wildlife

Oh Deer, What a Year!

The deer have had a good few seasons. Before the CZU Lightning Complex Fire of August 2020, the forest had grown back shady and dense after the prior fire of 2009. Between the shade and the passing of time allowing shrubs to get tall, deer food had slackened off quite a bit. Shrubs are the deer’s favorite food. Also, that extensive shady forest provided just the kind of cover mountain lions like best; they might have been taking out quite a bit of the deer population. Nowadays, there’s not so much mountain lion sign, but lots of post-fire small shrubs, and a burgeoning deer population. Several healthy bucks are roaming in and around the farm. At least one of our does seems to be getting pretty big around the tummy right now, so more are on their way. All the deer are looking quite healthy: there are at last 8 here and there nearby…back to our old record number.

Slack’n Lion

Another sign that the cougar population has slackened…coyotes! I heard a coyote calling again the other night, very nearby. 2008 was the last year the farm had any regular yipping coyotes, but they returned after the 2020 fire and have been regular visitors ever since. Coyotes are a good sign of few (if any) lions in the vicinity. I’d rather have lions, but the coyotes are nice visitors, too.

Hawktober

Winged predators are also doing well: hawks seem quite numerous and healthy. I see the resident Cooper’s hawk and kestrel frequently resting between what must have been successful hunting sprees. The 2-3 red tailed hawks likewise have some down time. There are nearly always hawks wheeling lazily overhead now that the breezes have returned. Oh yeah…it’s hawk migration time along California’s coast! Some are just passing through.

Pomologically Speaking

The apple harvest this Fall has been surprising in many ways. ‘Normally’ the Community Orchardists gather just once a week for the working bee: on Saturday afternoons. During those gatherings, we saw the apple crop growing and growing. We thinned the fruit 3 times to make sure the fruit were fewer and far enough apart to nurture bigger, more pest free apples. The turnout at the working bees was great through the Spring and Summer. As the well-spaced fruit started swelling, we went from weeding to propping branches. We did not expect so many apples to survive the thinning and the pests, including 25 jays and woodpeckers which pecked hundreds of fruits mercilessly. We kept testing apples for ripeness every day until they started ripening the second week of September. For the last 5 weeks, we have harvested a record crop and it has required many extra hands on so many levels.

Two Tons of Fun (for starters)

Mind you, we are very part time apple farmers. The Apple Corps are a couple of focalizers, a few dedicated regulars, and a whole lot of others sporadically joining to nurture the Molino Creek Farm Community Orchard. We have sent around 1500 pounds of apples to farmers markets, 500 pounds to Davenport’s Pacific School food program, and 2000 pounds to the cider press. And, we aren’t even done…

Mountains of Fuji

The last part of our apple harvest are from the orchard’s original planting of Fuji apple trees. Fuji apples are half Red Delicious and half Virginia Ralls Janet. They were so named because of the town near the agricultural research station where they were developed: Fujisaki, Japan. Dense, sweet flesh and great storage potential makes this a very popular apple. We sent 200 pounds of those to Saturday farmers markets this week. They will sell out.

Green Manure

When I first learned about organic farming, cover crops were called ‘green manure,’ a term I haven’t heard much more recently. The idea is that you don’t need farm animal dung to fertilize your crops- nitrogen fixing legumes can do the trick if you manage them right.

We’re planting cover crops now across the farm. This evening, I finished harrowing the sixth of 50 rows in the apple orchard: 3 rows to the hour to spread the seed and then run the tractor implement called a harrow to cover the seed with soil. There are many hours yet to go, but it is nice to chip away at the project. Bell bean seeds are big and shiny and fun to throw, like casting marbles around the trees. Tossing about oat seeds has its rhythm, too, and the seeds are bright blond and easy to see how evenly they are landing on the dark soil. Vetch seeds are jet black, perfectly round, and it is impossible to know how well you are casting them about, handful after handful.

A Harrowing Experience

The harrow leaves a pleasant looking seed bed consisting of bits of leaf litter and chopped up plants mixed with soil and rolled flat. Perennial plants are spared (they sprout back right away), and earthworms and other soil organisms mostly survive. We use a BCS Italian-made walk-behind tractor. The harrow is mounted such that you have to back up the whole time while running it, always looking over your shoulder. That’s a harrowing experience!

