Category Archives: Natural History & Evolution

Total Lunar Eclipse video

For those who did not stay up last night here is a 44 second time-lapse video from the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in the isolated, and beautifully dark, Davis Mountains of West Texas:

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Nature Red in Tooth & Claw

Two Square Miles of the New West

I live in the New West (as in the Longmire TV series ‘west’ that has been filming in the alfalfa field down the road.) Interestingly, no one seems to have relayed this news to Mother Nature. And, as such things go, it may not be all that important anyway. It is worth pointing out, though, for those who require up to the minute briefings, that no text message, not a peep nor tweet about this development was sent to the many new-ish transplants to the region. I’m not sure who is culpable. Nevertheless, the fact is (you heard it here), the New West is as bloody as the Old.

When the church belfry was re-done some time back they discovered tons of collars and tags with names like Muffy, Spot and Max. Needless to say, there were also significant deposits of scat, bones, hair and fur. The pair of Great Horned Owls that are resident hereabouts take no prisoners — or rather, they do, but none escape to bark and meow about it. Before the dead tree by the old acequia pond toppled in a wind storm, I could drive home at night with the sun roof open and see the huge female look down at me with eyes imperious. What other animal observes one with such a superior, disdainful attitude? Actually, I anthropomorphize by writing ‘disdainful’. It is more accurate to say that I was an insignificant speck mostly beneath her concern.

Coyotes abound and a friend told me about a fellow who, while walking his Westies unleashed, had one of his precious white pups snatched by Mr. Wily and carried off to a certain doom. No children’s story of a cute domesticated doggy being taken away and raised by wild coyotes here.

Last summer we watched a coyote in the arroyo valley behind the house entice three dogs in a game of cat and mouse. The dogs, a German Shepard mix and two nondescript but sizable hounds, would chase after the playful coyote. When they tired the coyote would stop, turn around and taunt the dogs with its yipping bark into further continuing the chase. What the dogs did not know, and we could see from our bird’s eye vantage, was the rest of the coyote pack waiting, out of site, along the arroyo. It was like a ring-side seat for a PBS Nature episode. Singly, most coyotes are no match for a large dog, but working as a team, like wolves, they are masters of the hunt. An Australian cattle dog belonging to the neighbor on the next parcel was lost to them last year and one of my workmen had his great Rottweiler destroyed by a pack. The poor beast had to be put down.

I have yet to view a cougar, sometimes called mountain lions, but they’re around. A few miles away, toward Los Alamos, a guy who keeps ducks and geese was awakened by the manic sounds of his birds and went to the fenced area where they spend the night. He was dismayed to see a cougar going back over the fence with one of his ducks in its mouth. A few nights later the ruckus started again and he dashed out to see a black bear scaling the same fence, but with a goose. Drought and habitat loss, they say. And so it goes.

I have not been privileged to see one of the bobcats that prowl round about either. Definitely my loss. When we moved into this house we decided to get satellite TV instead of just staring at a blank screen. One of the features of our Spanish southwestern architecture is the ramada, an open porch roofed by thin beams, essentially an arbor. We have a nice one at the north end by the kitchen. On the section nearest a vertical wall it was thickly covered with climbing silverthorn. The planting expanded everywhere, topping out at the second story. I vividly remember the afternoon I heard a scream from the installing technician. Hurrying outside I expected to find him writhing on the ground from a fall. Instead, he was quivering saying a bobcat had jumped out of the dense greenery, shot past, leaped off the ramada onto the grounds and sped off. It was very exciting but had the unfortunate effect of dislodging the cat forever. My wife said, with little sympathy for any party, “Too bad!”

Snakes, scorpions and tarantulas are part and parcel of rural New Mexico living. I have yet to see a scorpion on the property but red racers, bull snakes and prairie rattlers are par for the course. I’ve taken Dharma, our yellow lab, to snake avoidance training to, hopefully, dodge the bullet that has plagued a neighbor: dogs dying from rattlesnake bite. Because of the nosing behavior of dogs they are most always bitten in the face. Such a bite is invariably fatal if you are not around to rush the dog to a vet for anti-venom. Even so, an unfair number succumb. Better to train the dog to avoid rattlesnakes like the plague.

