Day after day the fog variously seeps up the canyons, pours across the ridges, or just hangs across everything, dripping and drizzling. Droplets cover every plant, glistening. It is cool and damp, but the soil is still drying. The dust is subdued but the plants grow thirsty.
This weather has prolonged the spring bloom which is entering the moment of giant patches of colorful shrubs. Lavender bush lupines and yellow-orange monkey flowers are being joined by bright yellow lizard tail, each of these gentle shrubs has its own color place on the hillsides but intermingle in the interstices in a mélange of crazy color patterns. More subtle flower patches also claim their spaces – Phacelia, bee plant, and cudweeds are also in full bloom. It is a good time to go for a walk where the coastal scrub is near, especially the post-fire coastal scrub. The fire set us up for a very colorful spring.
Snakes and Such
The extended cool spring seems to have concentrated the snakes into piles to keep warm. Last Sunday, Pete Trenham visited the farm and helped catalog 19 snakes in one walk about, including four rubber boas under one piece of roofing tin: a grip of snakes! We found gopher snakes of all sizes, a few ring neck snakes, yellow bellied racers, and garter snakes along with southern and San Francisco alligator lizards and blue bellied lizards. Down in the creek, we found California newts guarding their egg masses as a California giant salamander swam about. Molino Creek was much rearranged after the dynamic winter- now there are pools and riffles along with many beds of fresh piled rock.
Farmers are planting seedlings. Baby onions are especially numerous in long rows. Adolescent sunflowers are getting bigger. Tomato plants are settling in nicely. The cool overcast weather makes for transition ease as plants move from the protection in the greenhouse out into the open air.
The orchards are lush and gorgeous. Apple trees have dark green leaves, a foot of new shoot growth, and oodles of tiny furry new fruit. Cherry trees are laden with clusters of fattening light green shiny fruit nested in curtains of deep dark green foliage. Avocado trees are perky explosions of new reddish leaves reaching for the sky with bolting new growth. Slower, the citrus trees are beginning to flush with shiny new baby leaves while buds break with stark white flowers and famously sweet scent. The grape vines have thousands of long clusters of buds nestled in bright delicate spring green leaves
More Scents and Sounds
The gentle breeze brings a faint smell of fire and a distant hum is the source: air curtain burners are disposing of hazard trees on the nearby land. That distant hum is joined by hours of closer noise: mowers! This spring in particular has called the mowers to work. Mow the 5’ grass to 2” and the next week it will be back quickly with 6” a week growth. The sweet smell of fresh cut grass permeates the air when the wind dies down. The Merlin bird app identifies the dominant dusk chorus: purple finch, song sparrow, and barn swallow fill the ears with song as the day grows dark and evening sets in.
The memory of sunny spring days slipped behind a fog bank. The muffled quietness is emphasized by mysterious pattering drips echoing from the hidden depths of the forest. A single flute-like song from a hermit thrush serenades the slowly darkening evening as it becomes night. The winds have died. All is damp and chill.
Somehow, the quail predicted this cold spell. Everyone has been asking where the puff ball baby quail are – this is the normal season, and they are late. The fluffy turkey babies are out, though. Passing carefully in our cars, they peep loudly after diving into the ditch, scared that momma will lose them. Mother turkey herds the children a bit, but not too frantically, not like the more fretful quail. The quail are in pairs and in a few small groups, the hens must be full of eggs awaiting the return of warmth. Wet grass is hypothermic to baby birds.
Bluebird parents dip and dive, scooping up caterpillars and bugs. Off they hurry to the nest box where squeaking kids beg noisily for food. Perched at the nest box opening, mother bluebird eyes the gaping mouths of her chicks, picks the lucky one who gets fed, and off she goes to find the next catch. Father bluebird returns with food, same story. They come and go all day, feeding the quickly-growing hungry young ones. In between parental feeding, the babies go quiet. A scrub jay perches on the nest box. Both parents alight nearby. It is a silent standoff for a few minutes until I scare the jay away. Nasty nest predators! Four of the five bluebird boxes have nests this year. Electric blue male bluebirds are quite the color show. We look forward to a menagerie of young in the not-too-distant future.
The land is lush. Wild oats are 5 feet tall, wild radish bushes 4 feet around, and wild cucumber vines hang heavily on our 7’ fences. A hike through the forest, even on trails has become a swimming breaststroke to part the tall, fast-growing post fire blueblossom bushes. The ground surface is buried under several layers of canopies, hidden holes hold worry for footfall ankle twisting. The native iris are already fading. Nuts hang from hazelnut bush branch tips. The live oaks on the edge of the meadows are dense with new growth and thick with leaves.
Apple flower petals have long since fallen and small fruit have formed. It is time to thin the fruit, to keep the branches from being too heavy, to make for bigger fruit, and to keep the trees from bearing only in alternate years. The first mow is behind us, but the regrowth is thick already wanting the next mow soon. Wide oat leaves and thinner leaved tufts of dark green weedy rye grass poke up from a thick mat of mowed material. A rich moldy smell permeates the air. Nearby, bell beans and vetch that we missed mowing the first round are vibrantly blooming and growing high. Between cover crop and understory weeds, patches of native strawberry are in fruit: the apple orchard’s first harvest! With the late rain, the strawberries are the biggest we’ve ever seen and oh so sweet!
