Odile's Gift to the Twin Cities of Portal Rodeo

Hurricane Odile arrived from the Pacific after moving across northern Mexico and southern Arizona.  Its' arrival began as a slow march of cloud cover up the San Simon valley and over the mountains.  The resulting sunset was a multicolored event that belied the amount of rain that was to fall.  The first 2 days of rain were light at the Painted Pony Resort where a modest 0.11" and 0.26" of rain were recorded.  Then the main mass of the storm arrived bringing significant amounts of rainfall to the area with reported 1 day totals between 4 - 5 inches of rain around the valley.  Cave Creek Canyon experienced serious flooding as did areas of the valley including highway 80.  The main mass of the storm delivered 3.34" of rain to the estate over a 24 hr period and then began to taper off with a final days total of 0.41".  The total accumulated rainfall for the storm on the estate was 4.17" bringing the yearly reported total for station NM-HD-17 to 12.54".

As shown in the images below, water flow across the landscape (flooding) was confined to 2 areas where an old drainage from the west crosses the estate on its way to the San Simon river bed.  Experiencing mostly sheet flooding water depth reached a maximum depth of 1-2', although wide swaths of the road were flooded.  Of course the riverbed itself as conduit for water from up the valley (to the south) had several feet of water and the east side of the estate is currently inaccessible.  The check dams, tumbleweed garlands, and topsoil restoration barriers preformed well and all were in place after the storm.  Capturing sediment and slowing water flow these structures protected segments of the road and barren areas of the landscape slowing the water and depositing sediment.  One problem arroyo along Painted Pony Rd. collected about a foot of sediment during the storm demonstrating the efficacy of water management efforts on the estate.

The arrival of Odile was heralded by a multicolored sunset over the San Simon valley.
After the big rain - looking west at the flow across Nighthawk Rd.

After the big rain - looking south at the flow across Painted Pony Rd.
After the big rain - an old drainage that has good grass cover.

After the big rain - a check dam with tumbleweed garland and newly collected sediment along Painted Pony Road.
After the big rain - performance of topsoil restoration barrier installed last year.


Rangeland Rehabilitation: Stabilizing Arroyos

Arroyos in the desert southwest are major conduits of water across the landscape and during the rainy seasons can be major sources of erosion on a lightly vegetated landscape.  On the 756 acres of the Painted Pony Resort just several arroyos contribute to the majority of erosional damage on the estate.  These arroyos collect water from the west flanks of the Peloncillo mountains which is concentrated into 3 arroyos by bridges along the old El Paso and Southwestern Railroad running along the base of the mountains.  The water collected on the up slope side of the railroad bed is funneled through the bridges and across the property down these 3 arroyos eventually reaching the San Simon Riverbed.  The concentrated and rapidly flowing water erodes both down through the soils and also moves the arroyos laterally.  The high velocity water makes roads on the east side of the estate impassible and washes out culverts and crossings which require significant repair work.  While the changes in drainage patterns as a result of the railroad bridges is beyond one persons ability to easily change, the arroyos resulting from a century of landscape modification can be managed to reduce the damage caused by concentrated high velocity water.  

One of several arroyo management techniques in use requires stabilization of the arroyo banks.  Over 10' deep in places on the estate, arroyo banks frequently collapse and stabilization would reduce the amount of soil eroded during the rains.  But what sort of stabilization technique is applicable?  Being in favor of utilizing low cost materials that are available on the landscape this is the approach most frequently chosen.  Many times people toss in whatever garbage is available into arroyos to slow water flow and protect the banks, but this approach results in an arroyo strewn with leftover wood and metal products which randomly catch sediment and is unsightly (the out of sight out of mind approach).  An alternative approach is to utilize plants for stabilization.  In this case, a native species of ground spreading gourd Cucurbita sp.. 

