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

Big Rock Candy Mountain

“I’m headed for a land that’s far away

Besides the crystal fountains

So come with me, we’ll go and see

The Big Rock Candy Mountains”

Quartzite Outcrop – southwest Grant County NM

If I were writing this song today, I have found the perfect inspiration.  There are one or two singular outcroppings of quartzite rock just off the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) — big ol’ white knobs of rock standing each one alone above the ridge just south of the Burro Mountains.  Those knobs remind me of a mountain of rock candy, shattered and spilling bite-sized bits down the sides of the ridge in river-flows.

A River of quartzite

There are old tracks that go up to the outcroppings if I wanted to venture up for a closer look. And actually, I have – had a closer look, that is.

Couple of years ago, when I was hiking pre-Covid days with the Tuesday Group, we ventured off the CDT up the old track to one of those quartzite outcrops.  The ground was scattered with chunks of quartzite, some of which were very pretty – some solidly snow white, some bits darkly-veined.  Taking our mid-hike snack break, we sat on the larger blocks of rock while some in the group rock-hounded, filling their pockets or packs with manageable chunks. I refrained from collecting only because of the added weight that I didn’t want to carry 2+ miles back to the trailhead.

Chunks of rock-candy quartzite

It wasn’t until we were packed and ready to start back to the CDT and our vehicles, that our resident historian-slash-geologist told us a bit more about this formation, its history and its mineral makeup.  “Did you know that this area was mined for uranium?” he asked us.  Umm…uranium?  Isn’t uranium radioactive? And we have pocketfulls of the stuff?? “Well,” he reassured us, “not very high level.”  I noticed a few of the group covertly emptied their pockets of the now-suspect rock, diligently brushed off their fannies where they had been sitting, and headed back down the track, quick-stepping to abandon the area.

This region is known for copper mining, along with silver and gold.  All the way back to the Apaches who ranged this area, copper was extracted.  But the fact of uranium is not as well know, probably because the metal was not found in enough quantities to warrant major investment.  Still, there were, and possibly still are, a number of mining claims in the area that proved out for limited uranium deposits.  I was curious and Google came through with a 1952 report by US Geological Survey on the geology, the formations, and the mine claims that is an interesting bit of history to read. And looking closely at my cell-phone picture, mining piles show evidence of abandoned hopes.

Enlarged to show mining piles bottom left of image

Now, I just admire the Big Rock Candy Mountains as I hike the CDT just below them.  I step past the flow of candy quartz and hum the tune remembered.

“I’ll see you all this coming fall

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains”

A wealth of quartzite — a hint of uranium

A Hike Interrupted — aka We Were Buzzed

Continental Divide Trail – Grant County NM

Dog, Friend and I, and one additional friend headed out this week to a section of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) that we haven’t hiked before.  It’s a roughly 3-mile segment between C-Bar Rd and Knights Canyon Rd.  We struck off up a track pocked with wide-mouth tire treads and eroded from too-frequent atv-ing; the CDT often shares with such as this.  Wasn’t long, though, before we came to two huge cairns, one on the right side of the track and one off to the left appearing to direct us up a gully.  Fortunately, 20 feet or so up the gully, we spotted the CDT/Forest Service trail marker heading off to the right.  

Cairns are often an ecological problem,
but make a great Facebook post

A rabbit trail:  Friend and I have a now-ongoing joke about cairns.  Are they: navigational tools? spiritual exercise? or a Facebook post, as in “lookie, I was here!”  Well, yes to all but in context. They can do ecological damage; they can keep hikers on the right path; their construction goes against “Leave No Trace”; they are ego statements for a picture and a post. It’s all context.  I don’t pass one by without notice. Some I appreciate.  Some I kick down.  And I have repaired one or two.  In this case, the cairns were directional to keep us from plodding down this unlovely track that paralleled the highway 100 feet away.

Ridgeline — CDT

We hiked through three habitats: juniper/pinion/mahogany groves in the dry creek beds; trail that hugged the side of the ridge, offering long views; and rock outcrop.  The trail was expressed in two directions: steeply up and just as steeply down, with some modest sections modestly level.  There were two rocky crevices to descend into and to climb out.  One of them made me think of the Great Rift Valley in Tanzania. The trail through this area was accommodating with switchbacks to make breathing in transit a little easier.

Small Rift Valley on the CDT

While we were in the shelter of the groves, we commented that it felt like a rock garden planted by a large hand. We frequently stopped to bird-spot.  Up on the ridge-hugging trail, we took advantage of our 360° views of Mexico borderlands, the Floridas, Cookes Peak, Jacks Peak, and the rocky ridges above us. 

Florida Mountains in the Distance

On crossing the rock outcropping, I thought of a trail called Billy Goat at Great Falls, MD. While walking, I didn’t register beyond my feet, which demanded all my attention.  Stopping, I looked around at raw stone painted with several shades of lichens; the trail was etched across the face of the outcrop.  Each territory had its unique beauty. 

Dog perched on the rocky trail

Our turning-around point was just shy of 2 miles and was marked by Dog alerting on several cows with calves.  Dog sometimes forgets that she’s on a leash; she throws herself to the end of the line in wished-for pursuit.  Throws my shoulder out, too, if I’m not expecting it.

Coming back, we crossed the rock, hiked up then down the switchback through the small Rift, and started on the ridge-side trail. 

