Monday, November 23, 2009

Estate Walnuts

--The very first yellow-bellied racer I rescued from the Dipper spring box. ---

The English walnut trees at the Dipper Ranch are productive every year. The walnut bounty is enjoyed by family, friends , neighbors, co-workers, volunteers, jays, deer, rodents, even delivery guys and coyotes. But not by snakes. Nevertheless, somehow I started making labels for the walnuts that feature a Dipper snake of the year.

Estate bottled wines are defined as those for which 100% of the grapes are grown on land owned or controlled by the winery within the same viticultural region, and the winery must crush and ferment the grapes, and finish, age and bottle the wine in a continuous process on their premises. Since all the Dipper walnuts are from within 100 feet of my kitchen door, they dehusk themselves on the ground under the trees, I dry them between old window screens under the maple trees or in the garage, and I shell them while watching DVDs in my living room, I hereby declare these are Estate Walnuts.

I don't expect to ever run out of walnuts, snake photos or snake stories on the Dipper Ranch, so there will probably be many interesting Estate Walnut snake labels. One day, they will surely become collectibles.

Today while I was sprawled on the forest floor photographing a huge oak, someone who doesn't know me very well tried to scare me about snakes. I told him "It's too cold for snakes. They are all hibernating." An hour later, we were walking through a sunny meadow and sure enough, there was a gopher snake peering up at me. I moved it out of the way of the ATV. As the last of its tail slithered into the dry grass, I smiled to be humbled by lowly snakes once again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

November 2009 Seedlings

Here are the answers to the seedling photos posted during the week.

--- California poppy seedling ---

--- Finely-divided mature leaves and flower bud on California poppy ---

The first seedling with the "forked-tongue" cotyledons is a native California poppy. Notice the overall glaucous cast (flat, whitish film on surface like on a cabbage leaf) to the leaves and stems, the multiple fine divisions and pink tips of the true leaves and how these same traits are just starting to uncurl and show in the seedling.

--- California poppy seed pod ---

California poppies have minuscule seeds (1.5-1.8 mm) that are flung out of a long pod as it dries and splits. These seeds probably settle under bits of litter and into soil cracks where they are soaked by the first rains. California poppies are perennials that also come back from a taproot. If you see the forked cotyledons, however, you know that plant germinated from seed.

--- brand new thistle seedling, probably Italian thistle ---

--- Italian thistle seedling on left, milk thistle on right ---

The second seedling with the prickly true leaves is a weedy thistle not native to California, probably Italian thistle because of the fine white prickles on the upper surface of the blade. Look at the side-by-side slightly older thistle seedlings above. The seedling on the left has fine long white hairs on the upper surface (Italian thistle) and the seedling on the right has no such hairs but large white splashes cross from the center vein to the edge of the blade and often alongside the leaf veins (milk thistle).

--- In a few months, the Italian thistle seedling will be tall with flowers and seeds ---

The third seedling with the corkscrew seed pods is a filaree, probably red-stem filaree which is found in grasslands, pastures and yards and is not native to California. The corkscrew attachment to the seed expands and contracts with moisture and effectively screws the seed into the ground. The previous photo showed the spent attachment with the seed already detached.

--- filaree seedling ---

More seedling photos coming up. And one other note: I saw a few coast range newts crossing Alpine Road this evening, so look sharp when you are driving the next few weeks on or after rainy or foggy weather.

--- "I better get moving to the ponds before all these seedlings grow up and get in my way. Monocot, dicot, out of my way. ---

See also:

California poppy, Eschscholzia californica
Italian thistle, Carduus pycnocephalus
red-stem filaree, Erodium cicutarium

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Perky Seedling

18 mm wide
photo taken Nov 13th

This is a perky seedling showing two cotyledon leaves with a few wide red lobes, and the first true leaves with pinnate (feather-like) leaflets. When seedlings get several sets of leaves, it's easier to identify them because the first true leaves are often miniature versions of the leaves on the mature plant that we most readily recognize.

photo taken Oct 18

Here is another version of that same plant in seedling stage. This photo was taken 5 days after the first big seasonal rain and the ground was covered with hundreds of these little jobbies. At first, I wasn't sure what these plants were because I didn't recognize the cotyledon shape. In a few days, the next set of leaves appeared and as they unfurled, they revealed a distinct and familiar pattern to the true leaves. Now I can match the two different kinds of early leaves and determine the identity of the smallest seedlings with only cotyledon leaves.

I am not sure why the new cotyledons are green and the older ones are red. It could be the older ones are experiencing a modest amount of drought stress. With hardly any rain in the last few weeks, the plant may be diverting what water it can suck out of the soil with its young root system to the newest set of leaves, and the older seed leaves are dying off. On the other hand, within its first few weeks, maybe the plant has sucked most of the stored nutrients out of the seed leaves and is getting ready to drop them with the onset of a few sets of true leaves.

