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Spring 2012: Animals

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: 2012 Trips, Animals, Mojave Desert, Nature, Regions, Road Trips.

Spring is a great time to see desert wildlife, and we were blessed not only with abundant sightings, but with photos of animals that visited the spring on our land over the winter, since one of the biologists had placed a motion-sensor camera there last November.

Mountain sheep expert John Wehausen spotted a group of rams at the head of the gulch, and the other biologists encountered numerous rattlesnakes on their hikes.

I was lucky to run across a couple of rattlers, a gopher snake and two variable ground snakes. Plus, I saw several western tanagers on migration, a flock of Gambel’s quail, and lots of jackrabbits. Redtail hawks were out in force, and from camp we saw one chasing a raven across the inner basin.

During my later hikes in the San Francisco Bay Area, I ran into lots more snakes, lizards, birds and insects – plus a group of sea lions basking on offshore rocks.

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Spring 2012: Flowers

Sunday, May 13th, 2012: 2012 Trips, Mojave Desert, Nature, Plants, Regions, Road Trips.

Several people remarked that this year’s spring bloom was below average due to drought, but I suspect that we were simply in the desert at the wrong time, in between the early bloom of annuals and the later flowering of perennials. Nevertheless, I spent my last day photographing what flowers there were, and I think they’re pretty impressive. What do you think?

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Summer Solstice Between Fires

Monday, June 24th, 2013: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Nature, Southwest New Mexico, Whitewater, Wildfire.


With no plans for the day, I got up before dawn and climbed the slope of Boston Hill to deliver my sunrise prayer. Silhouetted against the glow of the eastern horizon, the smoke of the Silver Fire, burning its way through the ponderosa pine forest of the Black Range, trailed away toward the south. And the sun rose precisely behind the base of the smoke plume, setting the theme for this solstice.

This is our third year of apocalyptic wildfires. First, in 2011, the monstrous Wallow Fire, caused by careless campers, consumed most of the vast White Mountains forest in Arizona, one of my favorite nearby retreats, and the Horseshoe Fire, blamed on illegal immigrants, torched the Chiricahua Mountains forest southwest of here. Then in 2012 the Whitewater-Baldy fire, started by lightning, burned the 300,000 acre heart of the high Mogollon Mountains just north of us, and still, a year later, all trails in that area remain closed.

I had spent my first New Mexico summer solstice on Whitewater Creek, and last year’s maps had shown the fire burning down the steep canyon slope all the way to the creek and stopping there. I decided to venture into the closed area by taking the back way in, dropping into the middle of the canyon from a high ridge, to see how things really fared down there.

Picking my way down the steep trail over sharp, loose rocks, I noticed individual scorched junipers and pinyons on this, the north slope, but here most of the vegetation was intact, whereas far across the canyon on the opposite slope, large swaths of forest had been browned by the fire. The walls of Whitewater Canyon consist largely of cliffs, pinnacles, and talus slopes, but ponderosa forest can cling to surprisingly steep slopes, and I was glad to see about half the forest still green.

When I finally neared the treetops of the riparian canopy I could hear the creek down there roaring over rocks, and I saw that here and there, individual trees in the canyon bottom had burnt. The opposite slope was ash-covered and cleared of undergrowth, and charred or half-burnt logs and branches were scattered amidst the luxuriant creekside vegetation. Lower Whitewater Creek has always been full of small trout, but I didn’t see a fish anywhere, not even a minnow.

Finding a place to bathe and hang out in the shade is tricky here; long stretches of the creek are shallow and gravelly, and the fire had reduced coverage of the canopy. I worked my way upstream until I found a narrow spot between low, overhanging cliffs where there was a large flat rock next to a small pool fed by a tiny waterfall. It would be shaded till mid-afternoon when I would move upstream a few yards. June is our hottest month, and I didn’t plan to hike out until just before sunset, hoping to be in shade on the way up.

A more peaceful day would be hard to imagine. The only minor hardship was the gnats and flies which would swarm me any time I moved. As long as I sat or lay still, they would lose interest in me and gradually drift away. All day long, I bathed, snacked, drank purified water from the creek, read a book about African pygmies, watched birds in the canopy overhead and butterflies and dragonflies flitting above the creek, listening to the never-ending song of water on stone. Whereas in the past, there were always other hikers or equestrians in this popular canyon, the trail closures ensured that I was completely alone. Imagine going an entire day without any human sound, not even an airplane!

