Natural Perspectives: Severe weather affects more than you know

While we luxuriate here in Southern California under bright and balmy skies, Alaska is on course for its snowiest winter ever. Vic and I expect Alaska to be snowy in the winter, but the amount of snow that they're getting up there is truly mind-boggling.

As of two weeks ago, Valdez, Alaska, already had received 318 inches of snow this season. If you do the math, that comes out to 26.5 feet of snow, enough to bury most houses in Huntington Beach over the roof ridge. They've had to call out the National Guard to unbury houses up there.

Normally, Valdez gets 305 to 326 inches of snow during the entire winter, making it the snowiest city in Alaska. An amount of 318 inches of snow by early January is astounding. They still have many, many weeks of winter ahead of them, with February and March often being the snowiest months.

According to meteorologists, two years of La Niña conditions have conspired with the Arctic Oscillation to starve the lower 48 states of snow this winter, dumping it on Alaska instead. That will not bode well for our summer water supply, as we get a lot of it from winter snowpack in the Sierra and Rocky mountains. If snow is scarce, the reservoirs come up short.

It is amazing how interconnected things are in the natural world. Severe snowstorms in Alaska may translate to water shortages for Huntington Beach come next summer.

Those storms tend to move south.

Last week, Seattle had snow that was so intense the airport closed. We know, because we were up there visiting relatives in Portland, and our flights first were connecting in Seattle.

We flew out in the nick of time mere hours before they closed the airport. Luckily, we escaped the worst of the storm but the bumpiness of the flight reminded me of the big Russian jet taking off over Las Vegas in the movie "2012."

One effect of severe weather is to push bird life ahead of it. In fact, there were several unusual birds in the Portland area while we were up there.

I checked eBird on my iPad and discovered that some snow buntings had been reported in Portland. Snow buntings are beautiful little birds that are mostly white. This helps them blend in with their Arctic tundra habitat. They normally winter in Canada and the upper Midwest, but a flock had strayed to Portland.

Vic and I looked for them, but didn't find them.

However, we were able to spot an even more rare bird. A brambling, which is a member of the finch family, had been reported at a feeder at someone's house an hour south of Portland. This bird of the north normally ranges from Iceland to Norway, Sweden and Finland. It frequently strays over to Alaska, but rarely comes down to the lower 48 states.

We had directions that took us right to the house where it had been seen. After a half-hour wait on a frigid, damp morning, we spotted the brambling in a small backyard tree. The bird was larger than a house finch, with a honking big bill and striking russet-orange plumage on its shoulders and flanks. That was probably the most rare bird that we've ever seen.

After our Portland trip, Vic and I returned home to reports of a gyrfalcon at the San Jacinto Wildlife Area east of Riverside. This is another Arctic species that has wandered extraordinarily far south.

The gyrfalcon is the largest of all falcons, breeding on the tundra and wintering in the boreal forests of Canada. They come in three different color versions called morphs: white, black and gray-brown.

We headed out to the San Jacinto Wildlife Area this weekend, hoping to spot the gyrfalcon. We had some specific directions as to which row of power poles it liked to perch on, but were told by other birders when we got there that we had just missed it. That seems to be the story of my birding life.

Vic and I began scanning the skies for a glimpse of the falcon. If the Riverside bird had been a white morph, we might have had better luck finding it. But it is the gray-brown morph, and it blends in with the local hawks and harriers.

We saw more Northern harriers and red-tailed hawks than we've ever seen in one place, but no gyrfalcon. We racked up 57 different species of birds on our outing, which isn't bad. But we got skunked on the gyrfalcon. We plan to try again another day, as the bird is likely to hang out there for a while.

Even the ocean is experiencing unusual phenomena this winter. Last week, people on whale watching boats spotted between 30 and 40 killer whales off the coast between Dana Point and Long Beach. They often are referred to as killer whales because they can and do kill for food.

Orcas are much more likely to be seen in Seattle than Southern California, as they prefer cold coastal waters. They range from the polar region to the equator, and single individuals are sometimes spotted off the coast of Orange County.

However, to see so many at one time off our local coast is highly unusual. No one knows why there are so many here at this time.

Orcas are highly efficient predators that hunt in family groups called pods. They eat fish, sharks, squid, seals, and occasionally whales. These highly intelligent animals hunt cooperatively in packs, similar to wolves on land.

The wild world is always changing and there always seems to be something new on the horizon. Global climate change, or global weirding as I like to call it, shakes things up even more and throws a whole different layer of unpredictability into the mix. For good or ill, we certainly live in interesting times.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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