Drought Heavy On My Mind. Monarchs on Their Way

Swale Pond continues to shrink in the heat

I am getting nervous. There has been no rain, with none in the forecast. I’ve already begun to water some plants that are in drier soil and looking thirsty. The south rainwater tank is getting early use. We need a good storm. I would feel better if my two main tanks were filled, but recall, a defective part used in the professional rainwater install allowed thousands of gallons of water to flow away from the tanks instead of into them. Without them filled, I am unable to water everything that needs watering.

The Swale Pond is shrinking with absorption, evaporation and use by cattle and wildlife. It is the main deep source of water on the NW side of the ranch. We are still getting a little dew in the mornings, which helps the grasses. Mayflies, ants, honey bees, and fly pollinators are out and busy. Fortunately, it is still cold at night and in the morning. We had overcast skies the other day and no wind for some time, which also helps slow evaporation. The grasses are still green, but we are getting patches of brown where plants have died back with no other growth to take their place. The system here is teetering on the edge. On a good note, I saw a bald eagle a week ago Sunday. I saw another one in the Valley near my home. Both sightings were pure joy.

For the Future

I planted three big leaf maples last weekend. David helped with the larger trees given their weight. I purchased them before I knew I wouldn’t have water in the rainwater tanks. You may think, “Girl, you’re crazy. Your blog is filled with freak-outs about drought. You’re a nervous wreck. Why plant trees that require much more water than bushes or plants?” That is a great question. There are several reasons:

1. Trees can change an ecosystem. A biologist told me that due to their shade and function of bringing water closer to the top of the soil, more moisture can end up being present providing an important resource for other plants to thrive. Monarchs, and many other butterflies, often roost in trees to avoid predation, and rest.

2. Trees provide shade. This can help grasses and larger plants survive the worsening heat.

3. Trees are an important part of sequestering carbon. They uptake carbon from the air and push out oxygen.

4. Finally, these trees are more drought tolerant that most others. Ron Allen of Mariposa Native Plants and a UC Master Gardener said they grow in arroyos in much more arid Southern California.

I am going to give them more of a try. I planted three others last year in different places on the ranch. Grasshoppers ate two, and the cattle got to the other before I could get protection around it. This time, I purchased more mature trees, planted them closer to the house (thus my new water system), and built fencing around them the same day they were planted. I planted them in a shallow draw as opposed to an arroyo. Let’s see if all of these things make a difference. I would really love shade in this section of the ranch and another place for butterflies to roost. It is humbling to plant a tree – especially at my age. It is a true act of love to know that what you are doing is not necessarily for you. This tree will outlive me by many years providing shade, shelter, beauty and cool soil for generations to come.

Blooms

New oak leaves emerge

Many things are early this year. The heat and sunlight have given cues to the plants and insects to start living their above ground, visible lives again. Most of the wildflowers are coming out all at the same time – not following their typical cadence. Given climate change and the lack of moisture overall, this may be a self-preservation thing. It also may be a good thing. I understand, from a monarch expert on the coast, that, as of this writing, the female monarchs are for the most part gone from the overwintering sites. They have begun their northeast journey to summer sites. This means they are on their way this direction. There is much danger – more than usual. The early departure during the heart of winter means that they can get caught in a cold snap and freeze. They also may get to certain locations before food is available. They will be passing through the largely toxic fields of the Central Valley during a time of dormant spraying of nut trees. It is a difficult passage, which I hope they will navigate successfully. I anticipate having more nectar for them in a couple weeks. Perhaps they will get here in mid March. I will keep my eyes open.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I am helping a team of scientists monitor for early emerging milkweeds. They are interested in A. Californica (and A. Cordifolia, which I’ve not seen here). So far, I have not see any of my native A. Californica emerge. I am seeing some of my potted and newly planted milkweeds emerge however (Indian milkweed and narrowleaf). I expect to see the A. Californicas emerge in late February or March. I just hope they will be large enough to entice monarchs to lay eggs.

Riparian Fence Nearly Done

Riparian fence at Odom Creek with brace post

Regular, long time readers of this blog will know that fencing has been the bane of my existence. So much effort, consternation and “ink” in this blog have been dedicated to discussing the protection of milkweed and nectar planting sites throughout the ranch. Oh my, so many different attempts, failures, and cow break-ins have been chronicled. Finally, I have gotten a professional to perform the long, arduous task of installing the riparian fence to exclude cattle from portions of the creeks. Say it with me…hip…hip…hooray. You will now be spared my fencing complaints and dejection!

