Saturday, May 31, 2014

Floating Down the River

Dick floating on the Rio
Many years ago, when Dick and I were much younger, we went to West Virginia every fall to go white water rafting on the Gauley River. We started with the easy stuff - just floating down the New River, and worked our way up to the Lower Gualey, then the Upper Gauley with class 5 rapids, where olympic kayakers train. After an incident with a paddle resulting in 3 root canals, I gave up my career as a white water rafter. So I was glad to just relax and enjoy a smooth "float" down the Rio Grande this morning, enjoying the cool breeze, warm sun, and birds in the wetlands.
Black Crowned Night Heron
It can be both surprising and reassuring to see familiar birds from home so far away. We've found several Black Crowned Night Herons and Blue Herons along rivers and ponds. A Spotted Sandpiper with a bright orange bill flew ahead of us down the river. I never realized how hard it is to focus on a bird from a moving raft.
Canada Goose Family
Our river guide Syd, a nice young woman who loves the outdoors, told us about the plants along the river, while we told her the secrets of all the birds we found. The ducks and geese escorted their youngsters along the shore, and didn't seem to mind us looking at them.
Common Merganser Female
The surprise of the morning was this stunning female Merganser. She probably had a mate somewhere, but we didn't see him today.

Syd was polite enough to listen to us talk about other trips we have taken over the years. After two small stretches of "noisy" not "white" water, we put back into shore for the morning.
Common Raven Surveying the Canyon
 The Ravens and Vultures soared up the gorge, inviting us to continue our day along the river, so we drove back to the Rock Slide Trail - marked as easy, except for the rock slide. Once upon a time, there was a road into the gorge. When the rock slide covered much of it, they turned the rest into a hiking trail from the bottom of the gorge to the mesa top above.
Rock Wren
The Canyon Wren sounds like a wind-up toy that is running down, and although we called back asking them to visit us, they decided to stay on the rocks. This Rock Wren flew over to find out who else was singing in his territory, when we played his song on my phone app. He challenged our right to be there, and we eventually decided to accept his mastery of the canyon, and walked on up the trail.
Geologic Formation
Dick and I have indulged our geologic chimpanzees on this trip, bending over to collect small shiny rocks along the trail. The rocks in the gorge are basalt, laid down by volcanoes some 3 - 4 million years ago, fracturing in a typical columnar fashion. At one point, though, we had to clamber up some loose rocks for a closer look. At the top, a layer of basalt. Below that, an orange layer of sandstone, (which is a sedimentary rock) in which other hikers carved their initials. But below that was a layer of small rocks and pebbles laid down by an ancient river millions of years before the volcanoes.  Walking back down into the gorge you can track this layer of orange, hollowed out beneath the basalt, higher and higher on the cliff face as you descend. It's pretty cool stuff. But tomorrow will be even better. We are going to Valles Caldera, the remains of an ancient super volcano just west of Los Alamos. Of the 6 super volcanoes in the world, 3 of them are in the United States - Yellowstone, Long Valley Caldera in California, and Valles Caldera in New Mexico.

