casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

What Has Happened to Michael’s Nature Blog!!! ?

the porch we added to our house

The small porch we added to our home

A PORCH! That’s what!

In the spring, Becky decided she wanted to add a porch to our house. Through the 12 years we’ve been here serving the guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, we have focused almost exclusively on the Casitas. It was time to do something for us. It was time to create a place where we could sit in the shade during the summer months, and keep a few small windows open while rain fell.

Little did Michael realize how long it would take to do with only one person doing the work (that person being Michael, of course!).

So that’s what Michael has been doing instead of writing his Nature Blog articles.

view from the porch

The view from our new porch. Note the Sedona Flagstones ... they took forever to position the way we wanted them!

Michael had the flagstones laid before the rain started, so he didn’t have to work in the mud. And he almost got the roof on before the rain, but not quite. A tarp worked well, though, until the metal roof was secured.

We are happy to report that the porch itself is just about done. The rest of the laying of the flagstones in the courtyard and cementing between them can wait until late fall when spending hours in the sun is more comfortable.

The Nature Blog will resume very, very soon …

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Waiting for the Rains Time

It’s the “Waiting for the Rains Time” in the Southwest. After a mostly-dry and colder-than-usual La Niña Winter, and a cool and even drier Spring, the entire Southwest is exceptionally dry, and every living thing — humans, animals, birds, and plants — is waiting. Waiting for the annual North American Monsoon or Southwest Monsoon rains that traditionally begin in New Mexico and Arizona around the last week in June to the first two weeks of July.

Bear Creek in Southwest New Mexico

Bear Creek still flowing in late June

Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and Nature Preserve it is no different, although you wouldn’t know it standing in front of the Casitas and looking at Bear Creek below, where a lush green oasis of cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, oak, ash, alder, and seep willow beckons our guests for a shady respite from the Summer sun. For even in a very dry year, such as this year, Bear Creek maintains a small, yet persistent, flow below the Casitas, a flow that’s a few inches deep and a few feet wide, fed by numerous stream-bed springs scattered along its sinuous course from the Piños Altos Mountains on the horizon to the North and East.

Mesquite beans

mesquite beans in New Mexico

At a distance, except for the tell-tale dry brown grass left over from the heavy rains of last Summer and Fall, the hills and mountains bordering Bear Creek look much as they always do, checkered with numerous dark-green juniper and piñon trees and abundant, bright, yellow-green clumps of Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), their abundant golden efflorescent flowerings of last month now replaced by copious quantities of long, slender, immature green bean pods.

Yet upon closer inspection, the signs of the current extended dry are everywhere, and some of the apparent greening and flowering is deceptive. The flowering and fruiting of the Honey Mesquite, for example, cannot be trusted as evidence of recent rainfall as this plant is well adapted to the vagaries of desert precipitation. Mesquite has an extensive shallow root system to capture the briefest shower, plus deeply penetrating roots that tap into residual moisture stored deeper underground from earlier months of abundant precipitation, such as we had during the last half of 2010. A similar deception belies the current profusion of fragrant flowers on the Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis), now blooming in the dry washes, where its deep roots can almost always find moisture no matter how dry the surface conditions.

desert willow blossom

desert willow blossom

One who is familiar with the life cycle of these high desert plants will quickly notice the absence of certain other things as well, such as how the Scrub Oaks of the upland hills, which, as usual, shed last year’s leaves in late Spring, but have not put out new ones yet – they’re just waiting. Or how many of the plants which are normally flowering at this time of year, such as the Prickly Pear Cactus and the elegant Soaptree Yucca, are conspicuously barren – also waiting. Or that the typical annual flowers of Spring and early Summer, such as Bloodweed, Evening Primrose, Thistle, didn’t germinate at all this year – later maybe, or maybe next year, or even five years from now … most plants of the high desert are very, very patient.

