The Mighty Oaks of California: A Keystone of the Golden State’s Ecosystem

Oak trees hold a profound presence in the landscape of California, constituting a living link between the state’s rich biodiversity and cultural history. Approximately 20 species of oak trees have been recorded in California, each filling a unique ecological niche and rendering the tree species an integral part of the state’s fabric.

Among the most significant species are the Coast Live Oak, the Valley Oak, the Blue Oak, and the California Black Oak. The Coast Live Oak, resilient against the salty sea breeze, thrives along California’s coastal regions. The Valley Oak, a symbol of endurance, dominates the fertile inner valleys, while the Blue Oak’s blue-green foliage characterizes the hot, dry foothills of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges. Meanwhile, the California Black Oak, found primarily in mountain regions, is appreciated for its vibrant autumnal foliage and acorns, an essential food source for various wildlife.

Oaks in California boast a rich history that dates back millions of years, with fossil records suggesting their presence since the Miocene epoch. This rich lineage is intertwined with the tree’s biological traits, with each species evolving to inhabit specific ecosystems. As a result, oak trees have managed to extend their reach across the state’s diverse terrain, from the sun-bathed coasts to the crisp mountain ranges. Whether deciduous or evergreen – with most species in California being the latter – oaks have a remarkable ability to withstand the dry summer months. This resilience can be attributed to their deep root systems and hardy leaves, allowing them to survive and thrive in the region’s unique climate.

California oaks are not just a testament to natural resilience; they are an ecosystem unto themselves. They are the cornerstone of a vibrant biodiversity that encompasses hundreds of animal species. The trees provide shelter and serve as breeding habitats for various animals, from squirrels and deer to a myriad of bird species. The acorns, in particular, play a vital role as a food source. Insects, too, have carved out an existence around the oaks, with some species laying their eggs within the tree’s bark.

This intrinsic connection between the oaks and the animal kingdom extends to humans as well. Historical records show that indigenous tribes in the region used acorns as a staple food. In modern times, the strength and durability of oak wood have made it a preferred choice for construction and furniture-making. Oak is also used in the production of high-quality wine barrels, lending its unique character to the Californian wine industry. The top fifty most expensive wines in the world are oak-aged in some way.

The oak trees of California are renowned for their impressive size and longevity. The Valley Oak, the largest of California’s native oaks, can reach over 100 feet in height and live for several centuries. These grand trees also contribute significantly to carbon sequestration. A mature oak has the capacity to absorb up to 50 pounds of CO2 annually, thus helping mitigate climate change while improving air quality. A mature oak forest can store up to 50% more carbon than an equally-sized forest of other trees.

Despite their remarkable resilience, oaks in California face a myriad of challenges. Threats stem from habitat loss, climate change, and diseases such as Sudden Oak Death. Urban development often comes at the expense of oak woodlands, while shifts in climate patterns pose potential risks to the growth and distribution of oaks.

Coast Live Oak

Nonetheless, the oaks of California stand as ecological pillars. They are significant carbon sinks, wildlife supporters, and enduring symbols of the natural resilience ingrained in the state’s identity. Their significance extends beyond their physical presence, weaving into the cultural, historical, and environmental narrative of California, the Golden State.

Conservation efforts to protect California’s majestic oaks have become increasingly critical in recent years, shaped by a heightened understanding of the tree’s ecological significance and the mounting threats they face. Various local, state, and federal entities, as well as numerous non-profit organizations, have joined forces in these endeavors, harnessing a broad array of strategies to ensure the survival and thriving of California’s oaks.

One of the primary conservation strategies involves the protection of oak habitats, specifically oak woodlands. These regions are often hotspots of biodiversity, and their preservation is crucial for the health of many interconnected species, including oaks themselves. The Oak Woodlands Conservation Act, enacted by the state of California, provides funding to acquire oak woodland habitats for conservation purposes, ensuring these areas remain untouched by urban development or agriculture.

Leaves of California Black Oak

In addition to the legal protection of existing oak habitats, restoration projects are an important aspect of conservation efforts. These projects involve the replanting of oaks in areas where they have been lost due to disease, development, or other causes. Organizations such as the California Oak Foundation run regular planting programs, involving local communities in the process to raise awareness about the importance of oaks and fostering a sense of responsibility for their protection.

