Fall Can’t Come Soon Enough and A Monarch Sighting in Hornitos!

Studying the first tarantula of the season. There were two on my walk, and they both looked extremely healthy.

It is no secret among my friends that I LOVE spiders – especially tarantulas. Not only are they amazing predators eating their weight and more of flies and gnats, but they are a harbinger of Fall with its cooler weather. Oh my goodness, am I desperate for rain and cold.

David and I have been busily preparing for the Fall. In addition to building log dams in the Spring Creek, we have been chopping downed oak branches. Often, these large oaks will drop branches in an attempt to stay alive by needing less water. It leaves some of the trees looking lopsided and the ground covered in branches and leaves. The large thud can be frightening if it is unexpected. One of the large oaks dropped a very large branch unexpectedly. The tree looked really healthy, and I had hoped it would stay fully intact despite this horrid drought.

Grand oak branch down

David has been pulling the branches from under the tree with a chain and truck. These last two branches (pictured above) were too heavy and too tangled for the truck to dislodge them and pull them out, so he has been carefully cutting them in place. He needs to be very watchful and not be under the canopy too long given the branches dropping. They call oak branches connected to trees but sagging toward the ground “widow-makers”. For real…

Instead of burning all wood material, we prefer chipping. Not only is it better for air quality, but it provides a (very) local source of mulch for around the plants helping the soil to retain precious moisture. We neatly stacked the logs so that they could be handled by the chipping vendor. A huge thanks to the Mariposa County Fire Safe Council for offering this chipping program as a way to reduce fire fuel load near homes. Often, the chipping jobs are too small for the large vendors or too expensive, so this program is a huge benefit for our community.

Once the pile of chips was complete, David and I began filling the Polaris, and I spread it within the planting sites. There were six loads in total. Dave gave up after two loads and sat on the porch with a beer watching me work. It was a well-deserved break for him after all the branch hauling and sawing.

Spider Season

It is no wonder Halloween mainstays are pumpkins and spiders. It is nearly October, and I have begun to see the webs floating through the air. On those webs are baby spiders lifting off from wherever to begin a new life in a new territory. The webs will get lodged in plants, trees, vehicles, structures – pretty much anything they come in contact with. And, that is where they will begin their new life. As I was watering and mulching, I saw several stuck webs on the plants. To be certain, we will have a solid line of defense against any bugs.

On my walk a week ago today, I saw two tarantulas. They were the first living ones I’ve seen this year. Typically, I will begin to see them in August, but, this year, it is late September. They both looked healthy. The life of a male tarantula is one of being darned if you do and darned if you don’t. They are meals for tarantula wasp babies or a meal for the female tarantula after fertilization. I love them so much and feel bad for their fate, but that is how nature intended.

Some other good friends I have seen a lot recently are snakes. They are so important, and I protect them from getting picked off by raptors as much as I can. I try to scoot them off the cement or the roads into the grass or leaves so they are not as easily seen by the remarkable eyes of hawks.

Gently nudging this beauty to exit the patio into the leaf litter

Late Blooms

One of the crucial elements of establishing a well-rounded pollinator garden is to ensure diverse plantings and plants that bloom at different times of the Spring, Summer and Fall. Although it is late September, I am still getting blooms on the plants. I was rewarded today with a sighting of two admiral butterflies. They moved so fast that I could not get a photo. I saw their distinctive markings and was overjoyed. They are larger than the other butterflies I have been seeing lately, which is fun.

A Heartfelt Goodbye to the Polaris

Polaris back home

I gave the Polaris back to its rightful owners the other day. My neighbors have been incredibly generous with me, allowing me to use it for so many weeks. It has been a reliable friend making my work so much easier. I won’t lie; I miss the gosh darn thing. I am back to hauling my water with the Gorilla cart since the part for my electric ATV is still MIA from Canada.

MONARCH SIGHTING Drives U-Turn!!

Monarch flutters away into the field. Can you find it?

