Willow Magic

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Pussy Willows

 

The Willow Family (Salicaceae)

 

Every morning on my way to the Bosque I keep a sharp eye out for subtle changes in the color of the Coyote Willows – Salix exigua – that line the ditches and the river. In a month or so these slender shoots and bushes will turn burnt orange or a deep rose red (depending on the soil). Here in Abiquiu they signal that spring is on the way. These flexible fronds are used by so many Indigenous peoples to make baskets, trays, etc – some even use them as thread. What I love best is their shape-shifting color especially when framed against an azure sky.

 

Because I have two home places I also think of another willow – Salix discolor – commonly called the native Pussy Willow. By mid February I am impatiently waiting for the first fuzzy paws to appear on the bushy branches of the pussy willows on my property. In Maine, winters are long and the advent of the pussy willow signals the coming shift of seasons long before it becomes apparent in more obvious ways, except for the warming sun. Snowfall is often heaviest during this month, and I have been known to tramp through heavy snow on snowshoes to reach some of my favorite clumps. I clip a few twigs from each bunch to put in the house.

 

All willows are flowering plants that have abundant watery bark sap which is heavily charged with salicylic acid – the precursor of aspirin – soft, usually pliant, tough wood, slender branches, and large, fibrous roots with an astonishing ability to anchor themselves securely to the ground even when water is rushing by. The roots are remarkable for their toughness, size, and willows readily sprout from the aerial parts of the plant.

 

Few folks know that willows (true for other members of this family too – cottonwoods, aspen, poplar) absorb poisons like lead and other toxins cleansing the earth and water of pollutants wherever they happen to grow. In my opinion, we should all take a few moments to give thanks for having such ‘giving trees’. In Maine, some of my poplars are diseased, and I have often wondered if this is a result of their penchant for removing toxins from the ground and also contributes to these trees’ and plants having a short life – span.

 

Willows are among the earliest woody plants to leaf out in spring and the last to drop their leaves in autumn. Leaf out may occur as early as February depending on the climate and is stimulated by air temperature. If daytime highs reach 55 °F for a few consecutive days, most willows will attempt to put out leaves and flowers. Leaf drop in autumn occurs when day length shortens to approximately ten and a half hours. This dropping of leaves varies by latitude occurring as early as the first week of October for boreal species and as late as the third week of December for willows growing in far southern areas. This January while visiting the Bosque Del Apache to be with the Sandhill cranes for the second time this year I discovered clumps of willows that had not dropped their leaves at all.

 

The buds form along the branch and are usually covered by a single scale that acts like a cap. This is especially obvious on pussy willow branches. Most leaves of willows are slender and feathery – quite delicate and graceful. The colors of the leaves vary depending upon the type.

 

The flowers possess both and female catkins on separate clumps and often they appear before the leaves. The pussy willow paw is a catkin in the making.

 

Willows are often planted on the borders of streams if they aren’t already growing there naturally, so their interlacing roots may protect the bank against flooding water. Frequently, like the coyote willow, the roots are much larger than the stem that grows from them. Just try to uproot one and you will be in for a surprise!

 

Willows are important in other ways. For some native pollinators, willows offer the first, important source of pollen and nectar (this is definitely true for pussy willows). Look closely at the male catkins that follow the buds and you will see a roil of small wasps, ants and bees and varieties of flies all crawling, burrowing around while foraging the flowers for nectar and pollen.

 

Some list willows as second only to oaks in value as host trees for butterflies and moths like the mourning cloak, sphinx and viceroy.

 

Leafrollers, sawflies, borers, midges and gall gnats produce an ornamental aberration called a pine-cone gall, easily visible on twig tips when willows shed their leaves. All of these represent long-evolved plant-insect associations, not to be confused with infestations more often caused by introduced insects.

 

Willows comprise North America’s largest genus of tree-like plants. There are approximately one hundred species plus a number of hybrids. Most willows are short-lived.

 

Willows have a wide natural distribution from the tropics to the arctic zones and are extensively cultivated around the world.

 

In Maine ‘an old field speckled with budding pussy willows is like a constellation come to earth, descended from the heavens and hovering just above the ground’

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In Abiquiu the advent of spring bursts with the glorious burnished golden sheen of the coyote willow!

Nature’s Gold – The Aspens

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Nature’s Gold – The Aspen

 

Every morning I set off to the river and to my refuge, the Bosque, walking under dying cottonwoods whose bark is peeling away from dead tree limbs. Just in the past summer a few of these magnificent matriarchs have crashed to earth providing nutrients that will one day support some other kind of ‘tree of life’.

 

My dreams tell me that new as yet unknown species will begin life here, offering me comfort because as a dreamer I have learned that my dreaming body knows what I do not, no doubt because she is attached to the body of this precious earth.

 

When I pass by the coyote willows I think about how cottonwoods, aspens, and poplars are part of the Willow family. Recent genetic testing reveals that this diverse group also includes passiflora (my beloved passionflowers) and wild violets too! – I was astonished by this last piece of information until I realized that all require adequate water to thrive.

 

Coming from the Northeast where quaking aspen can be found throughout the state of Maine I was still surprised to learn that these trees stretch across the entire continent. Aspens hold the title of being the most widespread tree in North America. They can be found from the Midwest, across Canada, north into Alaska and across the West through to Arizona and into New Mexico.

