casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 575-535-4455
info@casitasdegila.com

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

With the Rains Come the Wildflowers …

There's never just one Summer Poppy!

For many parts of New Mexico and Arizona, this year’s Monsoon rains have remained spotty and below average (see the CLIMAS Southwest Monsoon Tracker) But not so here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses! As of today, we have received over 9 inches of rain since early July (which marked the beginning of this year’s Monsoon Season), with the result that the lands of the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve are now luxuriously green. There are wildflowers growing in profusion everywhere.

Based on the latest 10-day forecast, this week will probably see the end of this year’s Monsoon Season as Summer begins to fade. The early signs of Fall are everywhere now. Yesterday there was a widespread, gentle, all-day rain, but it seemed more a Fall type of rain than Monsoonal. This morning it dawned clear, cool and actually brisk, with temperatures in the high 50s. Many of our summer birds have already gone. Yesterday, while driving back from Silver City, there was a small group of Turkey Vultures perched in a circle on some yuccas and fence posts at the side of the road. They do this every year shortly before migrating back to Mexico. It’s the only time those Turkey Vultures gather together like this. Whether or not they do it to go over various route options and departure times remains an open question. And then this morning, we observed over a hundred Cliff Swallows packed side by side on the power lines near the entrance to Casitas de Gila. It won’t be long before they will be leaving as well.

There are signs along Bear Creek, too. Looking out from the Casitas these days upon the deep green foliage of the Bear Creek floodplain, here and there one’s eye will be drawn to an occasional branch high up in the Cottonwoods whose leaves have already turned golden yellow. One observes this phenomena every year about this time. With the general Fall turning-of-the-leaves still a good month off, this early turning phenomena remains an unsolved mystery. Could it be some sort of isolated Cottonwood stress? Possibly the result of partially broken limbs from that big thunderstorm in July? Or, to fantasize a bit, maybe it’s some sort of early warning system that these Cottonwoods, ancient Patriarchs of the Floodplain, use to signal the other denizens of the Creek bottom that Fall is on the way? So many interesting observations to ponder … But on this morning such rumination must wait, for today it is the magnificence of the late Summer Flowers now surrounding the Casitas that commands our attention, and demands a photographic journey to the Creek below.

Hiking down from the Casitas and along the Corral Road, at each bend and turn in the trail an incredibly diverse array of wildflowers greets one’s eye. The walk progresses ever more slowly as one’s journey is repeatedly brought to a halt. Again and again the photographer’s eye is arrested by those especially lit places where blossoms radiate with an unbelievable crystalline brilliance, as rays of sunlight filtering through the deep green canopy above refract in the lingering drops of the early morning dew.

The diversity of flowers this morning is perhaps the greatest we have seen in our 13 years here. Perhaps, this is due to the complete lack of rain for the first half of this year. The life cycles of most of the plants native to this area respond more to the occurrence of rain rather than the seasons. With no rain until July, many species that would normally bloom in the Spring and Early Summer are this morning found blooming with the Late Summer varieties. The day is perfect for photography and the flowers and camera cooperate fully. After about an hour and a half, the Sun has risen high enough to both heat things up as well as eliminate most of the wonderful contrast of light and shadows that has been so captivating. Time to pack up and head back to the studio to view the results of the morning’s endeavors.

After sorting through the 170 or so photos, some 21 different flowering plants are recognized, either old friends known from the past or new ones which are easily identified. Another 10, mostly those difficult little yellow ones that look so much alike, will take longer to key out.

May the joy you have in viewing these photos be as great as as I had in taking them!

**Click on the photo and a larger version will open in a new window.

Summer Poppy (Kallstroemia grandiflora)

Summer Poppy
(Kallstroemia grandiflora)

SUMMER POPPY (Kallstroemia grandiflora)
Not a true poppy, this plant is related to the creosote bush! It doesn’t bloom every year, having germination inhibitors coating the seeds that require several seasons to wash off. Here at the Casitas, when they do germinate and bloom, the hillsides are literally covered with them, as they are right now!

Wild Four O'Clock (Mirabilis multiflora)

Wild Four O'Clock
(Mirabilis multiflora)

WILD FOUR O’CLOCK (Mirabilis multiflora)
One of our favorites here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. These flowers open late in the afternoon and close in the morning when the Sun reaches them. At night they emit a musky odor which attracts the large hawkmoth, the dominant pollinator for the plant.

Long-flowered Four O'Clock (Mirabilis longiflora)

Long-flowered Four O'Clock (Mirabilis longiflora)

LONG-FLOWERED FOUR O’CLOCK (Mirabilis longiflora)

Like the Wild Four O’Clock these flowers unfold at dusk and shrivel with the day. Only a few hawkmoths have long enough tongues to feed on these flowers and are their only pollinators. Whereas the Wild Four O’Clock grows around the Casitas, this species prefers the much damper soils down along the Creek.

Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra)

Clammyweed
(Polanisia dodecandra)

CLAMMYWEED (Polanisia dodecandra)
So named because of the sticky hairs that line their stems. Found along the dry washes at the Casitas.

Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxa)

Apache Plume
(Fallugia paradoxa)

APACHE PLUME (Fallugia paradoxa)
A member of the Rose Family, this plant takes the form of a small shrub, 3-6 feet high. The flowers are large, five-petaled and cup shaped, which after blooming produce pinkish-plumed fruits.

Sacred Datura (Datura meteloides)

Sacred Datura
(Datura meteloides)

SACRED DATURA (Datura meteloides)
A premier hallucinogenic plant of Southwest Native Americans, every part of this plant, including roots, stems, leaves and flowers, is toxic, dangerous and can cause death when ingested. Absolutely not to be fooled with! Having said that, its large, 6-inch white trumpet or lily-like blossoms are as gorgeous as they are prolific. Found everywhere in our area, they are abundant all over the Casita lands. Like the Four O’Clocks, their long blossoms unfurl at dusk and curl back up by mid-morning. They also are pollinated mainly by hawkmoths, which become quite intoxicated by the nectar as they stagger around on the plant and then wend a crooked flight off to the next flower! The nature of their strong perfume is strictly in the nose of the beholder, some people find it exotically attractive, while others totally abhor it!

Telegraph Plant (Heterotheca subaxillaris)

Telegraph Plant
(Heterotheca subaxillaris)

TELEGRAPH PLANT or CAMPHORWEED (Heterotheca subaxillaris)
A very widespread weed in the U.S., the Telegraph Plant is just one of the approximately 20,000 members of the Sunflower Family. Bane of farmers, ranchers, and the Casitas’ Maintenance Man it is very prolific in germination and virtually impossible to eradicate. Its alternate common name comes from the camphor-like odor given off when crushed.

Prairie Zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora)

Prairie Zinnia
(Zinnia grandiflora)

PRAIRIE ZINNIA (Zinnia grandiflora)
Another member of Sunflower Family, each ray of the yellow blossom is a separate flower and in the disk-like center of the head are another two dozen tubular flowers. Both types of flowers produce seeds; the ray flower seeds are dispersed on the wind by the wing-like dried rays, while the disk flower seeds drop to the ground near the base of the plant. Clumps of these flowers are found throughout the Casita upland flats and hills.

Desert Zinnia (Zinnia acerosa)

Desert Zinnia
(Zinnia acerosa)

DESERT ZINNIA (Zinnia acerosa)
Very similar to the Prairie Zinnia, except that the blossoms are white instead of yellow, and the central disk has only 6 to 8 central tubular flowers. It thrives in caliche-rich soils, and can be found in the washes around the Casitas.

Scarlet Creeper (Ipomoea coccinea)

Scarlet Creeper
(Ipomoea coccinea)

SCARLET CREEPER (Ipomoea coccinea)
The delicate brilliant scarlet tubular flowers of this creeping vine-type plant are a favorite attraction for the hummingbirds here at the Casitas. A member of the Morning Glory Family, their bright scarlet flowers are vibrant in the morning Sun against the deep green leaves of the plants that they climb.

Mexican Morning Glory (Ipomoea hirsutula)

Mexican Morning Glory
(Ipomoea hirsutula)

MEXICAN MORNING GLORY (Ipomoea hirsutula)
A member of the Morning Glory family, the Mexican Morning Glory opens for business at Sunrise and closes just 4 or 5 hours later, encouraging the pollinating bees to get up and get going! The violet blue of the outer blossom becomes whitish at the interior base. Whether viewed in the shade or back lit by the Sun ,it is simply gorgeous against the deep green leaves of the vine.

White Thorn (Acacia constricta)

White Thorn
(Acacia constricta)

WHITE THORN (Acacia constricta)
This thorny little shrub is easily recognized by its thorns, delicate compound leaflets, and the little fluffy, ball-shaped flowers that bloom, depending on rain, both in the Spring and in the Summer. A beautiful plant which initially might be confused with the more densely foliaged Cat Claw or Wait-A-Minute Bush, White Thorn is fairly common on the rocky cliffs and hillsides leading down to the Creek.

Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

Common Sunflower
(Helianthus annuus)

COMMON SUNFLOWER (Helianthus annuus)
Abundant along roadsides and fields throughout the Southwest, this plant is prolific along the margins of Bear Creek and the Gila Valley in Late Summer. Pre-Columbian Hopi tribes domesticated a large-headed variety of this plant, the seeds of which were used as food and a source of dye in basket making. The Spaniards introduced seeds from this plant to Europe, which was further developed in Russia into varieties having a much larger head. Subsequently, the seeds of this giant variety were brought back to the U.S. where today it is a widely-grown crop for use as bird seed, vegetable oil, and, of course, human snack food!

Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

Desert Marigold
(Baileya multiradiata)

DESERT MARIGOLD (Baileya multiradiata)
When little or nothing else is blooming, and the ground is seemingly bone dry, as long as the weather is good and warm you can often find this interesting little plant along the roadsides and dry washes at the Casitas. Another member of the Sunflower family, Desert Marigolds flaunt bright yellow multi-petaled flowers on tall, spindly, and gracefully-arcing blue-green stems; as such they are truly an eye catcher and a photographer’s delight.

Umbrella Wart (Allionia incarnata)

Umbrella Wart
(Allionia incarnata)

UMBRELLA WART (Allionia incarnata)
This pretty little plant is found creeping along the ground near the dry washes at the Casitas. The purplish-pink flowers are actually a composite of three flowers which open at Sunrise and close at mid-day to early afternoon. They are a member of the Four O’Clock family.

Fendler Globemallow (Sphaeralcea fendleri)

Fendler Globemallow
(Sphaeralcea fendleri)

FENDLER GLOBEMALLOW (Sphaeralcea fendleri)
This member of the Mallow family grows in the form of tall vertical spikes covered in abundant orange to red cup-shaped flowers. It is found in all parts of Casita lands and serves as a browse for deer.

Silverleaf Nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium)

Silverleaf Nightshade
(Solanum elaeagnifolium)

SILVERLEAF NIGHTSHADE (Solanum elaeagnifolium)
This plant with purple flowers and yellow centers is one of several members of the Nightshade family found in our area. Sharp, hair-like spines cover the stems and wavy, elongated leaves of this plant, which after flowering puts out round, green-striped fruit that turn yellow when ripe. The fruit is poisonous. Abundant in dry sandy soils, it is considered a native ornamental plant by some because of its colorful flowers; here at the Casitas, however, it persists as a highly invasive, prickly, and undesirable species that is virtually impossible to eradicate!

Mellon Leaf Nightshade (Solanum heterodoxum)

Mellon Leaf Nightshade
(Solanum heterodoxum)

MELLONLEAF NIGHTSHADE (Solanum heterodoxum)
This local Nightshade family member has a flower that is almost identical to the Silverleaf Nightshade. Its leaves, however, are very different, having highly intricate, crenulated margins. This species is even more prickly; interesting to look at but not much fun to touch.

Southwest Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja integra)

Southwest Indian Paintbrush
(Castilleja integra)

SOUTHWEST INDIAN PAINTBRUSH (Castilleja integra)
The Indian Paintbrush is an unusual plant having bright red floral bracts. Reportedly there are some 200 different species of Indian Paintbrush in Western North America. Here in the Gila area, there are at least four different species which grow at different elevations. Most species of Indian Paintbrush are hemiparasitic, depending on host plants for water and nutrients. Below the surface of the ground the plant has tubes which attach to the roots of the host plant, such as oaks or grasses.

Snakeweed (Gutierrezia microcephala)

Snakeweed
(Gutierrezia microcephala)

SNAKEWEED (Gutierrezia microcephala)
Snakeweed is another common weed in our area that is detested by ranchers because it is not eaten by cattle and it quickly multiplies to take over and degrade range land. Yet another member of the Sunflower Family, it puts out a massive flowering of tiny yellow flowers in Late Summer on a dense, fan-like array of thin, bright green stems. Yet while the plant is a bane to the rancher, traditionally it has been a treasured pharmaceutical for Native Americans and Hispanics in the Southwest, who make a tea from the leaves and stems for treating malaria, rheumatism, and snakebite.

REFERENCES:

Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness. Presented in Association with the Western New Mexico university Department of Natural Sciences.

1987, Janice Emily Bowers, 100 Roadside Wildflowers of Southwest Woodlands, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson, Arizona.

1989, Janice Emily Bowers, 100 Desert Wildflowers, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson, Arizona.

2000, Steve West, Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers, Carlsbad Caverns-Guadalupe Mountains Association, A Falcon Guide.

Posted in Bear Creek, monsoon rains, native plants, nature preserve, wildflowers | Tagged | 1 Comment

And the Rains Came … Spotty at first, then stronger

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

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!

Bear Creek flooding

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.

Another Bear Creek flood

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 on Dry Wash Trail

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!

Dry Wash Trail at Casitas de Gila

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

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.

Posted in Bear Creek, Casita trails, geology, hiking, monsoon rains, weather | Tagged , | Leave a comment

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 …

Posted in our house | Leave a comment

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

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

Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES & ART GALLERY
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038
575-535-4455

info@casitasdegila.com

 

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