We’re taking a break from the Gila Nature Blog for a few months in order to focus on other projects. Since January 2011, when the first Blog article appeared, a wide range of topics has been covered. Here’s a summary of several topics. If your favorite topic isn’t listed below, use the panel to the left to find your interests.
We look forward to having you as a guest at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses!
HIKING AT THE CASITAS
• Hidden Spring Trail — January 2011
• Dry Wash Trail — October 2014
• Paradise Overlook Trail — February 2015
HIKING IN THE AREA
• Turkey Creek Hot Springs Trail — April 2011
• Mineral Creek — February 2012
• The Catwalk & The Gold Dust Trails — April 2012
• Middle Box of the Gila — June 2012
• Mogollon Box Trail — July 2012
• San Francisco Hot Springs Trail — September 2012
• Lower Little Dry Creek Canyon — April 2013
• A Fall Hike — October 2013
• Upper Little Dry Creek — November 2013
• Mineral Creek in the Winter — January 2014
• Sacaton Creek – November 2014
• Sheridan Corral Trail — May 2015
• Rain Creek Canyon – July 2015
• Volcanoes — March 2011
• Obsidian – August 2012
• Fluorite – May 2013
• Chalcedony & Jasper – May 2014
• Mineral Creek – February 2012
• Coronado – December 2012
• Apacheria (Part 1) – February 2013
• Apacheria (Part 2) – March 2013
• Ancient Crops – August 2013
• San Francisco River Back Country – February 2014
• Gila Cliff Dwellings (Part 1) – August 2015
• Gila Cliff Dwellings (Part 2) – September 2015
• Billings Vista Birding Area – June 2012
• Winter & Spring Birding – April 2014
SOME OBSERVATIONS OF THE EFFECTS OF THE EL NIÑO / LA NIÑA
CLIMATIC OSCILLATION CYCLE WITHIN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
El Niño Winter of 2015-16: Fresh snow on the Pinos Altos Range in the Gila Wilderness, five miles north of Casitas de Gila
CLIMATIC AFFECTS OF EL NIÑO AND LA NIÑA WINTERS ON SOUTHERN NEW MEXICO
Historical records show that El Niño winters in the Southwest are marked by increased precipitation and warmer temperatures, while La Niña winters are marked by decreased precipitation and colder temperatures. During El Niño years, moisture-laden low pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to follow a southern route, carried along by the west-to-east flow of a persistent Pacific Jet Stream across the Southwest and into southern New Mexico (see Figure 1 below.) During La Niña years, however, eastward-moving, moisture-laden low pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to take more northerly routes across the western U.S., carried along by the west-to-east variable flows of the Pacific and Polar Jet Streams, bringing dry, sunny high pressure conditions to prevail over the Southwest and New Mexico.
FIGURE 1: Schematic drawing showing climatic weather patterns of La Niña and El Niño for North America. Prepared by NOAA/ National Weather Service/ National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
MONITORING OSCILLATIONS OF EL NIÑO AND LA NIÑA BY THE OCEANIC NINO INDEX (ONI)
Sea surface temperatures fluctuate constantly in the Central Pacific along the equator, and when monitored and averaged over time demonstrate repeated oscillations between El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cold) episodes. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors these oscillations by averaging monthly measurements of surface sea water temperatures collected over an area that covers the central portion of the Pacific Ocean between 5°N and 5°S latitude and 120° to 170° W longitude. These temperature fluctuations, when averaged over successive three-month intervals during the year (which NOAA refers to as “seasons”), yield temperature anomalies that NOAA calls the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI). ONI values generally lie within 3°C of the average temperature for any given area at any specific time of the year. Anomalies that deviate from the average temperature in excess of +0.5°C mark a shift towards a warm El Niño episode, whereas anomalies in excess of -0.5°C mark a shift towards a cold La Niña episode. Anomalies that are between ±0.5°C are called a Neutral Episode, or, as they are sometimes humorously referred to, a La Nada episode. By NOAA’s definition, an El Niño or La Niña episode can only be so named when the average of three consecutive ONI three-month seasonal values exceed the ±0.5°C threshold.
CYCLES OF EL NIÑO AND LA NIÑA FOR NORTH AMERICA 1950 to 2015
When plotted through time as shown in Figure 2 below, it is very clear that El Nino and La Nina episodes are predictably cyclic in nature, with an average duration between 3 and 4 years. Although these episodes do show variability in both duration and intensity, they are not unusual in any way, and are just another of Nature’s cycles that has a pronounced affect upon the natural environment and plant and animal populations in the American Southwest.
NOAA graph showing 65 years (1950 to 2015) of El Niño (red) and La Niña (blue) cycles
THE TRANSITION OF THE RECENT LA NADA EPISODE OF MARCH 2012 TO EARLY 2015 INTO THE VERY STRONG EL NIÑO OF 2015 – EARLY 2016
As can be seen in the Oceanic Niño Index, the American Southwest entered a Neutral or La Nada episode beginning around March of 2012. This La Nada episode continued throughout the rest of 2012, 2013, 2014, and into the first two three-month monitoring periods of 2015. However, beginning in the third three-month interval of February/March/April 2015, the ONI shows a weak El Nino episode gradually strengthening throughout the year to become a very strong El Nino episode by December 2015. Current projections (.pdf file) as of January 4, 2016, have the strong El Niño conditions continuing throughout the rest of the 2015-16 Winter, followed by a slow transition into an ENSO Neutral episode or La Nada situation by Late Spring or Early Summer.
