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Donkey or Burro??

3 May

They are the same animal. The only difference is the time frame and location in which the two names came into usage. On the other hand, before either of these words were ascribed to this cousin of the horse, it was called an ‘ass’. And it still is in most countries. What’s the difference?

Asses, zebras, and horses are members of the genus, Equus, which is from Latin for ‘horse’. DNA recovered from a fossilized horse bone (700,000 years old) places their common ancestor to be between 4.0 and 4.3 million years ago. Although the domestic horse and the zebra species have gone through several intermediates on the evolution tree since then, the ass has not. So how did the ass become a donkey or burro?

The wild ancestor of the domesticated donkey was the African ass, Equus africanus, which lived in the deserts of northeastern Africa. Members of the latter were domesticated as work animals around 3,000 B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the late 18th century, the English name ‘donkey’ came into use, probably formed from the word ‘dun’, referring to the dull gray-brown color of the animal, and the suffix ‘-key’ to rhyme with ‘monkey’. However, in other areas of the globe, the animals were still referred to as ‘asses’.

Because it can carry heavy loads and cope with hot and dry conditions, the donkey became one of the most important domesticated animals. They were also favored for their easy maintenance; they are very adept at foraging for their own food. These traits, along with their toughness and adaptability, able them to thrive in harsh arid surroundings. Consequently, the Spanish found them invaluable during their explorations and establishment of settlements and missions. And it was the Spanish that brought them to the American continents during the 1400 and 1500’s along with their cousin equines, the horse.

Spanish explorers introduced the donkey to the subtropical deserts and semi-deserts of northern Mexico and the American Southwest during the 1500’s. The animal began to be known in Mexico as ‘burro’ in the early 19th century. Burro probably derives from the Spanish ‘burrico’ and the Late Latin ‘burricus’, meaning “small, shaggy horse.” Consequently, the animal may be called ‘donkey’ or ‘burro’ depending on which side of the border you are on. And an ‘ass’ if you are on the other side of the ocean.

Regardless, all three – donkey, burro, and ass – are the same genus and species: Equus africanus. On the other hand, the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature ruled in 2003 that the domesticated ass, aka the donkey/burro, may also be classified as E. africanus asinus, simply because the domesticated animal was classified and named before the wild ass. Consequently, one will find the donkey/burro with either scientific name, whereas the wild ass will be associated only with the one. Although the colors and a few other small appearance details may distinguish the wild and domesticated ass, they are genetically the same animal.

Burros in Big Bend

Myths and legends abound relating stories on how the burro came to the Big Bend area. Without doubt, the animals arrived by many means and over many centuries. With the Spanish explorers and conquerors, and Mexican settlers, came the burros into the American Southwest. They were tough as nails, adapted to the arid and undeveloped area, and needed little in the way of husbandry efforts. They were the perfect work beasts.

Burros in Big Bend (photo courtesy of Rick Ethan, Terlingua)

Burros in Big Bend (photo courtesy of Rick Ethan, Terlingua)

Later came the prospectors and miners of the 1800’s and early 1900’s with their burros. As in Mexico, they became the favored beast of burden and they could almost fend for themselves. The animals hauled wood for railroads and fuel, ore from the mines, and grain for their human masters. Burros were also bred with horses for their hardy offspring, mules. These animals were used to haul stagecoaches and serve as supply trains for the Army during the early 1900’s.

Historically, burros were not corralled or tethered in the same way horses were. The usual practice was to leave them to forage on their own and then they were rounded up when needed. However, some escaped or were never rounded up. Many outlived their owners. They eventually roamed on their own and became ‘feral.’

Newspaper reports of burros abandoned by farmers can be found in the last several years. The series of droughts throughout the Southwest have prompted farmers to drop off burros in roadside pastures or other rural areas. These and other feral burros form small herds or join other herds. Escaped burros from across the border often join these herds and their population increases quickly. Burros are not heavily preyed upon and can live up to 40 years, so their population can double in less than three years if conditions are good.

