Saturday, April 2, 2011

No Rain, Green Anyway

Cottonwoods along wash near Sam Nail Ranch
Three weeks ago the only spring green to be seen at Big Bend was on the cottonwood trees, which had only lost the last of their tangerine leaves two months earlier.  (In Maine the trees are leafless for seven months!)  These cottonwoods were sprawled in snaky washes like green apple lollipops.  The effect on the landscape after so much brown and beige was startling.  
Honey Mesquite

Two weeks later the honey mesquite popped out its softly feathered leaves in vivid kelly green waves all over the desert, and then sprouted pale catkins that vibrated with bees.  Walk in a mesquite grove in the heat of the afternoon and the perfume of scented catkins just makes you smile big.

Mexican Buckeye blossoms and new leaves
Buckeye seed pod with tiny little pearl inside

The guayacan has set out its small lavender flowers, and in the Red Rocks Canyon (off the Blue Creek Trail) the Mexican buckeye bloom has already passed by.  Succulent green seed pods have swollen quickly, lest the stored moisture of the tree (or the underground water source) dry before they can mature.  The buckeye leaves are still nascent, which is not how they emerged last spring.  I remember several good sized trees covered with young leaves and fresh blossoms.  The drought has perhaps rushed the reproduction phase this year.  Get-the-flowers-pollinated-and-the-seeds-set-before-the-leaves-unfurl seems to be the game plan this year.  The Mexican (or Texas) persimmons are also leafing out, and a few have flowers.  

Ocotillo blooms and one of the Mule Ears

Even cactus are flowering here and there - claret cup in the Chisos, horse crippler and strawberry pitaya here at Persimmon Gap.  The ocotillo along the road to Maverick are flowering, but have no leaves on the spiny stems, which they would have if it would only rain.  
The greening of the desert at Red Rocks Canyon

I know desert plants store water, and many such as mesquite can send roots deep into the earth to dip into whatever underground springs are there.  Indeed, the taproot of these small shrubs is often larger than the trunk itself, and roots can reach up to 175 feet underground.  Ranchers hate them because they are invasive and easily move into an overgrazed field.  But I love them dearly here in the desert.

Torrey Yucca on Mule Ears Spring Trail
The Torrey yucca are also sending up spires of creamy blossoms here and there, but they aren't doing so in profusion.  These are so lusted-after by the mule deer that three of them decimated the one and only yucca bloom at our entrance station last week.  In normal times yucca blossoms are like cotton candy to deer and the desert bighorn, but perhaps the drought has made the deer even bolder in the quest.  My co-worker Doug tried to scare them off, and cars were pulling up next to them, but come hell or high water they wouldn't budge.  

On the Mule Ears Spring trail the leatherstem flowers attracted a female black swallowtail (species unknown).  

I looked for the brown-flowered rainbow cactus that had been blooming in profusion last February near the spring, but I couldn't even find the cactus let alone the blooms.  I don't know if the deep freeze this February had anything to do with that, but I did find one solitary blossom that afternoon.

Bluebonnet at spring on Feb 2

A few brave wildflowers have made an appearance as well, and I hear even in bluebonnet country to the east there is concern that the fields may not be so lush this year.  The only bluebonnets I've seen here at Big Bend were one in the creek near Hot Springs in November, and a lone stem near Buttrell Spring the day before the Big Freeze. 

Sunrise tinted by a grassland fire from Mexico

Temperatures have consistently been in the 90s, and even over 100 down by the river, the last few weeks.  I saw some billowy white clouds last Sunday, but they turned out to be smoke from a grass fire in Mexico.  It was still burning, and still visible, yesterday.  Little fires have popped out near Alpine and Marfa the last month as well.  It is unnerving, and some mornings there is the smell of smoke.  Brown smudges were in the sky this morning. Cumulus clouds foamed to the east this evening, igniting hope, and fear.

