It Must be Spring

The weather has been perfect the last week or so and I’ve made some headway in my outdoor chores. The rock garden (AKA Rabbit Salad Bar) is looking better and I’m planting more aromatic plants that rabbits won’t eat. I discovered the Curry Plant at my local pueblo nursery. It has a strong curry aroma from the leaves and it can be used in cooking but it is actually part of the daisy family. It looks a little like lavender or rosemary but gets small yellow flowers. I have lavender, Mojave Sage, Yucca (red), and Agave in the rock garden right now along with the curry plant.

The goldfish pond is looking better but still needs a lot of work. As best I can tell all of my goldfish survived the winter. The pond never actually froze solid. Right now I have too much vegetation in the pond and need to remove about 60 percent of it but that is going to be a major effort. I’ll need to hire somebody to help with that. (ca-ching).

The storage building roof has been repaired — good for fifty years they say. I won’t have to ever do that again. I repainted the doors and the wood trim but it needs a little bit of stucco repair in the back…local critters must have tried to get inside. I’ll patch that up for now. Eventually the house and storage building will need to be re-stuccoed as well as the garden wall. Big bucks for that.

Rabbits are at it again. We will have a bunch of babies. I’ve seen more coyotes the past few weeks than I can remember. They tried to lure my neighbor’s dog away, a big dumb pit-bull, and he was happy to go but the neighbors were able to corner him in my back yard and take him back home. Coyotes have sort of a Lorelei effect on dogs…they lure them away and they eventually become dinner. My lizards are lined up like soldiers on the rocks and the garden wall soaking up sun. Roadrunners will get them later in the season but they seem to be having a couple weeks of peace.

My quail are back in droves again. They seem to be all paired up — no bachelors calling for a mate. Sometimes the women are fickle and will keep looking for a better match but things seem settled. We have Gambel’s Quail and Scaled Quail and the two can hybridize. Gambel’s have a dark plume on their head like a California Quail. Scaled Quail have a scaled feather pattern and a white tuft on their head. No babies yet that I’ve seen but the pairs keep running back and forth across the road in front of cars like it is some sort of game. They only fly in an emergency or if the car is getting too close.

No hummingbirds yet…at least none that I’ve seen. My flowering plants are still a month away from full bloom so hummingbirds are hanging back or visiting the valley orchards further south. I have never been able to tell the species apart — we only had one type where I used to live but there are six or seven varieties here.

Goldfinches are here in big numbers. I’ve noticed quite a variety in them as well. It might be different types or it might be that some birds are changing to summer plumage at different schedules.

 

The windy season came and went. Tumbleweeds were flying and bouncing down the highway. I have a few tumbleweeds that I need to get hauled away along with some overgrown sagebrush and four-winged saltbush that are encroaching in various places. Shortly after I moved here I was bragging to my neighbor about the pretty green shrubs I had growing along the fence. They were bright green and had a uniform rounded shape…nice I thought. He informed me that I was growing tumbleweed. It gets thorny and brittle as it matures and then snaps off at the base and spreads seeds by rolling along in the wind. I sheepishly pulled up my pretty green shrubs.

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A Transitional Season

The wind has picked up today and is so strong that the birds and small animals have taken cover. We are transitioning into the fall season but summer doesn’t want to let go. We are still in the last tattered shreds of our Monsoon season – it has rained almost every day this week. The Monsoons should have ended a few weeks ago but they got a late start so we are thankful for the lingering rain.

The wind is poking around in every nook and crack. I can hear it protesting in the chimney because it can’t come all the way into the house. I always have windows open, even in the dead of winter, so the wind is finding another way to get in.

chamisa-1The Chamisa is in full bloom so the sometimes dry and dreary desert landscape is cloaked in bright yellow. I’ve never seen it so thick and bright…but this is just my third year in the desert so almost everything is still a surprise. Chamisa is our Spanish name for the local variety of what some people call Rabbit Bush. If you have been out west you have probably seen it. Ours is usually small and neatly clumped as if someone tended and trimmed it every day. The rabbits, of which I have many, do not eat it but tend to hide among the clumps. The quail do the same thing.

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Fall, and October, means two things here just north of Albuquerque: Balloon Fiesta and the arrival of the Sand Hill Cranes.  The Balloon Fiesta is the first full week of October (including both weekends) and we will see several hundred thousand visitors pour into town. It is a beautiful time of year anyway and the 800 hot air balloons add to the color and delight. They have mass ascensions every day and on most days they fly to my neighborhood and land all around me. So far no one has landed on the house but they are in all the vacant land around me. They have an interesting procedure each morning…they send up a “Dawn Patrol”, five brave balloonists with flashing lights on their baskets just before dawn to see what the conditions are. If they are good then the other 800 will go up…if not they postpone or cancel the mass ascension and try to locate the five guinea pig balloonists.  It reminds me of the videos I’ve seen of Penguins in the Antarctic that shove a couple Penguins into the water to see of the Leopard Seals are waiting.