I haven’t been on a vacation in years. This week, David and I were set to leave for the coast. We had the car packed, the bikes on the back and the dogs situated comfortably for the long ride. We drove to Hornitos, made the tight curve, climbed up the hill out of town and made our way down the winding road toward the vast expanse of the Central Valley. Just a mile outside of town, we pulled over on La Paloma Road to check the bike rack. It was fortuitous. –My hands are trembling as I write.– As I sat in the car, a single, large orange and black butterfly fluttered right over the car. It was a MONARCH! I grabbed my phone and bolted out out of the car like I was a 20 year old and ran down the dirt road as fast as I could, following the large erratic flutter, side to side, yet forward, of this magnificent creature. I ran until it flew over the ranch fence into the field, skirting the rangeland, just over the grass. My heart was racing, and I snapped three sad, far off photos. It was the best I could do. Then, my elation sunk in parallel with my heart. I was leaving. There were monarchs in Mariposa, along the rangeland, finally, and I was leaving town. David yelled to me to get into the car and lets go. Reluctantly, turning back every so often, as if I was a child again, called home too soon, leaving my joyful friends playing behind, I made my way back up the dirt road and got into the car.

I certainly wanted to leave town. The smoke and heat have been toxic to my body. It has been too many days of working hard in this situation. I wanted the clean, cool air of the coast. I wanted to see my siblings and make my husband happy to have the smell of redwoods in his nose. I was conflicted. Could I leave now after seeing this? Had I worked so hard since 2019, not seeing any monarchs, to leave now that there was a real, tangible chance to see them use this habitat? What if the watering system David constructed got a leak, and water did not make it to the milkweed or nectar and the plants died? A tear quietly rolled down my cheek as I ruminated. David, driving, caught this resigned defeat out of the corner of his eye. He grabbed my hand and said, “HB, do you want to go back home? We are only an hour and a half down the road. I am ok with it if you do. I know how hard you’ve worked.” I said, “Really? You would give up your beautiful trip?” He said, “Yes. I am totally fine with a stay-cation.” I said, “I love you.” He made the u-turn, and we started back for home.

I called my sister and brother to make sure they were ok. I asked, “Is it lunacy for me to cancel my vacation for a butterfly?” Both my sister and brother encouraged me to shift my plans. They said, in turns, “It would be crazy if you didn’t do all that work, saw a butterfly and cancelled your trip. You worked on this project for years, literally giving your blood, sweat and tears. We think it is crazy for you not to stay!” I promised to visit soon and hung up as David and I made our way across the Valley, the glorious Sierra foothills, and home, in our sights.

Heatwave + Blue Oak Limb Crashes Down

A majestic blue oak limb comes crashing down

We are in drought. The California drought monitoring website, Drought.gov, lists this area as “in moderate drought”. How this is defined practically is that crop/pasture damage is possible, water shortages are developing and voluntary water restrictions are in place. Here in Hornitos/Catheys Valley, David and I always behave as if we are in drought. We conserve water daily. Sadly, this is not always enough. Yesterday, a massive limb on our good old friend blue oak tree in front of the house came crashing down. These massive trees often shed one or more limbs when they recognize there is not enough moisture to maintain their overall health. It is not a good sign.

The last time a limb came down was at the beginning of the horrible, long, five-year drought. Normally, we leave dead trees and limbs where they are for habitat. However, this being within our 100′ defensible space zone, we will need to chop it up and move the wood away.

In the last drought, we lost nearly 300 oak trees across the ranch. I have been noticing the dead trees falling apart, but did not expect the healthy trees to be losing branches. On my next venture across the ranch, I will take note if the living trees are also losing branches. I will also need to be extremely careful to avoid, as much as possible, walking under the oaks on the property. I am planning on creating brush piles with the downed branches away from the house to create habitat areas and places where plants can get a head start away from the mouths of hungry cattle. I discussed this in a previous post on this blog. To briefly reiterate, I planted an acorn under one small brush pile I created in the hope it will be protected as it sprouts a new tree.

It’s Hot!

