Climate, Heat and Wildfire Smoke = Change for Pollinators

Oak Fire in July mushrooms

Please forgive me for complaining a little at the start of this blog. I know it is meant to discuss my pollinator work, and I am sorry to be a downer. All the things we do are entwined as elements of our life -so the bleed over and into is all part of the same narrative I guess. It has been a very difficult last three months. If you were wondering why a post had not been published in a while, I did not have the energy. A close, dear friend fell, became ill and died. It was a rapid, difficult, frustrating experience made worse by a fragmented healthcare system. His fall was in June, and by July he was gone. COVID finally caught up to me in June despite my being extremely careful. Although it was mild for me, I was positive for 10 days and had to put many things on hold. In July, wildfire hit just east of us displacing many friends with several losing everything. We took on evacuees at the ranch with their animals. The emotional exhaustion was evident among everyone – evacuees, responders and the average community member. The compassion fatigue, overwhelming sadness for all living things and extreme, ongoing heat has gotten to everyone I think. I could not believe my temperature gauge when driving home from a meeting in the Central Valley. It said 118F.

I find it remarkable that anything can exist in these circumstances of heat, smoke, drought and extremes. It is no surprise that very few butterflies have visited the ranch despite plenty of blooms. All is not depressing. We have had a proliferation of tarantula hawks and more dragonflies than have been here in years. Perhaps the increase in dragonflies, a natural predator of butterflies, is part of the reason for limited sightings. I don’t think we have gotten to a place of balance at the ranch yet. Regular drip irrigation has increased soil moisture around the house, but the drought has taken its toll on everything, soil, plants, trees, humans.

Milkweed Established!

The milkweed in the older plots were mature enough to produce seed pods. It was a joy to see them healthy and doing well despite gopher attacks over the past 3 years.

I am now able to identify narrow leaf milkweed in the wild and have seen several plants in my creek bed and on the side of the road around the county. It is very interesting that they often appear alone or quite a distance from one another. I wonder if that has to do with years of grazing and pesticide use (on the major highways). On a monitoring excursion to Odom Creek last week, I found two or three milkweeds in bloom in the creek bed. There were several California Hairstreak butterflies around each plant. I saw a buttery yellow cabbage or sulfur butterfly and one buckeye butterfly.

Blooms

As planned, we have plants in bloom from the beginning of Spring throughout Fall. In bloom currently are California fuchsia, goldenrod (just opening), marigold, sunflower (still going!), pacific aster, a few gum weed and Mexican sunflower blooms, buddleia, vinegarweed (lots of these plants this year), and tarweed. There are even several herbs and onions blooming. There are many options for the pollinators to choose from.

Concern for the Grand Blue Oak

It is normal for oaks to conserve their energy during drought. They kill off their leaves and drop limbs. It can be very dangerous to walk under stressed oaks. I mentioned one of the large oaks in the front of the house in my last post and earlier in this post. It started with one branch having all its leaves dead in May. Then, almost overnight, all the leaves were brown and falling by August. A small branch dropped earlier this month. It has been incredibly distressing. These trees in the front of my home are over 200 years old, and they just cannot die on my watch.

Several years ago, a landscape and water expert was at my house when another tree in the front was extremely stressed. She recommended digging a trench just outside the drip line of the tree crown so that rain water would be stopped and recharge the area around the tree. Not only did I do that for two of the four oaks in front of the house, I ran my front gutters into the trenches. It worked! The branches I thought were dead all came back except for one.

I did this exact same thing for the newest tree in crisis. I am hopeful it will work too.

The other issue with the oaks and drought is reduced production of acorns, a critical food source for animals and humans alike. It is also the next generation of oak babies. We need to have an overwhelming number of acorns just to get a handful of seedlings. Sadly, most of the oaks on the ranch do not have many acorns, and many that are growing are still very green and undersized. I want to see those acorns mature and drop. All I can do is implement good land practices, swales to slow rainwater runoff, and hope for better next year. Land restoration is a patient practice. Stewardship is a way of life anyone can adopt anywhere they live.

New Raised Bed

I raise a number of plants from high quality organic/non-GMO seed or seed gathered from my plants. Not only its it more cost effective, but I receive great joy from starting them and watching them grow. The seedling trays have also served as an important source of water for bees this year. Even birds have dropped by to visit. When the birds come by, I can be assured it is not just for water but seed snacks. Every seeding batch, several never start. For some, the seed just is not viable. For others, they become a snack for birds. I am ok with that. Fortunately, I don’t depend on my garden as my only source of food. If I did, I am sure I would feel differently. Additionally, I grow native plant starts, herbs and flowers. All of these, including my food, will become blooms for pollinators. It is a tripe win for everyone.

The weather has been so warm I decided to start a winter garden with plants that should have been full grown by now and producing food – like tomatoes. I am also including vegetables, herbs and flowers that should be ok late and/or over winter normally – like lettuce and spinach. I have a number of strong looking seedlings, but will not plant in my tomato tub raised bed due to the ongoing gopher intrusion. There is no other place cultivated to plant, so I asked my darling husband to build me a new raised bed. Truthfully, I can do this myself, but David loves to work with wood and is much handier than I am. So- he gets the job. David built me a gorgeous raised bed using redwood and secured it with a roll of Diggers double galvanized mesh (same company I get the speed baskets from to plant my native plants). Because I am raising vegetables, I needed richer soil and did not have time to bring my local soil up in nutrients (bad planning on my part). I had to purchase soil, which was costly. I have a couple of old french doors I salvaged, which I will use to make a greenhouse over the tomato part of the bed. I am hoping this will help bring the tomatoes to maturity. It is all an experiment.

