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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Teton Tuesday: Just around the bend...


I have been working for the Tejon Conservancy for almost two years now, and as 2015 draws to a close I am struck by how fast that time appears to flown by, while also containing so many remarkable memories. It feels like just the other day I was timidly venturing out into the ranch interior for the first time, trying desperately (and failing, ultimately) not to get lost; and yet when I consider all the incredible experiences I have had traipsing across this enchanting landscape, it is hard to believe I’ve only had a key for 22 months. I believe that part of the reason for this temporal dissonance has to do with the way in which remarkable experiences tend to occur out on the ranch. That is abruptly, without warning and more often than not when I am under-caffeinated, half awake and least expecting anything of interest to run across my path.

Such was the case two mornings ago while I was driving the Hual rd. along the north slope of Winter’s Ridge. I was heading out to set survey cameras around a remote spring when I turned a sharp bend in the road only to find not one, but three full grown mountain lions barely 10 meters from my truck, happily gorging themselves on the remains of a boar. Upon seeing me they flushed, and disappeared down the canyon before I even became fully aware of what I was watching! I was left stunned, with only the ravens overhead cawing out their thanks for giving them a chance at the fresh meat. Before continuing on I got out and surveyed the kill site, and was surprised at the formidable size of the pumas’ prey. The lions had worked their way through most of what used to be a very impressive boar, with large tusks, healthy teeth and powerful shoulders. This was not a score these cats would abandon very long, so I buried one of my cameras into the hillside facing the carcass in the hopes of recording them upon their return.

Mountain lion encounters, however unexpected, fleeting and occasionally nerve-racking, remain one of the rarest and most exhilarating experiences one can have on Tejon, or anywhere for that matter. Ask any Conservancy staff member, or anyone that spends enough time in the woods, and they will gladly relate to you in vivid (and only very slightly exaggerated) detail, every such encounter they have ever had, as these events crystalize in one’s memory like only the wildest and most beautiful experiences in life can. While population management strategies surrounding mountain lions remains an ongoing debate statewide, I believe it is important to appreciate these apex predators as the living embodiment of the unadulterated wildness that can be seen dying out all across the globe and that we at the conservancy fight to protect every day.   
Before the cougars returned, this golden eagle took advantage of the unguarded kill
A couple hours after my departure, the first of the puma returned and quickly reclaimed her prize

This next cat was a little late, but can clearly still smell blood in the air

She makes do on the scraps of what remained

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Fall 2015 Weather Report



The hopeful, whispered rumors of an El Nino-driven wet winter grow louder as multiple rain events have swept across our parched hills. And what a memorable prelude to the winter it has been, with dramatic floods making the national news, low elevation snow keeping mountain drivers on their toes, and a thrilling flush of green in our grasslands emerging even before local holiday decorations. 
A tinge of green lightening the drab of all dormancy in Tunis Canyon. Photo courtesy of Scot Pipkin.
Whether you live locally or not, you probably heard about our brief but intense October rainstorm which sent torrents of water down adjacent steep slopes, ripping open ephemeral drainages, and cementing both Interstate 5 and Highway 58 (and hundreds of travelers) in thick mud flows up to 6 feet deep. Here at the Conservancy headquarters where our proximity to the roar of the interstate requires shouting outside our office, windows and doors were left wide open to hear… Silence. Bird song. Our quiet respite didn’t last long, and luckily nobody was hurt in the flooding, but it was a sharp reminder of the power of weather to quickly transform business as usual. 

Curiously, our eight weather stations recorded only a small blip in precipitation during that regionally significant event. We constantly marvel at the characteristically uncharacteristic patterns of precipitation on Tejon Ranch. With such variable terrain scaling over 6,000 feet elevation and at such a unique topographical nexus between the arid southern San Joaquin Valley, the wedged tail of the massive Sierra Nevada Mountains, the dynamic edge of the very active Transverse Ranges, and the western apex of the Mojave Desert, how a raindrop intercepts this landscape and where it travels is as wildly dynamic and unpredictable as our diverse systems seem to be. 
Above is a schematic illustration of the elevation of our eight weather stations, averaged across the three geographic regions of the Ranch. Below the weather station data is synthesized into three tables, organized by month.

Averaging data from our eight weather stations by geographic region (see illustration and data tables above), it is evident that most of the Ranch intercepted some rain this fall with November, not October, providing the bulk of overall precipitation. Although the singular mid-season deluge appeared significant, the almost weekly storm events throughout the month of November have succeeded in depositing almost triple the amount of precipitation in the San Joaquin Valley—so fascinating! No wonder we are already observing the fresh emergence of plants here—popcornflowers, bluedick lilies, filaree, and grasses. If the trend continues through the winter, as is hopefully projected, we shall keeping our fingers crossed for a memorable wildflower season this spring and a critical boost for our severely drought-stressed natural communities. Here’s to a long cool drink this winter and to the promise of a colorful spring!



