Shallow Thoughts : : nature

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

Thu, 30 Jul 2020

T is for Tame

[Tame grey jay] A couple of weeks ago the hiking group tackled Deception Peak, above the Santa Fe ski area.

It's a gorgeous hike, and one I'd wanted to do for years. Every year the group hikes up to Nambé Lake, at about 10,826' elevation, which I've always considered one of the most beautiful of our regular hikes. And every time I'm there, I look up at the rocky peaks above, and wonder what it's like up there. Now I finally know.

While on our way up the mountain, we were welcomed by a crew of grey jays begging near the trail. Grey jays are sometimes known as "camp robbers" because they're so tame and bold. They've learned that humans are a good source of food, and they're happy to swoop down and take it from you, or, if you're slow about offering the goods, to sit on a branch next to your head scolding you.

I dug some nuts out of my pack ...

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[ 11:19 Jul 30, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 26 Jun 2020

P is for Ponderosa (and Piñon too)

[ponderosa: only mostly dead] In dry years like this one, hiking the trails you see a lot of dead ponderosas. It's so sad, thinking of the loss of beautiful, tall trees like that.

Several years ago, someone who researches trees told us that even when ponderosas look dead, they may just be conserving resources. They might still bounce back in the next wet season. It's hard to believe, when you see a tree covered entirely with brown, dead needles. I confess, I didn't believe him.

But then we had a wet season, and I started seeing miracles.

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[ 09:44 Jun 26, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 06 Jun 2020

N is for Nestlings

A pair of mountain chickadees have a nest in the nest box I set up outside the bedroom window.

[Mountain chickadee] I first saw them bringing food to the nest almost a month ago, May 10, though I'm not sure if they were bringing food to a nest-sitting parent, or if they were feeding chicks that had already hatched.

Chickadees at a nest are quick-moving: they flit up to the hole and immediately enter, not lingering on the threshold like ash-throated flycatchers or Bewick's wrens, both of which have used this nestbox in past years. So it's not easy to get photos of chickadees at the nest box. So instead, here's a photo of a mountain chickadee from several years ago.

Since May 10 there's been plenty of activity, chickadees flying in and out, bringing food and carrying away fecal sacs.

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[ 11:07 Jun 06, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Mon, 25 May 2020

L is for Lovely Lenticular, and Lift, and Lost Airplanes

[Complex cloud formation]

Driving down to Española a few days ago, I was struck by this lovely cloud formation -- a lenticular cloud over the Sangre de Cristos, with something more cumulussy in front of it.

Though admittedly, lenticular clouds aren't particularly uncommon here. The Sangres, in particular, seem to form eddies that lead to all sorts of interesting lenticular cloud structures.

Lenticulars apparently are good indicators of lift: glider pilots seek them out. I guess if we had more moisture in the air, we might have seen some lenticulars over the field Sunday morning when we were flying R/C planes at Overlook.

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[ 14:57 May 25, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

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.

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

Sun, 19 Apr 2020

H is for Hummingbirds

I'd been delaying this entry, hoping the hummingbirds would show up. I only have a couple of them right now: a male broad-tailed and a male black-chinned. I hope things will perk up later: in midsummer the rufous and calliope hummingbirds arrive and things usually get a lot more active. But meanwhile, I have an H entry to write.

[Rufous hummingbird showing off his copper throat] The black-chinned hummingbirds we have here now have a beautiful purple throat. With, yes, a little bit of black there. Why womeone would look at a bird with an iridescent purple throat with a small black border and name it "black-chinned" is beyond me.

Unfortunately, this purple throat is even more sensitive to light angle than other hummingbirds' colors, and I haven't been able to get a photo that really shows it. Hummingbird feathers -- and particularly the feathers of the males' colorful throats -- have a structure that diffracts the light, creating beautiful iridescent colors that only show up when the sun is at just the right angle. If you watch a male black-chinned hummer at the feeder, its throat will look black most of the time, with occasional startling flashes of purple. You have to take a lot of photos and get lucky with timing to catch the flash. I'll get it some day. Meanwhile, here's a lovely black-chinned hummingbird photo from Arizona.

So instead, here's a photo of a male rufous hummingbirds, which will show up later in the summer. Rufous are a lot easier to photograph. Their brilliant copper-colored throats show up from a much wider range of angles, and rufous males are even more territorial than other hummers, so once one decides it owns your feeder, it will pose in the sunlight for most of the day, ready to chase any pretenders away.

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[ 20:02 Apr 19, 2020    More nature/birds | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Thu, 26 Mar 2020

C is for Cabezon (and the Census too)

... You thought C would be coronavirus or COVID-19, I bet!

Well, I won't pretend I'm not as obsessed with it as everybody else. Of course I am. But, house-bound as we all are now, let's try to think about other things at least now and then. It's healthier.

[Cabezon Peak] One of the distinctive peaks here in northern New Mexico is a butte called Cabezón, west of the Jemez near Cuba.

It's a volcanic neck: the core of an old volcano, part of the Mt Taylor volcanic field. Once a basalt volcano stops erupting, the lava sitting inside it slowly cools and solidifies. Then, over time, the outside of the volcano erodes away, leaving the hard basalt that used to be lava in the throat of the volcano. It's the same process that made Tunyo or Black Mesa, the butte between Los Alamos and Española that's been featured in so many movies, and the same process that made the spectacular Shiprock.

