Blog: The Natural Observer

The Black Range Naturalist

The Black Range Naturalist is a new newsletter dedicated to the natural history of the Black Range and to those who study it.

The first issue was published on July 15, 2018.  It contains articles by Harley Shaw (Lore Versus Science and Natural History), John Hubbard & Bob Barnes (Northern Cardinal Range Extension), Don Precoda (Experiences of a Hillsboro Peak Lookout), Randy Gray (Rattlers of the Black Range), and Bob Barnes (Skyrocket).

Our intent is to periodically publish this newsletter with articles by people who live in and/or work in the Black Range.  The articles of the first issue cover a variety of topics and are written in a variety of styles - it is our hope that we will be able to replicate that newsletter style in future issues.

Since this is a grass-roots non-commercial effort we have no formal distribution system.  Please consider letting the people on your contact list know of its existence.

And please consider being a contributor.  The world of citizen science grows by bits and pieces, your observations are as important as full-length articles.

If you would like to be added to my distribution list please let know.

In addition to the email distribution of a reduced resolution .pdf, a higher resolution copy is maintained on this site.


Drought and Sage Sparrows

Sparrow, Lark1

We have had roughly 2.6 inches of rain since October 1 of last year (the start of the water year).  Things are really dry and it is a miserable year for wildflowers, hardly anything is blooming in the hills.

Sage Sparrows make appearances in our yard in Hillsboro some years.  This is one of those years, they have been about for a few days but will soon be gone.  The photo above is from May 14.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard

Lizard, Long-nosed Leopard1

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard, Gambelia wislizenii

Two days ago, my brother, Mike, and I were at Cooke’s Spring in Northern Luna County, New Mexico. I was wandering around west of the spring house, mulling the middens, when I encountered a new (for me) lizard species. The Long-nosed Leopard Lizard is a species of the western United States and northern Mexico. Additional photographs and information have been added to the Reptiles and Amphibians Gallery.

146. Brown Creeper

On January 20, 2018 we had the 146th bird species come to our yard in Hillsboro, New Mexico - a Brown Creeper, Certhia americana, photo from January 22 below.  Like the other new yard birds of this winter this is a species that we occasionally see in walks along the crest of the Black Range, but in eight years of watching we have not seen it on this date.

This species is found in North America, south to Nicaragua in Central America. It is absent from the far north and parts of Mexico of North America.

More Winter Birds

In mid-November colder weather brought an influx of birds down from the mountain slopes.  The Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jays stayed for a couple of weeks and then moved on, the Steller’s Jays and Mountain Chickadees, however, have remained.

Jay, Steller's 1

Although the number of species in the yard on any given day has hovered around 20 there have been times when it has been very quiet.  The reason - 

During the last week, Cassin’s Finchs have joined the crowed, when the Sharp-shinned Hawk has not been about.


Update on Arizona Cypress

On several previous occasions we have posted about the disjunct population of Arizona Cypress which can be found north of Cooke’s Peak.  Today we provide an update and reprint the previous posts.

On November 20, 2017, Joe Malone provided this information:  "I just visited the Grove a few days ago and put up a YouTube video about it, you can probably find it just by searching for it on Google. I last visited it in 2014. The main population "hides" out from the sun under a North-facing escarpment where there are some very large trees, probably 80 feet tall at most. Aside from that, there are a few more in the wash that drains South of there, since water is really the only dispersal mechanism for cypress seeds. Likely this tree occurred more widely throughout the Cookes Range a thousand years ago and has become restricted to that small escarpment on the North side of the Ridge. Morphologically it is strange because this population has no resin glands on the foliage scales like most Arizona Cypress do and it has smooth pink bark, like the smooth bark Arizona cypress.”

His video is provided below.

In early 2016, we made several posts about this stand of trees.  Those posts are reprinted here so that all of the material will be in one place.