Research also plays a vital role in oak conservation. Scientists are continually studying the threats faced by oaks, including diseases like Sudden Oak Death, and developing ways to mitigate them. They are also exploring the potential impacts of climate change on California’s oaks, seeking strategies to bolster their resilience against rising temperatures and shifting weather patterns. This research informs management strategies and policy-making, ensuring conservation efforts are based on the best available science.

Community education and engagement is another key facet of conservation efforts. Many organizations offer resources for landowners on how to care for the oaks on their property, and there are numerous programs aimed at educating the public about the importance of oak conservation. By fostering a deeper connection between the people of California and their native oaks, these initiatives cultivate a broader culture of conservation that can help ensure the survival of these majestic trees for generations to come. The collective aim of these diverse conservation strategies is not merely the survival, but the flourishing of California’s oaks, securing their rightful place in the state’s rich and dynamic ecosystems.

The Desert Tortoise: A Resilient Survivor of the Mojave

a close-up of a desert tortoise

The Mojave Desert, a harsh yet strikingly beautiful landscape that extends across four western U.S. states, is home to an equally fascinating and resilient creature: the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). This fascinating reptile has evolved to survive in one of the world’s most inhospitable environments, but today, it faces numerous threats that are jeopardizing its existence.

The desert tortoise is a tortoise species in the family Testudinidae native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. They are specially adapted to withstand the extreme conditions of their desert habitat. Desert tortoises can tolerate water, salt, and energy imbalances on a daily basis, which increases their lifespans. On average, adult desert tortoises measure between 10 to 14 inches in shell length and weigh from 8 to 15 pounds. They have a high-domed shell, typically brownish in color, which serves as protection from predators. Their strong, stocky limbs are adapted for digging, an essential behavior for both foraging and creating burrows for shelter.

One of the desert tortoise’s most fascinating adaptations is its ability to store water. They have a large urinary bladder that can store over 40% of the tortoise’s body weight in water, urea, uric acid, and nitrogenous wastes. During the hot, dry summer months, this stored water can be reabsorbed back into the tortoise’s system, effectively allowing them to survive up to a year without access to fresh water.

a close-up of a desert tortoise

Desert tortoises are a testament to survival, with their lineage dating back 15 to 20 million years. They are primarily herbivorous, with a diet consisting of a variety of desert grasses, herbs, and wildflowers, along with the occasional consumption of insects and new growth of cacti.

Tortoises spend much of their lives in burrows, which provide refuge from extreme heat, cold, and predators. They are most active during the cooler hours of the day, and their activity pattern shifts with the changing seasons. Mating typically occurs in the spring and fall, with females laying a clutch of up to 15 eggs, though the survival rate of these hatchlings is low due to predation and harsh environmental conditions.

In 2011, on the basis of DNA, geographic, and behavioral differences between desert tortoises east and west of the Colorado River, it was decided that two species of desert tortoises exist: Agassiz’s desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) and Morafka’s desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). The new species name is in honor of the late Professor David Joseph Morafka of California State University, Dominguez Hills.

Desert tortoises spend 95% of their lives in their burrow. Seeing them on the landscape is a rare treat.

Estimates suggest that the population of desert tortoises has plummeted by as much as 90% since the mid-20th century. This decline is due to a variety of factors, including habitat loss from urban development and agriculture, road mortality, predation by dogs and other introduced species, and disease. In particular, upper respiratory tract disease (URTD), caused by the bacterium Mycoplasma agassizii, has been responsible for significant mortality.

Recognizing the threats faced by the desert tortoise, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1990. This has led to numerous conservation efforts aimed at preserving the desert tortoise and its habitat.

Habitat conservation is a key focus, with several Desert Wildlife Management Areas established to protect crucial tortoise habitats. Efforts are also being made to reduce the impact of roads and highways on tortoise populations, such as the construction of underpasses and fencing along known tortoise crossing areas.

Education and public engagement are also critical components of conservation efforts. Initiatives are underway to educate the public about the desert tortoise and the importance of not removing them from their natural environment, a practice that can lead to population decline and the spread of disease.

