It’s Lupine Time

In the local prairies, it is an especially prolific lupine blossoming year. Do you have a favorite place to visit lupines? The most prolific, bright, large flowered annual lupine in our area is called sky lupine, because when it is in full bloom in large fields, it looks like someone turned the world upside down. The scent is heady- it smells purple. For those of us who grew up smelling purple in grape Kool Aid or various artificially flavored grape bubble gums, it makes sense that sky lupine smell purple. In good years, I am able to go to my favorite lupine patches at just the right time when acre upon acre are giving off that scent and making extensive mats of lupine colors.

Lupinus nanus, aka sky lupine, an annual native wildflower that grows best without grassy competition

Lupine Diversity

Lupines are pea family plants. Look carefully, and you’ll recognize that sweet pea shaped flower. Lupines typically have flowers in a spike of tightly packed whorls with older flowers turning to seed pods at the bottom and new flowers opening at the top. Lupine seed pods look like pea pods. Sky lupine pods explode on warm days pitching seeds far from the mother plant.

Sky lupine flowers and seed pods

Sky lupine isn’t the only lupine around, there are many lupine species in Santa Cruz County. It might make a good treasure hunt to try to see them all. According to Dylan Neubauer’s Annotated Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Santa Cruz County, California (every naturalist in the County should have this), there are sixteen lupine species in our tiny county. Sky lupine is the only one to make a big show in the grasslands.

A very modest lupine, Lupinus bicolor, aka ‘miniature lupine’ another of the 16 species of lupines in Santa Cruz County, California

Who Eats Lupines?

Italians eat lupines! Strains of white lupine, Lupinus albus, have been cultivated for food throughout Europe. But you have to grow the right strain- some strains are very toxic! In fact, most lupines are toxic…

Here’s a challenge: find sky lupine leaves that are being eaten by a butterfly or moth caterpillar! In researching this essay, I explored the possibility that some beautiful butterfly larva fed on sky lupine. Nope! Lupines famously have some potent toxins. Some species of lupines poison cattle, though I’ve not heard that livestock owners are concerned about sky lupine around here. There are some butterflies and moths that feed on perennial lupine bushes locally, but none that we know of that feed on sky lupine.

Masses of Lupine propinquus popped up after the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex Fire at Molino Creek Farm

Lupine Pollinators

It isn’t a burden to sit in a sky lupine patch to watch for pollinators. You’ll quickly realize that bumble bees love lupine flowers. And, if you look at those bumblebee legs, you’ll see the distinct yellow orange sky lupine pollen color – they collect big globs of it.

And yet, sky lupine doesn’t need a pollinator, it can self-pollinate. But sky lupine flowers make more seed if they get pollinated by bees. The species has an interesting adaptation- some tiny hairs that prevent self-pollination at first; these hairs wilt with time, allowing self-pollination if all else fails.

Sky lupine mixing it up with California poppy- a common combination and always lovely

Planting Lupines

You might be tempted to plant sky lupine- certainly expensive wildflower mixes contain this species and display its color on the fancy seed packets. However, its not that easy. Sky lupine seeds are tough and unpredictable to germinate. Friends have been sending me pictures from places they’ve never seen sky lupines before- the seeds have been in the soil for decades waiting for the right year to germinate! Check out the seeds, sometime- they are beautifully marked with a shiny, waxy seed coat. The seeds are hard as rocks, meant to last years in the soil.

There are many different types of sky lupine, each adapted to its own microclimate. So, if you really really want to get some sky lupines growing, get to a patch nearby and get local seed- collect the pods as they start to dry. Place the drying pods in a paper bag in the sun and wait. Soon, you’ll get to hear the pods exploding in the bag and you’ll know that you got some good seed. Make sure that the pods and seeds are nice and dry before storing them until next fall. As the first rain storm is predicted, cast the seeds around where you want sky lupine…rake them into the soil if you can…and wait- sometimes for years!

