November: Rain to Cold to Warm Again with Cold Nights and Dry. Blooms, Butterflies (still) and Falling Trees

Narrowleaf milkweed seeds ready to float to their next life

With the exception of early November, it has been dry. The early month rain was wonderful, but we need more sustained days to really get the ground and creeks back to typical functioning. Although there have been cold days, the sun has come out and created warm temperatures. There are still butterflies and blooms, bees and bugs of all sorts. We all need rest, and this lengthened growing season is not healthy for any of us – soil, bugs, plants…me.

The garden is still going strong too. I have made wonderful salads for family and friends for over a month now. Would you believe that I still have tomatoes growing?! The tomato plants are definitely showing signs of cold, but the blooms are still converting to fruit. It is not hot enough to turn the tomatoes to red, but I am thinking I will make a sizable green tomato salsa.

Xerces Plants Almost All Planted – Whew!

I am down to 31 nectar plants to plant and around 30 milkweed plants. This may sound like a lot, and it is, but I started with well over 200. Because Xerces had some extra plants they provided and because my water situation changed for the worse since the time I submitted my request to participate with them, I enlisted the help of some friends to plant at their more lush, water-rich properties. I gave friends, Raw Roots Farm (Lauren and Andrew Gliken) and Letha Goger some milkweed and nectar plants to augment their existing habitat.

Raw Roots is located along Owens Creek in Catheys Valley. They already have a large stand of narrowleaf in a low-lying, moist area of their farm. Most importantly, they already have an irrigation system to support the plants in the first couple years and in dry times. Fortunately, Andrew’s family was visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday and were conscripted to help with the planting. I love it when families, especially children, are involved in stewarding the land. It is a strong, important lesson to teach them of their responsibility to all living things. Amazingly, while I was there dropping off some plants, a monarch flew by. WHAT! Shouldn’t they be on the coast overwintering by now? With climate change, who knows how all of us will adapt (or not). This beautiful butterfly was large. I only saw it for a moment. Andrew told me that he had caterpillars this year that he found on the corn. Interesting.

Letha Goger is the matriarch of an incredible family of people who provide exemplary public service through their paid and volunteer work. She recently volunteered to become a Xerces Ambassador. I was so excited when I heard she did that. There is something very deep in her that wants to serve the land. She has a beautiful piece of property with existing habitat and water infrastructure. On the property is the confluence of two washes and a spring fed creek – all within the Mariposa Creek watershed, I believe, and located in the area between Mariposa and Catheys Valley. Kristie Martin from the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation’s Pollinator Team and I went to Letha’s to do an assessment and make recommendations. She has a great spring and moisture-rich property. Plants are happy there, and the Xerces plants will have a high likelihood of establishing. I gave her some milkweed and some nectar plants. including the California milkweed scientists are finding is so vital for the early part of the monarch migration. Letha was overjoyed. Kristie and I identified several places in the moist areas where plants would be able to establish best. There were a couple of other places closer to the house where Letha is able to irrigate them. Overall, this will be a key location in an important watershed for monarch migration adjacent to existing habitat. We are really making some headway in Mariposa County for expanding pollinator habitat.

Thank you to the Glikens and Gogers for their incredible support of pollinators from before this time to now and into the future. Chiokoe uttesia.

Water Projects

At the beginning of the month, it rained. I deepened existing rainwater channels and dug new ones to the ailing grand blue oak trees. David propped up the south rainwater tank pipe to promote better flow from the gutter point of entry, which was overflowing with the new catchment entry receptacle. The swale pond finally had standing water, even though it was just a little. I am still waiting for my cattleman to be healthy enough to take a look at my log and rock drop structure. I am anxious to get that installed to slow the runoff from the storms. Poor guy. He has had several health issues in the family all at one time. We wish them well always.

The guzzler project is almost finished. David has taken on the task of building the guzzler overhang. He is not a contractor. It has been slow going, but it saves us money. We are not wealthy people and every penny counts here. If I paid for someone to do everything, I would be broke. He has done a good job, and boy that structure looks pro!

Walking the Ranch I Find a Forest in Crisis

The spot I had picked out to plant the Xerces milkweed and other nectar plants is no longer viable given the intense dryness of the landscape. I have been scouting other locations, looking for existing milkweed as a sign of a good place to plant. The mid and back sections of the ranch are more forested than the open grassland of the front. Over the last three months, the decline of the forest was evident. Even if I was blind, the level of dismemberment of the trees would be noticeable. The dry crunch of leaves and smaller phalanges of branches loud and audible. The smell of dried oak and newly severed bark unmistakable. The impassibility of the trail from large branches or full trees returning to the ground from their skyward heights tactile.

I no longer feel comforted as I walk through the woods. I feel anxious. I feel uncomfortable. It is as if a great windstorm swirled through leaving wood all over the land and full trees tumbled. I will not walk under any dying or already dead tree for fear of a limb dropping. I keep the dogs close or not bring them with me at all. You can hear the echos of something stepping, wood moving, limbs cracking. It could be a distance away or over your shoulder. The forest is dying.

I can only hope that the clearance of so many trees and branches allows the others to flourish. Something deep within my heart tells me that very little can thrive in such detritus and dryness. Water is life and there is little, so very little, water on the surface, within the soil or absorbed into the fractures and cracks underneath the land. I will do what I can, but the issue is larger than me.

My constitution cannot tolerate depression and gloom for long. Fortunately, I am not built that way. So…I look for signs, anything, to convey hope, repair, life. First, I see deer grass that I did not plant. Then, I see the remains of a multitude of vinegarweed, plants I had only seen one or two of in years previous. I continue my walk and see a healthy black oak seedling and a healthy cottonwood seedling. I find more than 30 blue oak “babies”. Finally, I see what I am looking for – a nearly 4 foot tall wild narrowleaf milkweed with seed pods galore. This is the place I will plant – the place where I will work in partnership with in malla, u bwia (my mother, the land), and together, we will start over. We will heal.

Last of the Butterflies as Cold Weather (Finally) Approaches

Cold weather is here. Rain is here. I am calming down with the change in temperature and precipitation. I worry too much about water and the life it enables. My concern is not for me, but all the living things here. Sure, I can leave and be a water refugee, but most of the animals and insects cannot. So – I must use my power as a human to do what I can to ensure livability for all. It is a responsibility we all have, but not one that all fulfill. These values are typical in Indigenous communities and families. We are taught that we are part of the ecosystem and have an obligation to live with respect in reciprocal relationship with all things. I am not always the best relative. I have many more shoes than one person can ever use, for example, taking much more resource than I should. I try my best as a Native in the modern world to fulfill my obligations. I fall short often. No one is perfect.