Two of the many reasons for excluding the cattle from the creeks is to protect the water quality (see photos below) and prevent erosion of creek banks. High organics, from poop and pee, create excessive nutrients that algae feed on. Too much algae on the surface can prevent the transfer of life-sustaining oxygen into the water and make it less possible for fish and amphibians to live and less healthy for mammal and avian wildlife. Excluding cattle for a time also gives the ground an opportunity to rest and for me to see what grows without the impact of livestock. I am excited to see what happens. We will graze these enclosures after monarchs would have left and the native plants have seeded. We want the grasses to be grazed down for health of the ecosystem and fuel load reduction for wildfire.

The Joy of Walking the Ranch

There is the smell of life all around – growing grass, nectar from wildflowers, trees leafing, cold, moist air in the arroyos. The air has been clean and the temperature temperate. These are the days you live for, the days you want to walk the hills for miles, sit, breath, contemplate. Our life is so hurried. The shift to remote and online meetings has only encouraged the blurring of the boundary between home and work and the push to be even more productive since one need not travel to attend meetings and conferences. I heard from a colleague that she actually attends two meetings at once sometimes. We are reaching a breaking point as a society. We need to get back to connecting with one another, outside, in natural places, over food, to live once again.

Waiting for Monarchs, Water Quality and Rain Comes

Gathering storm clouds

Since turning around, dumping my vacation for a chance to see more monarchs, I waited on my patio for days. No monarchs. One remarkable note is that my neighbor said she saw a monarch flying down hill from my house the day after the turn around. There is nothing else this time of year that could look like a monarch, so I decided she wasn’t mistaken. I celebrated! I have not seen a monarch in Hornitos in nearly 10 years – so no matter what, this was incredible. The sighting preceded the news that monarchs have been seen in greater numbers at the overwintering sites than last year, and it is still several weeks before the traditional “Thanksgiving Day Count”. Let’s be clear, the numbers are still abysmally low. Intervention remains critical. I am very grateful to Xerces Society and other monarch supporting organizations for their relentless work to expand habitat and get the word out about the decimation of this crucial and iconic butterfly.

Recently, I have seen a painted lady, two admirals, several of what I think are a hairstreaks, yellow cabbage and some white sulfur butterflies. Combined with the other butterflies earlier in the year, though less in number than last year, I am calling the work I have done here a win.

Spoiling Water

As much as I love cattle, they have no awareness to not urinate and defecate in their water. They also trample the banks making soil tumble into the creek. It makes the water go from clear to muddy and promotes algae growth from all of the organic material. This is why there are programs to help ranchers fence off riparian areas – to help keep water clean, give plants a chance to grow and propagate and stabilize banks.

American Indian Council of Mariposa County Starts their Pollinator Program

Earlier this month the American Indian Council of Mariposa County hired two young women – Nellie and Kristie – one as a Pollinator Advisor and one as the Garden Designer. Both are young, strong Southern Sierra Miwuk women and will contribute much to the Council’s vision of starting a garden to help feed elders and using the garden as well as their Healing Center focus to expand pollinator habitat, especially for the declining monarch butterfly. These positions were made possible by the Resource Conservation Grant awarded in part to support the Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu project. Their first projects will be to design a garden, plant Xerces Plant kits, and install a native plant garden at the Mariposa History Museum. I am so excited to see what these young women do! Stay tuned for more on this technical assistance part of the project.

Xerces Society Does It Again

Angela Laws (Left) and Jessa Kay Cruz of Xerces Society distributing pollinator plant kits

There are a number of groups and individuals doing what they can to help increase the numbers of the monarch butterfly population. From my perspective, one of the most effective and exciting efforts has been the Xerces Society pollinator plant kits program. They have scaled their plant work into the 10s of thousands of plants, with corresponding increases in the number of individuals partnering with them and acres planted. These women, including Deedee Soto (the Xerces biologist who has been mentioned many times before in this blog for her outstanding assistance to me on my Walappu’ project), are truly heroes for their tireless work to help many pollinator species come back from the bring of extinction.

I picked up the pollinator kits for me, the Tribe and Irene, a young Southern Sierra Miwuk woman doing her own restoration work. My truck was completely FULL. The two hour drive home from the distribution site smelled great. Thank you Xerces Society!

Water for the New Plants

I am finally growing up. I am getting an adult rainwater catchment system – well almost adult. It has only taken me 20 years to find the right firm and have enough financial resources to get it done. It is just in time too. My body just cannot make it through another year of hauling water all around. I hired local Watershed Progressive to perform the design and work for the system. Two young women came out to dig trenches and do all the plumbing work. It was great meeting these strong young women who know so much about water. I plan to showcase this system to folks who want to learn more about rainwater catchment. We all really need to be capturing some rain water to irrigate our plants in the west. Drought conditions are too frequent and destructive.

