Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Sock Weeding

Here is a new technique for weeding. Wake up, look out the window at fawns. Run outside in your pajamas and socks with the camera. Sneak around behind tree trunks. Take lots of photos. Walk back inside for breakfast. Wait, first clean all the bur clover seeds off your socks and dispose. Repeat until the fawns lose their spots.

I have been hearing your weed frustrations. The weeds are going to seed and you have been working hard for months. It is too early in the summer to get a hint of the fall, and spring is far away. Please note that it is almost August. Next year in August, see if you feel the same way.

---hawk feather ---

It's okay. You are making progress, this is just the time of year when weeds and their seeds look the worst. Remember the tips from the Thistle Strategy: pick a small initial treatment area and repeatedly visit and groom that area before you expand to a new area.

<--- famous comma bird (or maybe an acorn woodpecker)

Take a break and enjoy the birds that are flying high up. They have been watching your bent back for weeks. Bend the other direction and watch the birds for awhile. I am not sure what is going on in the sky these days, but I am finding individual feathers everywhere. It is too early for the pre-migration molt. Maybe the juveniles are excitedly flapping through their first few thermal lessons. Maybe the parents are stressed about feeding the second batch of summer nestlings.

--- vulture feathers have a bit of iridescence ---

--- Stellar jay ---

The feathers are such a treat. Jeweled messages cast about. Reminding us of this huge space above. Full of life that we are nurturing with our careful weeding. Or maybe weeding is just an excuse to get us outside where we can see feathers.
feathers in da' cap
(Don't forget to play)

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ghost Cow

Cow or rock?
I keep seeing the Ghost Cow, but nobody else does. Perhaps his spirit still lingers because in the seven-month grazing season on the Dipper Ranch this year, I frequently spoke of frogs, newts, snakes, thistles, even the weather, but I hardly wrote about the cattle.

I hereby take this opportunity to share photos of the Ghost Cow's brethren in the hope that the Ghost Cow will finally walk through that corral gate.

The cattle arrived in January in all colors.
Hey, there's the Ghost Cow when he was a little guy, ahhh.

Some had fancy faces.

Some had fancy rumps.

They spent most of their time grazing and drinking.

Sometimes they got up on the wrong side of the bed.

We manage the numbers and location of the cattle and the season of grazing
to increase the biodiversity of the grassland, reduce the fire hazard,
and support the region's rural agricultural heritage.

Do they know they graze in paradise?

There's the Ghost Cow on the right.
Final Note: I wrote this Ghost Cow post last night but retired before adding the photos. This morning at 6AM I woke up to a loud "wree-wree-wree" call and jumped out of bed thinking it might be the peregrine falcons reported in nearby Devil's Canyon. I stumbled outside and could hear but not see them. In between putting on boots and field pants, finding camera and binocs, stumbling over the cat, getting distracted by a Cooper's hawk, and briefly seeing 3 peregrines raptors, I saw the Ghost Cow lurking about the distant shade. In the next half hour, I caught further glimpses of the peregrines raptors, and spotted a red-shirted cowboy riding the Pasture 2 road with a steady black dot trotting beside him. The red-shirt, dog and horse rounded up the Ghost Cow and then everyone went inside as it reached 100 degrees by 10 AM. Having received their overdue attention, the cattle spirits are now at rest.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Backyard Roundup

Last week when I came home from work late, I got to watch Cowboy V round up the cattle. A man, a horse and a dog. That's all it takes to move 80 head of cattle to a corral 2 miles away and load up a trailer a few times. 'Course, it's got to be the right man, a good horse and Zip the cowdog. I think sometimes a rope is involved.

I could watch it all from my backyard at twilight. Here's the view from my lawn chair as the roundup trio pushed the herd from Pasture 1 to Pasture 2.

Once the herd was heading down the road, Cowboy V led Zip over to the fenceline where four cows were trying to slip away.

I don't know what Cowboy V said, but in a few moments, Zip had those stragglers moving, turned, and following the rest of the herd.

Wow, and that dog has licked me.

I am not a cowgirl. I am a biologist whose new assignment, among too many others, is to monitor cattle grazing on conservation land that I have the good fortune to live on. Sometimes I try to do cow things. A few weeks ago, a neighbor called to say that some of the cows were standing over his pool. I went up, found the cows, opened a nearby gate, walked behind them, did the chicken dance and those cows went through the gate as proper as parochial schoolchildren. It kinda went to my head.

