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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Resident Roadrunner

This is a picture of Ralph, our resident Roadrunner. He was hightailing it up the driveway here at COC when we were returning from our morning field research. We know it's Ralph because he has a really funny way of running, kind of like Chester on the old TV show Gunsmoke when he was trying to catch up to the marshall. "Mr. Dillon--oh, Mr. Dillon." Roadrunners are members of the Cuckoo family. They can fly, but they prefer to run--17-18 mph at top speed. They eat everything: lizards, bugs, plants, even rattlesnakes which they pick up by the tail and whip around to crash their heads onto the ground. I haven't seen Ralph with a rattler, but I have seen him trekking across the desert with a big lizard hanging out of his mouth.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Coming Attractions

On the trail around Tortugas Mountain this morning, while I watched Research Associate Becca pursuing a jackrabbit up a 45-degree slope, I spotted a lone flower on a Strawberry Pitaya Cactus. It is the first pitaya blossom I have seen this spring, and it is just a harbinger of profuse beauty to come: when the entire mass of cactus is completely covered in gorgeous flowers. But now I am conflicted. Which is more beautiful, the singular beauty of the lone flower or a bevy of beauties peopling the entire plant? Whatever. For some reason a line from Keats's "Ode to a Grecian Urn" comes to mind: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'--that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Of course, the poet was addressing an urn, and I'm talking to myself.

This vista represents what we here at COC like most about our desert landscapes: exotic-looking plants in a spare countryside with distant blue or purple mountains in the background. In this case the mountains are the Organs, a perennial sight in this section of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

We came upon this little snake in the desert west of Tortugas Mountain today. It was about two feet long and very skinny. After I'd taken a few photos, it rapidly slithered away. I did not recognize this snake, so back at the observation center I consulted our well-worn book, Deserts, one of the Audubon Society Nature Guides. From my research, I believe I've identified this little reptile as a Big Bend Patchnose Snake. The photo in the book and my photo are almost identical. Apparently, the Big Bend Patchnose can withstand really hot temperatures, and is able to hunt lizards even in the midday sun.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Is That You, Deer?

We spotted a small herd of mule deer this morning, on a rare weekend workday. Dr. K. insisted that Research Associate Becca and I accompany her into the field for some Sunday research, and we were trudging along a narrow desert path when the deer bounded out ahead of us. Fortunately, Becca was off chasing a jackrabbit and didn't see the deer or else she would have been after them in a flash. Dr. K. and I watched them bounce across the desert floor, rapidly creating distance between themselves and us. When startled, mule deer spring like kangaroos across the land, all four feet hitting the ground at the same time. In brief bursts of speed they can reach 40-45 miles per hour. Check the ears on the doe at left and you can easily see why the animals are called "mule" deer.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Two Scary Sights

Hiking around Tortugas Mountain this morning we came upon these shotgun shell casings. They were scattered in various places along the side of a dirt road, leading to the suspicion that someone was shooting from a vehicle. This is as careless and wreckless a behavior as one can imagine, second only, perhaps, to drinking alcohol and carelessly shooting a friend in the face with shotgun pellets while hunting doves, as some have suggested was the case in the infamous Vice-President-Dick-Cheney incident in Texas.

If you have been shot in the face and you're staggering through the desert looking for help, the last thing you want to see is a turkey vulture or two hovering above you. These scavengers (also known as buzzards), with bald red heads, hunt the desert floor for carrion--something you never want to be. They are huge birds that resemble turkeys when not in flight. But they are expert fliers, riding thermals to greater and greater heights in their search for food, beating their wings only rarely as they soar across the bright blue sky.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Beatles

While Research Associate Becca and I were hiking near Tortugas Mountain this morning, we heard the distinct sounds of "Norwegian Wood" emanating from a nearby draw. I wanted to go immediately to discover the source of the music, but she was distracted by a fast-moving lizard she simply had to catch. Her hunt was unsuccessful, though, and when she rejoined me we discovered the musicians responsible for the song: the Fab Four (shown here in performance).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Climbing Tortugas Mountain

