Update on Foxes

After reading the Fox Story many of you indicated your worry about the welfare of last years’ litter.  As is turns out, I saw all three foxes one last time in August, 2008 before the juveniles dispersed to lead a life of their own.  This happy news was tempered when in December, I left the house after dinner to run a quick errand.  When I returned an hour later, there was a fox dead on the road in front of our driveway.  When I examined her the next day, I found that it was a female, but luckily it wasn’t our mom, as this one had never suckled and showed all signs of being a young fox.  I wonder if she came back to visit mom?  This year, we had signs once again of a fox on the property, but none have been seen, so I’m assuming they were merely hunting her for a time.   

Thanks for Coming to Casa Dos Rios!

The following groups have come to Casa Dos Rios since the last newsletter.  Many thanks to everyone for coming to learn more about possibilities for your yard and public spaces.  Together, we can help to provide healthy habitat stops for our birds and other wildlife!

April 19, 2009 – Going Native Garden Tour (http://goingnativegardentour.org/)  Last year, we skipped the tour as I was traveling, but we hope to be on tour again next year on April 17th, 2011 from 10am to 4pm.  Mark your calendars.  The tour is free and you can visit as many houses as you’d like during the day.  Also, if you’d like to come out and help me weed (valuable training on how to identify native seedlings from non-natives), let me know.  I start preparing in February.  Or, if you’d like to help out, you can sign up online to be either a greeter or a docent at Casa Dos Rios!  This entitles you to several garden tours over the year that are especially for GNGT volunteers.

May 8-9, 2009 CDR was invited to be one of five homes on the Impressions Home and Garden Tour.  Over 300 people toured CDR and over $10,000 was earned for local children’s charities. I hope many of the people visiting CDR were inspired to add native plants to their gardens.

May 29, 2009 was the date for the MENSA tour.  About 30 members came to Casa Dos Rios for a garden tour and were treated to a home tour as well.

June 14, 2009 Western Horticulture held their annual Picnic and Field Trip.  Casa Dos Rios was the featured garden and about 25 members visited the garden for a tour.

September 13, 2009 was the date for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory Fall Challenge at Casa Dos Rios.   8 fund-raisers took part in a garden tour and bird-watching event.

Casa Dos Rios Article Subject of Pacific Horticulture Magazine Article

The fall, 2009 issue of Pacific Horticulture featured an article written by Jean entitled ‘Casa Dos Gardens: Mainly for Wildlife’ in which Jean discusses the aspects involved in developing and maintaining an all-native garden that supports wildlife.  Descriptions are included of how the garden supports mammals like gray foxes and black-tailed jackrabbits, birds like California quail and lesser goldfinches, frogs like the pacific tree frog and the western toad and insects like solitary bees and convergent ladybugs.  You can order a copy of the magazine or subscribe by e-mailing office@pacifichorticulture.org.  Pacific Horticulture is headquartered in Berkeley.

Toyon Favorite of Birds

Are you trying to find a shrub to use as a quick-growing hedge or a filler for a bare corner of the yard?  One that has interest year-round and supports over-wintering birds?  Well Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) is the plant for you.  The shiny, dark green leaves are evergreen and produced thickly on this upright shrub that produces crimson red berries just in time for Christmas!  The shrub is thick enough that species like lesser goldfinch will nest within.  Therefor, you should never prune Toyon until all possibility of nesting is over.  This shrub will grow quickly with occasional watering, with some branches growing up to 4 feet in one year!  I like to prune in late winter or early spring before birds nest and again in December.  This way, I can use the prunings to decorate with, as they make beautiful additions to winter arrangements.  Another good thing about Toyon is that they volunteer occasionally, which means you can have free plants and either dig up and move some or leave them where they are.  If you want to stick with local genetic stock, they are easy to propagate from the berries, which you simply soak to remove the fruity outer portion and then plant in a soiless mix.