No photos available of the chicken dance, but here's a later view from my lawn chair last week:

And as the last cow goes around the dusty bend, just before the sun settles into the the Pacific Ocean, a few rays slip through a gap in the mountain range to light up a single tree on the Dipper Ranch:

Last night, I was finally getting over a sore throat and fever, so I decided to walk up the drive to get Sunday's newspaper. It was nice to be outside and the air smelled different. Kinda in between sage, dry grass and bananas. I was pulling yellow starthistle plants on my way when I saw a big grey object move along the treeline of the lowest pasture. Was it a deer? No, I could clearly make out a doe and two fawns browsing on the other side of the same meadow and they were small and brown. Was it a cow that Cowboy V missed last week? I wasn't sure. No way I was gonna tell a cowboy he missed one of his cows unless I was sure. Maybe it was a ghost cow and I was still feeling feverish.

I ran back to the house and got the binocs. Nah, couldn't see anything. Must be a ghost cow. I headed back up the drive to get the newspaper. While tugging another handful of yellow starthistles, sure enough, I saw a big grey rock on the edge of the oaks. Except this rock had a swishing tail. Binoculars up - for sure it's a cow.

I left Cowboy V a message that I found another cow and it wasn't mine, so it must be his. That was supposed to be a joke. Remember, I am a biologist, not a cowgirl. I may have froglets in my kitchen, but there are no Cindy cows. Then I decided I could steer that steer up to the corral by my house. I opened the corral gate and picked up a big stick while hustling down to the bottom pasture. That steer led me all over. I even discovered an ancient cow skull in the coyote boneyard that I had never seen before. But I could not get that steer to go through the corral gate. A few hours later, after losing and finding the steer several times, I had him pinned in a pasture next to another corral but I couldn't get him in that gate either. By this time, the owls were perched on the wires watching the show. I decided this was a job best left for the professionals and headed home smelling like sage bananas. Running after that steer is still the best thing I've done all week.

Tonight, I came home from work late again but this time it was dark. I could tell by the way the gate was locked that the roundup trio had been on the property. Looks like they got their steer.

At the end of each summer, we let the ranch grasslands rest for a few months. That means I won't see any more cattle or try any more cow tricks for awhile. I will practice my chicken dance and anticipate another cowdog kiss from Zip.

A friend shared Rodney Crowell's song Earthbound today and I'm entranced by the line:
"50 years of livin' and your worst mistake's forgiven, just take time time time"

I am still trying to figure out the wisdom and humor these cowboys have from their many years of living. There are times when I can't understand what Cowboy V is saying between his chew, his accent, and his mumbling, and my city ears, my bad hearing, and my poor attention span. I still listen hard in hopes that I will pick up part of it.

The cowboy turns for one last look at the end of the trail:

Maybe he meant to leave the ghost cow for my 50th year of livin'

"My life's been so sweet, I just can't stand it,
I must admit I've made out like a bandit.
I'm Earthbound." - Rodney Crowell, Earthbound, 2003 Sony BMH

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Youthful Wanderings & a Studebaker

What causes us to look up at a certain moment
or to travel in a particular direction?
Does our perception determine our trajectory and our fate?

When my college-aged son visits the Dipper Ranch, he first sleeps, or as he calls it, mandatory recharging. He was home in June after completing his sophomore year. With forty winks under his belt, he started wandering about the ranch.

One evening, he joined me on a hike to the lower end of the property to check on the cow-calf pairs. With his help, I was able to pry open the stubborn lid on the lower springbox and found it nearly dry, although both water troughs connected to it were still full. Not seeing many people on this far end of the ranch, the bulky cows pushed their mingling calves into the brush at the sight of us. Satisfied they were healthy and wily California cows, I asked my son if he wanted to continue westward to see the calf carcass that served as a plush rattlesnake throne last year. That got a definite 'yes'.