I use a square foot gardening method. In this way, I can make the most use of the garden space, water with efficiency and co-locate natural pest deterrents, such as marigolds. See the link for more information about how many vegetables you can plant per square foot. In my situation, most of the seedlings I have are plants that need space, so you will see that I generally have one plant per square foot. For some, I could probably get more, but I was too lazy to pull out my book to check planting amounts per sq ft. There is definitely a cost to being impatient!

Last Days of Summer Bring Rain and Fall has Arrived

On September 18 and 19, we received .75″ and .5″ respectively of rain. It was a delightful late summer storm. The smell brought me as much joy and anticipation as being hungry smelling baking bread or BBQ meat. You cannot wait to get outside to work, take a walk, just breathe. I think most of the area hoped this meant cooler temperatures from then out, but the miserable heat came back a few days later. It has been in the high 80s and high 90s for the past several days. Air conditioner is on again. Not good.

Still, the temperatures are cooler than 115 – something to be grateful for. Besides the temperatures cooling, Fall is heralded by my dear loves, the tarantulas (Ok, some people determine the beginning of Fall when pumpkin drinks appear at Starbucks; I prefer spiders.). I have counted 5 so far. It is an imprecise, unscientific count, but it has helped me to understand their populations by counting the number of sightings. We had several healthy, large ones at the ranch.

I am seeing a number of small ant holes in close proximity. I think I am living on top of ant LA. To think my bucolic, slow-paced surroundings are directly above a bustling, major metropolis of a billion small, vicious, biting red ants is a bit unnerving. People think I have too much coffee, but now you know why I keep moving and don’t stay in one place for too long.

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

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.

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.

I have been monitoring all AC sites where I have found the plants previously. Of the four, two have emerging plants. The other AC site has one very strong plant with three sprouts. Last year, this site had one plant with one sprout. The older the plants are, the stronger the roots become and the larger the sprouts get. I have seen smaller plants that get a later start never get to bloom. This is why it is really important to protect the older growth ACs.

Hopefully, we will begin to see some emergence in the other sites soon. The other sites are north and west facing (as opposed to south) – so this may be a factor.

Drought Worsens

There has not been any appreciable precipitation since my last post. Tanks one and two are still unfilled because of the defective rainwater system part from December. Such a lost opportunity. This means I continue waiting for a large rain event to make up for that issue. There are large swaths of red and brown patches all over the ranch. These are areas where no additional vegetation has grown and the existing vegetation has already run its life span. No water = no grass growth. The water is now completely gone in the swale pond. The springs are still running. It is not pooling in the spring creek since there was no good water saturation down stream. We still have standing water in Odom creek, but not as extensively as is typical.

Butterflies Visit

We have had more butterfly visitors, but not as many as in the past for this time of year. There have been several painted lady butterflies, some gray hairstreaks, a white and/or pale blue sulphur butterfly (I could not get a good look). There are so many flowers but not as many butterflies to utilize them.

Narrowleaf and Indian milkweeds have also begun to emerge. They will be good for many butterflies and not just the monarchs. I don’t know if any monarchs will stop by. A friend saw a monarch in the Merced River canyon area, which is farther east and higher in elevation. Maybe I will get some stragglers.

Odds and Ends

Most things that were not leafing out or growing, are now showing leaves or leaf buds. No showy milkweeds, but I don’t expect them until later. We expanded the protection fencing around the big leaf maples, and they are already being used. Just yesterday I was checking the enclosures and was stopped in my tracks. The bluest birds I’ve ever seen here were flitting around, roosting on trees, roosting on the fences and then dropping to peck into the ground. They were stunning. Fortunately, the dogs were not with me. I was able to get a closer look without scaring them away. Rounded heads, iridescent blue, no blush of rust on the wings or chest. They were mountain bluebirds! I have only seen western bluebirds here and only in the riparian areas. What a joy that they have already found the new trees.

I also pulled out the solar fountain and filled it with water. Within a day, the basin was being used by a bird to bathe. There has been considerable preening, nest building, dating and coupling going on around here. It is spring!

Warm sun and soft grass – nap time

Handing Off

Sunset at the ranch

Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu is officially handed off to the Southern Sierra Miwuk Nation. The California Association of Resource Conversation Districts grant is now complete. While I will continue stewarding and building habitat where I live, I will only stay loosely involved as a volunteer under the thoughtful, caring and deeply passionate leadership of Kristie with support from Nellie and Tara (and of course Clay from Miwumati, Deedee from Xerces and Ron from Mariposa Native Plants). With schools interested in presentations, residents wanting to plant pollinator gardens, the Butterfly Festival coming up in April and the Pow Wow soon after that in May, the Team still much work to do. I could not be happier.

As an Indigenous person, I feel a deep and intrinsic connection to stewardship of the planet as well as this specific place. However, there is no one more suited to stewardship of this region than the progeny of the first peoples themselves – the Southern Sierra Miwuk. When you live by, for and because of your non-human relations for tens of thousands of years, you unconsciously become one – you know one another extremely well and are part of the collective whole. This knowledge will be central in ensuring the survival of the monarchs and all of our pollinator family.