Lupinus albifrons, silver bush lupine, in the Bonny Doon Ecological Reserve- post 2020 fire flush

Lupine Places

Back in the early 1900’s, many regular Santa Cruz citizens would enjoy Spring wildflower trips to the North Coast grasslands to collect wildflowers. They would bring bouquets home with them and garland their hair and clothes with colorful displays. Now, with long mismanagement of many of those grasslands, there are few wildflower patches left. Anyway, if you do find wildflowers, you’re not supposed to pick them anymore. We ought to leave them for whatever remnant populations of rare pollinators might be around, waiting for us to figure out how to better manage the prairies.

Locally, two places to visit sky lupines come to mind. It used to be that the Glenwood Preserve in Scotts Valley had good sky lupine displays, but I haven’t had a report this year. A little drive to the south, and spring always brings great sky lupine displays in the grasslands and oak savannas of Fort Ord National Monument. There’s something particularly appealing to me about the large patches of sandy grasslands full of lupines surrounded by gnarly short coast live oaks at Ft. Ord. Those sky lupine patches are frequently large enough to get that lupine smell, experience that upside down world with the sky on the ground, and thousands of bumble bees bopping around the flowers.

-I originally published this post at Bruce Bratton’s weekly blog BrattonOnline.com

Luscious Late Rain

After the driest first quarter of the year on record, rain sweet rain fell like no one had predicted this past Sunday. Mark Lipson recorded 1.18” of rain – enough to saturate the first foot of our kind of soil. Maybe some water leaked below that, but it was very dry much deeper than that recently, so the water helps the cover crop, which will quickly drink it up while growing a few extra inches.

The recent nights have been chilly. The breezes have been blustery. We had spring a while back but it then returned to winter, and then the fog today seemed like summer. Atmospheric mayhem.

Field Management

We are mowing. Field after field is getting treated to different mowers, flail or rotary, grinding up cover crop to a sweet-smelling pulp that is already getting eaten by earthworm and sow bug to soon enter the soil food web or at least somewhat cover the soil through the coming dry hot summer. We are retiring fields long farmed as Molino Creek Farm scales down for the first time in decades while we re-envision the next generation of farming the best of our deeper soiled flat land. How shall we manage fallowed fields? This, too, we must contemplate.  

Mowing commences – a freshly shorn field in the foreground of two of Molino’s Giant Mother Oaks

Orchard Haps

In the orchard, we are struggling to drop the irrigation lines, test the pressure, flush the pipes, and start up the long process of re-wetting the dry soil before the trees get thirsty. We had to set up irrigation in tall grass that we normally mow first- we must act quickly so trees don’t dry out as they burst into bloom and unfurl their sun-loving leaves.

Orchard understory cover crops, which were so disappointingly tiny, will now grow a bit more. The rain and irrigation spur the more lush growth of purple-flowered vetch, floppy bell beans, and pointy-leaved, thick stemmed oats. Before the rain and before the irrigation, the cover crop canopy was around 6”. Now we can hoo-ray and dance as it grows to more than a foot of valuable green manure to feed the pollinators and fertilize the earth.

Vetch with a Big Bumble Bee – cover crop doing double duty on Cherry Hill at Molino Creek Farm

Critters

The cold and rainy times chilled the turkey vultures or perhaps they were doing something more. Out there in one freshly mown cover crop field two vultures faced the freshly emerging early afternoon sun, lifted their lovely red fleshy heads and spread their giant wings out as if to soak in the rays. It always seems like such an effort to keep those huge wings held out parallel to the ground. Later, there were four vultures struggling to get altitude in the intermittent gentle breeze. Up and up they went and then there was an unusual sight- one after the other they folded their wings and jetted downwards at one another. Swoosh! You could hear the air cutting across their giant wings a hundred yards away. Playing? Mating rituals? Wow.

Speaking of turkeys, our road intersection hen was so fat with eggs 10 days ago that she could hardly walk fast. I patiently gave her berth as she walked up the Big Hill in front of my truck. Her feet seemed to hurt her, and she wobbled to and fro. After a long, long ways she (finally!) moved off the road towards her normal nesting spot. 4-17 eggs have been laid somewhere nearby. Expect the little ones to be fluffing around in about a month, just like every year for many. They are our welcoming party as you turn into the Farm.

A week ago this past Sunday, around 10 p.m., the slightly open window revealed the repeated bouts of screaming from a lioness not far from the house. That sound is always invigorating. She went on like that for an hour or so before quieting down. No noise since.

