Water Management

Living in the high desert of New Mexico one would suppose that water management would not be high on the list of priorities but in reality water management issues are always a concern.  With only 2 periods of rain every year, the winter rains and summer monsoons, the area can receive a significant amount of rainfall in a short period of time.  On rangeland with sufficient grasses the water is slowed and while the occasional flash flood may occur it is heavily utilized rangeland where most problems develop.  On the main estate at the Painted Pony Resort water management has always been a priority and as a result the 4+ inches of rain received this fall from the remnants of hurricane Odile did little damage.  With this years expansion of the estate further east some of the new water problems are being addressed.  About 2 years ago the road across the riverbed at the north end of the estate, which drains the Peloncillo mountains, began to receive runoff and the road quickly deteriorated with a 3-4' gully forming down the middle. This was the result of a major arroyo changing course after filling in its' old route.  With the movement to the south the ranch road was the  easiest route for the water resulting in the rapid down cutting of the ranch road.  If the arroyo could be persuaded to instead move north all the road problems would be solved.  Fortunately, the owner is currently in residence and enjoys running the tractor and road grader.  So he created several diversions in the arroyo, kicking the flow back north expanding and enlarging my earlier efforts.  The results are that the water flow will move back north and hopefully refill an existing cattle tank on the neighbors property (which was fed by this arroyo) and the old channel will provide a source of sand and gravel for the roads around the estate.

Looking east up the heavily eroded ranch road.
Looking west at the first diversion above the eroded area shown in the first photograph.

Looking northwest at the main diversion channel in the old arroyo.
Looking east up the arroyo.

An Experiment in Photography - Saturation and Desaturation

The modern digital camera is an incredible tool, but like all cameras it is really just an instrument to collect data.  While many camera manufacturers make claims about the ability of their camera to make the perfect picture, in reality it is the person who makes the image using a camera to collect data about the scene.  Once the data is collected it must be processed to create a final image that reflects the photographers intent, weather it be a realistic reproduction of a scene or imparting an idea or emotion to the viewer.  What used to take place in a dark room now takes place on a computer with a digital camera.  Specialized equipment was replaced with equipment available to everyone.  The results are many mediocre images made with digital artistic applications, but also some truly spectacular images of the world around us created by everyday people.

The creative act of photography begins not with a camera but with the human mind.  For me it is the visualization of a final image while looking at a scene.  Observing the play of light, shadow, and color and realizing the potential for an image.  On many occasions, whether flying or walking I will suddenly see an image while just looking around.  It will flash in my mind as my head is turning and I will stop, back up and find the specific view that grabbed my attention and being composing an image in my mind.  Then it is out with the camera and start collecting data.  I try to cover the whole scene, overlapping the edges with several images to ensure I miss nothing that later might be useful during data analysis and realizing that the final image will be cropped into a proper and pleasing scene.

Once the data is collected it is back to the computer where all the images are combined with an image compositor into a single large image of the scene.  The image is then examined and cropped to produce a final view which began in my mind.  The next step is processing which involves a decision on whether the scene is to be a reproduction of reality or will try to impart an idea or emotion.  I generally strive to communicate an idea or emotion with my images, with the goal of highlighting the beauty of the Chiricahua and Pelocillo mountains.

The digital manipulation of color is frowned upon by many but I would argue that: 1.  Everyone sees the world differently and my interpretation of reality does not necessarily match yours.  2.  The cameras ability to reproduce reality is flawed by it's software (it represents the view of someone else) and its' hardware.  While I generally do not manipulate color, sometimes when trying to evoke an emotion I will alter saturation levels, either of all the colors simultaneously or individual colors to bring out a specific highlights.  The image below is one I have been working on for about a month, exploring different methods of presentation to evoke different ideas.  In this case the original dataset I collected was altered by selectively saturating or desaturating specific colors which resulted in an artificial, but personally pleasing interpretation of the Chiricahua mountains.

Original 5-image panorama stitched and cropped but unprocessed.

Selective saturation and desaturation of individual colors in this panorama of the Chiricahua mountains (click image to enlarge).


Adventures in Welding - Continued

My first foray into welding came last year when I resized a tooth bar to fit the new tractor.  With no experience it was a steep learning curve but the job got done and the tooth bar works well so it was time for another welding project.