Fall Report

Fall is progressing in both the wild and cultivated areas. Poison oak still wins the award for the most colorful native plant display: crimson patches brighten hillsides in forests and shrublands everywhere you glance along the coast nearby. The orchard’s apricot relatives and hazelnuts are the latest things to add to the fall color palette with their menagerie of yellows, oranges, and everything in between. Breezes have returned, but the fall leaves are most thick just under the trees’ canopies. Colorful leaves, thickly strewn in tree understories are delightful, each orchard visit presenting a new display.

-original post at my blog on Molino Creek Farm’s webpage, Facebook page, etc.

Caring about Public Land Management

What’s going on with public land management around you, and what are you doing about it?

Most citizens of the U.S.A. state that they want healthy wildlife populations and clean water for their communities and for future generations to enjoy. And yet, repeated surveys of Santa Cruz County residents suggest declining efforts to learn about wildlife so that individuals could take action to protect assure wildlife conservation. We can see this decline also reflected in our activism and politics. When was the last time you heard about an environmental activist group taking a stand to protect local wildlife? Which politician can you name that had environmental conservation as a major portion of their platforms? Have you looked at the agendas or minutes from Santa Cruz County’s Commission on the Environment or Fish and Game Commission – both advisory bodies to County Supervisors? I challenge you to find any evidence of solicited or unsolicited advice to the Supervisors. In short, our County, at the top of the nation’s biodiverse counties, is effectively asleep while their precious natural heritage is being rapidly eroded by neglect. I frequently hear how much Santa Cruzans appreciate the wildlife, the open space, and the natural beauty of this area. If we take these things for granted and do not make efforts to be involved with conservation, I think we know what will happen to these values: they will decline, whither, and disappear altogether with time. It is time to make a shift, and the shift is best focused on our public lands management.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens of this county is to be involved with the management of the public lands around us. There are many ways to be involved in wildlife conservation on public lands throughout the region: volunteering for stewardship, rallying political support for increased conservation on public lands, and supporting environmental conservation organizations. There are three main threats facing nature conservation public lands: changed disturbance regimes, invasive species, and poor management of visitor use. I discuss each briefly in the following and present ways that you might be involved in solution for improved public lands management.

With climate change and increased development encroachment on natural areas, natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and grazing, are rapidly changing presenting a high degree of danger to nature conservation. With climate change, fires are expected to be more frequent and more severe; this is exacerbated by increased human interactions at the Wildland Urban Interface where accidental fires more frequently occur. Likewise, we have removed tule elk and pronghorn and it is becoming increasingly difficult for natural areas managers to use livestock to mimic natural grazing regimes. With both fire and grazing, public lands managers need more public funding to increase their ability to manage natural systems. There needs to be more public outcry and support for both funding and expertise within those agencies to improve lands management. Those kinds of support are also important for invasive species management. A different kind of support is needed for better management of natural areas in the face of poor visitor use management.

Badly managed visitor use in natural areas is a major cause of concern globally for nature conservation, and locally this seems to be nearly entirely ignored. The most glaring evidence that this is a problem is the nearly ubiquitous and unquestioned philosophy that increased access to natural areas is an important goal for nature conservation. Look carefully around our local parks agencies and you’ll also notice that there are no personnel trained at managing the conflict between nature conservation and visitor use, the field of study necessary to assure nature conservation in parks. The most recent planning effort for visitor use in a public park was with the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property, a real disaster in public process with recreational infrastructure development proceeding apace despite an active and unsettled legal appeal by a very small of citizens who have seen too little community support. Of the many larger, environmental groups in the area, only the Sempervirens Fund has offered publicly stated concern”Important details remain to be determined and we look forward to working with BLM to resolve them.” For the grave impacts to nature from visitor use in natural areas, there seems to me to be a need for a fundamental shift in both public perception and in the public lands management agencies to better recognize and address this issue. The following section outlines some actions you can take to help this process forward.

There are many ways, big and small, for you to be more involved with the paradigm shift needed to better address the serious issues surrounding visitor use management in natural areas. First and foremost, many more of us should become educated about the science documenting the concerns and how those concerns are addressed through social and environmental carrying capacity analysis and adaptive management. Social carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change from visitor use conflicts: conflicts between different types of uses (for instance, mountain bikers vs. passive recreational use of families with children) or conflicts due to overcrowding. Ecological carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change for soils, biota, or other natural phenomenon (for instance, amounts of trail erosion, wildlife such as cougars that are easily disrupted by visitors).