The golden crowned sparrows are still hanging around. Hummingbirds are diving and flashing. Quail coveys flock together.

Bright Spring Flowers

The rain will make the lupines even happier this Lupine Year. The bush lupines are in full bloom, big patches of green-blue velvety mounds with thick spired masses of checkered lavender and white flowers. There are two types of annual lupines- the tiny flowered bicolor lupine and the full flowered deep blue sky lupine (aka someone turned the world upside down lupine). These annual lupines are incredibly gorgeous. 10 a.m. in the North Orchard and you can bathe in the sweet scent of purple as lupine flower essence wafts downwards from 3 acres of flowers, floating towards Molino Creek Canyon.

Sky Lupines carpet acres this spring – very unusual profusion!

This post originally published in my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

Recreation vs. Conservation in Natural Areas

We face a quandary for which there are many solutions: the northern region of Santa Cruz County is one of the nation’s top biodiversity hotspots which is increasingly facing one of the largest threats to biodiversity – recreation within conservation areas. Globally, the coast of California is recognized as one of the most important crisis areas where natural areas tourism impact overlaps with critical conservation areas called biodiversity hotspots.

Biodiversity Hotspots

Biodiversity hotspots have been scientifically catalogued in precise ways to direct conservation funding and activities. These areas have particularly high numbers of species limited to small geographic areas, correlating with large numbers of endangered species. Areas with numerous endangered species in different groups receive higher hotspot scores: Santa Cruz County has many endangered species in three groups: ‘herptiles, arthropods, and plants,’ and so is one of only two counties in the nation to receive the highest hotspot score. Similarly, with a larger lens than county boundaries, the San Francisco Bay Area, including northern Santa Cruz County, is recognized as one of the top three biodiversity hotspots in the country. The rationale for using biodiversity hotspot indices for conservation prioritization is so widely accepted that this measure has become the focus of the most funding of any other conservation initiative, a total of $750 million up to 2010. Our region has long benefited from such largesse, including the generous funding to set aside areas like the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies and POST/Sempervirens Fund’s San Vicente Redwoods conservation areas. And yet, purchasing of land for conservation purposes only begins the process of conservation, which will last many lifetimes. Fortunately, there are many strong protections in place for these areas that help to guarantee that they will long be managed primarily for biodiversity protection.

Wildlife Protected at Cotoni Coast Dairies

There are a host of guarantees for biodiversity protection at the Cotoni Coast Dairies property. In 2017, Obama’s presidential proclamation making the property a part of the California Coastal Monument there are protections for such a breadth of ‘Objects of the Monument.’ Monument designation carries with it mandates for very careful planning, inventory, and adaptive management to assure natural resource protection. In addition, the property has been designated as part of the most protected lands in the Country: National Conservation Lands. In addition, BLM maintains and regularly updates lists of ‘special status’ plants and animals to guide protections on their lands. For those interested in mandates for BLM management for biodiversity on National Monuments, I encourage perusal of their Manual 6220. Using one ‘Object of the Monument’ as an example, the 6220 Manual requires that BLM inventory the dusky footed woodrat on the property and, in collaboration with experts at its National Conservation Lands Office, include in its property-wide science plan specifics about how managers will monitor and adaptively manage the property to assure the species’ protection. Regulations protecting biodiversity on the nation’s highest value conservation lands well reflect the majority of citizen’s interests in protecting wildlife, even if it means personal sacrifice. This is good news for conservation in natural areas because of the natural conflict between recreation and conservation.

Recreational Use is Contrary to Wildlife Protection

There has been much published about the negative impacts to wildlife of recreational use in natural areas, but here are a few illustrations of types of negative impacts. The following species are listed as “Objects of the Monument:” gray fox, bobcat, and mountain lion. Predators such as these three species are well recognized as extremely sensitive to recreational use in natural areas, leading to decreased density and abundance of these types of animals. Researchers working in the Santa Cruz area have noted that mountain lions are substantially sensitive to noises from humans, which reduce their use of recreational areas and lead to changes rippling through the rest of the wildlife community, including increased numbers of mice and potential increased frequency of Lyme disease. But, mammalian predators aren’t the only types of wildlife to be disturbed by recreational use.

