Santa Cruz North Coast

Monument Proclamation for Cotoni-Coast Dairies Adds Significant Protections for Biota

The President’s Proclamation adding the Cotoni-Coast Dairies to the California Coastal National Monument has created protections for many biota, helping to guarantee a balanced approach between public access and preservation. The property’s managers, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), had previously demonstrated disregard for all but federally listed species of plants and animals, which are few on the property. The Proclamation now obligates BLM to manage for 24 species as well as 13 biotic communities that are not otherwise federally protected.  The Proclamation guarantees some public access for the property only after the completion of a management plan that is ‘consistent with the care and management’ of these resources.

The following non-federally protected species (24) probably would not have received attention by BLM had this Monument proclamation not included their mention:

  • Wilson’s warbler
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Downy woodpecker
  • Black swift
  • Tree swallow
  • Cooper’s hawk
  • American kestrel
  • California vole
  • Dusky footed woodrat
  • Black-tailed jackrabbit
  • Gray fox
  • Bobcat
  • Mountain lion
  • Mule deer
  • California buttercup
  • Brown-headed rush
  • Redwood sorrel
  • Elk clover
  • Madrone
  • California bay
  • Monterey pine
  • Knobcone pine
  • Douglas fir
  • Coast live oak

 

The following biotic groups/communities (13) must now be protected and managed for by BLM:

  • California sagebrush
  • Coyote brush scrub
  • Amphibians and reptiles
  • Bats
  • Red alder forests
  • Arroyo willow forests
  • Riparian areas
  • Riparian corridors
  • Wetlands – in riparian areas as well as meadows and floodplains
  • Grasslands
  • Scrublands
  • Woodlands
  • Forests

The following federally listed species (4)were also mentioned in the Proclamation:

  • Tidewater goby
  • Steelhead
  • Coho salmon
  • California red-legged frog

The following species (2) are listed in the Proclamation and are also listed by BLM California as requiring protection on BLM lands. These species might not have been protected in perpetuity, though, as that BLM list changes with administrations.

  • White tailed kite
  • Townsend’s big-eared bat

Saving the Coastal Prairie on the Santa Cruz North Coast, Thanks to California State Parks Ecologists

On Tuesday, December 27th I hiked onto the Gray Whale section of Wilder Ranch to see the prairies where the smoke was coming from back in October. I first visited these meadows in the late 1980’s while the property was privately owned; cattle were grazing the meadows, and there were abundant native grasses and wildflowers. Santa Cruz preservationists fought hard to protect the property from a proposed housing development, it went to State Parks, which removed the cows and took many years to start managing the prairies, which were starting to disappear to weeds, shrubs, and trees. Luckily, things were to change…

dsc_0156

Postburn strikingly green meadows.

This past October, I knew that big plume of smoke I saw while driving on Highway 1 meant that State Parks was continuing their work at maintaining the meadows that I love so much. Fellow ecologist Jacob Pollock and I hiked from Twin Gates on Empire Grade down the Long Meadow ‘trail’ and into the strikingly bright green resprouting native grasses and wildflowers growing from the charcoal blackened ground. We found many types of native grass and a few wildflowers in the burned areas. Purple needlegrass, California’s State Grass, dominated the burned area, its dark green, rough leaves now 6” long and ubiquitous- a plant every square foot! These bunchgrasses promise a beautiful spring of silvery-purple flowers swaying 2’ high in the breeze. Patches of California oatgrass were less plentiful in the burn area than in the adjoining unburned area. This is the wet meadow loving indicator species of coastal prairie, and, in the many years after grazing and before the fires, it’s bunches grew taller to get to the sun- these tall bunches are susceptible to fire, but some survive.

dsc_0162

Fire recovery of California oatgrass

Patches of the leaves of wildflowers dotted the meadow and promise much more in the months ahead. Most abundant were sun cups, purple sanicle, and soap plant all long-lived perennials with nice flowers. Sun cups will be the earliest to bloom, maybe as early as late February, with simple, 4-petaled yellow flowers. Purple sanicle will be next to bloom in earl April with it’s small, purple spherical clusters of flowers. Soap plant blooms in late spring with evening blooming, white flowers that attract a variety of bumblebees.

