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).


Green Chile and the End of Summer

Whether you are Hispanic or Indian or Anglo, the land belonged to the corn and chile before it belonged to you.
—Huntley Dent in The Feast of Santa Fe

Roasting chile. Photo by Paula Nixon

Roasting chile.
Photo by Paula Nixon

Vendors have staked their claims in parking lots along Cerrillos Road. Their pickup trucks are filled with burlap bags stuffed with freshly-picked green chile hauled up I-25 from Hatch and Socorro.  They appear in Santa Fe every year in the final weeks of summer, gas-fired roasting cages primed and ready to blister batches of chile on demand.

I bought a bushel of Hatch, medium hot, from Octavio in front of Jackalope.  We’ll eat it through the fall and winter in the traditional ways, but will also use it to add pizzazz to a pot of corn chowder or to gussy up a cheeseburger.   I’m hoping I stashed enough of the little baggies in the freezer to carry us through until the next harvest makes its way north.

A few years ago I had lunch at the San Marcos Café and Feed Store on the Turquoise Trail—a burrito topped with a simple, but divine green chile sauce.  Back in my kitchen I tinkered until I came up with the recipe below that comes close to theirs.  With a little adaptation it also works with dried red chiles.

Quick and Easy Green Chile Sauce

1 tablespoon oil (I use canola)
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups water or chicken stock
2-3 green chiles, roasted, peeled, and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan.  Add flour and brown, whisking constantly.  Add water or broth, chile, garlic, and salt.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for twenty minutes, or until sauce thickens, stirring frequently.

Delicious on enchiladas, chalupas, huevos rancheros. Buen Provecho!

Mexican Wolf News – June 2016

 Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Mark Dumont via Compfight cc

Many of us in New Mexico, Arizona, and points beyond were waiting last week to hear what a U.S. District Judge in Las Cruces was going to say about wolf introductions (releases) in New Mexico.

For a a quick recap of how we got to this point, this article about a 100 year old Mexican wolf pelt that was returned to New Mexico last year tells a bit about the history of the lobo (and its demise) in the Southwest and also about recent changes to the recovery effort that now calls for  introduction of the endangered wolves in New Mexico.  Up until now initial releases only occurred in Arizona with wolves being allowed to migrate across the state line into the Gila National Forest (Gila).

Objecting to the new rules, the NM Department of Game and Fish refused to issue permits to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) granting them permission to release wolves in the state.  The conflict escalated once it became known that in April FWS had placed  two captive-born pups with a pack living in the Gila without a permit. That’s when the state went to court to request a restraining order to not only halt future wolf releases, but to also remove the pups.

A few days before the judge issued a ruling, four conservation groups—Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance—filed a motion on behalf of the wolves.  In this Albuquerque Journal guest column, Michael Robinson with the Center for Biological Diversity makes the compelling argument that Mexican wolves need to be rescued from politics if they are to have a real chance at recovery.

Over the last few weeks, in newspapers around the state there have been numerous letters to the editor written in support of wolf releases in New Mexico.   Curious, I did a little more looking to see if there had been letters expressing other viewpoints.  I did not find any, although there is opposition.

On Friday, June 10th, the judge issued a 24-page opinion granting the state’s request to prohibit the release of wolves in the state without a permit. The ruling inhibits FWS’s ability to get more wolves out into the wild in an ongoing effort to improve genetic diversity.

The good news?  The wolf pups, recently placed with a wild foster pack in the GIla, will be allowed to stay.

The wolves, of course, are oblivious to the drama.   About now, the pups of the year are beginning to explore their surroundings. Over the summer they will start to travel with the pack, short trips at first until they are bigger and stronger.  And on a dark quiet night they will discover their voices, following the lead of the adults, joining in the chorus, lifting their heads in a first howl.


The Missing Robins

My birdbath, a large shallow dish, hangs suspended from three chains on a skinny post in the backyard.  During the summer months it’s the only thing on my bird-feeding station, no sunflower seeds or suet that might encourage the bears to come sniffing around.  This adobe-colored, plastic version replaced a much more beautiful, but less practical, blue-glazed pottery saucer that met its demise a few years ago.

The robins don’t seem to care—plastic or ceramic—they just need a place to get a drink and take a bath.