Development of Casa Dos Rios Gardens – Part 2 of 3 – Hardscaping

The plans were sent out to four potential bidders and we received three bids by the September 2, 2005 due date. After careful analysis, we decided to work with Jensen Landscaping.

Landscape construction began in December, 2005 with the complete removal of all plants and existing structures. All arbors, pots, tiles, and other landscaping products were disassembled and donated to others. A casual red rock wall was disassembled and moved to the Upper Riparian Garden and reassembled as a large rock pile to provide habitat for lizards and skinks, which can be seen lazily basking in the warmth of a sunny day.

This is part two of a three part story about the conception, planning, hardscaping and softscaping of the Casa Dos Rios gardens.  Part one, From Conception to Planning is contained in the January, 2009 newsletter and part three, Softscaping will be contained in a future newsletter.  The concept for splitting the installation of the garden into two phases, hardscaping and softscaping, came from Michael Thilgen of Four Dimensions Landscaping in Oakland, CA due to the magnitude of the job.  Another reason for splitting the work was to provide an easy way to switch contractors if the relationship was not up to expectations.  Hardscaping included grading, drainage, building of structures and pouring of cement.  Softscaping included irrigation, lighting, placement of rocks, planting and installation of paths.  This article covers the hardscaping phase of the work. 

The Hardscaping at Casa Dos Rios took over a year to complete and consisted of several major components.  After receiving the hardscaping drawings from Michael Thilgen we selecting several potential bidders from word of mouth and internet searches, we called and talked to about 6 landscape contractors.  From these we selected three contractors to bid.  A formal 6 page bid package was put together and plans were provided to all bidders.  Bids were due on August 11, 2005.  References were checked and we interviewed them all.  In the end, we chose Jensen.  This is a large company who usually works on major corporate and private landscaping jobs.

Restoration of Casa Dos Rios Creekbeds

What do you call a 20-year long project that can’t be hurried along and requires untold backbreaking effort?  Insanity?  Ambitious?  Stupidity?  Well I call it the Casa Dos Rios Creekbed Restoration!  In the spring of 2010, I took a course in restoration at Cabrillo Junior College from Joshua xxxxx, owner of Native Revival in Santa Cruz.  Cabrillo Junior College has an outstanding horticulture program which I highly recommend, even if you only want to take one or two courses.  This triggered a more formal approach to the project that I’d begun when we bought the property in 2004.

It all began with a dream – to restore the creekbeds here to a state where populations of Yellow-breasted Chat and Common Merganser would return to Casa Dos Rios to breed.  The last county breeding records of these two species on our property was in 1990.  When I found this out from the Santa Clara County breeding birds records keeper, Bill Bousman, shortly after we purchased the property, I knew what my goal was. 

Since that time, I’ve come to realize the importance of our stretch of the Little Arthur creek to the Steelhead trout, which have been observed making their Redds (where they lay their eggs) in the gravel bars on our property.  Additionally, Wood Ducks breed here and I’m concerned for the chicks jumping from the nests into large stands of Himalayan Blackberry.  For these reasons, it becomes even more important to restore native flora to the creekbeds.

As it turns out, you can’t simply remove large stands of invasive blackberry and periwinkle without creating erosion problems.  For this reason, California Fish and Game indicated that I could only remove small portions of these invasives each year so that the native flora would have a chance to fill in the bare areas left behind in order to hold the land in place. 

So after reading, researching, and participating in several restoration efforts in Santa Cruz county, I finally started blackberry removal in mid-November.  The reason for this date was two-fold.  First, it is important to have the soil somewhat loose, and our early rain-storm of October 12th provided the necessary water to achieve this.  Second, it is cooler in November and this back-breaking work requires a sturdy jacket to prevent the skin being ripped to shreds.  If you’re not familiar with Himalayan Blackberry, it differs from the native blackberry in that the thorns are large and sturdy like those of the rose.  The native blackberry has small, closely spaced thorns that are much less likely to hurt. 

