An Armchair Tour of White Rock Canyon on Earth Day


By Rebecca Shankland
April 2003


   PEEC (the Pajarito Environmental Education Center) has given the community a big bouquet of outdoor Earth Day activities this year, But for stay-at-homes who prefer to celebrate Earth Day indoors, here is a brief illustrated tour of White Rock Canyon.


   First, remember that the earth has a long history of animal and human presence. White Rock is rich with petroglyphs that remind us that people who came long before us treasured the natural world around them, as witnessed by the mountain lions, serpents, birds, and Kokopellis they inscribed on the local black basalt. My favorite is the mountain lion that guards the Red Dot Trail—lurking on a rock panel just above the trail, he seems to be ready to pounce on unsuspecting hikers heading downhill.


   A Spanish friar on horseback watches Pajarito Canyon where it plunges into White Rock Canyon, and red-ochre plumed serpents and Kokopellis overhang the top of the Red Dot Trail. Along the river trail, one enormous rock depicts a remarkable flock of various birds.


   Hiking these trails this time of year brings a feast of birdsong, too. The broad-tailed hummingbird’s wings trill like a tiny tambourine-rattle as he flashes past. The white-throated swifts make a chittering noise as they streak past at speeds up to 200 miles an hour—they’re the fastest birds in the neighborhood as evident in their scientific name, “Aeronautes saxatalis,” or “aeronaut of the rocks.” Swifts are famous for never perching; when they swoop past your head, they sound like a boomerang or knife blade splitting the air.


   All three local wrens are setting up territories with their splendid songs: Bewick’s wren with its buzzing burr in the middle of a florid series of tunes; the rock wren with its dry series of short repeated phrases including “ker-chee, ker-chee, ker-chee”; and the canyon wren with its cascading downward scale of notes like a soprano warming up in reverse. If you listen hard, you may hear the canyon wren’s glorious song conclude with an anticlimactic rasping buzz, as if apologizing for showing off.


   But this year’s the glory is the wildflowers. Despite our drought and deadly pall of black pinons devastated by the bark beetle, I’ve never seen such a display of golden smoke (Corydalis aurea) and shocking-pink fragrant verbena (Verbena wrightii) along the Red Dot Trail. The recent rains, sleets, and snows must have come at just the right moment to awake lots of dormant seeds and produce cascades of color.


Nuttall’s astragalus is also abundant, though the delicate purple pea-like flowers with white centers are so tiny that they’re best viewed from the perspective of a chipmunk. Once you’re focused on this tiny plant, look for the 1/2-inch long seed pods that look like sickle-shaped pea pods for a doll house feast. Quite a few have survived the boots of walkers heading for the concrete viewing structure at Overlook Park.


The canyon has its share of weedy mustard (Descurania sophia) and cheat grass that have also taken advantage of the moisture. These are the plants we love to hate as they block out the more decorative flowers, but some weedy plants are appealing. A plant called peppergrass with tiny white flowers in a cluster at the top of 6-inch stalks declares itself a mustard if you squint through a hand lens and see the four petals. Woolly plantain, a relative of the common weed, redeems itself by quietly creating a grey-green fuzzy carpet in barren, rocky spots. Stickseed (Lappula redowskii) is an attractive, delicate blue forget-me-not flower, but its common name tells you what happens when it goes to seed and catches a ride on your fuzzy socks or boot laces.


Along the Overlook end of the White Rock Rim Trail, the same weeds dominate. A few splashes of corydalis and verbena appear despite the dozens of shortcut paths, bike tracks, and general devastation that accompanies areas close to car access. Even the canyon is affected—all sorts of trash has been pushed over the edge. On some future Earth Day, we need to heal these wounds.


Stemless evening primroses (Oenothera caespitosa) are just beginning to blossom along the White Rock Rim Trail just beyond the model airplane grounds. Four large white heart-shaped petals nestle in a rosette of flat leaves. In the center are bright yellow stamens like light bulb filaments.


Flowering shrubs like squawbush, golden currant, gooseberry, and Fendler’s cliffbush are also bursting into color now. Even without knowing a single name of a single plant, anyone can enjoy the Earth Day show in White Rock Canyon.