The Monument Proclamation also calls out protection for Wilson’s and orange-crowned warblers, downy woodpecker, tree swallow, Cooper’s hawk, and American kestrel. Burrowing owl, golden eagle, tricolored blackbird, and white-tailed kite are also listed as protected on BLM’s special status animals list for California. Some bird species have been shown to be especially ‘flighty’ in the face of recreational use, requiring study and specific trail design to adequately buffer distances to avoid impacts. While the effects on specific species varies, some species can be negatively affected by the mere presence of humans, so, unless specific studies can ascertain effects, scientists suggest that avoiding new trails in natural areas is the best measure for conserving sensitive birds. Grassland birds, such as the burrowing owl, are particularly sensitive to recreational disturbance, perhaps because it is so difficult for these species to hide. There are also studies that would suggest care must be taken to avoid recreational disturbance to species like the California red-legged frog, deer, and native plants.

BLM’s Dilemma

BLM managers of Cotoni Coast Dairies face the many dilemmas of managing land for conflicting visitor uses alongside the conflict between recreational access and nature conservation in an especially sensitive ecological area.  The varying types of recreational users run the gamut from mountain bikers who use trails for the physical thrill of staying upright with speed and obstacles…to more scenery- and/or exercise-oriented mountain bikers and hikers…to more passive recreational users such as wildlife viewers…to photographers and painters…to restorationists…and scientists of natural history. Each user group conflicts with the next and the ones further apart with their expectations conflict even worse. I have not seen a plan by BLM to accommodate or monitor such conflicting uses, which will lead to what is called displacement, mainly of families with children and more passive natural areas users. Instead, BLM managers have shown a personal and strong affinity with the mountain biking community, which is also the agency’s closest ally in advocating for and developing recreational trails designed for their use on the property. On the other hand, BLM managers have turned away from engagement with passive users such as wildlife viewers, restorationists and scientists of natural history. Without welcoming this engagement which would have made up for their professed lack of such capacity, BLM managers are now moving forward with little understanding of the distribution and abundance of species, including those protected by statute. The evident BLM managerial-mountain biking community conflict of interest should be a great concern of those of the public who are concerned with biological conservation.

The Collaborative Management Solution

We should be advocating for an alternate way forward where BLM public engagement staff serve as facilitators of solutions-based approaches to the conflicts between users and between recreational use and natural resource conservation. The first step would be for BLM to adhere to its policy requiring a science plan informed by a baseline inventory of the Objects of the Monument and other special status species; this plan would include a carrying capacity analysis and an adaptive management framework to assure protection of the resources. All of those steps could be done collaboratively with scientists and volunteers as is outlined in BLM’s policy guidance. There have been offers for substantive financial resources to assist with this planning. Instead of hiding its scientific studies as it does now, BLM would proudly share what science it has gathered on a public interactive website. Once completed, the science plan could then be the focus of collaborative management of the property including all interested parties working together with the common goal of conservation of biological diversity while providing recreational access to the maximum extent possible. We are lucky to have a coalition of many groups working to make this vision real, including: Rural Bonny Doon Association, Friends of the North Coast, Sempervirens Fund, and Davenport North Coast Association. Your support of those organizations will help greatly.

-this post originally appeared last week in my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com

Diffuse Blackbirds

The Big Show around the Farm is the bicolored blackbirds. Instead of trees full of blackbird song, they have become diffuse- a few here and there….everywhere. Everywhere trilling song. The males are so pumped up with Spring, they are squaring off with moving car tires to show the others who is the toughest. As I walk around, the nearest male will keep its bill pointed at me, following my passage, squeetling and chipping and flashing its red shoulders- so tough! Not far away, other blackbird brethren fret and squeak and dance around the showiness, everyone eyeing the complex interactionists and goings-on. The bicoloreds have definitely started investing in nesting, so it is time to mow the cover crops before it is too late.