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The arrival of the Sand Hill Cranes is a little later in October but almost as spectacular. Most of them continue south to Bosque del Apache wildlife area but we have a resident population of several hundred just in my area. They are noisy birds and you most often hear them before you see them. If they are flying overhead you might not see them at all in the dazzling sunlight. When they are roosting near the river they sound like croaking frogs. I went to a Christmas event one year and the birds almost drowned out the carolers trying to sing Silent Night. At this point we still have a few hummingbirds but they will be gone soon. I had a falcon sitting on my garden wall earlier in the week hoping to grab a dove or maybe even a hummingbird.

I made a last-day-of-summer visit to our botanical garden. It seemed tired and a little worse for wear. The summer was exceptionally hot and dry from June to August. By the time the rain arrived most of the flowers and plants were too far gone. There were a number of bright spots and the Japanese Garden is always pleasant. They installed a special rose garden featuring roses that do well in the desert climate.  The roses looked pretty good in spite of the weather. The “Heritage Farm” section, a replicated Rio Grande valley farm, was selling apple cider from the apple orchard.

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I’m doing some garden work of my own. When you landscape your property with native plants they don’t always know that they are supposed to stay where I put them. Being acclimatized to the desert and doing what comes naturally, they send out little volunteers everywhere. If I left it alone I’d have a jungle of sorts. That’s what I had when I moved here and it took over a year to get it under control. The previous owners planted Russian Sage, a pretty plant but one that sends out root runners and then one plant becomes ten plants and then thirty plants if you don’t keep it under control.  I also have a 1,500 gallon goldfish pond that needs frequent care. I have sixteen large fancy goldfish and it is pretty to look at but also can get out of hand. I noticed the water level was too low a few days ago and started filling it with the hose. Something happened and I got distracted and then had to go someplace. The hose ran for about ten hours and when I realized what happened I had more than a foot of water above the normal level. Goldfish were swimming where no fish has gone before. It was still contained but the pond will not need any additional water for quite a while.

watson-2Watson, my elderly cat and almost constant companion going back sixteen years died this summer. He is often missed when I work outside because he stayed close and was a watcher, not a doer. In his entire life he caught one vole that I know of and a few lizards. He never quite understood the goldfish and was puzzled by the very idea that something could live under water. I miss him also when I write because he would curl up on a rug close by and fall asleep or watch out the door for anything interesting. He was also a snorer. I’ll find a new cat at some point but not for a while. Watson was on medications twice a day and that required me to stay home unless my daughter could take care of him. I’d like to do a little travelling before I get another cat.

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So now we are looking at changing seasons. We have a nice long fall season going up to late November or early December. Nights will be cool and there might be an early frost but daytime temperature will be in the 60s into the first week of December. This windy cold snap is a hint of what is in store – they say it will be down to 41 degrees tonight. We don’t have many of those golden Aspen trees – they are up in the mountains or farther north in Colorado – but in a while our Cottonwoods will put on a show to rival the Aspens.

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Well, I think I just heard that the wind blow away my watering can so I have to stop and retrieve it.

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Parenthood

It’s not easy being a parent. My house is on a large piece of land, over an acre, and I generally let it grow up with native plants that are suited to the desert climate. This year I have four, maybe five, covies of Gambel’s quail patrolling the yard. It has been a successful year and each set of parents have twelve or fifteen (or more) chicks so I have somewhere around sixty baby quail in the yard. This is in addition to the dozen or more desert cottontail rabbits.

Every day there are little dramas played out in the yard.  I’ve taken to throwing seed out because there are so many chicks. The rabbits, who spend their day lounging in the shade under my pick-up truck, have acquired a taste for the birdseed so the venture out and then there are a few confrontations  with mom and dad quail — all peaceful but this is BIRDseed, after all.

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There are so many chicks to keep track of that sometimes the parents lose count. Somebody goes missing and one of the parents, a male in this instance, is tasked with finding the little wanderer. They like to do this from an elevated place…it’s easier to see junior from above. The chicks know to hide in tall grass if they are separated so the parent makes a sound to attract the chick’s attention.  They do this same low-key chatter when they lead the covey out to feed so it is a common and understood sound for the chick. It might take a few minutes but eventually the errant son or daughter is brought home.

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I have a walled courtyard in the front of my house with a large goldfish pond that serves as the local watering hole for my local wildlife.  The quail families will parade in through the gate and spread out to forage. A couple days ago one chick was missed in the headcount as they were going back out the gate. Two chicks ran out together and mom miscounted. She was sure there was one missing. She stayed and searched for several minutes until she was satisfied, or maybe dad called to her, and then ran to catch up.  Parenthood is hard enough with one or two but with twelve or fifteen all the same age it must be exhausting.