Post of February 20, 2016 - The Arizona Cypress North of Cooke’s Peak

There is a relict stand of Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica, just north of Cooke’s Peak.  This variety is generally known as “Rough-bark” Arizona Cypress.  North of Cooke’s Peak there is a long sloping saddle which rises to a small peak (high point on a ridge line).  It is in the area of this small peak that I now believe the stand is located.  On February 17, 2016, Harley Shaw and I found two of these plants on the high slopes above the Cooke’s Peak townsite.  One (pictured below - two images) was a mature tree, the other was much younger and stood about ten feet tall.  We did not find the relict stand because I was not diligent enough in my homework to place the stand’s (assumed) location accurately.  Because the trees we found are outliers and because they are in the proximity of mining activity there is some question about whether these two trees are natural or human plantings.  This is especially true of the older tree.  The younger tree was probably not planted by humans but may have grown from seed of the older plant.

Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica Cooke's Peak Township area

Harley Shaw has been most helpful in providing information and access to the private correspondence referenced below.  However, he bears no responsibility for any errors made in this post.

Speciation Determination

Elbert Little in Names of New World Cypress.pdf (1970) (.pdf is 9.1 MB) noted the splitting and lumping process as it pertains to Cupressus speciation decisions (p. 431) and noted that Posey and Goggans had “suggested that there may have been one widespread species throughout the Southwest.  Environmental conditions changed faster than the species could evolve; thus the species has retreated to a few environmental niches still suitable for growth and reproduction.  Decreased population size, geographic isolation, and different selection pressures have produced enough variation so that some groves are now classified as different species.” 1

Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica, was first described by Edward Lee Greene in 1882.  Little lumped five (then described) species into one in 1966, retaining Cupressus arizonica as the species name.  At page 433, Little provides the nomenclature history for the species.

C. arizonica varieties
Arizona cypress speciation 2

And at page 436 he provides a breakdown of his speciation determination for C. arizonica:

Arizona Cypress speciation 3

These are the currently accepted systemic determinations.  Flora of North America notes that “bark texture and foliage features have been used to distinguish geographic varieties or segregate species.  Although bark texture may be consistent within populations, over the species as a whole there is complete intergradation between smooth and fibrous barks.” (This is a quote from James E. Eckenwalder in Flora of North America - Vol. 2.)

arizona cypress range map

Species Distribution

The Sibley Guide to Trees indicates that there are two populations of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service (and others) provided information in the range map to the right from the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center.  It indicates that the Cookes Peak grove is the only Arizona Cypress population in New Mexico.   

The University of New Mexico Herbarium (accessed via SEINet) contains specimens of this species from three locations in the state.  Specifically: 

  • Several specimens including #59485, collected by J. Von Loh on May 20, 1975 in Upper Ash Canyon of the San Andres Mountains (32.65744859  -106.4612695 and 32.62689887  -106.5296113 +-15m.); #5309 collected by Kenneth Heil, Dave Anderson, and Patrick Alexander on September 9, 2010 at about the same location as J. Von Loh’s collections (32.6355333333  -106.5465166667); 
  • #90145 collected by J. L. Carter on November 3, 1992 along “cottage San-Bear Creek Road” at 32.80108335  -108.2952417 +-1138m in the Gila;
  • and the specimens from the Cooke’s Range.  Herbarium collection #86992, #71083, and #101047 from Hadley Draw (32.56900543  -107.7251834 +-1138m.) by R. S. Peterson on 24 June 1978; and #127252 collected by Deming Gustafson on April 10, 2010, 2 miles NE of Cooks Peak, at 32.573217  -107.726267.   

At p. 440 Little notes that “Early reports of Cupressus arizonica - Greene as native in New Mexico have been questioned by recent collectors.  E. O. Wooton and Paul C. Standley (Flora of New Mexico, 35-36 1915) recorded these species from the southwestern corner of New Mexico.”  That was based on the specimens collected by Mearns as part of his work for the International Boundary Commission.  The collection sites for those specimens are in present day Mexico.  

