But the big roots of 300-year-old trees? Duncan McFetridge's oaks and others suffering in the Cleveland National Forest get none of the Sacramento water. And trees are thirsty creatures. They say that a mature oak tree needs 300 to 500 gallons of water a day. But you have to wonder: these trees must have endured droughts like this before, and now they must have more capable roots than ever before. How is it they're succumbing?
Orrin Davis, whose company Butler Drilling has been drilling water wells in the mountains east of San Diego since the 1960s, says oaks are vulnerable to changes in the water table. "Back in the '70s, '80s, you'd have to drill down an average of 400 feet to reach water. Today, it's 800 to 900 feet. I've had to go to 1400 feet. In my 40 years, this is one of the longest droughts. As far as I'm concerned, this drought has been going since the early, mid-'90s."
It's been tough times for Warren Stormthunder, a certified arborist, a kind of tree doctor, from Alpine, who has been trying to help McFetridge out.
"Lately I've been the undertaker," he says. "I just take those oaks down when they're dead. When the bark cracks, you know they're done for."
He says the die-off has been going on for years. "If it's true that this is the worst drought for 500 years, these are drought conditions these oak trees have never experienced. And I would estimate Duncan's oaks were 300 to 400 years old, the bigger ones."
He says when trees are under stress from lack of water, it's like having a weakened immune system. Other things, like the bark beetle, show up and kill the tree. "On a tree that's properly hydrated, when the beetle drills in, the water pressure just pushes it right back out. Plus there's tannic acid they don't like. So it's the beetle and fungal root rot that can finish them off."
Human activity can push oaks over the edge too. People trying to help by watering the oaks in the heat of summer, for instance. "You never water oaks in summer." That, Stormthunder says, can cause root rot. "Some root rot can come into play when houses [with watered gardens] get built nearby or roots get cut for foundations," he says. "But that doesn't account for the hundreds upon hundreds of oaks that have been dying in the backcountry. In Pine Valley and Descanso, they have lost probably two-thirds of the mature oaks over five or six years."
And then there are San Diego's ancient sugar pines. The often-centuries-old sugar pines are the largest pine trees in the world. They're a little-known pride of San Diego. At least one has a trunk nine feet in diameter. The sugar pines are largely gone, victims of drought-induced fire. "They got established 800 years ago, when it was a wet cycle," says Stormthunder. "To get them reestablished -- and it takes 100 years for them to reach maturity -- we'd have to be in a pretty wet cycle for the first couple of hundred years."
Crows Invade San Diego
Hear those crows cawing from the telephone poles? They never used to venture south of Carlsbad. Now they're forming tribes, displacing pigeons in the thousands throughout the county. The worrying question is why, after being happy with a traditional territory from British Columbia to Carlsbad, the American crow is migrating south.
And perhaps it's all the dead logs around, but Duncan McFetridge has noticed an invasion of squirrels. "Everybody's talking about the squirrels. There's a tremendous influx of these ground squirrels. They attract the predators, believe me. The other day I was on the top of the hill, resting in a chair, and I opened my eyes and there was a bobcat, about 20 feet away. He hadn't seen me. I keep water on the top of the hill, so that's also part of the reason he turns up in these dry times. But squirrels must be his breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
And guess what just arrived, according to Philip Unitt, curator of the Department of Birds and Mammals at the Natural History Museum. "In the last month we have seen two birds appear for the first time ever in San Diego County, both of them tropical ocean birds," he says.
One was a bridled tern, which normally lives between Nayarit, Mexico, and Central America.
The other was a Newell's shearwater, a threatened species that nests only in Hawaii. "They normally migrate from Hawaii south to feed in the equatorial countercurrent," he says, "so this is way from their normal pattern."
Unitt says the shearwater made its debut in Del Mar -- its northernmost-known appearance ever -- in a pretty rough howdy-do: A crew was working at night on the stabilization of the bluff in Del Mar where the railroad runs when a strange bird started dive-bombing a crewmember who had a helmet headlamp. The bird crashed, the victim picked it up, and he ended up taking it to the wildlife rehabilitators.
"Meryl Faulkner, the primary seabird specialist for Project Wildlife, brought it to me, still very much alive," says Unitt. "I looked at it and said, 'Holy shit, this is a Newell's shearwater, never before landed in California.' And it's still alive in Meryl Faulkner's hot tub in rehabilitation."
How is this happening?
"Let's put it this way," Unitt says. "We're moving into a new phase of history. We've had such a succession of dry years in a row, and the increase of the temperatures is indisputable. As the oceans become warmer, tropical ocean birds, being among the most mobile, would be expected to be among the ones responding first. The brown booby was almost unknown on the coast of California. Now there's a colony of about 30 of them nesting on Los Coronados islands."
Indeed, birds, he says, can be great indicators of a warming environment. "We noticed that the Lincoln sparrow and the house wren both are starting to winter in San Diego [rather than farther south]," he says. "They were just at low elevations before, and then we found them in some years in higher elevations, which traditionally would have had quite a bit of snow in the winter."