After the first November rain, sun. Vapor rises from warmed wet wood. Amid the slow whirls of vapor, slender black insects are also beckoned upward by the sun. Their white wings light up like paper lanterns. The angle and direction of their ascent is precise, slow, and uniform, miniature drifting squadrons headed to some distant island. Steady and determined, they enact their slow rapture. Most don’t reach heaven.
My field guide indicates that they are winged termites, but they seem as harmless as angels. Fragile as white ash, in fact, and as impermanent. When the sun hides, the insects descend, as if they run out of power. They mill around their hole in the Earth like terriers after prey.
Each time they rise, yellow-rumped warblers appear out of nowhere. Butter-butts, birders call them. Their flight is acrobatic, swift, deadly. They snatch the slowly-rising insects, often several in one pass. Slender fluttering forms pass through warbler maws into the starless night of gullets.
Imagine the birds after sundown, the inner candle of digestion warming them on hidden branches. Their eyes shine with the whirr of tiny lanterns within.
Warblers on night roosts
Dark eyes shining from the flame
Of a good day’s hunt.
This week the first heavy rains came to the Bay Area. This causes a stir of anticipation in me as I think about our local mountain. When the rains bring back the grasses, Mount Diablo begins to don a rich green shawl. The dormancy of summer ends this time of year and the transformation happens almost imperceptibly, a slow emerald spread across the flanks of the mountain. At its peak, in the clear, cool light of winter sunshine, the flare of green simmering on the mountain is magnificent.
When I first saw Mount Diablo in 1988, this fine green shawl was thrown over her shoulders. My landing area in California was in the East Bay hills near Mt. Diablo in Orinda Village. I lived in a former monastery. Outside the window of my room loomed a hillside made verdant by recent rains. It was evocative of the rolling hills of my native Midwest in spring. Except that, here in California, the rains come in winter.
Across San Francisco Bay is Mt. Diablo’s sister mountain, Mount Tampalpais. The two mountains are a study in contrasts. Mt. Diablo is drier, lighter, more open, and hot in summer. The habitat is primarily oak scrubland interspersed with coyote bush and the remnants of grazing land. Mt. Tam is dark, moist, cool, often fogbound, and shrouded with pine and redwoods. They could not be more different in temperament and personality.
I’ve been getting to know the temperament of both mountains over the past twenty-odd years after hours spent on their trails. But the changing moods of Mt. Diablo hold a special place in my heart. My sensitivity to those moods became more pronounced for me during the several years I commuted on the BART train between Oakland and Walnut Creek. When I stepped onto the platform at the beginning and end of each day, I was greeted by a clear view of the mountain. What I began to notice was that each day brought a unique hue, a changed aspect to the mountain. I began to realize that as stationary and permanent as mountains seem in contrast to our rushed and harried lives, they are anything but static and unchanging. They shape-shift in an un-ending dance of light, rock, plants, clouds, rain, and wind.
The color green reflects just one of Mt. Diablo’s many moods. The range seems to span the spectrum of a painter’s palette, from melancholy indigo to jubilant gold; from angry thunderhead grey to glowing amber; from sullen fog-bound to the washed ochre of summer; and everything in between.
The green on Mt. Diablo is also the most ephemeral and brief of colors; its mood doesn’t last. But it wasn’t always so. Before cattle ranching overran the mountain, the green endured for much of the year. The native peoples, the Miwok and Ohlone, who believed the mountain to be the origin of creation, would have experienced a very different mountain, one that stayed green throughout much of the year. This is because the native grasses that populated Diablo’s flanks in pre-European times were well-adapted to the semi-arid climate. They had roots that grew far into the soil and so they retained their verdancy into the hot, dry summer. The grasses introduced by cattle ranchers grew fast and abundantly but had shallow root systems. Largely dominant on the mountain today, these invasive plants quickly dry up and go dormant in the summer heat.
Now, I’m perched high up on Sugarloaf, one of two ridges cradling my home on San Crainte Creek. I look at the ground at my feet and see that the rain is already summoning forth the first tender blades from their summer sleep. To the east, Mt. Diablo seems to simmer in anticipation, reflecting my own mood. Faint necklaces of emerald are beginning to glimmer on her flank. The season, however short, is imminent, and I’ll be here to witness its passage.
