Monday, October 11, 2010

Happy Columbus Day!

Ok, maybe it feels a little weird to be observing Columbus Day when I'm surrounded by Native American tribal lands, so I guess I'll smoothly segue into another topic sentence...

I'm unemployed once again! The season is over, and we're all wondering what we'll do next summer. It's nice to know I'm welcome back at Mesa Verde, and it looks like there will be a three person crew next year. Unless another adventure lands at my doorstep(s), mooring buoy, tent flap, etc... then it's great to know I can return here. Of course, as a wise hobbit once noted, "Adventures make one late for dinner. "

We've a few short weeks left to explore the Four Corners. Autumn has come, with snows reappearing on the mountain tops, quaking aspens turning gold, sincere pumpkin patches burgeoning with treasure, and little pika scurrying to harvest their haystacks for the winter. Folks familiar with my amazing hiking techniques will not be surprised I wore out the bottom of my pants on a glissade down Centennial Peak yesterday. Fortunately, that adventure did not make us late for dinner at the Absolute Bakery. Yum!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

M is for Moose-atat

Tempus fugit, eh pardo?

The news from the Natural Resources department of Mesa Verde is a little stranger than normal. It begins with the reports of 6 stray cows ( 3 cows and 3 calves) found within the boundary of the Park. Since the cattle have been hanging around the fence at the southern border, there's suspicion that they snuck across. The biologist thought that we could get 4 members of the veg-crew to sweep down from the top of Navajo canyon, chase the cattle before us, and then be joined at the confluence of Spruce and Wickiup canyon by a posse of Rangers and the remaining veg crew.

Being a Texan, I felt it was my duty to join the vanguard. We swept down the top of the canyon, and after a few miles began seeing cattle tracks, but no cows. With hopes that we were driving the cattle before us, we kept moving down canyon, with 2 of us climbing up on the canyon slopes periodically to ensure cows weren't hiding up on the benches of some of the canyons. The long story short is that we were outwitted by the cows, who probably smelled a trap in the making and ran up the west fork of Navajo canyon. We never saw them that day, but did shore up the fencing. I think plan-B is to find some real cowboys.

For recreation, we took the 4 day holiday weekend to backpack into Vallecito canyon. Before reaching the trailhead, we drove by Vallecito reservoir, which was site of the 2002 Mission Ridge wildfire that burned the same year Mesa Verde had its worst fire season. The fire burned so intensly that embers spotted new fires on the opposite side of the lake. It doesn't take a genius to realize that if a lake doesn't work as a firebreak, then there's not much one can do to stop it. Just like the Boulder blaze that's currently burning, it is likely that the fire was human error. The fire is commemorated in a Trail of Carvings.

We had a great backpacking trip, with the weather nice enough to just rain while we slept. We saw waterfalls and many new peaks, such as The Guardian, and Mt. Silex, and hardly saw a soul in the backcountry. While hiking up the river, we mentioned how it was perfect habitat for a moose... Mooseatat! We were really thrilled when hiking back to camp, there was a bull moose staring back at us. He didn't trust people, so he's a smart moose.

Work continued with a few other intersting activites, such as UTV safety training, the last day of the hummingbird project (thanks to the volunteers of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network!), and the release of Roundtail Chubs into the Mancos River canyon. The Colorado Division of Wildlife is raising the chubs from stock saved from Mesa Verde during a severe drought when irrigation had depleted the river so much that it no longer flowed. Hopefully, these efforts will restore the species back to healthy levels.

We celebrated the release by going on an overnight rafting trip down the Colorado, right along the boundaries of Arches National Park in Utah. Floating down the majestic canyons was great, seeing the Fisher Towers and Red-necked Phalaropes was sweet, but the icing on the cake was seeing a family of river otters swim and scamper along the shoreline.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Outsourcing in the Natural Resources Dept.

Summer is blazing by here in the Four Corners. We have had a nice monsoon, with the rains just taking a long enough break to give our recent guests a nice visit. Projects are finishing up, such as the Seeps and Springs monitoring and the Bighorn Survey.

Another very interesting project we assisted with was establishing long-term study plots for the Integrated Upland Monitoring program done by the Southern Colorado Plateau Network. These plots are intended to be monitored almost indefinitely, so the boundaries of the plots were marked with stakes and witness trees, with GPS waypoints for all reference marks. Once the study plot was established, all kinds of measurements were taken: gap analysis, soil samples, measurements and tagging of all trees, and exhaustive description of plant species and coverage within sampling frames. It takes a team of 3 experienced scientists all day to complete 1 50m study plot.

