The Buck Stopped Here

HUNT0375Thinking the bears were probably all fast asleep up on the mountain, I broke out the bird food about a week ago.

HUNT0387On Sunday morning I was surprised to find  the entire seed cake missing, but it hadn’t gone far.  It was under the birdbath, chewed on by something bigger than a chipmunk. I figured a bear would have devoured the entire thing, so I hung it back up.

HUNT0511It wasn’t until Monday when the food disappeared again (this time not a bite was left) that  I checked the wildlife camera to find out who the culprit was.

HUNT0526The young buck had come and gone several times starting Saturday morning, returning Sunday night at ten and again at midnight, which was probably when he finished the sunflower chips and millet.


He made one more visit before daybreak on Monday to make sure he hadn’t missed anything and even risked getting his antlers tangled in the chains of the birdbath to have a drink.

I haven’t seen any sign of  him since.

Gaudi and Nature

“The great book, always open and which we should make an effort to read, is that of Nature” —Antoni Gaudí

Door Detail-La Sagrada Familia Photo by: Paula Nixon

Door Detail-Sagrada Familia
Photo by: Paula Nixon

Still woozy with jet lag, Dave and I stopped as we emerged from the metro tunnel to take in our first view of La Sagrada Familia.  The day was sunny and hot, busloads of tourists swarmed, and sidewalk vendors clicked bright red castanets attached to their fingers, hoping to entice us to buy a souvenir.   I gazed up and tried to find the words to describe it.

The unfinished cathedral, designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, with its numerous bell towers is prominent on the Barcelona skyline. He took over the project in 1883 when the original architect resigned.  It became his life’s work.

Dave photographed it from all sides and every angle he could get to—outside the fence.  Entry tickets were sold out for the day.  It was a good thing.  I wasn’t ready to fully appreciate Gaudí’s masterpiece.

Another metro trip and we emerged in the much calmer Gracia neighborhood and lined up for the tour of Casa Mila, a Gaudí design originally built as a private residence/apartment house.  We started on the roof, took pictures of each other standing in tile-wrapped arches, and admired the fanciful chimney and vent covers.

Chimneys at Casa Mila. Photo by Paula Nixon

Chimneys at Casa Mila.
Photo by Paula Nixon

By the time we descended into the attic, framed with catenary arches, I was enchanted.  Originally used to hang the laundry, the space is now filled with exhibits outlining Gaudí’s design methods and highlighting his influences, many directly from nature.  I studied the skeleton of a snake housed in a glass case.  It looked strikingly similar to the arches we were standing under.

A few days later, rested, with tickets in hand we returned to La Sagrada Familia.  Two hours, three hours, I lost track of  time trying to take in the intricacies of Gaudí’s design—doors covered with leaves populated with beetles and butterflies; columns designed to mimic the structure of trees; gargoyles, in the form of lizards and frogs, represented creatures displaced by the construction of the massive cathedral.

Back  home I continued to think about Gaudí and his devotion to nature.  In Gijs Van Hensbergen’s 2001 biography of the architect he addresses the extremes that Gaudí went to.  “When preparing the decoration of the façade, what [he] wanted was an exact copy of nature, so he roamed the parish for years looking for the right models.”

This search for the perfect models went beyond humans and extended to animal depictions as well:

“Chickens and turkeys were chloroformed, greased and quickly cast in plaster before coming round again. [A] donkey was trussed up and lifted in a harness, where it could be more easily modelled. A dead owl found one morning was quickly used by Gaudí as a perfect emblem for Night.”

The architect’s life was cut short when he was killed by a trolley car in 1926, leaving La Sagrada Familia unfinished.  But the work continues.  By the time we turned in our audio tour headsets late in the afternoon the tile setters and stone masons had returned from lunch to pick up where they had left off–bringing to life the vision of Antoni Gaudí.









Crossing the Ocean

by Cale Young Rice
A dark sail,
Like a wild-goose wing,
Where the sunset was.
The moon soon will silver its sinewy flight.
Thro the night watches,
And the far flight
Of those immortal migrants,
The ever-returning stars.

