For someone who has passed much of the last three decades in the humid, rainy tropics of Costa Rica, I have adapted quickly over the past year to New Mexico, where average annual rainfall is only 13.85 inches as opposed to 180 inches in San Vito. Wherever I have lived in my life, I have learned the joy of participating in the natural world, rather than treating it simply as an object of scrutiny. Gardening in desert sand became a passion last spring and summer, and among the perennials I put into the ground were six small cacti, all of which survived the winter.
In mid-March, before the need for complete self-quarantining due to Covid-19 became clear to this part of the country, my husband Harry and I went forward with a long-planned short trip to Arizona. Over seven days in what is early spring here, we drove on scenic highways and visited national parks, monuments and forests, all the while practicing social distancing and mostly eating our own food. In Phoenix, we visited the Desert Botanical Garden, and in Tucson, we returned to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which we had enjoyed seventeen years ago when it was a less developed natural history attraction. We looked forward to observing spring in the desert, and I planned my target list of bird species to see and, with luck, to photograph: the Elegant Trogon, the Elf Owl, and, just one, please, any Bunting. HA! There is an old expression, “Men plan, God laughs”. I’ll change that to “Women plan, the universe yawns”.
My affinity for lush tropical forests will be with me for life, but I find the desert plants to be extremely attractive and fascinating in their own right. I saw that cacti such as Cholla, Saguaro or Prickly pear dominate the landscapes in many areas we passed. Barrel cactus are not so common, but they command attention. Technically, only about half of Arizona is desert, but some research tells me that state has 83 species of cacti, second to Texas’ high count in the U.S. of 91 species; but still, coming in second in cacti is impressive. New Mexico, by comparison, boasts 56 species.
I saw many birds using cacti for nests. A male Cactus Wren did a spectacular mating dance atop a Saguaro. Birds, bats and insects use former peck holes in Saguaro cacti for lodgings. Woodpeckers drill and peck the original nesting cavities in the stems and trunks; then after nesting, they abandon these cavities. Owls, European Starlings, insect-eating bats, mice or insects often take possession. In species of the cactus genus Cholla birds were coming and going, hoisting nesting material, or were already established in well protected nests. I saw starlings and doves nesting on the top of cacti or using small crevices and hollows between branches/arms. They don’t seem to know about Prairie Falcons!
When we returned home March 17, it was time to nest and quarantine ourselves. The current news of suffering and death is shocking and frightening, and I hope the birds, cacti and landscapes you see here will provide you with a pleasing respite from grim reality.
As some of the readers of Foto Diarist already know, “Georgie”, my mother, passed away at the end of last October, just short of her 99th birthday. It was a peaceful passing, with help from Hospice care, and my sister and I were fortunate to be by her side at home at the end of her long and mostly healthy life.
After Georgie’s death, Harry and I made our first New Mexican overnight getaway in mid-November. We drove about 90 miles south of Albuquerque to a refuge renown for migrating waterfowl in the Middle Rio Grande Valley: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (the “Bosque”, as it’s often referred to by New Mexicans). We spent two nights at a cozy and well-managed B&B named Casa Blanca in the tiny town of San Antonio, just minutes north of the Refuge entrance.
Over two days we saw javelina (white-collared peccary) unafraid of us, striped skunks with black tails held high above the golden grasses as their bodies remained hidden, many bird species, and the unforgettable flight and feeding activities of Sandhill Cranes overwintering at the refuge. With their wingspans of up to seven feet, these grey birds 40″-48″ high are a sight to behold. The Snow Geese were our first sightings of these birds, and they seem to migrate and have affinity with the cranes.
Not very long ago the cranes were in severe decline, but now they are considered to have relatively stable populations, thanks to the efforts of many environmental organizations including Audubon, National Geographic, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with community partners along migration routes. Having just joined Audubon NM, I am learning about its statewide efforts to restore sections of the Rio Grande and Gila Rivers for the benefit of birds like Sandhill Cranes. The futures of these and other aquatic birds are not at all secure if rivers continue to be drained, diverted and dried-up because of agriculture and the climate crisis in already-arid areas like New Mexico.
The Bosque del Apache Refuge’s wetlands are aggressively managed to ensure there is enough food and water for the large variety of migratory and non-migratory wildlife. The infrastructure employed of channels, watergates and dams to mimic natural wetlands is impressive. The thousands of cranes and Snow Geese are seen feeding by day in large fields of sweet corn and alfalfa in the region around and in the refuge itself. At sunset visitors are enthralled as the birds return, honking raucously in mixed-sized flocks, landing gracefully in the flooded areas of the refuge. My heart was pounding at the primordial spectacle. Floating in the wetlands while sleeping, the cranes, geese, ducks, mallards, coots, grebes, scaups and other aquatic birds are safe from predators like wildcats, foxes and coyotes.