I watch storm clouds move in as I prepare for rain.

So far, we have had .75″ in this rain year (October 1 start). If you include the 1.25″ in September, we have now had 2″. The lengthy warm weather has allowed the blooms to continue, which has provided welcome nectar for bees and butterflies late this season.

Not all plants are welcome. The lingering heat also allowed goathead (puncture vine) plants to continue growing. They are a painful scourge, and I work very hard removing them by hand year after year. Typically, they are done growing by September. This year, with the ongoing irrigation, their roots were able to find the water not meant for them, and with the sun, continued to grow. I did not keep my eyes out for them after the beginning of September, so many grew quite large with their prickly, penetrating load. I got to them too late and paid for it with large distributions of painful “seed”.

As cold weather descends, I will see less and less of these insect friends, no blooms, and not as many plants. Everything needs time to rest – the soil, the insects, animals, plants and me.

Xerces Society – Making a Difference

Wayfinding sign at the NRCS Center for Habitat Kit pick up

I have sung the praises many times of Xerces Society. They have very committed staff who work with diverse people and organizations to achieve their pollinator conservation mission. They are incredibly helpful and truly make a difference working with people who know so little like me. Check out their education on various pollinator species.

Last month, I attended one of their webinars on building habitat for native bees. It was so informative. I was able to go outside right away and create habitat per their discussion. Some of the things I learned that made an impact on me: 1. most bees live extremely close to where you see them. They do not have the physical ability (in terms of energy) to move too far away from their nest. 2. It is better to use leaf litter as mulch than wood/bark in areas where there are ground nests. They do not have the strength to push the bark away from the hole and could get trapped, and 3. Some bees nest in hollow sticks and some of those bees need longer sticks than others. They will take bites from leafs and use them to close the opening of the stick after they lay their eggs. Very cool!

The first thing I did was freak out. I had laid down significant mulch across many areas this spring to prevent moisture loss from the soil. My imagination ran wild as I was sure I trapped native bees in their ground holes by the thousands. I started to cry mad tears. These are the times I wish I had more knowledge to identify a bee hole. Son of a gun! I pacified myself by remembering that we must always think about balance. The bark mulch was crucial around the disturbed soil from planting milkweed and nectar plants to prevent the rapid drying out of the soil in the relentless Hornitos sun. I used the mulch for walkways to prevent soil damage and erosion in those areas I traffic quite a bit. There is considerable ground I did not cover, which is protected, and could host a bee nest. Ok, I wiped my tears and began to breath again.

The next thing I did was to trim the white sage. I had been cutting the old bloom stems for seeds as my Chiricahua Apache friend Pete showed me to do. I did not realize as I had been cutting them that I was making habitat. Now, with my newly gained knowledge, I cut the bloom stems at different lengths. The bee expert talked about leaving lengths between 4″ to 8″. I sometimes needed to squish the stem to make sure the opening was very round and open. I really hope I see a plugged hole.

I was also able to recognize the patterns cut from the willow leaves by native leaf cutter bees. Xerces staff person Deedee Soto, who I work with most, had pointed that out to me during one of her visits. Now, I saw even more. The willow leaves look like half moon Swiss cheese. I hope this means that I have A LOT of native bees living near me. What great neighbors to have!

Xerces Kits are back!

It is again that time of year when Xerces is distributing habitat kits. I cannot sufficiently express my gratitude for access to these important plants. I will be honest; not all of them survive each year. Hornitos is a tough place to make a life. Between drought, grasshoppers, gophers, and crippling heat, not everything can make it. Fortunately, life persists. Many of the Xerces plants have matured to generate seeds, and the milkweed has begun to run underground, replacing those that were lost along the way. I consider this a success and hope they (and their funders) do as well. We were able to bring back monarchs after a 10 year absence. Come on! That is incredible. Sometimes, I need to remind myself of this when I get sad about anything. With the help of Xerces, Mariposa Native Plants, Mairposa County Resource Conservation District and the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation Pollinator Team – along with individual participants inspired by the work, we have made a difference in Mariposa County.

Because the pick up site is far away, I try to be helpful and offer to pick up other people’s kits near me. My young friend Ray Gutierrez called me and asked if I would pick up his kit. Absolutely! What a good guy. He and his wife Leeza are good land stewards. They live on a large parcel in eastern Fresno County. They want to make a difference and expand habitat they already have on their acreage. I met Ray many years ago when he was an Americorp staffer for Sierra Foothill Conservancy and have stayed in touch. He is a member of the Wuksachi Tribe from the Central Valley and holds similar values as me. We are connected on Facebook where he saw the information about Xerces and the kits. He wanted to make a difference for pollinators too. I guess social media is good for some things. I am grateful to him and Leeza for their efforts. I sent them home with a pile of greens and herbs from the garden and flowers for Leeza’s desk.

What a great young couple. They chose to get a grassland kit AND two hedgerow kits. Their SUV was packed! They will be planting for days and days. Chiokoe uttesia in weweriam (Thank you my relatives).

Fall Activities

I am gathering acorn from my trees to grow the next generation of trees that are on the west side of the ranch. Those beauties in front of the house are having trouble and getting older with no next generation to take their place. We never see any seedlings up on this hill. An attempt 10ish years ago to grow more from acorn failed. So, as mentioned in my previous post, we are going to try again. This time, we have experts available to us. As I have mentioned, it is a bad acorn year in terms of size and production. There are some trees along the spring creek that have full-term acorn finally dropping . David and I were there just at the right time to collect quite a few, and many are intact enough to propagate. In other words, all but 4 passed the float test.

The cooler temperatures and moist soils, bark and grass make walking the ranch a physical and olfactory joy. Every walk is deliberate, even if joyful. I am always looking for changed areas, new things, human interference. This is part of stewardship. On a recent walk, I found a landed mylar balloon, otherwise known as litter. Please dear readers, don’t get mylar balloons to celebrate anything, even for children’s parties. They often get away from people and end up being trash someone else has to deal with. They are plastic and can be dangerous for cattle. Little ones exploring their world can eat them causing a very painful and unnecessary death as it blocks their digestive system.

With the drought, the neighbor’s pond is dry. This is a good time to help them out by looking for trash. It is amazing what floats down stream from others upstream. We are still finding mangled items from the 2017 major flood, which took out bridges and floated cars downstream. The other day, my good friend Chevon was visiting. We gathered trash from the pond for pick up later. We found two mangled metal drums, two tires, broken PVC pipe a metal pot from who knows when and a piece of wire fencing. Thank you Chevon for helping keep the land clean!