Members of this genus are low growing ground covering annuals and perennials, in many species the fruit is edible and include cultivars of squash and pumpkin.  Adapted to arid climates and growing well in sandy soils they can be found along roadsides and the gourds may be collected in the late summer.  Producing about 300 seeds/gourd, 3 species of Cucurbita are found on the estate, Cucurbita digitata , Cucurbita foetidissima, and an unidentified species.  The green developing gourds turn yellow when dried and are easily spotted on the landscape for collection.  Arroyo stabilization requires harvesting the gourds and extracting the seeds which are then planted high along the edges of arroyos.  The gourd produces a taproot allowing it anchor itself deeply in soil ensuring it will not wash out with periodic high water and hold the soil.  The long vines it produces cover the ground, absorbing energy and slowing water, and will hang along vertical surfaces allowing its large leaves to protect the underlying soil, reducing soil loss.

Previous tests with planted Cucurbita along the entrance driveway resulted in plant coverage over areas of barren ground which has allowed additional grass to establish itself.  So this is being expanded to treat problem arroyos on the estate.  Collected seeds were planted at about 50 locations along a segments of 2 deep arroyos at the bottom to the top at a depth of 1-2".  Starting at the old bridge, quarter sections of gourds were cut and planted along the banks for a distance of several hundred feet.  Next years crop of gourds should spread downstream with the goal of creating more plants that will stabilize these problem arroyos.

Fruit from C. digitata, C. foetidissima, and an unknown species harvested from the estate.
Looking downstream along a problem arroyo, treated by planting native gourds .

Looking upstream at an old El Paso and Southwestern railroad bridge that funnels water creating problem arroyos.

Native Cucurbita along an arroyo showing how the vines and leaves provide cover for developing grasses.



As a result of 5+ inches of rain in one month (August) the weeds have gone to town.  I hand pull most weeds so I have material for the topsoil restoration barriers but this is getting ridiculous.

This area around the bungalow, inside and outside the wall, was weeded numerous times this summer.  Three times for tumbleweed and other volunteers, and now for the annual finger grass that mysteriously grew after the last herbicide treatment.  Fortunately, finger grass is an annual and will die on its own after seeding and it is easy to pull, so I'll be spending the rest of the day pulling grass.

Partially cleared Finger grass, an annual grass growing around the bungalow.

cleared of weeds.


Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days 2014

Another great community event this weekend.  The Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days are a yearly event sponsored by local interests to celebrate the natural and cultural heritage of the area.  Starting Friday evening with a reception and keynote address by a climate scientist from Tucson.  Saturday was filled with talks ranging from C.S. Fly to soil mapping in Arizona and New Mexico and a special kids area with activities was hosted by local educators.  Lunch was catered by the Rodeo Tavern with tasty southwestern style chicken fajitas and eggplant casserole.  The rain held off, though we were hoping, and Sundays scheduled walk at Faraway ranch and the wildflower walk up Cave Creek had nice cool temperatures.  This year marked support for the event by Hidalgo county lodgers tax, as well as other local businesses, which means the event is becoming self sustaining.  This bodes well for future Heritage days and I certainly look forward to the event every year.

The craft and farmers market.

Waiting for the talks to begin.

Friends of Cave Creek Canyon display board.

Speakers and presentations.


Preparing for the Monsoon Rains: Arroyo Stabilization

A number of small arroyos along Painted Pony Road contribute to road damage when the monsoons arrive.  By funneling water onto the road during a rain storm, it erodes the surface and leaves the corner a muddy mess.  To mitigate this problem tumbleweed garlands were created last year and placed in a number of arroyos along with check dams in an attempt to slow the water, rebuild the arroyos, and protect the road.  The only problem last year were the cattle, which ate many of the tumbleweed garlands mistaking them for brightly wrapped feed.  But this year the cattle stayed away from the road (fencing helps) and a new crop of tumbleweed was ready for harvest.  Tumbleweed growing along the flanks of the river bed was harvested and again wrapped with twine to create long garlands.  These were then placed in the problem arroyos on the upslope side of the road.  The check dams were then reinforced with new rock bringing the heights above last years collected sediment.  Although a slow process, this method of filling in small arroyos helps with the yearly erosion problems and combined with a check dam along the outside corner of the road to catch additional sediment the corner is in much better condition.

