Provocative Eucalyptus

This is reprinted from my weekly post as part of Bruce Bratton’s excellent weekly brattononline.com This post was modified from the original in response to critique by Gillian Greensite who has followed this issue for many years. My content was largely informed by a science conference on the subject, with a record of many materials here.

Many Californians have opinions about Eucalyptus. Either you are for them or against them. Its a subject like politics or religion that you hesitate to bring up at the dinner table. As with Covid-19 vaccination, you can’t predict who’ll be on what side (or why) – people of any political persuasion can surprise you with their beliefs. I’m betting that you know what I’m talking about…I didn’t even need to mention which of the hundreds of species of Eucalyptus I am talking about.

Eucalyptus Bad

The most common concern I hear about blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in California is how fire-dangerous it is. Locally, some recall the 2008 Trabing Fire just north of Watsonville, ignited on a hot day by a poorly running vehicle backfiring, and spitting out fire balls along Highway 1. Grass caught fire and quickly spread into nearby invasive pines, acacia and Eucalyptus (those have since regrown denser than before). That fire surprised fire-fighting professionals from how high embers were flying…hitting their fire monitoring planes at altitudes previously thought safe. They cited the architecture of Eucalyptus forests…the tall, close very vertical trunks create chimney-like conditions, hurling fiery brands much further than expected. Leaves with volatile oils and large amounts of bark and branches accumulated in the understory are other reasons for fire concern.

Eucalyptus Good

The most common defense of Eucalyptus I have encountered is its beauty. Our cityscapes have surprisingly few trees, but there are almost always huge Eucalyptus nearby. Many are fond of their massive trunks, shaggy bark, and towering, spreading canopies, shimmering with blue green leaves. I have seen many painters capturing the alluring patterns of rows of old Eucalyptus trees in many seasons, in many shades of light. A few people will dedicate their spare time and energy to protect big old Eucalyptus city trees from the too-frequent human desire to cut down trees.

What Do the Birds Say?

If birds are any indicator, Eucalyptus is good in some places and bad in other places. Birds like city trees including Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus adjacent to larger bodies of water are attractive to birds. You may have seen masses of herons and egrets using Eucalyptus as ‘rookeries’ where they raise their young. Trees near the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor are roosting areas for herons. The Eucalyptus grove south and inland of the Elkhorn Slough Bridge in Moss Landing has a huge rookery, with so many birds that their guano is killing the trees. Peregrine falcons were using the talk Eucalyptus near the river mouth for a while. Raptors like the tallest trees for nests and perches.

Gum Gone Wild

Eucalyptus in our area is considered to have a moderate threat of invasiveness, with regionally specific higher rate of spread in foggy areas and in areas with more water availability, especially along the Central Coast. As with so many Eucalyptus issues, this was once a source of controversy before Eric Van Dyke at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve demonstrated an 8 foot per year rate of spread of groves in northern Monterey County. Since then, many other examples of the species’ ability to spread in our region have been documented. Where Eucalyptus spreads into streamside habitats, there is a particularly bad impact for bird conservation.

River Gum Bad

Riverside or streamside (aka ‘riparian’) habitats are by far the most crucial targets for bird conservation in California. Most of these habitats have been highly altered and are no longer good habitat for wildlife. Many migratory birds visiting from the tropics nest in those habitats. The loss of riparian bird habitat compounds with the loss of tropical forests, and so these birds are particularly imperiled. Riparian ecosystems host many cavity nesting birds that favor holes in the soft wood of riparian trees like willows, cottonwoods, and alders. Eucalyptus trees quickly invade and transform diverse riparian forest, and cavities become much less common. Bird conservationists say that controlling Eucalyptus in riparian areas should be a ‘no brainer.’

Euc Pests

Some types of birds have recently been newly attracted to Eucalyptus because they like at least one of its natural pests that found its way to California. The blue gum psyllid is apparently tasty for birds such as warblers. I’m less sure if birds are eating other ‘new’ Eucalyptus pests: apparently a number of blue gum eating pests recently found their way to California. It used to be that Eucalyptus leaves were perfectly shaped, no damage- nothing ate them! Now, those leaves look like someone took a paper punch to them. Eucalyptus tortoise beetle are eating blue gum leaves – does anyone know if birds like to eat it or other of the new Euc pests?

The Arrival of Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus has a long history in California. It was widely planted in the 1870’s to address the ‘hardwood famine.’ Hardwood was becoming scarce because of its use as fuel for steam engines and heat, so there was a Eucalyptus planting boom. Eucalyptus was soon advertised as the solution to many problems: a fast-growing hardwood for fuel, people thought its wood could be used for railroad ties and other lumber, people said the tree would dry up wetlands and reduce mosquitoes, and its fast growth attracted people to plant it for windbreaks. People were buying large numbers of seedlings. Some advertised, promising investors good returns from productive Eucalyptus wood lots.

Hardwood, though, eventually lost favor to petroleum in California. But, if you travel to Central or South America, where hardwood is still important for fuel, you will notice many areas managed for Eucalyptus firewood.

Heavy and Twisty

It turned out that Eucalyptus wood twists and buckles when drying, so it was eventually recognized as useless for lumber. Well, almost. 15 years ago, someone claimed they had a process for drying Eucalyptus “correctly” so that it could be used lumber, including for picnic tables. They donated one to the organization I worked for…it weighed 250 pounds and took 4 people to move! After a couple of years it was impossible to use. It was so warped that when people sat on it, it rocked wildly about, and created a balancing challenge with people bobbing around spilling their drinks at vastly different elevations.

Perhaps this would be different if the wood were kept dry, indoors. Woodlots for Eucalyptus hardwood are still around, but you are more likely to see Eucalyptus spreading from old, planted windbreaks. Look carefully for the oldest biggest trees in a row with many generations of younger trees spreading from there. One thing remains true from the old hype: Eucalyptus does well at drying wetlands!

Drink it Up

With its huge canopy thick with leaves, Eucalyptus is known globally for its thirsty nature. Deforestation in its native home in Australia led to salinization of the soil from the evaporating heightened water table. Here in California, people note the loss of springs where Eucalyptus grows. Although closer scrutiny is needed, using transpiration rates from Eucalyptus elsewhere in similar climates, it is likely that a grove of Eucalyptus drinks most of the rainfall falling on it along our coast. This is much more water than native trees use. One day, one mitigation for new development that demands more water might be investment in Eucalyptus control.

Thinning and Containing

Given the fire danger and negative ecological and water impacts of most Eucalyptus groves, it is sad that they are still proliferating. To be sure, Eucalyptus control is an expensive proposition. Having felled several large trees, I can attest to the work it takes to clean up a fallen tree properly. The wood makes great firewood and is easy to split if you split it soon after felling. But there is an enormous amount of slash to deal with…chipping or burn piles- either way a lot of work. The stand-out organization for Eucalyptus control locally is State Parks. They are ‘thinning and containing’ some groves that people like to look at while obliterating others in ecologically sensitive areas. They realize that Eucalyptus control will cost more each year they wait, so they do what they can with the (too few) resources that our elected officials budget for them.

Fer it or Agin it?

After reading this, maybe you will have a more informed opinion about this provocative tree. It is my hope that you be ‘for’ the ones that grow near bodies of water or are city trees and ‘against’ the ones in riparian areas or spreading through our other precious native ecosystems.

