Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas in Malibu

 Wishing everyone, near and far, peace and joy at Christmas and throughout the New Year.

We have Santa Ana winds this Christmas Day, and the weather feels more like October than December. Whether you have snow or sun when you are reading this post, here are two written descriptions of Christmas in Malibu to celebrate the holiday.

Frederick Hastings Rindge, the man who owned the entire Rancho Topanga Malibu Sequit in the late 19th century, wrote an account of Christmas at his Serra Retreat ranch house in his 1898 book Happy Days in Southern California:

It is Christmastide. The bearberry, our substitute for English holly, has been gathered in the hills, and the mantel is prettily trimmed, while a wreath of it hangs over the door. 

There are hurried footsteps in the morning, each hastening to be the first to bid "Merry Christmas" to others. There are interchanges of kind words and gifts, if the Christmas Eve tree has not done its duty the night before. There is the family worship and the singing of old Antioch and Hanover, those two old Christmas hymns so full of glory. Then there is the great Christmastide fire, in the broad and deep fireplace; a real Christmas fire, crackling and roaring in gladness as it offers its tribute of holiday cheer, around which we gather after a happy dinner off a home-fattened turkey, that had unconsciously been preparing himself for us during a fortnight, to keep company with the cranberries from Cape Cod. How proud a man is to dine off what he himself raises!

It has been a great day. There was the basket to fill and carry on horseback to the neighbor whose stores were scant. Then the dear flag of our beloved country to raise on its staff, and the boys saluted it with cheers and several tigers [sic] as it beautified the breeze which unfolded it. In the afternoon was a stroll, or boat-ride, or mountain climb, or agate search, or the delight of the gun.

Ah, Merry Christmas Day! Would that thy joy might be known the world around...

Members of the Rindge family—Frederick H. Rindge, Samuel Rindge, May Knight Rindge and little Rhoda Rindge pose for a photo during the kind of outing described in the quote, above. Patriarch Frederick Hastings Rindge is probably behind the camera. 

And here's an excerpt from writer and UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell's book of Malibu essays, "Ocean in View,"  that describes Christmas in 1956, at Broad Beach:

Christmas Day was dry and clear. I ventured a shell-gathering walk at low tide. My naked body felt the sand like a whip, and at the fiercest, I had to brace myself to keep from being blown away.

Gulls were soaring and swooping, and cormorants rode the wind like jets, headed eastward to their feeding beds. A couple of the curlew-like birds known as marbled godwits took off ahead of me with foolish cries, their outspread wings changing their drab appearance while feeding to the black and white splendor which gives them their name. I took shelter behind a rock, directly behind the ruin halfway up the cliff of one of the "depots" on the Queen's railway. Still to be seen also were a couple of rails and redwood ties.

The wind was still savage when we went to bed at ten, the sky swept clear, aglitter with stars...

Broad Beach is considerably less broad than it was in Powell's day, but the marbled godwits, equipped with specialized beaks idea for spearing sand-dwelling invertebrates, are still seen along the shore at low tide, and are  regular winter residents at Zuma. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Santa Ana winds transform sand into a sort of ground fog at Little Dume on Christmas morning. By lunch time the winds had died down. The peace and tranquility of Powell's Christmas in 1956 was shattered by a destructive wildfire the next day. Malibu residents were out enjoying the beautiful weather today, but with the knowledge that it comes at the cost of heightened fire danger.    © 2013 S. Guldimann

Unlike Powell, I didn't see any cormorants on the wing today, but a host of double-crested cormorants and a few California brown pelicans were gathered on the rocks at Point Dume to weather the winds and prepare for a Christmas dinner of anchovies.   © 2013 S. Guldimann
A lone gull is blown across a windswept Point Dume sky against a backdrop of Downtown Los Angeles and the mountains beyond. Here's to blue skies and smooth sailing for everyone in 2014. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Malibu Armada

Gulls and dolphins welcome the arrival of winter with a fish feast off the coast of Malibu. Rumor has it that the first gray whales of winter were spotted last week off Westward Beach, but the presence of huge numbers of sea birds resting on empty Malibu beaches, or gathered into great flocks on the surface of the water just off shore is one of the most conspicuous signs of the season. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Yesterday was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the turning point of the seasons. Winter officially began today, and all the winter sea birds have arrived in Malibu for the season. This vast avian armada is comprised primarily of gulls, but their are a few more exotic species that join the flock for the winter months.

