Saturday, December 22

Bright Mars

20 December. We gazed at Mars in the early evening about 8:30. Looking to the east and a little north, it was easy to see — big, bright and yellow. It was even brighter than Sirius, and stays brighter until 3 January.

On the 18th of December Mars reached its closest distance (54,783, 380 mi, 88 165 305 km) to Earth; it will not get closer until 2016.

It's lucky we looked when we did. Mars will actually get brighter on 24 December, when its in opposition with the Sun (exactly opposite the Sun with Earth in the middle). But during January, Earth leaves Mars fast: The distance between them increases by about 30% — from 56.7 to 72.3 million miles, in a month. And Mars fades in brightness a full magnitude.

Saturday, December 15

Examining snowflakes

14 December.

Snow on our mountain home with a warm fire burning inside.

Snow fell all day long, covering trees and ground. Watching snow fall, Lanney and I wondered what a snowflake looked like close up. Sure, we'd seen pictures of symmetrical beauties glistening in the light, but would we really see such beauty, or would we see just globs of snow?

We fished out a small magnifying glass (not the big 'Sherlock Holmses' kind) that magnified about 5 times. We stuck a tee shirt in the freezer, and let it get cold. Then, armed with proper equipment, we went to the upstairs balcony, where snow was falling all around. We held the cold tee shirt out to catch flakes, then closed in on individual ones with the magnifier. Our breath tended to melt the flakes.

The flakes melted fast. Finally, I managed to spot a lacy-six-pointed individual snowflake next to a cluster. It shimmered like a small diamond. Soon after, so did Lanney. Most flakes were not symmetrical. All melted fast, so we looked fast. But they are just as lovely as pictured. And fun, when you discover them yourself.

Friday, December 14

A few flakes

Photo courtesy of Jerome Mathey and Wikipedia.

11 December. By the time I went escarpment hiking, today, it was in the low 40's. Got colder as I climbed. To the east, rain (or snow?) squalls swirled across parts of the city and mountains. To the west, a misty veil crept over the volcanoes. Fearing rain heading my way — I started to jog home. The squall, however, did not come directly east to me. Instead, it swept from the volcanoes in a great arc to the north. Snow (not rain) started to fall, as I headed out. The first snow of the season.

Tuesday, December 4

A warm December ride

Just got back from a bike ride. Beautiful day --- high near 65 degrees. Going, I battled a north wind; coming back, I scooted with a tail wind.

Saw many animals, especially around Mariposa Park: a ground squirrel dashed across my path; I almost had to brake for it. Only a couple of pedal strokes farther a roadrunner darted, stopped and let its tail rise and darted again. I whooshed down into the park, and found land swampy from a recent rain. About a half dozen mallard ducks paddled in the small pool. When I first glanced their way, four of the six had tails in the air scrounging at the bottom for food.

Mallard duck. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I peeled down a steep hill into central park, and circled to the duck pond. More mallards --- maybe, a couple of dozen. I cycled across a small bridge, while a duck paddled underneath, it emerging just as I finished crossing.

As I left, a yellow butterfly fluttered in front and led the way. Mariposa is Spanish for butterfly.

Tuesday, November 20

Quail in the gloaming

Gambel quail. Photo courtesy of Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge, California.

Last night, I was pulling down clean clothes from the clothesline, and listening to quail clucking, when several Gambel quail flew up from the other side of the wall, and landed on the top of the wall, within arm's reach. We sized each other up; they conversed among themselves.

Then more quail landed
, top notches bobbing, beside the first bunch. Before long, over a dozen quail were chatting, lined up along the top of the wall. Finally, they took off, in successive waves. I heard them land in the front yard amongst dry leaves.

Additional information: Gambel quail
Average length 11 in (30 cm)
Wingspan 15 in (37 cm)
Move primarily by walking (actually tearing along the ground is more like it), but can break into explosive flight.

Saturday, November 10

Eb's barn --- a scene from a SF story I'm writing

A father looks at his barn just after learning his son was killed warring the aliens.
"What a godforsaken barn," Eb says to red-dust emptiness.