Post Fire Early Winter Mixed Conifer Forest

The widespread mixed conifer forest in the hills of Santa Cruz County’s North Coast is drippy wet now, even between storms. Seventeen months ago, the CZU Lightning Complex Fire devoured tens of thousands of acres of mixed conifer forest just north of Santa Cruz. Now, there are thousands and thousands of stark blackened standing dead trees. There are also living and resprouting trees. The dead and the living conifers tower over a wet, glistening, vibrantly green, and lush understory. It is slippery and hikeable now, but as the trees fall and the brush grows up it will become impossible to explore until the next fire…a decade away.

The lush post fire understory of a mixed conifer forest. Above Davenport, CA December 2021

What is Mixed Conifer Forest?

Mixed conifer forest is our most common forest type. While it is true that we have patches of redwood-dominated forest and patches of Douglas fir-dominated forest, many areas have a mix of the two. At the larger scale, peering out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, all of the local forested landscape includes a mix of conifers – redwood, Douglas fir, knobcone pine, ponderosa pine, Monterey pine, and Santa Cruz cypress. Where Douglas fir and coast redwood co-dominate, this type of mixed conifer forest hosts a mix of plants and animals that are distinct to this habitat type. Low light levels from a high, dense canopy and a preponderance of difficult to digest resinous needles are important factors determining what else can live in this habitat type.

Flaming Bark

The mixed conifer forests burned unevenly in August of 2020. Douglas fir trees take a little coaxing, but coast redwood trees take real convincing, to burn. There are many more fire-killed Douglas firs than redwoods. During the last two fires, I watched both redwood and Douglas fir trees catch on fire. Fire seemed to race up Douglas fir trunks, spewing sparks and crackling away whereas redwood trunk flames were slower to move up the tree and was less sparky and noisy.

Unlike redwood, Douglas fir trunks are covered with sticky sap that ignites easily. I heard a story about a teenager that thought it would be fun use a lighter to light some sap on fire on the side of a tree and very shortly needed the help of the fire department to put out the flaming tree, which was threatening the family home.

Glowing Holes

For weeks after the initial fire storm, glowing spots throughout the forest decorated the night. Mostly, these were the smoldering stumps of trees that had died long before the fire. In the mixed conifer forest, there were many dead or dying madrones and tan oaks that had been shaded out. These hardwood stumps made for some hot holes that burned for days. Some smaller Douglas fir trees had also died before the fire, but they burned up quicker.  There are now quite a few treacherous holes making forest hiking more interesting.

Solanum sp, Nemophila sp, Claytonia sp., and more…all covering the post fire forest floor

Understory Greens

The rains have germinated 3” deep shag carpets of lush herbs and hydrated huge patches of shorter bright mosses below blackened tree trunks. Miner’s lettuce, phacelias, and weedy forget-me-nots make the carpet. In patches, taller plants like hedge nettle, blackberry, nightshade and many other plants add to the hillsides of bright green. Many areas are already dotted with white, pink, or purple blossoms brought on by the winter rains and encouraged by warm bright days between storms. A lot more sunlight hits the forest floor now. Where there are patches of live trees, the understory is less thick. In some places, the fire left small hillside meadows, without any trees at all.

The forest soil is still black and slippery with soot and ash. During each of my recent forest hikes, I have slipped and would have tumbled a long way were it not for my grip on the very strong 4’ tall redwood basal sprouts. The soil, in the hotter burned places where the understory herb seeds were destroyed, is covered by strikingly bright mosses littered by needles and small branches blown from the few remaining live trees somewhere uphill or up wind.

Post Fire Wildlife

The burning of the mixed conifer forests means more food for more birds: redwood and Douglas fir forests normally have few seed producing plants, but that’s changed now. In mixed coniferous forest, deer have little to eat; now, the forest floor is covered with deer food. It is easy to see the birds and easy to find the deer tracks. Sharp deer hooves, forming new trails, cut through mosses and lush hillside wildflowers, exposing forest soil. The tracks crisscross the steep hills, patches of tasty miner’s lettuce chewed off. I’ve been seeing deer beds of very flattened understory plants, mostly on level spots along old logging roads. Expect healthy coats on momma deer, more big antlered bucks and spotted big eyed deer twins navigating the hills on dainty legs this spring. Mountain lions prefer dark forest to move around, but they’ll be enjoying more food while the forest canopy grows back.

Fire Makes Beaches and Bonfires

Mostly, the forest floor is healing, and little erosion has been happening. The exception is where humans created roads during the early logging days. To create roads on hills, people carved uphill and dumped the soil they removed downhill. This is called ‘cut and fill’ road engineering. Sometimes the fill side buried logs and stumps which burned under these old roads in the recent fire. Now, the uphill scar is unstable in many places, the fire having destroyed the stabilizing plants. Between burned out fill sides and steep, less vegetated cut sides…there is lots of erosion. Throughout the fire, you can find large and small scallops of hillside slumping onto the old roads or downhill from the roads towards the creeks. Besides being activated post-fire, this legacy of disturbance is most evident now that you can better see the soil surface across the hillsides.

With the couple large storms we had, streams have been carrying soil and logs. Local streams are flowing with mud, as evidenced by the ocean’s big brown plume up and down the coast right after the last storm. That mud will sort out and the sand part will become our beaches- bigger beaches after fires? We’ll see.

One local stream was more black then brown for a while- probably because of ash and soot. Streams are also carrying logs. Judging from the scouring of streamsides, streams have been blocked by post fire logs (ever encounter the term ‘logjam?’); those blockages eventually give way and are swept downstream with great force, battering and baring stream banks downstream and far up their banks. Those logs become driftwood on the fire-augmented sandy beaches. That driftwood will become the bonfires for rocking all night parties that the Coastal Commission has just sanctioned by mandating the creation of 24-hour parking lots from Santa Cruz to Davenport. So, part of the post wildfire wildlife effects will be the noisy, blazing, smoky disturbance of whatever shorebirds were counting on nocturnal refuge on those once peaceful beaches. The CZU mixed conifer forest flames will carry on for human and non-human animals alike, for better or for worse.

Douglas Fir Forests

– this is another of my weekly posts reprinted from Bruce Bratton’s admirable weekly e-news publication at brattononline.com

According to tradition, people are hauling Douglas fir trees into their homes and decorating them for annual winter rituals. Some purchase dense, pruned trees, while others harvest spindly saplings from the woods (aka “Charlie Brown trees”). Soon, strings of lights cast needle shadows on the walls and ceiling, infants gurgle and sputter with delight, wide eyed at the beauty. The unique Douglas fir scent fills the air – a bright lemony pine smell. Hallways are festooned with ribboned Douglas fir garlands and people weave fir wreaths to decorate doors. In breaks between storms, on crisp cool days, we saunter into the forest, catching fresh fir scent moist with rain, sparkling in the foggy, low-angled sun rays.

Mouse Tales

Douglas fir is not a real fir- it’s a pseudo-fir, creating cones distinguished from genuine fir cones by having “the tail ends of mice” sticking out the cone. Check it out sometime- there really are what looks like two back legs with an accompanying tail poking out, so cones look like a bevy of mice are feasting on Douglas fir seeds.

The cone decoy seems to have worked, evolutionarily speaking. From Northern California though Canada, Douglas fir is the sole home of red tree mice. These mice live high in canopies and feed on only on needles. On huge branches among the complex old growth Douglas fir canopy, they maintain long lived, wickedly well-designed homes that include rooms with specific uses. If they aren’t careful while they are out harvesting needles, a spotted owl will eat them – red tree mice are a favorite and important food for this equally endangered bird. We’re apparently too far south for the red tree mouse- Santa Cruz is the near the southern end of Douglas fir’s range, and maybe there aren’t enough thick forests, or too frequent of fire, for these little critters.

