Still Waiting

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont Flickr via Compfight cc

Any day now the new recovery plan for Mexican gray wolves will be released.  Here’s my story, published in the Albuquerque Journal, about New Mexico’s Leopold Pack and the importance of a new plan.

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

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.

Autumn and the Brown Bears of Katmai National Park

Hello, Autumn!  The days are getting noticeably shorter and I swear the leaves on the trees next to the Santa Fe River turned yellow overnight.

Photo Credit: Max Goldberg via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Max Goldberg via Compfight cc

The last few weeks I have been watching grizzlies grab sockeye and silver salmon out of the river at Brooks Falls in Alaska.  They are preparing for the coming winter, packing on the pounds. The park’s website says the best month for bear watching via the live feed is July, but I’ve seen lots of action in September.  Most evenings (I usually tune in while I’m fixing dinner) I see three to four bears at the base of the falls employing their different fishing techniques:  dashing and grabbing; sitting and waiting; snorkeling; pirating (stealing another bear’s catch).

It didn’t take me long to identify a favorite—bear 480, also known as Otis.  I swear Otis is the size of a mini-Cooper.  He patiently stares into the rushing water, employing the sit and wait strategy.  I learned more about Otis listening to one of the play-by-play segments by Ranger Dave.  Most of the other bears look the same to me (Ranger Dave talks about identifying them by their size and behavior and once in a while you see a mother with her cubs), but Otis is unmistakable.  His fur is blonder than the others and he has a floppy right ear.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem that Otis is very successful, but his size and an anecdote related by Ranger Dave tell a different story.  He and another ranger once watched Otis, over the course of seven hours, snag and snarf 44 salmon.    One salmon, according to the ranger, equals nine cheeseburgers.  I’ll let you do the math.

I just checked; Otis is out there tonight on the far side of the Brooks River, fishing.  But I know that one day soon he will lumber off and find a spot to hunker down for a big sleep.  I’ll miss him.

Note:  I tried, but was never able to get a decent screen shot of Otis to include with this post.





Healing Waters and a Meteor Shower

The last week of autumn in Santa Fe has been snowy and cold, cold, cold.

On Sunday Dave and I escaped with a brief road trip to southern New Mexico. After a morning spent shoveling snow we took off late in the afternoon.   We sped south on I25 first passing Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, home to a small population of Mexican gray wolves preparing for life in the wild, and then Bosque del Apache, another wildlife refuge where wintering sandhill cranes were likely hunkered down for the night.  By the time we crossed into Sierra County, the waxing crescent moon had sunk below the horizon.

Sierra Grande Lodge Photo By: Paula Nixon

Sierra Grande Lodge
Photo By: Paula Nixon

Just a little over three hours after pulling out of our driveway we arrived at the Sierra Grande Lodge in Truth or Consequences.  The charming old hotel  sits on a  natural geothermal spring that “flows out of a rift along the Rio Grande that appeared more than 50 million years ago” according to the Sierra County website.

Wasting no time, we sank into the 107 degree water in the lodge’s outdoor tub and turned our eyes skyward pointing out constellations to each other.  December’s Geminid meteor shower was soon to be at its peak.

An hour and a couple of shooting stars later we climbed out, sore muscles soothed—refreshed and relaxed.

By the time we returned to Santa Fe Monday night, the next snow storm had blown in, palm trees and steaming, mineral-filled water a fading memory.





Calm, no wind—the tumbleweeds were at rest, gathered around the signposts, stacked against the fence.

Quiet, until a flock of honking Canada geese—fifty or sixty—came in for a landing.

I walked on a dirt road that bisected an alfalfa field toward a small clutch of tall gray cranes.   They foraged for grain and insects, strolling away from me on gangly legs, always preserving the same distance between us.  Realizing I was as close as I was going to get, I stopped and watched them through my binoculars.  It was my first long look at a sandhill crane, red crowned with rusty splotches on its wings.

Photo Credit: Enid H. W. via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Enid H. W. via Compfight cc

I visited Valle de Oro last week, the day after the brutal attack in San Bernardino. I had a list of errands to run,  but made the wildlife refuge, five miles south of Albuquerque, my first stop.

This newly created urban refuge used to be a dairy farm—almost 600 acres, west of Interstate 25 along the Rio Grande.   A haying operation is still in progress, but plans are underway to restore native grasses and create wetlands.  The birds aren’t waiting for the rehabilitation—one morning this week on its Facebook page Valle de Oro reported a count of 2600 Canada geese, 200 sandhill cranes, and one Ross’s goose.

I stayed as long as I could, finally pulled myself away feeling a little less uneasy about going to the gas station, the post office, the mall.








Let’s Talk Turkey

 Photo Credit: bschmove via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: bschmove via Compfight cc

It was a revelation to my family many years ago when we realized we could go out for dinner on Thanksgiving Day (not an option in the small town where I grew up).  From there it wasn’t much of a leap to discover that we were free to order anything off the menu.  It turns out some of us, Mom included, weren’t crazy about turkey.

Calvin Trillin proposes spaghetti carbonara (pasta with eggs, bacon, and parmesan) as an alternative in his funny, frequently-referenced (especially in food blogs around Thanksgiving) 1981 essay*. He says, ” . . . my spaghetti carbonara campaign . . .  had been inspired partly by my belief that turkey is basically something college dormitories use to punish students for hanging around on Sunday.”

My favorite stand in for the traditional turkey dinner: enchiladas, smothered in red and green (we call it “Christmas” in New Mexico) chile, pinto beans and posole on the side with a honey-drizzled sopapilla for dessert.

But I’m not sure what I’ll have today. My family and I will sit down at a table in a seafood restaurant in California to celebrate and give thanks.  A couple of us will likely order the traditional platter of white and dark meat with dressing, cranberries, mashed potatoes and gravy, all topped off with a slice of pumpkin pie, but  I’ll be looking for something different, maybe crab cakes.

How ever you choose to commemorate the holiday, may you and your family have a blessed and happy Thanksgiving!

*To read the entire essay look for Trillin’s book The Tummy Trilogy.