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SCVNews.com | Opinion/Commentary: Signs of Fall | 09-08-2016
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Sep 8, 2016

evelynevandersande_mugA few weeks ago, it was 103 degrees when I heard a familiar sound in the sky above my head. I looked up and saw the “V” formation of birds in flight, and I recognized the honking of Canadian geese coming home for the winter.

It was a strange experience. While I knew my body was in California, my mind was on the East Coast where I lived for 14 years. On Long Island, this was the time the birds left for the Florida coast. But here, they were coming back to spend the winter.

The sounds and sights were so mixed up that it made me feel disoriented for a moment. It does not really make sense for Canadian geese to come and spend the winter in Santa Clarita Valley, which is a high desert. But we have changed the natural environment so much with manmade lakes that “natural environment” is an unknown concept in L.A. suburbia.

Most of the trees planted in our garden and along our streets come from Australia. Many streets lined with sycamores still grace our city, but because they require a lot of maintenance, cleaning large leaves and trimming branches each year, they are slowly being replaced by smaller trees.

ev01Fall is really here, and California does not have the highly anticipated foliage display that announces the change of season as on the East Coast. However, many leaves are already starting to show shades of red and yellow – but you have to pay a little more attention to notice. Maple, cottonwoods and certainly poison oak have already turned into full red and yellow.

The Canadian geese took me by surprise, but so did the black phoebe. The black phoebe does not migrate in Southern California, but they do move their habitat a little in the spring and fall because they need a source of water. Black phoebes are rarely seen in the hot summer in my garden. Come the end of August, black phoebes can be seen every day, often perching on a sprinkler head.

I am still puzzled by that situation. The end of August was hot, and those sprinklers were also working in July. There was the same amount of water … I scratch my head trying to understand nature and the reasons behind certain behaviors.

ev02The turkey vultures that migrate are starting to gather in larger numbers on the roost. They will migrate to South America by the end of September. However, as usual in California, the situation is not clear cut, and you can see plenty of turkey vultures gliding in the sky in December. Why is that? Some turkey vultures coming from the north spend the winter in the SCV where the climate is mild enough for them. Turkey vultures along the coast have no reason to migrate, as the temperature is pleasant the whole year long.

To further complicate matters, the turkey vultures that migrate to the south in September come back in January – very early in the year because the mating season approaches. Their babies need to be born and raised on time, to be independent for the next migration.

When we think about migration, we always think about going back and forth from the north to the south, to take advantage of an abundance of food. However, there is another kind of migration where birds literally go up and down. Juncos are a good example. They tend to go to a higher elevation in the summer and down onto the plains for the winter.

ev04Along the coast, we can witness the Pacific flyway because one of the four major migratory bird routes in America extends through our area. It is an important time for the Audubon Society to gather to witness those bird migrations. It is not always easy, as most of those large groups of birds fly during the safety of the night.

Our local bats also migrate during the fall, going south for the winter. We have five different kinds of bats in Placerita Canyon, and while it might be safe to say all of them migrate, the big brown bat can be a year-round resident if it finds a safe and protected place to stay.

The monarch butterflies are going to arrive soon to spend the winter in many groves along the coast. There is a lot of traffic going back and forth. And sometimes, like it is with the Canadian geese, it is obvious that a change is happening. But most of the time, it is rather discreet.

In the springtime, it is easy to notice the bright western tanager visiting your garden. At that time, they are in their most brilliant mating plumage: yellow feathers and orange or red head shining in the sun. When they come back, they are somewhat more subdued, as their feathers are becoming duller. They are an early migrant, often seen migrating in July. The female is always duller in her plumage, but the non-breeding male won’t have the red head, either.

ev05Gray whales spend the summer months (June, July and August) in the Bering Sea between Alaska and Russia. In the fall, the majority of the population migrates south along the west coast of Canada and the United States, ending up in the quiet lagoons of Baja California where they will mate. In March, they swim back north with their babies. That is the time to catch a whale watching boat and have a look at them. However, in the fall, they seem to be more difficult to observe and no “whale watching” trips are planned.

I have heard they swim farther away from the coast on the southward journey. In the spring, swimming with their babies, they follow the coast so closely that you can often see them from Highway 1. There again, I was told they try to prevent shark encounters that way. As usual, humans make deductions, but we have little proof.

ev03I find the migration such a time of wonder and miracles. Can you imagine hummingbirds migrating? Such a tiny body doing a long flight? But they do, and only the Anna hummingbird can be seen during the winter in the SCV. Sometimes birds migrate in stages, like the Allen hummingbirds. The males migrate first in the fall; females and babies follow a month later.

If we are lucky, we observe what is going on, we notice and we are impressed. There are many questions that remain unanswered about exactly how those migrations occur. The length of the day triggers the start of the migration. Birds often migrate at night, but some birds that are dependent on thermal currents migrate during the day; birds of prey and turkey vultures are good examples.

ev06Some birds fly during the night and the morning. They seem to use landmarks to guide them; following the coast seems to be helpful. There are many different patterns of migration. How do they find their way? They use the sun, the stars and the magnetic fields of the Earth. To me – a person who needs GPS to navigate – this is intriguing enough that it gives me pause. Many tests have been conducted where birds are placed in dark rooms with mirrors, surrounded with magnetic coils, and they still find their sense of direction. Birds are even able to cope with the reversal of polarity, which happens every few hundred thousand years. Obviously, birds must be able to make use of other means of navigation.

Fall is more than red and yellow foliage and cool nights. Migration is an incredible miracle that happens each year. I appreciate the secure feeling that we can count on this quiet event each year, at the same time of the year.

We do the same thing with the sunrise and take it for granted. While it is more obvious than the migration process, it is still a great gift each day.

 

 

Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.

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2 Comments

  1. Hardin Rich says:

    Very interesting and educational, thanks!

  2. The geese are called Canada geese not Canadian. It’s a common mistake.

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