El Lobo, part 3: surrounded by ghosts

In June of this year, I headed back to lobo (Mexican wolf) country in northern Arizona.  I drove up to a remote camping area near Escudilla Mountain, arriving on a cloudy and windy  afternoon.  On the way up to the camp site, I passed several elk cows with small calves at their heels.  I set up camp in a small patch of woods, a surviving remnant of the huge wildfires that have plagued (or rejuvenated, depending on your point of view) the area over the last couple of decades.  Scars of the fires were visible from camp – skeletons of pines and firs, and dead aspens with thickets of saplings rising 10-15 feet from their base.

After setting up camp (since I’m sleeping in my car, that means only setting up a table and chair, and camp stove), Shadow and I took a quick exploration of the neighborhood and returned to camp for dinner.  Just as I was cleaning up, I heard some loud crashing in as aspen thicket just north of camp.  I ushered Shadow into the car, as I listened carefully to try to figure out what was going on.  I heard an elk bark and thrashing of vegetation, then a growly sound that turned into what sounded like a death rattle.  More crashing through the aspens, and I could see the tall trunks of the dead aspens waving as something large ran off into the distance.  Then quiet.  I waited for more clues to what just happened, while wondering if I should move my camp.  I was pretty sure an elk calf just died, not 20 yards away.  This was wild country, full of bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and wolves, all capable of killing an elk calf.  But if the calf was killed by a predator, they weren’t revealing their identity, and I wasn’t about to crawl into the thicket to get more information.  At least not yet.

My camp was in the territory of the Elk Horn  pack, which had claimed this area as their home for the last several years.  The pack obtained some notoriety this spring, when two lobo pups born at the Brookfield Zoo were cross-fostered into the litter of pups born to the Elk Horn pack.  The states involved in Mexican Wolf management have been fighting the release of more wolves into the wild, so adding captive-born pups to wild litters is one way to increase the critically low genetic diversity.  This experiment was first tried in 2014, and appears to have been successful.  Apparently, mama wolves can’t count, so they accept the additional pups as their own (the biologists carefully smear the scent of the two litters together, so they all smell similar).   The entire population of wolves in Arizona and New Mexico struggles to top 100, victims of poaching, over-management, inbreeding and accidents, so its very important to maximize the genetic diversity of the wild population.

All remained quiet in the direction of the aspen thicket, so I decided not to move camp.  Shadow and I took another walk – in the opposite direction – as the sun set, and had only gone a few yards, when we almost ran into a lone elk cow.  I repeatedly saw what looked like the same cow over the next few days, and I suspect this was the calves mother.   She didn’t seem to want to leave the area.

An elk cow near camp.

An elk cow near camp.

The night stayed cloudy and windy, and morning dawned cloudy and breezy.  It drizzled off and on, which gave me an excuse to crawl into my sleeping bag and catch up on some much needed sleep.   Toward evening, I watched a herd of elk move into the meadow to the west of camp, then noticed a canine trotting along through the meadow.  I ran and got my binoculars, and just before I could raise them to my eyes, watched the canine pounce on a rodent.  I’ve seen coyotes do that a lot, so I was expecting to see a coyote when I got a better look.  But it wasn’t a coyote – it was too bulky and too dark.  It was a lobo!  I ran and got my camera, and got a few shots of it before it trotted off into the trees.

A distant look at an unmarked lobo

A distant look at an unmarked lobo.


One last look before it disappears into the skeleton forest

One last look before it disappears into the skeleton forest.


The sky started to turn pink after the lobo disappeared, leaving us with a beautiful sunset.

Sunset near Escudilla Mountain

Sunset near Escudilla Mountain. A dozen or so elk graze on the left side of the meadow.