---leather on the hoof ---

We crossed a creek and ran into the cattle again. They snorted their disapproval as they trotted ahead of us on the old dirt road. Around a bend, my son asked about a wrecked car in the nearby trees that I had always ignored. We decided to investigate. It was a rusty, stripped-down sedan. The pair of 'suicide' doors on the passenger side was bent back on themselves as if the jaws-of-life had been used to pry out the occupants. We scrambled about the wreck, speculating on how it got there.

I noticed the glove compartment was marked "Land Cruiser" in raised silver lettering, but this car was too old to be a Toyota. Later that evening after an Internet search, I found that Studebaker made a Land Cruiser from 1934 to 1954 and the remnants of this vehicle look somewhat like the late 1940s models. In the mid 1800's, various Studebaker brothers built wagons in Indiana for farmers, the army and western settlers, and another brother made big money building wheelbarrows in California for gold diggers. The California brother returned to Indiana after a family religious dispute and invested his gold-derived money into the family business. Eventually the Indiana wagon factory turned to automobile production until the company went out of business in the 1960s.

---chrome and twigs ---

Post-WW II Land Cruisers had a reputation as luxury vehicles, and although most parts had been salvaged off this wreck, remnants covering the interior door panels appear to be leather with a crocodile-like texture. What is the story behind this car? I remembered a tidbit Paul Ortega, former ranch caretaker, reported in a currently unpublished interview with the South Skyline Association. He said thousands of men would congregate at the Shriners' summer retreat along Pescadero Creek, "[A] big shindig", he called it, "No women allowed". The Islam Temple Shrine of San Francisco owned land adjacent to the Dipper Ranch from 1924 to 1945 before they sold it to the state for what eventually became Portola State Park.

--- leather and twigs ---

Were a couple of Shriner boys driving back from a celebratory evening at the camp in their well-appointed automobile and didn't see a curve on the country road? Present-day drivers still occasionally miss a curve on Alpine Road and fly over the Dipper Ranch. The last vehicle left drag marks on the hillside where the tow truck had to haul it up twice (cable broke the first time). And what decays near the foot of this same hillside? The Studebaker wreck and the carcass mentioned above where a calf appeared to fall to his death last year. The dates and the geology sorta line up.

--- leather shortly after death ---

We continued down the road to the final resting place of calf-2008. By now, fifteen months later, the bones and bits of hide are widely scattered by the ranch scavengers. Some were cracked and split by coyotes, bobcats and vultures, and others have delicate scrapings on their edges from rodents reclaiming the calcium.

---bones dissolving in stomachs and soil ---

Twilight had arrived and we decided to leave this haunted place and hike home for a barbecue dinner. As we traveled homeward, we watched the ranch's changing of the guard. Deer were coming out of hiding to browse in the open pastures. Several of the does had one or two fawns following them. When a doe is steadily moving towards a destination, her fawns follow exactly behind her, sometimes falling behind but nevertheless tracking her same route. While her shoulders and rump clear the grasstops when she bounds, their ear tips are just visible at the apogee of their tiny leaps. When she stops to browse, the newest fawns tuck in tight by her side and select whatever looks like what she is eating. The older but still spotted fawns will wander a bit farther in their nibbling. If they are twins, they tend to stick together or maybe one is the leader.

When the ambulatory fawns hear or see something new, they stand stock still and stare. If the object of their obsession is loud or moves quickly, they bolt, seemingly any direction, and take cover, sometimes becoming separated from the rest of the family. A fawn came out of the willows towards me last week as I was closing the gate near the house. I had flushed a doe earlier as I drove down the driveway. I guess the fawn thought my subsequent quiet walk back up to the gate sounded more like animal than noisy human. As he cleared the tall grass and abandoned farm implements at the road edge, he gave me a few seconds of stunned stare, then bolted back into the willows when I murmured "Good evening." On my way back to the house, I heard a large deer crashing hurriedly through the orchard with two small silhouettes bouncing behind her, the family reunited.

While watching deer, I never see them give each other a warning when danger or a disturbance is suspected. One deer may look up from browsing, scan the view shed, swivel its ears, determine a threat and then bound away without a stomp or any gesture I can detect as a warning to its fellows. Any panicked motion by one deer sets the rest instantly in flight, often scattering several directions. No discussion, no evaluation, just departure. The fawns have to flee-fend for themselves at these times. I can't make sense of it, but I need more deer observation time to figure out what deer see and why they head one direction or another. With eyes in the center of my head, instead of the side, maybe I will never figure it out.

