Ernesta and Wesley

In the second half of 2016 I wrote several short pieces about different aspects of the Mexican gray wolf recovery effort and submitted them to a magazine that has a “Readers Write” feature with a different theme each month.  This one, unpublished, was on the topic of honeymoons.  It seems appropriate for today!

Coronado alpha pair (AF1126-Ernesta behind M1051-Wesley) caring for the pups at Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility
Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

As honeymoons go, it wasn’t very exotic or romantic–two wolves behind a wire fence on a remote and scrubby patch of land in western New Mexico.  Sevilleta, it’s called.  With the pair:  four pups, hers.

A photograph from the summer of 2014 captures a moment in the life of the newly-blended family.  She’s lying in the dirt, head up, a pup nipping at her muzzle.  He’s standing behind her, tail down, a fine specimen of a Mexican gray wolf, long-legged and grizzled. Turned away from the camera, perhaps distracted by one of the pups, his radio collar is clearly visible.  Another of the pups sits at his haunches.

Ernesta, the female, was born in 2008 at a refuge in Missouri.  Named by a donor, she was bred with a combination of genes badly-needed to conserve and expand a small population of endangered wolves living in the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona.  When she was selected for potential release, it was not only because of her genetic makeup, but also her excellent health and aversion to people. 

Wesley was born in 2007 in the Gila Wilderness to an established pack.  Before he was a month old he and his entire family were placed in captivity for killing cows.  Wesley had spent his life behind fences waiting, without knowing it, for an opportunity to again live in the wild.

Her breeding and his wildness brought the pair together in 2012 at Sevilleta, a preconditioning facility.  They bonded and the next spring she conceived.  Before their pups were born they were relocated to an enclosure in the forest, one step closer to freedom.  It didn’t go well.   The litter, her first, perished. Squabbles at the fence line with wild wolves caused the release to be cancelled. 

Back to Sevilleta, but not together.

Ernesta was paired with another male and conceived again in the spring of 2014.  In April the two were released across the state line in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Within days he bolted.  Alone, she dug a den and gave birth. 

Fearing for the lives of her pups, again humans intervened.  Back to Sevilleta.

A couple of days after Ernesta and her pups had settled in, Wesley was introduced to the enclosure.  No drama.  He took to patrolling the perimeter when he wasn’t hanging out next to the den, close to Ernesta.  Within weeks the pups were exploring, tagging along with Wesley on his reconnaissance missions.  Plans were underway for the family’s release.

Known as the Coronado Pack, the six wolves were trucked into the Gila Wilderness in late July.  At the end of a dirt road, they were taken off the truck and loaded on the backs of mules and packed into a remote spot called McKenna Park.

I imagine a hush in the forest as the sounds of the humans and mules receded in the distance, leaving the wolves behind. 

A flimsy mesh pen was all that stood between Ernesta and Wesley and their new life–a chance to run with their pups, to hunt elk and sleep with full stomachs under the ponderosa pines.

New Snow and a Bobcat Sighting

The wild things that live on my farm are reluctant to tell me, in so many words, how much of my township is included in their daily or nightly beat. —Aldo Leopold

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at the kitchen table reading A Sand County Almanac when a shadow on the fresh snow outside caught my eye.  Thinking it was probably a rabbit, I went to the window for a closer look and was surprised to see a bobcat, unmistakable with his short tail and tufted ears.

I ran downstairs and out the back door thinking he would  have disappeared into the trees, but found that he had, instead, circled around the big boulder and car parked in the drive.  He stopped short when he saw me and we studied each other across the gravel driveway for a few moments before he turned and vanished.

Bobcat Tracks. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Bobcat Tracks.
Photo by: Paula Nixon

I followed his tracks and discovered he had come from a neighbor’s yard via a small opening between two latillas in the coyote fence, just barely wide enough for a 15 to 20 pound cat to squeeze through.

Bobcats are not uncommon in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (I sometimes catch them on my camera trap), but this was only my second sighting in twenty years—the perfect excuse to get out of the house and enjoy the first snow of 2017!

Let’s Try That Again

I had lots of trouble with yesterday’s post, especially the photo.  In case it did not come through on the first email you received, here is the link.

