birds

Surprises

The winds come and go, the nights are still chilly, and the days are getting warm again. Today it was in the 70’s. The whole world seems sparkly, extra vivid and alive. Critters are zipping about and the breezes sporadic and then, some days, ripping. The sky has been mostly clear but then suddenly fog will creep up the canyon or giant puffy clouds peek over the ridge above the farm. Many little birds are cheeping and carrying on midday, but there are occasional surprising quiet moments. Once this past week…zoom – the vultures not lazily but energetically were sweeping across the farm, chasing one another, riding a sudden new and steady afternoon wind. Some nights it has been so breezy that the house shakes, but then there was a recent night that was so quiet that you could hear a million crickets near and far.

Surprises and Singing Friends

Yes, crickets are singing at night, and many birds sing all day long. Song sparrows are making the most constant melodious songs. I flushed a snipe from the Avocado Bowl this early evening…what a surprise – for both of us. It yipped and I yelped: it was almost under foot. Off it went downhill off the farm. They say it is passing through- lots of migration happening these past weeks.

Bizarre Black Birds, redux

A while back, bicolor blackbirds changed their social behavior. Towards the end of winter, bicolors joined the Brewers blackbirds and starlings in the leafless walnut trees, raising a cacophonous symphony but somehow breaking into a hypnotic melodious chorus (and sometimes with soloists, other times with jazzy subgroups, and always with startling punctuated pauses). Then, the Brewers left the stage. The starlings took to their own flocks. And, the bicolors broke off in small groups. Now, bicolors are exhibiting undecipherable and very different behavior. As is normal, males continue puffing up with their extraordinary epaulettes. The males and females have intricate chases or face offs; I have seen very alert females clustered together, I have also seen the females apparently chasing males, and I have seen males chasing ravens, swallows, and even hummingbirds. Those guy bicolor blackbirds seem proud to bravely chirp at me staying as close as they dare – showing off?

Sneezing Time

The grasses are turning tawny even with the late rains and pollen is flying thickly. Ten minutes outside fill the corner of my eyes with dust that starts immediately itching. Before my nose fills and congests from the pollen, there is a sweet grassy scent blanketing everywhere. I want to keep smelling that but it is subtle and my nose reacts poorly to the pollen filled air. It is, unfortunately for me, indoor time lest my lungs seize and my neighbors too serenaded by the loudest of continuous sneezing until my throat is chaffed and my eyes water to streams of tears. Oh, those N95 masks are serving another purpose!

Gophers and Snakes

Meanwhile, in the soil…hundreds of gophers are tossing up small piles of earth across the farm – crumbly mounds, the fresher excavations dark and moist for a little while, sprinkled with a mess of critter cut hay. A meadow vole was midday sunbathing in some short grass next to the solar panels the other day, not even moving when approached. I got to see how tiny its ears were, folded up against its head: un-mouse like. Shortly thereafter, I was startled by the biggest gopher snake I’ve ever encountered – around 5’ long and 2” thick. This snake was almost under foot and I found myself emitting another involuntary yell, body levitating up miraculously and seemingly sky high, arching up and up before touching down and happy not to have squinched it. Yesterday, there was yet another gopher snake, this one a ’mere’ 3’ long, near the citrus orchard about to cross the road. It is a good year to be a snake and a good time for accenting the need to be present when walking, so as not to tread on them serpents.

Ursi’s Bouquets

This is the time of year that roadside wildflowers are at their most diverse. When I visit farm partners Bob and Ursi at their beautiful downtown home, this time of year there are the most beautiful bouquets of wildflowers from that roadside: lupines and poppies, deep blue globed bulb flowers, monkeyflowers…and many more. They so appreciate that beauty and it has been increasing because of their attention. They are the ones who requested that the roadside mowing crews avoid the once few lavender bush lupines. We did. Those few spread and then after the fire erupted in giant patches of color and quick cover for so many creatures. Bob and Ursi are profoundly appreciative of natural beauty and share their observations easily with bright eyes and kind smiles.

Newly planted tomato plants – off to a hard start but promising much in the long term

Crop Planting, Orchard Production

A variety of neighbors have been pitching in to plant the Molino Creek Farm crops this year. The first tomato plants are in the ground as of today! Onions went in a few days ago. The sad but promising rows of new crops are settling in, a hard transition from the nursery but they will soon adjust.

