The Branch Fence Holds + Effects of Drought Visible

As planned, cows have access to the low sloped pool adjacent to Site XR2

Hurray – the branch fence David and I worked so hard on has held. Even with cows nearby drinking from the pool, they have not intruded into the planting area. Eventually, we will fence most of the upper section of this creek and some of the lower section for habitat restoration, and drive the cattle to water at the lightly sloped pool. This will reduce erosion of the creek banks and allow all the plants that are trying to get a start to grow to maturity.

I checked the Odom Creek plants as well. All were present and accounted for.

Drought Here Again

The soil is so dry that Millie kicks up dust while walking

I have included my concerns about drought in many of my previous posts as well as the confirmation we will be in a La Niña year this year. The effects of a lack of moisture are really evident. Pathways look like bare highways with no grass growth to replace dry grass worn away from use. The creeks are dry. My neighbor’s pond is dry. All we have are the two small springs keeping some moisture going on this side of the ranch. I don’t know how my neighbor’s spring is doing; I’ve not checked. Most of the cattle left today. Tom (the cattleman) and his family drove them up the road to another leased ranch with more water. He left behind a handful of cows with small calves.

Mamas and babies resting in the grass

With no precipitation or morning dew, I am back to watering the plants once per week. Although I’ve added another sixty-eight plants with the Xerces kits, many of the old plants and some of the new ones are already dormant. They don’t need as much moisture as those with leaves. After watering the plants near the house, I hooked up the cart, filled the bladder with water, and delivered clean rain water to the Xerces riparian plants as well as Site 8.

The soil was happy to receive the water. I can’t say as much for my attitude. Dry conditions worry me, and I’m feeling a bit grumpy. Maybe it is that and the COVID surge too. On the heels of a contentious election as well, it is all just extremely overwhelming. Not only do I feel pained for humans, I also feel pain for all my other plant, animal, insect relations. It has become clear why that beautiful blue heron has been hanging around. He has no water. His mate has not returned to start a new family near my neighbor’s now dry pond as they typically do. He is forced into eating gophers and mice. I’m not complaining about that, but I know herons prefer water. I’ve filled all the troughs around the hilltop for his consideration and use. Fortunately, I over planned water, and still have over 2,000 gallons available. I also had Tank 3 hooked up when the small rain storm came through last month, so I have about 40 new gallons there. With a bit of forethought, attention to science, and a kindness, derived from absolute love, which by its very nature results in sharing, perhaps all of us, David, me, the plants and the heron, will be able to survive this time.

Xerces Kits 100% Planted – Major Muscles Mandatory

David uses brute strength to haul out a 15′ downed oak limb

There are many ways for a spouse to say “I love you” – jewelry, taking out the garbage, cleaning up dog poops, watching a sappy period piece together, getting up in the middle of the night to feed a crying baby. But, for me, nothing says “I love you” more than hauling massive oak limbs to build a fence for your wife’s butterfly habitat.

I am a pretty strong women. I grew up in the mountains shoveling snow off my family’s steep driveway. I chopped wood, stacked it and hauled it inside. I lit fires, swam across lakes and held the family record for putting snow chains on our car tires. There are limits however, and I reached mine this weekend. No matter how I tried, how much I tried to use my brain to think of solutions, I could not haul the large branches I needed to make a branch fence for the newly planted butterfly plants. I needed help – in particular – my husband’s man strength.

I’ve been delaying planting the spring creek for a while due to fencing concerns and then the cow carcass. However, it was finally time to get the last 23 riparian plants into the ground – no excuses. After spending the morning digging holes and planting 18 of the 23, then hauling as much downed wood as I could around the planting site, I reached a stopping point. I dragged myself back to the house, mud in my hair, dirt on my face, a scratch on my leg, and soil coming out of my pockets. My strategy was simple – flattery. I found my husband on a ladder painting the garage. He took one look at me and just shook his head. I said, “I sure could use your super strong muscles. The plants need protection, and I just cannot make it happen. The logs are too heavy, but not too heavy for you [Eyelash flutter].” My husband, who has his own projects and largely leaves me to manage things on my own, recognized my desperation….and….maybe he was motivated somewhat by the chance to show off. He said he would help.