And still there is no rain.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Big Bend's Birds of Spring

Red-tailed Hawk on blooming Acacia
In addition to the Common Black Hawks of my last post, there are many other birds returning to Big Bend from their winter getaways, as well as year-round residents exhibiting annoying testosterone-fueled behavior.  

Turkey Vulture eating dead lizard
Turkey Vultures have peppered the sky for a few weeks now, having spent the colder months in Mexico, Central and South America.  These birds have extremely acute olfactory organs for finding rotted meat, and have some nasty (to us) habits such as urinating on their legs to keep cool, and vomiting when alarmed.  They also have trouble getting out of the way of speeding cars, and can easily take out a windshield.  Should a vulture's guts be ripped open in the process, you might just decide to give the car to a junkyard.  I understand the smell is Putrid Times Ten.  Well, as Jan Allen, one of our volunteer interpreters calls them, they are the Road Kill Cleanup Crew.  They serve an important purpose in the ecosystem, and despite their reputations, are a welcome sight to nature lovers.

Gray Hawk in Cottonwood
A pair of Gray Hawks have returned to their nest at Cottonwood Campground.  The Vermillion flycatchers, which are year-round residents there, are singing their zippy songs (similar to the Eastern Kingbird - which sounds like fingers zipping along the teeth of a large plastic comb.)  There were two males at Cottonwood vying for the love of a particular female, and one Lothario just wouldn't be chased off by the offended and rightful suitor.

Two Males, One Female - the stuff of drama

Vermillions are fidgety little things
These babies have a loose, fluttery flight that makes them easy to photograph
At the Sam Nail Ranch spring, I saw my first Green-tailed Towhee, along with perhaps a dozen mockingbirds, several cardinals and pyrrhuloxias, hermit thrushes, a spotted towhee, sparrows (rufous-crowned, white-crowned, and black-throated),  and I'm pretty sure there was a brown thrasher skulking in the underbrush.
Green-tailed Towhee

Hummingbirds are busy visiting feeders at Panther Junction residences, and ash-throated flycatchers are calling "pip...ker-BEER" at Rio Grande Village.  Bell's vireos in the campground are performing what I call the "rattle song" even though I can't think of an actual rattle that sounds like it.  I just visualize squeaky rattling whenever I hear the songs of these plain-Jane little birds.

Ash-throated Flycatcher in Mesquite
Ash-throated Flycatcher in flight

Ash-throated Flycatcher at Mule Ears Springs trail with blooming ocotillo
Among the annoying behaviors are those birds of the male persuasion who bash themselves against glass windows because they see their reflections and mistake them for intruders in their territory.  At the Persimmon Gap Visitor Center last year we had a curve-billed thrasher, er... thrashing himself against the door and window.  This year I've seen a roadrunner getting squirrelly at the door after hours, and this week both a Ladder-back Woodpecker and Common Raven were making pests of themselves.

Ladder-back Woodpecker male on Visitor Center door
Maybe he's just mad because the VC is closed?

This is how a male woodpecker ought to behave (below).  This fellow at Sam Nail Ranch was cleaning out a nesting hole for the Missus.

"Our" raven George is most distressing, because ravens are supposed to be too smart to fall for such silly deceptions.  Zydeco king C. J. Chenier has it right, "Women are smarter than a man any day."  Gracie just looks at George (presumably in disgust) pecking at the "intruder" in the window for hours on end.  Our volunteer Jim made a contraption that was supposed to thwart his pecks and gouges that are ruining the caulking and UV coating.  But it just gets George up a little higher to do his damage.  It's just a plain waste of poor George's energy, too, and Lord knows desert critters need to conserve what they have.  

George and his "antagonist" - Alas, the Raven Contraption doesn't work
Here are more birds seen this week.  My life-listers are the Black and Gray hawks and the Green-tailed Towhee.  Woo-hoo!