Yesterday Dave and I returned from a trip to Spain.  As our flight approached the East Coast, I tracked our path on a satellite map of the world.  Night was descending on Europe, pursuing us across the Atlantic.  By the time we reached New Mexico, it had caught up with us.

On our drive home from the airport we craned our necks to watch the first quarter moon, hanging low in the western sky, disappear.   In the east Orion signaled the changing seasons, welcomed us home.

Wolves and Public Opinion

There are only 83 Mexican gray wolves left in the wild. I think that makes them worth fighting for.  I am 13 years old, and I want to help save the lobos of the Southwest. 
Faith Kindred, Parker City, Indiana
Letter to the Editor in the Rio Grande Sun–Española, NM

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Letters matter.  I’ve written several–to the editors of the Santa Fe and Albuquerque daily newspapers, to the New Mexico Game and Fish Department, and more than one to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service(USFWS)–all in support of the Mexican gray wolf.  Before this year ends there is one more opportunity to register an opinion with the USFWS about ongoing efforts to reestablish the lobo in the wild.

USFWS has been working for more than a year on changes to the rule that governs the Mexican wolf reintroduction effort, conducting public hearings and soliciting comments.  In late November they issued this press release along with the final Environmental Impact Study and draft Record of Decision (ROD).

The ROD outlines the four alternatives under consideration and explains the rationale for the one USFWS has selected to pursue.  This article from the Arizona Daily Star (reprinted on the Lobos of the Southwest website) from November 26th explains and summarizes the decision and also includes reactions from environmentalists and ranching organizations.  USFWS will finalize the ROD in January and is accepting public comments through December 27th.

Lobos of the Southwest provides this guide to submitting comments along with a link to the USFWS website.  For a better understanding of the opposing viewpoint I found it helpful to read about Arizona Cattlemen’s Association’s  Fight & Fix Campaign on their website.

And now it’s time I started working on that letter.

Wolf News: the good, the bad, and the worrisome

One way to grasp the main perspectives of environment and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form, a single manifestation of the miracle of existence; if one has truly understood a crane–or a leaf or a cloud or a frog–one has understood everything.
–Peter Matthiessen The Birds of Heaven

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont viamot Compfight cc

One evening last week the Mexican Wolf Blue Range Reintroduction Project Monthly Update landed in my email inbox.  Part newsletter, part report card,  it often reads like a dry government report, but study it carefully and it comes alive, providing a glimpse into the life of a wolf.

When it arrived  I  stopped what I was doing and scrolled to the section called Mortalities.  In good months there are none, but that wasn’t the case in November.  An alpha male was “located dead in Arizona”.  No details provided, but the most likely cause of death for  a wild wolf  is being shot (illegally) or hit by a vehicle.

Also included are  individual summaries or report cards, for each pack.  They are based on weekly telemetry flights that pinpoint the locations of the radio-collared wolves and field observations (gathered both in person on the ground and  from motion-sensitive trail cameras).

Nineteen packs (primarily made up of multi-generational families) are currently living in the reintroduction area which includes the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests  and the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.  Below is a brief look at two of the packs.

The Bluestem Pack This family has long been established in the central part of the Apache-Sitgreaves.  The current alpha pair has been together for a few years and has raised several litters of pups.  The pack is large right now–thirteen–with juveniles and pups  (born in 2013 and 2014, respectively) running with the parents.  The juveniles may soon start to disperse to try to find mates and establish new territories.

Rarely has this family of wolves gotten into trouble, but in November they killed a cow.  The sequence of events after the depredation probably went something like this.  A rancher found one of his cows dead and reported it to the field team overseeing the reintroduction program.  They investigated the carcass, determined that a wolf had made the kill, and probably had a pretty good idea which pack was responsible, but used the telemetry reports for confirmation.  Often they will identify a specific wolf or wolves, but in this case they did not, reporting only that it was “adults and juveniles in the Bluestem Pack”.

The Hawks Nest Pack This is a new family of wolves related to the Bluestem Pack–the alpha female was part of their 2012 litter.  They have established a territory further north in the Apache-Sitgreaves and are raising their first litter, the grandpups of the Bluestem Pack’s  alpha pair. The only news for this pack in November was that the field team confirmed two more pups in addition  to the one that was captured and collared a few months ago.