Special thanks to Richard and Lisa Chapleau for managing the weather stations and data, and to Richard for analyzing the giant data set! You guys are the best!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Much Ado About Manzanitas, by Scot Pipkin Public Access Manager


A stately big berry manzanita (Arctostaphylos glauca) grows in the southern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains


As a native San Diegan, people I meet often assume that I am a surfer. It’s not true. During my formative years, I was more likely found hiking the hills of “East County” SD than getting barreled off the Point. Part of what attracted me to the granite-studded mountains was the fantastic chaparral vegetation that grew in between rock piles. In particular, I was always struck by the stark beauty of manzanitas (Arctostaphylos sp) with their ribbon-like bark making intricate patterns on their branches. Anyone throughout the West who has tried bushwhacking in manzanita country has certainly developed a healthy respect for these plant’s toughness. 
Leaves and flower buds of A. glandulosa gabrielensis
Like many other taxonomic groups, California boasts an incredible diversity of manzanitas. Of an estimated 109 species worldwide (Encyclopedia of Earth (http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/150218/), California is home to about 62 and many subspecies (http://alturl.com/6yno3). Looking at the evolutionary history of Arctostaphylos, it appears to have evolved around 15 million years ago, with a big diversification occurring 1.5 million years ago (http://www.cnps.org/cnps/publications/fremontia/Fremontia_Vol35-No4.pdf#page=10). The recent explosion in California manzanita species seems to be associated with shifts in statewide geology due to faulting and volcanism (ibid). The Mediterranean climate of California has probably further supported the success of this group as their leathery leaves, hairs, and other features support water retention during long dry periods. 


This time of year, naturalists can observe firsthand why spring technically occurs in California in fall. Manzanitas are currently setting their nascent flowering structures, timed to the historic start of California’s rainy season: October/November. Apparently, these structures are a definitive tool for accurately identifying California manzanitas (J. Keeley, pers comm). Indeed, a quick survey of manzanita species of the region reveals extremely diverse flowering structures.  


 
Leaves and flower buds of A. glandulosa cushingiana
Leaves and flower buds of A. glauca























Sandy soils tend to be better habitat for A. glandulosa cushingiana than other species
On Tejon Ranch, there are five (potentially six) different manzanitas including: A. glandulosa cushingiana, A. glandulosa gabrielensis, (and possible A. glandulosa mollis), A. glauca, A. parryana parryana, and A. viscida viscida. With the help of Dr. Brandon Pratt from Cal State Bakersfield and Dr. Jon Keeley of the USGS, the Conservancy recently identified that two subspecies, and possibly a third, of A. glandulosa are on the property. This is particularly exciting, because San Gabriel manzanita (A. glandulosa gabrielensis) one of the subspecies confirmed on the Ranch is listed as a rare plant by the California Native Plant Society.  

Habitat for A. glandulosa gabrielensis and A. glauca in the Antelope Valley on Tejon Ranch
Members of Arctostaphylos like life on the margins. From the well-known bearberry/kinnikinik/Arctostaphylos uva-ursi in the polar and alpine regions, to the extremely dry mountains of North America’s deserts, manzanitas are hearty survivors. Here in California, fire appears to have a major influence on species morphology and ecology as well as arid climate conditions. Generally, there are two types of responses that plants can have to successfully perpetuate after a fire. Some are “seeders” meaning future propagation of the plant is dependent on successful germination from the seed bed. In certain cases, the seeds of these plants can lie dormant for decades until the heat or chemical changes of a fire activate the germination process. Other plants are “resprouters” after a fire, meaning they have a dense root ball or burl that creates new growth following a fire. 



Big berry manzanita (A. glauca) is a "seeder" and tends to have a trunk
In manzanitas, both strategies are employed. Some species, such as the widespread big berry manzanita Arctostaphylos glauca, rely on the seedbank for reproduction. After a fire, most mature A. glauca individuals are likely to be scorched. New individuals will germinate from seeds in the ground and the plant’s survival in that area will be assured. In contrast, other species such as Arctostaphylos glandulosa form underground structures that survive the fire and allow the plant to resprout following the disturbance. A great deal of work has been done to better understand the ecological and evolutionary implications of these two strategies, which are quite fascinating. http://www.werc.usgs.gov/OLDsitedata/seki/pdfs/amn1.pdf, http://www.werc.usgs.gov/OLDsitedata/seki/pdfs/amn4.pdf

A. glandulosa is a "sprouter" and has a burl at its base

 
On Tejon Ranch and throughout southern California, work is being done to better understand drought response in chaparral plants. Being dominant members of these habitats, manzanitas play a significant role in these studies. As it turns out, the two growth strategies of Arctostaphylos have implications for plant survival during drought. Seeders tend to have more shallow root systems and appear to be more susceptible to drought effects, whereas sprouters have more well-developed root systems and tend to buffer drought more effectively (B. Pratt, pers comm). 


Right now, researchers and students from Cal State Bakersfield and Pepperdine University are looking at chaparral plants on Tejon Ranch (and throughout the region) to better understand how different life history strategies respond to drought. Hopefully, this information will help land managers like Tejon Ranch Conservancy understand the complex dynamics of these systems and ultimately provide us with insight about managing them in the face of climate change. 


References:  

Calflora. "Arctostaphylos" 2 December, 2015

Hogan, Michael C. "Arctostaphylos" 2 December, 2015

Keeley, Jon E. and Zedler, Paul H. "Reproduction of Chaparral Shrubs After Fire: A Comparison of Sprouting and Seeding Strategies" American Midland Naturalist 99, no. 1 (1978): 142-161

Keeley, Jon E. and Keeley, Sterling C. "Energy Allocation Patterns of a Sprouting and a Nonsprouting Species of Arctostaphylos in the California Chaparral." American Midland Naturalist, no. 1 (1977): 1-10

Parker, Thomas V. "Diversity and Evolution of Arctostaphylos and Ceanothus." Fremontia 35, no. 4 (2007): 8-11



About the Author:

Scot Pipkin is the Public Access Manager for Tejon Ranch Conservancy. He lives in Pine Mountain Club with his wife and two-year-old daughter, and enjoys natural history, art, music, and riding bicycles.