9 Hours 53 Minutes 3 Seconds

Some say that L.A. doesn’t suit the Yule,
But UPS vans now like magi make
Their present-laden rounds, while fallen leaves
Are gaily resurrected in their wake.
—Timothy Steele

2016-12-22-00.16.59.jpg.jpeg

Photo by: Paula Nixon

Before this shortest day of the year is over I’ll share these lines from Timothy Steele’s poem Toward the  Winter Solstice and my shot of the L.A. sky, taken yesterday afternoon.

Here’s to a joyful and peaceful holiday season.  There will be lots of work to do in the new year.

Coyote about Town

On a Saturday morning in November I was out running errands driving on Paseo De Peralta, the closest thing Santa Fe has to a loop. As I approached the Capitol, I was surprised to see a coyote crossing the four lane street.

Given New Mexico’s ongoing persecution of coyotes, I imagined she was on her way to the office of Animal Protection Voters (apvnm), just across the street from the Round House, perhaps  to take up the issue of killing contests or trapping on public lands but, of course,  she had her own agenda.

She looked a little scroungy with her beat-up half tail, but she knew where she was going as surely as I knew the way to the grocery store.

Before I had time to reach for my camera she had disappeared.

Coyote Photo By: Paula Nixon

Coyote
Photo By: Paula Nixon

Back in my yard I’ve been fussing with my camera trap trying out different locations, each for a few days at a time, checking to see who passes by.  In the last year we have added walls, stairs, and an iron gate.  I was curious if all of the changes had caused the bears, bobcats, and coyotes to abandon their old trails across our lot.

Finally, after my most recent attempt with the camera trained on the driveway  (a pathway down the mountain long before we showed up) I found this photo–a coyote on the first Friday of December about 4 o’clock.  

No way to know for certain, but she looks a lot like the one I spotted in town last month.

Too Many Words

I have been trying to figure out what to write since Tuesday night. I finally decided—not much.   It’s been a loud, long campaign and now it is finally over.   We all need a break, a little peace and quiet.

I will share a couple of  brief comments from two of my favorite writers who inspired me this week.

From Terry Tempest Williams on election night:

A couple of days later from Sherman Alexie:

And finally, from Hillary Rodham Clinton in her November 9th speech:  “Make sure your voices are heard going forward . . . Fighting for what’s right is worth it.”

Good night.  Don’t forget to go outside and take a look at the full moon.  EarthSky says it will be “equally awesome” tonight and tomorrow night (November 13th and 14th).

Bathsheba: A Long Island Oyster

To define nature as the wild things apart from cities is one of the great fantastic American stories. ~Jenny Price

When I pulled up a barstool at the Grand Central Oyster Bar in New York City on a recent Monday I was famished.  The lunch hour was long past and I wanted something quick and local.  I selected the Lazy Mermaid oysters from Long Island to go with my Mermaid pilsner, brewed in Brooklyn.  But my mermaid-themed lunch was not to be—that particular oyster was sold out.  My second choice, Bathsheba (misspelled on the menu as Bathseba), another local oyster, was available.

Photo by: Paula Nixon

Photo by: Paula Nixon

It took me a good long time, but once I learned to appreciate oysters they reminded me—in a way that no other fish or shellfish does—of the ocean.  The best ones, like the Bathsheba, taste fresh and clean and briny.

Back at a home, a few days after savoring those oysters, I reread Jenny Price’s essay Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in L.A. and thought about my stop at the oyster bar. Grand Central Station sits in the heart of Manhattan and seems about as far removed from the natural world as one can get, but Price challenges us to consider nature in a new way—as a part of life no matter where we are.

So, I wondered, where exactly did those oysters come from. After all, Long Island is just a short train ride away from midtown Manhattan.

A Google search turned up a 2008 map of Long Island and some of its oysters, but a lot has changed since then.  This 2014 New York Times story describes the resurgence in more recent years of oyster farming on the island.  Overfishing, pollution, and Hurricane Sandy (2012) had all taken their toll, but Crassotrea virginica, the eastern oyster, was, and still is, making a comeback.