In 1905, Theodore F. Rixon, wrote “Forest Conditions in the Gila River Forest Reserve, New Mexico” (USGS Professional Paper No. 39).  Rixon reported “a scattering of cypress” in Township 8S, Range 17W (p. 38); “with a scattering of cypress along the creeks” in Township 14S, Range 11W (p. 76); and “a few cypress” in Township 15S, Range 21W.  RSP, in private correspondence of Jan. 11, 2013, notes that Rixon’s “stand descriptions seem accurate except that I cannot find the cypress, not even by looking for cones in dry stream beds (which record all the other conifers listed).”  The J. L. Carter specimen from T17S R14W sec 28 (2nd listing above) is in the same “general area” as some of the trees reported by Rixon.

The Cooke’s Peak Grove

Little mentions the Cooke's Peak site and no others in his article.  He included two photographs taken at the Cooke's Peak grove in February 1956 by Sidney P. Gordon (ibid. pp 441-442).  Gordon was a Forest Service employee who (apparently) discovered the grove in 1954.

The University of New Mexico Herbarium has a specimen record of Cupressus arizonica in its collection, collected by RSP on 24 June 1978.  In private correspondence dated Jan. 11, 2013 he states that the Cookes Peak population of Arizona Cypress is “definitely a native stand with trees pre-dating European arrival.”  (Initials are used when private correspondence is referred to because the author did not intend the material to be a formal statement and did not necessarily take the steps that a formal statement would require.)

Cooke's Peak & Arizona Cypress3

 Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica Cooke's Peak Township area. The younger tree found below the ridge [see map below by Barnes] by Shaw and Barnes on February 17, 2016.

the younger tree found below the ridge [see map below by Barnes] by Shaw and Barnes on February 17, 2016.4

In correspondence dated Jan. 12, 2013, biologist JPH, identified at least one specimen in the Cookes Peak Grove as “rough-barked Arizona cypress” (that would be C. a. var. arizonica).  His identification was based on a field visit to the site of “a smallish stand of these trees growing on the top and north sides of the east-west ridge north of Hadley Draw in the Cooke’s Range of Luna County, New Mexico, probably centered at about T20S R8W Section 18 and concentrated at elevations ranging from 7000 to 7450 feet above sea level.  As far as I am aware, the location of this grove of cypresses was most recently discovered by” AS (a Wildlife Biologist with NM Department of Game and Fish) “a few days prior” to September 29, 1977.  JPH goes on to say that on September 24, 1977:

I was en route in our departmental truck with some of my fellow endangered-species biologists to work a pronghorn hunt on the Gray Ranch in Hidalgo County, when we saw” AS “driving onto the Hatch-Deming highway following his survey in the preceding range.” (Cookes Peak)  “We spoke to him on our two-way radio and asked him if he had found anything of interest there, such as its "long lost" stand of these cypresses!  He replied in the affirmative and went on to tell us where they were found, which soon led to our visiting the site on an overnight stay in upper Hadley Draw on the 28-29th.  While driving up the draw on that first afternoon, I noticed an old  miner's cabin beside the road in the yard of which one or more rough-barked Arizona cypresses were growing -- leading me to surmise that it was either already there when the builder first arrived, or had been planted from local stock or its seeds. 

I also remember asking” AS “on the radio on the 24th if he had ever encountered Arizona cypresses growing in the wild elsewhere in New Mexico, and I am almost certain that he said "no."  This is a man who could keep up with bighorns in the field, and had combed the uplands of southern New Mexico searching for and studying them and their habitats, former places of occurrence, and potential transplant sites for several years.  This definitely included the Animas Mountains in Hidalgo County, where I had been unsuccessfully looking for Mearn's purported Arizona cypresses since November 1960 -- both on foot in the Indian, Bear, Pine, Black Bill, and Deer creek drainages, and once during an extensive aerial survey from a fixed-winged aircraft (i.e., a Helio Courier).

