Our forest was 98% burned in the October 2017 Northern California wildfires, and much of it is still black and charred. It is not, however, lifeless. This week there is a nest of baby bluebirds starting new lives inside a dead tree.
The first year post-fire, we could not live in our house or forest while repairs were underway (some readers may remember this). A year later and back at home again, I found my morning walk in the forest was too depressing. So I settled into a new routine in town that had live trees, joggers and dog walkers.
But then with the Covid lockdowns last year, life changed for everyone. I reluctantly returned to our decimated forest. Destroyed as it was, the forest became a safe and isolated, peopleless place close to home. Our maskless haven.
What was once deeply forested, had turned into a barren wasteland.
But oddly enough, now almost every day Athena and I find new treasures.
About two weeks ago we discovered a pair of western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) exhibiting nesting behavior at this dead pine tree. Nesting here seemed impossible for how very dead it is. A few days of nest-building went by, but then we noticed the activity had stopped.
Bluebirds build nests a little differently than other songbirds. Many times they have a hiatus from building for several days or more. Sometimes they abandon the site, build elsewhere. But other times they just take a break, and then return and continue building. I guess they take one last vacation before the chicks are born.
After about a week of quiescence at the tree, we witnessed them flying back and forth to the hole again. Their behavior was stealthy, never flying directly to the hole. They would fly near to it, then perch on a branch, then another, and then into the hole. If we stood too close, they didn’t go in. This behavior raised our hopes.
When they were gone, we checked out the tree. During the 2017 incineration, the top half had fallen off, while the lower half remained standing. The tree is basically hollow. There were two holes that woodpeckers had carved in the trunk many years past, long before the fire.
One of the holes is what the bluebirds now use for entry. It is about 15-20 feet (4.5-6 m) above the ground. Inside the tree there must be a sort of natural shelf, perfect for the new nest. It rests just below the hole, we surmised by the angle in which they enter.
Last week, each of the pair were industriously visiting the nest about eight times an hour, with insects in their bills. They were feeding nestlings.
And this week, we faintly heard baby bluebird voices coming from inside this charred monolith.
Right after the fire, there were no animals or plants in this devastated area. The first rains sprouted underground seeds and the first spring brought small insects, and ankle-high plants and wildflowers.
Gradually other “fire follower” plants started growing.
And now, 3.5 years after the fire, most plants are about knee-high.
Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a chaparral fire recovery plant, is prevalent. The plants above ground all perished but their underground rhizome system was intact.
The Yerba Santa is flowering this month. They are attractive to many butterflies and other insects.
Bigger insects are here now, too, like butterflies and dragonflies.
Woodpeckers remain infrequent; but ravens and turkey vultures soar overhead, while small birds and lizards use the tree carcasses to perch and hunt.
Most of the lizards in this burn area have taken to camouflaging in black, like this male, below.
It will be a quarter-century before the oak, pine, fir and manzanita trees grow up, but new life has begun. And baby western bluebirds will be fledging any day now.
Written by Jet Eliot.
Photos by Athena Alexander.