Summer dormancy is an odd thing for a native midwesterner like myself. Winter is the dormant season in the Midwest, not summer. The dead grasses of summer in California lie down on the hills like the cover of snow in an Iowa winter. Plants go dormant here in order to endure the searing heat and dry air, instead of waiting out the bone-biting cold of a Midwest winter. In winter here, the rains coax the grasses from their slumber. In the Midwest, the rains do their conjuring in spring. To get some semblance of a Midwest winter, you have to go to the higher altitudes in California.
The body knows what it knows and adjusts accordingly. Eventually. But not without some longing for what its known.
Gliding high above the Salinas Valley, they range as far as 100 miles in one day, venturing as far north as Livermore and as far south as Big Sur, where they join their sister flock. In the afternoon, they return to their home spires at Pinnacles National Park. If you sit quietly on the high trails, you can watch them loom in from the distant ocean, and the chill you feel comes not from the wind on the High Peaks trail, but from what their reappearance symbolizes—the tenuous return of a charismatic species from the clutches of oblivion. Few people are aware of their presence as they make their daily trip to Big Sur on the ocean. Most are unaware that if they looked up at the right time they might take in the sight of a dark-winged being that almost slipped away forever, joining the hosts of species already sent to extinction by human encroachment and greed. They would see a shape that passed its shadow over the wooly mammoths, dire wolves, sloths, and saber-toothed tigers of the Pleistocene epoch. They would be witnessing the unlikely presence of the last remaining giant from that time.
Condors soar not only in the rocky crags they call home, but in the far corners of our most primitive imagination. Not exactly the darlings of the Audubon crowd, they are nonetheless charismatic, and every bit as well-loved as the oriole for his orange cape and the hummingbird for her dazzling flight. This is in part because of their stunning size and ancient demeanor. Today, their rarity and their vulnerability account for the balance of their appeal.
We had spent the late morning and early afternoon scrabbling up the Pinnacles’ west flank with the hope of sighting condors. We arrived at the height of wildflower display. We took in the blues and purples of lupine, hounds tongue, larkspur, baby blue eyes, and the yellows and oranges of buttercup, monkey flower, wallflower, and poppy. Well over 30 species of early spring wildflower teemed around us. Several sightings of turkey vultures drew momentary hopes of a condor. By mid-afternoon we had decided it would be a day memorable for wildflower profusion, but that we would be condor-less.
Of course, not two minutes after that concession, two condors suddenly appeared, soaring high above and distant, but unmistakable in their size and their under-wing markings. We waited, hoping for a return salvo, but had to be content with a single brief sighting. Then, as we rounded a towering group of rock spires, we saw two more perched on the tip of a spire, then four, and then they were in the air, banking past rock faces and catapulting off and away over the valley and back again. Finally, there were six, then seven condors, joined by several of their smaller cousins, the turkey vultures. It was our time to be transfixed, to rest and watch as they took pass after pass, demonstrating the effortlessness of practiced flight.
The condor’s return is not ensured, but tenuous. As of 2016, their numbers have increased to over 400 from a brush with extinction, but they still face challenges to their survival. Not the least of these challenges is the continued use of lead shot in ammunition. Lead moves through the food chain and into the condor via a number of pathways. The following is adapted from the National Park Service website:
Numerous scientific studies have reached a consensus: lead poisoning is the biggest threat facing the successful recovery of the California condor. Semi-annual test results show that the majority of free-flying condors at Pinnacles National Park have blood lead levels exceeding the threshold used by the Center for Disease Control as an initial warning sign that a human child is at risk. By the time condors at Pinnacles reach breeding age of seven years, almost all of them have received emergency, life-saving chelation treatment at least once. Numerous condors in the flock now require multiple chelation cycles.
Because condors feed on dead animals and are group feeders, even small amounts of lead can sicken or kill many condors. Since their meals come from dead animals, condors are more vulnerable to lead bullet hazards than most other wildlife. However, the condor is not the only species vulnerable to lead poisoning through ingestion of spent lead bullets and shell shot. Other wildlife species at risk include bald eagles, golden eagles, hawks, ravens, turkey vultures, and grizzly bears. More than 500 scientific studies published since 1898 have documented that worldwide, 134 species of wildlife are negatively affected by lead ammunition.
There are alternatives to lead shot, including steel, copper, and bismuth that are comparable in cost and ballistic properties. In October of 2013, a bill (AB711) banning lead ammunition for hunting statewide by 2019 passed the State Legislature, and was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The governor did the right thing. California is the first state to ban lead ammunition. Other states should follow suit to protect both wildlife and human health.