Tag Archives: vernal pools

Making a Splash!

Buzz! Fun cookies at the Splash LOL event.
BUZZ cookies made by volunteers at the Splash dinner. Taken with my iPhone.

What a treat! Last week I got to attend an event at Sacramento Splash, called Love of Learning, or LOL.  These LOL events are held for Splash’s donors and, boy, have they found the right means to connect!

Sacramento Splash helps children understand and value their natural world through science education and outdoor exploration. That means they take fourth graders on week-long adventures in the vernal pools behind the Splash building, at the former Mather AFB, to learn about the flowers and critters that live there.  For some of these children, this is their first experience of nature and of doing real science.

And the LOL events show that people who support Sacramento Splash also want to continue to learn as adults. About 50 people attended last week, to listen to Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus at UC Davis, talk about several kinds of native solitary bees that live in the uplands surrounding the vernal pools.

(A vernal pool is an ephemeral pool that, because of the underlying hardpan, does not drain, but only dries by evaporation. The pools support a complex of plants and animals found only in California. Readers of this blog will have seen my photos of some vernal pools near where I live.)

Vernal Pool in Spring
This photo was taken during the wet year of 2011. According to Prof. Thorp, different bees collect pollen from the two flowers in bloom in the photo.

Here are a few tidbits I learned:

  • The solitary bees live most of their lives underground, in chambers built by their mothers. As larva, they feed on pollen from specific vernal pool flowers, such as goldfields or meadowfoam.  They pupate into adults underground in the fall, then wait until spring to emerge as the flowers they depend on bloom.
  • When they emerge from underground, the adult females mate, dig new underground brood chambers, gather pollen to feed their young, and lay one egg in each chamber.
  • All bees and wasps are haplodiploid.  The females can determine the gender of their eggs by selecting whether to fertilize the egg or not.  Males are born from unfertilized eggs, and so contain only one set of chromosomes (the “haplo” part).  Females are born from fertilized eggs, and so have two sets of chromosomes (the “diploid” part).
  • The bees do not venture far from their local vernal pools, so the flowers are pollinated mostly from nearby flowers.  This means that efforts to mitigate the loss of vernal pools by “building” them in new locations is very unlikely to succeed, in part because the bees that pollinate the flowers will not travel far enough to find them.

I discovered Sacramento Splash two years ago when they had an art show as a fundraiser. I am thrilled to be part of a community of people who care about the natural world we depend upon, and who want to pass along that world, and the love of that world, to the next generation of humans.

I donate a portion of the sale price of all of my artwork to conservation and nature education organizations. I am proud to support Sacramento Splash.

How do you give back?


The Drought in Northern California

It rained in Northern California last weekend: a trace in Sacramento, and a few inches of snow fell in the Sierra Nevada. The week before, while most of the rest of the US was caught in the “Polar Vortex,” the temperatures here were deceptively mild. Indeed, if you are a bicycle rider or a hiker, this is a great winter: Central Valley and Bay Area temps in the 60s, perfect sunny weather. (Well, except for the dirty, stagnant air.) It’s not so great if you’re a skier, though: there’s no snow in the mountains. Almost literally. The early January snowpack measurements found that on average the snowpack is about 20% of “normal.” In the northern part of the state, the snow was at 10% of “normal.” So while last week’s storm helped a teeny bit, many of the cross-country ski resorts have closed; instead, people can hike on their trails.

Benedict Oak Tree Sketch
Oak Tree Sketch. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. Watercolor in a Hand Book Journal.

What this means for residents, both human and non-human, is that, unless things change, there will be very little water this summer and fall. The fire danger will be extreme. There have already been red flag warnings in Southern Cal and in the Sierra foothills in January. There was a fire in Big Sur in December.

Here is Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has cut the flows to the American River to 500 cubic feet per second (cfs). (A cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons.) By comparison, according to the Sacramento Bee, the median flow for early January is 1,728 cfs, over three times as much. Local lore has it that, when the flows are this low, you can walk all the way across the river in some locations.

