Tiny Planets of the Chiricahua Mountains

Life in southwestern New Mexico in the San Simon Valley between Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains and New Mexico's Peloncillo Mountains is like living on a tiny planet of your own.  I have written about the Bubble hypothesis, here and here, but to date have not created anything visual to illustrate the idea.  Below are several panoramas of the Chiricahua Mountains that were modified to illustrate the idea of the Bubble.  The original panoramic images were circularized and cleaned up to show the mountain range as a tiny planet in either a simple black background or with some starscapes.  The idea of little or tiny planets is not new, for example see these images, but it was something I had not given much thought to, until now.  The process is rather simple, a panorama is inverted then mapped to polar coordinates which circularizes the image.  The seam is cleaned up and any other modifications of the digital image are performed.  These 5 examples in color and black and white are just one more way of "seeing" the landscape in a different way.


Painting the Woodwork

Living at about 4,000' MSL in the high desert means increased UV exposure.  UV plays havoc with painted surfaces and over time the buildings at the Painted Pony Resort need new paint especially the woodwork.  Several years ago all the woodwork on the buildings required cleaning and re-staining, see this video for a time lapse of cleaning and staining.  Well, that time has arrived again and the courtyard of the main house was in need of some attention so back out with the power washer, ladder, and stain.  After cleaning all the woodwork a thick coat on new stain was applied bringing new life to faded columns.  Of course now that I have done the courtyard woodwork on the rest of the building now needs attention and if one building is done they all need doing.  A never ending job.

Power washing woodwork

Re-staining woodwork

Columns finished

Finishing the vigas


The Experimental Control

Every experiment in science has a control which can be thought of as a test where nothing is done, no treatment, no manipulation, really just a base line for the experiment allowed to run concurrently with experimental treatments.  The grassland restoration project at the Painted Pony Resort has an experimental control.  It is an area marked off by railroad ties at the north end of the property enclosing an area of about 12' x 12'.  This area started as bare earth when the main complex was built and the former estate manager placed the railroad ties to create a planting area but did nothing further.  I have left this area alone to see what would happen if there was no intervention on the landscape (only cutting back tumbleweed occasionally so I don't get any 5' high plants).  While it may appear I have not been diligent in keeping the area free of weeds and other woody shrubs this plot shows what happens if a barren area is left to naturally recover.  The plot is dominated by tumbleweed but also has woody shrubs including mesquite, Indian tea, amaranth, and rubber rabbitbrush and 1 unidentified thick stemmed weed.  Two species of annual grass have grown and one species of a perennial bunch grass has appeared but little else.  This suggests that a passive management strategy of only removing grazers and allowing the land to rest for several seasons is no longer adequate for the landscape recovery when starting from bare ground.  Rather it takes an active management strategy to restore the grassland in this heavily modified desert landscape.  For the estate that means interventions to manage water, soil, vegetation, and animals

The question arises as to why simple rest no longer appears to be adequate to recover the grasslands on the estate.  Several factors may be involved with the appearance of only a single perennial grass within the test plot shown below.  It may require longer periods of rest (a couple of years is not sufficient) to recover grasses within the test plot and is a reflection of my inexperience with restoration in the desert.  Or it may be a result of succession in the grassland, that is with enough time the perennial grasses will out compete the other plants.  Or it may be related to changes in climate.  About 20 years ago The Portal Project (a long term desert ecology project in the area) published a paper on the changes within their test plots, noting a shift from grasses to woody shrubs within their enclosures they suggested changes in rainfall were resulting in a shift away from grasses and to woody shrubs.  The Malpai Borderlands group also noted this shift away from grasses and towards woody shrubs with the exclusion of grazers and the loss of fire as a tool for managing grasslands, see their historical photo archives and click on a tag to view historical and recent repeat images.  Changes in climate, especially short term ones, have a particularly large effect on minimally productive desert landscapes and periods of drought in combination with human activity are known to have altered the landscape particularly the drought of 1891-93 in the area.  But are long term changes also having an effect?  Changes in rainfall patterns, especially increasing winter rains favor woody shrubs over perennial grasses making it more difficult to restore grasslands and is one reason the river bottom grasses are currently isolated so grass seed production will continue unabated.  The yearly mean temperature in New Mexico has increased 2 degrees since 1970 and marginal landscapes like the high desert may be the first to respond this change.  Whatever the source it is clear that active management as opposed to passive management techniques are required to create and sustain a productive landscape.

