I had an unexpected end to my season in the Lincoln National Forest. The looming government shutdown had me holding my breath, wondering how I would spend my last month. On top of that, Evie had been called for jury duty and was planning on leaving early. In a turn of events, both were avoided. We finished this month strong with seed collecting and grazing allotment vegetation surveys. During our “off” days, we helped Range with allotment surveys. We followed the “Common Non-Forested Vegetation Sampling Protocol” (CNVSP), which collects data on vegetation composition, species richness/abundance, ground cover conditions, and dry-weight composition. I’m glad we were able to help out with these surveys, as they flexed our growing botanist muscles. Every plant in the survey needs to be keyed out, meaning no plant gets left behind. It’s tough keying plants because of how dry everything is. Not many species have fruits or foliage left (if they had any to begin with).
The forest has been ablaze this month (in color, not flames). The aspens, insects, and sun have taken the edge off the evening chill with their fiery displays. I’m used to fall in Ohio, where you’d be lucky to have a single day without a cloud in the sky. Here in New Mexico, that’s a common occurrence. The annular eclipse, however, was not. On the morning of Saturday, October 14th, the moon waltzed in front of the sun. I met up with Evie and Spencer (a Natural Resources technician with the Forest Service) at Bitter Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, northeast of Roswell. The path of totality fell directly on Bitter Lakes, meaning we could see the infamous “ring of fire.”
We patiently waited for the first sliver of celestial shadow to appear in the upper right corner of the sun. An astronomy hobbyist graciously let us borrow his hydrogen telescope for a better look. Not only could we see the moon’s outline, but also sunspots and solar prominences. As the eclipse progressed towards totality, the Refuge started to hum with excitement from fellow eclipse watchers. Yet, the air had its warmth steadily drained as the solar energy was blocked by the moon. It was the same temperature–if not cooler–as when we had arrived at 8 a.m. Time sped up and slowed down. Shadows behaved strangely, masquerading as miniature displays of the eclipse overhead. Because it was an annular eclipse, the sun was never entirely blocked by the moon. Plenty of light made its way around the moon’s edges, making it unsafe to look at without eye protection. Totality lasted 4 minutes but felt much shorter. The eclipse wasn’t inherently spectacular to a layperson, but the shared experience of such a unique moment made it memorable.
This season was filled with other memorable moments, from seeing my first Mexican spotted owl or looking for Sacramento Mountain salamanders to nearly getting hypothermia while participating in a Hawkwatch survey (everyone underestimated how cold it would be). I’m grateful for the wonderful memories, lessons learned, and friends I’ve made along the way.
I may be leaving Lincoln National Forest and Ruidoso, but my time in New Mexico is not done! I will be working in Carlsbad, NM, as a Botany Support Specialist (through Conservation Corps New Mexico) with the Bureau of Land Management immediately following this position. There, I hope to use what I learned about seed collecting and the flora of New Mexico to assist other Seeds of Success (SOS), Assessment, Inventory, and Monitoring (AIM), and Special Status Plant Species (SSPS) crews with their work.
…back to Chicago and leave the “Red or green?” chile state that has become my home for the past five months, I want to take this opportunity to reflect and reminisceon my time spent here.
A Rocky Start to the Season
At the beginning of the season, my co-intern and I encountered some difficulties that hindered our ability to start scouting for species in our target species list. The first problem that we encountered was that there were no established protocols to do scouting and seed collection as it was the first time Lincoln National Forest had any CLM interns. Thus, we did not know how we were going to collect data on our scouted populations. Second, our target species list included over 200 species, so we were unclear about which species we should prioritize and whether we would be capable of making at least 8 collections with 30,000 seeds due to the climate and condition of the forest with smaller populations.
One might have been worried about the situation, but I was not. I knew with the help of our mentors we would eventually figure it out and we did. After meeting with the Southwestern Regional Botanist, the Institute for Applied Ecology, and the Chicago Botanic Garden, our goals were made clear with our target species list, our seed collection goal, and the protocol and applications we will be using.
Not long after, we were on our way to officially start scouting.
A “Bleak” Monsoon Season
New Mexico is one of the states in the United States that experience monsoons. Between the months of June and September, the state experiences more rain. Our mentors said we would be seeing an abundance of plants once the monsoons hit, so my co-intern and I were looking forward to adding new scouting points and collecting seeds. However, this summer, it was more of a “nonsoon” season as it didn’t start until late July and many parts of New Mexico experienced below-average rainfall. Thus, the number of new wildflowers and potential seed collections that we expected to see was no longer a reality.
Helping with Forest Service Projects
Besides scouting and collecting seeds, we helped the Forest Service staff with several projects. Some required our botany expertise while others required physical labor.
Overall, it was fun not only learning new skills but also meeting and working with a diverse group of people for these projects. The most rewarding part is hearing about their experience and how they got working with the Forest Service.