Over the past few decades, desert tortoise populations have declined significantly, with estimates suggesting a staggering 90% reduction in some areas of the Mojave Desert. This decline has led to the desert tortoise being listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Desert tortoise facts
Lifespan: 30-50 years, but some can live to be over 80 years old
Weight: 8-15 pounds (3.5-7 kilograms)
Length: 9-15 inches (23-38 centimeters)
Range: Only found in the Mojave Desert in California, Nevada, Arizona, and Utah
Conservation status: Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act

Nature Conservancy

Numerous factors contribute to this decline, including habitat loss due to urbanization, off-road vehicle use, and livestock grazing. Additionally, the introduction of non-native predators, such as the common raven, has led to increased predation on juvenile tortoises.

Conservation organizations, government agencies, and local communities have come together to implement various strategies aimed at protecting and preserving the desert tortoise. These efforts include habitat restoration, fencing off sensitive areas, and developing educational programs to raise awareness about the species.

One such initiative is the “Adopt-a-Tortoise” program, which allows individuals and organizations to symbolically adopt a tortoise, with the proceeds going towards conservation efforts. Another important initiative is the “Head Start” program, which raises hatchlings in captivity until they reach a size less vulnerable to predators before releasing them into the wild.

The Remarkable Revival of the Giant Sea Bass in California: Catalina Island’s Growing Giants

National Park Service

The Giant Sea Bass, also known as Stereolepis gigas, has long been a majestic part of California’s coastal ecosystems. This behemoth of a fish can grow up to nearly 7 and a half feet long, weighing a whopping 560 pounds, and can live to the age of 75. These gigantic, slow-moving sea creatures were once a common sight in the coastal waters of Southern California, particularly around Catalina Island. However, overfishing in the 20th century dramatically reduced their populations to critically low levels. Now, thanks to conservation efforts, these gentle giants are making a triumphant return. This is their story of recovery and resilience.

The plight of the Giant Sea Bass is a familiar story in the annals of marine conservation. Abundant in the early 1900s, they were targeted by both commercial and recreational fishers. Their large size and slow-moving nature made them an easy and attractive target. Overfishing led to a sharp decline in their numbers. By the 1970s, sightings had become rare, sparking concerns about the species’ survival.

However, the Giant Sea Bass was not ready to fade away into history. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife stepped in during the 1980s, implementing measures to protect the species. A ban was placed on commercial and recreational fishing, and a concerted effort was made to restore their habitat around the Southern California coast, especially around the Catalina Island.

The Resurgence of Giants

The breeding population of giant sea bass — which is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature — is believed to be only about 500 individuals. But since the ban on fishing and the launch of habitat restoration projects, the Giant Sea Bass has been on a steady journey towards recovery. Research groups and marine scientists have been monitoring their numbers around Catalina Island, a critical habitat for the species. Much of the work has been done at the Wrigley Marine Science Center (WMSC), the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies’ satellite campus on Santa Catalina Island. They’ve been using a variety of methods, including underwater surveys and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), to track the population.

Their work has yielded promising results. The number of Giant Sea Bass sightings has been steadily increasing over the years. Juvenile Giant Sea Bass have also been spotted, a positive sign that the species is breeding successfully. These observations suggest that their populations are recovering, albeit slowly.

In 2019 California State University, Northridge (CSUN), the Aquarium of the Pacific, and Cabrillo Marine Aquarium announced a successful joint effort involving raising and releasing juvenile giant sea bass into the ocean. For this project, CSUN shared giant sea bass eggs in an attempt to produce offspring. Three juveniles were raised at the Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium successfully reared hundreds of baby giant sea bass babies from these eggs. In March 2020, 200 baby giant sea bass into the murky waters of Santa Monica Bay.

University of California Santa Barbara

The Catalina Island Success Story

Catalina Island, a jewel in Southern California’s marine landscape, has been at the heart of this conservation success. The island’s surrounding waters offer the perfect habitat for the Giant Sea Bass, with its ample kelp forests and rocky reefs. The island’s commitment to marine conservation, exemplified by the Catalina Island Conservancy and its partners, has provided the ideal conditions for the species to rebound.

In addition to the protective regulations, the Island’s community has embraced their role as stewards of their marine environment. Local scuba divers often act as citizen scientists, providing valuable data through sightings and photographs of the Giant Sea Bass.

