We walk around our neighborhood just about every morning once the cool season arrives. It’s a great place to stroll between the miles of irrigation ditch roads, quiet streets and drivers that wave instead of yelling at you to get out of their way. It’s especially nice in the autumn, with the cool dry temperatures and the changing of the leaves. You get that “canonical New Mexico autumn look” every hundred yards you walk, like the top photo in this blog – yellow cottonwoods, silver sage, brown adobe homes tucked into their little islands of green.
Central New Mexico is home to the world’s largest cottonwood forest, although today it is in serious decline. Between the slowly disappearing Rio Grande, the lowering of the water table and hordes of invasive species planted by farmers starting 2-centuries ago – the native trees are making their last stand. Numerous programs seek to replenish the Bosque, as it’s known locally, but I think it’s probably an unwinnable battle. Nature here has been upended.
The Rio Grande Cottonwood (Populus deltoides wislizenii) requires annual flooding to set its seeds and nourish its root system and unfortunately those floods ended with the damning of the river during the middle of the 20th century. While those dams created a rich agricultural environment (via managed ditches and marsh draining,) they pretty much spelled the end of the Bosque. And if the declining availability of water wasn’t enough, the widespread planting of Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia,) Salt Cedar (Tamarix, spp,) and Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) by both famers and the state, for windbreaks, erosion control and “desert reclamation,” made things even worse. Having evolved in a harsh natural environment, those trees out-compete the poor cottonwood in every way except stealing sunshine. On our walks we see all these trees, but the Elms predominate.
This morning it was chilly – 29°- when I walked out the door. The sky was that wonderful deep blue we only find here, and when we joke that “there isn’t a cloud in the sky” it is usually literally true. I headed up our street accompanied by a mess of Western Bluebirds. This fall they are hanging around for some reason – normally they leave and re-appear later in the last days of winter. I have a suspicion that they might have nested out back for the first time, because I saw a few during the peak of summer; not a regular sighting. This morning though they were busy on the wires – chasing each other, making their mournful “ka-chunk” call and chattering in that weird, almost electronic static way that they do. Not nearly as bright as their Eastern cousins, they nonetheless provide a nice flash of bright blue as they wheel between the trees.
The birds in this neighborhood are interesting in the winter. Of course, our local fields provide a hangout for hundreds of Sandhill Cranes whose trumpeting wakes us up almost daily from December to February. But at the tinier level, the perching birds provide the most entertainment. The best indicator that fall has gotten cold at the higher elevations is the sudden appearance of White-crowned Sparrows in the sagebrush in the yard of a house up the street. Some weak autumn storm will blow through down here and almost like magic, the next morning that yard will be full of whistling White-crowns. This morning they were joined by a Curve-billed Thrasher, a common bird in the neighborhood now but hard to find this far north when I moved here 30 years ago. The other harbinger of winter is the Northern Flicker whose appearance and bright red wings adds a bit of color to the canopy as they fly between trees.
We get about 2 ½ miles on these walks, up our street, down Old Church Road past the 1858 replacement church that was itself replaced in the 1960’s by a more modern parish and then around through the church parking lot and back. Sometimes we add an extra ½ mile by continuing past the church and looping around the central ditch. Most mornings it’s quiet and today was no exception – few cars, a slight breeze, one old man hoeing his garden protected by his barking Bichon Frise.
I stopped here and there to take some photos and to steal some apples for the horses off the abandoned trees that line the road. Orchards were a predominate land use here in the past, now the remaining trees stand ignored in the front yards of fancy homes. It might seem nice to have a few apple trees but speaking from experience having them is not nearly as quaint as it seems. Unless you really want to be a serious gentleman farmer, they are far more work than they are worth.
It’s kind of amazing what you can see in your own neighborhood on a 45-minute walk, mostly things you barely notice when most of your time is spent rushing in and out on errands. Today it was a whole lot of yellow, interspersed with some oranges and reds from specimen plantings. Nothing like the forests of Québec that we flew over two weeks ago. But nice enough. Walking with the bluebirds, listening to the distant call of a Flicker, enjoying the air.