I first became familiar with the rough-barked Arizona cypress in the wilds of the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona between 1957 and 1960 -- and later observed others growing in that state in such places as the Santa Ritas and north of Clifton on what used to be Highway 666, plus in the western end of the Sierra San Luis in Sonora.  Meanwhile, the smooth, reddish-barked form was noticed after its having long been planted abundantly in southern New Mexico (e.g., Silver City and a few in Glenwood), and locally northward to Albuquerque and in very protected sites in Santa Fe.  I have failed to find any rough-barked ones (wild or otherwise) in such places in this state as along San Francisco Valley, and in the Mogollon, Pinos Altos, Big Lue, and Big Burro ranges in the southwest.

Also on January 12, 2013, KA reported that “I went up Hadley Draw with” T. “back when he was working on the Cooke’s Range....I do remember seeing the trees on the trip.”

In a response to KA, RSP notes that “You remind me that there were, indeed, old planted cypresses at the townsite.” (Cooke’s Peak Townsite).  

TH to RSP and others, on January 14, 2013, summarized the email chain referenced above as:

the only known native stand of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico is located in the Cooke's Mt. Range, associated with the peak just north of Cooke's Peak.   This is just north of Deming, New Mexico.   This stand only comprises about 300 acres and is located between 7,000 to 7,450 ft. elevation.   From the attached picture you provided, they are clearly rough-bark Arizona Cypress.   This makes perfect sense with rough-bark cypress located to the south-east at Big Bend National Park and to the west at Chiricahua National Monument  (please correct me if the above is incorrect).

...My work with the cypress on the Chisos Mts. of Big Bend has shown that their cones are not serontinous (spelling?) as is often stated in books.   The mature cones of those cypress are dumping their seeds in the fall.  By mid-October ~85% of seeds had emptied out of the cones.   I suspect the same will be true of the Cooke's Peak Cypress.

Arizona Cypress Location

Replying to TH, RSP (January 14, 2013) identified the location of the Cooke’s Peak grove as “The eminence to the north of the saddle ("Cypress Ridge") is a long ridge with cypress all along the top (and better ones just beyond the top). Can't miss it, walking, for instance, north-northwest from the saddle. If one has binoculars and knows what one's looking for I think one can see the trees from the saddle.”  Later that day, he followed up with:

1.  The Cooke's Range cypresses are on both convex and concave surfaces.  But, unlike in the Chiricahua's, where the cypresses in concave bottoms are a thousand feet below those on convex uplands, at "Cypress Ridge" all are in a more or less unified stand, all upland. See attachment. The attachment's "valley" of Section 13 is not properly a valley but a steep wash dry 99.99+% of the time. The biggest, healthiest trees are just north of the ridge-top, under its protection, but there are also many smaller trees on top of the ridge. ("Protection" in the Southwest usually refers, as here, to protection of soils from excessive sunshine.) (I don't know in what part of the country you are.)

2.  Probably collectors should be warned away from planted cypresses in the old townsite in upper Hadley Draw. Likely they're from the native stand above the Draw, but we don't know.

On September 27, 2014 TH emailed RSP and JH that: 

At Cooke’s Peak townsite “we proceeded up on foot from Cooke’s town across a slope leading to the eastern knoll of the stand...We first saw dead trees at perhaps 6,900’, and then started running into live ones.  They were as you described, short and stunted, a Bonsai Cypress forest at about 7,000’.  Estimate approx. 40% of stand was dead.  Looked like in the last 5 yrs. bad heat and drought must have hit this area.  Did observe several seedlings about 12” or so tall, so some regeneration is now occurring.  The trees on the north slope appeared to be in much better shape, perhaps only 10% mortality on existing trees.  Of course they were taller also.

The trees all were C. arizonica, the rough-barked cypress.  Some of trunks must have exceeded 18” in diameter, regret that I did not measure that.  We proceeded across the saddle but did not go up the taller western knoll...We observed two anomaly cypress sites on way down...presumed they were the same population but planted by man at some point.