The spring in Spring Creek has been expanded slightly by the rain. Horribly, the large spring on my border with the neighbors has absolutely no standing water. The last time this happened was in the fifth year of the 5-year drought. It has always been so reliable, but I fear the pressure of everything using it doesn’t give it sufficient time to refill or perhaps there is nothing left to refill it with. The rains we are experiencing this week should help – but this is a very bad sign.

The small spring has more water and is expanding its presence slowly down stream

Here are some random photos from this past month.

Animam Mikwame/Día de los Muertos

For those not aware, beginning last month and ending last week is an important time for many southwest North American Indigenous communities. In my Yoeme tradition, the holiday is called Animam Mikwame. In the colonized Latino community, the holiday is El Día de los Muertos. As the Catholics missionized my Native yo’yowam (ancestors) and all others in their path, they adopted the holiday/religious structures that existed and added Christian elements. In this way, the colonizers could more easily capture the minds, thus labor and natural resources of the Native people. The Día holiday is very much based in Indigenous culture – with Euro-religious elements added – and of course, many opportunities to merchandise and market. I am sure Hallmark has a card too!

Nonetheless, it is a beautiful holiday that I hope you will embrace (if you do not already). Essentially, October is a time when the spirit world is closest to the world of the living and is at its thinnest November 1-2. It is a time to remember those that have passed, to honor them. Making offrendas, alters, tapehtim (tampancos/lofts) that include items that loved ones enjoyed in life. Marigolds have been used as sweet smelling flowers that help lead the spirits to their alters. They are still blooming at this time and are an important source of food for monarchs. It is no wonder that there is such a strong connection between monarchs and the spirit world. They are a visual representation of the spirits returning and a very real symbol of transformation from one state to another. It is a special time with food, music, conversation and families coming together. It is a time to think of others, not ourselves, to celebrate those we love who have transitioned from this world to the next.

My mother’s alter – Victoria K. (Ayala) Bernikoff

Who do you remember? What love from long ago or more recently did you lose? It can be difficult to think about – but that is the beauty of the holiday – the concept that they are always with us and closer than we think – especially in October. The purpose is healing, respect and the continuation of love.

The person who I remember always, all year long, is my mother. She was one of the most important persons in my life. Strong, yet gentle and so loving. She embodied everything the concept “mother” brings to mind. Tears are in my eyes as I write this, but they are tears that revel in the act of sharing her memory with you — because she was so important and such a fine person and someone who few really knew. She was quiet, contemplative, highly intelligent with good common sense. Importantly, she loved all her children unconditionally. There was never a moment I felt truly unloved or unsafe. I am grateful for her commitment to quality parenting. Too many people do not receive that.

I have had to struggle not to think of the bad things – the diabetes that could have been avoided in a less hateful world; the joy that could have been externalized in a less racist place; the emotional pain that need not have been if she had a more respectful spouse. I inherited her engagement ring, and when I touch the ring, I feel the happiness she had at that moment. The youthful hope she had for her future. Then, my mind moves to the hard times, the less bright reality of financial, housing, and emotional insecurities. How difficult that was and so far from the life she envisioned. — But I am getting too far in the weeds, and my mother would not have approved. She was also fiercely private.

Instead, I clutch that engagement ring and think of her being liberated from an abusive home by this strange, wild, fun, unusual man from the other end of the country. She loved to dance and so did he. I remember her smile, her glee at spinning around the dance floor. Her fulfillment by four children who she loved and took so much pride in – one who gave her grandchildren, another who gave her triumph, a third who gave her laughter and the last one who gave her music – each child with talents they contributed to make a whole to fill a hole – in my mother’s vision of her future. She loved to travel, and her wild spouse, who made her sad, also provided fulfillment. She loved to learn, read, discover, discuss. She was an intellectual, without money or degree, who learned by reading and listening, and passed along everything she had, everything she held precious, all that is good in her world, into us. I am grateful. I miss you every day, and I love you mom. I try to help where I can, to be a good person, to take care of the family and to keep what you created together as much as possible. I help children and vote for people who care about the world. I am flawed in many ways, but I have followed your lead to help with the valiant but nearly impossible task of leaving this world in better condition than when I found it despite the many powerful forces pushing the other way. I brought the monarchs you loved back to this place, protected their babies, which brought you back – from egg to caterpillar to butterfly to egg…from south to north back south again. I am as whole as I can be without you. Te tui yo’owe. Chiokoe uttesia maala.

Mom and I in 2005 at school Christmas play.

Rebalancing: A Way of Life

Two monarchs eat and pass through on October 12, 2022

Stop reading for a moment. Breathe deep. Now, take another breath. Feel better? Remember when you were a child? If not, reflect on any child you know. We all start with love – love of nature, love of animals – an innate empathy that is part of our DNA – because we are comprised of our world. Find that place again, find that love, if you’ve lost it. Breathe. Refocus your thoughts on your natural space. It doesn’t matter where you live – apartment, suburb, room in another’s house, a large ranch – there is always something you can do to improve the natural environment, thus your health, our health and the health of the planet. What did you decide to do, or what more did you decide to do? We each have the power to make decisions on re-balancing how we live — how much we take on, how much more time outside of typical hours we give to work or volunteering, what we choose to spent time on. Sometimes they are big changes, but most times they are small, but make a difference. Rebalancing your life can lead you to wonderful experiences.

A major choice I made was to focus more of my time on the ranch, with a particular focus on climate resilience. It has been some of the best work of my life, building habitat piece by painstaking piece and building new structures to scale the work. It was not always clear that this work would be successful. If you are a regular reader, you know my failures and emotional troughs! Yet, mother nature, with a little partnership from humans, delivers, and she delivers every time.

Monarchs Going and Coming + More Butterflies in October

It was overwhelming on October 12 when I saw two monarchs nectaring and flying around the garden. They appeared out of nowhere, flitted on the marigold, then the sunflowers, then the butterfly bush. As quick I as saw them, they were gone. Whoa. I had to catch my breath. “Did I really see them”, I asked myself. Fortunately, I took a multitude of photos and found one that I could zoom and see the distinctive markings. Yes! We are back on the monarch migration route!

Not only monarchs, but other beautiful butterflies have visited the plants. I was losing hope last month with the ongoing heat, but October has been the best month so far for butterfly spotting. It cooled just a little, and then they all started showing up. There was the one buckeye at the Spring Creek spring. It was hanging with several California hairstreaks. We have had a procession of sulphurs in white and yellow and some large painted ladies. We had one or two red admirals, which was fun to see. The goldenrod and pacific aster attracted the visit of a large number of Caliofrnia hairstreaks. Finally, I saw what I thought could be a parnassian, but I really need an expert look. It was not the right color for those, so maybe not.