Farmers are planting, and there are neat rows of seedlings nestling into freshly tilled fields. Onions and sunflowers as well as rows and rows of tomatoes are pushing roots into the soft brown soil.
Also, the mowers are mowing. As is too often the case, one of our BCS tractors went down and is off to repair just when we needed it most. Bob moved the sickle bar mower to the other BCS and off we went once again. Sheaths of grass are felled in neat rows, drying. The timing…as the thistles begin to flower and before the radish seeds get ripe. Earlier, regular we swiped the hay field with the mower to discourage nesting birds- those paths also add heterogeneity for swallow feeding, coyote loping, and skunk snuffling.
What if there never was any wilderness? What if the story of Adam and Eve is a myth about a legendary distant wilderness, before humans were human, before animals created homes?
What if the land we encounter has always been tended by humans?
And, what if wildlife, clean running streams, pollinators, badger and fish, all need us to do that tending?
How might that change your relationship with Nature? How might that change your notions of the importance of stewardship for Mother Earth?
In My Travels
In my travels to jungles to experience Earth’s biodiversity, I find the handiwork of humans, even deep in parks. In the Andean cloud forest, on the sides of Machu Pichu, the fog clears, and the bright sun reveals the corduroy of ancient agricultural terraces across impossibly steep slopes for miles around. A guide points to hidden complex irrigation systems that kept these farmed terraces watered. On one such hillside, I discover oca plants, Oxalis tuberosa, with their buttery sweet starchy roots; these were as important a food to the Inca as potatoes. Still they hang on.
In the mountains overlooking the Caribbean on Costa Rica’s coast, I followed red and yellow variegated leaves through dense thickets after passing through a tropical-tree shaded cacao plantation. We discover a mango tree and then a patch of bananas, and then more seemingly wild forest. Along this variegated leaf-marked trail, we find a couple rubber trees scarred from tapping 50 years ago. Finally after 6 hours of hiking, the crow of a rooster, the barking of a handful of dogs, and a clearing announces my arrival at an Indian outpost, the closest one to ‘town.’
A little North, on Belize’s low coastal plain, I am guided to ‘wild’ cacao plants deep in the rainforest. It takes hours of blazing hot, sweat drenched bug-bothered hiking through dense forest to get to the first few cacaos. Along the way, on the river floodplain in a fallen tree light gap, I find diverse hot pepper plants, some with blindingly hot spherical fruit, some elongated and a little sweeter. The hill in the distance is being explored as a jungle-covered pyramid and archeological site. A giant ceiba tree we pass is cherished by the local Mayans as a bridge between the spiritual and physical worlds.
Back In the Santa Cruz Mountains
What if the expansive coastal prairies, hazelnut and buckeye groves, old growth redwood stands, patches of endangered Santa Cruz tarplant, and diversely colored iris clusters are not ‘natural?’ What if they are legacies of Native American stewardship? My eyes were once more open to that kind of encounter when traveling out of the country. Now, I am starting to look at my home landscape with the same kind of curiosity.
Coastal Prairies and Endangered Tarplant
Salads of clover greens, nourishing seed cakes of red maids, sweet roasted bulbs…the prairies grew a valued diversity of foods. Digging sticks were used to remove the bigger tasty bulbs, aerating propagation beds for the following year’s bulbs. Small groups carried baskets of seeds for restoration following correctly timed prairie fires. On a few occasions, tarplant seed traded from the Central Valley is carefully sprinkled into wetter parts of the coastal meadows in hopes of providing a favorite tasty and nutritious snack.
The earliest logbooks of Old World peoples traveling along this coast described extensive coastal prairies, all burned. For generations, the dominant cultural belief of the invading people denied Indians the advanced intelligence that they clearly practiced in tending the land. Kat Anderson, who researches and writes about the complexity and expansiveness of Native Peoples’ land care, is slowly helping our culture to overcome such ignorance. She and I still encounter well educated people who have difficulty believing that the native peoples ever managed entire landscapes like these expansive coastal prairies. None of those grasslands would have been open, grassy ecosystems without regular burning, tree and shrub removal, and a wealth of other tending practices that we still must (re-)learn. Check out any patch of coastal prairie that isn’t burned, grazed, or mowed, and you’ll see it closing in from trees and shrubs: it takes just a few years.
Those coastal prairies have many rare native annual wildflowers; Santa Cruz tarplant is an especially endangered species that is barely hanging on in a few last places. Tarplants produce protein rich seeds, a staple food of the indigenous peoples of California who developed efficient techniques for harvesting large numbers of the seeds involving specialized harvesting and tote baskets. The Santa Cruz tarplant is a recently speciated taxon, a species that evolved over just the last 12,000 years – a time frame allowing for native peoples to have played an important role in its creation.
A crowd working with State Parks and the Central Coast Prescribed Burn Association, including members of local tribes, walk drip torches, starting a blaze through the grassland at Wilder Ranch. Needlegrass stands proliferate. 5th generation ranchers guide cattle through pasture gates, tinker with water troughs and maintain fences. The next spring there are immense stands of lupines, native clovers, sheets of white popcornflower, and patches of Santa Cruz tarplant.
