Gearing up—A historic meadow—Whitney’s interview with the rattlesnake—Meadow ecology—A brief history of grazing–The ejido—La Grulla’s history–La Grulla’s fate—Thoughts on land-use philosophy—A missed photo op—I learn about juncos—In the belly of a vaquero—A squirrel or two

4 June, La Grulla Meadow, 6am

Up and taking some photos around camp. Had a breakfast of fried leftover rice and beans and potatoes, which was delicious. Coffee fixed on an open fire. We set off at 9am for the meadow, carting lots of gear: Cameras; field glasses (bins); insect net and fishing rod; notebooks; historical photographs. Getting the gear down is tricky. It’s hard to predict what one might need in the field, and I always take too much, having gone full-on Victorian explorer.

We’re excited to take in the meadow. It feels historic. In 1921, Nelson wrote that “La Grulla has been visited by practically all naturalists who have been in these mountains,” dating as far back as the Spanish explorer Jose Longinos-Martinez, who recorded the botanical character of La Grulla in 1792. It’s a tradition that continued with Lamb and Grinnell, and which continues to this day.

Walking down the length of the meadow, along the shallow creek that runs through the middle. The walk begins rather lush, with high grass and thistle, and gradually becomes a sandy plain of sparse vegetation. The creek has water in it, but this becomes sporadic the farther east you walk. Troops of small Baja California Treefrogs and Western Toads scatter as you approach the creek, where it’s wettest. Whitney almost walks over a Southern Pacific Rattlesnake in the tall grass between 2 large boulders. It starts to rattle sluggishly in the morning cold, and retreats into the grass so we can’t get a good look. We stop to scare it into the open, from atop one of the boulders with a fly rod, to get a good snap, but this only causes it to retreat further. We’re both a little shaken: the grass here is high and probably lousy with rattlesnakes. We proceed with care.

Baja California Treefrog
Western Toad
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

About 40 ravens pass overhead just as John realizes he’s lost his wedding ring—an omen. We make an effort to search for it in the grass by the frogs, but no luck. We speculate that perhaps he’ll discover it back at camps in his sleeping bag. (To John’s great relief, this hypothesis turns out to be true: He must have torn it off in the middle of the night, maybe because of the swelling from yesterday’s walk and the altitude.)

James on grasshopper

The team moves slowly on these walks, listening and observing patiently. Stops are frequent. There’s a quiet thoroughness to their observing, as they seek to exploit the are not only for birds, but lizards and small mammals and insects. It’s surprising to see how much time they’ll devote to revealing all this life, and to recording it. We spend 10 minutes teaming up on an Orange-winged Grasshopper just to get it to jump to reveal its brilliant wings so we could photograph it. And videotaping the superabundance of these grasshoppers. And for what? To archive biodiversity.

Devon with parabola
Red-shanked Grasshopper

The meadow is huge—probably 4 miles long and 2 across—and deceptively pleasant. Its scale confuses the visitor who, before he knows it, has walked some miles in full sun. Massive granite boulders and cattle fences and corrals provide some scale to an otherwise vast landscape. In its vastness it can seem somewhat lifeless after the intense diversity of Rancho Meling, where the collision of sage scrub, chaparral, and riparian communities intensifies and diversifies the habitat sharply, concentrating huge diversity in a relatively small space. A short walk can reveal astonishing variety, an ideal location for study. By contrast, La Grulla seems almost “dull” and I worry that we’ve planned to spend so many days here that will not reveal a lot of complexity.

West Coast Lady

But this impression is mistaken: La Grulla’s life is simply spread out over a larger area, and I am reminded of Darwin’s impressions of the desolate llanos of South America, where he refuted ideas that megafauna like the extinct Toxodon could never have thrived there by illustrating how much biomass these kinds of plains really have—if you walk (or shamble, I guess, if you’re a Toxodon) far enough. La Grulla is in fact teeming with life: deer and coyotes, swallowtails and West Coast Ladies come in 1’s and 2’s; Pinyon Jays spread out along the pines that rim the meadow; great herds of crickets scatter at our approach, making the air vibrate with invertebrate life; tadpoles dominate the few shallow arroyo pools, gathered in thick amphibian carpets where the small puddles are slowly disappearing; and mayflies rise in vast numbers, their larva visible just below the surface of the grimy ponds. Weighing up all this microfauna must likely result in a huge biomass.

The landscape here is as I imagined it from Lamb’s and Grinnell’s descriptions: a high, flat meadow of mostly short grazing grass surrounded by Jeffrey Pine forest. In some places, the grass is ankle high, but it is low in others, where I suppose the cattle have grazed it down. Cattle trails and barbed-wire fencing criss-cross the meadow. Cattle corrals and cabins made of pine logs here and there were once used as dairy camps to make cheese during the summer season (Nelson 21; Sanford)—perhaps they were used by Bertie and her kin in the early years of the Johnson Ranch.