Lessons for the Future

The return of the Giant Sea Bass is a beacon of hope, reminding us of the resilience of nature when given a chance to recover. But the journey is far from over. While their numbers are increasing, the Giant Sea Bass still faces threats, including pollution, habitat degradation, and the looming challenges of climate change.

Conservationists argue that the Giant Sea Bass’s recovery illustrates the importance of a multi-faceted approach to marine conservation. Protective legislation, habitat restoration, scientific research, and community engagement all played critical roles in this success story.

Although the story is far from over and recovery is incomplete, the story of the Giant Sea Bass stands as a testament to the power of conservation. Continued research, monitoring, and community engagement will be essential to ensure the long-term survival of the giant sea bass. Their resurgence offers a valuable opportunity to learn from our past mistakes and work together to ensure a brighter future for these gentle giants and the marine ecosystems they call home.

Toyon: California’s Berry Own Super Shrub

With its vibrant red berries, glossy leaves, and resilience against harsh conditions, the toyon has captured the hearts of many Californians and can be found in yards, hillsides, and along roadsides throughout the state. Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), is a versatile native shrub that has long played a prominent role in California’s natural and cultural history. Derived from the Greek words “heter” and “malus,” meaning “different” and “apple” respectively, the word Heteromeles refers to the resemblance of the toyon fruit to a small apple.

Toyon is a prominent component of the coastal sage scrub plant community and is a part of drought-adapted chaparral and mixed oak woodland habitats. This evergreen, drought-tolerant plant can be found from Baja California to Oregon, flourishing in a variety of habitats, such as coastal scrub, chaparral, and oak woodlands.

Toyon is a member of the rose family (Rosaceae) and can grow up to 8-15 feet tall, depending on its environment. The plant’s leaves are simple, alternate, and evergreen, with serrated margins and a leathery texture. Toyon is well-known for its clusters of bright red berries, which ripen in late fall and persist throughout the winter, providing a valuable food source for various bird species, such as cedar waxwings and robins. The berries also attract other wildlife, like coyotes and bears, and support a diverse ecosystem.

The plant’s cream-colored flowers bloom in early summer, attracting a variety of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Toyon is a versatile plant that can adapt to different environmental conditions, such as sun or shade, dry or moist soils, and varying elevations. These adaptations make it an important component of California’s ecosystems and a valuable resource for both wildlife and humans.

Toyon along the California coast

The indigenous people of California, such as the Chumash, Tongva, and Ohlone tribes, have long recognized the value of the toyon plant. The red berries, also known as “California holly,” are not only attractive to look at but also hold various practical uses.

Toyon berries, although bitter and astringent when consumed raw, can be cooked, dried, or mashed to make a variety of foods, such as porridge, cider, and jelly. The berries were traditionally harvested and sun-dried, then ground into a flour-like consistency to make a nutritious, high-energy staple known as “pinole.” Later settlers added sugar to make custard and wine.

Toyon leaves were also of great importance. The Chumash, for example, used the leaves in a steam bath to alleviate rheumatic pain and respiratory issues. The leaves were also used as a poultice for sores, wounds, insect bites, and tea to treat stomach ailments.

The toyon’s hard, dense wood was used to make various tools, such as digging sticks, arrows, and ceremonial wands. The plant was also incorporated into many spiritual and cultural practices. For example, the Cahuilla tribe believed that the toyon was a symbol of rebirth and used its branches during mourning ceremonies.

Toyon is such a common plant in California that its presence on the landscape can sometimes be easily ignored, and yet it is a remarkable plant that has played a significant role in California’s natural and cultural history. With its vibrant red berries, adaptability to various environmental conditions, and extensive traditional uses, it is a plant of remarkable beauty and utility. Today, the plant remains an important resource for wildlife, and its traditional uses continue to be recognized and celebrated by both indigenous people and modern Californians alike.

Mt. Whitney’s Namesake

Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, is one of the great peaks in California. A wildly popular destination for hikers, climbers, and backpackers, Whitney is located in Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park, California.

But how did Mt. Whitney get its name?

“The culminating peak of the Sierra” was discovered in 1864, by a California Geological Survey team, and named “Mt. Whitney” after the team’s leader, Josiah Whitney. A member of the survey team, Clarence King, attempted to climb Whitney twice during their trip but was not successful.