Dave and I have driven past Cabezón peak several times, but haven't yet actually explored it. Supposedly there's a trail and you can climb to the top (reports vary on how difficult the climb is). One of these days.

Last week, Dave was poking around in a Spanish dictionary and discovered that -ón in Spanish is a suffix that denotes something larger. So, since cabeza means head, cabezón means big head. (Looking for confirmation on that, I found this useful page on 18 Spanish Suffixes You’ll Never Want to Let Go Of.) Apparently it can also mean stubborn, ditzy, or just having big hair.

But hearing that cabezón meant big head took me back to my childhood, and another meaning of cabezón.

When I was maybe ten, my father decided to take up fishing. He bought a rod and reel, and brought me along as we headed out to the docks (I don't remember where, but we were in Los Angeles, so it was probably somewhere around Santa Monica or San Pedro).

This didn't last long as a hobby; I don't think dad was cut out for fishing. And mostly he didn't catch anything. But on one of our last fishing trips, he caught a fish. An amazing fish. It wasn't especially big, maybe fourteen inches or so. It had a big head and a triangular body, with a flat belly as the base of the triangle. It had weird fins. It was dark olive green on two sides of the triangle, with a dull yellow belly. It looked prehistoric, and sent me running off to the books when we got home to make sure we hadn't caught a coelocanth.

[Cabezon, Scorpaenichthys marmoratus] After some research at the library (this was way pre internet), my father concluded that he'd caught something called, you guessed it, a cabezón.

Searching for photos now, I'm not so sure that's right. None of the photos I've found look that much like the fish I remember. But I can't find anything more likely candidates, either (though I'm wondering about the Pacific staghorn sculpin as a possibility). I guess fish identification even now in the age of Google isn't all that much easier than it was in the seventies.

I don't think we ever ate the fish. It sat in his freezer for quite a while while he tried to identify it, and I'm not sure what happened after that.

So maybe I've seen a cabezón fish, and maybe I haven't. But it was fun to learn about the -ón suffix in Spanish, to find out the meaning of the name for that distinctive butte out near Cuba. One of these days Dave and I will go hike it. And if we make it to the top, we'll try not to get big heads about it.

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[ 19:17 Mar 26, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 22 Mar 2020

B is for Badlands

[hiking in Nambe Badlands] The idea of blogging the alphabet came from a conversation during a hike in Nambe Badlands. It's beautiful a hike that we don't do very often, about 40 minutes from Los Alamos.

"Badlands" is a term for any sort of soft, dry, eroded terrain: a place of mostly dirt and loosely consolodated sandstone, where the terrain erodes into a maze of rounded hills, steep gullies and arroyos, with occasional pillars where harder rocks emerge.

Badlands are often fairly colorful due to the mixture of different rock and soil types. Arizona's Painted Desert, with its stripes of red, white and green, is a famous example. The colors around Nambe and the rest of the Española valley is more subtle: mostly reds, tans, yellows with a few bright white veins running through.

[Nambe Badlands white rim layer; Los Alamos in the background] One thing you get in the badlands is views. In the image at left, we're looking southwest past the "barrancas" of Pojoaque. You can see the Pajarito plateau -- the line of white buildings is part of LANL, fairly near my house in White Rock -- and beyond it, the Jemez mountains, Out of the photo behind us are the Sangre de Cristos, running up toward Taos and eventually Colorado.

[Nambe Badlands white rim gleams in the distance] The badlands themselves are interesting too. They're mostly Santa Fe Group sediments, eroded primarily from the Sangres with a little contribution from the Jemez. In this area, there's a prominent white layer running through. Since it's harder than the dirt on either side of it, it tends to make a "white rim" reminiscent of the famous Canyonlands White Rim, but of course the rock itself is very different. This white rim, while harder than the normal badlands dirt, is still relatively soft, flaky; it erodes to a powder anywhere where it's exposed.

Geology books don't cover this area, but as best I can determine, from papers online, the white layer is probably an ash layer that's part of the Skull Ridge group of the Tesuque formation (those are all finer gradations of the Santa Fe Group). There are four white ash layers, probably erupted from 13-16 million years ago (estimates vary quite a bit, but middle Miocene), possibly from Nevada. So although the white ash is volcanic, it's apparently quite a bit older than most of the Jemez and comes from somewhere else entirely.

It's hard to be sure: I wish geological papers included better maps. In the one Field Geology class I had the opportunity to take, we spent most of our time making maps, and I suspect maps are a big part of what most professional geologists do; but somehow, the geology papers online seem remarkably lacking in maps. Oh, well.

[Nambe Badlands Owl Tower] We climbed up to a high lookout for lunch, during which Charlie, our best birder, was scanning with binoculars and discovered an owl sitting in the tower across from our lunch spot. Alas, due to coronavirus "social distancing" concerns, she couldn't pass her binoculars around, but I was able to see the owl, just barely, with the little monocular I keep in my pack. After some debate over its size, and scrutinizing the photos (not good enough to be worth sharing) afterward, Charlie concluded (and I agree) it was a great horned owl.

[Ken inspects a Nambe Badlands formation] Badlands exploring is fun; aside from spectacular views, there are always interesting hoodooes and other rock formations to inspect. We did a relatively easy 5.5-mile loop, but there are plenty of other trails in the badlands that I'd like to explore some day.

A few relevant papers I found:

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[ 12:02 Mar 22, 2020    More nature | permalink to this entry | comments ]