60 Feet Square

It is cool and a little damp which is odd being that this is a desert. Our windy season is mostly over but the temperature has dropped and we have had a few rainy and foggy days. Rainy day here means we might get a shower or two with just enough to wet things down a little. Happily, my rain barrel is full again.

I’ve had a miserable cold and I have been hoping for some warm sunny days so I could bake it out by soaking up rays. I have plenty to do outside but don’t feel like going out. This is a persistent cold virus that I’ve been fighting for two weeks and now heading into week number three…my first cold in about four years. People say it takes three weeks to feel better but still longer to feel right.  I actually know who gave me this cold and I’m plotting revenge. Nothing serious.

It was damp and foggy this morning but the fog burned off and it was sunny for a few hours. Now, a little past 2 PM, it is cloudy and cool again. The sun will be back in an hour or so. I took advantage of the morning sun and got out and worked on my pond and a little in the yard. I took a few pictures all within about a sixty foot square in the front of the house.

Watson, my faithful companion, just turned sixteen and mostly lounges around and watches me in the hope that I do something interesting. That doesn’t happen very often and he falls asleep.  The Lilac is blooming  and there are buds on some of the flowering bushes. It will all explode in blooming frenzy in about two weeks.

I’ve been having some algae problems with the pond and I seem to have a leak somewhere. That is often related to the amount of vegetation in the water. I need a warm day to get out there and do a thorough clean-up job. The fish seem not to notice.

The Mountain Mahogany is blooming — in it’s own fashion. You have to look close and fast because the flowers are small and don’t last long in variable spring weather. They have a faint scent that reminds me of nutmeg. There will be small tufted seed heads later in the summer.

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I have an ancient sagebrush growing out beyond the walled placita. One definition of “Sage” is someone who has attained wisdom. This old gnarled and twisted thing has seen a lot and has sheltered countless families of desert rabbits. It probably has acquired some wisdom but I have no idea how to measure that. I also have no idea how old it is but it certainly predates the house. It reminds me of those old Bristlecone Pines that appear to be dead but are still living — still have a pulse, in a manner of speaking. The contorted trunk has a lot of interest.

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There is a certain muscularity in the wood.

I have a family of Jackrabbits just beyond the rear wall in a sage and saltbush thicket. The Quail are calling but you seldom see them. Mourning Doves come a few times a day to call out and bathe in the pond or stumble around on the rocks by the stream.

Thanks to El Nino, we had a wet year last year and the drought was finally broken but things are always precarious here. We still had only a little more than twelve inches of rain…that’s a wet year. Up on the hill, near Loma Barbon, I lost a few juniper trees to the drought and even the Cholla cactus look defeated. The desert rabbits have eaten most of the Prickly Pear cactus and gnawed on a few Chollas.  Maybe there will be a turnaround this year. I have never seen a “baby” juniper seedling up there because the wildlife will nip it off. We could use a few coyotes up there but it must be easier for them to forage the outlying housing developments. They are getting lazy.

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Early Fall — Rinconada Canyon

A desert canyon is a parched and dusty place. I had heard that this year’s frequent rains had transformed Rinconada Canyon into a flower garden.  Sadly, I couldn’t get my act together to see the flowery show but I managed to get there last week on one of the first days of autumn. Our nights are getting cooler but our days are still warm. The Quaking Aspens up on the mountain top have started turning gold. The canyon’s flowers are faded and dried into natural arrangements that you could pick up and take home for a seasonal display. I’m always fascinated by the way the plant communities come together as if there was some secretive landscape gardener in charge of everything.  I think you can see the botanical engineering better in a dried flower head or a clump of dried grasses. I’m not sure one of our skilled structural engineers could devise something as elegant and delicate as a stalk of dried grass waving its seeds in the wind.

Rinconada Canyon is a mile-long gash that cuts into the basaltic western mesa just beyond Albuquerque. Rinconada, the Spanish name, is descriptive of its serrated and wavering slopes endowed with numerous shallow alcoves strewn with car-sized blocks of basalt. The local Indians revered this place and inscribed hundreds of petroglyphs along the north side of the canyon. The canyon was probably much deeper at one time but has filled in with wind-blown sand. The place is now part of Petroglyph National Monument and maintained by the National Park Service. They are in the process of restoration and reclamation of the areas around the most visible petroglyphs  because they are being loved to death and vandalized in some cases. It is also a little dangerous to climb on the basalt blocks because some are unstable and will tumble over.

