Here’s what we’re planning for Flocks and Rocks 2021!
This adventure will begin at the Albuquerque NM Airport and venture southwest into the White Mountains of Arizona, Aldo Leopold’s first duty station with the U.S. Forest Service, and the inspiration for some of the most poignant images in his classic A Sand County Almanac. The White Mountains are volcanic in origin, as befits their location along the Jemez lineament, but to get to them we must journey down the Rio Grande rift for 70 miles on Day 1. Both the rift and the lineament are familiar to some of us from our 2017 trek.
These very disparate geologic features produce plenty of habitat diversity, which gives us an immense variety of plants and animals to meet. We spend our first night on friends’ land in the Rio Grande bosque, where we have our only chance to meet such desert birds as Verdin and Phainopepla. We’ll take an early morning visit to nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, where we may see waterfowl and migrating shorebirds, as well as roadrunners and coyotes. In the afternoon we will head for the White Mountains, stopping briefly for a close-up look at the otherworldly Very Large Array.
From a base camp at 8,000 feet in Springerville, we will explore ridges and canyons to the south. The Blue River valley is a northern extension of the canyon ecosystem of southeastern Arizona. The whole area is an Arizona Important Bird Area. We’ll look for Mexican Jays and Common Black Hawks there, and drive down the canyon as far as we can get, looking for coatis and imagining the wolf restoration that would have made Leopold glad, but was vigorously resisted by local ranchers. Then we’ll climb out of the Blue drainage to to the spruce-fir forest at Hannagan Meadow Campground. If the canyon looked like southeastern Arizona, this ridge could be in Colorado. From here one can look west onto the fire-ravaged slopes of the Black River drainage. The Black flows west into the Salt; the Blue south into the Gila. Both rivers have given their water to Arizona agriculture and municipal water systems by the time they meet south of Phoenix. Leopold would say this system is out of whack. We’ll take a closer look on our drive back to camp.
We next pitch our tents in the center of Leopold’s Arizona world, Escudilla Mountain. We’ll note the charred remains of the spruce-fir forest on the mountain slopes and muse on why fire has taken a heavier toll on spruce-fir forest than ponderosa pine forest in this area. We’ll camp by the luxurious grassland on the “loop” road 56, about 1000 ft below and three miles south of the summit of Escudilla Mountain. The springs there will fuel a chorus of frogs, and perhaps rails, as we get used to the brightest starscape we have ever seen. We’ll read about the grizzly who once roamed this mountain and how it inspired Leopold’s classic essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” a precursor to his Land Ethic. Those unbothered by the thin air at 9,700 feet can ascend the three miles to the fire look-out and share the panoramic views. Excellent views can be had only one mile up this trail.
On the way to a new campsite in Springerville, we head up into the White Mountains for a look at the vast subalpine grasslands that inspired Leopold’s essay “On Top.” Perhaps we’ll find Frijole Cienega or “the boneyard,” places he visited while working for the Forest Service in Springerville. The next day we will have the option of a strenuous hike up the north side of Mt. Baldy. The vistas and late sumer wildflowers will be beautiful even if we only go a mile. This is our best chance to see the Canada Jays and Pine Grosbeaks, which give this isolated highland additional boreal flavor.
After multiple days in Arizona, we head north to the Zuni Mountains, where we will encounter the massive sedimentary landscapes of the Colorado Plateau. Nightfall will find us at Cottonwood Gulch, which offers us cabins with bunks and the possibility of owl music right outside. We’ll spend a day exploring the nearby mountains, which feature a Precambrian granite core, basalt-capped mesas, and massive sandstone cliffs. The birds are equally diverse, and typical of the Rocky Mountains, with kingbirds at the base and nutcrackers in the heights. We’ll leave as early the next morning as we need to for the two-hour drive to the airport, noting the intersection of geological provinces as we head toward the city where Leopold proposed the Gila Wilderness 99 years ago.
Expect lots of good stories, laughter around the evening campfire and great food, too!
- A habitat gradient from hot desert in the Rio Grande valley (roadrunner, thrashers, verdin) to subalpine forest and grassland on Escudilla Mountains (Canada Jay, Pine Grosbeak), with an arresting look at how wildfire is changing the gradient
- The southern part of the Rio Grande rift with fault-block mountain ranges on both sides, the Plain of San Agustin (an enclosed basin at 7000 feet [the center of the radiating railroad tracks is about 7000 feet]), volcanic mountains at the southwest end of the Jemez lineament
- A morning at Bosque del Apache with lingering waterfowl, stilts, avocets, cormorants, and desert birds
- Southern birds (Bridled Titmouse, Common Black Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk) north in Water Canyon and the Blue River valley
- Northern birds (Red-breasted Nuthatch, Vesper Sparrow, Canada Jay) south at Escudilla Mountain and Hannagan Meadow
- Sedimentary sandstone interbedded with volcanic lava flows, pumice, and debris-flow deposits
- Cold nights, cool morning, and warm afternoons with almost no chance of rain
- Great food, great fellowship, and comfortable cots