A Prickly Situation ….. A Renovating Wren

For years we’ve hiked (carefully) past hundreds of stately cane chollas, many with what looks like wads of dried grasses caught tightly in and around the numerous spindly and haphazard arms that grow all over this desert cactus. On closer examination, we’ve discovered the cholla does not actually capture grasses blowing in the wind.  Instead, an industrious and very chatty little bird collects great quantities of dried grass to build a football-sized cavity nest woven protectively and securely on and between    the many arms of a cholla. 

Meet the Cactus Wren.  

Full journal page

Once you’ve heard this gregarious wren chatter and sputter hilariously, you’ll never forget it’s call! As we were walking along the trail one day, I instantly recognized a wildly vocalizing cactus wren. Scanning the skyline (because I know they also love rattling from a perch), he readily showed himself, and did not shy away as I approached. He was calling from the highest (10 feet) arm of a pretty stout cholla, and then quickly jumped down into the center of the branches to inspect an old nest.

This nest may have been old, but apparently this little guy felt a facelift was in order and began tidying up the tunnel-like entrance. He then collected a wad of grasses he’d plucked from the entrance and plunged himself down the tunnel, grasses included! What? What was this crazy bird doing …… nest building?

Turns out cactus wrens build several nests in the spring within their territory, and maintain them year-round. I have to believe they use their nests throughout the cold winter months to keep warm, and it looked like this guy was fixing up the interior of this particular nest with super soft bushmuhly grass stems. I would’ve loved an invitation to peek inside, but hiked on, leaving the cactus wren to his chores.

I’ve been by this nest several times in the past few weeks, hoping to catch the wren at home, but to no avail. Maybe he’s tending another nest somewhere else, as this one is in disarray. 

The Sketch
My sketch, mostly from memory, was done all in graphite using the “subtractive” technique. I don’t usually sketch in his manner, because it can get quite messy ….. laying graphite down then using my mono zero eraser to create the image …. but it was an effective way to illustrate the complexity of the nest and so many cholla spines.  Let me know what you think!

November 27, 2022

Welcome Autumn!

So much rain! Not complaining ….. we need the moisture. But with days of drenching rain falling in the East Mountains and the Sandias this entire week, summer seemed to flip into Autumn in a matter of days.

Trying to capture the last remnants of fading flowers, I was inspired by a remarkable naturalist and artist, Jean Mackay, to get out there and rescue blooming bits before everything turned brown and crunchy.

Thanks Jean, for the encouragement, and always helpful tips and techniques in creating interesting journal pages. My hike this morning revealed some surprise bloomers that I wanted to remember in my nature journal.

And thanks to my many followers for your continued interest in my discoveries!

Kowabunga! Desert Nomads

Observing nature, especially in a desert environment, requires cautious peering under scrub oak and cholla. It’s always wise to gently part the razor sharp leaves of plants like beargrass and banana yucca with a long stick. Everything seems well armed with spines, thorns or prickles. But look you must, because you never know what you might find cooling off in the shade of a big leafed buffalo gourd or making a noon meal of a prickly pear fruit in the shadows of fan-shaped pads. 

But when exploring it’s wise to always, always remember you might be surprised by a snake. So imagine our relief and delight when on a stretch of dusty trail we encountered our very first desert box turtle!

A true nomad of the southwest.

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Grumpy G. Gus …. A Sandia Mountain Sentinel

Sandia Mountain granite! Such distinctively gnarly gargoyles, whimisically odd and judgmental, critter and caricature mimics ……. There’s nothing like these boulders! This is a short story about one of a cast of thousands; Grumpy G. Gus.

But there’s a longer story too. Underneath the often comical-looking and recognizable characters that can be envisioned in these boulders, there’s an even more fascinating tale that tells volumes about the geologic history of central New Mexico. Come along and meet Gus and learn a bit about Sandia Mountain granite.

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Summer Bugs and Botany: Cochineal Dye Making

It was a rainy day in most of NM, but what a welcome relief to be getting moisture! As we hastily hiked the lower Copper Trails, we noticed the prickly pear seemed to be draped in a more-than-usual white fuzz, and it wasn’t cotton ball shaped but dripping and running down hundreds of cactus pads. Every direction we turned we found nearly every prickly pear to be covered………………….
And then we spotted hundreds of thousands of brilliant scarlet red bodies of the cochineal insect ….. exposed, naked and frantically trying to hold onto their food source, the vertical surfaces of prickly pear pads.  The rain had “melted” their protective coats of fine white wax and the green pads of the cactus looked white washed. 

Opportunity!

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Bird On a Wire: Western Kingbird

A swooping, darting and sometimes hovering flycatcher, the Western Kingbird is such fun to watch. When they aren’t performing an aerial ballet to outmaneuver and catch a flying insect, you can find them on a favorite perch actively looking for their next meal to wing on by.

These lemon-breasted, robin-sized birds are easy to recognize. Just look up when you hear non-stop chittering and chatting and you’re likely to find a Western kingbird.

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Life List Birds: Scott’s Oriole and Hermit Thrush

Yes, I keep a life list of birds! But along with the list (which includes birds from around the world), I also try to learn something about the species logged, and lately I’ve been enjoying sketching them too.

It’s been a while since a new-to-me bird species came into view. So it was doubly exciting when I was able to increase my list by two on two consecutive days. Meet the Scott’s Oriole and the Hermit Thrush.

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The Road to Master Naturalist: Oh No! Noxious Weed Alert ….. 

Probably best known as Tree of Heaven (ToH), Ailanthus altissima seems to be more widespread in the Albuquerque area and up in the East Mountains than I thought. And it’s officially on the noxious weed list for New Mexico.

How did this happen?

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An Urban Desert Surprise Dressed in Pink Chiffon

“Nature has an economy, an elegance, a style ……” if we could just ”rise out of the rubble” and see.

What is your motivation for getting out in nature? Is it to log miles, climb the next hill, socialize, take a pretty picture, experience wildlife, or perhaps calm your mind? When walking, anywhere, how often do you just pause and really see what’s around you, or ”oops” underfoot?

More often than not, I like to think I fall into the latter category, but at times it doesn’t hurt to get a wake-up reminder …. and yesterday was one of those days.

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Spring Has Arrived! Part 5: Blanket Flower

There are some flowers, no matter how common, that always make me happy! So when the trails are decorated with sunflowers of any variety, it’s hard not to smile from cheek to cheek!

Yellow Blanket Flower fills this bill …… a what a lovely burst of sunshine popping up today!

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