I became especially fond of Valley Oaks (Quercus lobata), when I worked in Carmel Valley as a field biologist. These trees have significant biological and aesthetic value, and I always take a moment to admire one when I come across it.

The best time of year to capture them is during fall and winter months once their leaves have dropped. Massive trunks support numerous branches that extend and wind in every direction. Landscape shots are my favorite. I still struggle to master the perfect one.

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Carmel Valley (2006)

Valley oak bark reminds me of thickened elephant skin, and it has been measured to be six inches thick on mature specimens. I try to guess how old large trees are, just for fun. Estimating age is challenging, because fungal rot hollows out older trunks. Very large wildland trees have been aged to be 400-500 years. I do not think I have seen such a tree. The ones I observed were likely in the range of 200-300 years.

Recently, two Valley Oaks needed to be removed from a nearby park because they were infected with Armillaria root rot (Armillaria mellea), a soil-borne fungus. Under natural conditions, this fungus rarely causes  mortality. I called the City to ask if they had an idea as to how old this pair was. I was advised that they were over 200 years old. The impact of the loss struck me hard, I was very sad to see them go.

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It isn’t only the change in park character that I’m thinking of. It is their ecological contribution. A few landmark-sized oaks like these are scattered throughout our neighborhood, and you can find remnants of valley oak woodland in California’s Coast Ranges and Sierra foothills. Key words in that previous sentence: few and remnant.

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Continued rural residential development threatens Valley Oak woodlands. Nearly 86% are privately owned and independently managed. These woodlands are not successfully regenerating.

The United States Forest Service lists many of the values that these trees bring to their wildland communities. A selection:

  • Valley oak forests associated with rivers and streams support 67 nesting bird species.
  • Woodlands support uncommon populations of ringtail, (Bassariscus astutus) – a mammal that still eludes me in the wild.
  • Many birds and mammals rely on the structure of the oak for nesting cavities and food storage. (Acorn woodpecker granaries are a common sight).
  • Large-sized valley oak acorns and seedlings support mule deer, rodents, birds, as well as feral pigs and cattle.

Many of the wildlife types listed above frequent our neighborhood. Of the birds, I have observed pygmy nuthatches, brown creepers, barn and screech owls, red-tailed hawks, and crows and ravens to name a few. I have observed maternity colonies of bats roosting in trunk cavities elsewhere. If there is a colony of bats to be found locally, then I hope I get to see it.

The boy and I walked down the street when we heard the sound of chainsaws and a backhoe on the morning the first tree fell. There were a few people in the park, and we all watched silently as City crews effectively did their work. Branches were quickly cut and chopped.

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I don’t know how many of us had the opportunity to host a BBQ or a gathering underneath the great canopies of these trees, but I was sad to think that I missed my chance.

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I didn’t go back the next day when the second tree fell.

The City will plant additional trees to replace these oaks in the park. If you would like to learn more about California oaks, please visit the California Oak Foundation.