In the orchard, the limes are getting so ripe to be dropping from the trees, but the oranges don’t have sweetness yet. Nearly every apple tree has set fruit, and those tiny fruits are growing fast in large clusters. The cherry trees have few fruit, fewer still the prunes and apricots: late rains might have pummeled the tiny fruit or perhaps the wind? It will be a big apple year if the pests don’t get too many; there are very few jays as of yet.

The farmed and natural worlds of Molino Creek Farm change by the day, as does the world around everyone. Catch it while you can! Enjoy the changes!!

A bud grafted Lapins cherry on the Colt Rootstock that survived the fire to resprout. Thanks, Drake Bialecki for making this magic!

-this post simultaneously posted at Molino Creek Farm’s website.

The Return of the Rain

HOT (85F), then cold and massively windy (wind damage!) … then drizzle…now gap (cold)…drizzle tomorrow gap…drizzle Saturday (cool): what an odd April! The April showers bring May flowers adage isn’t supposed to work here in California, or at least it hasn’t for a long time…but then again, it Does Work! Way back in March, the prairies were turning brown and the grass was stunted and dying. Ranchers were selling their cattle quickly to get in before the big sales rush later in the spring, when they would make even less money. Now, the grasses are growing again, and the prairies are mostly green where they were brown. Weird. The big lupine year here on the Farm will be prolonged maybe into May if this keeps up. If it keeps up, maybe we’ll have the plump tasty handfuls of native blackberry that we got last year with the late rains….that would be wonderful. Some nearby got an inch of rain this last round, where we were promised only two tenths. Roof runoff rainwater buckets filled entirely, which normally suggests a good soak.

No Chow

There is very little food on the farm, unless you like to eat lemons and limes or to harvest wild nettles. The cover crop pea shoots have been mowed and/or tilled in. It has been too dry for mushrooms, though the recent rains could promise morels if it warmed up and we looked hard. It is too early to harvest the very few Bacon avocados fattening on the trees. Very little of last season’s kale remains that hasn’t bolted. It’d be a good time to turn to eating bugs if you had to forage just on the farm. Canned food season continues. Oh, how we long for the produce of summer!

Wildlife Sightings

I saw as single deer running across the farm this past week, the first for a long time and too far away to know what sex. But it was nice sized and alone, very nervous…kept moving. A few fox barks emanated from the Vandenberg Field area one evening. Not much predator poo around. Gophers, though- very common! And the voles are starting to make a comeback. The Big Winners are the mice – the harvest and deer mouse populations are burgeoning right now. They leap and scurry in front of the mowers and hoes, and if you stand still too long in the grass they run over your shoes- it’s that kind of mouse year.

I spied on one of the bluebird boxes yesterday and watched a momma feed babies which were sticking their hungry maws out of the hole to get the dangly long caterpillar from her mouth. Cheep Cheep! Cheep Cheep!

The band tailed pigeons are the newest entertainment. Our big flock is back eating walnut catkins, an annual ritual. They sure are nervous, flapping noisily away when you approach a walnut tree. I am transported to the tropics when I see them- they trigger past parrot sightings in my memory, being a similar size and shape.

Farming

Adan is back on the tractor. So is Mark Bartle, who has been equally energetic with the big machines. The fields are mowed and a subset are getting tilled. Adan has rototilled the first field, so smoothly turned around, a special kind of soil beauty. Mark mowed the vineyard this past week and the vines opened their fresh light green delicate leaves; they are well trellised and starting to look like an established crop for the first time, their third spring of growth.

The orchard folks got caught up on watering and then with the drizzle can take a bit of a break. Soon the Maserati of Mulcharts will be going 185 with big piles of mowed up mulch to feed the trees.

The hay hauling mulch cart, a Molino Creek Farm invention- appropriate technology

Flowers

The blue, blue-blue native bulbs have burst into their small tight globes of flowers on the road into the farm, complimenting the other patches of white-and-blue lupines. Orange sticky monkeyflower subshrubs are getting towards full bloom, but Ceanothus are fading. French broom is scentfully blossoming, but we don’t like looking at it- what a scourge has been flushed after that fire! In the forest, it is peak iris time and the pale yellow flowered fat false Solomon’s seal is in full bloom (another scent sensation). Did I say iris time? Its really a big iris year! The poppies are in full regalia, meshing large patches of flame orange into the delightfully contrasting purple blue lupines.

We hope you enjoy some rainbows and perhaps the last rains of the season this next week. Our fruit trees will be in heaven.