Exploring the Unknown
The best part of living in a new state is the chance to explore it. Although I did explore a good part of New Mexico, there are still towns, National Forest, and National Monuments that I did not get a chance to explore. Nonetheless, I still had fun exploring.
Here are some of my favorite events and places I got to experience:
Exploring is not only about visiting places but also about the food. If you are ever near Ruidoso, I highly recommend Oso Grill and Club Gas. Oso Grill is known for their award-winning green chile cheeseburger, and nothing compares to Thursday night enchiladas dinners at Club Gas.
Overall, I am grateful for being part of the CLM program this season.
I’ve had trouble fitting in post-work hikes with the days rapidly shortening. Earlier this month, I made the time to climb Nogal Peak (9,957′), which juts out from the surrounding pinyon-juniper hills. Despite being a 2.5-mile hike, it features 1300 feet of elevation gain in one mile. Goodding’s Onion and Sacramento Mountain Prickly Poppy surveys were comparable in difficulty but in their own way. The following weekend, I found myself at the deepest point in Carlsbad Caverns open to the public–King’s Palace–which rests 840 feet below the desert surface.
Something that’s been bothering me since diving into my botanical obsession during the start of COVID-19 is my internalized perception of designated “natural” spaces like Nogal Peak and Carlsbad Caverns. These spaces include National Parks, Forests, Wilderness Areas, Refuges, State Land, and Preserves. Spending the whole summer working and recreating in National Forests, Parks, and Monuments has caused this concern to resurface.
The Pandemic incentivized me to explore as much of Ohio as possible and reconnect with where I grew up. One of the first places I visited was Brown’s Lake Bog State Nature Preserve–a biodiverse rarity just half an hour’s drive from my house. Pitcher plants, cranberries, orchids, sundews, and sedges ensnared my younger rapacity for learning the local flora. Even cooler is the geologic history of the bog, as it’s an example of a “kettle hole,” hinting at Ohio’s glacial past. Kettles are typical features of glacial landscapes, formed by chunks of ice that break off from a retreating glacier, leaving a depression in the ground from their weight. As they melt, water and organic matter fill the depressions. If there is enough decomposing organic matter, the water acidifies, creating a bog. Hazel Willis Woods, Malabar Farm State Park, and Mohican State Park are formative places from my childhood that I revisited during the Pandemic (in addition to numerous State Nature Preserves like Brown’s Lake Bog). These spaces provided the opportunity to teach me about the area’s natural history in greater depth than as a child. I felt like I was rereading a book for the first time in 10 years with a new (but flawed) perspective.
In areas with varying levels of recreational pressure, I noticed a difference in biodiversity and noxious weeds. I could no longer enjoy a walk at Malabar or Mohican without cringing at the sight of cutleaf teasel, mullein, or glossy buckthorn. This led to me making value judgments based on disturbance levels and invasive presence. Granted, it’s important in conservation to prioritize certain areas over others based on similar assessments. Areas with relatively high species diversity/richness (or many endemic species) should take priority. In my classes and fieldwork, I learned that the conservation or suppression of diverse ecological processes can benefit or harm native biodiversity. Succession is always acting! In my job last summer, a lot of effort was put into woody species control (both non-native and native) in wet fen meadows to prevent the habitat loss of state and federally-listed species. I started viewing places overrun with invasives or where natural ecological processes (like wildfire) had been suppressed as “impure.”
Another recent observation I made about these spaces is the difference in physical (in)accessibility among them. At work, my own physical capabilities weigh on my mind. I’m not an athlete by any means, but I am fit enough to perform in my job (and hike to Nogal Peak). This led me to research ableism in the environmental movement and conservation, where I discovered The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture. This book, by Sarah Jaquette Ray, examines the treatment of “ecological others.”
This excerpt from the introduction describes who the “ecological others” are:
“. . . In each of the chapters that follow, I focus on three distinct case studies of ecologically other corporealities. First, I examine what I consider the prototypical corporeal other—the disabled body—which has operated (and continues to operate) as the implicit other against which environmentally healthy subjects are defined. Second, I draw on these assumptions about the disabled body to scrutinize the body of the Native American, which was “sacrificed” (in conjunction with “sacrificed” landscapes) through processes of colonialism . . .
. . . Finally, I investigate the bodies of undocumented immigrants as “trash,” bodies sacrificed in the momentum of globalization. This dominant disgust toward immigrant bodies as trash masks the ways in which immigrants’ bodily labor makes middle-class comfort possible for a vast majority of American citizens. While “shadow labor,” as Don Mitchell calls it, is extracted from these bodies as they work in domestic service, slaughterhouses, and construction (to name just a few of the toxic and disfiguring jobs immigrants perform), those bodies are maligned as a threat to nature and nation.”