Northward Ho!

Moisture-loving conifers have been retreating northward for a few thousand years, and Douglas fir may also be headed that way. There are layers of grand fir pollen up until just 15,000 years ago in the sediments of a pond in northern Santa Cruz County. The nearest grand fir is in Sonoma County, nowadays. South of here, if you look at the forest on either side of highway one south of Freedom Boulevard, you’ll see a few widely spaced straggly Douglas firs – those trees look like similar to those in the hills above Elkhorn. And that’s as far south as they go along the coast. But, north of there you’ll notice that they don’t appear to be having trouble making thick forests.

Rock Scissors Paper (Douglas fir wins)

In the rush to capture the sun, Douglas fir quickly wins against all but the coast redwood around here. Look at most any of our majestic coast live oak forests, and you’ll see Douglas fir trees winding their flexible leaders between old oak branches. Play that forward, and those oak trees will be toast, shaded and outcompeted for water by these highly invasive conifers. Douglas firs are also invading coastal scrub and coastal prairie.

Pull ‘em Up, Chop ‘em Down

Kat Anderson reported to me documentation that tribal peoples have long pulled Douglas fir seedlings as part of their tending of oak groves. The tribal peoples took over from the tree-invasion prohibiting Pleistocene megafauna. Just north of here, a remarkable recent turn of events saw reintroduction of native people land stewardship with collaboration between the Amah Mutsun and State Parks. The Quiroste village site was once in a matrix of super diverse, well-tended coastal prairie framed by managed oak woodlands, but for the last hundred years, without stewardship, those systems succumbed to Douglas fir invasion. After careful planning, and with some controversy, the tribe and State Parks have been restoring the site by clearing Douglas firs…almost like the old days, but the trees got bigger and so it takes saws and a lot of work to remove them. With their work, the area is becoming more species rich and more fire safe.

Doug Fir, Associates

While coastal prairies and coast live oak forests are much more species rich, Douglas fir forests do have their own set of interesting species associates. Instead of tree mice harvesting Douglas fir needles around here, we get ants. Anywhere there are Douglas firs in the Santa Cruz Mountains, you’ll find 2’ tall piles of needles teaming with ants. These are Formica integroides, a mushroom farming ant, growing their fungi food in piles of Douglas fir needles. This needle harvesting critter forms armies of harvesters walking in long and sometimes wide lanes across and down human trails: watch out…don’t be rude by stepping on them!

Orchids also seem to like growing in Douglas fir forests. Also at its southern range limit, the gorgeous Calypso orchid has been documented with ephemeral populations at UCSC and near Davenport (both gone now), but has a somewhat famous large population under a north-facing Douglas fir forest in Butano State Park. Coral root orchids also seem to prefer Douglas fir forests. Curiously, ground nesting ‘yellow jacket’ wasps seem to key into coral root populations under Douglas fir. So, maybe look very carefully before walking off trail to get a closer look at the subtle but beautiful colors of coral root orchids.

Timber!

“Douglas fir doesn’t pay for itself to harvest.” That’s what local foresters tell me. By the time they do the timber harvest planning, go through the regulatory process, carefully fell the trees, trim and haul the few logs they find that aren’t damaged/diseased, mill and dry the wood, they can’t recoup their investment because someone elsewhere has produced a similar board, cheaper. The Pacific northwest and Canada, with more lax forestry regulations and healthier Douglas fir trees, are creating cheaper Douglas fir (and similar) 2x4s for sale. So, for many years, we’ve been growing some large Douglas firs on the area’s timber lands.

Then came the CZU fire…now, there are thousands of large and small standing dead Douglas fir trees: what should we do? If left, these trees will gradually fall over and create a Giant Fire Hazard. The next fire, spreading through those hundreds of acres of log piles, will be very intense, torching whatever trees tried to recover and scorching the soil badly. It will be a hot fire storm, to a great extent our fault.

Biomass Fuels?

If you have toured the CZU Lightning Complex Fire area, you have probably noticed piles and piles of logs. Burned up trees are dangerous to houses, roads, and power lines, so they must be felled and hauled away. “Away” is an odd word…mostly it means a landfill (another odd word). Ever throw something away? It is instructive to visit ‘away’ at the end of Dimeo Lane or near Buena Vista. We must find a new ‘away’ soon, but no one wants ‘away’ near their homes or over their groundwater. Piles of post fire logs will fill up landfills quickly, especially with more frequent fires. Why not use modern technology and turn those logs into electricity? There are new carbon-neutral, mobile wood-fired power plants that burn wood, make electricity, and create ‘biochar’ that has been shown to be a useful soil amendment for agriculture. Keep your fingers crossed that we might get one of these at one of our local landfills sometime soon. That way, when you throw something ‘away’ that can be safely burned, you’ll be making your own electricity and enriching agricultural soils.

Chalks Chaparral

– this is another reprint from my post to Bruce Bratton’s most insightful brattononline.com weekly.

The Chalks stretches from above Año Nuevo into Big Basin south through the Lockheed property and then down many tiny ridges above Scott Creek and the Swanton community. Even before the CZU Fire, the ridges appeared from afar curiously white, like chalk. The earliest Old World explorers wrote in their log books about that striking whiteness. The barren white ridges are on account of extremely poor soil, mostly fractured rock. that limits the ability for vegetation to thrive. The vegetation that can make it is a unique type of chaparral.

Most people see The Chalks on their drive south on Highway One just north of Año Nuevo, South of Franklin Point as they pass the Coastanoa Resort. Look inland and you’ll see lots of broken ridges: those are The Chalks.

Much of The Chalks is on private property. Some is on what is known as “Lockheed Martin Space Systems” at the very end of Empire Grade. That area also contains a 1000-acre private property called “Lehi Park” a recreational and camping spot owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For public visitation, you’ll have to wait until Big Basin opens again…it’s still closed due to the last big fire. Meanwhile, you must settle for viewing from afar.

The Pines

At the top of the steep and erosive bluffs north of and above Waddell Creek, wind-blown, lichen strewn Monterey Pines form the chalks chaparral overstory, but their genes might make them something other than pure Monterey Pines. This is the home of one of only five native Monterey Pine stands. The others are on the Monterey Peninsula, around Cambria, and on two islands off of Baja – Cedros and Guadalupe. Monterey pines are the most planted forestry tree in the world, and the seeds of the ‘radiata pine’ created bred for those forestry plantings came from the Año Nuevo stand, where Monterey pine hybridizes with knobcone pine. Monterey pine occurs lower in elevation, and more deeply in frequent thick fog; Knobcone pine is found higher and hotter and dryer. In between, there are pines that look like both, and the globally planted forestry tree looks like one of those tweeners. As the birthplace of this confusing but useful forestry tree, The Chalks has its tree ambassador planted by the millions, all over the world. And yet, this tree isn’t the only famous bit of Chalks botany…there are also some world-famous manzanita species.

The Manzanitas

Chalks Chaparral includes 7 species of manzanitas, and there are two common, more widespread ones that dominate and two very rare species that only occur in this habitat. The most common species is brittle leaved manzanita, a widespread burl-forming species, and the subject of a previous essay. The other common species is the sensitive manzanita. Sensitive manzanita has small roundish shiny dark green leaves, making it look like the boxwood of the chaparral. Mixed in with these two species, there are two other manzanita species- two which exist nowhere else in the world: Ohlone manzanita and Schreiber’s manzanita. Each of these locally endemic manzanitas are very uncommon even in The Chalks and grow entirely on private property, so you can’t visit them outside of the UCSC Arboretum’s Conservation Garden. There might be as few as 100 Ohlone manzanita plants in the entire world!