Each corkscrew approximately 14 mm long

There are other clues. Sometimes if you carefully look and probe, you can find a seed still attached to the young seedling. If the seed is something you recognize, then you might be able to identify the seedling, or at least a group of plants to which the seedling belongs. In this case, I found several different types of seeds on the surrounding soil, but it was the many corkscrew type structures on top and twisted into the soil that helped me figure out what this seedling is.

Now it is your turn to guess. I will post the answer in a few days.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Second Rainy Seedling 2009

16 mm wide, photo taken 11/14/09

What's this seedling? It has large, thick cotyledons (seed leaves) with a slightly rough surface. First true leaves have pointed tips, spiny edges and white prickles on the surface of the blade.

A definition of cotyledon from the Facts on File Dictionary of Botany: "The first leaf or leaves of the embryo in seed plants." For our purposes in identifying seedlings, we are looking at the cotyledons that emerge from the seed and are the first leaf-like structures that you see.

The cotyledons of mystery seedling #2 are thick which means they are filled with stored food to spur the growth of the seed-bound embryo upon release from dormancy (usually means the seed has been soaked with moisture). They are also green which means photosynthesis starts immediately upon germination to provide growing energy. This is a plant that is likely to grow quickly either underground or above ground or both.

There are two cotyledons which means this is a plant in the subclass of Dicotyledonae, a large category that contains most of the flowering plants we most readily recognize as opposed to the Monocotyledonae subclass which includes the grasses and grasslike plants that only have one cotyledon. Other features that people most often recognize: Dicotyledons have broad leaves with branching veins (think lettuce or maple leaves), whereas Monocotyledons have narrow leaves with parallel veins (think grass or lily). Don't worry too much about these big names, just remember that two cotyledons means it is not a grass, and you are closer to guessing what this seedling is.

Sometimes people casually use the term "dicot" to mean seedling. They might say, "In the winter, we use the propane torch to kill the dicots." I recommend you do not use the word dicot in this casual fashion because it could be interpreted as meaning that you are going to control all the gazillion of plant species that are in the Dicotyledonae subclass, and that is an exhausting thought. Try to use the words dicot and cotyledon for separate purposes. You might say, "The propane torch works best on plants that are still in their cotyledon stage." Or, "I noticed that seedling is a dicot, so it can't be any of the native grasses we seeded here."

On weekends, I will post the identification of any of the mystery seedlings from that week. If the deer don't eat the seedlings in the meantime, I will also post photos of their growth over one week of sunny weather.

See also: The Facts on File Dictionary of Botany, Elizabeth Tootill, General Editor, Stephen Blacmore, Consultant Editor, Market House Books Limited, 1984.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

What's Up?

Can you guess what this seedling is?
Height = 20 mm, photo taken 11/14/09

Over the next few weeks, I will post photos of new seedlings as they sprout with the winter rains. I'll post "baby pictures" of both native plants and weeds since it is important to recognize both.

I'll photograph some of the plants multiple times during their growing season so we can watch them morph and get an idea of how quickly they grow.

Lots of belly time with the camera.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Trickster - A Halloween Coyote Attack

We got an early trick-or-treater on Halloween. Cat King Cole, the ranch cat, was attacked by a coyote.

That morning, we had slept in, and Cole and I were taking our first constitutional around the farmyard at about 9:30 am. I wouldn't let Cole out until I found my glasses and shoes and my coffee mug was full. I had spotted coyotes around the ranch the last few days and although Cole is ranch-savvy and the rarely seen coyotes always run away when they see me, I was being cautious to only let him out when I was outside too.

After patrolling the corners of the compound, I decided to husk some walnuts in the lovely fall light. My technique: stroll about the walnut trees with coffee cup in hand, find the fallen nuts that are splitting out of their husks, roll them under my boot until the brown shells pop out, and leave them on the ground in the sun for a few days to dry. I had broken one of my rules, to always wear enclosed-toe shoes in the yard for snake protection, but the flip-flops I had casually slipped on were doing a fair job of walnut husking. It was mellow chore on a pleasant morning.

The stellar jays were scolding something. In the springtime, they hold yelling matches with the acorn woodpeckers every morning during the changing of the bird guard. Maybe they were yelling at Cole, yet they were used to him by now and mostly ignored him. This sounded louder and harsher. Maybe they were scolding a snake. I had been waiting for the snakes to show up as they often do on warm mornings between cold snaps in the fall when I think they are making their way back to their winter den. I scanned the grass beneath the walnut trees and the door cracks under the barn, but saw no telltale brown splotches.

