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Friday, December 16, 2011

Structures of Utility

Neighbors down the road, Keith and Denise, told me they found a duck in their fireplace. I knew that tree-nesting ducks, desperately short of available nesting cavities would sometimes resort to inter species brooding within the same cavity. Wood ducks sometimes shared with common mergansers, sitting side by side while incubating their respective egg clutches. But desperation must be acute when a duck seeking a suitable nesting place will enter a house chimney. Keith opened his front door and the glass doors on his fireplace allowing the merganser to fly, trailing a plume of ash, back toward the creek, a good quarter mile distant.
Time to erect some duck boxes. The first is a common merganser box 20' high on a valley oak and about 50 yards from the creek. The common merganser is a relatively large bird requiring a box substantially bigger than that of the wood duck.

A wood duck house 20' up on an adjacent valley oak.

Two of our dozen bluebird boxes are utilized by bluebirds. The rest are tenanted by tree swallows.

The barn owl box has produced two broods, but in most years is used simply as a sheltered roost by the owls.

The bat house in inhabited by roughly 60 bats. They appear mostly to be little brown bats, but because of the difficulty of identifying them we may be overlooking other species.

The bunk house is a basic structure architecturally rivaling a bird house, and evoking American classic structures like Thoreau's cabin, Lincoln's birthplace, Pollack's barn and Kasinsky's hermitage.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Riparian Zone

The other morning I jumped the puddles at the ranch gate to walk across the road to the creek. The first rains of the season had begun to recharge the Kelsey Creek aquifer. The water flow had still not saturated the deep gravel of the creek bed this far down stream.

Dew-spangled mullein have colonized the gravel bars.

As always, the creek bed tells a tale of ongoing abuse.

Flowing water has reached the Renfro Crossing, where a bulldozer has recently pushed aside the road crossing gravel and opened the channel to the creek flow.

The riparian community of willow and cottonwood, currant, coyote brush, and valley oak provide nesting and roosting cover for coveys of California quail. These sinuous strips of woods and brush serve as reservoirs and corridors for wildlife amidst the monocrop orchards and vineyards of Big Valley.

Uprooted walnut stumps block off-road vehicles from one section of the habitat. Prince Charles calls his pile of stumps a stumpery, reminding me of the Victorian term for a cozy room - snuggery.

The moment of fruition of the acorn crop on this valley oak was attended by scores of jays and acorn woodpeckers.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

In the Uplands

We journeyed into the hills above the Jerusalem Grade in the southern part of the county. Our objective: to see the 160 acre property being put up for sale by Bay Area journalist/editor couple Lyle and Matt. This upland ranch is a serene place of grassy swales rising into blue oak savannah and chaparral. A pair of bluebirds hawked for insects. A covey of California quail, airborne, glided across a sunken meadow. The elevation, soil and topography of the land make for a striking contrast from the relatively lush and deep-soiled floor of Big Valley. Here the plant communities are in a climax state of equilibrium, undisturbed, except by wild fire, for human generations. This is not an area which promised much to settler farmers. Instead it served as range for cattle and sheep. We saw coyote, gray fox and possibly bobcat scat on the trails. It is the sort of relatively undisturbed Coast Range landscape in which most of the pieces of the native mosaic are still present.

Where a bulldozer had scraped a fire break through the chaparral, Lake County diamonds lay exposed on the eroded red dirt.
A product, like obsidian, of the region's vulcan upheavals, the diamonds are actually beta silicon dioxide crystals. Lava flows of magma and basalt from Mount Konocti where contained under enormous pressure with temperatures of at least 1,112 degrees Fahrenheit, producing the diamonds.

Back in Big Valley it is a bumper year for walnuts and acorns. Last year there were none in either category. Elaine lent her drying screen.

The valley oaks were backlit by late afternoon sunlight.

Sweet gum, slash pile, and Mount Konocti. Golden-crowned and white-crowned sparrows, having just arrived from the north, shelter in the caverns of the slash pile.

It is a time of year when unexpected species come to the fountain, in this case a red-bellied sapsucker. The first group of migrating yellow-rumped warblers also arrived.

Ed has been busy stocking the cellar with the abundance of the harvest.

Eames chairs in the studio.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Last Drops


The last hollyhock.

Cherry tomatoes from the garden.

The spiral as seen in a sunflower head.

To walk among oaks.

Buddleja, or butterfly bush attracts migrating monarchs at this time of year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Season of the Crows

Hundreds of crows wheeled about the oak canopy, the source for my large format watercolor.

After late spring rains and a relatively cool summer, the pear harvest is four weeks late this year, culminating on labor day, September 5.

The Benson name is an old and storied one hereabouts, figuring in both settler and native history.

A pair of barn owls has been roosting in the ranch owl box for the past couple of years without producing young. I set up a motion-detecting camera to catch their discrete nocturnal comings and goings. When fledglings are present there is much raucous rasping from the owls. This year the owls are silent.

Lesser goldfinch female.

Depredation statistics compiled by the Mountain Lion Foundation show the large number of lions killed by government agents in a several county-wide area including Lake County over a recent 35-year period. When lions were fair game and hunted with impunity as noxious predators, government trackers were rarely called upon. When state legislation protected lions starting in 1990 from twenty to sixty lions a year were killed by government-sanctioned agencies. These statistics amaze a hiker and camper who has logged innumerable miles, days and nights in California wilderness areas without ever laying eyes on a single cat.

This mountain lion was killed by a federal tracker in 2005 after it was suspected of killing four lambs in a barn in Bachelor Valley near Upper Lake. The back country above Bachelor Valley is reputed to harbor some of the densest numbers of cougars in the world.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

On the Mountain

I drove up the dusty road on the chaparral-clad Western face of Mount Konocti. A parking lot is being bulldozed high up for the newly established pubic-access tract.

Below, to the West and North lay Big Valley and the lake.

Chaparral begins to give way to more pine and fir on the Northern flank of the mountain over Soda Bay. Spared some of the solar blast, the mountain maintains just enough moisture to support a micro climate.

The steepest part of the North face supports the Black Forest, which is dominated by Douglas fir and bay laurel. The forest has its own charismatic denizens not seen on other parts of the mountain: Stellars jays and pileated woodpeckers.

Black Forest is under the protection of the Lake County Land Trust.