Indigo Bunting, Cowbird, Gambel's Quail, House Finch

Indigo Bunting, Cowbird, Gambel's Quail, House Finch

Current bird life and activity, both resident and transient, in the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve is normal for this time of year, although the variety and numbers seem increased over last year. In part, this is because of the continuing presence of water in Bear Creek, but also due to the availability of several flowering Spring plants along the creek, and the abundant seeds left from last year’s extreme growth and overproduction, resulting from last year’s prodigious Summer rains. Another probable reason is the fact that we have been feeding the birds here, both at the Casitas as well as at our house and office, every day, for the past 13 years! It seems likely that it is probably now well known by our feathered friends that we feed regularly and generously, offering a smorgasbord of cracked corn, wheat, oats, white millet, whole milo, sunflower seeds, thistle seed, suet (three flavors), and hummingbird nectar (several gallons a week during season)! So whether the increased variety and numbers this year are due to the extended dry and the continuing flow of Bear Creek, or the Casita-free-lunch-entitlement-program is very difficult to judge conclusively! We think we may have created a monster. It’s somewhat scary to think of what might happen if we would quit and subject our avian friends to a sign-of-the-times austerity program. An Alfred Hitchcock movie quickly comes to mind …

By now most of the stock tanks and natural springs in the surrounding hills and mountains have dried up, so Bear Creek is the sole source of dependable water for many of the animals in the area. Accordingly, during the past month the numbers and variety of animals visiting Bear Creek have increased dramatically. In this case it has to be the presence of water in Bear Creek, because we have never fed the wild animals (and never will).

bighorn sheep

Bighorn Sheep on cliffs across from the Casitas, above Bear Creek

Ever since the first two ewes appeared this past May 6, there has been a steady parade of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep visiting the cliffs across from Casitas de Gila, in groups numbering anywhere from 2 to 20 at a time. They stay anywhere from just a night or two to up to a week, enjoying the safety of the cliffs at night, and feeding on the extensive browse available above the cliffs and the fresh green vegetation and water in Bear Creek by day. The groups consist of mostly or entirely ewes with lambs, but occasionally will be accompanied by a young ram or two. Watching this ritualistic procession for the past two months leads one to the hypothesis that in addition to the perks of place mentioned above, a couple other reasons could be in play here. One may be the probable instinctual entrainment of this herd’s geographical range and favorite haunts upon the young lambs, and the other may be that during the early weeks of the life of a newborn lamb the herd is greatly vulnerable to predation, primarily from Cougar and to a lesser extent Coyotes and Wolves, and therefore they have to keep moving. Another possibility might be that the sheep find the guests at Casitas de Gila interesting to observe as well!

observing wildlife

Becky and Michael observing wildlife at the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve

For the past three weeks Becky and I have taken to spending a half an hour or so right at dusk sitting out on benches at the Bear Creek Overlook and in front of the office with our binoculars to observe the activity below along Bear Creek. Scarcely an evening goes by that we aren’t rewarded. We have watched Mule Deer feasting and frolicking, Striped Skunks scratching for insects, Jackrabbits and Cottontails nibbling, Collared Peccary (javelina) foraging, Coyotes hunting, and Bobcats stealthily searching. Also, we have observed stoic Great Blue Herons fishing for minnows, Wild Turkeys strutting, and Black Hawks, Cliff Swallows and Mexican bats soaring. During the day, a walk along the trails winding through the floodplain of Bear Creek can be a veritable paradise for observing various types of animal tracks and scat. If one takes the time, and uses the guidebooks in the Casitas, one will discover the tracks of all of the above, and maybe even the unmistakable print of a small Black Bear, as Bower, Chloe and I discovered last week, and as two of our guests saw twice in the flesh just yesterday.

Like all residents of the American Southwest, here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses we look forward to the onset of the Southwest Monsoon season (also called North American Monsoon) which begins in late June or early July and ends about the middle of September. Monsoons, in general, result when in Late Spring or Early Summer the interior landmass of a continent heats up faster than that the adjacent ocean. As the hot air over land rises, this causes moisture laden air from the oceans to move landward where it then precipitate as rain. In the Southwest U.S. this pattern begins in the mountainous interior of Mexico where high level moisture is carried in from the Gulf of Mexico by easterly winds aloft. As the season progresses, low level moisture laden air is also drawn in from the Gulf of California. As the forests in the mountains of interior Mexico green up, evaporation and plant transpiration add to the moisture content of the air. Gradually, the monsoonal storm pattern intensifies, and the monsoonal ridge shifts northward into Arizona and New Mexico to produce the much-welcomed rains of Summer.

mule deer

This Mule Deer is watching US!