Every so often we are required to make a field trip to the top of Tortugas Mountain, elevation 4910 ft. The trail out of the parking lot on the west side of the mountain is rather steep, but it doesn't take long to get to the crest. As always, Research Associate Becca--who has more energy than a herd of mountain goats--was up in a flash.
Even though Tortugas is a relatively small mountain, the views from the top are stupendous. Especially beautiful is the view to the east along Dripping Springs Road to the west face of the Organ Mountains. Also, the old observatory at the top is a real sight to see, as is the altar used to pay tribute to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Upon starting the descent, the city of Las Cruces and the Rio Grande Valley (the green ribbon in the photo at left) are clearly visible. The trip down is equally quick, though the downward journey is always harder on your knees than the upward. The whole trip takes slightly less than an hour and a half, depending, of course, on how much time you linger at the top.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


In this land of little rain (a desert is defined by lack of precipitation rather than--as some people believe--heat), organisms often rely on a symbiotic relationship for their survival. In this instance (photo at left), I imagine that the windblown seed from a mesquite tree landed in the midst of this strawberry pitaya cactus and took root. The cactus would have provided shade for the young organism, and also water, which the cactus is expert at collecting.

Now that the young mesquite tree is leafing out, its canopy of leaves will provide shade for the cactus--preventing the loss of much-needed water from the cactus through evaporation--and the tree will help collect rainwater that both plants will need to survive.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Found Things

We came upon this leg with a hoof this morning on a fieldwork excursion near Tortugas Mountain. Research Associate Becca, who has an insatiable urge to get too close to these kinds of finds, had to be scolded away. I am not sure what type of animal it belonged to, though it looks something like a cow leg to me. Which raises the question: what is the lower section of a cow leg doing out here in the desert? Parts of the Organ Mountains are free range for cattle, so it's possible that this partial limb was carried here by a predator.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Austere Beauty

The desert is beautiful because of its austere nature; the bare bones essence of things is readily apparent. Take the small forest of ocotillos we came upon this morning while doing research near Tortugas Mountain. Several of the plants were twelve to fifteen feet tall, leafless, their thorny personalities exposed for all to see.
Juxtaposed against this skeletal bareness--as mentioned in a previous post--the bright blossoms of the ocotillo (OH-CO-TEE-YO) stand out even more, allowing the viewer to focus exclusively on their singular brilliance.

Mormon Tea for Two

Here on the grounds at COC we have a few really hearty specimens of Mormon tea (Ephedra torreyana) that, before grooming, provided a really swell home for a couple of packrats. These plants flower in early spring, then shed their leaves in an attempt to completely litter the desert floor. They do an excellent job of it.

Since the green stems of the plant contain ephedra (similar to the chemical that was used previously in Sudafed) stuffy-nosed desert denizens (of the humanoid kind) can chew on the stems and ingest the drug. One note of caution: the taste is horrible, making one wonder how the early pioneers ever ingested the medicinal tea they brewed from its stems.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Rocky Mountain Low

The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces and the Franklin Mountains in El Paso are part of the Rocky Mountain chain and are, depending on your point of view, either the beginning or the end of the Rockies. We here at COC like to think of them as the beginning of the Rocky Mountains because it makes us feel more important. That's the way we do things around here. In El Paso, Texas they have an interesting way of doing things, too. Take the naming of geographical landmarks, for instance. In the photo at left the distant Franklin Mountains (lighter purple color) reveal four distinct peaks (panning from left to right). They are: Anthony's Nose, North Franklin Mountain, South Franklin Mountain and Mount Franklin. Since the Franklins are a North-South trending range, that puts South Franklin Mountain north of Mount Franklin, an interesting directional anomaly.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

So Happy Together

"A" Mountain is also called Tortugas Mountain, after the Spanish word tortugas, which means "tortoise" in English. It was so-named by the indigenous people who were subjugated by the Spanish explorers who moved through this area on their entradas (explorations) into the New World. Not far from Las Cruces there is a small community called Tortugas Pueblo, which holds an annual pilgrimage to the top of the mountain in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Virgin of Guadalupe. This photo of the mountain gives the viewer an idea of why the native people called it "Tortoise" Mountain. Prickly pear cactus, yuccas and ocotillo are abundant in this area, as evidenced in the photo's foreground .

Friday, April 18, 2008

Desert Ham

We here at COC don't usually post more than one entry per day during our busy research schedule, but before knocking off for the day Research Associate Becca began pestering me to put up a photo of her on the "A" Mountain trail. She finds the photo to be particularly fetching--and Dr. K. agreed--so here it is.