In responding to TH, JH wondered:

why the noted botanical collector Charles Wright did not collect any Arizona cypresses in this mountain range, given that he and the rest of Col. James Graham’s U.S. Boundary Survey party passed through this area going to and coming from the Copper Mines (or Santa Rita del Cobre) in the summer and autumn of 1851?  In fact, neither he nor any other member of that survey collected any material of this species even in southeastern Arizona (e.g. Torrey, Botany of the Boundary, 1859:211), which is perhaps understandable in light of the fact that none of them appear to have penetrated its present range in that state (e.g., the Santa Catalina and Chiricahua mountains.)

Apparently some seeds from the stand have been collected and propagated.  For instance, the Sooner Plant Farm and other gardening sites list a cultivar known as Cook’s Peak Arizona Cypress.  At the Sooner site he states that “I’m not sure how this plant got it’s name, but it was given to me by a friend nurseryman.  He said it was discovered at Cookes (Cooks) Peak, New Mexico.” 

In 2010, the Bureau of Land Management, published an Environmental Assessment for a prescribed fire over the entire Cookes Peak Wilderness Study Area.  The report is quite clear that the purpose of the fire is to restore grazing lands that have been “encroached on” by woody vegetation.  The report notes five species of concern in the area of the proposed burn: Grayish-white Giant Hyssop, Agastache cana; Mimbres Figwort, Scrophularia macrantha; Night-blooming cereus, Peniocereus greggii variety greggii; Wright’s Campion, Silene wrightii; and Wright’s Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea wrightii.  Arizona Cypress is not mentioned as a species of concern in the report, although at page 16 (Section 3.12) the report states that: 

There is a small stand (approximately 70 acres) of Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) located approximately 2.5 miles north of Cooke’s Peak. This relict conifer woodland has been known since 1954 (Little, 1970) and was once known as the only definite locality of the species in the state of New Mexico (Columbus, 1988). Although that is no longer believed to be the case, this grove of Arizona cypress is truly unique to the area...The area around the stand of Arizona cypress would need to be protected from the burn. The stand would be evaluated to determine if the area needs to be handlined or blacklined prior to burning.


There are small scattered populations of Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica, in the American Southwest.  None of the populations are very large.  There are probably three populations of this species in New Mexico.  The population north of Cooke’s Peak was first discovered in 1954 by Sidney P. Gordon.  The population’s existence apparently was lost to the collective memory, although it was rumored to exist, until September 24, 1977 (or slightly before) when the grove was rediscovered by a New Mexico State Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist.  Since that time the grove’s existence has been generally known to specialists in the field (but a rather small group).  In 2013 there was a flurry of activity centered around once again “rediscovering” the site of the grove.  Most recently Barnes and Shaw have found trees of this species in the area and been near the area of the grove.  Specimens from the two other possible (probable?) sites for this species, in New Mexico, are at the UNM Herbarium but the sites may not be well documented (beyond the specimens).  Photographs of this species by Barnes from his visit with Shaw to the Cooke’s Peak area on February 17, 2016 have been added to the Plants of the Black Range photo gallery.


1.  Goggans, J. F. and C. E. Posey. 1968. Variation in seeds and ovulate cones of some species and varieties of Cupressus.  Circ. Agric. Exp. Sta., Alabama 160: 1-23

 Post of February 27, 2016: Arizona Cypress Update

 On February 20, I posted about the Arizona Cypress grove north of Cooke’s Peak.  Part of the post dealt with the flow of knowledge about the grove, questions about the natural range of the species in New Mexico, and the specimens in the University of New Mexico Herbarium.  

Cooke's Peak & Arizona Cypress4
Cooke's Peak Township area Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica Cooke's Peak Township area

On Thursday, I was able to speak with Dr. Richard Felger of the University of Arizona Herbarium.  Dr. Felger is one of the premier botanist in the Southwestern United States.  He indicated that the Arizona Cypress specimens from the Gila and from the San Andres Mountains in the UNM collection were from human planted trees and that the only native population of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico was the Cooke’s Peak grove - and that “they were on the way out”.  

The warming of the earth is taking its toll everywhere.