Mountain Birding

Barn Swallow
We joined a group of local birders at Angel Fire, a ski community on the other side of the mountain, and the habitats there are so different - truly "montane"- rather than the high desert we've seen so far. On this trip to New Mexico, I think we've seen more species of swallows and swifts than anything else. Any place there is water and bugs, you will find scores of swallows scooping them out of the air. You really have to look fast to distinguish one kind from another. I'm pretty good with Barn Swallows, since we have them all over Kentucky.
Cliff Swallow
 However, I learned today that Cliff Swallows look much like the Barns, but they have a white spot on their foreheads and a buffy rump. Good, that will help a lot next time I go to the Gorge! Look at their gourd-shaped nests made of mud and spit!
Killdeer - Hello Sweetie!
One of the local birders led us to a couple of ponds, hoping to find Yellow-headed Blackbirds. They weren't there, but we saw scores of Red-winged Blackbirds, and I pointed out the beautiful females to some who had never seen them. Some peeping drew my eye to a couple of Killdeer (the first we've seen here) getting ready to start a new family. We don't really consider it bird porn, do we?
Mountain Bluebird
We think we saw a Wilson's Snipe in the field, along with Cinnamon Teal in the pond. But I was astounded at the absolute sky blue of the Mountain Bluebird!!
Prairie Dog
 Out here, I kept looking into the sky for a hawk going "ek, ek, ek." To my surprise, that repeated "ek-ek" is probably a prairie dog, not a hawk! They are kind of cute, but they dig an awful lot of holes, eat all the vegetation around the holes, make a lot of noise, and run across the highway without looking. Yikes! I almost hit a couple of them playing chicken on the road. The local ravens and vultures must eat well on all the prairie dog roadkill.
Stellar Jay
 Once again, the Stellar Jay refuses to show his face to the camera.
Pygmy Nuthatch
Did you know there is such a bird as the Pygmy Nuthatch? I'd never heard of them either, but a couple came zooming down to scold when we played their peeping call once or twice.
Western Meadowlark
Home on the range, where the deer and antelope play, we didn't find any deer, but a few elk grazed in a field along with some cattle. However, the Western Meadowlark sang for everyone. I'd always heard that it's hard to tell the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks apart, and visually, I'd agree. But the song of the western bird is much mellower sounding, less of a whistle than our eastern bird. I found it very distinctive, but it took a while to actually track one down for a photo.
Cordilleran Flycatcher
When we started down into Cimmaron Canyon, highly recommended by one of our morning birding buddies, we stopped at a campground to walk along the mountain stream that gurgled along. The creek is lined with willow bushes, and the signs of past high-water marks. I told Dick this is the place to avoid when it rains hard on the mountaintop. Flash floods must be awful here. I've never been able to identify flycatchers - they all look the same to me - but the same local person said they have Cordilleran Flycatchers here, and I think this is one of them! My first flycatcher!
Hairy Woodpecker feeding the chicks
Cimmaron Canyon State Park is about 8500 feet elevation at the top of the canyon. Don't know how far we descended before hiking up Clear Creek Trail. You could see all the creek rock deposited in the forest floor when the creek floods, which must be pretty often. There was no underbrush at the foot of the trail, and higher up we saw lots of fallen trees. All that dead wood is woodpecker heaven! We watched this devoted Hairy Woodpecker father feeding his chicks for quite a while.
Red-naped Sapsucker
Another black red and white bird turned out to be the Red-naped Sapsucker, another life bird. If we had been able to find the Lewis' Woodpecker, it would have been a hat trick for the day, but no such luck. We'll keep looking for them, of course.
Mountain Columbine
It's not always safe to assume the flower you see here is the same one that blooms in Kentucky, but I think we are pretty safe in calling this flower a columbine. It's much shorter than ours in Kentucky though.
Aspens Reaching High
My favorite part about coming West for vacation is finding the quaking aspens. As we climbed the Clear Creek Trail, the sapling leaves waved hello and goodbye as we passed them. Their taller cousins stoically bore tattoos carved by hikers from many years ago. Dick always gets upset when he sees this, since the trees will be scarred for life. This trail was my favorite kind - we crossed the rushing stream on log bridges, the mountain air was invigorating, and I did NOT huff and puff on the way up! Didn't have to stop once to catch my breath! If all trails were like this, I'd be a very happy hiker!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Orilla Verde on Rio Grande

