Last updated on Monday, February 24, 2003
Along with the Mexican grey wolf, no grizzly has ranged in these canyons, or anywhere in New Mexico, since the early 1930s (a good enough reason alone to call it the Depression Era). The bear here are the blacks (Ursus americanus), with additional color phases of cinnamon, brown, and custard.
Africanized Honey Bees earned their nickname "killer bees" because of their deadly attacks on people and domestic animals in defense of their hives. They are more likely than European Honey Bees to attack for less provocation and they strike in greater numbers. They pursue victims for a longer time and distance and take longer to calm down afterwards. They swarm more frequently to establish new nests. Away from the hive, they are no more aggressive than other honey bees.
A “glittering fragment of the rainbow” is how Aububon described the hummingbird. Part of summer in New Mexico is being dazzled and entertained by the antics of these little feathered bits of airborne jewelry.
Southern New Mexico elevations range from under 3000 feet to mountains higher than 10,000 feet and cover five life zones from the Upper Sonoran through the Hudsonian. This variety of topography affords homes to birds as dissimilar as sandhill cranes wintering in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and the year-round water ouzel dipping and scratching its underwater way along the bottom of Whitewater Canyon in the Gila National Forest. In the summer, the air around feeders flashes with iridescent purples, greens, blues, and reds as incoming hummingbirds congregate. Some tropical birds such as the elegant trogon breed in a remote canyon of Southern New Mexico, one of the few places they can be seen in the United States.
One searingly hot summer afternoon, I spotted a thrasher standing quite still on the ground in the shade of a small tree. The thrasher's long curved bill was open and its wings slightly spread. At first I thought that it was sick. But then I noticed a plump white-winged dove perched on a branch overhead. It too held its mouth wide open; as I watched, I could see the skin of its throat pulsating rapidly.
In 1937, some very farsighted conservationists realized the need to protect the nation's remaining wetlands. The Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge was one of those acquired during that period under the Department of the Interior and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Strategically located on the Great Plains of the Southwest, it is near the Pecos River east of Roswell. The water of the shallow lake is very brackish, too bitter to drink, and was so named by early cattlemen. It is fed year round by small springs but often goes dry during the hot summer months.
Here in New Mexico we are blessed with at least four varieties of predator felines, and I believe there is the remote possibility of a fifth type roaming secretly in the Southwest New Mexico bootheel.
The smallest species of cat that inhabits our state is one you would never suspect of being a vicious killer of wildlife, but it is, nonetheless. I do not know its scientific name, so I will just call it "Fluffy", or the common house cat. It is one of the primary reasons why there are not more coveys of quail around. Fluffy is a very efficient killing machine, and besides quail, it will regularly prey on young rabbits, songbirds, and small reptiles.
Centipedes are arthropods - critters with external, jointed skeletons like insects, or shrimp, and belong to their own class, Chilopoda, Greek for "thousand feet." Actually, centipedes rarely have more than 60 or 70 feet, and the same number of legs. Although often called insects, centipedes possess too many legs: Insects have six or fewer; centipedes never fewer than 30. Also, insect bodies are divided into three very different segments; centipede bodies are comprised of a tiny head and many similar segments, each sporting one pair of legs.
When Chihuahua chub were first collected in 1851, the notes accompanying the fish mistakenly recorded the collection location as "Rio Mimbres, tributary of the Gila," so the little fish were given the genus name Gila, commemorating the Gila River. However, the Mimbres is not a tributary of the Gila, nor are Chihuahua chub found in the Gila River. So much for scientific accuracy!
The last hundred-fifty years have been tough ones for many of the West's wild creatures: the flood tide of humans, with our appetite for space and resources, has pushed out many, from bison to tiny desert fish. We have been hardest on predators - bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, eagles, hawks - branding them "dangerous," slaughtering them by the millions. Many have disappeared or retreated to protected places. But not wily coyotes - they thrive. And, as urban and city habitat spreads, coyotes are moving in next door, their lively voices echoing through town.