This Southwest Monsoon, or Monsoon Season as it is called locally, is quite different from the South Asian monsoon where the rainy season of the Summer months is one of persistent widespread deluge and extensive flooding, which can result in difficult hardship, but is endured with acceptance as it provides up to 80% of the annual rainfall for the Indian subcontinent. The Southwest Monsoon, while it does provide on the average 50% or more of the annual rainfall in New Mexico and Arizona, is considered more of a summer blessing and anticipated treat by the people who live here. During the Southwest Monsoon season it doesn’t rain constantly for days on end; rather, the rain is much more sporadic, spread out over some eight weeks, and characterized by short, 15-30 minute afternoon thunderstorms. These thunderstorms can be quite intense, and are great fun to watch as they build into towering, colorful thunderheads over the mountains which then slowly advance toward you to drop up to as much as 2 or 3 inches of rain before dissipating once more to sunny, clear blue skies. Almost always these thunderstorms are accompanied by a single, double, or even a triple rainbow, plus a lingering and most refreshing drop in temperature. Runoff from these storms is immediate and can provide quite a spectacle of Nature when observed from in front of the Casita building as the waters surge down Bear Creek 80 feet below. Yet, within a half-hour or so after the sun comes out, the ground and roads are dry again, and except for the odd puddle, evidence of the recent storm is difficult to find.

This year, because we have had very little rain for six months (.04 inches to date here at the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve since January 1), and because there has been such strange weather globally (a severe winter followed by disastrous fires, floods, tornadoes, etc.), there is great concern, anticipation and speculation in the Southwest regarding this year’s Monsoon Season. Will this year be an exceptionally strong Monsoon or a weak one? If one Googles the topic, one quickly finds that the projections by the various experts are not consistent and the various projections bracket the total range of possibilities. Recently, in response to this important question, the University of Arizona’s Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS) Program has started a new publication called the Southwest Monsoon Tracker, which is available online and will be updated each month until September. Likewise, the National Weather Service in Tucson has a similar program called Tracking the Monsoon.

For the past 13 years, Becky and I have personally found this whole Monsoon Season phenomena very fascinating. From my past experience in trying to understand the natural world of any new area, I have learned that when one really wants to understand the truth about a local phenomena of Nature, it is always useful to seek out those respected “old timers” who have lived close to Nature and through the various cyclical climate changes that today’s experts can only research from old data. So it was in this context that a couple of weeks ago I was visiting with such a local man and friend, who was born, raised, and has spent a long lifetime in this area working with Nature on ranches and in the mines. His experience, knowledge, and wisdom concerning the natural world of the local area is held in high esteem by his local peers, and it is always enlightening talking to him. Eventually, our discussion finally came around to this year’s Monsoon Season. When I asked what he thought the Monsoons would be like this year, he replied, with a twinkle in his eye: “Well … just the other day I was talking to an ‘old timer’ I know and asked that same question. And he told me, ‘Well … when you have these here strong winds like we’ve been a havin’ this late in the year, you can bet your boots that it’s goin’ to be one humdinger of a rainy season’.” At this point, the conversation with my friend turned, naturally, to discussing just how unusual these exceptionally strong, late-in-the-year winds that we have been experiencing of late truly are. So for what its worth, according to one local “old timer”, we just might have a humdinger of a rainy season here in Southwest New Mexico this year! But then again, maybe we won’t. And no, in case you were wondering, at the time, I didn’t think it would be appropriate to ask my friend what he thought of that “old timer’s” opinion!

Ah, the mysteries of Nature!

So now we all wait. And hopefully it won’t be a long wait. Why just this morning I looked at the 7-day National Weather Service forecast and lo and behold, for the first time this year, there’s a 10% chance of showers each day and night for an entire week! Could it be that,the Monsoon of 2011 is about to begin?


