that used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area have told me how much they envy the weather out here—especially when the windchill is say, 20 below zero and snow and ice are everywhere! But they always warn, “True, the weather there is mostly wonderful, but wait until the winter rains come!

Well, they came, and I have to say, I’m impressed! The storms that march in from the North Pacific are indeed amazing, powerful storms, with huge amounts of water and energy.

As a weather buff, I knew this was coming, and in fact, have been looking forward to it. (See “Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession“)

It’s El Niño Time!

We are in the middle of what’s called a “moderate” El Niño event (technically, the phenomenon is called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation ). The bottom line is ocean temperatures in the Pacific have changed dramatically, shifting global air masses, and allowing far more of the amazing storms that form in the Aleutian Low and in the Northern Pacific to strike all along the California coast.

(I’m going to do an in-depth discussion on El Niño in a later post, but if you’re interested, in the “weather nut’s confession” post, I explain the basic mechanism of storm genesis in this area, and the Aleutian Low is one of the very big players.)

Here Comes the Rain! ( And we need it!)

For now, suffice it to say that the rails are greased for all that moisture and energy that are often blocked off by semi-permanent high pressure to head our way the rest of this winter. And head our way they have! Today marks the passage of the third, and most powerful storm, in string of storms that have pounded both Northern and Southern California with flooding rain, snow, high winds, and even an apparent tornado in the Long Beach area Tuesday afternoon! (See “Rare Mesocyclone/Tornado Hits Southern California” at AccuWeather Ken Clark’s terrific Western US Weather Blog.)

Storm Surf in Pacifica – Paul Sakuma/AP

Petaluma Flooding – Brant Ward – The Chronicle

These last three low pressure systems have caused considerable damage with twenty-foot surf, winds over 80 mph, and flash floods.  Some areas have gotten over 6 inches of rain. Mudslides and debris flows have been a special problem in southern California, as they often are:

Even so, the development of this El Niño is not all bad. For one thing, the surfers at Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay, love the enormous swells that come with these powerful storms:

Storm Surf at Mavericks

But most of all, it’s bringing much-needed rain and snow to California and to the drought-parched Southwest. (The problem in El Niño winters is getting too much rain too fast.)

Here in the Bay Area and the Sierras, the heavy rain and snow are very good news. Due to a drought over the last three years, statewide reservoirs are still just at 74 percent of average to date, so all of this rain is a big boost.

The good news is that the Sierra snowpack, where the bulk of California’s water supply comes from, is now at 96 percent of normal, and will only pile higher with each new storm this winter.

Heavy Sierra Nevada Snows

The prognostication is that this very wet pattern will continue until spring, and if you look out in the north Pacific, you can see the next set of impressive storms are already forming and heading our way:

Pacific Storms Lining Up – The Weather Channel

Storm Scenes on UCB Campus and in the Berkeley Hills

Here in Berkeley, we got several inches of rain and wind gusts over 50 mph. Powerful thunderstorms embedded in the low pressure system actually produced hail, a rarity in this area. I wanted to take  pictures in the Berkeley Hills as each storm system passed through, but I would have needed an underwater camera!  In between storms, I did get some cool storm images. (All the images below are “clickable” for larger versions.)

During a break in the rain, I went out to see how the storm had affected the Berkeley campus.  The newly repaired and renovated Campanile had weathered the storm just fine:

and the campus was  a sea of umbrellas as students scurried to classes:

I did see a fair amount of tree damage from the high winds of the thunderstorms.  The Eucalyptus seemed fine, but I saw a fair amount of lost limbs with the red woods:

The north divide of Strawberry Creek runs in front of the Life Sciences building.  The debris line on the grass shows how high the creek got during the some of the torrential downpours:

Leaving the campus, I headed up Centennial Drive into Strawberry Canyon itself.   The Creek was really full, and even hours after the last heavy downpour, water was pouring into it from its tributaries:

On the hike up into the Canyon, I was once again struck by how beautiful the lichen and moss on the trees look, especially after a rain:

About half-way up the lower Strawberry Canyon  fire trail,  a thunderstorm cell moved through the canyon, and I got totally soaked:

But, I loved it.  Hiking in the rain, or in a storm, in the Berkeley Hills is one of my favorite things to do.  The rain makes everything so clean and  beautiful, and the smells and sounds are so intense.