Another thing we can do to help the situation of poor visitor use management in our parks is to advocate for improvement. We should tune our senses to notice negative impacts of visitor use and then aim our activism towards change: make formal reports of issues to natural area managers, follow up on those reports, and also message higher level administration, commissions overseeing those agencies, and politicians who are invested in agency oversight. Persistence will help. Let’s also vote for politicians who promise to help. And, let’s support environmental groups who promise to work on these issues. Finally, many more people who care about these issues need to be involved with public lands management planning. Currently, mainly exploitive and well-funded non-passive recreational users are organized and vocal during these processes (i.e., Outdoor Industry Association funded groups like mountain biking advocates). Meanwhile, traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have shied away from such issues due to either controversy or co-option. We need a new group or need to sway old groups to take these issues on.

-this article originally appeared at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com If you haven’t subscribed, I recommed it: “The last great news sources of Santa Cruz.”

Botta Pocket Gophers

Pocket gophers are an important and very common mammal in many habitats in our area, so it seems appropriate to learn a little more about them. Most people know them as pests of ornamental plants or crops, but they play important roles far beyond that pestiferousness. And, just look at how cute they can be- photo by Flickr user Chuck Abbe:

What is a Pocket Gopher?

Why is this critter called a pocket gopher? No, it’s not because of some 1970’s fad of domesticating gophers and putting them inside pocket protector-lined pockets. BTW, this fad fantasy must include pocket protectors because gophers have sharp teeth that they habitually gnaw with to wear them down…without such nervous-seeming gnawing, their teeth would be 11” long by the end of the year. This fad could really take off one day because pocket gophers are not legally protected by the State!

Back to the subject at hand…the ‘pocket gopher’ name comes from odd pockets that these critters use as their cargo containers, hauling soil or food. Those pockets extent from the cheeks back to their shoulders. Inside those furry pouches, they haul food into their burrow, creating food storage piles in a deep portion of their burrow system. This food pantry also serves as their sleeping, baby raisin area, so food’s close at hand. That makes me think that maybe there’s a niche for food-storing bedroom furniture for humans!

Local Gophers

Our local species of pocket gopher is the most widespread in California, and so there’s lots of information around about its natural history. Our species, Botta Pocket Gopher, is almost everywhere in the state except the high Sierra Nevada. Like most pocket gophers, the males of this species are larger than the females. So, its likely that the Jury Room sign that was posted for years ‘Home of the Giant Gopher’ referenced a male. Not that you’d try, but you tell pocket gopher species apart from where they live and then the size of their rear feet, the shape of their ears and the relative size of the dark area around their ear.

Territorial Gopher

Pocket gophers are very territorial, protecting their extensive burrow system which represents the extent of their feeding ground. The size of their territory depends on how much food there is, but they range from the size of a tennis court or, sometimes, you can fit 10 gopher territories in the space of a tennis court. If you kill a gopher, its burrow system won’t be vacant for long…

Waves of Dispersing Gopher Young

During breeding season, gophers become less territorial, allowing visitors into their burrows, which seems sensible for reproduction. Where people aren’t watering plants, and the summers are so very dry, pocket gophers have a single breeding season in late winter. They bear 2-5 blind babies (aka ‘pinkies’). Gophers kick these offspring out of their burrows as soon as they are weaned (40 days after birth), and those young have to find a place to live. Those dispersing gopher children are why folks suggest leaving root protection cages out of the ground 6 inches. That wave of dispersing gophers will try to occupy whatever burrows they find…including the burrow complexes that have been abandoned by other gophers due to trapping or old age. People think that our gophers only live 3 years.

Gophers Drought Solutions

Gophers are soil engineers and are so good at their work that they are known to be an important solution to California’s water crisis.

Some have suggested that restoring mountain meadows in the Sierra Nevada could store as much water as two new giant reservoirs. Part of this would be done with reintroduction of a different rodent, the beaver, but another part is already under way by the pocket gopher. Pocket gophers are excellent hydrological engineers, assuring infiltration of snow melt and rain through the soil through their burrows, which include specific drainage architecture. Gophers can drown and need to breathe air, so their burrow systems must accommodate drainage for the rainy season.