From several miles away, we spotted great swirls of cranes in the air over the fields. As we neared his house, we could see hundreds of the gray, long-necked and long-legged birds picking their way through the straw-colored stubble. When we stopped and rolled down the car windows, the wind brought us the purring murmur of thousands of sandhill voices. Cranes probed the soil for insects and seeds with spearlike beaks, cranes jumped and bowed on long, graceful legs, cranes preened iron-gray feathers, cranes took to the air on wide wings as we drove slowly along the fields. After an hour of careful counting we estimated that we'd seen at least 4,000 sandhill cranes. What an unexpected surprise!
The Smallmouth Bass may well be our finest freshwater gamefish; I think he is. Clearly, he is superior to his bass cousins. The White Bass is a small, staid, tasteless fish compared to the Smallmouth, a school fish given to running, en masse, in man-made lakes. The White Bass is a common fish. The Largemouth Bass has too large a following to be as easily dismissed as the White Bass. It is likely that the Largemouth is the single most sought after species in North America. I think this is because the Largemouth is ubiquitous, at least in the nation's lakes and reservoirs, strikes viciously on artificials, and is a great leaper. The Largemouth is a better eating fish than the White Bass and, all said, is a very good fish; but not even the Largemouth tournament winners and aficionados will claim their fish has the speed, élan or strength per pound of the Smallmouth.
Fall and winter are perfect times to trade the baster for the binoculars and head for the birds at Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico.
Here, a temperate Rio Grande Valley climate and 57,000 acres of wetlands, wilderness and cultivated fields comprise a comfortable stay for thousands of waterfowl and sandhill cranes seeking refuge from northerly ice-covered waters, short daylight hours, cold nights and diminishing food supplies. The population starts building in September and extends through the second week of March, when the last of the cranes starts their migration northward.
Gila monsters and their cousins, Mexican beaded lizards, are the only two venomous lizards in the world. These "monstruos" - monsters, in Spanish - rely on a very simple venom-dispensing method. They bite their victim and hold fast; glands under the skin in their lower jaw secrete venom, which drips into the wound. Gila monster venom can kill small animals. In humans, the venom is severely painful, and causes swelling, nausea, and weakness, but it is not fatal.
You sit around enough campfires or barrooms with enough fisherman and you realize that every one of us is pleased to argue for our favorite fish, favorite fishing spot, and favorite method of pursuing fish. Like the endless debates over guns, game animals, and calibers, these are arguments that won't go away, and that outdoor writers will forever milk for copy.
What most people know about Whitewater Creek is The Catwalk. Go there most any day in good weather and there will be a half dozen cars or more in the parking lot, and a commensurate number of people hiking The Catwalk over the water as the creek comes down the canyon.
Despite their size, great horned owls are often overlooked because of their camouflaging feather pattern and their ability to fly without making a sound. The forward edge of their flight feathers is serrated to disrupt the flow of air over the wing, thus eliminating the noise created by airflow over a smooth surface.
Rocky Mountain grizzlies are solitary except during mating season. They mate in June and July, hibernate from October until April, and only bear cubs every other year or every several years. In a warmer climate, with food available more of the year, did our southern plains grizzlies mate earlier? Hibernate for fewer months? Move into the desert during the rainy season to dig for flowering bulbs and roots? Were they truly more aggressive than the Rocky Mountain silvertips? We cannot know: except for the stories, and the long-clawed footprints chipped into the rock, they are gone.
First of all, despite the name, jackrabbits aren't rabbits at all, they're hares. The gestation period of a rabbit is about 30 days. Hares hold their young seven to ten days longer. And where rabbit young are born bald, blind, and helpless, a just-born hare is already in fur, with eyes open, and the little leveret can hop around. Rabbits, such as the cottontail, like cover; they live in burrows or brush piles and when pursued hard they look for cover or a hole to provide an escape. Hares spend their entire lives on top of the ground, hooding up in a "form" - a mere depression in the grass - when they're not out feeding or moving about. Flushed by a coyote, fox, greyhound, or eagle, a hare will attempt to outrun rather than hide from a predator.