Ah… plague, the Black Death, yes, it still exists, surviving quite comfortably here in the Land of Enchantment. As does hantavirus. The bacterial vector for transmission in bubonic plague is primarily the flea. It is carried on rodents like our endearing, big-eared and -eyed woodrat, more commonly called the pack rat from its habit of squirrilling away the shiny trinkets and detritus of human civilization. (They seem inordinately fond of the wiring on expensive European automobiles, frequently causing thousands of dollars of damage.) One of my good friends, a sturdy, strapping guy, may hold the world record for plague survival. He lived a week, undiagnosed, before his illness was accurately identified. Most people die a ghastly death by day four if they remain untreated.

Hantavirus in its pulmonary form appears to be spreading out from our Four Corners region. When the infected urine or feces of the Deer Mouse dries, and is aerosolized, it becomes possible to inhale the virus unknowingly. The problem is that it presents as a classic case of the flu. When left untreated it can be fatal.

The small inhabitants of our world are as noteworthy as the large — if harder to find and follow. I have watched a lizard in the back yard attack and tussle with one of the large, native centipedes. Some of these crawlies get as big as a #2 pencil. It was a battle worthy of the cheesy, cinematic, fighting dinosaurs from one of my childhood favorites: The Lost World. It took an hour for the chameleon to down the whole wiggling mass with the yet-to-be-swallowed tail half of the whipping centipede rolling the little lizard this way and that for the first 10 minutes of the fight.

Tarantulas, given a bad rap by Hollywood, are spectacular, large spiders, harming no one. It is a real treat to see one lumber along, minding its own business, heading for its hole in the ground. I am told they make nice pets.

All is not the survival of the fittest, however. (I lie, because really it is, we just don’t see it.) The last couple years the kestrel population has grown from never seeing one to having several resident families. A peregrine pair has returned for the last few breeding seasons as well. I am waiting for one to dive on the non-native intruders nesting in the juniper near the koi pond: Eurasian Collared Doves. First arriving in the States in 1982 they have spread like wildfire over the lower 48, adapting particularly well to human-altered environments. Ours are in their second season of setting up housekeeping.

Is it little wonder that so many of my easily unnerved and queasy coastal, big-city friends marvel at the rough and tumble available simply by stepping out our door? The New West may now be loaded with Birkenstocks, vegans and anti-gun sentiment, but it rides alongside much Old West wildlife and the struggle for survival still.

Oh… I have to stop now. The grand yipping and howling of a nearby coyote pack bears closer investigation. Perhaps they have waylaid a jack rabbit for tonight’s appetizer. Gain and loss, joy-pain, win-lose: the motion of life & death goes on, with or without our noticing or a ‘by your leave’.

As for me, I try to be aware. A key: keep your eyes open. Alert ears help, too.

People mean different things by the word ‘Nature’: some personify Nature; for some, Nature is an impersonal symbol; for some, Nature is an active force; for others, Nature is passive being; for some, Nature means God; for others, not.  But whatever meaning we attach to the term, it is not true that Nature is cruel; and therefore it cannot be true that Nature sets a headline for man’s cruelty… . For nature does nothing idly, makes nothing bad or ugly….  — Arthur Aston Luce, Fishing and Thinking, London: Hodder and Stoughton; 1959.

Coda:      The investigation had to be cut short. Fierce, and uncomfortably close, lightning played in the sky. It might have been the 4th of July. Finally, about 10:00 p.m., after ninety minutes of light show, the sky broke open from the east and we had a real, honest-to-goodness monsoon. A downpour of biblical proportions. The first decent drenching in about a year. A year in which many of our 1200 trees have begun to die; about all the vegetation in the back forty bit the dust by early summer.