You can, however, view photos of Shreiber’s manzanita from a 1939 expedition that led to its discovery. One photo archived by UC Berkeley shows a big manzanita surrounded by knobcone pines and chamise. Another photo has an overview of the habitat showing the large amount of bare ground with sparse manzanitas, pines and few oaks; that 1935 photo suggests a fire as recent as 14 years previously. The next fire was to be 8 years later in 1948.

You might be wondering about the other three manzanitas you can find on The Chalks. They are: Santa Cruz manzanita, silver leaf manzanita, and the crinite manzanita. On a rare California Native Plant Society field trip through the Lockheed property in the 1990s, we saw all 7 species within a short walk of one of our stops.

The Trails and Views

The best places to access The Chalks are in Big Basin State Park, now closed because of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire…but, put those trails on your list when it reopens. Whether from the coast or from inland, your destination are the ridges around Chalk Mountain. The trails wind on ridgelines with gorgeous views of the ocean overlooking Año Nuevo Island and a vast expanse of the ocean. On a clear day, you can see Point Reyes and the Farallon Islands to the north and Point Sur to the South.

Another place to aim for is Eagle Rock out of Little Basin. Eagle Rock is an isolated bit of sandstone on the eastern flank of The Chalks. The views from Eagle Rock expand eastward more than you might see from Chalk Mountain. The trail goes through a kind of chaparral closely allied to The Chalks, but with less rock showing than elsewhere.

Fires and Seeds

Both the 2009 and 2020 wildfires spread initially through The Chalks chaparral, same as the 1948 Pine Mountain fire. Those watching the 2009 fire said they saw what looked like fire tornados launching from one ridge and igniting the next ridge down wind. No one was watching for the more recent fire, which spread even more quickly. Both fires triggered fire-following seeds to germinate.

The most widespread and obvious fire following seedlings are bush poppies. Most of The Chalks will still be barren next summer (as before the fire), but patches of chest high blue-green bush poppy shrubs will be flowering with their bright yellow flowers next summer. I have tried everything to germinate those bush poppy seeds, including the recommended soak in white gasoline, presumably to break down its seed coat. But, after the fire…seedlings pop up all over.

The Chalks and the Rare Human Animal

Humans are rare in The Chalks. The Lockheed facility had, at its peak, hundreds of employees visiting this chaparral regularly, for work. But then much of it burned, and it is unclear if they will continue to operate the facility in the future. The Lehi property is also mostly ephemerally visited by people. The most common place to find humans in The Chalks had been out Last Chance Road where a culture all its own had homes sprinkled around patches of beautiful chaparral. That community, also, burned in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire.

Much of what we know about the natural history of places is gleaned by humans who make habits of visiting those places and looking carefully at what’s around them. Historically, few people have wandered into The Chalks with an eye to natural history. Shreiber’s 1930’s era Chalks visit mentioned above highlighted the area to natural history enthusiasts with the discovery of a new manzanita species (and those intriguing photographs!). Then there’s Jim West, a botanist extraordinaire endemic to the Swanton area, who has brought The Chalks to the attention of many other naturalists, in part because of his discovery of the other new manzanita species. His work has led to a kind of Chalks revival with a new focus on vegetation mapping bringing a host of new naturalists’ attention to that area. There is much more to be discovered in The Chalks – who will be the next person to find something amazing up there? Post fire recovery may have many surprises…

Rest Under the Laurels

– another regular post reprinted from my weekly column with Bruce Bratton’s brattononline.com

With their shiny, fragrant leaves and pale-yellow flowers, bay laurel trees (or just ‘bay trees’) grace our forests and are a tree worth recognizing…there’s nothing with which to confuse them. If you’ve been following this column, you’ll note that I encourage you to learn at least the trees in our area. There really aren’t that many types of trees, say compared to the 80 tree species I had to learn in my 8th grade biology class in Georgia where the forests are much more tree diverse. And “back east,” most of the trees lose their leaves so you have to learn subtle bark characteristics for half of the year. Bay trees are particularly easy if only from the scent of their leaves. Still, I find many people don’t rely on their nose to identify plants- a lost opportunity. Learning to identify trees, and paying attention to the trees around you, is a gateway into ‘seeing nature’ and being more present with the world around you. Through the distribution of trees, you’ll come to better understand wildlife, soils, hydrology, and so much more.

Spot the Bay

To find them, aim for the darkest part of the forest and there you’ll find a bay tree. These evergreen trees cast deep shade, and little grows under them. Wind rustling through long, thin, waxy leaves of bay trees sounds like rain. Walking on the cast-off leaves under a tree can be slippery. With age, the leaves are often covered with black mildew, but without that the fallen leaves are ochre, fading to a light tan-brown. Please don’t pass up a tree without gathering some leaves and sniffing them: no matter how many times I do it, I never regret it. With some practice, maybe you can conjure the scent even without smelling the leaves.

On warm days, when trees are in full bloom, the sweet perfume from the flowers carries a long way with a citrus blossom aroma with a slight hint of cinnamon. They are starting to bloom right now.  I saw some new blossoms in Hageman Gulch adjacent to Arana Gulch recently. Spent flowers litter the ground as they drop off. You might still find bits and pieces of the last part of the fruit right now, too.

Where to Find Them

Some say that Swanton’s Scott Creek valley once had stands of magnificently large bay laurels and the few large remaining ones burned in the recent fire and are now resprouting. Pogonip Greenbelt as well as Wilder Ranch and Nisene Marks State Parks have stands of bay trees along many of the trails. The last ones I encountered were on moist north-facing slopes in western Wilder Ranch growing alongside live oaks; the bays and oaks there were in process of succumbing to competition with conifers, towering above them. The places bay trees thrive is where fire returns from time to time.

Fire Tree

Bay trees erupt in flames during a wildfire, and then sprout quickly back after the fire from their basal burl. One day, if you are enjoying a campfire, throw a few bay leaves on it to enliven the party. The leaves pop and crackle loudly, sending out sparks – evidence of the oils in the leaves. After our 2020 fire, bay trees were sprouting up two-foot-tall tender shoots a couple months after the fire. You often see bay trees with many trunks- probably because of the survival of more than one of those post-fire sprouts. The sprouting nature of bay trees allows them to leap up above the competing vegetation and to send out fruit in just a year or two after a fire, providing seedlings a better chance of establishment. But the seeds are a coveted cache.

Fruit

Squirrels, pack rats, mice, and jays love to eat bay “nuts,” which are also been popular with certain people. Although bay trees are relatives of avocados, and the fruit looks like a little avocado, there isn’t much flesh, which is only edible for a brief moment when ripe. The ripe fruit can be bright green or a deep purple. The nut is a better bet than the thin skin for eating, but you must roast it first. It is oily and if roasted just right tastes a bit like a roasted cocoa bean. Some people say they feel a bit wired after eating a few. No one I know has liked them so much that they repeatedly go to the effort of processing them, though native peoples are noted to have eaten them.

