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!
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 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?
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?
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.
“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
This is another reprint from my weekly column at BrattonOnline.com, to which I recommend you subscribe, especially if you live near or love Santa Cruz California and want to learn more about what’s happening.
I was going to write this week about a native plant community, but someone made a comment recently that led me to change course, to focus rather on a very dominant ecosystem in our area: row crop agriculture. They said, ‘There are no animals killed in making a meatless burger.’ The statement took my breath away. Apparently, it is time for me to put my thoughts into writing on this subject, long stewing on my back burner.
Sacrifices for Veggie Burgers
Meatless burgers contain agricultural products grown on farms that have killed and are killing animals as an inherent part of their practices. The original clearing of agricultural land caused the greatest outright slaughter of animals. Many animals were crushed by the first land-clearing bulldozers or burnt alive when the natural vegetation was ignited. Some furry critters fled at first only to starve later when they were driven from one already-occupied territory to the next. Perhaps a few lucky larger quick and mobile vertebrate refugees survived. The many smaller, less mobile animals not outright crushed or burned were eventually chopped up with the plough.
After the clearing, crops are planted every year thereafter, and farmers trap, poison, or shoot ‘pests.’ In some cases, farmers fence, net, or otherwise ‘deter’ pests…sometimes entangling animals but always driving wayward animals onto roads or into the mouths of smart predators that take advantage of deterrence methods with their hunting regimes. Farmland becomes a hazard for wildlife, effectively removing agricultural lands from anything classifiable as ‘wildlife habitat.’
Many of us have heard the tropical horror stories related to agricultural expansion. Giant farms have been expanding, destroying tropical forests, the most diverse of ecosystems, especially to produce soybeans and palm oil. Many areas have already been cleared, and the ongoing tropical agriculture is regularly killing thousands of species that are dwindling by the day. A friend told me of his first job on a tropical banana farm in the 1970’s. As a teenager trying to earn money to support his family, he took the closest job he could find as a laborer on one of the giant banana farms in Central America. His supervisor gave him small plastic cups to suspend from the banana trees and told him to fill the cups with a viscous liquid poured from a large bottle he was told to carry with him. He was told to return each day to refill the cups. Returning to those cups, he clambered over piles of a diverse array of dead bats that had ingested the poison liquid he was placing in the cups. This method of reducing the fruit pollinating bat claw marks (just aesthetic damage) on the bunches of bananas has since been replaced by covering the bunches with protective plastic bags impregnated with pesticides. But banana farms are still sprayed with deadly chemicals and are devoid of even the shadow of the tropical life found in natural systems.
Even though we might turn to purchasing organic bananas and even certified organic, fair trade locally roasted coffee, those organic crops are grown on lands where tropical wildlife is largely obliterated. Organic coffee and bananas are grown in full sun, the rainforest cleared to make way for the farms. “Shade grown” coffee certification is largely a sham without defensible standards for conserving tropical forests and associated birds, except for the Smithsonian’s bird friendly coffee certification which is effectively unavailable in stores in Santa Cruz and so must be ordered over the internet.
Ranching to Vineyards
Locally, the story is little different. Agriculture is expanding in our area mostly from conversion of grazing land to vineyards, a process that does not trigger environmental review because both activities are considered agricultural. Oak woodlands and old growth grasslands that supported free-roaming wildlife and sequestered carbon are being converted to vineyards where wildlife is commonly fenced out and wildlife inside the fences trapped and killed. Tilling the converted grazing land releases long-sequestered carbon, adding to global warming.
The Local Veggie Farming Slaughter
Once agricultural land is in production, routine practices actively kill or deter wildlife and passively degrade wildlife habitat. Driving through the Pajaro or Salinas Valleys, look for the upside-down white plastic Ts at the field edges: those are poison bait stations with poison designed to kill small animals that venture into the fields. Traps or poisons are used to kill any animals once they find their way further into fields. Organic farmers often use traps for gophers with regular trap patrols as part of their daily operations. Passive forms of wildlife killing may seem a little less aggressive. In both conventional and organic agriculture at any scale, the mowing and tilling of crop areas leaves mutilated (hopefully quickly killed) critters in the wake of tractors: snakes, toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, birds, mice, moles, shrews, and voles are all decimated. Polluted runoff from both organic and conventional agriculture is another issue. Agricultural irrigation runoff into Elkhorn Slough has the highest levels of fertilizer in the US, equivalent to dumptruck load of fertilizer a day, causing terrible contamination of the state’s second largest estuary.