Besides the obvious revitalization of the meadow plants, we marveled at other aspects of the handiwork of State Parks’ expert ecologist land stewards. Unlike many of our area’s meadows, there wasn’t a single French broom plant, a super-invasive non-native shrub that obliterates meadows, overruns trails, and is a major fire hazard. A many year program with State Parks partnering with volunteer groups has controlled that and other weed species at the park. We also saw dead coyote brush both in and out of the burn area- this native shrub can completely overrun meadows, closing bush-to-bush canopy in 15 to 35 years, depending on the soil. State Parks killed the coyote bush to maintain the prairie, and then burned the skeletons of the bushes so that there are now wide opened expanses of meadows, which are attractive to hawks, owls, coyotes, bobcats, and prairie-loving songbirds like meadowlarks. The ecologists also sent the fire into the adjoining and invading forests, maintaining the sinuous coast live oak ecotone that so beautifully frames the meadows.

dsc_0148

Fire maintains prairie ecotone

Today, I’m celebrating environmental heroes- 2-3 State Park Ecologists who manage over 18,000 acres in Santa Cruz County. They are motivated and hardworking. They need more support, more staff, more funding- please tell your State Assemblyperson/Senator! Without their dedication, our prairies would disappear. Thank you!

June 2017 Addendum: Portia Halbert sent me this photo (from State Parks Ecologist Tim Reilly), taken recently. The unburned portion of the coastal prairie in Long Meadow turns out this year to be dominated by Italian thistle, an invasive plant, whereas the fire from last fall seems to have more-or-less obliterated the species in the adjoining meadow. Thistles are especially bad this year in many meadows that haven’t been well stewarded. This discovery, that fire might help with thistle invasion, is a complete surprise to me- it deserves some careful scientific investigation! Long meadow italian thistle

Wildlife Protection at the Potential Cotoni Coast Dairies Monument- The Naysayers

Preservationists have done what they can to protect natural resources at the Cotoni Coast Dairies, should it become a National Monument- but, who didn’t support that work, and why?

The Proposal

Early in 2016, a broad coalition of experts and I drafted a proposal to add natural resource protection to any Presidential declaration of the Cotoni Coast Dairies National Monument. Expert wildlife biologists, amphibian and bird experts, plant community ecologists, and others co-created a list of sensitive species and rare ecosystems that would receive more protection under a Presidential Monument declaration, should that list be included. Sensitive natural resources at other presidentially declared Monuments in California have enjoyed such protections, so there is no reason such protections shouldn’t be in place at Cotoni Coast Dairies.

Questions: Who is writing the Presidential Proclamation that will give the Cotoni Coast Dairies National Monument status? Do they know about this proposal?

Answers: The staff at the Council on Environmental Quality, an office that advises the President. As of Fall 2016, they have our proposal, and we are hoping they will include it, in its entirety.

Supporting the Proposal…

The proposal enjoyed the public support of the following organizations:

The Trust for Public Land, which owned the Coast Dairies property before handing it to BLM, wrote an especially important support letter. Their letter emphasized the importance of including our proposal because it documented species and ecosystems that had been discovered since TPL wrote the legally-binding land management plan that would otherwise serve to protect the property under BLM ownership.

Not Supporting the Proposal…

Despite repeated requests, the following organizations refused to publicly support our sound, science-based proposal to increase protections of natural resources at the Cotoni Coast Dairies:

It is ironic that all of these organizations publicly supported the proposal to make the Cotoni Coast Dairies a National Monument. And, these are all expert conservation organizations. And so, these organizations must have been aware that BLM provides less protection to the natural resources listed in our proposal without those species being included in the Presidential Monument declaration.

The various written rationales for not supporting the proposal included (paraphrased):

  • ‘it would take too much time for our organization to analyze the issue’ (two organizations)
  • ‘our policies have changed since we signed on to support the proposed Monument, now we don’t do those types of things’(one organization)
  • ‘some influential people (elected officials/Monument advocates) wouldn’t like us as much if we supported the proposal- so, it’s not worth it’ (two organizations)

What Can You Do?

If you agree that future generations deserve to enjoy healthy wildlife and clean coastal streams….

