In one of the few breaks in the rain this week, I managed to take a walk along the old salt ponds at the edge of San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, now the Baylands nature preserve. It was low tide, so there were birds everywhere: shorebirds, gulls, diving ducks and dabbling ducks, egrets, grebes, geese, a White-Tailed Kite out hunting. And sitting among some California Gulls were half a dozen Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), standing on the mud flats, all facing in the same northwesterly direction. Black Skimmers make me smile; they are such silly-looking birds, with their ridiculously large orange-and-black bills with the lower mandible sticking way out past the upper mandible, and black-and-white plumage on their heads that makes them look as though they’re wearing a baseball cap pushed to the back of their heads, and gawky red-orange legs.
But they’re not ridiculous at all. Their bill may look silly to me, but it is a precisely engineered product of natural selection and evolution, allowing the birds to skim fish from the surface of the water as they fly along. No doubt their plumage also has an evolutionary function; their legs only look a little gawky because these are birds that are meant for precision flying, not for walking around on dry ground. Black Skimmers are not silly at all, they are amazingly successful organisms: “This skimmer has undergone a remarkable range expansion north from Mexico into California since 8 Sept. 1962, when the first bird was found at the mouth of the Santa Ana River…” Arnold Small, California Birds: Their Range and Distribution, 1994.
Driving over the high point of the Dumbarton Bridge at the end of the day yesterday, I saw the Bay area at its most beautiful. The light rain had stopped. The land was green, and looked greener still because the light was diffused through the cloud cover. The dikes around the old salt ponds were green, and the water they contained ranged from silver to black depending on the thickness of the clouds above. And the hills of the East Bay were incredibly green, their low summits invisible in the low-hanging clouds.
One of the houses near where we live is a modest but lovely clapboard house with gingerbread trim, over a hundred years old (that’s really old for a house on the Peninsula), and still occupied by descendants of the family who built it. In front of the house is one of my favorite spring gardens in town; it’s not a formal garden but rather almost looks like the flowers just sprung up on their own; and at the moment, this garden is at its peak.
The garden is attractive from the sidewalk, looking at it over the white picket fence, but then you don’t really see the house. I managed to find a place where I could look down and see both the garden and the house:
There was just enough rain for Carol to keep her umbrella up. It was dark and cool and quiet as we walked along, the only sound coming from the occasional car hissing by along the wet pavement. We walked through a place where some plants hung low and dark over the sidewalk, and suddenly we were enveloped in the heavy perfume of some unseen blossoms. In two steps we were past it, and in another step it was gone and I couldn’t smell it any more.
On the drive down to Palo Alto, there’s an overpass from which you can see the range of mountains south of San Jose. The highest peaks were still white today from the snow that fell early in the week. Today’s San Francisco Chronicle reported that up to eight inches fell on Mount Diablo (elev. 3,864 ft.), eastwards across the bay from us.
And the Chronicle reports that meteorologists say there’s a possibility that the Alaskan storm now heading southward could possibly deliver snow at sea level over the weekend. It probably won’t happen, but what if it does? — If it does snow, I’ll try to get a photo of snow on the orange tree in our back yard, which still has ripe oranges on it.
The car looked like it had a dusting of very fine snow on it this morning, though it was nowhere near cold enough for snow (and snow happens only once every fifteen years or so around here anyway). When I got closer to the car, I realized that the dusting had a yellowish cast to it, and it was coarse pollen that had clumped so that it looked like snow. This morning I woke up with a headache, and a general feeling of lassitude, and when I saw all that pollen I knew that it wasn’t some imaginary malady — it was hay fever.
Last year, I blamed the acacias, but a fellow hay fever sufferer told me that the brilliant yellow blossoms of the acacias are not to blame. The acacias bloom at the same time as the pines and some of the oaks, and their bright yellow blossoms are far more noticeable than the discreet green and brownish blossoms of the pines and oaks, so we blame them for our hay fever. But the acacias do not produce anything like the quantity of pollen that the pines and oaks pump out.
Some parts of the Bay Area got heavy rain today; up near Danville, I heard that the rains were so heavy they washed out part of a major freeway. But we have had no heavy rains here in Palo Alto, nothing to wash the air of all this pollen.
Today was sunny and warm, almost warm enough for us to hold a committee meeting outdoors at lunch time. The apple trees at the school next door are white with blossoms, a couple of early California poppies are providing little spots of color along Charleston Road in front of the church, and I found this daffodil in full bloom outside the Main Hall.
Quite a contrast from the news we’re hearing from the eastern part of the United States, where buildings are collapsing under the weight of a huge amount of snow. (Personal to relatives and friends back east: yes, we do have an empty bed in our apartment if you want to escape winter for a few days and enjoy spring here.)
As Carol and I went for a walk this evening, we passed by trees with swelling buds. Every so often I caught the scent of flowers blooming. This while the bulk of the United States east of the Rockies is being clobbered by a huge winter storm.
Update, 2/2: Headline on this morning’s edition of the San Mateo County Times, printed over photos of winter weather: “Aren’t you glad you live in California?”
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I had to talk with someone in New England, who happened to mention all the snow on the ground there. I told them that here in the Bay area, we’ve been having warm days, with temperatures in the 60s. I did not tell them that as I was driving to work yesterday, I noticed that new green leaves are appearing on some of the deciduous trees; that for the last few days the evening air has been filled with the scent of flowers; that on Sunday I stood and watched a gorgeous male Anna’s Hummingbird (Calypte anna) in fresh bright plumage feeding at the hummingbird feeder hanging near my office.