Native Meadow Gardener Gopher

The better local natural historians around us will already know about the super-diverse and super-interesting mima mound meadows around Santa Cruz. These are caused by eons of soil movement by gophers, which means that they are literally “ecosystem architects.” Atop the mima mounds, there are poppies, lupines, purple needlegrass and other ‘dry’ loving species; between the mounds there are buttercups and rushes as well as streams and pools of water weeping from ancient gopher mounds during the winter. Dry and wet gopher-created ecosystems in close proximity makes for extraordinary species diversity.

Gopher Burrows: Habitat for Other Creatures

All of those gopher burrows are quite inviting to other creatures. In other places, scientists have described insect species that only live in gopher burrows. I see a species of brown fly come out of gopher burrows around here- there’s probably much more to be discovered. Pocket gophers don’t much like to invite things to enter their homes, so they plug their holes with a distinctive soil plug. However, I’ve seen newts poised for nocturnal forays at the mouths of gopher burrows. Others have seen rare California tiger salamanders using gopher runs. Those tunnels would of course be cooler and moister than the surrounding habitats in the summer. I commonly see the aptly named gopher snake winding its way from one gopher hole to the next, only the middle of its body visible. If gophers plug their holes, how do the snakes find their way in? Somehow they know…I saw a gopher snake recently quickly and energetically ‘dive’ into a gopher-strewn dirt pile and disappear quickly. Many are thankful for gopher predators because of the damage gophers can do to human-plants. Gopher snakes and alligator lizards are the most effective gopher control, because they can get down in the gopher burrows and eat the pinkies, controlling many gophers at one sitting.

What to do About Gophers

There are plenty of websites with information about how to, and many tools to, kill gophers, but is there another way to coexist with these creatures? I have spent a fair amount of money and time killing gophers or protecting plants from gophers using buried metal caging, and I have a few suggestions for gopher coexistence.

Lawns are pretty much passe at this point in California, so how about letting gophers make their homes in what would have been a lawn? The only drawback I’ve experienced is the mounds of dusty soil that they pile up, making a mess of what I want to be level ground without trip hazards. Use a gravel rake and smooth those mounds out and you’ve got a great seedbed for wildflowers to sprout from next spring. Yes, with all of that soil disturbance, gophers are doing a great job of preparing wildflower beds- poppies, lupines and other wild pea relatives, new yarrow seedlings, redmaids, owls’ clover, and lots more appreciates that fresh ground.

Another thing to do is choose plants that gophers don’t bother. Colt rootstock for cherry trees is highly resistant to gophers. Wild rushes (especially Juncus patens) stay green through the summer and are so tough that gophers can’t destroy them.

A final solution is to cultivate meadow voles, which are superior at running gophers out of their tunnels. Voles like lots of mulch- put mulch around and voles proliferate…and the gophers run away (or die at the homicidal teeth of the vole militia).

I’d like to see more discussion about human-gopher coexistence, so these important creatures can continue to do so much good across our region.

-This post originally presented as part of Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog…check it out!

Two Young Deer and the Pending Summer

Two fawns are losing their spots, following their healthy mother with her shiny coat and her healthy, full, and muscular body. She watches us carefully as we traverse the farm, walking carefully to a safe distance, the young twitchy and nervous, sprinting and hopping when we approach. Often, there is food sticking out of their chewy mouths. The other day, I saw one of the fawns walking around on two feet, not just for seconds but for a good while. WHAT? Oh, that one was eating high up walnut leaves: what a trick!

Molino Creek Farm’s Dry Farmed Tomatoes

Fruit

The tomatoes, apples, onions, pears, and peppers are getting bigger and bigger by the day. The apples are gaining color.

Dry Grass: what next?

It is mowing and mulching time. The lads are swinging weed eaters a’buzzing. They protect the roadsides, the wells and generator houses. The sickle bar is on the bigger BCS walk-behind tractor, the hay is falling and curing, the mulch cart is rolling, and deep dish ’apple fritters’ of mulch a’forming under the orchard trees.

Patterns of cut hay and uncut hay (where the wasp nests are). Mulch 2 B

Drips

It rained this morning. A light sprinkle, very off-season, enough to calm the dust for a moment. A pitter patter falling from the rooflines. Birds sipped droplets from sparkling leaves as the sun broke through the clouds late morning. Beautiful.

Martins

A flock of nesting purple martins wheel and chirp high in the sky above the highest point of the farm. The fierce males’ battle cries ring out against the prowling hawks. These are rare birds around here- glad to host them in cavities in burned trees from the 2009 fire. The snags from the more recent fire will support nesting generations to come.

