Goodbye California: Reminiscences of a climate refugee

There are a lot of reasons why I’m moving from California to Washington, including family and other personal considerations. But one reason, one big reason, is California’s rapidly changing climate.

It was late February in the Coast Range of northern California when I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt. Dust swirled around my car in the dirt parking lot at Cold Canyon. The car thermometer, warmed by a sun that felt imported from Palm Springs, said 87 degrees; it was actually only 77. A hint of ash, omnipresent since The Fire last summer, remained in the air.

Its oaks torched with little hope of return, Putah Creek Canyon is quickly resembling a sun-scorched canyon in Arizona. Until 2018, only one fire in the area had burned more than 15 square miles. Then the County Fire burned 140 square miles. In 2020, the LNU Complex Fire burned 570 square miles.

The hillsides were green with the new growth of non-native grass, which was responding to a recent heavy rain. That was deceptive. More than half the rain we’d had in the previous eight months came in that single event. We had six inches of rain in all of 2020. Looking beyond the grass, nearly every tree – blue oaks and gray pines – on the hillsides was dead, burnt black and orange monuments to a previous era. For our local blue oak woodland, that era ended last year and, given that recruitment of saplings is unlikely due to heat, fire, and cattle, it was an era that will never return.

Massive die-offs are eliminating blue oaks from the southern third of their range. Black oaks are marching up the Sierra, displacing Ponderosa pine, which are marching up, displacing firs. Everyone is on the move. Oak woodlands are becoming oak savannahs, oak savannahs are becoming grasslands, grasslands are becoming rocky high deserts. Arizonification is happening quickly, thru heat, drought, and ultimately, thru fire.

Virtually all of the east slopes of the Coast Range between San Francisco Bay and the Trinity Alps has burned in the past ten years. In the Sierra, one can practically predict where the next fire catastrophe will happen, because it hasn’t burned yet (hint: Lake Almanor, Placerville, Arnold).

The Fire, the LNU Complex Fire, was part of 2020’s 4.3 million acres of scorched earth. The LNU Fire exceeded the total acreage of all previous fires that impacted my county over the last 50 years combined.

It was a beautiful day—for April. But February has become April, April has become May, and June, July, August, September, and even October and November have become unrecognizable. Every year more heat records are broken. Hottest summer, hottest month, most days over 100, most days over 90. The list goes on, each year breaking the records set the previous year. Weather data is normally highly variable; now it is a straight line—warmer and warmer. And smokier.

My cape honeysuckle and bougainvillea, both planted with a degree of optimism outside their recommended zone, used to die back so badly in the winter that each spring I was tempted to declare them dead and pull them out. Now they bloom year-round, looking like they’re in a courtyard at a hotel in the tropics. We haven’t had a real freeze in seven winters.

The songs of lesser goldfinches on my street are a depressing warning. I can’t take two steps outside without seeing or hearing a bird that reminds me that our climate has seriously changed. Western tanagers, house wrens, and turkey vultures are regular in winter now. The lesser goldfinches have come out of the arid hills and are quickly becoming one of the most ubiquitous nesting birds in Davis. (I know this definitively because one included an imitation of a canyon wren in its song.) What’s more, at least four Say’s phoebes, essentially a high desert species, are scouting for nests in town now. A fifth arrived on my block last week, singing as if on territory. They’ve been doing this for a few years and their numbers are growing.

The graphs of acres burned in California (and in other western states) and the expansion of some bird species into the Pacific Northwest (in this case, Anna’s hummingbirds in winter), are strikingly similar.

I’m leaving. I’ve lived in California fifty-five years but it’s no longer the state I grew up in.

We’re headed to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. We are fortunate to be able to do so.

Besides the cooler summers, one of the best things about moving to a new place is that I won’t be reminded of climate change on a daily experiential basis. Because the ecosystem will be new to me, I won’t know what’s different, what is changing, except maybe for the brown boobies, a tropical seabird, that are now showing up in Puget Sound each year. Or the family of California scrub-jays that have just established residence on my new street. Like Anna’s hummingbirds, black phoebes, great egrets, red-shouldered hawks, and people like me, scrub-jays are moving north. I expect more of California’s birds to follow me, just as I follow some of them. Yes, lesser goldfinches are coming north too; they’re already established southeast of Tacoma.