And, if you agree in science-based, policy-smart solutions to make that happen…

  • When choosing to join or support in any way an environmental organization: choose from the list of those organizations that supported our proposal.
  • Even without such support, please let the organizations listed above know what you think. Click on the organization names above- I included links to their websites.

True or False: National Monument Designation Will Confer Additional Natural Resource Protection to Cotoni Coast Dairies?

 

-Part 1-

Our government designates National Monuments in order to protect them, but would a National Monument designation for Cotoni Coast Dairies really better protect these lands? An informed answer requires an examination of the protections already in place, the language of the monument designation, and how the public and US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) follow through after monument designation. Today we will examine the first two of those three subjects with a subsequent essay that will cover the last subject.

Through decades of public effort, natural resource protections in place at Cotoni Coast Dairies were already very strong when the BLM took possession in 2014. The owners before BLM – the Trust for Public Land (TPL) – created two sets of deed restrictions that incorporated private and public funders’ interests as well as protections imposed by the California Coastal Commission. These deed restrictions require future managers to accommodate public recreation without sacrificing protected endangered species or endangered species habitat. The restrictions also prohibit mining, commercial timber production, and use of off-road motorized vehicles. The TPL and the California Coastal Commission both have standing to enforce these deed restrictions in perpetuity. Since these restrictions serve to protect the Cotoni Coast Dairies property’s natural resources in most of the ways Federal National Monument status normally affords, the question is: what additional natural resource protections might National Monument status afford?

Interestingly, National Monument designation doesn’t necessarily guarantee any specific types of natural resource protection. Those that exist are entirely subject to the discretion of Congress or the President. There are different regulatory guidelines for Congress versus the President in establishing National Monuments. Congress has constitutional authority to declare an area a National Monument; the Constitution allows Congress to make whatever rules it wishes for such land. For example, Congress can allow off road vehicles and commercial timber production on National Monuments, or Congress can prohibit human visitors, altogether. Alternatively, the Antiquities Act of 1906 allows Presidents to designate an area as a National Monument. The President is limited by the Antiquities Act which requires the size of the Monuments is ‘smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.’

In 2015 two US Congresswomen and both US Senators from California co-sponsored a measure to add the Cotoni Coast Dairies property to the California Coastal Monument. The proposed addition lacked any substantive natural resource protections and ultimately failed to motivate sufficient support to make it to a floor vote. In accounting for the omission, aides to both the House and Senate sponsors have directly claimed that such language was ‘inappropriate’ because the representatives believe that Congress should not exert political influence on federal agencies’ land management decisions. In keeping with this policy, other Monument legislation in California from this era has contained little natural resource protection language.

As early as February 2016, in the wake of the failure of the California proposal, Congressional proponents met with the Obama administration on numerous occasions to urge designation of Cotoni Coast Dairies as a National Monument via an Executive Order under the Antiquities Act. We know little about what if any natural resource protections those Congressional offices lobbied for in their negotiations with the President, because this information is not available to the public. But when Congressional designation of National Monuments failed in the past, subsequent Presidential Antiquities Act proclamations of Monuments have had a regrettably mixed record of inclusion of natural resource protection language.

No discernible pattern exists –not one informed by policy or ‘pragmatism’– to account for the variable inclusion of natural resource protections in Presidential National Monument declarations. Most often, local grassroots conservation efforts motivated Presidents to designate lands as National Monuments. In most of those designations, grassroots organizations proactively provided Presidents with the information necessary to inform specific natural resource protection language in their Monument proclamations. This language often provided for protections above and beyond the federally listed species protected on federal lands by including mention of state-listed, rare, and unusual species.

The following Presidential Antiquities Act proclamations declaring National Monuments all had language protecting natural resources above and beyond what would have been protected had these areas not been declared Monuments:

  • Carrizo Plain
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain
  • Giant Sequoia, and
  • the Pt. Arena Stornetta boundary enlargement of the California Coastal National Monument (of particular relevance).

