Last few weeks on the Colorado Plateau

Populus tremuloides

Stand of Quaking Aspens in the Jemez Mountains

Gyp Hills Skyline (near White Sands)

Gyp Hills Skyline (near White Sands)

I am nearing the end of the internship now and have to say that I am very impressed with all I have learned about botany and about my own skills. I am now capable of making collections by myself in the field and identifying the plants successfully. Considering that I was not a botanist upon graduation, this is great. Even driving around in my home city, I recognize many species that I can recall the genus and species of with no problem. In addition, as I look back, I realize that a large part of the internship has involved extensive coordination of efforts and administrative tasks, and a lot of field work planning, and I have proven very capable of doing these things on my own in such a way where objectives get met and even exceeded.

I am also very impressed with the CLM internship program, as it has afforded me a fantastic opportunity for memorable field experiences in addition to the opportunity to put my skills to use and see what I can do for restoration. My career goals have come out the other side more defined, as I now know that I enjoy being in the field most and I am aware that the most enjoyable aspect of environmental science, for me, is environmental stewardship and even research therein.


Small Scorpion

There were many interesting adventures in the field, and I’ve seen and collected on so many different landscapes, from canyons, to deserts, to Pinon-Juniper woodlands, and even Ponderosa Pine forests. One of the more interesting experiences involved collecting prickly pear fruit. I suggest thick gloves for that one.

Huge geode near old mine

Huge geode near old mine

I’ve seen tarantulas, scorpions, owls, a rattlesnake, bats, and a wide assortment of insects and spiders. There is an abundance of fascinating yellow and black garden spiders in the grasslands and shrublands. We’ve collected wild raspberries, native grasses, a variety of different purple and yellow composites, thistles, lemonaide bush, globemallow, Apache plume, red bearberries, etc.

One of the coolest things about the internship is the sights you see while driving. The geology here in New Mexico is incredibly thought-provoking. I’ve passed by (and worked around, in some cases) volcanic fields, badlands, eolian sculptures, and travertine deposits. Some examples include the Mogollon-Datil volcanic field, the Angel Peak badlands, and Soda Dam near Jemez Springs. While it’s hard to believe New Mexico was once underwater, the evidence is everywhere, including in fossilized shells in several of the rocks I’ve found.

Since my last post, we have managed to meet our collection quota and then some.  Conditions were just right for seed production and yield was great during the months of August and September, and continues to be great in October. For the past two and a half weeks I have been on my own in the internship and have been spending some time working with the other teams to see what SOS collection is like in other parts of New Mexico. I’ve found that in northern New Mexico, assemblages are very similar in some areas and hugely different in others, and that these differences seem most correlated with elevation. In those two and a half weeks, I have also managed five collections for the Los Lunas team.

Argemone pleiacantha ssp. ambigua

Argemone pleiacantha ssp. ambigua with a visitor

The rains have tapered off a bit here and so has the heat (although Walnut Canyon seems to always be boiling hot during the day).  Tomorrow I will be returning to a patch of BLM land near the small but quaint Pie Town, New Mexico, to continue with some collections that I began the week before last. Maybe I will stop and get some pie during my lunch break.

La Ventana Natural Arch and Dry Waterfall

La Ventana Natural Arch and Dry Waterfall

Tessia Robbins
Los Lunas PMC, NM

Camping, Inspections, and the First Collections

This past week was my twelve week of adventures in the south to central, western portion of New Mexico. That’s right, the borders of our SOS collection region are rather loosely defined, but with good reason. Our explorations have taken us to many BLM-managed bordering areas of the Colorado Plateau in this state. The reason for this being that populations transitioning from one ecoregion to another often possess survival-enhancing genetic qualities that increase the chance for success when using their germplasm in restoration efforts. Nifty little tidbit of info, especially given an uncertain climate future, one that may entail widespread changes in ecosystem conditions currently and historically equilibriated to make habitats tolerable for native plants. Pretty important.

Speaking of climate, the weather in this part of New Mexico has been changeable enough for me to actually consider writing this blog as a lyrical poem entitled “Ode to Climate Dynamics.” Given the dramatic swing from cool spring nights to 105 degree heat, the arrival of flash flood advisories, knock-your-socks-off winds, and torrential downpours (otherwise known as the North American Monsoon) has actually been a blessing in disguise, bringing cooler temperatures and cloudy skies. Besides, life is not about waiting for the storm to pass…ah, you known the rest. Just try not to get hit by a bolt of lightening while you’re dancing in the rain.