I feel like a frog in a boiling pot. I’m getting out. I’m saying goodbye to California, but I feel it has left all of us without saying goodbye to anyone.

The view from Point Wilson, a mile from my new home in Port Townsend, which has had only a few nights below freezing all winter. Climate change is occurring there too, but remains well within temperate ranges.

I do believe that Homo sapiens may ultimately win the climate battle and bring atmospheric CO2 back down to 300 ppm or something. But that’s a hundred years off. And there’s no guarantee we can stop the tide of Greenland and Antarctic ice melt to prevent sea level rise. In the meantime, in the next 50 to 100 years, it’s going to get a lot warmer. And we may ultimately lose New York City, Singapore, Mumbai, and every other low-lying coastal city. My new home is fifty feet above sea level. Well, probably forty-nine and a half now.

The song of the Lesser Goldfinch: Another harbinger of a warming climate

As the climate warms, different thresholds are crossed for different species at different times. For the Lesser Goldfinch, that time seems to be now—both in the core and northern edges of its range, where the species is increasing, and in some parts of the southern arid regions, where it is decreasing.

As I prepare to migrate myself from Davis, California to Port Townsend, Washington, I’m serenaded by Lesser Goldfinches every time I step outside. This is a new thing, a warning of coming heat and smoke brought by a beautiful voice. A more open and arid country version of the American Goldfinch, until five or ten years ago, Lesser Goldfinches were sparse breeders in Davis. I would get a few of them mixed with Americans at my feeder in winter, but I’d have to go west to the more arid edges of the Sacramento Valley, or up into the hot dry foothills, to find them in the breeding season.

They arrived in my neighborhood as nesters about five years ago. This year, 2021, they seem to be the most ubiquitous singing bird, setting up terrorities throughout the town. Friends in Sacramento have reported the same. This comes after several years of record heat and lack of rain (only 6″ in all of 2020).

Here’s what the eBird data says. For comparison, Northern Mockingbird, one of the most common birds in town, is reported from about 20 eBird locations in Davis each June (ranging from 16 in 2015 and 14 in 2016 to 18-22 in the more recent years as eBird users and reports increased). Using mockingbird as a metric for Davis, it’d be fair to say that 20 sites represents close to 100% presence throughout the town, and that number was probably 25% lower (i.e. 15 sites) in 2015. Lesser Goldfinches have increased from reports from four sites in June of 2015 (representing about 20% of the town) to 17 sites in June of 2020 (representing 85% of the town). It feels like it will be 100% this year.

They are not the only arid-country species increasing in Davis as a breeder. Nesting Say’s Phoebes have expanded up from the south, with multiple pairs in Woodland each year (and it’s looking like Davis this year as well).

As with so many less-migratory species, Lesser Goldfinches are expanding north into the Pacific Northwest and beyond.  Their colonization of the Columbia River Valley began in the 1950s, with the first state of Washington record in 1951; they are now established around Portland, The Dalles, and in the vicinity of Clarkston on the Idaho border. They remain rare elsewhere, but increases in records have been dramatic in recent years. In the northern Puget Trough region (Chehalis north thru Puget Sound to Canada), June records have increased from 1 in 2015 and 2016 to 10 in 2020 (as reported on eBird). While they have clearly gained a toe-hold in Olympia and Puyallup in the South Sound region, in 2020 they made appearances in Victoria and Vancouver, Canada (not shown in the data because these records were in May, not June).

Lesser Goldfinches in British Columbia were limited to four scattered records until 2007. Since then, they have become nearly annual, with most records between January and June.

This is a pattern seen in other resident and less-migratory species. Many of those that were already growing before detectable climate change (around 1985) have expanded noticeably since then. Anna’s Hummingbird is the most dramatic example.

Further east, Lesser Goldfinches are moving due north from Yakima and Kennewick into the Okanagan Valley. June records in this region have increased from zero in 2015 to eight in 2020.