Only wind moaning around the metal dome answers.

"Barns should look barnlike, for godsake." Eb's clumsy gloves impede his work, and add to a fury he barely contains. He heaves up another block, staggers over to a growing igloo, attached to the barn. "Need a place for the rover," he says, as he thumps the block down.

He shakes his grizzled head, almost
mad with rage. "Got to get 'em. The question is — how?!!"

He settles the block in its precise position, and turns to get another. First he gazes up at the fierce sun and empty horizon. "No sign of 'em, but that means nothing."

His gaze takes in the squat barn structure, built low to the ground to withstand winds that rip across this red planet twenty-two light years from Earth. The barn's shiny dome tops a ring of solar panels that alternate, checkerboard fashion: white, brown, white... A ring of gray foundation blocks below hug the ground for warmth. Eb shivers in his suit, thinking of night cold.

Soon evening descends; faint, high clouds promise small radiation through the night. Gloom wraps the land as Eb heads into his barn — home only to strange animals, his robots and him.

Friday, November 9

A comet explodes

Saturday 3 November Last night we found the comet. Cool. There it was, just below Cassiopeia, like Sky & Telescope said. Looking like a fuzzy ball in the binoculars. After that and knowing where it was, I saw it with naked eyes well enough to direct Lanney's binocular search.

Comet 17P/Holmes, November 2, 2007, 1:53 AM MDT (7:53 UT) Photo courtesy of Ginger Mayfield and Wikipedia.

Lanney and I never would have seen it with binoculars a little over a week ago, when it was a dim magnitude 17 star. In just a few hours on 24 October, the comet went from that barest glimmer to a 2.5 magnitude star. It exploded! Why?

"What comets do when they are near the sun is very unpredictable," says Paul Lewis, director of astronomy outreach at the University of Tennessee. "We expect to see a coma cloud and a tail, but this is more like an explosion, and we are seeing the bubble of gas and dust as it expands away from the center of the blast. Absolutely amazing."

The coma cloud of Comet 17P/Holmes is now more than 600,000 miles across, bigger than the planet Jupiter and approaching the diameter of the Sun.

Further Reading

Astronomers dazzled at comet's brightness,

17P/Holmes, Wikipedia

A lynx!

A linx. Courtesy of Erwin and Peggy Bauer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Wikipedia.

Saturday 27 October. This evening, about four, I glanced up from my office window and saw a lynx carrying a dead mouse in his mouth. A beautiful animal that strolled calmly by my sunken window, eyeball-to-eyeball with me, about a yard away. It's nice living in the mountains.

Additional information: Lynx
Average length 30 in (76 cm)
Tail length
5 in (13 cm)
Lynx (aka bobcats) commonly eat rabbits, rodents, birds, reptiles and occasionally insects. Their right hind foot is 6 inches (16 cm) across.

Monday, October 15

A hike up La Cienega trail

The well-named trail — Spanish for 'a place containing water' — appeals to us New Mexicans any time of the year. Even New Mexico mountains are deserts! But not La Cienega.

First Bridge at the beginning of La Cienega's Trail. Photo courtesy of Mike Coltrin and, copyright, used with permission.

Rain falls on and snow melts along the peaks of the Sandia Mountains. Water trickles down her slopes, percolates into rock layers and wells up in various springs near the mountain's base. Cienega's spring gets more water than most, and the water forms a creek, which sings its way downhill, falling over great tree roots here and cascading over granite ledges there. A delight, all the way down its short course.

I pull the red 4Runner into my customary parking place this afternoon, get out and shiver slightly in the cool breeze. Yep, time for an extra shirt, a blue bandana about the throat and even light gloves, all of which I had in the car. Suitably clothed, I cross First Bridge. Sunlight slants through yellow leaves above, and a wind sighs through treetops.