Post of March 8, 2016: The Arizona Cypress Trail

Harley Shaw and I had been talking for some time about trying to find a disjunct population of Arizona Cypress which are said to be in the area of Cooke’s Peak.  In mid-February we gathered our information and went to see if we could find the trees.  Our walk is described in this post. 

Cooke's Peak & Arizona Cypress5
Cooke's Peak Township area

This trail starts at Riley Spring (photo above) south of the Cooke’s Peak Township (ruins).  The spring has been tapped and fills a cattle tank.  From the spring, the route follows a good dirt road north through mine ruins of various types: unframed shafts, framed shafts (photo below), what appears to be a mill site, the remains of framed buildings, corrals, old car frames, etc.. 

Cooke's Peak & Arizona Cypress6
Cooke's Peak Township area

My trail plotter was having some significant issues on this walk.  The walk starts and ends at point “b” on the map below.  The road mentioned in the previous paragraph is clearly visible.  At the point where the red line of our walk finally appears (within Cooke’s Peak Township) our route followed an old road bed up hill, this quickly deteriorated to a route in a narrow and quite heavily vegetated ravine.  After we reached some mine workings (photo right) we exited the ravine to the north climbing up over a ridge and eventually making it to a “good” road.  We followed the road up hill until we spotted two Arizona Cypress trees, just down slope from the road.  I suspect that these trees were naturally planted, even though they are growing in an area where there was a significant amount of human activity - that is entirely supposition, however, and it is entirely possible that the trees were planted by humans.  The largest cypress is actually growing on mine tailings.  We explored the immediate area and photographed the trees.

We then headed back following the road down to the car (the trail map shows two straight lines where the recorder dropped the signal, the walk followed the road which is visible on the map).

Cooke's Peak Township area

This is the general area of  the Faywood Mine of the Jose or Cooks (Cooke’s) Peak Mining District.  Only two minerals are listed for the Faywood Mine on, Quartz and Vanadinite, there were more.  

Arizona Cypress Hike

The walk, as shown in red was a little over two miles, total distance was about 3 miles, with a minimum elevation of 6,004’ and a maximum of 6,597’, the maximum grade on the walk was 20%.  The grade, if you travel on the road from point “b” to the farthest point in the upper left hand corner, is very modest. The elevation profile of that part of the walk shown in red is shown below - the two peaks on the right side depict the elevation profile following the straight lines on the map above and do not represent the grade on the road.

cypress trail elevation profile

 From a post on March 12, 2016: “…Arizona Cypress Correction

In my post of February 20, 2016 I included a map which indicated where I thought the Arizona Cypress grove north of Cooke’s Peak might be, the location indicated is apparently an error.  On March 3, 2016 my brother Mike and I visited the area in question and after a rather extensive search I was not able to find any Arizona Cypress at that location (the hill and ridge just south of the road which crosses a saddle north of Cooke’s Peak - see the 2/20 posting).  It is possible that the grove is closer to the peak - or elsewhere.

From a post on March 14, 2016: New Road Video - Access to Cooke’s Peak Townsite

A new road video is available in our Road’s of The Black Range Video Portfolio.  This video of the Cooke’s Peak Access Road starts at NM-26 on the southern edge of the Black Range and proceeds northwest to the saddle north of Cooke’s Peak and the Cooke’s Peak Townsite.

The route as shown in the video and as depicted in the map below is about 17 miles long.  That, however, is deceiving.  Travel time is close to two hours.  Once you get beyond the 10 mile mark on the road it becomes very slow, lots of rock, lots of angular bedrock and ruts.  This is a road to take great care of the oil pan and hope your tires are in good shape.  A high clearance is very desirable, four-wheel drive (for the “creeping range”) is helpful.

Cooke's Peak Road

On the map below, Cooke’s Peak is at the lower left and the ridge where our Arizona Cypress explorations have been occurring runs northeast from the Peak to the northern most pin.  The Saddle where you can see westward across the plains (see our March 12 post) and southward to Cooke’s Peak is at the end of the red line at the top of the image.  Cooke’s Peak Townsite is also accessed on this route and access is shown in the video. 