Medicine

After I led a barefoot friend of mine into a stand of chestnuts for a harvest (ouch!), he got even with me a year later with a bay leaf. We were hiking through a local forest, and he noted that I sounded congested, but I was in luck- he had a remedy close at hand! He handed me a bay leaf and told me to roll it up like a tube, put it in my stopped up nose and breathe in through it deeply. And so, I did. I was able to remain standing, but just barely. At first, it felt like someone had punched me hard in the nose. The burning sensation spreading deep into my sinuses wouldn’t go away quick enough. I do not recommend this kind of medicine, not even as a practical joke. But there might be ways of inhaling the leaf scent with less vigor, which might be a treatment for congestion. Native peoples used the leaves for treatment of arthritis and for clearing fleas out of houses. Wood rats also use the leaves to get rid of insects in their houses.

Life on the Bay

I first learned bay trees not only by their leaf scent but also by their shelf fungus. There’s a shelf fungus that is on almost all older bay trees. This is called Ganoderma brownii and it is tough like wood. The top of it is often the same color as the bay tree’s bark- a dark brown, though sometimes it is lighter. The underside is white to cream.

Sudden Oak Death

Bay trees have gotten a bad rap as of late as they are hosts to an invasive pathogenic organism named sudden oak death. Local evergreen oaks growing under and adjacent to bay trees are threatened by a heavy rain of sudden oak death spores of falling off bay tree leaves. If you have a stand of these oaks that you want to save, it is suggested you cut out the bay trees that grow right next to them or above them. But, if you are considering cutting them down, you might want first to contact a woodworker.

The Wood

Bay laurel trees’ light to very dark wood is very beautiful and is used for furniture and musical instruments. Some people call it myrtle wood or Oregon myrtle. I haven’t encountered recent furniture made with it, but I once saw a hundred-year-old chest of drawers made from bay wood which looked like it had been made from American chestnut. After writing that, I looked on the internet and see that there are hundreds of very fine pieces of craftsperson- made furniture and musical instruments made with bay tree wood. Sometimes, I see that people use the burl wood for an extra dashing look.

Tending Bay

Our forests would not be the same without bay trees, but I haven’t anyone restoring or planting the species in their landscapes. If you have a place for one, for the shade or for a privacy screen, you might consider planting one. Generally, it isn’t the fastest growing tree- maybe two feet a year at first but settling into one foot a year as it matures. If you keep the branches limbed up high off the ground, they might even help with the fire hazard. Bay trees serve well as part of a ‘shaded fuel break’ that is low maintenance because they suppress understory growth, reducing the need for mowing or shrub clearing. Plus, you’ll be creating food for wildlife for generations to come, and maybe a fine wood source for future craftspeople.

Brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral

– This is another of my posts from Bruce Bratton’s (highly recommended!) weekly at brattononline.com

The rains bring alive chaparral, so this is the beginning of a series featuring local types of “hard chaparral.” The term chaparral is confusing, so I use the term ‘hard chaparral’ to denote chaparral dominated by manzanitas, chamise, and ceanothus. Hard chaparral is so thick and dense and strong as to tear the clothes off of you if you are strong enough to try to walk through it. Rarely, you might crawl beneath the hard chaparral canopy. Nothing grows in the understory – there is only a light dusting of leaves – but you must squinch low while crawling…to 1 ½ feet… and wiggle down on the ground in tight spots; wearing a hat helps so that your hair doesn’t get caught and pulled out by manzanita’s stiff twigs.

Hard chaparral is different than ‘soft chaparral’ – also known as coastal scrub – which is dominated at first by coyote bush, then, later in life, poison oak, monkeyflower, and sagebrush. Soft chaparral generally grows on richer soils, closer to the coast. Hard chaparral grows on the poorest of soils, often with no discernable soil at all. Ridgelines and steep slopes mostly away from the immediate coast are home to hard chaparral.

In hard chaparral, along with the manzanitas you will find many other shrubs and an overstory of pines. Sometimes sparse, sometimes dense, knobcone pines are the more common pine, but there’s a Monterey pines overstory near Año Nuevo. Oaks and Douglas firs slowly invade brittle-leaved manzanita chaparral until you eventually get a few forlorn dying shrubs or even just old barely recognizable skeletons that tell you the chaparral is gone, for now (awaiting fire!).

Brittle-leaved Manzanita Chaparral

Brittle-leaved manzanita is the dominant species of most of Santa Cruz’ hard chaparral. Smooth maroon skin with sinewy muscle-like ripples down thick, strong stems – that’s what most people remember about brittle leaved manzanitas, but the flowers and burls also give them away.

If they aren’t already in bloom, they will be soon. They have clusters of pure white to pink jewel flowers – upside down urns with windows to capture and magnify light, so the flowers glow on even foggy-cloudy days. Bopping from one cluster of flowers to the next…hundreds of bumble bees delight in the winter nectar feast. Hummingbirds, too, zip around sipping from the flowers. On warm days in December and January, brittle leaved chaparral smells strongly of honey, a scent which enchantingly wafts far afield, down into the woody canyons below.

Burly Shrubbies

Of the nine taxa of manzanitas found in Santa Cruz County, brittle leaved manzanita (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crustacea) is the most common and one of only two that have ‘basal burls’ or lignotubers. The other burly manzanita is a different subspecies of the same species (Arctostaphylos crustacea subspecies crinita), that is mostly found at the top of Ben Lomond Mountain, from the Bonny Doon Airport north to Lockheed. To see burls on these manzanitas, look at the base of the stems for a swelling, sometimes quite large, of lumpy wood. These are very easy to see after a fire, because that’s where these manzanitas sprout new shoots. That’s their magic: the ability to get hotly scorched, fire removing all of the branches, and still live. Up pop the shoots as soon as the rains come…and three years later, there’s a Big Shrub once again where the last one stood.

Locations and Co-Occurring Treats

The tops of our parks are great places to visit this type of chaparral. The top of Wilder Ranch State Park, in what used to be known as Gray Whale Ranch, and into upper UCSC, has patches of brittle leaved manzanita chaparral. The top of Nisene Marks State Park also has stands of this chaparral type. Other places include Mount Madonna County Park, as well as Big Basin and Castle Rock State Parks. From the edges of trails, a wintertime treat will also be Indian warrior, a bright maroon perennial wildflower which forms large mats. Shooting stars and various rein orchids also sprout trailside in clear patches of this type of chaparral.

Another thing about wintertime chaparral visits that is intriguing are the lichens, mosses, and liverworts that color and texture the chaparral. Liverworts, in this dry habitat?? Yes! Get off your bike and kneel at that bare-soiled edge adjacent to the chaparral…look carefully…and you’ll see liverworts (and hornworts!) hugging the ground in between mosses and ground-hugging lichens. The intrepid will get to see more and more species by counting the number of different types of tiny things in those patches, which are kept bare by the golden crowned sparrows who retreated when you came their way.

Critters

Sure, chaparral is for the birds, and that’s not a bad thing. And yet, it’s not just for birds. Wrentits are the quintessential shrub habitat bird, and I also like watching the large-curved billed California thrasher. Wrentits bop around below the canopy, mostly, but pop up out on a branch to make their subtle descending ping-pong ball bouncing song. California thrashers, also understory creepers, sometimes jet out onto a high point in a chaparral patch and sing their hearts out with operatic glory.

The San Francisco Dusky Footed Woodrat makes homes on the outer periphery of brittle leaved chaparral patches. It seems this packrat likes oaks and coffee berry more than manzanitas, but manzanitas keep coyote at bay, so having that habitat at their backs is a preferred location. Ratttlesnakes like wood rats…and the summer heat of chaparral…so, that’s a good snake species to associate with hard chaparral. Rats and rattlesnakes….?

What Good Is It?

