Prairies, pronghorn, canyons and solitude

Melissa and I spent the weekend in Mill’s Canyon, New Mexico.  The canyon is carved by the Canadian River and is located near the very small towns of Roy and Mills.  The drive to the canyon is as spectacular as the canyon.  We traveled I-40 from Amarillo and Turned north to San Jon and Logan, NM.  Once north of Logan, the traffic diminishes to a trickle – not that Logan is busy but Ute Lake attracts a fair number of people.  Also north of Logan, the land changes and the sagebrush and mesquite is replaced by beautiful, rolling shortgrass prairie with variation in vegetation associated with changes in topography.  We saw a large number of pronghorn and a few mule deer on the drive.  Ravens are common in this area too.  I stopped on several occasions to attempt to photograph pronghorn but was only successful in one location.  Here, the pronghorn ran up a small but steep hill to avoid our stopped vehicle.  Much to my surprise, they stopped on top of the hill, looked around anxiously, and were apparently spooked by something worse than me on the other side.  They ran straight down the hill right at me, veering to my right as they got closer.  I hurriedly snapped off photos, most of which were blurry.  I have selected some of the better ones to post, in order, below.  Pronghorn are the fastest land mammals in North America and are NOT antelope!

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

Pronghorn in New Mexico

I am still kicking myself for not going to the top of the hill to see what spooked the pronghorn.  The land was private and I am respectful of that but I fear a part of me has been damaged irrevocably by not knowing.  Had I crested the hill, I probably would have found an angry and armed landowner was what caused the pronghorn to turn tail and head my way.  Regardless, it is a sight to see these wonderful animals run.

Mill’s Canyon is located in the Kiowa National Grasslands and the area is shortgrass prairie until it suddenly turns into a ponderosa pine forest.  This abrupt change is brought on by topography and indicates you are a short distance from a steep and winding 2 mile drive to the bottom of the canyon.  The vegetation changes as you drop in altitude from over 5,700′ on the prairie to the bottom of the canyon.  However, if you are driving, much of this is missed by focusing on the narrow gravel road, protruding rocks, and occasional washouts.  At least for most drivers, I tend to focus more on my surroundings and let my copilot alert system keep my safely on the road (believe me, any copilot will let you know if you veer too far near the edge with various types of alert calls – who needs GPS?).  The vegetation changes from the tall pines, to Gambel’s oaks, to pinyon-juniper, to juniper grassland, and finally cottonwood-willow woodlands along the river.  All around are cliffs and beautiful outcrops of rock and stunning vistas.  This land was once a productive working orchard, drawing water from the river to grow many types of fruits.  However, the river, as they are apt to do, reclaimed the canyon and destroyed the farm.  Attempts were made to reopen the farm but these eventually failed.  Several beautiful hand-laid stone wall skeletons are the only obvious indications that the farm ever existed.  Below is a picture of the largest structure that remains.  I took this photo by moon light and this is the first photo in this blog not to contain wildlife.  This was also my first attempt at night photography and I have a lot to learn.

