Monarchs Bounce Back a Bit and Preparing for the Next Push

Monarchs in overwintering sites cling to the branches of this tree

Monarch numbers bounced up considerably this year. The only other news in recent times that gave me as much joy and comfort was when the doctor said my brother was going to be ok a year ago this month. I could breathe a little more freely then and now. Although it has been all over the news, if you have not heard, the official Thanksgiving count of monarchs was at 247,237 overwintering adults. This is up from 1900+ last year, but still far lower than the millions of adults they had in the 1980s. There still is a need for a monumental, all-hands-on-deck effort to save the western monarch and its iconic migration. Please do what you can. Read the Xerces Society Call to Action for great, doable ideas for you and your family.

Worth the Fight

The monarchs are worth my time. They are worth my effort. It takes but one glimpse of stained glass fluttering in the sky for a person to fall in love. I encourage everyone to visit he overwintering sites to see what we are fighting for. David and I went on a road trip in mid January to both the Pacific Grove and Pismo Beach sites. We witnessed the miracle of 10s of thousands of butterflies clinging to branches, butterflies that will fly thousands of miles for better food, weather and to make babies. The monarchs have been leaving earlier due to climate change, and we saw many monarchs awake, flitting around, leaving their perches and then heading back into their bundles. The sky was filled – not like the Tribal elders told me of the times before Europeans – but in the 100s at various elevations. It was incredible. I thought they were smart to stay well away from humans far up in the sky. It was profound to know that one or more of these miracles could beat the odds and arrive at my location to feast and lay eggs. I spoke to them in a language so ancient I knew they had to understand – the language of my ancestors who must have seen these baise’ebolim in such large numbers as they flew across the Sonoran Desert. “Amand te tevote in weweriam. Se si enchi nake. Ito te vitne. (Greetings, I acknowledge you my relatives. I appreciate you very much. Good luck and see you soon.” It was humbling. David held my hand, and I softly cried.

No Rain in Sight

We have been dry for over a month. Well, there was one rain in January that was so little it was immeasurable. There was not even a full drop in the rain gauge. I have a feeling February might be the same. We are just over 8 inches here – horribly below normal. I walk the arroyos and creeks to take stock of the amount of water left. Putting in Swale Pond 8 years ago was such a good move. It has enabled more pooling in the arroyo. Even those little spots of water can be a boon for wildlife and livestock. My cattleman told me that he was able to start grazing the ranch earlier because of the existing pools last year. As of last week, all of the little pools on the arroyo are dry. Just the swale pond is left.

Grazing and other Ranch Planning

Several times a year I get together with my cattleman, Tom Fane, to discuss ranch needs, his grazing plan and ecosystem services work. Last week, we discussed timing for grazing the soon-to-be enclosed riparian areas. We are thinking of the Fall and/or early Spring to graze the European grasses depending on native plant emergence. We will carefully watch how things go. Along with his son Chaz, we are also designing the riparian fencing together. I trust his knowledge, and want to ensure that the things I do on the ranch don’t make grazing too difficult. The grasses out-compete the early native plants that butterflies and other native pollinators need to survive in the Spring. In fact, the drought this year, lack of sunlight last year and grazing the year before all resulted in better than average early milkweed growth.

Ron Allen, UC Master Gardener and my native plan supplier, asked me to help with a study looking at emergence and blooming of early milkweed species. I of course said “Yes”. With the monarch females leaving the overwintering sites early due to changes in the climate, they are going to need milkweeds to lay eggs on. I have been monitoring the sites since last month, but know, from my data over the last two years, that they did not emerge until late March. I did see much gopher activity in the area, though Ron says that should not impact the A. Californica. We will see how it goes this year. Indeed, we are experiencing the earliest wildflower blooms I have ever seen and not in the typical cadence. They all seem to be coming in rapidly one after the other. We had the first emerge in December! Perhaps the flowers and butterflies all sense what we do not – a three day winter, a two month Spring, and a long, hotter summer than ever before.

Beneficial Fire

I joined the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation (SSMN) at a burn along the Mariposa Creek Parkway. They are partnering with the Sierra Foothill Conservancy, Arts Council and others on restoration of the Creek for land health and public recreation. I wanted to learn more about putting good fire on the land. This is something I have been wanting to do here at the ranch for a while. I know every blade of grass burning is like burning money for my cattlemen. However, if we are working to get rid of invasive, non-nutrient rich grasses, like medusahead, and replace the area with natives and more nutrient rich feed, Tom could be brought along. He was the foreman on the million+ acre Tejon Pass Ranch, and knows a few things about fire. He has seen it in action and seen it work to control species that are problematic and getting out of control. He is tacitly on board for now.

I learned a lot at the Mariposa Creek fire – mostly to not be afraid when professionals are around. Some of the piles were so big the heat and smoke curled as the material caught fire. Fortunately, they rapidly burned through the material and became more like the typical burn pile you see allover rural California. I can handle that!

Carrying On

There is always much work even outside of the normal planting season. As a mentor, I meet with the Pollinator Team once per week for project updates, thinking through opportunities and co-working on materials. We wrote a grant together with the RCD last week (Hope we get it) in an effort to continue this important work. They are getting ready for their big push to encourage more people to plant butterfly gardens. We are also beginning planning for the Butterfly Festival and the Pow Wow. They have some really cool ideas for performing monarch education with the schools. I cannot wait to share some images from those events when they happen.

A meeting of the core team the other day -clockwise from top left: Nellie, Kristie, Heather and Tara. Not pictured are other Team members that join when needed – Deedee Soto of Xerces, Melinda Barrett from Mariposa Resource Conservation District, Ron Allen, Mariposa Native Plants, and Clay River Miwumati Family Healing Center Managing Director.

I have been taking down the fence that has been protecting Site 8 in anticipation of the new, professional riparian fence. The front fencing has also began sagging. David and I have been working on dismantling and rebuilding it. I dug three holes for the big leaf maples. I finally got around to digging out the other rain garden – the area that takes the overflow from the rainwater catchment tank. It is smaller than it needs to be, but that was all the energy I could give it at the time. At least Beatrix found a new soft place to lay her head! I weeded all the butterfly gardens, cleaned up the little pollinator fountain, and made a list of the next items to work on: more fence removal at Site 8, cutting downed oak for chipping into mulch, more weeding, build a rock barrier to shield the hedgerow from the wind, continue to monitor AC 1 and AC 2. Plant the maples, plant the rain garden mounds, build protective fencing around the maples, spread mulch into the rain gardens and around plants — oh, and start some food seeds like more radish and carrots. The list never ends, but I would not want to live any other way.

Ancestor and good friend does a close fly-by

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