Curious visitors as well as passionate birders also assemble in the cold of the dawn and its dramatic early light to observe the tremendously moving display–repeated daily in winter for millions of years ?–of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese lifting off almost in unison and communicating with each other noisily as they instinctively head out for new feeding grounds. None of the glowing reports I’d heard beforehand did justice to the experience. You just have to be there!
References: Literature received at very helpful visitor center at Bosque del Apache NWR; Birds of New Mexico Field Guide by Stan Tekiela; Southwestern Forests by Roger Tory Peterson Field Guides; and www article of Audubon, “New Mexico: Consider the Sandhill Crane”.
Helpful hint: Don’t forget to wear warm clothes!
2019–a year of kaleidoscopic passages reflecting life upended–is fully upon me, and I have mostly not blinked. Nor has Harry, my husband, with whom the past twenty years this October has been congruous and felicitous, in short, a dream.
Dear readers who have not heard the news: we sold Finca Cántaros, our property in San Vito, Costa Rica, late January of this year and moved in March to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The new owner of Finca Cantaros–Lilly Briggs, Canadian, with a PhD from the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University–is the ideal new custodian of its 17-acre nature reserve.Lilly doubled the size of the reserve by also buying one of the contiguous properties and intends to reforest its current pastureland. Lilly has already harnessed the spirit of environmentalism that’s been steadily growing in Coto Brus Cantón (County) by involving local school children, their teachers and parents, friends and neighbors in the tree planting.
Lilly’s passion for environmental education and citizen science also inspire her research interests. She helped create the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s BirdSleuth International curriculum and is in charge of establishing the Spanish version of the curriculum in Latin America. The resulting Detectives de Aves program, under the auspices of the San Vito Bird Club, has been successfully introduced to many Coto Brus schools as well as elsewhere in Central and South America. Great things are happening at Finca Cántaros where Lilly now lives full time. I hope that you will follow the Finca Cántaros website and that your interest in what goes on there will only soar.
Why are Harry and I now living in the high Chihuhuan Desert? Credit my mother!
Just four months shy of 99 years, my mother–Georgette (“Georgie”) Hewson– has travelled a long road since 1921. Most of her life was spent on the North Shore of Massachusetts, but it unexpectedly swerved to New Mexico in 2015 when she realized she could no longer live independently. My sister, previously an East Coaster, and her Texas-born husband–who had retired in Santa Fe 25 years ago–took Georgie to their hearth. (Strangely, my brother lived for a time near Taos, and then died in this state; his grave is less than a mile away in the Veterans’ Cemetery.) Georgie now lives with Harry and me, just minutes from my sister, and we will all be with her on her journey–narrowing, but with joyful sparks–to the end.
New Mexico. Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist and war correspondent, said about New Mexico:
“We like it because the sky is so bright and you can see so much of it. And because out here you actually see the clouds and the stars and the storms, instead of just reading about them in the newspapers. They become a genuine part of your daily life, and half the horizon is yours in one glance for the looking, and the distance sort of gets into your soul and makes you feel that you too are big inside.”
Well, that about says it all about the spell of the vistas. I like the wide, open spaces, too, at 7,200’ elevation.
I also like the slow-growing, deep-rooting desert flora, and my interest in it has rapidly grown with help from my sister and local plant guidebooks. Birds and plants are not as richly varied and abundant as they are in Costa Rica, of course, but they are just as interesting in their strategies for eking out a living.
So I started digging out a garden in April with xeric (needing little water after established) plants whose names I’ve never before encountered. Sixty or so native plants are now waving in the almost constant breezes; seed-eaters and insectivorous birds, nectar-loving hummingbirds, butterflies, lizards, ants and beetles are already frequent visitors to the backyard. We have heard coyotes yipping in the wee hours outside our window.
As was my custom at Finca Cántaros, I walk early in the morning on nearby trails or dirt roads within an hour’s range of our apartment/condo complex, carrying my camera and binoculars. Though we are renting, we are fortunate to have land to till and views of the adjacent arroyo and hills beyond. The photos you see here were taken on my daily walks since March. September 17 was a red-letter day, when I saw my first coyote. The handsome animal stopped, turned its head and gave me a good look. I thrilled to having truly arrived in this Land of Enchantment.
Below is a slide show of some recent photos. The slide show should start automatically. If you want to stop/pause, click on the II icon in the lower middle of the current photo; click on the ► symbol to go the next photo, on ◀︎ to go back the previous one. If can’t see the slide show in your email of this post, click here to open the post in your browser.
Quote from Ernie Pyle from Seasons of the Desert, A Naturalist’s Notebook, by Susan J. Tweit, 1998. Chronicle Books.
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