Brittle-leaved chaparral is good for lots, but unfortunately it is getting destroyed very quickly nowadays. Nutrient poor soils lost their nutrients because they are well drained. Well drained soils are important for recharging the groundwater, keeping our streams flowing and drenching our thirst. Because this hard chaparral can thrive in nutrient poor soils, it is responsible for keeping those slopes from washing into the creeks and for keeping our groundwater infiltration areas infiltrating. Those sprouting burls…they send roots out on steep slopes after fire, preventing landslides and debris flows from destroying homes and roads.

Mowing It Down

Despite ostensibly being protected, brittle leaved manzanita chaparral is getting hacked up at an alarming rate. Now that fire has our attention, bulldozers are hard at work ripping up manzanita burls to make ‘fire safe’ areas. Crushers, masticators, and saws whittle away manzanitas as if they were enemies. When asked, County Planners have said that they have policies to protect this habitat type- they don’t allow development activities within it. The California Coastal Commission also ostensibly protects this type of ‘maritime chaparral’ as an endangered ecosystem, disallowing any destruction. And yet, even from Highway 1, you can see vast patches of chaparral being destroyed on the ridges above Watsonville. Parks organizations are mowing it down even on conservation lands to be doing ‘their part’ with fire safety. From Southern California, we have learned that treating chaparral this way isn’t a solution to wildfire: it generally grows up patches of weeds, which are even more flammable, less able to hold slopes in place, and no replacement for the habitat value of hard chaparral.

What I hope for is more people showing others how to live safely, and sustainably, alongside manzanita chaparral that is well cared for. If you know of any places, please let me know.

The Quietest Whisper, Goodbye

– this is the last of my regular posts from the Molino Creek Farm blog for 2021, stay tuned for more regular posts February 2022.

A recent sunset, captured just below Molino Creek Farm along Warrenella Road

For now, I put down my farm tools and stow them oiled and sharp, ready for next Spring. In the orchard, we coil hoses, hang irrigation pipes among the branches high off the ground so they don’t get buried and inadvertently mowed. We cut free and pile remaining tree props and haul and spread the last of the chipped oak branch mulch.

Apple leaves slowly fall, holding on long with fading yellow beauty. The last of fall’s leaves won’t drop until January, the fruit trees revel in the cool moisture after being blown by dry air during the long summer. But the fading light of shortening days push the orchard trees into their necessary and healthy sleep. Even we feel this pull.

Togetherness

The long cool still nights descend rapidly, driving us indoors early to stoke woodstoves and await the roaring warmth. We shed clothes and gaze at firelight, relaxing into the many-hour evenings. It is time to gather sometimes with family, sometimes with friends. Some find these gatherings especially precious from a year spent in solitude and self-reflection. Sparkling eyes greet us, loving words spoken close to our ears during long greeting hugs. Some are no longer with us or will soon be gone. We feel the losses more keenly during the gatherings, close to the warmth of others…spontaneous hushed moments we dare not fill.

Whence the Feasts?

Sighing, we raise from our chairs and head for the kitchen, for this is a season of feasts. The food is from farms. Somewhere in our minds, we hope at least some of our grocery purchases support family farms…maybe that farmer’s market trip helped keep family farming alive. Sometimes it does!

Some say we need to be thinking about new farming models, cooperatives combined with higher wages and increasing food costs, where broader support helps free farming families from the 80-hour weeks that’s required to pay the bills, to raise and support children. For cooperatives to work, we need to find a way to get along, to work together, and we also need for people to be willing to pay more for food. We desperately need more young farmers.

As we eat our food, as we chew, imagine the people it took, the many jobs and steps it took to bring that food to your mouth. Picture the water…the rich soil…the sun that helped produce your food and the tender hearts of (aging) farmers who smile proudly as they reflect on each stage of growing their crops. The newly tilled field, and the sowing. The seedlings planted…eventually the first flowers, then the tiny new fruit. There’s also the watering, the pest control, the nurturing propping and pruning, and, eventually, the harvest. Right livelihood. Good food. Favorite recipes. Big feasts.

In Between, Walks

Those who are able, take walks between meals, enjoying the squinty-bright sun and catching the remaining fall color. Poison oak leaves still dot the hillsides with red, and a few maple leaves remain yellow on the ground. Across much of the wildland, there are no flowers- except in the chaparral, where the manzanitas have just the past few days burst with clusters of bloom. Hummingbirds move upslope to the manzanita patches, or feed on landscape plants; they are also spending lots of time eating bugs. Step carefully on your forest walks…there are slow moving newts moving around!

Wild Brethren

Like us, nonhuman animals are also resting between feasts. This is the break they get between periods of raising the young. I heard the peeping of a young begging towhee, the only young bird sound for the last month. The wild farm birds are the most frightened I’ve ever seen them because we have two Norther Harriers patrolling every hour of each day. When that pair are farther away, out come hundreds of sparrows, juncos, and goldfinches furtively feeding on whatever they can peck. Then, alarm calls and swooshes, they dive into the bushes to avoid the bird-killing Harriers, one right after the other. Silence. Long silence, watchful eyes, and then tentative peeps and the brave ones creep from cover to feed once again, the more cautious ones eventually following.

Nonhumans Alike

Like us, these critters are gathering and holding together with friends and family, loving each other. All day, they watch out for one another…peeping, chipping and singing their language of safety, satisfaction or danger. They go to roost early, an hour before sunset, settling into the thick cover of oak or shrub canopies for these long winter nights. There, with the quietist whispers they tell their stories, sharing their experiences after they sidle up snuggly and cozy to keep each other warm. Like us, they remember the voices of those lost, the uniqueness of the personalities snuffed by fate, taken by the Harrier or by sickness, or by old age.

Last night, two sister quails fussed about not having quite enough space on the most comfortable branch near the top of the thick canopy of an incense cedar. They chucked and chucked, whirring their wings against one another and into the surround branches, trying to make more room before eventually scrunching in and settling down. Tonight, there is more space on that, the best of the high branches, and a bobcat is curled in deep sleep with a full belly…a pile of feathers will take a while to melt into the grass and decay. The remaining sister misses her warmth and her stories but now turns to another of her kin for such comfort…listening closely to the familiar tone and pace of their murmurs, sharing meandering feelings at the end of their day, until the last low chatter brings sleep to the covey and the silence of the night settles under the dark and twinkling sky.

Unusual Ponds

– this another post from Bruce Bratton’s artfully produced BrattonOnline weekly.

Humans make ponds wherever we can. I bet you can think of half a dozen created ponds easily. Fountains, reflecting pools, “water features,” agricultural ponds, and cattle ponds are scattered across this landscape. Because of our innate affinity for water, we find these artificial ponds beautiful, and when we see the frogs, snakes or salamanders floating around them, we smile. If most of the ponds were created by people, here did those frogs come from, originally? Why are they here?

Natural ponds are odd anywhere, but especially unusual around this Mediterranean region. It makes sense that ponds fill with gradually with soil and muck and disappear with time; and yet, there are old natural ponds. Without human assistance, very specific circumstances must be aligned to create a divet in the earth large and big enough to hold water and qualify as a pond. Without people, something powerful has to occur to keep a pond deep and wet. The powerful and mysterious natural forces that create and maintain ponds have also helped to create a wealth of critters in natural ponds that have been roaming the landscape enjoying the more recent human-created ponds.

