Bruce Bratton

Rest Under the Laurels

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

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.


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.


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

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.


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.

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.

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…

Colorful Madrone Forests

Another reprint from my work contributing to Bruce Bratton’s online news publication.

No matter the time of year, madrone forests offer a distinct array of beautiful colors…and a few other surprises. Some might be confused to see my term ‘madrone forests’ because rarely are there enough madrone trees – in a large enough area – to seem like a forest. But there are such spots, a few acres in size, that are especially enchanting. If you can’t find a madrone forest, you’ll have to settle for stepping under a single large madrone tree to experience some of the phenomena that I will soon describe.

You might also be confused about the name. Madrones have many names depending on how old you are or where you live. A couple of generations ago, the trees were called by some madroño. More recently, I have seen a shift to “madrona.” When I visited Vancouver, British Columbia in the 1990’s, the people I met called madrone trees ‘arbutus,’ which is the Latin name for the genus. To further confuse things, you should know that they are close relatives of blueberry and azalea, as are manzanitas with which they are easily confused. Manzanita means ‘little apple’ in Spanish, and madrones have those same tasty ‘little apple’ fruits – mainly way up out of reach.

Berry Bright

Madrone berries are hanging especially thickly this year, such as in this photograph taken in Bonny Doon, northern Santa Cruz County, California.

Bright orange madrone berries are hanging this year thicker than anyone has ever seen. Right now, you can recognize madrone trees from a long way away, just by their fruit. The towering orange-red trees especially stand out given the common backdrop of varied dark greens of live oak, fir and redwood. The madrone fruit crop always attracts hungry birds, but many other animals are having feasts right now. I was quite happy to recently spot a noisy cedar waxwing flock in the top of a fruit-filled madrone. This and every year, I see clumsy-rowdy loudly cooing band tailed pigeons feasting at the top of fruiting madrones. The fruit hasn’t started falling much, but when it gets a bit riper the ground beneath the trees will be strewn with bright fruit, and then you can get a closer look. The berries are spherical and there are many in large clusters throughout the tree canopy. As they ripen from a plain green, they first turn a light orange and then ripen to a deep orange-red. The berry surface is very bumpy, not shiny-smooth. The flesh isn’t very thick, but it is thick enough to be worth tasting. Pick out the deepest colored fruit: like strawberries, it is sweetest right before it starts fermenting. It is nicely sweet with a taste like apple-strawberries, but watch out- there are large, rock-hard seeds inside!

Dogs and people alike enjoy madrone fruit. I used to look forward to walking with my favorite dog friend when madrone berries had fallen. When he realized that the fruit were on the ground, he smiled broadly, panting with glee before getting to work lapping up only the ripest of fruit. Off he went ahead of me on the trail looking for the next patch of fallen berries, tail spinning with delight. I imagine coyotes and foxes, and maybe more critters, will soon be doing the same thing. The fruit has long been food for people, too. When I encounter very ripe fruit on the ground, I’ll pop a few in my mouth to remind me of the season. Native Americans ate them fresh, cooked, and dried. There are reports from northwestern California of indigenous people steaming the berries and then drying them.

A Colorful and Early Fall

The fruit ripen long after madrones have completed their annual and very colorful leaf fall. In late August or early September, madrones lose a lot of leaves, but they retain enough foliage to very much be an evergreen tree, casting a signature type of shade year-round. The falling leaves are mostly a bright pale yellow, but some show a bit of orange or red, as well. The freshly fallen leaves colorfully carpet the ground and then turn light brown and get crispy dry. At this same time, the trees start shedding their thin, papery red bark. You can hear the bark crinkling away from the trees on warm days. It peels back patch by patch to reveal the smoothest of skin beneath. Sometimes, mostly on smaller branches, that skin is green and photosynthetic. Medium sized branches have skin that is smooth and deep red-brown. As the trees get big, the bark stops peeling off and is coarsely netted in tiny square patterns of a deep-dark brown.

Madrone forests are noisy places to visit. If you try to walk through a madrone forest in late summer, you will make especially a lot of noise as you step on those brittle and loudly crunching leaves. In a good stand of madrones, the freshly fallen leaves get ankle high. When the leaves are alive, they are bright and shiny green on top and whitish on their undersides. So, the leaves look bright when you are looking up through a tree’s canopy; this also makes for a different kind of shade. Native peoples had a few uses for the leaves. For instance, they placed the leaves to separate layers of food in ovens. And girls counted on good luck by tossing leaves during puberty ceremonies in the tribes of northwestern California.