Wildflowers of Summer

Little white puffs emerge from drying grass, among the post-fire thistles and between resprouting coyote bush. The complexly sweet smell of the native perennial cudweeds drifts on the gentle breezes. The clusters of bright white flowers fade to straw white that feel papery when rubbed to check out their scent (recommended).

Cudweed!

We hope you are enjoying the entrance of summer with its warm spells, foggy beaches, and occasional whiffs of dry grass and resiny sagebrush.

-from my near weekly postings at Molino Creek Farm’s webpage.

Teach Your Children Well, Part 2

I received lots of great feedback from my column a couple of weeks ago, maybe in part because people resonate with the need for raising our children with love and respect for nature. When we see people damaging nature, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we avoid making new people like that – by reaching out to children, to teach them well. This made me wonder what are core lessons we need for children (and adults!) for being good to nature right here in Santa Cruz. I hope the following is a good start- please send me more ideas for a future, more in depth publication.

News: Apocalypse Cancelled

The most damaging words I hear regularly about nature is how we are doomed. Even generally well meaning and educated people I know enter into what I call the apocalyptic mindset. You’ve probably heard it…maybe even participated in such a dialogue. It starts with, for example, how can we ever address global warming…its such a huge lift…governments aren’t doing anything…oil companies have too much power…people are greedy…the planet is going to be uninhabitable…the human race is going to disappear. This type of conversation seems to always end with ‘the human race is going to disappear,’ sometimes due to disease, sometimes nuclear war, and now sometimes global warming. Maybe we avoid this story with children, saving it for adult conversation, but if you entertain such notions at all, you can bet the children catch on. This story is magical thinking, and the rationale for such stories is beyond my expertise (but, please: ask yourself “why?” if you hear such things). Humans have survived very hard times – through plagues, terrible wars…through ice ages, famines, massive volcanoes, long droughts, etc: it is a safe bet that there will be people around for a very long time…long enough for us to tell a different story, so we think about a longer term presence and the need for earth stewardship.

A Better Story

The different story is supported by evidence near at hand. Go to Pinnacles National Park and watch a condor soar. Take a whale watching boat and see a blue whale. When you drive across Pacheco Pass or tour Pt. Reyes, see the tule elk. All of these species were ‘doomed’ but people decided that they were worth keeping…we changed our behavior, and they are recovering. The better story is of the inherent compassion of humans and our ability to improve how we live with nature. If your better story has people living alongside elk, whales, condors, and mountain lions in a world with grizzly and polar bears, elephants, giant pandas, and coral reefs, then it will inspire us to work together to make it so.

Sunset on the North Coast

Stewarding Soil, Air, and Water

There are, of course, other things to teach the children, such as care for soil, water, and the air. The science of soil formation has been taking place on Santa Cruz’ North Coast for a while, so we are fortunate to be proximate to the story of soil, and how incredibly slowly it is created. The Dust Bowl lessons are long forgotten and chemical fertilizers have been hiding the need for soil, but all the same- soil is sacred and everyone should know that soil loss is a terrible thing, that prime agricultural land is precious to conserve, that soil needs stewardship. All children should know where their food comes from. The same goes for water; I wonder how many appreciate where their water comes from and the care that must be taken so that it isn’t contaminated…thanks to government and rules. And, it is similar for the air. That we have good soil, water, and air are again testaments to the good that humans can do when we work together. But, we can all use some education about what we can do to help keep those situations improving.

For the soil, water and air lessons, here are some field trip ideas. Next winter, go for a walk at Wilder Ranch and see if the soil is covered or if it is washing off into the ocean. Take a trip to Loch Lomond then to an auto repair shop upstream in Ben Lomond; discuss the dangers of petroleum ending up in drinking water. Watch road runoff in ditches next winter and think about what that oily sheen means for water quality and how it might be captured. Stand next to a busy street and smell the air, talk about what is in tail pipe emissions and where that stuff goes and what it does. To have these kinds of conversations might take some homework- how many of us can have informed conversations about these simple and everyday situations? If children knew more about these things, would it help?