Ray elaborates on how the treatment of these communities as ecological others is rooted in Social Darwinism and imperial conquest. The dispossession of Indigenous people and Mexicans from lands across the West to create wilderness areas came from a fear of “race suicide” justified by evolutionary theory in the form of Social Darwinism. Grandfathers of the modern environmentalism movement–like Ernst Hackel and George Perkins Marsh–promoted a caricature of the “ideal American,” requiring tests of self-reliance through an encounter with raw nature; wilderness areas met the criteria for “raw nature.”
Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir furthered wilderness preservation in the 1930s, following the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The system of land appropriation utilized by Roosevelt, Pinchot, and Muir continues to dissuade people of color from engaging in the environmental movement. This system “erases the ongoing relationship with nature that people of color maintained [with the so-called wilderness] for centuries before the establishment of the United States and westward expansion.” The Indigenous and immigrant communities are just two examples that Ray discusses in her book.
Ray’s analysis differentiates itself from prior scholarly work by linking the Social Darwinist fear of race suicide to the social construction of disability and wilderness. She argues that both constructs “converged to support an emerging sense of a fit, pure national identity.” I’ve only made it halfway through thefirst chapter of The Ecological Other, which links contemporary “Adventure Culture” to the wilderness movement. Adventure Culture borrows the concept of the ideal, fit, American body advocated for by people like Roosevelt during the Progressive Era:
“The physically fit, self-sufficient man, capable of living a “strenuous life,” was the American ideal, the opposite of which was physical disability. . .
. . .contemporary environmentalism and its attendant recreational practices of outdoor adventure extend early-twentieth-century conceptions of social Darwinism in their focus on “fitness,” self-sufficiency, and purity. I argue that if the wilderness encounter tests and hones the fit body, and if alienation from nature is understood as alienation from our own bodies—both notions that originated in Progressive Era environmental thought—then reconnecting with nature means having a fit body.”
This implies that the disabled are incapable of reconnecting with nature and thus can be defined as an ecological other. Technological aid cannot be used (or it must be minimized) when working or recreating to truly reconnect with nature and be a proper environmentalist. Relying on technology would desecrate the experience of the physical trials endured, whether climbing a mountain or free soloing a cliff face. This also applies to conservation. For example, the White Mountain Wilderness prohibits using any contemporary vehicle or tool by recreators and land managers, such as the Forest Service.
Revisiting Carlsbad Caverns and Nogal Peak, a participant of Adventure Culture could argue that the Caverns provide an inferior experience to summiting a peak. You enter the caverns one of two ways: a minute-long elevator ride to the bottom or a mile or so walk down a steep but paved concrete walkway. Also, at the bottom, there are restrooms, a gift shop, and a small food and drink vendor! Upon descending (using the concrete walkway), it felt so absurd to me to find these amenities in this cave. On the King’s Palace guided tour, our ranger asked, “What can you do to preserve this special place for future generations?” She pointed out how humans have harmed the fragile natural wonder by touching the cave formations, littering, and (the potential for) bringing in pathogens such as white-nose syndrome. Elevator construction led to an air leak, damaging the Caverns by messing with the constant humidity and temperature. I can’t imagine the impacts wrought by building the infrastructure necessary to handle the number of visitors annually. She also mentioned all the passive ways humans damage the cave, including the fibers and dead cells we shed from our clothes and skin.
If things are outside our control, I wondered if limiting human visitation is the best way to protect the Caverns? One could answer in many ways, but prohibiting entry is not the solution. The many amenities that felt out of place make the Caverns more accessible for disabled people to enjoy the space. At the same time, the accessibility of Carlsbad Caverns threatens its own existence. This is the challenge that we must address as conservationists and land stewards. We must reconcile with the problematic (xenophobic, imperialist, settler colonialist, and ableist) history of the environmental movement to restore humanity’s relationship with our environment–for all communities–while balancing the most significant ecological crises our Earth is and will be facing.
In the past four months of living in New Mexico, I came to realize how rich in biodiversity the state is. This is partly a result of the different life zones found here, which include desert shrublands, grasslands, woodlands, coniferous forests, subalpine, and alpine. Therefore, I get to explore the different life zones and their flora and fauna in my free time and at work. Since I have been here, I had the opportunity to survey an array of sensitive, endemic, and rare plants and animals, including Goodding’s onion (Allium gooddingii), Sacramento Mountain salamander (Aneides hardii), Sacramento prickly poppy (Argemone pinnatisecta), New Mexico meadow jumping mouse (Zapus hudsonius luteus), and the Sacramento Mountain checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas anicia cloudcrofti).
Sacramento Mountains Checkerspot Butterfly
This year, most of the plant species in our seed collection target list are nectar plants. The reason for this is that the seeds we have collected on LNF will be aiding the habitat restoration of the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly. This beautiful butterfly can only be found in the high-elevation subalpine meadows of the Sacramento Mountains in the Lincoln National Forest. Like other butterflies, the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butter is reliant on a larval host plant, the New Mexico Penstemon (Penstemon neomexicanus).