Canyon Towhee at Entrance Station

Pyrrhuloxia male

Aforementioned Red-tailed hawk taking flight

Aforementioned Ash-throated Flycatcher taking flight

Monday, March 21, 2011

Black Hawks Make Whoopee

The Common Black Hawks have returned to Rio Grande Village from more southern climes, and were busy today adding to their nest and making whoopee.

Although it's hard to tell the sexes apart, I'm assuming it was the female that stayed at the nest to arrange the large twigs brought by the male.  I could hear him snapping them off the cottonwood trees.  

Then the female left to perch on a snag, and in a little while the male joined her for some love-making.  This happened twice, each time the activity was initiated with a wild hawkish cry. 


Then he went hunting and brought her back a small food offering.  

After awhile it was back to nest-making.  It is well hidden in the leaves of the tall cottonwood, but careless visitors could cause them to abandon the nest. 

That's why we have these nifty new signs warning visitors to keep their distance.  Another nest, perhaps last year's, is in a more visible location, but was passed over in favor of one more secluded.

Despite the name, black hawks are not common at Big Bend.  So give these lovebirds some space, so they can make whoopee.  And babies.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Winter's Last Moon

Composite of the "Super Moon" rising March 19, 2011
It's the first day of Spring. 

It was 102 degrees in Castolon yesterday, in the park's southwest end, ushering out the last day of winter at Big Bend National Park.  The moonrise was much-heralded as the largest perigee moon in 18 years, because it was closer to the earth. (The moon orbits the earth in an ellipse, the farthest point being the apogee.) I watched it rise from behind the Deadhorse Mountains, along with other folks who had come to hear moon lore from one of our rangers.   

Moonrise framed by ocotillo
First the clouds glowed just a little, then more intensely as we waited for the first glimmer of the moon itself.  Coyotes sang in the far distance for a few delightful seconds.  Through binoculars I watched the moon's rim peep over the mountains, and within a minute or two it had presented itself in entirety.  The evening was warm, and Jupiter had already popped out through orange sunset clouds in the west.  Sirius, then Orion's Belt and other constellations appeared as the sky darkened.  The moon rose through thin layers of clouds until it was bright enough for me to walk in the desert without running into cactus or ocotillo. 

Yeah it's a manipulated photo, but it's art, right?
I wouldn't say it was a moon larger than any I'd seen before.  I've seen many that blew me away by their apparent gigantic juxtaposition with the horizon, perhaps distorted by atmospherics.  But it was a combination of good weather, good scenery, and good people that made it memorable.  The ranger said we could all howl at the moon.  I wonder what the coyotes thought.

Popped a flash on the ocotillo with moon in center

Saturday, March 19, 2011

LAGNIAPPE - a littla this, a littla that

Sunrise on Winter's Last Day, with Persimmon Mt. to the right
*Big Bend had a little retirement party a couple of weeks ago for a veteran employee.  His uniform was a little scruffy and he needed a shave, but he was adored just the same.  Jeep, one of the park trail horses, was headed for a well-deserved rest, and the send-off was superb.  The park superintendent even presented his retirement plaque, which was signed on the back with good wishes.   The school children turned out for the ceremony, speeches were made, a song was sung (by me) and carrots and brownies were served with iced tea. 
The song was inspired by one written by a cowboy in 1901 for his horse Chopo, and sung and arranged by Rod Taylor who performed at the Cowboy Poetry Festival in Alpine.  I rewrote some of the verses, and apparently Jeep approved because he let out a huge whinny during the song.  Jeep’s replacement is a small pony-sized white horse-with-no-name, and the kids will probably have a good time trying to find a name that fits him. 

Javelinas in housing area - ain't they cuuuute?
*I saw Venus in broad daylight a couple months ago.  I had my binoculars trained on some far-off swifts and spied a very bright point of light.  It wasn’t a jet glistening in the sunlight miles above the earth.  It wasn’t even moving.  I took away my binoculars and couldn’t see it at all.  It was sheer luck that I had found Venus in the middle of the day.  I later learned that if it is far enough away from the sun like it was then, one can find it in midday if one knows where to look. 