Ranching in the high meadows plays an important part in the region’s history and politics, as well as its biodiversity. These meadows have provided reliable seasonal grazing since Jesuit missionaries first arrived in the eighteenth century (there are the remains of one these missions here somewhere, the Mission San Pedro Martir de Verona, named Casilepe). Cattle ranchers have been grazing these meadows ever since. When Lamb and Borell first stumbled into the meadow, they found several hundred head of cattle pastured here and spent a lot of their time entertaining the the vaqueros who visited them frequently, happy for the company of diverting gringos.


Two modern political developments have impacted meadow grazing: the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the constitution of the Parque Nacional in 1947. These two developments overlap in the Sierra and can be read on the landscape—in its flora and fauna as well as in the land-use practices that shape the lives of locals.


The revolution of 1910 and the resulting constitution of 1917 instituted land reforms known as the ejido system, a communal land-tenure structure aimed at breaking up the control of large private colonial corporations (like the International Corporation of Mexico, at Colnett, near where the Johnsons got their start) and the haciendas, the plantation economy that was the legacy of Spanish colonialism. The ejidos were supposed to eliminate monopolies on water and mineral resources, and to redistribute rights to those resources to the Mexican nation. In the 1930s, under these reforms, President Lazaro Cardenas redistributed 18 million hectares of land to peasants across Mexico, granting local control of lands, to be held in common.


In theory, the ejido system was revolutionary; in practice it’s been something of raw deal. Much ejido land is only marginally productive, considered forest and wildland “with no arable use whatsoever” (55) and too rugged to be developed. This, perhaps, is why many still exist: they’re useless for more economical exploitation. Many of these ejidos have been further subdivided into smaller “ejidatarios” that will not support a single family. The result is that to eek out a living, many farmers have had to reject traditional, sustainable land-use practices and resort to more environmentally damaging ones. The state has in effect propped up the low productivity of the land through subsidies on fertilizers and pesticides. Furthermore, a 1992 amendment to the constitution of 1917 allowed ejidatarios, as official holders of ejido land titles, to sell their land to private developers, essentially undoing the communal system.


More locally, La Grulla and La Encantada, the two large meadows in the Sierra and some of the only productive lands in the mountains, are devoted to relatively low-return cattle grazing. The present practice of grazing cattle looks just as it did two hundred years ago: the cattle are driven up to the meadows in May and June, after the snows have melted and the herbaceous ground cover has “cured” (Minnich 1998, 107). There they stay until late October, when the temperatures drop. Christian told us that only a few families still graze here—including Rolando’s family—and that they’re the descendants of the cattlemen that have grazed their stock here since the beginning of the nineteenth century (Minnich 642). As members of the ejido, ranchers like Rolando share their rights with other families, and together they subdivide the meadows into pastures, which we can be read in the wire fencing.


The practice is regulated, but largely unenforced and uncontrolled: Despite prohibitions on the number of cattle, thousands are grazed in the meadows annually (Minnich 644-45), where the estimated carrying capacity is 15-20 hectares per head (Minnich 1998, 108). Overgrazing has historically been a problem in these meadows. In general, it’s an environmental hazard: it denudes and deforests the landscape, disrupts natural fire patterns, spreads invasive plants, eliminates wildlife habitat, and pollutes. This is why the grazing of sheep, regarded as especially destructive, has been outlawed since 1964 (Minnich 1998, 105).


Grinnell noted many of these destructive effects at La Grulla back in 1925. He reported that “Old-timers say that La Grulla meadow was once largely covered with tules,” or the thick-stemmed rushes common in California wetlands that host a variety of bird species. It was even said to have held a “lake” large enough to support water fowl like mallards and cinnamon teal in May (Nelson 21), perhaps even cranes, the meadow’s namesake. Grinnell blamed grazing for the drying up of this lake: “now it is practically a desert waste, the scant wire-grass grazed down to the very sand, by great numbers of […] cattle” that browse even the willows in the streams. “The result is that the water is everywhere exposed to the sun and evaporation…. No better illustration of the baneful effects of over-grazing could be cited”” (10/2/1925, 2559)


Aside from environmental impact, I remember Rafael, John’s friend in Ensenada, saying that the land isn’t really even ideal for grazing: The cattle themselves get little from this landscape (a fact Grinnell observed when he wrote of cattle “whose ribs and hip bones protrude distressingly”). Ranchers graze cattle here mostly out of tradition only.


Modern research on La Grulla has shown that the jury is out on the effects of cattle. While grazing has reduced the overall “cover, biomass, and species diversity,” these can rapidly recover after a wet season, proving “meadow species…very resilient” (Minnich 1998, 108). Moreover, “cattle do not eat conifers,” so they haven’t been shown to impede the growth of the surrounding pine forest. But of course it’s hard to know what the “baseline” meadows may have looked like, before Europeans made them pasturage. Records and reports go back only so far. In the late nineteenth century—probably the era of Grinnell’s “old-timers”—the native grasses were reported to be “breast high” (Minnich 1998, 108). Longinos-Martinez observed “no trees or shrubs” in the meadow in 1792, but he did mention “great water” and streams that irrigated flax so abundant that it looked as if it had been sown (Longinos 40-41). Before him, who knows.