 

One aspen tree is actually only a small part of a larger organism. A stand or group of aspen trees is considered a singular organism with its central life force hidden underground in an extensive root system that I think is analogous to the human brain (I am not alone in this speculation). Before a solitary aspen trunk appears above the surface, the root system may lie dormant for many years until conditions are just right. In a single stand, each tree is a genetic replicate of the other, hence the name – a “clone” of aspens used to describe a stand.

 

Older than the massive Sequoias or the Bristlecone Pines, when the Pando clone was discovered, scientists named it with a Latin word that means “I spread.” Pando is an aspen clone that originated from a single seed and increases by sending up new shoots from its underground expanding and complex root system.

Pando is believed to be the largest, most dense organism ever found on earth. It weighs nearly 13 million pounds (6,600 tons). The clone spreads over 106 acres, consisting of over 40,000 individual trees. The exact age of the clone and its root system is difficult to calculate, but it is estimated to have started at the end of the last ice age. It was first recognized by researchers in the 1970s and more recently proven by geneticists. Its massive size, weight, and prehistoric age have caused worldwide fame.

Located in central Utah (Fishlake National Forest), Pando is dressed in verdant green throughout the summer. Her fluttering leaves bring relief from summer’s intense basin heat. In autumn the oranges and yellows and sometimes crimson leaves rival the most spectacular New Mexican sunset.

However, there is deep cause for concern because Pando is showing signs of decline. The organism is not regenerating, invasive insects are present, as are diseases. Unfortunately throughout the west, diebacks of other aspen stands are becoming more common. No one mentions climate change or loss of habitat as an issue.

The prevailing logic is that even if the trees of any stand are wiped out, it is still difficult to extinguish an aspen’s root system permanently due to the rapid rate in which it reproduces, thus there is hope.

It’s hard to decide what is most memorable about aspen: the vibrant gold leaves in fall, the startling pearl white stands, or the magical sound of the “quaking” leaves.

Among swaths of dark green conifers, the deciduous aspen stands thrive in a variety of environments. Aspens quickly colonize recently burned or bare areas (with birches in areas that support the latter like they do in Maine). They prefer moist soil but can survive near springs in desert conditions. Like the rest of the willow family these trees must have access to water. Because the Southwest is under siege from increasing drought as a result of climate change, I wonder if lack of adequate water is the reason why these trees are not regenerating.

 

One of the most fascinating aspects of aspens is that they grow all winter, a fact I didn’t know, but should have suspected because the trees around my house have a greenish cast. Beneath the thin, white outer bark layer is a thin green photosynthetic layer that allows the tree to create sugars and grow when other deciduous trees are dormant. This characteristic is unique among deciduous trees. During hard winters, the green, sugary layer provides necessary nutrients for deer and elk. Throughout the year, young aspens provide food for a variety of animals including moose, black bears, beaver, porcupine, grouse and rodents.

 

Perhaps most impressively, quaking aspen along with sister species (distributed in Europe and Asia) occupy the broadest range of any tree species in the world. Why is that so? Possibly one reason might be because the bark carries out photosynthesis all year long allowing the stands to expand their geographic range.

 

Aspen drops its leaves in winter but, of course, remains alive and thus requires metabolic energy. The soft tan to greenish hues often visible in aspen bark mark an important photosynthetic capability provided by the differing levels of chloroplasts. Stem photosynthesis contributes significantly to aspen’s over-wintering survival capabilities. The disadvantages of this type of bark include low fire resistance, ease with which people carve their initials in these trees creating space for disease to enter, and that the trees are an excellent food source for elk, deer etc. Numerous insects and fungi that attack the bark are also considered potential problems.

Aspen form individual patches comprised of numerous stems, each with its own trunk, branches, leaves and a shared root system. All of these structures originally arose from a single aspen seed that germinated in the distant past; The patches remain connected via root systems, and if the root system between patches is severed, the patches form physiologically separate clumps but are generally still considered part of the same clone because they are composed of genetically identical parts. The boundaries of different clones stand out most clearly in the early spring when flowering and leafing-out occur (in that order). Aspen have male and female catkins, unlike the majority of tree species, which support both male and female reproductive parts on each individual.

 

During early spring in an aspen clone the reproductive male catkins produce pollen while the female produces eggs. Huge numbers of viable, tiny seeds mature and float off from the female on a tangle of cotton-like seed hairs that catch air currents, sometimes traveling great distances. Immediately after shedding their pollen and seeds, the clones then produce leaves that usually appear at the same time in all stems of a given clone revealing the boundaries between clones most visibly. In the fall the striking leaf colors do not mark clonial boundaries as reliably because the chemical processes that produce the colors tend to be very sensitive to local micro-climate conditions. A single clone may also exhibit multiple colors simultaneously. In aspen, all the pigments that give rise to these glorious colors can be found in the leaf from spring all the way through fall when the aspen begin to first break down the green chlorophyll molecules that are responsible for spring and summer color. Other pigment molecules then become more and more visible.

 

For many years, most western forest ecologists thought aspen reproduction from seeds was rare. However, it turns out that successful establishment of aspen via seeds occurs more frequently than previously believed. The ability of aspen to produce whole stands of “trees” vegetatively provides yet another key element in explaining the species’ ability to occupy huge geographic ranges.