So far, we’ve ventured to just about enough blocks of accessible BLM land to represent our entire region. The trick to finding both high diversity and abundance appears to be finding locations that are not as accessible to grazing and that have received adequate rainfall within the past several months. Some of the most promising areas include those along the Quebradas Byway (just east of Socorro), several near Pinos Altos and Gila, NM, and a few in Walnut Creek (southwest of Socorro).  Most weeks, we go out into the field for four days and camp to save travel time. I’ve seen and experienced an amazing array of landscapes the likes of which I have never encountered in the twelve years I have lived here, ranging from the Chihuahuan Desert with its wildlife and associated nighttime hisses, hoots, and screeches to the Gila Wilderness with nights so quiet that your ears buzz.  And still, no matter where I am, the concept of seeing stars not obscured by city lights is a dim thought in the background when faced with the actual sight itself.

This is the first twelve weeks of the first year of the SOS team out of Los Lunas, NM and this is my second post. These two have one thing in common, aside from the initially hilarious and newbish attempts at coordination of efforts toward a meaningful output on my part.

Growth. That’s what they have in common.  This internship has contributed not only to a constantly pooling reservoir of experience-based knowledge of botany and, more specifically, botany in this area, but also to an immeasurable amount of character growth.  It almost sounds cliche, but it must be said. So far, much of our work has involved building a strategy from the ground up, and it has proven confusing and often frustrating at points, but we are met with much success.  Luckily we have had an incredible amount of assistance from several highly-skilled individuals at the Chicago Botanic Garden and mentors involved in SOS teams in different parts of the state. If you’re reading this, you know who you are. Much thanks, we are in your debt.

And how is growth related to this blog? Well, I guess…I have more to say than last time…

But, back to the point, since we’ve begun, we have developed a database of hundreds of identified species of plants we’ve observed at over forty sites and have collected vouchers from. Having this information has allowed us to narrow our focus to the most accessible sites with the highest likelihood of multiple, large collections. The herbarium at the University of New Mexico, with their enormous collection of specimens, has been exceptionally helpful toward this goal. A grip of what is out there and where it is was something we lacked initially. And now that we have it, monitoring these populations and returning at the right times has been much more straightforward.  Thus far, we have made three collections (Hesperostipa neomexicana, Phacelia integrifolia, and the ever-abundant Chaetopappa ericoides.) We have our eye on some other species that align with a priority list we’ve compiled based on the intel of several of the area’s leading botanists (again, thank you.) So far, we haven’t observed any populations of these species that are ready for collection. It almost seems as though this year, seed production has been a bit delayed or lengthened. I suspect this has something to do with the heat wave that occurred during the months of May, June, and July this year and perhaps also with a slightly-delayed monsoon season.

However, this past week we visited several sites west of Quemado, NM just outside the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on some surprisingly un-cow-burnt BLM land, and several of the populations we observed there are very close.  The seed is still a little soft and we will return soon.

We have also been fortunate to obtain a permit to collect in the Santa Fe National Forest, so next week we will head up to forest service-managed land near Cuba, NM to see how things are progressing there and, hopefully, find some germplasm that is ready to be collected.

Tessia Robbins
Los Lunas PMC, NM

A Fresh Perspective

During this internship, I’ll be working out of the Los Lunas Plant Materials Center in New Mexico. Our job is to collect seed from the southern portion of the Colorado Plateau in New Mexico. This is my first year as an SOS intern and already it has been a great experience. Thus far, I have learned an incredible amount about botany, going from as basic an understanding of plants as my Environmental Science degree allotted me to learning how to recognize families in the field and possessing a growing vocabulary of terminology used in the keys.

Calochortus near Farmington, NM

Calochortus near Farmington, NM

What’s great is I’m already able to apply some of this new knowledge in the field and I’m even able to recognize some of the genera and species characteristic to the region. So far, it has been a rewarding opportunity to tilt my education in a direction more suited to my career path and I look forward to how I might be able to use this experience in the future.

Several trips to public lands outside of Los Lunas to determine what’s out there have revealed some of the species we now know to be on our target list. One of the highlights of this internship is being able to travel to new sites and meet some of the people involved in Seeds of Success, including many botanists and BLM folks here in New Mexico. This week, we are in Farmington getting acquainted with some of the species on the more northern portion on the New Mexico-bounded Colorado Plateau.

Townsendia incana

Townsendia incana near Farmington, NM

I’m beginning to view this landscape from a different, rather refreshing, perspective. To the untrained eye, especially at higher speeds and in passing, the flora of this region may tend to appear rather homogeneous. However, the Arizona New Mexico plateau, as I’ve experienced it, is actually an ever-changing, diverse collage with a seemingly endless array of possibilities. The diversity that exists in a region with relatively low annual precipitation is truly amazing.

Having gotten a firm grasp on our target species list, next week will mark the beginning of our field excursions to seek out these populations. I look forward to what we might find.

Eriogonum ovalifolium

Eriogonum ovalifolium near Farmington, NM

Tessia Robbins
Los Lunas PMC, NM