However, the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly has been experiencing a serious population decline in the recent years due to habitat degradation caused by grazing, invasive and non-native plants, climate change, and altered wildfire regimes. As of this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the butterfly as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.
Unfortunately, not a single checkerspot butterfly was found during the surveys this year. Nonetheless, protecting and restoring their habitat is still a critical process to ensure their chances of survival. For the past couple of years, the Southwest Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE) has led the effort in restoring the butterfly habitat in the forest. This year, the Forest Service, Albuquerque BioPark, and volunteers helped IAE plant more nectar plants in a meadow that had a low-density of nectar plants.
Over the course of two days, we planted roughly 2,000 nectar plant plugs that included their host plant (New Mexico penstemon), common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), spike verbena (Verbena macdougalii), and cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata). Some plugs were planted inside enclosures that have been built while others were planted outside across the meadow with seedling protections tubes placed on them.
Although it was repetitive work, it was incredible to see the number of people working towards the recovery of the Sacramento Mountains checkerspot butterfly. Moreover, it was incredible to see how our seed collection efforts this year will be implemented in future habitat restoration. I am very grateful to be part of this journey.
I thought I would start this month’s blog with a poem about the seasons. For my haiku, I channeled the perspective of a spadefoot toad–Spea multiplicata. It might not seem that they have any thoughts behind those eyes! I tried to imagine a lot goes on behind their blank stare, particularly weather patterns. S. multiplicata is a nocturnal and opportunistic species that spends most of its time in underground burrows dug using their namesake spades. The life history of the toads is closely tied to the monsoons. Monsoon rains rapidly fill up pools in low-lying depressions, which can dry up just as fast.As a result,the average breeding period is only ~1.6 days, and the eggs hatch within 42-48 hours. The tadpoles must complete metamorphosis in as little as three weeks! While there has been enough rain to fill some of the spadefoot’s breeding pools, it’s been inconsistent and patchy.
A haiku seemed fitting for a poem, where I could reflect on the monsoons or lack thereof. In my first blog, I alluded to the monsoons that would “soon arrive”. It appears they never did. As a result, the plant abundance and diversity have been subpar this season, making seed collection a challenge. Only a handful of our target species occur in populations large enough to collect from. Of the populations that are borderline in size, grazing from elk, cattle, or feral horses has reduced them to a size below our collecting threshold. However, what we do collect is important for conservation as the populations that are able to reproduce represent local genetics that are resilient when drought-stressed!
Many people working for the Forest Service have noted the abnormal monsoon season this year. Some weather forecasters have even called it a “nonsoon”. Angie Munoz, a wildlife biologist from the Sacramento District, grew up in the Tularosa Basin. Being a local, she grew up accustomed to the typical monsoon patterns, even though they can be unpredictable. Recently, she took us around D2 to help us identify quality scouting localities. She was taken aback at the absence of wildflowers in places where they’d been abundant in the past. Larry and Taylor, our mentors, also took notice. They joined us in scouting Benado Gap to look for some lower-elevation grasses and wildflowers. Below are photos from this year and two years ago in 2021.
While other crews may be at peak collecting, we’re just getting started! Many species are behind in flowering or fruiting because of the delayed rain, but others are doing their thing and making seeds. Some species we’ve seen set seed include Mertensia franciscana, Monarda fistulosa, Allium geyeri, Allium cernuum, Asclepias asperula, and Pedicularis procera.
Evie and I were able to make our first collection this month–for A. cernuum! We quickly realized what impact differing maturation rates of seeds on the same plant had on planning seed collection. The A. cernuum collection is incomplete, but we hope to revisit the population in a week or so to check on seed maturation progress. Once the fruits mature, the seed capsules quickly dehisce, giving us a narrow window of time to collect. Hopefully, we catch the next wave of mature seeds. Other populations have given us trouble, too. We were going to do a small collection of M. franciscana, but the seeds had dropped before we had a chance to collect them. We also had a couple populations of M. fistulosa we were planning to collect from, but a combination of rain, grazing, and small population size prevented that from happening. After doing seed calculations, one of our larger P. procera populations seemed ideal to collect–we estimated being able to collect 8,000 seeds! Despite having good seed fill, nearly all the seeds were shriveled and soft. Additionally, their insides were a strange black color. We collectively decided not to collect. Collecting is more of an art than a science!
Ironically, we got some decent rain last week! Evie and I tried to sneak in a visit to the nodding onion population last week. Not enough seeds had matured since our first visit. Even if they were ready to collect, the plants were too wet. It almost felt as if we were in the Pacific Northwest, with how foggy and rainy it was! We probably got a month’s worth of rain in 8 hours.
