Intermission: Winter Wind Rattlers

2023 journal page with a few of the actual seed pods scattered about

January 18, 2023

Not wild, but wildly rattling in the wind? Not snakes, but the showy seed pods from a row of Chinese Lantern trees, hanging on for dear life throughout our numerous winter wind events.

We frequently park near 8 of these non-native trees used as sidewalk landscaping, just before the Copper trailhead. After wondering for several years what these medium sized trees are, in September 2020, discovering the answer, I drew them out …… seed pods, leaves and all.

Searching for something wintery to add to my journal this year, these hardy seed pods called loudly. It was hard to resist!

Browsing my 2020 journals, I came across my first drawing. Always fun to see if and how my technique has changed. Can you detect the differences?

2020 journal page

What’s nature displaying in your world right now?


Intermission: Townsend’s Solitaire Comes Calling

January 11, 2023

Who doesn’t love birds? Watching them, listening to them, photographing them, and in my case drawing them. And it’s especially exciting when a new visitor comes calling. When the bird is the first I’ve ever sighted, automatically becoming a new addition to my life list!

There I was, working away on one of my Sonoran Desert posts, when I glanced up from my sketchbook and noticed an unfamiliar bird standing tall under our big juniper tree. Not one of the hundreds of dark-eyed juncos that feast all winter below our feeders. Definitely larger than the comical juniper titmice and noisy mountain chickadees that pop in and out conducting their continual grab-a-seed-and-dash maneuvers. Hmmmmm ….. a bit larger than our resident canyon and spotted towhees, but slimmer than the Woodhouse’s scrub jay. An American robin? A western bluebird? Certainly similar, but not quite; certainly a member of the thrush family?

Turned out he was one of the thrush species …. not the robin or bluebird, but the beautifully sleek Townsend’s Solitaire. For a brief moment he seemed to be evaluating the quality of juniper berries lying beneath the tree. Not wanting to spook him, I watched in muted excitement, then dared to make a move for my camera. He stayed just long enough to bend over for a bird’s-eye look, promptly dismissing our berry crop, and off he flew. Somehow, while juggling my field guide, binoculars and camera, I managed to snap a photo to confirm my sighting with iNaturalist. Confirmed! How cool was that!

It was a great day!

I’ve watched every day since to see if this one or more Townsend’s Solitaires drop by. No luck yet, but now I know they’re around. Maybe I’ll catch them this Spring breeding, nesting, but more likely singing and calling from the treetops while defending their territory full of delicious juniper berries!

What’s nature displaying in your world right now?


Intermission: Searching for Spring

January 14-15, 2023

Right now I’m watching it snow …… again. Logic tells me this moisture is so necessary for our drought-stressed juniper and piñon pine that provides year-round food and cover for a host of birds and mammals that call the East Mountains home. Our annual and perennial wildflowers, oaks and native shrubs depend on winter rains and snows to flourish in the growing season. So I say, “bring it on, Mother Nature!”

But by January and February I do tire of brown. My animal brain needs of a shot of “Spring Green” this time of year. Just a little bit to carry me through the winter; a tiny bit in anticipation of full-blown Spring is just the ticket!

This is why we take regular trips down our mountain to enjoy the Albuquerque foothills. It’s amazing the difference a 2,000 foot change in elevation can make in nearly everything.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love living at 7,300 feet, in the shadow of majestic Sandia Mountain, and in the winter we sometimes experience days of cloud cover and fog. So down the mountain we go, in search of sun, warmth, and Spring Green.

And to my delight, here’s what I found! “Nature’s first green is gold.” And indeed it is!

What’s nature displaying in your world right now?


Keeping it Hot-n-Spicy! Happy Holiday Season

December 25, 2022

A little holiday red and green from the desert southwest.
Flambé and I send you warm season’s greetings from our home base in beautiful New Mexico to wherever you may live on planet Earth.
May all your 2023 New Year’s Resolutions come true.

A little sampling from the Sonoran Desert, SE Arizona

Thanks to all for following my first full year of posts. Flambé Kat and I are excited to share our (mis)adventures with you during 2023!

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

Have you rescued a leaf today?