Fast Growing Fine Wood

Madrones can get very tall with massive trunks and huge basal burls. They grow quicker than you might think for how dense their wood is. Two feet of growth a year is normal, and I’ve seen more rapid growth on young trees. Around my home in the footprint of the CZU fire, some madrones seemed to have survived immediately after the fire but made lots of new basal sprouts. Those sprouts are five feet tall a year after the fire, and now the parent stems are dying. So, there will soon be a lot of fine firewood to collect. Madrone trees make the best firewood around, fetching a higher price than oak. Because the wood is dense, it also makes a good charcoal, and this once made madrone the West Coast choice tree for making gunpowder. In a pile, madrone wood stores longer than oak. It is dense and dark red-brown and splits more in chunks than with the fibrous splinters you are used to seeing sticking out of the sides of wedges of firewood. Some say madrone wood is a good wood for carving. Karl Bareis made a fine-looking Japanese timber frame structure using interlaced curvy-dancing madrone beams, which was unfortunately incinerated in the recent fire.f

Fire Trees

The trees look like flames on the hillsides right now with their orange fruit, and madrone trees are adapted for fire prone landscapes. If you find a madrone seedling, it is likely to have grown out of bare soil…which is plentiful after fires. One might suspect that the prolific seed production this year was a response to the fire. But even trees too far away from the fire to have felt the flames are producing lots of fruit. So, if the heavy fruit set is related to fire, perhaps the trees are responding to the smoke and ash? The other fire adaptation that madrone trees have is a basal burl, or ‘lignotuber.’ Large madrone trees bulge greatly where their trunks meet the earth. To touch a large madrone tree trunk, you have to climb up on this burl, which has many dormant growth buds waiting for fire. When a fire runs through a forest with madrones, the madrones can sprout back from those burls, growing fast above other vegetation, competing for light. Eventually, the redwoods and firs get taller than the madrones, so often you see a madrone trunk weaving back and forth far below the conifer canopy, telling its story of chasing historic patches of sunlight. Fires give madrones a chance, but only for so long. Hot wildfires can even destroy that dense, ground-hugging madrone burl. Some of the ‘smoking holes’ in the forest in the weeks/months following wildfire are madrone roots still afire underground. You can witness the size of the pre-fire burl because it can burn so hot that the soil is cooked into gray or red brick, leaving the outline of the burl with root holes snaking down and around it in amazing starburst patterns.


Now that you know so much about madrone trees, it is time to find a madrone forest. The best places for madrone forests are at the edge of chaparral, on the lower ridges just below the tallest manzanita dominated ridges. Madrone stands might be surrounded by tanoaks. If you already know where a madrone forest might be, go to it! This is a great time to visit, especially for fall season crunchy leaf smell, sound and sight sensations or for bird watching. I suggest sidling up to a big madrone tree and give it a hug while standing on its sturdy burl.

Rain Awakes the Prairie

– 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.

Meadow Showers

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.

Upland Newts??

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.


This was my post from the highly recommended weekly publication Bratton Online (10/20/21 edition)

People at the Beach

I hop off my bike and lock it to a post at the entrance to the beach. I’m here to meet Juan and Ted and their dog Fluffy for an evening stroll to catch up and get some fresh air. I smile with the transition to the beach, which is a regular way to leave my busy day behind and return me to myself, my normal world and what I want to be – relaxed! Squinting through the reflective brightness off the sparkling water, I spot my friends already down by the water and jog towards them. We exchange hugs and start on our walk. We won’t turn around for a long while…this stretch of sand goes on and on, and we have an hour before we need to head back to our homes. We keep to the wet sand where its easier (and less messy) to walk. Juan uses one of those plastic scoop arms for extra lift to lob a ball for Fluffy. There’s lots to talk about, the light breeze feels invigorating, the sand cool and wet between my toes. For the breeze and noise of the lapping waves, we walk closer than we might otherwise to hear one another better. Fluffy comes crashing into us as she rough houses with another dog, now we are sandy and wet to our waists, laughing, and smiling at another group passing by. The sun is getting lower, and the clouds are turning pastel orange and magenta, a myriad of colors reflected in fractal patterns of swirling sea foam. We’re quiet for a bit, pausing on our walk to watch bottlenose dolphins pass by and to hear the lapping waves. Way down the beach we approach a party – bonfires in big metal bins and chairs around portable tables, musicians setting up for an event that will last into the night. We are at our halfway point, turning around we face into the wind and towards the setting sun. I know from our past walks that we are now each pondering what more we want to ask to make sure we are all caught up on conversations that have lasted years. Our walks are not often enough, this time together is precious. The conversation picks up pace and the walk back seems faster than the way out. We brush off the sand, towel off Fluffy, and say our goodbyes.