Presidential Antiquities Act proclamations for these Monuments each called out protections for a number of rare or state-listed species not otherwise protected on Federal lands (Appendix 1). Here is a tally of the numbers of non-federally listed plants and animals in these proclamations:

  • Carrizo Plain National Monument – 8 plants, 3 mammals
  • Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument – 17 plants
  • Point Arena-Stornetta Unit, California Coastal Monument – 1 plant, 4 animals
  • Giant Sequoia National Monument – 3 animals

On the other hand, some Presidential monument proclamations had little or no such language. For instance, the proclamations creating the Santa Rosa/San Jacinto and Fort Ord National Monuments did not include mention of any specific non-federally listed species.

When non-federally listed species and other natural resource protection language is included in Antiquities Act proclamations of National Monuments, land managers must explicitly manage for those resources. If no natural resource protection language is included in proclamations the managers need never exceed baseline practices of natural resource protection. In my next post I will provide details on how land managers for the above listed Monuments adjusted their management to account for National Monument status, answering in the main the ‘what happens when’ question. For our purposes here suffice it to say that natural resource protection language in Monument designations has correlated with additional protection of those natural resources.

The nut of our position is this: Cotoni Coast Dairies is already largely protected in the ways that National Monument status would confer. If National Monument status is meant to increase protection of Cotoni Coast Dairies –as advocates for Monument status have suggested– the only sure way is if the President’s proclamation includes specific natural resource protections.

————————————————————————–

Appendix 1: Recent, Antiquities Act created Californian National Monuments and the sensitive natural resources that the Presidential proclamations protected.

Monument Species Listing Status
     
Carrizo Plain San Joaquin (Nelson’s) Antelope squirrel State of California Threatened
Pale‐yellow layia

Carrizo peppergrass

Lost Hills saltbush

Temblor buckwheat

 

California Rare Plant Rank 1B
Hoover’s woolly‐star

Forked fiddleneck

California Rare Plant Rank 4 “Watch List”

 

Pronghorn antelope

Tule elk

 

Unlisted
Berryessa Snow Mountain

 

Indian Valley brodiaea

Red Mountain catchfly

 

State of California Threatened

 

Bent flowered fiddleneck

Brittlescale

Brewer’s jewelflower

Snow Mountain buckwheat

Coastal bluff morning glory

Cobb Mountain lupine

Napa western flax

 

California Rare Plant Rank 1B
Purdy’s fringed onion

Serpentine sunflower

Bare monkeyflower

Swamp larkspur

Purdy’s fritillary

 

California Rare Plant Rank 4 “Watch List”

 

Musk brush

MacNab cypress

Leather oak

 

Not listed
Point Arena-Stornetta

 

Humboldt Bay owl’s clover

 

California Rare Plant Rank 1B
Black oystercatcher

Yellow warbler

Black-crowned night heron

Brown pelican

 

Not listed
Giant Sequoia Great gray owl

 

State of California Endangered

 

Northern goshawk

 

State of California

Species of Concern

 

American marten

 

Not listed

 

Experts Weigh in on Monument Proposal: Sensitive Natural Resources of Cotoni Coast Dairies

Introduction

The BLM-managed Cotoni Coast Dairies property is being proposed for National Monument status, but thus far proposed legislation lacks language typical in such proclamations that recognizes the natural and geologic features which make this place special. This brief proposes such language as reviewed by the region’s experts in this area and its natural resources.

Methodology

The following language about the Cotoni Coast Dairies property contains information about natural and geologic features of national significance as reviewed for accuracy by regional experts familiar with the property. Natural resources presented here include plant and animal species that are found in few other places. Bird species are included if they are suspected of breeding on the property. Because the property has historically been in private ownership and biological investigation has been largely prohibited, this list is not meant to be exhaustive. Experts who reviewed the proposed language for their areas of expertise are included in Appendix 1.

 Proposed Language

“Because of its history, topographic features, and water resources, Cotoni Coast Dairies is a property notable for its species-rich, diverse habitats as well as its sensitive plants and wildlife. The property is located in one of the richest biodiversity hot spots in North America. Many species of plants and wildlife found on the property are listed as rare, sensitive, threatened or endangered under Federal, State, and local laws. These include: Point Reyes horkelia, Choris’ popcornflower, Santa Cruz manzanita, steelhead, coho salmon, California red-legged frog, western pond turtle, white-tailed kite, northern harrier, olive-sided flycatcher, Bryant’s savannah sparrow, grasshopper sparrow, tricolored blackbird, San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat, and American badger (for a complete list, see Appendix 2).

