From Green to Yellow Overnight. Branch Fence Fail. Drought Takes Over. Ode to a Beagle.

Swale Pond dried up

It has been a rough few weeks. The vibrant green of verdant hills has given way to the crunch of yellow straw. Yellow hits the eyes much differently than green. When green, the light is almost nourishing, energizing. While still beautiful, yellow light is blanching, dry like cotton balls in the mouth.

The drought has had a significant impact on the entire ranch, and it is just the beginning of May. While last year the a’wuu’atee (butterfly food) needed watering only once per week, with a few exceptions, the majority of plants will now need watering twice per week this year. I accounted for double watering for about 1/4 of the plants in my rain water budget, and had captured more than enough for a summer and fall watering schedule. However, with the earlier start to irrigation, the leak in Tank 1 resulting in loss of 30% of that water and 90% of the plants taking additional water, including some of the plants from last year, I may not have enough. The late storm in April helped refill Tank 3, because it was still hooked up to the gutters. Unfortunately, I had already taken down the piping system for Tanks 1 and 2 from the gutters. There was no refill, which would have helped greatly for Tank 1.

An earlier photo of the hill spring. It is the darker green in the center top portion of the photo. Note the very light green, almost white, around the darker. This is it shrinking in size.

The humidity is so low so often that the moisture gets sucked out of the troughs, the soil and the plants. I have not seen anything like this in years. The hill spring (photo above), where I planted one of the big leaf maples, is already drying up. This spring typically stays green through the summer and dries in the fall. I knew it would be a dry year, so I prioritized planting within the moist soil of the spring and also in the green portions of the arroyo. I am not sure that will be enough help. The soil is clay in both those locations and requires the spring moisture to absorb into the hardened soil for it to benefit the plants. Otherwise, it is just a location with deep fissures with limited moisture retention. I am watering the arroyo twice a week now and am concerned that the water simply “falling through the cracks” with limited absorption into the hard soil. I am still monitoring this site to make a final assessment of benefit or not.

Speaking of the Arroyo…

Success at the arroyo is mixed. This seems to be a place where a variety of spiders and bugs live – which is wonderful – but not for the red bud. A large spider moved into the redbud gopher basket. There was one hole, then two, and now three. How do I know it is a spider hole? I saw a very large spider come out to check out why there was water entering its hole. There was nothing I could do to save the redbud. Over the weeks, it died. I hate to think what happened to its roots. RIP redbud. You looked so beautiful.

There is still some green in the arroyo. It is all on the north-facing slope. My theory of planting on that side has paid off so far. The plants, with the exception of a purple sage that did not transfer well, are doing well. This is likely to change fairly rapidly. I have been watching with trepidation the growing number of grasshoppers in the arroyo. They are small now, and mostly on the grass. However, they grow massive and eat everything in their path. They are a plague. We have not had them at plague levels for many years. They have always been around, just not to such a degree as I have seen them in the far past – where they ate paint off the house. I don’t know what I will do if they eat all the butterfly plants.

Spring Creek is Still Flowing and Flowering

Yellow, white and purple flowers still blooming in the Spring Creek

Fortunately, there is still some water on the land. The spring is still flowing in Spring Creek. As a result, the growth is still happening organically. The cattle were moved out, which has allowed a variety of plants to grow where there is no fencing. The creek is also protected from the winds we get on the hill top. When it is windy, I don’t see butterflies. However, in the creek, there were many blue coppers. They are so beautiful and have quickly become one of my favorites.

I purchased more Wedge-Loc corners to build fence around the Spring Creek. The branch fence was breached three weeks ago when the cattle were still here. Using the Wedge-Loc system will require less work over the long term and allow me to protect more linear feet of creek. I think the branch fencing is still useful. It is natural, beautiful, creates habitat and does act as a barrier. However, if you don’t have a group of people or regular ranch hand helping maintain it, you can lose the protection-ability as grass gets less plentiful and the pressure to browse it becomes greater for the cattle.

We have a proliferation of white lupine, yellow mariposa lilies and purple brodiaea. Also near the creek, one showy milkweed and one narrowleaf milkweed have returned from the original 7 planted in 2020 that the wild pigs turned up. They look strong and healthy. One golden current and a mugwort survived the breach of the branch fence. The mulefat is coming back after being browsed a while back. There are other plants I have not been able to ID yet. I planted the riparian Xerces kits along this creek – so I am not quite sure what things are. I think, for most of the plants, there needs to be more moisture, a slight flooding event, to get the roots going. I believe my limited watering is not enough to get them started. Maybe next year. Happily, the oak seedlings made it through the browsing. They all look strong and healthy.

Providing TA and Creating a Migration Pathway

A small portion of the Resource Conservation District grant is helping expand habitat through public education and provision of plants. Already, two people expanded existing habitat on their home parcels. I have also been thinking about migration pathways. Friends have ranches in a straight line south west and north east of me. How incredible it would be if there was a large supply of milkweed and nectar plants all in a line on the monarchs’ route through Mariposa County. I contacted both individuals, and they said they were interested. I performed site visits and helped select plant locations. Both locations are in moist areas of their ranches. One is in a wash below a spring. The other is a wet section of a creek that runs through the property. I included them in a Xerces Kit grant request. Ideally, we will have two riparian hedgerow kits per site. On my site, I will extend planting along the Spring Creek and possibly along Odom Creek.

April Rain Helped but Not for Long

A. Californica – A Bumper Crop!

One of the bright, happy occurrences this season has been the proliferation of California Milkweed. Last year, this magical plant appeared out of nowhere. I had counted three communities and populations of 13, 7 and 2. This year, I found four communities with populations of 16, 13, 2 and 1. I plan to hike to all of the sites to perform a final count. The site closest to the house ended up with 13! You may recall 4 weeks ago I lamented that I had only counted 6. Again, these plants are magic – popping up out of nowhere.