Rainbow over the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve

Posted in Bear Creek, Bighorn Sheep, birdwatching, monsoon rains, native plants, nature preserve, New Mexico trees, wildlife | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Memorial Day Star Party • May 27 – June 5, 2011

This year it happened that the week surrounding Memorial Day coincided with a New Moon. Consequently, most of the guesthouses at Casitas de Gila were occupied by amateur astronomers, along with their family members, from Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts. The astronomers were accompanied by a very impressive array of large telescopes for astrophotography and visual observing. As is typical for this time of year, the skies cooperated fully, with clear, dark skies prevailing throughout the week. According to Chuck B. of Maryland and Paul C. of Massachusetts, two of our regular astro-guests who have been visiting Casitas de Gila three or four times a year for the past several years, the skies were judged to be “excellent” each night of their stay.

chart of sky quality readings

Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality readings taken June 1, 2011, at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses by Lee B.

While most astro-guests who stay at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are highly impressed with the degree of darkness, seeing, and transparency that we typically experience here, one of the first-time astro-guests was able to objectively quantify the validity of Chuck’s and Paul’s subjective determination. Using a Unihedron SQM-LU sky quality meter, Lee B. of Arizona monitored an entire night’s sky darkness, obtaining values ranging from a high of 21.8 to a low of 21.46 as dawn approached, with an average of 21.68 for the time period from 10 PM until 4 AM on June 1, 2011. These values correspond to what is considered a natural starry sky with no light pollution, and are exceptionally high when compared to other scales used to measure sky darkness.

guests and their equipment

Chuck B with the AP105 refractor telescope and Paul C. with the 18-inch Starmaster dobsonian reflector telescope

Chuck was able to acquire vast amounts of digital astrophotographic data (enough to keep him very busy processing for the next two or three months) using an AP105 refractor telescope with a PDF Focuser, on a AP1200 mount, and M8300 camera. The first of the photographs he has processed is of Omega Centauri, a dazzling globular star cluster in the constellation of Centaurus, some 15,000 light years distant from us. As our Milky Way Galaxy’s largest and brightest globular star cluster visible with the naked eye, Omega Centauri is a true giant, containing perhaps 10 million stars with a diameter of 150 light years.

Another object which Chuck has processed is the Dumbbell Nebula (M27), a planetary nebula discovered by Charles Messier in 1764, about 1,300 light years away, in the constellation Vulpecula. Messier listed this object as M27 in his catalog of nebulous objects, which are now known as the Messier objects.

Omega Centauri

Omega Centauri, taken by Chuck B.

Dumbell Nebula

Dumbell Nebula, taken by Chuck B.

However, of all the objects observed and photographed during the week’s star party, none could compare in excitement with the “astrophotographic capture” that Chuck made of a new supernova, the rare event of an exploding star. This new supernova was discovered on June 2, 2011, by French astronomers in the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51). Chuck was able to photograph it on June 5. Located within the constellation Canes Venatici, the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) is one of the most famous galaxies in our sky. According to ongoing study by astronomers around the world, this new supernova must have taken place on May 31, 2011, as it is not shown in images taken prior to that date. As fortuitous as it may seem, Chuck had photographed the Whirlpool Galaxy on May 30, and, indeed, the supernova was not there!

Whirlpool Galaxy before June 2 Supernova

M51 taken on May 30th before Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.

Whirlpool Galaxy after June 2 Supernova

M51 taken on June 5 after Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.

The fact that Chuck and other astronomers around the world were able to pin the exact day that the star exploded is quite mind-boggling, to say the least! Of course, when one says that the event took place on May 31, it must be remembered that in actuality this event took place many millions of years ago, when humans were still but a twinkle in our Creator’s eye. So to put this event into an Earth geologic-time perspective, the Whirlpool Galaxy is some 23 million light years away from us, so what we are looking at is an event that can be pinpointed as happening on a specific day about 5 million years after the Bursum Caldera Supervolcano eruption in the Gila Wilderness, some 28 million years ago!