Cotoni Coast Dairies is replete with wild and diverse landscapes and climatic micro-habitats that support unique biotic assemblages. These include deep, riparian canyons containing seven nearly undeveloped watersheds and clear-running streams that have been rarely impacted by humans. Ridges contain intact lowland maritime chaparral, a threatened and species-rich, fire adapted ecosystem endemic to low elevations along the California coast. The property’s four marine terraces contain an ecological staircase providing a unique localized profile of ancient soil development and evolution. Each of these terraces contains sensitive and unique assemblages of coastal prairie grasslands, of which more than 40 types have been documented from the vicinity. The extensive coastal scrub on the property includes species-rich rocky outcrops and large areas inaccessible to humans. The property contains numerous wetlands and springs, which are buffered by the maritime environment and fed by healthy watersheds that provide spawning, breeding, and foraging habitat for fish, amphibian and aquatic reptile species including steelhead, California red-legged frog and western pond turtle. The rare ecosystems of redwood, Shreve oak, and Monterey pine forests on the property are globally significant. The relative isolation of the property provides core wildlife habitat to a particularly diverse mammalian carnivore community including mountain lion, American badger, gray fox, long-tailed weasel, bobcat, and coyote. The grasslands on the property likewise support foraging habitat for an unusually abundant and diverse raptor community including: white-tailed kite, golden eagle, northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, ferruginous hawk, American kestrel, American peregrine falcon, short-eared owl, barn owl, and burrowing owl.”

Appendix 1: Expert Reviewers

These persons provided review of the proposed language for their areas of expertise.

Name Expertise, Affiliation
Mark Allaback Certified Wildlife biologist

Biosearch Associates

 

Don Alley D.W. ALLEY & Associates

Certified Fisheries Scientist

 

Sandra Baron Ecologist

 

Phil Brown

 

President

Santa Cruz Bird Club

 

Dr. Don Croll Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

University of California at Santa Cruz

 

Dr. Gage Dayton Ecologist

University of California at Santa Cruz

 

Carleton Eyster Coastal Ecologist

 

Steve Gerow

 

Past President and County Records Keeper

Santa Cruz Bird Club

 

D. Kim Glinka Wildlife Biologist

 

Dan Grout Wildlife Biologist

Grout Wildlife Research

Brett Hall

 

California Native Plant Program Director

UC Santa Cruz Arboretum

 

Grey Hayes, PhD Botanist/Restoration Ecologist

 

Kim Hayes Biologist/Conservation Lands Manager

 

Dr. David Kossack San Andreas Land Conservancy

 

Kerry Kriger, PhD Executive Director

SAVE THE FROGS!

 

Inger Marie Laursen Wildlife Ecologist

 

Dr. Bruce Lyon Avian Ecologist

University of California at Santa Cruz

Bryan Mori Certified Wildlife Biologist

Bryan Mori Biological Consulting

Watsonville, CA

 

Dylan Neubauer

 

Botanist
Elliot Schoenig Herpetologist

 

Lisa Sheridan

 

Conservation Officer

Santa Cruz Bird Club

 

Dr. Dean Taylor

 

Botanist

California Academy of Sciences

 

Jim West

 

Botanist

 

Appendix 2: Sensitive Species of the Cotoni Coast Dairies Property.

Animals
Common name Latin name Rarity Status
California red-legged frog

 

Rana draytonii Federally Threatened

CA Species of Special Concern

 

Coho salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch Federally and State Endangered

(central California coast ESU)

 

Steelhead Oncorhynchus mykiss irideus Federally Threatened

(central California coast DPS)

 

White-tailed kite Elanus leucurus

 

CA Fully Protected

(nesting)

 

Bryant’s savannah sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus

 

CA Species of Special Concern
Ferruginous hawk

 

Buteo regalis California Watch List

(wintering)

 

Grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)

 

Northern harrier Circus cyaneus

 

CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)

 

Olive-sided flycatcher

 

Contopus cooperi CA Species of Special Concern (nesting)

 

Tricolored blackbird Agelaius tricolor

 

CA Species of Special Concern

(nesting colony)

 

American badger Taxidea taxus CA Species of Special Concern

 