Assisting other researchers is always a treat, since it's a chance to learn a lot from smart people and also a nice break in our routine. We never let go of our primary directive -- combating invasive plants, and now we have competition! This past week, we've "contracted" out controls of musk and canada thistle to "foreigners" that work for free, and with luck, they'll do a great job. I'm not too worried about my job, since these competitors have historically only shown to be about 30% effective, and more importantly, they have the IQ of... well... a tiny bug. Yup, I'm referring to the biocontrols used against thistles: Trichosirocalus horridus (the Musk Thistle Rosette Weevil) and Larinus Planus (the Canada Flower Weevil). We set these weevils free in areas of high infestation that were also difficult to treat with herbicides, due to remoteness or sensitive riparian areas that might contain Tiger Salamanders or other species of park concern. I hope they work well!

With all that the rain promises, I considered myself fortunate to attend a Mushroom hike organized by the San Juan Mountain Association. It was great, and I learned much. Tonight we feasted on Five-Shroom-Pizza, including the coveted Chantrelle (spotted by yours truly!), Aspen Bolete, tiny puff balls, and a few others. So far, we've survived our first harvest! Important tips from my field notebook: be careful, cook practically everything, test for allergic reactions (esp for Boletes), watch for maggots, and be even more careful.

'Till next time: peace out, bro!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Mountains, Monsoons, and Mines

The summer "monsoons" have begun in the rockies, and for the past two weeks we've enjoyed watching the storms build each afternoon. The humidity is much higher, but the clouds and cool breezes make it very enjoyable. I was hanging laundry as a storm raged in the nearby La Plata mountains, and watched the inflow from the storms flap the damp clothes dry and draw that vapour to feed the maw of the thunderstorm. Isn't it strange how we can perform routine tasks while a phenomenon with several times the power of an atomic bomb rages just a few miles away?

The summer rains are always welcome here, and the plants are greening up again. Also importantly, the rains have greatly reduced the chance of fires, so that's one less thing to worry about. Mesa Verde National Park and adajacent Ute Tribal lands have seen 4 fires so far this year, each caused by lightning, and each caught and snuffed out before they had burned more than a third of an acre.

Lately, the vegetation crew I work with have been assisting other researchers. There's two teams doing different bird-banding surveys. One team is doing many surveys in different locations across the southwest. The station I helped at had several nets along route almost one mile long, which required frequent checking, which adds up to a lot of walking. It was a slow day, but we caught a black-throated gray warbler, and several ash-throated flycatchers. Another team is focused solely on hummingbirds, and most of the work is done by volunteers. The morning I helped, we caught over 50 birds, with only 3 that had been previously banded. The rufous and black-chinned humming birds are migrating through, so there's lots of turn-over during these weeks. The broad-tailed hummingbirds seem to stick around though. It requires certification to band the birds, so the poor researcher in charge of the station was constantly busy taking measurements and placing on bands. Fortunately, we can close the nets so we don't get too many birds at one time.

Another researcher, who is a new employee at Mesa Verde, has big plans for the park. When the park was first established, natural resources were not really protected very well, and for a variety of reasons many species began to dissappear. His goal is to reevaluate the habitat for some of these missing species that belong in the park and determine if conditions are right so that they can be reintroduced.

One of his first priorities is gathering data for Big Horn Sheep reintroduction. It's a complicated problem, especially since nobody is really sure which sub-species of bighorn lived in the park; were there once Mountain Bighorn or Desert Bighorn? There's many factors that go into making a decision, but the one part my team has been helping with is going out into the field to perform terrain-coverage estimates. We do random transects across the terrain, and at several points within a transect, measure the amount of coverage a sheep would experience. Bighorn prefer a mostly open terrain, where ambush predators such as puma can be seen from a safe distance (14 meters). So as we hike along to each point, one of us crouches down to sheep-eye-level (90 cm) and the other drags a checker-board to the North, East, South, and West 14 m away and determine how much of the board can be seen. If you glace at a map of MEVE and draw about 50 points, with each point having a line 140m long in a random direction, and then look at the terrain, it is clear that this involves some challenging hiking. It's often an adventure, and we've seen interesting fossil beds, anazasi ruins, and lots of wildlife.

