Friday, April 1, 2011

Magpies, Poppies, and Butterflies

Isn’t California beautiful? Just take a good look around. What don’t we have? And what a great spring this is starting out to be! Flowers everywhere, trees are super-saturated green. Just lovely. What a fantastic season! But over the past few years, a subtle list of oddities has accumulated in the dark recesses of my brain – something is missing amidst this garden utopia we call California. Something missing like – magpies.

Back when i lived in a house and not an apartment, i used to be visited by a flock of the gregarious, chatty birds every morning. I loved their black and white suits and bright yellow-orange beaks, and their social antics made me laugh. When i moved to an apartment several years ago, i saw less of them. They’re not too keen on crowded buildings and prefer spacious yards and open grass fields to hunt for insects. They nest high-up in large oaks in open savannah – definitely not the apartment dweller type. So even though i had moved, i still saw them around neighbors’ houses and all across the countryside. But over the last five or six years, i’ve hardly seen a magpie – anywhere. It’s been a long time since i’ve heard their distinctive and expressive vocabulary of whistles, grackling, and chirping – and it makes me sad. What happened? Where did they go?

The Yellow-billed magpie is special; they are endemic to California. And not even all of California. Their range is limited to the central valley and coastal ranges of the state. To find out where my little tuxedo friends had gone, i spoke to a ranger at Effie Yeaw about their disappearance. She told me the magpies were hard hit by the West Nile virus which started sometime around 2004. They’re not wiped out, but have been seriously reduced in numbers – enough that Audubon has placed them on a “WatchList.” I also discovered through several on-line bird watching sites that the Yellow-billed magpie, previous to the West Nile virus, was already on a decline due to loss of habitat and pesticides. After hearing all this, i was quite depressed. I really do love the birds. But one day, i was driving in West Sac close to the river and had just turned down a small street when there they were. Four little magpies, skipping and hopping along the side of the road. I pulled over and watched them for a long time. They reminded me of best friends, playing good-naturedly and teasing one another. I have since seen the occasional magpie and i always whisper a prayer that they will hang tough and continue their antics for a very long time.

Here is another site by UC Davis on the Yellow-billed magpie and the West Nile Virus:

Carpet California in Golden Poppies

Another thing i’ve noticed – where the heck is the State flower – the ever-cheerful poppy? While there are some well-known parks that advertise their abundance, why don’t we see them all over the state? I would think they’d be everywhere. One place you can see them is anywhere D.O.T. has been – they’re like the Johnny Appleseed of poppies. I called D.O.T. and spoke with several, very pleasant, and informed gentlemen in the landscape and maintenance divisions. D.O.T., as well as Cal Trans, seeds and plants poppies in areas of new construction, which account for all the poppies along freeways. But why nowhere else? That took a little more digging. It seems that poppies prefer disturbed land over established and they love poor, sandy, dry soils and lots of sunshine. Ah! So you’re not going to see them around the heavily treed and lush lawn suburbs of Sacramento. Too much water, too much mulch, and too much shade. So why don’t they cover the countryside then? No one had a ready answer for me on that – the only thing this countryside doesn’t have on the wanted list for poppies is “disturbed soil.” If someone knows the answer to this, please let me know!  I'm stumped! 

April 6th each year is California Poppy Day!  Celebrate the poppy!

Here’s a link to CA State Parks, Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve

Top 10 places in CA to see poppies:

Amazing Butterfly

The absence of the third of my trio is more well-known but i still listed it because, well, i know with the right education and planning, we could bring them back – the monarch butterfly. A lot has been said about the loss of one of the most beautiful, and at one time, most plentiful of butterflies. Like the magpie, pesticides, habitat loss, and the destruction of their food supply, the milkweed, is the culprit for the increasingly smaller numbers that visit our lands. And though the coast is famous for the nesting grounds of these amazing butterflies, they migrate yearly across the valley in search of milkweeds. Plant more milkweed!

If i had a house with property, i would have huge valley oaks with lots of savannah grasses for the magpies, i would plant hundreds of golden poppies, and have loads of milkweeds in my garden in hopes the beautiful monarch would appear. Then i would sit at my window, sipping tea, and enjoy the beauty of California.

Happy Spring Everyone!

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