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.

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

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.

Provocative Eucalyptus

This is reprinted from my weekly post as part of Bruce Bratton’s excellent weekly brattononline.com This post was modified from the original in response to critique by Gillian Greensite who has followed this issue for many years. My content was largely informed by a science conference on the subject, with a record of many materials here.

Many Californians have opinions about Eucalyptus. Either you are for them or against them. Its a subject like politics or religion that you hesitate to bring up at the dinner table. As with Covid-19 vaccination, you can’t predict who’ll be on what side (or why) – people of any political persuasion can surprise you with their beliefs. I’m betting that you know what I’m talking about…I didn’t even need to mention which of the hundreds of species of Eucalyptus I am talking about.

Eucalyptus Bad

The most common concern I hear about blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) in California is how fire-dangerous it is. Locally, some recall the 2008 Trabing Fire just north of Watsonville, ignited on a hot day by a poorly running vehicle backfiring, and spitting out fire balls along Highway 1. Grass caught fire and quickly spread into nearby invasive pines, acacia and Eucalyptus (those have since regrown denser than before). That fire surprised fire-fighting professionals from how high embers were flying…hitting their fire monitoring planes at altitudes previously thought safe. They cited the architecture of Eucalyptus forests…the tall, close very vertical trunks create chimney-like conditions, hurling fiery brands much further than expected. Leaves with volatile oils and large amounts of bark and branches accumulated in the understory are other reasons for fire concern.

Eucalyptus Good

The most common defense of Eucalyptus I have encountered is its beauty. Our cityscapes have surprisingly few trees, but there are almost always huge Eucalyptus nearby. Many are fond of their massive trunks, shaggy bark, and towering, spreading canopies, shimmering with blue green leaves. I have seen many painters capturing the alluring patterns of rows of old Eucalyptus trees in many seasons, in many shades of light. A few people will dedicate their spare time and energy to protect big old Eucalyptus city trees from the too-frequent human desire to cut down trees.

What Do the Birds Say?

If birds are any indicator, Eucalyptus is good in some places and bad in other places. Birds like city trees including Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus adjacent to larger bodies of water are attractive to birds. You may have seen masses of herons and egrets using Eucalyptus as ‘rookeries’ where they raise their young. Trees near the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor are roosting areas for herons. The Eucalyptus grove south and inland of the Elkhorn Slough Bridge in Moss Landing has a huge rookery, with so many birds that their guano is killing the trees. Peregrine falcons were using the talk Eucalyptus near the river mouth for a while. Raptors like the tallest trees for nests and perches.

Gum Gone Wild

Eucalyptus in our area is considered to have a moderate threat of invasiveness, with regionally specific higher rate of spread in foggy areas and in areas with more water availability, especially along the Central Coast. As with so many Eucalyptus issues, this was once a source of controversy before Eric Van Dyke at the Elkhorn Slough Reserve demonstrated an 8 foot per year rate of spread of groves in northern Monterey County. Since then, many other examples of the species’ ability to spread in our region have been documented. Where Eucalyptus spreads into streamside habitats, there is a particularly bad impact for bird conservation.

River Gum Bad

Riverside or streamside (aka ‘riparian’) habitats are by far the most crucial targets for bird conservation in California. Most of these habitats have been highly altered and are no longer good habitat for wildlife. Many migratory birds visiting from the tropics nest in those habitats. The loss of riparian bird habitat compounds with the loss of tropical forests, and so these birds are particularly imperiled. Riparian ecosystems host many cavity nesting birds that favor holes in the soft wood of riparian trees like willows, cottonwoods, and alders. Eucalyptus trees quickly invade and transform diverse riparian forest, and cavities become much less common. Bird conservationists say that controlling Eucalyptus in riparian areas should be a ‘no brainer.’

Euc Pests

Some types of birds have recently been newly attracted to Eucalyptus because they like at least one of its natural pests that found its way to California. The blue gum psyllid is apparently tasty for birds such as warblers. I’m less sure if birds are eating other ‘new’ Eucalyptus pests: apparently a number of blue gum eating pests recently found their way to California. It used to be that Eucalyptus leaves were perfectly shaped, no damage- nothing ate them! Now, those leaves look like someone took a paper punch to them. Eucalyptus tortoise beetle are eating blue gum leaves – does anyone know if birds like to eat it or other of the new Euc pests?