How is it important to you that we have coastal prairies? Do you enjoy the soaring of hawks and eagles across the Monterey Bay? Are the stunning poppy displays this spring inspiring? Have you considered that prairies can help slow the spread of catastrophic wildfires, making them less intense and dangerous?
Hazelnut and Buckeye Groves and Iris Gardens
Cracking the hard shells from hazelnuts in midsummer revealed a smooth pale nut: roasted or raw, it was a valued delicacy. The second year after burning an individual hazelnut bush, the long flexuous stems are now ready for making baskets or fish traps. Hazelnut groves must have been replanted and tended, some bushes for nuts, some for baskets. Nearby were similarly tended buckeye groves, producing nuts that were leached of toxins and ground into flour on the same grinding stones used for acorns. But, acorns were less predictable with some years yielding poor crops.
In the understory of oaks, buckeye, and hazelnut were mats of native iris plants. Each spring, vast displays of iris flowers were picked to decorate costumes for spring ritual dances. The best colored iris plants were marked and propagated the following winter. Iris beds responded well to periodic low intensity ground fires, throwing up many more blossoms and longer leaves that were a favorite for making twine and rope.
Nuts! When I find hazelnut and buckeye, if I look around enough, I’ll find remnants of Indian camps or village sites. Dark soil pitched up from gophers reveals flakes of abalone and clam or trail/road clearing reveals some flakes of worked chert. I have planted both species: they aren’t difficult to grow. Once established, they don’t seem to die. Our hedgerow of hazelnuts was only 10 years old when the 2020 fire swept through and roasted them. The following year, those hazelnut bushes rebounded vigorously; 3 years later, they are bigger than ever. This is the first year that they will make nuts. Almost all of the buckeye trees in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire footprint now have 6’ tall new stems; they will flower and make nuts in a few more years.
That 2020 fire cleared the ground for a resurgence of native iris. People throughout Bonny Doon have been reporting a surprising array of flower colors, including unexpected blues, emanating from what is supposed to be a single species (Iris fernaldii).
A Western gray squirrel forages under the canopy of an ancient hazelnut grove for one of the very few nuts produced this year. The hazelnut bushes have few leaves and few stems, the shade from the dense, young Douglas firs too much for their liking. At the base of a nearby bank, piles of buckeye fruits lie among dry leaves. The forest floor is criss-cross strewn with dead branches from the windy winter, adding dangerously to the fuel load for future wildfires. Iris leaves poke up between this array of cast off branches, a single iris seed pod rattles in the afternoon breeze.
Old Growth Redwood
It took special attention to burn understory of the groves of giant redwoods. After the fires, prized morels sprung up in the spring to be followed by Prince mushrooms in the summer. The peaceful trees provided shade and peace in the hot summer. The towering trees sometimes lost easily gathered branches for firewood.
Redwoods appear in the pollen record of a local lake near Big Basin State Park around 12,000 years ago. This is the time that the native people were tending the land with fire. In the wake of their fires, the bare soil would have provided the right conditions for redwood seedlings to establish, but from where did those seeds blow? Redwood seeds do not travel far on their own. Over the last two thousand years, native peoples burned the redwood forests every 4-6 years. This was often enough to burn up the thick duff and branches while keeping the understory more open, without crowding shrubs and small trees that could add to the danger wildfires posed to the ancient trees.
Across the scar of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire, a few people struggle to clean up the fuels around the remaining redwoods. They hope to save the remaining big trees from the next wildfire, now more dangerous than ever from the immense fuel loading of hundreds of fire-killed trees. Meanwhile, prescribed fires are beginning to be lit in the understories of redwoods once again.
If you believed in wilderness before reading this, did I change your thinking about how you see this landscape? Do you believe that humans are responsible for our diverse prairies, for Santa Cruz tarplant itself, for forming groves of hazelnuts and buckeye, for creating iris beds and a diversity of iris flower colors and for stands of old growth redwood? If you are not convinced, what evidence would you need to change your point of view? Who would you trust to provide or deliver that information? Please let me know.
The weather has fretted with fog and drizzle then heat and back again, the flux of summer, accentuated over short periods of time. It has been long enough since the last rain that the soil is drying for the second time this spring, and it is time to water once (again).
We picked the very last of this season’s navel oranges, but our one Valencia tree might still have a few ripen and sweeten. Two young mandarins are producing a few sweet fruit each week. There were enough Persian limes to satisfy some of the orchardists, but those are almost gone. Such wraps up the fruiting season, and a bit of a dearth awaits us to be broken in July when the first cherries ripen. If we can get the gumption to net the trees, we will have those delicious fruit.
Rodent Explosions Past
Last year, everyone was talking about the plague of rodents. There were never so many gophers and mice as then; it seemed like not a foot of ground was spared the gopher till. Many winter squash were chewed, unsaleable. A bunch of our old hazelnut bushes fell over, roots gnawed off near the soil surface. A long, cold rainy winter no doubt took its toll on rodent lives. The voles began their rebound, zipping about and ousting gophers to their demise. Now, new numbers of fanged rodent patrols are on the prowl.