Paul, a long-time friend of astroimager Chuck and his partner in astronomical adventures, considers himself a member of the “old school observer astronomers clan”, those intrepid celestial explorers who, like the sea captains of old, prefer to hunt down their astronomical prey the old-fashioned way, relying solely on detailed, age-old star charts, masterful and precise visual celestial navigation, and dogged determination, instead of using any of those new-fangled, computerized, “go to” location devices. Using these tried-and-true methods, Paul was able to seek out, observe and explore numerous celestial specialties of the Spring and Early Summer firmament, such as the Whale and the Hockey Stick galaxies, the Wild Duck Cluster (M11), and the Omega or Swan Nebula (M17), using a 18” Starmaster Dobsonian reflector telescope. Back home in Massachusetts, Paul regularly gives public demonstration programs on astronomy, and so on several nights he graciously shared his extensive celestial knowledge with some of the other guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, as well as with local area residents who have not had an opportunity to look through a large telescope.

Trifid and Lagoon Nebulas

Trifid and Lagoon Nebulas taken by Lee B.

One of our new astro-guests, Lee B., was also able to obtain large amounts of digital astrophotographic data during the two nights he spent at Casitas de Gila. He will be processing these over the coming weeks. Lee has been been involved in photography for quite some time, and has an extensive collection of his photos available for viewing and purchase on his website. One night while he was at the Casitas, having some “time to kill at the end of an imaging run”, as Lee put it, he was able to take an amazing photo showing both the Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula, some 7,600 and 4,100 light years away respectively, in the constellation Sagittarius. The resulting photo was a single, 30-minute, sub-frame exposure which shows incredible detail despite the low altitude of the object (28 degrees) when it was imaged. Lee was using an AP130GT scope on a AP900 mount and a STL-11000M camera. This photo can be seen on the astrophotography website telescope review forum. Following his return home, Lee completed processing his data to produce the photo shown here.

With the good weather and excellent viewing holding through the end of the week, eventually it was time for all of our astro-guests to return to Earth and head for their respective terrestrial abodes. All in all, it was another wonderful week for stargazing, astronomy, and astrophotography at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

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A Blessing of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Lambs!

Bighorn Lambs and their Mommas

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep and Lambs on the cliffs above Bear Creek

What a treat! Two Rocky Mountain Bighorn lambs, born within the last couple of days, appeared around noon today on the cliffs across from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses on Bear Creek. Becky noticed the babies running along the side of the cliffs (amazing!) and had me get the camera. So exciting and wonderful to be able to watch new-born wild animals right outside our door!

The two ewes we blogged about in early January stayed here on the cliffs up until about three weeks ago, with only a few absences for three or four days at a time. The big ram never returned. It almost seemed as if he told the ewes, “You stay here, where you’ll be safe, and you have good water and food, until the babies are born”. As the weeks went by, Becky and I noticed (or at least convinced ourselves) that the two ewes seemed to be getting more rotund. Then three weeks ago they disappeared. We were worried. Did a mountain lion get them? Did they just decided to move on?

Bighorn Sheep and their Lambs

They are so small! And boy, can they get around already!

Three days ago, I noticed that three ewes appeared on the cliffs. The next day two Casita guests who had been hiking along the creek told us they had encountered five sheep below the cliffs eating the new grass along Bear Creek. They thought there were four ewes and maybe one young ram. They related how they had retreated back a safe distance on the opposite side of the creek so that they would not scare the sheep and proceeded to watch and photograph them. They were really quite excited because not only had they seen Bighorn Sheep, but on their way back to their Casita they came upon six young mule deer drinking from the creek and eating the new grass!

There was no way of telling if the two ewes that had been here were part of the new group of five, but the thought that they might have returned to have their babies was exciting. But yesterday, despite repeated inspection of the cliffs, I could find no sheep and concluded that this must be another group of sheep passing through …

Bighorn Ewes and Lambs

Time to eat!

But, no! There they are! We’re sure they are the same ewes that came all winter, and now they have babies, no more than 1 or 2 days old! Already those baby sheep are running along the vertical cliffs! It’s truly something to see and we, and our guests, are very, very blessed.

Posted in Bighorn Sheep, wildlife | Tagged | 1 Comment

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038



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