The Arrival of Eucalyptus

Eucalyptus has a long history in California. It was widely planted in the 1870’s to address the ‘hardwood famine.’ Hardwood was becoming scarce because of its use as fuel for steam engines and heat, so there was a Eucalyptus planting boom. Eucalyptus was soon advertised as the solution to many problems: a fast-growing hardwood for fuel, people thought its wood could be used for railroad ties and other lumber, people said the tree would dry up wetlands and reduce mosquitoes, and its fast growth attracted people to plant it for windbreaks. People were buying large numbers of seedlings. Some advertised, promising investors good returns from productive Eucalyptus wood lots.

Hardwood, though, eventually lost favor to petroleum in California. But, if you travel to Central or South America, where hardwood is still important for fuel, you will notice many areas managed for Eucalyptus firewood.

Heavy and Twisty

It turned out that Eucalyptus wood twists and buckles when drying, so it was eventually recognized as useless for lumber. Well, almost. 15 years ago, someone claimed they had a process for drying Eucalyptus “correctly” so that it could be used lumber, including for picnic tables. They donated one to the organization I worked for…it weighed 250 pounds and took 4 people to move! After a couple of years it was impossible to use. It was so warped that when people sat on it, it rocked wildly about, and created a balancing challenge with people bobbing around spilling their drinks at vastly different elevations.

Perhaps this would be different if the wood were kept dry, indoors. Woodlots for Eucalyptus hardwood are still around, but you are more likely to see Eucalyptus spreading from old, planted windbreaks. Look carefully for the oldest biggest trees in a row with many generations of younger trees spreading from there. One thing remains true from the old hype: Eucalyptus does well at drying wetlands!

Drink it Up

With its huge canopy thick with leaves, Eucalyptus is known globally for its thirsty nature. Deforestation in its native home in Australia led to salinization of the soil from the evaporating heightened water table. Here in California, people note the loss of springs where Eucalyptus grows. Although closer scrutiny is needed, using transpiration rates from Eucalyptus elsewhere in similar climates, it is likely that a grove of Eucalyptus drinks most of the rainfall falling on it along our coast. This is much more water than native trees use. One day, one mitigation for new development that demands more water might be investment in Eucalyptus control.

Thinning and Containing

Given the fire danger and negative ecological and water impacts of most Eucalyptus groves, it is sad that they are still proliferating. To be sure, Eucalyptus control is an expensive proposition. Having felled several large trees, I can attest to the work it takes to clean up a fallen tree properly. The wood makes great firewood and is easy to split if you split it soon after felling. But there is an enormous amount of slash to deal with…chipping or burn piles- either way a lot of work. The stand-out organization for Eucalyptus control locally is State Parks. They are ‘thinning and containing’ some groves that people like to look at while obliterating others in ecologically sensitive areas. They realize that Eucalyptus control will cost more each year they wait, so they do what they can with the (too few) resources that our elected officials budget for them.

Fer it or Agin it?

After reading this, maybe you will have a more informed opinion about this provocative tree. It is my hope that you be ‘for’ the ones that grow near bodies of water or are city trees and ‘against’ the ones in riparian areas or spreading through our other precious native ecosystems.

Falling Leaves with Swards A’Greening

from my blog for Molino Creek Farm

The meadows are turning GREEN: electric, eye straining, shiny, bright grassy green. It smells fresh and alive again. The sky seems a deeper sparkling blue and the stars shinier: it’s like the rain cleaned everything.

I’ve heard it said (with derision?) ‘back east’ – “California’s where Fall means the leaves drop and the grass turns green.” (Ironically, this is sometimes said by the same people that claim we don’t have seasons at all)

In the forest, yellowish fall colors, the scrublands dotted with brilliant red. Maples and hazelnuts are at their brightest fall pale yellow. Nestled into the mostly evergreen bushes of coastal scrub, poison oak glows brilliant crimson, leaves sometimes swirled with subtle purple or blushed with melon orange.

The honeybees have been getting hungrier as the last of the coyote bush flowers fade. A lone Australian import in my landscape, a white bell-shaped flowering Correa shrub, is now nearly being carried off by honeybees. I have never seen a single plant of any kind so buzzy.

Native wild strawberry, naturally established in our orchard understory…a rose by any other name (in a rose family orchard!)

