golden crowned sparrow

Foggy Harvest Time

Dawn slowly lights the sky, muffled by thick silver-gray drippy fog, draping across ridgeline trees, blurring distant shadowy shapes. Closer, water droplets bend newly emerged grass blades, not yet tall enough to soak your shoes. Fog muffles most sounds like snow, except somehow the sharp pitter patter of fog drips which fall from trees hitting dry understory leaves. The rain of those droplets have been the sound of early morning, before the birds sing.

Dawn Unfolding, Birds

Eventually, the golden crowned sparrows sing along with the juncos, goldfinches, and, louder, the spotted towhee. Then, the ravens’ barking calls announce the busier time of day, awaking the jays’ raucousness. This past week, the orchard started sounding with a single sapsucker’s whiny peet. This one has a bright red head and is especially shy. They mate for life, but the one that just arrived came without a partner. One sapsucker is enough – it is already opening up many holes in the apple tree trunks, creating sipping wells for many other birds…sap cider?  

The distinct yellow of Molino Creek Farm’s Black Walnut trees

Nutty!

It is nut time. Jays and acorn woodpeckers swoop back and forth from the oak trees, one acorn each trip. The woodpeckers fill granaries- they have lots of dead trees to choose from. The jays land here and there, furtively glancing around before jamming acorns into the ground, a couple last rakes with their beaks for burial. If they catch you watching, they unbury the nut and take it elsewhere, beyond sight.

Walnuts, too, are ripening. Ripe English walnuts easily split from their shells, beige-orange nuts set in baskets to cure. Black walnuts drop heavily from trees, thudding on the ground: hundreds await someone who wants to deal with them. We run them over with our cars and birds follow in our wake to pick the tasty meat from shards of thick shells. The ravens and juncos are especially ‘on’ it.

AppleLandia

Wildlife are active at the piles of apple culls and spent ground apples from the cider pressing. The deer move slowly away from filling up on fruit. Coveys of quail somehow find the piles enticing.

Since the second week of September, Community Orchardists have harvested and sent to market over 1,000 pounds of apples: we might be half way. Mike and Charity used their country Tesla to haul another hundred or so pounds of apples to the Pacific School recently- and, we’ll keep sending them with more.

For the past 3 weeks, it has taken gatherings three harvests a week to keep up with this year’s apple crop. Besides the Saturday afternoon gathering, we get together Tuesday and Thursday late afternoons to harvest for farmers markets as well as for Pacific School (and some go from those to cider, too).

Part of the Apple Orchard Insectory: Salvia ulignosa- feeds hummingbirds right now!

Here’s the procession of apples from early to just now: Gravenstein (we ate them all)…then Gala (we harvested them all in the last 3 weeks) then Jonagold (all enthusiastically purchased) and Mutsu (half harvested), then just last week- Wickson Crab, Harrison (cider), White Winter Pearmain (tasteless!), and Golden Delicious (yummy!). Next up…Braeburn and Fuji, but we might have a lull in production before those get ripe enough to pick. It looks like we need to plant a few apple trees that get ripe at this point in the midseason.

With the short days, we are harvesting, packing, and pressing until dark.

Fall!

Last Thursday, as I was finishing the harvest cleanup, I heard geese approaching. There was just enough light to see 100 geese in their V formation flying south right above Molino Creek Farm. Later, in the real dark, I heard more. Recent late evenings, the same sound of echoey goose laughs have been brightening the soundscape. The sound of geese…the changing color of trees…the chill nights…fall is really here!

Another not-used-much fall fruit: prickly pear….towards the end of its fruit season

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

Golden Crowned Sparrow and Germinating

Two weeks back brought the Fall Equinox, a surprising germinating rain, and the return of golden crowned sparrows. In such a short time, the season has shifted between summer and fall and all around us nature is transforming accordingly.