I went herping the night after the rains to see what creatures they unearthed. Since going on my first “road cruise” for herps in early August, I was hooked after seeing a Chihuhuan or Western “hooknose” snake. These nocturnal and diminutive snakes typically max out at 11″, are non-venomous, and prey on spiders, centipedes, and scorpions. Their upturned, hooked nose helps with burrowing in search of prey.
The following pictures include those prey species! When it comes to creepy crawlies (or cutie patooties to invertebrate nerds), nighttime is a great time to see these chitin-clad critters.
It has been an eventful and uneventful month. Now you might be wondering how it can be both. Well, as I looked over my camera roll to determine the subject of this month’s blog, nothing stands out. That’s not to say that I didn’t do anything exciting this month because many interesting things happened at work as well outside of work that included many of my first.
First Seed Collection
For instance, Peter and I started our first seed collection of the season since seeds here are finally starting to mature. Our first collection is none other than the lovely Allium cernuum. However, this was after a few failed attempts to collect seeds from Mertensia franciscana and Mornada fistulosa. The plants were either grazed by elk and wild horses or most of the seeds dropped. It was a bit discouraging at first and a learning lesson, but I knew there was other species to collect from.
First UTV Ride
We spent the rest of the month scouting for more species across the forest and monitoring the phenology of scouted populations. As a result, we had the privilege to ride a UTV at the Sacramento Ranger District (SRD). Angie, the Wildlife Biologist at SRD and the one who drove us around, insisted that we take a photo in it to brag to our Wildlife Crew members as they don’t have any.
Although it was a fun experience, I don’t think I will ever get on one ever again. That’s because as we drove, a long stick went through the UTV floor and hit the seat next to me all while making a loud noise due to a stainless steel bottle on the floor being shoved out of the way. At the end of the day, I rather not be impaled by a stick while riding a UTV just to get to a location faster.
First Salamander Encounter
The amazing part of being at the Smokey Bear Ranger District is the opportunity to join the wildlife surveys. Usually, the Wildlife Crew at the district joins the Salamander Crew to survey the Sacramento Mountain salamander (Aneides hardiiI), but Peter and I were able to help them for one day since the Wildlife Crew was busy with other surveys. I had never seen a salamander in person before, so I was excited not only to learn the process of surveying them but also to finding one myself.
So after disinfecting our boots to prevent any possible spread of chytrid fungal pathogen to the salamanders and going over the protocol at the site, I was ready to find salamanders. The process involved flipping a lot of rocks and logs, but eventually I was able to capture a few. Initially, I was afraid to pick any of them up as some were tiny that I thought I was going to harm them in the process of putting them in a bag. Moreover, I didn’t know how the salamander would feel. However, the fear quickly went away.
In the end, different data was collected that included surface area of the object where the salamander was found, soil moisture, the weight, and length the salamander captured. Any new adult salamanders that was captured, were marked with a “tattoo”. Which really involved injecting them with a needle filled with fluorescence pigments in a specific sequence to help with identification if they are recaptured again in future surveys. Once all the data was collected, the salamanders were placed back to where it was found.
First Meteor Shower Party
Growing up in Chicago, I never had the chance to stargaze due to the light pollution. As a result, I never knew about the Perseid meteor shower. Peter, on the other hand, knew all about it and that’s because he watches it every year on his birthday. Now, that I reside in smaller town with minimum light pollution, I was determined to experience my first meteor shower.
I searched up places that had a meteor shower party and found that El Malpais National Monument was having one after Ranger-led bat outflight guided walk on August 11. Bats and meteor shower on the same day? Count me in! The only problem it was 3.5 hours away and there was a chance of rain, but I figured it was a perfect opportunity to do a weekend road trip.
In the end, I got to see some bats despite it raining, but I didn’t get to see the meteor shower due to the clouds blocking the night sky. Thus, my first attempt to watch a meteor shower was unsuccessful. Fortunately, I returned to Ruidoso in the afternoon the next day and there was no clouds in sight. Spontaneously, I and a Wildlife Crew member from SRD decided to camp at a lookout that night to see the meteor shower.
Not only was I able to see my first meteor shower, but also the Milky Way!
…Is what all my friends, family, and coworkers have been asking me! This month’s post is dedicated to answering that question. I could make the cliché response that I love my job so much, I feel like I’m not working. Aside from general daily/weekly tasks (laundry, meal prepping, self-care, etc.), I still have a good chunk of time to myself on weekdays and weekends. When Texan tourists seek out the natural air conditioning of the high-elevation Sacramento Mountains, I descend into the desert to go rockhounding and botanizing (with some basketry and hiking mixed in).