Red Cactus Blossoms
The birding couple we met yesterday recommended that we go to Orilla Verde, the recreation area at the lower end of the Rio Grange Gorge. Instead of walking hundreds of feet above the river, Orilla Verde takes you up the river itself. There are so many little desert wildflowers blooming, and we don't have a flower guide to look them up, so that will be a big job when we get home.
Western Kingbird
I counted up today, and we have added 20 new birds to our life list just this week. Don't have photos of all of them, unfortunately, but here are a couple I managed to get today.
Black Phoebe
Brewer's Blackbird - female
Bullock's Oriole
Rock Wren - we think
We are going birding at 8:00 tomorrow morning with a group of birders from Angel Fire, near the ski slopes. We'll have to set the alarm really early to get up and drive there on time, so I'm not taking much more time blogging tonight.
Stripped Lizard ready to chow down
Prickly Pear Blossom
Many of the prickly pear cactus are blooming in the gorge - just beautiful. I remember Kathie Brown making prickly pear jelly one year, and thought about her today. We'll see how many new birds we find tomorrow with the people who know what they are looking at, and maybe we'll be able to correctly identify some others we've seen!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wild Rivers

Wild Rivers Recreation Area
Today we headed to the Wild Rivers Recreation Area, operated by the Bureau of Land Management. This is the upper end of the area, where the Rio Grande canyon starts at about 329 feet down from the mesa. By the time the gorge reaches the high bridge, its depth is 800 feet.
Osprey at Red River Fish Hatchery
We knew the Red River Fish Hatchery was recommended for birding, and that was our first stop. Luckily, we ran into another birding couple, Ellen and Jip, who live in the area, and explored the fishery and Red River with them. They recommended that we visit the south end of the Wild Rivers area, which is much closer to town. Birders are like that - you meet strangers with binoculars along the trail, and become instant friends. The first bird we found was an Osprey, stealing fish from the uncovered portions of the fishery. Most had roofs and fences, to keep fish stealers out, but this girl took advantage of the free fish. Yes, the day is off to a good start! I never would have expected to find this bird in the mountains of New Mexico!
Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warblers sang and moved from willow to willow along the stream. All paths lead to the water, for the fishermen who come after trout. In Kentucky, we would not have called this stream a river, but it counts as a river here in the west, and ran high from the rain from the last couple of days.
Barn Swallows
Barn Swallows swooped around catching bugs on the wing.
Confluence of Red River and Rio Grande
After a few hours, we drove on down the road to the Wild Rivers area, where the Red River and Rio Grande merge, both in water and canyons! The trails are well marked by the Bureau of Land Management, and the elevation change is noted along with the level of difficulty. We took the first trail marked as Easy, with only a 329 foot change in elevation. I chose this one on purpose, guessing that the drop would not be gradual, and it wasn't. We hiked down the trail, carefully selecting where to put our feet on each step, since a twisted ankle or knee would not be good. At the bottom, the Rio Grande chuckled downstream, and the Yellow Warblers called from each willow tree. While at the river level, the afternoon shower struck but we just sat it out in a shelter. Then, of course, we had to climb back UP the same 329 feet.
Big Arsenic Trail
The trail that attracted us was the Big Arsenic Trail (I'm sure there's a story to that name!), but the elevation change was over 700 feet. Hmmm. From a nearby overlook, we could see the trail at the bottom, which looked do-able. But HOW do you get down that vertical cliff face, I asked? We walked down the trail for a bit, and found a well constructed path, much smoother than the one we took, but still fairly steep. By this time, the afternoon was almost over, so we decided to just head back, but I was glad to learn how they got down the cliff face.
Spotted Towhee
The Eastern Towhee is one of my favorite birds in Kentucky, and its cousin, the Spotted Towhee, was on my list of target birds for this trip. This beautiful guy perched at the top of a tree and put on a real show for us!
Bewick's Wren
The Bewick's Wren (pronounced like the automobile) seems to be the western equivalent of our Carolina Wren. I love it when birds sit at the top of a tree, otherwise they are almost impossible to find.
Black Chinned Hummingbird
At the visitor's center, Black Chinned Hummingbirds visited the feeders by each window. Another life bird, thank you!
Western Scrub Jay
 We saw both Stellar Jays and Western Scrub Jays today as well.
See the faces here?
Dick learned that his hero, Aldo Leopold, was active in this area 100 years ago, so we plan to look up his history, and visit his house. Also, Kit Carson is a big part of the local history. (Our grandson is Kittrick Carson, so we are especially interested). I've just learned about a birding outing early Friday morning at Angel Fire - a 24 mile drive that will take about 45 minutes through the mountains - and we plan to join them at 7:45 Friday morning. There's nothing like birding with the local folks who know all the best spots. They are always excited when someone finds a life bird!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Climbing Higher and Higher