An adult burro averages about five feet tall at the shoulders and weights about 350 pounds. It eats about three tons of food a year: grasses, forbs, browse. Their foraging can greatly impact the ecosystem that evolved and came into balance long before this non-native animal was introduced. Because of their large size, number and adaptability, the burro can be a problem for land managers in arid and semi-arid areas. If their numbers remain unchecked, their impact destabilizes the ecosystems they inhabit. Additionally, accidents on the roads are becoming more common. Burros aren’t motivated to move out of the roads and drivers crashing into wild burros.

Most feral burros live on public lands, especially the vast stretches of BLM land, national parks and wildlife preserves. The animals are not native to Texas or to the Americas. Nor are they a threatened and endangered species, or even of ‘heritage’ herds. Most of the animals have been abandoned from nearby ranches, many crossing the border from Mexico, and their offspring increase their populations.

Several national parks, such as Big Bend and Grand Canyon National Parks, had an early policy of hunting and shooting feral horses and burros to restore the lands to pre-human ‘wildness.’ In response to public outcry of mass killings, most of the national parks arranged for the capture and relocation of feral burros from their landholdings. However, they seem to return or replenish their numbers from mysterious origins.

Burros, donkeys and asses are the same animal. But, as for how they got here, you can choose your favorite legend.

Loons and innate responses

25 Apr

In the Chihuahuan desert, no one would expect to hear what might be the most eerie sound of the watery forests, a bird more commonly known throughout the northern portions of the US. Especially a water bird. Yet I did, in disbelief.

I heard it the other morning, but I discounted it. ‘No way!,’ I thought. But I heard it again this morning. I know that wail like the blood that runs in my veins and my ears. It stirs deep inside like a wolf howl.

My childhood and most of my adulthood was spent in the northern regions in this country: Maine, New York, and Oregon. I know this sound, I know this bird. It is ingrained in my being like the beating of my heart.

Conversely, the common loon is very rare here in these parts of the desert. Water is scarce, and loons are an aquatic bird. The only documented reports of loons in this area are 1937 and 1988 (in Santa Elena Canyon on the Rio del Norte). Both were spotted on the Rio del Norte in the National Park. Another report of a loon spotting was in Boquillas Canyon a couple years ago.

It is amazing how (and even that it does) our ‘lizard brain’ responds to certain sounds. People usually don’t question man-made sounds, or sounds of a predator. They are typically associated with danger, pleasure, risk, etc, which is a plausible explanation. But a bird call that has no threat, instead eliciting a profound feeling of inate and inexplicable comfort and alliance is almost always casually dismissed by the scientific community.

There is one that could offer an explanation, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran*, who researches synesthesia and mirror neurons. He is one of the few scientists that ‘thinks outside the box.’ If the smell of rain is almost universally associated with the color green, and with pleasure, is it not possible that a bird call can elicit a profound psychological response other than fear?

At one point long ago, as a conventionally trained scientist I would have dismissed all this. Until a wonderful professor in my graduate biochemistry class impressed upon me once that we must  at some point in our lives accept that sometimes there is no explanation for what we ‘know’. And ‘knowing’ is a dynamic process. It’s a journey, not a destination. For a chemist to tell me that, it altered they way I understand things. And it enhanced my life both as an individual and as a scientist in so many ways.

The loon call literally gives me goosebumps and, simultaneously, a surge of endorphins. It stirs inexplicable primitive feelings in which no words can explain. All I can do is close my eyes and become a part of the sound, the bird and it’s environment.

It’s a ‘Zen’ thing.


A sampling of the sounds for the common loon can be found at this link to the webpage provided by Cornell Lab of Ornithology (All About Birds website).