Either the long-tailed weasel population has skyrocketed or a handful of weasels are covering some ground. We are all seeing weasels. One weasel was trying to get in the house, poking its snakey body into every nook and crevice, even bobbing back and forth on its hind legs, looking up the walls for a place of better purchase. These weasels have dark red-brown hair and a big white heart spot on their foreheads. They are rumored to ‘run’ down gopher holes. May they control the rodent population!
The Buck Didn’t Stop There
A large buck, its velvet-covered antlers budding up to their first fork, ran hastily across the upper farm this past week. Otherwise, I haven’t been hearing much about deer.
The grass is 5’ tall, on average, in our hayfields. Mostly, it is European oat grass of the “bearded” variety (Avena barbata), but there are also sizeable stands of native brome grass as well as wild radish. When we can, we get to the barn and start up the clickity-clack Italian BCS walk-behind tractor with the sickle bar mower. Aim it at a long row of tall grass and keep it pointed in the right direction. It snicks off the sward at 2” tall, laying down neat hanks of hay that fall to either side. After a few passes, there are beautiful rows of neatly cut grass to cure in the sun before being pitchforked into the mulch cart for placement around the fruit trees. We cut about as much ground as the trees take up- just over an acre! At last calculation, we hoist and spread about 8 dried tons. To do this right, we’ll need to do that pitching before July 1, the magic date that allows the hay to start decomposing and moistening again in the irrigation so that it is less likely to burn very hot with the late summer fires.
From Santa Cruz to Santa Rosa, it is Peak Time for the Native Iris Bloom. Maybe the wet winter spurred such an epic show. The variation in color and petal shape in the plants near Bonny Doon is astonishing. Around 900’ there are patches of Iris douglasiana, but all are a creamy yellow. Just up elevation, they mix in a narrow band with Iris fernaldii, also a creamy yellow. The douglas types drop out at 1100’ elevation and then there are many more fernald’s. At 1700’ elevation, something magical happens. That blue that the douglas iris was supposed to have now seems transferred to the fernald’s, but there’s more. There are rosy flowers and sky blue, pure white and more deep yellow- no two fernald’s iris seem the same- it is a mystical array of a profusion of color.
The colors of iris isn’t all that is happening. The bush lupines and sticky monkeyflower are showing abounding colors. There is so much spring that it can’t be contained. Flowers are gushing brilliant color everywhere. It is time to get out and about!
As with most species, we have a wealth of snakes in the Monterey Bay region, and I want to help you to know them…and to encourage a young person to become a wildlife biologist.
April is Snake Month
April is usually the month that you can see the most snakes. With the weather this year, it seems the snakes waited a little while so maybe May will also be rich with snake sightings. Most people I know see snakes crossing roads and trails. Too many people see snakes that were killed by vehicles on roads. Not many people get the opportunity to walk off trail to see snakes. If you can get out off trail, you might walk with a few friends side-by-side in a line through a meadow- an efficient way to see snakes. Another place most folks aren’t afforded to look is along bodies of water. A foray along the edge of a marsh or pond will likely net a snake sighting. And yet another unusual activity is a good way to see snakes: turn over ‘cover’ – logs, boards, bark, tin roofing, or anything else that is big enough and has touched ground enough to provide a hiding place for snakes. The rule is to put that piece of cover back gently and exactly like you found it. Looking for snakes is a good way to get in touch with wild nature around here, and it is also a viable and fascinating career. There aren’t enough local wildlife biologists: can you name one? We need to encourage more children to seek careers in wildlife conservation. There are a variety of nice jobs for people who know their snake ecology.
I’ll briefly outline the places one might work as a wildlife biologist, and then I’ll get to discussing what cool snakes there are around here. Parks and other conservation lands agencies employ ecologists to help conserve wildlife. There is also an abundance of ecologists working in research around the Monterey Bay. College and University wildlife careers come with teaching and research while jobs at other research institutions might not have the same teaching roles. There are also careers just doing outreach: think folks in museums, aquaria, on whale watching boats, and leading tours on land. Because of the environmental laws in our nation and in California in particular, there are a host of jobs as consultants, either in private business or as advisors working with Resource Conservation Districts or other such entities. While wildlife ecologists might not earn as much money as engineers, doctors, or lawyers, I know many who love their work and are leaving amazing legacies for future generations: peregrine falcons or condors that would otherwise have gone extinct, restored ponds hosting rare California red-legged frogs and tiger salamanders, wildlife corridors that support the movement of badgers and cougars, and many other such things. Next time a child or young adult mentions a love of birds, mammals, reptiles, or any wildlife, I hope that you will pause a moment and tell them how amazing it would be if they sought a career in wildlife biology. Perhaps they will be the ones to help conserve our rarest local snake, the San Francisco gartersnake.
Here’s the list of the 13 local snakes:
San Francisco gartersnake
Santa Cruz gartersnake
California red-sided gartersnake
Northern Pacific rattlesnake
California king snake
California mountain king snake
Forest sharp-tailed snake
Northern rubber boa
Wester yellow-bellied racer
California striped racer (whipsnake)
How many of these snakes have you seen? Traveling as I do through grasslands, I see gopher snakes every week. I once had a dog that for some reason wanted to gently pick up ring necked snakes in the forest. Now, I only see forest snakes (rubber boas, ring necked, and sharp-tailed snakes) when I go with a gaggle of folks doing surveys. There used to be more rubber boas on the north coast before the 2020 fire- a lot of them and other forest snakes must have died in that conflagration.