It will be a week or two into the new year before the next update is issued.  In the meantime the only way to keep track of the Bluestem and Hawks Nest wolves will be via the sporadically published telemetry reports.

Meet the Mexican Gray Wolf – A Short Video

My very first post in July of 2013 was about Mexican gray wolves.  I have continued to write about them every few weeks, telling the stories of one family of wolves, the Bluestem Pack, that runs, hunts and raises their pups in the  White Mountains of Arizona.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Bose

Photo Credit: Rebecca Bose

Although the Bluestem Pack continues to thrive after living in the wild for over twelve years, the survival of the rare Mexican wolf (a cousin to the gray wolves of Yellowstone) is still in doubt. At the last official count there were only 83 of them living in a portion of their historical habitat in New Mexico and Arizona.

I recently found this video called Meet the Mexican Gray Wolf on Facebook.  Prepared by Sawtooth Legacy Films, it is a good concise introduction to the Mexican wolf. In less than three minutes it tells more about the endangered mammals in pictures and videos than I could in a thousand words.

In late November The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issued a draft Environmental Impact Study (EIS) proposing changes to the Mexican wolf recovery effort.  At more than 500 pages it’s not a quick read–more about that in an upcoming post.

In the meantime Lobos of the Southwest keeps their website and Facebook page updated daily with links to the USFWS documents, information on where and how to comment, and the most recent articles and letters to the editor concerning Mexican wolf recovery.

The Bear Hunt

Ken described in detail the elevated stand he was going to build in the woods. I tried to ignore him, but my tiny office at the front of the laboratory was a natural gathering place for the guys to drink coffee and tell stories. It was my first job out of college, typing and answering the phone for an oil service company on the outskirts of Denver.

On his break from polishing thin sections of rocks, Ken told us how he would use the stand to lie in wait for the bear, bow at his side, his holstered handgun to be used only if necessary. To lure the bear he planned to use . . . doughnuts. The chemist and geologist snickered, egging him on.

None of it squared with the hunting I had grown up with in Kansas where for a few days each November orange-capped pheasant hunters filled the local coffee shops. The only other hunter I knew, a neighbor who traveled further afield, cooked up big pots of chili, which I reluctantly tried, made with antelope or was it moose? Baiting and killing bears was new to me.

 Photo Credit: peupleloup via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: peupleloup via Compfight cc

Maybe I am misremembering the doughnuts or maybe Ken made it up to impress the new girl. Either way, I was rooting for the bear.

Thirty-some years later I don’t know anyone who hunts bears, but have come to an uneasy acceptance of the fact that it’s part of life in the West. What I didn’t know until I read this article in the New York Times is that New Jersey also has a bear hunt. The season opens today, December 8th, and lasts for six days. It’s not universally popular and was only reinstated a few years ago after a thirty year hiatus to allow the dwindling bear population to recover.

When the annual hunting season began in 2010 it was estimated that population had grown to approximately 3400 bears living north of Interstate 80, which cuts across New Jersey (although bears have now been documented in all 21 counties, the bulk of the population lives in the northern part of the state). With a human population of 1200 per square mile (compared to 17 per square mile in New Mexico), encounters between the two have become more frequent with bears routinely wandering through suburban neighborhoods, grazing in dumpsters, and causing schools to go into lock down mode. But up until September when a black bear killed a college student hiking with friends in Passaic County in a rare predatory attack, there had never been a fatality in New Jersey.

The goal of the week-long December hunt is simple:  reduce the bear population. Hunters are encouraged in the Hunting and Trapping Digest to shoot the first bear they see provided they are able to get a clean, safe shot. Males, females, cubs, mothers with a cubs–all bears are fair game, but only one bear per hunter. About 1600 bears have been killed in the last four years and the overall population reduced to approximately 2500.

It sounds easy enough until you consider the logistics of finding, killing, and dragging a dead 300-pound bear out of the woods.  In the first year of the New Jersey hunt 592 bears were killed, but since then the numbers have continued to dwindle down to 251 bears in 2013.    Even so, if I were a bear in New Jersey I’d keep a low profile this week.

