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.