PRECIPITATION DATA COLLECTED AT CASITAS DE GILA ILLUSTRATE THE TRANSITION OF A PERSISTENT LA NADA EPISODE TO A STRONG EL NIÑO EPISODE BETWEEN MARCH 2012 and DECEMBER 2015
Precipitation at Casitas de Gila has been monitored electronically on a daily basis for many years. Some of this data is presented in Tables 1 and 2 below. Examination of this precipitation data illustrates the transition of a persistent La Nada episode to a strong El Niño episode between March 2012 and December 2015.
As can be seen in Tables 1 and 2, there is a marked increase in precipitation from 2012 to 2015, on a yearly total basis and also when comparing Fall and Winter month totals. The NOAA projection for the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI) for the remainder of the 2015–16 Winter is to remain in an El Niño episode, returning to a Neutral or La Nada episode in Late Spring or Early Summer. If this projection holds true, the Fall and Winter total precipitation should exceed the 2014-15 total precipitation.
SOME OBSERVED POSSIBLE AFFECTS OF THE TRANSITION OF THE LA NADA EPISODE OF 2012 TO 2015 INTO THE STRONG EL NIÑO EPISODE OF 2015 UPON THE FLORA AND FAUNA OF THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE AT CASITAS DE GILA
Casitas de Gila is situated on the western edge of Bear Creek Canyon about 80 feet above the Creek overlooking the 265 acres, 3/4 mile of Bear Creek, and 6 miles of trails that constitute the Bear Creek Nature Preserve.
During the time period from March 2012 and December 2015, various changes have been observed in the flora and fauna of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses which may be in response to the transition from the La Nada episode to a very strong El Niño episode as documented in Tables 1 and 2. Some of these observations are presented below. In considering these observations, it must be stressed that they are the result of long-term, daily, on-site personal observations only, and not the conclusions of a rigorous scientific study. It is also important to remember the important principle that must always be kept in mind when dealing with any study of Nature, namely: that “Correlation does not necessarily equate to Causation”. With those caveats stated, the following possible affects of the transition of the La Nada episode of 2012 into the strong El Niño of 2015 are presented:
OBSERVED TRENDS IN FLORA AT THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE 2012 to 2015
The marvelous Doubting Mariposa Lily (Calochortus ambiguus) found blooming on April 25, 2015, at Casitas de Gila as a result of the 2014-15 El Nino Winter moisture; this is the first time this flower had been observed at the Casitas
• During and in the months immediately following the very dry year of 2012 (total precipitation 6.86 inches), and cold Winter of 2012-13, flowering and seed production of trees, shrubs and grasses at the Casitas were much below normal. Numerous individual plants of several species, such as the Turpentine Bush (Ericameria laricifolia) and Engelmann Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii), on the Casitas’ Self-Guided Nature Trail were observed to die. Spring flowers in particular were notably absent.
• As yearly and Fall/Winter precipitation steadily increased during the transition from La Nada to El Nino, flowering and seed production likewise increased, culminating in the Spring of 2015 when a profusion of flowers occurred over the Casita lands. So profuse and obvious was this prolific flowering of diverse species (some of which had not been seen in many years, and others, such as the Doubting Maricopa Lily (Calochortus ambiguus), had never been observed or recorded previously at the Casitas), that it became the subject of two Nature Blogs in March and April of 2015.
OBSERVED TRENDS IN FAUNA AT THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE 2012 to 2015
The Whitewater-Baldy Fire on May 22, 2012, 25 miles in the distance as viewed one mile from the Casitas
• 2012 was a year of severe drought and a very difficult time for animals both at Casitas de Gila and at the adjacent Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness. This was also the year of the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire which became the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s recorded history.The fire started on the west side of the Mogollon Mountains just within the Gila Wilderness about 25 miles northwest of Casitas de Gila on May 9, 2012, when two dry-lightening strikes touched off the drought-parched forest. The resulting conflagration was finally declared controlled on July 31, after burning some 297,000 acres of the 600,000 acres of the Gila Wilderness, at an estimated cost of $100 million dollars. This incredibly destructive fire was the subject of a Nature Blog in September 2013.
The combination of the Whitewater-Baldy fire and the ongoing drought of 2012 resulted in some expected and unexpected changes in animal populations and occurrences within the Bear Creek Nature Preserve.
• With the lack of Spring rains in 2012, stock tanks in the mountains adjacent the Bear Creek Nature Preserve dried up early and normal Spring grass and shrub vegetation in the uplands was deficient to completely lacking. Consequently, Bear Creek in front of the Casitas (which always has water in it year around) saw an increase in animals, both large and small, as it was the only source of water and food around. Some of the increase was probably also due to animals fleeing the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the adjacent Gila Wilderness. Black Bear, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, and Mountain Lion (the only predator of the Bighorn Sheep) sightings at the Casitas and on Bear Creek were up. Adult Bighorn populations seemed normal; however, only two newborn lambs were observed during 2012 at any one time on the cliffs following lambing in Late Spring. In June a mother Black Bear brought her two cubs to Bear Creek for food and water, and for the first and only time in the 18 years history of the Casitas, garbage cans were raided by the bears.
