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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Colores del Desierto

There's something exquisitively delicate about desert colors, whether it be the lemon yellow flowers of the Mexican Paloverde tree,
the radiant pink blossom of a thorny cholla,
or the through-the-looking-glass amber of the March Hare's eye.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Knowledge of Good/Evil?

I first saw this little garter snake while half its body was below ground, presumably hunting for food: worms or lizards. I waited a long time for it to come out, tapping my foot to create vibrations to encourage its emergence, but I only succeeded in driving it further into the hole.
After waiting patiently for five or ten minutes, I finally got a good look at the snake as it backed fluidly out of the earth. It posed for a few pictures, then plunged back into the nether world.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Life Forms

The photo at left gives an idea about some of the kinds of plant life that can be found here on the grounds at COC. In the foreground is a Buckhorn Cholla (choy-ya); to the right is a variegated agave; to the left a pencil cholla. A large Century Plant is at the center of the photo. Beyond the Century Plant is one of the many mesquite trees on the property. And at the left of the photo, identified by the yellow flowers, is a Mexican Paloverde (paloverde is a Spanish word that means "green stick").
When I took the picture of the cottontail at left--because of the comical expression on its face--I didn't realize that its right ear had a big split in it. I've seen rabbit ears that look like they have bite marks (as if they'd been in a fight with Mike Tyson), but I have never seen a rabbit ear so badly damaged. Ouch.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Silly or Destructive?

Ah--nothing like a Big MacAgave attack to fill up the old Leporidae stomach. Here, Harry munches on one of the leaves of the largest Century Plant (Agave americana) on the grounds at COC.
Between the packrats, the rabbits and hares, it's a wonder any flora still flourishes here. If you love to take care of plants, nothing gives you more of a sinking feeling than to see huge teeth marks in them.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Let Me Take You Down . . .

'Cause I'm going to--Strawberry Pitaya. Again. I can't help it, but the flowers of the Strawberry Pitaya Cactus are so beautiful I had to post more. Research Associate Becca and I happened upon these gems this morning during fieldwork.

She was quickly distracted from the aesthetics of the situation, though, by a quick-moving lizard dashing from rock to rock. I must say that I'm slightly worried about this compulsion that Becca displays, the need to chase after anything that moves. This past week she even lunged at several tarantula hawks (among the largest wasps)--a potentially dangerous maneuver. I know it's insatiable scientific curiosity that motivates her, but it is scary, nonetheless.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Poor Man's Georgia O'Keeffe

During our field trips into the Tortugas Mountain outback, I have seen these stick structures before, but I am still unable to identify which plant they come from. I have looked long and hard at the yuccas, the Mormon Tea and Desert Broom, the creosote and sagebrush, but no revelation comes. Since the structure looks something like a very skinny cow skull, I decided to post it as a piece of artwork rather than as an object for empirical observation.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fair Feathered Friends

Many birds live in the desert here at COC, and many visit frequently--often for a sip of water at the watering hole. Sparrows, quail, grackles, doves, swallows, orioles, pyrrhuloxias, etcetera, all make frequent appearances. I'm not a bird expert, but I believe the handsome individual at left is a Verdin, a resident bird in the arid Southwest. Our Audubon Deserts reference book describes the Verdin's song as a simple "seep!" and that accords with the song of the bird in the photograph.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


I have the utmost respect for this White-Wing Dove mama, who clung tenaciously to her nest during a fierce wind storm recently. Over the last few days of the past week, we had persistent winds of 37 to 40 mph and gusts up to 56 mph. The small desert willow in which she built her nest bowed over time and again, threatening to eject her, her nest and the young ones inside. She never budged. And now that the winds have calmed, she continues to mind her brood.
There are human beings who would have abandoned their young in far better circumstances. How can you not admire a creature with such dedication?
The second photo is of two other doves in the very same tree.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Grim Fate

Research Associate Becca and I came across a gruesome sight this morning: the remnants of what appeared to be a young mule deer kill. We hoped it wasn't one of the two we encountered yesterday.
Of course, we had no real way of knowing what happened to the animal, whether it had a fatal accident and was later gnawed on by coyotes or if it was taken by a mountain lion. But either way it was disturbing to witness the fate of this poor young animal.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Drought, Deer and Mountain Lions

During our fieldwork this morning on the near side of Tortugas Mountain, Research Associate Becca and I saw two mule deer. This is the closest to residential areas that we've seen deer in a long while. Undoubtedly, they are searching for water in this time of severe drought.
The problem with deer being this close to the city is that they often bring mountain lions with them; deer are a natural prey of lions. A week ago in the city of Las Cruces a pet dog was killed by a small cougar (aka mountain lion). These two particular deer took one look at Becca and decided it was probably wise to mosey along.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Bunny Hop

