Category Archives: Natural History & Evolution

I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel. Really.

Who knew that the world of camelids, an even-toed ungulate (Artiodactyla), was so fascinating? The answer, of course, is probably a third of the world’s population what with India, the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa leading the way. In 1856 thirty-four were landed in Texas at the direction of U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to become the United States Camel Corps (a draft animal!) They were to be used to settle, and subdue, the West, an experiment put paid by lobbying military mule suppliers and that bugaboo, the American Civil War. (Jeff Davis, in case you forgot, changed his allegiance.) Even with a small population these camels and their descendants (plus some privately introduced commercial stock) managed to hang on until the 20th century. Living in my state of New Mexico a young, then unknown, Douglas MacArthur heard about a wild camel wandering near Fort Selden in 1885.

Draft Camel
Draft Camel

Imported as work animals into central Australia in the 19th century the now-feral dromedaries in the Land Down-Under reached a population of one million. Between 2009 and 2013 an extermination program reduced that number to 300,000. These stocks are the only wild dromedaries on the planet.

The framing of the question in my opening sentence means we also have to include the southern hemisphere of the New World. Llamas, vicuñas, guanacos and alpacas are kith and kin to the standard camel most of us know – or think we know. Scientists have also created a cama, a camel-lama hybrid, using camel semen injected into a llama! They have no hump and are bigger than a llama and smaller than a camel. There was no practical purpose to this experiment, as such, more than to test if the Old World and New World denizens are, in fact, the same species.

Not more than two weeks before we left for India in February I was amused to hear that 12 contestants at the beauty contest at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rimah, Saudi Arabia had been ignominiously tossed from the competition. Owners were discovered to be cheats; their crime heinous beyond all understanding: they had been injecting their charges’ lips and eyelids with botox – yes, that’s right, the same chemical women use to enhance their looks for us menfolk, enhancing lips to bee-stung proportions and plumping up spaces to render goddess-like anatomies. Confused? Oh… did I forget to mention I am writing here of camel contestants, not the fairer sex of our own species. (I wonder if I can slightly enlarge my old camel hair overcoat with a judicious application of botox?)

If you have ever been up close and personal (OK, maybe not that personal) with a camel you will see they have lovely eyes topped with hooded, come-hither lids rimmed with long lashes. I well remember this one female in Kenya… but I digress.

In my unfolding camelid geography above I did not mean to slight the largest of the species, Camelus Ferus, the wild Bactrian, but these magnificent beasts are not found in India, the focus of this essay to which I am slowly humping. Alas, wild Bactrians are scarce on the ground in their native habitat, too. The last time I was in Mongolia’s Gobi desert I was told there were only 400 wild ones remaining.

Additionally, there is the two-humped domesticated Bactrian (C. bactrianus with a population of two million). It is it’s own species making a total of three living species under the genus Camelus. Aside from slight, invisible genetic differences with this domesticated variety, wild Bactrians are able to drink very saline winter slushies from semi-frozen Gobi salt-pans. From this they seem to suffer no ill effect and it is something their more numerous domesticated cousins cannot do. Bactrians are also one of the few animals able to eat snow to provide their water needs when liquid fresh water or salt slushies are not available. They accomplish this feat using advanced physics – the principal of latent heat, the hidden energy supplied or extracted to change the state of a substance without changing its temperature. This means heat is taken from the camel to melt the snow into water they can then utilize. It is an energy-intensive process so they eat only a little snow at a time.

With your elementary camel knowledge now in order we may proceed to the story at hand: our visit to India’s National Research Centre on Camel, Bikaner. It is a slightly awkward name, true, but it is what is on the campus signs and letterhead so I defer to the Centre’s self-identification (tho the amply represented OCD in me desperately wanted to attack the signs and paint “the” between “on” and “Camel”. My failure to muster up the courage to do so is something that will haunt the rest of my days, no matter I had no ready coloring agent left behind my ears from the Holi Festival. A writer and traveler’s life is not an easy one, fraught as it is by encounters with lapses in grammar that can tear one’s heart out. Every time I read the signs I was sure I detected a disturbance in The Force.)

Camel for Tourist Rides
Camel for Tourist Rides

Be that as it may, at NRCC, the soothing acronym for the Centre, one will learn tons about our friend, C dromedarius, the Ship of the Desert. I would bet dollars-to-donuts that most of you did not know there are four kinds of camels in Rajasthan. They roughly correspond to our more familiar Percheron or Clydesdale horse, a Ferrari, the Holstein cow and, for the sake of a one-on-one comparison, the bovine we call a Jersey. The corresponding camels are the Bikaneri, Jaisalmeri, Kachchhi and Mewari. And, by the by, there are two ‘hs’ in the third type; I am disappointed you would think I could make such an error. Perhaps we cannot be pen pals after all.

As we walked the camel world, absorbing minutiae such as a dry and thirsty camel may slurp down its 200 litres (53 gallons) in three minutes, an enormous male was indicated, standing in his outdoor stall. His legs were hobbled. Our guide said he was a particularly ornery and nasty bad boy. A big bastard he proved to be when I walked closer to take his portrait and he pivoted away facing west leaving me with only an eastern view. Several times I jockeyed for a better angle without getting too close but he deftly rotated away, giving me the stink eye as he continued to ruin a perfectly good shot. I believe I profaned god in a moment of pique.