Photo Credit: joeldinda via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: joeldinda via Compfight cc

Last year a pair of the thrushes nested in a nearby piñon tree and took turns coming to the water.  The male with his bright red breast and dark head was an enthusiastic bather.  It was my favorite part of the day—to watch him  take a sip or two while standing on the rim before venturing in to take a short but splashy bath.  When he was done, he’d pause to have a good shake and then would disappear in the trees.

There’s been no sign of the two in the nest this spring.  My backyard has been filled with welders and stonemasons and their noisy tools.  An occasional robin—maybe the same one?—passes through and pauses for a quick drink, but no bathing.

I’m not the only one.  In this lovely essay, Constancy, the writer has also been missing a  familiar pair of birds.

My backyard has gone quiet now.  The work is finished.  Maybe the robins will return.


Bird Watching at Valle de Oro

Valle de Oro Photo by: Paula Nixon

Valle de Oro
Photo by: Paula Nixon

The first week in May I made a trip to Albuquerque and stopped to spend an hour at Valle de Oro, the wildlife refuge just a few minutes south of the city.

It was a perfect spring day,  cottonwood trees with shiny, new leaves, puffy white clouds hanging above the distant mountains.  The hay fields were flooded and birds were everywhere:  perched on fenceposts, singing; floating in a puddle; soaring overhead.

I walked along a dirt road and flushed a cattle egret out of a ditch running with irrigation water.  Through the barbed wire I could see Canada geese and mallards.  A flock of dark birds, foraging with long, curved beaks were new to me.  Back at the car I flipped through my field guide until I identified them—white-faced ibis.

The next day on the refuge’s Facebook page a birder posted her list of birds observed on a three-hour hike through the area.  She had spotted fifty-three different species. Wow.  I was excited to see ten or so different birds and to identify one new one—the difference between an expert and a novice.

I perused her list of warblers, swallows, and finches.  Some I knew, many I didn’t and those I looked up in my Sibley guide until I found the one that I had taken a blurry photo of, but didn’t recognize.   It was a killdeer, a member of the plover family—another new addition to my list, a coastal bird at an elevation of over 5000 feet and more than 800 miles away from the Pacific.  With its white-banded throat, big eyes, and long legs calls it “a shorebird you can see without going to the beach.”






May Flowers

Snapdragons. Photo By: Paula Nixon

Portland snapdragons
Photo By: Paula Nixon

I was in Portland a couple of weeks ago.  It’s a once a month thing.  Dave looks at a construction project and I get to walk around a nearby neighborhood with killer flowers.  In late March it was tulips and daffodils and grape hyacinths.  I took dozens of pictures.

On the April trip I was just going to enjoy the cool, quiet morning, no photos, but before I had walked a block I had my cell phone out taking shots. Bearded iris, delicate stems of lavender, and trees with blossoms I couldn’t identify.

I think my love of flowers came from Mom.  She has been planting and nurturing them as long as I can remember.   Sweet peas along the back fence on Fairview.  Geraniums in the front planter on Windsor.  Most recently, dahlias and larkspur in her backyard in Colorado.

But I’m not much of a gardener, especially since I moved to New Mexico—content to leave the landscape as is.  My ‘yard’ is mostly natural with native plants, piñon and juniper, chamisa and prickly pear.  A couple of patches of iris, a few scraggly lilacs, and a forsythia bush, planted by a former owner, survive, and in wet years thrive.

Tulips. Photo by: Paula Nixon

Photo by: Paula Nixon

I’m perfectly happy to enjoy other people’s labors: the rose garden at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, hanging baskets filled with trailing petunias on the Plaza, and my neighbor’s morning glories that have migrated to my side of the fence.

I keep track of what is blooming in the city and where, so when Mom visits I can take her on the tour.  Last month we drove around admiring the decked-out trees: peach, pear, redbud.

To my surprise I found tulips blooming in my backyard when I returned from Portland.  I planted the bulbs long ago in an old whiskey barrel.  They’ve never done much, but this spring some mysterious combination of snow and sunshine awakened them.  For a week I have enjoyed their beauty wishing Mom was here to see them.



Wolf News – Late April 2016

It’s been a rocky start to the year for Mexican gray wolves.  First, it was the decrease in the wild population as documented in the year-end count.  Then, several wolf deaths in the new year, some if not all caused by humans.  And finally, the New Mexico Game and Fish Commission continues to thwart recovery efforts in our state, attempting to restrict or prohibit the release of captive wolves into the wild.