Blossoming Buggy Whips

The ocotillo (buggy whip, coach whip) is an odd desert plant that looks like a clump of dead sticks poking ten or twenty feet into the sky. The flowers often appear on the tips of these sticks before any leaves are present. It is only after a decent rain that the small, oval-shaped leaves make their appearance. The blossoms are a striking red-orange color, and from a distance resemble burning embers.

Ocotillos grow in rocky soil to an elevation of about 5,000 feet. These ocotillos adorn the slopes of "A" Mountain just off the trail that circumnavigates the peak. In the cities, where ocotillos also grow, they serve the purpose of catching plastic bags that carefree shoppers have released into the desert wind.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Celebrity Visitor

While I was photographing Spiny Norman today a surprise guest made an appearance. Obviously a star, this hummingbird had no problem with being photographed.
While it stuck its proboscis and tongue into individual flowers of the Claret Cup Cactus, I snapped away with my Sony Alpha 100. I was, perhaps, ten feet distant, but the little visitor--undeterred by my presence--took its time and had its fill of nectar before moving on.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Plume in Bloom

A few days ago here on the grounds of COC the first flowers began to appear on the Apache Plume. The plant is related to the Rose Family, and when in bloom it is covered in creamy white flowers. Apache Plume is so-named because of the feathery plumes that sprout from the tips of its branches; these plumes resemble the war bonnets worn by Apache Indians. Apache Plume is often found along the banks of rocky arroyos. When hundreds of these 5- to 6-foot bushes are blossoming, they provide a stunning sight in the austere landscape.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More Innards

This is a photo of the fruit capsules or seed pods of the Soaptree Yucca. Here the pods have already ruptured, spreading hundreds of tiny black seeds onto the desert floor. The Soaptree Yucca is abundant in the Chihuahuan Desert, and is so-named because of the substance in its roots and trunk that can be used as soap. The flowers of the yucca are amongst the most beautiful during blossoming season, and the Apache Indians ate the tasty petals. I can personally attest to the ediblilty of the flowers; they are quite tender and flavorful. Be aware, though, if you decide to sample some, that ants also find the flowers delectable; so make sure the petals are ant-free before consuming--unless you don't mind a little extra protein in your snack.

Monday, April 14, 2008


This is the inside of a prickly pear cactus pad, a delicate lattice of pulpy corklike material meant, no doubt, to act as both skeleton and sponge. The prickly pear cactus is omnipresent in the desert and is a dangerous reminder about just how thorny the desert can be. It also provides protection for many desert critters, including rabbits and packrats; the latter enjoy feasting on the plump, succulent pads. After the beautiful spring blossoms disappear from the cacti, the red prickly pears pop out along the edges of the pads. In the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono O'odham Indians make a tasty jelly from the fruit of the cactus.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Superior Architects

We were unable to observe which particular species of small bird constructed this nest, with a near-perfect side entrance into the dwelling, but whoever it was had a natural instinct for home-building. The nest rests about ten feet above the desert floor in a thorny environment that might offer protection against predators. The shelter is located next to an arroyo with somewhat lush flora--Littleleaf and Three-Leaf Sumac, mesquite trees and sage, etcetera--that attract insects which provide food for the birds.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Rewards of Empirical Research

Any member of the scientific community can tell you about the sheer pleasure involved when the fruits of research are harvested. For instance, it took the renowned chimpanzee specialist Jane Goodall years to prove that chimps could use tools. At first it was a mere stick that the primates employed to fish for ants inside a tree hole. It wasn't long before they were discovered using screwdrivers and hammers to build crude shelters, and the sound from their Black and Decker circular saws soon permeated the forests. The same is true for the long hours of research that we here at COC have devoted to proving a theory we've had for many a day: that the Western blacktailed jackrabbit engaged in a strenous exercise routine. It wasn't until recently, though, that we were able to prove it by using a remote, motion-activated digital camera that captured a photo of an individual doing pushups.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Organ Donor

Many dirt roads crisscross the desert around "A" Mountain. This road roughly parallels Dripping Springs Road before abruptly turning to the southeast. The rugged Organ Mountains form a backdrop--as they do here--to many a photo taken in the Mesilla Valley of southern New Mexico. The mountains were called "Sierra de los Organos" by the Spaniards who passed through here on their way north along the Jornada del Muerto because, depending on the angle of the sun, the mountains resembled various body parts. The most embarrassing section of the trip for these intrepid explorers was the trail through the Buttock foothills. The more modest of the travelers often borrowed the blinders from the pack oxen to prevent seeing more than was prudent.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

End of the Line

Most people have probably seen pictures of barrel cacti, but how many have seen the inside of one? The cactus at left is midway through the process of decay, its pulpy interior exposed to the elements.

