Saturday, January 30, 2010

Random Signs of Life (and Death) in the Chihuahuan Grass-Shrubland

We live in the northern extent of the Chihuahuan Desert which extends from Mexico into west Texas and southern New Mexico. As anyone who's spent any amount of time paying attention in a desert ecosystem realizes, they are far from desert-ed. Plant and animal life is as rich as in any other ecosystem. Soils and landforms (and the water and nutrients that flow through them) are supremely hospitable to the flora and fauna that has adapted here over the eons. When looked at objectively the "desert" here is really a grass and shrub-land. There are at least 128 species of native grasses living at Carlsbad Caverns National Parks and these - along with native shrubs, forbs, succulents and cacti - form an interlocking mosaic of vegetation that readily blankets the natural landscape.

Traipsing over these lands we've come to love them and have become more attuned to paying attention to the unique expression of plant and animal life, soils, water features, etc.

Last weekend we hiked Yucca Canyon and here are a few of the interesting signs of life (and death) that we were lucky to come across.

The carcass below is a Barbary Sheep that may well have been a meal for a mountain lion (see the scat):

What may seem like an unlikely association of things: trees, shrubs, sedges, cacti, forbs and lichens!:

We have found that being open to experiencing a place on its own terms is a huge short cut to appreciating and understanding that place.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Helping a Haitian Artist: Metal Butterflies

During a visit to Eco Location here in Carlsbad we found this cool butterfly sculpture:

The butterfly is made from old oil drums in Haiti. Haitian artists remove the ends of the oil drum, used for smaller sculptures, then light a fire inside the main section to burn off residue. Once clean and cool one side is sliced down and then the whole piece flattened into a 4x6' sheet ready for use. An image is drawn on this sheet with chalk then with a hammer and chisel only the design is cut and the sculpture made.

Reuse is so important in our world today and supporting the livelihood of those practicing this act is just as important. Given the current events in Haiti this purchasing act took on heightened meaning for us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Recipe Organization & Cherry Nut Cookies = Jennifer's Favorite Cookie EVER

Steve made a comment this weekend about our recipe box in all its disorganized glory. We've collected quite a number of favorite recipes over the years, recipes to be tried and recipes not to be made again and they all ended up in a cute, but not too handy recipe box. Steve thought it might be handy if all the recipes were gathered in a more accessible binder. Hmm.

The project was not for the faint of heart, but the discoveries we made! Oh how easy it is to forget about the little gems of cooking goodness.

Following is the Cherry Nut Cookie recipe. Steve adapted this recipe from somewhere or another and smashed my love of all other cookies. (Well, I really love many cookies - sweet tooth!- but this is my favorite.) We completely forgot about this recipe for a year or two and voila! (Thanks organization bone.) Tart cherries are a must and I very much prefer the pecans. I made these a few years ago for a weekend workshop I attended and my cookies put the chocolate chip cookies present to shame. Not that the chocolate chip cookies weren't good, but these are something different and just oh so yummy. I don't remember how many people I sent this recipe to after the workshop, but I know it went out quite a few times so here it is for you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Golden Eagles - A First for Us!

We saw a pair of golden eagles this weekend - what a bonus! Why not assume they are going to be parents soon?:) Here's one of them soaring over the top of Yucca Mesa in Carlsbad Caverns National Park:

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Backcountry, Part II:Recent Human History

The "cowboy era" of western movies may be largely over but the signs of those times are still scattered about what is now protected backcountry of Carlsbad Caverns and adjacent Guadalupe Mountains National Parks.

On a recent hike to Longview Spring we came across a spring and the remnants of an old camp. Here in a small canyon is a spring and a thick stand of native grasses (an oasis for livestock).

Atop a boulder we noticed the remnants of an old cast iron stove:

There is also the remains of a rock foundation (some sort of shelter):

Continuing "around the bend", the little canyon opened up into West Slaughter Canyon and views of the wilderness country of the Guadalupe Mountains:

This country is rugged, vast and seemingly arid - who would come here with livestock and why? We supposed that the beauty and isolation would attract just about any old cowboy but where to water the stock? Longview Spring, of course! This spring seems to "hang" on the edge of a cliff but what's the rest of the story?