Green Manure

The orchard cover crop never amounted to much, only reaching a foot or so on average. The vetch has barely sprawled, but will bloom its purple blossoms soon. Bell beans are so thirsty as to be folding their wee leaves- will they make flowers? What will the 6” tall oats do? Us organic farmers rely on cover crops to capture atmospheric nitrogen and put it in the soil to fertilize our crops. It’s a beautiful thing when there’s a rainy winter, because Nature is watering the cover crop, making fertilizer for the next season. When its dry…not so much! But, we plan for that- we’ve been building up organic matter for years and that helps hold the nutrients in the soil, so we have a fertilizer bank- at least for a little while.

Lupine Shows

Out in the more wild places of the farm, the lupine show is Out-Rageous! There used to be much more grassland at Molino Creek Farm. Back in the 1980’s the hillsides were grasses but the coyote bush invaded and then closed ranks and it has been shrubland ever since. Then there was fire. Decades of lupine seedbank erupted in the newly sunny spots and they were celebrating yesteryear. Sheets of knee-high blue and wafting grape bubble gum smells are so delightful. And, its not just us: shout out to Tommy Williams who has also noticed lupines where lupines had not been- in other grasslands, closer to town. Lupine seeds can last many, many years in the soil, waiting for the right time to germinate.

Lupinus nanus, sky lupine, a native annual wildflower- one of the many species brightening Molino Creek Farm’s natural areas.

Oak Branches Bolt

It is time for coast live oaks to grow. Their branch tips are bursting with new growth after having lost many of their old leaves. Some of the trees are blossoming, long catkins dangling and dancing in the wind. Its when these new leaves emerge that you start noticing the individual nature of each tree- some are more yellow, some a deeper green. The new shoots are the yummiest of delicacies for the dusky footed wood rats who are saying ‘Ooh! Ahh!’ and ‘schreeumfst’ (the sound they make when they are tickled to have a mouth full of branchlets filling their craw as they scamper through the oak canopy towards their homes).

Quercus agrifolia, coast live oak, with splendid new growth

Orchard Blossoms

The first apple trees are coming into bloom. The quince bushes are already towards the end of their blossoms. The sweet smell of stone fruit flowers fills the orchard atmosphere. Citrus flowers are so, so sweet and numerous. The avocado blossoms are just starting to open. And, the cherry trees are mid bloom. All of this is a month early, but nevermind: it’s beautiful.

-this is shared over from the site I normally post for Molino Creek Farming Collective

Sudden Springliness

Meteorologists are echoing what we feel in our bones: the rainy season is over and we are onto another year of drought. The vibrant grassland greens are fading into echoes of verdancy, patches in huge fields of growing tawny gray. Cow tongues reach far, pulling at the remaining food previously protected along fencelines and hard to reach places. Poppies pop out and lupines poke up from the short stubble and rocky places. The springs and creeks still flow but will soon be slowing. The redwoods are in for another sorry year and are collectively crossing their needles for a bounty of fog should a warm summer ever arrive. The days are breezy and cool, the nights downright chilly.

Birds

During my short walk at dusk, I startled a big covey of quail- at least 50 whirring out of the cover crop and bumbling  into the brush then taking off again and packing into the thick foliage of a fencline oak where they will bundle up for the night. Quail are ‘chi-ca-go’ -ing again but are wanting for drinking water.

A hawk wheeled overhead.

We missed the ‘chock’ -ing of hundreds of robins or the whistling wings of hundreds of mourning doves- both downhill progression patterns at dusk, but of previous seasons. Dusk tonight was less momentous.

Early Spring(like) Flowers

The cover crop is blooming a good bit early. We plant mustard as a quick growing cover crop that captures nutrients that would otherwise leave the system. Mustard plants produce compounds that clear the soil from pathogens. The flowers are bright yellow and support many early season pollinators, helping to spur their population growth in anticipation of the many crop flowers that will follow.

Radish is related to mustard, both being in the cabbage family. Radish is in full bloom in the fallow areas and hayfields; it is starting to seed. The onset of radish seeding is the trigger for the ‘first mow’ of the hay fields: mowing with the first radish seeds is the right time to keep songbirds from investing in nesting where we want to harvest mulch.

Radish flowers are open, and some have gone to seed

I originally published this post at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.