The rainy weather has impacted both work and play, and we've been limited to day trips in the area. I really enjoyed a hike along Red Mountain pass; one trail followed a cliff edge around a canyon, and another went past the old Joker Boarding House and up to an old mine and mill site way up on the mountain. Long ago (how long I shall not say), I explored this area and the mining tunnels were oozing really vibrantly-colored goo that was as clear a warning sign of toxicity as any aposematic coloration in nature. It looked like something Dr. Jekyll might keep in vials. Fortunately, much money has been spent to try and clean up and reclaim the soils and water of the area to keep the toxins from contaminating both people and wildlife. Many of the old tailings have been worked into large leach fields (about as pretty as it sounds), and water from the Joker tunnel is now channeled into a small canal that has some weird string-alage growing in it, which I think was planted to help eat the acids and perhaps even store some of the heavy metals. I'd like to know more, so if anyone has some info, please share it.

We all live downsteam!

The rainy weather has finally given us some downtime to go into town and see some traditional Ute dances and listend to a Navajo Code Talker down at the Cortez Cultural Center. I hope we have good weather next weekend, since I'm ready to go hiking again.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Sorry for being a slacker, but I just havn't had the chance to write much. I guess procrastination pays, because others have written excellent blogs about stuff i like to talk about. In lieu of being a parrot, I'll just link em here:

Mesa Verde is cool:
and so is Marilyn Collyer, who is mentioned in the article and very knowledgeable about the natural history of the area. She volunteered to lead us techies and the interps around to look at plants and stuff.

ZOMG, don't forget the first annual NATIONAL FOSSIL DAY!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Fiery Fourth

It's been steady progress at work, with us making thwarting thistles, knapweed, toadflax, and other noxious weeds. We'll soon be trained in chainsawing to begin fighting tamarisk growing in a few areas of the park. Fire season is also upon us, and recently the fire crew has been short staffed as a portion of their team is in Arizona beating back a wildland fire started by a sloppy camper. Four of us on the natural resources crew have red cards, so a few of us were called in to fill in weekend dates, and were outfitted with linepacks and associated gear.

I passed on the first round of overtime, since I had some family come in for a nice visit. We had a lot of catching up to do, since my brother works as a contractor for NASA's manned space program that is currently in the process of reinventing itself as the space shuttle is retired. They met me at Mesa Verde and we toured Balcony House, Spruce Tree, Sun Temple, Far View, and a few other sites, which made for a full day. I was hoping we could check on the status of the parrot figurine from Yucca House, but I'll have to find out another time.

We spent a day rafting the lower Animas River in Durango, and the next day saw Cascade Falls in Ouray. We saw a bear cross the road at Pinkerton Hot Springs. That worked up our appetite, so we scarfed down some Mouse's Chocolate and then went to a local pub to watch the sunset. It was a busy holiday weekend and the hot springs were packed like sardines. My brother's family went on north to visit with more relatives, and we went in search of a campsite. The nearby Forest campgrounds were all full, so we drove to Dallas Creek and found a nice gravel patch along the roadside to call home.

Dallas Creek is the trailhead for the hike we did on the 4th of July. It goes up into the Mount Sneffels Wilderness to the Blue Lakes, which is some spectacular alpine scenery. Snow banks along the mountainsides were melting into cascades, all of which fed into a strangly blue lake. The water clarity was somewhat clouded by glacial flour from the slow moving rock glacier on it's south shoreline. We explored the shoreline to get a few nice views of the nearby waterfalls, and then trudged up to the upper Blues. The trail is very steep and messy at first, probably because the original trail washed away. After about half a mile, it improves and the going gets much easier.

At the upper lakes, we had a nice lunch and just soaked up the incredible vista. Mount Sneffels just seemed sooooo close, I figured I had to try it while I was there. The hike up to the saddle was fairly easy, and I could see all the silly jeepers below bouncing around the Yankee Boy parkinglot on the non-wilderness side. A study in contrasts. Mount Sneffels summit sits outside the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, and I suspect someone in the jeep touring industry can explain that irony.