It’s always a grand idea to save leaves raked up in the Fall into big piles scattered about your yard. These cast leaves provide important habitat for overwintering birds, small mammals and insects. In the Spring they break down forming compost which helps recharge the soil with nutrients and microbes that fertilize new seedlings and build soil structure.

But what about that lone leaf, now brown and crunchy, alone on the ground? That leaf, once part of a network of thousands that once beautifully graced a massive shade tree growing bravely alongside a busy city street? That leaf, now fallen to a surface covered in concrete or pavement, is skittering about in the late morning breeze searching fruitlessly for an organic resting place.

Full journal page

After leaving our favorite Albuquerque Mexican restaurant the other day, I stepped into the parking lot and noticed a giant sycamore leaf scratching and skidding across the pavement. Seconds later, an incoming car full of hungry customers about to park, was on a collision course with this abandoned leaf! Yikes! Quickly playing out the scene out in my mind, I dashed across the pavement and scooped up this big brown leaf, rescuing it from being smashed into bits and pieces.

Close up sketch of the upper leaf surface, showing the “skirt” over the petiole.

Whew! That was a close call. Naturally this leaf deserved better treatment and a chance to contribute to Earth’s complex web of resources. And that’s what would happen ……. after a few sketches in my journal, of course.

The rescued sycamore leaf before being placed in a compost pile

This big, brown, crunchy sycamore leaf is now a part of one of the various compost piles we keep scattered about our yard. If leaves could feel, I’d like to think she’s so much happier being rescued than the alternative. Would you agree?

The compost pile topped with the rescued sycamore leaf. Home at last!

Have you rescued a leaf today?

Almost fallen leaves

Our Smoke Tree is always one of the last to drop its leaves. While this tree tenaciously clings to its thousands of food makers, the leaves go through many stages of decay. Some remain purple-green but are polka-dotted with rusty red spots. Some more quickly change to brilliant yellow-orange with rusty splatters. Some display hints of green-brown and it’s these leaves that show the most insect spotting and damage.

One day, probably soon, the tree will get tired of the display, and just before a heavy frost or wet snow, it will stand bare with piles of multi-colored leaves lying on the ground, having dropped in one big fall.

Here’s a page from my perpetual journal that I created yesterday from a few leaves plucked from this pretty Smoke Tree.

Enjoy your seasonal changes wherever you may live!

Escapito #6: Summer Sequel …. A Desert SW Escape       Part 4: Indian Bread Rocks, AZ to City of Rocks, NM

October 22/23, 2022

We usually know where we’re headed in the morning, but how we get there is another story. As we left Indian Bread Rocks we talked about optional routes to reach our destination …. City of Rocks State Park. There were several choices, and since we’re not interstate highway fans (unless absolutely necessary) we opted for the road less traveled; through New Mexico’s “Bootheel” in the extreme southwestern part of the state.  Going this way we might just catch a glimpse of that infamous Border Wall too.

Although this route was the long way to City of Rocks (200 miles versus 110 miles), it was definitely eye-opening. As we traveled lonely roads, dodging no less than 3 huge rattlesnakes sunning themselves on the pavement, the only vehicles we saw were border patrol. It was windy and hot as we approached the Mexican border, and we strained our eyes to see something resembling a Wall off in the distance.  Between Hachita and Columbus, NM, we could make out what looked to be a RR bed in the valley bottom. Binoculars weren’t much use, as this very straight line wasn’t resolving into a Wall, until ….. all at once we saw the RR track climb straight up a pretty substantial hill. That answered the question …. that faux track was indeed the Border Wall, and we had already seen miles and miles of it.

Border Wall

A short distance out of Columbus, driving very close to the border, we found a side road that appeared to lead down to the Wall, so we went to investigate. Coming within about a quarter mile of the Border Wall we saw how very tall it was, and how it was built with metal slats too close for a person to squeeze through, but spaced and angled just so to see Mexico beyond. 

Border Wall

We’re both glad to have seen this Wall for ourselves. Rest assured I’ve no intention of turning my blog posts into political commentary, but I have to say this obscene border wall is absolutely embarrassing and offensive. 

Border Wall

On to Columbus, North to Deming and to City of Rocks State Park.