Non-Humans

Children should know about living well with non-human animals. Often, kids are introduced to domesticated animals…and too often they share their parents’ misconceptions about how best to care for and train those pets. Perhaps family time discussing well vetted videos about living with pets is in order. Meat eaters have an obligation to have some honest conversations about how livestock are raised and how they come to the plate. Field trips may be in order on that front. A little more on the wild side is the need for children to understand the host of issues from animals that aren’t domesticated that tag along with human civilization – termites, Argentine ants, roaches, stray cats, rats, mice, pigeons, starlings, etc. Just around the corner is another teaching subject: native wild animals which are doing perhaps too well at adapting to human ecosystems, such as ravens, crows, gulls, jays, racoons, etc. By learning about these and the invasive animals, perhaps children will learn to be more tidy and perhaps they’ll figure out other ways to mediate the impacts of these species. Into the real wild,  children need to learn about the needs of wildlife – for habitat, landscape connectivity, peace, respect, and for the science needed to better plan for conservation.

Santa Cruz’ North Coast

Children Becoming Citizens

As age appropriate, children will one day be old enough to need education about how the above concepts enter the civic world. They will need to understand how land management agencies do or do not protect open space for wildlife. They will need to understand how clean air and water regulations are promulgated, incentivized, and enforced. And, it would be good to teach them how to critically think about the environmental issues they encounter and how to seek credible information to inform their thinking. Are these issues addressed in schools adequately? How else might we help children to understand these issues so that they are engaged citizens?

Engaging

Nature brings peace, so perhaps the most important lesson for children is how to experience nature. I see families taking talkative strolls with children, but few parents sitting quietly in nature with their young ones. With luck, children should be able to witness a bird building a nest and feeding its young. They should see tadpoles and then tadpoles with legs. We all feel delighted to see a fox or coyote pounce on prey. There’s a fascination to watching the dusky footed wood rat taking a huge mouthful of twigs to its 4’ wide stick home. There are salmon swimming upstream to spawn in nearby creeks during the early winter. Giant whales are lunging into schools of anchovies close to boats that leave every day from local harbors. None of these things are easy to see as chance encounters. Like all good education, it will take some work, but it is worth it.

The more time we spend with children sharing these types of lessons, the better the chance of future generations saying ‘we are sure glad that people figured out how to restore beavers!’ or ‘wow- look at that tule elk!’ Richer lives and a better planet require us collectively to raise children who are eco-literate. Please do your part, even if you aren’t a parent.

-this article appeared first in Bruce Bratton’s BrattonOnline.com weekly blog.

Full Moon, Sparkling Ground

Last Saturday night, the bright full moon shining from the clear cold sky, set off the grassy fields into a sparkling hoarfrost that lingered in the low, shady spots well after sunrise. That same startlingly clear sky graced Sunday with a cool light breeze, inviting my gardening self to expose sun onto skin for too long: my back burned red to ouch, now itchy painful. Following that temptation was not too smart! The week plugs away with echoes of last week’s email: drizzle, sun…warm…repeat. But, now the National Weather Service says it will really rain tomorrow and Friday, so our orchard irrigation rounds will be delayed once again. The rain has been just enough for a while to keep up with the increasing demand for soil moisture from the leafing out orchard trees. The forecast looks like it will get dry again soon- maybe next week will begin the long, dry summer? So hard to say. We are extra thankful for the late rains re-wetting everything. As we learned a couple of years ago, drought makes for extra heat and then fire! The late rainfall boost will make a lag for the heat, pushing it further into the summer and reducing fire danger a little longer. The clouds sneaking southward in advance of tomorrow’s storm were particularly ominous- perhaps hinting at the predicted ‘instability’ and perhaps marble (!) sized hail.

Very Odd clouds coming before the storm this evening

Out in the recently-burned forest around Molino, the understory is bursting with flowers. The iris are still thick with blossoms- around here, a pale yellow or creamy white, but higher on the mountain all the way to rich blues. The local pink version of globe lily has just come into full bloom with especially many plants post fire. There are yellow or white violet flowering carpets. Native sweet pea and checker lilies are fading but the woodland tarplants are blossoming and, in moister places, there are many sprays of white, sweet-smelling false Solomon’s seal. The forest understory never faded from the drought in January and February and it is especially lush and green now with the recent return of rains. Madrones aren’t flowering anywhere near as thickly as last Spring. The creeks are singing their watery songs.

