Celebrating Our Local Environment on the Pajarito Plateau

A view of the vertical mile of diversity on the Pajarito Plateau, from canyon bottom to mountaintop. (Photo by Craig Martin)

By Chick Keller

The eastern part of the Jemez Volcano slopes down to the Rio Grande. The Pajarito Plateau interrupts this slope with its high finger mesas. The area forms a high island in a northern desert. Its elevation spans a vertical mile, from 5,500 feet at the Rio Grande to 10,600 feet atop Caballo Mountain. This range of elevation gives it habitats from the high mountains to the pinyon-juniper woodland below. Within the area, you can also find diverse microhabitats, missing only lakes and marshes. This varied geography is home to a rich flora and fauna.

Colorado blue columbines are found at high elevation in the Jemez Mountains. (Photo by Craig Martin)

The Jemez Mountain Herbarium at the Nature Center houses over 1,000 plant species, which is remarkable because the entire Jemez Mountain area has only about 400 more. From the beautiful multi-colored mariposa lilies and Colorado blue columbines high up, through fairy slipper orchids and scarlet paintbrush at mid elevations, down to yellow-orange stream orchids, deep lavender pine spiderwort, and scarlet Cardinal flower near the Rio Grande, there are breathtaking wildflowers at every turn and in every season. Many represent the northernmost, westernmost, or southernmost parts of their range in the state. White Rock Canyon is especially spectacular, acting as if it were transplanted from south of Albuquerque.

Unfortunately, recent mega-fires have destroyed habitat for some of our most rare and beautiful flowers. Until the fire and subsequent floods of the Las Conchas Fire, a small colony of yellow lady’s slipper (found nowhere else in the Jemez Mountains) graced the trail above Upper Crossing in Frijoles Canyon. Fires also have reduced the spectacular orange wood lily to just a few and wiped out one of the largest, densest colonies of fairy slipper. These species will never rebound here, a sad fact. However, there are surprising exceptions. On the northern-facing slopes of our local canyons the tadpole buttercup grows in profusion, even though it is very rare elsewhere in the state.

Wildlife is equally amazing. There are some four dozen species of mammals including the seldom-seen ring-tailed cat, about ten species of bats, and a few beavers!

Reptiles and amphibians abound also. Patch-nosed snakes, collared lizards, the endangered Jemez Mountain salamander, and Canyon Treefrogs are all notable in my mind. Have you seen the six-foot long whipsnake?

Western Tanagers should start arriving in Los Alamos in late April or early May. These striking birds enjoy eating fruit and suet. (Photo by Bob Walker)

The avifauna of the Pajarito Plateau is equally diverse. According to eBird, 298 species have been recorded in Los Alamos County, and, while some were novelties that were just passing through, we are lucky to call many residents or repeat visitors. Up on Pajarito Mountain, with some luck, you might find the American Three-toed Woodpecker or a Dusky Grouse. A variety of colorful warblers, four hummingbirds, and the striking Western Tanager migrate through the Plateau in the spring and summer. Ducks and shorebirds sometimes stop by Ashley Pond or 6th Street Pond, and can be seen along the Rio Grande in White Rock Canyon during parts of the year. When a rarity stops by, birders are the first to know through the Los Alamos Rare Bird Alert, thanks to our dedicated local birding community.

Sitting on a promontory of White Rock Canyon (in any state east of New Mexico this canyon would be a national park!) in good years, one may admire a field of white sego lilies and pink Wooton’s larkspurs while a raucous flock of Pinyon Jays flies overhead, a Bald Eagle soars higher up, Canyon Wrens sing their laughing melodious song, Blue Grosbeaks forage in nearby trees, and, below on the Rio Grande, Common Goldeneyes fly along the water.

It is a joy to go outside and let the wild things on our Pajarito Plateau, canyons, and mountains enrich our lives.

Jemez Mountain Herbarium Reaches Milestone

By Chick Keller

 
In 2005 I was given several boxes of professionally mounted and labeled plants that were collected in the Santa Fe National Forest by a student from University of Wyoming, which had been given to the Office of the Santa Fe National Forest. There were some 1,100 sheets — some 750 from the Jemez Mountains. In addition, I had my own informal herbarium at home. On advice from people at UNM herbarium, I purchased a herbarium cabinet and a binocular, zoom microscope. The Native Plant Society of NM reimbursed me for the cost of the cabinet ($1,000) and people in town for the microscope (~$2,000) — the major part donated by The Animal Clinic in Los Alamos. The Forest Service also included some herbarium equipment. LANL was closing down its 15-year effort to collect plants and sent me three more cabinets full of plants as well as a wealth of herbarium paper supplies — folders, mounting sheets, and more. PEEC paid for a set of flower identification books and I added my own. And so, the Jemez Mountain Herbarium was formed.
 
At the time, there were about 650 species of plants known in Los Alamos County. I asked Dorothy Hoard how many she thought were in the county. She replied with the optimistic number of 1,000. I thought not. How could people have been collecting plants for so many years and missed 350 species and varieties? We bet a pizza.
 
Sadly Dorothy is gone, but this summer we indeed surpassed the 1,000 mark!
 
This was the work of many people. Perhaps the most active were Terry Foxx, Craig Martin, and Roy Greiner, but there were some 15 or so others who have brought in plants that are now in the herbarium.
 
In addition to finding so many plants not previously known in Los Alamos County, we have been concentrating on the entire Jemez Mountain region — from San Ysidro to Ghost Ranch, Cuba to White Rock Canyon. This past year we published in a scientific botanical journal a list of 161 species previously not known for that area, seven of which had never before been seen in New Mexico! We have found a few more since then.
 
A herbarium is important to the knowledge of plants.  It is a repository of the real specimens that can be used for a variety of reasons — extending knowledge of the range of plants, writing plant identification books, such as the ones Terry and Craig are working on, helping beginners learn plants, and finally proving that indeed the plants named were correctly identified.
 
In addition, it is great fun — the search and discovery, recording their beauty (we have started including photographs), and helping others know and appreciate our natural surroundings.
 
Read more about Dorothy Hoard in the March 2014 edition of PEEC’s Nature Notes.

Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller

This week’s flower is fetid goosefoot, and it does give off a fetid odor. However, all odorous faults are forgiven by its stunning fall visual display. Even though it looks like fetid goosefoot is blooming now, this annual plant turns a beautiful magenta when it dies. Often, you can find a stand of 50 to 100 plants under a ponderosa, which light up the area as though a magenta colored mist encircled the tree.

Read more Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller

Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller

This week we highlight a flower many of you may know and nearly all New Mexican residents have seen, matchbrush (Gutierrezia sarothrae), also commonly known as snakeweed. It can cover entire fields, a sign of overgrazing. Since matchbrush is not eaten by cattle, it takes advantage of the lack of competing plants in overgrazed areas. You will often find matchbrush growing in lower elevations: toward the end of the mesa tops, in the canyon bottoms, and across grasslands. It does well in full sun and the hotter temperatures found in these areas.

Read more Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller

Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller

This week’s flower, Heliomeris multiflora, is one of the many yellow composite flowers we see during our glorious fall season.  You may know this flower by the common name, Pieces of sun, a poetic translation of its botanical name.  It is also commonly known as Goldeneye, derived from flower’s color and shape. In addition to Heliomeris multiflora’s bright yellow, round composite flowers, the plant has pointed, narrow leaves, which often appear in pairs. 

Read more Wildflower of the Week by Chick Keller