– from my 10/27/21 column at the highly recommended Bratton Online site
The rain is awakening the prairies; it is also time we awoke to the preciousness of these grassland habitats. Already, enough rain has fallen to wet the ground and trigger seed germination in the local meadows. Perennial flowers and grasses have also quickly flushed with new green shoots. The rains have brought migrating winter wildlife, increasingly threatened because, each year, there are fewer acres of grassland to which to return. It is because native peoples tended prairies that we have any prairies at all in our region. Now, together with indigenous peoples, we are relearning how to restore meadows. With attention and intention, we may one day witness the restoration of healthy populations of badger and burrowing owl living in flowered-filled meadows across the Central Coast. For this to succeed depends on more people sharing more coastal prairie wisdom. With that wisdom, together we can build and pass on new stories to future generations (and new arrivals) so that we might maintain grasslands and their many associated species.
Rain is soaking in, darkening the rich prairie soil with newfound moisture. Green patches of seedlings first appear along trails, on gopher mounds and other areas with less thatch. Soon, seedlings will also emerge from under the thick skeletons of prior years’ dead plants. Inhale the moist, cool air slowly, and you may detect new rainfall-induced scents. The first that strikes me is the pungent smell of mouse pee. Grasslands are thick with rodents and, for six months, mouse urine has been drying and concentrating on the soil surface. Now, that nutrient source has been re-wetted and is being soaked into the root zone, and it smells strongly throughout meadows. Beyond that scent, there is petrichor, the complex ‘fresh rain’ smell made up in part by compounds related to the scent essences of both cedar and beet root. With the new rain, I detect another smell…wet hay. When rain first falls, there’s a strong smell of newly moistened hay, and that scent turns quickly and sharply mushroomy. After a week of the first big rains, if you grab ahold of a thick mat of dead grass and pull- it will easily peel from the soil surface only clinging to a little soil. It will be held together with what look like bright white roots. These are fungal threads, soon to be better evidenced by their more familiar “fruiting bodies” – especially the familiar grassland types…puffballs and other fairy ring mushrooms. As if anticipating the quickly emerging life, new bird species arrived in the meadows just prior to the rains.
The Grassland’s Wet Season Birds
I had travelled a hundred times through one particular and expansive grassland and was startled to be reunited one morning with my favorite grassland bird: the meadowlark! These birds are almost as big as robins and have long stout pointy bills, yellow undersides and have long streaks combining yellow, brown, and black on their upper bodies. Their songs are loud and distinct – a signature noise of grasslands throughout the United States. Meadowlarks nest, eat, and sleep in wide open prairies. The flock I encountered that first day of their return was about 40 birds. Last I counted, three weeks into their winter stay, this tribe remained around that number. My bird guidebook’s range map suggests that western meadowlarks reside year-round around here, but that’s a national map evidently without fine enough scale for our particular rsituation. This local meadowlark group must nest elsewhere, in the spring and summer. In winter, our meadowlark clans join another very special winter-only prairie bird: the burrowing owl. Burrowing owls don’t dig, but they live in holes. Every winter, they surprise me as they flush from different kinds of holes: ground squirrel burrows, road culverts and agricultural pipes. When UCSC’s Seymour Center rat Terrace Point was still mostly surrounded by open meadows, burrowing owls could easily be seen in ground squirrel burrows on the berms piled up when someone was kind enough to try to hide the buildings. Those berms have been since bulldozed. UCSC also rousted burrowing owls from their last local nesting location when they paved the ‘remote’ parking lots. Given the chance, UCSC will continue paving over the increasingly endangered burrowing owl meadow habitat. Get it while you can, Regents! Your actions will literally pave the way for burrowing owls to become so rare they must be protected as endangered species by the State and Federal governments…saddling private landowners with even more regulatory burden. Meanwhile, we are lucky to have this owl, with tall yellow legs and huge, cute eyes; they can be found in the winter at UCSC and across the North Coast’s grasslands. Look for it vigorously bobbing its whole body while staring at you from quite a distance while it guards its precious sleeping hole.
The recent rains also bring another grassland critter to our attention: newts! Hiking over the freshly greening grass, I glanced into the mouth of a gopher hole: surprise! Looking back at me were the golden cat eyes of a rough skinned newt. Hands forward, this critter is like Dracula awaiting sun set to mosey out off its underground lair. That night, with the rain pattering down, it walked half a mile across the meadow, before sniffing out another unoccupied hole for the next day. Nocturnally travelling with uncanny directionality it joined an increasingly large group of its brethren, creating a river of newts, some of which made it across the road before sliding down the bank into a large breeding pond. Newts love the dry grasslands- that’s where they live most of the time, foraging all summer long in the cool darkness of rodent burrows. We think of them as stream or pond organisms, but mostly they are grassland creatures.
An Abbreviated Grassland Management History
Our local grasslands and their associated wildlife owe their presence to thousands of years of tending by native peoples. Without that tending, there would have been no ‘pasture’ for the invading old world cultures to graze livestock on. Indigenous cultures honed complex management activities to steward grasslands species. They used prescribed fire in small and large patches, at varying times and intensities to favor their desired outcomes. They cultivated plant species without our modern (gross) tractor tools. They enjoyed a legendary favorite prairie feast that we can relate to involving prairie grown greens- salads full of diverse, freshly gathered tasty leaves and flowers especially from clovers. Their meadow tending created new cultivars and species. Plants provided food, medicine, basketry materials, clothing, tools, art, and so much more. Their management activities not only focused on plants but also wildlife management. Many of us would dearly love to have seen those prairie gardens.
After the Fall
After the genocide of the indigenous peoples, ranchers were responsible for maintaining open grasslands. Ranchers still manage many of the grasslands, but many are increasingly owned by public or private open space managers. Most recently, we have been moving towards relearning how to keep our prairies healthy. California native grasslands are one of the top ten most endangered ecosystems in the United States. More coastal prairie (grasslands in the fog belt) have been lost to pavement (‘urbanization’) than any other habitat in the USA. And coastal prairies are the most species-rich grasslands in North America. There are 80 plants species that only live in California’s coastal prairies. One third of all rare plant species in California are found only in grasslands. There are many plant and wildlife species in our local grasslands that are already recognized as endangered, and many more qualify for inclusion on state or federal endangered species lists.
Amah Mutsun stewards are relearning alongside many others how to steward prairies. Far up the North Coast, the Amah Mutsun have been working with State Parks to remove shrubs and trees that have invaded ancient meadows. Elsewhere, State Parks has long had a prescribed fire program to restore prairie habitats. While the City of Santa Cruz effectively destroyed the meadows at Arana Gulch by fragmenting them with roads, City Parks staff are experimenting with prairie management regimes including grazing. The Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working hard to restore and maintain the Scotts Valley grasslands at Glenwood Open Space Preserve. For decades, weed warriors with the Ken Moore’s Wildlands Restoration Team, the California Native Plant Society and the Land Trust have been responsible for rescuing meadows from weeds, especially French broom. We are making great progress and learning a lot. Grassland restoration is extremely rewarding because you can so quickly see a positive response. But, we must do more…
Please discuss some of this essay with someone while its fresh in your mind, say in the next week. Without more awareness, we will have no grasslands to restore and poor badger and burrowing owl, meadowlark and newt won’t have homes anymore.