Monday, March 31, 2008

The Horses

At the moment, we do not ourselves own horses. Instead, we open our gates to the horses who live on the next ranch up the hill. Our neighbors, actually relatives – aunt and cousin, and her husband - have their winter ranch here, and operate a guest ranch in the High Sierra during the summer. They have something around forty horses just now, many of them having been born on their ranch. The most recent addition is Marie, a yearling buckskin filly. The horses stay here most weeks of the year, but during the summer are trailered to the mountains.

During the time the horses are at the winter ranch, they are left free to graze across 800 acres of ranch land, including our 128 acres. At the end of summer after they return from the Sierra, they receive supplemental hay feeding as there is very little forage after the hot and dry summers.

And of course, we have been known to offer the occasional carrot treat when one of the horse groups comes to visit. We enjoy greatly seeing the horses graze as we look out our kitchen window and watch them arrayed across the meadow at the bottom of Ant Hill, where the grass seems to be especially sweet and tasty.

When we move to the ranch full time, we will get our own horses, a prospect we both happily anticipate. For now, we are having fun enjoying our occasional visitors without the feed or vet bills!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sunday Walk

We walked to the top of the ridge Sunday to enjoy the beautiful spring day. The wildflowers are starting to bloom, although they have not yet reached the fullness of their profusion – something to look forward to!

This is the view down the hill toward Dryad Ranch – could there be anything lovelier than this lush green? Of course, this being California, it will be golden brown soon enough, so we’re enjoying it now. We didn't see the golden eagle Sunday, but did see 15 other species of birds, including red-tails, a northern harrier and an American kestrel.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Western Fence Lizard

Although there are other types of lizards that share Dryad Ranch with us, the most common is the Western Fence Lizard. We believe the particular subspecies here is the San Joaquin Fence Lizard, Sceloporus occidentalis biseriatus. The males of this species have blue underbellies, while their topsides are typically of light gray to black blotched coloration. Evidently they can change their coloration allowing them to blend nicely with whatever they are choosing to sun themselves on at the moment. They are typically six inches long from head to tail-tip.
The fellow in this picture was observed catching some rays on top of some rocks while we were out and about yesterday. You can just see a little of his blue underside.
These lizards like to sit on top of rocks and fence posts to warm up as well as to keep an eye out for prey. They eat spiders, beetles, flies, caterpillars and various other insects. They are inactive during cold weather and hibernate during the winter. We started seeing lizards this year in late February.

One interesting feature of fence lizards is that their blood contains some factor that destroys the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Evidently, if a larval tick feeds on a Western Fence Lizard, the spirochetes carrying the Lyme disease are destroyed. It’s nice to think that our little scaly friends may also be keeping us protected from this unpleasant disease! Here's a link to an article from the San Francisco Chronicle giving additional information about the connection between Fence Lizards and Lyme Disease: Link

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Acorn Woodpeckers

It may be arguable that they are the most numerous species here at Dryad Ranch - some of the flocking birds may have them beat in sheer numbers - but the predominantly noticeable birds are the Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus). They are here in noisy abundance. These woodpeckers store acorns in dead oak and pine trees, as well as the occasional telephone pole; these storage "bins" are called granaries; evidently they have been known to store up to 50,000 acorns at one site. As the acorns ripen in the fall, the birds peck the acorns into the trees, and during the winter then spend a great deal of time moving the acorns from one hole to another.

Acorn woodpeckers are sort of the hippies of the woodpecker world - they breed in cooperative colonies, with several males and two or three females sharing a nest. The groups are made up of related birds, either siblings, parents or offspring from previous years that have not left the territory.

Other species are known to take over acorn woodpeckers' nesting cavities, including the Oak Titmouse. Acorn woodpeckers are considered by some to be a keystone species in our oak savannah habitat, since a collapse in their population would negatively affect so many other species, including those who take over woodpecker nests and the oak trees themselves since the woodpeckers are considered seed dispersers.
Photo in the public domain from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Dryad Ranch Gardens

Since we are not at Dryad Ranch full time yet, both having full time jobs and a mortgage in the Bay Area, we are developing the gardens at the ranch slowly but surely. We have three defined garden areas: upper garden, lower garden and front. The upper garden is a semi-rocky area just behind the ranch house, slightly shaded by oaks and manzanita, where we've put roses and irises primarily. We've filled in with some daffodils for springtime cheer and have a lovely rosemary bush that was given to us a couple of years ago, and which has provided grace notes for some of our suppers.