In contrast to the impacts of these cropping systems, I look to coastal prairie fed, pasture raised cattle that are managed in such a way to restore local ecosystems and provide food for those who would eat it. I’m not arguing against the need to reduce the amount of meat the world’s population eats: clearly, there is a lot of animal agriculture that is terrible. However, many ranchers locally are doing a world of good for wildlife and plant diversity with their coastal prairie stewardship. Globally, ‘abandonment’ of grazing in Spain, France, Britain, and other places with diverse grasslands has caused species loss and ecosystem degradation. Humans have been learning how to manage livestock to mimic evolutionary disturbance regimes that maintain wildlife and keep grasslands diverse and healthy. Most ranchers I know are enthusiastic about the wildlife they steward; many are working with conservationists to co-manage for biological diversity. This situation makes the contrast between veggie and beef burgers a little more interesting.
There is real potential for cropland management to be more sensitive to wildlife. One day our lettuce won’t come with such a legacy of wildlife displacement and death. There are only two wildlife-friendly food certifications that I know about: the Smithsonian’s certification of Bird Friendly Coffee and the relatively new Audubon Society’s certification for bird friendly beef. Taking its normal laudable step beyond the Federal guidelines for organic standards, Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) requires its certified members to maintain a conservation plan to address habitat stewardship. But CCOF lacks an ecologist to review or advise on such plans, so this effort mostly falls quite short of what is needed. Let me know if you know other attempts to address these gaps! Meanwhile, what are we to do?
Ask a Farmer
The thing to do is ask the farmer who you support about their conservation practices. Already you probably understand the importance of supporting farmers directly by shopping at a farmer’s market. When you buy from them, you might ask how they take care of wildlife on their farm. The answer should take longer than either you or the farmer wants to take; shorter answers are probably insufficient and will be quick evidence that the farmer isn’t practicing wildlife friendly agriculture. Sensitive management of irrigation, runoff, ponds, hedgerows, cover crops, fallow fields, roads, and non-crop areas should almost all be part of any wildlife-friendly farmer’s skill base. And, they would have to explain a little about what ‘sensitive management’ means in each case – the stories aren’t too complex if someone knows their stuff, but the telling will take a little time. We need those stories. We need those conversations. Future generations will depend on farmers who integrate nature with their crops.
This is another weekly post I wrote for Bruce Bratton’s online weekly. You might think about subscribing!
Their graceful limbs are impossibly mighty, and they hold them wide. Their branches are more outstretched, more parallel to the ground than upright. Within a short distance of the City of Santa Cruz, there are hundreds of coast live oaks large enough provide shade for 20 picnicking people. These trees invite climbing and most groves have a tree with a branch large enough, and slung low enough, to invite you to lie on its mossy arm. While you lie there, looking up through the dappled light, you will notice a world of life also sheltered by these friendly trees: clouds of insects zip and zag in and out of the shade, lichens cling and drape all around, and there are so very many birds!
To Know Them is to Love Them
The coast live oak species (Quercus agrifolia) is one of several live oaks that co-occur in our area. Live oaks are called that because they keep their leaves year-round: these are evergreen oaks. The telltale sign of coast live oak is on the underside of its leaf, where the side veins meet the midvein: there, find tufts of hairs ‘hairy armpits’ – no other oak has those. The oak that is most easily confused with coast live oak is the much rarer Shreve oak, which has dark furrowed bark and stands much more upright and has deeper green more persistent leaves. Canyon live oak has golden fuzz covering the undersides of its new leaves. Coast live oak is the only oak with that characteristic smooth, white bark in large smooth plates separated by dark cracks that aren’t very organized. Learning to identify these three live oak trees is a good and doable challenge for everyone living around here.