Nonhumans at the Beach

In parallel, the nonhuman organisms at the beach were having very different experiences during our visit. Walking in the wet sand, Ted, Juan and I crushed hundreds of living organisms and smashed the structure of the sand where critters had tunneled for breath and to filter feed…contributing to the greatly diminished diversity and abundance of such organisms with increasing recreation on beaches. Fluffy’s cavorting flushed dozens of shorebirds, already exhausted from being frightened over and over by people and their dogs. Those shorebirds also particularly need the wet sand, where they probe for food; they only get a few chances to dart into that feeding zone between the constant parade of walkers. The fires and noise from the beach party will keep nesting beach birds on high alert nearby, as they cuddle their newborn chicks; those families will not be having restful nights and will have a harder time remaining healthy. Next season, maybe they will remember not to make a nest so close to those areas of the beach where parties light up the night, but there isn’t much beach left where they can still find peace.

What Makes a Beach?

There is so much we take for granted about our beaches and few even realize what a natural beach might look like, or how nature maintains and forms it. Our best beaches are sandy, and that sand is constantly on the move, eroding and replenishing with the wind, waves, and tides. Streams and rivers are beachmakers, depositing sand into the ocean. In Santa Cruz County, the sand is driven downshore from the north with the prevailing wind and current. Promontories create sand deposition shadows- rockier areas to the north of most beaches and more sand on the south, including piles of sand up on the bluffs above the beach to the south. Where beaches are wide enough, there are low mounds of sand towards the waves and bigger and bigger dunes further onshore. Typically, the sand blocks most rivers and streams in the summer, creating still water lagoons full of life.

Natural Diversity in the Sand

Our beaches are super-diverse ecosystems, teeming with life wherever we let them thrive. Where we don’t trample them, plants establish close to the sea. Sea rocket, with its pale, simple 4-petaled lavender flowers, is notoriously resilient, establishing from seeds that are constantly floating around the ocean waiting to wash ashore. This plant is cosmopolitan, on beaches around the world. By stabilizing the blowing sand, sea rocket starts formation of the little mounds we call foredunes. Foredunes then become habitat for many other species. Further inland are taller and taller back dunes where waves rarely crash. There can be freshwater ponds in back dunes in the winter. Elephant seals rest there. North facing back dune slopes have ferns and mosses; throughout these taller dunes you can find succulent plants, shrubs flowering year-round, endangered lupines, wallflowers, paintbrush, spineflower, and gilia…as well as many species of songbirds. Around the lagoons and ‘dune slack’ (ponds) ducks breed and red legged frogs, newts, and garter snakes flourish. Raccoons, pond turtles, egrets, herons, and lots more are at home in these wet areas.

Healing Beaches and Dunes

As I mentioned above, we have loved our beaches to death but, in some places, people are trying to establish more of a balance. Across the Monterey Bay, there is just one beach that is off limits to people: Wilder Beach. We set aside this State Park beach to protect nesting endangered snowy plovers. Any regular and observant beach goer will know this story: there are signs and “symbolic” fences on many beaches to remind people not to trample their habitat. Unfortunately, fences and signs are not enough, and the species is struggling to survive in our region. What few snowy plovers are left is because of a team of conservationists associated with the nonprofit Point Blue Conservation Science who monitor the species and work with parks managers to protect them. Without those always underpaid and generous people, there would be no signs and no fences: they serve as the conscience for the species and are supported by grants and donations. Further south, in Santa Barbara County, at Coal Oil Point, a docent program has volunteers standing by the plover fences with signs and binoculars educating visitors and assuring plover safety, a program that is being duplicated elsewhere. Again, generous conservationists coming to the rescue!