All this is predicted. The National Audubon climate prediction map for Lesser Goldfinch, under the 2C warming scenario, describes much of what we are witnessing.

In the Mojave Desert, Lesser Goldfinches have declined. Iknayan and Beissinger (2018) reported them from only 43% of 61 study sites, compared to 68% historically. This is part of a massive avian community collapse in the Mojave Desert, as extreme aridity is pushing many species beyond their limits.

Keep Davis Water Treatment Ponds wild

The ponds at the Davis Wastewater Treatment Plant have been one of the top birding spots in Yolo County for over 50 years. With 212 species reported via eBird, only two other sites in the county have recorded more (Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands).

Here’s a short video clip from October 2020 illustrating the amazing bird life. A family of Sandhill Cranes walks among thousands of geese, ducks, and shorebirds while the calls of curlews filled the air. A Peregrine Falcon and a Northern Harrier buzzed past. Though the ponds are no longer part of the water treatment plant operations, they still collect rain water and provide habitat. Over 14,000 ducks have been counted on them during the annual Christmas Bird Count. The list of rarities includes everything from Slaty-backed Gull and Arctic Tern to Vermillion Flycatcher.

Earlier this year, the Davis City Council voted 4-1 to lease these ponds to BrightNight solar to convert these ponds into a solar array. Aside from the obvious risk of bird mortality from panel strikes, the project would eliminate one of the best bird habitats in the county. The City Council’s decision has been criticized for its impact on wildlife, for the improper process bypassing the Natural Resources Commission, and for its poor financial terms (the city got ripped off). Gloria Partida, Dan Carson, Will Arnold, and Brett Lee approved it. Only Lucas Frerichs voted against the deal.

But it’s not too late to try to stop it. Here’s what you can do:

1. Call or email each City Council member and ask them to rescind their original vote. Their phone numbers are available here. We need three of them to overturn the original decision. Will Arnold has expressed regret for his vote and Gloria Partida was skeptical at the outset. We also may have an opportunity after the election with new Council member to overturn this decision.

  • Gloria Partida — gpartida@cityofdavis.org
  • Will Arnold — warnold@cityofdavis.org
  • Dan Carson — dcarson@cityofdavis.org
  • Brett Lee — blee@cityofdavis.org
  • Lucas Frerichs — lucasf@cityofdavis.org

2. Call or email Valley Clean Energy Alliance board members and ask them to reject the bid from BrightNight for a new power contract. Their emails are here:

  • Angel Barajas — angel.barajas@cityofwoodland.org
  • Dan Carson — dcarson@cityofdavis.org
  • Lucas Frerichs — lucasf@cityofdavis.org
  • Gary Sandy, Vice Chair — gary.sandy@yolocounty.org
  • Don Saylor — don.saylor@yolocounty.org
  • Tom Stallard, Chair — tom.stallard@cityofwoodland.org
  • Duane Chamberlain, alternate — duane.chamberlain@yolocounty.org
  • Xochitl Rodriguez, alternate — xochitl.rodriguez@cityofwoodland.org

3. Join the effort to increase transparency in City government that would have prevented this travesty. You can see more on that here.

Spring Migration in the Central Valley

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Compared to fall, spring migration is fast and furious. It ramps up thru April, peaks in early May, and then ends abruptly. Birds don’t stay long; they’re in a hurry. Rarities rarely last more than a day. And there are fewer birds than in the fall, winter mortality having taken its toll. But, like this Lazuli Bunting, the birds are in their best dress.

In 2010, after ten years of collecting data on morning “warbler walks” in my local patch in Davis, the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin published my results. You can read the whole paper here:

Hampton, S. 2010. Passerine migration patterns in Davis, Yolo County—2000-2010. Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin 13(3): 45-61.

Last fall, I posted a re-visualization of the data from that paper with regard to fall migration. Here is the spring version.

I’ve divided it into two graphs, one for more common species (peaking at 1 to 4.5 birds per survey), and another for less common migrants (less than 1 per survey).