It started to rain as the color faded from the sky, so Shadow and I retreated to my camper.  It was too wet to set up the microphones, and sure enough, I was awakened at 9:30 pm by a wolf howling not too far away.  It was joined by a higher voice, which sounded like a pup.   Sleep was intermittent, as I listened for more wolf howls, through the light rain and wind in the trees.  Finally, around 3:45 am the rain seemed to have moved off, so I set up the microphones.  I had no sooner crawled back in my camper and settled myself into my sleeping bag than I heard distant howls.  I turned on the recorder, and promptly fell asleep.  Some birds calling close by woke me up about an hour later.  I continued to record for another half hour or so, then shut down the recorder and climbed out of the camper into another cloudy and breezy dawn.  When I checked the recording later, I was pleased to discover the wolves had been calling back and forth for close to an hour.  Unfortunately, the wind in the aspens just about swamped the distant wolf howls, but they are there (listen with headphones):

As the morning progressed, the wind picked up and the clouds lowered.  Rather than spend the day in a wet camp, I decided to check out another area of wolf country that I hadn’t been to before – the Blue River.  But before I left, I had to check out what happened to the elk calf on the first day.  A turkey vulture had been parked in a dead aspen over the thicket since yesterday afternoon, confirming my suspicion.  I grabbed my bear spray and my camera, put Shadow in the car, and slowly moved toward the thicket, talking loudly so I didn’t surprise anything.  I circled the thicket, and caught the rank odor of something dead, and found a short trail of compressed grass.  But I found no other sign outside the thicket – no blood, no fur, no tracks.  I lost my nerve at the idea of actually crawling into the thicket, so I retreated and headed back to camp, never solving the mystery of what happened.  But the vulture didn’t appear to be willing to go into the thicket either.

Some of the initial releases of wolves in 1998 occurred near the Blue River.  The first pack, the Campbell Blue pack, did not fare well, with some members shot, and a few captured and removed for moving out of the area where they were released or for interacting too much with people and dogs.  Currently, there is no Campbell Blue pack, but it’s possible that dispersing wolves use the area.  So I didn’t have high expectations of hearing or seeing wolves along the Blue River, just wanted to see the country.  The road that follows the river into the Blue Range Primitive Area snakes through some gorgeous red rock country and along a lovely stream lined with cottonwoods and willows.

Camp along the Blue River

Camp along the Blue River.

There are a few private cattle ranches along the river; they use the surrounding national forest for grazing their cattle during much of the year.  It’s almost understandable that these ranchers, with their homesteads hours away from the nearest grocery store, might feel a little miffed when wolves were dumped in their backyard.  After all, they’d helped eradicate the cow-eaters more than 80 years ago.  But rather than asking these ranchers to accept a new challenge to the way they’d been doing things, maybe some other options should have been presented.  These remote ranches would make great guest ranches, with clientele paying good money for the beauty and the chance to hear or see wolves (and bears and mountain lions and all the other wildlife).  Rather than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep these few ranchers in the business of running cattle on land that doesn’t deserve it, buy out the allotments and provide monetary support for the ranchers to change their business.  Most ranchers I’ve met are pretty stubborn ol’ codgers, so I doubt they would be very interested in this plan, but maybe it’s at least worth thinking about.

The wind persisted through the night and next day.  Crickets and owls called through the night, and the birds woke me up with a nice dawn chorus.  But I didn’t hear any wolves or coyotes.  Maybe next time.

Photo of Mexican grey wolf and pup by Bob Haarmans, via Flickr under Creative Commons 2 license.

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Burned forest in the Chiricahua Mtns.

Chiricahuas Revisited

The Chiricahua Mountains are one of the largest of the “Sky Island” ranges that separate the Sierra Madre of Mexico from the Rocky Mountains of the US and Canada.  It is a rich, convoluted mountain range, and like most of the adjacent ranges, high in plant and animal diversity.  These ranges are subject to frequent wildfires, and many of their trees are fire adapted (are not heat-sensitive or will resprout after burning).  However, the high altitude pine-fir forests, Rocky Mountain remnants left over from the Pleistocene, are more sensitive to fire.

The Chiricahuas experienced a large wildfire in 1994 (the Rattlesnake fire).  I started visiting the Chiricahuas in 1996, spending time camping at the uppermost campground (Rustler’s Park), which was in a dense pine-fir forest that  provided a nice summertime retreat from the blazing temperatures in the desert below.  One didn’t have to hike far from the campground, though, to see the effects of the Rattlesnake fire.  Entire slopes of tree skeletons, stark reminders of the ferocity of the blaze.

In 2011, The Horseshoe 2 fire burned some of the areas already burned by the Rattlesnake fire, effortlessly consuming the dead trees.  This fire burned further north, burning through Rustler’s Park, taking out the Barfoot Lookout, and even moving into Chiricahua National Monument.

