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Monthly Archives: August 2014

NEW MEXICO – LAND OF REALLY BIG THINGS

Actually, of all the things we’ve seen in New Mexico, one of our favorites is a T-shirt at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio (NM) that we really wanted to buy. They only had one and it was a woman’s small that we couldn’t use. But we liked the words: NEW MEXICO – Not really new and not really Mexican. We feel that way ourselves. New Mexico is unique, even though most people pass right through it on their way to Texas or Arizona and California. Just a warning……you’re missing a lot of big things, folks. We’ve made a few short trips around the central part of the state since we’ve been here. We’ve seen a lot of New Mexico on previous trips as well but it all seems new this time. In the central and north part of the state, the Native American culture prevails. We’re planning to go to an internationally known Native American arts and crafts festival in Santa Fe in about two weeks. It’s a big deal and draws thousands of visitors.

Spectacular Weather. Just in the last two weeks we’ve twice seen double 180 degree rainbows (going from horizon to horizon) and what I call reverse sunsets. As the sun starts to go down below the western horizon, the edges of the clouds in the western sky begin to turn dark while the western sky is still very bright. So it’s almost all just blacks and whites. Overhead, the cloudy sky is gray and turning darker. When you turn around though, the clouds in the far eastern sky are turning beautiful shades of yellow, gold and red. What? Not something I’ve ever seen before.

double rainbow from our window-blog

sunset shadow highlight with fence-blog

Much of the time there isn’t enough pollution and dust in the New Mexico air to cause really red sunsets. In Los Angeles, they’ve fixed that.

A Really Big Refuge. Our last location was at Santa Ana NWR, with a total of 2000 acres of “wilderness”. Bosque del Apache has 57,000 acres (although only 7000 are accessible by the public). There’s always a lot of work to do here. Earth movers, backhoes and other heavy equipment and vehicles are always coming and going. Some hunting and fishing is allowed on the refuge and a popular public sport here is getting a permit to bring your chainsaw and cut up as much firewood as you can carry off. All the invasive salt cedar that is constantly being cleared out of the refuge ends up in a big pile and the local population can take as much as they want. Other volunteers tell us that during the Festival of the Cranes, 500 to 1000 visitors come through our visitor center every day. There will be nearly 30 volunteers working to support the excited visitors. People coming to the Bosque can enjoy close up views of two hummingbird feeders through a big picture window in the visitor center. I’ve seen as many as 25 or so hummers at one time. The feeders also attract other birds such as orioles (Bullocks), black-headed grosbeaks, and various sparrows and finches. The little feeder area attracts mosquitos. One of my duties in the morning is to record weather readings, including high/low temperature and the rain gage behind the main building. The rain gage area is Mosquito World Headquarters.

By the way, Arlyne and I both successfully passed the Government Defensive Driving course and soon we’ll go out on the refuge to assist and guide visitors. We’ll probably have encounters like we had a couple of days ago. We were driving on the refuge after hours and two Asian women in another car stopped us. One asked where they could see the big clouds of birds they had heard about. I told them I was sorry I didn’t have good news because the thousands of birds don’t come until November. “Where are you from?”, I asked them. Mainland China, one of them said. Damn, they should have done a bit more research and I hoped they had other things to see. We did see a few elk on the south loop of the refuge.

DSC_0075 elk on the refuge-blog

DSC_0128 blue grosbeak-titled-blog

Really Big Clouds. We made a trip to Albuquerque a week ago. Coming back in the early evening, there were a few huge, HUGE puffy white clouds in the east. These were giant, enormous clouds with smaller acolyte clouds nearby, paying homage to these beasts. We think we’re the center of our universe, but I think one of these clouds is really it. All of these effects are mostly the result of such flat and mostly wide open spaces. Most of us think of rain as a local condition that gets us wet. Here, you can see four or five separate, independent rainstorms, some with internal lightning every half minute or so, all around us. One storm is raining on a mountain with the rain slanting to the left and another is over the highway and moving north, with rain falling straight down. I told Arlyne that one particular rain storm looked like an H-bomb, with a giant mushroom-shaped cloud high up and a column of dark rain coming down vertically to the ground.

Really Big Antenna Array. Fifty miles from us, in east central New Mexico, sits the EVLA facility. Not a very clever name. It stands for Extended Very Large Array. There are 27 large radio telescope antennas clustered in a flat area on the Plains of San Agustin. (more about the Plains later) The antennas each weigh 230 tons and can be moved around on railroad tracks for different projects. For many studies, the antennas can be moved up to 24 miles apart! This facility is just one part of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. One piece is located in northern Chile and one in West Virginia. Another section is comprised of ten antennas located from the Virgin Islands to Hawaii, all synchronized together.

