Archive for December, 2017

About Fog and Freezing Fog

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 15, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

After the forecasts for a colder and wetter December, we are now emerging from one of the most persistent stagnant air advisories in recent memory – cold and foggy, with little precipitation within a pretty interesting pattern of dense and off-and-on freezing fog. This stagnant air was held in place by an inversion – warm air sitting over cold air (the inverse of a normal atmosphere) – caused by air subsiding from that high pressure system sitting over us the last couple weeks. If air is subsiding from aloft, then the air at the surface is unable to lift and disperse – and fog which forms in that still, cold, air is unlikely to be moved out by incoming storm systems also blocked by that high pressure. So there we sat… still and quiet and cold.

Most of the whining I have heard (was some of that my own voice?) had to do with hunters attempting to scour the ground around Paradise and up on the Army’s Training Center for chukars and trouble-making cow elk. There were moments of white-out 20-foot visibility and iced-over roads and vehicles throughout our valley and across eastern Washington.

We will likely see the return of a number of foggy days before winter passes, so it will serve us well to understand the fogs of Paradise. As Staff Meteorologist for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I offer the following primer.

For a fog or a cloud to develop, air must be at or near saturation for water vapor (holding all the moisture it can hold). It must then cool enough to cause the water vapor to condense, forming the droplets we see as cloud or fog. Fog is generally defined as “a visibility‑restricting suspension of tiny water droplets or ice crystals (roughly .001 inch in diameter) in an air layer next to the ground.” By international convention, “fog” restricts visibility to 1000 meters (about 0.6 mile) or less. A fog is simply a cloud too lazy to fly.

Each fog has its own beauty and its own story to share. We generally get one of four types: a radiation, or ground, fog; an upslope fog; an evaporation, or steam fog; or an advection fog.  Commonly, fogs morph from one type to another over time or distance.

Radiation, or ground, fog is our most common fog. Heat radiates away from the ground through a clear night sky, and, as the ground cools it in turn cools the air above it. When air cools below its “dew point,” moisture can no longer remain as a vapor and it condenses. The layers or “pockets” of fog are cooler and heavier than surrounding air, so they generally settle into low ground. These are the common fogs we see in canyons and low areas around Paradise on cool mornings. This is the type of fog which formed, and stayed, under the inversion layer kept in place by that high pressure aloft the last couple weeks.

An upslope fog will form if moist air is lifted. The resulting relatively constant rate of cooling will often result in condensation. Moisture in humid air moving up the Yakima River into the Kittitas Valley often condenses into an upslope fog.

Evaporation fogs are common in spring (and less so in fall). With bright sun in relatively cool temperatures, a wet surface will often evaporate quickly, creating a layer of very moist air – holding a high level of water vapor. When that moist air lifts even a foot or so into cooler air, condensation can be almost instantaneous, creating an evaporation fog. This is the early springtime fog which scurries across roadways when snow is melting: the sun-warmed pavement evaporates moisture which instantly becomes fog in the cold air just above the road.

An advection fog is simply one of the above fogs moving horizontally. When a radiation fog forms on the river and moves onto land it becomes an advection (referring to horizontal movement) fog.

The fogs with which we’ve been sharing our recent inversion (that stagnation advisory) have generally been radiation fogs.

Now, here’s how freezing fog happens. Given that the liquid droplets are so tiny, they may actually remain liquid to temperatures far below freezing – the droplets become supercooled. Most of our clouds, even in summertime, are supercooled – with temperatures below freezing – given the elevations at which they form. This time of year, our fogs are often comprised of supercooled water droplets as well. When a supercooled water droplet is bumped, or touches an even colder surface, it instantly freezes.

On these cold mornings, then, water droplets touch the very cold roadway and freeze. The process is probably speeded up a bit by cars moving and swirling the air around, increasing the likelihood of contact and freezing. A similar thing happens as a supercooled fog surrounds a very cold car sitting overnight, and droplet after droplet bumps and freezes.

So, if you end up driving slowly, or must stop, because of fog, take a deep breath. Take a moment to think about how it developed. Recognize that it was here long before us, and will be a regular companion for the next few months.

If you must mutter at the fog, so be it. At least you can mutter at the correct kind of fog.

