Birds At an Aquatic Habitat: What Changes Could You See After Storms?

In Santa Clara county where the Silicon Valley is located, Los Gatos Creek is one of the few urban streams that remains relatively intact throughout countless developments in the area during the last 200 years.  The stream originates in the Santa Cruz Mountains, flows into the Vasona Reservoir, winds through a small valley, and clears into the Guadalupe river that finally empties into the San Francisco Bay.  It is one of the many steams and creeks in the vast Guadalupe River watershed, and a habitat for many wetland species.

Los Gatos Creek Map

Watersheds are critical habitats for birds, fishes and other animals that live a wetland environment.  200 years ago, before any of the modern developments, the creek must have been a heaven for the birds and fishes.  At the time, all kinds of birds could be seen flying in the sky and resting in the creek; fishes swimming through the creek in massive numbers.

Unfortunately, in the 200 years since, “about 90% of California’s original aquatic habitat has been altered or destroyed through human activities”, more than any other states in the nation.  What we see in Los Gatos Creek today is one of the 10% that remains.

Los Gatos Creek

Today many of the parks like Los Gatos Creek often provides the only refuge in urban areas for native wetland species.  They have been living here for tens of  thousands of years.   During migration season some species of birds will also come and use the place as a resting area, critical for their survival.  If the park no longer exists, or its environment dramatically changes, it can be devastating for all the birds that have been depending on it for so many years.

Bird sightings at normal time

The birds that can be seen most often are Canadian goose.

Los Gatos Creek

Canada Goose

Great egret and snowy egret can also be seen from time to time.

snowy egret

This was in the migration season of November.  These birds were taking a rest before they flew out to their next destination.

Bird sightings after storms in 2016 winter

After an epic, historic 5 year drought, starting from late fall of 2016, California went from extremely dry to extremely wet, with record breaking rainfalls.   Heavy rains pummeled from late fall all the way  into spring, in some places floods and mudslides occurred.  At Los Gatos creek, parts of the trail were also flooded several times.

Flood

The new “stream” in the previous trail was quickly discovered by some lovely “guests”.  They came in swiftly, playing in this new playground of theirs, relaxing, fishing and enjoying a good meal!

Feeding

Same as these ducks, quite some birds found out the new water and came right in.  Here is normally what you would see when you cross a bridge to enter the trail and look down at the water .  The right side of the creek bed is completely dry.  On the morning after several heavy storms in January, though, the whole span of the creek bed was fully filled with flood water.  On the muddy yellow water you could see these two little birds, guests that were not seen here before.

Creek

Two Birds

They are hooded mergansers.

After you walked a bit more along the trail, there was another surprise waiting.  A Double Crested Cormorant was “relaxing” on a tree, which was never seen here either.  She streatched her wings, turning her head from left to right, right to left, then left to right….with the kind of excitement of a baby.  In the second photo, the two small birds could also be seen swimming in the same place.

Bird

Bird 2

The cormorant really liked it here. In the next 2-3 weeks you can see her swimming, resting and relaxing in this particular spot.

Bird

Bird

Bird

Even more surprises ahead.  After you went further down the creek and came to this spot – Look!  literally a bird’s paradise.  So many birds, of different species, gathered here, rested in this comfy patch made from branches and grasses brought by the flood water.  The patch was right in the middle of the creek, providing the birds all they needed: food, shelter, and a fun place to hang out.  After just one  day, though, the patch was gone, so went all the birds.  Such a view was not seen again.

birds after storm

A great blue heron, and a great egret:

Birds

In the next 2-3 weeks when it continued to rain hard, more birds usually unseen could be found at the creek.

Bird

Bird

2 couples of the mallard duck.  Look at that beautiful blue stripe.

A big group of the American coot, on the flooded trail.  While coots can be seen often, such a big group was only seen during this time.

birds

A big bird was seen here at the tree right beside the trail, towards the end of the rainy season. She really enjoyed the tree and stayed on it for hours, ignoring all the people who passed by on the trail.  She was seen only once.  This is a black-crowned night-heron.

Bird on a tree

Birds, habitat, and water

The heavy rains at Los Gatos Creek gave us a valuable opportunity to observe how a sudden increased level of water would mean for the creek habitat, and the ecosystem.  If we just look at the birds, the answer is clear: they loved all that water.  While we don’t have a count for the birds’ numbers during the storm time, the number of species, and the size of the bird groups we saw, increased quite significantly.  This happened with just 2 months of storms, one could only imagine how it would turn out if the same rains continued for a longer time.

In the last 5 years, when California experienced the epic drought, the birds, and the whole ecosystem at the aquatic habitats must have been very stressed.  They lost a big chunk of their habitat; at the habitats that did remain, water was way more scarce than usual.  As Professor Peter Moyle from University of California, Davis pointed out, “Drought is hard enough on us, and on farmers, and cities, and so forth.  It’s really hard on the fish, really hard on the aquatic and riparian systems.”