There are several benefits of asexual expansion. The clones share resources. One part of a clone might be near an important water source and share its water with drier parts of the clone while those in a drier area may have greater access to the vital soil nutrient, phosphorous, and share that resource with those that are low in this nutrient.

 

Quaking aspen also tends to be a disturbed habitat species, meaning it often lives where avalanches, mudslides and fires occur frequently. So both the regenerative capability and the clonal reproductive capability allow aspen to initially establish or to re-establish into an area after disturbances like mud slides occur. Similar patterns often follow forest fires. Rarely will a fire burn hot enough to kill the entire root system from which these stems arise, so an individual clone may occupy a given space and be completely wiped out on the surface but re-grow from the root system many times.

 

If an aspen stand does not experience periodic disturbances such as natural fire or avalanche, more shade-tolerant conifers tend to establish and shade out the high-light-requiring aspen stems. If the disturbances are too frequent, then the clone cannot spread.

Clone structure varies with geography but also varies due to the strong influences of rainfall and relative humidity. The largest clones generally occur in semi-arid environments such as the mountains of the western and southwestern US. Clones tend to be smaller in areas where the climate supports seed germination.

The last particular attribute of quaking aspen important in contributing to its ability to occupy huge ranges derives from the comparatively high level of genetic variability among clones. These interclonal levels of variability provide raw material for evolutionary change across generational times. The large number of seeds produced from genetically variable sources generates an enormous array of potentially successful genotypes for establishment in newly opened areas and probably takes place at higher rates.

One of the most enchanting aspects of aspen is their ability to quake and tremble in the slightest breeze. Why do quaking aspen leaves quake and tremble? This is due to the physical structure of the leaf stem which traces a flat, oblong, elliptical pattern when viewed in cross section so it has strength in one dimension and minimal strength in the second dimension, so even a gentle wind causes produces movement and a hypnotic sound. Plant physiologists have pointed out several reasons for the trembling leaf behavior. They include minimizing the risk of too much sunlight as well as reducing the risk of overheating in intense, high elevation. Trembling also improves photosynthetic rates by keeping a fresh supply of carbon dioxide near the leaf surface where the plant takes up that compound. Insect damage may also be reduced by fluttering leaves.

This tree species seems to almost have it all: powerful, opportunistic, sexual reproduction, long-distance seed dispersal, effective vegetative spread, clonal reproduction, regeneration from roots, high levels of genetic variability, living bark and a potentially enormous life span.

And in my mind, Pando certainly represents one of the most remarkable “families” among all living organisms.

 

Postscript:

The language used to describe these remarkable organisms that cooperate by share root systems, information, and resources seems woefully inadequate. To call a phenomenal organism like Aspen a “clone”, although grammatically correct, is to reduce it to its lowest denominator. These trees live harmoniously within a family that supports the continuation of life, not just for one tree but for all its relatives. Most important this species has been self- sustaining for millennium.

 

 

Bear as Healer – “He Who Frightens Away Illness”

THE NAVAJO MOUNTAIN WAY CHANT

 

 

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Navajo ceremonial practices emphasize healing human illness, emotional, mental, and physical, while restoring balance and harmony between humans and the rest of Nature. The most sacred of these ceremonies occur during the winter months. The best known of these is probably the Night Chant that lasts nine days and nine nights and is held sometime around the winter solstice – the timing of these ceremonies is fluid. Like the Night Chant the Mountain Way Chant probably stretches back into prehistoric times from 60,000 – 4000 B.C.E.

 

This second and equally sacred although less well known ceremony is also a nine-day/nine night chant that marks a transition between the seasons of winter and spring. The Mountain Way Chant takes place in late winter before thunderstorms strike and the spring winds arrive (around the spring equinox). One of its purposes is to call up the rains. It is also a ceremony led by a medicine man that addresses in particular, the mental uneasiness and nervousness associated with transitions, helping to bring individuals and their extended families back into balance and harmony.

 

Navajo cures target body, mind, and spirit, calling on everyone – the individual, kin, the medicine man, and the Spirits of Nature to help restore harmony. Before a medicine man (they are seldom women), is called, a hand trembler (often a woman), will diagnose the source of illness. Through prayer, concentration, and sprinkling of sacred pollen, her hand will tremble and pinpoint the cause, which then determines the proper ceremonial cure. Then the “singer” (medicine man) who knows the proper ceremony is called and preparations are set in motion.

 

There are nearly a hundred Navajo chants and each is nuanced and complex. All reflect different aspects of the Navajo Creation myth. Each includes purification rites, chants, songs, dancing, prayer sticks, and sand paintings. In order for a ceremony to be effective, everything must be done exactly as prescribed in the Navajo Creation Story. Besides these nine day ceremonies there are others whose ceremonies require four days, and many simpler ones requiring only a single day, each with its own dry-painting (sand painting).

 

In this essay I will not attempt to discuss the entire Mountain Way Chant – its much too complex – but will focus on the roles that the bear gods play in the sand paintings, mention briefly the role of plants, trees, and discuss bear songs that are pivotal to this ritual.

 

To the Navajo, bear gods are sacred and central to the healing of disease and disharmony all year long but especially in the early spring, (curiously, the Mountain Way Chant occurs just before the bear’s actual emergence from the den). The Navajos also understand that bears are close relatives and call them “The Mountain People”.