Even though we are in a heatwave, the butterfly plants must get watered. I have been soaking them this week to ensure deep moisture content even as the above surface area dries out in this heat.

The new potable water bladder being filled for its first use
The water bladder filled

I prepared my watering system for Site 8 the night before so I could just “get going” as soon as I arose. I decided to use the cart with the new water bladder to prevent any chance of the truck heating and starting a grass fire. This meant I had to walk the entire way to Site 8 pulling the cart. I did it once with help, but today, I had to go it alone. David was too tired to assist.

6:00 am departure time. Warm with moisture in the air
My route from the house to Site 8. The red denotes the areas where my cart spilled. Then, “X” marks arrival to Site 8.

It was already quite warm when I started. There was leftover moisture in the air from the recent Pacific Ocean hurricane activity. We did not get any rain up here, but it was humid. Water weighs 8.33 lbs per gallon. I had 20 gallons in my bladder. The cart was heavy. The water, because of the soft sides of the bladder, would slosh around. The bladder has a 30 gallon capacity, which I do not need yet. Typically, I only use 8 gallons for Site 8 and the Deer Grass Site because seven of the 9 original plants were pulled up by wild pigs. Although I water them in the hope that the roots are still alive and will re-sprout, I reduced the water per plant to 1/4 gallon. The remaining two receive one full gallon. Also the deer grass across the creek receive their full water allocation as well.

Action shot: I used the dump truck feature of the cart to dispense water into the buckets for hauling to each plant

I brought the 20 gallons to soak the plant area to help them survive the heatwave. I do not plan on watering mid week at the site. It is too hot and arduous. I used the dump truck feature of the cart to dispense the water from the bladder into the buckets. I then hauled the buckets to each plant to water them. I like using the buckets because I can measure how much water I am using and how much I am providing to each plant. I did not have to go as far as usual since I personally hauled the cart all the way to the site. I definitely felt like an oxen or horse!

Striking sky and tarweed

It was beautiful early in the morning. I really wanted to get there and back before the sun came up. The heat is truly crippling. Yesterday, I had to take two breaks watering Site 9, the nectar plantings and the North Plot. I had gotten a late start, and the sun was already up. It was that debilitating.

Same image as above. Uploaded again for convenient reference

Unfortunately, it took longer than anticipated. The cart, with its sloshing water, tipped over. I had not paid enough attention to the grade change and over it went. I had to use my brain and some brute strength to get the bladder back into the cart. Again, the bladder weighed almost 167 lbs! There was no way I could lift it. Instead, I brought the cart around to the down-slope, tipped it over again so its opening was facing the bladder, shoved the edge of the cardboard liner that I used to line the bottom of the cart under the bladder, and sloshed it over itself into the cart, then used my body and arms to tip the cart right-side up again. It worked! I continued paying closer attention. Unfortunately, on a fast downhill track, I did not quite catch it in time, and it tipped again. I would be lying to you if I said that I did not curse myself a bit for not being extra careful. The truth is, I got a little too complacent because of the heat and effort it was taking to haul the cart. I did not make that mistake again. In fact, I switched the track to blaze my own trail uphill so I was on a bit wider and more level ground (See image above. Red dots indicate tipping areas.).

Field of tarweed illuminated by the early sun

On the way back, the sun was up. It was already hot. However, the wind was blowing, which cooled me some. I started at 6am and returned home by 8am. I will likely have bruises from using my body to force the cart upright, but it is well worth it. I saw a butterfly yesterday, which excited me beyond measure. It was not a monarch; it was a reminder that they are on their way though.

This is a labor of love, and I am so willing to do the work it takes to restore this habitat. That said, I will REALLY love it when my electric ATV arrives.

Not really a selfie person, but I had to show you my beet red face and sweatiness. Crazy!

Everyone- stay safe out there with this heatwave. Heat is very debilitating, and it can dehydrate you fast. Make sure you:

  1. Drink plenty of water with electrolytes,
  2. Eat some salty snacks,
  3. Take many breaks
  4. Don’t work during the hottest time of day.