The lower garden has plantings of young fruit trees, more roses and bulbs, while the front has a minuscule holly tree, two stone pines that started as living Christmas trees, and a thuja. Interspersed with all of these are California poppies and other native wildflowers.
One of the natives blooming just now is wild cucumber (marah fabaceus), also known as California manroot. It creates long twiny vines and ultimately a cucumber-like fruit that is not edible. We have several of these in the lower garden near the compost pile, and have seen them in many other places on the property. We have a young almond tree blooming happily now, along with the native manzanita, and the bees are very busy, maintaining a constant loudly audible buzzing throughout the day. We lost quite a few starting fruit trees last year and the year before to a terrible plague of grasshoppers, and are waiting for a while to replace them, although we would love to get in some cherries and apples. The pomegranate and the quince are budding out nicely, giving us great hopes for delicious eating in the fall!

Nature Walks - It's Harder Downhill

It is very typical for us to take a long walk to see what we can see when we come to the ranch - yesterday's walk was excellent, although I must admit I'm tired today - a couple of body parts are talking that didn't have anything much to say before! But that's because we walked pretty much straight uphill till we came to a nice spot for lunch. And then, we looked around some and came back downhill. I think downhill is worse, especially on the knees! The joys of being 50-ish! We had our picnic on a mostly flat place overlooking Lion Creek, so named because evidently the mountain lions like it. There are mountain lions around here, and although I have never seen one, my husband has, and he has heard them as well as seen other signs of their presence. I think I'd like to see a mountain lion, but only from a safe distance, you know?

We saw the golden eagle again and a new bird for us, a red-naped sapsucker. they are uncommon around here but we had a good long look and were able to compare the bird to the book while the bird was still in front of us. So that was neat! We did debate quite a lot about the bird, but all the signs were there. There are a lot of species of woodpecker here: acorn woodpecker (of which there are vast quantities), Lewis, downy, hairy, Northern Flicker and the occasional Nuttall's, but it was apparent immediately upon spotting it, that this was a different bird.

It's also great fun to watch all the Anna's hummingbirds at our feeders - not sure how many we have just now but I've seen 7 at a time hovering around a feeder, with more waiting in the wings for their turns. And we can also watch the house finch couple building a nest in a little lantern that we have hung up under the eaves of the front porch. There were finches there last year too, and they had two broods. Right now they are in the process of bringing in fresh nesting material although it's so packed in there right now I can't imagine there's still room for anything. But who am I to say, not being a house finch myself.

Walking with Eagles

Our walk last Saturday was probably the best ever. We started out thinking we would just go look for Sierra Newts in the creek as we did last week, and then walk along the river as we usually do. We ended up running into the owner of the property where the newts live and getting permissions to walk wherever we wanted so instead we took off up the hill and spent the next six hours exploring. We saw a golden eagle and watched it for some time while it soared and hunted. And of course we saw lots of other birds, and definitely we can tell that spring is coming because it's a different set of species as our winter visitors head out and our summer residents are starting to move back in.

Some of our favorites are now in evidence again, including a Lark Sparrow who spends a lot of time in our front yard. He is an absolute terrorist when it comes to eating grasshoppers, which are evidently yummy if you're a sparrow. We also saw a score or more of white-throated swifts which we had never seen before around here - they were eating some sort of insect on the wing, and it was quite fun to watch them.

We gained about 800 feet of elevation on our walk, getting up to 2100 or so. The view from the top of the ridge looking down into the valley toward our ranch house and the Chowchilla River was unbelievable - so beautiful! The river was just shining with the sun on it - it reminded me of that Paul Simon song, "The Mississippi delta was shining like a National guitar." Breathtaking, not that our little river is as grand as the Mississippi, of course.

Dryads and Ranch History

We purchased Dryad Ranch in 1995. Originally, the ranch was 80 acres, but a few years ago we had the opportunity to purchase another piece with one adjoining corner, and we jumped at the chance, and now have 128 acres altogether.

Why do we call it Dryad Ranch? Dryads are female tree-nymphs in Greek mythology, and in particular, are associated with the oak tree. Since the predominant tree of this area is the Oak, we honor it by naming the ranch after its spirit. Mythology has it that each dryad is attached to her own tree and watches over it. When her tree dies, she dies with it. It is also said that you must propitiate the tree, or rather the spirit of the tree, before you kill it, or the dryad's revenge will be swift.
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