Monarch Caterpillars are Joy on a Leaf + Cows Handled and Rain

Young monarch caterpillar on an A. Californica leaf

I have had many great joys in life – making my mom happy, seeing my first eagle in the wild, holding my nephew in my arms no matter his age, getting Milky the Cow for Christmas, driving a car with no tailpipe, knowing my husband was safe on 9-11 after dropping him off for his San Francisco to Newark flight the night before. Now, helping bring the monarchs back to Hornitos and watching their babies grow is on this list. It is difficult for me to believe that I am not dreaming, that this is really happening. My eyes well up with tears at the thought that these magnificent creatures now find this location a safe place to have their babies.

Last time I wrote, I had just had a stand off with the cows. My cattleman and I negotiated the rotation of the cattle to the south part of the ranch, and they were herded there on March 20. I was relieved. It was good for about 6 days, then I saw a handful of dots on the hillside. I grabbed my binoculars and – GAD ZUKES – it was cattle… 6 cows and two calves to be exact. They were quite a ways off in the distance so not an imminent threat. There is a low spot in the fencing between the neighbor’s ranch and the next parcel. They had gotten through. Oh well, it was only 4 days until the cattle rotated back; we would need a protection plan for the most exposed incubator milkweed anyway.

Our wonderful neighbors, Kim and Ric Wetzel, not only let us borrow their Polaris regularly, they had some extra livestock panels laying around said we could borrow them. (These folks are unbelievable.) David and I picked them up and drove them up the side of the 20% grade hill, then hauled them by hand to the rocky outcropping where the California milkweed patch is located. Did I mention there were 25 mph wind gusts at the top of the ridge? Well – there were, and it was rough carrying the panels.

The good news is that we were able to protect the most exposed milkweed with the most caterpillars on it. I felt reassured again.

Another wonderful thing happened; it rained. What a joy. It has been such a dry year, and we need the rain. We received about 1/2 inch. The best thing, however, is that it promoted grass growth. More feed for the cattle means less interest by the cattle in the A. Californica milkweed. It was a good thing too, because Skull was back (see previous blog for the cow ringleader), and she was keeping too close an eye on things.

Skull

I told her, “You have a half a section of ground to graze, and you and your crew want to be here?” I was ignored.

Rain

We are barely over 10″ so far this the rain year. Whew – we were holding so close to the record low rainfall for the worst year of the 5-year drought here, 9″. Just over 10″ is still extremely low, but I will take as much, even incrementally, as possible. It was enough to result in standing water, but not enough to really fill anything.

I have been trying to get wood chips to use for mulch for the past several weeks. My friend and Xerces biologist, Deedee Soto, has been drilling mulch into my mind ever since we first met. Mulch retains the moisture in the soil and can really help plants stay hydrated in this dry environment. I need to fill the two rain gardens installed by the rainwater installation vendor and have plenty of mulch to spread around the butterfly plants after the grasses are mowed. With the rising temps and late season rain, it has been a mad dash to get mulch in place, and what better way than using a product being produced in my community.

Because PG&E is working to cut trees away from power lines, there is an abundance of chipped wood, but you have to either know where they are dumping the chips or be near by their work area to get them. I had done everything I could to get on someone’s list to get wood chips, but nothing. I took matters into my own hands and put out a plea to “the crowd” on Facebook. “Does anyone know where ArborWorks is working in the county? I am desperate for wood chips.” Right away I began to get answers (I have such wonderful people in my life!). Caroline K. said I could share some of hers (Thank you Caroline!). Jazzmyn B. said someone had been dumping truckloads of chips next to her mom’s house on public lands. It was an eyesore and her mom would be happy to have someone begin taking it. That seemed like the best option to explore.

David and I were on it. We drove up in the afternoon on Sunday, about 35 minutes south east, and found the pile easily. Jazzmyn was right; it was a massive pile dumped adjacent to the driveway. I could see why her mom would want it gone. David and I began shoveling chips into the back of the truck. Finally, after 30 minutes, the back was full. That was a lot of work. I was going to owe David big time. We drove home and fell into the Adirondack chairs on the front patio too tired to take our wood chip dust-filled clothes off at the door and get some libation. We made it inside eventually. I didn’t know if I was going to be able to convince David to go back and get another load.

Well, just like you need to wash your car or leave your windows rolled down to encourage rain, evidently so must you bust your tail getting chips in order to have wood chips delivered. The next day, I finally got the call I had been waiting for. A crew was at the gate and ready to dump a truck load of chips. It was quite rainy. I went out to greet them and thank them profusely for their service to our community and for this service of bringing chips to people who want them – like me. I directed them to the dump location and watched the show. I was soaked, but didn’t care. I was happier than I had been in a while.

The good news is that once they find you, you are a great place to dump chips. The bad news is that once they find you, you are a great place to dump chips. The driver asked if I wanted a second load, I said “Yes!” They came and dumped. But then, the trucks kept coming. So far, I have had 4 loads. I think – maybe – they are done now. All of the teams were really nice, good guys, who moved with extreme competence and knowledge around their equipment. Very reassuring. Thank you ArborWorks!! You are my heroes!!

Monitoring

I am always out on the ranch monitoring, checking, counting, fixing and protecting. Recently, I found one of the caterpillars dead after the storm last Monday. Half of its medium-sized body was still connected to a leaf and the other half was dangling off. I was heartbroken. A biologist reminded me that only 5% of monarch eggs make it to adulthood. It is of little comfort. We need more to make it, to help restore the once vibrant multi-million individuals that blanketed the skies, inspired stories, compelled awe, laid eggs that turned into caterpillars, that turned into chrysalides, that turned into adults and brought joy to humans, my ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago on this continent to those that arrived more recently. Our task is to transform that wonder, regard and love into broad action, into policy, that will mitigate, or dare I dream, eliminate, the barriers of poisons and habitat loss that throttle the monarchs, all pollinators and indeed our very own ability to thrive.