CONTEXT

January 18, 2018

Sayonara

After a whole month, just as I got used to seeing them perched atop the yucca, the loggerhead shrikes have decided to move on. Needless to say, the backyard seems empty without them. And, except for a bluebird in West Virginia long, long ago, they have been the highlight of my amateur birding career.

(Okay, props also to the prairie chicken last year – it’s stay was short, but very entertaining.)

Shrikes are special. First, they are the only songbirds that behave like raptors. They have the same hooked beak as eagles, but they do not have talons.

As a result, they must force their prey to self-destruct, driving them into corners or places where the insect, rodent or reptile impales itself on a thorn or spiky branch. I think that’s why they like our yuccas.(Reportedly, they are also fond of using barbed wire to do the job.)

Doesn’t that count as using tools? Doesn’t it make them smarter than crows? Birds, in fact – I just learned this – don’t have particularly small brains for their body size and what’s more, they have more neurons than most mammals and that is the important part.

The shrike is named for the scream it makes diving to harry its prey – a little orthographical evolution of some sort there – but I can’t figure out why it does that.  Unless the sound is some kind of avian stun-grenade, which maybe it is.

Our pair – they are monogamous and mate for life – may be regular backyard visitors, but no one around here seems to know. They may be refugees from the big fire, but more likely are from the Channel Islands off our coast, which has three kinds of loggerhead shrikes on three different islands.

Loggerhead shrikes are critically endangered but surprisingly the most successful restoration effort has been made on one of those islands by the US Navy. Wikipedia sums it up:

In 1977, the San Clemente loggerhead shrike was listed as endangered by the United States government, with an estimated population of 50. Between 1982 and 1999, the bird’s population was measured between 14 and 33 birds, bottoming out in January 1998.The removal of feral goats and sheep was completed in 1993.

In 1996, the Institute for Wildlife Studies conducted video research on the shrike for the Navy. In 1997, they were asked to come up with a strategy to raise the bird’s numbers. A $3 million per year breeding program was launched in 1999 and new policies were instituted to help the shrike. For example, snipers must aim around bird nests when practicing. Thanks to the program, the bird’s population reached 135 (captive and wild) specimens by 2004.[3] In 2013, an estimated 70 breeding pairs were alive in the wild.

I like the part about the snipers aiming ‘around”…

Here’s my favorite thing about loggerhead shrikes – if you asked countries to design a bird, they would be Japan’s entry. Pale gray, black stripe, white markings confined to the stripe. Simple, striking, utterly elegant. Like a kimono for a bird. I hope they come back.

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January 12, 2018

Going through the floor

It’s been a hard winter here in southern California – hellish Santa Ana winds for two weeks, with humidity around 4 percent some days, then the fire (that would be the Thomas fire, now ranked as the worst ever) which burned a huge swath of the Los Padres National Forest as well as homes and businesses) and finally the rain that led inevitably to lethal mudslides.

It hasn’t been an especially atypical winter so far, but it has been extreme. And it’s not over.

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Sunset through smoke from the Thomas fire…

But just as the East Coast is recovering from life-threatening cold, the Midwest the same and we from life-threatening drought, comes news that will really set your hair on fire: the oceans are sinking.

Like me, you probably thought they were rising. Well, the water is rising, but the floor is sinking. A researcher in the Netherlands has discovered that the ocean floor is being deformed by the weight of the water coming from Arctic ice melt – sinking last year by about one millimeter. Not very much, really, but that’s planet-wide. Every ocean floor is a little closer to the earth’s crust this year than it was last.

According to ZME Science, “Researchers had known that extra weight could cause the Earth to become squashed, but they wanted to know how much it could be squashed — and this is where the surprises started.”

They had not anticipated as much as that one mm, in short. And what the implications are, scientists can’t really say – it is so completely unprecedented – but there will be some. Right now, the one thing they do know is that they had dramatically underestimated the oceans’ rise, probably by as much as 8%.

What a wonderful species we are. You can find a link to the original publication at ZME Science if you want the gory details.

May 15, 2016

Let a thousand salvias bloom…

…because, depending on who you talk to, there are as many as 2,000 species and so you can.

Some botanists insist there are only about 700, but there is a perfectly acceptable list of 986, so I’m sticking with that. Wikipedia has a list of them and just under the letter A you will find almost 80 salvia species.

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Salvia farinacea ‘rhea’ – a beautiful blue, but a tiny bit water-needy

What’s good about salvias is that most of them are not only drought-tolerant, but are uncomplaining when it comes to mediocre soil, which makes them an excellent landscape plant here in Southern California. And all the places that will soon be just like Southern California.

Most of them are also extremely popular with pollinators, which, as we all now know, is a very important aspect of home gardens.

Salvias are the largest genus of the Lamiaceae or mint family – hilariously also known as the deadnettle family -and include shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals. And compare their variety, for instance, to their cousins the lavenders, which number only 39.

The name comes from Latin salvere, which means to heal, to feel well – clearly it’s been a medicinal herb for a very long time. Generations have used it for tea, though these days it is used primarily I suspect for its flavor, especially at Thanksgiving, when everyone touts their sage dressing.

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Garden sage. Photo by Kurt Stuber

Thus, Number One on the very long list of salvia species is Salvia officinalis, garden or common sage.

Salvia divinorum is also pretty well known, since it has psychotropic properties. And another member of the family – chia – is familiar to most people, though I was surprised to find it in the salvia family.

A lot of what makes salvias salvias has to do with the flower, which has a kind of orchidish look, but for all the gory details about the calyx and corolla, you’ll have to find your own way to Wikipedia. I still can’t keep my racemes and panicles straight.

Because they are low-maintenance and good for pollinators, I have recently become a huge salvia fan and I would like to share a great resource with you – http://www.fbts.com.

That is the link to Flowers by the Sea, a nursery in Mendocino CA that specializes in salvias and ships from now until mid-June. They literally have hundreds of salvias to choose from and the website is loaded with info. Go right to ‘Getting Started with Salvias’ and they will even tell you what’s best for your planting zone.

In any event, you can heal your garden and your water bill and make the world a better place for bees and butterflies this year, one salvia at a time.

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A lovely pink salvia I saw at the nursery – sorry, I don’t know its name, but there are many pinks to choose from.

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