Josiah Dwight Whitney was an American geologist and surveyor who made significant contributions to the field of geology in California. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1819, Whitney became interested in science at an early age and studied geology and mineralogy at Yale University. In 1860, he was appointed the State Geologist of California and founded the California Geological Survey, one of the oldest geological surveys in the nation.

Whitney’s work in California was groundbreaking and helped establish the state as a hub of geological research. He conducted extensive surveys of the state’s natural resources, including minerals, soils, and water sources. He was also instrumental in mapping the state’s topography and geology, including the Sierra Nevada mountain range, where he made several important discoveries.

One of Whitney’s most significant contributions to California’s geology was the discovery of the existence of glacial action in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1864, he published a report describing the glacial formations he had observed in the mountains, including the formation of Yosemite Valley, which he attributed to the action of glaciers. This report was groundbreaking at the time and helped establish the study of glacial geology as a major area of research.

In addition to his work as a geologist, Whitney was also a skilled surveyor and cartographer. He was responsible for creating some of the first accurate maps of California, which were used by explorers, settlers, and scientists alike. His maps were highly detailed and included information about the state’s geology, topography, and natural resources.

In 1875, Whitney was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and in 1880, he was awarded the Wollaston Medal by the Geological Society of London. Perhaps the most enduring recognition of his work is the fact that the highest peak in the contiguous United States is named after him. Mount Whitney, which stands at 14,505 feet, was named in his honor in 1896.

Whitney’s legacy lives on through the California Geological Survey, which he founded and served as its first director. The survey played an important role in the development of California, providing valuable information about the state’s natural resources and geology. It continues to operate today, providing information and expertise to policymakers, scientists, and the public.

Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states no longer has outhouses for the thousands of hikers passing through. People are encouraged to use “wagbags” instead. Photo: Heidi Schumann for the New York Times.

Serpentine: The Geological Gem of California

Ask anyone what the California state rock is and I doubt whether many people would answer correctly. Is it granite, the magnificent slabby stone that creates the sheer face of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite? Is it obsidian, the glinty black stone so favored by some Native American tribes that they would walk hundreds of miles to collect it and bring home to make tools and weapons? No, the state rock of California is neither of these. The state rock of California is serpentine.

Serpentine is formed through the metamorphic process, where pre-existing rocks are transformed into new types under high temperatures, pressures, and chemical processes. This unique rock originates from the Earth’s mantle, brought to the surface through tectonic activity like subduction. Serpentine is primarily composed of hydrous magnesium silicate minerals, such as antigorite, chrysotile, and lizardite (yes, lizardite). Its distinct, vibrant green color and serpent-like appearance make it easily recognizable and intriguing to rock enthusiasts and casual observers alike. It is also widely collected.

Location and Abundance

Serpentine is predominantly found in the coastal ranges of California, particularly in the Klamath Mountains and the Sierra Nevada foothills. It is also present in smaller quantities throughout the state. The prevalence of Serpentine in California is a result of the state’s complex geological history, which includes the subduction of oceanic plates beneath the continental North American Plate. This tectonic activity created ideal conditions for the formation of Serpentine. The recognition and study of serpentine in California contributed to the understanding of modern plate tectonic theory.

Value and Uses

While not considered a precious gemstone, Serpentine holds significant value due to its unique aesthetic and limited distribution. It is often used as an ornamental stone for jewelry, sculptures, and architectural elements. In addition, Serpentine is historically known for its use in carving, particularly by Native American tribes in California. Serpentine’s low hardness and smooth texture make it ideal for intricate carvings and designs. In recent years, Serpentine has gained popularity among collectors and as a decorative addition to gardens and landscaping.

California’s State Rock

Serpentine was designated as California’s state rock in 1965, thanks to the efforts of state Assemblyman John Knox. This choice was influenced by the rock’s unique beauty, the significant role it played in California’s geological history, and its importance in the state’s mining industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Asbestos, a fibrous mineral found in some forms of Serpentine, was once highly sought after for its heat-resistant properties. However, due to its association with health risks, the use of asbestos has significantly declined, and current appreciation of Serpentine is largely focused on its aesthetic qualities.