From the saddle, the route quickly became interesting. It took some focus and gumption to scramble around the pinnacles guarding the South Ridge couloir. Once past the couloir, the summit loomed above, not looking much easier. The wind tried to convince me to turn around, but it slacked off and after a few moments of wondering what I was doing, I was on the summit with 3 other nice folks. The view was amazing, and I tried to take a few photos, but as always they don't do justice to grand scenery of dappled sunlight racing across distant ridges, etc, etc. I went back down immediately, and began the hike out.

We celebrated in the hot springs as a rain storm came over the mountains. We watched the fireworks and began driving back home in the dark. After midnight, we began singing the Deer Patrol song to keep us alert, as we passed many a mulee munchin on the roadsides (one was taking a dirt nap). It was a great holiday weekend, but now it's back to work.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Happy Solstice!

I just wanted to wish the planet a happy summer solstice, and especially send some good vibes to those helping protect and restore the Gulf Coast. National Park Service personnel are being enlisted to assist in the BP oil spill cleanup and all of my crew has signed up for the job. We're not sure where or when folks will be deployed, but this will certainly impact our restoration efforts this season at Mesa Verde.

Here's a photo of the beautiful mountains just north of us at Lizard Head pass. We saw lots of waterfalls and mountains the past two weeks. The alpine meadows are starting to thaw and light up with amazing wildflowers.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cheapers the Gosling

Hi World, I'd like for you to meet Cheapers, the Cute Canadian Gosling. We found him in the middle of the road, trying to keep up with Mama Goose and her other 3 chicks. Cheapers was having a hard time walking, so we tried to help. A long-tailed weasel scampered nearby, so we didnt want to leave the scene until Mama came back. She never did, instead leaving Cheapers behind as she went far away. We decided to adopt Cheapers and take him to a rehabilitation center (why dont I donate more to them?!?!?). He was having convulsions and died a few minutes later. Poor Cheapers, I'm sorry you never had the chance to fly, honk at the full moon, and eat delicious pond scum.

I felt bad for depriving the weasel of what he probably considered his job in nature, so we brought the chick back and laid him on the log I saw the weasel scamper upon. Then we went on our not-as-merry way.

Since summer kicked it in with a vengeance, we wanted to see some waterfalls whilst the streams are all running full bore with snowmelt. We were not disappointed. We had a wonderful hike along Four-mile Falls trail and saw a pair of stunning waterfalls. I was hoping we could keep hiking upstream to a lake and hot spring, but there was still too much snow in the trail to be safe.

Denied a hot-spring soak, we stopped in Pagosa Springs to try one of their hot springs. ZOWEEEE! It was so hot I could only stay in for a few minutes before turning lobster red.

Work at Mesa Verde is in full swing too, with us spraying gobs of Musk Thistle, and chasing the Hound's Tounge from under the oaks. From what my boss has noticed from last year is that these treatments make a huge difference. Wahoo! This coming week we are to begin work on Seeps and Springs monitoring.

Monday, June 7, 2010


What a difference a week makes. After just one week of spring-like temps, suddenly it feels like summer! The snow had completed melted off Sleeping Ute, which is the locals indicator for when planting should begin. Then we hit several bright, sunny days reaching into the 90's and snow in the nearby La Platas began melting fast. All the rivers are running full bore, even though it hasn't rained in weeks.

At work, a long time employee of Mesa Verde National Park gave us an excellent field trip to learn the plants of the area. She was extremely knowledgeable, and not only knew the life cycle of many plants, but also the various indigenous uses of them.

Afeared the canyons might become too hot to handle, we forayed into Utah to see some ancient sites along the enigmatic Comb Ridge. We saw the Petroglyph Procession panel, Monarch Cave, and Fishmouth Cave. The last two caves were very interesting sites, with sherds all about the ruins, and even dried corn husks here and there among the ruins. We also saw mountain lion paw prints in the dried mud of a tinaja. Alas, the gnats proved too annoying, so we retreated to the Abajo mountains to camp in the cool conifers.