Ito te vitne in weweriam. Amand te tevote naabuihatia ini tui tekipanoa. Se osi enchi nake.

Good luck my relations. Best wishes with this good work. I very much appreciate you.

Kristie at a site assessment and intake
Nellie at March for Federal Recognition with friends and next generation stewards Miwa and Willow
Tara burning for the health of the land

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.

Fall Can’t Come Soon Enough and A Monarch Sighting in Hornitos!

Studying the first tarantula of the season. There were two on my walk, and they both looked extremely healthy.

It is no secret among my friends that I LOVE spiders – especially tarantulas. Not only are they amazing predators eating their weight and more of flies and gnats, but they are a harbinger of Fall with its cooler weather. Oh my goodness, am I desperate for rain and cold.

David and I have been busily preparing for the Fall. In addition to building log dams in the Spring Creek, we have been chopping downed oak branches. Often, these large oaks will drop branches in an attempt to stay alive by needing less water. It leaves some of the trees looking lopsided and the ground covered in branches and leaves. The large thud can be frightening if it is unexpected. One of the large oaks dropped a very large branch unexpectedly. The tree looked really healthy, and I had hoped it would stay fully intact despite this horrid drought.

Grand oak branch down

David has been pulling the branches from under the tree with a chain and truck. These last two branches (pictured above) were too heavy and too tangled for the truck to dislodge them and pull them out, so he has been carefully cutting them in place. He needs to be very watchful and not be under the canopy too long given the branches dropping. They call oak branches connected to trees but sagging toward the ground “widow-makers”. For real…

Instead of burning all wood material, we prefer chipping. Not only is it better for air quality, but it provides a (very) local source of mulch for around the plants helping the soil to retain precious moisture. We neatly stacked the logs so that they could be handled by the chipping vendor. A huge thanks to the Mariposa County Fire Safe Council for offering this chipping program as a way to reduce fire fuel load near homes. Often, the chipping jobs are too small for the large vendors or too expensive, so this program is a huge benefit for our community.

Once the pile of chips was complete, David and I began filling the Polaris, and I spread it within the planting sites. There were six loads in total. Dave gave up after two loads and sat on the porch with a beer watching me work. It was a well-deserved break for him after all the branch hauling and sawing.

Spider Season

It is no wonder Halloween mainstays are pumpkins and spiders. It is nearly October, and I have begun to see the webs floating through the air. On those webs are baby spiders lifting off from wherever to begin a new life in a new territory. The webs will get lodged in plants, trees, vehicles, structures – pretty much anything they come in contact with. And, that is where they will begin their new life. As I was watering and mulching, I saw several stuck webs on the plants. To be certain, we will have a solid line of defense against any bugs.

On my walk a week ago today, I saw two tarantulas. They were the first living ones I’ve seen this year. Typically, I will begin to see them in August, but, this year, it is late September. They both looked healthy. The life of a male tarantula is one of being darned if you do and darned if you don’t. They are meals for tarantula wasp babies or a meal for the female tarantula after fertilization. I love them so much and feel bad for their fate, but that is how nature intended.

Some other good friends I have seen a lot recently are snakes. They are so important, and I protect them from getting picked off by raptors as much as I can. I try to scoot them off the cement or the roads into the grass or leaves so they are not as easily seen by the remarkable eyes of hawks.

Gently nudging this beauty to exit the patio into the leaf litter

Late Blooms

One of the crucial elements of establishing a well-rounded pollinator garden is to ensure diverse plantings and plants that bloom at different times of the Spring, Summer and Fall. Although it is late September, I am still getting blooms on the plants. I was rewarded today with a sighting of two admiral butterflies. They moved so fast that I could not get a photo. I saw their distinctive markings and was overjoyed. They are larger than the other butterflies I have been seeing lately, which is fun.

A Heartfelt Goodbye to the Polaris

Polaris back home

I gave the Polaris back to its rightful owners the other day. My neighbors have been incredibly generous with me, allowing me to use it for so many weeks. It has been a reliable friend making my work so much easier. I won’t lie; I miss the gosh darn thing. I am back to hauling my water with the Gorilla cart since the part for my electric ATV is still MIA from Canada.

MONARCH SIGHTING Drives U-Turn!!

Monarch flutters away into the field. Can you find it?

I haven’t been on a vacation in years. This week, David and I were set to leave for the coast. We had the car packed, the bikes on the back and the dogs situated comfortably for the long ride. We drove to Hornitos, made the tight curve, climbed up the hill out of town and made our way down the winding road toward the vast expanse of the Central Valley. Just a mile outside of town, we pulled over on La Paloma Road to check the bike rack. It was fortuitous. –My hands are trembling as I write.– As I sat in the car, a single, large orange and black butterfly fluttered right over the car. It was a MONARCH! I grabbed my phone and bolted out out of the car like I was a 20 year old and ran down the dirt road as fast as I could, following the large erratic flutter, side to side, yet forward, of this magnificent creature. I ran until it flew over the ranch fence into the field, skirting the rangeland, just over the grass. My heart was racing, and I snapped three sad, far off photos. It was the best I could do. Then, my elation sunk in parallel with my heart. I was leaving. There were monarchs in Mariposa, along the rangeland, finally, and I was leaving town. David yelled to me to get into the car and lets go. Reluctantly, turning back every so often, as if I was a child again, called home too soon, leaving my joyful friends playing behind, I made my way back up the dirt road and got into the car.