So off I went to my first priority location, the beach across from Chitactac-Adams Heritage County Park.  This was my first priority because there is a limited amount of blackberry there which is limited to the outer beach and because I wanted people who visit the park to be able to envision what it might have looked like before European settlement since the park is an interpretive park which offers daily workshops for students learning about the local native american population.

Removal of Himalayan Blackberry requires a pick, shovel, clippers, loppers, a tarp and sturdy gloves and jacket.  It turns out that the easiest way (and I found this out through painful experimentation) is to clip all long runners back to about 2 feet from the ground and then cut these up into small segments onto the tarp, which is laid out nearby.  After root clumps are discovered underneath all the runners, one attempts to pull them out by hand.  This often unearths more runners, which are below the surface and also need cutting up.  About half of the clumps can be removed by hand (or at least a combination of pulling with the entire force of the body while trying to wrap the sturdy vines about the hand.  Prior to this effort, I recommend about 12 months of vigorous workouts which include weight lifting under the strict supervision of a personal trainer!  For those stubborn root balls, a pick is necessary.  It turns out that picking from one direction is rarely successful and one must pick from at least two directions, using the pick to pry up the root ball if one is successful in hooking the pick under it.  Sometimes, especially near the muddy shore, this is still not successful (and indeed, one wonders if disturbing the shore too much is a good thing) and the clippers must again be put to use.

While I was working, several visitors came by to watch me work.  A covey of California Quail worked their way down to the beach and stayed under cover of the blackberry for about a half hour while I worked away until I came to a point where I caused a large cracking sound by breaking off the lower branches of a dying cottonwood with my head.  All 30 or so flushed to the top of Rhino Rock (so called because of the horn-like projection) at this intrusion into the silence.  Also, our resident Bewick’s Wren, who is as tame as any I’ve ever seen, came out a few feet away and chewed me out for causing a ruckus in his territory.  I wonder whether the wildlife will appreciate the open spaces created by my efforts or whether they have adapted and enjoy the thicket I’m removing.  I hope other thickets of native blackberry and other natives will replace the one I’m removing over time, though I hope it doesn’t expand as rapidly as the Himalayan Blackberry, which I’ve seen grow as much as 20 feet in one summer!

The results of my beach clean-up effort are pictured here.  You can see the before and after results prior to winter storms.  As you may suspect, restoration work does not end here.  I expect that many of the stubborn root balls will resprout next spring.  At this point, I will again attempt to dig them out or clip them as a last resort.  This work will continue until no further sprouting can be found – I expect several years to achieve complete success.  And this will be multiplied over about 4 acres of invasive blackberry and periwinkle with a little cape ivy thrown in – thus the need for the 20 year plan.  The bad news about restoration work is that it is backbreaking work – the good news is that I was able to sufficiently protect myself from most of the expected shredding of skin.  Give it a try sometime – there are many projects at local parks and if you can’t find a project near you, you can always come visit me!

Bird Species Seen at Casa Dos Rios

A total of 87 species of bird have been spotted or heard at CDR, 38 of which have been verified as breeding here.  You can see the complete list of birds seen at CDR on the web site (http://casadosrios.org/web/images/stories/gardens-house/cdr-wildlife-list-nov08.pdf). Since the list was last updated, the following species have been seen:

California gulls – about 400 flew over during spring migration, 2010 (very noisy)

northern pygmy owl – one heard tooting on 5/10/10

barn owl – one has taken up occasional residence in our barn owl nest box (confirmed breeding near here)

western kingbird – 9/13/09

ash-throated flycatcher – heard on 5/19/10

say’s phoebe – seen 2/1/09

golden eagle – flyovers on 9/6/09 and 9/13/09 (unconfirmed breeding near here)

white-throated sparrow – spent winter ’09 here

house sparrow – 3/22/09

brown-headed cowbird – seen 5/27/10 (probably breeding here)