Cooke's Peak Road 2

This is mining country.  The ruins at the Cooke’s Peak Townsite are full of history - you just need to ferret it out of them.  On the slopes above the town are many mines (see the detail below).  The Summit Group Mine is shown on the map.  In close proximity to it are the Inez Mine, Greenleaf Number 3 Mine, Little Mary Mine, Mickey Mine, Raithel Mine, and Old Commodore Mine.  A bit farther south there is the Webster Mine and the Silver Cave Number2 Mine.  This is, by no means, a full tally of the mines in the area.

Cooke's Peak Road 3

Skipping the mining for a moment, this area is rich in history.  A significant fight occurred between the Apache’s and Confederate forces from Arizona in this area and the troops from Ft. Cummings, which is to the south, were called upon to guard the road up the mountain from the Apaches and to assist in its construction.

cookes peak townsite
Cooke's Peak Township area

A rock foundation of a structure, at the Townsite, is shown above.  There are various mine and building ruins and what appears to be the remains of a mill structure at the Townsite as well.

144. Red Crossbill & 145. Mountain Chickadee

On November 16, 2017 we added two new bird species to our yard list.  The cooler weather has brought species down from the mountain and we are enjoying the benefit.  Within 30 seconds we saw a Red Crossbill and a Mountain Chickadee, both new bird species for the yard (nos. 144 & 145).  The Mountain Chickadee was back today (Nov. 21) but the Red Crossbill has not been seen since.

November has been a particularly good bird month.  This morning, for instance, we had seen 20 species in the yard by 8:00 - just about an hour of viewing time put into the effort.  White-breasted Nuthatch, Northern Cardinal, both Spotted and Canyon Towhee, Mountain Chickadee, and Hairy Woodpecker joined the usual crowd.

Cardinal, Northern - Cardinalis cardinalis Hillsboro1

Towhee, Canyon - Melozone fusca - Hillsboro, NM2

The following video of a male Cardinal was recorded in our yard in Hillsboro during March 2014.  Previous posts about this species include; Northern Cardinal (March 8, 2014), The Spring Bird Migration (May 3, 2016), and Window Strikes (May 13, 2015).

143. Steller’s Jay

It has been a long time since we added to our yard list, but on November 8 we managed to add bird species number 143 to the list.  The weather had turned a bit colder and some of the mountain birds moved to lower elevations. Including a Steller’s Jay, Cyanocitta stelleri.  The Steller’s Jay is fairly common just a few miles to our west - and a few hundred feet higher in elevation - but we had never seen it in our yard until last Wednesday.  The previous addition to the yard list was 19 months ago.

IMG 2047
Stellar's Jay, Wright's Cabin, Emory Pass, NM

I did not manage a photograph of the bird this week, the photograph above was taken about 15 miles to the west of our house in Hillsboro.

The Stellers Jay is fairly common in its normal habitat and is a year-round resident of parts of British Columbia and Alberta, south through the mountains of the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.

A Walk to Holden Prong Saddle

On October 13 Rebecca and I took a walk from the Railroad Canyon Campground up to Holden Prong Saddle in the Black Range.  The general trail description can be found on Black Range 3.  It was the perfect fall day for a nine mile walk, the trail was in good condition, and there was no thunder/lightening.  Along the way we found several flowering plants, a skunk (of unidentified species), various bird species, and two Elk.


Along the trail we found Harebell (a.k.a. Bluebells of Scotland), Campanula rotundifolia (photo above), Hooker’s Evening Primrose, and Showy Milkweed in seed (photo below).

The Sharp-shinned Hawk shown below followed me back down the mountain, apparently waiting for me to scare something up.

The Last Water Year

The Water Year has drawn to a close and the report is good, odd, but good.  First to the basics, like what is a water year.  A water year runs from October 1 to September 30.  CoCoRaHS (the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network) describes the water year as:

The water year is the best consecutive twelve months that span the "water storage/water usage" hydrologic cycle. The water year cycle is particularly obvious in the Rocky Mountains and western U.S. where snow begins to accumulate at high elevations in October and doesn't melt and run off until next spring and summer. But this same important annual cycle takes different forms across the entire country.