Second Bridge soon appears. There's something fun about clumping across bridges. Fallen logs form more bridges all around. A dark-blue Stellar jay flits from tree to tree, scolding my intrusion. Past Third Bridge now. The water is low, now in the fall, past the rainy season. Stepping Stone Place looms ahead, but the stones stand dry in the dirt path. No water courses around them as was the case every other time this year I'd hiked this way.

Just ahead I see Big Rock — a huge pentagon-shaped granite boulder, about 11 feet (3 m) high and 11 feet wide. Bones of the Earth. Most of the rock forming the Sandia Mountains is Precambrian granite, which is about 1.5 billion years old.

Big Rock marks the spot of the most upstream spring of the Cienega springs. It's dry this time of year. The water wells from a lower spring now, though not much lower.

I round a bend and spot a patch of late-blooming purple fleabane daisies. Next comes the intersection of Faulty Trail with Cienega. I continue due west up Cienega and break into a jog for a short ways. I'm breathing hard now. The path ahead curves up, framed in tawny oak leaves. The sunlight slants in amongst the tall firs, their green tops swaying in the wind against blue sky, their lower branches dark and scraggly. Steep canyon walls close in.

A common squirrel. Photo courtesy of Nicko Margolies and Wikipedia.

Up I go until I reach Laid Over Tree. Here the trail takes a serious upward bent, almost like a ladder, climbing through heavily eroded tree roots, and I turn around for the hike down.

At the bottom picnic area, I'm stretching my legs before getting in the 4Runner, when a bushy tailed Albert's squirrel scampers my way. He pauses about three feet away — almost close enough to touch — spurts onward another few feet, stops at the creek just behind me and drinks. Then off again, this time up a nearby tree, stops again, looks at me and waxes poetic squirrel talk.

Further reading

Sandia Hiking Guide by Mike Coltrin

Field guide to the Sandia Mountains

Sunday, October 14

A lazy weekend at Angel Fire

Friday 5 October 2007. The day dawned in Sandia Park, cool and beautiful, promising to warm into the high 70's (25 C), and making us wonder, why leave? Although we had almost totally packed the 4Runner the night before, there was a little left to do, and we didn't actually leave until about 10.

"There's nothing left in the house," Lanney said. "It's time to quit packing and go."

We headed the red 4Runner down our steep driveway through the piñons. Soon we tootling along back roads through foothills of the Sandia Mountains, past old mining towns, along the bypass around Santa Fe, up the steep gorge cut by the Rio Grande to the high plateau above — top of the world country near Taos — then east through the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the broad valley of the Cimarron River and 11,000-foot (3350 m) peaks of Angel Fire Mountain and surrounding mountains. We arrived at our cabin in tall Ponderosa pines about three in the afternoon.

Magpie. Courtesy of Adrian Pingstone in Gloucestershire, England 2004 and Wikipedia.

We had vacationed here about three years ago. Then we spotted deer in the evening. This time, though, we arrived immediately after elk season. No deer (or elk) hanging around. Plenty of deep blue Stellar jays, nuthatches, gray chickadees, white and black striped chipmunks, though. Even a black and white magpie, enticed by strewn peanuts and sunflower seeds, gathered its courage for forays onto our porch. I had not realized magpies have deep blue back and tail feathers until seeing one this close. The nuthatches sounded their one shrill note, like tiny trumpeters.

The next day we piled back in the 4Runner for a drive to Coyote Creek. We envisioned a lazy stroll along creek bottom land. Down NM 434 we chugged, across another broad valley around Black Lake (which we finally found, not much water) and then down a steep canyon the Coyote Creek had cut through the Sangro de Cristos. The road twisted and turned, following the babbling creek around cliffs and through pines. A lovely drive. Finally we made it to Coyote Creek State Park. What a disappointment. It looked like a trailer park. We paid $5 for a parking privilege, found the trailhead and scrambled up. A hard scramble up a mountain trail. Surely this is the wrong trail. Back down. Nope, no creekside trail. We gave up and headed back to our cabin.

Still looking for a lazy hike, we found one the next day in the town of Angel Fire. It was probably a ski trail cut through a meadow from cabins to ski run. But, this time of year it made pleasant walking.