The Most Beautiful Snake
I don’t get around water much, but when I do, I have always seen gartersnakes and then I have to remember how to tell them apart. Your location matters if you are trying to see San Francisco gartersnake. That endangered species has never been documented south of Waddell Creek, but you supposedly can find them from Año Nuevo north and east to the urbanized areas. It ought to be called the San Mateo County gartersnake at this point, but maybe someone has seen one in the many wetlands of San Francisco. I include them here because they do occur on the northern boundary of the Monterey Bay, which is around Pigeon Point. The San Francisco gartersnake with its blue, yellow, and red stripes has been called the most beautiful snake in the world.
Santa Cruz’ Garternsake
We have a namesake gartersnake which is much plainer, the Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one like most gartersnakes has a dark blackish background and a single yellow or orangish line down its back. This species overlaps a lot with the San Francisco gartersnake but its range extends south to Watsonville.
The coast gartersnake is midway in coloration between the colorful San Francisco gartersnake and the not so colorful Santa Cruz gartersnake. This one has the gold line down its back but also has a red checks down its side, mixed with browns and blacks.
I like garter snakes for their smell. When you pick them up, they emit a ‘foul musk odor’ – apparently a defense. The smell washes right off, it is water soluble.
I don’t recommend picking up snakes unless you know what you are doing. If you are older than 16, you shouldn’t handle them without a fishing permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. If you do handle a snake, even the non-venomous ones might bite you. If they bite, you have to let them stay attached to you until they let go: if you pull away, you could dislocate their jaws. It is no fun to have to watch a snake chew on you until it is done. Some snakes, like mountain king snakes, have razor sharp teeth that will then make you bleed a bunch after they chew awhile.
Remember please to encourage young people to pursue careers in wildlife conservation. If you have a place for someone to live more affordably, you might pitch in for conservation by advertising it for a wildlife expert. Whatever you do, I hope you can appreciate our area more – our amazing snake diversity is just another example of how special our region is. Let’s conserve it!
-this article originally published in Bruce Bratton’s amazing weekly blog BrattonOnline.com – sign up to receive it and you won’t be sorry.
Through late last week and into this one, waves of unseasonal rain kept sweeping across the sky: shower after shower, sheets of drizzle, or a splattering of only a few big raindrops. It was mostly cold rain, and any remaining heating firewood is gone – the longest, coldest, rainiest winter in memory. Wearing sweaters and hats inside, we wonder when the transition to summer will come. Perfectly reasonable people are now complaining about rain, even arguing with an emphatic, ‘enough!’ when reminded about the contrasting potential for heat, dryness, and fire. Some of us will never complain about rain again, but perhaps that’s just the indelible memory of dangerously close-at-hand wildfire.
The Scents and Sound of Weighty Fog
Is that fog now? The sky is still capped but ragged bright blue holes appear in the clouds by midday. The sounds of gusty winds mix with the echoing roar of big waves. The air smells sweet from vegetal spring mixed with salty ocean spray and dusty pollen.
At the end of the rainy period, before the winds, there was a still morning and both the canyons and ridges were draped in clouds. Dampness coated every surface, leaves glistening with droplets. I could hear the nearby waterfall song and a bit of the creek below. It was so peaceful. Then, <<CRACK, CRASH!!>> another big tree fell down somewhere near our boundary in the Molino Creek canyon.
Besides the spectacularly blossoming apple orchard, there are dots and pools of color popping out from the mostly grass-green landscape. There are striking large powdery blue patches of wild California lilac, both large shrubs that escaped the 2020 fire and a sea of smaller ones that emerged after that fire. Whorls of sky lupine flowers brighten shallow soiled nobs and ridges, aided by our firewise mowing. On the rare occasion that sunrays warmed their petals, California poppies open with their flame-orange shiny glow. It takes a curious eye and intrepid soggy walking to spot some flower colors: buried in the thick grass are hiding patches of blue-eyed grass, a miniature deep-blue-blossomed iris relative.
Standing up high among the tall grass, bright white patches of yarrow just started flowering. Like so much of the farm’s color, this one is a result of intention. In 2008, there was no native yarrow on the farm. But, there were a few patches of yarrow poking through the roadside shrubs nearby. In the dusty summer heat, we paced those roadsides, shaking yarrow seedheads into paper bags. Then, as winter rains approached, we shook the seed from those bags in the areas we were mowing for fire safety. Now, there is yarrow proliferating and butterflies alighting on their flat-topped pollen-rich platforms of white flowers.
Everyone who is anyone is controlling thistles. On hikes and impromptu field meeting strolls, we pause to pound our heels into the ground, trying to uproot invasive thistles. When we stroll through anywhere that hasn’t been mowed within a week, we get poked by needle-sharp thistle spines. Italian thistle is the main culprit, but there are also pokey giant lush leaves of milk thistle with which to contend (in the moister spots). If we wanted to wait a bit to mow, there can be no more waiting – there is an urgency about the timing. Seeds will soon be forming then taking flight on thistle-down gossamer parachutes, creating next year’s problems.