One of chores around the estate is road maintenance.  With about a mile of road on the main estate and 3 miles of road leading to the estate the roads take considerable effort to keep from becoming washboarded or washed out.  One aspect of this maintenance is redistributing gravel along the road.  Gravel has a lifespan and I rake the roads to keep the gravel evenly distributed but it still breaks down over time and having gravel shipped in to to recover the roads is not inexpensive.  Early on, railroad bed material was spread in some areas along the road leading to the estate, but this material is old slag from the smelters and is sharp edged.  While it wears well it is hard on vehicle tires and I have been contemplating using gravel from the arroyos as a substitute for gravel and railroad bed material, hence the newest welding project.  Needing a way to sort gravel from large stones the idea of a gravel sorter came to mind.  I designed a sorter that would sort big rocks from gravel and also produce sand.  Realizing the materials for the project would run several hundred dollars I decided to use material already available, that is fencing material recovered from the additions to the estate, in other words t-posts and old gates.  Material was gathered and I started welding.  But I quickly noticed I was burning holes in the lightweight gate material and some t-posts.  Confused, it eventually dawned on me that I had the current set to high on the welder.  While the higher setting worked fine for the 1/4" steel of the tooth bar it was to high for t-post and gate material.  A simple mistake an experienced welder would not even think about but which took me several days to figure out.  Reducing the current solved the problem and the single tiered gravel sorter was assembled.  Now with this new tool, gravel for the roads can be made from available materials from arroyos on the estate.  It certainly will save time and energy since the last project of making sand for the Rustic cabin was done with a shovel and screen over the tractor bucket.

Gravel sorter under construction
Sorting gravel at the Painted Pony Resort


Sunrise and Sunset

The San Simon Valley gets spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  Flanked by the Chiricahua mountains to the west and the Peloncillo mountains to the east, those in the valley are treated to an abundance of beauty every morning and evening.  The view below is a 3 image panorama of wispy clouds reflecting the rising sun which has yet to climb above the Peloncillo mountains.  Some folks have said they prefer the Peloncillos at sunset but I find sunrise the most spectacular especially when there is some cloud cover to reflect the sunlight.  Both times of day either mountain range has something new to see and I'm constantly recording something new I have never seen before.

Sunrise over the Peloncillo mountains from the Painted Pony Resort

Two days later after a day of light rain, the warm temperatures combined with water vapor resulted in low wispy fog at sunrise.

Wispy fog over the Peloncillo mountains in the San Simon valley.



Living and creating art in the wide open spaces of the desert southwest naturally leads to the production of big art.  The sweeping landscape views just beg to be interpreted.  One result is that locally produced artwork also tends to be big.  As noted previously, murals are produced locally as a response to the big landscape that surrounds anyone who lives or visits the area.  Taking that step myself I decided to reproduce a recent image of the Chiricahua mountains as a Giclee canvas print (pronounced "Zee clay") but this image spans 10 miles of landscape and was going require a large canvas for reproduction.  After some searching I found a firm (Canvas Pop) that could reproduce the image at the scale I wanted.  Shown below is the dining area in the main house of the Painted Pony Resort with a signed and dated 5' long reproduction of the image.  I was pleased with the final results and the image makes a fine addition to the dining area, though I suspect I could have made it even bigger without any problems.

Dining area at the Painted Pony Resort with the newly installed 5' Giclee canvas print.
A closer view of the Giclee print


Photographing the Same Subject Over and Over

I frequently take and post images of the eastern side of the Chiricahua mountains as seen from around the Painted Pony Resort outside Rodeo New Mexico.  I have so many images of the same subject that a slideshow entitled "The Many Faces of the Chiricahua Mountains" was created.  The goals in constantly photographing Portal Peak and the eastern Chiricahuas are to create the perfect image as well as photo-document the changes in the landscape that create different moods I experience when observing the mountain range over time.  But what constitutes a perfect image of the Chiricahua mountains?  

From my perspective, several factors are important.  The first is scale.  Scale in this case refers to the physical distance encompassed in the image.  The landscape image below spans 5.75 miles in length, Cave Creek Canyon south to Sulphur Canyon, and 4000' in height, the floor of the San Simon valley to the top of the 8000' Portal Peak.  Since most cameras do not capture scale without forcing the subject into the background my landscape images require construction in a post production process.  A good image editor is required to piece together segments of the landscape taken closeup into a final product that recreates what I see with my eye, is pleasing to view, and encompasses the whole scene.  Since I shoot hand held with an inexpensive point and shoot camera this takes composing the final image in my mind and then collecting the individual elements for later construction.

The second factor is lighting.  Early morning just at sunrise is always the most productive time to capture images of the eastern flanks of the Chiricahua mountains.  The long light of the rising sun creates a series of colors, some lasting only a moment, across the flank of the mountains.  Starting in the reds the colors move in shorter and shorter wavelengths through the blues until the reflected colors begin to wash out.  

The third is color.  This is of course related to the lighting.  But in some cases, especially when clouds are present over the mountains and the shadows stark a presentation in black and white is more striking and evokes stronger emotions so I choose to desaturate the image after increasing contrast to to further enhance the elements of light and shadow.  