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

DavisMigrants1spring

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

DavisMigrants2springThe same caveats apply:

  • A “survey” here is basically a morning walk lasting about 35 minutes.
    This was for my little route in north Davis (where the eBird hotspot is “North Davis Farms Subdivision”). For other locations in the Central Valley, even nearby ones, I would expect the numbers and relative abundance to vary a little. For example, I see a lot more flycatchers at Babel Slough and Grasslands Park than are reflected here.
  • Putah Creek near Pedrick Rd, a current favorite of birders, generally has more birds than is shown here because it’s a larger area, birders spend more than 35 minutes when they visit, and the habitat is slightly different.
  • A large portion of the birds in my data are “heard only”.
  • For additional details, see the full article linked above. I’m happy to provide my Excel spreadsheets of this data to anyone interested.

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Some species are more common in spring than fall. These include Hermit Warbler (above), Townsend’s Warbler, and Swainson’s Thrush (with a very narrow migration window in mid-May).

I’ve also linked lots of the bird literature specific to Yolo County at my Yolo County Birding website; see the list of papers in the lower right corner of that page.

On these graphs, I’ve left out the rarer birds, species that occur at a rate of less than 0.2 birds/survey (less than 1 out of every 5 surveys). These include Hammond’s and Dusky Flycatchers. It also includes Willow Flycatcher, House Wren, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and Chipping Sparrow, all of which are quite regular in the fall but rarely seen in spring migration.

Fall Migration in the Central Valley

warblers fall 2018In 2010, after ten years of collecting data on morning “warbler walks” in my local patch, the Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin published my results. You can read the whole paper here:

Hampton, S. 2010. Passerine migration patterns in Davis, Yolo County—2000-2010. Central Valley Bird Club Bulletin 13(3): 45-61.

Mac

Bay Area birders are surprised when I tell them Willow Flycatchers and MacGillivray’s Warblers (above) are daily in fall migration in Davis.

It begins with this:
“Although passerine migration may conjure images of Point Reyes for many local birders, the Central Valley, with its north-south orientation, is believed to be the primary migration corridor through California for most species, surpassing the coastline in this regard (Humple and Geupel 2002).”

 

Here, I’ve re-visualized my results for fall migration in two simple graphs, one for more common species (peaking at 2 to 13 birds per survey), and another for less common migrants (around 1 or less per survey).

CLICK TO ENLARGE.

DavisMigrants1

DavisMigrants2

A few caveats:

  • A “survey” here is basically a morning walk lasting about 35 minutes.
    This was for my little route in north Davis. For other locations in the Central Valley, even nearby ones, I would expect the numbers and relative abundance to vary a little. For example, I see a lot more flycatchers at Babel Slough and Grasslands Park than are reflected here.
  • Putah Creek near Pedrick Rd, a current favorite of birders, generally has more birds than is shown here because it’s a larger area, birders spend more than 35 minutes when they visit, and the habitat is slightly different. It seems better at holding fall migrants for more days, making their detection more likely.
  • On these new graphs, I’ve left out the rarer birds, species that occur at a rate of less than 0.2 birds/survey (less than 1 out of every 5 surveys).
  • A large portion of the birds in my data are “heard only”.
  • For spring migration and additional details, see the full article linked above.

This last graph provides a cumulative view of all the migrants at once. Peak diversity is in late August. After that, the Yellow Warblers take over. After that, not shown here, the Yellow-rumped Warblers, both Audubon’s and Myrtle, arrive, signalling the end of fall migration.

DavisMigrants3

It would be interesting to compare these relative abundances and timing with more recent eBird data, both in north Davis (where the eBird hotspot for this survey area is “North Davis Farms Subdivision”) as well as other locations in the Central Valley. Have at it. I’m happy to provide my Excel spreadsheets of this data to anyone interested.

 

Birders detect dramatic changes as Davis climate warms

[A version of this was originally published in the Davis Enterprise.]

