Sunday, February 28, 2016

Horned Lark on Willms Road in the California Prairie

I saw a bird the other day for the first time. As usual, it's not because the bird is rare, but because I'm not the most observant birder out there, with only two years of careful watching. It was a Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris), a denizen of one of the most endangered of California habitats: the vernal pool prairie.

Better pictures will have to wait for another day. They were far out in the grasslands, and I was at extreme zoom. I thought we were seeing Meadowlarks, but realized that something was different about them. The Horned Larks consume mostly insects, which makes the grasslands an ideal place for them. They are found from sea level to 13,000 feet, and range across all of North America, from southernmost Mexico to the northernmost arctic barrens. Despite their adaptability, their numbers have been plummeting over the last fifty years.
The California prairie is an endangered habitat because it has been mostly converted to agricultural fields. 95% of the Great Valley is under the plow, for instance, and the less fertile lands of the Sierra Nevada foothills have been given over to grazing. The lands are for the most part are privately owned. The area we were exploring is currently being used for grazing, but tens of thousands of acres just to the west have been ripped up and planted with almond trees. The water used for irrigating the trees is coming from irreplaceable groundwater.

In these foothill environments, an impermeable clay layer prevents some rainwater from percolating underground, forming vernal pools that will persist for weeks at a time. Numerous endemic plants and animals have adapted to wet-dry environment. Animals hatch, grow and breed quickly, leaving eggs than can lie in the soil for years sometimes. Flowers have an equally quick life cycle. They were just beginning to bloom when we passed through.

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