San Francisco dusky-footed woodrat Neotoma fuscipes

annectens

 

CA Species of Special Concern
Western pond turtle Actinemys marmorata CA Species of Special Concern

 

Plants
Common name Latin name Rarity Status
Choris’ popcornflower Plagiobothrys chorisianus var. chorisianus

 

California Rare Plant Rank (CRPR) List 1B
Point Reyes horkelia Horkelia marinensis

 

CRPR List 1B
Santa Cruz Manzanita Arctostaphylos andersonii

 

CRPR List 1B
California bottlebrush grass Elymus californicus

 

CRPR List 4
Michael’s rein orchid Piperia michaelii

 

CRPR List 4
Bolander’s goldenaster Heterotheca sessiliflora subsp. bolanderi

 

Locally rare1
Brownie thistle Cirsium quercetorum

 

Locally rare1
Cascades oregon grape Berberis nervosa

 

Locally rare1
Coast barberry Berberis pinnata subsp. pinnata

 

Locally rare1
Coastal larkspur Delphinium decorum subsp. decorum

 

Locally rare1
Common muilla Muilla maritime

 

Locally rare1
Elmer fescue Festuca elmeri

 

Locally rare1
Fire reedgrass Calamagrostis koelerioides

 

Locally rare1
Hoary bowlesia

 

Bowlesia incana

 

Locally rare1
Narrow leaved mule ears Wyethia angustifolia

 

Locally rare1
Round woolly marbles Psilocarphus tenellus

 

Locally rare1
Salmon berry Rubus spectabilis

 

Locally rare1
Woolly goat chicory Agoseris hirsuta

 

Locally rare1

 

1 Locally rare species were not included in the suggested language but may deserve mention; these species are recognized by experts as deserving of protection because of their local rarity.

Post Scripts:

  • I submitted the above to representatives and agencies responsible for National Monument designation including the Obama Administration, Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Senators Boxer and Feinstein, Congresswomen Capps and Eshoo.
  • Letters of support for this proposal included with submission from the Trust for Public Lands, Land Trust of Santa Cruz County, Audubon California, California Native Plant Society, Sierra Club, Valley Women’s Club of San Lorenzo Valley, Save the Frogs, and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County

Robin Irruption!

 

American Robin

Licensed under CC: Photo by Flickr user Lucina M. All rights revert to originator.

Thousands of robins are visiting California’s central coast: lots more than usual, an ‘irruption.’ Unfortunately, I lack records of the timing of their arrival, but many people are talking about their astounding numbers, including: Feynner at Big Creek Reserv
e in Big Sur and Brock Dolman in Occidental, Sonoma County…and birders with the Monterey Bay Birds list serve. Feynner’s says maybe they came this way to avoid big burned areas inland and North. I counted 200 in about 10 minutes, flying in squeaky-talkative groups across a North Coast Santa Cruz field. This has been a daily occurrence for many weeks.

I have spent a little while standing among flocks of hundreds of robins in the fields and orchards at Molino Creek Farm, watching them. They scratch the mulch under the apple trees or poke at the ground in the fields, each bird holding their own few square feet. Some birds rest, alert high in nearby branches in two’s and three’s. I hear the crackle crackle crackle-squeak of a perturbed bird chasing away another, too close; they chatter their beaks by clicking them together rapidly when they seem especially territorial in a favorite food spot. These birds are apt to live up to the cliché, a worm hanging sideways out of their mouths.

Robins were Rachel Carson’s indicator species for the ‘Silent Spring.’ In 1950’s Michigan, researchers documented that elm leaves containing a pesticide applied to battle Dutch elm disease were digested by earthworms, and the earthworms by Robins. Pesticide poisoning made the Robins’ egg shells too thin, and they faced reproductive failure at a landscape level.  Mornings got quieter and quieter in the Great Lakes states as the friendly dawn chorus of Robins quickly faded. Thanks to Rachel Carson and a host of others, America woke up and stopped large-scale broadcast spraying of pesticides.