Kangaroo rats are not rats at all; nor are they kangaroos. These rodents are so named because they look like tiny kangaroos, with an upright, hopping gait, huge hind legs and feet, and a long, furry tail which comprises nearly two-thirds of their foot-or-so total length.
While jogging down the irrigation ditchbank one afternoon, I heard a loud, rattling call. A not-quite-crow-sized bird flew up from a perch above the ditch with strong, precise wingbeats, headed downstream. Its distinctive silhouette included a daggerlike bill and a ragged crest atop a big head. Its plumage was sober blue above and pure white below. A wide blue-gray stripe crossed its chest.
Kit foxes are almost exclusively nocturnal, and thus rarely seen. These smallest of North American foxes are beautifully adapted to life in the desert. Their pale coloring makes them nearly invisible against a background of light-colored desert soils. Thickly-furred paws allow them to trot silently as they go about their nightly rounds; the hair also helps them float on sandy soils. Large ears help these dusk-to-dawn hunters to pick up night sounds. Even their small size may work to their advantage, making it easier to keep cool.
The flora and the fauna come together in the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park at the north edge of Carlsbad, New Mexico, on U.S. Highway 285. It takes visitors through the diverse Chihuahuan Desert, the largest in North America, that spans Southeast New Mexico into the rugged terrain of the Guadalupe Mountains and Mexico. The Park is located on top of the Ocotillo Hills overlooking Carlsbad and the Pecos River valley.
Male mockingbirds exercise their vocal artistry most during the early spring and summer mating seasons. They sing for reasons similar to those which motivate human males to cruise city streets: to advertise their maleness, attract mates, discourage competitors, and to delineate their territories. The more extensive his vocal repertoire, the better chance a male mockingbird has of mimicking and driving away other birds, thereby gaining a larger share of habitat, and more access to the female listening audience. The songsters pick high perches - television antennas, utility poles, or tall cacti, shrubs, or trees - to better broadcast their signals. Unmated males sometimes sing all night long!
Mountain lions, also called cougars, pumas, or simply leones, are the second largest cat in the Americas. (Only jaguars are larger.) Full-grown male leones weigh around 160 pounds (females weigh in at about 135 pounds), and measure up to seven feet from nose to the end of their long tail. These big cats were once the most widespread wild cat in the Americas, ranging from Patagonia to Canada, and from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic. These days, mountain lions are much less common, but lion populations are still healthy in New Mexico because of the rugged terrain and abundant habitat.
Snakes are perhaps the most feared and hated animals in New Mexico, but people’s fear of snakes comes from lack of understanding and superstition. Snakes are not mysterious at all, and these fascinating creatures don’t deserve the anxiety many people feel about them. Of the 46 snake species found in New Mexico, only 8 are poisonous and potentially dangerous, including 7 species of rattlesnakes and a coral snake.
One evening in early May, I set out on a walk along the irrigation ditch at dusk. As I turned the corner onto the ditch road, I saw a cloud of birds flying back and forth, skimming low over the water, fluttering up over the road, then turning and flying back down the ditch like swimmers executing graceful laps.
Pack rats are particularly attracted to shiny objects - watches, jewelry, coins, and, of course, aluminum cans. One nest even sported an upper denture plate! An average den of a desert-dwelling pack rat contains about 20 cubic feet of material - enough to fill a trash bag‹and may reach 4.5 feet high by 2 feet wide.
Piñacate beetles are among the most conspicuous insects in the Southwest. Over a hundred species live from lowland deserts to foothills to piñon-juniper woodlands. Feeding on minute particles of wind-blown organic matter and fungus, Piñacate beetles help recycle nutrients and keep arid-country soils fertile.
Prairie dogs are colonial critters, living in extensive colonies of hundreds to millions of individual animals. Each prairie dog colony is divided into half-acre neighborhoods called coteries, inhabited by one male, several females, and the young of the year. Coterie members greet each other by "kissing," gently touching noses and lips.