• In 2013 and 2014, precipitation increased as the overall climate moved towards the El Niño episode. In the early morning hours of September 22, 2014, the largest flash flood ever recorded at Casitas de Gila in its 18-year history occurred when the remnants of a major hurricane in Baja California triggered a series of thunder storms traveling down the Bear Creek drainage from its headwaters in Pinos Altos, creating a flood crest of 12 feet above normal Creek level. The effect of this flood upon less-mobile animals, such as reptiles and amphibians, was undoubtedly devastating, as their observed populations were significantly less in succeeding months.
Most other animals were observed to prosper during 2013 and 2014. During this time the frequency and count of both Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer sightings increased in 2013, with five Bighorn lambs observed in Late Spring. No Bighorn lambs were observed or recorded in 2014, however.
• In 2015, the El Niño episode arrived with the greatest total yearly rainfall in four years. It was a year of relative plenty in terms of both food and water for all animals, big and small. Bighorn sightings increased with up to 16 individuals observed at one time, 5 of which were lambs. Mule Deer sightings were also up in frequency and count number. Small animals such as Rabbit (both Cottontail and Jackrabbit), Gray Fox, and Field Mice appeared to be much more abundant than in previous years. By the end of the year the Gray Fox population obviously had boomed, based on the amount of scat observed around the Casitas. The chipmunk population, however, was noted as having greatly declined by the end of 2015. Mr. and Mrs. Fox? Most likely.
When all of these various observations are considered together, it is clear that the climatic impact of the La Nada to El Niño transition upon plant and animal populations and the overall food chain during the cyclical transition from the 2012 drought to abundant precipitation in 2015 is definitely mirrored in the observed cycles of plant and animal population and reproduction variability. Some of these cyclical changes are obvious, others only suggested. What is certain, however, is that the overall ecology of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve provides a unique opportunity to observe first-hand the eternal cycles of Nature on a micro-scale for those who have the patience to observe, study and learn.
El Niño Winter of 2015-16. Fresh snow on the Mogollon Range in the Gila Wilderness, 10 miles northwest of the Casitas
FALL ENCHANTMENT IN THE GILA RIVER COUNTRY OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
Color, Light and Shadow Amongst the Floodplain Cottonwoods and Sycamores
Cottonwoods in Peak Fall color on Bear Creek in front of Casitas de Gila, looking north to Turtle Rock and Gila Wilderness beyond
In like form, about five miles north of the Casitas, within the Upper Box of the Gila River floodplain in the Gila National Forest, golden Cottonwoods arch into a deepening cobalt sky
On the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas, a grove of mature Cottonwoods catch the last rays of the setting Sun
Each year between the last two weeks of October and the first two weeks in November, visitors to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are treated to the annual visual feast of color, light, and shadow along the floodplains of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas and at the nearby Gila River Riparian Preserve in the Gila National Forest.
In early morning light a small Velvet Ash in peak color casts long shadows beneath a towering Cottonwood on the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas
Looking down from the Casitas to the Bear Creek floodplain, deepening shadows gradually extinguish the light on the Cottonwoods and Sycamores ablaze in the last rays of the setting Sun
By Late October and Early November, the bright cerulean-blue skies of Summer are in transition to the deeper cobalt blues of Winter as the Sun arcs ever closer to the southern horizon. At this time the deep verdant greens of the dense riverine forest of Cottonwood, Sycamore, Willow, Ash, and Walnut are transformed into an evolving kaleidoscopic display of varying shades and tones of yellow, orange, red, brown, and purple as each of the species responds in its own way to the increasingly colder nighttime rivers of air that flow down into the canyons from the lofty mountain peaks of the Gila Wilderness to the north.
Late afternoon on Bear Creek, just upstream from the cliffs, November 11, 2014
Early morning on Bear Creek, just upstream from the cliffs, November 12, 2015
Depending on the year, the time of transition from first coloring to that final blaze of glory for each of the species can be prolonged or remarkably all-too-short depending on the vagaries of temperature, precipitation, wind, and controlling weather systems. This year the change was gradual and prolonged in response to a strong El Niño weather pattern dominating over the southwest, bringing milder temperatures and above-normal precipitation.
Late afternoon in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015; this is the exact same scene as photo on left, but one week later, and what a difference! By this date the leaves of the Cottonwoods and Sycamores are now at their peak
Late afternoon in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 11, 2015; at this date the Cottonwoods and Sycamores are about halfway to reaching full color
One of the greatest joys of living surrounded by nature at the Casitas is the opportunity to visit and observe the same sites along Bear Creek and the Gila River on a frequent daily basis throughout the year and at different times of the day. Typically, the changes are slow, the change measured in weeks. However, come Fall and the coloring of the leaves, the changes are measured in days, especially towards the end of this month-long process. At this time the rate of change gradually accelerates to literally overnight transformation as Mother Nature completes her annual tapestry in color and signs it with an artistic flourish.
Looking east down the trail leading into Bear Creek Canyon below the Casitas on an early November afternoon; North and South Peak in the background. The white rock at the top of the cliffs directly above the top of the big Cottonwood is a large boulder of welded ash flow tuff, most likely placed there as a way-marker by the Apaches who traveled Bear Creek frequently.
Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) are typically the dominant floodplain tree along Southwest New Mexico rivers and creeks. When their fall colors are at their peak, Bear Creek Canyon and the nearby Gila River Valley are literally transformed into rivers of gold. Taking a quiet walk within a mature grove of floodplain Cottonwoods on a warm afternoon at this time of year is to experience the essence of the Old Southwest, of times long ago when most of these river and creek valleys served as the primary trails and early roadways for the peoples of the Prehistoric and Pioneer Southwest. To pause and sit beneath one of these ancient Cottonwoods in the pervading silence will only heighten the experience … listen to the wind rustling high above in the upper branches; watch as the golden leaves spiral down to coat the canyon floor, their trunks reflecting in the still waters of the creek. Remain there for a longer time and perhaps the snapping of twigs will herald the approach of a trio of young Mule Deer, or possibly a furtive Bobcat on its way for a drink at the creek …
Cottonwood trunks reflecting in Bear Creek near the cliffs
Cottonwoods and Sycamores at the peak of Fall color on the Gila River floodplain in the Upper Box of the Gila; it is said that Watson Mountain in the background was a favorite stronghold of the Apache Chief Geronimo
Be assured that Mangas Coloradas, Geronimo, Victorio, Naiche, and the other Apache chiefs and their people passed where you sit on such an afternoon not all that long ago, for this was their homeland … the heart of Apacheria. And a few hundred years before the Apache, the Mogollon People were harvesting their crops of maize, squash, and beans on the first terrace above the floodplain, perhaps just across the stream from you. It is reported that for some people, their presence is still sensed here.
A magnificent ancient Sycamore on the Gila River floodplain in the Upper Box of the Gila; it is highly likely that Geronimo passed near this tree on his way upstream to his Watson Mountain stronghold
Once the Cottonwoods pass their peak of color, the Sycamores (Platanus wrightii) then emerge in striking visual accent and counterpoint from the mass of Cottonwood Gold, their russet-red star-shaped leaves and bone-white trunks and limbs set against the cobalt blue sky. For the photographer or landscape painter the sycamores are a special delight, particularly when their reddish leaves and white branches are reflected in the waters of the passing stream.
Two young Sycamores in peak Fall foliage on Bear Creek floodplain, November 18, 2015; note the tall Cottonwoods in background with golden leaves only remaining in uppermost branches at 50 to 60 feet, their lower leaves having turned and fallen earlier due to the much colder air flowing down the canyon at floodplain level
Large and small Sycamore leaves and a few Willow leaves with a bright green accent of watercress in a quiet pool along Bear Creek
Another flood-battered Sycamore in Elliot Canyon off Lower Little Dry Creek; note the height of battering on trunk on right, and the 3+ foot red rhyolite boulder wedged in between trunks. Sycamores are indeed the Warrior Giants of the floodplain forest.
A magnificent old and flood-battered Sycamore in Elliot Canyon off Lower Little Dry Creek
On some creeks, such as the lower reaches of Little Dry Creek a few miles upstream from its junction with the San Francisco River, Sycamores are the dominant floodplain tree, replacing most, if not all, of the Cottonwoods. The reason for this change is readily discerned in the gnarled and battered appearance of their trunks and lower branches. For where Sycamores are found to dominate, one quickly observes that these are high gradient, high energy creeks; creeks that are often the scene of raging floods and flash floods that stem from Springtime melting snows and Summer Monsoon thunderstorms in the nearby soaring mountains.
Torrential floods transport large volumes of coarse sediment and gravel. Often they carry boulders as big as small cars that crash into the Sycamores, gouging big holes in their trunks, and occasionally washing or tearing away all of their roots, causing them to fall. But many Sycamores can stand this perennial onslaught of Nature and grow to great size and age. Sycamores are much tougher and harder than Cottonwoods, which, even if by chance were to germinate and start growing here in these rocky canyons during a cycle of years of less severe flooding, would be quickly eliminated when the big floods occur.
Closeup of Warrior Giant Sycamore in process of digesting rhyolite boulders!
Frequently, one of these ancient and gnarled Sycamores will be observed growing around and beginning to encapsulate one of these huge flood-carried boulders. Often it appears as if the tree is in the process of digesting the boulder. Oh yes, these deep canyon Sycamores are without a doubt the Warrior Giants of the floodplain forest, and they proudly display their battle scars for all who choose to pass here as proof of their prowess.
A beautiful Velvet Ash in a drywash near the Casitas in full Fall foliage
Along the banks of calmer creeks, such as Bear Creak, a variety of Willows (Salix sp.), Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina), and Arizona Walnut (Juglans major) grow to more modest size in comparison to the Cottonwoods and Sycamores. These smaller shrubs and trees present a variety of colors from yellow to orange and red to purple which provide both visual harmony and counterpoint accents to the larger and taller Cottonwoods and Sycamores. These trees almost always color and lose their leaves earlier because of their closeness to the floodplain floor where the cold nighttime air flowing down the canyons is often 10 to 15 degrees colder than the upper branches of the floodplain Cottonwoods and Sycamores.
FALL ENCHANTMENT IN SOME SPECIAL PLACES IN THE GILA RIVER COUNTRY OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO, NOVEMBER 2015
Where the Ancient Ones Once Tread: Floodplain Cottonwoods in the Upper Box of the Gila
Fall in the Upper Box of the Gila. Looking upstream at the junction of Mogollon Creek and the Gila River; Watson Mountain in the background
Over time, as one becomes familiar with the various segments of a particular creek or river, one eventually will come to recognize some “special places” — unique places where the balance and harmony of Nature’s landscape is perfect in every aspect. These are the uncommon places for which the Naturalist, photographer, or landscape painter blindly seek, but instantly know when encountered — places that cannot be summoned or set up, but, at that moment, just are.
