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  • Writer's pictureGloria Putnam

Bobcat Fire Burn Scar Update: 820 Days Post-Fire

(Disclaimer: I am not a bonanist; I'm a pastoralist. So although I'm doing my best to document what's happening in our burn scar, I might get some things wrong. I welcome corrections!)

This fall, the 3rd since the fire, the burn scar is offering a lot of forage and significantly improving the diversity of the goat's fall diet.

Since July's update I have continued to monitor and document the landscape.

Fall is an interesting time on the ranch. By October, the chaparral turns mostly unpalatable. The goats start looking for other foods, but the leaves don't fall from the cottonwoods and willows until December unless we get a good windstorm or two, which is common in the fall and this year was no exception. In the "mature" landscape before the fire, these falling leaves, along with some sagebrush flower stalks and a bit of pine, made up the meager fall pickings. But this year, in the 3rd fall since the fire, finally, the burn scar offered a wide variety of treats, significantly improving the diversity of the goat's diet.

Goats foraging for (mostly) seeding lamb's quarters. This area also has a lot of flannel bush seedlings, but thankfully the goats don't eat it.

In previous years I was locking the goats up for the winter about this time, since there wasn't anything for them to eat in the burn scar except resprouters (oaks, mountain mahogany, coffeeberry, etc) which I didn't want them to overforage. But this year they were able to move from the unburned chaparral of early summer (desert almond, saltbush) straight into the burn scar's succession of delights: late summer white stem blazing star, early fall's lamb's quarters seed heads, and then on to mallow.

In November the goats started heading up into this canyon every day and we weren't sure why. When we followed them, we learned they had started enjoying a large patch of mallow bushes.

We've always had a fuzzy mallow here and there on the ranch, but since the fire its become one of the more common plants. In the past, the goats never paid attention to it. But with more of it around, it perhaps became more tempting to try. Now the goats are all eating it. They enjoy both the leaves and the flowers, which probably have some seeds inside around this time.

Dried spiny poppy in the foreground and a couple of flowering mallow shrubs in the background. Every few years the goats surprise me and learn to eat something new. About 4 years ago they learned to break open the dried poppy pods and eat the seeds. Now, they are making use of the mallow as well.

Peanut demonstrates the proper way to eat mallow (if you are a goat).

Flowering Russian thistle, discovered on the ranch for the first time this November.

In the same canyon as the mallow, I found the goats eating a spiny shrub, and enjoying it quite a bit. I thought, "that looks like a nasty plant, glad they are eating it," but I didn't know what it was. I took the photo above and looked it up later and learned that this is an invasive plant called Russian thistle. After flowering it turns into a huge tumbleweed and blows around distributing its seeds. I've never seen this plant on the ranch before, and there were only a few shrubs, way up in the canyon in the burn scar. Now that I know what it is and how it works, I'm surprised we don't find it close to the road, like mustard. I suspect that birds dropped a few random seeds in this canyon. Unfortunately the goats didn't eat it all, and these plants transformed into tumble weeds as expected.

A Russian thistle tumbleweed was captured by a Tucker oak skeleton. Hopefully this keeps it from distributing it's seeds very far.

Speaking of mustard and also of tumbleweeds, we had an explosion of invasive tumble mustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) in the burn scar this year. At first I tried to pull it from the sides of our trails, but I quickly had to give up as is covered acres and acres of land. My ranch mate Pascal Baudar didn't mind, as he likes to collect the seeds for mustard making. I encouraged him to collect as much as he could. I spent most of the summer feeling really bad about this invasion and worried that it would crowd out early succession natives in the burn scar.

Sketch of a flicker in a burn scar from The Cold Canyon Fire Journals by Robin Lee Carlson.

But then something happened that totally changed how I felt about the mustard. Christian and I travel on a trail through the mustang between our house and the goat barn several times a day. We started noticing that every time we drove through, a dozen or so flickers would fly out of the mustard and into the trees. As the weeks went on, more of the birds must have learned about the good eats in the mustard fields, and the dozen turned to 2 or 3 dozen. Flickers are large birds, and when they are flushed out of the mustard as a group they look like a covey of monster-sized quail. But research has revealed that actually a group of woodpeckers is called a descent.

Seeing these plump birds feasting all day on mustard seeds was such a joy. It was a good reminder of a lesson the burn scar teaches over and over (because it's easily forgotten): don't judge nature. There's no point in categorizing every observation as good or bad. Actually the mustard was probably quite helpful in providing a bit of shade on the otherwise still barren soil during the hottest part of summer, keeping it a bit cooler. And now rain and snow is starting to smash the mustard skeletons into the soil where they will break down and provide some organic matter that should help the still somewhat hydrophobic soil to hold some moisture. The invasive mustard was able to grow and cover a huge area much faster than any natives could. It's actually providing a service.

Joshua tree babies (clones) sprout from the the bases of burned trees.

In other good news, the Joshua trees are multiplying as a result of the fire. Of course it will take a couple hundred years or so for the new trees to grow up and create a "forest" like we had before the fire. But at the base of each burned Joshua tree, I can count 5 or so pups. If they all survive, even though climate change is working against them in the long term, we could end up with an even more dense Joshua tree forest than we had.

Big berry manzanita across the street in the burn scar of the Largo Vista fire (2010).

Across the street in my crystal ball of a burn scar, I continue to take note of the changes in that landscape 12 years after the Largo Vista fire. This fall I've noticed several manzanitas about 12" tall. Some types of manzanitas are resprouters, but our local Big berry manzanitas are obligate reseeders, meaning that they are killed by fire, and replacements have to start from seed brought into the burnscar by birds. Seems the birds have been doing their work and these slow growing seedlings are starting to turn into proper shrubs. The leaves turn a beautiful color in winter, as if to draw my attention and remind me that this is the time of year to try to start a few cuttings.

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