Monday, March 19, 2012

Spring Cleaning

Fizzy is moving!  Find the fizziness continued at

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Townsend's Solitaire

Townsend's solitaire, Myadestes townsendi, is a bird that frequents these parts all winter, but until this weekend I hadn't seen one since December.  But suddenly, on a still leafless mountain mahogany shrub, one made his appearance.

As the name might indicate, these birds are usually seen alone, if they are seen at all.  Their simple gray coloring and ability to remain very still on a perch cause many people to look right by them.  I usually hear them before seeing them, and then stare at them for awhile wondering what bird I am looking at, since there are no vibrant markings.  Solitaires actually have buffy stripes on their wings, but that, and their white eye ring, are hard to see from a distance.

This species eats mostly insects in the summer and fruits and berries in the winter.  They are especially fond of juniper berries and will protect their territory fiercely if it contains a nice clump of berry bushes.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Western Meadowlark

I came back from my trip to New Mexico to find that the western meadowlarks, Sturnella neglecta, have returned, at least to Northern Colorado.  The males were singing their beautiful spring songs with gusto in the morning sunshine.

This brilliantly yellow bird with his cheerful song can make anyone's day brighter.  The meadowlark singing outside of my window was always one of my favorite birds as a kid.  It was a sure sign that spring was here and summer vacation just around the corner! writes that "The Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states: Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, and Wyoming. Only the Northern Cardinal is a more popular civic symbol, edging out the meadowlark by one state."  So the species name neglecta is obviously no longer accurate.  Audubon christened this bird by this name because they were for a long time not distinguished from eastern meadowlarks.

Amusingly, all of the photos on this page were taken in Colorado or South Dakota, who decided instead to choose the lark bunting and the ring-necked pheasant (an introduced species! what were they thinking?), respectively, as their state birds.  The meadowlark in the following picture has chosen South Dakota's Badlands as his home. reveals that "The western meadowlark is named for its beautiful warbling song but in fact it is a member of the blackbird family, not the lark family."  These naughty males often have two mates at a time, which I guess is their payoff for all of that pretty singing.


Friday, March 16, 2012

Texas Madrone

Another interesting species of my trip south was the Texas madrone tree, Arbutus xalapensis. The state name is accurate in this case, as I saw this tree in McKittrick Canyon of Guadalupe Mountains National Park just across the New Mexican border into Texas.  I had never heard of this tree before, but was immediately taken with its twisty branches of reddish wood.

The Texas Native Plants Database lists several colloquial names for the Texas madrone, including "Naked Indian, Lady's Leg, Texas Arbutus and Madrono." further explains: "The local names, Naked Indian and Lady's Leg, refer to the smooth, pinkish to reddish-brown bark. The species name, xalapensis, refers to the city of Jalapa/Xalapa in the east Mexican state of Veracruz." TNPD explains that "When the older layers slough off, the newer bark is smooth and can range from white to orange through shades of apricot to dark red."

According to the U.S. Forest Service, "Texas madrone is listed as an endangered species by the Texas Organization for Endangered Species...seedlings are particularly rare wherever livestock are present, presumably because of the combined effects of browsing and trampling."  These trees are also quite susceptible to insect infestation and very difficult to propagate.  In the U.S., this species is only found in extreme southeastern New Mexico and west Texas, and, as a slow growing tree, it is very sensitive to environmental changes.

I was lucky enough to see one of the trees blooming, sporting clusters of small, white flowers.   Unfortunately, though, the only tree with flowers that I came across was too tall for me to get a close-up look!

In the following picture, both the pinkish-red bark and the sturdy evergreen leaves can be noted.

Another madron tree in the canyon still had berries left, although these, too, were higher than I could closely examine.  The red berries are supposed to be edible to more than just the birds, as the blog posts:  "These lovely berries give the tree it’s first scientific name, “Arbutus,” which is a Latin word meaning “Strawberry Tree.” The name Madrone comes from the Spanish word madroƱo which means the same thing."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Texas Antelope Ground Squirrel

In an area of ancient lava flow in New Mexico, I saw a new, cute, little critter running about on the black rocks:  the Texas antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus interpres.  Despite its name, this species also lives in central New Mexico and northern Mexico, generally in rocky habitats near desert mountain ranges.  They seem to appreciate boulders close to junipers, yuccas, cacti and other shrubs, and they also eat insects. 

These nimble ground squirrels do not hibernate and are active during the day, even in summer.  If temperatures get too hot, they stretch themselves out on shady rocks with their legs splayed to cool off.   I saw three of these busy guys early in the cool morning at Valley of Fires, and this photo was snapped at the only moment I saw one of them be still.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Parry's Agave

Another cool plant of southern New Mexico is Parry's Agave, Agave parryi. Charles Christopher Parry, a naturalist and explorer of the nineteenth century, has quite a large number of species named after him. As wildflower season approaches, my blog will likely become full of species with the name parryi.

This species grows on dry, rocky slopes in New Mexico, Arizona, and west Texas between 4500 and 8000 feet.  It can sometimes be called mescal agave or century plant. explains the latter name.  "Century Plants bloom only once in their life, the blooming spike is so large and grows so fast that it saps all the resources of the plant, which then dies, leaving a tall wooden seed stalk. The plant is called the 'century plant' because of this 'once a century' bloom (actually the plant lives an average of 25 years)."  The inflorescense or flower stalk with its yellow flowers can grow as tall as 20 feet high!

According to wikipedia, "It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. They are not related to cacti, nor are they closely related to aloe whose leaves are similar in appearance."  I must admit that I thought this agave was a kind of cactus when I saw its dark, spiny points in the desert.  It is, in fact, more closely related to yuccas than cacti.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Alligator Juniper

Most of the deciduous trees haven't leafed out yet, so the most conspicuous tree of my trip to New Mexico was the alligator juniper, Juniperus deppeana. Also known as checkerbark juniper, this tree was an interesting and sheltering presence at my campsites with its unique blocked bark and reddish branches.

Unlike the common juniper and Rocky Mountain juniper that I have noticed in Wyoming and Northern Colorado, alligator juniper is strictly a plant of the Southwest, and a large one at that.  These plants can become trees of significant size (40 to 60 feet tall with some even larger exceptions), an amazing feat in such a dry environment. 

I found the tree to have a smoky scent, like mesquite, and it turns out that people do burn the wood for the smell as well as the heat.  In New Mexico, it is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a cedar because of the strong odor.

If I thought these trees were nice in mid-March, I'm sure I would be incredibly grateful for their shade and shelter in hotter months.  And they just look cool!