Fencing to Protect the New Plants

David and neighbor Ric stretching fence

It has been quite the journey at Site 8. I have thought through so many fencing types to protect the plants, spring and creek banks from the cattle. What a circuitous road! We finally settled on a t-post fence with Wedge-Loc corner systems to allow for strength across the entire span of fence. While I did finally get an NRCS contract to build permanent riparian fencing, it is expensive to build that type of fence, and I have to front the money and get paid in arrears. This t-post fencing is a good stop-gap fence – although it is so much work I am thinking maybe it will be permanent!

Originally, I had planned to use field fencing to fence off a section of the creek from the cattle and do wildlife friendly fencing up stream where access to the spring was critical for wildlife. Since we were going to stretch wire anyway, I thought, “Let’s just do the wire for the entire span.” This is the final configuration.

A wildlife friendly fence is essentially having a smooth wire at the top and bottom of the fence instead of barbed wire. This way wildlife can scoot under or jump over the fence with no catching or scrapes. The barbed wire comprises the center two wires in between to discourage cattle. This creek will be planted with all kinds of milkweed and nectar plants. Hopefully, the Xerces kit plants I planted last year along the creek will reemerge next Spring. That was a huge amount of work last year, including building the branch fence.

For those cattle ranchers that read this blog, and I know there are at least two of you, you will be thinking, “Oh no! How will cattle get to the water?” Great question. Here is the plan. Just below the fenced off area, you may recall a flatter area where the spring water and rain water pools. This is where I want to drive the cattle to access water. In this way, they are not crushing soil off steep banks and into the creek. I am also hoping for wider access to water so more than a few head at a time can access water. Here are the key elements to accomplish this: 1. With less soil intrusion, and even with more plantings, the spring water will have greater volume, be cleaner and pool in the watering area. 2. I plan to build a beaver dam analog (essentially a human created beaver dam type structure) early next year to slow runoff and retain moisture in the soil behind the dam, which will allow for pooling of water. I cannot wait to share the results of the beaver dam analog. I am planning to host a clinic here for other ranchers and property owners. After doing much research on these, I think this solution can be a game-changer for drought resilience, feed growth (which equals weight gain) and pollinator habitat. Thanks to Jesse Bahm of NRCS who first mentioned this once mysterious concept to me back in 2019.

Rain Comes and Log Pile Dams Work

Post storm clouds

The series of three storms came last week, including the “bomb cyclone” predicted to drop an enormous amount of rain. Well, it didn’t do quite that, but the resulting rain was greatly appreciated. We spent the Saturday before the storm cleaning up and putting things away. I had to roll the 250lb field fencing out of the creek where a cow kicked it – in case we did have a massive rainfall. Fortunately, I have really good leg strength to roll/push it up the bank and lodged it between two oaks. Per my rain gauge, the first storm was maybe 2 drops. The second was about an 1/8th of an inch. The third, and largest, was 2.25″. I’ll take it.

A day or two after the rains, I walked the ranch to see what had happened. The filed fencing stayed put (hurray), but the most incredible thing was that the log pile “dams” I had created along the Spring Creek worked. There was not enough water to move the logs. The piles had slowed the rain runoff to such an extent that there was standing water before each dam as compared to other similar sections on the creek that had no standing water. The standing water was not influenced by the spring. The heat had beaten the spring back quite a bit, and the standing water was much further downstream. The soil was very thirsty, but with the nearly 2.5″, standing water was possible. I am so encouraged and cannot wait to make that beaver dam further downstream.

Dogs, Odds and [Tail] Ends

The days are finally cooler, with sweater weather at night. I love the smell of tarweed, moist soil and grass. It lifts me; it keeps me going to the next day, and then the next. I even like the smell of my neighbor’s fireplace. Smoke in smaller quantities and wood only (as opposed to buildings) reminds me of my youth, far away from most people on the edge of the Stanislaus National Forest. I would be gone all day, just my dog and I, a bota bag of water and a sandwich in my pocket for us to share, observing life, the movement of water, insects, birds and animal tracks. The smells of the forest make up the organics of my brain, its tissues and neurotransmitters. It is such a part of me that I can hardly remember a time without that memory. Walking with a dog (or two or three, or…) is so pleasurable – getting lost in memory, yet not being alone. Now that is living.