Harvesting tumble weed for arroyo garlands.
The same arroyo as shown below with rock added to the check dam with installed tumble weed garland.
A problem arroyo early in the treatment phase.  Note small check dam.
Rock soil barrier at the corner of Painted Pony Road.  Note 2 layers of rock as the barrier stops sediment from eroding the barrier must be raised.


More Horse, of Course

With the arrival of the monsoon more bone has come to light.  The small arroyo where the teeth were originally found produced another bone.  Tentatively identified as a calcaneus bone,  it was discovered about 4' from the pelvis.  It is still unclear whether the animal was dis-articulated after death (either by scavengers or humans) or whether the animal was initially intact but poor preservation conditions resulted fragmentary fossilization.  This question will have to wait until more evidence is uncovered, but a map of artifacts found on the surface surrounding the location currently do not give any indication of obvious relationships.  In spite of the fragmentary evidence, the location of the teeth (especially those with fresh breaks), the pelvis, and now a calcaneus suggests the animal was on its right side with the head toward the road when it was covered and the preservation process began.

new mexico fossils
An in situ fossilized calcaneus bone from a horse.

Location of calcaneus relative to the presumptive pelvis.
Marrow cavity and spongy bone is visible in the cross section of the calcaneus.
Google map showing distribution of surface artifacts noted around the horse.


Rangeland Rehabilitation: In Defense of Weeds

Weeds, the ubiquitous unwanted plants.  Their characteristics such as rapid growth and spread, combined with their ability to colonize disturbed environments make them the bane of many land owners.  But there is an upside to weeds, especially if working to rehabilitate former rangeland such as the grassland restoration project at the Painted Pony Resort.  Local Plamer's pigweed or Amaranthus palmeri grows on the estate and particularly likes the lowest sections of the river bottom where it can be found in large swaths during the monsoon season.  Native to the southwest and edible, its' ability to quickly convert soil nutrients into biomass results in rapid growth and combined with the ability to sequester excess nitrogen makes it ideal for topsoil barriers construction (no additional fertilizer required).  Since pigweed may be toxic to cattle because of the nitrates in the leaves, it is an undesirable species in the restored grasslands of the riverbed so an alternate use for this plant was sought.  The previous years test barrier experiments with local pigweed resulted in new grass along the test barriers (see last image), so this was expanded to include additional areas on the estate.  Pigweed in the river bottom was harvested with the rake on the tractor.  The material was then transported up onto the benches along the riverbed and distributed in rows perpendicular to the dip (parallel to the San Simon riverbed) allowing the biomass to collect wind and waterborne sediment and additional seeds.  This micro-habitat will in turn support new grass next season.  The new grass will continue to slow water on the landscape allowing time for more water to soak into the ground which will in turn support more grass, creating a cycle which will eventually rebuild topsoil and return the landscape into desirable grasslands.  So what is considered a nuisance by some has an important use on the estate and is one more way to use what the land produces to help restore other areas.

Collecting Amaranthus palmeri from the San Simon riverbed
Clearing pigweed in the river bottom
Several hundred feet of topsoil restoration barrier in place.
A pigweed barrier from last year with new grass on barren soil.


Like a Kid in a Candy Store

As a biologist I have always had access to a microscope, whether in school or operating a lab, a microscope has always been an integral part of being a biologist.  But for the past several years I have not had access to a microscope.  A good compound microscope is expensive and all I really needed was a dissecting microscope but even those can be expensive.  A local dissecting microscope became available but tires for the vehicle had priority and ate up all the savings.  So I had been looking online at available microscopes.  Noticing that a variety of USB digital microscopes were available I began looking at them as opposed to a traditional dissecting microscope.  While most available digital microscopes have either no stand or a poorly designed stand, one manufacturer has included a solid stand to hold it's digital microscope, a must for steady closeup work.  Celestron, a telescope manufacturer, has a series of digital microscopes which come with adjustable stands.  I chose the 5 MP digital microscope based on the potential resolution and the adjustable stand.  With both course and fine focusing this digital microscope may also be calibrated for measuring objects.  Easy to setup and use, it will be a useful addition to my tool box allowing exploration of the 756 acre Painted Pony Resort at a much smaller scale.  Below are a few images made while testing the new instrument.