* V.S. Ramachandran is Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and Distinguished and Professor with the Psychology Department and Neurosciences Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is also Adjunct Professor of Biology at the Salk Institute. I highly recommend reading his book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind and listening to his many podcasts on iTunes and elsewhere. He’s also a fantastic speaker with a great sense of humor.

A wandering verbena (Desert Verbena)

19 Apr
Glandularia bipinnatifida. Photo courtesy of Pam Gordon.

Glandularia bipinnatifida. Photo courtesy of Pam Gordon.

Folks driving along the desert roads this month may see many small tight masses of purple flowers waving in the breeze. The Desert verbena are at their peak of flowering right now.

Here’s another example of ‘mixed identity’. There are many common names for this plant: Desert verbena, Prairie verbena, Dakota vervain, Davis Mountain mock vervain, and Moradilla. While many common names exist for a particular plant, one can usually rely on a more specific scientific name. Not the case here (again).

Older published widlflower guides list this plant as Verbena wrightii, and a member of the Verbenaceae (or Vervain) family. While our plant of the week is indeed in the Vervain family it’s genus and species names have changed.

Glandularia bipinnatifida close up.

Glandularia bipinnatifida close up.

Back in the early 1800’s, naturalist Asa Gray named the plant for Charles Wright , a teacher, surveyor, and plant collector, known notably with the Mexican Boundary Survey. However, new molecular research tools in the last decade or so have determined that a few members of the Vervain family have different chromosomes (numbers and sequences) in their chloroplasts, the organelles in plants that are the powerhouse for producing energy (photosynthesis).

Scientists discovered that some genetic information has been transferred between members of the Vervain and Glandularia genus. In other words, members of these two genus and species have hybridized not just once, but possibly three times as these plants spread north from South America.

Although several plants were once classified as Verbena, and still resemble many of that genus, they have been reclassified (1979) based on genetic similarities and differences. The most commonly known reclassified member is that which was known as Verbena wrightii, or Desert Verbena. It is now recognized in the botanical literature and more recent wildlfower guides as Glandularia bipinnatifida. Although there are two subspecies of this plant referenced (G. bipinnatifida var. cilia. and G. bipinnatifida var. bipinnatifida), their taxonomic classifications remain invalidated and both will find them used synonymously for this species. Perhaps more chemical and molecular studies will elucidate any differences that may exist.

Meanwhile, if you get close enough and smell these plants you may or may not be enamored of their fragrance. While many members of the Vervain family and Verbena genus have pleasant scents, this one had to sit outside after I gathered some samples yesterday. 🙂

For those interested in a recent review of the latter issue, see the following reference, “Taxonomy of the GLANDULARIA BIPINNATIFIDA group (Verbemaceae) in the USA”, by Guy Nesum (of Forth Worth!) in Phytoneuron, issue 46, 2010.

Peace

12 Apr

So calm, quiet
Doves calling
Quail chumping
Owls announce dusk
Cactus flowers folding in
Divine scent of acacia
Heavy clouds blanket us
Like suspended foam
And canyon wren calls
Trickle down the mountain side.

So peaceful.
Let me stay here
In this moment.
A large sign, ‘Do Not Disturb’
As tall as this mountain
Enclosing me
Forever.


Taking my lens for a hike

6 Apr

I braved the horrific wind this afternoon and took the 55-210mm telephoto lens for a walk. We haven’t really come to know each other over the last year or so. So I took off the overused 18-55mm and put on the big gun. We hiked up the saddle between the two mountains to a spot on a shoulder of my best friend mountain. The wind challenged us to hold still; flaunting, bullying and slapping us around. I ended up sitting on the ground with my elbows resting on a rock to shoot.

My first realization was the range of view: smaller than what I am used to.  Out here in Big Bend where the skies and horizon are larger and wider than a million football fields end to end, I actually had to think about subject and composition. Then try to hold still.

The sky and clouds were dramatic, the shadows slithered across the landscape like invisible dark waves. The scene changed every minute. And the wind slapped my lens and camera about. On the way back, my curses were lost in a silent roar as the wind shoved its nasty fingers up into my nose and then exited out my mouth. That’s how windy it was up there.