However, the state almost dropped serpentine from its state rock designation due to the high relative quantity of asbestos that serpentine contains. Asbestos occurs naturally in many minerals and in many places. And in fact some serpentine rocks do host chrysotile, a form of asbestos. But geologists say chrysotile is less harmful than some other forms of asbestos and would be a danger — like scores of other rocks — only if a person were to breathe its dust repeatedly.

Why You Should Care

Serpentine is not just a beautiful rock; it is a symbol of California’s rich geological and cultural heritage. By understanding the origins and significance of Serpentine, we can appreciate the complex processes that have shaped our planet and the remarkable diversity of its natural resources. Furthermore, the presence of Serpentine in California is an excellent example of the interconnectedness of geology, ecology, and human history, as the unique habitats it creates support rare plant species and have inspired the artistic endeavors of numerous cultures throughout time.

Serpentine’s striking appearance, intricate formation process, and storied history make it a fascinating subject for rock enthusiasts and casual observers alike. By delving into the story of Serpentine, we can not only appreciate its inherent beauty but also gain a deeper understanding of the geological forces that have shaped our world and the cultural significance of the natural resources that surround us.

The return of Lake Tulare – once the largest lake West of the Mississippi

The massive atmospheric snowstorms that pummeled California this year have been a boon to ski slopes throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains. But the rains have had an unusual result: The torrents of rain have drowned thousands of acres of farmland in California’s Central Valley and resuscitated a lake that vanished decades ago. Standing in an area that was dry as a bone just a year ago, right now, as far as the eye can see, water stretches to the horizon. It has covered roads, and crop fields, and submerged homes and buildings.

The lake is called Lake Tulare.

Lake Tulare, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, is a compelling example of the delicate balance between human activity and natural forces. Located east of Interstate 5 from Kettleman City, Lake Tulare was also the second-largest freshwater lake in the United States, based on surface area. At its peak, Lake Tulare covered an area of nearly 700 square miles and was a critical component of the region’s complex hydrological system.

The lake’s disappearance over a century ago can be traced back to multiple factors, including agricultural development, water diversion, and climate. Fed by the Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers, the lake supported a vibrant ecosystem teeming with fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife. Native American tribes, including the Yokuts, relied on the lake’s abundant resources for sustenance and trade.

Lake Tulare began to shrink in the late 19th century as European settlers moved into the area and agriculture took hold. The burgeoning need for water to support the growing agricultural industry led to the construction of canals and dams, which diverted water away from the lake. As a result, the lake’s surface area shrank rapidly, and by the early 20th century, it had disappeared almost entirely.

Spanish captain Pedro Fages led the first excursions to the southern San Joaquin Valley in 1773 and wrote this account:

This plain will exceed one hundred and twenty leagues in length and in parts is twenty, fifteen and even less in width. It is all a labyrinth of lakes and tulares, and the river San Francisco, divided into several branches, winding in the middle of the plain, now enters and now flows out of the lakes, until very near to the place where it enters into the estuary of the river.

Pedro Fages
Fulvous whistling-duck

Today alfalfa is grown on the southern basin and there is invasive saltcedar, a common species that has also impacted regions of the Colorado River Delta. Animal life includes the Buena Vista Lake shrew (Sorex ornatus relictus), the southwestern pond turtle (Actinemys pallida), fulvous whistling-duck (Dendrocygna bicolor), and the California red-legged frog (Rana aurora draytonii). Other species native or present in the area are sandhill cranes and tricolored blackbird.

But what is the future of Lake Tulare?

Last summer, UCLA climate scientist Dan Swain published a paper that predicted more intense weather patterns on a gradually warming planet. He told CNN that the worst-case scenario of relentless atmospheric rivers could actually make Tulare Lake permanent again, turning it into a vast, inland sea.

We’ll have to wait and see.

And in the meantime, check ut this recent before and after satellite image of the central valley and Lake Tulare.

The Western Fence Lizard: the world of scaly, sunbathing acrobats

The Western Fence Lizard, also known as the “blue belly” lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis), is a vibrant and fascinating reptile that’s as colorful as its behavior. With its astonishing hues and unique characteristics, it’s no wonder this little critter has captured the attention of nature lovers and scientists alike.