Baby turkeys, baby bunnies. The thick tall grass nearly hides the adults and completely veils their newborn young. Turkey young, too small to fly, struggle through dense forests of oat grass. They don’t have to venture far with tasty grass seeds presenting so thickly. They have already learned mother’s beak precision to pick individual seeds from grass inflorescences. At the boundary of shrubs and grass, tiny newborn rabbits are also gazing at their parents for lessons, from when to scurry from danger to what to eat and where. It is fattening time for coyote, fox, and bobcat.
The unexpected late soak changed the farming routine. We stopped our panicking irrigation setup, grabbed hoes and went to work on the easily removed weeds. The big field hoe pries giant radish roots from the wet soil. Glove protected hands yank clusters of grasses that grow too close to tree trunks for the hoe. Either way, hoe or glove, the spring has presented the opportunity for building forearm muscles and body core strengthening.
A new generator arrived and will provide backup power for our normally solar-powered well. The well has been mostly idle for months because of the rain, but soon will be running every daylight hour to keep up with irrigation needs. Should smoke shroud the sun with the onset of wildfire, we’ll need the generator to keep our fire fighting water replenished.
The sounds of powerful diesel engine tractor tilling, weedeater droning, and the lower growl of mowers fill the air most days. The early mornings and the longer evenings provide respites from farm noise. Then, the air is filled with spring bird song.
The warm spring sun began feeling prickly to my skin, and so it was sunscreen and sunhats to go outside. It had been a long time: a long cold, rainy winter. Suddenly, spring pollen dusted everything, everyone sneezing across the farm and into town, sneezes in parking lots, bike paths and in lines at the store. ACHOO!
Spring warmth triggered grass to bolting, really toweringly bolting grass flower heads arching and poking up high, waving pollen from dancing wands ladening the ever present breeze.
A Sudden Dryness
It seemed like the rain was over, as it normally would have been, but we were in for a surprise. Us orchardists hustled to get the irrigation set up, discovering mouse-chew leaks to repair, stuck valves, broken sprinklers – the perennial time-consuming setup always seems to come too late. The ground was DRY…very dry! Cover crop was wilting, bent over in the springtime heat. Digging weeds out from under orchard trees became a hassle, shovels and hoes striking hard ground, ringing metal sounds. It was dry not only on the surface but a foot down into the soil. Last Saturday, I asked my fellow weeder, “anyone discovering any soil moisture?” The answer was a disbelieving ‘No!’ Someone said, ‘It calls for rain.’ Yeah, right. It seemed somehow impossible.
Wind to Rain
The wind picked up strongly that evening and the next day it was blowing trees and branches down, hard gusts joining a steady stiff wind from the northwest. A little drizzle followed. Then there was a shower with quite big drops. A few hours later, another shower, that one longer, also with big raindrops. And then it poured on and off for many hours late through the night. Afterwards, still the soil is only wet about six inches down, but its moist down a foot. That much water will get used up in a few days when the sun shines again. And, it is enough to spur the grass growth (and pollen). What a surprise! At least it will be easier to weed for a few days.
The Resulting Flowers
The flowers are out. Poppies and lupines in peak flower. Cassandra reports binocular-spying a strikingly bright patch of solid lush orange California poppies high on the steep slope across Molino Creek canyon. The coast live oaks, tassels fading, are dense with shiny new leaves, a rich array of greens, each tree its own unique shade. On oak twigs, the tiniest of acorn babies have been born. Forest edge madrone trees display giant pom-poms of white flowers, a celebration of the moist winter. Big yellow blankets of post-fire germinated French broom sweeten the breeze but make my muscles tense with the stress of the seemingly hopeless weed invasion on our farm’s otherwise beautifully diverse hillsides. Redwood sorrel carpets the forest understory with strikingly pink blossoms. The wild iris has begun its colorful parade, trailside through the woodlands.
The return of rain also reawakens mosses and lichens. The black walnuts and oaks host a wealth of moss, growing thicker on the older branches and on the shady side of trunks. Summer comes and their thick green piles shrink and fade. Just as quickly, with dense fog (or this rain), they brighten and grow plush once again.
An adolescent buck with the faintest of felty nubbins jutting from its forehead warily considered me during a recent walk. At first, its giant pointy ears tilted towards me like satellite dishes honing in on my approach. Each time I get close to deer, I talk to them, gently letting them know that I am no threat. Generally, this slows their retreat, but this one was suspicious. It took off, energetically bounding with all four feet high in the air between pounces. Reaching a good distance, its ears were once again on alert, pointed at me as I tried urge it, ‘don’t worry.’ I looked down and up again. He was gone. Why so concerned, deer? This one was new to the neighborhood, maybe just passing through. People still hunt deer in these hills, so wariness is warrented.
