One of my favorite tree species is the lofty ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) with its straight trunk, vanilla and butterscotch scented bark, and branches with needle-like leaves that hover above my head. The trees appear to me to be like a person, standing tall and stately, with a straight trunk and branches reaching out like arms beckoning a hug.
Standing beneath a tree, I tip my head back to see what is living or foraging in the treetop. To my delight, I may observe an Abert’s squirrel chattering, a woodpecker searching for insects, or nuthatches hopping down the tree headfirst.
One of my favorite places in the Jemez Mountains is the history grove in the Valles Caldera National Preserve. The widely spaced ponderosas with the grassy understory are a reminder of how our forests looked before fire suppression. They were a mosaic of open stands, interspersed with meadows.
In the history grove, the ponderosa pines stand as witnesses to the past. The oval wounds in the bark are bark-peel trees from when Native Americans exfoliated sections of bark in the spring to obtain the sweet inner cambium for food. The trees marked with crosses remind us of sheepherders and their lonely existence. And the triangular wounds at the base of the tree, called “cat faces,” tell the story of fire and survival. Many of the large trees in the history grove are 200 to 300 years old. Within their growth rings are stories of fire, injuries, and people.
Loggers and ranchers called older and larger trees “yellow pine” because of the yellowish-orange puzzle-like bark and the young, darker trees “blackjacks.” It takes a tree about 40 years for the bark to change from black to yellow. The bark patterns also become furrowed and more puzzle-like as the tree ages. The thick bark protects the tree from low-intensity or surface forest fires. However, years of fire suppression have created conditions for hot-burning crown fires that kill the trees.
Each natural growing tree is a miracle of nature. It takes many years before a ponderosa pine begins to produce cones that hold the seeds. Every three to five years the tree produces numerous cones. But from the countless seeds produced, only a few seeds sprout and grow. That tiny germinated tree must survive fires, insects, and competition for resources. I am amazed at the ruggedness of the species when I see a tree growing in harsh environments like rocky cliffs, dry canyons, and steep slopes. A mature tree represents resilience and survival!
In the past 20 years, the Cerro Grande and Las Conchas fires have burned over 200,000 acres of forest. The first two weeks of May is the twentieth anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, an event that changed the physical and emotional landscape of the community.
My upcoming book, Resilience and Renewal, a Landscape and Community Twenty Years After, will soon be published by the Los Alamos Historical Society in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the Cerro Grande Fire and its impacts on our community. When the museum opens, they will have a display entitled “Resilience and Recovery.” In the meantime, you can explore this exhibit online.
Calendars marked March 19, 2020 as the first day of Spring, the earliest date in over 100 years. The beginning of spring is a time of rebirth of the earth, plants growing, warmer temperatures, and blooming flowers. In New Mexico it means more hours of sunshine, higher temperatures, and blustery winds. The rebirth of the landscape changes from the dull brown of winter to a greening and blossoming of the earth.
Nature doesn’t fail us, even in times of disaster. There is always something new and renewing to discover. A tiny flower blooming hardily in the cracks the sidewalk, a shrub bursting with new leaves, or a seed sprouting from the darkness of the earth to the light. Each can lift weary spirits. We particularly need nature’s mysteries today as we experience social distancing. There are lots of “don’ts” right now: don’t shake hands, don’t get closer than 6 feet, stay inside, wash your hands, etc. But there is one “do” that will help your fear, uncertainty, and mood — get outside and discover nature. Now is a wonderful time to start looking for blooming wildflowers.
As I have aged, my back has complained, probably because I have overworked it. So my journey now is with a bright red walker my children labeled “Foxxy Lady.” I can’t hike the narrow trails anymore, but I have discovered that nature’s gifts are along sidewalks, wide trails, and right in my yard. So I am going to tell you about some of the beauty you will find right where you are, not some difficult place to get to.
If you wander off to Overlook Park in White Rock, you can walk the trail from Meadow Lane to the Overlook Point. As you walk along, you might find, snuggled among the big sagebrush, Wafer Parsnip (Vesper constancei). It doesn’t have the sunny beauty of a daffodil, but it is an exciting wild spring discovery. The plant is a stemless perennial of dry soil, blooming very early in the spring, with wrinkled basal leaves on celery-like stalks, and purple flowers surrounded by white and purple bracts. Soon other related species will bloom in or before April such as Mountain Parsley (Pseudocymopterus montanus).
In cracks in the sidewalk or in protected spots in yards, the cheerful bright yellow Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale) and the purplish Stork’s Bill (Erodium cicutarium), beg to be noticed. The other day, I found an inch-high Blue Mustard (Chorispora tenella) snuggled in the gravel. It usually is 1.5 feet tall, so it fooled me because it was so short, but the flower was familiar. The blue purple flowers have 4 petals — a characteristic of mustards.
