Saturday, November 15, 2008

Mosquito Hell

If the issue of global warming was ever in question in my mind it was answered on my recent bird photography trip to the national wildlife refuges of the Central Valley of California. It is for certain upon us with all its accompanied plagues.

How do I know this? Never before in the 40 years I have wandered the wilds of this state during the autumn months has the weather been this warm. By now there should have been rainstorms to replenish the waterways that drain into the reclaimed wetlands. By now the nighttime temperatures should have dipped into the teens in the interior valleys and the daytime highs should be reaching no more than the mid-50 degrees or low 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But that is not the case this year and it hasn't been so for several years past.

So it was that a friend and I traveled north and east the first week of November in trepidation for we had been warned already, there were mosquitoes at the refuges.

"It can't be," I told my friend, "I've never seen mosquitoes there. Gnats sometimes, but not mosquitoes." I would later eat those words along with a few mosquito morsels.

We arrived late in the afternoon after a long drive and checked into our motel, reconfigured our gear and outer wear, and piled back into the car to dash off to the nearest wetland area.

This section is marked by large ponds of varying depths that are part of the Grasslands Ecological Area just north of Los Banos, California. An odd assortment of structures line the dirt road on either side through the area where duck hunting club members stake out during the waterfowl hunting season. I have no objection to the hunters, who I find for the most part to be cordial and friendly and have on occasion supplied me with leads as to the whereabouts of abundant flocks of ducks and geese. It's these guys who pay the fees that enable the state to continue to replenish wetlands that have been almost 90% destroyed in California.

The light was fading fast as we drove slowly down the lane. Ponds on both sides showed forms of ducks, shorebirds, and the ever-present ubiquitous coots. Too late for photos, we were using this foray as a reconnaissance for the next morning. We kept scanning the ponds with our binoculars as we inched along. In trying to identify one small bird we stupidly opened the windows. Immediately we were hit with the blast of hundreds of little buzzing insects flying about inside the car. "Mosquitoes!" we both screamed and dove for the button to close the windows.

What is it about being swarmed by little flying bugs? You instantly begin to itch. In between scratching we swatted at the aerobatic dive bombers until the dashboard was littered with carcasses. By this time the sun was really gone and we couldn't make out the figures on the ponds so we headed back to the motel to find some food. We ate quietly at the local Denny's both thinking the same thing. What would tomorrow morning bring? More mosquitoes?

Birding and bird photography requires an early rising. The alarm went off at 5 A.M. and we tumbled out of bed, brewed the in-room coffee and consumed some oatmeal gruel while we pulled on our clothes and gathered up our gear.

Out on the road huge blankets of fog reached across the fields to swallow us on the tiny country road. Suddenly a huge orange globe appeared on the horizon through the mists. We pulled off to the side of the road for a good photo opportunity. As we exited the car to photograph the sunrise, we stared at each other. There were no bugs!

We got to the refuge as geese were taking to the skies to fan out over the countryside in search of lucrative grain fields. We were encouraged that there still was no sight of anything else flying about except birds.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge is one of three national refuges in the area and while it is the smallest it always offers the best assortment of bird life with huge flocks of snow geese and large rafters of sandhill cranes that often number over 10,000 birds. A six-mile auto tour route offers the best opportunity to obtain good photographs while using the car as a blind. In the three hours we spent at the refuge we found ponds full of northern shovelers, pintails, gadwalls, and mallards as well as greater white-fronted geese, white pelicans, snow geese, sandhill cranes, white-faced ibis, great blue herons, and of course, coots. Killdeer raced up and down the side of the dirt road and American pipits flitted by us. A red-tail hawk played cat and mouse along the way and in the distance we watched two northern harriers cruising.

About three-quarters of the way around the route there is a trail and an overlook. Here black phoebes perched in the trees and other small birds eluded us. A large flock of greater white-fronted geese were milling in the water and suddenly took flight giving us good shots of them flying overhead.

The sandhill cranes were not abundant. The usual group that mills about on the open grassland at the end of the auto route was not present. But it was early in the season and not yet cold enough anywhere for them to make their way more to the south. We made note to return for our usual trip here in February when the large concentrations of cranes should be present.

By now it was mid-morning but we decided to stop at San Luis National Wildlife Refuge anyway to see what we might see. The temperature had risen. It was already too warm. As we made our way around this larger refuge on the auto tour route we started to hear the buzzing once again and soon the car had too many flitting insects inside. We closed the windows and turned on the air conditioning. There would be no photo taking here.

"I feel like I'm back in New Jersey," I said. "I can't remember a time when I've ever seen this many mosquitoes in California."

Global warming? Well, today I am sitting in Morro Bay. It is mid-November. The temperature is hovering around 80 degrees. Do I think this is global warming? Yes. There certainly is something very, very wrong with our climate. Morro Bay rarely gets this warm even at the height of summer and by this time of year we should be enjoying those crisp fall days that invigorate the soul. We're in trouble folks. It's mosquito hell!


Greater white-fronted geese


American Coots

American Pipit

White-Faced Ibis

Sandhill Cranes


MrsH said...

I hate those darned mosquitoes.

David Middlecamp said...

Hi Ruth Ann,
I agree with the climate change observation. Fire seasons run longer and we have had cold, dry winters with more snow over the last 5 years than the previous 20.
I enjoy seeing your work, keep up the blogging!