As much as I love nature, I never really paid much attention to the little details until I moved to Agua Dulce.
Nature on the high desert seems so much different than any other place I’ve lived before. Maybe it’s just that living in a rural community forces you to pay more attention with its rattlesnakes, poisonous plants and buggy things that sting.
One of my first discoveries was a giant fuzzy ant that my neighbor said was a velvet ant. Who knew such an amazing-looking insect could sting so severely that it earned the nickname, “cow killer?” A member of the Mutillidae family, velvet ants are among the 3,000-plus species of wasp.
It was this little insect that got me started on what I will introduce you to today.
I began noticing more and more flora and fauna as time went by. One day I was discussing yellow jackets with a neighbor, and how many there were at the time. He said he had heard an Indian myth that a large number of yellow jackets meant an abundance of rain in the coming winter.
I was intrigued. I decided to write down when and how many I saw. Then I wondered about other things and wrote down all of the things I would see, such as velvet ants, red-tailed hawks, venomous and non-venomous snakes, plants, etc. I kept adding to my list until one day I decided to put the list into a spreadsheet. That’s when things got interesting.
I created a spreadsheet that I titled, “Seasonal Information.” I made a column called (for a lack of imagination) “Category” and then one column for each month of the year. Then I entered all of the things from my list into the Category column.
As the first year went by, I added more and more information including weather factors, what month my horses started to get their winter coats, and when they began losing their coats in preparation for summer. I developed a rather simplistic format for identifying some things, for instance: “Was the month arid or humid? What months, if any, did we have monsoons? Did it rain? Did it snow?” And so on.
After a while, I ran into a problem of trying to chart just how much of something I’d seen. Was there only one ant in my kitchen, or did the entire colony take over my trash can? I decided a scale of 0 to 10 would be the easiest, where “0” meant I didn’t see any ants; “5” meant I saw a good number of ants; and “10” meant “Yikes! I’ve been invaded.”
I track when the yucca begins to bloom, when the ravens begin to nest, when various insects appear – and are there just a few insects or is there a large number of them?
My next dilemma was to identify what part of the month something occurred. For example, if I said it was very windy in May, I wouldn’t know what part of May it was windy; or was it windy all month long? I decided to use a lesser than (<) and greater than (>) sign with the number. No sign at all means the middle of the month.
This July, after the torrential downpours we had, many California toads appeared on my property. On the chart I marked it as >7; meaning there were quite a few toads at the end of the month.
I have several spreadsheets now, all labeled by the year. I can go back and see what happened last year or in previous years.
If the theory of the yellow jackets is true, then I will be able to look at the spreadsheets and determine whether we might get a lot of rain. If my horses’ coats start to grow in September, I can expect an early winter, and if they begin to lose their coats in February, I’ll know winter is over and spring will soon be upon us. If their coats grow in long, I can expect rain and probably a milder winter. But if their coats grow in short and thick, I can guarantee a cold winter with a strong probability of snow.
This is a fun project for the entire family, although it can (and should) go on for years. I’m not a statistics fanatic, but I do enjoy watching nature and making the predictions.
I hope you will try this for yourself. It’s not only informational, but it can also be fun to collect the data and see if you can predict weather patterns, blooms, insect invasions, etc.
Give it a try and see what interesting and fun discoveries await you.
Mari Carbajal is a docent-naturalist at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center.