Ranch Health

Shed snake skin – nice big one. Good sign of health!

Beyond butterflies, the ecosystem seems to be functioning despite the ongoing heat. Only recently has the air cooled significantly overnight. Daytime temperatures were in the 90s in September and have finally decreased into the 80s in October. That is still warm. Plants continue to grow, bees continue to harvest. The growing season is longer. Nothing is resting just yet.

I have only counted 10 tarantula sightings. That is low. The ongoing heat has kept them in their holes I think, or perhaps the profusion of tarantual hawks earlier in the season (yikes!) reduced their population. Everything still needs water. The springs are still shrunken. The neighbor’s pond is dry. This continues to make the guzzler project extremely important for wildlife: mammal, bird and reptile water access. It is still in place with water, but no overhang or permanent fence yet – a work in progress. The cows are back on and did hit the guzzler a few times emptying it. The cows have plenty of water on the south side of the ranch, where another neighbor’s ponds are still wet. They need the water too. They are calving and need to produce milk. Fortunately, we had that rain in September. I was only able to refill the guzzler because of those 1.25″, which half filled the rainwater tanks. That storm has helped me continue not only wildlife watering but irrigation – since I do not use my well water for that purpose.

To keep the cattle out of the guzzler, I repurposed the panels I used to protect the incubator milkweed in June. Thanks again to my neighbors for the loan! I will build the required overhang and exclusion fencing before the end of the year. The panels were a nice, quick remedy.

October definitely means spiders. We have had webs flying through the air with their precious cargo, thousands of baby spiders. They are tangled into everything: tarweed, grass, boulders, fence posts – you name it. I did have some time to fill the trench I dug to the oak tree (see last blog post) with gravel. It needs another two or three passes to fill the trench. The rock helps maintain open space for the rain water to move through in a rain event all to deliver more water to the large old oaks. I have been collecting acorn as well. As mentioned in the last blog, it is slim pickings for acorns this year. I am desperate to start some seedlings from my acorns so we have younger trees growing and available to take the place of the grand old ones in front of the house when their life span is at an end. To choose the ones most likely to germinate, you float them in water. The acorn that sinks to the bottom will be the healthiest to use. The lighter the acorn, the less energy it has stored or the more likely bugs have already gotten into them to eat. I did try to start about 10 trees 10 years ago. I was not successful. I have more expert help now. That makes a difference.

Winter Garden Growing Well

I have already been able to harvest red leaf lettuce, basil and dill for salads. We will see if I get any tomatoes and corn. With the decrease in sunlight and the cooler nights, I don’t know if they will produce. As I mentioned in the previous blog post, since it was still hot, I thought I would make the most of it and see if I could extend those crops. There are some blooms on the tomato plants. Very exciting. I will see if the plants can beat the clock. I will also continue to look for free or low cost greenhouse elements for me to piece together something that can amplify the heat. I will likely add spinach, radish and carrots later. For the in-between time, I will add oats and peas as nitrogen fixing cover crops.

Rebalancing Off Ranch

The Southern Sierra Miwuk Tribe has been working on meadow restoration in Yosemite. Before colonization, their people would burn the meadows to clear the conifers and encourage greater black oak proliferation, thus acorns. Due to the attempted extermination of Indigenous people from the area and then wrong-sighted conservation policies, the meadows have been disappearing, and with them their remarkable ability to recharge groundwater. More recently, the National Park Service has understood the importance of First People’s knowledge and activities prior to Park status. Once again, Indigenous people are leading the restoration work in our most cherished wild spaces. The Tribes may get to use fire in the future, but for now, all of the work is by hand. This autumn, I joined my Native cousins in planting black oak seedlings and removing pine seedlings. Don’t worry dear readers who love pine trees (I love them too), there are many other places where they flourish. They grow like weeds and are not in any danger of extinction. The meadows, on the other hand, are.

Thank you to the wonderful young people who are leading the way in so many efforts around the world and to our elders everywhere for keeping ecological knowledge and parts of our culture intact under great stress and not so good odds. Chiokoe uttesia in weweriam (Thank you my relatives).

Any of us can join efforts of restoration, conservation and rebalancing. Look for them in the places near you and make a commitment for one day a month to start. If you love it, if it reconnects you, if you are feeling the rebalance happen, commit to more time. If you aren’t feeling it, try a different effort – beach clean-ups, campaigns for better climate policy, implementation of Green New Deal efforts. It is an all hands on deck moment, and you are one of the many hands we need. If mother nature, me and a small group of supporters, can bring monarchs back to the ranch in less than three years, imagine what ALL of us can do across every aspect of climate. Let’s be good relatives now for our future generations and all living things. Aho.

Dry. Warm. Windy. But Keeping Going.

Shoveling mulch like crazy to beat the summer heat

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.

Dumping mulch onto the north rain garden area where there are multiple milkweeds

If you think I am exaggerating about the wind, see the image below. The big leaf maples have been growing at an angle.

Big leaf maple growing at an angle due to the ferocious wind

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!

CARCD funded showy milkweeds thriving at Caroline’s

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.

In Hala’i’s milkweed with protective mesh removed. Farewell my dear love!

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.

Sundry Items

Children from my friend’s 2nd grade class send thank yous for their butterfly pins and the presentation about butterflies

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!

Falling In Love Over 50

In Hala’i (My friend)

Do you remember the last time you fell in love? Giddiness, wanting to be with that special person all the time – or cross paths at least, flushes of heat, random moments of happiness, disappointment when they are not where you think they will be, heart flutters, consuming thoughts of the other person – ahhh, the pleasures and struggles of love. It has been a while for me. After all, David and I are working on our 30th year together.

In April, the stars and milkweeds aligned, and I fell in love again. I was not expecting it. I bumped into my new love while inspecting the California milkweeds with biologist Tom D. Landis, who came all the way from Oregon to make an assessment of early milkweeds in Central California. I had not seen any caterpillars for a while, but then, all of the sudden, there it was, all by itself, clinging to one of the smallest California milkweeds. Tom saw it first, but then I locked eyes with its expressive antennae. I was smitten, and named it “In Hala’i”, “my friend” in my Native Yoeme language. Fortunately, David was not jealous, and accepted his temporary demotion as I trudged up and down the massive hill to spend time with my new love.