The nice thing about EVLA is that you can tour the big antennas yourself and go on a free guided tour inside the main building (and other buildings) to watch operators run these big boys through their paces. This is what we did. We even saw a pair of beautiful lazuli buntings flying around one of the antennas.

P1010606 Extended Very Large Array in Magdalena NM-blog P1010605 230 tons-blog P1010613 R2D2 but bigger-blog P1010610 moved on railroad tracks P1010615 Imperial walkers titled-blog

The Big Plains of San Agustin. These plains are quite large, they take up a significant portion of the state.   They’re located at 7000 feet. The nearest towns of Datil and Magdalena are quite small, with only a few hundred residents. Many EVLA staff live in Magdalena. I bring up the plains for two reasons. One, we saw blackbuck antelope, an exotic species that has taken up residence on the plains. Brought into the US for hunting, they have established themselves in the western states and are probably another life form that we will live next to for years. You probably saw a close up of this animal in an earlier blog. There are oryx antelopes in this area as well.

P1010638 plains of san agustin-blog

The second reason is my recollection of when I was a student at New Mexico State University and working part-time at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). In the early 60’s I participated in a truly unprecedented and historic event. For the first time in WSMR history, a missile was to be fired from OFF THE RANGE to impact back within range boundaries. The missile was a tactical surface-to-surface Sargent rocket. We traveled up to Datil (where I bought a big ‘ol cowboy hat) and out onto the plains of San Agustin, with a large contingent of soldiers, various civilians, safety officers and other functionaries. I worked for Missile Flight Surveillance Office and was responsible for installing and checking out the safety receiver, detonator block and shaped explosive charge. As sort of an odd man out, I was not allowed to sleep overnight with any of the soldiers or even the civilians so I was given a canvas cot, a mummy sleeping bag and assigned entirely by myself to a 40-man Army tent. Every rancher and farmer between the launch site and the predicted point of impact was evacuated and several roads were closed.

Early the next morning, I had breakfast Army-style, lined up with a lot of soldiers chowing down on dozens and dozens of eggs, countless biscuits, gobs of butter and jam and several pounds of bacon all being cooked outside and kept warm in 55-gallon steel drums. Believe me, in my twenties, I could eat with the best of these guys. It was an adventure for me. The missile firing went off without a hitch and we didn’t have to blow it up. It hit on the range right where it was supposed to.

Train Ride. In a few days, we’re taking a train from the town of Belen, an hour north of us, all the way to Santa Fe. We’ve reserved a bed and breakfast and plan to visit with our long-time friends, Karol and Jerry Ryan. I plan to take pictures of the trip.

Birds. We’re still looking for the elusive common black hawks that are supposed to be here. We always see something cool on the refuge but haven’t spotted these guys yet.

Say's phoebe-blog DSC_0152 blue winged teals are here-blog

Hope everybody is doing well,

Bob and Arlyne

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Posted by on August 15, 2014 in Bird Lover

 

Here at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Arlyne and I are here at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico, beginning a three month assignment. We’re getting pretty good at this volunteering stuff and we’re fitting right in. I used to live in Las Cruces, New Mexico and graduated from college there. I love New Mexico, especially the wide open spaces and long views available here. We are near Socorro, in the center of the state.  Let me briefly describe the facility here.  And start with a couple of photos.  Maybe you don’t like snakes but they have lives too and we protect them here.  (Western diamondback)

DSC_0004 female Bullock's oriole-blogDSC_0038 western diamondback rattlesnake 1-blog

WHERE WE ARE. Bosque del Apache NWR is on the list of 50 Places to Go Birding Before You Die. We came to Bosque several years ago and we know why it’s such a popular birding destination. Bosque is the Jewel of the Refuge system. The design of Bosque is ingenious in the way it closely resembles how this area in central New Mexico has served as a natural stopover for migrating cranes, geese and ducks for millions of years (that’s right….millions). Its right along the Rio Grande, which used to periodically overflow, flooding lower areas and creating a waterfowl paradise. Farming and roads and towns and water usage have disrupted this. Over the years, Refuge biologists have engineered the flow of water and mix of local crops to recreate the prehistoric environmental conditions that encroaching civilization almost destroyed forever.

WHAT WE’RE DOING. Arlyne and I both work in the Visitor Center where she is helping in the Nature Store and working the phone and front desk. I handle the front desk mostly but I set up and clean the hummingbird and oriole feeders every day as well. Arlyne and I are taking a four-hour online defensive driving course over the next few days and then we’ll be able to handle Refuge roving duties using a Government vehicle. This takes us around the Refuge, answering questions, assisting with a spotting scope, making sure visitors are doing OK. That’ll be fun…….it’s what we like to do. 