Sunlight waned and returned above as high, thin clouds formed and dispersed. Finally, after 7 pm, I packed up and started back. It was a hard slog, and I was torn between hurrying to reach the ridgetop by sunset, and taking it easier to enjoy the last golden light on the canyon walls. About a third of the way up, I saw the moon, almost full and bright as a new coin, rising from the head of the canyon.

Then, when I was far enough up to see the golden mesa fanning out below the mouth of the canyon, I also saw smoke spreading from another wildfire along the rugged horizon way over in Arizona, somewhere north of Clifton and Morenci. When I finally reached the top, I saw the sun setting into the smoke of this fire, so that burning forests both opened and closed this longest day.

I drove a narrow, twisting, and empty road down from the mountain under spectacular crimson clouds in a deepening blue sky, and the big moon shed a soft light on the hills and canyons around me as I found my long way back home in the night.



Insects of the Southwest

Sunday, August 18th, 2013: Animals, Nature.

Mantis on bear poop, Eighty Mountain, October 2011

When I was a little kid, I used to lie on the ground behind our house, watching ants and trying to figure out their business. I captured other insects and fed them to the black-and-yellow garden spider who had strung her huge web along the side of our house. The neighbor kid got an extravagant model rocket for his birthday, and we caught crickets for astronauts, launching them into the sky over the creek. And one night after I went to bed, a big, beautiful luna moth flew in my window on a moonbeam (see Windows).

I was intimate with insects throughout childhood. Lightning bugs added magic to summer evenings; woolly worms were plush and comical. Under every rock were sinuous centipedes and pillbugs that curled up into tiny balls when disturbed. Fat bumblebees sailed drunkenly through flower gardens. I was stung by wasps and bees, but I still found them captivating, and it bothers me that, considering all the pollinator photos I’ve included below, not a single one shows a bee.

We used crickets and grasshoppers as fishing bait, and in summer the neighborhood boys all had their prize fighting pinching bugs. My pets included tropical fish, frogs and salamanders, snapping turtles, lizards and snakes, and birds and bats with broken wings, and they all enjoyed various kinds of insect food. A man in the neighborhood raised bait in his oversize garage, under grow lights. I bought mealworms (beetle larvae) from him in wire-handled takeout boxes and stored them in the fridge at home.

My home in New Mexico is an insect crossroads. I run across lots of magical creatures on my hikes in the surrounding mountains, but some of the most astounding have shown up right in my yard – like the fantastic Automeris cecrops caterpillar shown below, which became the talk of my neighborhood as it spent several weeks browsing my front hedge.

Growing up in the rural midwest, I took lacewings for granted – they were among the bugs that gathered around lamps in the evening. A couple days ago, I glanced out a window and saw some tiny things hanging from a leaf and wondered what they were. Later, putting together this gallery, I found my photo of a lacewing and googled it. Lo and behold, those things I had seen hanging from the leaf were lacewing eggs!

In the gallery, you’ll find several pictures of my long-time favorite moth, the sphinx moth. I fell in love with them on my land in the Mojave desert, where they sometimes swarm in the desert willow trees in May, so much like hummingbirds, gorging on nectar.

Don’t be misled by my title; centipedes and tarantulas are not insects. And I haven’t tried to identify everything; please let me know if you recognize any of these or notice any errors!




























Mystery Insects







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Desert Cams

Thursday, December 5th, 2013: Animals, Nature.

Bighorn ewe at dawn, July 2014

I have to preface these galleries with my own ambivalence. I’m not crazy about adding technology to this wild place; I’m not crazy about remote sensing in general. I think the photos are cool, and I respect my biologist friends who maintain the cameras, but I treasure my own direct observations and the stories of friends who’ve seen these animals personally, far more than these robotic photos. Increasingly, science is technology-happy, prizing instrumental data over personal observation. Gone are the days of natural history, when people who loved nature patiently immersed themselves in habitats long enough to observe the life cycles of animals and plants, recording their observations with universal, primitive, and sustainable technologies: drawing and writing.

These galleries represent my own selection of “greatest hits” from each cam, and I expect to update them. The complete chronological sets of cam photos contain a lot of useful data and will presumably be available to legitimate researchers upon request.

The Seep







Ringtail Cat


The Spring



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