Planet Ord’s Oaks
It is not hard to find coast live oak woodlands, but there are several kinds, each with its own characteristics and place. I find the most enchanting stands of coast live oaks to be behind Marina and Seaside at the Fort Ord National Monument. There, ancient rolling dunes are covered with thousands of acres of coast live oak woodland with miles of easily accessed trails. Fort Ord’s coast live oak forests are nice to visit this time of year, soon after or during a rainstorm. Dripping water falling through live oaks is particularly percussive, as drops hit the waxy tough leaves on the trees fall to the big drifts of dead crunchy leaves below. The coast live oaks at Fort Ord are relatively short and almost always have many trunks- 3 to 6 normally, sometimes more. Right about now, treefrogs are living up to their name, calling to each other with their odd croaking squinchy noise from up in the canopies of oaks. The forests there are particularly densely festooned by long draping lacy lichens.
Oaks Just North of Ord
North of there, and much less accessible to the public, similarly old sandy soils support coast live oak woodland in the hills around the Elkhorn Slough and in the foothills north of Watsonville. The Elkhorn hills aka “Prunedale Hills” have some remaining coast live oak forests where agriculture hasn’t taken them out, and the Elkhorn Slough Reserve is a great place to walk around to experience those. More north still but mostly inaccessible to the public, in the area between the Freedom Boulevard and Buena Vista exits off Highway One, there’s something called “San Andreas Oak Woodland.” Both of these types of coast live oak woodlands are taller than Fort Ord’s, though the presence of multiple trunks, a sign of previous fire, is also common.
The Majestic Oaks of Santa Cruz
Closer to Santa Cruz, in many public parks you can enjoy that relatively narrow band of majestic coast live oaks ringing most every large meadow. Sometimes, these oaks grow right out of the grasslands, so you can walk right up to their trunks without braving brambles or poison oak.
In this photo, Sylvie Childress is enjoying lounging on a large coast live oak limb. Look at all those ephiphytes!
Sadly, long gone are the once magnificent coast live oak groves in the flood plains of the San Lorenzo River and many of the larger North Coast streams. But you might still encounter a coast live oaks blanketing the bottoms of drainages, mainly in thick, upright and impenetrable thickets wound through with tall poison oak.
Roosting Birds in Fall Oaks
Like coral reefs, coast live oaks attract a vast array of other life that unfolds before you the more you keep looking. As an example, I visit a couple particularly dense teenager coast live oaks at dusk to watch a particular wildlife drama unfold. These trees are only about 20’ around, but with canopies so dense you can’t see into them, even from underneath. Each evening, golden crowned sparrows flap noisily into these trees coming solo or in twos and threes. Forty birds later, this gets quite raucous – apparently there is a pecking order for who gets to sit where through the night. Sometimes, a bird decides to go to some other roost, popping into sight again and jetting off somewhere. The sparrows come early as the sun is setting, hanging out in the middle of the tree canopy. While the last sparrows are straggling in, right after sunset, quail whir into the top of the tree, settling into the upper part of the canopy. Now the squeaky chips of the sparrows are joined by the lower chucks of fussy quail. There’s a bunch of fluttering wings bashing about in the leaves and against one another, but eventually everything calms down then goes altogether quiet just as it is getting dark. This repeats every night, same trees, same drama. The night shelter of dense oaks is only one of the many services of coast live oaks…they also make acorns!
Jays and acorn woodpeckers are harvesting the last of the acorn crop in the next couple of weeks. I have been watching a family of scrub jays carrying around acorns far from the nearest tree. A bird can only carry one acorn at a time, and it looks a bit silly with it…and sounds even sillier when it tries to call with its mouth full (which they do). Holding one of these oak nuts, a jay tilts its head back and forth, jumping around the ground memorizing the coordinates before it pushes it into the soil. I am careful to remain hidden watching this; if a jay sees me watching, it will shriek, dig up the acorn and disappear with it…headed to a more secret location. They are very wary of potential acorn thieves. I recall research suggesting that jays can bury hundreds of acorns a day, and they recall the location of 80% of them. Acorn woodpeckers also guard their acorns, but they do so communally. It takes a tribe to guard the cache, which they do in ‘granaries’ – often several adjacent trees that have thousands of holes pecked out that are just the right size to store acorns.