Fall Equinox

In case you don’t follow such things…a little about the significance of Fall Equinox. The first day of Fall was September 22, 2022. The very moment that the sun was shining directly above the Earth’s equator was at 6:04 pm that day. After that, the sun has moved south of the equator, and the days have become shorter than the nights. This week, daylight is shortening 2 minutes and 23 seconds each day. Here are sunrise and sunset times for Monday October 3rd through Wednesday October 6th, so you can see what’s going on:

DaySunriseSunset
   
Monday 3rd  7:07 am6:52 pm
Tuesday 4th7:08 am6:47 pm
Wednesday 5th7:08 am6:46 pm
Thursday 6th7:09 am6:44 pm

Germinating Rain

That equinox week, an unusual storm brought much of our area enough rain to germinate annual grassland plants. Three-quarters to an inch of rain is all it takes to green up the grasslands. In the forest, redwood sorrel perked up, a newly lush green carpet under the towering redwoods. Curiously, I didn’t catch the ‘petrichor’ smell this round.

First Rains – What Next?

The shift to the rainy season demands attention. Our rainy season coincides with shorter days and a decline in average daily temperature. Cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers are what typify the rare Mediterranean climate regions like where we live. The wisdom of this area suggests that we must be prepared for the onset of stronger rains by October 15th, the average date of the first rainy storms.

Slow it Sink it Spread it

We prepare by making sure that things don’t runoff. “Slow it, sink it, spread it” is the rainfall mantra for our dry climate. Our job is to slow down rainfall so that it has time to infiltrate into the soil. We build raingardens to help sink the rain into the soil. Where we can’t sink it in small areas, we spread the flow out onto larger areas to give it more chance to slow and sink…and less chance to erode the precious soil which is impossible to replace, and which can pollute streams.

First Flush

Rain isn’t the only thing that runs off with the advent of the rainy season: the first flush of rain carries with it a whole summer’s worth of accumulated pollution. The first flush, as the runoff from the first rainfall is called, is the most polluting runoff event of the year.

A Legacy of Runoff Monitoring, Disappearing

There used to be a program led by the Coastal Watershed Council that organized volunteers to sample the first flush runoff from municipal drainages from many cities around the Central Coast, including Santa Cruz. That ‘First Flush’ program gradually degraded and then apparently disappeared – one wonders if the very concerning data were the reason.

In the early years, the program actually sampled the first flush, but it later curiously shifted to sampling in summer months. What continued was something the group calls ‘Snapshot Day’ in early summer, after one would expect that rains had cleansed drainages and runoff declined; curiously, even that program found many areas of polluted runoff concern.

The First Flush monitoring program highlighted high concentrations of pollutants, especially phosphorous but also zinc and copper, which are toxic at the concentrations they documented. In 2003, the First Flush monitoring report suggested that all the sites had runoff that was toxic to mussels, the indicator species used to assess water quality. In subsequent years, that measure was excluded, and the reports became more and more difficult to interpret. Then, the program gradually declined in scope, and reports after 2016 are not in evidence on the Coastal Watershed Council’s website.

The Return of the Golden Crowned Sparrow

I have written another essay about golden crowned sparrows, but want to give you a synopsis and a few more interesting facts. I also hope that you will welcome the return of this species to your neighborhood. This species has a very distinct call that will help you to recognize them. I woke last Wednesday morning to the smell of fresh rain and to that distinct song. Flocks of golden crowned sparrows had returned to my yard! They had flown all the way from Alaska. Bruce Lyon at UCSC has shown that the birds have a good survival rate to return to the same shrub patches that they occupied the prior winter. I keep hoping that I can find the time to get to know the behavior and color patterns of enough of the 40 or so birds that flock around my house to recognize them when they return.

These sparrows are grazers, though when they arrive from their journey south they mainly eat seeds for a bit. Their grazing helps to create big barren areas at the edges of shrubs adjoining grasslands; the taller the adjoining bush, the farther out the bare patch extends. Golden crowned sparrows also graze my vegetable garden: soon, I will have to cover up anything they like, a drastic switch from the summer. I will guard my winter greens crop – kale, collards, chard, arugula, and lettuce – until early April when they depart.