When the cold rain hit, mixed with a little hail, I felt like raising my arms skyward in Moses-like supplication, sinking to my knees, kissing the hard earth. If you don’t live in the drought-gripped southwest you might not understand. If you do, you’ll be nodding your head saying, “Amen.”

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GALAX Space Observatory Shut Down

 

Cygnus Loop - photo from NASA
Cygnus Loop – photo from NASA

NASA Budget Constraints Kill 10-Year Old Successful Program

The only UV camera in space was de-commissioned at the end of June so its funding could be used for other NASA departments. While the ending of this mission was scheduled, it is highly disappointing that a still functioning observatory that provided much deep-space data has had its plug pulled. All the more shameful considering the many wasteful federal programs that ought to be axed instead.

Unlike visible light telescopes GALEX (Galaxy Evolution Explorer) scanned our universe in the ultraviolet spectrum viewing both the birth and death of stars thereby telling us much about their creation.

NASA has a site showing some of the amazing images captured by GALAX.

The above image is Cygnus Loop nebula, the debris from a star that died thousands of years ago. The image is ultraviolet light emitted from the expanding tendrils of hot gas that was the star.

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Popo Spouts Off

Popocatepetl Eruption Continues in Oaxaca

Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl
Children in a village on Pico de Orizaba/ Citlaltépetl – Wilbur Norman

Popocatepetl is a stratovolcano, or composite, volcano near Puebla, Mexico. These types of volvanos are built up of many layers and often have that cone-shaped mountain profile. They sometimes blow their tops in massive explosions that slump areas or crack off the cone and send debris flying, leaving a caldera (see a previous entry where I briefly describe Valles Caldera.)

Archaeological evidence shows that Popo (smoking mountain) has had many violent eruptions in the not-too-distant past, well… recent past if we are using geological time as our frame of reference. There have been major Plinian eruptions in the last 5000 years and an event 23,000 years ago where a whole flank of the mountain collapsed à la Mount St. Helens. (Plinian eruptions are named after the Roman historian and agriculturalist Pliny the Elder. He died in the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., probably of an asthma attack aggravated by his enormous bulk.) These eruptions, also called Vesuvian, eject columns of gas and ash high into the stratosphere. They also produce enormous amounts of cascading lava in pyroclastic flows. Their eruptions can resemble the photographs we have all seen of the cloud that develops from the detonation of an atomic bomb. The airborne ash may circle the globe for years, even affecting global weather. Depending on the season, Popo’s ash would first fall on the city of Puebla (winter, spring) or Mexico City (summer or autumn.)

Popo (5,426 meters/ 17,802 feet and 5th highest mountain in North America) is one of three mountains with year-round glaciers in Mexico. All three are popular destinations for mountaineers. Mexico’s third highest mountain is Iztaccíhuatl (in my day spelled Ixtaccíhuatl, 5,230 meters/ 17,160 feet) and is quite a slog as the mountain is more like a spine than a cone.

Pico de Orizaba, or Citlaltépetl (5,636 metres /18,491 feet), is Mexico’s tallest peak and the third highest in North America. It is very impressive as, like Kilimanjaro, it juts up from a plain and is visible long before one actually arrives at its base.

Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon in the distance.
Our climbing team on the ascent of Mt. Orizaba. Note the curvature of the horizon cloud in the distance. Dec. 1980.

Above is a photo I took of our climbing team on a trip one December long ago. My then-girlfriend and I drove our khaki-tan 1979 Toyota Landcruiser all the way from Philadelphia and everywhere the Mexican police would stand around and marvel at the vehicle as it looked so militar. To get the above photo I exhausted myself scurrying across the glacier (ca. 16,500 feet) to get this perspective of the team we hooked up with on the mountain!

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Flights of Fancy

Western Tanagers & Bullock’s Orioles Galore!