But it was all good. I’d do it again.

Corozones, Solitario and Witch’s Tit Mountains.

Dramatic clouds over Christmas Mountains.

Coasting on a thermal wind stream next to the mountain.

Sun shining on the Chisos Mnts in Big Bend National Park.

 

Below is my attempt at faux infra-red. The color rendition just didn’t do anything for me, but the entire scene is just eerie, as if this is No Man’s Land and to go there would be like entering another world. Demons and dragons. The post-processing imparts to the image the eeriness that I ‘see’ in the real landscape.

Magic land at the base of Christmas Mnts.

 

Here comes the sun.

Sun in a blue hole. No post-processing on this image!

Mountain Friend

27 Mar

20140327-195230.jpg

I have come to know this mountain at whose ankles I rest. I could describe its formation in geological terms. But that would be window dressing on a mannequin. It’s eroded parts give nourishment to a variety of plants. Crevasses and shelves provide nesting sites for many birds and shelter for numerous animals. The skirted slopes were once part of those majestic knobs and angular protuberances that impart its silhouette in the dusk. Now, they are wild finger painting down its sides.

I listen to the rhythmic push of a raven’s wings as it flies up to the top to meet its mate. The pair of Great Horned owls hoot from their nest on a craggy outcrop. Creosote and yucca dot the slope where the rock slides haven’t taken them down with them. Quail peep, chatter and scrabble like little children. The mountain may be asleep, but it teems with life all it’s own.

This mountain has become a friend and it’s stories sing me lullabies. A small canyon is a door to a bowl. To walk into it is like entering the jaws of a monster while at the same time cuddling in its embrace. Climbing up into a saddle opens up to a wild view of the desert floor and more mountains beyond. Living here with this mountain is like waking up to a lover by your side. Accepting all its bad moments with the comfort of its arms.

Desert mountains are naked compared to those up north where they are clothed in furry trees. Here, they are raw and truthful in their nakedness, a directness that can incite awe or terror. Perhaps that is why I like them: they are bold and honest. Or perhaps because I am like a magnet, drawn to their ruggedness and plain beauty. Probably because I, too, am a creature of mountains. Destined to live on their slopes, at their feet, and in their confidence. With the owls, the ravens, the fox, and the yucca.

I call this Home.

Springing forwards and backwards

25 Mar

Most deserts are known for their extreme weather, especially temperatures. The northern Chihuahuan desert is no exception. We have had an unusually cold winter with prolonged periods of below-average temperatures. Of course, that parallels the rest of the country as well. However, here we have had temperatures in the 90’s during the day and in the high 30’s at night. Spring usually arrives with a pattern of more consistent temperatures and less extremes. This year, spring continues the vacillating extremes of temperatures. In many cases, new growth on plants have been damaged by repeated bouts of frost after days with high temperatures (high 80’s to near 100 degrees).

Regardless, many flowers are popping and leaves are emerging on trees, shrubs, perennials and even cacti. The yuccas have been sending up their giant flower masses throughout the southern Big Bend area for a few weeks now, and the coveted bluebells carpet many roadside areas. I have been capturing some of the lesser known flowers the last week or so, which also provides me with an opportunity to practice macro-photography. I will post some of those photographs here.

Feather Dalea (Dalea formosa)

 

Bowl Flax (Linum berlandieri)

 

Ephedra

 

Velvety Nerisyrenia or Mesa Greggi (Nerisyrenia camporum)

Home

19 Mar

Home is a place that settles the whirling dust inside you in the midst of a sandstorm. That wraps you in tranquility to the point your body and mind expand and relax to the gentle movement of the circling planet. Home melts the walls erected by others and yourself, allowing the exterior place and the interior landscape of your mind to meld and become one. It is where you feel safe even while staring at the mirror of uncertainty. And here you can gather strength while embracing your weaknesses. It is here where our past and future fuse into the present, to be accepted without question, without doubt and without expectations. Here we are as tiny as the molecules clashing and changing inside us, and as large as the timeless mountains and the atmosphere that circles the globe. We are nothing and everything, full and empty, all simultaneously.