Snowy plovers are an indicator species for healthy beaches and dunes, and other programs are working to restore the plants needed to sustain healthy plover habitat. From Seabright Beach through Pacific Grove’s Asilomar State Beach, parks managers and volunteers are controlling invasive species and planting dune plants. Ice plant is the most widespread and pernicious threat. Each year for the rest of eternity, people will have to comb the beaches and dunes to find iceplant and rip it up before it takes over. Thanks to years of this work, we are starting to see the return of dunes and associated vibrant rolling mounds of wildflowers.

Before Our Time

Four hundred years ago…imagine the scene at the beach. Native peoples must have had a common presence on beaches for many reasons: launching boats, fishing, clam digging, tide pool foraging, harvesting of marine algae, leisure, and play. The lowest tides of the Spring and Fall must have drawn many people to the deep rocky intertidal where there were easier to reach larger and more varied shellfish. And there would have been grizzlies, condors, and coyotes sharing that space, feasting on (stinky!) washed up marine mammals. The tiny snowy plover probably had much larger flocks scampering around. Every beach would have had intact dune communities and clean lagoons.

The Future of Beaches

Can we find a way to conserve beach and dune species for future generations? What would that entail? Biologists suggest we need more control of the main threat: beach visitation – we already have too much. We thank the California Coastal Commission for steadfastly pursuing public access to beaches, a job that never seems to be finished. But we also understand that this agency has a mandate to protect biological diversity, something that they sometimes forget when it comes to beach access. For instance, they recently required the University to provide public access to Younger Lagoon and were surprisingly acquiescent at State Parks providing nearly unregulated and completely unplanned public access to Coast Dairies beaches. The Coastal Commission doesn’t have a plan for beach and dune biological conservation in California despite this being the only ecologically sensitive habitat that is in their jurisdiction statewide! I think almost all of us would like for all the plants and animals to have a place on Earth, even if it means giving up some of our conveniences…including our ability to use every beach or every inch of every beach. We need a comprehensive plan across all California beaches if we are to realize this outcome. And people need to care enough to support parks and the Coastal Commission if they decide to do pursue beach and dune protections. Oh, and it would be good to keep our Fluffy dogs from harassing beach wildlife, our strolls up on the dry sand, and our trajectories steering wide, away from foraging shorebirds.

Stream Walks

another reprint from my weekly column for Bruce Bratton’s stupendous weekly.

The tinkling, gurgling, and bubbling sounds of local streams are especially relaxing around now, the driest part of our dry season. It is normal that it has been six months since we had any rain at all. It may be another month before storm fronts sweep from the North, drenching the parched ground for several days with an inch or more of rainfall. At present, though, streams are at their annual lowest flows. But, because our community has been generous, creeks remain flowing with clear, clean, cool water. Taking a leisurely and observant stroll along one of our many creeks will help to clear your mind and relaxed observation of streamside life can lead to delightful discoveries.

Fish, amphibians, and birds are easy to encounter with a brief streamside pause. We tend to hustle along trails, distracted in conversation or deep in thought. But you might want to stop, take a few deep breaths, listen for water sounds, smell cooler, moist air…and wait to see what happens. Ripples form where a fish captures a bug from the water’s surface. Focus your eyes down into the water, and you might glimpse a fish. It will probably be a young steelhead or maybe a coho salmon – two very rare fish that live among the stream’s cobbles, riffles and pools eating invertebrates and shining their beautiful scales in the occasional sunbeam-lit water. Creek pools may have newts or salamanders. With their yellow bellies and brown bumpy backs, two newt species (rough skinned or California) use their ‘tail fins’ to swim away if you get too close. Harder to see, the gray-silver and more uncommon California giant salamander is mostly hidden under rocks. After getting big enough, these newts and salamanders crawl out of the stream to wander the rainy winter landscape, gobbling up prey in the leaf litter or deep inside gopher burrows. These amphibians are super toxic – a single newt has enough poison in its skin to kill many people – so the they are brave and easy to find wandering trails or crossing roads near streams and rivers in the early winter. Crowds of newts make nighttime mass migrations after the first couple of rains have moistened the landscape. If you can plan not to drive at night during the second through fourth rainstorms, you’ll be saving gas, contributing to climate change solutions, be physically much safer, and potentially save many salamander lives. Encourage your friends to do the same! Post ‘newt crossing’ signs on your road. Drive slowly and avoid the many difficult to see newts.