Another way to think of the Water Year is the resting/replenishing season followed by the water consuming season where vegetation grows, crops are cultivated and then harvested. For much of the country, the months of October through March are months where precipitation from the sky exceeds evaporation from the ground. This means that soil moisture and ground water can recharge. When next spring arrives, temperatures will warm again, plants will come back from dormancy and once again evapotranspiration will surge.

CoCoRaHS is a great “citizen science” organization, gathering data from throughout the nation in a structured thoughtful manner.  NOAA even uses CoCoRaHS data to validate their models.  

There are several CoCoRaHS reporting stations in our area including three in Hillsboro, one in Kingston, and several in the Mimbres.  Anyone living in this area for a rain or two knows the precip can be very spotty in the Black Range.  The CoCoRaHS information from Hillsboro, for instance, has allowed the quantification of that impression.  The three reporting stations are roughly east Hillsboro, central Hillsboro, west Hillsboro - spread out over less than a mile.  Even in such a short distance there are distinct differences in reporting, with practically every rain showing a definite cline - almost always supported by the Kingston station.

The other basic concept is “average”.  I am not talking about simple averages like mean, median, and mode - nor of the statistical averages - but rather the end point and start point for the range which is used to compute the average.  The November 3, 2015 post on the original Black Range website had a description of how that average is computed (currently a 30 year average based on the years 1981 to 2010). This information is maintained by the Oregon State University PRISM program.  It computes the average over the 30 year period as 13.35 inches.

On August 18, 2013 the website posted an analysis of the 116 years of rain data available at that time.  Over the years the original website had many postings about rainfall and flood events - use the search box on the home page.  Snowfall is currently converted to rainfall based on water content - it is not clear how snowfall was rolled into the calculation in the early reporting years.

The August 2013 analysis found an average (simple mean) of 12 inches per year.  That report goes into quite a bit of detail.  The following paragraph addresses the point at hand:

For the annual rainfall amount, there are data for 96 years.  (See notes in the charts below for information about when and why years are left in or out.  In 1931 July was missing data, but I left the annual figure in the analysis.)  The maximum annual rainfall during this period was 21.59 inches (1905).  The minimum rainfall in any year was 3.35 inches (1956).  The average (simple mean) was 12 inches.  During this period there were three years (3% of all years) where more than 20 inches of rain fell: 1905, 1941, and 1986.  There were 26 years (27% of all years) where more than 15 inches of rain fell and 30 years (31% of all years) where less than 10 inches fell.

So how does that compare with the last two years?  The total rainfall in Hillsboro (the NM-SR-46 reporting station) for the water year ending in September 2016 was 14.19 inches and for the last year it was 15.89 inches.  Two good years which will skew the 30 year average (whichever you use) upward a bit when the new (1991 to 2020) average is computed.  That is the “good” part.  What about the “odd" part of my opening comment?

The August 2013 analysis pays particular attention to the monsoon period, when we receive most of our rain - generally July through September.  However, the beginning and end dates are variable and often imprecise.  In the year ending September 30, 2016 we had 1.1 inches in July, 5.7 in August, and 2.53 in September.  9.33 inches of the 14.19 inches fell during those three months.  Last year only 5.6 inches fell during those three months, even though the annual total was greater.  What was the difference?  For starts, it was a wet winter - 1.69 inches fell on January 15 for instance (more rain than we received in August) - and we had a bit more than that the first week of November.  The shape of the rainfall this year was different, skewed away from a monsoonal dominance that we usually see.

My informal (and generally uninformed) assessment is that this was not a good wildflower year, or more precisely it was a decent spring but the rest of the year - not so good.  Performing a more structured assessment of the relationship between rainfall (shape and distribution [temporal and geographic]) and flora production might be an interesting study.  If only there was…….

© Robert Barnes 2018-2021