I certainly wanted to leave town. The smoke and heat have been toxic to my body. It has been too many days of working hard in this situation. I wanted the clean, cool air of the coast. I wanted to see my siblings and make my husband happy to have the smell of redwoods in his nose. I was conflicted. Could I leave now after seeing this? Had I worked so hard since 2019, not seeing any monarchs, to leave now that there was a real, tangible chance to see them use this habitat? What if the watering system David constructed got a leak, and water did not make it to the milkweed or nectar and the plants died? A tear quietly rolled down my cheek as I ruminated. David, driving, caught this resigned defeat out of the corner of his eye. He grabbed my hand and said, “HB, do you want to go back home? We are only an hour and a half down the road. I am ok with it if you do. I know how hard you’ve worked.” I said, “Really? You would give up your beautiful trip?” He said, “Yes. I am totally fine with a stay-cation.” I said, “I love you.” He made the u-turn, and we started back for home.

I called my sister and brother to make sure they were ok. I asked, “Is it lunacy for me to cancel my vacation for a butterfly?” Both my sister and brother encouraged me to shift my plans. They said, in turns, “It would be crazy if you didn’t do all that work, saw a butterfly and cancelled your trip. You worked on this project for years, literally giving your blood, sweat and tears. We think it is crazy for you not to stay!” I promised to visit soon and hung up as David and I made our way across the Valley, the glorious Sierra foothills, and home, in our sights.

More a. Californica Spotted and Wildflower Whiplash

a. Californica on the hill east of the house

I always let out a whoop of excitement when I see these remarkable a. Californica plants. They look so prehistoric to me, and the smell is heaven. The air of magic around these plants is only enhanced by its rapid “see them out of nowhere” growth. Last year, I shared that I found three communities of these plants – one near the house with seven plants, one on the tall south facing hill to the north of the house with thirteen plants, and one on a hill to the east of the house with two plants. I have been monitoring each location. The east hill has two plants. The site near the house has two plants (so far), and the north hill had two plants. In the last post, I suggested that it may still be early to see many of these plants, and I was right. The plants have been appearing about a week after my first sighting.

Signs of the Drought Apparent

Spring Creek is still running, though just slightly. As visible in the first photo above, the eddy has receded several feet – and this is without cows drinking from it in almost two weeks. My trial mini beaver dam analog did not do much. I will try harder in the future. The Swale Pond receded 10″ in just one day. Note the moist area exposed and the water line in the second photo. The big spring in line on Odom Creek is still full. The creek is running pretty good. It was dry for quite some time in the early winter despite precipitation. The soil was so thirsty that there was little standing (or moving) water until late February. Not pictured are the increasing number of dry spots visible throughout the area. I have already begun irrigating. This is a three weeks earlier than last year.

Wildflower Whiplash – they are everywhere!

Stunning hill of purple (Blue Dick flowers)

Blue Dicks, Popcorn Flower, Fiddleneck and Lupine proliferate insanely this year. The hills are washed in strokes of color – orange, purple, white, yellow. It is really stunning. You almost get whiplash swinging your head around in every direction to see the colors and flowers. The drought is partly responsible as well as the darker winter we had. The grass did not get the best timing for water and had less sunlight with which to grow. This made room for the wildflowers to sprout and not have to compete/be blocked out by the European grasses. While this is not good for the cattle business, it really is extraordinarily beautiful, amazing for pollinators and quite the olfactory experience. If I could share the smell with you through this blog, I would. Nectar is heavy in the air and the sound of all sorts of bees is an ongoing, loud undulating hum. My photos just do not convey this outlandish beauty.

Milkweeds Growing Well

Xerces and Monarch joint Venture each push that milkweed is the most needed plant to be planted for monarch habitat. I am very happy to say that I have many milkweeds emerging strong and healthfully. Most are narrowleafs. However I found one showy coming back at Site 8 and, of course, the a. Californica. I have not seen any of the woolly pods I planted come back this year. The gopher hit them hard twice last year. I was happy to see some narrowleafs come back from the wild pig attack at Site 8. They did not reemerge last year, and I thought I may have lost them completely. I have growth that I can see in four of the seven milkweeds planted there last year. Of the nine I planted in the raised bed, only three have returned from the massacre by the gopher that sneaked into the bed. It does look like the CA fuchsia is reemerging. That would be incredible if so. We still have a deer grass and a yerba santa that survived the attack.

Other Notable Updates

There is a tremendous variety of growth in and around the branch fence area. I have not seen any of the milkweed I planted from the Xerces kits emerge yet. The area is more shaded, and the showy milkweed seems to be taking longer to emerge. It seems as though another creature is making its way into the branch fence area. I’ve seen some of the fencing fallen down and soil disturbance. It isn’t a calf since they are on the south part of the ranch. I did not see any scat or tracks to be able to know. It would be useful and fun to set up a game camera. I have one, but have not gotten around to doing this. It would be interesting to see who is coming around in the night (or day when I am not looking).

At Site 2 in the arroyo, the plants are off to a good, healthy start. I did see considerable gopher activity near the site. I found the hose covered in gopher mounds in several locations along its route from the water tank to the arroyo. Getting a stainless steel hose was a specifically so gophers could not bite through it and cattle could not crush it. It will be tested now. The cattle are due to return at the end of the week.

