Saturday, July 17, 2010

Cows on Vacation

Summertime. Vacation. 4th of July.  This 4th of July, we decided to try a new tradition - watching the fireworks from elevation 2572 feet.  We hiked into Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve where we could see firework displays from 6 different locations along south San Francisco Bay: San Jose, Santa Clara, Cupertino, Mountain View, Milpitas and Foster City (I think).

Every 4th of July, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District opens limited areas of several preserves for nighttime viewing of the 4th of July fireworks - usually Russian Ridge and Windy Hill preserves along the Highway 35/Skyline Boulevard corridor, and Fremont Older and Rancho San Antonio preserves closer to the urban core.  No fires, fireworks or alcohol are allowed on the preserves during these low-key events. Rangers stay on duty after dark to make sure everyone is safe and they clear out of the preserves as soon as the displays have ended.

We started our one-half mile hike just before sunset and upon reaching Borel Hill, set up comfortable camp chairs and dug into our picnic of grilled chicken, corn on the cob, berries, and juice.  Most local viewers preferred to stay near their vehicles at the Caltrans lookout on Skyline Boulevard, so it was peaceful at our hilltop perch.

Sunset over the coastal range
First, we watched the sun set.  Then we watched the city lights turn on and define the bridges, highways, airports, neighborhoods and some puzzling patterns - perhaps a quarry northwest of Redwood City?  I spend lots of workdays at Russian Ridge and have even seen the snow-capped crests of the Sierra Nevada mountain range through a gap in the Hamilton Range, an uncommon event that occurs on especially clear winter days.  I feel like I know the preserve well, but it is indeed different at night and we had fun trying to figure out the urban nightscape below.

After sunset, I wandered around a bit to experience the grassland nightlife.  Ants were busy collecting seeds. Coyotes howled from the distance.  An owl flew low to check us out.  I didn’t see any deer come out which surprised me since this time of year on the Dipper Ranch, the does bring out their fawns at dusk and dawn.  Maybe they somehow knew about the 4th of July commotion and decided to stay hidden, just as  they seem to know to stay put in the forest on the days we burn the Russian Ridge grasslands.

Soap plant blooming at night
I was delighted to find the soap plant (Chlorogalum pomeridianum) flowering.  In the summer, soap plants shoot up knotty spires above their wavy-edged leaves.  I usually see the white flowers bloom in the evening or on overcast days.  This was the first time I realized they open at night when the white petals glow which possibly means they are pollinated by moths.

A few days earlier, the Dipper Ranch cattle likewise decided to visit the summer grasslands of Russian Ridge.  On Wednesday morning, I turned on my district radio as I headed out for a day of field surveys.  Right away, I heard someone state my radio code and ask if I had reported any cattle activity.  Using the appropriate radio language equivalent of “What the heck?”, I signed in and heard the rangers reporting six cattle on Skyline Boulevard near Page Mill Road.  Although Skyline Boulevard is a two-lane country highway, it supports its own unique commuter traffic - Silicon Valley executives and worker types speeding downhill.  Cattle on the road - not a good mix.

Colorful bursts accompanied by tiny pops
The rangers quickly organized and got the cattle shooed across the road onto Coal Creek preserve.  I checked all gates and cruised the roadside along the Dipper Ranch, but couldn’t see any obvious breaks in the new and sturdy fence.  The rangers were having a hard time keeping up with the loose cattle.  I described Cowboy V's unique brand over the radio, but the rangers weren't getting close enough to see a brand.  One ranger described the cattle as too small to have brands which confused me and made me think that perhaps these weren’t Dipper cattle.

I started knocking on doors and calling my neighbors to find out if anyone had missing cattle.  Some rangers were calling other neighbors and trying to reach Cowboy V who runs the cattle on the Dipper Ranch.  We weren’t getting many answers, meanwhile the cattle had crossed Page Mill Road and were touring Monte Bello Open Space Preserve.

In these days of budget cuts, the fireworks at some cities were modest yet stubbornly cheerful.
In the next few hours, Cowboy V and our rangeland ecologist arrived and tracked the wanderers back through Coal Creek preserve and into Russian Ridge preserve but couldn’t find the actual cattle.  Later that evening, Cowboy V returned with a portable corral, a horse and Zip the cowdog, found the cattle, and sure enough, they had his brand and must have escaped from the Dipper Ranch.  With a mini-roundup, he got the black boys into a trailer and hauled them off to one of his pastures on the coast.  Four preserves in 2 days, that’s a nice little vacation for those 6 doggies.  That left about 70 other cattle on the Dipper Ranch with the possibility of taking their own vacation.  We still didn’t know how they got out but had our suspicions.

The next morning as I was leaving the Dipper Ranch, I noticed a group of cattle contentedly grazing above the neighbor's driveway.  “Good boys,” I thought, “there’s plenty of grass and no reason for you to go wandering.”  About an half-mile later, I realized, “Wait, they aren’t supposed to be on that hill, that’s outside the fenced pasture.”

Cowboy V was on his way and soon pushed those cattle through a nearby gate.  By putting together clues from the neighbors, signs left by the cattle, and his cowboy prowess, he was able to find and fix the breakout point.  Although the fences along the roads are new and sturdy, some of the interior fences on the Dipper Ranch are old and the cattle had found a hole to get into a canyon, followed an old stage-coach road and passed through a neighboring property to Russian Ridge and then Skyline Boulevard.

When you start running cattle on a property that has been ungrazed for many years, the cattle are bound to find the weak points.  Too bad our rangers don’t ride horses and rope, but they are getting some good experience on corralling cattle.  We often talk about the importance of linking preserves to create large areas for wildlife migration and longer hiking experiences.  Guess we’ll have to add cow vacations to that too.

7 million people in the San Francisco Bay area; 150,000 cattle


  1. Hearing the radio traffic it seemed like the MROSD rangers were corralling dogies for days.

    So glad to have you back writing - missed your posts. I look forward to hearing about your class too.


  2. my goodness, you just reminded me that it is dogies, not doggies and there is a story behind that. I'll have to get to that one day. meanwhile, back to watching Julie and Julia (for tips?)


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