Ruins at night in Mill's Canyon, New Mexico

I was concerned that the campground would be full by the time we arrived at around 8 local time and this concern intensified when I caught a glimpse of headlights in my mirror on the way down the canyon.  The headlights disappeared and when we arrived at the campground, it was empty.  What a joy!  It’s not that I don’t like people, it’s just that most people’s idea of a camping trip varies greatly from mine.  No music, lanterns, loud voices, or barking dogs for me.  I use a headlamp for light only when necessary and that goes for a tent too.  This makes nights 5 and 6 under the stars this year without a tent.  I’m behind my usual goal of 30 but hope to make up ground through the summer, fall, and winter.  The first thing we did was select a camp site that would be shaded, park, and walked the short distance to the river.  I am happy to say that the only neighbors we could hear from our camp site all weekend were birds which unfortunately were drowned out occasionally by the wind.  We set up camp – put our cots together, put sleeping pads on the cots, and our sleeping bags on these – and headed out with the thermal camera, head lamps, and my camera and tripod.  We found little in the way of wildlife after dark but enjoyed the scenery in the canyon under the clear sky and bright light of the full moon.  You could easily walk without light, even through the grass and cactus.  I was up before dawn and out after dark each morning and night but failed to see a single deer, bear, cougar or other large mammal.  I did find a beaver in a pool behind the camp but only got a fleeting glimpse before it retreated to a bank den next to a large boulder.  I staked out the site for several hours, both early morning and after dark, but the beaver failed to make a second appearance.  Saturday night was amazing, I used the thermal camera to look for bats and was excited to see the sky filled with their heat signatures.  After returning to camp and leaving Melissa there to rest, I made my way to the river again to see if the bats were drinking.  Bats drink on the wing, mostly silent, except for a faint sound when their mouths skim the surface, not much louder in some species than slicing through the surface of the water with a knife.  I found the perfect rock to watch this performance.  It jutted out completely into the river and slanted downward from down stream to up-stream.  The bats were drinking mostly from the pool just upstream from me but were flying within feet of me.  I laid on my side to try to see the bats with out the aid of the thermal camera but they were all but invisible and silent even on this bright night.  I was rewarded with an occasional glimpse or sound of their drinking but was more enthralled with their abilities to maneuver and drink so silently.  I also wished I had brought an acoustic monitor with me because in fact, they were not being silent at all, just making a lot of noise to echolocate at frequencies above a human’s ability to hear (~20kHz).  This was one of those many “moments” for me in the outdoors where I watch in amazement at some phenomenon and stay entranced for an extended period of time.  I don’t know, because I am so caught up in the “moment”, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I had either a smile or some silly look of amazement on my face.  I guess this is why I don’t understand your usual campers who use the outdoors to recreate in a way they could in their back yards.  I don’t have thousands of bats flying around my back yard nor can I watch dozens swoop in silently and cut a sliver of water to drink.

While mammals were few and far between, the birds were very active and I have a nice list that I am not going to post now.  They were elusive, however, and I left the canyon with no keeper photographs.  The grasslands above saved the day.  While exploring some of the back roads – as if they weren’t all back roads – I saw a familiar bird that I didn’t expect to see, a long-billed curlew.  These shorebirds can be found wintering along the Texas Gulf Coast and I have seen them catch and eat small crabs.  But their long, down-curved bills are apparently very adaptable because they use it to feed on invertebrates in prairie both during migration and breeding.

Long-billed culew_Mills Canyon NM

I will say that people started to show up in the canyon on Saturday but they did not detract from the feeling solitude.  We only had one other campsite in the developed area that was occupied on Saturday night and we couldn’t see or hear them from our site.  Most of the other campers dispersed to undeveloped sites and were only discovered when we were exploring.  Electronically, you might as well drop off the face of the earth as you enter the canyon.  What solitude no cell phone or radio reception brings.  I have much more I could say but it is time to get some rest.  I don’t stop much when I am in the field and I have work that feels like work tomorrow.  One last picture of the canyon and my second without wildlife!  Incase you are wondering why landscape photos are generally absent from my blog, the answer is twofold.  First, the sweet light needed for landscape photography is great for wildlife and wildlife generally wins out.  Second, I stink at landscapes but plan to work on this.  This photo is from a simple point and shoot Olympus.

Mill's Canyon New Mexico

As always, thanks for looking and reading and get outdoors.

2 thoughts on “Prairies, pronghorn, canyons and solitude

  1. Great photos Dr. Matlack, you don’t give yourself enough credit. This is Ben, I think all of us are wondering, although I feel i should know the answer to this question, if Pronghorn are not antelope, then what are they considered?

    • Ben, pronghorn are endemic to North America meaning they are unique to a geographic region and evolved here. They are in a different family than antelope and are no more related to true antelope than are say pigs. Pronghorn are the only species in their family and are unique in a number of ways when it comes to mammals. For example, they are the only mammal to shed the sheath of their horns each year and are the only mammal to have a branch or prong on their horns. So to answer your question, they are simply pronghorn!

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