Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Monday, September 7, 2015

Scenes From the Drought

Today, Labor Day, is the 60th day of temperatures of 80 degrees or higher, and while a drought has not been officially declared by my home state (thanks to a very wet June), we are at the point where you can tell who has been using a sprinkler (built in or otherwise) and who has not.

What had been lawn is now baked hay. My husband has not mowed the lawn since mid-July -- which, coincidentally is when we last had a day below 80 degrees. "Pop-up" storms have been few and far between.

Lawn - Sept. 7, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
No one cared one to two months ago. Most people - not me - apparently prefer heat and humidity to cold and snow and have really enjoyed having sunny, dry days for going to the beach, the lake or the mountains, the ballpark or just for doing nothing around the house.

But now that summer is supposedly over and school is in session, these same people are ready to do their usual suburban fall activities - mow and fertilize the lawn, buy mums and corn threshes to decorate for autumn - and they suddenly realize, hey, what happened to my lawn? Why doesn't it feel like autumn?

Whether it is hot and dry or hot and humid, without rain you have plants drying up. Even plants that are "drought-tolerant" or have deep roots need water once in a while, which I provide early in the morning as needed. Many people don't, and their dried-out, dead plants show the results.

Despite my best efforts, burnt joe-pye weed. (Margo D. Beller)
Just as the birds fled the Indonesian coast before the Christmas 2004 tsunami, my backyard bird behavior is telling me how dangerous this situation has become.

Scene 1: I have had a hummingbird feeder out all summer. I've written before that recently I had to buy a cup to fill with water and keep out the ants - itself a sign of drought - and create a moat. A few days ago I came on the porch, looked at the feeder and instead of a hummingbird a downy woodpecker was attempting to get its long tongue through the portal as the smaller hummer does. Just today, a tufted titmouse grabbed hold of the rim, leaned forward and dipped its bill into the moat. I've never seen such activity from either bird.

Scene 2: I do not put seed feeders out during the summer because birds usually can eat insects (more protein). However, with this drought, there is a dearth of flowering plants. Even where there are flowers - such as the rose of sharon - I have seen very few bees or other insects partaking of the pollen. That isn't normal.

MH knows I put out feeders around Labor Day, but last week he kept asking when they'd be going out. Ever since the bear destroyed my feeder pole, requiring me to buy a new one, I've been reluctant to put them back out, knowing I'd have to take them in every night.

But I put them out, figuring it would take a few days for the birds to find them. I was wrong.

Titmouse at water cooler. (Margo D. Beller)
Within an hour I had titmice, chickadees and many, many house sparrows at the two feeders containing sunflower seeds. It took a couple of days before the thistle sock drew the attention of any goldfinches - six at one point. Until I  put the feeders out I didn't see very much backyard activity at all.

I am glad to see birds, lord knows, but it took me some time to realize that I am providing an easier way to get food than hunting long and hard for food that could be quite some distance away. That is why the female downy woodpecker has learned another unusual behavior - how to get between the bars of the caged feeder to get some seed.

I also provide water - a water cooler for smaller birds, a water dish for larger birds. In summers, even those with plentiful rain, these are invaluable. Both smaller and larger birds have come to the water cooler, the larger birds contorting themselves from a nearby branch while the smaller ones are on an attached perch. The water dish has also brought an assortment of birds as well as squirrels and chipmunks.

Scene 3: Just as there are birds crowding into and atop the feeders - particularly the huge family of house sparrows, which blocks other birds from getting food unless I chase them off - there is a large flock of birds feeding on the leavings because it is easier than fighting the crowd above. These include mourning doves, cardinals, other sparrows and even titmice and chickadees, along with squirrels and chipmunks.

With so many birds pecking at what the goldfinches and other birds have dropped, it is surprising to me that no sharp-shinned or Cooper's hawks have swooped in to catch a meal. Maybe they are sticking to the shady forest, where some areas are still green. I know I would.

Chickadee with seed. (Margo D. Beller)
There is no water, there are no flowers, there are no insects. There is only drought and what water and food I (and, I hope, others) provide. It is wrong to waste my time, energy, water and money using sprinklers in a battle to make the lawn green and long, which would mean going out (or hiring someone) to mow it and cause further heat damage to the grass, which is - after all - a plant, too.

Is this global warming, this strange dipping of the Jet Stream that has us in a high-pressure system that keeps the rain north or south of the New York metropolitan area? Is this the "new normal?" I fear it is.

I know, California has been suffering years of drought. But take a look at this list of record temperatures.
Nuthatch at caged feeder behind thistle sock. (Margo D. Beller)

According to, the record hottest summers are:
  • Eugene, Oregon: Average temperature 69.5 degrees (old record 68.5 degrees in 1967)
  • Lewiston, Idaho: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 76.3 degrees in 1940)
  • Phoenix, Arizona (tie): Average temperature 95.1 degrees (ties 95.1 degrees in 2014)
  • Portland, Oregon: Average temperature 72.2 degrees (old record 69.8 degrees in 2009)
  • Medford, Oregon: Average temperature 76.4 degrees (old record 74.9 degrees in 2014)
  • Salem, Oregon: Average temperature 71.3 degrees (old record 69.4 degrees in 2014)
  • Seattle, Washington: Average temperature 69.2 degrees (old record 67.4 degrees in 2013)
  • Spokane, Washington: Average temperature 72.7 degrees (old record 71.7 degrees in 1922)
  • Wenatchee, Washington: Average temperature 76.9 degrees (old record 75.6 degrees in 1958)
Pear tree showing effect of drought. (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: Anchorage, Alaska (3rd hottest); Boise, Idaho (2nd hottest); Tucson, Arizona (2nd hottest); Columbia, South Carolina (3rd hottest); New Orleans (5th hottest); Baton Rouge, Louisiana (4th hottest)

Even Canada's Edmonton, Alberta went through its second-hottest August in 20 years.

Of course, not everyone is so affected. For every yin there's a yang. Again according to
  • Fort Wayne, Indiana: 21.52 inches of rain (old record 18.70 inches in 1986)
  • Rapid City, South Dakota (airport): 14.54 inches of rain (old record 11.90 inches in 1968)
Nuthatch, goldfinch, titmouse at feeder (Margo D. Beller)
Other Notables: St. Louis (2nd wettest), Indianapolis (2nd wettest), San Diego (2nd wettest), Tampa (5th wettest)
And as bad as August has been, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July was worse - the hottest month since records have been kept.

President Obama recently traveled to Alaska, to focus on climate change and its effects in the short term on the indigenous population and in the long term on the rest of the world. He is the first U.S. president to travel north of the Arctic Circle.

We've seen some lovely pictures - melting glaciers and the like - but he could've made the point just as well had he come to my backyard, watched the grass and trees and plants dry up and the birds fighting each other desperately for what food and water I provide.

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