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.

Taking Time to Appreciate

Juvenile red tail hawk feathers found

The weather is cooling. The wind is blowing the smoke away. It is a beautiful day on the ranch this Sunday. There is always so much work to do, but on such a special day, I had to take time to appreciate the honor I have to caretake this land, in this place, at this time. There is no better way to process these feelings than to walk the ranch. The smell of tarweed mixes with the dust of soil that is way too dry. Then cow pie. Then warmed oak bark. A little smell of stagnant water as I cross the Spring Creek and head up the hill. I notice the crunch of grass made brittle by drought. Top soil kicks up with each step of my feet and dog paws. As I get closer to the ridge, the wind kicks up tickling my skin. Although there is a lick of cool in the air, the sun is up higher now. The heat feels like a rug burn on my bare arms – hot and focused. As long as I keep walking, the breeze cools my skin. The dappling on the hillside give the dogs respite from the sun. Then, overhead, the call of a red tail hawk. It floats aggressively on the whipping wind – up high, then suddenly gliding close over the earth. As I watch in awe, a second red tail calls and floats close, over me. The dogs want to give chase, but they instantly know they are defeated as the wind takes the second hawk away as rapidly as it came. I come upon a slope of dead oak trees, victims to the last 5-year drought; there is a temporary grave site of a young hawk that likely chose the wrong territory to settle. Its flesh is no longer there, but its feathers are spread across the grass, reflective in the light. I give an offering and my thanks to the young hawk for its life and its feathers. Chiokoe uttesia in werweria, in jali’i. Se enchi nake. Se enchi nake. Ne te visawame. Its feathers will be used to do good, and in that way, its life will continue.

I saw just one butterfly when I got to Odom Creek. It was a little blue copper. I love those. The dogs took a swim in the large spring. It was a great morning.

Log Pile Dam Structure

A log pile dam is a low cost, low hardware method of slowing water down in a stream. I was able to build the pile mostly on my own. To get the larger logs into the pile in the creekbed, I used other narrower branches as leverage. Then, I used brute strength to edge one side or another of the log into place. Even with all the progress, there were several large, heavy logs I did not have the strength to move, but were needed for the top of the dam. I needed a stronger person than me — HEEYYY DAAAAVVVE!!

I am anxious for rain so that I can see how well this will work to back up water, even a little, in the creek. Thank you David for your help. I really needed it.

Va’am into Sewam (Water and Flowers)

In my last post, I lamented about a water dilemma. I am running out of rainwater but do not want to irrigate from my well. Finally, I made the heartbreaking decision to irrigate with the well water. In the end, I decided I could be super miserly on household water usage. This way, I would create less impact on the well and the oaks that depend on the groundwater. I am so close to the rainy season and so close to the dormant time for many of these native plans that it made sense to do this. David built the irrigation lines, and all the plants have a 1/2 gallon dripper on them. The system will be set to water so that the plants get 1/4 gallon maximum. Hopefully, the rain will come soon, and I will not need it long.

A wonderful advancement of this project will be working with the Watershed Progressive. They will be installing a professional rainwater irrigation system. We will also be adding another 2,500 gallon tank. The system will have high tech features to know the weather and the soil moisture so that water will be added only if needed. It also comes with an app so that I will be able to monitor system performance and needs. I am very excited. The system should be installed early in the “rain year”. I don’t want to miss too much rain storage. David is so happy to not have to set up my “poor girl’s” rainwater catchment system. The new system will allow me to expand my plantings, especially as the earlier plants mature and need less or no supplemental water. It will also enable me to continue to do this work without the limitation of the watering effort and the break down of my body. I cannot underscore how important this is to my continuation of this work.

TA Portion of the RCD Grant Gains Steam

Staff at the Miwumati Family Healing Center, a program of the American Indian Council of Mariposa County (aka Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation, have been collaborating with me on the hiring of a Pollinator and Garden Advisor for the Center. The Tribe has been focusing on Indigenous food sovereignty programming, including starting a garden. The new hire will not only focus on traditional food systems, but will be learning about pollinators. They will then help others in the community expand their pollinator habitat. I will be working with this person as well as other experts to build this capacity. This is very exciting.

Thinking of the Future

As the growing season nears its end, I have a little more time to think about the future. The Xerces Kits will arrive in November. The Tribe’s Pollinator and Garden Advisor will assist me in helping others get the dormant plants into the ground. We will be focused on planting in typically wet locations – like creekbeds and springs. I also would really like to create a beaver dam analog on Odom Creek. I spoke with the Watershed Progressive about this. They are learning how to do this work themselves. There may be the opportunity to have a clinic on the ranch to help others learn about implementing these on their parcels for the benefit of wildlife as well as livestock, which can benefit from the flooded areas that will grow more grass. There is always so much to do, so many ideas. No matter the workload, it truly is an honor and a privilege to be on this land, to work with so many outstanding humans, and to be doing work that makes – at least this small part of the world – more habitable for butterflies and other pollinators.