Bonfire Time

It is bonfire time. Directly after the rain soaked the land, regulators lifted the ‘burn ban.’ With increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns, we know better than to wait. Even after running a chipper on many piles earlier in the summer, we have around 10 tons of brush remaining to burn.

Beautiful, guilty pleasures, bonfires. With the heating of the planet, we are torn about this torching of biomass. In the few years leading up to this wildfire, I told everyone I knew that there was no feasible way of composting wood around here. Any branch over an inch diameter, I said, is just waiting to fuel the next wildfire. What does one do with the trimmings, fallen branches and trees, in that case? In the ten-year interval we expect between wildfires, we would quickly fill all of our open space with brush piles…and then they would burn anyways (as they did in the last fire). If we place branches in the forest, the forest trees will burn hotter and be more likely to die. And so, we burn piles when it is safe to do so. That means burning every time a storm is blowing in. Two piles down….20 more to go…At least we can enjoy the warmth and cheer: friends join in…bonfires by request! (selfishly, this helps us tend the fires)

Non Human Farm Mammals

The mammals love the rain-fueled regreening, too. Last night, I heard the first caterwauling of a cougar in a long time. It was yelling from near the intersection of Molino Creek Farm Road and Warrenella Road. Her sounds freak many people out as they are somewhat similar to a screaming human. The lion in the area making those noises would explain the reason our neighborhood dog, Fiona has had a few long barking sprees recently! What a terrifying sound…what a brave guard dog! Ruff! Ruff! The fierce barking echoes off the surrounding ridge lines.

Some may recall my mention of the relationship between skunks and ground wasps, aka yellow jackets, aka vespid wasps. I have seen it so many years…the first rain and the skunks dig up the wasp nests. What an amazing and guaranteed service. After this last rain, where there were once dangerous zones of sure firey stings, now there are holes, soil thrown up with scattered torn up papery honeycombs, a few upset wasps still trying to make sense of their broken homes. Somewhere there’s a skunk with a very full belly (and lots of skin welts).

Scary (and curious) Birds

One recent dusk, I was dreamily soaking in the beauty of the fading colors and the wet scents of the newly moistened landscape when the oddest sound startled me. The noise was sudden and like the horror movie sound of a hundred attack raptors – coming right at me! I almost ducked, but then realized that it was a hundred mourning doves flying as low and fast as they could, over and all around me. Their wings make a sharp swooping air-cutting noise as they come towards you with only the slightest dove wing whistle after they pass. This pattern has been repeating every evening at dusk- mourning doves jetting at tree (shrub) level downhill across the whole farm to roost somewhere at lower elevation. The conservation of elevational clines, from high to low elevation, on the western slope of Ben Lomond Mountain may be important for undocumented and mysterious reasons…We saw robins doing the same thing (though less speedily) at winter solstice a couple years ago.

Our resident ravens started an unusual bout of extreme danger warning calls, and I left my desk to go outside to ask ‘what up?!’ Whoosh- right by my door-exiting body: a norther harrier. This big acrobatic predator hunted all day long Monday, all over the farm. Late afternoon and the ravens were hoarse from alarm calls and making sad and exhausted crows; I thought maybe they lost a friend, or maybe were crying in despair that this dangerous foe would set up shop more regularly around the farm. They were probably hungry for the day of hiding.

Then, right after the raven dirge…a screaming peregrine falcon lit up the soundscape! What a drag to be on the receiving side of bird-on-bird predators! Eternal vigilance…

A more genteel bird observed…late afternoon and I hear a persistent raspy squeaky bewick’s wren call. It is most persistent, too persistent. And then I saw it, on top of a columnar cactus under my house eaves- looking up at the 3-year-old wasp nest that it had used the last two winters as a winter roost, with a mate. That wren was squeaking and flicking its wings, twitching its tail upwards, and making quite a show, over and over glancing up at the wasp nest…for 15 minutes. What was on its mind??

Harvest Season

Giant Mutsu Apples, Just Getting Ripe

Our Two Dog and Molino Creek Farm crews are still at it: lots to harvest, still! Tomatoes are still holding out, a little. Winter squash still colors the ground. Peppers hang thickly. The flowers are fading…

In the orchard, the apples are mid harvest: this is late! The Gala apples are a distant memory, and we are halfway into the Fuji harvest. We are also picking Mutsu, Braeburn, Jonagold, and Golden Delicious. Those personally passing through the orchard can eat many other varieties…Arkansas Black, Esopus Spitzenberg, and many more.