THE FESTIVAL. Sandhill cranes spend the winter here and have become an international attraction. Tens of thousands of cranes remain here for nearly five months, feeding on corn, alfalfa and other crops that are planted especially for them. They start arriving in late October. Bosque hosts the Festival of the Cranes the week before Thanksgiving and there will be thousands of people here, jostling for the best view. Arlyne and I are considering staying here for another week to help with the setup for the Festival.  Too bad the hummingbirds will be gone.DSC_0076 rufous hummingbird-blog DSC_0055 rufous hummer on stick-blog

OTHER WILDLIFE. We’re already spotting a lot of cottontail rabbits, a few rattlesnakes, mule deer, trillions of mosquitos, fancy lizards and skinks, and a coyote. We’re hoping to see a few javalina and maybe spot the common black hawk that has been reported.

LOCAL STORY. One of my duties is to clean and refill four hummingbird feeders next to the Visitor Center. I mix up the sugar water and hang up the feeders each morning. We use a lot of sugar. I get it out of a 5-gallon bucket. A railroad track runs right by the Refuge. Last year it seems that several train cars derailed just up the road from where we are. Some of the cars were filled with, guess what…..sugar. Most of the sugar was lost but a one ton package of sugar was given to the Refuge. It’s stored in a garage in the maintenance area. We should be good for quite a while.

DSC_0024 deer at Bosque-blogDSC_0042 roadrunner on alert 2-blog

OTHER WILDLIFE. We’re already spotting a lot of cottontail rabbits, a few rattlesnakes, mule deer, trillions of mosquitos, fancy lizards and skinks, and a coyote. We’re hoping to see a few javalina and maybe spot the common black hawk that has been reported.  Just a couple of days ago, I got a call from a man who took a series of pictures here at Bosque of a great blue heron eating a HUGE fish. He called the Visitor Center wanting someone else but we started talking and he told me about his (now) nearly famous YouTube posting. Go to YouTube and search for “Great Blue Heron has fish dinner at Bosque del Apache NWR”. It’s a REALLY big fish.

BIRDS. We picked up a new bird for our lists almost as soon as we arrived. Now I know that hummingbird feeders are not exactly natural sources of food but the way of the world is to “collect” these little jewels so we can enjoy them close up. There are only four hummingbirds that come to this area and one of them is the calliope hummingbird. The beautiful male has throat feathers that look like flames. We got a new bird for Arlyne’s list as well when we drove a few miles off the refuge and saw a pair of golden eagles. Nice.  Here’s the calliope.

DSC_0068 calliope hummingbird-blogSeveral visitors have reported two common black hawks in the Refuge. Arlyne and I have casually tried to spot this bird and thought we had it a few days ago. Turns out, by analyzing my single snapshot through the windshield, we saw a Swainson’s hawk. A black hawk would be a cool bird. It isn’t supposed to be in this region. More likely Arizona. We’ll keep looking while we’re here. Nice birds we’ve seen so far include a sage thrasher (not supposed to be here yet), cool roadrunners, wild turkeys with chicks, Gambel’s quail, Bullocks orioles, black-chinned and broad-tailed hummingbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds and some others. It’s not a bird but we came across the western diamondback rattlesnake one morning, right on the Refuge road. I got a short video.  Here’s the rufous hummingbird again.

P1010539 male rufous hummingbird-blog P1010556 boardwalk at Bosque-blog

In the nearby San Mateo and Datil mountains, there are some pretty common birds that we haven’t seen: Virginia’s warbler, red-faced warbler, a few owls and a flycatcher or two. A trip to see them has been added to our travel list.

GOING OUT. We didn’t waste time and went to the famous Owl Café and Bar in the small town of San Antonio, just north of the Refuge. I had their signature green chile cheeseburger…..actually very good. I’ll go back, maybe without Arlyne. We went to Sofia’s Kitchen Mexican restaurant in Socorro because it was recommended. Sofia’s reminded me of my early years in New Mexico. The food was very New Mexican, pretty hot and very tasty. I thought I was in a time machine. What a kick.

UPCOMING ADVENTURES IN NEW MEXICO. Later in August we’re taking a train from a little town north of here up to Santa Fe to visit our dear friends Jerry and Karol. The train (imagine) only costs $16 round trip for both of us. In Santa Fe, we’ll visit an international Native American crafts fair that attracts thousands of people. I hope to drive to Las Cruces in the coming months and visit the White Sands Missile Range Museum. I worked at WSMR while going to college and the museum should be interesting to me. We’re just visited the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope facility about 50 miles from here. This is a fascinating place and we were very impressed. I’ll cover that in the next blog

New Mexico looks great to me.  See you next time.

Bob and Arlyne Draper

.P1010549 New Mexico highway-blog

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2014 in Bird Lover, Nature

 

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