The New Year dawns bright, but cold – very cold – reaching a low of 9°F overnight, with about 3 inches of snow still blanketing the ground from the big storm of Thursday, December 30.
It’s a white New Year’s Day for sure, with the one-seed Junipers and piñons weighed down heavily with snow and glistening brilliantly as Mr. Sun finally pokes his head above South Peak across the canyon in front of the Casitas. Ever so slowly, the morning light creeps deeper and deeper into the canyon to finally illuminate the steaming water of Bear Creek below.
Bower and Chloe, our two English Springer Spaniels, and I go down to our corral near the creek to feed our two Mexican horses, Saino and Yaqui. Extra rations of alfalfa for them, and then it’s back to the house where the birds are waiting impatiently in the trees. Extra rations for them, too. There are many birds about this morning, about 60 or 70 in total: fat and grumpy Mourning Doves and White-Winged Doves, a family of eternally-hyper Gambel’s Quail, hordes of Dark-Eyed Juncos, with a smattering of House Finches thrown in, our ever-faithful, year-round residents Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal, a pair of discriminating Spotted Towhees, and several shy, furtive Canyon Towhees. They are all puffed up against the cold this morning. Also present, as usual, are two pairs of Becky’s favorite resident nemeses: the freeloading Cliff Chipmunks. Everyone is voracious to the extreme and totally oblivious to their eating companions; no time for birds-of-a-feather discrimination this morning! It really has been a cold night.
The Great Gila Blizzard of 2010 at the Casitas started out as rain during the early morning hours of December 30th. By 10 AM the weather turned abruptly to heavy snow as a massive cold front blew in from the west, driven by 45mph winds. Temperatures rapidly plunged into the 20s, teens, and eventually to a low of 6°F by dawn the next morning, a record low for our now 12 winters here at the Casitas. The manifestation of the National Weather Service’s three-day-forecasted “Blizzard Warning” actually occurred! Who would have thought it!
This year we are having a La Niña winter, as opposed to last year’s mild and moist El Niño winter. Normally La Niña winters here at Casitas de Gila (at 4,800 feet in Southwestern New Mexico) are mostly dry and colder, with December and January overnight temperatures in the 20s to upper teens and bright sunny days with highs in the 40s to upper 50s. Typically, during a La Niña winter most storms track much farther to the north of us. But for the past month the jet stream has looped far south, coming down from offshore Washington State and then veering eastward into Southern California, then across southern Arizona and New Mexico, before abruptly turning back north and resuming its normal eastward track. Hence the unusual moisture and extreme cold. But then the weather has been wild everywhere recently, hasn’t it?
Anyway, once Becky and I finished our ritual half-hour early-morning discussions over Barry’s Irish tea (today’s topic being The Great Gila Blizzard of 2010), and I had received my maintenance directives for the day, it was time to leave the bird watching and head out to clean a couple of Casitas and ready them for new guests.
By late morning, all maintenance chores were done on my part. I was now free to grab my camera and head off to photograph the magnificent snow-covered landscape that had been calling out to me incessantly while I replaced firewood at each Casita and cleaned the barbecue grills.
Here at the Casitas we have 265 acres of pristine natural habitat ranging from the year-round, free-flowing waters of the cottonwood- and sycamore-lined Bear Creek floodplain at 4,700 feet, to the juniper, piñon and grass-covered slopes of Telephone Mountain at 6,300 feet in First Valley. This morning, the floodplain trails along the creek below looked particularly inviting, and after taking a few shots of the Casitas and the stunning snow-covered ramparts of the Gila Wilderness five miles to the north, I headed down to walk the creek-bottom trails. While I have been maintaining and walking these trails for the past 12 years, many times after a light snowfall, never have I experienced the beauty that I encountered there today. It truly was a Casita Land of Winter Enchantment!