A Technicolor Dreamcoat of Scales

If you’ve ever wandered through the western United States and spotted a lizard showing off a stunning blue and green wardrobe, you’ve likely encountered a Western Fence Lizard. The males sport vibrant patches of blue on their bellies and throats, making them easy to identify. Females, while less flashy, still have a subtle charm with their more muted tones. These lizards can also change color, becoming darker or lighter depending on their mood, temperature, or level of excitement. Just imagine a little reptilian mood ring scurrying about!

A Peek into the Past

The Western Fence Lizard has a long and fascinating evolutionary history, stretching back millions of years. They belong to the genus Sceloporus, which consists of over 90 different species, and their closest relatives include the Sagebrush Lizard and the Eastern Fence Lizard. These fantastic reptiles evolved to fill a specific ecological niche, with their coloration and agility being key to their survival in the wild. Like tiny dinosaur descendants, they thrive in a variety of environments and exhibit an incredible diversity of form and function.

Home, Sweet Habitat

The Western Fence Lizard is a versatile tenant, thriving in a range of habitats, from coastal sage scrub and chaparral to forests and grasslands. These lizards are known for their love of basking in the sun, which they do to thermoregulate – that’s a fancy word for maintaining their body temperature. You’ll often find them perched on rocks, fence posts, or tree branches, soaking up rays and keeping an eye out for predators (and tasty snacks).

Let’s Do Lunch

The Western Fence Lizard is a carnivorous connoisseur, feasting on a delectable diet of insects like ants, beetles, and spiders. They’re even known to munch on the occasional snail or caterpillar. Sporting an insatiable appetite, these little guys need a lot of energy to fuel their acrobatic antics. Watch them dash and leap through their habitat, and you’ll understand why they need to keep their bellies full!

The males sport vibrant patches of blue on their bellies and throats, making them easy to identify.

Mating Habits

When it comes to love, the Western Fence Lizard has some fascinating rituals. The mating season, which typically spans from April to July, is when the males put on a dazzling display to attract a mate. They perform a series of push-ups, showing off their bright blue bellies and throats to potential partners. The females, impressed by this feat of strength and color, select the most vigorous and flashy males to father their offspring. These lizards lay their eggs in moist soil, and after a few months, a new generation of color-changing acrobats emerges, ready to take on the world.

The Western Fence Lizard is a captivating and enchanting creature that has managed to adapt and thrive in a variety of habitats. Its colorful appearance and dynamic behavior make it a unique and engaging subject for nature enthusiasts and scientists

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades: A Monument to Human Ingenuity and the Lifeblood of a Megacity

Los Angeles is home to nearly four million people, but this bustling metropolis would not have been possible without a vital resource: water. While the city’s origins can be traced back to the humble Los Angeles River, it was the Los Angeles Aqueduct that allowed the city to grow exponentially. This article will delve into the history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the monumental cascades that make it an engineering marvel, and the key people involved in its conception and construction.

William Mulholland and Fred Eaton scout the Owens River as a potential source of water for Los Angeles

In the early 20th century, the population of Los Angeles was growing rapidly, and city leaders recognized that the existing water supply from the Los Angeles River would not be sufficient to support the city’s future growth. Thus, in 1905, the city embarked on a quest to secure a new water source to sustain its increasing population.

Engineer and visionary William Mulholland was tasked with finding a solution to the city’s water woes. He discovered the Owens River, located more than 200 miles away, which had an abundant supply of fresh water. In 1906, Los Angeles voters approved the bonds necessary to construct a massive aqueduct system that would transport water from the Owens River to the thirsty city.

Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct began in 1908 and was completed in November 5, 1913, a remarkable achievement for its time. The aqueduct spans 233 miles, making it one of the largest engineering projects in the United States. It was an impressive display of human ingenuity and perseverance, as it required the construction of 142 tunnels, numerous reservoirs, and the iconic cascades.

The Cascades rely on gravity to create a stunning visual display while serving a functional purpose. As the water flows over the series of terraced steps, its velocity increases, allowing it to mix with air and become oxygenated. This natural aeration process helps to maintain water quality and reduce the presence of unwanted gases, such as hydrogen sulfide, which can cause a foul odor.

The cascading waterfall serves as the point where water from the aqueduct is released into the L.A. basin, traveling the final stretch through a series of tunnels and pipelines to reach its ultimate destination: the taps of millions of Los Angeles residents.

