Rain, glorious rain…we were due! The relief, however temporary, brought by an abundant and persistent 2021 monsoon season is difficult to put into words. Our summer rains in Santa Cruz County were well-spaced and deep reaching. The resultant blitzkrieg of life was, and is, something to behold.
Many species, especially native plants, took the opportunity to breed profusely. Summer annual wildflowers like summer poppy (actually not a poppy) formed seas of orange near my home. Spiced below them were the flaming magenta flowers of trailing windmills in the four-o’clock family. At the peak of summer flowering, I counted well over 30 species of native wildflowers at Raven’s Nest, our 42-acre nature preserve. A few species of morning glory vines conspired to make our mesquite woodland a mini Costa Rica. The tangle of life and myriad of wildflowers had to be seen to be believed.
Many species of butterflies were lured in by the glut of nectar. In Early September several species of sulphur butterflies migrated en masse into our region. Mantids, ever hungry and alert, waited patiently for them to land near flowers they had staked out as their hunting grounds, wasting no time in laying into their hapless prey, usually consuming them head first.
In November, legions of sparrows, towhees, pyrrhuloxias, and even the rare Lawrence’s goldfinch were feasting upon the seeds spawned by the monsoon. Birds in general seem so well fed that I am witnessing many more chases and other behaviors due to the extra energy from the monsoon. A few species of butterflies were still lingering at the sparse remnants of flowers left blooming. The deer and collared peccaries are fat. Life is good.
Still, one good monsoon does not an ecological recovery make. It will take years of good rains and proactive habitat restoration to make that happen. Climate change is happening every year. The COP26 climate summit was instrumental for countries to make key policy changes, but real, grassroots action starts at home.
Yesterday’s green carpets and walls of vegetation are today’s and tomorrow’s fire hazards, which would put even more greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. To me, this begs the question – how can I artfully manage the land while maintaining as much monsoon momentum as possible, all the while battling climate change?
Over the years I’ve devised several useful strategies that make use of what might otherwise be thought of as mere liabilities. Instead of fighting the land, we try to work with it, creating a paradigm of ecological abundance – a stark contrast to the “ecological deserts” we see locally created by overgrazing and other land mismanagement.
Take, for example, Palmer amaranth or ‘careless weed,’ a tall, native annual many of which topped out at over seven feet this year. Left as is, they present a fire hazard. Enter my battery-powered weed whacker and a metal rake. Between these two tools I have carved out many fire breaks and nature trails that transform the towering amaranth into mulch. This fine ground cover promotes maximum soil moisture, which aids any plants living in those mulched areas.
During the monsoon, I began to thin plants near structures and trails, hand pulling them and laying them densely at the base of our many native landscaped trees and shrubs. Many folks would throw away that mulch as so much trash. Why not use it creatively instead? Milk the monsoon!
Most of our landscaping is planted in islands with numerous species placed close to each other. This minimizes watering and maximizes resources, such as shade and mulch. We have also created “habitat islands” across our landscape.
Having seen the negative effects of erosion prior to our arrival here in 2008, we set our minds to creatively controlling this destructive force. It all came together as we noticed that many of our mesquite trees sported dead lower branches. These we collected in quantity and placed in mounds in bare areas. Next, we piled loose gravel atop the branches. The final cover came in the form of old and otherwise useless metal fencing, which was secured with rebar.
The resultant habitat islands have created areas where fossorial (i.e. underground) species can live, breed, or forage. They slow the water down during floods, such as during this past monsoon, and “plant” it in the ground. Equally important, they greatly reduce the fire hazard to the landscape by creating a purpose for those dead branches.
Climate change is here to stay, but by creatively repurposing the abundance of this and other summer rainy seasons yet to come we can all collectively milk the monsoon!
Vincent Pinto & his wife, Claudia Campos run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure and Conservation organization – devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses including Birding and Biodiversity Tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.com