Since the first afternoon we arrived in Kenya, storm clouds had been threatening to bring an early start to the rainy season. We worked hard to get the prescribed burns for our research project finished before the rains, each day looking anxiously out across the valley where other ranches were getting isolated storms. Fortunately we were able to finish in time, and just a few days afterwards, multiple bands of storms thundered in. It was amazing to see the intensity of the rainstorms, and how quickly the land responded! Plants started greening up in just three days, and week after the first storm the whole landscape was transformed. Animals changed their behaviors too, with birds starting their breeding and nesting patterns for the new season, and insects emerging in droves out of the ground.
The last two years I have been working on a project at McLaughlin Natural Reserve studying the response of flowering plants and grasses to fire in shrub chaparral. The fire opens up the canopy, allowing for a large bloom of wildflowers. The reserve includes many areas with serpentine soils, soil from ultramafic rock with high magnesium, low calcium, low nutrient levels and often high levels of heavy metals, so only certain adapted species can grow on it. These serpentine regions tend to have many native California plants which have adapted over time to the harsh soils, often in very strange ways.
This year, the particularly wet conditions led to a bloom of many stunningly strange flowers in these burned patches. It’s been incredible to wander through these fields of bright colors, and to look up close at some of these strange flower forms.
One of my current research projects is examining how plants are regrowing in the King fire, which burned last summer. Later this summer I’ll be setting up a manipulative experiment, to see how climate affects this regrowth, but first I wanted to familiarize myself with the area.
Before the fire, these hills were mostly pine forests, with some sections of oak and a couple hillsides that were dominated by shrubs. The fire scorched through at fairly high severity, burning out all of the shrubs and flowering plants, and killing many of even the tallest pine trees. In some areas, the pines are just black poles, all their branches burned off all the way to the top. Old stumps were completely incinerated, leaving enormous holes in the dirt.
This summer, wildflowers are popping up across the region, taking advantage of the open space to grow quickly. Other areas have shrubs resprouting from the roots of dead plants, and in a couple places where cones have fallen baby pines and firs are starting to grow. The colorful flowers against the sharp black trunks is completely different from anything I’ve seen before. I’m looking forward to taking higher quality pictures later, but I wanted to share with you some shots taken last week with my field camera (which proved itself to be ash-proof as well as water-proof).
In 2013, the Rim Fire burned over 250,000 acres of forest in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The fire spread into Yosemite National Park, and burned right up to Tuolomne Grove, one of the park’s three ancient groves of Giant Sequoias. Thanks to some backburning efforts to clear out the brush, and mild winds on those days, all of the big trees were spared. Many of their younger neighbors, however, were not so fortunate. On my visit this spring, I was struck by the contrast of budding flowers and new growth against this charred landscape.