Looking downstream, Sycamores in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 11, 2015
Looking downstream, Sycamores in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015
Floodplain Sycamore, Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015
A few of these places have an extended timelessness in which their specialness prevails and can be savored slowly again and again; however, most do not. No, for most of such places, this ineffable specialness is fleeting, often measured in mere minutes as the play of light and shadow transforms the common into a brief perception of the Divine. These are the true treasures of Nature, and in Southwest New Mexico during those few weeks of Fall Enchantment from Late October to Mid November is when they are most likely to be found … and they wait for you here every year.
A late Fall evening in the Upper Box of the Gila River, November 18, 2015
THE GREATEST LITTLE BUILDERS IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
The largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant Colony at Casitas de Gila; located on the west side of Bear Creek just below the Casitas, midway up the slope between the first and second creek terraces above the floodplain
Hike almost anywhere below 6,000 feet elevation in Southern New Mexico where the ground has a few feet of soil cover, and especially where some grass is present, and you will probably come across circular, barren areas, some up to 30 feet in diameter, that are typically devoid of all or almost all vegetative growth. Upon closer examination, one soon notices that these barren areas all contain a central low mound of clean, well sorted, coarse sand to granular pieces of quartz and rock. Pondering these strange features in the early morning, a cool, cloudy day late in the Fall or early Spring or during the hottest part of a Summer day, it may not be immediately evident what produced them. But stand there long enough and the answer will eventually become suddenly and perhaps painfully clear as the first of them begin to make their way up your pant leg and start to bite and sting! Yes, these ARE ant nests! An ant colony to be correct, home of Pogonomyrmex barbatus, New Mexico’s Red Harvester Ants. And what interesting little creatures they are!
There are 44 genera and over 200 different species of ants in New Mexico, but perhaps none have been studied as much as the Red Harvester Ant. One of the reasons that they have been studied so much is because they are big, about 8 to 10 mm or 3/8ths of an inch! Another is that their colonies make very obvious nests that dot the New Mexico landscape. Larger nests are readily seen on Google Earth’s aerial photos. Several years ago this entomologically-challenged, geology-oriented naturalist found this out after laboriously following his GPS through rugged Mule Creek Country terrain to a number of these puzzling circular features discovered on Google Earth while previewing an upcoming hike.
Massing of Red Harvester Ants (Pogonomeryx barbatus) warming up on a rock; National Park Service photo
Red Harvester Ant Colony on east side of Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses; this colony has a central mound 9 inches high and 6 feet across encircled by a cleared area14 feet in diameter; colonies such as this are easily seen on Google Earth
It was 18 years ago, when Casitas de Gila Guesthouses were just getting started, that the presence of Red Harvester ants was discovered on the premises. Yes, the hard way, as described in the opening paragraph above! It was soon after that Ants At Work1, a delightful and well-written little book about these fascinating little creatures, came our way. Ants At Work is the result of a 17-year study by Deborah Gordon of 300 colonies of Pogonomyrmex barbatus that were scattered over a 25-acre site in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico. Ms. Gordon began her research in 1985 as a graduate student, continued it as a post-doctoral researcher and later a faculty member at Stanford University.
PROFILE OF A RED HARVESTER ANT COLONY
The facts cited below about Red Harvester Ant colonies are mostly from Deborah Gordon’s book, Ants At Work.
Red Harvester ants live in large underground colonies consisting of a queen and several thousand attending worker ants. Once reaching mature status, at about five years of age, a colony consists of an essentially stable population of about 10-12,000 ants. Each colony has only a single queen who will produce all the ants born in that colony for her entire life and the life of the colony, which commonly lasts for 15 to 20 or more years. When the queen finally dies, the remaining worker ants, whose lifespan is only a year or less, soon die off also, with the result that the entire colony dies, leaving an empty colony nest that is never occupied again.
Photo of a Red Harvester Ant and a Black Harvester Ant in their winged alate form, near Tucson, AZ during Summer Monsoon mating season. Photo by Charles Hedgcock, Charles Hedgcock Photograpy, Tucson, AZ, Wikimedia Commons
Colonies begin to propagate new queens and fertile males, called alates, on an annual basis when a colony reaches about five years of age. At that time a new colony is produced when a single, winged “queen” alate from one parent colony is fertilized by a winged male alate from a different parent colony during the annual Summer Monsoon swarming and mating season. Once mated, the queen flies off to a new location, leaving behind her one-day-stand mating male, who will die within a couple of days, if he is not eaten first by a horned toad, bird, or other insect. Once the mated queen lands, she runs around for a short time before dropping her wings, and now, on the first night after mating, digs a hole some 12 to 18 inches deep, enters the hole and blocks off the entrance, never to emerge above ground for the rest of her lifespan, unless the colony decides to move. Within a few days she lays her first batch of eggs which will hatch within about 6 weeks in the form of tiny, worm-like larvae, which soon turn into pupae, that look like ants enclosed in a papery case. When the ants finally emerge from their pupal case, they do so as full-sized adults that do not grow anymore. Thus, a new colony is born.