Wildlife officials have already started warning people to beware thirsty wild animals. If the drought goes on long enough, it may affect the country’s food supply.

Here are a couple of photos from my local park, where there is a vernal pool preserve. Vernal pools are not affected by the pumping of river water. They only get water from rainfall, and no water flows out of them. The first photo is from December 2012, the second of our three dry years (so far). And the second picture is from last week (before this last rain).


Vernal Pools 2012 Benedict
Vernal Pools in Fair Oaks, December 2012. This was the second dry year in a row.


Vernal Pools Jan 2014, Benedict
The same vernal pools in January 2014. Sacramento has had no measureable rainfall since early December, and that was less than 0.1 inch of rain.

Since there is little I can DO about this drought, except conserve water*, I’ve decided that I’m going to try to document the drought in sketches and paintings. The sketch above is from that same park. With no rain, the oak trees kept their leaves very late, and they turned beautiful and subtle burnt oranges and reds.

I know I am supposed to end these posts on an upbeat note, and pose a call to action. So here’s my call to action for you: pray for rain. Do a rain dance for us. Whatever power you have with the Universe, send some rain and snow our way.

*Water in the West is an extremely complicated and complex topic, but since this blog focuses on art and nature, not politics, I’m not going to get into it. Yet.


Looking More Closely

I recently got a great reminder insight into why it’s good to slow down and really observe what you’re looking at.

Vernal Pool sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Sketch for Vernal Pools. ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. 3″ x 4″ graphite

There’s a small park in eastern Sacramento County, California, that’s part park (soccer fields, softball fields, dog park) and part nature preserve. It’s a vernal pool preserve, and a National Natural Landmark.

What’s a vernal pool?

California’s Central Valley is (or, was) home to a habitat called vernal pools. They exist on rainfall and dry up completely in the summer here, where we get no rain from about April through September. These vernal pools are home to wildflowers and small creatures that have evolved to live in the flooded-then-bone-dry habitat, which suits almost no one else. Most vernal pool habitat in the Valley has been developed in some fashion, for farm or city, and the vernal pools are mostly gone. I’ve seen aerial photos of part of Sacramento County from the 1920s that are filled with these pools—and which is now an airport, the pools filled in for runway or hangars. So there aren’t many left.

The little preserve by me is a little island of paradise hidden in suburbia. I’ve seen all sorts of birds, from red-shouldered hawks and white-tailed kites to great egrets and mallards (when there’s water), to wild turkeys a-courting. When the rains come in the right amount and right season (so, not this year!), the vernal pools turn from mud puddles to glorious displays of flowers. The flowers bloom in sequence, as the water dries, in rings around the pool: first yellow, then pink and finally, on the floor of the pools, teeny white-and-blue ones.

Getting out of the comfort zone

I’ve painted scenes from the preserve a couple of times. A friend of mine purchased one, and she is considering commissioning me to paint another piece of the preserve.

Most artists will tell you that commissions are problematic: when someone commissions a painting, the client’s idea of what they want may or may not coincide with what the artist wants to do. Thisd time was no different: she wants something I wouldn’t ordinarily do. But I love the place, and I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to come up with a composition my friend would like and I would be motivated by.

What a treat to be able to go back to the preserve and look at it differently! I went there several times the following week, just before sunset or right after dawn. I walked different paths than I do normally, looking for the kind of view my friend wants. And I found some lovely ones: compositions I would never have found if I hadn’t gone there over and over, getting outside of my routine and looking. I found spacious views of the (then drying) pools crossed by long shadows of the surrounding oak trees. I found woodland views of the oaks themselves. I found interesting twists and turns in the pools that would provide depth into the paintings.

I’m grateful that my friend got me to get out of my routine and seeing the place again. I can’t wait now for next winter, when the pools fill up and turn different colors—I expect I’ll be back there looking at these new views again, in the hunt for that next painting.