Home is where we are what we are. It is just ‘is’.

Home.

Golden eagle returns to Big Bend

12 Mar

A recent spotting of a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) on the Terlingua Ranch is exciting. Although some sources claim that this bird was all but exterminated decades ago from most of Texas, including the Big Bend area, many sightings over the last several years confirm that the Golden eagle is making a comeback.

Both the Golden and Bald eagles are our largest birds of prey, but Golden eagles are larger than the latter in average height and wingspan. The length of an adult Golden eagle is about 3 feet, its wingspan up to 7.5 feet, and can weigh up to 15 pounds.  Adults are dark brown with tawny or golden color on the back of the head and neck. The tail of an adult Golden is faintly banded with white, but the juveniles have wide white patches at the base of the primaries.

Both the adult and juvenile Golden eagles may be confused with juvenile Bald eagles because they are dark and lack the tell-tale white neck feathers of the adult Bald Eagle. One way to distinguish a Golden eagle from an immature Bald eagle is leg plumage. A Golden eagle’s legs are entirely feather covered, whereas an immature Bald eagle’s lower legs are bare. As seen in flight, juvenile Golden eagles have white patches at the base of the primary tail feathers with a distinct dark terminal band. It takes four years to acquire adult plumage. In flight, the Bald eagle has a longer neck but shorter tail than the Golden. The latter also flies with the wings held in a slight upturned ‘V’ pattern, whereas the Bald eagle’s wings are held straight.

Golden eagle in flight. Note the upturned wing tips.

Golden eagle in flight. Note the upturned wing tips.

Resident populations of the Golden eagle are found from the Arctic to Central Mexico. These eagles are year-round residents in west Texas and breed from early February to November. Migratory Golden eagles breed in Alaska and across Canada, but also winter in the resident area. Winter visitors are present in Texas from early October to mid-March.

Although the resident territory of the Golden eagle is more widespread than the Bald eagle, they are less commonly seen. One reason is that they are more solitary than the latter eagles and their hunting territory may extend up to 160 square miles. Additionally, they are more dispersed throughout their ranges. Regardless, sightings of Golden eagles have been confirmed and documented in the northern areas of Big Bend (Marathon, Davis, Franklin and Guadalupe Mountains) and in the Panhandle area of Texas along the eastern escarpment of the Llano Estacado.

Golden eagles reach adulthood and mate at about four years of age, and often stay paired with the same mate for life.They prefer to nest on rocky crags or slicer cliff faces, often at high altitudes (over 2,500 feet), to provide a safe nesting site inaccessible to predators.. Females lay only one to three eggs a year and both parents share in feeding the young. Luckily, these eagles are long-lived; from 15-24 years.

Their diet consists primarily of rabbits, especially black-tailed jackrabbits, other hares, ground squirrels and prairie-dogs. However, they will also prey on larger mammals such as small fox and coyotes, cats, and birds, including grouse, crows. They also prey on snakes and may resort to eating carrion, such as road kill.

Documented and reliable predation on livestock is scarce. As one naturalist, Roy Bedichek, commented, “Ravages by any predator tend to be exaggerated. Miscellaneous observations quickly build up into top-heavy totals. When one predator a quires a reputation for prowess, the evil deeds of others are loaded upon him. The lamb dead at birth is torn by some vulture, and the ranchman who finds it chalks up anoether evil deed to the deadly eagle.” Livestock ranchers, especially with sheep, trapped shot or poisoned the eagles into the 1980’s. In the southern Big Bend area, an area game warden and a pilot killed 2,500 Golden eagles within a 12-year period before the Big Bend National Park was established.