I have been seeing white butterflies with a pale orange throughout their wings. They spook easy, and I do not have a good photo to share. I was able to get two pictures from far away, but the pixelation when blown up is terrible. I did not include them here.

It appears that the cattle pushed their way through the barbed wire to browse the deergrass. I found one of the wires shifted up and the bunch of grass trimmed low. It is possible it could be a deer. I have seen evidence of their presence toward the more forested portion of the ranch. My neighbor said he saw one too the other day. There were no deer droppings or hair on the wire – but it is a possibility.

Spring is always a time of hope. Plants are in the ground and doing well before gophers, heat, pigs or any other misfortune finds them. David and I received our first vaccine shot last Friday. We have hope too that we will be able to do more away from home and see family and friends that we have only seen on a video screen. We miss hugs and being with the people we love. Let us all cling to as much hope as possible and the joy it brings. We do not know what lies ahead, but for now, I will celebrate the possibilities of togetherness and the arrival of the monarchs.

The ABCDs of Walappu’ “Uuchuthuu: a. Californica, Butterflies, Color, and Drought

Purples, whites, oranges, yellows, reds and blues abound!

In the melody of Carole King’s A: Alligators all around.

A: a. Californica comes from the ground.

B: Butterflies flitting around.

C: Colorful flowers abound.

D: Drought crept in without a sound.

And that is the current state of life (and my mind) here at Walappu’ ‘Uuchuthuu (Butterfly Home Place). Old, favorite children’s songs are not enough to comfort me as a moderate drought continues and is likely to get worse. Winter has turned to spring so fast I have hardly had time to write. In fact, today is three weeks since my last post. Rest assured dear monarch lovers, I have continued to be hard at work.

Protecting an oak sapling takes considerable effort.

In my last post, I noted that my friend Maggie spotted a little oak seedling while hiking with me on the ranch. We protected it with downed branches to buy me time until I could get to the site and build a cage around it. Three weekends ago I was able to do so. It took much effort however. Since the ground was still wet from a recent storm, I did not want to disturb the soils with my quad by sliding up and down the hillsides. Instead, I loaded the quad with fencing materials and parked in a flat spot well away from the hillside site and hauled all the material to the site. For those that are not aware, t-posts are solid steel. The roll of no-climb fencing is a thick gauge metal. The t-post pounder itself is weighted steel, about 16.5 lbs. As I trudged across the creek, up hill, then across an arroyo to another hill, then up that hill to the oak seedling site several times with pounder, posts and a huge roll of fencing, I had only one thought in mind…”How am I not a size 6!? Why are my arms not as defined as a body builder?” The only explanation is that I love peanut butter too much.

I also put in t-posts around the cottonwood. I needed to do it anyway, and I was going to be nearby. The no-climb fencing still needs to be attached, but I have it ready alongside the driveway to easily pick up when I have the time. At least Maggie’s oak is going to be ok. There are so few young oaks (and so many that died in the last drought), I need to do a better job of protecting the seedlings I find.

My favorite is back: a. Californica

The first emergence of a. Californica

Finally, after weeks of monitoring the a. Californica site, I saw the first leaves emerge.These plants are so gorgeous and look so prehistoric to me. Last year, the site closest to the house had seven individuals. So far, I only see one. I also checked out the north-slope hillside where the thirteen plant community was last year. I found two – one single leaf by itself and another multi-leaf bunch. Both sites have much gopher disturbance. They ate a couple last year. I am hoping that this is only the beginning of their growth and many more plants will emerge so there are some that survive gopher predation. This early milkweed is a crucial source of food for monarchs as they begin their travels from the coast.

Diverse Butterfly Visitors

Cutting the grass early has really helped wildflowers proliferate. The little magenta flowers, generally not seen near the house this early, are thriving. We have so many species of flowers blooming that I have seen more than six species of butterflies already this year. They are tricky though. They flit so fast and disappear that it can be difficult to catch a glimpse for an ID or a photo. The butterfly visits began in late February and have grown in March. I was able to identify several using this iNaturalist tool. After being caught without a camera when the viceroy floated by, I now always have my camera/phone with me. So far, I think I’ve had: viceroy, painted lady, american lady, buckeye, white sulfur, brown checker, maybe a spring white and a Sara Orange tip. There have been a few I did not get a good look at, but they were clearly different than the above. Here are some of the butterflies of which I was able to get a photo.

Arroyo – Site 1 Planted!

I finally began planting in the arroyo. The soil is so much different there. Even though moist, it is a little tougher to dig. The soil is clay-like but also crumbly with very small rocks. I planted monkey flower, sulfur buckwheat, two narrow leaf milkweeds (I have a hole ready for a third when Ron brings another), white sage, purple sage, black sage, mugwort, yerba santa, two maple trees and one other plant I cannot remember right this moment. I planted one maple higher on the hillside in the path of the spring. In doing this, I am hoping it will have moisture available for longer in the season. The other plants are planted in the area of the arroyo that appears to be at the base of where the hillside spring travels. I also planted most plants on the north-facing slope. My thinking is that this will provide additional moisture as the climate changes. The hillside spring usually dries by late July or August. It is not much water. The spring mostly makes the grass there green longer. You can trace its subterranean trajectory by following the greenness of the grass down to the arroyo. Given its limited production, the plants will need to be irrigated as well over the summer. When helping write the grant, I estimated that it was 1000′ from my rain water tank to the site. I ended up using just under 600′ of the metal hose I purchased. This works out since this will leave me 400′ to use for other far flung locations.