The next day we toured Arches National Park. It is full of majestic sandstone sculptures, and a photographers paradise. Being Memorial Day weekend, the park was very busy too, especially at such iconic sites as Delicate Arch. However even on one of the busiest days, we could find solitude just a few miles from the campground, such as Tapestry and Navajo Arches. We explored the parks until dark, grabbed grub in Moab, pondered the Polygamy Porter, and blazed on back home. Time flies!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Bears, Bees, Buntings, and a Parrot

The past two weeks at Mesa Verde National Park have been eventful, so I apologize for the delay in updating the blog. I went with the Natural Resource manager on an evening survey for the Mexican Spotted Owl. It was almost too windy to go, but we gambled and it paid off with a very nice sunset and evening. On our hike up Wickiup Canyon, we stopped to observe some of the Cliff Palace Milk Vetch and saw a black bear ambling along the far side of the canyon near Buzzard House. We climbed atop the ridge just as the last light of dusk faded, and then began our owl calls.

At first, all we heard were the crazed calls of Poorwills along Bobcat Canyon. Towards the end of the first survey, we very faintly heard a few hoots, but couldn't identify them. Later, as we hiked down Navajo Canyon, we distintcly heard the calls again. The first guess was that it was a Flammulated Owl, but since the Long-Eared owl call is similar, we weren't sure until we returned to the office and listened to some recordings to eventually conclude it was a Flammulated. It's too bad we didn't hear the Spotted Owl, since it once nested in the park, but hasn't been observed in nearly five years. There's concern that a long-lasting drought is limiting their prey, which consists mostly of small rodents. Both the Mexican and Pacific Spotted Owls are in trouble, so it would be great news for it to return.

Weed killin' is also off to a good start. We went down to Mancos River Canyon to begin treating Whitetop (aka Hoary Cress). The willows along the river bank were a great birding area, and we saw many different species. The most exciting for me was when I looked up to see a brilliant azure bird shining in the sun. I hastily yanked out the binocs to get a better look and immediately recognized it as the Lazuli Bunting! My lifelist luck continued when we saw a Lewis's Woodpecker foraging in the utah junipers near our house while we were having dinner. It's another amazingly beautiful bird, with metallic green along the back and rosey-colored breast.

Another goal in the past two weeks was treating areas we expect to become busy with summer, the campgrounds and parking lots. Not very exciting terrain, but we added another new weed to our kill list: Houndstounge. For the weekend, we went on a trek down Sand Canyon, which had many Anasazi ruins along the trail hidden in the canyon. We also saw a lot of lizards, including a pair of Collared Lizards and this Whiptail enforcing the law. During our explorations in other areas, we noticed many ancient pottery sherds, but also spotted a tiny figurine. When I emailed the photos of the figurine to our staff Arche (short for archeologist), she became exicted and her boss recommended going back to recover the figurine so that it can be studied in the lab.

Typically, most sites are strickly in a non-collection status, even for research archeologists that oversee the site. Only until funding becomes available to begin a proper excavation and research program is a site to be disturbed, otherwise important information would likely be lost or destroyed in a piecemeal approach. This means that the figurine will likely be replaced exactly where we found it, instead of going on display in a museum, the only exception would be if the piece is of special significance. We were able to find the tiny artifact again, and the arche decided it was made from stone and probably represents a parrot. Once the lab investigation is complete, we hope to know more about it.

Meanwhile, back at the ol' homestead, our neighbor has brought in many beehives. The worker bees are efficient foragers, and made a bee-line straight to our hummingbird feeder. Often, the swarm was over 20 bees. The birds didn't trust the bees, and seem to have migrated onward. Hopefully we'll find a way to make both the birds and the bees happy.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Remembered Earth

"Once in our lives we ought to concentrate our minds upon the Remembered Earth. We ought to give ourselves up to a particular landscape in our experience, to look at it from as many angles as we can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it. We ought to imagine that we touch it with our hands at every season and listen to the sounds that are made upon it. We ought to imagine the creatures there and all the faintest motions of the wind. We ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of the dawn and dusk."

So that's the plan. We made the run to Denver last week and passed the supervisor exams, so that should officially end the paperchase for this season. I had the afternoon off, so I took the advice to check out the Nature & Science Museum. The paleontology exhibit was awesome, and I had to give close inspection to the hadrosaurs on display. Another favorite was the lifesize model of a Big Pig (Archaeotherium), that startles the crud outta people when they walk into the room and turn around. So numerous are these rhino fossils out in the badlands that the plains Indians have legends about the time of the Thunder Horses. The museum also had a nice section on Indians and Gems (including Tom's Baby). The human body exhibit was studiously avoided -- I'm the kid that was disturbed by dissecting the cat in highschool bio, so seeing a room full of flayed dead people in strange poses is not on my to do list.