Rustler's Park campground in the Chiricahua Mountains, 1 year after the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

Rustler’s Park campground in the Chiricahua Mountains, 1 year after the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

The campground remained closed for several years, but finally the US Forest Service cleared the trees and added ramadas to each campsite.  Too bad they didn’t add nice tent pads and a good water system while they were at it.

Rustler's Park campground, June 2016.

Rustler’s Park campground, June 2016.

Like most wildfires, the Horseshoe 2 fire was patchy, scorching some areas, while barely touching others.

View from Barfoot Lookout, looking over Barfoot Park. Shows the patchy nature of the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

View from Barfoot Lookout, looking over Barfoot Park. Shows the patchy nature of the Horseshoe 2 wildfire.

Some areas that had been severely burned  by the Rattlesnake fire suffered a real scorching from the Horseshoe 2 fire, and may never return to forest cover.

A once-forested slope along the crest trail. After two large wildfires in 20 years, it will take a long, long time for the forest to return.

A once-forested slope along the crest trail. After two large wildfires in 20 years, it will take a long, long time for the forest to return.

But in many places, the aspen and oak are rapidly gaining ground, and a flush of herbaceous vegetation increases the overall biodiversity of both plants and animals, especially insects.

I’ve been trying to get back to the Chiricahuas at least once a year, to watch the progress of recovery after the fire, to see where the vegetation was able to come back, and where it wasn’t.  I also like to record the sounds of the area, to see how the birds and other wildlife are responding to the changes in vegetation.  I visited in mid-June of this year, and was pleasantly surprised to have the campground all to myself.  People drove through each day, but no one wanted to camp there anymore.

It was breezy when I was there – it seems like this whole spring and early summer has been breezy.  I set up camp in a site close to the patch of live Ponderosa Pines.   Wildlife was abundant and visible – I saw deer, turkeys, squirrels, golden eagles, white-tailed hawks, and a black bear all from camp.   With fewer people in the area, wildlife are moving back in.

A bear grazes in a forest opening near camp. Chiricahua Mountains, 2016.

A bear grazes in a forest opening near camp. Chiricahua Mountains, 2016.

The sound of the breeze through the tree tops provided a nice accompaniment for the crickets and whippoorwills after the sun went down.  Both of these recordings are better through headphones.

And even though the breeze picked up before dawn, it didn’t deter the birds:

The second day there, the dog and I hiked to the top of Chiricahua Peak.  Just shy of the top of the peak, Shadow woke up a bear that had been sleeping next to the trail.  Luckily the bear didn’t wake up grumpy, and moved aside to let us up the trail.  Before the Horseshoe 2 fire, this section of trail was lined with tall aspens that were covered with a wonderful array of bear scratches – bear art.  The large aspens were mostly killed by the fire, so the bears will have to wait for the aspen sprouts to get a bit bigger before they start marking them up again.

It’s fascinating to see and hear the changes that fire brings to the mountains.  As the climate warms, and forests of the western US dry out, we can expect more large wildfires.  In some places, these will be severe enough to create habitat changes, from forest to scrub or grassland.  We may lose huge tracts of forest throughout the west.  In other areas, fires will just thin the forest, allowing a flush of undergrowth that, at least temporarily, results in a bump in the local biodiversity.  Change can be difficult to accept and hard to plan for.  But nothing stays the same forever.

For more stories and recordings from the Chiricahuas, see:

Turkey Creek

Crazy night in the Chiricahuas

The dynamic dawn chorus

After the fire, the flowers bloom

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Milky way

Chasing night sounds

There are a lot of interesting sounds that are seldom heard except at night.  Not just bats and owls, but also a variety of insects: crickets, bush crickets, and beetles, to name a few.  The insects like warm nights, and so that’s also when you have more insect predators, like the bats.

It’s been really hot in the Sonoran desert lately.  Breaking records, which is not a good thing when you live in an already hot  climate.  It’s already been over 110 degrees F at my house, and there’s no end in sight to the high temperatures.

But the night calling insects seem to really be enjoying the warm nights.   A couple of weeks ago, I drove out to a lovely hidden canyon called Happy Valley, about 25 miles east of Tucson.  It’s isolated enough that the sounds of the interstate  and the railroad cannot be heard, so it makes a nice place to record.

In addition to wanting to record night sounds, I also wanted to test out my CR-V-to-camper conversion.  I’ve been wanting to ditch the tent thing for a while, and when I learned that a number of people had successfully turned Subaru Outbacks, Toyota Prius’, and even Honda Fits into small campers, I knew I could do it with my CR-V.  The details of the conversion are here.