Red Harvester Forager Ant carrying a millet seed to the Studio Colony Nest
Colonies of Red Harvester Ants depend on plant material, primarily in the form of seeds as their main food source, which is sought out and brought back from the areas surrounding the colony by outside-the-nest worker ants, where it processed and stored for winter use by inside-the-nest worker ants. About 25% of the colony works outside during the day; the rest stay inside tending to the nest. Colony worker ants can be divided into four groups based on the type of work they do: Patrollers, Foragers, Nest Maintenance Workers, and Midden Workers. Patrollers determine the area to be harvested each day by scouting the area surrounding the nest for food and marking trails by emitting a chemical scent to these food sources which the Foragers will then carry back to the entrance of the nest. Nest Maintenance Workers pick up the food at the entrance to the nest and carry it down into the nest where it is processed and stored, and also bring up sand from the nest below that is added to the ever-growing mound of coarse sand and granules surrounding the entrance to the nest. Midden Workers work on the surface of the mound surrounding the entrance of the nest sorting and moving refuse, debris, and waste material brought up from inside the nest into trash heaps called midden piles which are generally found at the edge of the mound.
Mound of coarse sand and granule-sized rock with two entrance holes
Closeup of colony mound entrance with ants with typical coarse sand and granules of rock comprising mound and Red Harvester Ants on cottonwood leaf
Below the external mound of sand and granules lies a cone-shaped nest that tapers downward consisting of a mass of ¼ to ½ inch chambers with curved ceilings and walls connected by tunnels of varying widths. The chambers in the upper part of the nest that connect directly to the nest entrance hold the 25% of the colony that works outside the nest. The lower chambers are dedicated for various uses, some as living chambers for the Nest Maintenance Workers, some as food storage chambers with neatly stacked seeds, others are brood chambers for the young, the larvae carefully laid out on the floor of the chamber, and the solitary chamber holding the queen. The nest extends downward about as deep as the surface mound is wide, about 10 inches for a 2-year old colony and 5 feet for a 6-year-old colony.
THE RED HARVESTER ANT COLONIES OF CASITAS DE GILA
Red Harvester Ant colonies can be found over most of the land around the Casitas. The largest colonies and oldest colonies, however, are found in Bear Creek Canyon, scattered at intervals over and along the first and second terraces above the floodplain, where vegetation tends to be more abundant and dependable from year to year than on the hillsides or on the flats surrounding the Casitas. Below is a photo essay of representative Red Harvester colonies from the largest and oldest to smaller and younger colonies at the Casitas.
The Largest and Oldest Colony at the Casitas
Largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant Colony at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, designated L7-3 on Casitas Self-guided Nature Trail; mound is 19 inches high, 9-10 feet in diameter at base and is surrounded by 30 foot diameter cleared area; the colony is at least 20 years old
By far the largest and oldest Red Harvester Ant colony at the Casitas is a colony located just below the Casitas on the west side of Bear Creek, with the center of the mound lying about 11 feet above normal creek level, midway up the slope between the first and second creek terraces above the floodplain. The central mound of the nest is cone shaped, measuring 9–10 feet in diameter and about 19 inches in height. The mound is composed of well-sorted coarse sand to granule size particles of sand and rock averaging .11 inches in diameter, which is typical of colony mounds throughout the Casita property. Surrounding the mound is a ring of bare ground, cleared of all vegetation, the outer edge of which measures 30 feet in diameter.
Photo of largest and oldest colony taken July 9, 2001
Same view of largest and oldest colony taken November 5, 2015; note 60-ft. cottonwood trees in background not present in 2001 photo
Age of this monumental colony is at least 20 years, and it is still active. The colony was first observed when we bought our land 18 years ago, and although measurements of its size were not made at the time, it was considered the largest colony mound observed on the property. Because of its impressive size, it was designated as Stop L7-3 when the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail was established in July 2001. As shown in a photo taken at that time, the size of the mound is estimated to be at least 5 tor 6 feet in diameter which, based on Gordon’s research, would suggest an age of at least 6 years.
During the 12-foot flash flood of September 22, 2014, Bear Creek came up to the lower edge of the mound.
Second Oldest Colony at the Casitas
Photo of second largest and oldest colony located on east side of Bear Creek across from the Casitas and built on floodplain; colony was submerged under 4 to 5 feet of water and mound washed away during September 22, 2014 flood
Downstream, and on the opposite (east) side of the Creek from the Oldest Colony, is the Second Oldest colony known on the property. This colony is interesting because, based on its size, it was established on the floodplain itself about 10 years ago about 7 or 8 feet above the creek, following the Great Flood of February 2005, when Bear Creek switched from the east to the west side of Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas. During the 12-foot flash flood of September 22, 2014, this mound was submerged for several hours beneath 4 or 5 feet of rushing water which washed away all of the central mound. The colony survived, however, as most ants can survive underwater for 24 hours or more, and as the October 2015 photos show, was well on its way to rebuilding the central mound.
A Middle Aged Colony at the Casitas
Photo of middle-aged colony with 6 foot diameter mound and 14 foot diameter cleared area
Near the north end of the Willow Walnut Trail, on the west side of Bear Creek, lying about 13 feet above creek level, a typical middle-aged colony is found on a wide, old, creek terrace surrounded by grass and mesquite. The cleared area around the central low mound is about 14 feet in diameter and the central mound is about 6 feet in diameter and 8 inches high. This colony would be at least 6 years old.
A Young Colony at the Casitas
Photo of young colony; note almost lack of mound and cleared area
A few yards south of the middle-aged colony a young colony is found. Lacking a peripheral cleared area and an obvious central mound, only the concentrated deposits of the telltale coarse sand and granule sand and rock material surrounding the inconspicuous entrance to the nest identify this as a Red Harvester Ant Nest. Age of this colony is less than 5 years, perhaps 2 or 3 years old.
