Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Nogal Canyon to Box Canyon

In May 1985 my neighbor Philip Johnson and I went birding on a fascinating little route that starts in San Antonio, NM, heads west through a slot canyon with vertical rock walls and a floor of sand, sometimes deep sand, and then meanders through rangelands for twenty miles or so and drops you back on US-60 at Box Canyon, about 15 miles west of Socorro.

On 2012-07-28 my friend Josef Brown, a math professor here at NM Tech, and I retraced it and were rewarded with another amazing day in the field. Formal bird notes for this interesting field day are elsewhere. Warning: Do not attempt this route without four-wheel drive. Wider tires, for good flotation in sand, are more helpful than high clearance. Here's the entrance to the slot canyon. I know nothing about the shrine's religious significance. Click on the thumbnail for a large version.

Entering the Nogal Canyon slot, westbound, with shrine.

Much of this transect is open, pretty well overgrazed rangeland. However, just west of the slot canyon there is a tiny little oasis with several huge, ancient Arizona Walnuts (Juglans major). This species is actually native to the arid Southwest and evolved to fit the erratic but generally thin rainfall patterns. Here's a general shot of the grove. Figure this has been here for thousands of years.

Just leaving the slot canyon westbound, a general view of the whole postage-stamp grove.

Maybe fifty yards later, the road diverges from the streambed and heads west. The tree shown below is one of the largest walnuts. It is a tiny but complex ecosystem housing birds, lizards, chipmunks, and a sizeable bracket fungus, among others.

One of the largest walnuts, and the road west.

Most of the terrain looks like the photo below. The sign says, as far as I can tell, that it's 11 miles east to the Bianchi Ranch and the junction of I-25 and US-85, and 10 miles west to the Pound Ranch and US-60.

Sign at the point of no return

We didn't see anywhere near as many species as we would on even a slow summer day at the Bosque del Apache refuge, but what we did see were some rather special desert life forms. Like this Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) dozing on a high branch.

Common Nighthawk sleeping

Although I've specialized in bird photography since 1976, I'm always interested in all life forms: reptiles, invertebrates, wildflowers, even the occasional mammal. Lately, thanks to two excellent books I've recently acquired (details below), I've become a lot more aware of butterflies, and bird photo equipment is useful for shooting them. This Reikart's Blue (Echinargus isola) would fit on a dime and give you three cents back, so I'm delighted to get even a relatively cruddy flight shot. Here is one in flight, and one drinking from a muddy seep.

Reikart's Blue, flight

Reikart's Blue, ventral wing

If you are at all interested in identifying butterflies, this field guide is comprehensive, beautiful, and fascinating.

Brock, Jim P., and Kenn Kaufman. Field guide to butterflies of North America. Houghton Mifflin, 2003, ISBN 978-0-618-76826-4.

An even more engrossing and beautiful book, this one emphasizes the complete ecological context of New Mexico's butterflies, reviewing them according to their habitat and life zones. How, for example, do pupas defend themselves against carnivorous ants? Much more depth than a field guide, and the kind of beautiful book that befits New Mexico magazine, the publisher. One great value of this work is that it tells you where to go, when, and the specific microhabitat: seeps, treetops, hilltops, specific plants.

Cary, Stephen J. Butterfly landscapes of New Mexico. New Mexico Magazine, 2009, ISBN 978-1934480038.

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