Dry Winter Skies

Ravenous

You might recall the strain of conversation about Maw and Caw our resident ravens. I just want to say that they are So Cute! Well, a little more: they love each other and you can tell it- constantly fretting about one another and this time of year gazing at each other, playing follow the leader and other games. They are well enough fed to have lots of spare time and they fill it with fun. If you travel downhill and along the coast, you find Other Farm Ravens, and not in isolated pairs…big playful troupes of them, paired, yes, but 20, 30, or 50 strong groups – noisy tribes hopping up and down flushing grasshoppers or something just like our two but more. Somehow, they seem smaller, too. I hope someone one day helps us find where our two nest.

Other Farm Wildlife

We’ve got Western Bluebirds in fine spring regalia in and out of the nest boxes already setting up shop. I think I’ll not mention the cacophony of blackbirds much – only to say that they are still noisy and beautiful.

What we don’t have are foxes or coyotes or skunks or racoons. I heard that there is distemper spreading through the predator community nearby- can anyone confirm?

This year had the driest January and February on record in many places around us- San Francisco for instance. Maybe not here, but maybe so. Bob Brunie was digging a hole to plant a new tree and found the soil dry to two feet depth. That’s weird for this time of year- very weird.

Winter Farming

Bob was planting a new peach tree- number 7 in the group of one day 8 on Citrus Hill. If someone wants to donate a nectarine or two, we’ll plant those, too. Whatever we do, we must set up irrigation to start running Soon for the orchards.

It has become mowing and weeding time- 2 Dog Crew has been tidying up the Chardonnay grapes so now the vineyard looks so neat and tidy.

The first cherry blossoms are emerging on the few trees that the fire spared. Maybe we’ll get a bunch of cherries this year!

Lapins Cherries – Starting to Bloom!

Around the Edges: Wildflowers

In the wild places of the Farm flowers are blossoming. A common plant is called bee plant, a Scrophularia with flowers some say are like Micky Mouse – a pair of upright petals are like Mickey’s ears. The flowers are carrion colored red-brown and attract meat “bees” – really wasps. But, honeybees and hummingbirds have figured out those flower cups are filled with nectar, so the plants get lots of visitors right now…meat bees haven’t come out yet. Wild radishes have sprays of light flowers like sea foam across the fallow fields. Across the steep hillsides near Molino Creek, trilliums and other native bulbs are starting to flower as the forest produces more and more spring flowers.

Beeplant- a nectar rich native perennial
  • this post from my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s website. I am a partner in that collectively owned farm in northern Santa Cruz County, California.

Blue Skies, Bursting Blossoms

Right on time, the first tulip-sized California poppies have opened. Unusually, and a month early, the sky lupines have started blossoming, as well. The habitat areas, field margins, the hedgerow, and the orchard are starting to fill with Spring blooms. We hope for the return of rain before Spring’s beginning date arrives.

Lupinus nanus Sky Lupine Too early, but still nice

For a few nights, the air has carried a winter scent, like snow; frost decorates leaves in the grassy areas and wild radish leaves wilt from cold damage. We check the margins of avocado and citrus leaves to see if they are damaged. But, its only been evaporative frost- we still haven’t hit critical freezing temperatures! The cool temperatures are helping some fruit trees to sleep well, but others are waking up. The Santa Rosa plum popped into bloom – it only needs 250 accumulated hours of temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Other stone fruit trees are budding and/or blooming in the orchard.

Juicy Santa Rosa Plums start with brilliant flowers

The semi-cacophony of blackbirds continues, and other birdy things are happening, too. The blackbirds mostly gather in one tree but as you look around, the party has outliers as bicolor blackbirds court one another away from the crowd. I watched for a while as one outlier male bicolor blackbird did his thing: the trilling scree song while bowing slightly, wings shrugged out, flashing his bright red wing patches. A few feet away, a female watched in rapture…it was just this pair alone at the top of an isolated tree, though they kept glancing towards their flock in the tree nearby. Buzzing by, not entirely oblivious to the blackbird antics…hummingbirds, up to their own shenanigans.