On the drive back home, I stopped for a few leg stretchers along the way. My face quickly began to freeze in the cold, snowy winds at Kenosha pass. Much nicer was the west slope of Wolf Creek pass, that has a nice path to Treasure Falls. The rapidly melting snow has the creek running full tilt, so the viewing area soaked me quickly! Brisk! To increase the excitement, the mist freezes in the fir tree nearby, forming icicles that were melting and falling down. It was nice seeing the Collegiate peaks and Crestone Needles still draped in snow, and I had to dip my hand into the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Brrr!

This week was notable for the first paleontological park opening in Texas: the Minerals Wells Fossil Park - where the public is allowed to collect for free! Too bad I missed the ceremony. I also missed attending the launch of STS-132, the last scheduled flight for Atlantis, but at least was able to watch her fly on TV.

The work week went by quickly, since we're all business now. Lots of dead thistle, and we're just gettin' started. Last night, I was up till 1am helping with an owl prowl. We were surveying for Mexican Spotted Owls, which haven't been conclusively seen in the park for over 4 years. Once the owls would nest, sometimes in conspicuous places. There is concern that recent summer droughts are limiting the rodent population below critical thresholds needed to support more owls. On a more positive note, we saw a black bear on our hike into Wickiup Canyon, and heard many poorwills and a long-eared owl for much of the night.

The area we conducted the survey is along a 90 year old trail that has been closed to the public in modern times to protect the archeological sites. This year, a pilot program has begun to allow hikers a guided trip to see some of the ruins and experience the backcountry, such as Spring House and the Honeymoon Suite. Also along the trail is the rare and endemic Cliff Palace Milk-vetch. We are concerned that hiking will trample many of the plants, so we surveyed the population and flagged the plants we deemed in harm's way. Hopefully visitors will tread even lighter than normal -- since nobody should be a meadow stomper.

"It is here that I can concentrate my mind upon the Remembered Earth. It is here that I am most conscious of being, here that wonder comes upon my blood...." -- Momaday

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I feel... Refreshed!

It's springtime! It seems everything from the air to the flowers seem to be renewed, in fact the federal government even presented me a certificate proving I'm officially refreshed! That's right, the RT-130 Fire Refresher and pack test is complete. Some of the material was reinforcing previous training, such as analyzing factors behind accidents and pretending to be a baked potato. We did cover some new topics too, including how to properly call in an aircraft order.

The cooler weather has resulted in a slower start for some of the weeds, but we are getting ready to begin knocking out the invasive exotic plants. After cleaning and adjusting the backpack sprayers, we needed to uniquely identify them as ours. Mine has been christened Thistle's Bane.

The cool and damp weather this weekend also put a slower start in our exploring the nearby canyonlands. Instead, we hit up a few garage sales in town, patronized the library, and scored a few geocaches in the lovely town park (up to 900 finds!). We also tried one of the two chinese restaurants in town ($3.50 for a bottle of sake), and Once Upon A Sandwich. One of the local art establishments is worth a visit, Notah Dineh, which has many museum quality Navajo pottery, rugs, and other decorations for sale too. Another trading post down the store specializes in beadwork, and I couldn't leave without buying a dinosaur charm.

Staying at home isn't as boring as it sounds. We have great views of the La Plata range to the east, Mesa Verde to the south, and Sleeping Ute to the west. In the far distance is the Chuska mountains in Arizona. Below the hill are two ponds full of geese, ducks, and redwing blackbirds. Closer to the cabin are western bluebirds, Audubon's warblers, broad-tailed hummingbirds, among the usual cast of birds. Mule deer are seen each evening munching outside the fence, with rabbits, skunks, and lizards making guest appearances. There's 3 different types of cactus, prickly pear, claret cup, and rat-tail cholla. There's a venerable Utah Juniper in the yard that I suspect may be old enough to have provided shade to the Anasazi. Considering some Bristlecone pines are over 4,000 years old, they have stood testament over many changes to this land.

This week, I'll be gone for 3 days in Denver to obtain my pesticide license. That should put an end to the paper chase and we can finally begin the weed chase.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

It's beginning to look alot like... April?

We have been watching the snow melt away quickly from the lower elevations here, and being from Texas, felt a slight twang of loss as the pretty snow left the nearby mesas and canyons behind. Imagine my surprise to wake up on Thurs the 22nd to several inches of snow on the ground. Fortunately the roads were in great condition, and we were able to look around a little before getting to work.