For a while, I thought the golden crowned sparrows would leave at Spring Equinox just to keep things simple. After all, if they always arrive at Fall Equinox, why wouldn’t they leave at a similar time?  I haven’t kept a good logbook of their departures, but I’ve been tricked several times when they stopped calling right around my house. It turned out that the flocks move out to graze the deep lush cover crops in the farm fields nearby before taking off for Alaska and British Columbia where they spend their summers.

In Closing

Although we’ve had a germinating rain, we don’t know what the future holds…the past 2 years have had curious weather phenomena: rain followed by hot drought, grasslands drying out and then regreening. This year, there is a strong La Niña in effect – in recent years, this meant drought. The last two years had heavy duty heat waves right up to Thanksgiving when the first big rain occurred.

So, we may get some more time to prepare for the First Flush and the onset of the rains. Do what you can…create or maintain your raingardens – water them if you can to prepare them to filter runoff.

While the golden crowned sparrow friends are around, I hope you will say hi to them and appreciate their rainy season song.

Welcome the Fall!

-this post originally published by Bruce Bratton in his infomative BrattonOnline.com weekly blog: check it out!

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.

Sweater Weather

The fall see-sawing between heat wave and chilliness continues, a pattern we’ve become used to through even the more typically hotter summer. This past week, the farm warmed for a few days into the mid-80s – unusually warm for us – with nights down to the high sixties. During the days, the lush carpet of white flowering clover in the orchard understory folded its leaflets, hiding out until cooler times and the apples rapidly brightened towards ripeness. Cricket song vibrated through the comfy nights. Then, yesterday, high thin clouds blew in, barely obscuring the sun and the temperature dropped – the arrival of fall “sweater weather.” Banter turned to expectations of rain. “I saw the tarantulas come out” I heard someone remark on a visit to San Luis Obispo – people believe this to be a sign of upcoming rain. A Bonny Doon person remarked that ants were moving inside…yet another sign that rain was imminent. No rain around here, though…but, it did rain in northern California a few days ago and there was a good downpour in LA recently. We’re stuck in the dry middle of the state with confused invertebrates feeling the weather fronts that don’t quite get here.

So, for the farm, dust season continues. The natural world looks drier and drier. Our last rain was months ago. Even in the areas that burned in the summer of 2020, the ground is covered by regrowth. Brown, dry thistle heads rattle across the hillsides in afternoon breezes. Resprouting coyotebrush presents deep green patches in the understory of the thistles – it reached a foot or so high this summer and will recover a closed canopy across many hillsides next year. The dust comes from the humans – it blows from our roads and fields in great arcs coating surrounding vegetation…redistributing nutrients across the landscape. It is the same through the more extensive agricultural landscapes – trucks running down dirt roads in the wide Salinas Valley create huge plumes of dust that carry for miles. “There goes our soil!” I’ve tried covering some of our farm roads with hay cut adjacent to the road, and road gets slick, hay quickly ground up by the many farm worker vehicles…maybe it helps? Soil is very, very slow to create and I fear wind and water erosion deepening the road ruts, making for bigger maintenance projects in the future.

Black walnuts are plentiful on our farm, Joe Curry grew these seedlings from our mother tree

 Fall color progresses. The many black walnut trees that dot the farm have yellow leaves, falling. The orchard’s prune trees have yellow-orange leaves starting to turn and the cherry leaves are changing to a distinct orange-red. Across the nearby slopes, poison oak has been turning crimson since August. In the moist canyons below the farm, big leaf maples are turning bright lemon yellow alongside similarly colored hazelnut bushes. During our cool spells, the crisp air smells like dry leaves and clean air from the North.

