Social Distancing — The Birds Do It

20200430_093633My friend, Dog and I go up to Cherry Creek trail early this morning while it is still cool.  This Gila National Forest trail is one of my favorites, especially in warm weather because it drops down from the road, following a creek through a canyon.  It may be 75° at 6,000 feet (where my house is) at 8 am; there in the canyon it is 55° and green.

Today, we take binoculars because there are several species of spring arrivals that we hope to see; that is, if Dog will be patient enough to let me put binocs to eyes and focus on the branches overhead.

The meadow, woods and riparian stretches are great attractors for warblers, wrens, vireos, and more.  The challenge, of course, is that the trees are leafing out, giving those little guys lots of opportunities to flit from behind one leaf to behind the next, with a duck behind a tree trunk along the way.  This is social distancing at its most frustrating.

One constant on this trail, at least at this time of year, is the sound of running water.  There are numerous crossings of Cherry Creek to be made, hopping from rock to rock and hoping that Dog, always leashed, doesn’t get too exuberant and pull me into the water.

Friend and I make poor time as hikes go, but great time for birding.  Neither of us are particularly good at identifying by song and not a whole lot better identifying what we see.  Still, there are a few spring celebrants who are impossible to mistake, assuming we can find them high above.

Those lovelies that we see and recognize today include Red Faced Warbler, Painted Redstart, House Wrens, Robins, Juncos, Stellar Jay, Vireo, Acorn Woodpecker, Swifts and an unidentified hawk. If those warblers weren’t so good at staying socially distant, despite my noisy efforts to pish them down, we might see more.

Butterflies are also warming to spring.  A variety of whites, blues, sulphurs and brightly-marked butterflies flutter from flower to leaf to blooming grasses.  Those I recognize are Sara Orangetip, Queen Alexandra’s Sulphur and Swallowtails.  I think I notice a Mourning Cloak – or is that an Arizona Sister?  Such engaging names we give these creatures.

Hard to take pictures of those fast-moving, darting beings.  I am reduced to beings that don’t move much except as the breeze stirs them.  A wild clematis in bloom – I’ve never seen one before.  Various yellow wildflowers, aka dyc or damn yellow composite–they are the equivalent of an LBJ to a birder—fill the sunny spots.  And there’s my hugging tree—a gnarled old grandmother cottonwood. Since we can’t hug our two-legged friends these days, a hug of that old cottonwood gives back a grounded energy.

Depending upon your frame of reference, the damper to the day or the interesting and unexpected find is a mule deer that had been taken by a predator, partially eaten and left right on the side of the campground entrance where we are parked and only 20 feet or so off the main road. Since I’m used to finding evidence of our four-legged neighbors that is far less graphic, I can’t resist taking some pictures and posting them to my tracking group to see if anyone has a clue whether this deer was taken by a mountain lion or coyotes. My guess is mountain lion.  As I said, it all depends on your frame of reference.

I’ll be leading a hike along Cherry Creek for our lifelong learning organization in July.  By then, the birds will be quieter, having found mates and being busy raising peeps. By then, the water will probably be found only in residual pools. By then, a whole new succession of dyc’s will be in bloom.  But it will still be cool. And green. And old grandmother cottonwood will still be giving and receiving hugs in a time of human social distancing.

Social Distancing on the Continental Divide Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

New Mexico Blue on the CD Trail

This morning dawned New Mexico blue, offering an invitation to take Dog and go up to a favorite section of the CD Trail, a short 15 minute drive from home.  My hike on this portion of trail is usually about 3 miles round trip and takes Dog and I roughly two hours.  We frequently have this section of trail to ourselves.

As I pulled into the parking at the trailhead, a good friend pulled in behind me.  Meeting was totally random but welcome.  Up until this morning, we have seen each other through computer cameras and zoom.  Dog was thrilled; this is one of her most favorite persons who usually has a bit of doggy bacon in his pocket.  We visited for a few minutes at the distance of Dog’s 18 foot leash, then he went down-trail and I went up.

We didn’t get too far before meeting up with another hiker and her dog, Jack.  Jack and Dog know each other from the town’s dog park, so they shared a brief greeting and a sit-down while she and I caught up a bit.  Good to see folks I know, doing the same things I love in the places that make us smile and feel grounded.

