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Monday, November 24, 2008

Flocking Together

Yesterday the light on the sweet gum leaves was sensational, never mind that the tree looked like the alien species that it is in the grove of valley oaks. I tend to be a purist about native plants on the ranch, but it is hard to quibble with the renowned botanist who grew up on this place and brought in the exotics two generations ago. There are ginkgos, crepe myrtle, loquats, figs, Virginia creeper, St. John's wort, mountain ash and oleander. It was, after all, a pear operation in the last century. The valley floor's ancient lakebed soil, together with a local elevation of slightly over 1300 feet, was suited to pears. But it's still easy to imagine the valley oak groves which were displaced. I've brought in nine young valley oaks to keep company with the monarchs also numbering nine. We've planted manzanita, ceanothus, coyote brush, toyon, coffee berry and native fuschia, sage, currants and madrone.

The front line of advancing creek waters attracts mobs of red winged and Brewer's blackbirds.
With the return of water and winter, the black bird cacophony will feature large around here.

The ganging up in flocks is characteristic of this time of year. On the lake the coots have formed very tight rafts as have the comorants, diving ducks and white pelicans. Their defensiveness appears based on some shared dread of a menace embodied by the shortened days. We saw one good reason for their skittishness yesterday from our boat. A pair of bald eagles scouted
the multitudes for an easy mark. The waterfowl seemed at their wits' end. As we rounded a tule bed we flushed a flock of more than 3,000 white pelicans, which flapped up into diverging gyres.

We were one boat among perhaps a half dozen on all the sublime expanse of the northwest part of the lake. Inshore,
immense shoals of fry riddled and riffled the surface. The outlying waters of the open lake were dynamic with breeze-driven waves, fast flying ducks, big flocks of California gulls, and Western grebes watching us with one eye, their heads half averted.

A floating corpse turned out on closer inspection to be a grebe drowned by hook and filiment.

As we headed into shore I was so appreciative of the view of largely unspoiled tracts of land and marsh abutting the lake at Big Valley. The boat on its trailer, we were back in the pick up. We stopped to look at the marshy pastures near the county park. The scene looked heartbreakingly vulnerable to the future.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

End of Dry Season

The hinge of the year has swung, opening the door on the season of rains. The garden has been done in by the first frosts. We are two miles from the lake so its moderating temperature at this time of year is of no help here. In visiting the gardens at Ceago Lago, I saw tomatoes and squash still thriving.

The creek bed here is still dry, but the slowly advancing waters have pooled less than a mile uipstream. The next heavy rain will recharge this part of the channel. Meanwhile it's a good place for a stroll.

Big Valley is home to various ungulates, mostly horses and cows. The deer and tule elk tend to keep to the hills. I'd love to see the Lake County Land Trust grow influential enough to aquire large lakefront parcels near the county park for the reintroduction of tule elk. The marshy land there with its extensive groves of valley oaks is now used for cattle, but is so unchanged from its original self that the elk would thrive.

The Land Trust already has protected a couple of hundred acres along the Rodman Slough, which with the addition of more
land, could be a great place for elk. Meanwhile, it's a pleasure to encounter the horses, cows and lesser beasts, each individual a personality unto itself.

The gopher snakes have retired for the season. Speaking of personality, they have a tolerant nature. They don't flee at my approach the way garter snakes would. Instead they'll accompany me while I move boards from a pile, all the while nosing around for meadow voles.

Kelseyville, in November, is slowing down after the pear and grape harvests. But there is still plenty of activity at the walnut sheds.

Kelseyville has a little gem of a Main Street. I wonder how the relocation of Kelseyville Lumber will affect its business and foot traffic. Agricultural land has been converted to residential and commercial uses at a shocking rate lately. The vistas of and from Big Valley are getting increasingly cluttered.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

After The Harvest

The weather this past weekend in Lake County, California was cool, bright and dynamic. In the forenoon on Saturday a full, fat and low arched rainbow met us as we crossed into the county on the Hopland Grade. A promised land seemed spread out below, the gold and green valley meeting the blue lake.

From Two Buck Ranch that afternoon, the chapparal seemed gilded on the slopes of cloud-topped Mount Konocti.

The scene on the ranch looked, smelled and sounded pretty much like paradise. Anna's hummingbirds and lesser goldfinches visited the feeders. A covey of more than thirty quail scuttled in and out of cover. Crows clacked their beaks. Squirrels chased each other around and around the trunks of the ancient valley oaks.

The shrieking whine of dirt bikes soon pierced the air. I walked down to the creek bottom in an attempt to intercept the two boys on their machines. They zoomed down the dry, gravel-covered channel out of my reach. A deputy sheriff arrived, in pursuit of the trespassing bikers. She and I discussed the county ordinance which specifies that off-roaders show written permission from the landowner.

Because of the drought, the walnut harvest was meager this year. The giant fig tree, however, was bountiful. The tomatoes, squash, pears and acorns were abundant. If our edemic fresh water fish, known as hitch, was as plentiful as in former times, you could almost imagine living off the land at the ranch. Hitch have been increasingly scarce since large mouth bass and channel catfish were introduced to Clear Lake.

I've logged sixty seven bird species at the ranch so far. The characteristic species year round are California quail, acorn woodpeckers, California thrashers, California towhees, spotted towhees, house finches, lesser and American goldfinches, Anna's hummingbirds, barn owls, turkey vultures, Western bluebirds and Western scrub jays. They are joined in Spring by nesting tree swallows, Northern orioles, black headed grossbeaks and ospreys. Huge flocks of crows wheel about the oak canopy in August. Fall is the time for yellow rumped warblers and hermit thrushes. Winter is for white crowned and golden crowned sparrows down from British Columbia and the mountains. Red winged and Brewer's blackbirds also congregate in winter while sharp shinned hawks stalk the flocks.

The vultures prefer to roost on the dead limbs of the northernmost oak in the grove, a tree formerly stressed by surrounding concrete, which I have since torn out.