Somewhere, I heard that the blossoming of the flowering currants triggers estrous in hummingbirds. Allen’s hummingbirds returned with those blooms from somewhere Way South. I’m not sure how the year-round resident Anna’s hummingbirds like them. Bright flashing throats and aerial sparring is constant around our yards and up and down the hedgerow. Flowering currant isn’t common in the wild around here, though you can find other, less showy species in that genus in the forests surrounding the farm- the hummingbirds like those, too. With the early nesting of hummingbirds under way, it is time to closely inspect any brush we are clearing before chopping it down. There never seems to be enough time to cut out brush for fire safety, especially when being careful with nesting birds.

Ribes sanguineum glutinosum, pink flowering currant – hummingbird food!

The farm fields are sleeping…the cover crops have slowed down with so little rain. The soil surface is dry, road traffic makes dust again. Limes are ripe, tangerines and oranges have color but no sugar, yet. Meyer lemons are hanging heavy and ready to go into lemonade or pie.

The Molino Creek Canyon has changed so much since the fire of August 2020. Big trees and many burn damaged redwood branches have crashed down across the hillside around our farm’s beautiful wintertime waterfall, which is flowing and noisy still. It is difficult to hike there, but we’ll open up the paths again soon with chainsaws and muscle. I’ve been exploring Molino creek, which was heavily scoured by the big rains in December. Now, it is so much easier to walk by the creek- no vegetation and a rocky sidewalk of a path alongside the clear running stream. There are potential dunking holes for the summer and wide rocky beaches. The large expanse of sandstone bedrock has accumulated a covering of redwood seeds. Last year, the redwoods made an Epic Cone Crop, with cones much larger than anyone had seen before. The branches were heavy with cones. For the last month, those seeds have released from the opening cones: dropping and scattering onto the ground. Now there is a red-brown scattering of the delicate seeds. In moist cracks, the seeds are germinating: a new crop of redwoods, just as their mother intended- a rare sight as redwood seedlings only ever get going on bare ground following a fire.

-I published this at my regular blog at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.

Dead Wood

Such a negative connotation, the term “Dead Wood.” The phrase makes you think about useless things that get in the way, and, in the terrible capitalist production context, unproductive people. Now, turn your mind away from this type of meaning and think instead of the dead wood of forests or the logs floating along in streams or lakes, log rafts in the ocean, or driftwood piled up on the beach. Dead wood in those contexts is what this essay is about. Why might dead wood be ecologically important or how can it be dangerous, and what should we do about it?

Presenting Food for Woodpeckers and Bears

For some, dead wood is promising. Up on the North Coast, I’ve been hearing the cackling calls of “Woody” (aka pileated) Woodpecker, here on the southern end of its range along the coast. Pileated woodpeckers have been well fed since the Lockheed Fire and are about to have great feasts and lots of homes as a result of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire. And, it’s not just the pileated woodpeckers- round here there are also hairy, downy, Nuttall’s and acorn woodpeckers that will also benefit from lots of standing Dead Wood. Flickers will also enjoy lots of pecking space in the dead trees where millions of insects are burrowing through trunk and branch or gathering just under exfoliating bark.

How much wood would a woodpeckers peck if the wood were specked upon the ground? Not much. But, if we had bears, they would tear that wood apart pronto. There are big, greasy, tasty grubs deep inside decomposing trees, whether they are standing or fallen over, and bears have the nose to sniff them and the paws to get at them. In bear country, you’ll often see shredded dead trees where bears have been foraging.

Home is Where the Hole Is – Life in the Big Brown Pole

Dead Wood is home to many critters other than the bugs that feast on it. The insects, fungi, and bacteria make the dead wood soft enough to excavate into nest cavities for birds. The list of local nesting birds that need Dead Wood cavities to nest is long (at least 22 species as follows): Western bluebirds, owls- barn, Western screech, Northern saw-whet, Northern pygmy, and spotted… Northern flickers, woodpeckers- hairy, downy, Nuttall’s and acorn…American kestrels, swallows- both violet green and tree…purple martins, ash-throated flycatchers, chestnut backed chickadees, nuthatches: both white-breasted and pygmy…and finally wrens: winter, house, and Bewick’s.  Competing with those native birds for nest cavities are the increasingly burgeoning populations of house sparrows and European starlings. Each of these species has their own particular type of hole, varying in size, habitat, orientation, depth, etc. While the birds are nesting, other critters like cockroaches proliferate amongst the dank nesting material in the hole. After the birds have nested, mice or bats move in.