By now, you realize I am talking about a caterpillar. In Hala’i was the very last monarch caterpillar on the ranch. It makes me smile to think that I had monarchs laying eggs as late as early April high up in the California milkweed patch completely unbeknownst to me.

I made a commitment to ensure In Hala’i’s safety, to see it through to adulthood. I used a large stainless steel gopher mesh bag to cover the plant and staked it with mesh pins. I then visited the plant every other day originally, then daily as it got bigger, to ensure its comfort, safety and that it was eating. Yes, love makes a person do strange things. Though my giddiness and heart flutters were from tromping up a 60% grade daily, and maybe the flushes of heat were the result of being – a- eer – a woman over 50, I did have extreme happiness when I saw it, and utter disappointment when I did not. Sometimes I would stay a while, and we would talk about all of the amazing sights it would see when it became an adult.

Adulthood means the metamorphosis to butterfly is complete. I am now waiting anxiously for that time – that time when In Hala’i will spread its wings and fly off to distant lands. On Sunday, a week ago today, was the last time I saw In Hala’i. All I could think of (and hope for) was that it found a safe place to make a chrysalis. I had watched it grow from less than half an inch to 2 inches, and that is the magic length. In Hala’i had gotten to that size in a caterpillar’s life when such things as transformation could happen any day. Perhaps last Sunday or Monday was that day. I am still monitoring daily. Today, Sunday 5/15, will be the earliest In Hala’i could change, so I will begin monitoring twice a day. There is always the possibility the caterpillar crawled under the basket and made a chrysalis elsewhere. Hopefully, I will get to see it, alive, healthy and ready to launch out into the world. I love you In Hala’i and wish you well my dear friend.

Updates from Before In Hala’i

In early April, there was one last cow stand-off to protect the second wave of caterpillars. It involved a curious calf, which means it involved its mother too. Not a good situation. Every time we (Beatrix, Millie and I) asked the calf to leave, mamma would get upset. We would back off, then she would back off. But then the calf would come back toward the plant. It was a frustrating, time-consuming, delicate enterprise. Eventually, we triumphed. The calf lost interest, and the pair went along their way downhill. They are a sweet pair. I really love them, but we have to make space for all creatures. Fortunately, the next day, the cattle were back to the south once again, allowing the rest of the caterpillars to grow to maturity without fear of cow incursion.

Continuing Outreach and Education

The Pollinator Team has continued to provide outreach to the public with pollinator education. Kristie and Nellie, with another volunteer, Gussie, have been gathering the information of residents of Mariposa county interested to install habitat as well as convincing others in the flyway to plant pollinator-friendly plants. Deedee Soto of Xerces, who is a member of our Pollinator Team, had a booth at the Butterfly Festival and shared a booth with the Team at the Pow Wow. It is always so helpful to have her as an expert available to answer questions. We always appreciate the generosity of the Xerces Society. I volunteered with them at the Butterfly Festival and briefly at the Pow Wow. It was wonderful to see so many people interested in monarchs. We had a special appearance from Nellie’s grandfather, Bill Tucker, who is a good friend as well as an honored Tribal elder. Also making a special appearance were biologist Tom D. Landis and monarch expert Diana Magor. Both came to perform early milkweed inventories with Ron Allen (UC Master Gardener and Mariposa Native Plants owner). It was a fun day.

I have continued doing education and outreach on my own as well. I was able to connect a couple farms to pollinator resources. The Sateurn Farm will plant some milkweed as a trial, and Raw Roots Farm in my own community will plant hedgerows in the Fall. I ordered Xerces kits for them. Deedee and I will also be approaching some no-spray vineyards in Lodi with which I have a relationship. Little by little, we are making more habitat and making a change in California for the pollinators. Let’s hope it is not too late.

Me giving a milkweed to Mr. Saeturn at the Saeturn Farm in Merced

Additionally, I had the super fun opportunity to talk to my friend, Cerina Gasteneau’s, 2nd grade class in Crescent City about monarchs. They are studying butterflies, and Cerina asked if I would give a talk. I made a power point presentation that was photo heavy and told stories about cows, caterpillar poop, dog guardians and chrysalis ooze — the things that 2nd graders love to talk about. They were quite advanced, so I was able to discuss the entire life cycle, opportunities and threats. It was fun. I also surprised them by sending a package filled with magnetic, hand-painted monarch butterflies for them to affix to their shirts, fridges, or wherever they wanted. I love children. They are the stewards of tomorrow and worthy of extraordinary investment.

Washington Post Runs Small Story

You may recall we had a Washington Post photojournalist, Melina Mara, at the house following me around as I worked on monarch habitat tasks. She not only was with me but several others all around Central California. It was an interesting time to say the least. Finally, last month, her colleague Dino Grandoni, a journalist at the Post focused on environment and energy called. He wanted to do an interview to accompany the images Melina took nearly a year before. The resulting article was a short photo story made for digital only (not print). It focused on a wonderful woman in Oakland who expanded habitat around Lake Merritt, me, and Xerces’ Deedee Soto. Although Dino did not share my more substantive quotes that focused on pollinator education, the overall work achieved public awareness, which is the most important goal. Thank you to the Washington Post for covering this important story of the decline of this iconic, crucial species and a narrative that every day people can be effective in addressing this issue.

General Ranch Updates

Life continues as we move from cooler spring weather to the heat of summer. Wildflowers are nearly gone, but other perennial native plants are beginning their blooms. The pacific asters, yarrow, sunflowers, gum weed and white sage are all beaming with flowers. The ceanothus has started. Yerba Santa, monkey flower, lupines, purple and black sages are all but done blooming. The narrow leaf milkweeds are getting buds on the end of their stems. We should have ongoing sources of nectar for whoever comes by. As for humans, I have had a steady stream of visitors. It has been a wonderful change from the sequester of the pandemic. All have been interested in the butterfly work and marveled at the smell of the plants and the beauty of the blooms. We have not seen many butterflies this year, but more than last year. White sulphurs, blue coppers, painted ladies, viceroys and, splendidly, I can happily say, monarchs, have all visited. Maybe the summer and fall will bring more.

Personally, this constant effort has been a respite from the ups and downs of life. Between the Ukraine, domestic politics, the loss of a friend, work pace, pandemic, graduations, births, achievements, weddings, divorces, other dramas, and, in general, life returning to a pre-pandemic cadence – it has all been so much. Perhaps many of us have gotten used to a slower pace and a life behind a screen instead of in-person, with all the energy that it gives and takes. Hopefully, we all have our own versions of a habitat project where we can move our bodies, quietly contemplate, be good humans for this Earth and breathe.