The rugged dryness of the place belies what actually exists out here. The flowers are faded but still there. The Asters are in full bloom but weren’t cooperating with my camera (human error, I discovered later). There were thousands of small sunflowers and a few blooming mallows still hanging on. There are a dozen or more varieties of grasses and they find a foot-hold all the way up the slope mixed in with yellow-blooming chamisa.

The place is alive with animals, too. A stroll down the trail will reveal dozens of collared lizards scrambling out of sight as you walk by. I was stalked by a Roadrunner as I hiked the trail. Roadrunners eat lizards so he was interested in what was running around under foot.

I never heard a Roadrunner call before but this guy was very vocal. The call is a series of three plaintive ‘mews’ sometimes followed by a delayed fourth one.  He followed me several hundred yards up the canyon.

You also glimpse other things moving through the rocks. I saw a flash of grayish-white up among the rocks a few times but couldn’t tell what it was. There was a desert cottontail that bolted and started running and then decided that being perfectly still was a better defense. Maybe I wouldn’t see him if he didn’t move. He stayed in one place and let me walk around him to get a picture.  He needs to be carful because there was a large hawk perched up on the top of the canyon wall that would go out cruising over the canyon.

The Indians visited this place from around 1000 to around 1700 and they were followed by Spanish shepherds. Both groups left their marks on the canyon’s huge blocks of basalt.  Later modern visitors failed to respect the images and some of them are marked with chips and pock-marks from rifle target shooting. There is some modern petroglyphs — people still come here to leave their mark. Not all of it is graffiti but it doesn’t have the magical or religious meaning that the ancient markings have. Shooting at an ancient Indian petroglyph is like shooting at the Pieta in the Vatican.

Most of the older markings are nearly undecipherable to a modern mind. What were they trying to tell us? Why was this spot chosen to be a cathedral of sorts. They apparently sat for hours or days pecking at the oxidized surface of the basalt blocks to leave their sacred markings. As the markings age they are re-oxidized so that archaeologists can tell the older ones from those that are more recent. Some are so old that they blend in to the background color of the stone and are easily missed.

There are several panels that seem to be part of a single display but what is the message? There is a large image of a deer on one surface and various large birds and some cat-like animals. The birds are macaws in some cases. The pueblo people revered macaws and traded jade from local jade mines to get birds from as far away as Yucatan. They also had domesticated turkeys.

Some common, everyday animals show up as well. There are several images of snakes and something that might be a ring-tailed cat, a type of raccoon.

Some of the religious markings are recognizable, like the Spanish shepherds’ Christian crosses. We have no real idea what the figure on the left is or what it is doing but archaeologists say that it is an ancient image and not added in recent years.

The canyon serves as a conduit for colder air and wind off the top of the mesa during winter. The animals that are evident on the canyon floor now will have to find cozy lodgings up in the rocks to be sheltered from the snow and freezing winds that will be here in about two months.  I’ve got a warm place to go but I’ll be back in the spring.

Hummers

Trumpet flower calls

and the hummingbird responds

the moon sees it all

This has been quite a year for hummingbirds. I can’t guess how many I have around the house…and almost in the house.  They are a marvel and a joy to watch but this year, with all of our rain, we have a lot more than usual. It’s getting sort of ‘ho-hum’ in some respects. Where I moved from we had only one variety. If it was a hummingbird it would be a Ruby Throated Hummingbird…period.  Here, in the New Mexico desert, we have four or five types and I still can’t identify them after two years of trying.

If I sit outside on the front or back portal it won’t be long before I have a visitor. One visitor brings another and then there is an aerial acrobatic fussing match. The little hummers are very territorial or else I must be regarded as something of a prize to be fought over.

I have a Trumpet Vine in the front courtyard that climbs up a pueblo-style ladder on the wall. In previous years, under earlier owners, it just laid on the ground more like a ground cover but I built the ladder and now it is upright and is Grand Central Station for hummers. There are also Mexican Bird of Paradise and a Desert Willow trees in the courtyard  that bloom all summer and attract hummingbirds.  I have a large goldfish pond with large water lilies but that seems to be the domain of the dragonflies. I’ve never seen a hummer go to a water lily.

Watson, my cat, enjoys snoozing on the portals and must birds will make a fuss about it if they are close by and he is roaming around or even just lying quietly. The hummers don’t seem to mind and I don’t think they even notice him. He’s fifteen years old and is a slow mover so they think he’s part of the geography. He sees them but doesn’t quite know what to make of them — he’s accepted them, too. “Live and let live” is his motto…unless you are a bug.

Some birds seem to be front yard hummers and some are backyard hummers. One of my backyard birds needs a lube job because it sounds like one of his bearings is going out. He makes a high-pitched metallic clicking sound when he flies.  Maybe he is actually a drone and I am under close government surveillance. They say the military has perfected small drones that can pass as hummingbirds……nah, there’s nothing to see here.

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