Dead Wood for Woodpeckers – a roasted large Douglas Fir awaits beneficial reuse

Home is Where the Hole Is – Life in the Rotting Log

Once the log is on the ground, animals scurry to claim it as territory. My favorite find in a rotting log is a rubber boa, a plain brown snake with an unusually wrinkly skin and blunt head. They really like snuzzling into the crumbliest of rotting wood. Another score when exploring rotting wood is the California salamander, an orange and brown bug-eyed friend that squinches into the spaces between bark and wood on fallen timber. Under the logs, there are still more species of snakes, salamanders, and much more. Back inside especially rotten logs, you can find mouse nests- piles of shredded bark, leaves, or grass tucked away to make an excavated tunnel cozy.

Wish we had bears…. photo by J Gilardi

Wood Made Fish Holes

“Logjam” is another term with an unnecessarily unpleasant connotation, somewhat related to “Dead Wood.” Logjams in streams and rivers back up sediment and create waterfalls that carve downwards, creating cooler, deeper pools that fish love. More than that, these chunks of Dead Wood block up streamflow and force flow-carried sediment out of the stream to storage areas in the floodplain. Dead wood moves streams about to scour oxbow pools that are important for frogs, turtles, and salamanders.

Logs a’Hoy!

If that Dead Wood isn’t permanently trapped along the stream or river, it ends up in the downstream lake, estuary, or ocean. Picture the line up of Western pond turtles on a log jutting out into a freshwater lake: that’s their favorite place, basking in the sun ready to drop into the water if they feel unsafe. Logs scattered around an otherwise mud-banked estuary might serve as the solid substrate necessary for oysters and other estuarine organisms. Rafts of logs in the ocean or on rivers are boat hazards before they wash up on beaches. Once on the beach, Dead Wood gets its first nice nickname: ‘driftwood.’ Driftwood on the beach diversifies dunes, creates rare shade and shelter, and captures rafts of seaweed for huge compost piles, fueling insect abundance for foraging shorebirds. I like sitting on driftwood to keep my bottom from getting sandy or wet. Unfortunately, people like to burn up all the driftwood as if it had been just waiting for their bonfires, which create a pall of stinky saltwater smoke downwind.

Burning Log a’Fire

Throughout the fire-scarred forests of California, there are millions of big brown poles waiting to add fuel to the next fires. In the footprint of the Lockheed Fire where the CZU Fire burned, the heat was tremendous, the fire stoked by the Lockheed fire’s Dead Wood. Maybe after a few 10-year interval fires, the Dead Wood will be all cleared out and a forest can regrow more safely. Meanwhile, my hypothesis is that Dead Wood is mostly fuel for the next fire, at least around here.

Michael Uhler illustrating a post fire ecology with Dead Wood a’plenty in the background: future fuel for future wildfire

Smokey the Bear

Now, what if we had bears? Would the log-shredding bears help with the decomposition process and at least somewhat reduce wildfire danger? Maybe that’s what made people think up Smokey the Bear to begin with.

Goldilocks and the 3 Bears

What’s just the right amount of dead wood? None of the native cavity nesting birds I mentioned are common enough to say we have enough standing dead wood, anywhere. In the streams and rivers, not enough logjamming is a problem for fish; too many logjams in the wrong places are a worry for human infrastructure (bridges, roads). Boaters don’t want any floating logs, at all. My friends the rubber boas need some rotting logs to replace the burned up ones in the CZU fire scar. Is there anything we can do to make sure we have the right amount of dead wood in the right places? Sure there is.

What are We to Do?

Wouldn’t it be nice if society supported more scientific inquiry? When was the last time you heard this question for a Congressional candidate: ‘How will you work to support funding for ecological science?’ A good answer would include federal funding for the National Science Foundation. Would you consider supporting the candidate with the best answer with your donations and your vote? We need better answers to the Dead Wood questions…and support for organizations like the Coastal Commission, CAL FIRE, parks agencies, land trusts, and state and federal wildlife agencies that integrate the Dead Wood answers into their decision making. Its not what you thought it was: we all need Dead Wood.

-this post reprinted from my weekly column at Bruce Bratton’s online blog Brattononline.com