We are going to have to be quite measured and tactical to sow the cover crop seed in the apple orchard- leaving harvesting rows to last but getting seed in wherever we can- and soon!

Besides the colorful and varied crop of rain-drenched, juicy, delicious apples…the orchard is giving us the longest most colorful fall. A long while ago already the prunes started changing flaming red and orange colors, now the aprium and other stone fruits are rapidly progressing into similarly spectacular colors. Some apple branches are giving it up to their signature yellow leaves. If the past is any indication, this slow fall will continue way into January until we have bare trees. The Wassail seems to happen right as they enter their leafless dormancy.

Fall flaming stonefruit, eye candy in the orchard

RAIN

-this from my weekly post for Molino Creek Farm

Tuesday, most of the day, it was sunny but noticeably cooler. There was a breeze and then it started getting colder after noon. It was 1pm and I glanced towards the ocean and was surprised to see thick fog down there. Another look at 3:30 pm- clear at the beach but a deck of clouds suddenly obscured the whole sky. It smelled like rain, but the rain didn’t start for hours. Sometime in the early dark hours of Wednesday morning, I awoke thinking a coyote was lapping water in the birdbath, but it was the pitter patter of rain dripping from my roof into the rainwater catch buckets. It’s been raining on and off all day, raindrops vying to be the teeniest of them all: a small raindrop contest! Mist was so thick it stuck to everything on all sides, wafting in from all directions. Then some bigger drops pelt down for a bit, then misty drippiness returns, again. Everything sparkles with droplets under a silver-gray sky.

This “first significant” rain started a month earlier than the past two years, when the first real rain was at Thanksgiving…following uncomfortable lengthy hot spells. What a welcome difference! Tomorrow, we’ll have petrichor, the smell of the freshly wetted soil, which takes a bit to emerge.

Thus far, Molino Creek Farm might have had a little over a half inch of rain, judging from the rain buckets and the amount of soil wetting. Our soil is ancient- more than 300,000 years old. It is hydrophobic once dry, so wetting it takes some time…droplets scoot down soil pores or sit on the soil surface or reluctantly soak in. Once the soil starts accepting water, it takes 1” of rain to saturate 1 foot of soil. If we get the expected 4” of rain between now and Sunday, the soil will be gushy four feet down!

Ten Pound Mud Boots

As one neighbor remarked, farmers must now reluctantly stop working, though there is much to do. If we steal off to try to harvest something…and there is much to harvest…we’ll end up with “ten pound mud boots.” Farm field mud is so sticky that each step adds more globs onto your shoes, making huge hunks of mess: you are quickly 4 inches taller walking on mud platforms that stick out 3” in every direction. Lifting your feet makes your pant legs muddy, very muddy.

Boots that weigh ten pounds are good if you want to exercise without moving far, but practically speaking, they are an absolute and unarguable hinderance to vegetable harvesting. We must wait for things to dry, and that’s going to be a while. “Luckily” the show goes on…we rushed and harvested enough prior to the rain to go to market, so off to market we go. Boxes and boxes of late season delicious tomatoes, glowing piles of beautiful winter squash, piles of shiny red ripe peppers will soon grace our sales tables.

Two Dog Farm’s Beautiful and Even More Tasty Red Kuri Squah

The rain has put a stopwatch to the end of the tomato season. The wetness means melt down. Already, a wave of russet mites seriously damaged the Molino Creek Farm plants. Patches of plants started turning a characteristic russetty-brown that you can see half a mile away…the patches spread quickly in all directions, vibrant deep green healthy plants folding over to this vicious pest. And now, the rain. Thousands of tomatoes remain on the plants…

Molino Creek Farm’s Dry Farmed Tomatoes…nearly end of the season

Ravens Back to Normal…and other birds

With the advent of the rainy season, Maw and Caw are back to their normal selves. Everyday inspections of the farm reveal just these two Farm Ravens without their rowdy children or their rowdy children’s proud new mates. Once this past week there were three other ravens, Maw and Caw talking loudly to them, spinning up to meet them high above the farm. Do our two friends feel they must chase away their kids to protect their territory, now? Are the playful windy days of spring the only days they feel comfortable to reunion with their more extended families? Oh, to know the dynamics of Raven Society. I love these two, they are such good friends, and I’m so happy to see them each and every time (especially when they are hopping up and down with their characteristic wing flicks).