Continue with water conservation

Water will just become more scare in the future, relative to our demand for it, with population growth, economic expansion, and climate change.  How can we manage and use it , so that we not only will have enough for ourselves, but also for the birds and fishes in the aquatic and reparian habitats?

While all kinds of solutions are being explored, one thing is clear: we must continue to conserve water,  which is the easiest and cheapest solution among all.  In California, we use half of our water in outdoor landscaping.  If we can all switch to water efficient gardening, we can surely save a significant amount of water.  As we see in the picture, when we save water with drought tolerant plants like these Mexican bush sages, we no only save for us, but also those birds in the creek.

Lake

 

A Tale of Two California Flowers

Everywhere you go, flowers are blossoming!  In the mountains, on the plains,  around the corners of our neighborhood, they offer so much beauty and charm of the nature.  Among them, these two flowers probably catch your eyes quite a lot: the tall Matilija Poppy (Romneya coulteri), and the splendid, golden California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica).  Together, they are a tale of two flowers.

Matilija Poppy

California Poppy

Voting for the State Flower of California

In 1893, the California State Floral Society met to vote on the state flower of California.  There were 3 contenders: the Matilija Poppy, the California Poppy, and Mariposa Lily.  All native to California.

Mariposa Lily
Mariposa Lily

The result: California Poppy received all the votes except for 3, which went to Mariposa Lily.  The California Poppy was determined to be California’s state flower.  A decade later, in 1903, legislature made the title official. Here is a California Scenic Highway sign with the California Poppy.

CA State Flower

Two Flowers, Great Plants for a California Friendly Garden

Both Motilija Poppy and California Poppy are beautiful California native plants that are drought tolerant, making them great choices for a water efficient garden.

Matilija Poppy  is native to dry, sunny environments in Southern California and Baja California.  The flower, like a fried egg (“Fried Egg Flower”, another name of Matilija Poppy) is one of the biggest of any species native to California.  The flowers usually begin from early spring and can last until late summer.

Matilija Poppy is tough and very drought tolerant, can survive in most of the soil conditions.  It can grow to be 7 feet tall and 28 feet wide.  If there are some spaces needed to be filled in the garden, the Matilija Poppy can be a good contender.

In this garden, the Matilija Poppies are planted near the window.   When fully grown, they can become a shield for privacy and hot sunlight.

The California Poppy is 4 to 12 inches tall.  They bloom in spring, adding their bright golden or yellow color to any garden. It is drought tolerant and easy to grow. Here, the green foliage and yellow flowers decorate the dry creek bed of this water efficient garden very nicely.

Vote on Your Favorite California Flower

Now you have a chance to vote on your favorite California flower.  These 4 flowers are all California natives. In addition to the Matilija Poppy and California Poppy introduced above, the other two are California Lilac (Cean0thus) and Lupine (Lupinus).  They are all drought tolerant plants great for a California friendly garden.

Which one is your favorite?

  1. Matilija Poppy
  2. California Poppy
  3. California Lilac
  4. Lupine

California Flowers

From a Weedy Turf to a Dream Garden

From a weedy turf to a dream garden:

beforenafter

Against a full wall of Camilla trees, Lucy (not her real name)’s lawn used to be green and lush.  With the drought, however, parts of the turf just went bare, with the remaining thin and weedy.  Then rains – lots of them- came, the turf just turned into this big bed of wild weeds.  Lucy had been wanting to replace it with a much nicer “dream garden”, but with her really busy schedule, she did not even have the time to think about it.

Graden - Before

Graden - Before

After Lucy heard about the Santa Clara Landscape Conversion Rebate Program, especially the way her project will be done, i.e., all the paper work will be handled, the project will cover the entire process of design and installation, the only time she needed to be involved was the design of the garden – she happily got on board.

Landscape Conversion Program Application

To apply for the Rebate Program, a pre-inspection was scheduled.  At the end of pre-inspection, the application forms were provided.  For the application, the filled forms, along with the design of the garden were to be submitted.

Rebate Program Pre-Inspection

Designing the Garden

This will be a water efficient garden, meeting all the requirements of the Rebate program, i.e., using only native or drought tolerant plants, using drip irrigation, applying mulch, etc.

The next consideration was the look.  There was a wall of the camellias at the back of the front yard; in addition, two small fruit trees in the middle. The camellias were in their full blossom, sporting bright pink and red colors, against thick green leaves. It was a beautiful view.  A good design should add to the view, not take away from it.

At the time of plant selection, when Lucy spotted a picture of a lavender, she cried “that is it!” A path with lavender on both sides, with its strong scent – that was something of a dream for her.  Very luckily, lavender is one of those low water-use plants that qualify for the rebate. Now she could have her dream realized!

The application was submitted with the garden design.  After a week or so, the Notice to Proceed was received.  The project could kick off now.