Gulls congregate in huge numbers on Malibu beaches during the winter. The western and California gulls—Malibu's most common year-round gulls, are joined in the winter by ring-billed gulls, charcoal-gray Heermann's gulls, dove-gray glaucous gulls and more exotic members of the gull family that include terns and even the occasional black skimmer.

A quartet of royal terns join the seagulls at Zuma Beach for a rest from fishing. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Even when they're resting, sea birds remain on the alert. The slighted alarm, like the shadow of a passing hawk, will send the entire flock into flight. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Gulls also float in great armadas out in the water, or gather in chaotic clouds of airborne and diving birds to hunt for herring and anchovies. Their calls are one of the sounds of the season. The cry of the terns is high and piercing, the gulls' voices are full of raucous laughter.

The grebes are here, too. On calm days they float serenely on the water, disappearing to dive for fish, resurfacing like miniature Loch Ness monsters, elegant in an almost reptilian way.

A western grebe keeps a watchful ruby-red eye out for fish as it patrols on a calm day. That sharp beak serves as a spear and a forceps for stabbing and snatching fish. The grebe's feet are far back on its body, making it awkward on land but enabling it to fly through the water as well as the air. © 2013 S. Guldimann
The Western grebe resembles a black and white question mark in the water. It's a powerful swimmer, with paddle-like feet set far back on its body for maximum speed. Western grebes use their beaks to spear and snatch fish. They hunt under water and can stay down for an astonishing length of time. 

Grebes breed in Canada and the Midwest. Their arrival on the coast of Malibu is a sure sign that winter is coming, even when the weather is warm and summery. We don't get to see their wonderful courtship ritual that involves a synchronized dance on the surface of the water, called "rushing," or the way grebe parents carry their chicks on their backs for safety, but we do get to enjoy their presence throughout the winter.

Grebes hunt underwater, diving swiftly and pursuing fish with speed and agility. This one is half-way through its Loch Ness Monster-style disappearing act. © 2013 S. Guldimann
One second the grebe is there, the next it's disappeared under water, leaving only a small wake of rings behind as a sort of aquatic footprint. The bird may pop back up a long way from where it dived. When the water clarity is good and conditions are just right you can observe a diving grebe through the surface of the water.
Grebes aren't the only local Loch Ness Monster impersonators. This double-crested cormorant makes a fairly convincing miniature sea monster. © 2013 S. Guldimann

The "real" Loch Ness Monster, for comparison.

The black skimmer's appearance is nearly as preposterous as Nessie's. This exotic-looking member of the tern family is an occasional winter visitor. This one was spotted at Zuma Beach. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Like wind-blown snow or autumn leaves, sea gulls drift effortlessly out of the sky, their feathers flashing silver in the winter sun. © 2013 S. Guldimann

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Danger, UXO!

There are stories of WW II ordinance turning up on Malibu beaches in the years following the war. After mentioning those reports in the Malibu Post's November 29 post about Point Dume's history, I wanted to learn more about the 1952 depth charge scare on Malibu Road, which reportedly involved UXO—unexploded ordinance. The truth turned out to be surprisingly vague. 

I remember hearing about the incident as a small child. It caught my imagination almost as much as the story about about the remains of a giant squid washing up at Paradise Cove in the same era, or the smugglers in the 1920s who used secluded Malibu beaches to bring in opium and alcohol. 

After a rain, empty WW II-era shell casings often turn up on Point Dume. I have a handful of them, stamped "1942," and I once saw an ashtray made out of an empty brass artillery shell, fished out of the sea, but none of those things compare to the depth charge that washed ashore in 1952.

An empty WW II brass shell casing, found on the bluff at Point Dume. The cap reads: TW 42, a search of the Internet reveals that it's short for Twin Cities Ordinance Plant, 1942. © 2013 Suzanne Guldimann

On March 21, 1952, following a high tide and big surf, a mysterious object was found, half buried in the sand on the beach along Old Malibu Road. Here's the photographic narrative, preserved in a series of unpublished negatives shot for the Los Angeles Examiner, and digitized as part of the online collection of the USC Digital Library:

The caption information for this Los Angeles Examiner photo, taken by a photographer named "Sandusky," reads: "possible mine or depth charge found on Malibu Beach, 21 March 1952. Sergeant F.L. Fahrney (explosives expert from Sheriff's Office); Mr and Mrs Eddie Yuhl; Virgil E. Earlywine (Chief Gunner, Naval Ammunition Depot at Seal Beach); and Clifford Cromp (Forensic Chemist with Sheriff's crime laboratory), inspect the 'thing.'"  Photo Credit: USC Digital Library
Chief Gunner Virgil E. Earlywine, USN, from Naval Ammunition Depot at Seal Beach (wearing cap) and Sgt. F. L. Fahrney of Sheriff's Office. USC Digital Library
Presumably having determined that the "thing" wasn't going to blow up in their faces, Earlywine digs the object out of the sand while Fahrney holds a flashlight. Photo Credit: USC Digital Library
A trio of well-dressed Malibuites gather to observe the experts. The lady on the left, casually smoking a cigarette, is wearing flat shoes, but the other two seem to be in heels. Photo USC Digital Library

This photo shows that the beach at Malibu Road was wall-to-wall houses even in 1952. A sign reading "No Trespassing," is visible in the background. There was no Coastal Act in those days to protect the rights of beachgoers, so this is a rare look at an off-limits landscape. Everyone seems to exhibit remarkable sang-froid in the presence of possible explosives. Perhaps they already knew it wasn't going to blow up. USC Digital Library

This photo from the British Admiralty Office Collection  shows a Mark IV depth charge being loaded onto a depth charge thrower on board HMS Dianthus. US depth charges looked very much the same. I chose this image because it offered a good look at the top of the charge. Depth charges were invented during WW I to combat submarines. In the early years of WW II they were still a simple can full of explosives—TNT—with a pressure-sensitive internal detonator set to go off when the charge reached the specified depth.
Here's a close-up of the object. The information included with the Examiner photos in the USC archive doesn't indicate whether the object was an actual explosive device, but comparing this detail with the photo of the Mark IV depth charge, above, the evidence looks fairly compelling that the "thing" was an actual depth charge. It's a good thing it wasn't still "live" of it might have made a much bigger splash, so to speak, in the news...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Catch a Shooting Star: The 2013 Geminid Meteor Shower

Skywatchers gather at Zuma Beach as the sun sets and the planet Venus—the evening star— shines bright. Western Malibu, with its dark skies and stable marine air, should offer good viewing for the Geminid meteor shower on December 13-14, weather permitting. © 2013 Suzanne Guldimann

The last major meteor shower of 2013 arrives in Malibu’s night sky December 13-14, and it may be the year’s best, if the weather cooperates. Skywatchers will have a chance to see meteors any time after sunset until dawn, but the best viewing will be in the early hours of the morning, after the waxing gibbous moon has set at around 4 a.m. and before sunrise.

Malibuites, contending with summer fog, don't often get a good look at the August Perseid Meteor Shower, but the Geminids arrive during the darkest, clearest night skies of the year and often offer a spectacular show.

Even diminished by moonlight this year, the Geminids are expected to peak at around 100-120 meteors per hour. Earth will continue to move through the field of meteor material until Dec. 17, when our planet moves out of the field. Skywatchers could potentially see a shooting star or two or three any night this week.

Geminid meteors are often bright and comparatively slow moving. The shower often includes bolides—brilliant "fireballs." Even an inexpensive digital camera can capture a good image of the shower, but a tripod is essential. 

The Geminid shower gets its name from the constellation Gemini, where the meteors appear to originate. Caster and Pollux, stars named for the mythological twin brothers of Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, are the brightest stars in the constellation. It's easy to find the twins by looking to the left of Orion, the most conspicuous constellation in the winter sky. The radiant—origin point—of the shower is right above the twins, but meteors should be visible across much of the sky.

This image of Gemini is from H.A. Rey's wonderful astronomy guide, Find the Constellations, one of the best resources for easy star identification.  Only Caster and Pollux, the "eyes" of the twins, are bright stars, but the constellation is easy to find to the left of Orion, the most conspicuous winter constellation. Just look for Rey's stick figures in figure 4, above. Rey, who created "Curious George," authored a second astronomy guide called "The Stars." Both books were written for children but are helpful for astronomy enthusiasts of all ages.
According to NASA, the Geminids are fragments of debris from an object known as 3200 Phaethon. Most named meteor showers originate from cometary debris and many have been observed by humans for centuries. The Geminids were first recorded in the 1830s. Early reports noted approximately 20 meteors per hour, according to historical documents. Meteor rates have increased dramatically over the years. Today, the Geminids are one of the most spectacular meteor showers of the year. 

NASA Astronomers are still debating the nature of 3200 Phaethon, described in a 2010 NASA article as “inexplicable.” 

"The Geminids are my favorite because they defy explanation," said Bill Cooke, lead for NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. "Of all the debris streams Earth passes through every year, the Geminids are by far the most massive. When we add up the amount of dust in the Geminid stream, it outweighs other streams by factors of 5 to 500."

