A Congress of Ravens

The first we knew of them, we heard the wind brush through wing feathers, a soft shushing over our heads.  Three ravens passed just above tree level. 

A little further down the trail, the calls of several ravens stopped us again. In a clearing between juniper and oak, we saw more ravens lifting from tree line. 

Why were these ravens gathering?  Normally, ravens travel in pairs or family groups.  That means 2 or 5 or 6 birds together. A pair of birds will soar and pirouette as dancers moving synchronously.  A family group will gather to chase off strange ravens, not members of their territory – and territory is claimed for years, not a season or two.

The wider our angle of view, the more ravens we saw, coming from the four directions. At first it was as a gathering of different clans, socially distancing: 10 there, 5 overhead, another 8 or so to the east, more arriving from the west.

We speculated, guessed and assumed reasons for so many ravens gathering. I’ve seen a ‘muster’ of crows grieving the death of a fellow.  Ravens have their own reasons to congress together. 

While we watched, the ravens kettled into a single large swirl. We watched them coalesce into a tighter and tighter circle and move upward. A rough count was 20 or more ravens. Looking above their kettle, we saw a large, single bird soaring, dipping, turning.  Sunlight flashed off its head and tail and my first thought was, “Red Tail,” but soon it became clear that the soaring bird was too large and too high for a hawk.

“Oh,” I said to myself, “I have my binoculars here!” So taken with the drama going on above me, I totally forgot I had means to observe.  Friend had become mesmerized and needed reminding that she, too, had her binocs hanging from on a halter around her neck.  We put glasses on that single bird and noted a light head, white tail and white patches underwing.  A juvenile baldie!  Or was it?  We watched the bird maneuver as the congress of ravens came close enough to harass.  But what is a baldie doing down here?  They are typically up near Lake Roberts.  Or at least Bill Evans.  Not down this far south over the high desert.  I remembered that juvenile Bald Eagles have varied markings and this bird seemed to evidence that. But enough doubt lingered.  What else could it be? 

I pulled out my phone and logged into iBird.  First opened the page for Bald Eagles to look at various juvenile years.  Not quite.  No large white patches underwing, only random white feathers.  Took a look at Golden Eagle.  This is the right territory, right habitat.  And there was the image on the screen that duplicated what we were seeing live, high above the desert and above a mob of ravens. We looked back up—and they were gone.  Every raven.  The eagle. Gone. The sky was empty.  While we were busy studying pixels, the real creatures flew their own sky-paths, taking them over a ridge and away.

In the days since, I find myself remembering a chapter from Craig Childs’ book, Animal Dialogues, about coming across a congress of ravens in a canyon in Utah.  Here is a relevant paragraph that reflects what we witnessed there on the CDTrail, but ours was a less lethal outcome.  The link (over Ravens are mobbers) will follow to the full reprinted story in Sun Magazine. 

Ravens are mobbers; that much I knew. They frequently gang up on invaders, generally the likes of hawks, eagles, or owls, pecking the backs of their heads, getting in their faces and screaming. They have a sense of appropriateness, attacking something that is out of place when the time is right…

If a tree falls in the forest…

Splintered Oak Branches across McMillan Trail

Who notices?

I try to get out twice a week to hike, sometimes thrice!  Dog, Friend and I go back and back again to our favorite trails in the Gila National Forest: McMillan, Little Cherry Creek, Deadman’s Canyon, Signal Peak or to trailheads on the Continental Divide Trail that go through the Forest.  When you hike the same trails throughout the years and seasons, you get to know individual trees, individual meadows that bloom with specific wildflowers at specific times in season, individual boulders and hoodoos.  I have a favorite Grandmother Cottonwood on Little Cherry Creek trail that I stop and hug every time I pass.  There are favorite hoodoos that I stop to admire each time I am on Cherry Creek Ranch Rd. On McMillan trail there’s a boulder-created shelter with a smoke-blackened “roof” about which I comment that it would provide a comfortable dry shelter in a sudden storm – every time I hike by it.  A couple of old skeleton junipers along Deadman’s Canyon. A particular view of Cooke’s Peak and the Floridas from a section of the CDT.

Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail
Uprooted young pine on McMillan Trail

Uprooted Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak

That may explain why I’ve been noticing all these downed trees.  Some are laying roots-up.  Some tops of trees are broken clean off trunks.  Shattered limbs and branches litter the ground around trees bearing fresh wounds.  If I wasn’t a regular visitor observing the environment around me, I probably would answer the question “Who notices?” with “Who, me?”