Celestron digital USB microscope
Secondary flaking along the edge of a burin.
Tentatively identified as a Longhorn beetle, tribe Lepturini .
Cut surface of an interesting magnetic rock from the estate under study.


Range Restoration: Building Topsoil

The Painted Pony Resort lies in San Simon Valley between the Chiricahua Mountains and Peloncillo Mountains of southwestern New Mexico just a couple of miles from the Arizona boarder which bisects the valley.  An open valley set between towering mountains ranges a variety of people have called it home.  From early hunter gather groups to early agricultural groups such as the Mimbres and Hohokam and up to the present the valley has seen it all, from hunting to farming and most recently grazing.

Past range management decisions, beginning in the late 1800's with corporate ranching combined with changes in rainfall have resulted in a generally altered rangeland in many areas of the valley.  A decrease in grasses combined with an increase in woody shrubs, notably mesquite and creosote, have reduced the current productivity of the landscape.  A local attempt to restore and sustain the grasslands is spearheaded by the Malpai Borderlands group whose goal "is to restore and maintain the natural processes that create and protect a healthy, unfragmented landscape to support a diverse, flourishing community of human, plant and animal life in our borderlands region."  Through their efforts much of the bootheel is managed for both cattle and wildlife.  Yet there are other areas (notably public lands, state and federal) where management practices are not producing an increasingly productive landscape but rather a continuing decrease in productivity is observed (see image below).  One of the goals at the Painted Pony Resort is to increase range land productivity on the estate through the grasslands restoration project.

The estate is composed of 750 deeded acres spanning the both sides of the San Simon Riverbed, it includes 6 types of soil, and last year received about 10.75" of rain (CoCoRaHS rain network, NM-HD-17).  The ground cover varies significantly across the estate and ranges from areas denuded of grasses where erosion has eliminated the topsoil to other areas such as the riverbed where fencing has created a seed reservoir used for spreading native grass seed back onto the surrounding landscape.  After successful preliminary experiments with simple top soil restoration barriers as a tool to slow erosion and encourage new grasses these barriers were expanded in both scope and materials.  Instead of simple barriers constructed from cut weeds, mesquite from the riverbed was employed to create topsoil restoration barriers.  Mechanically removed mesquite is transported up out of the riverbed and placed in rows perpendicular to either the dip or to the prevailing winds on a scarified subsoil base.  Grass from the riverbed is then harvested and placed on the upwind (up dip) side of the mesquite barrier followed by some soil from the riverbed to reintroduce microbes and nematodes crucial to developing new topsoil.  The branches of the mesquite combined with raked grasses create micro climates on the exposed subsoil leading to new plant growth.

The result of this effort is already producing results.  As shown below the mesquite topsoil barriers have caught wind blown seed, slowed water flow and new grasses are developing along the restoration barriers.  A simple technique that can be implemented by anyone, the topsoil restoration barriers are useful tools for building new topsoil and restoring the landscape and best of all require no investment beyond time and energy.

loss of ground cover results in loss of topsoil
Blowing dust on New Mexico State land, the result of poor range management decisions.

Soil map showing the boundaries of the Painted Pony Resort.

landscape restoration
Three topsoil restoration barriers installed on the exposed subsoil, click to enlarge.

New grass along a mesquite topsoil barrier

New grass along a topsoil barrier
A topsoil restoration barrier with new grass created from road waste.