Hi, my name is Harry, the Black-tailed Jackrabbit. I live here on the grounds at COC, and I can be seen often eating the flowers of the desert willow, various grasses and--when my stomach is upset--gnawing on the leaves of the creosote bush. In the middle of a hot, sunny day, I'm usually lying in the shade of a mesquite tree with my ears pinned back.
But sometimes in the early morning, when I hear the sonorous sounds of Los Lonely Boys wafting out of the Big House, I just gotta get up and muevo mi colita.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Willow Weep For Me

This is one of the desert willows (Chilopsis linearis) growing here on the grounds at COC. This particular specimen is about 12 to 15 feet tall. Although desert willows are classified as shrubs, they can grow tree-like to a height of about 25 feet. They are one of the Chihuahuan Desert's most beautiful plants; they grow in the Sonoran and Mojave deserts as well. The desert willows here at COC have just begun to bloom, but blossoms have appeared as early as November and have remained as late as September.

The flowers are about 1 1/2 inches long and are orchid-like, and the fruit is a 4- to 8-inch bean-like pod that hangs on the tree throughout the fall and winter. Although it is called a willow, the desert willow is really related to the Bignonia family of plants. One curious observation I have made--though one for which I can find no research literature--is that the blue mud dauber wasps appear here about the same time the desert willow flowers bloom; and the wasps land on the blossoms and seem to use them in some way.

Monday, May 19, 2008

A Few Flowers More

Within a couple of weeks the desert's flowers will have disappeared, and the major furnace blast of summer will be upon us. Until then, one can only appreciate the floral beauty that abounds in this arid land.

Research Associate Becca, however, seems oblivious to this beauty, content to pursue jackrabbits, quail, sparrows, lizards, even insects.

This morning, for instance, she was more intent on catching grasshoppers than appreciating the still-blossoming plants; and, for whatever reason, there was an abundance of grasshoppers.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Little Rain

It's always amazing to see the results of a little rain in the desert. Take this ocotillo, for instance. After the slightest amount of precipitation this past week, its leaves begin to sprout.
They won't get much bigger than this; and if the temperatures get high--as they are slated to do this week--the ocotillo will drop its leaves to prevent the loss of water through evaporation. When the rains come again, the ocotillo leaves will miraculously appear.
This particular ocotillo is unique in that it is growing directly out of a large boulder.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Spirit of the Desert

The young of the American tribe often seek communion with the desert during their vision quest ceremonies. A group of young tribespersons gathers together and heads out into the desolate reaches of the wilderness at night where, under a sky filled with celestial orbs, they consume large quantities of liquid spirits in an effort to make themselves attractive to members of the opposite sex. If the coupling strategy is unsuccessful, they consume still more liquid spirits to purge themselves of evil thoughts, blowing their cookies hither and yon in an attempt to baptise the desert in sacred vomit. The discerning wanderer can often discover remnants of these rituals that have been left behind in the wilderness.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A Welcome Sight

After months of no precipitation, it is an awesome sight to see rain clouds over the parched desert. Research Associate Becca and I even got sprinkled on this morning during our field work near Tortugas Mountain. It wasn't enough moisture to wet a lizard's whistle (pun intended, Liz), but it was rain, nevertheless. And a look across the desert to the Mesilla Valley revealed a wall of showers reaching the desert floor (see photo at left).

The heavy cloud cover also provided a welcome respite from the building heat. High temperature today was expected to be 67 F, about twenty degrees cooler than our normal high. By the way, the desert has the most beautiful fragrance after a rain, owing primarily to the scent creosote bushes exude after they are drenched.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Yucca in Bloom

As promised in an earlier post, here is the evidence to prove that the blossoms of the yucca are among the most beautiful in the desert.
This particular specimen of soaptree yucca grows near the new bridge the BLM built across the arroyo next to the parking lot on the northwest side of Tortugas Mountain. Soon all of the yuccas will bloom, poking their showy flower stalks high into the air to attract the yucca moth, the insect responsible for the plant's pollination.
It seems that the yucca moth takes pollen from the stamen of one plant, rolls it into a little ball, then stuffs the pollen into the stigma of another plant. In the process the moth also lays eggs, which hatch into larvae that feed on the seeds of the yucca. The yucca flower is the state flower of New Mexico, formally adopted in March of 1927

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Desert Vistas

Just a few photos of Chihuahuan Desert vistas to provide a sense of the kind of solitude one can experience in the outback. The renowned naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch said this about dirt roads: "There's nothing like a good bad dirt road to screen out the faintly interested and to invite in the genuinely interested. And it's perfectly fair and democratic, open to anyone willing to endure a little inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of getting away from the crowds."

Many of these roads can be hiked or biked, too, and it's often much more rewarding to leave the internal-combustion engines behind. Away from the ever-present noise pollution, the curious wanderer can find true serenity.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Here in the West we have been locked in a long-term drought. Over the past few years it seemed as if we might finally be moving into a wetter weather pattern, but so far this year we have been absolutely parched. Normally, we would have received between 1.45 and 1.50 inches by now, but so far this year we've gotten only .21 inches of precipitation. And it shows. The desert is noticeably drier, and the normally strong spring winds have carried more dust and sand than in any previous year I can remember. Perhaps lack of rain and strong winds are what caused this large ocotillo to be uprooted.