One place I’ve had the chance to visit several times this summer is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Valley of Fires Recreation Area. The Valley of Fires is just a 40-minute drive from Ruidoso near Carrizozo. Here, you can explore the Malpais Lava Flow. The name “Malpais” refers to the rough terrain, or “bad country”, that was a significant barrier to hooved animals and wagons. Now, a paved educational path makes it easy to walk on the craggy rocks. Not as hot as lava (but still pretty hot) is the black basalt that absorbs the heat from the desert sun. The Malpais Lava Flow is one of the longest young lava flows in the United States and is an example of a tube-fed “pahoehoe” (ropy lava) system. Researchers constrained its formation to ~5,200 years ago using cosmogenic radionuclide dating techniques. Little Black Peak–a ~100 feet tall cinder cone–is thought to be the source where an eruption likely initiated from a fissure vent, eventually progressing into a single vent that produced the cinder cone. Despite the hostile environment, many plant species typical of the Chihuahuan Desert can be found here. Animals include a number of snake and lizard species, bats, and mule deer. Many bird species also inhabit the lava flow, including roadrunners, quail, burrowing owls, and cactus wrens.
I still don’t know as much detail as I’d like about regional geologic history–especially about the formation of the Sacramento Mountains. I keep eyeing a copy of “The Geology of Southern New Mexico’s Parks, Monuments, and Public Lands” in the Ranger District’s gift shop. Maybe I’ll bring it home soon! In the meantime, I resort to the local public library to find resources on geology and rockhounding. I was able to get a Library card using an addressed letter from a friend (thanks, Julia!). While small, the Ruidoso Public Library has a decent hobby section. I found a Falcon Guide on the “140 best” rockhounding sites in New Mexico. “Eureka!”–or so I thought. I would spend the next four weekends venturing to a new location only to be disappointed over and over again. It appears that many publicized locations are over-collected. In the case of Ancho Gulch, people placed mineral claims since the guide was published in 2021! So my best bet was either to own private property (or be friends with someone who does) or persevere. I don’t plan on buying land anytime soon, so the latter was really the only option.
That plan worked for two localities: an old copper mine in the Gallinas Mountains and exposures of the Seven Rivers Formation along the Pecos River. Tailings from the copper mine weather into chrysocolla, malachite, and azurite. The “mine” is adjacent to an old fluorite mine, though I came up empty there with the exception of a sulking Southwestern fence lizard (Sceloporus cowlesi, right). Finding the copper minerals was relatively easy–their vibrant green provides a stark contrast against the sandy red soil. They erode out of the roadcut along the Forest Service Road, so minimal digging was required.
Pecos diamonds can be found just east of the banks of the Pecos River at the second locality. A more fitting name would be “Pecos double-terminated quartz crystals”, but that’s a mouthful and not as cool-sounding as “diamond”. They vary in color, shape, and size. Some have an elongated, prismatic form, while others are pseudotrigonal prisms or even pseudocubic. The diamonds are exclusively found in weathered outcrops of the Seven Rivers Formation (part of the Artesia Group), which is a saline or shelf facies that was deposited during the Permian. Shelf facies are rocks deposited at or near the continental shelf in warm, shallow, salty waters.
Here, you can see the variation in the diamonds that I found. The two most common colors were cloudy-white and semi-translucent gray, while the dominant form is prismatic. I decided to store them in a small, coiled, Ponderosa pine needle bowl I made from locally-sourced pine needles.
I wanted to make something place-based that I could take with me after this position so I could have something meaningful to remember it by. Nothing has left as much of an impression on me as the Ponderosa pine. Between its vanilla-scented reddish bark (one even smelled like orange-creamsicle!) and long needles, I have been obsessed with it since moving to New Mexico. I did some research on indigenous basket weaving and learned about the coiled longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) needle baskets of the Seminole and Choctaw nations. The Mescalero Apache also make coiled baskets, though yucca is the more commonly used material. Baskets are made using a similar technique to coiled pottery, where each coil/bundle is placed on top of the previous coil. Thinner or thicker coils can be used depending on the size of the basket, while the basket walls can be shallow or steep, resulting in a diversity of forms.
I took on this project as a way to weave a utilitarian (though still aesthetic) object that symbolizes more than just a cool basket: A basket that was woven with intention and respect for the tree that gifted the needles, gathered one fascicle at a time from the forest floor. Something that will remind me of the knowledge of indigenous communities and caretakers of this land. I could make more baskets if I wanted to gift them to friends/family. Someone even suggested I sell them! That would cross a moral boundary. I am content with just this one.
It’s no surprise that wildfires can have devastating impacts on people, wildlife, and the ecosystem. In high-severity wildfires, habitats are destroyed causing susceptible populations to decline. Such is the case for a rare species of wild onion, Allium gooddingii, better known as Gooding’s onion.
Allium gooddingii is an endemic plant to New Mexico and Arizona where it generally grows under the canopy of high-elevation mixed conifer and spruce forest. In New Mexico, A. gooddingii can be found at Gilia and Lincoln National Forest. However, over 95% of A. gooddingii populations and their habitats have been heavily burned by wildfires since 2006 (Roth 2020). As a result of the wildfires, A. gooddingii is a Forest Sensitive Species and is listed as endangered species by the State of New Mexico (Roth 2020).