Installing the Garden

The weeds and turf were removed, plants purchased and placed.  For mulch, it was bark chips, which came in different colors.  The mulch can effectively prevent evaporation and keep the soil moist longer.  When the chips decompose, it can add to the organic matters of the soil, improving the its quality and water holding capacity, which in turn will save more water.  Lucy chose the black color, which turned out to be a great choice.

Installing a Water Efficient Garden

A Dream Garden Came True

Beautiful Water Efficient Garden

The clean design and black surface from mulch make the Camilla’ colors really “pop” out.  The light step stones surrounding the two small trees in front not only provide something very functional, but accentuate the trees and add liveliness to the garden.

These plants dot the garden space with colors and textures, without distracting from the main view of Camilla.  They are all drought tolerant and qualify for the Rebate program.

Water Efficient Garden

Water Efficient Garden

While the garden already looks nice, there is more to look forward to. When the lavenders grow up and fully bloom, walking in the middle will be like walking through a purple corridor with that wonderful lavender scent.  Now that is something to wait for!

Dream Garden with Lavender

 

How much water have Californians conserved?

Last April, facing California’s historical 4 year drought, Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order making it mandatory that statewide urban water use be reduced by 25% compared with 2013 levels starting June 2015.  In May 2015, the State Water Board adopted an emergency regulation requiring an immediate 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use.  Now one year has passed, how well have Californians been doing?

CAWaterSaving
CA water savings since mandate started

Overall, we, the Californians have done quite a good job!  In the month of April 2015, before the emergency regulation, water reduction was a less-than-impressive 13.7%; after, it more than doubled to 29%, easily beating the 25% target.  In the next 4 months in a row, from June to September, the savings all exceeded the 25% target with a high of 31.4% in July.

As the cooler and wetter months of fall and winter rolled along, the water saving levels declined to below 25% target, they also started a month-to-month decline, from 22.4% in October 2015 down to 12% in February 2016.

The State Water Board renewed emergency water conservation regulations in Feb 2016, making it effective through October 2016.  Following the renewal, people in the state stepped up the effort again, reaching an impressive 24.3% of water reduction in March.

Overall Result

Statewide the total savings from Jun 2015 to Mar 2016 achieved 23.9% compared with the same months in 2013, which equates to 1,295,703 acre-feet (422.2 billion gallons).  How much is this amount of water?  It is enough to supply the whole population of California for 2 months!

Watering for Outdoor Landscaping

How can this much of the water saving be achieved?  A huge part of the answer lies in the savings from lawns and outdoor landscaping.

Watering for lawns and outdoor landscaping can account for over 50% of daily water use in many areas; to achieve a 25% reduction it is imperative that watering for lawns be cut back significantly.  In addition to traditional measures such as reducing the length and frequency of watering, the most effective way is to convert a lawn to a water efficient garden.

The Department of Water Resources targets to replace 50 million square feet of lawns and ornamental turf with drought tolerant landscapes.  To that end, it has been providing funding for lawn replacement programs; some water companies and local agencies also provide their own rebate programs. See some of the rebate programs here.

A water efficient garden doesn’t need to be bare and plaid, with just cactus plants.  Instead, it can be full of beautiful blooms, colors, and all kinds of different plants.  Here you can see some of the garden designs.

To calculate how much water you can save by converting a lawn to a water efficient garden, check out the calculator.

Overall, while collectively we have all done a pretty good job conserving water, we can continue with our efforts and do even better.  To build a water efficient garden is one of the best ways to go.

Comparison

California’s drought over?  Not yet; Still need to conserve water?  Yes


Do all the rains brought about by El Nino end California’s historical drought?  The answer is No.   While the rains definitely helped ease the drought, they did not end it.  As you can see from the graph below, statewide snowpack stood at way lower than average from 2012-2015;  in 2015, that level went down to a really low 5%.   In Spring 2016, while the rains brought by El Nino helped put the level back to 85%, one season of rain fall simply is not enough to offset the deficits accumulated from 4 years of drought. During the past 4 years, groundwater levels dropped to historical lows; in parts of the state it was as low as 100 feet below previous historical lows.  It will take much more than what we receive so far to recover the storage.

snowpack

We still need to conserve water

Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought State of Emergency in 2014; in 2015, he made it mandatory that statewide urban water use be reduced by 25% starting June.  Earlier this year, California Water Board extended the emergency and the restriction on urban water use till Oct 2016.  It is clear: We still need to conserve water, and conserve by 25%.

In the 9 months from June 2015 to Feb 2016 when the original 25% reduction mandate was effective, statewide California residents conserved water by 23.9%, just shy from the 25% target.  The data means collectively we have done a pretty good job, but we need to continue the effort, and we can still improve.

Ways to conserve water

One of the most effective ways to conserve water is to convert a traditional lawn to a water efficient garden.  Other ways include using a high efficiency toilet, shortening bath time to 5 minutes or less, collecting and using rain water, etc.