The next two hours were spent hauling downed branches, sawing off dead limbs and shaking limbs off trees – then, as gently as possible, placing them on top of other base branches to form a fence around the planting area. David was magnificent. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t swoon a little. It is just something innate [eyelash flutter].

On Sunday, we needed to finish the spring creek barrier. Fortunately, the plants I installed survived overnight despite a not complete barrier. One of the currants was chewed on a little by some other creature though. David pulled more large logs; I pulled small ones. Together, we completed the barrier. I also called my neighbor to ask for his help. Up stream at Site 7, he had built the only branch fence that kept the cattle out. I needed his assessment on the quality of our work. He gave us an A+.

Spring creek Xerces plot X2 branch fence

After the good grade, I released David back to his projects at the house. Ric, our neighbor, and I went to Odom Creek to plant and protect the last five plants. As I mentioned in a prior post, part of the Xerces Riparian kit contained willow trees. For those more familiar with the weeping willow tree seen generally in urban areas in California, our state has many native willow trees. They are not as water hungry as the weeping willows, which are native to the more swampy southeast of the country. However, they still like water. The ones on the ranch can be found naturally in the creek beds of the larger creek where there is sufficient water resource to sustain them. This is why I chose to take these plants from the kit and place there in another location on the ranch. A willow in the small spring-fed creek would take too much water resource I think. In time, I will plant more butterfly plants in Odom Creek. I also plan to fence it to see what recovers there.

Above is a selection of photos from the planting. In addition to four willows, I also planted one mule fat from the kit. Ric generously offered to dig the holes. (Thank you Ric!!). He also hauled branches and cut larger branches that could not be pulled down in one piece. He brought his very cool electric chainsaw to help us in the work. I chose sites, hauled branches and planted my sweet little plug friends into the ground. I hope they will enjoy a good, long life in this space.

It’s California. Plants Still Blooming!

We still have salvia, fuchsia, sunflowers, marigold, primrose, and rosemary (not pictured) blooming. Lots of colors and choices. The coyote mint has grown more. The yarrow is still green and full. The Xerces hedgerow plants appear to be doing well. I say “appear” because many have gone dormant and no longer have a presence above ground. I am still watering some plants that look like they need it since the weather has been predominantly dry. I have not seen any butterflies, but the bees and a hummingbird or two, continue to enjoy the nectar. I am really getting excited for Spring!

Our Good Friends Still Here and Helping

A blue heron at dusk in an old oak tree just down the hill from the house

In the last post, I discussed the rescue of the plants by several feathered friends. They continue to watch over the hill. Since the great horned owl, blue heron and the harrier (who has now brought a husband here too) have been around, gopher activity has come to nearly a halt. In fact, the gopher that somehow got into my raised bed, decimating the unprotected roots of the butterfly plants each day, has stopped its death march. Maybe the owl got it (I hope). We really do have several someones watching over us.

Cow Death Requires Pivot and Good Friends Come to the Rescue

Sun sets over the ranch and the dearly departed cow

I don’t envy the cattleman who leases the ranch fields. Cattle ranching is a great deal of work. You are making a living using sentient animals, so there is much responsibility for their respectful care. Last week, I stumbled upon one of the cows laying in the creek. It is not unusual, but something about her did not look right. She was thin and a bit rangey. She did not rise when my dogs barked. I called my cattleman, who relayed that this cow, along with three others, had been ill with milk fever. They had all been doctored, but this one had required additional care. They left her with some herd mates to recover quietly. He asked a few questions, and then told me she should be alright.

She wasn’t, and she died. These things happen in any livestock operation, and certainly in life generally. She had calved a stillborn calf and become infected. After three treatments, she seemed to be doing well he told me. When I came upon her, nothing was disturbed, no logs out of place, no enclosures flattened. We both think she was weak and slipped down into the creek – right into the middle of my butterfly habitat. There, she died of her illness. When I saw her again, there was no sign of predation. I was grateful for that. She transitioned without that violence. While this situation has left me saddened, like other downed animals of any type, her transition has allowed other wild animals to survive. I have not gone back to that place so that the scavengers can do their crucial work without my scent. It is nature taking its course.

