Percha Dam State Park may not have been the nicest place we stayed during our southern jaunt through New Mexico, but it obviously made an impression. Situated along the Rio Grande River, the area seems to be a magnet for birds. And for good reason. Food! And food for at least one very cool bird, the Phainopepla. A specialist species, their favorite high glucose treat happens to be mistletoe berries…… and oh my! Every cottonwood tree along the river corridor weighed heavy with huge leafy clumps of big leaf mistletoe laden with ripe berries!
There wasn’t a single tree without mistletoe, made all the more obvious because the cottonwoods were still dormant. I wondered ….. is this a healthy situation?
Naturally I wanted to know more about mistletoe. This journey of discovery took a few weeks of serious reading about big leaf mistletoe; it’s characteristics, life cycle, host species, the benefits to wildlife, nutrient recycling and biodiversity, and the downside of rampant infestations. It was hard to know when to stop reading and try to make pictorial sense of it all.
The following photos of my journal pages depicts what I felt to be the most important aspects of this mistletoe situation.
Like many others who are appalled at the thought of mistletoe taking over the world, I began with a similar attitude. But the more I learned, the more I understood that in many cases, a little mistletoe isn’t such a bad thing. The wildlife benefits alone are many, not just in providing food, cover and nesting for birds and small mammals, it’s common to find lizards hunting insects hiding in big leafy clumps. Leaves are eaten by porcupine, deer and caterpillars, and the berries provide food for more than 90 bird species world-wide.
So what about the immense population of mistletoe along this stretch of the Rio Grande? The health of this old, once stately gallery of trees is being challenged by drought, low water flows and rising temperatures. Mistletoe infestations add to the challenges the State Parks folks are dealing with, not just at this location, but in areas now to the north as mistletoe spreads.
We noticed young cottonwoods in the area are also infected with mistletoe, but it’s the older trees at greatest risk. As long as there’s adequate water in the Rio Grande to keep the cottonwoods alive, mistletoe and cottonwood may continue to coexist for many years, and the beautiful Phainopeplas we found noshing on berries will be well fed.
Time is sure to tell the story.