Amigos de Sevilleta

… soo– to my absolute shock, I find myself, after many years’ absence from the refuge, appointed vice-president of Amigos de Sevilleta, a non-profit organization that exists to inform the public about the refuge and its mission, and arrange for events like birding and plant tours for the public. We want to make this utterly unique refuge, its beauty, and its scientific studies common knowledge for all curious naturalists, from birders to botanists. To that end, expect regular updates from the Sevilleta: history, science, animals, plants, and whatever else comes up (prairie dog re- intro?)

To start with a teaser question: what do the Empire State Building and the Sevilleta NWR have in common? This is NOT a trick question!

Creatures of the Sevilleta

Sevilletta has plenty of big animals, even “Charismatic Megafauna”. Peregrines nest in the cliffs, and herds of exotic oryx, expanding from White Sands despite increased hunting pressure intended to confine them there, drift through as though it was Africa, keeping a distance that, in summer’s liquid haze, makes you reach for your binoculars. Karen was once shadowed by a mountain lion. But the most striking difference between the Sevilleta and the surrounding lands is the little stuff. I have seen more adolescent- sized box turtles there than anyplace ever– count in the eastern box turtles too (this one, from the white tooth marks on his shell, was just big enough to survive an encounter with a coyote). The tiny rattler, scaled (and dated?) by the 35 mm film can, is a massasauga, one of two very small, perhaps “primitive” species assigned to the genus Sistrurus rather then Crotalus. The tiny horned lizard is one of a species I have not yet seen anywhere else; and the Meloid beetle ditto. I just put the more common roadrunner in because I like the shot.

Sevilleta! (Part one: Bee Wrangler)

Here begins a new series about the Sevilleta NWR, located a few miles north of Socorro and encompassing both sides of the Rio Grande, stretching from river bosque to high mesas, cliffs, and canyons on both “sides”. It is unusual (among other reason)s because, unlike most National Wildlife Refuges, it is not generally open to the public except on special occasions, but restricted to researchers studying the ecosystem and its inhabitants. Virtually all remnant of human habitation other than the research station on the west side of the highway are gone; there is no grazing and a minimal web of dirt roads. It is as close to a “natural” northern Chihuahuan desert ecosystem as exists, and I have seen creatures there that I have been unable to find anywhere else.

A few years ago I had a contract to catch and mount all the native bees that fed on creosote bush in the refuge for my friend Karen Wetherill Wright. This job was even weirder than it sounds. Karen is New Mexico’s bee expert and last I talked to her there were over 700 species native to the state, (not a few new to science, many of those described by her), ranging in size from about that of a fruit fly to big blue- black wood- nesting species larger than bumblebees. Though I am mildly sensitive to insect stings, nothing ever stung me; if you are a long time flying bug catcher , flipping the net and putting the end into a killing bottle was not hard, and since we used cyanide- impregnated plaster in our killing bottles instead of the useless but easily obtained smelly concoctions used by many amateurs, the insect barely had a chance to move. CATCHING was pure fun.

For anything that could simply be pinned, mounting was an easy process, at least if you are of an organizing cast of mind. But the arcane procedures for pinning the tiny ones begs for a Nabokov as its chronicler. For the very smallest, you had to cut triangles out of white paper and glue the specimen to its tip, making sure you obscured nothing, then pin the triangle. But the hardest were just a bit larger, still smaller than a house fly. In this genus you had to take the specimens from the freezer, wait until it thawed and “relaxed” so you could operate on it, then look at the wing veination to distinguish male from female. If the specimen was female, you just glued it lightly to the side of a pin, as they were too small to stick pins THROUGH. But if the specimen was a male, you glued it up, and when the glue was dry, you’d extract the male’s genitals from the tip of its abdomen with a fine needle just to the point where they were still attached, so they would dry in that position. Like Nabokov’s celebrated blue butterflies, the shape of each male’s key would only open the “locks” on the females of one species, and it was sometimes the only visually different part. I pinned over a thousand through that July and August; suffice to say I could not do it today with Parkinson’s. This box is merely a sample, and with largish bees at that.

Of course, being one of the privileged allowed to work behind the locked gates gave you contact with a lot more than your research subjects, and if you were the kind of person that wanted to do work there at all, it was like giving you the keys to the past. You just found new things everywhere you went. Focused on bees as we were, we found a big colony of Diadasia bees digging right in a road’s surface. Diadasia look like the common (and exotic in the sense of non- native) honey bee, but there are no hierarchies; each female, in loose confederation with her sisters, digs a tunnel in bare ground and caps it with a sort of rounded chimney. This helped but did not vanquish predation or brood parasitism. Syrphid and other parasitic flies hovered over the colonies, awaiting their chances.

I also found a weird one: picking up an odd “bee” from the colony, I realized that, first; I had never seen an insect of any kind that was chopped off so sharply behind; and, second, that its antennae were leafy foliate structures like those of the more ornate scarab beetles. When I found out that it was a Rhippiphorid, that some thought they were beetles and some not; that they had a
“hypermetamorphosis”, with five stages, some very odd, like the often parasitic Meloid beetles or a creepy alien out of a movie; and that little was known about them other than that they were brood parasites on bees, I decided to study them myself. I thought they might be mimics, because I had thought “mine” was a bee. The Sevilleta gave me a research permit, but my study was aborted when the only car I had that could go on a hundred mile commute, broke down…

Spring Puppies?

Larissa and Tavi are dancing for joy and have made (at least one) tie.

But as they say, wait, there’s more! If Lane has indeed bred her fine taigans, Rustam and Ooly, we are about to have the first of this more exotic variation too. Can’t wait– I am sure they will be the first working taigans in the SW or even in the states. Tell us the news!
Top two of Ooly; Rustam at bottom withDaniela’s Shunkar, bred here; everybody in between– all hard running high desert hounds.

UPDATE: Lane’s taigan litter is scheduled for next year and depends on somedemand. And Dr John has bred “our” Tigger– only living brindle Lashyn daughter, below– to tanpoint Saudi Prince. Both are serious coursing dogs. I know of no other details yet but will. Please contact me if you have a serious interest.

Oldest Falconry Film?

I have the Craighead film of their months with an Indian prince just before WWII, which is not unlike having films of Emperor Frederic in Medieval Sicily, or of being able to step into the print of Vadim Gorbatov’s “Kublai Khan’s Hawking Party” hanging to my right. But this short film, made before the first World War in Algeria in 1909, and sent by several readers, may be the oldest hawking ever filmed if not the most elevated (a friend cracked “just like you guys– throwing (implying “wasting”) peregrines at bunnies”. Brief saluki glimpses too…

A Few Birds

Coming back this weekend after work, sick days, and generally too much, and that dull. (Why is it so hard to pay writers dammit???) We will have links, pix, dog news, poetry. I will finally review David Quammen. I will announce others. There will be…. MORE. Tonight though, good photos… as always, right or double click and embiggen.

This extremely early bandtail showed up at Carolyn and John Wilson’s in the Magdalenas two days past. Photo by Carolyn W:

Goshawks. This adept pigeon- killing young male was in Larry Day’s backyard outside of Bozeman MT. I wonder if his meal descended from Spanish pouters I gave Larry 20 years past…

A relative but Melierax not Accipiter— dark chanting goshawk photographed by Texas writer Dennis Sumrak while hunting in Namibia. Dennis is working on a piece on our water crisis and has been seen at the Spur…

Can anyone remember a Roy Campbell poem– “Singing Hawk” perhaps– about this bird? I seem to but can’t find it…