 

The Dine’ who now number over 200,000 in population, are the largest, and one of the most culturally intact Indian tribes in North America. Reigning over a reservation of some 25,000 square miles in size, the Navajos, like many other tribal peoples have long respected and honored bears as being fellow “beings” with whom they share the land. For the Navajo the bear is the Guardian of the West.

 

Historically there were two main species of bear that resided in Navajo territory: the grizzly bear (Ursus arctos) and the black bear (Ursus americanus). While the grizzly bear has been hunted to extinction in the Southwest, the Black bear still inhabits mountainous areas including those within the Navajo Reservation. Bears are believed to be guides and guardians embodying great strength and self-knowledge.

 

The Navajo also believe that bears have tremendous healing powers (western scientific studies are just beginning to tap the mysteries behind a bear’s ability to heal itself, recycle body waste, and prevent bone and muscle loss during hibernation).

 

To the Dine’ the bear also embodies the powers of introspection, soul searching, insight. Additionally the powers of the bear also include death and rebirth. The bear apparently dies in the fall (because it hibernates) and is reborn in the spring; and the female emerges (every two years, hopefully) with new cubs or last year’s yearlings in tow. For all the above reasons bears have played a major role in Navajo tribal legends and ceremonialism. It is hardly surprising that they are central figures in the Mountain Way Chant.

 

On the fifth night of the Mountain Way Chant a dry painting of the bear in his den is created under the direction of the medicine man. Using powdered clays of various colors, the purpose of the ceremonial painting drawn in the center of the Hogan, is to summon up the powers of the bear as healer to frighten the patient, and thus banish illness and disharmony. The name of the first painting is called “Frighten Him On It.”

 

The bear as a powerful healer “scares” illness/disharmony away. The bear also appears in the same capacity (in an identical sand painting) during the fifth night during the Night Chant.

 

The sketch pictured as a whole represents the den of a hibernating bear. Colored earth picture bear-tracks leading in; bear-tracks and sundogs* are represented at the four quarters, and the bear himself, streaked with sunlight, is the center image. The twigs at the entrance of the bear den represent the trees, behind or under which bears often dig their dens in the sides of mountains. Everything in the sand painting is supposed to remind the individual of bears. The person enters the painting and sits down on the animal. The room is bathed in deep silence. Suddenly, a man, painted and clothed as a bear (historically a grizzly), rushes in, uttering terrifying snarls and huffs. All the assembled participants join in to frighten the illness away.

 

There is a second sand painting used on the sixth night of the Mountain Way Chant that is supposed to be a representation of the bears’ home in the Carrizo Mountains (not pictured). In the center of this painting is a bowl of water covered with black powder. The edge of the bowl is adorned with sunbeams, and external to it are the four sunbeam rafts, on which the Nature Spirits, the Yei stand. There is a close relationship between the Yei and the bears. In the Mountain Way Chant, Talking God, Water Sprinkler (often pictured as a rainbow) Growling God (bear), and Black God are always present.

 

Bears and Light are related. In the first dry painting there is light that surrounds the bear and light in the form of sundogs that are positioned in each of the four directions. In the second, sunbeams are present in the center and also in each of the four directions providing places for the Yei to stand. It’s very difficult not to draw the conclusion that the light that we are speaking of is an inner light, not an outer one, and this is consistent with the qualities of healing, insight, and introspection that the Navajos associate with the bear.

 

After each sand painting has been created and used for a healing it is then destroyed. With the bear painting erasure begins by destroying the tracks of the bear and moves around the circle obliterating the four directions beginning in the west.

 

Many aromatic plants are also used during these ceremonies to help restore harmony reflecting the importance of the ‘plant people’ to the Dine’ and to the bears.

 

The last dance of the Mountain Way Chant occurs inside a huge Circle of Spruce boughs that are brought in to a circle and then burned at the very end of the ceremony. Although this next point does not directly refer to bears I want to mention it briefly. Although grizzlies did not, Black bears co – evolved on this continent with trees during the last ice age and even today cannot be found in areas where they are absent. Black bears must have trees to climb in order to protect themselves and their young from predators. My point: Black bears and trees co –exist as a unit. And the importance of spruce boughs representing the sacred trees in these ceremonies cannot be stressed enough.

 

What follows are translations of three songs “that the women who have become bears sing.” These women have become holy people.

 

(1)The maiden that becomes a bear

walks far around

on the black mountain.

She walks far around.

Far spreads the land.

(this song is repeated once substituting blue for black –

black represents a male bear, blue a female bear)

 

(2)The young woman who becomes a bear

sets fire in the mountain

in many places; As she

journeys on

there is a line of burning mountains.

 

(3) In ancient times during a year of great drought

the holy ones set fire to the mountains and the waters.

The smoke arose in great clouds from which rain descended onto the land.

The woman who sought the gods found them.

 

Throughout the Mountain Way Chant both male and female bears are present at different times as bears and as holy people.

 

As a Black bear researcher I am struck by the correspondence between the details of the first painting and the way bears actually hibernate. Black bears prefer to den with openings to the south side, and because they walk in their own tracks they can enter and leave a den invisibly leaving no tracks at all. Note that in this sketch of the painting the tracks only go one way.