Poking around a bit we noticed an old slip-scoop (a horse-drawn earthmover) and...

...a single-bottom plow:

A bit more looking and we noticed that a rock wall had been built up around 3 side of the spring - essentially transforming the spring into a water impoundment. We surmise that some crazy old nut hauled the plow and slip-scoop all the way back here to manipulate the natural spring so that it's water would be available in greater and more accessible amounts. Maybe he used the plow to loosen the soil and rock and then used the slip-scoop to move this material below the spring and shape it into a "dam" of sorts to impound water seeping from the spring. The rock wall was then built to strengthen the earthen impoundment. Here's the rock wall:

Here's a look at the spring impoundment from a distance (see brown/tan oval in center of pic). Before it was manipulated the spring was probably not nearly as noticeable and was probably just a dispersed seeping flow. There are apparently rare plants here now and certainly many visiting wildlife. The effects of human alteration of this spring on numbers and distribution of rare plants and critter visits will never be know - but it's interesting to ponder:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Carlsbad Caverns National Park Backcountry, Part I:Natural History

Carlsbad Caverns National Park is all about caves for a lot of folks. We love the caves too. We also love the sunshine and the multi-faceted wonder of the rugged back country. Recently we hiked up Yucca Canyon, over Yucca Mesa and arrived at Longview Spring. It's now one of our favorite areas around these parts. Here's why...

The hike takes you quickly into a hidden canyon complete with whimsical rock spires...

...mysterious cave openings...

...and bird-filled, wooded streambeds:

Yucca Canyon leads to Yucca Mesa - a large flat summit that supports exceptional short grass prairie interspersed with shrub oak and pinyon-juniper thickets.

There's even a Ponderosa Pine or two up here:

The route to Longview Spring takes you down the other side of the mesa and into a small pretty canyon filled with a crazy mix of plants from cacti and succulents to luxurient native grasses and an unexpected mix of trees (Ponderosa Pine, Alligator Juniper, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Texas Madrone, Bigtooth Maple, Netleaf Hackberry - you get the idea!):

The little canyon empties into an inaccessible gorge and bisects a handy rock ledge that wraps around the slope contour (which leads to Longview Spring):

We finally reach Longview Spring and sweeping views of West Slaughter Canyon and the comfortingly quiet wilderness back country:

We didn't linger very long as we wanted to leave the spring to the wildlife but we soaked in the views and felt grateful for the these protected lands:

After traversing such a variety of wonderment we struggle with calling it "desert". It's neither deserted nor dry nor is it simply cacti and sand (as Hollywood depicts). Oh well, what's in a name, anyway? We just enjoy each part as it comes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

International Year of Biodiversity

(We think that this is well worth a look):

INTERNATIONAL IUCN Launches “Species Of The Day” Site

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is increasing awareness of the enormous variety of life on our planet and raising the profile of threatened species by launching the IUCN Red List ‘Species of the Day’ on its website at

IUCN’s mission is to help the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges: “Biodiversity is the backbone of all life on earth, and its conservation lies at the very core of IUCN’s work. ‘Species of the Day’ has been launched as part of IUCN’s involvement in the International Year of Biodiversity. With mounting scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis, it’s time to take action. Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group, said that, ‘The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met. It’s time for governments to get serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time.’”

Each day throughout 2010, a different species will be featured on the IUCN website. It will include information on the species range, threats to the species, and conservation priorities. The 365 species selected represent the entire range of taxonomic groups and cover all regions. The website will first feature some of the better known species; such as the polar bear. It will move on to cover lesser well known plants, fungi, invertebrates, and more. Both charismatic and obscure species will be featured, providing an insight into the astonishing level of biodiversity that exists on our world.

On January 6th, for example, the Asian elephant was featured: “The Asian elephant, Elephas maximus, is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. It is found in isolated populations in 13 tropical Asian countries. The Asian elephant is smaller than its African savannah relative; the ears are smaller and the back is more rounded. The numbers of Asian elephants have been decimated by habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, driven by an expanding human population. This causes elephants to become increasingly isolated, often coming into conflict with local farmers. Crops are damaged and lives lost; up to 300 people a year are killed by elephants in India. Poaching for ivory is also a threat and because only males have tusks, populations can become extremely skewed towards females, thus affecting breeding rates. The most important conservation priorities for the Asian Elephant are: conservation of their habitat and maintaining habitat connectivity by securing corridors; management of human–elephant conflicts; improved legislation and law enforcement with enhanced field patrolling; and regulating/curbing trade in ivory and other elephant products.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chiles Rellenos & Salsa!