Taos Pueblo
When we think of New Mexico, we often think of pueblos. Actually, I was expecting cliff dwellings, but the Taos Pueblo is a living, breathing town, where Native Americans still live in adobe houses, getting water from Red Willow Creek, which flows through the pueblo, and using no electricity. We were lucky to visit on Memorial Day, when they had a ceremony remembering their tribe's people who served in the military.
Ruins of San Geronimo Church
Our guide told of his people's history, including their conflicts with white men, since the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1600's. This is the remains of the original San Geronimo church, which was burned by the US Cavelry in 1847, filled with women and children. I wonder how these people can serve in our armed forces. Adobe is just dried mud and straw, which has wonderful insulating ability, but it does tend to melt in the rain, and requires lots of regular maintenance.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
As we strolled through the village, tiny shrieking things dive bombed us. Turned out to be Broad-tailed Hummingbirds - another lifer for us. They fly so fast (a common characteristic of most birds out here it seems), that we couldn't get any photos, until I noticed this feeder strategically placed next to some drying chili peppers. I wonder if the nectar in the feeder is spicy. The noise they make (like mini-UFO's) is actually their wings. There aren't any Ruby-throats out here. Many of the residents have shops in their homes, and we made our contribution to the local community.
Taos Ski Valley
Heading up the mountain to Taos Ski Valley, we delighted in the sounds of cascading water in the narrow canyon, and the changes in the rock itself. The valley is mostly basalt, while the mountains are many colors of granite, with some alluvial conglomerate full of large round rocks interspersed here and there. Taos itself it at about 66oo feet in elevation, higher than Denver. We watched the aspens starting to leaf out at the lower elevations, and they were entirely bare at the top.
Snow along the trail
 We started on an "easy" trail at about 9900 feet, which turned into more and more snow. I finally wimped out about 3/4 of the way to the lake, around 11,000 feet, Dick thinks. When I wasn't actually climbing a steep gradient, it wasn't so bad. But the snow on the trail was either packed and slippery, or up to my knee if I stepped off the trail. I think we are about 6 weeks too early for hiking at the higher elevations. And the guy who writes the hiking book is obviously not a retired grandma if he thinks this trail is easy. I would never try one he thought was severe!
Gray-headed Junco
 As for birding in the mountains, I was surprised that the most common bird was the American Robin! Other little birds flitted in the tree tops, but this delightful Gray-headed Junco (another lifer) hopped on the ground so we could get a good look at him. On the way to the Ski Valley, we spotted a Cooper's Hawk soaring overhead, knew it by the long tail. When it started to rain (as usual) we headed back towards town, and found a white bellied buteo but couldn't get a really good look at him. Most likely a Red-tailed Hawk, I suppose, but it was fun looking in the guide for other possibilities such as Swainson's and Ferruginous. 
Back in town again, we enjoyed a soak in the jacuzzi, to ease our aching muscles, then happy hour and supper on our patio.
Black-billed Magpie
 The Magpies are noisy, but so flashy in black and white, that you can't help but admire them.
Sunset Panorama
As the sun started to drop, we went back to the Gorge bridge to enjoy the sunset. Found out that White Crowned Sparrows are resident all year in northern New Mexico, after spotting a couple under the sage brush. I never realized how long it takes for it to get dark enough to see the stars! A friend recommended an app called Sky Guide, and we had lots of fun with it as the stars came out. You just look at the star, point the phone in that direction, and it shows the constellation, and more astronomical info than we knew what to do with. We saw Mars, Jupiter and Saturn while standing out there in the dark. Too Cool!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