The cows left last Thursday for their southerly rotation. I have another 4 days to a week to get a fence built around Site 1. I already have most of the materials and decided to use t-post diagonal brackets for the corners. I am not trying to make a permanent fence here. The goal is to establish the plants and trees, then remove the fencing. I purchased another 50 posts the other day. The price has gone so far up since I first began building fence. I used to pay $1.50 per post. Now the price is $4.91 – and that is good. Most other places have 6′ t-posts for well over $5/post. Ouch.

Drought Outlook

Not looking good…

I keep a close watch on the Drought Monitor tool. I am so glad that I captured what I hope will be enough rainwater to get the newest plants through the summer season. I had hoped to add another tank, but did not get a chance to. There is much site work that has to be done. Last time, we hand dug the pad for the tank, built a retaining wall/box from old railroad ties and rebar we had laying around the ranch, and filled the box with sand that we purchased. It has worked well, but takes quite a bit of time. There is also the need to purchase just the right length and corners of Schedule 20 pipe. We just did not have the time or energy. We knew this would be a short winter season, and never received even one blockbuster rainstorm like we did last year. Maybe next year. My calculations say that we should have enough with the 7,000 gallons. I over- estimated water needs, but sometimes you need to water twice per week. Maybe the older native plants will need water. There are many unknowns. Stored rainwater is important because I don’t want to put any pressure on my well. David and I have already been in stricter water conservation mode for several months.

My rainwater gauge

I have been measuring rain for close to 17 years. The worst year of the 5-year drought was 9″ for the year. This year we have just under 10.75″. That concerns me. Last year, we had just over 14″. While 14″ is around the normal precipitation for my area, it does not allow much carry over into the next year. The soil, trees and grasses are thirsty. It shows. The swale pond did not have standing water until January 2021, despite a fairly wet December. Not good for plants and not good for fire resilience. We will do the best we can and hope it is enough.

Maintenance and Milkweed

With the emergence of the sun has come rapid growth of grass and all the other plants. David is mowing, and I am hand weeding to give the plants some light and space. Today, I staked all of the planting areas so we have markers that will keep us from weed-eating the plants if they get overrun by grasses. David does that work, and he does not know where everything is. Even if I am able to stay on top of weeding around the planting areas, it is good to have the stakes.

I have begun to water the plants. It is early, but they are already looking dry. I want to be sure they have a strong start. Maybe we will have some precipitation in April (fingers crossed). I monitor all of my plantings for growth. Sadly, so far, several of the dormant plants that came with the Xerces kits have not sprouted. Most of the bushes are doing very well though. The milkweeds from 2019 and 2020 have sprouts as do the newly planted milkweeds. They look strong and healthy. I am so grateful for that. Hopefully, the other Xerces plants will emerge. Maybe they just need more time.

Reflections

It has been a year since the the beginning of the CA Resource Conservation District grant, which allowed me to scale up the habitat work I was already doing. It was such a high last March when I learned my project had been selected from among many candidates across the State. At the same time, the impacts of the pandemic were just beginning as well. Everything was shutting down. Shock and fear took hold across the globe as we watched the bodies pile up in Italy and the bug make its rapid march, with each new red dot on the Johns Hopkins tracking tool, into every nation across the planet. It was made real when restaurants, schools and office buildings closed their spaces sending all of us home to watch life move forward without us. All most of us could do is watch the truly essential workers battle this disease with limited equipment, limited knowledge, poor national leadership and few options. If you were paying attention, there were some good things too. Here, the air was super clean – like it had not been in years. Wild animals showed themselves more now that they were given more room to be wild. The quiet of far less air traffic and road noise helped provide a level of peace needed as we grappled with the question of “what next?”. For me, not being essential, not being on the front lines of the pandemic able to use my energy to save lives, I chose to throw my energy and passion into helping save the lives of the monarch butterfly. It was good medicine for me.

We will survive this pandemic – but what will be do with our changed lives? Without bird songs, the howl of the coyote, cool breezes of clean air, clear, healthy water babbling across rocks, the smell of billions of blooming wildflowers, places of natural wonder and peace, and, yes, monarch butterflies making their epic migration, spreading their large wings as they surprise you with their beauty — without these, what is life worth anyway?

Branch Fence Bust and the Boys are Back in Town

Bull grazing in the a. Californica milkweed area

I love bulls. They are simply magic to look at with their size, muscles and intense stares. Fortunately, the bulls run by our cattleman here on the ranch are gentle. They would rather walk away than charge. Still…it is good to be real respectful of their presence – especially when they are around the ladies strutting their stuff. Remember, this is an 1,800+ lb animal. On my quad yesterday to do some watering, there was a big guy laying right in the path. I stopped. I looked at him. He looked– no he stared (intensely) — at me. After 45 seconds or so, I decided I would blaze a new trail to the northeast of him. Bull 1, Heather 0.

