We had some rain last weekend, but not enough to change the basic fact that our winter has been extremely dry. The first half of the “rainy season” has now passed with only minimal precipitation, and conditions are so dry that our county board of supervisors has declared a drought emergency in Tulare County. In coming months we will all need to adjust to making do with less water.

But what is going on in the natural world?  How are the native plants and animals of Tulare County faring?

Every event, whether we welcome it or not, has the power to teach us something. With this in mind, I’ve been watching nature this winter as all the living things that surround my Three Rivers home deal with the extremely arid conditions.

Here’s a little sampling of what I’ve discovered.

Birds are among the most mobile of living things and thus have the ability respond quickly to difficult conditions.  I’ve been watching my winter garden birds closely for more than a dozen years now, and the most distinctive change this year has been relatively rarity of many of the species that come to winter in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

I usually have a chattering flock of pine siskins at my bird feeders this time of the year, but I’ve not seen a single one this season.  Wherever these northern birds went this winter, it was not here.  Other often-common northern or high altitude migrants, species like hermit thrushes and red-breasted sapsuckers, have put in an appearance this winter but then departed for parts unknown. I’ve seen neither lately.

My migrant sparrows, on the other hand, seem unfazed by our dry winter.  The populations of wintering white-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows seem plentiful. Both species summer in the far north, nesting into the arctic.

The native mammals that I live with, creatures like mule deer and bears, have fewer options and must deal with local conditions as they are. I suspect that the local deer are having a rough season. In mid-winter, their preferred feed is new growth on native shrubs, and this year there simply isn’t any. Hungry deer have been circling the high fences that protect my garden and looking in enviously.

I haven’t seen any black bears lately, but I am hearing reports that others have. Typically, bears would usually be sleeping this time of the year, but the prolonged warm and dry weather in January encouraged some to come out and look for food. I suspect we’ll see more of them soon.  Why sleep when there’s so little snow in the mountains?

Plants, of course, have no ability to move in dry years and must use other strategies to face difficult conditions.  The local manzanita bushes are having a rough time. Several old specimens have died recently in my neighborhood, and many of the rest look pretty bad, displaying only the faintest hint of green in their tough leaves. All this results from having so little moisture in the soil.

My local trees are doing some interesting things. The California buckeyes, a deciduous species, began leafing out even earlier than usual this year as have the blue oaks.  The oaks are at least a month earlier than average.  The risk to this strategy is that a late season snowstorm could hit these trees very hard; this very thing occurred in 2012 when a late, wet snow damaged or destroyed hundreds of leafed-out local oaks.

The moral of all this is that the natural world is adapting to this very dry year in long-practiced ways.  Most of what naturally lives here will survive this dry year. Individual numbers will go down, but species will endure.

I’ve heard a good deal of talk lately about this being an “unprecedented” drought – the worst in recorded history. That’s true as far as it goes, but you have to remember that recorded weather history in California really doesn’t go back very far – only into the second half of the nineteenth century.

When one seeks out instead the thousand-year precipitation record, something that can be laid out by studying tree rings in our local mountains, it turns out that this is nowhere near as dry as it can get in California.  Tree-ring science tells us that Central California had gone through intense dry spells that have gone on for decades or longer and that the past century has been uncommonly wet when compared to the longer record.

We tend to ignore this very compelling science and assume instead that the undeniable record of long-term droughts in times past simply doesn’t apply any more.  Such a strategy is, of course, a formula for disaster in the arena of human affairs.

Meanwhile the natural world around us muddles on, understanding that extreme aridity is just a part of Central California’s natural climate variability. We could learn something here, and we need to.

© Wm. Tweed