Earlier in the week, we had spent a warm afternoon surveying nearby Yucca House Pueblo for several weeds, such as Whitetop (aka Hoary Cress), Knapweed, and the ever present Musk Thistle. We found a huge claret cup cactus that was getting ready to bloom. The ruins themselves are difficult to appreciate: only one wall still stands, and the great kiva looks more like a crater. Large mounds are all that's left of one of the largest pueblos in the area. What was exciting was the vast number of sherds we saw, some with enough painting and markings to be identifiable. This ruin is still unexcavated, so it will be certain to thrill the archeologists who choose to research it.

The following day was spent on Weatherhill Mesa, which is still closed. This summer will be exciting there as a new trail is being opened up to view Mug House Ruin. Something up there has been feasting on the Yucca, so that's a mystery we need to solve. Wild horses still roam the park, mostly at the behest of the neighboring Ute Tribe. However, horses are not native to north america (well, there have been other species of horses in ages long long ago, but not the modern Equus). They are beautiful animals, and those in the park are certainly wild, but if there is no way to keep a balance, both the habitat and the horse will suffer. As you might guess, we suspect horses may be the culprit.

This weekend was mostly spent playing house again (we scored a TV, loveseat, and stuffed elephant - among other treasures)! Sunday, we managed to tour the Canyon of the Ancients. We stopped at Lowry Pueblo and had the place all to ourselves. There is a very interesting Great Kiva there with strange structures inside. The mural inside the indoor kiva was deteriorating, but can now be seen at the Anazasi Cultural center. After that, we toured Painted Hand Pueblo, which so far has been my favorite "wild" archeological site. Very mystical feeling to the area. Further down the road is Hovenweep, which is a large collection of sites. They have a new visitor center and campground, with many ruins nearby. A canyon wren has set up home inside the Castle, and a Raven was laughing at us from Square Tower for having to hike around the canyon. Our brief foray into Utah brought us closer to the Abajo and La Sal mountains, still wreathed in snow. They are a little lower in elevation, so perhaps will be the first mountains we venture into... assuming they haven't been overrun with ORV trails.

Wish me luck for next week: red card refresher complete with pack test is on the schedule!

ps - just a reminder to readers: you can click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anasazis in April

It's still early spring, and it looks like it's arriving slowly here in Montezuma county. Until the snow melts at higher elevations, don't expect too many alpine photos. Some ski areas were still operating on weekends, but we didn't want to risk bad weather on Lizard Head pass -- no snow tires, no chains, no 4wd, no dice.

Instead, this week was wisely spent exploring the lower canyonlands of the Four Corners region, which contain thousands of archeological sites. One of my job responsibilities is to measure and map the flow rates of various springs and seeps at Mesa Verde National Park. We took advantage of nice weather to visit Balcony House ruins, which contains amazingly preserved architecture and two springs which were used by the Cliff Dwellers as a municipal drinking well. These springs are important biologically because they create moist microclimates where ferns, mosses, and even orchids can thrive, some of which are endemic to Mesa Verde.

It was really exciting to be exploring 800 year old ruins as part of my job! Sometimes, it's hard to believe I'm getting paid for this, until we return to the office to keep cramming for our upcoming pesticide licensing. The Red Card refresher course, complete with the dreaded pack test, is also looming on the horizon. Maybe they should call it the "regrunger" course?
If you're jealous that I get paid for this, don't fret too much, because for the next two weeks you can get into Mesa Verde for free. This is because the Spruce Tree House is closed for reconstructing the trails, and isn't scheduled to be complete for a few weeks.

On Saturday, we made the short drive north to Dolores to see the Galloping Goose. The Engineer came out from the station and graciously opened the museum for us. He was very informative, explaining both the interesting history of the Goose, but also information of the upcoming railroad events in Colorado. His enthusiasm was contagious, and his excitement stemmed from their great work in restoring Goose No. 5 to operating condition. It's small enough to be transferred by truck to the D&S and Cumbres & Toltec narrow gauge rails, so we are looking into riding the rails once again.