The U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act of 1962 outlawed harming Golden and Bald eagles, their eggs, and nests. Although this legislation remains in effect, the greatest threat now still stems from human impact. Eagles have died after eating poison targeting coyote control. Birds also succumb to lead poisoning from ammunition in hunter shot. Most recorded deaths are from collisions with vehicles, wind turbines, and other structures or from electrocution at power poles.

My first introduction to a Golden eagle was during a demonstration of falconry in Portland, Oregon. I sat on a blanket near the back of the crowd and near a perch on a post. At the falconer’s signal, an adult Golden flew from his gloved hand and to the perch next to me where I sat. I was enthralled watching this bird fly, almost in slow motion. It landed on the perch above my head and settled its wings, giving a short and curt cry. I looked up like a little child in amazement. And it cocked its head down to look at me with one eye. We stared at each other for what seemed like a very long time. In response to a shrill whistle, it opened its wings and lifted up to fly back to the stage.

I wanted to join it in flight.

An Oasis in the Desert

11 Mar

I and a visitor recently enjoyed a hike to one of my favorite places in this area of Big Bend: Cattail Falls. A relatively hidden gem in the Big Bend National Park, Cattail falls is a waterfall and stream, which supplies water to the park’s infrastructure. The canyon is also a delicate microenvironment and susceptible to damage from human impact. For these reasons, the hike and the destination is not on any of the park maps. On the other hand, it’s not a secret, either.

A rough road accesses a parking lot for the trail head that branches off to many trails. One trail goes to Oak Spring, which then extends into a long and arduous hike up the side of the western Chisos range and eventually reaches the pour-off affectionately known as the Window.  The other trail heads up towards the southeast to the canyon containing the pour-off and stream of Cattail Falls.

Oak Springs

The area first noted has natural and historical significance. At the Oak Springs and Creek one can see the old and large live oak that is bent and parallels the ground. This immediate area was also once the home site of Homer Wilson and his family. Their ranch, Blue Creek Ranch, was one of the largest in the Big Bend region from 1929-1944. The house (a Sears and Roebuck structure that was ordered by mail, shipped by rail to Marathon, then brought in by ox and mule carts to here) was here at Oak Springs. The Park protocol at that time was to bulldoze anything that was considered ‘human footprint’ to return the landscape to its ‘wild’ state. Which was naive on their part, and they now regret in hindsight.

The house was a bit further up the bank to the right of that tree. If one digs around enough in the thorny scrub brush, you can see remnants of the old rock retaining wall that was in front of the house, and remains of Mrs. Wilson’s terraced vegetable and flower gardens. Gone are the prolific fruit and nut trees, and even the old spring is now diverted into big green tanks and piped away from the creek that flowed and provided an oasis for wildlife and humans alike.

The ranch’s large rock structure that served as the ranch working headquarters and seasonal home remains in Blue Creek. A trail to this structure, now a historic land mark, can be accessed from Maxwell Scenic Drive in the Park. For those interested in early ranch life in Big Bend, and in many of the historical ranches in the National Park (Wilson’s ranch, Sam Nail ranch, etc), I recommend reading the book Beneath the Window: Early Ranch Life in the Big Bend Country  by Patricia Wilson Clothier, Homer Wilson’s daughter.

Cattail Canyon and Falls.

Cattail Canyon Creek

Many canyons lay hidden within the sky island that is the Chisos Mountains. Streaking the slopes in and out of the Basin, these canyons vary from narrow winding slots to wide gulleys with towering cliffs. Because most of the steep canyons are inaccessible, except for experienced canyoneers, some of these canyons may have had barely a dozen human footprints in all their history. Others are visited more frequently because of developed and primitive trails traversing them, such as those on the Window Trail in the Basin.