Encountered away from the nest, Red Harvester Ants are not aggressive and will rarely attack or bite the strolling or resting hiker, but will simply carry on with their perceived personal mission, whatever that may be. However, for the preoccupied hiker or obliviously engaged birder who unwittingly pauses within their cleared area, or near the entrance of a not-so-obvious young colony such as this one, for more than about 30 seconds, it will be, shall we say, a most memorable learning experience. Soon, those open pant legs will become the center of attraction for a host of the colony’s Patrollers, Nest Maintenance, and Midden Workers who will do their collective best to remove you from their premises! The actual bite of the Red Harvester ant itself may or not be all that painful, sometimes going unnoticed . . . for awhile . . . but after a few hours will eventually produce a large welt from the venom it has injected in the various parts of one’s lower anatomy. Depending on one’s own chemistry and allergic reaction, these welts can be either itchy or burningly painful . . . or both. But eventually, like maybe in three to five days (as is the case with this humble naturalist), they will suddenly disappear. Taking good hot showers seems to speed the process of recovery and during the interim of healing will act both as a temporary palliative on the welts as well as a provider of rather unusual exotic sensations!
TRACING FORAGING TRAILS TO A YOUNG COLONY NEAR THE STUDIO AT THE CASA
Here at Casitas de Gila we have been feeding the wild birds between 50 to100 pounds of birdseed a month, year-around, for some 18 years now, for the enjoyment of our guests as well as ourselves. Behind the office and our Casa we have established a feeding station where we sit each morning having a cup of tea while discussing our tasks for the day, and watching what we have come to call the Casa Birds just outside the window. For both of us, watching the comings, goings, and annual return of the wide variety of species that change through the seasons here has become a morning ritual of never-ending pleasure.
Bird Feeding Station at Casa
One or two year old Studio Colony in foreground, Casa Studio on left. Looking north towards Bird Feeding Station at Casa (hidden behind juniper) with Turtle Rock in background
About 70 feet to the west of the Casa Bird Feeding Station is the Studio, where occasionally we find time to engage in some creativity. One morning this summer, while looking across the canyon to see if the Bighorn Sheep were on the cliffs, a progression of Red Harvester Ants was observed marching along double file in what appeared to be a well-established trail in front of the Studio door, with some ants heading south away from the Studio, and others heading north towards the Casa. Many of the ants heading south appeared to be carrying something in their mandibles, while all of the ants heading north carried nothing. Ah-hah! A Red Harvester Foraging Trail! Where does it go? Following the trail to the south about 40 feet, the nest was soon encountered. It was obviously the nest of a young colony as indicated by the lack of a distinct mound and only the familiar heavy scatter of coarse sand and granule-sized particles of rock to mark the entrance to the nest.
After spending some time photographing the colony’s nest, as well as some of the Foragers that were returning with pieces or whole seeds of some sort, it seemed appropriate to follow the foraging trail northward to possibly discover the source of the food the ants were carrying. Following the trail past the Studio there were places where the ants had literally worn a path 1 to 2 inches wide through the rocks, weeds, dead juniper twigs and grass covering the ground. Eventually the trail ended . . . surprise, surprise . . . at the Casa Bird Feeding Station, or perhaps now more appropriately named, the Casa Bird and Ant Feeding Station. How long this had been going on is not known, but the age of the colony nest is probably only one or two years.
Watching the ants select their next forage seed at the feeding station was interesting. Their criteria for selection was not obvious by any means. Occasionally two ants would spy the same seed at the same time and they would battle over it and around it for a minute or two, like lilliputian wrestlers, before staggering away, both of them leaving the seed behind. Millet seeds and small pieces of cracked corn seemed to be preferred.
Two Studio Foragers on the foraging trail between the Casa Bird Feeding Station and the Studio Colony; the Forager below is heading to the Studio Colony carrying a millet seed; the Forager above is heading to the Casa Bird Feeding Station to pick up more food
“It’s mine! No, I found it first.” Two Forager Ants fighting over a millet seed before both of them go off in different directions leaving it behind
THE STORY OF AN OVER-ACHIEVING FORAGER ANT
WHO PROUDLY RETURNS TO THE NEST WITH HIS PRIZE
(Note: this section has been written for Children and Eternally Young Naturalists everywhere. The events are true and were observed and documented exactly as reported here.)
After watching this foraging frenzy of the Red Harvester Ants at the Casa Bird Feeding Station for a while, the Humble Naturalist decided to trace the foraging trail back to the Studio. About half way back, a lone Forager Ant was spotted carrying a very different, and seemingly much heavier, load than the other Foragers. It was carrying a whole Sunflower seed. Now the adult Red Harvester Foraging Ant averages about 9 mm (1/3 inch), but the seed that this ant was carrying was longer than it was, measuring 10.4 mm (4/10 inch) long. The measured weight of an average Sunflower seed in the wild bird seed is 0.3g (0.01oz), whereas the average weight of a Red Harvester worker ant is 5.5 mg (.0002oz)2. Thus, this lone Forager Ant was transporting a seed roughly 50x its own weight. In comparison with humans, this would be the equivalent of a 160 lb human transporting 8,000 lbs or 4 tons of sunflower seeds. Now the distance from the Casa Bird Feeding Station to the entrance of the Studio Colony Nest is 110 feet. Since a 6-foot human is 1800 mm and the length of an average Red Harvester Ant is 9 mm, the human is roughly 200x longer than the ant. Thus, to equal the 110 feet traveled by the ant, the human would have to transport that 4 tons of sunflower seed some 22,000 feet or 4.2 miles.