According to the article, current theories on the origins of 3200 Phaethon range from a lump of rock possibly broken off from a larger asteroid, to an extinct comet. Curiously, when the object is at perihelion—the point in its orbit that is closest to the sun—it appears to exhibit comet-like brightness. 

NASA is hosting a live webchat from 11 p.m.-3 a.m. for meteor watchers who have questions or would like to learn more.

Skywatchers hoping to catch a shooting star should pick a dark, unobstructed viewing location. Lawn chairs, blankets and hot drinks make the experience more comfortable and festive, but just a clear view of the night sky is all that is required to catch a glimpse of this celestial festival of lights. 

I saw a star slide down the sky,
Blinding the north as it went by,
Too lovely to be bought or sold,
Too burning and too quick to hold,
Good only to make wishes on
And then forever to be gone.

—Sara Teasdate

A bolide, or fire ball, blazes across the sky in this NASA photo.

Friday, December 6, 2013

The Anonymous Season

A magnificent autumn sunset transforms the already striking view from Kanan Dume Road into something strange and wonderful. All photos © 2013 Suzanne Guldimann

The Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth famously wrote in 1938 that:

Autumn in California is a mild
And anonymous season, hills and valleys
Are colorless then, only the sooty green
Eucalyptus, the conifers and oaks sink deep
Into the haze; the fields are plowed, bare, waiting;
The steep pastures are tracked deep by the cattle;
There are no flowers, the herbage is brittle.
All night along the coast and the mountain crests
Birds go by, murmurous, high in the warm air.
Only in the mountain meadows the aspens
Glitter like goldfish moving up swift water;
Only in the desert villages the leaves
Of the cottonwoods descend in smoky air. 

It's a nice enough poem, but I don't agree with him.

Autumn arrived late in Malibu this year, but it's here at last, and there is nothing anonymous about it. It was 38 degrees on Point Dume last night. The ocean was warmer than the air this morning—61 v. 45 at 7 a.m. Tonight will be even colder. In the canyons, where cold air drainage lowers the temperature even on warm days, there will be frost.

Frost has already turned the canyon willows and cottonwoods to gold. 
There's a sense of anticipation for the first real chance of serious rain on Friday. All over Malibu there are signs that autumn has arrived at last.

In the garden, the liquidamber trees have turned crimson, the pomegranates are finally ripe, and the narcissus bulbs—a harbinger of Christmas here, instead of spring—are sprouting.

Autumn doesn't officially end until the Winter Solstice— December 21 at 9:11 a.m., PST, this year— but the winter birds are already here: the fierce wren tit, cheeky oak titmouse and the valiant Bewick's wren;  the sharp-shined hawk and the brilliant blue and white king fisher, shaped like a lawn dart.

Over at Bluffs Park, the white-tailed kite can be found every afternoon surveying its winter territory. It shares its treetop lookout with a pair of ravens and a sharp-shined hawk.

The crows, in vast noisy convocations, conduct corvid business, or quarrel with the red-tailed hawks and the great horned owls, who are already in the process of selecting mates and potential nesting sites in the Point Dume eucalyptus trees for winter breeding season.

Liquidamber trees bring a blaze of late autumn color even to coastal gardens. 

This is the season for dramatic sunsets and sunrises. It's also the season for star gazing. After sunset, clear skies reveal Orion and Canis Major—the winter constellations—rising earlier and earlier each evening. The clear, cold, stable sea air, without a trace of the summer marine layer, still offers a view of the Milky Way, something that's becoming rare as light pollution increases.

Shorebirds, like these sandpipers at Zuma Beach, have the coast to themselves. 

Last night, the thin new moon was in the western sky with Venus, with the last glow of sunset turning the horizon a color popular in Rexroth's time called "ashes of roses." It is so clear today that the skyscrapers in Downtown L.A. and the mountains beyond the city are visible from the beach. 

Until the rains come, it's a nervous time for everyone in wildfire country. We all fear that the winds will bring the red and black skies of fire season. Every siren, every helicopter, can stir a wave of panic. Fires are by far the least welcome aspect of the season, but no one could describe them—or the demon winds that drive them—as mild or anonymous.

Perhaps the poet measured our skies against the Indiana sunsets of his childhood and found them lacking. Or perhaps he just didn't look in the right places to find the colors of autumn in California. 
A surfer, lulled by the last evening of warm weather, dreams of of winter waves. 

Storm clouds heralding the first major Alaskan cold front gather, and night comes early.