We are always observing the activities of the flora and fauna in our yard (native CA ecosystem restoration area), and this past fall, we became quite concerned when we noticed that most of the native Oak trees on our property (which are normally evergreen), were dropping the majority of their leaves, over winter. Were they overly drought-distressed? Succumbing to a disease? We had no idea, but were worried.
Then, as I was reading the amazing book, “Hidden Life of Trees,” I stumbled upon Peter Wohlleben’s description of how nut-bearing trees such as oaks will (in unison) drop a very high proportion of the leaves in their crowns, to make room for the ridiculous number of flowers (and later, the acorns) which they plan to make in the following year, which they have decided (in unison) will be a masting year. Masting years are the years in which the oaks bear a bumper-crop of nuts. They do this only once every several, unpredictable number of years – so as to produce more food than the regular population of nut-predators can possibly consume in a year, thus increasing the likelihood of successful procreation. They risk death by starvation in order to do this, but once masting year is over, they work hard to replace all the leaves they had jettisoned for the masting season.
So, I wrote the question in my diary, last autumn: does the leaflessness of oaks portend a masting year, where we live? Now, in the first warm sunshine after a long, rainy winter, we have the answer…
A masting year, it is! Achoooo!
So now, I know, when the oak leaves drop from a healthy-looking, California Coast Live Oak tree:
It is a good omen;
Plan to spend time in the autumn, harvesting and processing acorns;
Recognize that Nature will provide well for your family in the coming year.
When engaged in a multiyear, ecosystem restoration project, starting with helping to restore the living soil, then moving on to replanting mixed evergreen forest and coastal sage scrub plants, one 1-gallon seedling at a time, then waiting, and waiting , and waiting as the years tick by… it is easy to become discouraged, to wonder if you will ever really get the whole thing right, with all the plants and animals, mycorrhizae, and forest-floor clippings in balance. It is therefore heartening when the first native birds and reptiles move in and begin to fight for ownership of the property. It is even more heartening when you start to know (and name) the individual animals, the breeding pairs and their offspring — brush rabbits, quail, and red-tail hawks.
But nothing shouts success more loudly than the long-awaited arrival of your first top predator. In our case, it was the arrival at dusk, yesterday evening, of this beautiful Lynx Rufus, who came to hunt rabbits and rodents on our property, last night:
A healthy top predator is the best indicator that the ecosystem is finally robustly in balance, with all pieces of the food web healthy and thriving. The celebration begins tonight. Drinks are on me!
Two mini-hibernations I observed in the garden today:
At morning prayers (a bit earlier than usual, well before sunrise), I heard a noisy motorcycle revving its engine, and spluttering and revving and spluttering, and revving hard and long, successfully getting started… from up in the top of a coast-live oak. After its successful start, the engine abruptly aborted and ended in a couple of clear, hummingbird chirps, and then the hummingbird, now fully awake from its nightly hibernation, flew off to hunt for breakfast.
And tonight, while we were eating dinner as darkness was falling, a giant mama, yellow-faced bumble bee flew to a blueberry bush just outside our dining room window (single-pane glass allows some of our heat out to warm that bush at night, and the first rays of morning sun warm it in the morning), and after pumping her abdomen for a wee bit, trying to stay warm, she curled into a tight little ball huddled beneath a blueberry leaf, and turned to stone – hibernating for the night.
What a wonderful cold weather warning system.
Time to put on an extra layer of heavy, merino woolen-wear!