Orchard Renewal

Some may recall Drake Bialecki’s patient revival of burned trees last year…his skill with the summer grafting of avocados and cherries. After he was done, we kept an eye on the cherry bud grafts and watched as they slowly healed into the rootstock stems, splitting the grafting tape and pushing forward as if to say ‘we made it!’ Few of those buds did much last season. But now, we’re watching them burst out with promise of making new trees. We’ve never seen this work before, so stay tuned as we document what was a dime-sized bud become a branch then get comfortable being a trunk and on up to the sky. I have a hard time guessing how big these might get this year- the roots are huge and established for full-sized trees…might these get 6’ tall and around this year? They’ve got all they need from water and finely stewarded soil.

Drake Bialecki’s expert cherry bud graft from last July coming alive this Spring

Other Fruit

The lime trees are popping with nearly ripe fruit, the lemons close behind, but the oranges a ways behind. The early apples have set their first fruit, now wanting to be thinned. Avocado blossoms are opening, some getting past- alas, few trees are mature enough to bear fruit this season (or the next).  Some of the avocado trees we thought survived the fire are showing themselves to be zombies as their basal bark peels off to reveal lifeless and fire-girdled stems. Similar things are going on with many of the fire-surviving trees: their expanding trunks are revealing large dead portions of trunks near the ground- ah, shoot!

Respect yer Elders

On the field margins and in a far part of the North Orchard: elderberries! Elderberry flowers are opening. The California native elderberry plants that George Work donated to the Farm in 2008 sprouted vigorously after the fire and are large, lush bushes adorned by many flower clusters. Then there’s the herbalists’ patch of exotic elderberries quickly establishing but not yet blossoming.

Oh Crop!

For the row-crop farming, all eyes are on the greenhouses where the starts are getting big enough to plant – planting will start soon, the soil is prepared and waiting. The field enterprises are multiplying with a new organic vegetable seed growing partner on a quarter or so acre in the Brush Field.

Another crop has identified itself: wild nettles! Anyone want to harvest them? The wild miner’s lettuce is fading, but the nettles are going strong.

Here Today, Gone Tamari

Chewing on these wild things are the migratory deer. Two lithe brave but wide-eyed teenage deer loped up the main road a few days back, stopping here and there to gaze at the deer fence, sizing it up to see if they dare test it but then running further along. The fat female has gone missing. No bucks.

Other missing wildlife: turkeys, kestrels, red tailed hawks…bobcats, harrier hawks…skunks….But, some expected are here: there are more than 18 band tailed pigeons eating walnut catkins. They aren’t any braver about nearby humans even with the higher numbers.

PS: there is no tamari, only today, he added saucily

-this post simultaneously published to the Molino Creek Farm website as my weekly blog.

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.

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

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.

The Landscape We Need

Imagine you are a mountain lion, a badger, or a burrowing owl making your way around our region. Curiously, people often say, ‘I can’t imagine,’ but I contend that our imaginations are more powerful than that. We can imagine a lot if we have enough information to work with and give our minds the room to roam. We can put ourselves in the place of other species if we want, but only if we can face the pain that such empathetic contemplation may bring. We have left wildlife so little, but we have the power to restore healthy populations of wildlife for future generations.

Big Clever Cats

We have the great fortune to share this landscape with wild lions. To put yourself in the lion’s mind, imagine being a young male learning to walk from Aptos to Scotts Valley, getting across roads, keeping away from people, trying not to make their dogs bark, and staying under constant cover of forest. That young lion will also be learning, by scent, where girl lions are and where other murderous males have claimed territory.

Cat Map

Lions know how large to guard territories against one another to keep sufficient food for their families. Fresh deer are needed, one a week for each mature lion. A human hunter would be challenged to keep that pace up; it takes a lot of roaming. Mountain lions move under cover of trees, they shy away from moving around in the open if they can help it. They travel tree filled canyons, wooded ridges, and trails through the forests. To them, those places are like our road network- they must make mental maps as quickly as their young minds can do it, and those maps must keep receiving layer after layer of new information – especially where other lions prowl.

Badger

Two weeks ago, I was very pleased to find many badger-dug burrows in grasslands along the North Coast. Badgers look at the landscape in the opposite way that a mountain lion might. Where lions see woodlands as their comfy place, badgers prefer grasslands – maybe in part because of the lions in the forests! To imagine moving around the landscape like a badger, think about walking from the grasslands above Watsonville to the grasslands along the North Coast by staying mainly in grasslands, each night digging a burrow to sleep in, finding enough gophers and ground squirrels to eat along the way, getting across roads and never being seen by a human. That’s some tough going!

