J is for Juniper (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sun, 17 May 2020

J is for Juniper

The robins have all gone now. I haven't seen one in several weeks. Instead, we have ash-throated flycatchers trilling their songs as they float among the junipers, plus a few hummingbirds (broad-tailed and black-chinned), mountain chickadees nesting in the birdhouse outside the bedroom, singing Bewick's wrens and spotted towhees that I hardly ever see, and a few bright-colored western tanagers stopping by for some suet and sweet stuff (oranges and jam) on their way farther north. I wonder where they eventually nest. Most range maps ( 1, 2, 3) show them breeding here, but nobody on the birding lists seems to see them for more than a few weeks in spring.

And, as I type this, a chipmunk! We so rarely have chipmunks that they're very welcome guests. This one's been hanging around for three days. I wish it would find a mate and stay here all summer. They're a lot more common out by the canyon edge.

But back to those robins. We had a banner winter for robins this year. Some years, we only have a few; other years, there are hundreds whinnying to each other in our piñon-juniper woodland yard. Everywhere you go, you hear them calling from all sides; and if something disturbs them, like a passing Cooper's hawk, many hundreds of birds all fly up at once. When that happens, it's almost impossible to identify the birds you're seeing, but this past winter, I'd see seven or so robins fly up from our pond at the same time that hundreds of similarly-sized birds flew up from the rest of the yard, so an ID of robin seems most likely.

[juniper berries] I think what draws them is juniper berries. This spring, in particular, a few of the female junipers had a bumper crop, especially the one right outside my office window. It attracted some cedar waxwings as well as robins, the first time I've seen waxwings here.

The juniper species that grow here in Northern New Mexico, unlike most trees, are dioicous, meaning each individual plant is either male or female (most plants are monoicous, both male and female at once). I posted photos of the difference in appearance in an earlier article on Juniper allergy season. Junipers are fierce allergens, but fortunately the juniper pollen season has died down now.

Juniper berries are actually cones, like pine cones; but they're very berry-like, with fleshy blue fruit around a central seed. They're not poisonous, and taste mildly pleasant, but not so much that you'd want to gather a big sack and go eat through it. Juniper berries are the flavor added to gin (and gin's name comes from the same root as juniper). I've heard of using juniper berries as a flavoring for meat dishes, but I never think to try that when they're in season. (In May, as I write this, several of the junipers in the yard still have plenty of berries -- I took the berry photo this afternoon -- but they're past their prime, as witnessed by the lack of robins and other juniper berry eaters.)

Only female junipers have berries, so as you walk through a juniper woodland, only some of the trees will have berries. In fact, not all of the females seem to have berries in any given year, which may explain

[old alligator juniper on Burnt Mesa] Most of the junipers growing around here are one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) and maybe some Rocky Mountain Juniper (J. scopulorum), but we have a few of a much rarer species called Alligator juniper (J. deppeana), for the scale pattern of its bark.

Apparently alligator juniper used to be common here on the Pajarito plateau, but they're dying out, possibly because of climate change. There are a few large, old alligator junipers scattered around, mostly on trails in Bandelier, like this one, off the Burnt Mesa trail.

I'm not sure what caused the rings around this alligator juniper's trunk, though I assume they're human caused. Whatever it was, I expect it happened long before anyone I know lived here. I'm glad the tree managed to survive and thrive.

Now the tanagers have all flown off, and the chipmunk has finished eating birdseed and, with cheek pouches bulging, is climbing the brick wall outside my office window. It's another beautiful New Mexico evening in the piñon juniper woodland.

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[ 18:41 May 17, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]