We left late Monday morning, the 8th, but we'll be back. Probably in late August to take in the 'Music from Angel Fire' chamber music. Then it will be warm enough for us to kayak Eagle Nest Lake, as we had three years ago. Maybe we'll feel like some real hikes, too. Looking forward to it. This time, though, was a good, lazy vacation.

Good restaurants and lodging we don't want to forget:

Angel Fire
  • Our Place Cafe (west of the main drag, about a block). Good for breakfast. Breakfast buffet only good on weekends; other days order from the menu. Great hamburgers.
  • Talon's Italian restaurant at Frontier Square, opposite the Valley Market. Very good food. 545-377-2337
  • Retreat at Angel Fire Lodge. A quiet place in the woods. Our only quibble is the street lights. For folks wanting to see stars, it would be nice if the proprietors used shaded lantern-style lights, whose light shines down on the ground only.
  • Los Arcos, 819 North Riverside Drive

Tuesday, September 25

A short history of my escarpment

I wander up a sandy trail to the base of the escarpment, and clamber up huge, dark, lava rocks to the tableland above. I jog through waving, yellow grasses and gaze at five small, dark volcanoes in a row on the western horizon.

One of the volcanoes, on the horizon. Cliff rocks in the foreground. Petroglyphs (chiseled by Pueblo Indians about 500 years ago) adorn the rocks. Photo courtesy of The Petroglyph National Monument.

How did the escarpment form? How did these friendly cones come into being?

About 30 million years ago, when camels and huge bears roamed New Mexico, a line of mantle swelled upwards, pushing against the Earth's crust. The crust buckled, and formed two immense fractures --- faults that ran the length of New Mexico from Colorado to Texas. A long splinter of crust dropped between the two faults, and the Rio Grande Rift was born.

Over the next 25 million years or so, the land stretched, creating tilted ranges and deep basins. Volcanoes erupted along the west side of the rift. Water drained out of Colorado Rockies into closed basins along the rift. Eventually, rivers and streams connected the basins to form the Rio Grande River so water flowed freely from the Rockies to the Gulf of Mexico.

The Rio Grande Rift continued to widen and filled with gravel and debris brought down from the mountains by the streams and rivers. A cycle of fill and cut ensued. The rivers dumped debris in the rift filling it, but also sliced through the fill, forming deep trenches.

The broad mesa I like to jog across is a gravel terrace filling the rift. The escarpment edge is the river's cut through the terrace.

The rift valley starts at the Rio Puerco and extends across the Rio Grande River to the Sandia Mountains. It's about 28 miles wide near Albuquerque.

The five volcanoes are, indeed, in a line --- one that parallels the rift. The oldest one erupted about 190,000 years ago and the last about 150,000 years. We think they're extinct now.

Basalt boulders. Photo courtesy of The Petroglyph National Monument.

Most of the volcanic (basalt) boulders I climb through shimmer in the sun a bronzy black. But those near the top of the escarpment show their true color: a light ash gray. Basalt rusts in the atmosphere, and turns dark brown or black.

By the way, the Sandia Mountains are not part of the Rockies. The Rocky Mountains were formed about 70 million years ago (about 40 million years before the Sandias) by a different process. Two shifting plates collided, eventually causing the uplift of land that built the Rockies.

Further Reading

Roadside Geology of New Mexico by Halka Chronic, 1987
Petroglyph Basalt

Monday, September 24

A fall jog along the escarpment

Had a wonderful jog. Sure is nice up here this time of year. A nice cool breeze. Much sun. A couple of hawks soaring. The usual scatter of millipedes, grasshoppers, bees, and occasional sparrow.

Tuesday, August 28

Lunar eclipse

I got up at 3:30 I saw a pale blur (the moon?) buried beneath a thick layer of clouds, and thought, 'Oh, no!' Not too hopeful, I got up at 5:15, and saw a reddish, totally-eclipsed moon. It was beautiful. I got up again, after the total eclipse was over, and, at 5:45, the moon was half shining, the other half in shadow. Beautiful too. I guess I'll stay up now, and go for an early escarpment jog a little later.