Louisiana State Arthropod Museum (LSAM) Returns

The Louisiana State Arthropod Museum returned this month for another visit.  Students and museum staff make the yearly trip and upon their arrival at the Painted Pony Resort is transformed into a field station for the duration of their visit.  Collecting equipment is unloaded, processing stations created in the garage, and microscope stations set up in the computer room.  After dinner and an evening introductory lecture on the high desert of New Mexico everyone relaxes in the hot tub or heated pool after the long drive then begin preparations for collecting projects.  The days are filled with collecting at various locations from the valley floor up to elevations over 9000' in the high country.  While a series of flight intercept traps are set up around the mountain range to sample the local insect populations.  Favorite collecting locations are visited and repeat samples collected.  Each evening students and staff return and a communal dinner is prepared.  Every day a different person is responsible for preparing dinner for the group which creates a series of international meals since students and staff come from around the world to study at the museum.  After dinner samples are processed and then the group relaxes with a movie, more swimming, and black light stations set up around the estate are monitored.  Of course with 750 acres the Painted Pony Resort and adjoining public lands are also used for collecting and students could be found out on the landscape with nets throughout their visit.

Here are several images by Mike Ferro of LSAMs 2014 visit to the Painted Pony Resort.  Additional images from the 2014 LSAM collecting trip may be found at:

The first evenings lecture

The arrival and unloading

Collecting in the high desert
Collecting at the light trap
Processing samples in the garage
Microscope station in the computer room
Relaxing after a day of field work
Collecting from an ephemeral pool next to the estate


2014 Monsoon Season in Southwestern New Mexico

The monsoon season is well underway and the mountains on both sides of the San Simon valley are receiving good rains.  But out in the middle of the valley it is a little slower.  The Painted Pony Resort has received about 6" so far this year and hoping for more.  Yesterdays rain was heavy in both the Peloncillos and Chiricahuas but we received only 0.07".  This morning though the views were nice and I took some time from cleaning to capture the image below.  Desaturated, the image is just one of the many faces of the Chiricahua mountains, always changing with the light and seasons.  Always something new to see.

The 8000' Portal Peak on the east side of the Chiricahua mountains


Mesquite Treatment and Rangeland Restoration

One of the goals of the grassland restoration project is to return the segment of the San Simon riverbed at the Painted Pony Resort to open grassland, creating a seed reservoir, and this means removing mesquite.  The riverbed was over run with mesquite as a result of unmanaged cattle grazing.  Cattle are a major dispersal agent in the spread of mesquite, eating and passing seeds back onto the landscape where they germinate.  Originally confined to riparian areas, mesquite has spread across the landscape in modern times.  But it is not all bad, mesquite provide forage for cattle and other native browsers, habitat for nesting birds, and most importantly they fix nitrogen in addition to holding the soil.  Mesquite can be stubborn to remove since they produce deep tap roots and mechanically removed mesquite come back quickly requiring further treatment.  A backhoe or other device that will pull the taproot out is required to completely remove the plant and prevent regrowth.  Alternatively, herbicide treatment may be used after initial removal of the above ground portions of the plant.  But tests by others with a number of different herbicides show variable results with both application timing and herbicide compound being important variables.  Because of the variable results with different herbicides a 2 prong approach was chosen for herbicide treatment.  Glyphosate (the active chemical compound found in Roundup) is available off label at 40% concentration.   This is diluted to a final concentration of 2% (found in commercially available formulations) and combined with 2,4-D at a final concentration of 0.2%.  2,4-D is a plant hormone analogue while Glyphosate interrupts amino acid synthesis.  Once absorbed both herbicides work through different mechanisms interrupting plant growth and killing the reoccurring mesquite.  Below are photographs of a mechanically removed mesquite in the riverbed treated with this combination of herbicides.  Although effective some regrowth is noted requiring a second application to finish off the mesquite.

This combination of mechanical removal followed by herbicide treatment is returning the riverbed to an open grassland while maintaining a few large single stemmed mesquites for habitat and leaving mesquite along the margins and on the uplands to provide cover, soil stabilization, and nitrogen fixation this approach shows what may be accomplished with a minimal investment.  

Untreated, 2 weeks after mechanical removal

96 hrs post herbicide treatment

10 days post herbicide treatment, residual new growth will require a second treatment