 

I am also struck by another healing aspect of the bear that doesn’t seem to appear in the extensive research I did for this essay, and that is the bear’s apparent ability to treat itself when it is ill by ingesting certain plants. It may be that these plants are part of the ceremony but are not mentioned by name (or names that I would recognize). Certainly the Navajo knew about these plants and tubers because they were the first naturalists, people who learned directly from animals, plants, trees, through keen observation.

 

That the bear would be so important to Native peoples in the Northern Hemisphere is also not surprising if one considers that Ursa Major, the Great Bear, is among the oldest recognized patterns in the sky. This prominent cluster of bright stars is circumpolar for mid-northern to polar latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, throughout the Americas Indigenous people of all tribes called this constellation the Great Bear.

 

Although today this star cluster conjures up other images to other peoples – stories about this particular constellation may date back to the Ice Age when ancient people could cross over the Bering Strait to North America. At that time, cultures in both Siberia and Alaska shared a common heritage. It is even possible that the constellation Ursa Major actually got its name 50,000 years ago because of a Paleolithic bear cult that existed in Europe.

 

Maybe the next time you look up into a velvet night sky towards the North you will see the Great Bear and think of him as being one of the most important animal healers of all time.

 

 (1) For those that don’ t know – sundogs occur when ice crystals acts as prisms, separating the sunlight into different colors and forming a sundog. … Mainly, sundogs are visible while you are facing and looking towards the sun while rainbows occur in just the opposite location. Here in New Mexico one sees them frequently.

 

Postscript: It is important to note that although the Navajo have lived in the Southwest for about 1,000 years, they are related to the woodland Indians of western Canada and Alaska. They speak Athabaskan, the language native to the western sub arctic and once lived in the boreal forest and made their living much the way Athabaskan peoples do today. When they migrated south along the Rockies they ended up in Arizona and other Southwestern states, and took on attributes of the Pueblo peoples. But the foundation of their culture lies in the North Country. It is theorized that they may have reached this continent by way of Siberia. However, some sources suggest that Native peoples have been here all along. Navajo people did not hunt bears unless they were starving because they considered all bears their relatives and complex rituals surrounded any necessary kill.

Mule Deer

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I come from an area in Maine where the prolific Whitetail deer bed down around my house during the winter, birth their fawns in the spring in my wildlife sanctuary, roam around my field in female dominated groups with young during the summer. It isn’t until fall that I usually meet the bucks coming in to feed on the sweet wild apples outside my window. My point here is that although I never take their presence for granted, interacting with deer is simply part of my life.

When I first moved down by the river in Abiquiu, I used to see mule deer early in the predawn hours outside the Trailercita. Sometimes I would startle one or two when I walked in the Bosque and noted that both elk and mule deer bedded down in wild grasses making a circular depression much the way a dog will do before it sleeps.

After I moved into the Casita and began to walk down to the river every morning in the twilight hours I would often meet deer in the next field or on the island. I also tracked them through the Bosque surprising one or two occasionally. I didn’t realize until this fall how much seeing these animals made me feel at home.

When I returned to Abiquiu in September I immediately noticed that the deer were no longer bedding down in the Bosque. After being here for almost three months I have yet to glimpse the sight of even one mule deer. The loss of these ungulates disturbs me greatly. Where have they gone?

Just last week I noticed a deer scrape in the Bosque and tracked one mule deer, and one elk that had traversed the path and jumped the fence onto a more thickly vegetated area.

Because November marks the beginning of the rut the males are on the move and some are also beginning to shed their racks of antlers. I keep a sharp eye on the two junipers that are missing branches in the Bosque to see if more bark has been denuded, but as far as I can tell only one mule deer seems to be responsible for the scrape (elk don’t shed antlers until early spring). I just wish I could get a glimpse of one of these beautiful animals once more…

The single defining characteristic of mule deer is their large ears, which are about three-fourths the length of the head. They have a distinctive black forehead, or mask, that contrasts with a light gray face. In the summer, mule deer are tannish-brown and in the winter are brown and gray in color. They have a white rump patch and a small white tail with a black tip. When running, they bound – all four hooves push off the ground at the same time. Although this leaping slows them down, it allows them to leave predators behind by quickly ascending steep slopes or jumping unpredictably over large obstacles. Their large, keen eyes and ears allow them to locate distant predators like coyotes and wolves.

Mule deer range from 3 to 3.5 feet tall at the shoulder, 4.5 to 7 feet long, and have a tail that is five to eight inches long. They can weigh between 130 and 280 pounds. Like other species of deer, the females are smaller than the males.

These animals are among the most beloved and iconic wildlife of the American West. Mule deer are found especially in the Rocky Mountain region of North America. They are adapted to arid, rocky environments and thrive in habitats that have a combination of early-stage plant growth, mixed-species plant communities, and diverse and extensive shrub growth. A mixture of plant communities provides better forage than any single species. Plants that are young and emerging are more nutritious than mature trees and shrubs. I can’t help wondering if this need for young and intermediate plant growth is one reason why these grazing animals are disappearing from the Bosque now that so much of it has been opened up and cut.

Mule deer are very selective feeders, nibbling on herbaceous plants and the leaves and twigs of woody shrubs. Instead of eating large quantities of low-quality feed like grass, they must select the most nutritious plants and parts of plants. Because of this, mule deer have more specific forage requirements than elk that share their habitat.

Between November and January (depending on the locality), bucks lock antlers competing for the right to mate with females. The victorious male attract females to them and attempt to defend them against the attention of other (often younger) bucks. Sexual maturity is attained at the age of about 18 months in does, but young males are barred from participation in the rut until they are three to four years old.