Signs that this section of trail is loved and valued: someone left a painted rock on a tree trunk next to the trail.  Another someone carefully positioned a pine cone and a pebble on a lichen-covered rock. A little cactus, unusual to be found at this elevation and in this habitat, has been rocked off to protect it from mountain bikes.  These touches mean a lot in a time when human connection is more difficult to sustain.

Flowers are beginning to pop up.  And the oaks are turning golden, ready to drop their leaves in favor of new buds.  As an aside, when I first moved here and saw all the oaks turning yellow in April, I thought they were dying of some dread disease.  Coming from the East Coast where all the trees turn and drop leaves in the fall, I had no idea that here, this is the natural order of things.  Oaks drop their leaves in the spring so that the monsoons, when they come, can water the trees into full new leaf.

Another welcome sign on the trail: the rancher who had a lease to graze this section of forest must have moved the cows somewhere else.  For a full year, I found no tracks, no scat, no sign of the wild animals that inhabit the forest.  Only cow tracks breaking up the trail, crossing and tearing down the hillside, denuding the earth of its grasses. And piles of cow dung.  Now that the cows have been removed, sign is coming back.  The gray fox has been marking the rocks in the trail. Hawks or owls are sitting on overhanging branches, munching their lunch and leaving white stains of uric acid on the ground underneath them. And this morning, I heard a warbler calling in the trees nearby.  I could see it flitting through the branches, but not well enough without my binoculars to identify the little guy.  I pished at him for a couple of minutes but only succeeded in getting curious stares from Dog, while the warbler darted on off among the treetops.

By the time I got back to my truck, the day was growing hotter.  The Ponderosa pines were scenting vanilla and cinnamon on the breeze and the earth, in the sunny spots, was smelling flannel-warm.

During this time of social distancing, our Gila National Forest, like other parks, forests and wildlands, is getting heavily used.  Sadly, not everyone escaping to the forests or parks is treating their wildland of choice with respect, care and protection. Trash and worse are left along the trails and piled around the locked bathrooms and trashcans, creating health and safety risks for humans who have to clean it up as well as danger to animals. Graffiti mars petroglyphs. ATVs cut tracks where only deer should be leaving theirs.  So a plea from one who finds sanity and peace on our public lands: be careful-be responsible-be safe and keep it clean. Remember — Do No Harm.

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Bear Mountain from the CD Trail

Social Distancing in the Gila National Forest

20200406_093816

Returning to the Forest for the second – or is it third – time this week with Friend and Dog to hike up Little Cherry Creek Rd.  That’s a little service road that heads up-canyon along Little Cherry Creek to a trail-head that continues up the canyon and veers over to Twin Sisters peaks. Little Cherry Creek Rd is a favorite, especially with friends when we want to visit while we hike.  As with any wild place, it’s a favorite with Dog for all the things that dogs love.

Little Cherry Creek is alive and well, running with snow melt and collected rivulets from higher elevations.  This is another of our many ephemeral streams that only strut their stuff during monsoons, typically.  It’s been such a wet season that streams and creeks are engorged, even as long-time New Mexicans wonder if the state has been transported someplace with a more tropical rainy season.

It’s two miles up the dirt track to the trailhead.  The canyon sides are hoodoos, ledges and balanced rocks that come closer as the canyon narrows. Although it never becomes quite a slot canyon, there are stretches where one gets birder’s neck from standing and looking up at the vertical rock walls.  It’s also easy to imagine who might be peering over the edges back down at us interlopers: Fox? Bobcat? Creatures smaller or larger?

We walk to the rumble, rush and roar of water tumbling over rock falls that rarely see more than a trickle.  Friend and I stop and marvel at the amount of water sloshing down the canyon alongside the track.  We take pictures while Dog wades and shakes.

 

We reach the point where the dirt road makes a 90° turn to the left and the trail becomes the followed path.  As the trail climbs the side of the canyon and away from the noise of the water, we walk silently on pine needles between a throw of boulders.  We trade the sounds of water for the gentler whisper of the breeze talking with the Ponderosa pines overhead.  Friend and I joke about keeping 2 black-bear lengths apart as we practice social distancing.  Which reminds us that we need to make sure that Momma Bear, seen the last two seasons with cubs on this very trail, is also socially distancing herself from us.  So as we huff up the trail, we huff out just enough talk to let Momma know we are around and prefer to pass un-accosted.  As Dog pulls me up the path, I watch her behavior carefully.  She alerts on every squirrel, chipmunk, lizard but she would also alert on bear scent; she is our early warning signal.