Control plot of vegetation with out any intervention.  Tumbleweed predominates followed by woody shrubs.


Slow Flight

One image captured by the Louisiana State Arthropod Museums' critter cam.  LSAM has placed cameras in the Chiricahua Mountains the past 2 years and the images in the link above are from the Snowshed trail.  In addition to the usual wildlife images and this years Coues deer fawn, one image stuck me as particularly interesting.  Taken towards dusk it captures a blue bird in flight, but the low light resulted in a slower shutter speed and wing motion was captured creating a "slow flight" image.  Perhaps a little dark, the captured motion of the wings are the only movement in the photograph, no blowing grass, perfectly still birds with a single Blue Bird in flight, its' head clearly visible, click on photograph to enlarge.  One commenter saw this as an x-wing fighter from Star Wars, while another saw the Batman logo, while I saw a commentary on the FAAs "slow flight" maneuver from the pilots practical test standards.  Whatever this image reminds you of, for an automatic trail camera it is a great photograph.

Chiricahua mountain bluebird in flight.


Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days 2015

This years Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days was co-sponsored by both the Wildlands Network and Friends of Cave Creek Canyon with additional support from Hidalgo county and private donations.  Starting off with Friday nights opening reception and talk on Trogon's, the 2015 Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days was off to a good start.  Friday evening talk centered on these neotropical birds that bring many visitors to the sky islands of southeastern Arizona to add another species to their life lists.  Saturday morning arrived with the farmers market and craft fair followed shortly by a day of presentations about the area.  The talks ranged from caving and survey work in Chiricahua Crystal Cave to water resources.  Lunch was catered by the Rodeo Tavern and included two types of lasagna, vegetarian and meat, with garlic bread and salad.  The Gypsy Carpenters provided entertainment during the breaks and throughout lunch.  I presented the last talk of the day on landscape restoration and a PDF of the slides may be found here.  Finally, Sunday three different scheduled walks took place covering plant life, geology, and the history of Paradise.  This years Heritage Days saw a capacity crowd and Valley Telecom was present to video record a number of talks which will be rebroadcast on their cable channel.  Once aired, I hope to post some of the talks to the Friends of Cave Creek Canyon website and Facebook page so those who missed the event can see more details of what went on with an eye to attending the event next year.


All about bats

Water, water, everywhere

Smokey the Bear

A mirrored view

The Gypsy Carpenters


Monsoon Indecision

The monsoon season is always a welcomed change, the summer rains bring the desert back to life, the greening of the grasses and new plant growth, the frantic rush of animals finding mates to start the next generation.  It is a hectic pace and that extends to the cloud formations.  Both the Chiricahua and Peloncillo Mountains go through several cycles of cloud building on a daily basis, sometimes bringing rain sometimes not.  The image below was taken one afternoon during the current monsoon season and shows the indecision often seen in developing weather during the monsoon season.  Cumulus clouds were developing just above the Chiricahua Mountains while higher up the clouds took on a runny egg appearance. The difference was the result of different wind speeds at different altitudes with higher winds at higher altitude smearing the developing cumulus clouds.  No rain resulted from this buildup but the appearance of this cloudscape was particularly pleasing.  This weather indecision culminated recently in a spectacular evening of lightning and rain.  The bottom image shows the distribution of lightning strikes in the San Simon Valley and both mountain ranges as a result of this particular monsoon storm.  Very localized and confined to a small (for the desert) area the storm produced rolling thunder constantly throughout the evening.  An image of lightning from this storm taken by Steve Wolfe may be seen here and here. All in all it has been a great monsoon season with almost 8" of rain recorded at the Painted Pony Resort.

black and white cloudscape
Two different cloud types over the Chiricahua mountains on a monsoon afternoon.

Lightning strikes from an overnight storm over the San Simon Valley and surrounding mountains


Rubber Rabbitbrush

The landscape restoration efforts at the Painted Pony Resort continue and new challenges constantly arise.  One of these revolves around the idea of succession, that the desert plant communities on the estate are in flux either as a result of changes in climate or more directly the result of past human activity.  The idea of secondary succession in restoring the grasslands had not occurred until a close examination of the test restoration area showed a majority of woody shrubs.  In areas where all the topsoil was lost, Rubber Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa, is one of the species that first covers the area as topsoil is rebuilt.  In areas around buildings where this species has colonized and was later removed have now returned to grasses supporting the notion that plant community succession is occurring in areas where active restoration activity is occurring.  Previous work at the Portal Project suggested in a paper that a landscape wide reorganization was occurring as a result of climatic changes.  Specifically increased winter moisture which favors the production of cool season active C3 shrubs at the expense of warm weather C4 grasses was responsible for changes observed in their fenced test plots.  So there seems to be 2 alternatives with respect to the appearance of  Rubber Rabbitbrush, either it is symptomatic of a reorganization or that its appearance is related to active landscape management and is part of the natural succession that accompanies landscape restoration on the estate.