The gestation period is approximately 200 to 210 days and occurs during the summer. The female sequesters herself and gives birth in a protected spot, where the spotted fawn remains for a period of a week or 10 days before it is strong enough to follow the mother. It is during this period that the young are most vulnerable to predation. The young ones are weaned at about the age of 60 or 75 days, at which time they begin to lose their spots. Mule deer usually live 9 to 11 years in the wild.

In some areas the mule deer will have separate summer and winter ranges, with a migratory path connecting them. In the mild climates they will not migrate. They live in small groups of three to five individuals.

During he winter larger groups often come together to feed. It appears that the females have a small home range, living out their lives close to the areas where they were born, while the males migrate longer distances. I have noted the same tendency with respect to Whitetails.

For decades, western Colorado has been home to some of the country’s largest mule deer herds. Herds in a portion of northwestern Colorado were once so prolific that the area was dubbed “the mule deer factory.”

Unfortunately, I also discovered that overall Mule deer populations have been dropping across the west for several years, which also may account for my seeing less of them. State wildlife managers and wildlife groups are trying to determine what’s behind the decline. It amazes me that climate change is not mentioned as a factor. Naturally, shrinking habitat due to development including that of increased oil and gas drilling is also a factor contributing to the decrease of this species. The renowned White River herd in northwest Colorado has plummeted from more than 100,000 in the early 1980s to the current estimate of 32,000 deer according to the National Wildlife Federation. From this naturalists point of view a loss of two thirds of any deer population anywhere is cause for deep concern.

Sand Hill Cranes 2019

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(early morning at Bosque del Apache)

 

All month I have been on alert listening for the calls of the Sand hill cranes as they continue their migration south. Last year a good number of cranes spent the winter here landing in the neighboring field to find food, and roosting down by the river in the riffles…

 

This year, except for a few sightings and an occasional singular “brring” call by a few, the cranes have been absent. The artificially controlled river is so unnaturally high that it is ripping the shore away in chunks; the torrents of raging water are drowning the riffles where shorebirds once landed to rest or fish. Even the solitary heron has moved on. It is hardly surprising that the Sand hill cranes are not staying overnight even if they pass by overhead.

I also suspect that the cranes’ migratory routes have shifted.

Sandhill Cranes have begun breeding in the fields around the Saco River in Fryeburg, Maine, not far from my home. Some research suggests that these birds have broken away from the eastern flyway. They were first sighted in Maine about 20 years ago and I am delighted to know that some may be making Maine their breeding ground.

We do know that one of the consequences of Climate Change is that many migratory birds are shifting their routes or not traveling as far south as they once did. The cranes used to have three distinct flyways that flowed into one great artery the further south they traveled, and conversely fan out with some cranes flying as far as west as the eastern coast of Siberia during the northern spring migration. These days it is hard to predict what may be happening.

 

Although it is almost the end of November I have only seen one good size flock of twenty cranes flying over the house; this group was traveling due west. I have seen a few in very small groups of two, three, and five in number, and my neighbors and I had a couple in their field.

 

Seeing and hearing Sand hill Cranes has to be one of the the greatest joys of living near the river in Abiquiu, and I keenly miss their presence and haunting calls.

 

This year’s trip to the Bosque del Apache assuaged my loneliness. For one whole day I was steeped in wonder and gratitude that such a place even existed (I almost forgot that this refuge is also open to hunting. This “create a refuge and then shoot the animals” is normalized behavior for all state Fish and Game organizations).

 

To have so many cranes and snow geese along with harriers and other raptors, eagles, ducks, herons, sliders, fish, deer visible all at once while listening to crane and geese cacophony put me in state that I call “Natural Grace,” where nothing but the immediate present matters. At one point I met a couple who asked to take my picture. When I asked why they both said in union -“Why, you are so beautiful, you look like you belong here.” Evidently, the cranes had transformed me! The day was perfect – absolutely no wind and temperatures that were so mild that I was able to sit on the ground watching cranes/snow geese through my binoculars until the sun finally set,and many groups of cranes and snow geese had taken to the sky. I recorded the birds calling out to each other, and now whenever I listen to my tape I am transported back in time to that wondrous day. I am so grateful to have been there.

We know from fossilized records that the Sandhill Cranes are one of oldest birds in the world, and have been in their present form for 10, 30, or 60 million years (depending on the source). They have apparently maintained a family and community structure that allows them to live together peacefully and migrate by the thousands twice a year when unfortunately many are shot along the way. Sandhill Cranes mate for life, and in the spring the adults engage in a complex “dance” with one another. During mating, pairs throw their heads back and unleash a passionate duet—an extended litany of coordinated song. Cranes also dance, run, leap high in the air and otherwise cavort around—not only during mating, but all year long.

In their northern habitat, the female lays two eggs a year in thick protected areas at the edge of reed filled marshes. Before nesting these birds “paint” their gray feathers with dull brown reeds and mud to reduce the possibility of being seen by a predator. Born a couple of days a part, the second chick rarely survives. The fuzzy youngster that does (if it survives the first year – delayed reproduction and survival rates factor into the difficulties inherent in crane conservation and to that we must now add Climate Change) stays with its parents for about three years before reaching sexual maturity and striking out on its own, but even then the adult stays within the parameters of its extended family, and it is these families that comprise the small groups of cranes that we see flying together. During migration, a multitude of these groups travel together. There are no leaders and often it is possible to observe what looks like an unorganized random group or diagonal thread made up of cranes flying above the ground. In every roosting place there are a few cranes that remain awake all night alerting their relatives to would be predators.