Beloved sister and brother visit

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.

Cow Standoff – Babies Under Threat

Large caterpillar (probably at Instar 4) trying to make it to a monarch

In the last blog post, I relayed the near loss of the incubator milkweed plant and my aborted protective camping almost-adventure. I also detailed how my cattleman and I agreed that it would work out to shift the cattle to the south part of the ranch a few days early for a rotation of 10 days. However, he was not able to move them until Sunday…I had to ensure the baby monarchs’ protection for one more evening and day.

Like Saturday morning, I rose before the sun to make sure I was moving before the cattle were. I was out the door at 6am, and there were already several cows up. They were in the vicinity, but not adjacent to the milkweed. Still, it was too close for comfort. The dogs and I made our way to the milkweed patch to stand guard for however long it took the cattle to circulate away from this section of the ranch.

The sun began to lighten up the sky, and one by one, the cattle began to stand up from their nested slumber in the grass to begin their morning ablutions. I stood guard as the dogs showed their joy playing a game of wrestle and chase. Who wouldn’t be excited to be outside first thing in the morning, the cool air stinging your cheeks, a brisk walk moving the blood in your body, the slight breeze shifting your fur. The smell was crisp and alive – a good day to guard a plant full of caterpillars.

Dave watches the drama unfold from the other hilltop

As time went on, the cattle migrated around the hill. I went home for a cup of tea and breakfast – in front of the large window looking north to keep an eye on the situation. I calculated how close they could get before I would need to run up the hill to get to the patch before them. Then…trickery! A separatist cow group splintered off from the herd and went up the hill. It was like they remembered the green of the milkweed and made a plan to circle back. I ran out the door, the dogs at my heels, jumped in the neighbor’s Polaris and drove as fast as I safely could up the dangerous incline. I had to approach with care. If I chose the wrong side to head them off, they could stampede over the plants all but assuring the destruction of the patch. This pushed me to the steepest, rockiest side of the hill. As I watched the cows continue their approach, inching closer and closer, I could drive no further. The rocks were too plentiful. Jumping out, I ran across the tilted hillside, dodging milkweed and rocks. The dogs were there first – stopping the cows in their quest just feet away from the patch, and the treasure of the caterpillars beyond. Breathless as I ran, I said “leave it!” – lest they move them toward me and trample the plants. They obeyed – standing like schoolyard bullies daring some poor kid to make a move. It was like this when I finally got to the east side of the patch. Millie and Beatrix standing like statues except for the slight lick of their chops contemplating – no savoring – the thought of a chase. I imagined them thinking, “Make my day.”

It was a stand-off.

Cattle are smart, and they don’t like to be stationary for too long. The drought had taken its toll on the land, and they were going to chomp those bright green plants they had seen the day before. Their ringleader is Skull, and she brought about 10 of her toadies along with some their calves. As a rule, I give a wide berth to all mamas with their babies, and I certainly did not want to put pressure on any of them. But, this was my one patch of ground, and I was not going to cede it. Skull is about 1,500lbs, black with a white face that leaves black fur around her eyes giving her that skull-like appearance. Creepy. She is not someone you would want to pick a fight with. She stared at me demanding that I get out of the way. The dogs inched closer to her as she tossed her head. Then she looked back at me, and I said, “You have 364 and a half acres to graze. This is my half acre. Go on…GET!” Oh boy, she did not like that. She hit her hoof to the ground and scrapped the dirt, then snorted. Dang – she was getting agitated. I tried a different approach in a softer voice, “Oh sweet, sweet skull. Please understand. I love you, but I love the monarchs more right now. Why don’t you go take your posse and eat some other plants?” Another stomp, scrape and snort. Things were not looking good. The issue, it appeared, was non-negotiable on both sides, and I would not be moved. Sensing the moment, and tired of the conversation, Beatrix and Millie looked at me. I nodded, and they were off. Barking and moving forward at the splinter group. Some of Skull’s toadies peeled off right away and headed down the hill, but a few others hung on. Skull stepped toward the dogs, but they were undeterred. The girls redoubled their efforts; they were not fooling around. Skull and her team relented and reluctantly made their way down the hill, slowly, knowing their size and desires. Then, nearing the bottom of the hill, Skull stopped and looked back up the hill at me, the dogs now sitting by my side staring back at her. It was clear I had won this battle, but the war was yet to be determined. She turned back around and meandered off, head held high.

With the tense moment passed, I turned to regale in the treasure that was protected. The caterpillars were safe. There were large, medium and small ones eating. They were thriving. Beatrix and Millie saved the day.

Badass Canis familiarus

With the cattle moved on, I set my sights on figuring out how I would get the Polaris back down the ultra steep hillside. Photos do not do it justice. Driving down is almost like going over a cliff. I created a plan of careful movements to position the vehicle nose forward using the same track I had created to get up the hill. I took a deep breath, loaded myself in the unit, put my seatbelt on, placed my left foot on the break and my right on the acceleration, shifted in reverse and took off the break. It lurched forward for just a quarter second before I caught it with the break pedal. Breathing again. I reversed, got it into position and carefully went downhill in low gear.

Images are deceiving. This is not a gentle slope.

Nectar and Monarch Sightings

The nectar of the milkweed is a crucial source of food for a newly emerged butterfly

With the cows to the south, I could feel comfortable going on vacation. My pet sitter texted me with a sighting of a monarch on the back patio. I nearly cried. It isn’t just one. There are several sightings now. I really believe this place was chosen as a nursery because of the added nectar (Thank you CARCD and Xerces for grants and extra plants). In the last two years, there has been no evidence of caterpillars chewing on plants. This year has been good for early blooms. We have a wide variety of plants flowering. It has been this way since January.

After returning from vacation, I checked on the incubator milkweed. It was gone – stripped down to nothing but a few buds at the base of the plant. This is as intended. The caterpillars eat, and eat. They then find another plant to ravage until they are large enough to make their chrysalis. I counted 5 on one large plant and one on another. There was evidence of slight chewing on a third large milkweed, but I did not see any caterpillar.

As I was returning, imagine my shock when I found 4 A. Californicas emerging from the soil of the first milkweed patch, AC1, closest to my home – the site I had been watching with despair at its non-return. In years past, this site had as many as 11 individual plants. This could be good news for any late comers to the ranch who want to start their family here. Lesson learned – never count out nature.

Monarch (and BABIES) on the Ranch and Near Disaster Leads to More Adaptive Management

Monarch caterpillars eating

As I write this, I am still breathless. We have monarchs! We have monarch babies! Thank goodness for Ron’s monitoring project. It has required me to check on the A. Californica (AC) patches regularly. It was one such monitoring effort I went on earlier this week that produced the greatest joy to occupy my heart since, well, since the week when I found the ACs. I guess I find many moments of joy in life!