On the first night in Happy Valley, I found a nice dispersed camping site near a wash and across from a wall of rocks.  It looked like a good place to record owls.  There was a teeny bit of water in the wash, left over from a recent rain.  Large sycamore, hackberry, and mesquite lined the wash.

It was pretty quiet when I arrived just as the sun was setting.  I set up the mics on the roof of the car, took the dog for a walk, and settled into the CR-V.  The crickets and owls started calling shortly after it got dark, creating a lovely evening chorus:

The crickets slowed down after midnight, but the owls kept calling well into the dawn chorus.   When I examined the spectrograms after I got home, I realized there were insects calling in the ultrasonic range, too.  But I had set my recorder on too low a sampling rate to catch the sounds, and I forgot my ultrasonic mic.  So I went back 10 days later and recorded another evening chorus, from the same place.   This time, the insects were much louder, so the birds (poorwills, screech owls, and Mearn’s quail) could barely be heard at all.

And sure enough, there was a lot of activity in the ultrasonic range.  Here’s a picture of the spectrogram, covering about 1.5 seconds:

Happy Valley ultrasonics

Human hearing for youngsters only goes up to 20000 hertz (right hand vertical scale- just below the bush crickets).  The sounds labeled as “sonic crickets” are the crickets you can hear in the recording.  The spectrogram also showed some interesting stuff at the very top, above 80,000 Hertz.  It was faint, but I’ve never seen it before, and when I made another recording about an hour later, it was gone.  I suspect it was another insect calling in the distance.

Lots of cool things making sounds at night, if you stop to listen.

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Till the cows go home

With some writing projects behind me (or at least on someone else’s desk for a while), I finally have some time to get out and do some recording.  In mid May, I headed south to Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, which is a lovely swatch of rolling grassland and riparian areas, only about 25 miles from where I live.

My plan was to make a quick night of it, just recording the evening sounds and the dawn chorus and do a short hike.  I arrived around 6:30 pm, drove past several pronghorn and was greeted at my campsite by a tom Gould’s turkey.  The turkey was apparently quite lonely, and I could hear his gobbles in a large circle around my camp for the entire time I was there.  I set up camp and the microphones just as darkness fell.  Shortly after I crawled in my sleeping bag, I could hear the distant mooing of cows, slowly getting closer.  Las Cienegas is a working cattle ranch, with much of the land leased for grazing by several local ranchers.  I’m not sure why the cows were making so much noise, but I suspect they had just been moved into a new pasture.

My camp was among some large cottonwood trees, mixed with mesquite and hackberry.  I’ve recorded in this area often, and it usually has a lot of different species of birds.   I was hoping to hear an owl or two, but I was ecstatic to hear pairs of Great Horned Owls, Elf Owls, and Western Screech Owls all calling at the same time (listen at the very end for the distant screech owls):

It felt good to sleep under the full moon, away from sounds of helicopters and the hum of the refrigerator and swamp cooler.   With the owls, coyotes, cows and critters scurrying through the leaf litter, I wouldn’t call it a quiet night, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.  My alarm clock at first light was a Summer Tanager calling right overhead.   As the calls of the owls faded away, the tanager was soon joined by a large variety of warblers and vireos and many species I can’t identify by sound.  And the poor, lonely turkey still hoping someone will respond to his call.

Recording nature sounds, and the attentive listening it requires, has given me a whole new appreciation for the singing of breeding birds, and how much “color” they add to our sonic world.

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The San Pedro River

San Pedro River–the thin fragile line

Threading its way north from the mountains of northern Mexico, the San Pedro River meanders to the Gila River, then westward to join the Colorado River on its way back to Mexico.  It is one of the few remaining undammed rivers (in the desert, they call any flowing water a “river”) in the US.  It forms a lush, green corridor along it’s length, creating vital habitat and a critical migration corridor for millions of birds and other species.  More than 300 species of birds use its cottonwood and willow canopy to guide their annual migrations, and some 200 species of butterflies and 80 species of mammals call it home at some point in their lives.  In recognition of the importance of this rare oasis in the desert, the Bureau of Land Management protects the first 40 miles north of the US-Mexico border within the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area.  The Nature Conservancy protects a few plots further north, before the confluence with the Gila River.  The BLM, TNC and other organizations have put a lot of effort into habitat restoration along the river, first removing cattle from the riparian area, then reintroducing beaver, removing exotic vegetation,  and performing occasional controlled burns to thin the brush.