From Dolores, it's a short drive to the excellent Anasazi Cultural Center, which contain many exhibits and have a short trail up the hill to the ruins of Escalante Pueblo. The receptionist at the museum was also very friendly and helpful, providing us with much information about the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument that extend all across the area. So we spent Sunday afternoon exploring the ruins nearby. The first site is Sand Canyon Pueblo, which is seldom visited. We were all alone, except with the snowy head of Sleeping Ute watching us from over the ridge. Sand Canyon is archeologically very important because it was one of the largest pueblos in this region (bigger than Cliff Palace) and one of the last pueblos to be occupied, being abandoned around 1280 AD. Most of the walls have crumbled, and archeologists chose to rebury rather than reconstruct the ruins in order to preserve them. After that, we spent a short hike along the Hawkins Preserve trail, which contains several archeological sites. I was very excited to find a pottery shard along the trail! We took some macro photos of the nondescript shard and placed it back where we found it, near some spoil heaps just south of the main pueblo. We found out later that shards are not uncommon along the trail, and that we are indeed to never remove an artifact. In general this is very excellent advice: never remove historical artifacts from where you find them (unless they are in immediate danger).

We spent the evening sipping wine and reviewing the day, watching Canadian Geese, Coots, and Buffleheads swim in the pond below and recalling the Golden Eagle that was just down the road. The Buffleheads will soon be gone, and thus mark the end of spring.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ski Mesa Verde

Yowza! We made it to our new cabin and have mostly settled in, and after much phone finagling we were able to get online once again. I began work yesterday, which was mostly an orientation and paperwork shuffle. We're a six person crew this year, so we have high hopes that we will more than double the productivity of last season's 3-person crew.

Leaving work yesterday, it was 70 degrees and REALLY windy, with gusts easily topping 30mph. It kicked up a huge dust storm that momentarily obscured the nearby mountain ranges and gave the sky an eerie metallic cast. As they say in many places, if you don't like the weather in Colorado, just wait a few minutes... yeah, heard that before. Woke up this morning to 28 degrees and snowfall! The drive up the mesa was ok, but looked like it could get sketchy.

Then, by lunch time it had warmed up and the snow melted away. We went for a short walk along Soda Butte to a burn area from 2008 to check on musk thistle. Found 20 rosettes, which we manually eradicated from the area! Hooray! Our first kill of the season! Things will pick up once we get our herbicide licenses. Along the hike, we found this interesting basin with a small hole that may be an archeological site. We took a picture to show the experts for tomorrow.

Leaving Texas behind during it's best month was hard to do; wildflowers everywhere and beautiful weather. But now that we're here, it's great to enjoy the great outdoors.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

March Madness

March always seems to be a crazy month; the weather changes with wild mood swings, plants begin showing signs of spring, birds begin migrating... and this year is no different.

Two weeks ago, I was offered a biological science technician position at Mesa Verde National Park. Considering we are to start mid April, that left a few scant weeks to prepare for the next trip. This past weekend, I just flew in from scouting out the greater Mancos/Cortez area to find suitable habitation. Originally, I was hoping to live in one of the cabins in Mesa Verde itself, but it was not to be. So in just two more weeks, I'll be living in Cortez.

Mesa Verde was the first national park created to "preserve the works of man", these works being the beautiful and archeologically enigmatic ruins of the ancient Pueblo culture. American Indians first arrived in the area around 550A.D., their culture began to flourish and they built many towns in the 4-corners region, such as Hovenweep, Aztec Ruins, Chaco Canyon, and many other impressive sites. This culture eventually faded soon after about 1200 A.D., and the reasons for their disappearance is still debated, although one factor that certainly added stress and may have been the most important was the changing climate made their agricultural practices impossible to sustain such high density communities. Mesa Verde contains so many complete ruins spanning such a long time that it has been declared a World Heritage site.

The park also protects other important and rare "resources", the biological diversity. The Nature Conservancy classifies the entire Mesa Verde National Park as part of the Network of Conservation Areas (NCA) due to exceptional occurrences of rare plant and animal species.

Meanwhile, the Arlington Archosaur Site is off to another great year. Many croc and turtle bones have been recovered, and even a few nice therapod fragments. Unfortunately, I will not be able to assist again until October. I may still have a few chances to contribute to paleontology of the Cretaceous era, since most of the rock formations near Cortez were deposited in the great Western Interior Seaway.

I'll definitely be writing more about all this stuff, but it's time to get moving!