Ode to a Beagle

Andy – RIP April 2021
2005 to 2021

You were a bother with your insolence, smell and patio pooping

and daily disappearance from olfactory compelled sniffs and snooping.

My dad dropped you off unequipped for your destructive self-direction

We locked stares, quarreled and chased — but upon some reflection…

It is clear that your bay drove coyotes away.

Your epic snore made me, for quiet, thankful more.

Those ears velveteen changed dog haters from mean.

The prolific fur you shed made me clean under the bed, and

the rugs you destroyed are now redeployed

as outside paths, wool pave, along the well-worn trail toward all my pets’,

and your

grave.

More a. Californica Spotted and Wildflower Whiplash

a. Californica on the hill east of the house

I always let out a whoop of excitement when I see these remarkable a. Californica plants. They look so prehistoric to me, and the smell is heaven. The air of magic around these plants is only enhanced by its rapid “see them out of nowhere” growth. Last year, I shared that I found three communities of these plants – one near the house with seven plants, one on the tall south facing hill to the north of the house with thirteen plants, and one on a hill to the east of the house with two plants. I have been monitoring each location. The east hill has two plants. The site near the house has two plants (so far), and the north hill had two plants. In the last post, I suggested that it may still be early to see many of these plants, and I was right. The plants have been appearing about a week after my first sighting.

Signs of the Drought Apparent

Spring Creek is still running, though just slightly. As visible in the first photo above, the eddy has receded several feet – and this is without cows drinking from it in almost two weeks. My trial mini beaver dam analog did not do much. I will try harder in the future. The Swale Pond receded 10″ in just one day. Note the moist area exposed and the water line in the second photo. The big spring in line on Odom Creek is still full. The creek is running pretty good. It was dry for quite some time in the early winter despite precipitation. The soil was so thirsty that there was little standing (or moving) water until late February. Not pictured are the increasing number of dry spots visible throughout the area. I have already begun irrigating. This is a three weeks earlier than last year.

Wildflower Whiplash – they are everywhere!

Stunning hill of purple (Blue Dick flowers)

Blue Dicks, Popcorn Flower, Fiddleneck and Lupine proliferate insanely this year. The hills are washed in strokes of color – orange, purple, white, yellow. It is really stunning. You almost get whiplash swinging your head around in every direction to see the colors and flowers. The drought is partly responsible as well as the darker winter we had. The grass did not get the best timing for water and had less sunlight with which to grow. This made room for the wildflowers to sprout and not have to compete/be blocked out by the European grasses. While this is not good for the cattle business, it really is extraordinarily beautiful, amazing for pollinators and quite the olfactory experience. If I could share the smell with you through this blog, I would. Nectar is heavy in the air and the sound of all sorts of bees is an ongoing, loud undulating hum. My photos just do not convey this outlandish beauty.

Milkweeds Growing Well

Xerces and Monarch joint Venture each push that milkweed is the most needed plant to be planted for monarch habitat. I am very happy to say that I have many milkweeds emerging strong and healthfully. Most are narrowleafs. However I found one showy coming back at Site 8 and, of course, the a. Californica. I have not seen any of the woolly pods I planted come back this year. The gopher hit them hard twice last year. I was happy to see some narrowleafs come back from the wild pig attack at Site 8. They did not reemerge last year, and I thought I may have lost them completely. I have growth that I can see in four of the seven milkweeds planted there last year. Of the nine I planted in the raised bed, only three have returned from the massacre by the gopher that sneaked into the bed. It does look like the CA fuchsia is reemerging. That would be incredible if so. We still have a deer grass and a yerba santa that survived the attack.

Other Notable Updates

There is a tremendous variety of growth in and around the branch fence area. I have not seen any of the milkweed I planted from the Xerces kits emerge yet. The area is more shaded, and the showy milkweed seems to be taking longer to emerge. It seems as though another creature is making its way into the branch fence area. I’ve seen some of the fencing fallen down and soil disturbance. It isn’t a calf since they are on the south part of the ranch. I did not see any scat or tracks to be able to know. It would be useful and fun to set up a game camera. I have one, but have not gotten around to doing this. It would be interesting to see who is coming around in the night (or day when I am not looking).

At Site 2 in the arroyo, the plants are off to a good, healthy start. I did see considerable gopher activity near the site. I found the hose covered in gopher mounds in several locations along its route from the water tank to the arroyo. Getting a stainless steel hose was a specifically so gophers could not bite through it and cattle could not crush it. It will be tested now. The cattle are due to return at the end of the week.

I have been seeing white butterflies with a pale orange throughout their wings. They spook easy, and I do not have a good photo to share. I was able to get two pictures from far away, but the pixelation when blown up is terrible. I did not include them here.

It appears that the cattle pushed their way through the barbed wire to browse the deergrass. I found one of the wires shifted up and the bunch of grass trimmed low. It is possible it could be a deer. I have seen evidence of their presence toward the more forested portion of the ranch. My neighbor said he saw one too the other day. There were no deer droppings or hair on the wire – but it is a possibility.

Spring is always a time of hope. Plants are in the ground and doing well before gophers, heat, pigs or any other misfortune finds them. David and I received our first vaccine shot last Friday. We have hope too that we will be able to do more away from home and see family and friends that we have only seen on a video screen. We miss hugs and being with the people we love. Let us all cling to as much hope as possible and the joy it brings. We do not know what lies ahead, but for now, I will celebrate the possibilities of togetherness and the arrival of the monarchs.