I think it’s significant that these very ancient birds have survived so long in their present form. I’ll repeat my original question: Could it be that the cranes understand the value of living in community in a way that has become foreign to humans who seem hell bent on embracing the values of competition, power, and control on a global level? Perhaps we could all benefit from watching Sand hill cranes with rapt attention.

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The Littlest Lizard

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A little voice called me to the door breaking my afternoon meditation. ‘The Littlest Lizard is out and about.’ Without thinking I grabbed my IPhone, opened the door and was disappointed to see that the sun had already left Littlest Lizard’s lair, a rocky crevice in the cactus garden wall.

 

Disappointed, I turned to re –enter the house and there he was, clinging to the wall like spiderman, just inches away from my face. “Oh, there you are” I exclaimed happily as I snapped a few pictures taking careful note of his girth. He bowed to me three times.

 

This sagebrush lizard is only about an inch and a half long (with tail) and is the only lizard that has been around for the last ten days. The other three little lizards must have fattened up enough to brumate, but this little guy is so tiny that he has to keep hunting to survive the coming winter.

 

I am pleased to report that Littlest Lizard is gaining the necessary weight. Every warm day I meet up with him and we have a conversation while he basks in the sun above his crevice or on the adobe wall keeping a sharp eye out for potential prey.

 

And every day when he appears I run for the camera only to discover that he has disappeared like a phantom. This habit of his has been driving me crazy because I wanted just one good picture of him, a picture that would indicate that he might really be as small as I say he is. Today I may have succeeded thanks to that insistent little voice. I love the way Littlest Lizard turned around to peer at me as if to say – ‘that’s enough’ after I took two pictures.

 

Most animals I know would prefer not to have a human peering at them through any kind of lens. My dogs are a good example. If they see me coming with a camera they immediately close their eyes or turn their heads away. I’ve followed bears that led me through thick brush and briar patches turning around every few minutes to check on the progress of the annoying human with the black box and never letting me get close enough to get one decent photo.

 

Don’t ask me why but sagebrush lizards are my favorite reptiles in the world. As a child I do remember going to the circus where my little brother and I could buy geckos for 10 cents that clung to our coats after being attached by a tether and pin. Of course I was too young then to understand the cruelty involved. Most of these hapless lizards soon expired. My mother showed us how to feed them by attaching a bit of hamburger to a piece of thread, and a couple survived for a while. I shudder now just thinking about those poor reptiles hanging on for life on cold winter days…

 

I’d like to think that my present relationship with sagebrush lizards has helped to even out my unintentional childhood unkindness towards the geckos that I so eagerly bought with my allowance.

 

When I first arrived back in Abiquiu I was distraught believing that all my house lizards were dead. The first day I ran into a very well fed garter snake that slithered into the cactus garden wall. Normally, I am very fond of snakes but when I spent three days calling for the seven plus ‘house lizards,’ and no one appeared, I despaired. With all the five – foot prickly weeds cascading over the overgrown garden and obliterating the path to the house I figured my sagebrush lizard family had all been eaten. Most of their basking territory was covered in an unruly green jungle.

 

Imagine my shock the fourth morning when I called out to my friends for a final time while attacking nasty weeds with a pair of clippers (that eventually left me with horrible blisters and bloody hands) when my favorite female lizard suddenly materialized with her very distinct markings. She was so plump! Thrilled to see her I moved slowly towards the wall. When she bowed to me I knew she remembered me and was acknowledging me as her friend. This lizard lets me pet her, and sure enough after a bit of conversation I was able to stroke her velvety back a few times before she moved away. Is she some sort of lizard “watchdog – woman” looking out for her own kind I wondered, because by mid afternoon most of my lizards appeared in their usual spots as if they had been there all along.

 

Why three days of invisibility? Did these lizards think I abandoned them? If they only knew… I thought about each of them every day all summer long. Unfortunately, I was missing a couple of adults; they never returned. But now I also had four new baby lizards – one of which was barely an inch long.

 

When the first hard frost hit early in October most of the adults disappeared quite suddenly except my favorite mother, her mate, and another pair that still appeared on warm afternoons. My beautifully marked mother was now so well padded that I wondered how she had room to swallow even one more ant! I last saw the mother who I have now re-named the “watchdog lizard” ten days ago. The four little ones continued to appear until the end of the first week in November. Now I only see Littlest lizard. I am delighted to see how canny this little one is, always keeping close to cover. As long as I am there without a camera he is quite friendly although he will not tolerate my touch (I actually have no idea if this lizard is a male or female because he’s too young to sex).

 

Now that the days are short and the cottonwood leaves are drifting to the ground even on windless days I know my time with the Littlest Lizard is coming to an end, but I am reasonably certain that this appealing little fellow will see another spring… and I shall be joyously awaiting his return.

 

A natural history note on bowing:

 

Bowing is a part of spring mating rituals and I have witnessed this behavior many times, but I have also learned that it is a form of communication that these lizards routinely use with me. I have never read anything in any literature about bowing with respect to general communication. When a lizard bows to me s/he is conversing with me in his/her own language.