Oddly enough, the innards are also partially filled with rabbit droppings, raising the question of how they got there. It's hard to imagine even the toughest jackrabbit raising its haunches to rest on such a thorny toilet bowl.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Land of Little Rain

The Chihuahuan Desert here in New Mexico receives about 9 inches of rain per year, almost all of it during the summer monsoon season between July and September. During summer storms dry washes--like the one shown at left--are likely to become raging torrents of water, fed by rain flooding out of the mountains into low-lying areas. Many washes, or arroyos, cross heavily-traveled roads and streets, and during the thunderstorm season authorities constantly warn motorists not to cross running water whose depth is unknown. Nevertheless, people persist in driving their vehicles into fast-moving water, sometimes getting stranded or, worse, being washed away downstream by the water's incredible force. Most of the year, though, the deserts washes and arroyos are bone dry.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

What's in a Name?

The photo at left shows the vast expanse of Chihuahuan Desert between Las Cruces, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, maked by the mountains in the background. In the right foreground is the Ocotillo (pronounced Oc-Oh-Tee-Yo), aka the "buggy whip." Drivers on the Butterfield Stage routinely used the Ocotillo as a horsewhip whenever their whips were stolen by the Apache Indians, who loved to interweave the whips into the framework of their teepees. The city of El Paso wraps around the Franklin Mountains, so named for Ben Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States. Rumor has it that Franklin once visited the area, shortly after the signing of the Constitution. He had hoped to replicate for an Hispanic audience his infamous kite-flying experiment, in which he proved that lightning was, indeed, electricity, but he was unable to find a key in the Borderland, where everybody left open the doors to their adobe abodes.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Send in the Clones

One of the joys of field work is the discovery of unique life forms. These "four sisters" live about a quarter mile from the main trail that encircles "A" Mountain. Usually barrel cacti grow as individuals, but twins are not an anomaly. Quadruplets of this fine quality are indeed a rare occurrence. Barrel cacti in the Chihuahuan Desert are not nearly as large as those found in the Sonoran Desert, probably because the Chihuahuan Desert receives its rainfall primarily during the summer monsoon season--unlike the Sonoran Desert, which has two distinct rainy seasons, summer and winter--and because the Chihuahuan Desert is a higher and cooler desert.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Resident Rodents

Several readers of the blog have commented about the photo posted for my profile; it isn't big enough, they say, to discern any kind of detail. So, for their gratification, I am posting the photo in a larger format. These readers also want to know more about the resident packrat population here at COC. In something akin to trench warfare, we have tried to keep the critters' numbers to a minimum here at the center. We haven't murdered any, of course, but we have tried to landscape in such a way as to discourage their nesting habits. We have taken out ornamental Rosemary bushes, trimmed low-hanging pads on the prickly pears, pruned the sage and desert broom to remove shady spots for lazing around during hot summer days. Despite all of these efforts, however, the packrats are still around, living on the perimeter of the grounds. They are smart, resilient creatures that do their best to avoid interacting with the human animal. Unfortunately, they are hosts to "assassin" or "conehead" bugs (aka "kissing" beetles) that can be a nasty parasite for humankind. One thing the packrats have going for them: they're cute as hell.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Probing Desert Skies

The A.B. HaBoob Observatory sits high atop "A" Mountain, groping the desert sky for celestial objects. The observatory is named for Professor HaBoob, known as Abie to friends and colleagues, who left Saudi Arabia to come to America in his quest to discover heavenly bodies. Unable to reach his ultimate destination--Hollywood--he settled for El Paso, Texas, where he had an unfortunate encounter with the lawman Pat Garrett. One night in the Acme Saloon, Abie attempted to spit chewing tobacco--something he had never attempted before--into a brass spittoon at the edge of the bar's foot rail. Unfortunately, he missed and hit Garrett's newly-polished black leather boot instead. The lawman drew down on HaBoob, but the wily professor distracted Garrett by citing a little-known fact about the ancient Greeks: they used to test their eyesight by seeing if they could spot a dim star directly beside one of the main stars in the handle of the Big Dipper. Outside in the street, while Garrett tried to see the minor star, Abie slipped into a back alley, eventually fleeing up the Rio Grande to Mesilla, New Mexico, where a realtor told him about the vacant land on "A" Mountain. The professor bought the land for the site of his new observatory, and the rest is history.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Desert in Bloom

Spring is a wonderful time to be a researcher here at COC. Because the vast Chihuahuan Desert is so austere, any change of color is instantly noticeable. When the mesquite trees begin to leaf out, their slender bright green leaves are like a splash of paint on a brand new palette.

