March forecast: Bird song with threat of snow

  • Mountain chickadee greeting spring in Frazier Park last week. [MaryAnn Ryan photo]

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    Mountain chickadee greeting spring in Frazier Park last week. [MaryAnn Ryan photo]

  • The 2012 wildflower bloom last year along the Grapevine was nice, but mediocre compared to prime years, reports Lori Murphy, who leads wildflower photo tours when conditions are excellent. [Gunnar Kuepper photo]

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    The 2012 wildflower bloom last year along the Grapevine was nice, but mediocre compared to prime years, reports Lori Murphy, who leads wildflower photo tours when conditions are excellent. [Gunnar Kuepper photo]

  • The dark-eyed junco has a sweet morning song heard around our neighborhoods recently. [MaryAnn Ryan photo]

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    The dark-eyed junco has a sweet morning song heard around our neighborhoods recently. [MaryAnn Ryan photo]

  • Chuck Noble of Lebec took this moody, misty photo of Grapevine Canyon above the I-5 freeway from Digier Canyon on February 20. [Chuck Noble photo]

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    Chuck Noble of Lebec took this moody, misty photo of Grapevine Canyon above the I-5 freeway from Digier Canyon on February 20. [Chuck Noble photo]

By Patric Hedlund

On the threshold of the moody month of March last week we woke each morning with the sweet surprise of birdsong and fell asleep each night to the howl of icy northern winds.

Storm warnings kept us wary. Television microwave vans flocked like herds of goats to the bridge over Tejon Pass, bleating signals to lowlanders to show what life is like in these mountains.

On February 20-21 snow and ice shut down the Grapevine. Schools closed. Happy snowball fights broke out. Sledding fans hit the slopes. Skidding vehicles hit each other.

The ridges of noble Mount Pinos, Tecuya, San Emigdio and Frazier Mountain shivered in beautiful coats of white. Joking bets were laid about the odds of having a splendid wildflower bloom on those same slopes this spring. But mountain residents remember that the massive snowstorm of 2011 waited until March 21 to hit. Three residents of the Mountain Communities died during the worst of that storm. It knocked out electricity and telephone lines. Services stayed out for a week or more in most places west of Lebec. Many roads were impassable.

Wildflower wondering

Scot Pipkin, public access coordinator for the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, may not have been here for the 2011 blizzard, but he was able to add some science this week to the local sport of speculating about wildflowers as February changes to March in the mountains.

"February is one of the most crucial months for the germination and development of wildflowers. They like it to be wet and cool," Pipkin said in an email discussion with The Mountain Enterprise last week.

"It appears that the timing of precipitation has been pretty good this year, but we’ve gotten considerably less rain and snow than in previous years with good flowers.

"We also had a couple of warm spells in there that may have favored grass germination and growth," he added.

Data from Pipkin’s sources at the U.C. Berkeley Range Ecology Lab shows that weather conditions favorable for germination of range grasses, such as ample rainfall in October and November, lead to good grass germination- which is bad for the growth of wildflowers.

Those months at the end of 2012 were cold, and relatively dry-which may help the wildflowers this year.

Linda Curtis, a Frazier Park weatherspotter, said her records show there was 1.97 inches of precipitation during October and November of 2011, which was a good year for grasses but a mediocre year for wildflowers, according to Frazier Park nature photographer Lori Murphy.

This past year there was only 1.26 inches for the same months, according to Curtis’ figures-about .71 inch less. That may bode well for wildflowers this year.

But there are many variables for prime wildflower conditions. In 2012 there was a late April snow. Late freezes can harm young blossoms and cause the blooms to fail.

Murphy, of Frazier Park, runs ecotourism photo tours throughout this region in excellent wildflower years. She says 2007 was a great year. Records show 2009 also had great flowers.

Pipkin’s note continued: "If we get decent precipitation from December to February and the temperatures stay cool, we are much more likely to have a good wildflower display. I’m really curious to see how the flowers look in a few weeks’ time!"

California Poppy Reserve

Jean Rhyne in the Western Antelope Valley helps recruit and train volunteers for the California Poppy Reserve, which opens March 16. Poppy Reserve experts observe: "It’s been a very dry winter again this year, but after the recent late rains…a good number of poppy plants [are] starting to germinate. They are very small, so their shallow young roots are vulnerable to freezes and heat waves." They predict it will be "a late season, so late April, early May might be our peak."

After March 16 the reserve is open 9-5 on weekends and 10-4 on weekdays. The entrance is well-marked off of Highway 138, west of SR 14. There is a $10 fee for parking.

Tejon Conservancy tours

Scot Pipkin announced last week that the Tejon Ranch Conservancy will offer three new spring hikes.

  • There will be a cultural history tour on Saturday, March 16 in the SanJoaquin Valley, "to see how Tejon Ranch and the Tehachapi Mountains haveplayed a key role in California’s history. If we’re lucky, this may also bean opportunity to catch early wildflowers in this area," he said.
  • On Friday, May 10, there will be a wildflower walk in the AntelopeValley. This trip can accommodate 30 people.
  • On Sunday, May 19, an Introduction to Birdwatching hike will tour in LosAlamos Canyon. "This event will focus specifically on helping folks who areinterested in learning more about birds, but may not feel confident withtheir identification skills," Pipkin reports.

The birdwatching trip can also accommodate 30.

You can sign up for Tejon Ranch Conservancy tours at www.tejonconservancy. org/events/.

Additional events may be announced during the spring. Scot Pipkin can be reached at spipkin@tejonconservancy.org .

—Thank you to Lynn Stafford for identifying the birds for this story.

This is part of the March 01, 2013 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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