It was Friday afternoon and not thinking I would  reach anyone I called and left a message at the Long Island Oyster Company.  Steve, the proprietor and ‘oyster guy’, called me right back, but was also stumped by the Bathsheba.   He promised to see what he could find out and by Monday I had my answer.  The Bathsheba comes from the Great South Bay, a long narrow body of water bordered on the north by Long Island and the south by Fire Island, the original home of the famous Blue Point oyster, known for its mild, but salty flavor.

So now I know a little bit more about my lunch, but find I have a lot more questions.  What role does the oyster play in the health of the bay?   How much risk is there of another hurricane destroying the new oyster beds?  How exactly does a Bathsheba oyster make the journey from the floor of the bay to the ice-filled trays at the Grand Central Oyster Bar?

Those questions will have to wait for another day, another afternoon at the oyster bar, maybe even a trip out to the Great South Bay of Long Island.

An Abundance of Pinon

 

Photo by Paula Nixon

Photo by Paula Nixon

Most of the piñon trees around my house have open cones this year, some with the dark brown pine nuts still ensconced within.  I hadn’t noticed them until I talked to Rick Winslow, a wildlife biologist with the NM game department, about a bear scat filled with piñon shells I found in the yard–turns out bears love the buttery nuts as much as the squirrels and jays. Winslow mentioned there had been lots of  piñon in the area for the last couple of years, which didn’t fit with what I thought I knew about New Mexico’s state tree.

I had heard the piñon pine produced once every seven years, but it really depends on the weather, how much moisture we get.  The recent years of drought have killed some of the trees, another setback.  But in the last couple of years with closer to normal rainfall, they have responded by putting on cones.

Bumper crops are few and far between (that explains the seven year theory), but this year it’s a “bull market for piñon in Northern New Mexico” according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.

The last big crop we had was in 2005.  I remember being surprised that autumn by a flock of boisterous Clark’s nutcrackers appearing out of nowhere, taking up residence in the pine outside my kitchen window.  The sleek white birds with black wings crashed the party, scaring off the piñon jays, usually the bossiest birds in the trees. Once the cones were empty, they left as quickly as they came. No sign of them yet this year.

Last week I started to gather a few of the nuts in a small bowl and spread a bedsheet on the ground and shook the branches to release those still in cones.   I was hoping to accumulate enough to roast for my sister-in-law, Kelli, who is an aficionado. The few I cracked open with my teeth (not recommended) were dried out and brown, not the plump, light-colored nuts I was expecting so I abandoned my efforts.

Maybe there are some good ones out there, but I’ll leave those for the industrious chipmunks to discover.   I’ll be checking out our local roadside vendors or ordering from New Mexico Piñon Nut Company‘s  online store. Sold unshelled, it’s a challenge to extract the tasty nuts.  Wiki-How offers a few different techniques.  The one that looks most promising  involves a can opener. I’ll let you know how it works.

 

 

 

 

Backyard Bears

If you live in those wild land urban interfaces you’re going to have wildlife and if you complain about it we don’t have any choice but to do something about it.  That usually ends up with a dead animal.  Maybe not the first time, but the next time.
Rick Winslow, NM Department of Game and Fish

Bears have been walking through my backyard for decades.  They were here long before I arrived and have likely been making adjustments to their peregrinations ever since the first folks showed up here sixty or more years ago:  cutting down trees, putting up small block houses, planting roses and apricot trees.

My House 1995.

My House, 1995.

For a long time I didn’t realize they were passing through—it took two mangled suet bird feeders to convince me.  The bears are discreet, keep their distance, cruise by looking for a tasty, no-hassle meal:  a feeder filled with sunflower seeds, a bowl of kibble intended for the cat, a half-eaten pizza tossed in the trash.  Once I discovered their presence, I took away all enticements that were within my control.

Other things are more difficult.  Acorns, apples, piñon nuts.  The last one I didn’t realize was an attraction until a couple of weeks ago when I found a pile of scat a few feet away from the house in a little clearing surrounded by pine trees.  The scat was dried out and full of small brown shells.

I reached Winslow, the game department’s bear and cougar biologist, by telephone and assured him I wasn’t complaining, just had a few questions.

He told me that bears do eat piñon nuts and the scat I found was probably from last year, although it’s hard to say for certain since local trees produced the tasty nuts both this year and last. With all of the rain we had over the summer, there’s also plenty of natural food up on the mountain and not many bear sightings have been reported, another reason to think that the calling card I found was left months ago.