Happy winter.

Little Birds and Cold, Cold Winters

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 8, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

Homey was talking about the birds his family was enjoying, and the various types of food they were going through. “The kids really love this stuff, you know, and they like trying to identify the birds we’re feeding. With these really cold nights, my youngest girl keeps asking how the little birds stay warm. I tell them the food keeps their bodies warm – like fuel for little engines – but I know there’s more to their coping mechanisms, and I want to sound like I know what I’m talking about (I am the dad, after all)… So, what else keeps them from waking up frozen to death?”

“Well, you are right about the food, of course,” I said. “They have to eat regularly or they die, and, since different birds have different needs, we generally give them a choice of seeds and suet. Most of the foods we offer are fatty or oily since the oil is a good burning fuel to help keep their metabolic rates up. Let me dig around for this coping with the cold stuff, and see what all I can find for your conversation.”

Back in my office, I reached for “The Birder’s Handbook,” by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye.  Then I got on the horn to Deborah Essman (Bird Whisperer of Paradise and Official Birder of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association) for her thoughts and observations on our common and occasional small birds of winter. Among the birds you may be feeding or seeing are the house sparrow, house finch, American goldfinch, black-capped chickadees, dark-eyed juncos, redpolls, pine siskins, red breasted nuthatch, and perhaps a couple downy or hairy woodpeckers. Some of these – and others not named – are irruptive, meaning that numbers of them may show up from time to time in response to (most commonly) food scarcity in “normal” wintering areas. Keep your bird ID book handy.

Metabolism is the conversion of food to the energy needed for life itself: for cellular activity; for the building blocks for proteins, carbs and so on; and the elimination of nitrogenous wastes – it is the sum of all chemical reactions occurring in living organisms. If metabolism fails the critter dies, so food is critical.

Different birds have different metabolic rates. Smaller birds have proportionately greater surface areas in relation to their body mass than do larger birds, so little birds lose their body heat faster in the cold. Since they all maintain similar body temperatures, small birds have higher rates of metabolism than big ones and eat proportionately more food. For example, hummingbirds have the highest rate of metabolism of any bird – maybe a dozen times that of a pigeon – and they must consume their weight in nectar daily. (It is said that a warm-blooded mammal could not survive if it was smaller than a hummer, since it could not eat enough to stay alive, but the tiny Etruscan shrew weighs less than a dime and somehow eats its body weight twice a day.)

Each bird has its own needs and many have special adaptations. The redpolls, for example, have a partially bi-lobed pocket about midway down their necks, where they can store seeds. The little chickadees are often seen “caching” seeds in some hiding spot. Most birds, however, just need handy food.

Once food is settled, other cold weather survival tools kick in. Feathers hold heat generated from metabolizing that food. We have all observed birds sitting “fluffed up” in some protected spot. This erection of feathers traps air in tiny pockets, providing excellent insulation (think down coats or featherbeds) – a bird’s skin temperature may be 75 or more degrees warmer than the air less than an inch away. You have likely noticed that juncos, finches and sparrows foraging in cold weather frequently drop down, covering their legs and feet with their breast feathers while pausing in their food search, thus minimizing heat loss from featherless parts of their bodies.

Dark objects commonly absorb more sunlight than lighter objects, and it has been assumed that dark-feathered birds absorb more energy that light-colored birds. Turns out that there are other factors at work; a great deal depends on such things as wind speed and whether feathers are sleeked (laid back) or erected. In fact, research indicates that erect white plumage gains heat, and resists heat loss better, than dark plumage in cold temperatures and moderate winds.

To help birds keep feathers clean – thus best able to erect and insulate – provide water for baths, and keep it heated if possible. Provide areas near your feeders where vegetation is dense enough to still the wind, and put up birdhouses or structures where your little feathered friends can cuddle up next to other, maximizing their metabolic outputs. (On very cold nights, birds have been observed in “interspecies huddling,” likely preserving heat and survival odds.)

It takes food and feathers to get these critters (from whom we derive so much pleasure) through the cold season. A thoughtful feeding area helps them maximize the use of each.

Here in Washington, Kittitas County Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count is next weekend, by the way, and you may still be able to play. Call Gloria Baldi at 509-933-1558.

