As of March 1, Downtown Los Angeles had recorded only 1.99 inches rain over the past eight months. Most of that was recorded in one storm in early January. It was the second driest July 1 – February 28 on record.
Following the January storm, temperatures warmed up and stayed relatively warm for much of the next 30 days. In the West San Fernando Valley the high temperature hit 89 °F at Pierce College on February 4, and was over 80 °F for 12 consecutive days. Some plants (and some rattlesnakes) responded as if it was Spring.
In mid February Winter returned, with cool daytime temperatures and cold nights. There were Frost and Freeze Warnings on several nights.
In March the ridiculously resilient ridge of high pressure over the West Coast finally relented, resulting in above normal rainfall. It took awhile, but the March rain and April sun eventually produced an assortment of wildflowers.
The valley oak pictured above — one of the larger oaks along Rocky Peak fire road — toppled over in the summer of 2016 following five years of drought.
Fire and drought are a natural part of the valley oak’s habitat and the trees have evolved to withstand ordinary variations in their environment. However, severe fires or extended droughts, or fire in combination with drought can overcome the tree’s defenses.
The drought may have been the culminating factor in the felling of this oak, but fire and other factors may have also played a role.
According to the Fire Effects Information System (FEIS), the heart-rot fungus Armillaria mellea is usually present in valley oaks and larger oaks tend to be hollow or rotten in the center. The toppled oak was hollow near its base and its interior appears to have been blackened by fire. The FEIS describes instances where the decaying wood in the interior of older valley oaks could ignite in a fire, but leave the exterior bark uncharred.
I was in that other-world you can reach when running, lost in thought and dreaming of dreams. As I approached the valley oak on the western edge of Lasky Mesa, I wondered if the tree was going to survive. Even though last Winter had been wet, it had been a hot summer, and this once-elegant star of TV and film was still struggling with the deleterious effects of five years of drought. Leaves grew in clusters along its spindly limbs as if it had been burned in a wildfire.
Nearly under the scraggly valley oak, I slowed to a walk to look at it more closely. Glancing upward I did a double-take… Perched on a bare limb at the top of the tree was a small raptor. So small, that it had to be an American kestrel.
Kestrels are extremely wary birds with acute vision, and I was surprised it had not flown as I had run toward the tree. I’ve seen and heard kestrels many times at Ahmanson Ranch, but never this closely. The diminutive falcon was only about 15′ above me. My camera was in my pack and just about any movement was going to spook the bird.
Ever so slowly, I turned my back to the bird and walked a few steps away from the tree. Wishing I had eyes in the back of my head, I carefully removed my camera from my waist pack, turned it on, made sure it was set correctly, and partially extended the zoom lens. Turning back toward the tree, I expected the falcon to be gone, but it had not flown.
I took a set of bracketed photos and then another. I needed to be a little closer. I took two or three slow steps toward the tree. As I raised the camera, the female kestrel — burnt orange across the back and upper wings — had had enough. With a powerful stroke of her wings she turned and leapt to flight, once again leaving me to my thoughts.