On Wednesday, March 16th, I decided to check on the ACs during my lunch hour. It was such a beautiful day with a very slight cool breeze, no clouds in the sky. I felt compelled to get away from my desk and enjoy the out-of-doors for a bit. Gratefully, I work from home, which enables me to seamlessly move from inside to outside during breaks in my day.

The monitoring project requires me to note date of emergence, flowering, when seed pods are set and when the seed pods have opened. It also requires monthly measurements. I have been going to the patches semi-regularly to check – semi-regularly because the largest one is well away from the house up a 6% slope. It takes some effort to get there. Ok, let me get to the good part! So, I decided to take a walk through the riparian area. I saw some other butterflies, sat around by the spring creek for a while observing and checking on the Xerces plants.

This put me on a course to access the large AC patch (AC2) from the east already near the top of the hill. First, however, I checked on the other two smaller patches. In AC4, the two plants were small but already flowering. In AC3, the plant was still small, but healthy.

I finally got to the large patch with several tall, mature plants that were already beginning to flower. All the flowering shocked me because this was quick and very early. It was in this muddle of thought and calculating from my experiences last year when out of thin air I catch some movement to the east. It was a monarch butterfly flying around. WHAAAT?! Could I believe my eyes? I fumbled with the phone camera trying, but failing monumentally, to capture a photo. I even turned the camera app off accidentally in my excitement. Then, it was gone, and I got nothin’. Oh how I hated myself.

Seeing the monarch made me wonder about babies. I took a close look at the AC plants. I saw quite a bit of holes on one mature plant. Looking closer…there they were, the most beautiful sight, monarch caterpillars – monarch babies, the progeny of this magnificent, healthy, beautiful adult who graced me with her presence – the future of the species attached to leaves all over the milkweed. I counted 15 caterpillars. I looked at all of the other plants. Nothing. There was some evidence of eating on one, but I didn’t see anything…at the time.

I sat down next to the main caterpillar nursery plant and contemplated my luck. I sang to the plants and caterpillars a little butterfly song I made up on the spot. Quietly, I hoped I would see the adult monarch again. I was singing to her too. A hawk flew over me. I called to it. A blue belly lizard made its way up on top of a rock not too far from me and began doing his push-ups – letting me know this was his territory. There is so much to see and hear when you give yourself time to sit quietly in one place.

Out of thin air, again, like magic, she appeared. She landed on another milkweed. She coasted close to the earth downhill. I saw her glide just above the range and then land well away from me. There is much lupine blooming, so perhaps that is what she was after. Then she zigged. She zagged. She came back up the mountain right on a course towards me. I was wearing pink, so maybe she thought I was a flower. The entire time I had my camera at the ready. I got a couple distant photos and had not taken off the zoom when she approached me. As a result, I only got the edge of her wing, but what a gorgeous, sensational piece of wing that was!

And just like that, she disappeared. Although I was there for an hour and a half, she did not reappear. I turned my attention to the milkweeds again. I wanted to convince myself this was not a dream. The caterpillars continued their ravenous march across the leaves completely unaware of my ecstasy. Satisfied this was reality, I made my way down hill toward home to complete the rest of the workday.

That night, I had trouble staying asleep. I woke at 2:30am. Beauty is never without its price. I realized I was nervous. Like a parent waiting for their child to let them know they arrived somewhere safely, I found myself pacing, waiting for the sun to rise. The cattle were on my side of the ranch, and I had some concerns for the safety of the plants, and with them, the caterpillars. I went outside and saw the cattle all sleeping on the driveway. I felt better to see their inactivity, but also uneasy knowing how close they were to the site. I went back inside resolving to keep a close watch when it became light out.

Disaster! I fell asleep at some point and woke to the bright sun shining on my face and a kitten on my chest. How did this happen?! How could I not have woken up at sunrise and especially when my furry baby made a little nest on my person?! I bolted toward the window where my fears were realized. The cattle were up on the steep slope grazing, and there was one right next to the incubator plant. Quicker than I have moved in about a year, I jumped into my muck boots, threw on a vest over my scant pajamas and put on a hat fleeing out the door and into the range before me. Ran down the driveway, through the gate, made a hard right, nearly tumbled down the hill toward Site 2 and the arroyo, then ran as hard as possible up the mighty hill, navigating rocks and gopher holes, up and up until I reached the babies.

Cows in milkweed patch

I gently shooed the cows away, downhill, away from this prize. It wasn’t their fault. They are doing what they are meant to do. With the drought and almost no forage, these tall green plants now look more enticing, and the cows are willing to give the bitter, toxic plant a chance. They can’t help themselves, and I still love them. But gosh darn – the plant had been grazed. Two tall stocks were missing. I rapidly looked all over the plant, counting again and again to make sure. There were twelve. Three caterpillars were missing.

We were all in luck. The largest of the caterpillars was safe. This one is perhaps just a day from moving into its chrysalis stage. I also looked at all of the milkweed plants again. I found two caterpillars on another large plant, and one on a third mature milkweed. Is it coincidence that I found three more or perhaps did the caterpillars drop as the cow snipped off the stem and made their way to another plant? Probably not. I probably just missed them the previous day – but I will never know.

The Need to Balance

The term “adaptive management” refers to making decisions based on realities present on the ground. After the very close call with the cows, I waited until later that morning and texted my cattleman. He has had the cattle on a rotation cycle between the south and north parts of the ranch since he bought the business from my old cattleman. This practice is a good one. It attempts to mimic the movement of grass-eating large mammals that roamed rangeland before Europeans arrived. He is always watching what is happening on the ground and makes the decision when to move them based on the amount of feed or water and other things as well. For much of the recent past, the cattle have been on a 14 day rotation, but he has rotated them at 10 day intervals too. Last Friday marked day 10. I hoped that perhaps this could be close enough to be ok to shift the cows. I asked him what was possible.

Tom was a bit on edge. It has been a bad year. He lost tens of calves in the high country due to bears. He is almost out of water on a leased piece of ground up the road from me, and the drought has left very little grass for the cattle to eat. He has been spending thousands on hay – to supplement the lack of grass. Just like any business, you want your inputs to be less than the output — and the greater that difference can be the better. It means more profit. I understand.

