In the latter part of May, we had a taste of things to come. The temperature was in the high 90s for three days. Everything, including me, seemed worn out. I have been laying mulch out on top of plant root zones, on exposed dirt areas, and over water lines for weeks. Like much of what I do, it is a race against time (and temperature). Soon, there will be no more cool days or surprise storms. The soil must be covered or else the moisture will be lost. To make matters worse, the wind has been relentless and unusual, blowing all day every day for the past month. Typically, there is no wind in the morning. Wind comes in the afternoon, and then none at night. Sadly, the wind has been blowing ferociously from morning through the night. This dries the soil rapidly. Ideally, you want to make sure that the moisture you are dripping in the irrigation system saturates the soil and gets to the roots. The mulch will help allow this to happen by being a barrier to the wind and heat.
If you think I am exaggerating about the wind, see the image below. The big leaf maples have been growing at an angle.
I had to stake the trees to help them grow upright and strong. I will stake the smaller tree when it gets bigger. The leaves are taking a beating from the wind. Between the wind and grasshoppers, I hope these magnificent plants make it.
Grasshoppers are Here and Getting Bad
I have been watching the grasshoppers from the beginning of their nymph stage with growing concern. It is another year of overgrowth. Now at adult stage, they are eating voraciously across the ranch. As always, I am working to ensure that the California milkweeds get to a mature stage, with fully formed seedpods, before the plants get dismembered by the plague of hoppers. I am grateful that the largest patch of milkweed grew and matured early this year. The hoppers are already taking apart the north-facing patch. There are fully formed seedpods, but they are not dried yet and ready to release their seed. I am now watching them daily to protect the seedpods.
Speaking of Milkweeds…
The CARCD plants are thriving. In fact, one of the ranch locations that we gave plants to have monarch caterpillars!! I was astonished because my caterpillars were finished weeks ago, and I have already been getting reports of monarch sightings at much higher elevations. I thought the monarchs had moved on. However, Caroline Korn’s ranch is only a few hundred feet in elevation higher than me and perhaps 6 miles south east, yet, she has three monarch caterpillars!
Caroline Korn is a local treasure. A retired teacher, she has taught the monarch lifecycle for many years and showed students monarch caterpillars in the wild. Her home and gardens were established by her grandmother back in the 18oos and is the last piece of a once sprawling ranch. Among many excellent qualities, Caroline inherited a love and aptitude for plants. She is an outstanding gardener. Her knowledge is sought after in our area, and she is incredibly generous with her time and information. If there was one place where a monarch should lay its eggs and be assured all would be done to protect her progeny, it would be Caroline’s home. I am grateful the late caterpillars are there.
Caroline did not see an adult monarch, but clearly one was there. Although the showy milkweed she planted last year as part of the CARCD grant emerged and are doing well, the monarch chose to lay its eggs on already existing narrowleaf milkweed. I have read that they will choose more mature milkweeds on which to lay their eggs. Caroline has been taking milkweed branches from plants farther away and relocating them close to the milkweed the caterpillars are on. She does this each time the babies eat through their current plant. They seem to do fine with that, transferring themselves to the new branch each time. Other mature narrowleaf plants are not too far away, so I think that if they run out of plant material, they will be able to get to he other milkweeds easily. One major threat in Caroline’s garden are jays. She has seen them eat monarch caterpillars previously and is doing everything she can to prevent that from happening. Thank you Caroline for your dedication to the monarchs’ survival and for taking such great care of these late visitors. I wish you the best of luck!
The Xerces Kit plants are thriving too. No new caterpillars on these, but perhaps next year. Here are some photos from my Site 8 and the Tribe’s garden.
If you are a regular reader, you will recall my love affair with In Hala’i, my very last monarch caterpillar on the ranch. After protecting it for two weeks, I removed the mesh protective basket so if In Hala’i emerged within, it could fly off. I never did see In Hala’i as an adult, but I assume it eclosed (emerged from its chrysalis) and flew off to its next adventure over the Sierras. Monarchs move invisibly despite their stunning beauty and size. Any of us are lucky to catch a glimpse.
As luck would have it, David and I saw two monarchs flitting around with one another on a beautiful country road near us about 400′ higher in elevation than our place on May 28. They were inhabiting a beautiful riparian area with meadow that included milkweeds and nectar plants. Like in Miracle on 34th Street, I screamed for David to “Stop the car! Stop the car!”. I launched out. The butterflies flew by me, above me and far off then back again. I saw one on a weedy looking plant and then the other in the air. What a beautiful sight! You all know I am not the best photographer by now, but I did manage to capture a few photos that are worth posting.