Snapped at the base — Ponderosa pine on McMillan Trail
Snapped Ponderosa pine on Signal Peak – one of many down

But I am noticing. There’s no dominant species among the victims.  Well, maybe there’s a few more Ponderosa pines up in the higher elevations.  Among the articles I’ve been reading, some research suggests that taller trees are more susceptible.  Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself on this rabbit trail of tree loss – the main and underlying cause of all this is drought.  According to NOAA’s Drought.gov we here in southwest NM are in exceptional drought. That’s the most severe category. And it’s not short-term.

Drought may be an underlaying weakening, but there is the complicating impact of windstorms causing breakage.  Our forest can be hit by strong down-drafts which are a sucker punch to already weakened tree structures. And then there’s the trifecta of long-term drought with incidental drenching with wind events.  What can resist?

But back on the main trail.  It’s disconcerting to walk a favorite trail and stop to exclaim to Friend or Dog or just to the Forest, “When did that oak fall?”  or “Look at that uprooted youngster.” or “That pine snapped off halfway up the trunk!” And to know that I’m only seeing the edges of tree death.  Match-sticks-pick-up-sticks throughout the Forest.  If a tree falls in the forest, someone needs to be there to notice. 

A grand old Arizona Sycamore on the Gila river suffered a broken trunk

Dogs With Wires

Rock and water, Deadman’s Canyon

Dog, Friend and I headed for Deadman’s Canyon one day last week.  We chose that particular canyon because it runs north/south and the wind, predicted to gust up to 30mph, was coming out of the west; we would be protected down in the canyon yet treated to the sound of the wind through the tops of the Ponderosas over our heads.

There was more snow and ice than we had anticipated, the days over the last week having reached 60°.  The warm temps and brilliant sun had left only a few residual patches of white around home or in town.  But snowy the trail was in long stretches, iced in the footsteps of humans and dogs passing through.  There were recent horse tracks, causing me to wonder how the horse got up the little rock fall that we scrambled over going in and out of the canyon. 

We were enjoying our hike, Dog racing here and there, pausing to stick her nose in the snow after some elusive evidence.

Light Patterns on Snow

Until, that is, two dogs bounded down the trail from up ahead, skidded to a stop a few feet away from Dog, lifted their noses to her scent then turned and dashed back up the trail.  But not before I noticed the heavy collars, small boxes attached under the chin and a foot of stiff wire sticking up in the air.

We hiked on, more observant of what might be ahead. In another quarter mile, I spied a horse tied to a tree a couple of hundred yards uptrail and a milling of dogs around the horse.  They dashed up the hill, down into the streambed, around the horse, too many dogs to count.  Then the dogs spied us.

By now, I had pulled my little canister of dog-strength mace (less toxic that human mace or bear spray) from my pack and had it ready in my hand.  Dog is always on leash; one dog leashed and others not leashed can be a dangerous mix, particularly for the tethered one.  The pack of dogs – eight in all – were down the trail and surrounding us.  While they were not acting aggressively, they were definitely making Dog uncomfortable by sheer numbers but I had no intention of pressing the button on the canister unless a confrontation developed.  Every one of those dogs was wired.  Every one, a hunting breed.

Finally, the hunters appeared uptrail where their horses were tied.  We hailed them and asked them to call off their dogs, which they did.  Fortunately, six of eight immediately obeyed; two continued to sniff around Dog and me.  Dog sat down to protect her tail, the object of all that attention. I stomped and commanded those last two to go away.

Many families in this part of the country hunt for subsistence.  Many others hunt for food because they enjoy a good elk steak. Hunters are sometimes employed in the Gila to reduce the plague of feral cattle. And I admire the effort a hunter on foot in the wildlands expends to get out and track or wait for that deer, elk, bear.

Wired dogs are used to run down prey until they are exhausted and cannot run further or defend themselves.  Or the dogs tree the cougar or bear and hold them up there until the hunter catches up.  The wires allow the dogs to range far beyond the actual control of the hunter, who tracks their location by radio transmission.  My values are that that is not a fair hunt, and typically, the hunter is not hunting to eat in any event. 

At home, I searched to find out what critters a wired pack of dogs might be employed to hunt, and the list included feral hogs, javalina (collard peccary), cougar or bear.  All but feral hogs are protected and require tags and permits during hunting season.  We don’t have feral hogs in the Gila. And we aren’t in hunting season for any of those species right now.  

Reporting these hunters in a non-hunting season would be an exercise in frustration.  After all, I took no pictures, and what would I shoot anyway – a bunch of brownandwhite dogs with wires standing behind an ear and two camo men and one visible horse some distance away.  Nothing else to tie to them after the fact, such as a vehicle parked at the trailhead.  Just left me feeling sad for whatever target they had in mind up a beautiful canyon on a mild winter day.

UPDATE: A friend who read this blog story has corrected me that javelina are in season for hunting this month. Wasn’t clear on the NM Game and Fish website.

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