I spend a lot of time wandering the ranch and interpreting the stories behind the natural phenomena. I am curious about the human history, but too dull-minded to notice it. Ranch visitors tend to look and travel in different directions than I do, and so we get a chance to be history and landscape detectives.

With all my wild speculation about the Studebaker wreck, I do need to address one other possibility. A former long-term tenant of the property made his living by grading and other work-for-hire with his large collection of earth-moving equipment. He also made money grazing various properties and probably in many other ways as is typical of country folk. He could have acquired the Studebaker wreck, stripped its finery for resale, and left the carcass in this shady remote spot. Nevertheless, I see what I see, it's still haunted to me.

--- not my fate . . . today ---
See Also:

For information on the Studebaker business:
  • More Than They Promised, Thomas E. Bonsall, 2002, Stanford University Press.
  • Studebaker Museum

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Protecting Wildlife While Mowing

--- Nest of baby bunnies found by Miriam Sachs Martin while moving tarps. ---

We mow to control weeds and to reduce fire hazards around our home and ranch buildings. But the mowed fields can also be the home of wildlife, so how do you protect wildlife while mowing? Animals that may be harmed while mowing, weed-whipping, brushcutting or discing grasslands or weed stands are: ground-nesting birds, snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, lizards, salamanders, rodents, and rabbits. Even small fawns may be hiding in the grass, and if they are following their mama's orders, they won't budge until she says so. If you want to keep the wildlife while modifying the plant environment, here are some tips to consider while mowing.

PRE-CHECK - Walk the line, walk the field. It's a good idea to start by walking across your work area to remove mowing hazards such as rocks, branches, and badminton rackets anyway. This is also the time to check for wildlife and develop a response plan. Inspect your work area before you turn on the equipment - noisy engines scare some animals into hunkering down and hiding in place.

--- Southern alligator lizards are especially slow, perhaps it's that long tail. ---

When mowing long, straight lines with a big tractors such as for a fire break along a road, some folks have one person walk in front of the tractor during the whole mowing operation to flush any wildlife. For larger fields, you don't have to walk the entire area - just crossing the area several times may flush visiting critters away. You can keep the snakes and lizards rolling along by walking behind them until they are well outside the work area and unlikely to turn around and come back. Turtles may appreciate a lift. Fossorial animals (= digging) may dash into a burrow and stay there until the commotion is over.

California quails, grasshopper sparrows, and western meadowlarks are common birds that could be nesting on the ground and are easy to flush. Detecting and avoiding their eggs or nestlings can be more difficult. Look for birds singing repeatedly at the same location to claim territory around their nests. If you notice birds that flush from the ground, act defensively, feign broken wings or fly into the grass with nesting material or food, it is likely a nest is present. Some adult birds chirp repeatedly as you approach a nest. High pitched calls may be nestlings. Careful, quiet observation may help you discern where the birds are flying in and out of the vegetation and where the nest is generally located. Some birds pull strands of surrounding grass over the top of their nests as camouflage; train yourself to look for patterns of bent-over grass as possible nest locations. Stay about 15 feet away from the probable nest location and treat the weeds with less disruptive methods (spot spraying of herbicides or handpulling), or mow this area later in the season, if possible. Remember that many birds nest more than one time in the summer.

TIMING - Mow early or late, or carefully in between, and know your grassland critters and when they might be seen.

One way to avoid striking wildlife with your mowing implement is to delay mowing until after midsummer when nesting is done or slowing down. Unfortunately, you may not be able to wait since this is often too late if you want to prevent annual weeds from going to seed. Furthermore, annual grasses should be mowed while they are still green to prevent hot mowing equipment from igniting a fire in dry, brown grass. Another precaution in fire hazard areas is to mow before 10 AM during the summer when moisture of vegetation is higher and less likely to ignite. See the mowing, string trimmer and other short videos at the CAL FIRE website for excellent safety tips on mowing during the fire season.