Bright white citrus blossoms unfold sweetly while cherry petals drop to reveal shiny fruit. The apple orchard has entered peak bloom. The freshly clipped understory, not long ago was ugly stubble, but now it’s turning green, resprouting through the mown mess. The faint rose smell of apple blossoms is temporarily overpowered by a rain-fetched dank compost smell, hints of the bitterness of rotting chopped up weedy mustards and radishes. At the base of the apple flowers, furry hints of apples to be. Down the hill from the apples, fruit grows fast in our stonefruit grove- mostly various apriums and pluots, a hybrid swarm that also includes the parents, plums and apricots. Those fruits are mostly silver dollar sized, hard as rocks and green. The wild hazelnuts of our hedgerow have set fruit, bracts swelling. Elderberry flower clusters are a curious near-black, their buds forming.
Barn swallows have formed pairs, their mates arrived sometime in the last couple of weeks. They dive and swoop right past my face, closer than ever, as I mow the orchard. Maybe these are my porch swallows, and they are comfortable with me, and so the proximity. It seems I can feel their wingbeat wind on my cheeks they swoop so close.
The band tailed pigeon flock is back to its more normal farm size: 18 (ish). There were many more last week, but some moved on. As always, they scare easily from the walnut trees where they feast on catkins. Their clapping wings send them quickly skyward where they wheel about in a flock that eventually alights in a tall tree awaiting a safer moment to glide back down to their feast. How many times a day do they make this circuit? Sometimes, we hear them cooing deeply, at times answered by the higher, more sad sounding mourning doves that strut on the ground in pairs across the moist freshly tilled farm soil.
In the understory of the orchards, there are bunches of sharp-billed robins.
Somewhere nearby, there is the call and response sing-song of grosbeaks. In the woods, a flycatcher serenade joins the flute-like Swainson’s thrush song.
There are many other birds making lots of noise. Such is spring on our beautiful, diverse, wildlife friendly organic farm. We are so thankful.
-my weekly blog for Molino Creek Farm simultaneously published here.
My dissertation research, others’ research, and years of observation supports a need to seriously consider conservation grazing as a tool for managing the incredibly diverse grasslands of our region.
We owe the existence of almost every bit of our local grasslands to human management of ecological disturbance regimes. For millions of years, California’s grasslands co-evolved with megafauna. 20,000 years ago, the prairies near Santa Cruz would have had herds of mastodon, mammoth, bison, ground sloth, elk, pronghorn, as well as camel and horse relatives. There were probably mastodon and mammoth trails the size of highways; like their African kin, these critters pushed over trees when drought or fire deprived them of ground-based forage.
The biomass of those herbivores was enough to evolve some amazing predators: saber tooth cats and their bigger kin the scimitar cats, a lion very close to the African lion, wolves, short-face bears, grizzly, jaguar, coyote and cougar.
About 15,000 years ago, most of that fauna disappeared, but the native peoples were stewarding the grasslands with frequent fire. Fires kept the grasslands open.
Without fire or grazing, our coastal grasslands turn to shrublands and the shrublands to forest.
Here Come the Shrubs!
First comes the coyote bush, seeds blown on the wind way downstream. First one shrub, then the next and soon there is more coyote bush than grass. As the shrubs thicken, coast live oaks take root, and they look like shrubs for years and years until they get wide enough that the deer can’t reach the center shoot, and that becomes a tree. Meanwhile, while oaks get shrubbier, here comes the poison oak and their injector friends the blackberry vines. Now, things are getting pretty impenetrable. After about 15 years, we start to see some more diversity: coffeeberry, California sage, sticky monkeyflower, honeysuckle, and others.
All the coastal prairies that aren’t on nearly pure, soil-less rock disappear to shrubs after 15-40 years. There are fencelines and aerial photos aplenty to show you this.
And Next…the Onset of Trees
As the shrub community closes in, the tree seedlings escape deer browse. Coast live oaks and Douglas fir rocket up from the shrub layer. Some toyon start getting tree like, too. Madrones join in.
Check out a mixed hardwood/Douglas fir forest next time you happen across one. Look at the understory and see if you can see shrub skeletons- they are likely there as a reminder from whence the trees emerged.
So, What’s the Problem? Trees are GOOD! “never enough trees….” (sigh)
California’s grasslands support the vast majority of rare plant and animal species. Globally, grasslands have been underappreciated for their diversity and function. California’s coastal prairies are one of the top ten most endangered habitats in the US. These grasslands have been converted to urban areas more than any other plant community. I bet we are still more likely to see grasslands developed locally than any other habitat type. For instance, the meadows at UC Santa Cruz are constantly under threat.
Many of your favorite wildlife species love our meadows. Deer, bobcat, fox, weasel, badger, eagle, hawk, kite, falcon, kestrel, owl, and tule elk are grassland friends. Predators require the vast production of mice, voles, gophers, and moles that grasslands create.
Even if wildlife aren’t your thing (and you’d be very much in the minority there), you might appreciate the functions that grasslands play. Grasslands can break up and cool down wildfires that would otherwise move catastrophically across the landscape. Prairies can be huge carbon and water sponges, soaking up climate change pollutants and soaking in precipitation to replenish groundwater and meter out rains to keep springs, creeks, and rivers flowing later in the season. Many folks love grasslands for recreation: picnics, lying in the sun, walking through them – all worthwhile and important activities. Grassland openness makes way for many of those favorite views. Masses of spring wildflowers create giddy laughter and attract tourists.
