August 6th, 2014
Once again, I am lucky enough to have spent an entire week, Monday through Friday, in the Jemez and Valles Caldera, doing bird surveys with Jennifer. This time I did not get sick and was able to fully enjoy all five days. Enjoy, indeed—it rained every night so the mornings were not so bitterly cold (as they can get, at 4:45 AM up in the mountains) and the afternoons were not so terribly hot. Everything was green and in full bloom. One route through the Valles Caldera was particularly memorable: the road was completely washed out about halfway through from the rains, so we walked the kilometer or so between points, right along the back edge of the huge main meadow.
I hear the area is known as “obsidian valley,” which makes sense because within each landslide was a considerable amount of obsidian, shiny black or translucent grey in its freshly-broken glory. Other treasures we encountered were a partial desert-dried elk skeleton (think Georgia O’Keeffe), the largest lichen patch I’ve ever seen, and an entire field of penstemons, complete with warring Rufous, Broad-tailed and Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Thinking back on it, the entire survey seemed to be in some kind of fairyland, where the unusual was common and even ordinary things became larger than life. The sunrise, the sheer variety of birds and meadow plants, the elk herd crossing the road in front of us, the beautiful coyote and strange crickets, everything came together to make it a magical morning.
In bird news, I can now identify several more songs, including those of Pygmy Nuthatches, Northern Flickers, Western Wood-Peewees, and the odd buzzing noise that Ash-throated Flycatchers make when pursuing insects. On the washed-out road around the Caldera, I could at some point distinguish between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, and between Vesper Sparrows and Green-tailed Towhees (I don’t really know why they sound so similar to me). Several weeks of nothing but House Finch and White-winged Dove calls have now rendered me clueless, but I’ve started keeping a list of bird calls and identifying marks inside my bird book. Let’s hope it’ll help me stay at least somewhat literate with bird calls…
Speaking of Pygmy Nuthatches, Jennifer gave me a “homework” assignment to research these birds, I suppose to spread the cuteness. They’re her favorite birds, and after reading about them on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I can see why. They weigh about a third of an ounce and eat nine whole calories a day. Some breeding pairs use family members, typically last year’s male children, as helpers to build the nest, defend it, and feed incubating females and chicks. A creative way to deal with lazy teenage sons, I suppose. They will also huddle in groups during cold weather—”sometimes more than 150 individuals sleep in a single tree, stacked up in squares, triangles, diamonds, oblongs, or tiers of birds”—and are the only North American birds to combine that behavior with controlled hypothermia as a method of staying alive. And, as my dad says, you hear a name like “pygmy nuthatch” and just brace yourself for cuteness. If you’re in need of something to brighten up your day, go to the Cornell website and listen to the recording of their “twittering and piping calls,” which the website compares to a rubber ducky. Gosh, how adorable. Good choice, Jennifer, though I think my faves are still Ash-throated Flycatchers.
I’ll stop writing now so I can instead bombard you with beautiful photos from the long meadow walk through the Valles Caldera (click to enlarge). It was a bittersweet trip anyway because it was my last overnight field work this summer, plus I’m heading back to college all too soon. I’ll definitely miss these landscapes when I go back to Massachusetts!