Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Diamond Path

This winter we've had plenty of occasions to celebrate rain in the Southwest. Yesterday another storm swept through the Chiricahua Mountains, and today the path I walked was diamond-strewn with ice crystals, glittering in the early sunlight.

We used to get a similar effect at San Jacinto Wildlife Area in southern California: there, the rains would wash millions of tiny flakes of pyrite from the rocks and soil, and deposit them in long golden rivulets, so that the path glimmered in gold. The effect was almost as ephemeral as this dawn's ice crystals. Soon the ground would dry and the winds would pick up the tiny, lightweight flakes and broadcast them across the hills. Then only a very practiced eye could discern, in the right light, the golden sheen on the hillsides.

Are there parallels here, in learning to discern the sparkling sheen on the more symbolic paths of our lives?

The road taken (Photo by Narca)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Creative Problem Solving in Passer domesticus

OK. Say you're a young female House Sparrow, living at the wind-blown edge of Lordsburg, Hidalgo County, New Mexico. Tumbleweed country... the sort of gritty, lonesome place evoked by a distant train whistle at night. And you're confronted with a problem: specifically, you need a good piece of real estate for building your dream nest.

Ideally, what amenities are you looking for?

√ Protection from predators, such as Ringtails and free-roaming cats
√ People coming and going to discourage the shyer raptors
√ A roof that protects the nest from wind, sleet, rain, and hot sun
√ A little elevation, for the view
√ Dining room immediately below, in the form of a fast-food parking lot
√ Warmer at night than your average shrub
√ Lights at night to attract bugs
√ In the wee hours, the soothing sounds of the aforementioned train whistle and passing rumble of Amtrak
√ Price is right
√ And, along with everything else, love plays a prominent role

Line points to House Sparrow at nest (Photo by Narca)

It's possible that Love's has not applied for a permit for an Additional Dwelling Unit, and if any county in the US cares, that would be Hidalgo County... so mum's the word!

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Ciénaga: cien aguas, one hundred waters.

A jewel of a cienaga, among New Mexico's finest, may be found on one of the big private ranches in the Animas Valley. The cienaga's waters originate in the Peloncillo Mountains just to the west and flow underground through the alluvium until just here, where an impervious layer of clay brings the water to the surface. Then a wide flood of water flows gently through the grasses, some of it captured in ponds which were dug by ranchers a half-century ago, some of it revitalizing Animas Creek and soaking the valley floor.

Our region has been bone-dry since the failure of the 2009 monsoon, and the effects of drought are obvious: "no grass seed" translates into almost no grassland sparrows, Horned Larks, Chestnut-collared Longspurs or mice. "No prey base" translates into almost no Northern Harriers, falcons, or accipiters. Even the ponds of the cienaga, which store water through most years, have been mostly dry––until now!

Alan and I take a long day's drive through the Animas Valley and up Geronimo Trail to Douglas. The valley stretches perhaps 40 miles through New Mexico's bootheel, then fades to the distant south, reaching deep into Mexico. Today the valley seems virtually bird-free, except for Loggerhead Shrikes and Red-tailed Hawks––how do they manage?––until we reach Clanton Cienaga.

Here's our first clue to what lies ahead: near ranch headquarters, Animas Creek is flowing across the county road. The cienaga, fed by this winter's heavy rain, is renewed. We ford the creek, then find that the lowest pond is brimful of water for the first time in years. Ring-necked Ducks have returned for the winter. A pair of alert Mexican Ducks suspects our motives, but doesn't flush as our car eases past.

Waters of Clanton Cienaga (Photo by Narca)

In another mile, we see the cienaga in something like its original form: before us stretches a wide flood of shallow waters, flowing gently through the grasses and the brown skeletons of a past year's sunflowers. And here the birds congregate. American Robins bathe. In a sudden blaze of blue, dozens of Mountain and Western Bluebirds forage in the wet grasses. Interestingly, the two bluebird species stay apart. The Mountains are in the slightly more open valley floor, while only a hundred yards away, the Westerns forage in the slightly more wooded stretch.

Life returns with the waters.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Another El Niño storm has blessed early February. I'm out of the house, to recall from Oregon days the delights of walking in the rain. Most of the storm has passed, and only a light mist still falls. Cave Creek is roaring. Clouds alternately hide and reveal the highest cliffs.

Low clouds in Cave Creek Canyon (Photo by Narca)

The wet bark of trees has a different look––how intensely green is the Arizona Sycamore bark! The deepest green looks like a new layer of moss or algae from the recent wet spell, but the more general greenish tinge suggests something else––chloroplasts in the bark. I've looked at those green chloroplasts before, when the trees were dry and the colors paler, without really noticing.

This tree may be like the Gumbo-Limbo of tropical dry forests, which exposes its green bark when it is leafless, and is able to photosynthesize––to make food––to some degree throughout the leafless months. It's never completely dormant that way, and gains the advantage of nourishing itself through the lean times. Both of the tree species have peeling bark, too, which sloughs off any epiphytes like lichens that try to gain a toehold on the trunk and branches. That peeling also exposes the underlying chloroplasts. (The photo below hasn't been altered in any way––it is really that green!)

Are sycamores greener in winter? Have you noticed?

Wet sycamore bark (Photo by Narca)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Air Says "Spring"

The calendar may say Winter, but today the air announces Spring. A fresh, rain-washed breeze riots through a grove of companionable Arizona Cypress that leans over South Fork; their droopy branches stir.

The creek flows strongly, at long last, after the past year's severe drought. Our big water debt has been helped by the storms of El Niño. Portal just recorded its wettest January in 39 years of record-keeping, something to celebrate. At Kim and Lorraine's house, the total topped 5"; Alan and I recorded 4.5". The creek has obviously flooded recently––big clumps of Deer Grass along its margins still lie flattened. New greens touch the grasses.

Flattened Deer Grass (Photo by Narca)

The leps agree that spring is around the bend. I spy several small moths flitting around the trunks of the oaks, but no butterflies yet. Soon!

Arizona Hairstreak (Photo by Narca)

The willows at the bridge are budding. Their blooms will lure in Arizona and Siva Hairstreaks, and migrating Yellow and Wilson's Warblers will forage in the leafy thickets––soon!

Siva Juniper Hairstreak (Photo by Narca)

The Canyon Wren is bobbing more energetically today, and scolds me. I whistle, but can't yet trigger his cascade of song––soon! Very soon!