George and Gracie
 *Gracie, one of our resident ravens, had disappeared from her night roost with George, and he was coming around the Entrance Station without her.  This went on for about a month.  Doug says this happens every year about this time, and likely Gracie has been sitting on a nest somewhere.  I was feeling sorry for George, since he seemed so lonesome and out of sorts, and I thought something evil had this way come for Gracie.  But she’s been back, and I’m wondering if there will be little Georges and little Gracies around the Entrance Station any time soon. 

*Heard on park radio:  “What is the park policy regarding nudity in the backcountry?”  Reply:  What site are you referring to?   (Imagine everyone glued to the radio for answer…)

*At the Entrance Station:  Guy presented an Access pass and when I asked for ID of the passholder he held up a small bulky envelope with the woman’s name on it.  “Here she is,” he said.  She was on her way to being scattered in the park.  My son has been asked to scatter my ashes around Mt. Rainier, but I may have him save some for Big Bend

Terlingua Ghost Town Cemetery
*Spring Break lasts two weeks.  The first week was rather mild, and my cousin and her husband from Bridge City visited.   Second week is when most schools and colleges in Texas were on break, so it was hectic.  I know we’re spoiled, because our brief Spring Break pales in comparison to the everyday crowds in parks like Yellowstone.

*I got Religion.  The Order of the Iron…I am a lapsed Ironer, but the realization that my uniform needed creases brought me back into the, er, fold.  I also had my eyebrows plucked for the first time in my life by the Holy Order of Mary Kay.  I was determined to buy only cleanser at the Mary Kay party, but then I had to go for the tinted moisturizer, then the mineral powder.  Later added eye shadow and rouge.  When in Texas, do as the Texas gals do….Can’t say for sure it’s a great improvement, but at least I’m making the effort!

Yucca at Entrance Station March 13
*Wildflower season won’t be so good this year, since we’ve had no rain to speak of since Labor Day or thereabouts.  The February freeze nipped some of the early bloomers in the bud, as it did the huisache tree at our apartments.  It also wrecked the palm leaves and river cane. But there are some compact mounds of yellow flowers starting to show on the roadsides.  A few yucca, including the one at the Entrance Station planted in 1995, are blooming.  I hope the cactus put on a good show again this year.
Our yucca March 19
It's nearly 90 degrees in the shade - and it's the last day of winter!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Cowboy Poetry - Yee-Haa!

West Texas in Spring has its Sunday britches on…” - Sam Watson

That was a line from one of the poems recited at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Alpine, Texas on Friday, February 25.  Cowboys, ranchers, and Western poets and musicians came together for the 25th year of the gathering, and Doug (my co-worker at the Entrance Station) was kind enough to swap days with me so I could attend. 

I joked that I was going to rope me a cowboy and drag him home, but the truth is that as much as I love horses and the romance of the Westerns of my childhood, I stuck out like a sore thumb there.  (I stick out like a sore thumb no matter where I am.)  I mean, I was dressed in my usual artsy fartsy garb - a chartreuse t-shirt from the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, multi-colored baubles on neck and ears, and equally multi-colored belt and socks (those distinctive purposely-mismatched Sole-Mate socks so popular in New England.)  I did have on jeans, but they were black, and I wore New Balance running shoes instead of pointy, well-tooled boots.  Denim was the predominant color among attendees, along with lots of those lovely Stetsons.