I have been checking the plantings in the branch fence (Site XR1) about every three days. Over the last six weeks, I saw that pieces of branch fence had fallen or had been tested by the cattle. The fence needed to be monitored and more branches placed every week or so. Last week, I noticed that the cattle had blazed a trail tightly alongside the enclosure. Hummm. This worried me. The fence had been tested just a week earlier resulting in me placing more branches on the east side. Now, it appeared that the cows were developing more than a passing interest. It makes sense that they would. With the limited precipitation, the grass is getting a bit thin on the ranch. By contrast, the creek beds are lush with growth. This is certainly true in the XR1 enclosure. More than grass is growing healthy and tall – quite an inducement to push in.

Cow trail

After seeing the path, I began to use rocks and other branches to block the path. Just up the hill on both sides of the creek are dead oaks with downed branches. In the last drought, we lost about 300 oaks across the ranch. It can be sad to see their ancient bodies in various states of decay. In this case, as I harvested the branches from the ground, I thanked the trees and limbs and told them that their remains will be used to promote new life so important to the health of this place. It is important to be grateful and respect all things.

I hauled the branches down from the hills, some lifted, but if they are large, dragged. Oak branches are tortuous – twisted and gnarled. This is a good thing for the fence. The twists of the branch tangle with the others. My goal is to lock them together as much as possible to promote strength. They also create width in an attempt to keep the cattle as far a distance from the planted area.

West side of branch fence. Note the lengths pushed out toward the trail

Currently, I fit my ranch work in before and after the end of my work day and on weekends. Especially in the fall and winter, when the days are shorter, I do not have much time to get things done. I did as much as I could before sunset, hoping it was enough.

Despite having spent considerable time shoring up the fence, I checked back the next day. What I saw shocked me. There was a cow pie inside the enclosure. Horror!

Evidence! A bovine was inside XR1

I looked around the entire fence. The breech was on the north side. I had built up the south, east and west sides, but felt the north looked fairly solid. Clearly, I was wrong. My heart was in my stomach terrified of what plants I might find gone or trampled. Luck was with me; all the butterfly plants were still there and intact. One had been pulled at, but had not been pulled out. I could breathe again! I tipped that plant back upright and patted tight the soil around its base. It looked like the intruder, enticed by the lush lengths of green, passed the currents and went right for the grass. The cow pie was smaller in size, so I guessed the interloper was an older calf or a young heffer. Usually, you can tell the difference in the poop. Calves have a slicker output since they are still taking milk, but the pie was in the water – so no telling who it was.

No matter, I began hauling branches to shore up the north side. I was not prepared with proper clothing, such was my hubris about the thicket I had installed. If anyone ever wonders why they see people working on the ranch in long sleeve shirts in the summer, it is to protect your skin. I was desperate to fix the hole immediately, so I worked despite having shorter sleeves on. My skin was scratched and bruised, but the hole was filled. Oh well. That is life on the range.

Not the half of it. Scrapes and bruises on my arms

Wildflowers

Pretty low growing wildflowers

Several blog posts ago I discussed that David and I planned to cut the grass early this year to see what would grow. It was a good idea that David proposed. We typically leave the grass to grow long thinking that it would protect the top soil and help the soil retain moisture by protecting the soil from wind and shading it. We cut the grass in February and found that we had a proliferation of wildflowers.

Proliferation of white flowers with some orange ones mixed in

The small white flowers that popped up were the same ones that we always see on the cattle road. They are the first to bloom and fill the air with nectar. How exciting it was to have them in such large numbers near the house. The bees are loving them. We also have a proliferation of the small magenta flowers near the house, which we typically see in smaller amounts. Of course, the timing and amount of rain impacts what grows too. Shortening the grass so that the sun could hit the soil and seed significantly contributed to the larger amount of wildflowers. We will continue this practice.

The blue dicks and poppies are blooming. We get both of these regularly. It is so much fun to see the empty stems pop straight up out of nowhere knowing there will be a blanket of purple in a few short weeks. The manzanita planted last year with the Xerces hedgerow kits are blooming. What gorgeous pink blooms. The coyote mint has finally taken off. I am looking forward to their scent. The lupine is growing well, but will not bloom for a little while longer. Lady bugs are all over the plants. What a welcome site. Finally, I found a remarkable surprise – soaproot. I have seen it on the ranch here and there, but the cows always eat it before I can try to protect it. For the first time, I found it in the house enclosure. What a joy. It is a traditional plant my Mi-Wuk cousins used for grooming.

More Butterfly Plants Planted – Milkweeds are Starting to Re-Sprout

A butterfly pad on the north facing slope near solar panels
A pad on the east

I have taken delivery of 36 butterfly plants and have planted 24 so far. The concept is to plant nectar and milkweed together in a group so that there is everything the monarchs need to live, and to plant many of those groups. I am attempting to create butterfly “oasis” or “pads” (like lily pads for frogs) for them to flit from one to the next. In the home enclosure we now have four pads, two milkweed patches, disbursed nectar throughout and two hedgerow sections with nectar plants.

Milkweed sprout

We have already seen six species of butterflies – a whitish one, a mostly black one, a viceroy, some painted ladies (we think – they move so fast), brown with some faint orange in the middle of the wing and brown moth like ones.