Lapins cherry trees, survived the fire, starting to drop colorful leaves

On one of my midday work-break irrigation hikes (turning off water, checking that the tanks were filling), I heard a frantic truck horn beeping. Luckily, it wasn’t the three long beeps that signal an outright emergency. Patterns of horn beeping can tell you a lot. It was evidently a less worrisome issue. Judy’s sky-blue Toyota pickup – her commute vehicle – eventually caught up with me. “The foxes are eating the cat food!” she exclaimed.

My farm neighbors have mixed reports about foxes. Some revel in the frequent sightings; for instance, a few neighbors report (with delight!) an adolescent fox at all times of the night at the ‘hairpin’ turn on the road closest to the farm. Others complain…chicken killing, cat food eating, fruit (or sandwich) stealing…etc. I was opposed to the introduction of “barn” cats onto the farm, but one picks one’s battles. People were unwilling to tend traps enough to reduce ‘problem’ rodents in the barn and believed cats would take care of the matter with less human effort. I cite the millions of songbirds needlessly slaughtered by domestic cats across the nation. Now, we have cat problems: how to feed the ‘feral’ cats without feeding the wildlife! The next bit of fun will be getting said cats to the vet for their routine vaccinations. Meanwhile, its foxes vs. cats – the ancient dog vs. cat battle continues on center stage at Molino Creek Farm. There are cat people…and there are dog people…and we’ve got both!

On the avian front, there are two bird songs making a crescendo: male quail calls and golden-crowned sparrows. After tentative quiet half-calls the past two weeks, this year’s new male quails are settling into more certain and loud ‘Chicago!’ calls…repeated all day long from whatever brush areas remain on the farm. They are filling out their puffy bodies, displaying elegant top knots from their heads, strutting and herding their coveys. These wild chickens have had a strong year of increasing their flock size with plenty of seeds to eat. Sprinkled across quail territory, the golden crowned sparrows are dense across the whole farm. It seems they landed just here on our farm two weeks ago as a staging area before moving farther south. Just 2 miles farther on (Back Ranch Road), they haven’t yet arrived. In prior years, it has taken them a month to arrive at the Elkhorn Slough, 25 miles south. Here, it took them a week after arrival (Sept 21) to start singing their characteristic winter song: “poor will-eee!” Now, this is the most constant bird song across the farm. If I had to guess, I’d say we have a thousand of these cute little friends. Another sign of coming winter: our tribe of Brewer’s black birds have returned. I’m saying ‘our tribe’ on suspicion…I don’t know for sure. But, for years they were shy around me and in Spring 2020 I spent some time hanging out with them…talking to them, answering their odd ‘click’ calls, and gradually getting closer and closer to their feeding flock. The flock that returned looks me in the eye and isn’t so quick to flush, so I think they still know me, so I posit this is the same flock.

A bit about the harvest. There are cases and cases of tomatoes ripening in the barn, tags on each stack noting the date of harvest. Two Dog Farm had a great big winter squash harvest, now curing in boxes awaiting sale. As I loaded two boxes of beautiful Gala apples into the van destined for the Santa Cruz farmer’s market, I spied many buckets of beautiful sunflowers. There are onions and peppers, and so much more coming out of the fields with very full tables at all of our markets – this is the season!

Apples! Ah yes…it is almost peak harvest time. The early apples, Galas, are at the height of their ripeness. We were debating the color of the flesh at last Saturday’s working bee: is the flesh a pure white…or is it creamy white…or….?? Please weigh in on this important debate. The skin of our Gala apples is red-streaked with a peachy yellow background with a bush of russeting. Our team also debated ripeness of other varieties. What appeared to be ripe with tasting suggests another week or so…we await Mutsu, Braeburn and Jonagold. Fuji apples are far behind. The slow ripening and benign weather is allowing us a great non-hectic prolonged harvest season. If you want a whole-case discount (~20lbs/25$) of almost perfect apples, let us know…we were eating schnitz for a year and suggest you consider making those – an excellent snack and easy to rehydrate for cooking.

Community Orchardists have well stewarded these gorgeous gala apples