he large natural grassland called Ramona Valley, Flying Eagle Ranch or Santa Maria Valley is different from any of the hills that surround Ramona. Deep, rich soils and the watershed from the surrounding hills have fed this productive meadow for a millennia. It has been rich range and farmland since European settlement. At the same time, it is home to many specialized kinds of plant and animal life.
Especially notable are the birds that visit in a hop-scotch fashion on their annual migrations. Regular occupants and visitors include eagles, falcons and several hawk species. Particularly important, because their habitats have been destroyed elsewhere, are the golden eagles, bald eagles and ferruginous hawks. The gophers, ground squirrels, mice, voles, ducks and other small birds contribute to this area's ecological importance.
Ramona and the San Pasqual Valley remain some of the last refuges along the Southern California coast for migrating birds. Also still here are the burrowing owl, meadow lark, horned lard and grasshopper sparrow. And there are cactus wrens and California gnatcatchers (both endangered species) in the surrounding hills. Another endangered species, arroyo toads still has a foothold in Santa Maria creek. Rarely seen, badgers live in these fields, also coyotes, bobcats and sometimes mountain lions.
After a thunder storm, puddles of water fill the shallow bedrock morteros like saucers set out on the granite boulders. Other rounded boulders stick up like whales breaching in the middle of the grasslands in Ramona. These holes were probably not for grinding acorns; they are not near the riparian oak woodlands. More likely, they were for the native grasses and herbs that grew on this 10,000 acre coastal prairie. Bunch grasses like purple needle grass still dot the low hills; mounds of alkali sacaton still line a few of its creeks and sod of creeping wildry anchor the sinuous stream beds with the gleaming green foliage reflecting the hot sun. A favorite of cattle on long hot days is the saltgrass which gets munched flat to the ground. Maybe these were the grains of the ancient Kumayaay tribes.
What made this grassland and why is it here at all, surrounded by shrub covered hills? The answer is clay. Crumbly beds of gray and chocolate brown clay that float like huge paddies of seaweed on the undulating plain are what support grasslands over shrub lands. Clays are also the reason that there are little trapped lakes left after winter rains. These are the vernal pools and they are the proof that this habitat has been around for a very long time. There are many plants, a few toads and crustaceans, and lot of unknown things that have evolved on in the vernal pools of Southern California. These pools are rich reservoirs of life. In spring, they host riotous blooms of flowers, oodles of tadpoles and tons of shrimp all packed into a two-month growing season. All of these unique plants can survive harsh soils, summer drought and 'breathe underwater' in the winter.
The vernal pools of Ramona Valley have their own uniqueness, though there has been barely enough time to notice it as the town of Ramona swallows up most of the main pools.
The colors fade quickly, as does the balmy weather. But with the warm summer, football field-sized plots of other mature flowers like tarweed expand. The camphor fragrance of the Virgata tarweed, the strange spininess of the southern tarweed and the sunset yellow of the fascicled tarweed all of the plants and animals that live here are what give the land its character. They make this prairie feel like home for the people who come from all over the county to ride bikes, look out over the fields and mountains and to hear the unfamiliar sounds of wind and birds without the background hum of traffic.
Altogether, the native plants that thrive in the Santa Maria Valley are amazing in their productivity. They fatten small mammals upon which hundreds of avian predators from as far away as the Pacific Northwest feed. These fields are also a dependable rangeland for cattle and an aquifer of high quality water. Considering these grasslands utility, bounty and beauty, it shouldn't escape our attention that it all comes ready to enjoy as a gift from nature.
Fred Sproul is a wildlife biologist and volunteer for the Iron Mountain Conservancy. IMC is working to protect the natural resources in the Ramona Planning Area, the largest planning area in the County with 18% of the "developable" land. A great deal of the land is designated as "Ag 20" by the County and will be impacted by SOFAR's lawsuit and the proposals before the County Board of Supervisors this month. (see article "County Faces Contempt, page 7). Please send donations or contact IMC P.O. Box 2342, Ramona 92065, 788-WILD (9453).