Tom didn’t want to deviate from his plan. I also did not want to make impacts to the neighbor’s ground that would be bad, but I said, “Let’s talk this through.” I wanted to walk through all of the actions and consequences to see what was reality and what was just reactionary. I had offered to compensate for a week’s worth of hay if that was what was needed to move the cows. He didn’t think that would make a difference. Ok. He politely said with a slight tone of stress, “Pardon me, but I am looking at three caterpillars versus thousands of dollars in feed, and I don’t see that computing.” I said, “Ok, let’s dig into that ‘thousands of dollars in feed’. I just offered to pay for the feed you would be missing from this side by moving them. So what do you mean? The entire ranch is a golf course. To me, it is nearly the same on each side of the ranch.” He acknowledged that was true.

We talked about insurances, Farm Bill supports, who was getting what. He vented. The stress reduced, and he asked about how long the caterpillars would need to be done. He had planned on coming out here the next day to take a look at what was left. He could move the cattle. It ended up being one half dozen or the other. He could hit that side a little more, but for 10 days instead of 14 and then come back. If there was rain, we would have that much more over on the north.

We had a plan.

Still, I said “Think on it overnight, and we can make a final plan tomorrow. I can make a temporary fence if I have to. I will have just enough time.”

This meant the plants would need some safety over night. I decided I would camp near the milkweed patch to prevent any more grazing of the plants. My husband was not happy. He is from Los Angeles, a city boy. His mind went straight to coyotes, mountain lions and rabid something or others. He did concede that bears wouldn’t make their way down from the higher country just to get me -though the thought had crossed his mind. I was neither concerned nor deterred. I loaded up the very basics of camping gear and set off with my trusty canine companions.

There was only one cow in view far off in the distance as the sun set. It was beautiful. It being a Friday night, there was more traffic on the road and a small plane flew overhead. I could see the twinkle of my neighbor’s lights begin to turn on as the sun sank and the wisps of light began to fade away. There was a cool breeze, then the smell of flowers. Oh my goodness, really?! The milkweed flowers were just beginning to emerge from their duff-covered encasement. Not many had released themselves, so it was just a hint, a distant echo of what is to come. I settled into my bag. I thought about the cows settling down too. It was just then that David turned on our festive strand of cafe style lights on the back patio – like there was some kind of carnival happening without me at home. It looked beautiful from my hilltop vantage. He called me – one last effort to coax me back home so he wouldn’t have to worry. He said, “HB, you know, the cows will be sleeping. You can come home and just get up before dawn. I can have your whiskey and soda waiting for you.” Damn, that boy’s smart and a smooth operator. I double checked the data on cattle grazing, and reassured myself that they would be stationary for the night. Indeed, I saw them just the day before laying allover the driveway sleeping. I was convinced – and Beatrix had been whining. I made the careful trek home in the dark. The full moon had not yet risen. It was just giving us all a taste of its presence, illuminating the edge of the high country and hills with a band of light.

I had mixed feelings. What if a cow decided to eat in the night? It is so incredible out here, shouldn’t I just stay? I had not had much sleep the night before and knew I would not sleep well if I stayed out under the stars. Ah heck, it was best if I slept in my bed and just beat the cows to sunrise. I made peace with the decision. It worked out too. I got some solid sleep for 5 hours and awoke to wind and clouds having moved in over night. I put on my clothes and headed out to make sure there were no interlopers to the milkweed patch. I stayed well away down hill from the patch. No need to be up there more than necessary. It was incredible, but overcast and windy. All was well. The cattle came at about 6:45am. They began to make their way toward the site little by little. Then, they turned the opposite way opting for lower ground and nestled themselves near the swale pond. Unknowingly, I was flanked on the other side by two mamas and 4 babies. They saw me, saw I had no hay, and kept on moving, never once looking in the direction of the milkweed, not climbing the hill. They joined the others at swale pond. The patch is protected for now. Tom decided to move the cows on Sunday. Thinking on it overnight he figured it would actually work out better for him given his other commitments and an upcoming trip. For me, I will have one more day of fatigue monitoring the cattle. It is a small price to pay, and I will worry about that tomorrow. Today, the caterpillars, and all of us, whether we recognize it or not, win.

Wildflowers, A. Californica Emerges, Drought and Handing Off

Millie watches Beau kitten walk through the wildflowers (lupine and fiddleneck)

Wildflowers of all colors and sizes abound here in the foothills. It is like spring. I welcomed the thick scent of nectar into my home by keeping the doors and windows open the entire day last week. I never tire of the joy the olfactory experience brings me. Tempering my joy is the notable lack of bees across the range. I recall when I first came to this place that there would be plethora of different bees on the flowers – chunky bumble bees of different colors, thin, agile pollinating flies, and European honey bees of course. Fortunately, near the house is a different situation. There are honey bees, silver native bees, thin flies and every now and again a bumble bee on the arugula flowers. I love to lay on my chaise next to my towering stands of arugula, with the bees flying around me and listen to their hypnotic hum.

A. Californica Emerges…Partially

My plant obsession emerged in late February on the south facing slope – A. Californica (AC), California milkweed. What a tricky friend it is! I have been monitoring the emergence of early milkweeds for Ron as part of a larger program he is involved in. I must have walked by the rocks on the south facing slope twice in the latter part of February. I never saw anything.

In the early days of March , on a cool day, after checking the area, I headed home, down the very steep slope that leads to Site 2. I decided to pull some weeds around the baskets of Site 2 since I was there. I reached into the pocket of my jacket and found no gloves. The gloves were a yellow tan color, much like some of the rocks that protruded on the landscape. Looking left and right, I saw nothing. Although I dreaded it, I began to make a slow climb back up the steep south facing slope in search of my gloves. You must understand, the gloves were not cheapos. David got me a special pair that he thought would last longer and fit better since I work so much with my hands. Very sweet of him. But, this meant I was determined to find them.

Everything happens for a reason I suppose. Trudging back up the slope, about halfway up the hill, I saw a glimpse of light green on the dark green, brown, and red colored background almost glowing in the light. Could it be? No. I had wandered this area just a moment ago, and twice over the last two weeks. But yes! There is was, slightly moving in the breeze, a gorgeous puff of AC. As much as possible, I picked up my pace to get to it. Indeed, it was a large specimen of AC. It had to have been there, camouflaged against the moss on the rocks, for weeks. I began to look around and like prairie dogs peeking out of their holes there were another 3, no — 5, no –10, albeit smaller ACs. My heart beat more from the excitement than the 6% slope I had just loped up. Everywhere I turned there was AC. In all, after counting 6 times to ensure I got it right, there were 16 individuals in total in that community of plants. I could not help but grin so wide the sides of my mouth ached. What a great day.