Major Learning: cattle can exist with monarch habitat only with active management
It has become clear that cattle need to be managed closely in order to co-exist with habitat expansion. The milkweeds were yummy looking when there was limited grass to eat, and calves who had not yet learned that milkweeds taste awful still experiment with plants each year. There is also the threat of browsing and trampling. Even though the monarchs were gone, I still wanted the California milkweeds to produce seedpods. I noticed cows near the milkweed patch. When I investigated, I saw several milkweed leaves chewed off and spit onto the ground. I decided that I needed to fence off each patch. I will be including that in my next NRCS proposal. Fortunately, the USDA is now recognizing habitat protection as an ecosystem service that is essential to fund as part of ranch work on our rangelands.
Va’amta a’a Hiapsi | Water is Life
There is never an end to work on a ranch, but I love that. I like to move my body and make things better for all our relations. I pull invasive weeds every day (puncture vine), fill bird baths, check seedlings, monitor plants, straighten baskets, and fill dog water bowls. I have been cutting the seed heads off the thistle, a never-ending and prickly job. The seed heads get placed into a plastic bag and thrown away. Thistles are non-native and spread profusely. I am trying to limit the number of seeds they spread. So far, I have cut 6 bags worth. Thanks to Deedee Soto of Xerces for that recommendation.
One thing I have not had to do is water all the plants. WOW, what a difference a full water system makes. I am so grateful for all of the infrastructure CARCD helped me with and for my husband David who did the install. It has meant the ability to plant more habitat and more consistently and evenly distribute water. The plants are happier and thriving — and my back and overall body have not been injured or overused.
I have been paying attention more to bumble bees. They have been loving the sage flowers. The monarch habitat is working for them too. In addition to the increase in bumbles, I have also seen more butterflies, pollinating flies, dragonflies and lizards than last year. The smell is extraordinary; the plants are beautiful.
There is early leaf death on one of the grand old oaks in front of the house. Those trees are well over a hundred years old. Anything that looks unhealthy on them frightens me. We only received slightly over 12 inches of rain this year. Not enough.
It was exciting to see a large envelope in my mail box a few weeks ago. Inside were 20+ thank you letters from my college friend’s, Cerina, 2nd grade class. I had done a brief presentation with them over zoom and sent hand-painted monarch butterfly pins made locally in Mariposa from recycled plastic. The notes were beautiful, and it seems that the children especially loved the pins. Working with children is one of my favorite things to do. Thanks to Cerina for reaching out.
The ranch is filled with babies learning to fly and stand. It is going to be a tough, dry year for them to learn to be an adult. Last month, I applied for more Xerces Kits to fill out the creek area of the ranch as well as build hedgerows on a friend’s farm in the area. I received the grant for the ranch, but unfortunately, the review committee did not award kits to me for the local farm. This is ok. I am extremely grateful for the generosity of Xerces over the last two years. We have been able to use those kits to expand habitat beyond the ranch, and it has paid dividends in the form of more nectar and milkweed attracting untold pollinators across our area. I already have another plan to get my farm friends pollinator hedgerow plants – most likely from the Tribe.
The Spring Creek riparian area is doing well and is supporting diverse life. Water from the spring is still running, which I anticipate will run through the entire summer and fall. I have seen many types of butterflies, dragonflies, bees and evidence of larger mammals. A skunk was killed and its carcass left there. Not a great smell to work around, but it is evidence that the area is being used by larger predators.
I was in the middle of the ranch today scouting locations for a potential beaver dam analog (BDA). I saw so many butterflies enjoying all of the plants in the creek. We fenced this creek off as well, and the flowers that are blooming are diverse and more profuse. The cattle really do limit what grows. By having the fence, we can control the timing of grazing to not interrupt the growth and blooming of wildflowers. In the creek, I saw a gorgeous buttery yellow butterfly. It could be a western sulphur. I was not able to get a good look. I did see another western white. There was a dark butterfly, of which I also did not get a good look. Darn – they can move so fast.
I was with an NRCS engineer, biologist and an engineering intern. Together, we will develop some infrastructure to slow water runoff and retain soil moisture in the creek. This will help the water table, wildlife and plant life. Cattle win too in this scenario since there will be more moisture to grow the grasses they need for weight gain.
Although I have reached my goal of bringing the monarchs back, I feel compelled to continue on and make improvements to my local ecosystem, a system significantly changed over time by human habitation, mining, ranching and climate change. Let’s see what we can do next!
2 thoughts on “Dry. Warm. Windy. But Keeping Going.”
Heather, I love the descriptions of your work. Photos are beautiful also. Your milkweed is a bit more mature. Our narrowleaf and showy are just starting to bloom. Keep up the great conservation work!! Susie
Thanks Susie! Appreciate the encouragement from an expert!