There are five natural types of ponds along the Central Coast: sag ponds, vernal pools, dune slack, oxbow, and cave ponds. Sag ponds are the majority of the region’s ponds and were created and are maintained by earthquake faults. Vernal pools sometimes get big enough to qualify as ponds and arte created and maintained by gophers. Dune slack ponds are a creation of waves rearranging sand. Oxbow ponds are a result of floods along streams and rivers. And, cave ponds are caused by the dissolution of limestone resulting in the creation of subterranean cavities.

Sag Ponds – Earthquakes

One of my geology mentors once told me that any natural pond I would encounter along the central coast of California would coincide with an earthquake fault. Interestingly, two faults, both named “Frijoles” have two of the best-known natural ponds of our area. The pond along the main trail for the elephant seal tour at Año Nuevo lies on one of the two Frijoles faults. As Kathy Haber pointed out, this has a dam and spillway that you traverse while on the trail. The T sheet from the late 1800’s shows a dark smudge that might suggest a wet depression, or pond, so “seminatural” or “augmented” pond might be a better description.

On the opposite side of the Bay, the pond in front of the big pink hotel in Sand City lies on the other Frijoles Fault. Less accessible to the public are the many natural ponds along the San Andreas fault above Watsonville. There used to be a large sag pond right under Highway 1 just north and adjacent to the Freedom Boulevard exit. And, there is another sag pond on private land in the northern part of the Swanton area. No doubt there are other sag ponds I haven’t listed…All of the ponds I listed above have water year-round.

Vernal Pools – Gophers

There are vernal pools in the mima mound habitats around the Monterey Bay. These include at Point Lobos, Fort Ord, Pogonip, UCSC, Moore Creek Preserve, and Wilder Ranch. Most recently, scientists have become fairly certain that those pools are a result of thousands of years of soil displacement by gophers. The soils excavated from the vernal pools are adjacent, forming what are called ‘mima mounds.’ Vernal pools are ephemeral, meaning that they do not hold water year-round.

Dune Slack – Waves

Behind and among the dunes that ring the Monterey Bay, you can find another type of ephemeral pond also called dune slack. These ponds are the result of surface water or shallow groundwater not being able to drain downhill due to the presence of natural sand dams, piled up by waves and wind.

Oxbows – Floods

The bigger streams and rivers carve channels during flood and sometimes then revert to another channel afterwards, abandoning an area carved deep enough to become a pond. Neary Lagoon is the best known one around here. There’s another that a prehistoric Carneros Creek carved down Elkhorn way. There were probably more near the region’s large rivers, but those are now farmed or paved so it is hard to tell.

Cave Ponds – Plants versus Rock

Very few people have seen the local underground cave ponds; most of them are inaccessible. Imagine clear quiet ponds surrounded by crystal-sparkling white limestone with occasional musical echoes of dripping water. These are tens to hundreds of feet underground from the San Lorenzo River around Felton to Scott Creek on the North Coast, with large caverns under UCSC, Wilder Ranch State Park, and Bonny Doon. Rotting plant leaves and needles leach humic acid that dissolves limestone, so caves and cave ponds are created by plants.

Pond Critters

Our region’s various types of ponds support a wealth of interesting pond-dependent indigenous wildlife including newts, salamanders, turtles, toads, frogs, and snakes. California and rough skinned newts are pond denizens, found naturally in especially in cooler, shadier sag ponds. Salamanders enjoy more sunny and warm sag and oxbow ponds, as well as vernal pools and dune slack. (Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders are critically endangered, despite valiant efforts to protect it) The California tiger salamander (less endangered but still rare), Western toads and rare California red-legged frogs also like warmer, sunnier ponds, which often host a cacophony of common Pacific chorus (tree) frogs.  One of the rarest pond creatures, evolving in sag ponds, is our only earthquake snake: the San Francisco garter snake; it is quite lovely and can be seen around Año Nuevo and north to the Bay.

All of these pond critters must have hundreds of acres of upland habitat surrounding a pond in order to thrive as adults. They mainly use the ponds as nurseries for their young. The upland habitat is where they find enough food as adults. 

Critter Food

There is enough food in ponds to raise baby critters, but little in cave ponds. Frog and toad tadpoles eat algae. Garter snakes and newts eat frog and toad tadpoles; garter snakes also eat newts. “Newts??!!” you might cry “but newts are super toxic!!” Garter snakes are constantly evolving to be immune to the constantly evolving newt toxins. Down below the ground, the slow-moving cave-dwelling and as yet unnamed potential subspecies of California giant salamander eats also very rare cave bugs and whatever other invertebrates might accidently wash underground.

The invertebrate community in ponds has its own food webs. Some of our favorite insects, dragon flies are one of the pond creatures at the top of the pond food chain. Before they grow wings, fierce underwater dragon fly larvae are like the tigers of the pond world, hunting anything they can grab and shred into bite-sized pieces. Lucky schoolchildren get to observe drop of pond water under a microscope and see zooplankton and lots of other teeny tiny things floating around in what might otherwise look like ‘clean’ clear water.

Back in People Ponds

It is not wrong to be inspired to create ponds, but we must be careful how we do that. Our people-made ponds can serve as new habitat for native critters, but if we add bullfrogs or fish, we’re setting up lethal traps and spreading bad things across the landscape. Non-native organisms will transform what might be a biodiverse pond into a much-simplified ecosystem with no salamanders and few frogs. More and more people are building raingarden (aka rainwater infiltration) ponds- these are more like vernal pools and rarely last long enough to support many pond organisms. Chorus frogs or toads might be able to hatch from eggs and grow past tadpole stage (“metamorphs”) in a raingarden pond that lasts three months.

It is quite a bit of work to keep longer-lasting created ponds full of water without concrete and with the addition of increasingly precious water. Livestock managers have become expert at creating and maintaining ponds, and now parks managers are learning from them how difficult and expensive that work can be. Because of the rarity of many pond organisms, that knowledge is precious but the viable partnerships/funding to do that work is a constant challenge.

Dusk

– this another post from my regular weekly blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

A fleeting breath of the gentlest breeze brushes through the few remaining walnut leaves, so slight and brief as to barely rustle, plucking only one leaf to add to the fall. Then it is still again.

We inhale the moist air, walk on wet ground and change our clothes to the wavering between balmy and slightly chilly days. The air is thick with winter scent – the smell of fungus and fresh grass. The farm is becoming quieter with the shortening days and the winding down of harvest clamor. The still night silence is rarely broken and then mostly by startling echoes of owl hoots that soon abate – even the night birds are hushed.

The Muffling

The early, warm and ample rain sprouted millions of seeds, now a green blanket everywhere where just a month ago there was bare dirt or straggly dry dusty dead plants. This lush living cover muffles sounds like snowfall and allows my eyes to soften and relax, as I breathe easier for the cooler, cleaner air and the now distant fear of smoke and fire. We are all relaxing into the wet season, the down time.

The moon will soon be full- the bright nights might be adding to the stillness and quiet as critters hunker down in fear of being spotted by Great Horned Owl or Coyote. Great wings outstretched, the perched owls swoop in low arcs lit well by moonlight. Coyote is more frequently yapping and slinking around on the hunt.

The bright days have begun with fog here or below the farm. This late fall fog is not normal. Varied patterns of high clouds take turns with a clear cloudless sky. The sunsets have often been magnificent.

Chittering-chat

The cacophonous whistle, click and squeak of a sixty-strong (and growing!) mixed flock of blackbirds has grown into high entertainment. Like a mysterious whirlwind of blown leaves, the fluttering flock scatters 50 feet up and then settles again on the lush ground. They strut and chatter, shoulder-nudging one another or stab at things on the ground. Our attention is drawn to this great and complex social milieu – yellow eyed Brewer’s blackbirds and larger red-epauleted bi-colored blackbirds mixed and awaiting the arrival of some straggling very rare tri-colored blackbirds. The bustle moves across our farm fields; their departure returning the quiet and stillness as fast as their arrival had quickened our breath.