Our assigned campsite was a pull through and it was a snap to get The Felix all set up. Then it was off for a nice romp through the assortment of boulders that were created from volcanic tuff and eroded over years to form what appears like, from a distance, a city of high rises. There’s a marked trail through the rock formations that lead you to some of the best rocks and views. But it’s more than okay to wander wherever your legs take you … and sometimes it’s like a maze with many dead ends.  The Park also has a nice botanical garden, many “outside the city” trails, and a super visitor center with helpful volunteer staff offering info like lists of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and mammals you might encounter in the park.

Discovering City of Rocks
Roy and Luna rock hopping

Before a big cold front blew in bringing rain and winds, I was able to do some sketching, we spotted lots of new-to-us plants (still in bloom) and a gorgeous rainbow grasshopper. Several birds (cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher and canyon towhee) paid us a call at The Felix.  About to go searching for the covey of scaled quail making quite a racket somewhere in the rocks, we changed that plan ….. a good decision as we would’ve gotten drenched with rain!

Rainbow grasshopper calling City of Rocks home
The approaching storm made for nice photos
Cat-claw Mimosa

This was our third trip to City of Rocks, and not likely to be our last. It’s a fun place to visit for a short time or an extended stay.

Before the storm

We were going to enjoy one more day in SW NM east of Las Cruces before returning home, but the weather forecast for the next many days called for high winds, rain and snow ….. so, not at all disappointed in all the ground we covered we came home a day early, driving all 283 miles in good time thanks to a tail-wind assist.

(Turns out the next day, had we stayed one day longer, would’ve greeted us with rain, freezing rain and snow by the time we got home. I could feel it in my bones!)

All in all it was a great Escapito #6, all 4 stops and the 922 miles in between, and a fun way to close out the 2022 camping season (or is it?!).  Stay tuned!

Thanks for coming along!

Escapito #6: Summer Sequel …. A Desert SW Escape       Part 1: Tijeras, NM to Luna Lake, AZ

October 19/20, 2022

A long first day drive (250 miles) towing The Felix, fully laden, on slow and windy roads. West then south through scenic el Malpais, Quemado (a Catron County stronghold), and into Arizona, all while enjoying beautiful high desert scenery, mountain islands like the Sawtooths (Escapito #3), and open grasslands dotted with pronghorn.  First stop, Springerville for fuel and sticker shock! With only 2 places to buy gas, the Circle K coming into town and the Circle K leaving town, we settled on Circle K.  Hahaha! Fueled up we were back on the road heading south to the pretty little village of Alpine, AZ 8,000 feet high in the Apache-Sitgraves NF. From there it was a short 5 mile hop back east where we found Luna Lake and our forest campground for the night. The Forest Service closed all but one loop, shut off the water for the season, and didn’t charge for camping! Other than 2 other trailers, we pretty much had the place to ourselves and picked a site with a view of the lake. 

Beware the Wicked Seed

Anecdote …… Pins and Needles or The Case of the Wicked Seed: after a long drive we were ready for a hike. But choosing a cross-country trek through tall vegetation was a mistake. Nearly all the wildflowers and grasses had dried and gone to seed, and being fully loaded with ripe seeds, our pant legs, socks and shoestrings provided them an ideal way to disperse. One seed in particular was especially wicked! About 1.5” long and skinny, this hard bugger was tipped with 2 hooks on fork-like tines. Any whisper of contact with these seeds resulted in them leaping out from the seed head and hooking on for a ride.  I’m not sure how their grabbers release their grip and drop to the ground, because when we returned to The Felix, we must’ve been carrying 100s of them embedded in our pants with the bottom ends of the hard sharp-pointy seeds lined up like soldiers ready to attack at the slightest threat of extraction. Ouch! After a consult with iNaturalist, submitting only seed photo, the database turned up one possibility ….. Spanish Needles! A brilliantly named member of the sunflower family. I’ll take dandelion fluff any day!

WIP

We enjoyed our stay at Luna Lake …… in the morning we woke to the sound of elk bugling in the distance, owls hooting overhead, and a respectable coating of frost in everything.  A brisk 1 mile hike on Forest Service roads covering all the campground loops (we weren’t about to venture into the grass ….. oh no way!) warmed us enough to pack up camp and head south in search of summer!

Stay tuned for Part 2: Luna Lake to Clifton, AZ

An excellent cluster of Santa Rita Hedgehog cactus (no matter where you are in the desert SW, watch your step!)

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!