Mariposa's Agri-Nature explores native plants, humming birds

MARIPOSA — Syrah and merlot grapes draped Mariposa vineyards — but the grounds hosted much more than wine.

Wineries were explored Saturday at the Agri-Nature Trail’s “Weekend in the Country” beyond their rows of grapes and onto land entrenched with important native growth. Kris Randal, education outreach coordinator with the Mariposa County Resource Conservation District, led a tour of the foliage on eight acres of Silver Fox Vineyard.

Karen Fox, who owns the winery with her husband, Marvin, put in a trail behind the tasting room, but otherwise left the natural environment untouched. And Randal took about a dozen guests along that trail, explaining its important features and encouraging everyone to turn their own property into native plant gardens.

“Habitat is becoming fragmented,” she said. “So, the more native plants you plant, the more you help the environment.”

This type of foliage has already adapted to the soils and climate of the area. It doesn’t have to be watered or fertilized. And it also has great value to the wildlife, Randal said. Learning about native plants helps everyone from residents to agricultural business owners become better land stewards.

“It’s funny how you don’t pay attention to what’s right in front of you,” said Karen Rose, a Bootjack resident who attended the tour. She first gained interest in the birds and plants that surrounded her area after going on one of the Agri-Nature Trail’s walks last year.

One important native plant — and Randal’s specialty — is the oak tree. She picked up a spinney leaf from a black oak tree and explained that its acorns were a favorite of the Me-wuk Indians who used to inhabit the area.

Nearby grew a tall Valley oak, with its deeply lobed, rounded leaves. Oaks don’t like a lot of pruning and water, Randal said, warning her audience to leave the trees as undisturbed as possible. Their roots are very sensitive.

“As more people from the Valley come here, it’s important to know things like this,” said Steve Rye, a Merced resident who followed the native plant walk. He pointed out a vetch plant nearby. “Certain things like this — it has a beautiful purple flower, but it can take over. It’s important to learn this kind of thing.”

He plans to move to Mariposa with his wife Shelly after she retires, and the couple hopes to fill their gardens with native plants.

Along the trail, they passed an old buckeye tree, a fragrant flowering shrub called buckbrush and an elderberry grove.

Elderberry plant hosts the endangered elderberry longhorn beetle and is protected by public agencies that work with development, Randal said. It was also called the “music plant” by Native Americans who used its soft, pithy stems to make flutes or clappers.

Although spring rains didn’t bring out the wildflowers is as bright a force as they’ve appeared in the past, purple and white-tipped lupine still scattered along either side of the trail. Baby blue-eyes, Ithuriel's spear and monkey flowers also made appearances.

Randal paused at a manzanita bush, a common sight all over California. It can grow out of control and become a fire hazard, so gardeners must keep it pruned. But it’s adapted well to the warm climate of the San Joaquin Valley and the foothills with its leathery, whitish leaves that are good at fending off heat.

This native plant flowers in late winter/early spring, and is very popular with hummingbirds. Foothill gooseberry — which grew along the same trail — is another plant the birds favor.

Those who wanted to learn more about these colorful, fast little birds headed over to Mount Bullion Vineyard that same day for a hummingbird presentation.

Barbara Robinson and her husband, Duane, explained their process of catching and placing tiny bands around the hummingbirds to track them for the Hummingbird Monitoring Network foothills site.

Tracking is done March through October.

The most common species found in this area is the Anna’s hummingbird, followed by the black-chinned hummingbird, rufous and the “unknown” hummingbird category, which includes hybrid species.

Most guests of the seminar hoped to attract hummingbirds to their own yards with feeders. Robinson explained the basics — a glass feeder lasts the longest, clean it often and fill it with four parts water, one part sugar. Boil the sugar water, let it cool and then it’s ready for the feeder.

Tracking these native birds is important because they are hard for the average person to detect. “If you are going through a quart (of sugar water) a day, chances are you have 125 to 150 birds coming through,” she said, followed by laughs of surprise from the audience.

The Hummingbird Monitoring Network counts about 12,000 birds a year at its 30 monitoring sites.

“The foothills banks more hummingbirds than any other site,” Robinson said. “We just have a lot of birds coming through.”