Forager Ant pushing its Sunflower seed along the trail to the Studio Colony
At first the Humble Naturalist thought that the Forager Ant was actually carrying the Sunflower seed along the trail. However, a lengthy series of close-up photos documenting its journey back to the Studio Colony Nest showed that for the most part not only was it pushing the seed along the ground, but it was using appropriate physical engineering principles in doing so. Sunflower seeds have a distinctive shape, namely that of a flattened tear drop, with a slightly bulbous, rounded blunt end and a sharper, more pointy, thinner end, with a pronounced raised rim around the flattened edges of the seed. As the photos show, the Forager Ant for most of the journey did not carry the seed but rather pushed it along the ground by first grasping the narrow axis of the blunt end with its mandibles to stand the seed vertically on the rim surrounding its edge, and then, with the upturned pointy end facing forward much like single runner on a skate, shoving the seed down the trail. By pushing the seed in this manner, and tilting it from side to side, Forager Ant was able to steer the seed over, around, and through the never-ending obstacles of pebbles, twigs, and vegetative material along the trail. Occasionally, when encountering a big pebble or twig, it would switch to the other end of the seed, and grasping the pointy end, drag it over the obstacle, and then resume pushing from the rear. After analyzing numerous photos of Forager Ant’s homeward journey, it was obvious that this Forager Ant had been an honors student in Physics 101 at the Red Harvester Ant Foraging School.
When the going gets tough, a tough Forager keeps going . . .
Despite all obstacles, Forager Ant just keeps pushing . . .
Upon reaching the edge of the colony nest, Forger Ant switches ends on the Sunflower seed to cross the coarse sand and granules thrown out by the Nest Maintenance Workers
Repeated measurement of Forger Ants carrying a single piece of millet or corn from the Casa Bird Feeding Station to the entrance to the Studio Colony Nest gave consistent speeds of roughly 10 feet per minute, or 0.11miles/hour, completing their journey in about 11 minutes. The speed of the Forager pushing the Sunflower seed was not measured at the time, nor was the act of a Forager Ant bringing home a whole Sunflower seed ever seen repeated, but obviously Forager Ant had been moving much slower, perhaps 1/3 or 1/4 the speed of the millet-carrying Foragers, thus taking between 30 to 45 minutes from Bird Feeding Station to Studio Colony entrance.
Eventually, however, after a rather tortuous, physically challenging journey on the trail, Forager Ant reached the Studio Colony Nest. Now, with a impressive final show of strength and speed, Forager Ant attempts to deposit the Sunflower seed right at entrance to the nest, where it is immediately thwarted by an alert Nest Maintenance Worker Ant who grabs ahold of the Sunflower seed and apparently tells Forager Ant, “Not so fast, Forager, that seed is way too big to fit down the hole. Take it away.”
Now, finally at the entrance to the nest, Forager attempts to deposit the Sunflower seed; however, it is met by an alert Nest Maintenance Worker who grabs ahold of the seed and tells Forager that the seed is too big and must be taken away
Dejected at having been turned away after such a long and arduous journey, Forger pushes the Sunflower seed away from the entrance
Dejected beyond belief that its beyond-the-call-of-duty, extreme foraging effort is not appreciated, Forager Ant drags the sunflower seed a short distance away, stops, pauses for a few seconds, and then turns and makes a second attempt at taking it to the nest entrance. Again, and in no uncertain terms, Forager Ant is stopped by the ever-alert Nest Maintenance Ant and told once more to take the seed away. With dejection now having turned to hardly concealed anger, Forager Ant starts to haul the Sunflower seed away, but instead, overcome with rage, throws it against a big pebble, and stalks away in a totally uncharacteristic and unheard of state of rebellious, non-collective Red Harvester Ant Colony Consciousness, emitting faint ant obscenities and obnoxious pheromones as it disappears into the weeds.
Unwilling to give up without a fight, Forager turns and pushes the Sunflower back to the nest entrance, approaching from a new direction
Once again Forager Ant is stopped by the Nest Maintenance Worker before he can deposit his seed at the nest entrance and is instructed to take it away; enraged Forager Ant throws the Sunflower seed against a rock and stalks away
The abandoned Sunflower seed was patiently observed by the Humble Naturalist for quite some time to see what would happen next, and although a few ants came and smelled it, they made no attempt to move it. Returning to the nest an hour or so later, it was discovered that the Sunflower seed had been removed from the rock were Forager Ant had thrown it. What happened to the Sunflower seed is unknown. Most likely is that the Nest Maintenance Worker Ant instructed a Midden Worker Ant to take it to the Midden Pile off to the side of the Mound, but, despite a short search, it couldn’t be found. As to Forager Ant? Also impossible to say, but it is highly likely that soon after the disruptive event, a parable about a radical, Overachieving Forager Ant who brought back food too big to fit through the entrance of the nest would become part of the colony’s teaching curriculum for schooling young ants after they emerged from their pupae in the brood chambers for many years to come.
- Deborah Gordon, 1999, Ants at Work, The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 182 pp.
- Robert A. Johnson, 2002, Semi-claustral colony founding in the Seed-harvester ant Pogonomyrmex californicus: a comparative analysis of colony founding strategies, Oecologia, 132:60-67. Springer-Verlag.