As the native gardens grown larger, more and more native birds move up towards the house.  In particular, a bewick’s wren nested in a ninebark (physocarpus capitatus) shrub outside my office window, where I could frequently hear it calling and chattering this spring.  One day, after hearing much rustling in the ninebark and snowberry (symphoricarpus albus),  I studied the bushes very carefully for about 10 minutes, using my binoculars from no more than 8 feet away.  Finally, I discovered the newly fledged wren’s short tail feathers as it sat patiently awaiting the return of its’ food-bearing parent near the base of the plant.  Much commotion ensued, and when the parent finally noticed me staring at it from such a close distance, it popped out on the rock 5 feet away and scolded me before chasing the fledgling to another part of the garden.   

Another new nester near the house is the spotted towhee.  This orange and black beauty nested in the common buckwheat (eriogonum fasciculatum).  It took over a nearby coast live oak (quercus agrifolia) where it sang constantly for about 2 months, mostly hiding just beyond view.  On my regular trips through the garden, the bird would follow me staying just out of sight in shrubs and trees, occasionally being seen flitting to a new position.  When the chicks fledged, they could be seen regularly feeding in the debris under the olive trees lining the driveway.  The chicks have no fear of people or cars but blend very well into the debris, making them hard to spot.

The biggest success of the year were the California quail.  Over the last 6 years, they were limited to breeding in a large patch of native ninebark above Little Arthur creek.  The numbers never grew and quail were only seen or hear occasionally.  This year, several pairs set up nests near the house.  One nested under the giant cluster of grass blades of deer grass (muhlenbergia rigens), another amonst the black sage (salvia mellifera) and a third amongst the thistle in a restoration area.  When the 8-10 chicks from the first nest fledged, I was there.  I thought I was seeing a parent quail bent over towards the ground, running away from 8-10 large cockroaches or some other large beetle!  It turned out that the chicks were also bent over like the mother, who was trying to help them avoid detection by lowering their profile.  Each chick was about 1.5 inches long (I’d say tall, but they didn’t stand up…).  Unfortunately, for the nest in the thistle, I came along with my weed whacker and destroyed all the cover over the 5 eggs which lay exposed to the elements.  The inexperienced parents (I assume first time), took turns sitting on the exposed nest for the rest of the day while I apologized profusely.  They later laid a new clutch under the overhanging branches of blue elderberry (sambucus mexicana), making them the first successful nesters in my restoration area!

Another pair laid eggs in my compost pile.  I think these quail were the ones that relocated to the black sage area.  Now, California quail are a constant addition to the garden, where the make daily forays to the fountain to bathe and drink. 

Praying Mantid

I pray to thee, giant insect of my dreams…  The praying mantid (stagmomantis californica), usually known as the praying mantis, is an insect that I was told only lived in the central valley.  As many of you know, this information is incorrect.  They live all over California.  Their nests are the white gauzy cocoons that attache to woodwork or rocks near the ground, usually covered by grasses or other vegetation.  Each year, in the fall, they come out of feeding and hiding and I find them all over the native garden.  Perhaps this is because I am deadheading many plants at this time and they lost their cover, or perhaps they are looking for mates so that they can create new cocoons for next year’s crop.  They are incredible to look at and are completely comfortable with being handled, although the little hooks on their legs can be difficult to remove from the skin.  For this reason, I try to move them to a safer location using something I can let them crawl off of, like a kleenex.  These fascinating insects like to pose for pictures, which makes them one of my favorite garden additions, since they also love to eat detrimental insects.


I took a trip to Antarctica with Shearwater Journeys (http://www.shearwaterjourneys.com/index.shtml) in January, 2010 along with 49 other passengers.  My trip is photographically documented on the web site at (http://casadosrios.org/web/travel/international-travel/antarctica).  There are albums for our stops at the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the Weddell Sea, Antarctic Penninsula and the South Shetland Islands.  The trip was fantastic, and if you like pictures of penguins or icebergs, I suggest you take a look!