At the intersection of trail and turning, we take the jog to the left to rejoin the dirt track and start back down.  On our descent, we pay more attention to what is blooming at this elevation at this early point of Spring.  Things at 7200’ are just greening and tiny flowers just popping.  In fact, we swear that the swaths of violas that we see now were not there when we walked up that way.  Probably they just opened their faces to the sun as the sun warmed them.

We cross the creek for the last time before reaching my truck, when I ask Friend if she has any guess as to how many times we crossed the creek up and back.  Her answer is precise: “Yes.  Quite a few.”

These are the treks that have always lifted me up.  Now, especially during this stressful time, my heart fills and my soul expands into the wildness and space and peace. I know how lucky we are to have these public lands at our doorstep.  And I know how important it is to keep them there.

Social Distancing down New Mexico way

Field of poppies.2.Portal.3-31-20

Social distancing requires us to stay at least six feet from each other. Six feet? That is awfully close!   Thus goes one of several New Mexico versions of this bit of coronavirus humor.

Another bit. Six feet is about the equivalent of: 6 Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout (or Gila Trout if you’re in my neighborhood); 2 mule deer bucks; 4 Roadrunners; or 2 Black Bears. This from NM Game and Fish recommendations for social distancing in the field. Of course, I’d rather be more than 2 black-bear lengths from any black bear, but that’s just me!

Down here in New Mexico, six feet of separation isn’t a problem for a large state, home to only about 2 million people, most of whom live in one of three cities.  Practicing social distancing can be as easy as getting out onto some little corner of our millions of acres of public land.

In 30 minutes or less, I can be on a trail in the Gila National Forest, hiking with my dog alone or with one, maybe two friends.  We have the choice of going low:  the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) starts down south in a desert environment at 6,000’ or less, wandering through pinion, juniper and boulders, as though through a carefully landscaped rock garden. Seen from the ridges, Big Hatchet and the Floridas stand stark against the border; Soldiers Return holds the near frame. The snaggletooth of Cookes Peak anchors the east.  The Peloncios, Chiricahuas and Mt Graham bound the south and west.  These days, Mt Graham and the tallest points of stone in the Chiricahuas are snow-topped.

Or I can go high, above 7,000’:  Signal Peak, Cherry Creek trail, the trail out of McMillan Campground, Meadow Creek trail are all favorites when Ponderosa and fir are preferred, and a shady path calls.  This time of year, the Redstarts and Red-faced Warblers are moving in and singing their territory.

We’ve had a wet late winter and early spring.  Rains have come with regularity.  The soft female rains – or farmer rains, depending on your argot – soaked into the land at just the right time and right temperature and the result is a golden explosion.

Field of poppies.3.Portal.3-31-20Poppies. Mexican Poppies glowing along the roadside, in painterly splashes on the hillsides.  And most spectacularly, spread across fields as quilts made of yellow, orange and gold, with love-knots of white. In New England, they go leaf-peeping in the fall.  This week, I have indulged in Poppy-peeping.

Poppies don’t bloom alone.  There are lupines, brittlebush, bladderpod, mustard and other yellow ground flowers whose names refuse to stick with me.  There’s a spot along AZ Rt 191 where for about 3 miles, the hillsides look as though Monet was trying to improve on his Garden at Giverny.

And, the other evidence of generous rains and snow-covered elevations is water.  Dead Man's Canyon.2.3-28-20

Water running in the most ephemeral of streams, bubbling down stony creek beds that rarely entertain a flow outside of a good monsoon.  Seeps become creeks, creeks become challenging crossings and waterfalls sing over rock.

The Gila River gorges on the melt and silt from the snows on the Mogollons, spreading beyond its banks and filling the acequias.

The happening-together of a glorious wildflower bloom set against the backdrop of snowy peaks, and water courses that live up to their names has made for a rapturous spring of hikes and drives, indulging in color and sound, and following Dog’s nose up the trails.  I hope and pray for the recovering health of my community, nation and the world.

Mogollons.3-2020

 

Here, though, is my refuge.  Social distancing at six feet?  That’s awfully close!

 

 

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