You can also adjust your timing by the weather or time of day. Animals are less likely to be moving about in the grass on a cool or an especially hot day, but those that are resting in the grass are slower to retreat, so be especially alert. The same holds true for the cool and hot parts of the day. Reptiles and amphibians use the sun to modify their body temperature, so you are less likely to come across them in the morning, however, carefully check sunny spots on a cool morning where reptiles may be warming up for the day. Birds are happy and singing in the morning, so that is a good time to precheck for them.

--- Gopher snake in the grass. ---

MOWING PATTERNS - Mow outwards and pause at edges. Circling inwards is a common mowing pattern in urban yards, however, in fields, this may force wildlife to retreat into the shrinking patch of tall grass in the center where they are most susceptible to being hit as you finish up. You can change your mowing pattern so that you are mowing inside-out or in consecutive rows rather than circling inwards. See mowing diagrams of inside-out and consecutive rows at this Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife website.

For mowing inside-out, make the first cuts through the middle of the work area and progressively circle towards the outside edges. This allows wildlife to move outwards away from the noise and cutting blades. This requires a tight turning radius for the first few passes so that you may need to reverse and forward large-wheeled equipment several times on the first few turns. You will also be initially throwing cut material onto your second mowing pathway.

Mowing in consecutive rows can "push" the wildlife to the edges of the mowed area. It requires a tight radius at every turn, so is more appropriate for unwheeled equipment like string trimmers and brushcutters.

Consider leaving edges along fences and rocky areas to last when you are mowing. This not only leaves these areas as retreat and hiding places for animals, but because rocks and fences are the locations where you are most likely to ding and dull your cutting blades or strings, you have less maintenance if you end the mowing session there. Some people will mow part of a field one day and leave interior or edge areas for mowing a few days later to allow wildlife to move out.

On very large fields, another strategy is to cut one-third of the field each year and leave the rest to wildlife, if that meets your other mowing goals. In general, leaving some uncut areas on the property will benefit wildlife.

EQUIPMENT TYPES & MODIFICATIONS - Mow up, look down. For equipment that allows adjustment of the mowing deck, set the mowing height 4 or more inches above the ground, if that otherwise meets your mowing goals. Mowing several inches above the ground may avoid nests and small animals, and I find this works fine to stop mustard plants that have started to flower. However, mowing several inches high may not sufficiently set back some weeds like thistles which will resprout and seed, and thus require subsequent summer cutting and another round of potential disturbance.

Brushcutters and string trimmers allow the operator greater visibility and quicker response time if wildlife is observed while mowing. They also allow greater flexibility in momentarily adjusting height and the direction of the cutting path and are faster to turn off. Operators tend to cut more slowly when using these unwheeled cutting implements, thus they give wildlife a longer time to escape the commotion. These hand-carried implements can be more time consuming and tedious to operate over large areas. They are better for small areas or to trim out edges or especially sensitive areas near water or brush. Invest in a good harness for brushcutters. Your comfort will allow you to have greater maneuverability and cover more area in potential wildlife habitat before you fatigue.

--- Joe Mackessy uses a brushcutter with a harness and bicycle handles
that give him greater control and comfort so he can work carefully and longer.

Wheeled mowers and tractor-pulled brushogs are less flexible in turning, but they can be raised to a regular higher cut. These large mowers can be modified with flushing bars or leading edges on the decks to flush wildlife in front of the equipment or prevent small animals from being sucked in under the deck. Slow down the pace of these larger pieces of wheeled equipment to give wildlife time to escape.

EXPERIENCE - I like to compare mowing to food preparation. With time, you accumulate more and better quality cutting tools and are able to match the right tool for the right job. You also become more aware of avoiding living things (like your fingers or bunnies). Neighbors who share recipes may also have good tips on mowing.

It is difficult to mow in the spring and summer in the country, meet your weed control and fire safety goals, and completely avoid wildlife. These tips should help you thoughtfully seek ways to lessen the possible conflicts. The most important tip is to SLOW DOWN - it gives you time to observe, gives wildlife time to retreat, and as always, be safe.

The safe mowing chant:
  • Walk the line, walk the field.
  • Mow early or late, or carefully in between, and know your grassland critters and when they might be seen.
  • Mow outwards and pause at edges.
  • Mow up, look down.
  • Slow down.
Thanks to Heather, Miriam, Stan and others for their advice on this topic. If you have any other suggestions, especially innovative mowing patterns, please comment on this posting.