Robins seem especially wise. Their gaze is intent. Someone once saw an American Robin sweep leaves aside using a twig- tool using intelligence. I imagine their vocal chatter is carrying lots of information. Their friendliness towards me suggests that they know I don’t eat them- people once hunted them for food. They are still food, but for other species: while hiking the other day, I walked towards a cacophony of Robin voices. As I do for all flocks, I spoke gently saying “don’t worry about me!” But, they wouldn’t stop and, after another dozen strides at my feet was a freshly dead Robin, neck broken, just killed…probably by a Cooper Hawk. Cooper Hawk and Sharp Shinned Hawks must be well fed this winter.

I’m pleased to have witnessed this Robin irruption, reminding me that terrestrial ecosystems of the Western United States can still produce bird abundance. This is the third irruption in recent years. 2014 was the Varied Thrush irruption. Winter of 2012/2013 was a Red Breasted Nuthatch irruption. What next? Don’t miss this one! Take time at dawn or dusk in the fields around the Central Coast to see the many Robins and hear their “chock chock” talk. (Check out their big beaks, too!).

Santa Cruz County’s North Coast is Amazing, Naturally

Shark_Tooth_Rock_&_Davenport_Beach

Licensed under CC: photo by flickr user Elaine with Grey Cats. All rights revert to originator.

Santa Cruz County’s North Coast is an outstanding natural area because of climate, geology, unique species, rare habitats, and unusual natural processes. The North Coast combines two climatic features that shape its biological splendor: proximity to the cool Pacific Ocean and an adjoining Mediterranean climate. This climate drapes across the Franciscan Formation, a mélange of geological formations creating diverse soils and topography. Climate and geology alone could explain the many interesting and unique species, but North Coast richness is also due to the Santa Cruz Mountains having been evolutionarily isolated by ocean, bay, or extensive freshwater wetlands/river systems. All of the aforementioned combine to shape many rare habitats, in close proximity. In turn, Santa Cruz’ North Coast produces ecological phenomenon, processes, that we are only just beginning to appreciate.

The North Coast’s climate is found in few places of the world and is unique in North America. The roasting of interior California pulls cool, foggy air across the coast. Fog helps plants and animals make it through the dry summers. The wet winters combined with the very dry summers make it possible for moisture or arid loving species to coexist. With the right prevailing winds, mountains close to the ocean make rain. At 2660 feet, Ben Lomond Mountain is the backbone of the North Coast, assuring that the North Coast gets first dibs on rain from the winter storms which normally blow down the coast. During long droughts, fog and Ben Lomond Mountain’s claim on winter rains have maintained species that would have otherwise gone extinct. And so, we have extraordinary species diversity along our foggier and rainier coast in comparison to inland.

Besides weather, Ben Lomond Mountain is also responsible for our geology. The ‘basement’ of the Mountain consisting of granitics, schists, and crystallized limestone, pushed up through younger sandstone, mudstone, and shale. The diverse rocks create diversity you can easily experience:  granitic stream boulders…craggy schist and sandstone cliffs…inland sand dunes…soil-less mudstone ridges contrasting with wide, deep soiled mudstone terraces…extensive subterranean limestone caverns.

For all of the above reasons, the North Coast affords many different species good places to live. More than 50 rare, imperiled, threatened or endangered species depend on this relatively small area (see prior blog, this website). This is why Santa Cruz County is known as a biodiversity hotspot: this small county has many species of Federally or State-recognized rare ‘herptiles,’ insects, and plants. A host of species are only found locally. For instance, the North Coast has two Manzanita species only on the North Coast. And, the caves of the North Coast are home to a host of species found only in North Coast caves. Even more widely distributed rare species, such as the California red-legged frog, probably depend on the North Coast for long-term survival on Planet Earth. My list of fifty sensitive species from the North Coast will grow because: 1) I haven’t added bats and mushrooms, yet, and; 2) Randy Morgan’s insect collection at the UCSC Natural History museum includes numerous new species, especially of bees, that have yet to be described and may exist only locally. So, more to come…