Allium gooddingii at Lincoln National Forest
On Lincoln National Forest, A. gooddingii can only be found at the Smokey Bear Ranger District at elevations above 10,000 feet. In recent years, large populations in the district have burned in two wildfires: the Little Bear Fire (2012) and Three Rivers Fire (2021). The Little Bear Fire burned a total of 44,330 acres in the Southern Sierra Blanca regions of LNF, including 80% of known A. gooddingii sites (Roth 2020). In addition, the Three Rivers Fire burned more than 7,000 acres of LNF, burning into the Little Bear burn scar. Both fires left the species’habitat without any canopy cover.
With the loss of canopy cover, the long-persistent of these plants is questionable. Therefore, surveys are carried out to monitor the impacts of fire on A. gooddingii populations. Luckily, I had the opportunity to join the Wildlife Crew in my district and partake in the surveys over several days. The surveys entailed heading to different scouting points within areas that were either burned by the Little Bear, Three Rivers, or not burned at all. At each point, the number of A. gooddingii individuals were counted within a 10 meter radial plot.
However, it was not an easy task getting to the different points. We had to hike down and up several steep slopes at an elevation of 11,000 feet to get to the points. Despite the challenging hikes, we completed all 16 scouting points. Later in the season, the Wildlife Crew will head back and collect seeds to be used for future restoration in LNF.
One of the most abundant populations I’ve seen at Three Rivers burn scar had several pollinators roaming around. I was able to capture a few.
New Mexico has significant climatic variability, both temporally and spatially. In The Lincoln National Forest, temperatures widely vary with elevation. There can be a 30-degree temperature difference between the Chihuahuan Desert and the sub-alpine zones in the Sacramento Mountains! Mornings in Ruidoso usually start around 65 degrees and climb to the mid-80s at the height of the day. A recent heatwave was an anomaly for this elevation, sending temperatures to the 90s. Thankfully, it’s a dry heat. But that lack of moisture is bad news for any reprieve from the daily “VERY HIGH” fire danger posted outside the Smokey Bear Ranger District office. During that heatwave, I experienced my first wildfire–the ~15-acre Chance Fire–which was started by welding. While storms bring rain, they also bring lightning, a significant natural cause of wildfires.
The arid climate of the Southwest also poses problems for seed collection. Plant populations are dependent on rainfall, which has been scarce since the start of June. My fellow CLM intern (Evie Sanchez!) and I have been having trouble locating suitable populations to collect from because of the relative drought. The monsoon season typically starts in mid-June or July, when moist air from the Pacific gets sucked into an area of low pressure in the Southwest. This moisture manifests as afternoon thunderstorms that roll in like clockwork. While delayed this year, the monsoon season is not far away! While waiting for the monsoons, we have been familiarizing ourselves with the Smokey Bear Ranger District. The Lincoln National Forest is divided into three ranger districts: The northernmost Smokey Bear RD, separated from the southern Sacramento and Guadalupe Ranger Districts by the Mescalero Apache Reservation. There are still plenty of cool plants to see in the meantime, including several parasitic plants, which have evolved a unique strategy in a place where the UV index is “extreme” nearly every day!
Parasitic plants have always captured my curiosity as oddities that have evolved to rely on the photosynthesis of other plants (or parasitism of fungi!), whether completely or partially, as their source of carbon/energy. I’ve noticed multiple taxa representing several plant families in my time here. Parasitic plants can be categorized based on their level of dependence on their host species, ranging from hemiparasites, which have a partial dependence and can still produce chlorophyll, to holoparasites, which gain all of their carbon from their host. They can also be categorized based on the part of the plant they parasitize and whether they can complete their life cycle with/without the host. The photo above is species of dodder (Convolvulaceae) I saw last summer in Ohio that is an example of a stem holoparasite. Note the absence of chlorophyll and vining habit around its host species–a goldenrod (Solidago sp.)
When people think of orchids, they usually think of the Phalaenopsis or Cattleya orchids sold in big-box stores. Vanilla orchids and lady-slippers (e.g., Cypripedium) are other well-known taxa. Nearly all orchids are at least partially mycoheterotrophic, meaning they rely on host fungi for part of their life cycle–usually for germination and development. Rather than parasitizing plants for their carbon and nutrients, they parasitize fungi! Mycoheterotrophs are typically found in forest understories where light is a limiting factor. Species that are partially mycoheterotrophic but can still photosynthesize are considered “mixotrophs.”
Most orchid species in the genus Corallorhiza, however, are fully mycoheterotrophic. As a result, they have lost the ability to photosynthesize. I had the opportunity to see two Corallorhiza species growing in the duff and litter of mixed conifer habitat: Corallorhiza maculata and Corallorhiza striata. C. maculata gets its name from the spots dotting its labellum. C. striata has a similar naming scheme, where it is named for the stripes on the inflorescences. In a habitat type where the understory is bare due to the dense canopy blocking the majority of light, these two species have found a way to make it work!