Brown with black markings
Brownish butterfly

Other Items

Healthy oak seedling with leaves

Over time, I have felt more comfortable that I know how to protect myself from the virus. With this comfort, I have had a handful of friends and family who I know follow good practices over to hike or have a meal on the patio. I was overjoyed to have my friend Maggie come over for a hike this past weekend. She has a well-trained eye and ear as a naturalist. Besides identifying blue bird calls, poison oak and a red tail, on our hike she spotted a healthy oak seedling. Somehow, it had avoided detection by the cattle. Maggie and I quickly made a brush pile to help protect it. I will go back out this weekend and build a cage around it. It is in a good spot to grow without other oak competition for light. How wonderful to have friends over again and to share the land with another person who loves it.

This brush pile is likely not enough to protect it long term. It is fairly small. It may buy me time however to build a cage around it.

We also had the opportunity to go to Odom Creek and check on the willows and mulefat. All were still there and doing really well.

Willow doing well inside the brush pile

In addition to all the planting, I continue to educate myself and participate where I can possibly help. To this end, the CAFF conference was excellent. I leaned about a wide variety of topics that could be helpful to my work, such as financing. I was also asked to join a monarch and rangeland working group tasked with expanding habitat on rangeland. I am not sure what value I will be able to bring, but it was good to meet and learn from so many others. At that meeting, I met Susie Calhoun. She is another land steward building habitat on her family ranch. She and her family are doing a great job. Check out their website to learn more and see some beautiful photos. https://www.3calhounsisters.com/

Rain Comes – More Needed

Swale Pond full at last

There were several days of rain over the last two weeks, with two continuous days of rain last week that were the real soakers. In those two days, we received 4.5 inches. It has been much needed. We are still in drought though, with a dry year predicted. Rain years are calculated beginning on October 1. So far, this rain year we have had 7.625 inches of rain. According to historic documentation, the average precipitation is 14 inches in Hornitos. We still have a way to go, and hopefully we go beyond that. The worse year of the five year drought this past decade was 9 inches. I don’t want to see that again. It was horribly dry, and that was the year the large spring on the mid section of the ranch finally dried up. I never thought I would see that. Our cattleman even had to haul in water.

Heather reconnects pipe that had become disconnected

The winds were so terrible that my rain water catchment system failed. My husband and I went out three times to fix it. In a storm where the tank should have been full, it is only at half its capacity. So disappointing! The first occasion, the pipe had split in its mid section. The second occasion, the pipe had blown away from the downspout in one place and had disconnected in the mid section again. The third time, I found that the tank exit pipe had somehow gotten unglued and had been leaking the entire time. When I banged on it, it came completely off and the precious water collected began gushing out. I re-nested the pipe back over the other with all my strength. I got soaked in the process. Fortunately, my husband was out there with me that time, and ran to get the wet glue, which can still stick pipe together even when wet. He ultimately fixed it. The ground was soggy, and it was difficult to balance the ladder on the decline, especially in the wind. I almost fell off one time. I was able to keep the ladder upright as I followed the inertia and “walked” it down hill to a solid place before getting off. I got soaked on that one too. All I can do is hope that we get more rain without ferocious winds to fill the tank. I will need this water to keep the plants alive through the long, dry time.

Cottonwood and cage still there

After the storm, I hiked around the property to check on the plantings. With the two straight days of rain and wind, I wanted to be sure the cottonwood and cage were alright as well as the plantings and branch fence and Odom Creek plantings with brush pile protections. I planted most of the plants close enough to the creek bed to get a soaking during high water, but not so close that the roots were in water all the time in the winter. I looked at the neighbor’s cottonwoods and my own buckeyes to see where they were successful in relation to the creek bed and followed that example.

Fortunately, the two days of rain did not flood the spring creek and take the branch fence with it. There were a couple filler branches that moved downstream with the flow. I ended up replacing only three branches to fill a couple bare spots in the fence. Overall, I was really happy with the outcome. There are a few bulls on the ranch now along with the cows (It is that time of year for love.), and I have some concerns that the bulls will just push through it to get to the long blades of grass on the other side. I will keep watching.

I also checked Odom Creek. There, I thought the flow would be greater with more of a chance that the brush piles over the willows would be washed away. To my surprise, it did not look as though the water reached the plants on the east side. Although the ground was wet, the dirt did not look dark as if the water line reached them. The water clearly soaked the willow on the west side. Each brush pile was intact. All plants were present and accounted for – four willows and one mule fat.

Other Monitoring

Looking for a. California sprouts with Andy and Bibi

I have also been checking the a. Californica site closest to the house for sprouts. Last year, there was no rain in February, which I am thinking stunted grass grown allowing the a. California milkweed to get a head start on growing. This year, with rains in February, I am concerned that the grass may grow faster than the milkweed. I want to watch for its remarkable leaves and trim the grass in that area to give it a chance. That early milkweed will be important for the monarchs.

Planning for Spring Planting

Ron Allen, UC Master Gardener and Co-Owner of Mariposa Native Plants

Ron came over to discuss the next plant order. I asked for his guidance on my plan and showed him the areas where I was thinking of focusing this Spring. He also got a chance to see what was doing well, and what didn’t make it. Overall, things looked good. I placed an order for 89 plants. We are continuing to go big for the monarchs.

Already wildflowers have bloomed. I see blue dick stems and poppy leaves sprouted. The primrose never stopped blooming. Spring is around the corner. I am going to plant anything I can for February. The milkweeds won’t be ready, but there should be some nectar plants available then.

The storm made for some dramatic photos and clouds. I end my blog with some select shots that I hope you enjoy.