Stud Camel at Rest Tied to a Wall
Stud Camel at Rest Tied to a Wall

Not being privy to the dromedary tongue, I could be wrong but I think he uttered something about Camelid Union, Local 666, suggesting he refuse to pose for the western infidel seeking to monetize his good studly looks for monetary gain that will not be shared.

As one of the Centre’s remits is the selective breeding of a number of the 314 camels currently in its care, we were fortunate to be visiting during the rut. Camels, if you must know, are the only ungulates that mate in a sitting position and the female does not ovulate until semen is present in the vagina, a sort of cart-before-the-horse-scenario. Modesty prevents me from writing more. That, plus the fact that breeding is a man-controlled affair and, darn it all, we did not actually get to view any couplings, tho you would certainly be amazed at the size and length of the extremity the young and hip would probably call a male camel’s junk.

We did get to hear many examples of the male mating call, to which the females were all ears, each pointing toward the sounds of particular males. I managed to get a recording of this remarkable sound and will try to figure out how to edit and post it in the future. It is an incredibly deep rumble that carries a great distance. The closer I stood to a braying male the more physically palpable the rumble. I was reminded of the low decibel notes of whales with their oceanic song moving through the vastness of their seas. It is said that the notes of a male singing off the coast of Maine can be picked up on the other side of the Atlantic! What I find extraordinary, and did not know until looking up camelids a moment ago to find out if I was correct in naming all seven members of the species, is that aquatic cetacea such as whales evolved from artiodactyla, the even-toed ungulates, leading modern taxonomists to sometimes combine these as Cetartiodactyla. My brain leap about the power of the male camel’s voicing does, therefore, have a relationship to that of the whales. “Fascinating, Jim… highly logical.”

A male camel, let’s call him Joe for the sake of anthropomorphizing, does this auditory magic through his dulla, an inflatable sac in his throat. He projects this sac from his mouth during rut, moving air to create the sound. I did wonder why one male’s tongue looked so strange, swollen and pink lolling out the side of his mouth! The actual camel tongue is a barbarous affair able to eat leaves off acacia trees protected by two-inch thorns. They happily chew threw it all.

(Then again, as I ruminate, I realize camels are always chewing because they have cuds they regurgitate from their four-chambered stomachs. Chewing a cud puts Camel Joe on my ritually clean list as a possible meal but this is negated by the fact that his feet, thank Yahweh, are not possessed of the all-important split, or cloven, hoof. Leviticus, for us, the Chosen, is nothing if not thorough: pigs, cloven but no cud; rabbits, cud but not cloven. And so it goes. When I went to college I left these laws and crossed over to the dark side. Muslims, notably, do eat camel meat and justify it by pointing to the New Testament saying Jesus and Paul made all foods edible.)

As a keeper placed an in-hand bridle or halter, on handsome stud Joe to lead him to water, every resident in the female pen about 200 feet away, even the yearlings lying in sternal recumbency, came to rapt attention, heads and eyes moving in locked unison. Befitting his star turn, Camel Joe seemed to add a little extra oomph to his strutting pace (not  trotting – look it up!); his smokin’ chance on the runway of life. With all the testosterone in the air I did not notice if the keeper actually made Joe drink, thus barring me from coining an unforgettable phrase that some long-ago sage beat me to when it comes to horses.

Female camels looking at a braying male in rut
Female camels looking at a braying male in rut

If you visit NRCC most of the place is off-limits as it really is a research station. But there are a few obligatory rooms of tourist merchandise facing a walkway, all watched over by a few desultory vendors. There is also a little museum and, outside the main gate, next to the admissions window, a place to buy kulfi on a stick, a frozen dairy dessert more dense and creamier than our ice cream. Here, of course, it is made from camel milk. It is divine and the serving size is on the parsimonious side. At $.77 each why not buy two! I tend to avoid dairy products in less hygienic environments (read: the countryside of India) but the NRCC runs a clean food operation. Plus camel milk can be left out without refrigeration for 8 to 9 hours without spoiling.

Female camels running to water
Female camels running to water. I had been standing with my back to the gate about 10 seconds before I took this photo. I turned around just in time to move out of the way as 30 female camels burst through the gate heading to water. NOTE: Never stand between a camel and its water!

 

Arthur:

(The King of Legend, not General Douglas Mac)

 

It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.

The kulfi must be perfect, all the whole-long year.

A law was made a distant moon ago here:

July and August the monsoons they must bring.

And there’s a legal limit to the snow here

In the Camel-lot.

The winter is forbidden till December

And exits March the second on the dot.

By order, summer lingers through September

In our Camel-lot.

Camel-lot! Camel-lot!

I know it sounds a bit bizarre,

But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot

That’s how conditions are.

I know it gives a person pause,

But in Camel-lot, Camel-lot

Those are the legal laws.

The snow may never slush upon the hillside.

By nine p.m. the moonlight must appear.

In short, there’s simply not

A more congenial spot

For happily-ever-aftering than here

In our Camel-lot.

 

Rats! Not Exactly on the Bucket List

Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.

One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)

A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:

“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”

Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).

Rats Feeding on Milk & Water - Karni Mata Temple
Rats Feeding on Milk & Water – Karni Mata Temple, Rajasthan, India

While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.

I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,ooo holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.

Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.

As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.

On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.

For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?

Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!

Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!

A Sonnet

(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)

Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore

East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.

But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:

Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.

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.”

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.

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!

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