As I got higher up the fire trail, I crossed over to Claremont Canyon.  Looking out at Oakland, I could see two strong thunderstorms moving through:

Looking north toward El Cerrito, I could see another powerful storm in the northern part of San Francisco Bay:

At this particular moment, San Francisco was in-between thunderstorm cells and catching a small break in the clouds (that line of lights on the right side of the picture, by the way, is University Avenue in Berkeley)

Soon, it was getting pretty dark, so I headed down from the fire trail onto Panoramic Way:

As the darkness closed in, I got one more photo of San Francisco and the Bay:

As the lights of Bay cities came alive, I thought to myself how blessed I am to live in Berkeley and in the Bay Area.  The storms of winter and  El Niño are all just part of the wonder of one of the most beautiful places in the world.

(In my next post, I’m going to show a large mudslide I discovered yesterday in the Berkeley Hills on Panoramic Way and discuss the mechanics of mudslides and debris flows.  Stay tuned!)

Escape from New England-a weather nut’s confession

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It all began in the Mojave Desert

I’m a weather nut. Have been since I was a little boy. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mojave desert. Except for the often spectacular heat, the weather in my home town of Las Vegas is deadly dull.

Sure, we would get our annual summer “monsoon” thunderstorms as moist air pushed up from Baja and Mexico:

The lightning from them could be truly spectacular and delighted a little boy’s heart:

And yes, ever four or five years a strong winter storm would leave an inch or more of snow in the Vegas Valley:

We kids loved it, but lots of people freaked out, and there was always a spate of car crashes as people not used to ice on the roads drove like Vegans usually do—way too fast.

But for extreme weather, that’s about it. Except for the heat. (You really can cook eggs on the sidewalk in the height of summer. I did it as a kid on a number of 115 degree °F days.)

Now for some real weather!

So, when I moved to Boston in the mid-’70s, I was in weather nut heaven! Finally, some real weather. In New England you have it all: rainstorms, snow storms, wind storms, blizzards, nor’easters, flash floods, heat waves, brutal cold snaps, and even the occasional tornado and hurricane! How many places can you think of that have blizzards and hurricanes and tornadoes? New England gets them all! (Yes, that’s the Statue of Liberty with a tornado in the distance!)

Here’s some shots of the Great Blizzard of ’78.  I’ll never forget walking around the eerily quiet streets of Boston at the level of the rooftops of the cars buried in the drifts:

As Mark Twain famously noted:

“There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration — and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go.”

The Dynamic Duo of New England Weather

The reason New England gets all of this weather is because it happens to be located near the semipermanent low pressure area called the Icelandic Low.  Much of the time in winter this low pressure area looks something like this, as huge storm systems develop in it:

Located  between Iceland and southern Greenland, the Icelandic low pulls all the weather of North America towards it, and thus, toward New England. If New England weather sucks, it’s because the Icelandic Low sucks—all the weather masses of North America toward it.

But the Icelandic Low has a partner in crime—the Azores or Bermuda High:

This huge semipermanent area of subtropical high pressure is the other pole of what is called the North Atlantic Oscillation. In the summer, the high pressure area tends to move toward North America.   Its clockwise rotating air pumps warm, moist air up the Atlantic coast to New England. This is why a place that gets blizzards and below zero weather also gets sweltering, humid 90 degree °F heat in the summer. Don’t you just love it?

Not only that, the Azores High’s clockwise rotation tends to create tropical waves off of Africa and send them toward North America. These pressure waves often become tropical storms, and sometimes, hurricanes. The Azores High sends them all toward the Caribbean and North America. When the high moves even further west, it will even shunt hurricanes up the East Coast, and that’s why New England can also get hurricanes.  Here’s a typical track of a hurricane sweeping around the Azores High and roaring up the Atlantic Coast toward New England and the distant Icelandic Low.