When these meadows became part of the Parque Nacional in 1947, grazing rights of the ejidatarios were grandfathered in. But it seems rather ironic that in creating this wilderness preserve, the Park also memorialized a tradition of land-use that may be of dubious environmental and economic value. It’s a matter of stacking two competing land-use philosophies—wilderness preservation and communal use—onto a landscape. I wonder, does this exceed the philosophical carrying capacity of a mountain meadow?

La Grulla corral
La Grulla boulders
Boulders sprouting pines

4 June, 11am

By the time we reach roughly the middle of the meadow, where a large boulder island sprouts tall pines, the meadow’s dryness and unrelenting exposure to the sun has taken its toll. It is, after all, one of the three least cloudy regions on the planet: No wonder the builders of the Observatory chose it!

La Grulla, huge meadow
La Grulla fences

From here, I had thought we would be able to glimpse the distant range in Borell’s photo of La Grulla. But, frustratingly, we have no luck: the horizon line has few distinguishing characteristics and the meadow is huge: the photos might be taken from anywhere. So instead I shoot a series of panoramas from this central location, to get the full picture of the meadow. There’s a grimy pool here where Rolando said we’d find trout, but it’s evaporating quickly and no trout could survive in it for long. If there was indeed a lake in the meadow, this grimy pool is a sad reminder of those wetter times. It would be hard to know if cattle are to blame, or perhaps the general trend in Baja toward greater aridity.

After this disappointed quest for trout and re-shoots, we slow-walk back toward camp and have a chance to observe the meadow’s bird community, which is distinct from Rancho Meling. The Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mountain Chickadee, Lark Sparrow, Pinyon Jay, and Townsend’s Junco are all new on the trip. The Juncos are particularly interesting to John: Juncos are highly prone to local variations in terms of both markings and behaviors. These we’re seeing are curious, looking at first blush less like the Oregon form with the dark hood more common in the Western U.S., and more like the Slate-colored form more common in the Eastern U.S. and Canada. Perhaps these represent a variation found here and nowhere else.

Southern Sagebrush Lizard

We note various lizards, including a southern sagebrush lizard (Sceloporus graciosus), notable for the orange on its head and throat, and a blue-tailed skink, whom we spend some minutes scaring into view. This is striking animal: a thin lizard, serpentine in motion, with a tail of bright metallic blue. Its body is yellow with a dark, black/brown stripe, its legs apparently hip-less, contributing to its snakelike movement and appearance.

4 June, Camp, La Grulla, 1pm

By the time we reach camp again we are ready for a meal and a rest. We lunch on tortillas, guacamole, beef and pork, peppers, and fresh salsa. Over lunch Don Rolando—we’ve taken to giving him this respectful address—relates to us that some scientists had wanted to tag the mountain trout (las truchas) here in order to track their movement through the different arroyos by placing a small electronic transponder in them. Roland called these devices “piedritos” or small stones. He worries that they’ve eaten these trout and that the scientists would track one that ended up in the belly of a vaquero!


After lunch I rest by my tent and hear what I think is a Mearns’s Squirrel’s high-pitched barking from up in a pine tree near my tent. It’s joined by a second and the two commence chasing each other round and round a Jeffrey pine. Here, in its raucousness, the animal seems more like its cousin the Douglas, that “condensed nugget of fresh mountain vigor and valor” (Muir, My First Summer, July 1). I snap a bigfoot-blurry photo of the rare little monster, but fail to think to take a sound recording of its chirps, which went on for nearly 10 minutes. Had I thought to record these, which went on for nearly 10 minutes, we would have had the only sound recording of this endangered squirrel. Total natural history fail!

4 June, Camp, La Grulla, 4:30pm

We set out again in the cooler afternoon, following the stream south from camp into a ravine of willows for a different habitat to survey. The stream is marshy, with standing water in some places, but generally flowing. We call for warblers in the willows and use another trick to bring birds out of hiding: a “pssh pssh” or “pss pss” sound. James tells me this imitates the sound of young birds, alerting adults to danger that they come to investigate. Using this method we conjure numbers of warblers and vireos and snap pics for an hour or so. James calls us all over to see a juvenile great horned owl perched on a granite boulder, looking like small piece of weathered, textured wood, or perhaps a pile of embroidered earth-tone blankets. Its huge yellow eyes observed us warily before it flies off soundlessly, tired of all the attention. I see it again as I hike hike a little higher to get a view of the forest. The pines obscure much, but I get a sense for some of the surrounding landscape.

Great Horned Owl

After dinner of beans, tortillas, and a tomato pasta soup, we discuss the ejido system, spurred by an article, “Land above the clouds,” that James has brought along, and that we all wish we’d read prior to our arrival. This article also mentions the ruins of an 18th-century jesuit mission at the north end of the meadow, but Don Rolando knows nothing of them.