In the melody of Carole King’s A: Alligators all around.
A: a. Californica comes from the ground.
B: Butterflies flitting around.
C: Colorful flowers abound.
D: Drought crept in without a sound.
And that is the current state of life (and my mind) here at Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu (Butterfly Home Place). Old, favorite children’s songs are not enough to comfort me as a moderate drought continues and is likely to get worse. Winter has turned to spring so fast I have hardly had time to write. In fact, today is three weeks since my last post. Rest assured dear monarch lovers, I have continued to be hard at work.
In my last post, I noted that my friend Maggie spotted a little oak seedling while hiking with me on the ranch. We protected it with downed branches to buy me time until I could get to the site and build a cage around it. Three weekends ago I was able to do so. It took much effort however. Since the ground was still wet from a recent storm, I did not want to disturb the soils with my quad by sliding up and down the hillsides. Instead, I loaded the quad with fencing materials and parked in a flat spot well away from the hillside site and hauled all the material to the site. For those that are not aware, t-posts are solid steel. The roll of no-climb fencing is a thick gauge metal. The t-post pounder itself is weighted steel, about 16.5 lbs. As I trudged across the creek, up hill, then across an arroyo to another hill, then up that hill to the oak seedling site several times with pounder, posts and a huge roll of fencing, I had only one thought in mind…”How am I not a size 6!? Why are my arms not as defined as a body builder?” The only explanation is that I love peanut butter too much.
I also put in t-posts around the cottonwood. I needed to do it anyway, and I was going to be nearby. The no-climb fencing still needs to be attached, but I have it ready alongside the driveway to easily pick up when I have the time. At least Maggie’s oak is going to be ok. There are so few young oaks (and so many that died in the last drought), I need to do a better job of protecting the seedlings I find.
My favorite is back: a. Californica
Finally, after weeks of monitoring the a. Californica site, I saw the first leaves emerge.These plants are so gorgeous and look so prehistoric to me. Last year, the site closest to the house had seven individuals. So far, I only see one. I also checked out the north-slope hillside where the thirteen plant community was last year. I found two – one single leaf by itself and another multi-leaf bunch. Both sites have much gopher disturbance. They ate a couple last year. I am hoping that this is only the beginning of their growth and many more plants will emerge so there are some that survive gopher predation. This early milkweed is a crucial source of food for monarchs as they begin their travels from the coast.
Diverse Butterfly Visitors
Cutting the grass early has really helped wildflowers proliferate. The little magenta flowers, generally not seen near the house this early, are thriving. We have so many species of flowers blooming that I have seen more than six species of butterflies already this year. They are tricky though. They flit so fast and disappear that it can be difficult to catch a glimpse for an ID or a photo. The butterfly visits began in late February and have grown in March. I was able to identify several using this iNaturalist tool. After being caught without a camera when the viceroy floated by, I now always have my camera/phone with me. So far, I think I’ve had: viceroy, painted lady, american lady, buckeye, white sulfur, brown checker, maybe a spring white and a Sara Orange tip. There have been a few I did not get a good look at, but they were clearly different than the above. Here are some of the butterflies of which I was able to get a photo.
Arroyo – Site 1 Planted!
I finally began planting in the arroyo. The soil is so much different there. Even though moist, it is a little tougher to dig. The soil is clay-like but also crumbly with very small rocks. I planted monkey flower, sulfur buckwheat, two narrow leaf milkweeds (I have a hole ready for a third when Ron brings another), white sage, purple sage, black sage, mugwort, yerba santa, two maple trees and one other plant I cannot remember right this moment. I planted one maple higher on the hillside in the path of the spring. In doing this, I am hoping it will have moisture available for longer in the season. The other plants are planted in the area of the arroyo that appears to be at the base of where the hillside spring travels. I also planted most plants on the north-facing slope. My thinking is that this will provide additional moisture as the climate changes. The hillside spring usually dries by late July or August. It is not much water. The spring mostly makes the grass there green longer. You can trace its subterranean trajectory by following the greenness of the grass down to the arroyo. Given its limited production, the plants will need to be irrigated as well over the summer. When helping write the grant, I estimated that it was 1000′ from my rain water tank to the site. I ended up using just under 600′ of the metal hose I purchased. This works out since this will leave me 400′ to use for other far flung locations.