As for Ken?  There never really was any doubt.  He got his bear rug, a freezer full of sausage and one big story.


Rain and the Moon before Yule

The thirsty earth soaks up the rain,
And drinks, and gapes for drink again.
The plants suck in the earth, and are
With constant drinking fresh and fair.
–Abraham Cowley

Santa Fe Rain Photo Credit: P. Nixon

Santa Fe Rain
Photo Credit: P. Nixon

Rain fell all day yesterday, a rarity in New Mexico. Overnight the sky cleared and when I woke  an almost-full moon was hanging low in the west in the pink light of morning.

The day was bright, fresh-scrubbed, chilly. A blanket of clouds nestled in front of the Jemez Mountains, but never moved any closer. To the north the Sangre de Cristos were dusted with a new layer of snow.

On one of the shortest days of the year,  this evening’s full long night moon  rose in the east at sunset and will  keep us company until it dips below the horizon at sunrise.


The Birds of Winter

It’s birdwatching season.

Northern Cardinal Photo Credit: A. Nixon

Northern Cardinal
Photo Credit: A. Nixon

Last week I stocked up on seed cylinders and suet cakes and bought a new de-icer for the bird bath.

The feeders and bath are just outside the back door in clear view of my desk. If you visit don’t be surprised to find that my attention is not turned toward the computer screen in front of me, but is instead focused on the view through my binoculars out into the pinyon trees.

Anne Schmauss’s column in this morning’s Santa Fe New Mexican talks about the mixed flocks of winter, birds hanging together to find food and to stay safe from predators. Chickadees, creepers, kinglets, woodpeckers, nuthatches, warblers.

What I am unlikely to see here in Santa Fe is one of the red beauties captured by my cousin Angela in her Tulsa backyard. When I asked the experts at my local bird store, Wild Birds Unlimited,  they said it had been years since they had heard of any being spotted in the area. Too high? Too dry? Too cold? They weren’t sure, but we just don’t have inviting habitat for the striking northern cardinal that All About Birds says is ” . . . perhaps responsible for getting more people to open up a field guide than any other bird”.

Happy bird watching! I’d love to hear about and see who is passing through your backyard this winter.

Mapping the Urban Forest


I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.
–Dr. Suess


Howard Street Tree Photo by:  P. Nixon

Howard Street Tree
Photo by: P. Nixon

This tree is visible from a window in the San Francisco office where  Dave and I spend  a few days each month. For years I have looked around it, walked past it, taken pictures of the green neon shamrocks above it, but  never once did I give it a second glance.

It took this sign posted on a barricade protecting a newly planted tree on the other side of town to make me take a closer look at my neighborhood.

Photo Credit:  P. Nixon

Photo Credit: P. Nixon

Friends of the Urban Forest is affiliated with a mapping project that began five years ago–its goal to identify and catalog all of  San Francisco’s trees with the help of city government, nonprofits, and citizens.  The result, the  urban forest map, quantifies CO2 reduction, water and energy conserved, and pollutants reduced because of the trees.

I went to the online map certain that my newly discovered tree on Howard Street between First and Second would be on it and it was.  Tree number 150163.  That was it.  No species identification, no trunk diameter to calculate it’s ecological impact.  Just the number, waiting for someone to finish its profile.

Suddenly, it became my tree.

I walked over to get a closer look.  The lone tree stands in front of the Southside Spirit House, a small bar in a one-story building huddled together with four or five other old structures in a neighborhood filled with cranes busily erecting office buildings and condominium towers.

I took pictures and studied the trunk and leaves.  Sitting down at my computer I used the urban tree identification guide, step-by-step, but couldn’t figure it out.

Dave went with me to take another look.   We gathered leaves and seed pods.

Back at the computer, this time armed with samples, I tried again.  Were the leaves compound or simple?  I followed both paths, but still couldn’t identify the tree.   Was it a floss silk or a cape chestnut or a Chinese fringe?  Maybe it was a ficus, my first guess.  I couldn’t be sure so for now it will have to wait.

On my next visit I’ll go into the spirit house, order a beer and ask the bartender if she knows when the tree blooms and what color.  For now I am calling it the truffala tree in honor of the Lorax.