My favorite creek birds are kingfishers and dippers (also known as ouzels). Kingfishers use their big sharp bills to spear fish. Ouzels dive into stream pools to eat underwater insects. Kingfishers are noisy, dippers silent…so, non-birders are more likely to see the kingfishers which have distinct flights and calls as well illustrated in this beautifully produced linked video. Kingfishers like to nest in holes in the soil of steep banks – they are burrow-birds! And its not easy to find that kind of habitat, but one roadcut near Elkhorn Slough is a go-to spot to see their nests. Dippers are not common in Santa Cruz County, and are elusive even where you might count on seeing them. I know they are about when there is ‘white wash’ on perching rocks midstream.

At the beginning of the essay, why do you think I said streams flow because of our generosity? Primarily I say that because we are a democracy: from the springs to the ocean, free-flowing water is publicly owned (except in the rare cases where a portion of the flow has been legally ‘allocated’ for human use). At the local level, Santa Cruzans value letting streams flow and have worked hard to protect enough land around streams so that they continue to flow. San Lorenzo Valley Water District and the City of Santa Cruz manage and protect lands to assure drinking water security. Bond funding to protect watersheds purchased the Pogonip Green Belt property near the City. Many places we could put dams to capture more water, we chosen not to. And so, we have many free-flowing streams without dams. These streams recharge groundwater, and not so many wells have run dry as they have elsewhere in the state. More than anything, it seems to me that our community’s conservation of streams and the forests around them has been instinctually generous, a big-heartedness that understands the inherent value of such things. I am so very pleased to be part of a community that acts on those values.

While we have protected many streams, the streams we have need restoration and management. Natural dams were once common- trees fell from old age and trunks floated downstream and occasionally jammed up flow, creating pools and fish and frog habitat. With forestry practices and our habit of keeping things ‘neat,’ there are fewer logs in streams (but, after the CZU fire, it looks like we might get a new wave of logs). So, in a few streams around our area, restorationists have placed big logs and boulders to help restore ‘complexity’ in streams. Also, in the past few years, there’s been a new movement to bring back beavers. Downtown Santa Cruz is built on what was most likely prior beaver ground. Beavers contributed to the creation of the deep, fertile soils of the Pajaro Valley. Wherever they could find a place, beavers would have made ponds along our streams, carefully weaving together branches into logs until they backed up water into a big pool. These pools would have been great habitat for our amphibians and would have helped recharge groundwater. These dams were porous and ephemeral enough to allow occasional salmon migration. But, beaver pelts were worth money, and trappers killed all the beavers a long time ago. When will beavers return- on their own…or with a little help from restorationists? The closest places to see beavers is just north, in Pescadero Creek, or just south, in the Salinas River…neither are that far from us, as the beaver swims. Maybe a generation or two from now will get to experience a ‘tail slap’ somewhere close by.

Getting back to the subject of streamside strolling during this dry fall…I advise taking some time to watch reflected sunlight as it sparkles and shines off of a stream. Under-lit from reflected sunshine, the normally shaded streamside tree trunks glow and rocky outcrops shine with unexpected color. Reflected light from creek ripples makes the otherwise still leaves and needles overhead seem to dance and move in fascinating patterns. If you take some time to gaze into the water, your eyes will relax your mind with the constantly changing liquid patterns: forming and collapsing pillows, effervescence bubbles flow swirling out into pools, slow eddies creating many unfolding patterns, forming and dissipating into one another, making sense, but at the same time fascinatingly unpredictable.

Streams are quieter now that the neotropical migratory songbirds flew south, but their noise will change with the coming rains. Soon, the quietest of streams will make louder sounds. Areas downstream of our pavement, roads and ditches will “flash” with higher flows and become muddy. Creeks protected by the right amount of well-managed uphill lands will rush and roar and, even after big storms, maintain clear water, pulsing after downpours and gradually flowing higher with the progressing rainy season. Through the cool, rainy winter, chickadees will miss their bright yellow and orange warbler friends but will greet and welcome them when they return next spring.

Before the rains come, you might notice branches and debris high above the water along the banks or even hanging many feet above, tangled high in the trees and bushes. That stuff tells you how the water may soon get, having been deposited there in prior years. If you take a photo or a video now of a favorite stretch of stream, think how much fun it will be to compare that with what you might record mid-winter. Creek habitats are the most obviously and dynamically changing of any of our natural areas, helping us to better plug into the changing seasons. At this point in the year, you might find a walk along a stream to be a revitalizing reprieve from the otherwise dusty and dry landscape.

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.