The river remains a relatively healthy ecosystem.  The river itself is very dynamic – reduced to a mere trickle during the dry pre-summer period, and becoming a raging torrent during the summer rainy season – and annual flows are strongly impacted by both summer and winter precipitation patterns.  The beaver dams help ameliorate this, but it’s a tough environment for beavers, whose dams are often blown out by summer floods.  The water pooled up behind their dams help recharge the aquifer that supports nearby human settlements.

I took a hike along the river last week.  I like to check on the river a couple of times a year, looking for tracks and trying to record the birds and bugs.  One of my first recordings of the river became a runner-up in the Most Beautiful Sound in the World contest, and has become my most played recording on Soundcloud.   But its been difficult to replicate that recording due to the increasing air craft noise over the river – more military flights in and out of Fort Huachuca, more light aircraft flying over the river corridor, and a huge increase in Border Patrol drones.

My recent day on the river was beautiful, as Shadow and I hiked the San Pedro trail north of the historic ruins of Fairbank to Willow Wash and returned via the cool, shaded river.  Along the way we ran across a Gila Monster, a rare sighting, and the first time I’ve ever seen one along the river.

A Gila Monster along the San Pedro Trail.

A Gila Monster along the San Pedro Trail.

The gentle gurgle of the stream under the whispering cottonwoods and willows provided a lovely backdrop to a riot of singing warblers, towhees, doves, and hawks.

But there were only a few scattered moments here and there when the river corridor was quiet enough to let the natural sounds settle in and relax me.  Mostly it was aircraft noise, especially before 10 am, sometimes so loud it drowned out all of the other sounds.  I felt bad for the birds, biologically compelled to vocalize to attract mates, defend territories, and warn their relatives and neighbors of danger.  They didn’t ask for all this noise, but were being forced to adapt to it.  The birds of the San Pedro are not too bad off, compared with birds that live in big cities, where studies have shown that they’ve had to change the pitch at which they sing to be heard over the traffic noises.  But the noise also impacts human visitors, and diminishes the experience of quiet nature that many of us seek between the river’s banks.

The San Pedro River provides vital wildlife habitat in the desert.

The San Pedro River provides vital wildlife habitat in the desert.

But the biggest threats to the wildlife of the San Pedro come from outside of the river corridor.  Ground water pumping by the small cities closest to the river are slowly lowering the aquifer the feeds the river outside of the rainy season.  In an effort to minimize threats to the aquifer, Cochise County (home of the southernmost portion of the river) passed regulations requiring that developers provide evidence of a 100-year-water supply for any new developments.  However, two recently proposed large developments appeared to come up short on those requirements, prompting state legislators to propose a bill that would allow municipalities to waive the 100-year requirement.  The bill passed, but was vetoed by the governor.   The southernmost proposed development, the 7,000 home Tribute development slated to be built east of Sierra Vista, was stopped when a judge ruled their claims of little impact on the river to be inadequate, and the governor’s veto of overriding legislation may stop that development for the foreseeable future.  The estimated water use by that development alone was roughly equal to the remaining flow of the San Pedro.  The other development, Villages at Vigneto, would add 28,000 homes and some 70,000 residents to the small burb of Benson (how does a town of 5,000 people ramp up to provide services for 70,000 in just 20 years?).  It, too, could have a major impact on the river, effectively wiping out the riparian area for 40 miles or more downstream.  Recent modeling has shown that it might severely impact the St. David Cienega, one of the last remaining cienegas (marshes) on a river that used to be more marsh than stream.

The San Pedro River is a true oasis in the desert, a vital wildlife corridor and habitat, a recreational destination that pumps millions of dollars into the local economies, and a critical water supply for nearby residents (wild and not).  Global climate change is predicted to result in more droughts for this region, meaning any future withdrawals from the river need to be done very cautiously.  It would truly be a shame if greed slowly killed the San Pedro River, benefiting a few while the rest of us watch it die.


For more about the potential impacts of the Villages at Vigneto’s impact on the river, see “Killing the San Pedro: Arizona’s last free-flowing river at risk.”

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