The Coming Wind
One wonders how the giant crowns and sprawling branches of coast live oaks fare in the wind. With global warming, we expect more frequent and more severe windstorms, and the windstorms of the last several years have knocked down some very old coast live oaks across the North Coast. They topple sideways and pull up a huge amount of the mudstone substrate, holding onto their root wads, which stand at least 10’ tall, full of jumbled rock and debris. Those wide roots provided for stability for more than a hundred years. May they keep the big trees upright for many more! I hope that this winter’s coming winds are not too harsh…
Another of my regular posts for Molino Creek Farm’s website
She stood in the middle of a field still strewn with winter squash, yipping her higher and higher trilling song, snout pointed upwards, sweeping her head to throw her voice across the hills and ridges. She stopped, listening and peering around before starting again, facing other directions. The echoing coyote song might have been another one calling back, and it seemed she wondered, too. But these were just echoes and there was no return call. No one came to join her. She kept singing her piercing high yowls and, in the long pauses between song, she mumbled widely spaced, low hoarse growling barks. This went on for 20 minutes and then suddenly stopped. Then she paced wearily across the farm fields, pausing to glance this way and that across the ground for sign of some small mammal that might be dinner. After a long while, with the failing evening light, I turned away briefly. Looking back, she was gone.
Adan told Judy that he saw two coyotes. That was the first one I saw or heard for more than a month. They seem to be passing through but not daily lurking. Same with a big healthy looking male bobcat: it slowly walks through a field and then is gone, sometimes for many days.
There is less prey for these predators than anytime in memory. There is little sign of voles. Gopher throws are there, but not very thick. I haven’t seen a brush bunny in months. There were only ever a couple squirrels- now none. I haven’t seen a new wood rat house assembled anywhere around the farm since the fire. So, coyote, fox, and bobcat must have to travel widely to get enough to eat right now. And the nights get colder, the ground suddenly constantly damp and chill.
Another storm swept in this past week. Winds rattled windows, threw foam from tall ocean waves, and took half of the leaves off of the walnut trees. Showers, sometimes heavy, pelted the North Coast, making puddles and rivulets in the fields and roads. The soil is wet enough to have woken up the earthworms: open holes surrounded by round globs of earthworm frass now dot the soil everywhere.
With the series of storms this early rainy season, the grassy areas have turned green and the creeks are running again. There is no still summer nighttime silence: now the farm is serenaded by the constant rush of waterfall splashing, accented by great horned owl hooting. Just one owl, though maybe it is answering one in the next drainage that I can’t well hear.
Orchard harvesting is winding down. We have been selling 200 pounds a week of perfect apples, which means a harvest of 800 pounds to sort through with apples also going to cider and the Pacific School lunch program. We get a month of that kind of production this year, even though the Fire had damaged the trees. We are lucky to have the volume of fruit we are getting- the proceeds will pay for compost and coddling moth control, maybe a soil test, maybe some other supplies. Next year will be much bigger…from this year’s 5000 pounds to 8000 pounds and we’ll be asking once again- what do we do with all the apples? And the reply will come: More Cider! There are 70 gallons bubbling away in either Bob Brunie’s or Jacob Pollock’s ciderlairs.
In years past, we would be picking olives right about now. But, Sheri’s not on the farm anymore; no one organizes a pick this year. The fruits are few and small, anway. But the trees are still beautiful and this silvery patch is home to many birds.
Still people comb the tomato rows, the plants mere skeletons but festooned with fruit. The sunflowers have passed, as have most of the cut flowers. String beans, zucchini, cucumbers, and peppers- all fading and melting with the chill nights and soaking rains. The farm pace is plummeting, the season winding down. To thwart any ambition, the ground threatens to eat tires. Long weed-scalped tire tracks tell of spinning tires and nearly stuck trucks. Ambition to drive threatens hours of unstucking. We pulled a tractor with a pickup and a pickup with a pickup, at least, so far. Any wetter, and wheels will get so buried that vehicles will stay until drier times: the bulldozer is dead and the ultimate solution is no longer available.
Thanksgiving normally marks the end of the farming season and the beginning of a much-needed break. The days are getting shorter, and we turned back our clocks this past week. There very nearly is no time at all past our desk job’s quitting hour and the last sunlight, so afterwork chores must be hurried. Anyway, there won’t be any harvest worth harvesting in a couple more weeks. There will be a month until we turn to citrus harvest. It will be nice to rest.
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.
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??
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.