After 30 minutes of flip-flop husking, I meandered around the corner of the barn. Within a few steps, I heard a big bang and commotion. A dreadful thought exploded in my head and spun me around in a run. As I cornered the barn, I saw a bushy-tailed coyote crouched near where I had just been standing. Cole's grey hindquarters were sticking out from beneath the red-grey dog. I ran straight for the coyote screaming my fear in a sonic boom. As I got close, I threw the coffee cup at the coyote. It dashed to the right and disappeared. Cole took off in a streak to the left before I could reach him. In seconds, he was down a hill, through the pig pen, under a fence and up a maple tree in the corral. I ran after him, yelling curses at the coyote the whole time, but I had to run around to the gate in the corral fence and momentarily lost sight of both coyote and Cole.

--- High up in the maple tree. ---

From under the tree I couldn't see any blood on Cole and all his limbs seemed intact, but he kept climbing higher until little twigs were breaking under his paws. His pupils were huge and he was trembling. I stopped my hysterical screaming and tried to coax him down, but he would have none of it. He was straining his neck and scanning the backyard and brush constantly, and wouldn't look at me. I realized that if I left, he might fall out of the tree and the attacking coyote and possibly others were probably hiding and watching from the brush for another chance. Indeed, they must have been watching all morning while I was humming away under the walnut trees.

--- Twigs snapping. ---

I scanned the brush and fallen-down pig shed but saw nothing, so I sat under the maple tree to decide what to do. I wanted help, but was afraid to leave. Finally, I decided to quickly dash back to the house for my pack with binoculars so I could better scan Cole's condition and for my cell phone in case I needed to call an emergency veterinarian. I grabbed a big stick and banged on every fence post and tree trunk on the way to the house to scare the coyote. When I was kid, we had a neighbor who would bang a stick against his porch posts to keep away the imaginary robbers. We thought he was crazy. I wanted the coyote to think I was crazy. Crazy enough to run after a coyote and if I had had on boots, I would have kicked it.

When I returned to the maple tree, Cole was still up high. In the binoculars, I couldn't see any wounds on his body. I waited. It seemed like a long time. I wanted to beat up the coyote but I had no idea where it was, and I knew I should stay quiet so Cole would come down. So I texted my friends on the cell phone for support. I didn't want to call them; I wasn't sure I could actually speak clearly. I could barely hit the phone buttons, but just doing something, calling out for help, was calming me down. I developed a plan.

--- Coming down. Don't fall! ---

I slowly climbed the maple tree and talked to Cole in as calm a voice as I could squeak out. He finally glanced down at me and looked surprised, "Mom can climb trees?" I found a sturdy crotch in the branches half way up and waited. In the meantime, my friends texted me back words of encouragement. Cole slowly climbed down to meet me. I rolled him in my t-shirt and made it the rest of the way down the tree, across the farmyard and into the house. Our combined exhalations were loud and sending out warnings to any coyote that dared approached us now that I had my cat in hand.

Inside the house, I searched Cole's entire body several times and did not find any wounds or blood. He was clearly upset but didn't flinch when I touched any part of his body. We spent the rest of the morning on the enclosed porch and tried to calm down.

--- Early morning sunbathing near the gate. ---

I reviewed the clues. Last week, I heard loud crunching one night and under flashlight investigation, flushed a walnut-eating coyote behind the house. Two coyotes had been sunning on a hill near the gate when I left the ranch on a cool, early morning 3 days ago. They jumped up when I got out of the car to open the gate.

---Scratch first. ---

One quickly ran down the hill, while the other lingered to scratch and look at me across the hillside before it followed the first into the sagebrush. They both had glossy, full coats. Perhaps they were young coyotes who had finished their summer of growing to full size and were now striking out on their own.

--- A fresh-looking coat. ---

The day before at dusk from the living room window, I briefly saw a fluffy tail pop over the hill behind the walnut trees. When I walked out the kitchen door to check, a bright coyote was urinating on the drive in front of the barn. It looked at me briefly and then climbed the hill behind the orchard and slowly loped through the tall grass. It frequently looked behind as if checking on something, and I guessed that a second coyote was nearby although I could not see it. At the top of the hill, the coyote sat and watched me. This behavior was unlike the quick retreat I usually observe from the local coyotes. I guessed again that this was a young coyote still learning survival skills.

--- Watching from above. ---

And today, the jays screamed a predator warning which in my morning bliss, I did not acknowledge.