A roar became louder until it crashed over our heads, followed by a fighter jet cresting a few hundred feet over the ridge and starting to drop toward us.  Pilot may have seen 3 humans on the trail and pulled up slightly.  As the jet screamed overhead, banking slightly south, its buddy-jet howled just over the next ridge down and the pair headed east, low and fast.  Too fast for us to get out phone cameras.  Too fast to mentally record aircraft profile.  Too fast to see my middle finger waving.  Not 15 minutes later, jet-noise drew my eyes southward a few miles to two more jets pulsing across the landscape, safely higher in altitude, hot-dogging it across the Forest and private lands. Three friends standing stunned, one dog sitting low.  We marked our location on gps with the intention of reporting the overflights.  We believe that this is not a legal training MOA for any of the military bases in the region. 

Before we could move on too far, that roar came again.  Fumbled for my camera, thinking that the jet would appear in front of us where the last low-flyer did.  Suddenly, I realized that the roar was leading the aircraft from behind us; I turned quickly to see this jet coming at us, following us on the trail, so low my natural instinct was to duck.  I tried to get my phone up and aimed as the jet passed overhead. I may have hit the shutter button, I may not have.  I didn’t record anything with a jet in it, though.  We singed the leaves on the trees with our blue language for the next mile or so down the trail.  I was particularly incensed, having been similarly and dangerously buzzed by two fighter jets in the Gila Wilderness on a steep canyon rim trail on horseback. 

Top Gun may be the most viewed movie for wanna-be fliers, and Top Gun Maverick may break viewing records.  But hot-shot Top Guns are not welcome at minimum altitude and maximum speed over a wilderness area.

Beyond the Gate

I have my favorite hikes, each starting at a trailhead in the Gila National Forest. I mark multiple turn-around points on each trail, depending on my energy level and the anger of arthritis in my hips. A modest turn-around might be shy of one and half miles; on more energetic days, I might turn around at two-plus miles. Most of these trails are so familiar that I often don’t set my meter because I know just where I’ll turn back based on how far I want to hike.

The furthest endpoint of three of my favorite hikes is at a gate.  I guess I never thought about going through those gates to see what lay beyond.  Not that I’m not curious.  But I remember the advice of a long-ago friend: “Hike until you’re half-tired.”

The first gate breeched was on the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) near my home.  This is a section of the CDT I prefer when I’m hiking alone and want to just do a quick in-and-out. Dog needs her exercise and Sunday mornings are good opportunities to get her on this trail just long enough to work her nose, to wear off a little of that energy. Not long ago, my friend and I decided to hike this trail to the gate, just two miles from the trailhead.  Good weather and good conversation, plus a good pace, and we got to the gate before my hips had a chance to complain.  We decided to see what was on the other side. The CDT continued, of course; the gate simply marked the boundary of the rancher’s grazing lease.  On we walked for another, oh, maybe half a mile and then the trail began a switch-back down into a deep arroyo. We turned back, but not before I took a picture of the view.  This was one of those times when I kept thinking: just a little farther – just around that big juniper – just a little up that hill – and we’d get a great view of Bear Creek Canyon.  That hike, having gone beyond the gate, added up to just about five miles.

From the CDT, looking toward Bear Creek Canyon and Tadpole Ridge

The next gate was at the end of the trail in Pancho Canyon, on the Gila River. Another favorite hike, Dog, Friend and I retreat to this trail in the heat of summer, always ending up with our feet in the river watching the idling birds. This section of trail is not much more than a mile one-way but it’s shady, rife with Common Black Hawks and warblers and perfect on an early morning before the temps hit the 90s. A couple of weeks ago, we headed out there in cooler weather to leaf-peep at the golden Cottonwoods and white-barked Arizona Sycamores. 

Cottonwood – Pancho Canyon on the Gila River

Lower temps are conducive to longer walks so when we reached the gate at the far end of this stretch of river, we decided to keep going.  I knew what was on the other side; I have driven up and over the ridge and down to the river, ending at Ira Canyon at the far end.  I have never hiked from one end to the other.  This seemed like the day to try.  Once through the gate, we dropped down to the river on the only obvious trail – and came to a dead end.  Retracing our steps, we found another spur through the weeds.  That spur wandered through a small copse of Sycamore, Cottonwood and coyote willow, only to end at another point on the river.  We stood listening to the water moving over the rocks in riffles while Dog hopped around chest-deep in the river.  Filled with river-music, we turned back for that gate and Poncho Canyon.

A final gate marks the two-mile point on the CDT heading south from Gold Gulch Rd. This section of the CDT is not one for summer.  The trail is exposed to both sun and breeze, traversing the sides of a ridge, dropping into two meadows and climbing out before finally relaxing through a forest of waist-high bear grass. On this clear cool morning, Dog, Friend and I decided that a sunny trail was just the thing. We hiked until we reached the gate and contemplated returning to the road where we were parked.  But neither of us had been beyond this point and, having plenty of time and the best weather for hiking, we slipped the chain on the gate and went through, securing the gate behind us.  We had rather anticipated we might connect with Rt 90 and the cross-over to C-Bar and the CDT on the east side of 90. Or at least see 90 in the near distance.  Once up on a little hillock, we could see that Rt 90 was still a long distance to the southeast.  After hiking about three-quarter mile through an unchanging landscape, we decided to head back.  Back at Gold Gulch and the truck, we recorded almost five miles and one tuckered Dog.

Not all gates are made of metal. Not all gates demark grazing leases. Some are just there to mark the way and to bring a smile to the next to pass by.

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