Wolf Rally--Albuquerque, NM. April 28, 2016. Photo by: Jean Ossorio

Wolf Rally–Albuquerque, NM. April 28, 2016.
Photo by: Jean Ossorio

None of those things have changed and it will continue to be an ongoing battle to establish a genetically-diverse population of Mexican wolves, safe from extinction, living in their native habitat.  But there was some good news in the final week of April.

Here are a few of the stories:

April 23, 2016 An editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican spoke out strongly in favor of the wolf recovery program and in support of the planned introduction of a new pack and cross-fostering of pups in New Mexico

April 28, 2016  A “more wolves, less politics” rally was held outside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) building in Albuquerque urging the agency to move forward with plans to release wolves in the Gila National Forest.  The event also commemorated the day 40 years ago when the wolf was added to the endangered species list.

April 29, 2016 And most positive of all: the news that earlier in the week two captive Mexican wolf pups born just days before at the Endangered Wolf Center in Missouri had been transported to New Mexico and placed in a den with a wild pack that had new pups of their own. Known as cross-fostering, it’s one way to get some much-needed genetic diversity into the wild population.  FWS confirmed that the cross-fostering was successful with the alpha female accepting the new pups.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this rare video of a howling wolf shared by FWS.  Identified as 1455 of the Prieto Pack in New Mexico, this male yearling was given the name Tsuki (the Japanese word for moon) in the recent naming contest.

Helen and Her Hawk


“. . . her name drops into my head. Mabel. From amabilis, meaning loveable, or dear.   An old, slightly silly name, an unfashionable name.   There is something of the grandmother about it: antimacassars and afternoon teas. There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all.” —Helen Macdonald


Mabel is at the center of Macdonald’s captivating memoir about the upheaval of her life when she suddenly and unexpectedly lost her father.

In the weeks after his death Macdonald purchased Mabel, a northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), and began training her to hunt.  Even though she had years of experience raising birds of prey, it was still a big decision.  According to The Sibley Field Guide to Birds, the goshawk is the largest of the accipiters—fully grown, 21 inches tall with a wingspan of 41 inches.  The bird is also notoriously fierce and difficult to train.

Wondering what it would be like to have a Mabel in my house, I got out a tape measure.  Standing on my kitchen counter, she could look me in the eye and demand a piece of raw steak and, no doubt, she would receive it.

Tim Gallagher, editor of Living Bird and also an experienced falconer, wrote this review which illuminates the challenges Macdonald faced.  But even for those of us who will never don a falcon’s glove, Helen and Mabel’s journey is compelling.  Their story stayed with me long after I read the final page.

The paperback edition of H Is for Hawk was released in March and for the last couple of weeks Macdonald was on a book tour of the western U.S.—Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver.  I was looking forward to her Santa Fe visit.  She stepped on the little wooden stage at Collected Works last Saturday evening and charmed the standing-room only crowd with tales of her life with Mabel.

My favorite was her description of walking around Cambridge with Mabel on her gloved fist, overhearing mothers warn their children not to get too close to the “hawk lady.”




Names for Mexican Wolf Pups

When you name something, you rescue it from indifference, you commit to it the energy of your attention.  Liz Cunningham in Ocean Country

By Alejandro G. 5th Grade

By Alejandro G.
5th Grade

Stella. Auia. Suki. Bosque. Mago. Esprit. Libre. Kiko. Leopold.

Nine pups born in the spring of 2015 to Mexican wolf packs living in the wild have been given names in the fourth annual contest sponsored by Lobos of the Southwest.

Kids ranging from kindergarten through the eighth grade submitted essays, poems, drawings, and other artwork along with their name selections—104 entries in all.

Once again, I had the pleasure and honor of participating as a judge, but it’s a tough job!  We needed a lot more wolf pups to do justice to all of the creative and thoughtful names.  Only those that had been captured, collared, and assigned official studbook numbers by the field team were given names.   Thirteen additional entries, including Faith, (see drawing above and the accompanying essay below by fifth grader Alejandro G.) were selected as runners up and will be assigned if and when other pups are identified.

3-5-ForJudges2_Page_20 (2)

I’ll be featuring more of the essays and artwork on my blog in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime you can see all of the entries here.

A big thank you to each one of the students who put their time, effort, and imagination into naming the newest members of the Mexican wolf packs!