 

Bullock’s oriole, © Glenn Bartley

 

This spring we have seen more Western Tanagers and Bullock’s orioles than ever — and longer than ever. According to local specialists this had to do with the weather north of us. Apparently these birds (as well as the large numbers of hummingbirds hanging around) subscribe to cable TV and keenly watch The Weather Channel. The cold spell northward and the heavy winds here had these birds stacked up in northern New Mexico much like jets circling an aviation control tower: they were just awaiting the word that conditions had improved so they could resume their remarkable journeys.

The trick to keeping the hummers happy is nectar. The secret for Bullock’s and Scott’s orioles is nectar in an appropriate feeder. They are also inordinately fond of oranges and grape jelly. I think most of us know about the set-ups for hummers. What many may not know is how to set up nectar for the orioles. If you take one of those hummingbird feeders with a flaring red plastic base and pop out the yellow fake florets surrounding the feeding holes this will allow the oriole’s larger bill to access the nectar. The Tanagers like suet and the gelatin binder in those solid seed columns. They also seem fond of cranberries. A birdbath, of course, is just the ticket for these and the numerous grosbeaks, lazuli buntings, sparrows and other songbirds coming your way if you live in the inter-mountain west.

A few Bullock’s, perhaps late comers, seem to have stayed this year. Alas, I can’t actually see any nests as they build up near the tippy-tops of tall trees. But, they are still coming to the re-purposed nectar feeder as I write this!

In the future I will write about some of the seventeen species of hummers that either pass thru or spend the summers here.

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Late morning addition: “Scores of twitchers flocked to the Outer Hebrides to see a bird that has been recorded just eight times previously in the UK in nearly 170 years – only to see it slain by a wind turbine.”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/10146081/Twitchers-flocking-to-see-rare-bird-saw-it-killed-by-wind-turbine.html

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More Forest Fires Around “Wilburville”

Fires east, west and north.

So far this season there have been four forest fires in the area, all of them still burning fiercely out of control or mostly contained. Two are to the east in the Pecos Mountain area, one to the northwest and one west, just past Los Alamos in the Jemez Mountains at Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Valles Caldera is a 13.7 mile wide bowl, the remains of a small supervolcano that last blew its top about 50,000 years ago. Fragments of the explosion have been found as far away as Lubbock, Texas. Today the area serves as a magnificent location for cross-country skiing, fishing, horse riding and Hollywood movie-making.

21 June 2013 A view from my back yard, looking east, to the second fire in the Pecos Wilderness area.
21 June 2013
A view from my back yard, looking east, to the second fire in the Pecos Wilderness area.
June 2013 A view from the nearby 'town', looking east, to the first fire in the Pecos area.
June 2013
A view from the nearby ‘town’, looking east, to the first fire in the Pecos area.
3 June 2013 A view from my front yard, looking west, to the fire in the Jemez Mountains. The lights in the center of the photo are from Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project.
3 June 2013
A view from my front yard, looking west, to the fire in the Jemez Mountains. The lights in the center of the photo are from Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project.
26 June 2011 A view from my front yard, looking west, to the 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez Mountains. It came within 50 feet of the 30,000 fifty gallon barrels of Los Alamos nuclear waste that are stored under tarps near the small neighboring town of White Rock. We could never figure out what those white structures were until then. As one can see, the smoke and ash drifts 20 miles directly toward the house. In the first day this fire consumed 43,000 acres - about one acre per second!
26 June 2011
A view from my front yard, looking west, to the 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez Mountains. It came within 50 feet of the 30,000 fifty gallon barrels of Los Alamos nuclear waste that are stored under tarps near the small neighboring town of White Rock. We could never figure out what those white structures were until then. As one can see, the smoke and ash drifts 20 miles directly toward the house. In the first day this fire consumed 43,000 acres – about one acre per second!
25 June 2011 A view from my back yard, looking east, to the 2011 Pacheco forest fire that made us all pack and prepare to split for safety.
25 June 2011
A view from my back yard, looking east, to the 2011 Pacheco forest fire that made us all pack and prepare to split for safety.
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