The habitats of the North Coast are wonderfully diverse. Redwood forests, dunes, grasslands, chaparral, oak forests, wetlands, beaches, cliff faces, streamside forests, lagoons…so many habitats, so close together! Many of these habitats are rare, and all experience a mix of fire, grazing, soil disturbance, and wind storms that shape them. Coast redwood forests are only in a narrow band on California’s coast, dripping fog moisture that supports lush understory plants through the summer. Dunes at the bigger beaches blossom year round with native plants, roots deep in the sand. Forty-five or more types of coastal prairie blanket flat uplifted marine terraces, cap rocky outcrops, or hold up vertical wildflower-covered slopes. Chaparral here, a.k.a. “maritime chaparral,” is like no other scrubby habitat, with many shrub species in poor soils, fed by networks of diverse fungi. Hundreds of species of fungi can be found under a single shrub in maritime chaparral. Stands of coast live oaks on the edges of grasslands are quintessential North Coast scenery. Less recognized are the dark green Shreve oak forests, acorn-strewn tan oak stands, patches of stately canyon live oaks, or shrubby interior live oak covered ridges. A very few natural, but many man-made, ponds are a-bob with amphibians; more common are the ephemeral wetlands on the terraces, or on top of rocky ridges…replete with odd algae, mosses and liverworts. Beach habitats, though nearly obliterated by human feet, still hang on along the less trammeled fringes. Above the beaches, and framing steep canyons, are the many nearly uncharted cliff habitats – so many mysteries. And, then there are the willow and alder forested canyon bottoms. Downstream, lagoons pulse fresh to salty with the changing tides and wave action: nurseries for salmonids, home to silvery goby fish and ducks. This diverse habitat-scape contrasts strongly with the grassy rolling plains of the Midwest or even the forests of the East Coast, where one habitat stretches for miles in every direction.

The biologically-produced ecological processes that this landscape supports are my real fascination, where the stories get richer and the mysteries abound. One story unfolding is with the coastal marine terraces, supporting an ecological staircase with more and more ancient soils, stepwise with each elevation gain travelling away from the ocean. This ecological staircase has been important in understanding how soils develop from bedrock. And, each terrace supports different types of habitat; first coastal terrace grasslands are extremely rare because that’s where we farm…fourth coastal terrace grasslands are rare, too, for other reasons. The higher terraces have 226,000 year old soils, probably the oldest soil communities in North America. The plant diversity of these grasslands has been produced through eras of changing climate and changing animal interactions. Pleistocene megafauna (camelids, mammoths, lions) gave way to more modern grazers (elk on the North Coast, mooo!) and then to very modern livestock: all stewards of the prairies, keeping brush at bay. Native peoples burned and tended this wildscape, a careful examination of even our current landscape will reveal their refined landscape management and agricultural practices.

Another ecological process story that is being told is about North Coast predators. Big cats, pumas, as apex predators are shaping much of the rest of the wildlife communities. Puma presence makes for fewer coyotes, more fox, and all that those shifts mean for bunnies, bobcats, and ground nesting birds. And, puma hunting changes deer behavior, with as yet untold affects on forest understory and streamside plants. My hypothesis is that the big, orange blossomed lily that you can occasionally view (Wilder and Laguna Creeks, for example) should be re-named ‘Cougar Lily’ – indicating the wariness of deer, which would otherwise trim those bouquets to the ground.

Other stories have yet to be told as we explore our curiosity. How important are the processes that move oceanic nutrients upslope to the poorer and poorer, ancient soils? Marbled murrelet carrying fish inland to tall redwood nestlings. Cojo salmon spawning upstream. Nutrient-laden fog drip moving inland. How crucial are these processes to feeding the plants that keep North Coast hills from more quickly eroding? Woodrats, mice, and voles – not just food for the predators, but also architects and builders: how does their nibbling contribute to: keeping grasslands open fields; making flat-topped gnarly trees, or; trimming shrubs to make room for others, creating diverse Manzanita glens. What is missing without grizzly bears tearing at stumps, breaking tree branches for acorns, digging up prairies for gophers?

The North Coast has so much to reveal through its naturally amazing, living systems. It is teaching us how to be indigenous by showing us how we can be better stewards. More people can see these stories by accompanying naturalists on tours, learning to recognize at least a handful of tree and shrub species, and by just plain observing, spending more time outdoors. Challenge yourself to tell your friends new ecological stories about the North Coast: where you see the wildlife, what shrubs are in bloom, what was swimming in the stream, colors of flowers at the beach. Sharing these stories will bring people together, help them cherish what they have, and create dreams about what is possible.