The cows left last Thursday for their southerly rotation. I have another 4 days to a week to get a fence built around Site 1. I already have most of the materials and decided to use t-post diagonal brackets for the corners. I am not trying to make a permanent fence here. The goal is to establish the plants and trees, then remove the fencing. I purchased another 50 posts the other day. The price has gone so far up since I first began building fence. I used to pay $1.50 per post. Now the price is $4.91 – and that is good. Most other places have 6′ t-posts for well over $5/post. Ouch.
I keep a close watch on the Drought Monitor tool. I am so glad that I captured what I hope will be enough rainwater to get the newest plants through the summer season. I had hoped to add another tank, but did not get a chance to. There is much site work that has to be done. Last time, we hand dug the pad for the tank, built a retaining wall/box from old railroad ties and rebar we had laying around the ranch, and filled the box with sand that we purchased. It has worked well, but takes quite a bit of time. There is also the need to purchase just the right length and corners of Schedule 20 pipe. We just did not have the time or energy. We knew this would be a short winter season, and never received even one blockbuster rainstorm like we did last year. Maybe next year. My calculations say that we should have enough with the 7,000 gallons. I over- estimated water needs, but sometimes you need to water twice per week. Maybe the older native plants will need water. There are many unknowns. Stored rainwater is important because I don’t want to put any pressure on my well. David and I have already been in stricter water conservation mode for several months.
I have been measuring rain for close to 17 years. The worst year of the 5-year drought was 9″ for the year. This year we have just under 10.75″. That concerns me. Last year, we had just over 14″. While 14″ is around the normal precipitation for my area, it does not allow much carry over into the next year. The soil, trees and grasses are thirsty. It shows. The swale pond did not have standing water until January 2021, despite a fairly wet December. Not good for plants and not good for fire resilience. We will do the best we can and hope it is enough.
Maintenance and Milkweed
With the emergence of the sun has come rapid growth of grass and all the other plants. David is mowing, and I am hand weeding to give the plants some light and space. Today, I staked all of the planting areas so we have markers that will keep us from weed-eating the plants if they get overrun by grasses. David does that work, and he does not know where everything is. Even if I am able to stay on top of weeding around the planting areas, it is good to have the stakes.
I have begun to water the plants. It is early, but they are already looking dry. I want to be sure they have a strong start. Maybe we will have some precipitation in April (fingers crossed). I monitor all of my plantings for growth. Sadly, so far, several of the dormant plants that came with the Xerces kits have not sprouted. Most of the bushes are doing very well though. The milkweeds from 2019 and 2020 have sprouts as do the newly planted milkweeds. They look strong and healthy. I am so grateful for that. Hopefully, the other Xerces plants will emerge. Maybe they just need more time.
It has been a year since the the beginning of the CA Resource Conservation District grant, which allowed me to scale up the habitat work I was already doing. It was such a high last March when I learned my project had been selected from among many candidates across the State. At the same time, the impacts of the pandemic were just beginning as well. Everything was shutting down. Shock and fear took hold across the globe as we watched the bodies pile up in Italy and the bug make its rapid march, with each new red dot on the Johns Hopkins tracking tool, into every nation across the planet. It was made real when restaurants, schools and office buildings closed their spaces sending all of us home to watch life move forward without us. All most of us could do is watch the truly essential workers battle this disease with limited equipment, limited knowledge, poor national leadership and few options. If you were paying attention, there were some good things too. Here, the air was super clean – like it had not been in years. Wild animals showed themselves more now that they were given more room to be wild. The quiet of far less air traffic and road noise helped provide a level of peace needed as we grappled with the question of “what next?”. For me, not being essential, not being on the front lines of the pandemic able to use my energy to save lives, I chose to throw my energy and passion into helping save the lives of the monarch butterfly. It was good medicine for me.
We will survive this pandemic – but what will be do with our changed lives? Without bird songs, the howl of the coyote, cool breezes of clean air, clear, healthy water babbling across rocks, the smell of billions of blooming wildflowers, places of natural wonder and peace, and, yes, monarch butterflies making their epic migration, spreading their large wings as they surprise you with their beauty — without these, what is life worth anyway?