“Moral to this story, never judge by what they wear…” (Marty Robbins- Cowboy in the Continental Suit)

So anyway, I was late arriving as it took for-damn-ever to get breakfast in Terlingua thanks to a dirt biker rally, and I wasn’t sure when the gas pumps opened there, so I didn’t leave at 6 a.m. as I had planned.  (Gas $3.51 Terlingua, $3.39 Stripes in Alpine.  Ouch.)  I got to the Sul Ross University auditorium in the middle of a set by Jeff Gore and Washtub Jerry, singing Marty Robbins’ Master’s Call, followed by El Paso.  I don’t know why, but I found myself tearing up a little.  I mean, I used to hate country-western music as a kid.  Yet we all knew those songs, even if we listened to the Top 40 Pop station.  This was real singing.  A rich masculine voice singing words you could actually understand, instead of growly voices drowned out by electronics, or unsingable drivel about dysfunctional love on today’s pop charts. 

Chuck Wagon Coffee Pots keeping warm
Of course, now that I live in Far West Texas for half the year, I figured I’d immerse myself a little in the culture.  Like many of the old ways, even the cowboy lifestyle is changed.  There was a sea of gray in the large audience, and most of the poets and storytellers were likewise old fellers and gals.  The bunkhouses are empty, lamented one.  Technology, off-road vehicles, whatever the reason, there are fewer guys punchin’ cows in the backcountry.  And with TV and the internet, fewer of them are creating their own stories and tales.  The “tribe” needs new blood.  Many of the poems recited (often from memory) were written by cowboy poets who have passed on - stalwarts such as J.B. Allen and Buck Ramsey. 

Matter of fact, I was most impressed with the juxtaposition of the “effeminate” Literary and the epitome of Manliness.  I never saw “Rawhide’s” Rowdy Yates pen a poem on the back of a fruit can label (J. B. Allen, Medicine Keeper) or Gil Favour pluck out a tune while on night guard to keep the “dogies” quiet.  Roy Rogers just seemed like an anomaly, but I guess he was more representative of many of the old-time cowboys than I understood. 

Stage during Cowboy Poetry Gathering performance
I’m listening now to the CD by Rod Taylor, whose CD was playing in the sales room when I hunted for the Marty Robbins tribute album I mentioned above.  It has such sweet melodies - reminiscent of a couple of Lyle Lovett’s tunes (This Old Porch being one.).  I’d call it Western Folk, but what do I know?  I’ve always considered songs to be poetry set to music.  And my poetry instructor at the University of Maine agreed, since we were allowed to do a presentation on a favorite poet or songwriter.  (I chose folk singer/songwriter Richard Shindell.) 

Cowboys love their horses.  They love their cows too.  Their poetry and songs are often about these critters that fill their lives, even the ornery ones.  I’ve been horse crazy since a little girl, and I’ll watch any movie and read any book about a horse.  So I very much appreciated the poem about The Company Horse, who never knew what kind of cowboy was going to ride him, just as a cowboy always hoped for a good string of cow ponies when he worked for “the company.”  I cried at “La Rose” (I think that's the name, sung by Jill Jones) whose broken-hearted, broken-down owner needed to sell the “long in the tooth” mare he had since she was born.

The Red Cow by Larry McWhorter was about a young man seeking to prove himself with a mean cuss whose capture was highly prized, but who was, in the end, left alone to her freedom.  It reminded me of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty (“All the federales say/ They could have had him any day.  They only let him slip away/ Out of kindness I suppose.”)

Chuck Wagon serving lunch
Cowboys in 2023 - the chuckwagon served bagels and choco-latte, the men wore Crocs and spiky hair, “with faces that looked like they fell into a tackle box.”  (Sam Noble)

There were poems about people, too, about the land, the cowboy life.  Women were not left out, for although everyone knows a good cowboy is made by a good woman - many of whom worked alongside their cowboy husbands - many women wrote, recited or sang poetry.  Jill Jones did some mighty fine yodeling, and I couldn’t help think of Prairie Home Companion’s “Lives of the Cowboys.”  (Lefty is always playing a poorly tuned guitar and yodeling, to the annoyance of Dusty.)

“I was fifteen before I realized grass was supposed to be green.”  - one of the cowboys said about growing up in arid country.

