Fall Redwood Ecosystem Notes

From Bruce Bratton’s Weekely 10/6/2021

Taking good care of yourself means getting out of doors, and the redwood forest is a good place to do that at this time of year. Our conservation history has focused on setting aside redwood forests around the Santa Cruz Mountains, so there are lots of parks beckoning for your next walk. Here are some things to look for and think about when you next visit those majestic trees.

The presence of redwood trees signals a lot more is going on. You can predictably find certain animals in your redwood forest excursions, if you take the time to look. Banana slugs are perhaps the easiest to find redwood wildlife. To find them this time of year, you’ll have to visit the low elevation redwood forests when the fog is so thick it drips. Redwood trees soak up fog directly through their needles, and the fog they don’t capture directly drips down through the canopy, moistening the ground. Those giant yellow slugs like the moisture, cruising around to munch leaves and fungi. I’ve seen slug evidence in the tracks they’ve left cleaning windows otherwise covered in dirt and algae in redwood shade. But, I haven’t seen slugs lowering themselves from the canopy on slime threads- have you? Its easier to see slugs than other redwood animal associates- marbled murrelets are one of the hardest. But, this year after the catastrophic fires in Big Basin State Park, Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom captured the first film of one of those elusive birds fledging! You might be more familiar with seeing Steller’s jays in the redwood forest- magnificent ‘blue jays’ with a pointy black crest on their heads and loud squawking alarm calls. Steller’s jay populations go way up around people because people are messy, leaving food out (pet food, picnic crumbs, garbage, compost, farm/garden crops) which makes it possible for these smart birds to raise more young. Artificially high jay populations are a major problem for other wildlife- they have a proclivity to being nest robbers- including eating marbled murrelet chicks. I saw the carnage of jays this spring when they raided house finch nests I was monitoring. Jays pecked to death and then ate 4 just hatched finches in one nest and, in a nest of older chicks ate one and pecked the other 3 to pulp and left them there. We need to be more ‘crumb free’ to keep our redwood forests more naturally in balance with the jays.

With wildlife and plants, redwood forests aren’t the most diverse of local ecosystems, but they do have some iconic and beautiful understory plants. When I think of redwood forests, I think of huckleberry and ferns. Huckleberries are our native blueberry and, though the fruit is small…it is tasty and one person I know was patient enough to gather so many as to make a huckleberry pie. For even the most amateur of naturalist, I recommend the well-illustrated Plants of the Coast Redwood Region. One thing us botanists are looking for these days are plant associations that are distinct in less disturbed or old growth redwood areas. One plant that might indicate more intact redwood areas is the trillium, with beautiful pink or white or deep purple flowers decorating the middle of three leaves in the spring. So much of our redwood forests have had such extensive disturbance- almost all of them were clear cut in around 1900- that plant indicators of less disturbance may allow us to learn more about the less-disturbed areas and set more meaningful management and restoration targets.

Redwoods are fire adapted and fared okay in the recent fires, except for tragic some old growth loss. People have been asking me about how many redwood trees died from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. I say none, which shocks even people who are frequent visitors of the fire zone…people “in the know.” I haven’t seen a single redwood tree that isn’t sprouting from its base…aka ‘basal burl.’ What I’ve said is that, fire-wide, we might have lost 10% of redwood stems (trunks). Most of the redwoods are sprouting from their stems and many are sprouting from their branches. Since we will all see redwood trees sprouting from their stems, here’s a term: ‘bottlebrush trees.’ Along the line of logic of how many trees were killed, I point at a tree and ask: ‘how old is that tree?’ Because so many are familiar with the 1900-era clear cutting, if it is a large tree most people say something like “120 years!” I respond provocatively ’Nope, its probably 15,000 years old.’ Redwood trees in the Swanton area arrived around that long ago, according to a record of pollen deep in the stratified sediment of a local lagoon. So, the second generation after the cutting of the old growth might be the grandchildren-sprouts of the original colonizers.

With the global warming associated with climate change, we expect more frequent weather events- intense droughts, summer lightning storms, thunder snow, incredible flooding deluges….etc. Those resilient redwood root systems will be important to hold our hills together, stabilize stream beds, and generally keep the catch basins (‘watersheds’) intact…so we can have drinking water. If we can keep redwood tree canopies from burning through the expected increase in wildfire, the shade of redwoods will keep us cooler throughout the region. The key to that is increasing the amount of prescribed burning in our mountains- clearing the fuel from the redwood forest understory so that fires don’t get too hot, damaging the redwood shade. The best way you can help with our ability to apply prescribed fire is to congratulate and support those who are working on that. The ‘good fire’ people are hampered by public opinion…complaints about smoke or worry about fire. People also worry that even prescribed fire will harm the redwood forests that they care about so much.

I encourage you to visit an area where the fire impacted the redwood forest. Visit soon! Each month after the fire changes so much. This past month, many burned redwood trees broke through their charred bark to show new light brown growth of their trunks. Green needles are erupting from redwood branches and trunks. And, the biggest redwood cones you’ll ever see are weighting down redwood branches, creating a seed crop to take advantage of the rare bare soil that they need to establish seedings. Those redwood seedlings are the key to the next generation. The wood from a redwood seedling, since it is slower growing than a resprout, might be dense and the deepest red- like old growth! I am hoping that together we can support prescribed fire so that these seedlings will someday be giant old trees supporting marbled murrelets for many future generations to enjoy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s