Orobanchaceae, or the “Broomrape” family, is a group of annual to perennial herbs that are holoparasitic to hemiparasitic on the roots of other plant species using single or multiple haustoria. Haustoria are root-like structures used by parasitic plants to embed into the phloem and/or xylem of host plants, acting as both an anchor and a means to “tap” into the vascular system of the hosts. Water, sugars, and minerals can be stolen through this conduit. The Orobanchaceae family is of great research interest to evolutionary biologists studying the emergence of parasitism in plants because members of this family range from partial to complete parasites, capturing the transition from photosynthetic independence to holoparasitism.
Pedicularis procera, or the giant lousewort, is a member of Orobanchaceae that grows to about four feet tall. Evie and I found a small population while scouting along a canyon in a mixed conifer forest at ~8000 ft. Many bee species were visiting the flowers, and I captured one in the act, legs laden with pollen! Its flowers are heavily modified for pollination by bees. Pedicularis is an example of a hemiparasitic genus that has multiple root haustoria.
Conopholis is a genus I’m familiar with from the deciduous forests of the Midwest through Conopholis americana. Its common name is American cancer-root, or bearcorn. This species is host specific to oaks (Quercus sp.) and beeches (Fagus sp.). The western species, Conopholis alpina, likewise utilizes oaks as a host species (in addition to Acer and Juniperus) but grows at elevations from 4,200 to 12,000 feet–hence the species epithet “alpina.” Conopholis is a holoparasitic genus possessing a single, large haustoria.
Last but not least are the scarlet paintbrushes! These beauties are hemiparasites on the roots of nearby plants. Castilleja diversity is concentrated in the American West, with only a handful of species from the eastern United States, Eurasia, and Central and South America. The most conspicuous part of the inflorescence is the bracts–not the flower proper. Flowers range in color from shades of red, orange, and purple but can also be white or yellow. Castilleja indivisa is not native to New Mexico, but I did see it on my road trip through Texas! This species is endemic to Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma.
The fascinating thing about moving to a new place is the people you get to meet. Sometimes you never know what type of connections you will develop, the stories you will hear, the advice you will receive, and the memories you will make. More importantly, the opportunities the future will hold because “It’s all about connections” as stated by Kathryn, the FS Southwestern Regional Botanist, over lunch in Santa Fe.
My CLM mentor, Larry, is all too familiar with this concept. On more than one occasion he mentioned one of the factors that led him to become the Wildlife Biologist at Smoker Bear District for the Lincoln National Forest was because the HR person was someone that knew him from a previous job in Oregon. Of course, the HR individual put in a good word for him. Nearing end of the story, Larry mentions he genuinely loves his job because for the past 35 years he worked closely with Mexican spotted owl across the Lincoln NF. This raptor species was another reason why Larry took the job here as he previously worked with the Northern spotted owls on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie NF.
Unfortunately, the Mexican spotted owl is federally listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The decline of the species is due to habitat loss and alteration caused by timber harvest and wildfires over the years. Therefore, part of Larry’s job is to conduct owl surveys, which determine the location and distribution of owl pairs and nest sites and determine if they are successfully producing offspring.
Luckily, Larry took us with him on an owl survey on our third day on the job. As we drove into Lincoln NF, I didn’t know what to expect other than Larry was looking for the owls while we did some botanizing along the way. However, Larry explained the survey process starts by hiking into the forest with a known pair activity, in other words, where owls were known to nest. Often occurs in the Canadian life zone, which consists of mixed conifer forest that includes species such as white fir, Douglas fir, southwestern white pine, ponderosa pine, etc.
Once at the area, owl calls are played off a recording, or if you are like Larry, different owl calls are imitated to entice the owl for a response. Usually, this part of the survey process would happen in the night. If there was a response, they would go back to the area the next morning and look at any owls or fledglings on the surrounding trees. Once an owl is located and no fledglings are in sight, they try to locate the nest by offering a live mouse to the male or female owl hoping it will take it back to their offspring.
Unfortunately, there was no response in our first location. However, at our second location, Larry was able to locate the fledglings after seeing the shadow of an owl fly over him when he imitated different owl sounds. You can hear his excitement as he called out to us to come over where he was.
As I approached where he was standing, I saw a bundle of football size white fuzz on a branch. It was my first time seeing a pair of fledgling and I didn’t expect how odd looking they were going to be. Nonetheless, it was a sight to see. Larry then located the female owl nearby, which was difficult to spot as it camouflaged with the bark and branches of the trees. Larry then carefully removed a live mouse from a container and placed it on a nearby branch. Watching, we saw the owl position itself for flight and take the mice without making a sound. Eventually, taking the mice to one of the fledglings.
We continue marvel at the raptor species, but eventually, it was time to head back to the office.