When the flowers on the claret cup hedgehog cactus suddenly appear against a dun green background, they're as striking as any red roses you've ever seen.

And when the desert marigold reveals its sunny face, the brilliant yellow is almost more than the eye can bear.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


Every institution needs reliable transportation, and COC is no different. We rely on a 1998 RAV4--which we jokingly refer to as the COCmobile--to help us trek across the rugged Chihuahuan Desert terrain. Chappy, who's something of a contrary, calls the vehicle "RAV-E-Shank-Car." As you can tell, she hails from a different era. The COCmobile has been to three of the four great American deserts: the Chihuahuan, the Sonoran, and the Mojave. She's been particularly invaluable on remote trips into the Big Bend country of West Texas, notably providing reliable transport up the rugged paved road through Green Gulch and into the Basin area of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. Research Associate Becca especially likes riding in the COCmobile, eagerly pressing her face to the windows to see what new adventure lies around each corner, often leaving nose imprints on the glass.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Independent Research

The staff here at COC are encouraged to do independent research, but only Research Associate Becca takes the suggestion seriously. Here she is (in the middle distance in the photo at left) conducting research on her own. Her main area of interest is the jackrabbit, but she has a fervent preoccupation with all manner of desert flora and fauna, especially rodents (which worries me a lot). Becca is the newest member of COC, coming aboard about five months ago. We sent her to training classes about a month after she was hired on, but she didn't do well in school. Her instructor said that Becca was too much of a class clown, and didn't take lessons seriously. The teacher told me personally the very last thing you want to hear about somebody you have high hopes for: that Becca had "potential." Unfortunately, good help is almost impossible to come by nowadays, and you have to work with what you've got.

Take Chappy and George, for instance. When they first came to COC they did extensive fieldwork. They were invaluable in advancing the institution's mission. But now they never venture out, and they spend most of their time in their offices doing nothing. Since our budget is tight, and we pay them next to nothing, we can't afford to let them go.

Then there's Dr. K., who's the major fundraiser around here. If it wasn't for her, there'd be no COC. Other than that, though, it's hard to figure out what she's doing with her time. More than once we've caught her sitting at her computer playing crossword puzzles or Free Cell. If she suspects that somebody's watching, she quickly closes the game and pretends she's working on articles. (An interesting aside: Yesterday afternoon, Dr. K. returned to the center in a foul mood. She had stopped by the grocery store to purchase one item--ground beef for dinner--and had had a mild confrontation with the checkout clerk, who had given back the wrong change. Pleased with herself for confronting the clerk, Dr. K. walked out of the store without her package, and drove all the way back here before realizing it. When she told me about it, I could hardly keep from laughing. When I mentioned it to the others, Chappy said, "Who goes to the store for one item and then leaves without it?" "Dr. K.," we all said in unison.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Much of COC's work is done in the field near "A" Mountain, just outside of Las Cruces. "A" Mountain is so called because of the huge A at the mountaintop. Historically, "A" Mountain was first discovered by the Don Juan de Oñate expedition which, in 1595, had moved out of Mexico across the Rio Grande to claim all of New Mexico Territory for the King of Spain. Two members of the expedition (purportedly Francisco "Poncho" de Leon and Jesus "Chuy" Hernandez) saw the A on the mountain and remarked surprisedly to each other about the likelihood of finding such a large vowel on a mountain in the New World. Because they were in trouble with Oñate for previously fraternizing with a couple of Manso Indian women on the north bank of the Rio Grande--near present-day El Paso--the men were reluctant to point out the letter to their comandante. But to these two men the mountain would always be called Montaña "A" (pronounced "Ah" en español), later Anglicized to "A" Mountain, the name by which it is currently known.

Desert Life

1st 2:  Willow in yucca shadow It was so windy and the air was so bad this morning that Dr. K, Willow and I did only our regular hike. Not s...