My favorite native wildflower has just been found this spring, Pasqueflower (Anemone patens). This is an early blooming perennial of the pine forests. Most exciting is that the flower appears before the leaves. The flower is large and solitary with bluish or pale lavender sepals supported by a ring of fuzzy leaf-like bracts.
In White Rock, the Easter Daisy is a ground-hugging sunflower-type. It is a showy, cushion-like, stemless native perennial with a dense cluster of narrow leaves and rather large daisy-like flowers that barely rise above the leaves. Look for Easter Daisy (Townsendia exscapa) now, but most likely in April. Other flowers you will see now or very soon in the moist canyons and coniferous forests: Wild Candytuft (Noccaea fendleri), Valerian (Valeriana acutiloba), and violets (Viola spp). They bloom in April and May, if not sooner.
Don’t forget to look at the shrubs. Low growing evergreen shrubs like Kinnikinnick or bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) are blooming at higher elevations and have already been spotted. The white and pink urn-shaped flowers are a delight.
Take a walk on the County’s trails and record what you find. If you are curious about what you see, send a picture to PEEC’s Wild Plants interest group. Someone will probably have an answer. Or you can look them up in the three volumes of Plants of the Jemez Mountains by Craig Martin and me. It is chocked full of pictures, drawings, and descriptions. Most of all, get outside, be amazed at the rebirth of the earth in these days of spring, it will relieve your stress and give you hope for the future!
Here are some easy walks even I can do with the walker:
Overlook Park from Meadow Lane to Overlook Point.
The Rim trail from the end of Kimberly, a spectacular view
Canada del Buey Trail that goes down the middle of White Rock
The Rim Trail along Los Alamos Canyon
The Cemetery Trail
Upper Los Alamos Canyon
American Springs Trail
The Loop at Camp May
Upper Crossing Trail (for a ways)
Do you have any favorite trails or walks that can be done with a mobility aid? We’d love to hear about them in the comments.
For avid hikers:
Take any of the canyon trails along West Jemez Road or trails into the Frijoles Canyon. Check out Craig Martin’s latest blog to post to see what he found along the Blue Dot Trail in White Rock. You will find that plants bloom earlier at the lower elevations.
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.
Winter! Words and images that come to mind are snow falling, chilly temperatures, crisp air, hugging yourself to keep warm.
Winter is a time of bundling up with mittens, boots, and hats to play in the snow or enjoy the out-of-doors.
Winter is a time of year to snuggle down before a fireplace, drink hot chocolate, read a book, and listen to music.
But winter is also a time of year when young and old used to gather together to tell stories. It was a time when people questioned why the world worked the way it did. The ancient ones told stories to explain the mysteries of life, how fire came to be, how animals survive the cold, and how the world was created. Our electronic world has changed this time of community, of coming together to listen and have fun.
This next Saturday, 11:00 AM, at the Nature Center, storytellers Terry Foxx and Kimberly Gotches will bring back the ancient practice of storytelling during the winter. Using wisdom of the ancients and modern-day science, they will explain how fire came into the world and how animals survive the cold in a fun and interactive program for both children and adults.
So how does science explain how animals survive the winter?
How animals survive has been a curiosity since the beginning and still is one of those marvels of nature that challenges scientists. Scientists are finding more and more about the interesting and complex ways animals survive through periods of cold.
Today we understand there are three basic ways animals survive the winter: migration, adaptation, and hibernation. Although we can categorize three basic forms, the survival of any one animal is sometimes a complicated mixture. Let’s explain a little of the science behind these three survival mechanisms and look at examples.
Cranes over Bosque del Apache. Photo by Terry Foxx.
Migration is the movement of animals from one place to another. It can be a short distance to find a warmer niche or long distances to a warmer climate. Migration is stimulated by the changes in day length and temperature.
Some birds fly amazing distances. For example the artic tern nests near the north pole in the summer but in the autumn it flies all the way south to Antarctica, returning north in the spring. That is over 10,000 miles! Amazingly, they find their way to the same place each year. They seem to navigate using the sun moon and stars for direction and have an internal compass for using the Earth’s magnetic field.
A fun place to go in New Mexico is the Bosque del Apache near Socorro. Every year migrating Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, and other birds can be seen in the fields and ponds of the Wildlife Refuge. When you get up early in the morning, you can see thousands of birds waking up and flying off to their feeding grounds. It is a breathtaking experience. On their way to and from the Bosque, the Sandhill Cranes fly along the Rio Grande and White Rock Canyon. You can hear them calling as they fly over White Rock.