Rubber Rabbitbrush rapidly colonizes burned areas and is useful in preventing soil erosion.  Its' woody stems contain a natural rubber compound, hence the common name, but is not economically viable as a rubber source.  Nor is it particularly useful as forage but does provide pollinators a late summer source of nectar and cover for birds and mammals. Another useful feature is that it does not compete well with native grasses and over time will be replaced through competition.  While the density of Rubber Rabbitbrush varies across the landscape it seems to do best (the largest stands) where water collects suggesting it has a higher moisture requirements when compared with native grasses.

pre-monsoon view showing protected versus grazed land.  Note the quantity of Rubber Rabbitbrush in ungrazed areas.

Rubber Rabbitbrush

Rubber Rabbitbrush in bloom, note the small yellow flowers

Stand of Rubber Rabbitbrush around a grey water drain.


The Snowshed Trail in the Chiricahua Mountains

The Snowshed trail #246 is one of those trails that climbs into the high country in the Chiricahua mountains, but the lower part of the trail is fairly gentle as it slowly climbs out of Cave Creek Canyon.  I had the opportunity to walk part of the trail yesterday along with entomologists from the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum who are currently in residence at the Painted Pony Resort on their annual collecting trip.  The goal was to do some collecting as well as recover a trail camera from last years collecting trip.   A warm sunny afternoon with a few scattered clouds and it up the trail from an access point just across the road from the trail to Chiricahua Crystal Cave.  A slow assent brought the group to some open meadows full of junipers and large stands of grasses, mostly Hairy Grama grass.  With the reds rocks in the background the views were typically spectacular.  The trail camera was recovered and with over 3000 images there should be some interesting wildlife captured in images.

Red rock cliffs from the Snowshed trail

A view south back into Cave Creek Canyon

The image above is the same outcrop in the photograph below, taken last year from the McCord trail.  In this instance the view is looking up canyon while the above image is looking down canyon.

Same outcrop as above but viewed from further down canyon.


Laundry Room Wall with the Gypsy Carpenters

Supplies for the Painted Pony Resort are currently stored in 2 separate areas, one in the main house and the other in the laundry room of the guest house.  The guest house laundry room is one of 3 guest laundry areas but storing cleaning and estate supplies can cause problems and is unsightly.  To remedy the situation the Gypsy Carpenters were hired to build a partition in guest house laundry room so guest have unfettered access to the laundry facilities and unsightly shelves of supplies may be hidden away.  In short order the wall went up, the door installed and it was quickly finished.  I was amazed what professional carpenters can do.  When I undertake a project like this, it usually involves lots and lots of thinking and planning since I'm inexperienced at this sort of work.  I acted as Susan's assistant so I could learn all I could about partition walls and quickly realized that if I had tried this project myself my approach would have been all wrong.  It pays to have the professionals do the job.  The job is done efficiently, quickly, and looks great.

Susan's post about the job is on the Gypsy Carpenters blog and includes a really good image of the Chiricahua Mountains taken through the front garden.

Header going in and Susan checking job schedules

door installation

Final partition wall ready for paint

Here is the final finished product with a fresh coat of paint.

finished partition wall.


Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days 2015

The Upcoming 2015 Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days is shaping up into another great event for the area.  The Painted Pony Resort will present a talk on landscape restoration on the estate.  It will cover techniques implemented on the estate to restore the grasslands and improve range conditions on the 750 acres of deeded land comprising the estate.  Covering water, soil, vegetation, and animals it will highlight techniques that may be implemented by any land owner to improve landscape conditions

Chiricahua Peloncillo Heritage Days 2015

There will be several walks on Sunday after Saturday's presentations for participants of Heritage Days.  If your interested in seeing and learning more about the area, please join one of the walks for a great learning experience.

The farmers market for this years Chiricahua Peloncillo heritage days is ready to go.

Goodies at the framers market