In 2002, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured a silhouetted man standing on frosty mauve ice and staring through binoculars into a rosy polar sky. The title read, davis1“Watching the World Melt Away: The future as seen by a lonely scientist at the end of the earth.” The article was about seabird biologist George Divoky and his decades of work studying the black guillemot, a high arctic seabird, on Cooper Island off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. The guillemots were struggling to feed their chicks. Their preferred food, Arctic cod, lived at the edge of the sea ice. In the past, this was five miles from the island. Now it was thirty. Divoky, moreover, found himself sharing his tiny island with several hungry polar bears stranded by the vast expanse of open water. At the time, the story was one of the first concrete examples of climate change impacting an ecosystem in way that was easily seen and understood.

Sac Valley winter avg temps SH

Sixteen years later, birders in Yolo County are now witnessing those kinds of changes at our latitude. Winters are suddenly filled with species previously associated with warmer climates to the south, while some other winter visitors no longer come this far south. In the summer, new species are arriving from more arid regions and have started nesting locally.

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Orchard Oriole in Davis, December 2017

A shift of a few degrees may not seem like much, but a winter above freezing makes autumn fruit and berries available longer, resulting in a plentiful food supply. This past December, birders were astounded to find eight species of warblers and three species of orioles in the county at once. Normal would be three and zero, respectively. These birds are neotropical migrants, spending the summer nesting in the northern United States and Canada, and wintering in Southern California, Mexico, or Central and South America. In the last few years, Cassin’s vireos, black-throated gray warblers, and blue-gray gnatcatchers have been present at many locations throughout the cold months. It is now possible to find hooded orioles and western tanagers year-round. Last winter, rarities like orchard oriole, northern waterthrush, and palm warbler turned up and stayed for weeks or months. The prevalence of unusual over-wintering migrants has enabled birders to rack up quite a winter list. Holly Coates shattered previous “big year” records by tallying 200 species in Yolo County by March 20 this year.

neotrop migrants graphThe Putah Creek Christmas Bird Count, an annual effort to count all the birds in a 15-mile diameter circle near Winters on one day each December, has tracked winter bird populations since 1971. In recent years, the number of neotropical migrants found on the count has swelled. These include warbling vireo and Wilson’s and Townsend’s warblers, in addition to the species mentioned above. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the count data has been with the turkey vulture. With the absence of tule fog, these birds, which rely on warm thermals to give them some lift, have gone from sparse, rarely more than 15 birds on a count through 1985, to over 150 individuals per count in each of the past eight years.

turkey vulture graphA warming climate is expected to create more increases than decreases in bird life in Yolo County. This is because species diversity is greatest in the tropics. As bird ranges shift north, we expect to see more arrivals than departures. Among the departures are some northern species that are growing scarcer in winter. Most notable is rough-legged hawk, a tundra species that journey south to agricultural areas to eat rodents in winter. They have, however, become decidedly hard to find in recent years, perhaps finding the Willamette Valley and other more northern valleys suitable for their wintering grounds. Another species to watch is the beautiful cedar waxwing, which descend on fruits and berries in the winter months. The more they can find food in the north, the less likely they will come this far south.  They are erratic from year to year, however, so it is too early to identify a trend.

Though less dramatic, our hotter summers have brought some changes as well. Great-tailed grackles have expanded up the Central Valley from the Salton Sea. Say’s phoebes, which previously nested only south of the Delta in the Central Valley, moved into Napa and Solano Counties in 2014. Perhaps they are focusing on certain species of insects. This spring, Michael Perrone found them nesting in Davis and Joan Humphrey discovered them feeding young in Woodland, representing first nesting records for the county.

The Yolo Audubon Society is currently revising its Checklist of the Birds of Yolo County, a useful little booklet that will list all 369 species recorded in the county, each with a bar chart showing their abundance through the year. The last version, published in 2004, had a special section called “Recent Changes” highlighting the wetland restoration projects at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area and Davis Wetlands. In the coming 2018 version, the Recent Changes section will focus on two big issues: the expansion of orchards and our changing climate. Perrone, author of that section, states that “winters have become milder. In particular, prolonged periods of cold, all-day tule fog have ceased, giving way to sunnier weather.” Davis birders may not be standing on the edge of the continent looking at retreating sea ice, but nevertheless, in the last few years they have witnessed dramatic changes in bird distributions. A look at the graphs, moreover, suggests these changes began before that article about Alaska was published.