Oh, and grasslands raise cows…
Cows on the Prairie: Moooo!
After the genocide of native peoples, after they were driven from their ancestral homes, the prairies would have disappeared were it not for cows. The next era of grassland disturbance was the ranching era. Yes, there was a prohibition against fire. No, there were no limits to grazing. The early ranchers put way too many cows on the landscape: there were famous drought incidents early in California where dead cows littered the landscape. There is a huge slug of sediment in the Monterey Bay that is thought to be erosion from poor grazing and agricultural practices of that era.
Gradually, we have adapted cattle management to this variable climate. Our grasslands create beef. Some of that is grassfed/grass finished beef where cattle live their entire lives on open range. That beef production keeps the meadows open. And the fact that cows make money keeps the land grazed.
What About Elk?
Tule elk graze much like cows, and so would keep the meadows open if they could. Studies at Point Reyes where tule elk roam show that that species does about the same thing as cows: they keep open areas where grasses and wildflowers flourish.
The trouble is, we don’t have any elk on the Monterey Bay. Why not?
There are tule elk just east and south of us- not very far if they wanted to get here. But, apparently tule elk don’t like going through forest…not like their close relatives Roosevelt elk. At the same time, some of those tule elk already crossed 101 down along Coyote Creek in the Coyote Valley south of San Jose, but they turned back. Those elk are closer than the ones across 101 from Prunedale or the ones at Ft. Hunter Liggett. If the tule elk crossed the highway in Coyote Valley and kept going westward, they would have to get around a bunch of houses here and there, but they’d have lots of good grasslands across the east range of the Santa Cruz Mountains. If they tried going more west, there isn’t a good chance that they would find a grassy corridor to our coast side grasslands. So, it will be many, many years until we get elk, unless someone finds a way to truck them here, and then they’d have to want to stay. Meanwhile, let’s find a way to support the types of grassland management we need to keep our meadows open.
-this post originally a part of Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com web blog, where I often contribute columns of ecological information from the Monterey Bay region.
Gusty winds and cold nights faded quickly to calmer breeze and warmer days. Now, the grass bolts quickly and everything goes to bloom. Lushness seems on the edge of fading, we don’t know how long the green will last. Already, the thinnest soils are turning tawny in the coastal facing prairies.
Fading Mud, To Dust
After the ground’s gushiness fades, the farmers work the ground. The fields are getting tilled. Cover crops are almost all gone, mowed and integrated into the soil. With the farm roads dry, in comes a compost delivery: fine organic crumbly brown piles getting distributed into some important places, including the orchards.
Orchard blossoms burst forth. The earliest flowers are past, cherry petals falling like snow, the first fruit seems to be setting…same with the plums, prunes, and apricots. Now, the apple trees start blossoming. Our one old gravenstein apple tree, with the earliest apples to ripen, is aglow in full bloom. Other apple trees are coming along, a diversity of flower colors, shapes, and sizes. Meanwhile, the vines…
Recently, our Two Dog Farm Wine endeavor has started returning deliciousness. The Bartles opened a bottle of their very own Chardonnay at a recent gathering and oh! the praise rang high! The promise of a larger harvest looms for this fall. The neatly pruned and tied vines are flushing leaves and flower clusters.
Elusive Wild Things
Scat is easier to see than the furries. Coyotes, bobcats, and weasels talking sh**, carefully placed to make inter- and intra-species statements, scatting. A small weasel spotted in the orchard, chicken owners worried. No bobcats for so long. Deer tracks but no deer. Skunk digging but no skunk.
And now suddenly a hundred types of flies buzzing about. Flies on poop, flies on flowers, flies frolicking in pairs tumbling on the ground. No face flies, yet, luckily. Clouds of midges, clouds of gnats. Different flies in the forest, different flies on the road.
The purple martin colony returned from way down south. This is one of two colonies in Santa Cruz County. They have the most distinctive, amazing throaty deep chirps. Goodness, they make a lot of noise. Glad to be back, I guess.
And the stranger noises are coming from the ravens. Maw and Caw are greeting friends passing through with their cluck-clicking patterns, rolling upside down, dipping and turning playfully. Perhaps a bit of this greeting is the kids coming back to say hello. Just the pair, mostly, but then there are brief visitations. The pair stand watch in the freshly tilled fields looking for the lost or injured rodents for lunch.
Two flickers poke and explore something in the ground. The thrasher sings a most refined and eloquent soliloquy.
Flap flap flap! 40 band tailed pigeons wheel across the sky and settle back into the walnut trees. Catkin feasts! It is a good time for the flock, bigger than in recent years.
Walnut leaves unfurl with the droopy elongation of the catkins that survive by sheer number the feasting of the pigeons. Poppy displays wash orange across the south-facing slopes across Molino Creek and brighten the grassy balds along the highway. Whorled lupines poke up from the sea of grasses in patches around the farm.
The Harvest One Gwen avocado reminds us about the fruit that this portion of the harvest season will one day bring. One Gwen tree does not enough avocados make. Ironically, the fructification of Spring is the hungriest time of year. Pre seed. Pre fruit.
– also simultaneously published at Molino Creek Farm’s website