This double-whammy of the Icelandic Low and the Bermuda High is why there’s always some weather mass or storm merrily marching through New England.

If you love weather, and lots of it, move to New England!

So, if I love weather, why did I leave New England?

As an amateur meteorologist, I loved my time in New England. I relished her nor’easters, hurricanes, blizzards, cold snaps, snow storms, and heat spells.  The clouds were often magnificent and came in every variety. Over time, however, the long, cold New England winters started to get to me as the initial novelty of them for a desert boy wore off.

I loved fall in New England; still do. It’s New England’s best and most beautiful season.  Here’s an image of Malden in the fall of 2008, my last Fall in the Boston area. (click for a nice large image)

But I more and more, I was dreading the winters.

It wasn’t just how early winters started and how long they lasted. It wasn’t just the damp, penetrating wind-driven cold. (Forget it Chicago, Boston is the real windy city!) The coup de grace was day after day of grey, overcast skies. I need sun! I need to see blue skies, even in winter—even if howling winds make the windchill 20 below!  Just gimme some sun!  And after three decades in New England, I just needed a new place that (for me) reflected a brighter, happier outlook on life (not that one can’t be happy in New England; I’m talking about the physical environment.)

As a final send-off, just before we left for California, New England got in one last nor’easter.  Not a record setter, but afterwards, the snow and slush all froze, and it was bitter cold until we took the Amtrak Zephyr to the Golden West. Adios New England!

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So, here I am in Berkeley, with my dear wife—blue skies galore, even in winter, and no 20 below windchill! Yes, I know the Bay area has its winter rainy season. I know it can be rainy for days, even weeks. (We arrived in the middle of winter when we moved here.) I now know what the fogs of summer are all about (not nearly as bad as advertised.)

But Bay area weather at its worst is just not in the same league as bad weather in New England. In New England, you get more of everything—more cold, more clouds, more rain, more heat, more humidity, more wind, more….just more! And less—less sunny days, less time you can spend outside, less comfortable weather.

The Glorious Weather and Climate of the San Francisco Bay area

So, now I turn my weather eyes to the amazing climate and weather of the San Francisco Bay area. It may not be as “exciting” weather-wise here, but there’s plenty going on, and the big picture is very interesting.

We have our own version of the Icelandic Low up in the Aleutians off the coast of Alaska.  But instead of pulling continental weather to it, this semipermanent low pressure area spins off storm after storm, creating most of the weather in the North America, and indeed, much of the weather in the Northern Hemisphere.  It’s called the Aleutian Low, and its monumental storms are some of the biggest and most powerful on Earth.

In winter, these huge storms spin out of the Gulf of Alaska and crash into Canada,  the Northwest, and Northern California.  After dropping huge quantities of rain and snow, they still have enough moisture and energy to move on and create rain and snowstorms across the entire country.

And of course, in California, we feel the powerful effects of  the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, often  abbreviated by meteorologists as ENSO.  El Niño not only has dramatic effects on California weather, it affects weather all over the world. As a newcomer here, I’ve not personally experienced an El Niño event, but as a long-time student of weather, I sure know how damaging they can be here in California:

I’ll be talking a lot more about all of this fascinating weather stuff in future posts. But for now, I’m just going to kick back and enjoy this sunny Berkeley day in early December. Wow, I can wear my t-shirt outside! Wow, I don’t have to wear my heavy New England winter jacket. Wow, the wind isn’t freezing my face off!  This year in Boston, it snowed heavily in October, and at night there, it’s already in the low 30s and high 20s °F.

My New England friends tell me they are having a warm spell right now, after the “summer that wasn’t.” (Boy, do I remember a lot of those!)   But, alas, they are still doomed.  Winter is coming, and there’s no stopping it!

Dear New England, I loved you, but your long, cold, dark winters will grind me down no more!  I’ve found my personal paradise here in Berkeley and the Berkeley Hills.  And I’m here to stay!