Steve made these two recipes from Organic Gardening (Feb/Mar 2010) and they are delicious! We really liked the chiles rellenos because of the vegetable stuffing rather than just cheese. YUM.

We scanned the recipes in; let us know if you want to make them and need us to email them as a pdf.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sometimes your inner child...

needs some expression! Mine wanted to paint and not just paint, but use bright colors and surreal creatures. Hope you all let that most important part of yourselves out sometimes too.

Friday, January 8, 2010

As you're dreaming of spring and warmth and flowers...

check out this link. Xerces Society put together an excellent Pollinator Resource Center specific to the area where you live. It's such a great feeling to get lost in a world of flowers and insects at this time of year! The website includes plans for homemade bee nests and more...really quite a gem for supporting and encouraging our native pollinators.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa):

Join the hunt for bees this summer! Check out the Great Sunflower Project to assess the health of your garden and contribute to scientific research.

Bees on sunflower (Helianthus sp.):

Live in the city? See Berkeley's Urban Bee Garden. In fact, even if you don't live in the city check this out. There's tons of good information!

Happy dreaming!

P.S. The Fall 2009 Xerces Society magazine - Wings - is loaded with great information for folks managing natural lands. Invertebrates are often left out of considerations, often to the detriment of the whole ecosystem. Check this issue out if you deal with prescribed fire, mowing, herbicide applications, etc. or even if you don't. It's good to be in the know.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A relaxing day: sunshine, nature and naps

Rattlesnake Spring, an oasis of water and trees, is one of our favorite places to explore. Soapberry grows plentifully:

The seeds are one of our favorites - resembling little ornaments dangling on the tree, providing food for wildlife, and soap for resourceful folks. The tree is quite beautiful and could be used in landscaping to a much greater degree.

A black phoebe hunting near the spring:

After exploring, a picnic and of course a nap in the sunshine. See the mountains in the background...not a bad place for a picnic.

A little stream runs through the wooded part of this photo. As we napped we could hear ducks and an occasional deer.

A brief stop at Cottonwood to check out the Black River where we swam this summer. The water is so clear and magnificent.

Coots off in the distance searched for food and chatted with one another.

A cocoon? Seems moth like to us, but we aren't sure.

Lazy days in the sun in January. These Indiana folks can't believe it!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Guadalupe Mountains N.P., Salt Basin Overlook Trail

The Salt Basin Overlook Trail is a wonderful 11.5 mile hike through some great west Texas country. It starts out in some very nice short-grass prairie which is frequented by...

...various grass eaters:

From a distance the country that the first few miles of the trail covers looks pretty flat but, in fact, is dissected by numerous streams originating in the Guadalupe Mountains. Here we are in a nice little hidden canyon:

As we hike higher, we get nice views of the limestone peaks of the Guadalupes:

Descending into Guadalupe Canyon with views into the huge-ness of west Texas:

A bit of snow hangs on in the shady areas:

Coming-around-the-bend, we see in front of us some foothills and the salt basin beyond.

Turn around and we see the iconic El Capitan peak:

One our favorite spots was this unexpected outcropping of sandstone - whimsically weathered into rounded boulders with...

...water-holding pockets:

Why attempt to explain this crazy weathering? Use your imagination, you'll probably be right!

Signs of man's hopeless romanticism - a water tank for cattle in a place where (some think) cattle may not be the best idea:

Another sign - an introduced critter - the Barbary Sheep. Well, they seem to do o.k. here although they are blamed for the demise of the native bighorn sheep (although we wonder if the latter's demise may have had a bit to do with cattle as well?). Sort of like blaming kudzu for eating a barn. Maybe we'd stop making messes if we'd claim the one's we've already wrought? More power to 'em...

A wonderful hike! Tired (well-exercised) and happy, we don't ask for much...