One of Molino Creek Farm’s many majestic black walnut trees

Yellowing Leaves

The 2-year-old vineyard is also showing that muted yellow fall color as the leaves slowly drop. There might be a few dozen apples left on the trees with leaves also quickly changing yellow. The orchard cover crop we sowed 2 weeks ago is two inches high, vetch unfurling tendrilly leaves, the oats poking up single thin-rolled leaves. The morning dewdrops hang on the tips of these sprouts well into the day.

Chardonnay Vines: a second Fall for 2 Dog Farm’s Vineyard

Winter Fruits

One of the Farm’s greatest ironies…just when the cropping seems done – the citrus ripens! Our 6 Persian lime trees are hanging heavy with large green fruit, the spikey Lisbon lemon trees also are bearing. The navel oranges are further behind and less fruitful this year. The tangerines are far behind but growing quickly as are the Meyer lemon trees. Citrus Hill is filling in with the 20 trees we planted 4 years ago joining some larger, older plantings by Chuck and others.

Persian Limes will be ripe in January

Coast Live Oak Woodlands

This is another weekly post I wrote for Bruce Bratton’s online weekly. You might think about subscribing!

Their graceful limbs are impossibly mighty, and they hold them wide. Their branches are more outstretched, more parallel to the ground than upright. Within a short distance of the City of Santa Cruz, there are hundreds of coast live oaks large enough provide shade for 20 picnicking people. These trees invite climbing and most groves have a tree with a branch large enough, and slung low enough, to invite you to lie on its mossy arm. While you lie there, looking up through the dappled light, you will notice a world of life also sheltered by these friendly trees: clouds of insects zip and zag in and out of the shade, lichens cling and drape all around, and there are so very many birds!

To Know Them is to Love Them

The coast live oak species (Quercus agrifolia) is one of several live oaks that co-occur in our area. Live oaks are called that because they keep their leaves year-round: these are evergreen oaks. The telltale sign of coast live oak is on the underside of its leaf, where the side veins meet the midvein: there, find tufts of hairs ‘hairy armpits’ – no other oak has those. The oak that is most easily confused with coast live oak is the much rarer Shreve oak, which has dark furrowed bark and stands much more upright and has deeper green more persistent leaves. Canyon live oak has golden fuzz covering the undersides of its new leaves. Coast live oak is the only oak with that characteristic smooth, white bark in large smooth plates separated by dark cracks that aren’t very organized. Learning to identify these three live oak trees is a good and doable challenge for everyone living around here.

Planet Ord’s Oaks

It is not hard to find coast live oak woodlands, but there are several kinds, each with its own characteristics and place. I find the most enchanting stands of coast live oaks to be behind Marina and Seaside at the Fort Ord National Monument. There, ancient rolling dunes are covered with thousands of acres of coast live oak woodland with miles of easily accessed trails. Fort Ord’s coast live oak forests are nice to visit this time of year, soon after or during a rainstorm. Dripping water falling through live oaks is particularly percussive, as drops hit the waxy tough leaves on the trees fall to the big drifts of dead crunchy leaves below. The coast live oaks at Fort Ord are relatively short and almost always have many trunks- 3 to 6 normally, sometimes more. Right about now, treefrogs are living up to their name, calling to each other with their odd croaking squinchy noise from up in the canopies of oaks. The forests there are particularly densely festooned by long draping lacy lichens.

Oaks Just North of Ord

North of there, and much less accessible to the public, similarly old sandy soils support coast live oak woodland in the hills around the Elkhorn Slough and in the foothills north of Watsonville. The Elkhorn hills aka “Prunedale Hills” have some remaining coast live oak forests where agriculture hasn’t taken them out, and the Elkhorn Slough Reserve is a great place to walk around to experience those. More north still but mostly inaccessible to the public, in the area between the Freedom Boulevard and Buena Vista exits off Highway One, there’s something called “San Andreas Oak Woodland.” Both of these types of coast live oak woodlands are taller than Fort Ord’s, though the presence of multiple trunks, a sign of previous fire, is also common.

The Majestic Oaks of Santa Cruz

Closer to Santa Cruz, in many public parks you can enjoy that relatively narrow band of majestic coast live oaks ringing most every large meadow. Sometimes, these oaks grow right out of the grasslands, so you can walk right up to their trunks without braving brambles or poison oak.

In this photo, Sylvie Childress is enjoying lounging on a large coast live oak limb. Look at all those ephiphytes!

Sadly, long gone are the once magnificent coast live oak groves in the flood plains of the San Lorenzo River and many of the larger North Coast streams. But you might still encounter a coast live oaks blanketing the bottoms of drainages, mainly in thick, upright and impenetrable thickets wound through with tall poison oak.

Roosting Birds in Fall Oaks

Like coral reefs, coast live oaks attract a vast array of other life that unfolds before you the more you keep looking. As an example, I visit a couple particularly dense teenager coast live oaks at dusk to watch a particular wildlife drama unfold. These trees are only about 20’ around, but with canopies so dense you can’t see into them, even from underneath. Each evening, golden crowned sparrows flap noisily into these trees coming solo or in twos and threes. Forty birds later, this gets quite raucous – apparently there is a pecking order for who gets to sit where through the night. Sometimes, a bird decides to go to some other roost, popping into sight again and jetting off somewhere. The sparrows come early as the sun is setting, hanging out in the middle of the tree canopy. While the last sparrows are straggling in, right after sunset, quail whir into the top of the tree, settling into the upper part of the canopy. Now the squeaky chips of the sparrows are joined by the lower chucks of fussy quail. There’s a bunch of fluttering wings bashing about in the leaves and against one another, but eventually everything calms down then goes altogether quiet just as it is getting dark. This repeats every night, same trees, same drama. The night shelter of dense oaks is only one of the many services of coast live oaks…they also make acorns!

Harvesting Acorns

Jays and acorn woodpeckers are harvesting the last of the acorn crop in the next couple of weeks. I have been watching a family of scrub jays carrying around acorns far from the nearest tree. A bird can only carry one acorn at a time, and it looks a bit silly with it…and sounds even sillier when it tries to call with its mouth full (which they do). Holding one of these oak nuts, a jay tilts its head back and forth, jumping around the ground memorizing the coordinates before it pushes it into the soil. I am careful to remain hidden watching this; if a jay sees me watching, it will shriek, dig up the acorn and disappear with it…headed to a more secret location. They are very wary of potential acorn thieves. I recall research suggesting that jays can bury hundreds of acorns a day, and they recall the location of 80% of them. Acorn woodpeckers also guard their acorns, but they do so communally. It takes a tribe to guard the cache, which they do in ‘granaries’ – often several adjacent trees that have thousands of holes pecked out that are just the right size to store acorns.

The Coming Wind

One wonders how the giant crowns and sprawling branches of coast live oaks fare in the wind. With global warming, we expect more frequent and more severe windstorms, and the windstorms of the last several years have knocked down some very old coast live oaks across the North Coast. They topple sideways and pull up a huge amount of the mudstone substrate, holding onto their root wads, which stand at least 10’ tall, full of jumbled rock and debris. Those wide roots provided for stability for more than a hundred years. May they keep the big trees upright for many more! I hope that this winter’s coming winds are not too harsh…