Quail are among the desert's most beloved birds. Gregarious and loquacious, they live in groups and fill the air with their soft whistles, clucks and metallic plinking sounds. Their habits make quail easily seen and heard. In The Mysterious Lands, Ann Zwinger describes Gambel's quail: "They remind me of charming wind-up toys - bustling about with staccato movements, officiously giving each other directions as they forage among the creosote bushes. In winter, quail often congregate in flocks of one or two hundred birds; in summer, they split up into family-group coveys of a dozen or so. They graze the desert like flocks of small chickens, munching on succulent plants, fruits and seeds, and insects."
Rattlesnakes come equipped with a venom-dispensing mechanism that is among the most sophisticated of all snakes'. Hollow fangs folded back at the front of their upper jaw swing down and forward when a rattler bites, stabbing and dripping venom in a single swift thrust. Rattlers' neurotoxic venom serves to subdue their prey, and also as self-defense. Rattlesnakes hunt and eat a wide variety of prey, mostly rodents such as mice and kangaroo rats, but also other small mammals, birds, lizards, and frogs. Their broad, triangular heads are designed to accommodate articulated jaws which open many times as wide as human jaws, allowing rattlers to swallow prey as large as prairie dogs whole.
Ravens gather as fall days become shorter, aggregating in larger and larger flocks until their winter roosts number a few hundred, or a thousand birds. Such a nighttime raven roost sounds like a city of restless sleepers: the air is alive with mutters, soft cries, whimpers, sighs. The black shapes shift and rustle, jockeying for better positions in the roost trees. Now and then a few ravens will suddenly rise into the air on stiff black wings, then one by one, drift back to settle on the branches again.
In the thousands of vehicles that travel
Interstate 25 between Las Cruces and
Albuquerque every day, some occupants have noticed a new
highway sign for the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, which
spans the Rio Grande a few miles north of
Socorro. Not as well-known or accessible as its more famous
neighbor to the south, Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife
Refuge, Sevilleta nevertheless occupies a special place in the
hierarchy of protected lands due to its stark beauty, diversity, and research
River otters are the Southwest's water acrobats. These graceful animals swim right side up, upside down, on their side, or any way they choose. River otters can undulate like fish, using their heavy tail as a rudder. They can execute sudden U-turns, dive as deep as 40 feet, and race one another. These playful animals make slides in muddy or icy streambanks by loping up the bank, flopping on their belly, then sliding with a "splash" into the water. River otters are gregarious animals, and are usually seen in pairs or family groups.
Spadefoots spend much of their lives - years, in extreme droughts - dug deep under the soil surface, barely respiring, dormant. But after heavy summer rains, they emerge in noisy abundance. Roused by the sound waves of thunder, the toads tunnel upwards at night from solitary burrows as deep as two feet below the surface, hop to the nearest water - puddles, temporary ponds, roadside ditches - and squat, rehydrating their parched bodies through a porous skin patch on their bellies. Males float and bellow their desire; the curious trills and bleats of thousands of tiny swelling throats carry for miles. Females, drawn to the din, find a mate: The two float while he clambers atop her and squirts sperm over the eggs she exudes.
Spadefoot toads are named for their "spades," black, sharp-edged scrapers on the underside of each hind leg near their hind foot. Like many desert residents, these small amphibians take refuge in the soil to escape both drought and extreme temperatures. Unlike most, however, spadefoots spend the majority of their lives - years, in extreme droughts - dug deep in the earth, barely respiring, dormant. Since spadefoots literally dehydrate when exposed to dry air, they emerge only on a handful of nights each year when water is briefly abundant during the summer monsoon season. Their sudden appearance and equally abrupt disappearance raises many questions. For instance, what do they eat?
Last spring, our second in Southern New Mexico, my wife and I discovered that this part of the country has the most shameless bunch of birds we have ever seen. I mean, it's disgraceful!
They sing all day, sometimes even into the night, and they want us to think they are a charming delight, but we know what they're really up to. It's caboodling. That's what they're really up to. Birds can't outsmart us!