 

A second scientific note about having a personal relationship with lizards:

 

Both humans and non – human animals have limbic systems within their brains that are closely involved with the regulation of emotions especially in the amygdala. The limbic system was present in the ancestors of reptiles, mammals, and birds. It is an ancient emotional activation system that we share with countless other species. The love I feel for my lizards is real and evolutionarily ancient. I have no doubt that these relationships are reciprocal.

Black Capped Chickadee

 

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This morning after I returned from my early morning walk to the river I stood at the east window watching a few Black – Capped chickadees flying out of my adopted juniper to the bird feeder. Although there are other trees around, the thick cover provided by my arboreal friend is everyone’s favorite. I love to watch these birds delicately take one seed to eat or cache somewhere for the winter. There was so much activity around the juniper early this morning that I suspected that all the birds knew “a big wind” was coming, and were stocking up on seed early.

I tried to count the black-capped chickadees and reached the conclusion that I had about 4 – not exactly a flock. However, I am delighted to have even one pair here in Abiquiu. According to some sources there aren’t even supposed to be any in this area at all, but for three out of the four winters I have lived here I have always had a few.

Other sources say that Northern Mexico has a small population, and most remind us that Black capped chickadees are moving north because of Climate Change. Northern New Mexico is perched on the edge of Black-Capped chickadee extinction, so please enjoy these delightful little birds while we still have them. Even in Maine, those of us who are birdwatchers have been be –moaning the fact that we are seeing less and less of these iconic little birds each year. Most are moving north towards the boreal forests of Canadian Shield because there are still enough of the kinds of trees around to support healthy populations – for now.

This morning after watching the chickadees, sparrows and nuthatches flying in and out of my juniper I read some very disturbing information about junipers and sage in the Abiquiu News:

“A low-flying airplane will drop Tebuthiuron pellets*, a soil-applied herbicide that inhibits photosynthesis, on creosote bush and juniper trees. At the planned rate and timing of application, the herbicide will have minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because the herbicide is applied in pellet form, it will not drift from the treated areas (simply not true). When the pellets dissolve with favorable precipitation, (how do they know we will get it?) they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system, eventually reducing the sagebrush density. The pellets will not be dropped near waterways or on slopes greater than 10%. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s, and the benefits of its application are well documented.” (By whom, and what was their agenda?)

 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Soil Conservation folks believe that the objective of the treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, and result in an increase of native grasses, forbs and other herbaceous vegetation.”

 

Benefit Wildlife? I was aghast reading this information because it neglects to mention that the junipers and sages provide necessary cover/food for so many birds in the Southwest, or that junipers and sage are better adapted to the drying conditions that are associated with Climate Change in the Southwest.

 

Truly, one hand does not know what the other is doing.

 

But to return to chickadees…

 

In Maine, perhaps because I live in a mixed confider and deciduous forest chickadees visit my feeders all summer. However, I happen to know that their summer diet also relies heavily on insects (spiders, caterpillars, snails etc) and berries. As some are aware, chickadees also love to eat fat. Just yesterday I put out my first suet seed cake. During the winter, chickadees also feast on insect pupae.

Pairs typically form in fall and remain together as part of winter flock. Flocks break up in late winter, and both male and females defend their nesting territory. During courtship and afterwards the males feed the females. Less frequently these days nest sites are found in the holes of trees. Chickadees like to line their nests with mosses or animal hair. In Maine some use tufts of hair (from my brush) that I leave in a little basket in a nearby juniper. I still have many woodpecker excavated holes because I allow all trees to live out their natural lives on my property, but some of my chickadees also use nest boxes.

The literature is very confusing when it comes to migration. Some sources suggest that chickadees are permanent residents but that they also move south in fall and winter (!). I believe that some are permanent residents, at least in Maine, but for reasons that are unknown others do migrate. Another bird mystery. Those that do stay in northern climates must be able to withstand little sun and very cold temperatures during the winter. These chickadees are able to lower their body temperature at night to enter regulated hypothermia, which allows them to conserve energy. Chickadees also have exceptional spatial memory, which allows them to re locate cached food.

Despite its once vast range, as a species the chickadees are remarkably homogeneous in their genetic make-up. The Black capped chickadee’s closest relative is the Mountain chickadee, another endearing avian creature. Although I have been on the lookout I have yet to see one in Abiquiu this fall.

 

* Some information on Tebuthiuron

(Wikipedia/ Cornell are sources)

Tebuthiuron is a “non -selective broad spectrum” herbicide (read: it kills a lot of living things).

The Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have “great potential for groundwater contamination, due to its high water solubility, low absorption to soil particles, and high persistence in soil.”

In Europe this herbicide has been banned since 2002.

Weeds that are controlled by tebuthiuron include alfalfa, bluegrasses, chickweed, clover, dock, goldenrod, mullein, etc.

My commentary: all these plants are beneficial to bees and other insects and they provide food for birds and animals.

ACUTE TOXICITY

Skin, eye or clothing contact with the herbicide should be avoided. This herbicide is classified as moderately poisonous. Symptoms of Tebuthiuron poisoning in rodents include lack of energy, loss of appetite, muscular incoordination and death. Vomiting occurred in cats and dogs.

Who benefits? Ranchers and big business at everyone’s expense.