A fascinating way to record your observations about when birds appear in the spring and leave in the fall is to join the Nature Center’s on-line birders group (www.peecnature.org, press on the header “Learn.” From the pull down menu go Interest Groups and sign-up.). Someone has already heard cranes heading north—and it is February (we still think it is winter)! Other birds are of particular interest in their coming and going. Nature Center birders anxiously await the first hummingbird signaling summer.
When we think of migration we often think of birds, but other animals also migrate, sometimes not long distances. For example an earthworm can move farther down into the soil below the frost line to survive freezing. They have been found six feet beneath the soil surface (for an earthworm that probably is a really long way!). When the soil warms, they move back up toward the surface.
Insects also migrate. Most well-known is the migration of the Monarch Butterfly. Butterflies can migrate 2500 miles! Those butterflies that live in the East migrate to Mexico and hibernate in oxyamel fir trees. If the butterfly lives west of the Rockies, it heads for Southern California. Monarch butterflies are very important pollinators and are disappearing because of urbanization and agricultural practices. A fun citizen science project is to track the path of the Monarchs.
The Nature Center has an interest group called “Butterfly Watchers.” Sign up on the website www.peecnature.org and follow the directions above. You will learn about different butterflies and you can report when you see a Monarch.
Adaptation is another way animals survive the winter. To keep warm some animals grow a thicker coat of fur. Examples include coyote, big horn sheep and deer. In some animals, the hairs are hollow, making them more insulating.
As a protective mechanism from predators, the new fur may be white to hide them in the snow. Examples are the Snowshoe Rabbit and Arctic Fox. Other animals gather extra food in the fall and store it. Animals like the fox may eat berries in the summer and small mammals in the winter, changing their food source. Rabbits and deer spend winter looking for moss, twigs, bark. and leaves to eat.
A variety of animals find winter shelter in holes in trees or logs, under rocks or leaves, or underground. These shelters are warmer and animals like mice, raccoons, and squirrels huddle together to stay warm.
Hibernation is a complex and fascinating process. Heart rates drop sometimes as low as 4 four beats per minute and respiration drops to one breath every three to four minutes! Scientists distinguish between true hibernators and those who use torpidity as a mechanism. Regardless, many animals sleep for extended periods of time and spend a lot of time in the late summer and autumn finding food to increase their fat stores within their bodies. True hibernators don’t wake up until spring regardless of the stimuli. Examples of hibernators are chipmunks, ground squirrels, bats, and some mice. They have enough fat reserves to carry them through the winter.
Animals like raccoons and tree squirrels use torpidity to help them survive. Torpidity is a reduction of the metabolism which allows for lower body temperature and oxygen consumption. This is a special, very deep sleep. The animal’s body temperature drops, and its heartbeat and breathing slow down. It uses very little energy. These animals can sleep for weeks at a time and then wake up to eat and defecate. During their wake time they seek out their hidden caches of food collected during the summer and fall.
So what about bears? Are they true hibernators or not? Scientist disagree with terminology. But one thing is for sure, don’t disturb a bear in his sleepy state because he can wake up in an instant, attack, and then go right back to sleep!
We have mostly talked about warm-blooded animals, but cold-blooded animals such as frogs, snakes, and lizards must also survive through winter. They lack internal control over their metabolism. They depend on the warmth of the sun to keep them active. In the winter they would freeze if they did not seek shelter and undergo chemical changes to prevent freezing. They can burrow into the mud or congregate in small caves. Rattlesnakes, for example, congregate in rock crevices to hibernate for the winter. Those spots are known as “snake dens” and they are used every year.
If you want to learn more about how animals survive the winter, here are some books you can find in Mesa Public Library. Some are entertaining stories and others are informative non-fiction.
Hibernation by Anita Ganeri
The Mitten by Jan Brett
Bear Snores On by Karma Wilson
Time to Sleep by Denise Fleming
Animals Hibernating by Pamela Hickman
Do Not Disturb: The Mysteries of Animal Hibernation and Sleep by Margery Facklam
SNOW! We love it and we grumble about it. We love it because it provides us recreation and a beautiful landscape. We grumble about it because of slick roads, slippery sidewalks, overloaded trees, and cold. After years of little or no snow, I have a sense of relief that snow is blanketing the mountain again and hopefully there will be fewer fires. Skiers are relishing snow-covered runs, exclaiming “It’s fabulous.” Snow is an amazing gift of nature and one we take for granted. But after years of drought, I discard my negative thoughts about snow and ask “What is the real importance of snow to an ecosystem?”