--- Reflecting on a scary Halloween morning. ---

While I reviewed the recent coyote sightings, Cole seemed to be mulling himself. He sat on a table behind the Halloween pumpkin, but frequently checked any noise or motion in the yard. He was unusually quiet and didn't eat food all day. No external or internal injuries have appeared. Cole is regaining his ranch cat confidence but seems content in the house for now. He had the nerve to meow "Out?" yesterday. I gave him the you've-got-to-be-kidding look. He quieted right down.

I am reviewing the living-with-wildlife and coyote advice I have given so many people. The coyote books are spread out on the kitchen table. We get no human trick-or-treaters for Halloween at this remote location, but the trickster made his move. I recognize this is part of ranch living and I will make my move out of respect for wildlife and wild lands managed and sparsely occupied by people. And I will bang on posts like a crazy woman to protect my ranch cat.

--- The weapon of a crazy woman. ---

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Harvest Time 2009

--- Nathan and his very bright grandfather.
Photographer: Duncan Simmons ---

Last weekend, the first batch of friends and warriors came up to the Dipper Ranch to harvest English walnuts. A good time was had by all and then we had jello. No, wait, this is California. We grooved on the yellow fall light behind the red barn as we plunked the walnuts into buckets, bags, t-shirts and wheelbarrows and sang. No, just I sang and just inside my head because I was so happy to share that plunk-plunk sound.

We had several novitiates. I carefully explained the technique: pick up the brown-shelled ones and put them in the wheelbarrow. Don't pick up the other ones because the green husk will turn your hands black. Soon the wheelbarrow was full and everyone was giddy with walnut greed.

--- Walnut from 2009 harvest on left; 2008 walnut on right. ---

Last year, the walnut harvest inspired me to start the Dipper Ranch Blog. The Dipper Ranch Blog is now officially one year old. Happy Blog Birthday.

After wheeling the barrow around the farmyard, the silly people started playing walnut barrowball. The rest of us compared the color and taste of the new harvest (still a little green) with the few remaining unshelled nuts from last year's harvest (slight sawdust taste). Do vintners do this when they bottle a new year's worth of grapes?

--- Drying walnuts between window screens ---

I reminded people to dry the harvested walnuts for several days before they start shelling them and to only store the unshelled nuts in paper bags. I spread my walnuts on screens to air dry for about a week. I like to dry them outside under the shade of the maple trees, but if rain or high winds are forecast, I dry them in the garage. I spread them out in one layer on old window screens and then clamp another screen on top of them. This is to prevent the scheming rodents from stealing my harvest.

--- 2 x 2 buck overseeing the retreat of does into the forest. ---

After the harvest, we went for a walk to see the sunset. We saw the 2 x 2 buck and several does on the upper meadow, but since I had a large group of people with me, I was not concerned that the buck would try to charge me again. The does slipped into the forest and the buck stood on the edge to make sure we did not steal any of his girls. We ignored him and walked out to the center of the meadow for the best view of the sunset over the ocean 12 miles away.

--- The buck sidesteps in Duncan's direction. ---

Somehow, Duncan became separated from the rest of the group. When I looked back across the large meadow, I saw that the buck was circling him. I was concerned since Duncan was squatting down. The buck never actually ran straight towards Duncan as he had charged me in the same meadow at sunset last week. Instead, he slowly circled Duncan with lots of sideways glances, and then trotted over the top of the hill.

--- Duncan, stand up! ---

--- From Duncan's viewpoint.
Photographer: Duncan Simmons ---

--- Buck finally turning his back on Duncan and heading up the hill.
Photographer: Duncan Simmons ---

Later when I informed Duncan that was one of the bucks that charged me last week, he said, "Oh, that is because he knew you are pushover." Duncan Simmons, attorney-at-law and deer whisperer.

We had BBQ hot dogs, sausages and chicken with pesto noodles, almond-stuffed olives and cherry tomatoes by candlelight under the maple trees. Benny fixed my computer. Everyone drove home safely and agreed that a good time was had by all.

Nathan, with energizer-bunny-like stamina, was excited to pee in the back-forty, and he gave me a giant pumpkin with a ghost carving kit. I don't get any trick-or-treaters at the Dipper Ranch, so at first, I didn't know what I was going to do with these prizes. Since then, I have secretly schemed to roll the huge pumpkin down the steepest hill on the ranch and watch it tumble and smash into little treats for the deer. A former news station camera man has offered to document this important event. Do we know how to party or what?

--- Colorful sunset clouds to celebrate the harvest and the great outdoors.
Photographer: Duncan Simmons ---

With the next windstorm, there will be more walnuts on the ground. With sunny days, the green husks will shrivel and more brown shells will pop out. And another batch of daytime friends and warriors will arrive for the walnut harvest. At night, the critters will collect their share; how they party, I am not sure, but I'm sure a good time will be had by all.

--- Duncan Simmons, attorney-at-law and deer whisperer ---