With the metal roof now secure on the new porch on our Casa and Office, the Gila Nature Blog can resume once more. Frequently Becky’s “little” home improvement projects can become rather all-consuming, and the Porch Project was no exception. But now that the result has passed muster by The Boss (and I’m quite pleased with it myself), it’s a real treat to get back to the computer and writing.
In my June 24 blog entry, Waiting for the Rains Time, the forecast was for a 10% probability of rain for the coming week. Sure enough, on July 1st we had .04 inches of rain! The drought of the past five months had been broken. By the middle of July two more light rains had produced another 0.2 inches for us here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, but areas close by were receiving rains of up to an inch or more. Though very spotty in distribution at first, the rains continued to increase both in frequency and amount, so that by the end of July the Casitas had received slightly over two inches for the month.
The reason for the slow start of the monsoon season for New Mexico has been nicely documented in the Southwest Monsoon Tracker, a blog put out by the University of Arizona. Essentially, the cause of the late start is due to the fact that the high pressure systems which are essential to the start of the heavier rains of the Monsoon Season and which are normally located over the Four-Corners area of New Mexico/Arizona/Utah/Colorado, where they draw up moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, were initially located too far to the east over New Mexico. Hence, the winds have predominantly come from the east instead of from the south resulting in fewer favorable days for widespread thunderstorm activity.
Desert Scrub Oak
During the first two weeks of August, however, the location of the high pressure systems normalized somewhat and moved further west, resulting in heavier and more frequent rains moving into western New Mexico. Such has been the case here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, where as of this date 6.06 inches of rain have fallen during the first two weeks of this month, with one impressive thunderstorm dropping 3.46 inches in a bit over an hour, causing some washouts on our road and requiring immediate remediation on my part with our trusty Kubota tractor.
With the rain, the landscape around Casitas de Gila has turned from a drab brown to a bright green once more! It’s been fascinating to watch this extremely rapid change. With the soil now saturated with water, the rate of germination and growth is phenomenal. The Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), mostly bare of leaves just two weeks ago, now sport a luxurious crown of bright green new leaves. The Sideoats Grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) and Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis), the dominant grasses here at the Casitas and dormant since last September, have now come back to life with great passion, once more turning the hillsides from brown to green, much to the epicurean delight and satisfaction of our two horses, Saino and Yaqui!
First Bear Creek Flood of 2011
So far for this Monsoon Season, Bear Creek has flooded three times. Although short lived, the first flash flood on July 24 was most impressive, causing the creek to cover the entire floodplain to a depth of four feet or so of rushing water. Choked with branches, dead tree trunks, and organic debris from last winter’s accumulation, this first flood took out some fences in the horses’ corral. Not a major concern, though, as it happens every year; we’ll put them back in September once the rains are over. Within two or three hours after the first flood, Bear Creek was back to a trickle as the water table within the floodplain had not risen significantly.
Here come Flood Number 2! August 9th
All of this changed on August 9, when the second flash flood took place as a result of the 3.43-inch deluge. This time, however, the flood lasted well into the next day, closing State Highway 211 in Gila for the first time this year for several hours. As of today, the Creek below the Casitas is still running full in its channel and will probably stay that way for the rest of the year, since the groundwater table of the floodplain is now nearly back up to its normal level.
With the restoration of normal water levels in Bear Creek, the plethora of animal life commented on in my last blog of June 24 has disappeared, the animals having once again dispersed into the surrounding hills and mountains as a result of the annual filling and freshening of stock tanks and numerous small springs. They will gradually return, however, once they have had a chance to explore the greened-up hills, valleys, and mountains bordering Bear Creek.
Even though the three floods in the past three weeks have been small to moderate in magnitude and duration, a walk along the creek yesterday by Becky, our neighbor Bill, and myself and our dogs revealed rather amazing changes in the stream bed topography and deposits. Once again one is reminded of how sporadic geologic change in the desert really is: months and months of suspended geologic process with no visible change in the landscape, followed by extreme energy expenditure and major modification within just a few hours. Nowhere was the affect of the 3.43-inch cloudburst of July 9 more evident than the Dry Wash Trail on the south end of the Casita de Gila Nature Preserve. This trail follows the bed of a short, dry wash canyon extending from the uppermost slopes of South Peak across from the Casitas, westward to the Bear Creek floodplain. With a drop of about 800 vertical feet in 0.6 mile, the drainage cuts across volcanic rhyolite, ash-fall tuffs, and pyroclastic breccias before crossing a vertical fault about halfway down the mountain. It then becomes deeply incised in the sedimentary Gila Conglomerate, an interesting formation of this area containing a rich and highly diverse assemblage of volcanic and sedimentary pebbles, cobbles, and boulders up to a foot or more in diameter. A hike up the Dry Wash Trail presents an interesting journey back through geologic time, and is a favorite destination for rockhounds staying at Casitas de Gila because of the variety of rocks and minerals that can be found there.
Outwash from Dry Wash Canyon
On this day, however, the once-so-familiar Dry Wash Trail was virtually unrecognizable. At the beginning of the trail where the canyon empties onto the Bear Creek floodplain, we found the marker signpost for the trail buried some two feet deep in newly deposited, coarse, gravelly outwash covering a vast area estimated at some 600-800 tons. That’s a lot of earth material to be transported in less than an hour’s time!
Chloe, Bower and Becky find a shady nook in the Gila Conglomerate on the Dry Wash Trail
As we slowly made our way up the canyon, we soon found ourselves in what seemed to be a totally new canyon, one in which all the familiar spots along the trail had been completely obliterated, either deeply scoured away or covered up by the tons upon tons of sand to huge boulder-sized rocks that had crashed down through the chasm in a maelstrom of churning water, sand and rock. What a treasure trove of new rocks and minerals to hunt through and collect
Jasper Breccia uncovered by the Flood
Jaded as we are by collecting on our property for the last 12-plus years, Becky insisted on me carrying home a good-sized chunk of beautiful multi-colored jasper breccia. (Actually, I would have carried it home anyway; it was too nice to leave behind!)
For the curious naturalist, the Monsoon Season is an exceptionally interesting period in Southwest New Mexico — so much can happen in so short a time. And each year is different, depending on the overall weather patterns. Generally, the season lasts until the middle of September. This year, 2011, has been a year of unusual and exceptional weather events all around the globe. It will be most interesting to see how the rest of the Monsoon Season plays out in Southwest New Mexico.
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.
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 …
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 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 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
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
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 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!
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.
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 Bear Creek, birdwatching, monsoon rains, nature preserve, wildlife
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.
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.
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, taken by Chuck B.
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!
M51 taken on May 30th before Supernova takes place. Photo by Chuck B.
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 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 cloudynights.com 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.