Burrowing Badgers

The burrows I saw were not fresh, and I couldn’t find a den. The badger foot tracks had been washed entirely away by a prior pouring rain. Probably this was a wandering individual, who kept moving after staying for a few weeks. Males disperse widely – even through forests. Someone was surprised to see a photo of a badger on their wildlife camera in a north coast redwood forest a few years back. I haven’t heard of anyone finding a badger burrow in a forested area.

Like vampires, badgers must be underground by daylight. Digging burrows is best done in sandy soil. And so, badgers’ mental maps include not only the network of grasslands, but also the subset of grasslands with homey sandy places where they can easily dig for food or make burrows.

Santa Cruz Badgers: Gone

There used to be badgers near Santa Cruz, not that long ago. They still occasionally happen through. When UCSC’s Chris Lay compiled local badger sightings and analyzed this species’ local disappearance, he concluded that roads explained badger demise. Roads are a big challenge to badgers. The frequent median barriers popping up on local highways have been important in saving human lives, but to badgers they are sure death. Conservationists in Great Britain, where badgers are held in perhaps higher esteem than here, have gone to great lengths to make sure badgers are now able to cross highways – laying down fences to guide badgers to the safety of underpasses.

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing owls probably see the landscape much like badgers- their homes are also in grasslands. Unlike badgers, though, burrowing owls navigate landscapes on the wing, so maybe roads aren’t so lethal. These wide-eyed, cute, bobbing, yellow-legged owls also used to frequent the meadows near Santa Cruz, but the last nesting colony was paved over by the administrators of UCSC. Now, burrowing owls are wintertime visitors only, travelling from their summer nests in inland grasslands. I wonder if burrowing owl families that once nested along the coast remember their coastal habitats and have been leading one another back to the warmer coastal grasslands each year? 

Owl Trip

To imagine a burrowing owl flight to the coast, you’d be starting probably in the grasslands east of San Jose. As the nights get chillier and shorter, something in your burrowing owl mind makes you want to fly towards the coast. One long flight across the buzzing Silicon Valley city scape blanketed by nasty air pollution and you might land in one of the few remaining grasslands on the east side of the Santa Cruz Mountains…. or you might keep flying all the way to the coast. This flight would be different than most of your flights all summer long, which have been much shorter. While you are taking this long flight, you keep alert to the increasing threat of peregrine falcons…listening for the alarm calls of other birds. As you get towards the coast, you feel anxiety as each year the available habitat has been reducing: will you find a place with good cover for the winter?

Coastal Burrows

A month or so ago, I went to UCSC’s East Meadow to see burrowing owls but couldn’t find any sign of them. I looked for the owl’s wintertime homes, but they were gone: the many ground squirrel burrows in the East Meadow are gone and I couldn’t find any. In fact, there were no ground squirrels AT ALL! Anyone know what happened to them? Please let me know if you do. Long ago, UCSC administrators destroyed the last burrowing owl nesting area in the County, and more recently they destroyed the burrowing owl wintertime burrows at Terrace Point, so I’m suspicious about this new loss. Now, the UCSC wintering owls must join their friends to hide in culverts or pipes along the North Coast for their winter homes.

Linkages

“Progressive” Santa Cruz is working on its first project expressly acknowledging the need for wildlife movement across this landscape, but much more is needed, and we can all help. Informed by much science, the Land Trust of Santa Cruz County is working on creating a wildlife tunnel near Laurel Curve on Highway 17. To work, the land on either side of the tunnel must also be wildlife friendly. This corridor is in a wooded area and designed especially for mountain lion movement…maybe badgers can find it, too! Further South and East, groups are making great progress at protecting the wildlife movement corridor between the Mount Hamilton Range and the Santa Cruz Mountains through the Coyote Valley. This corridor relies on existing bridges under Highway 101 and also envisions some improved crossings over the Monterey Highway, which has median divider in many places. Badgers need this corridor to get to our region, but many other wildlife species could use this corridor- maybe even tule elk! These efforts need our financial support. We can also help wildlife movement by supporting better planning for protected wildlands, such as opposing the Homeless Garden Project’s newly hatched plan to move into the Upper Main Meadow of the Pogonip…or the seemingly continuous push to increase the numbers of trails crisscrossing parks. I hope you will take some time to imagine how your favorite species of wildlife travels across what’s left of this highly fragmented landscape… and how you can help restore the landscape we all need.

This essay reprinted from the one I original published via Bruce Bratton at BrattonOnline.com