New Mexico - Rio Grande Gorge

Rio Grande Gorge
We've always liked Arizona, so this year we decided to give New Mexico a try and will be exploring from a base in Taos. This morning we headed for the Rio Grande Gorge, not too far away, as our first adventure. Yes, the Rio Grande River comes all the way north through New Mexico, and makes a canyon about 800 feet deep, running for about 50 miles. The entire area is either mountain or flat valley because of an old tectonic rift.
Big Horn Sheep

Parking at the rest area, we started down the West Rim Trail, and were surprised to see a pair of Big Horn Sheep just coming over the rim of the canyon for some morning grazing on the flatlands. I used my long lens, and they didn't seem to uneasy about our presence. We didn't see any of these sheep in Glacer National Park last summer, and I thought they only lived at much higher elevations, so this was an exciting surprise for us!
Western Tanager
Before every trip, we look through the field guide and make a list of target birds to look for. The Western Tanager was at the top of the list for this trip. Apparently they are like Cardinals in Kentucky, and can be found everywhere. One sang in a tree at our condo, another was in a tree on the way to dinner last evening. The trick is getting them to come our of the denser branches and out into the open for a good photo.
Common Ravens Flying in Formation
The birds at the gorge were absolutely overwhelming, with more swifts, swallows, and who knows what else, riding the currents up and down the canyon walls. None of those small birds stopped to be photographed, or even for a good ID, so we may have to hold a seance to decide what we saw, but I think it will include life birds such as the White-throated Swift,mthe Violet-green Swallow (it really is that color from the top) and, of course, Cliff Swallows. We were buzzed (literally) by a hummingbird, but it flew so fast there was no chance for an ID. The Common Ravens flew in formation, and you could hear their wings flapping. But the Turkey Vultures were silent and regal, gliding in the thermals. Before the morning ended, we even saw what I firmly believe to be a Peregrine Falcon, just from its silhouette.
Desert Flower
We don't have a guide for the little desert flowers blooming here and there among the sagebrush. We wondered how a hummingbird could survive here, since the flowers were all so small. But the aroma of the sagebrush! Oh my! Apparently people burn it like incense around here and I may have to get some. The local artists and native Americans set up shop along the road by the bridge, and we enjoyed shopping with them.
Earthship home
Have you every heard of an Earthship? Sounds like something from one of my science fiction books, but it is a new method for sustainable homes, which can be built anywhere in the world. The goal is to be entirely off the grid, producing all your own power needs, and much of your food needs. They use solar panels, windmills and glass to collect energy. All rain and snow is collected and stored, then used at least four times before being recycled in the septic tank. The walls are build from dirt-filled tires, then covered with adobe and recycled glass bottles and aluminum cans. About 30 of them were visible along the road with people actually living in them. As we left the visitor center, one man coming in asked a lot of disdainful questions, which the welcomer handled with great poise. Obviously, he thought the whole thing was something only a bunch of hippies would do, and he had no idea of sustainability.
Darkening Skies
I expected the weather to be chilly in the mornings, with perhaps a chance of showers, but not enough to worry about. However, it has rained pretty hard each afternoon since our arrival. Look at the clear blue sky with the Ravens in it, then compare these threatening clouds moving in. Since the valleys are so wide, you can watch it rain miles away in the distance. If you wanted rain, that would probably be pretty frustrating.
We learned to head for the car when the dark clouds gather. I felt sorry for all the bikers in town for Memorial Day, since they really got pelted by the rain, snow and - get this - sleet, that arrived in a few minutes. Yep, in New Mexico, you want to go hiking in the morning, then come back for a siesta in the afternoon.