Okay, Homey, go talk to that little girl.

This Winter and Our Wildlife Watch

Written by Jim Huckabay on December 1, 2017. Posted in Uncategorized

As winter looms many of us begin thinking about watching wildlife around Paradise. Winter is the limiting season for wildlife populations – particularly for deer and elk. Weather conditions directly affect how many deer and elk reach spring strong enough to survive. The big question is, “What sort of winter?”

We have been hearing that we might prepare for yet another La Niña winter of colder and wetter (think “more snow”) conditions. To me, this means more wildlife likely in the valley and in places where they can be easily seen. And it may mean more snow on and along rural roads, with fewer places for four-legged and two-legged critters to avoid traffic. Thus, we may have easier wildlife watching, and need greater caution driving.

Several homeys have already been muttering things like “I just don’t want to deal with another winter like last year…” As Staff Meteorologist for the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association, I am duty bound to follow up.

Perhaps the three most dependable sources for long range seasonal forecasts in Paradise are the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (National Weather Service and Climate Prediction Center), and The Farmer’s Almanac. This year, they seem generally on the same page.

The State Climatologist notes that weak La Niña conditions are still present in the tropical Pacific Ocean, with strong odds of continuing through this winter. Sea-surface and below-surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific are below normal, with stronger westerly winds over the equatorial Pacific and unusually stable air over the International Date Line. For us, this set of atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns leads to below average temperatures and above average precipitation statewide through December. That pattern also holds true through winter, as the Climate Prediction Center gives 30 to 50% odds for January and February across our state. The Almanac, with a tradition of 80% accuracy in long-range predictions, is looking for our December to be similar to what the others are seeing, but calling for the rest of our winter temperature and precipitation to vary only slightly below and above averages, respectively.

These are just probabilities, of course, indicating to me that this may be a slightly nastier-than-average winter. Please note, however, that nothing in here says our coming winter will not decide to thoroughly kick our collective fanny.

However our winter shapes up, we need to be mindful of the deer, elk and bighorns we love to watch. Animals will be easier to find as they move onto their limited winter range.  They will move around less, and seem “less wild.” Winter survival is everything to them. Under the best of conditions, the stress of the season is the major controlling factor for their populations. Our job, as we reach out to wildlife and nature connections in our lives, is to not add to the stress.

Through the fall, as they add fat reserves, wild ungulates will develop thicker, longer coats with many hollow, insulating hairs. These heavier coats provide more protective and insulation with “piloerection” (the ability to make the hairs stand up and trap more air). These coats and limited movement make it possible for deer, elk and sheep to slightly lower metabolic rates and caloric requirements. Even with a decent food supply, though, and a balance between energy in and out, an average winter will likely cost a large ungulate 20 percent of its fall weight. Disturbed and spooked, a critter may double its energy burn. Burning 30 percent of fall body weight will generally cause death, even if food becomes available.

The bottom line of all this is that we must observe critters from a distance comfortable to them, not us.  Even if we think we pose no danger, what matters is what the animals perceive. Causing wildlife to stop feeding, or leave a feeding/resting area, will affect their health and well-being.

Each species and individual will have its own “comfort zone.” Watch behavior, and you will identify that zone. If an animal out in the open looks at you, avert your eyes (“staring” is threatening to most wild critters). You might mimic non-threatening activity, such as browsing bushes or imitate some grooming activity. A head‑up, ears‑forward posture, with obvious nervousness, is a sign to sit still, or back off quietly. Final warning signs include skittishness; moving away; hairs on neck and shoulders standing up; snorting or slapping the ground with a foot or paw. Any more will cause flight – and undue stress.

Find wild things all around the valley and down the Yakima Canyon this winter, on most any drive. Joe Watt Canyon is a favorite sledding area, often with a fair number of elk nearby.

By early January, find herds west out of Yakima. The Cleman Mountain Bighorn feeding area is just north of the intersection of Highways 12 and 410. A couple miles south on Highway 12 is the Oak Creek Wildlife Area. Over a couple hours, you may see a hundred or more bighorns and deer, and a thousand or more elk.

Enjoy the wildlife which enriches our lives, and watch the winter roads looming before us. Hitting a deer or elk or person can mess up the whole day for both of you.