Over the summer we made changes in the backyard:  walls, stairs, and a gate, but I have no doubt our local bears know exactly how to get to the old apple tree, near the original house.  It was probably planted fifty years ago and has been left untended, but is loaded with an abundance of small pinkish-yellow fruit this fall, a bumper crop.  I picked as many as I could reach yesterday and am hoping the bears are satisfied with the bounty in the forest and don’t discover my apples before they go into hibernation for the winter.

Appointment with a Wolf

F638 or Jasmine as she is known at the Albuquerque BioPark lives ‘off exhibit’ and is not visible to the public so it took a special request to see her.

Jasmine in her living area. Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

Jasmine in her living area.
Photo courtesy of Albuquerque BioPark

But before I get ahead of myself. . .

Back in 2013 I wrote my first post for this blog about a family of endangered Mexican gray wolves called the Bluestem Pack.  By then they had lived in the wild for eleven years.  They were on their second alpha female and third or fourth alpha male and had raised lots of pups that went on to find mates and establish new packs. To this day the Bluestem Pack still runs in the White Mountains of Arizona.

The original members of the Bluestem Pack were born in captivity.  The near-famous (at least in wolf circles) F521, the alpha female of the pack, was born at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs in the late 90s. In 2002 she and her mate along with seven of their offspring—five new pups and two juveniles–were released in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  The juveniles were born into F521’s first litter of four pups in 2000 (at the Sevilleta Wolf Management Facility), but only two of them were released with the family.  One of those wolves not released was F638.

It was a hot August afternoon. The zoo was quiet, the kids back in school. I arrived early so I could visit the public wolf exhibit before my meeting with the zoo manager.  The Albuquerque BioPark or Rio Grande Zoo as it used to be known has participated in the species recovery plan for more than thirty years.  Sixty-nine wolf pups were born at the zoo, helping reestablish the nearly extinct population of lobos native to the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  But it has been almost ten years since the zoo had a new litter of pups.

That could change next spring. The zoo has two new residents, Kawi a two-year-old female and Apache a five-year-old male.  Their enclosure, visible from above, is large with pine and cottonwood trees, boulders and logs, wild grasses.  It can be hard to spot them, but on this day the two were chasing each other around the perimeter with Kawi pausing for a brief belly flop in the horse trough.

Back at the zoo’s administrative office I met Lynn Tupa, the zoo manager, and we returned to the wolf exhibit, this time walking on the backside of the animal exhibits—even quieter than the front of the zoo.

Lynn unlocked the gate to access the wolf habitat, a secured area with access to the public exhibit and two other, smaller naturalized habitats.  The wolves have minimal exposure to humans, so they are wary, but Lynn had told me Jasmine is curious and she approached the chain link fence, stopping a few feet back, when she heard us.  Long legs, big paws, a multi-colored and grizzled coat, inquisitive eyes—a rare up-close look at a lobo.

Jasmine is sixteen years old—ancient in wolf years—and will live out her life here. She was never released in the wild, but did have one litter of pups in 2006, her contribution to the survival of endangered lobos.  She is past the age of breeding and lives with a much younger male wolf. They keep each other company.

Within moments my visit was over.

I thought about Jasmine and Kawi and Apache as I drove away.  Jasmine’s family has contributed much to the growth of the small wild population, but too many of the lobos running in their native habitat are now related to the Bluestem Pack.  New blood is badly needed if they are going to continue to survive and thrive.

That’s where Kawi and Apache come in.  Winter is mating season and if all goes well they may have a litter of pups in late April—a new wolf family with the potential to run free in the pine forests and grassy meadows of New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, back where they belong.

Note:  Many thanks to Lynn Tupa at Albuquerque BioPark for providing access and answering my questions.  Also thank you to Peter Siminski, the official studbook keeper for the Mexican wolf recovery project, for filling in the blanks about F638’s history.

For more information about the current status of the wild population of Mexican gray wolves check out these two recent articles:  Cornered by Elizabeth Miller in the Santa Fe Reporter (June 15-21, 2016) and Line of Descent by Cally Carswell in High Country News (August 8, 2016).