Different desert animals eat various parts of the spiny prickly pear cactus. I once saw a javelina in Big Bend National Park chomping on a prickly pear pad (hypodermic needles and all), and I can remember thinking, "Now that is a creature with a HARD palate." I know that coyotes, who are omnivores (animals who eat both meat and vegetables), often consume the pears from the cacti, as is evidence by the red prickly pear skins in their scat (poop). And I have seen packrats munching merrily on prickly pear pads in an effort to get the proper amount of fiber in their diets. This particular prickly pear pad bears the tooth marks of some hungry critter.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Random Sightings

On our fieldwork this morning, Research Associate Becca and I came across a few interesting sights. One was this substance leaking out of some late-blooming buds at the tip of an ocotillo. We didn't know what it was, nor did we touch it because it had the appearance of something very sticky, like clear syrup. Becca couldn't have reached it anyway; she's pretty short.
A little while later we saw a Red-Tailed Hawk hunting nearby. It swooped down close to the ground and made a stab at something (probably a rodent) next to a yucca, but came up empty. Becca, who feels the need to run after anything that moves, took off for a closer look. All I had with me was my point-and-shoot Canon PowerShot S40, so the photos I took of the magnificent raptor came out poorly.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Acacia Wondering

In case you're wondering what a White-thorn Acacia looks like, here it is. When these bushes (10 to 15 feet) blossom they are covered with small yellow ball flowers that are as fragrant as anything you will ever smell in the desert. The fragrance is quite apparent even at a distance, and if you catch a whiff of this aroma without seeing the source you will undoubtedly go in search of the plant. Having smelled it, you may even wonder--as I did--whether anybody has ever thought about making an acacia perfume. A quick Google search will reveal that there are, indeed, acacia perfumes. In fact, its use dates back several centuries. Perhaps Research Associate Becca would consider putting a dab or two behind each of her pointy ears. Naw. She's more partial to Eau de Rodent Hole.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


No, this is not a Stealth aircraft, but one of the countless swallows that live here on the grounds of COC. These birds are restless, slicing through the desert sky like the jets on Top Gun. They chase each other incessantly, often having battles that begin on high and end near the ground as the birds argue in squeaky, chattering voices while plunging earthward. They do land briefly at the watering hole, where they take a few sips before taking to the skies again. They are graceful aviators and do well even in the briskest of desert winds.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Roots, Raíces, Radici

Usually, the roots of the ocotillo are not exposed, but here--due to wind and rain erosion, and the grade of the slope--the below-ground structure of the plant is apparent for all to see; i.e. for anyone who cares to notice it. Many people wrongly assume that the roots of desert plants must plunge deeply into the earth in order to find precious water.

But the truth is that most arid-land plants actually have shallow roots, using the technique of branching out for great distances just beneath the sandy soil. Most people who have seen the towering saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert would be surprised to discover that they have a very shallow root system.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


This is the inside of a seed pod from a Soaptree Yucca. It has dark stripes striating the interior. Whether these stripes derive from the black seeds or something else is unclear. They may simply be one of the innumerable patterns that nature creates. This particular seed pod (or fruit) is heart-shaped, and rests precariously on the long, narrow leaves of the plant.
The yucca that gave birth to this seed pod is at the left forefront of the second photo. The most prevalent patterns in the sandy dirt road that runs along the west side of Tortugas Mountain are tire tread marks, shoe prints and animal tracks.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Far Side of the Organs

It's about a 35- to 40-minute drive from Las Cruces to the Aguirre Springs National Recreation Area on the east side of the Organ Mountains. Near the campground (57 family sites and 2 group sites) are the trailheads to two national recreation trails, the Baylor Pass Trail and the Pine Tree Trail. Both are spectacular hikes, but the Pine Tree Trail climbs to the base of the Organ Needles into a forest of Ponderosa Pines. The road in and out of the recreation area is itself a scenic drive, offering many outstanding vistas for nature enthusiasts.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

How to Ruin a Desert

Here are two views of a house being built west of the Organ Mountains that doesn't fit into the environment at all. What would Frank Lloyd Wright think of this abode? If you've ever seen Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona you know the answer to that question. With a few notable exceptions, most builders/architects here know little, or care less, about how to make homes fit into their environmental surroundings.
As a result, many beautiful tracts of open Chihuahuan Desert are being ruined by sprawling subdivisions. Many of the lots in these subdivisions sport two- and sometimes even three-story houses that stand out like sore thumbs in the desert environs. Top these residences off with bright red tile roofs and you've created an eyesore in the austere landscape.

Bushwhack or Not to Bushwhack

1st 2:  this morning's moon Another morning doing our regular hike, this time with added distance; we bushwhacked out of the left branch...