We have a kestrel back on the farm and a (single!) sapsucker returned. The kestrel seems to be scooping up Jerusalem crickets these days, sometimes with a few accidental grass stalks. Its plumage is particularly vibrant and so seems very healthy. Why do we only ever get one individual kestrel…and only once did another show for just one week…?? Speaking of pairs, there is, once again, only one sapsucker. So, this second widow(er?) will linger how many winters in this territory before we get another year or so with none and then a pair shows again- that seems to be our story. This got me to thinking that sapsuckers might not have that large of populations…how well are they doing?

At dusk…gliding, prowling, and perching…great horned owls: easy to see around the farm right now.

No Till Orchard Crops

Back to the mud boots…are lack thereof. As we do not till our orchards, we can walk in those, still, to harvest and to harvest some more. We are 1,000 pounds into our expected 4,000 pound harvest. Almost all we have been harvesting has been Gala apples- the old trees our forebearers planted in 1998. They were laden with the most beautiful glowing red fruit, now all boxed up or as fermenting juice for next year’s cider.

You, yes YOU can get these incredibly sweet, crunchy, and beautiful Gala apples at the Food Bin, right on the main drag…Mission Street (and Laurel) in Santa Cruz. Support us Community Orchardists and go buy a bag of these gems. An apple a day….does what? (and have you done it?)

Next up…Fuji apples. In fact, we are sending Fuji, Mutsu, Gala, and Golden Delicious apples with Judy to the Palo Alto market this Saturday. So, if you are over that way…more diversity, more deliciousness. Plus, this is the run up to the last tomatoes of the season- we might not be at markets after another 3 weeks (or sooner for the mud boots).

For internal use only, us Community Orchardists are sharing the prized quince fruits. The legendary addition to apple sauce…the quince jam…the quince juice…the smell and beauty of this novel and ancient fruit. The test this year: do we need to plant more, or is 4 bush/trees enough for our needs? Already, people are suggesting we plant more, but they sit at the markets, unmoving.

Quince! Beautiful.

Golden Crowned Sparrow Returns to Central California

GoSp

Bold markings on this golden crowned sparrow indicates a ‘powerful’ individual.

Weary Willie’s distinctive call is waking up our neighborhood for the first time in five months.   Last night, during the full moon, the first Golden Crowned Sparrows arrived here in Davenport from their migration to British Columbia or perhaps Alaska.

Nicknamed ‘weary Willie’ for their call – “I’m so weary,” – this sparrow is our wintertime friend here, with ~20 bird flocks returning to exactly the same small shrub patches they inhabited last year here at Molino Creek Farm.  Well, at least SOME of the birds return, and some of those with their young which were born perhaps as far north as the ‘Bering Land Bridge National Preserve.’  Way up north, the a male feeds his mate as she incubates eggs.  Between flying back and forth, making a nest, feeding each other, fledging and raising young, they’ve been very busy since they left.  I’m fascinated with them because of their social structure and their tendency, like me, to be ‘home bodies.’

Bruce Lyon, a professor at UC Santa Cruz has been studying flocks at the UCSC Arboretum.  He finds up to 50% (or more!) of the birds returning in fall migration.  He has confirmed what many have noted – ‘high site fidelity’ – with the Arboretum birds.  Bird banding makes all that possible; I wish I could recognize individual birds well enough to do that from memory.

Individual birds are recognizable, and their plumage can tell you how high on the pecking order they reside.  Lyon has also noted that the size and color of their golden crowns, the patches of yellow on their heads, varies with their status in their flock.  The bigger and more striking the yellow, the more dominant the birds…including yellow patches on females that are dominant over duller males.  Taking the time to distinguish and even name individual birds in our flock is fun and helps me to understand a little of what is going on in the yard.

In past years, I have noticed that the birds ride the first winter cold fronts around Fall Equinox, perhaps taking advantage of the winds to help carry them.  I also wonder if they migrate more during the darker moon phases that intersect with those cold fronts, though this year they arrived during Full Moon.  I understand that many birds migrate mostly at night to avoid predation.  A small group of us sometimes place bets on first rain date as well as first golden crowned sparrow arrival dates.  This year, they came right on time…

Welcome back Golden Crowned Sparrows!

I’ll keep track of arrival and departure dates (with a few notes) from various years here, starting this fall:

Arrival: 9/21/15- first posted this post on that date.

Arrival: 9/21/21, full moon, day before Equinox, directly after N Cal atmospheric river event