Chuck Wagon truck
One sweet faced grandma wrote verse about her mother’s visit after she’d been a young cowboy’s bride.  “ ‘Shucks, golly darn it’ ” just won’t do when your horse falls on you, or the cows you’ve spent a half day rounding up escape because somebody forgot to fasten the gate,” she recited. “This is my life, and just get used to the cussin’” she told her mother (my paraphrase.)  She also wrote about bundling in layer upon layer of clothing to move cattle in frigid weather, and the need to shed and restore all those layers when nature inevitably calls.  It’s a woman thing, it really is.

There were two things that stuck in my craw, so to speak.  One was that this same sweet woman mentioned with a touch of vehemence that the former ranches in Oregon’s Willamette Valley were “being destroyed by environmentalists.”  Well now, I know many ranchers have become enlightened in recent years and want to co-exist with the natural ecosystems.  But it is a plain fact that ranching has historically, and continues to this day, to destroy habitat for the rightful owners of the land - the wildlife.  Here in Big Bend National Park, the former grasslands of Tornillo Flats were grazed out of existence prior to the 1944 establishment of the park, and may never recover.  Grassland breeding birds have experienced precipitous decline in population due to destruction or degradation of habitat due to ranching, agriculture and development.  The native tallgrass and shortgrass and mixed grass prairies have been pretty much exterminated save for remnant parcels “the environmentalists” saved.

In this same afternoon program, one of the men sang about how ranchers owed their livelihoods to the U.S. Cavalry who cleared out the original human inhabitants, and the buffalo hunter who cleared out the cattle’s competitor for rangeland.  He also poignantly concluded the ranchers had blood on their hands as much as these Indian- and buffalo-killers.   It’s too late for the Comanches, Apaches, and all the other displaced tribes.  But it’s not too late for what remains of native habitat and wildlife. Nearly all early settlers of America’s western lands owe their land and livelihoods to the federal government, which used federal troops to exterminate Indians, and which gave free land to homestead.  Their descendants would do well to remember that when they complain about today’s “handouts” and “destruction of livelihoods.” 

Dutch Oven biscuits - yum!
It also struck me that this “Cowboy Road” (“The Cowboy Road - it’s just horses, hats and leather…”  - Allan Chapman) is exactly the antithesis of the “Good Red Road” of the Indians that occupied my thoughts and activities 20 years ago.  I spent several years “being with” Native American peoples of various sorts - that being a whole ‘nother story - and have great empathy for their sorrows - both historical and contemporary.  Cowboys and Indians don’t have to be enemies today, and I suspect they often aren’t. 

The University Center was crowded for lunch, so I was going to skip it when I saw a chuck wagon set up in a field.  I asked if it was for the public, and the fellers there assured me it was, and when I asked where the donation jar was they said somebody had forgotten it.  But in hindsight I think lunch was for the performers, and these cowboys were just being kind. 

Dutch Oven baking - coals top and bottom
The chuck wagon crew
Apache Adams and the Australian Jack Sammon sat on the hay bales next to me, and one of the artist-sculptors in the “Trappings of Texas” show at the Museum of the Big Bend was on the other side.  The tender brisket, the cowboy beans, dutch-oven baked biscuits, and fresh salsa with cilantro, were darned tootin’ good.  The cook tasted some of the brisket, then rubbed his oily fingers on his boots (a good idea, I thought).  Coffee warmed in the huge pots, and windblown dirt and ashes mixed with our food in true cowboy fashion. 

From the campus the small town of Alpine below was backdropped by several mountains and hills.  The breeze was cool and the day warm.  I could see living here someday.

I stayed as long as I could at the night session, but had to leave at 9 pm for the 2 hour drive back to Big Bend, so I could be at work by 7:30 in the morning.  Next year maybe Doug will swap me two days, so I can stay longer .  It’s something I will definitely look forward to.