One canyon scraped into the western slope of the Chisos group is Cattail Canyon. Only those people with experience in canyon climbing and with rock climbing gear can traverse most of the canyon, for it winds along and down with slots and loose screed. As with most canyons, water is an integral part of its formation and continued geological change. The entire length is dotted with pour-offs, water falls and tinajas.

Some sources, including an older topo map, claim that water runs year-round down this canyon. But, of course, that claim can’t be static or accepted without consideration of the local climatic conditions. After all, historical records testify that 50 years ago the Rio del Norte and Terlingua Creek had running water (and plenty of fish) year round. But, despite our own mortal timelines, the climate is changing and the aridity of the Chihuahuan Desert increases and expands its boundaries northward.

Referring to a topo map, you will find Cattail Canyon between Ward Mnt and the ridge west of Oak Canyon, almost N-S along the western slope of the Chisos Mnts. The canyon runs about 5-6K feet in elevation and ends with a pour-off at the northern-most bend west at ~4,200 feet.

This pour-off, the only portion of Cattail Canyon that is easily accessible, is Cattail Falls (despite that many waterfalls are part and parcel of this canyon). However, you won’t find the trail on any maps and in any guides, except on an old topo map. Because the waterfalls and tinajas are fragile ecosystems, the park attempts to reduce human traffic and consequent environmental damage often associated with heavy use. Their methods for reducing human visitation to sensitive areas are by physically prohibiting access or by removing references to these area from guides and maps. However, some signage remains with limited directions for the trail, and the trail is maintained in primitive condition.

The trail from the split off the Oak Canyon/Spring trail climbs a few hundred feet with an easy one-mile walk. Entering the pour-off area is like emerging through a door into a magical wonderland. The trail ends at tossed giant bounders which require scrambling over, carpets of moss and ferns, and small pools of water that trickles over miniature falls. The most magnificent feature is a vertical concave wall of multicolored and striped rock. During our visit, water was trickling down from a V-notch 45′ up and dripping over a black stone surface where small groups of ferns and other plants found foothold to root and bathe in moisture.

Cattail Falls and the pour-off.

A large pool of water lies at the base of this cliff, its edges damp and rich with thick carpets of black organic matter where grasses and ferns grow. This desert oasis is a unique and fragile ecosystem. Here grow abundant trees, ferns, cattails and flowers. Along with this moist environment are a variety of birds and butterflies.

Not only is the organic life attractive, but also the varying shapes, colors and sizes of rocks. From yellow, pink and rosy, to angular and polished smooth, stones small enough to pick up to boulders you could stretch out and nap on.

I was especially delighted to find small areas blanketed with an old companion from the north country (New England and Pacific Northwest): maindenhair ferns. A genus –Adiantum– with at least 200 species, only four or five are indigenous to the North American continent, one of which is found only in the western states. These plants prefer a humus-rich and moist soil, but can be found growing in crevices and small pockets on the surface of rock walls and, especially, near and in waterfalls. They are most plentiful along stream banks.

Although they are typically evergreen, meaning that they do not lose their leaves in winter and can even be found under several feet of snow, they thrive best in areas sheltered from harsh winds and hot sun. Despite that one would not expect to find ferns growing in a desert environment, remember that that the falls and canyons are part of a sky island; a gignatic land formation jutting up out of the desert floor over a thousand feet, where a variety of ecosystems overlap. Sky islands are oases unto themselves, even creating their own weather because of the geographic interruptions in the lower atmosphere.

This is the magic of these sky islands, and the uniqueness of their associated biology: the juxtapositions of plant and animal life that live here. Thus, I was delighted to find an old friend in a tiny pocket of wonderland. And enjoying the magic world so different than half a mile away.

Someday I will spend an entire day. Watching life unfold and change in this little pocket of a sky island oasis.

(click on images to see larger files)

Maidenhair Fern.

Cedar Lobelia

Agave hidden in branches and vines.

Reflections in pool at the base of the cliff.

View of the desert below and NW of the Chisos Mountains.

 

 

 

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