Ecologically in the Northern Hemisphere, snow is important. Rain can dampen the earth but snow provides for recharging underground aquifers and streamflow. The aquifers store trillions of gallons of freshwater used for drinking water. Streamflow in an arid environment is important to recreation, agriculture, and drinking water. In some western states snow can make up 80% of the annual precipitation.
I wonder and marvel at the dynamics of snow in our environment. Long ago in high school, my favorite biology teacher commented on the whiteness of now. It coats everything in a fresh white blanket. We yearn for “White Christmas” and the weatherman will call it the “white stuff.” So why is it white? She made me curious.
Here is the scientific explanation: “Snow reflects all the colors; no, it doesn’t absorb, transmit, or scatter any single color or wavelength more than any other. The color of all the light wavelengths combined equally is white.”
But as an ecologist, I really want to know how snow makes a difference to the ecosystem and all its creatures. Snow can be a harsh environment and lead to death. But for every negative in the environment there is a positive. So what is it?
Snow plays a role in temperature regulation. Snow cover reduces net radiation and acts as a heat sink. It inhibits soil warming until the snow melts but is a good insulator keeping the soil temperature near 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
We often think of winter as a time when everything is dormant or dead. But our coniferous forests still photosynthesize on warm days and life goes on beneath the snow cover. Insects, fungi, and mammals busily carry on their activities because of the insulating properties of snow. Plants covered with snow are protected from drying out.
Snowpack that accumulates throughout the winter insulates the soil, keeping it generally unfrozen. This allows the unfrozen soil to absorb water from melting snow. In the Eastern states, a ten-inch snowpack covering one acre can hold 30,000 gallons of water! (extension.psu.edu). The humidity of the snow/soil environment provides a “greenhouse” effect allowing plants to photosynthesize and grow even before the snow is melted.
The insulating power of snow is also important in other ways. Without snowpack, very cold temperatures can freeze the soil deeper and deeper. Root systems within the frozen zone can be damaged, weakening or killing the plant. The milder temperatures and sun warm the exposed and frozen soil, causing heaving and root breakage.
Studies done at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire found that forest productivity increased with snow cover. Without the insulating cover, deciduous trees didn’t take up nutrients or water as quickly as those with a good snow cover (Lynda Mapes, Snow: Winter’s Gift to the Forest).
The temperature regulation provided by snow is important in the annual growing season and the reduced chances of fire during spring, summer, and fall. Wildfires can denude acres of land of trees, changing the dynamics of the ecosystem. No snow means higher temperatures to the soil and drying vegetation during the winter months, contributing to fire danger.
Studies have shown that there is a correlation between fire and drought. Within a dry environment, the downed woody and grass material can ignite and the fire can spread rapidly. But the spread of the fire will also depend on the dryness and density of the standing vegetation. The moisture of fuels can change some with rain; however, the slow percolation of snow melt better saturates the soils and vegetation. Using LANL’s Weather Machine, Figure 1 illustrates the snowfall the winter before our major fires. The average annual precipitation for the Los Alamos area is 18.86 inches of rainfall and 56 inches of snowfall. Note that during each of these periods the snowfall was significantly lower, creating a drier forest environment.
Another advantage to snowpack is for small animals. Voles, mice, and other critters are protected from severe temperatures. The zone between the snow and the soil is called the subnivean zone. This zone is not solid because vegetation creates air-pockets. The snow insulates and keeps the temperature around 32 degrees, even though the surface temperatures may be much lower. The small animals are not only protected from predators, biting wind, and cold temperatures, but can access their stored food. The subnivean zone allows them to make tunnels connecting the air pockets formed under the snow. Other animals, like foxes, are adapted to hear these small creatures in their tunnels and then find them.
Because of winter weather, some animals hibernate or migrate, but others adapt to the snowy environment. In our mountain area, pikas busily store food during the summer, but in the winter they are deep in tunnels beneath the snow and rocks, giving them access to their stored food.
Some facts about snow:
Glaciers cover 10% of the planet’s land area.
In the Northern Hemisphere, historically, snow falls each year on one square mile out of two.
In the west 75% of the water used for irrigation comes from snow.
Snow powers the great rivers: the Colorado, the Rio Grande, the Columbia, the Missouri
Snow forms around particulates in the atmosphere and drags them to the ground, cleansing the atmosphere.
Water—rain, snow, rivers, ponds are the lifeblood of the West and our semi-arid environments. John Wesley Powell, an early explorer, said: “In the whole region, land as mere land is of no value. What is really valuable is the water privilege.” Snow is water that powers our environment and keeps our ecosystem healthy.
So next time we grumble about shoveling snow or driving on slippery roads, let’s remember that snow is amazing and provides for diversity of life in this arid land.
Figure 1: The snowfall the winter prior to large fires on the Pajarito Plateau.