William Mulholland opens the Cascades on November 5, 1913.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct was the brainchild of William Mulholland, a self-taught engineer who served as the head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. He was responsible for overseeing the project and ensuring its timely completion.

Fred Eaton, the sixth Anglo child to be born in Los Angeles, was the first “Native Son” Engineer in Los Angeles. As the former mayor of Los Angeles, Eaton played a crucial role in securing the rights to the water in the Owens Valley, which was essential to the aqueduct’s construction. He collaborated with Mulholland in the early stages of planning and development.

Thousands of workers were involved in the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, including laborers, engineers, and surveyors. They toiled under challenging conditions, facing harsh weather, and rough terrain.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades are an essential part of the aqueduct system. They serve both a practical and symbolic purpose.

The practical function of the cascades is to release the water from the aqueduct at a controlled rate, allowing it to flow into the city’s water distribution system. The cascades rely on gravity to transport water through the system, helping to minimize the need for pumping stations and thereby reducing energy consumption.

Wide shot of the Cascades from Interstate 5 in Southern California

The cascades also serve a symbolic purpose, representing the triumphant arrival of water in Los Angeles. They are a monument to the human spirit and the ingenuity required to bring life-sustaining water to a burgeoning city. The aqueduct allowed Los Angeles to become the thriving metropolis it is today, providing a reliable water supply to millions of residents. The cascades have become a popular tourist destination, allowing visitors to witness firsthand the impressive engineering feat that made the growth of Los Angeles possible.

California’s Common, but Lovely, Birds: the House Finch

House Finch

California is home to an impressive number of bird species, with over 700 recorded throughout the state. From the rocky shores of the Pacific coast to the towering peaks of the Sierra Nevada, California’s diverse landscapes provide habitats for a wide range of birdlife. Many of these species are endemic to California, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. The state’s unique geography and climate, as well as its location on the Pacific Flyway migration route, make it a haven for birdwatchers and ornithologists alike.

One of the most common birds in California, probably familiar to anyone whether a backyard enthusiast or committed ornithologist is the house finch. The house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a small passerine (perching) bird that is native to western North America, including California. This bird is widely known for its vibrant red plumage and melodic song, making it a beloved sight and sound in backyards across the state.

House finches are a member of the finch family, Fringillidae, which includes all true finches. They are thought to have originated from the deserts of Mexico and the southwestern United States. Their range has since expanded to cover much of North America.

House finches are small birds, measuring about 5-6 inches in length and weighing between 0.6-1.0 ounces. They have a stout, conical beak that is adapted for cracking open seeds, their primary source of food. The male house finch is easily recognizable by its bright red head and breast, while the female has a duller brownish-gray coloration. However, in some areas, there are color variations in the males, such as yellow, orange, or even a rose-pink color.

House finches primarily feed on seeds, including those from sunflowers, dandelions, thistles, and various grasses. They are also known to eat some fruits and insects, particularly during the breeding season when protein is essential for the growth of their young. House finches have a unique feeding habit in that they use their tongue to extract seeds from the seed capsules, which they then crush with their beaks.

House finches are monogamous and form pair bonds during the breeding season, which typically starts in late winter and lasts through early summer. The male house finch will sing and perform courtship displays to attract a mate, often presenting the female with a gift of food. Once the pair has formed, they will work together to build a small nest using grass, twigs, and other plant materials.

House finches are a common sight in backyards, parks, and other areas with ample vegetation. They are often seen perched on wires, branches, or feeders, where they will socialize with other birds, including other finches, sparrows, and juncos. House finches are also known for their acrobatic abilities, often clinging to branches and twigs while feeding.

In addition to their acrobatics, house finches are known for their melodic song. Males will sing throughout the day, particularly during the breeding season, to attract mates and establish territories. The song of the house finch is a warbling melody that can be heard from a considerable distance.

In California, house finches are a common sight and have adapted well to urban and suburban environments. They are often attracted to bird feeders, particularly those filled with sunflower seeds, which they can easily crack open with their beaks.

The house finch’s vibrant plumage, melodic song, and acrobatic abilities make it a joy to observe in the wild or in our own backyards. As with many bird species, it is essential that we continue to protect their habitats and ensure that they have access to adequate food sources to thrive.