Pivot Needed

Site plan for shift of riparian habitat

With the cow death adjacent to the only fenced portion of habitat, and upstream of some of the other sites, I was not inclined to plan near the existing habitat. Not only did I not want to work near a rotting carcass, I did not want to work near water that could be tainted if the scavengers did not act fast. I needed to search for other good sites that could be protected with either downed branches or a temporary fence. I looked further down the spring creek, finally deciding that I would simply stay away from the water – just in case. Knowing that the spring creek probably could not support the willow tree saplings I have to plant, I also looked for sites along the larger Odom Creek.

Returning from looking for alternate planting sites

I found two sites. The one further down stream of the existing habitat will be the home of most of the riparian plants. There is still water in that section, and there is a nice “beach” that gets some high water moisture, but is typically not submerged. This area has a significant number of downed branches nearby – sufficient to block off the location. Because the spring creek is not a main surface water source however, I felt uncomfortable planting any of the willows there. Instead, I identified another site along Odom Creek. which already has a number of willows in the creek bed. There are already a few saplings in the nearby area. This section is also very steep with the main cow trail coming in along the creek bed at south end of the creek (vs along the banks). We should be able to plant the saplings there, and block off the south entry to the area. If we get a large storm, we will need to go back to re-block the entry.

Area of Odom Creek just south of where new willow saplings will be planted

The photo above was taken earlier this year. Since then, the cattle have chewed up the willow sapling in the photo. Today, I saw it still had leaves, but had been roughed up a bit. The entry way narrows just south of this spot. By blocking the entry, we will help preserve this area too.

Good Friends Arrive…to Eat Gophers

Great blue heron perches on the solar panels looking for its next meal

After the first real rain, we wait with anticipation for the return of the mating pair of great blue heron who have chosen this area to raise a family for the past 15 years. So far, we have one back. Sometimes it takes a while for the other to join, or we just don’t see it until later. During the drought, we were distraught when this pair did not return for a couple years. There was just not enough water.

For the last several mornings, this heron has been hanging out in the oak, in the field, or on the solar panels. These birds are magnificent. Pardon the poor quality photo (above), but these guys spook easily. We had to take the photo from inside the house. When we know s/he is near, we give it ample room and delay any outdoor activities until it decides to leave. Why? Besides the fact that it is magic to look at this bird, it is eating gophers. Yes!

Also, for the past three days, we’ve had the largest harrier I’ve seen here. She has been flying in her characteristic grid pattern close over the range looking for gophers (or any other mammal she thinks might do). She flew remarkably close to Andy the other day – my aged beagle. Alas, he was much too big for her. Again, pardon my poor quality photo (below).

Harrier flying unbelievably close to me bringing me untold joy. I named her “Speckles”.

Another good friend finally came to the rescue. On Friday night, I awoke to the hoot of a great horned owl. In some cultures, the owl is a sign of impending death. In others, it is good fortune. In the US dominant culture, the owl is used as a symbol of intelligence. For me, I am hoping it is a harbinger of death to gophers – especially the one that occupies (shockingly) my raised bed.

Taking Care of the Oaks

Over the weekend as well, I had some nice young men come over to cut the mistletoe from two majestic oak trees here. Nick Brocchini is one of the Tribal youth I worked with while tutoring on the high school campus in the Indian Education Program many years ago. He is now a grown young man, with a family and a very needed tree service vocation. He brought his lovely cousin with him, Gary. It was difficult to watch, both due to my worry for Nick who was climbing the tree, but also for seeing branches, despite being filled with mistletoe, dropping from the tree. I sure hope this “haircut” will help these old trees thrive. I gave them a nice hug letting them know I was trying to help them. I love them so much. It was also really nice to see Nick. What a pleasure it is to see the young people in my community grow and do well.

Nick, Gary and Roscoe helping me care for the oaks

Last week, I presented at the CA Resource Conservation District Conference. See the post from last week for more information. The presentation went well. I told my story, and happily there were people who were interested. Some had questions. I met several new people who are interested in the same things as me. I also learned much from the other presenters in my session as well as the other sessions I attended. I am always learning and grateful to all of my teachers.

I will have much work to do over the long holiday weekend. There are still butterflies here. I scared one from the grass while on my way to look for alternate sites. It was one of the larger brown ones that I’ve not IDed yet. The hedgerow plants are doing well. I sure hope the carcass is fully gone this week, so that I can plant without additional concern and get back up stream to work in that area.