It is late winter, a Monday afternoon, in New Mexico's Middle Rio Grande Valley. The temperature outside hovers at sixty degrees. For one person, the temptation to remove his coat and tie and play hooky from work is too compelling to resist. From Socorro, our adventurer drives south on New Mexico Highway 1 toward the entrancing and renowned Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. He must, for obvious reasons, remain anonymous.
From the side, a razorback sucker looks quite bizarre, with its blunt-nosed head and high, humped back. But the fish is perfectly adapted for the habitat where it lives out its adult years: the turbulent reaches of desert rivers. Its flattened body and knife-thin back hump act as a keel, helping the fish easily stay oriented in roaring currents. That tiny mouth with its thick lips vacuums up small bits of food mainly fly and mosquito larvae, and algae‹from riverbottom rocks.
The arachnid order of whipscorpions is a small one (called Uropygi, with about 130 species in two families worldwide). Of the two U.S. species, only one is common in places: Mastigoproctus giganteus, the giant vinegaroon, and it's also the largest species in the entire order. This species is supposed to extend throughout the southern states from Florida to California, but West Texas, Arizona and New Mexico are the places they are seen the most.
The village of Capitan, New Mexico has a story unique to the
world. It is the birthplace and burial site of the world's most well-known bear.
Smokey's story is factual although it might appear to be fictitious.
It is believed that on May 4, 1950, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt
started the Los Tablos blaze in the Lincoln National
Forest . On May 6, a second fire, known as the Capitan Gap fire, which
was also man-caused, started in the same general area. Together these fires
destroyed 17,000 acres of forest and grasslands. The monetary loss to private
properties was great, but the loss to the wildlife and environment was even
Whip scorpions, or vinegarones, are related to both spiders and scorpions. But unlike the latter and some of the former, they are not venomous, although they look quite formidable. Their 3.5-inch-long, blackish body resembles an overgrown scorpion, with stout, inward-curving pincers as long as my thumb extending forward from their tiny head. Four pairs of slender legs stretch from their many-segmented abdomen; the first pair function as antennae, sweeping the ground in front of the whip scorpion, like a blind person feeling their way with a white cane. (Not that whip scorpions are blind; on the contrary, they possess eight perfectly serviceable compound eyes - two just above the mouth between the massive pincers, three on each side of their head. But they hunt in the dark, capturing their prey by feel.)
Ungainly on land, vultures excel in the air. These master gliders can soar gracefully for hours with nary a beat of their 6-foot-wide wings, riding thermals - rising columns or bubbles of warm air - or coasting on the streams of wind. With broad wings and a low wing loading (the ratio of body weight to wing area), vultures can soar at extremely slow speeds without sacrificing maneuverability. By soaring with their wingtip feathers spread wide like the fingers on a hand, vultures counteract the large amount of drag produced by their wide wings, reducing wingtip turbulence and lowering their stalling speed. When soaring slowly, vultures actually glide downward to maintain forward thrust, but they stay aloft because the rising warm air propels them upwards faster than they sink.
Those who admire the Arabian horse are fond of talking about the animal's versatility, and they have a point. The show horse people exhibit them in English classes, and the critter's animated and brilliant action make them frequent winners. Pretty as a picture, they are, but most folks would say the American saddlebred horses do it a little better.
One spring, we raised the cement block wall that encloses our yard. Soon after the builders had finished, I saw the first lizard of the year, stretched out in the sun on the vertical face of the wall as if gravity had no hold on her slight body. I borrowed Richard's binoculars for a closer view. Just about five inches long, the lagartija (little lizard) was faded brown all over, and marked head to tail with cream-colored stripes, each paralleled by a precise line of tiny, yellow dots. The lizard's hind legs were huge, and her tail extravagently long.
Windscorpions (order Solifugae) got their name because they seem to "run like the wind." They're a hyper group of arachnids with about 1,000 species world-wide. Perhaps 120 or so species are present in then U.S., with most seen in the arid Southwest. Some species reach nearly three inches in length. This qualifies them as one of the largest arachnids. Most hide during the day and come out at night to scamper about in a frenzied search for food or a mate, but some species (mostly in Africa) are active during the day.