The 2001 totality captured by NASA astronomer Fred Espenak. I rotated the image in order that it appear like the totality I saw. Image courtesy of Fred Espenak, copyright 2003, used with permission,

I'm stll sort of sleepy. The sky is getting red to the north. The Sandia Mountains loom as a dark silhouette across the eastern sky. I can see stars here in the city. I saw Orion and even the Peades last night, as I searched for the Moon's dark orb.

Further Reading

How often do eclipses occur?

Monday, August 20

Late summer on the trail

Had a nice jog, smelling purple sage as I went. The scent was heavy to attract bees, and it did. Dozens of bees on each bush: drinking, dipping in and zooming out.

The trail across the escarpment. Photo by author.

As I got close to the actual climb up the escarpment, I noticed a nearby roadrunner, working his way up slope, too. I kept an eye on him as I climbed and spotted him almost at the top. H
unkered down between a couple of big lava rocks, he had stopped short to keep an eye on me.

On the trail, a rabbit blasted across. A kestrel nearby took off and flew south low hunting. Another joined him and was not welcome. The first flashed cream breast as he veered away west. Millipedes, not many, moved like slow freight trains. Grasshoppers soared across the path. And fly-eating dragonflies flitted. A rock wren landed on a big lava boulder and did not sing.

Monday, August 6


On my hike Saturday, I saw millipedes, their paddle-like legs flickering against the ground and pushing forward. The 6-inch creatures looked like miniature, brown freight trains snaking through a pass. I wondered how many legs they have. I know their name implies a thousand. But how many?

A millipede, curled for defense. Photo courtesy of the Petroglyph National Park.

It turns out each body segment has 4 legs. So, I found a millipede image and counted 75 segments. That's 300 legs on a 6-inch bug.

They curl up for defense, and extrude a nasty-tasting juice to discourage predators.

I see them usually after a rainstorm, like on Saturday. Normally, they spend daylight hours underground to keep cool and moist. We in the Chihuahuan Desert are in the monsoon season now (when we get half our yearly rainfall in the three months of July, August and September).

So millipedes crawl out in the cool after hours of a shower. They need water to eat and digest dead plants and animals that form their diet. Eating litter cleans the desert landscape, since things decay slowly in dry heat. Moreover, their excrement returns nutruents to the soil faster than the decay process does.

By the way, millipede ancestors were the first animals to walk on land
about 420 million years ago. The ancient creatures were much bigger than their 6-inch descendants: six feet long and 18 inches wide (2 by 0.5 m).

For lingering questions:

Fossil millipede found to be the oldest land creature

Millipedes of Petroglyph

Saturday, August 4

A hike that's turning into a jog

4 May 2007. I just got back from a walk up the escarpment (a broad mesa west of Albuquerque).

Starting up, I could hear a noise, and finally identified it: high above, sitting on a rock at the edge of the escarpment was a road runner, calling its fool head off.

Once up, I took the left fork and headed south. I started jogging about then, and jogged for a half hour. I figure at 5 mph that's two miles. It just seems incredible compared with the short distance I could do when I started. And it feels like I could jog forever.

As I jogged along, I spooked a couple of quail every now and then. They'd take off down the road, and pretty soon I'd catch up with them, and off they'd go again.

Flowers everywhere. White, purple, yellow flowers of various kinds and an occasional pink daisy. The mesa was green with the fresh rain. It seems to turn green overnight. The road looped around and headed north. Heard a meadow lark making an unusual 2-note call.

On I went, now walking, right past my cutoff. Went a power pole too far, and doubled back. Now heading east towards the mountains. A great ocean of waving yellow grass with the mountains blue in the distance.

Past my favorite pinion tree by a canyon and to the escarpment. A canyon wren sat on a rock on the edge of the trail down, singing away, until I got too close. Then he flew away to settle elsewhere and start singing again. Down in the flatlands I saw two humming birds.