Finally depth.  A number of tools are available to enhance depth in a photograph and perhaps the most common is depth of field.  I have chased after techniques that enhance depth in 2 dimensional images to create a more realistic 3 dimensional image in the belief that good depth enhances the viewers experience. The image below shows good depth with dark clouds creating shadow over the ridges in the background while the foreground ridge line is complete sunlight.  This contrast in shadow naturally enhances the appearance of depth in the image making the almost 6 miles of ridge line stand out and away from the shadowed background.  This difference in shadowing was the result of the partial cloud cover present at that time and in combination with an old photographic technique developed in Germany in the 1930's, further enhances the depth.  Unsharp masking creates an apparent increase in resolution and is a useful tool for creating an image with increased depth helping the foreground ridge line jump out of the image. 

These are all easy to apply tools that anyone can implement to create images that capture the imagination and convey the emotions generated when viewing the scene.

black and white view of Portal Peak
Almost perfect, click on the image to see a larger version or follow this link.
More work with the original panoramic image data set has resulted in this new image.  Spanning further south and north, both Portal Peak and Darnell Peak are visible and the scene shifts from just Portal Peak to the whole east flank of the Chiricahua mountains. 


Redistribution of Soil Nutrients using Biomass

One of the advantages of using weeds/yard waste/plant material off the landscape to restore topsoil is the redistribution of soil nutrients from more productive areas to less productive areas to boost the overall productivity of the landscape.  At the Painted Pony Resort, this means material from the river bottom moved up slope onto the benches to promote new topsoil formation and plant growth.  An important step in this process is an understanding of the soil.  Different soils have different requirements and therefore different management approaches.  One step in understanding the soils is to create a soil texture map.  Since soil is composed of sand, silt, and clay, an understanding of the relative amounts of these components helps guide the restoration approach.  Below is an example of a soil texture measurement.  A 4" bore of the topsoil was recovered and thoroughly mixed.  An aliquot of mixed soil was added to vial and mixed with water and a pinch of non-foaming laundry detergent.  This was allowed to settle for 48 hrs and the relative amounts of sand, silt, and clay measured.  In this example there was 74% sand, 20% silt, and 6% clay, from a soil triangle this translates to the border between sandy loam and loamy sand.  Very little clay in the soil results in this poor outcome.  The question then becomes, how to improve the clay content?  The easiest way is to top dress with compost.  But instead of compost the estate uses a redistribution method to move biomass and nutrients around the landscape.  Unwanted plant material is collected and placed perpendicular to the dip or prevailing winds where it is allowed to decay.  During the decay process the barrier slows water across the landscape catching additional soil particles, it also catches wind born seeds, provides a micro-habitat for the subsequent growth of new plants especially grasses, and releases stored nutrients for use by germinating grasses the next season.

measuring soil texture.

topsoil restoration barriers on the estate, a redistribution of soil nutrients.


Catching Up

The last group of Astronomers visiting the Painted Pony Resort have pulled out and all their equipment has been loaded on the truck and shipped back to Canada.  The truck picking up the equipment had a problem finding the estate at night, primarily because of the lack of lighting and he missed the turn off Highway 80.  Dark skies make the location attractive for astronomy but not for location finding at night.  But a trip out to the highway to meet the tractor trailer tuck solved the problem.  The 2 - 800 lb crates were loaded and the driver was off.  Fortunately, the estate has a loop road which means the big trucks do not have to turn around when delivering or picking up making their jobs easier (and mine).  The big lessons learned, 800 lbs is the maximum the tractor can lift onto a tractor trailer tuck and old 1 1/2" ratchet straps are useless.  But new 2" ratchet straps, chains, and a come along certainly help.

Here is a link to one of the visiting Canadian astronomers astronomy page where images taken at the Painted Pony Resort will appear.

loading with a tractor
800 lb crate of astronomy equipment ready for loading


Oktoberfest 2014 in Portal Arizona

Time again for the annual event of Oktoberfest in Portal.  Held as a fund raising event for the Sew What Club in Portal, Oktoberfest is another chance for the community to gather, see old friends, exchange the latest gossip, and generally catch up on events in the valley and surrounding mountains.  All while enjoying a great lunch in the mountain air of Portal AZ and Cave Creek Canyon.

Oktoberfest getting started on a sunny Saturday morning.

Friends of Cave Creek Canyon at Oktoberfest

The German cafe with brats and sauerkraut.


The Final Sorting

Well over a hundred harvester ant colony mounds were explored and the data used to demonstrate that harvester ant colony densities were a function of grazing intensity on the landscape around the Painted Pony Resort.  Finally, all the small crystals collected from the mounds were sorted.  Quartz, in the form of Chalcedony as well as small quartz crystals (6 sided) were noted in the samples as well as other crystal morphologies, such as cubic and octahedral crystals.  The first image below was taken with a digital microscope and shows the variety of crystalline forms found around the harvester ant colonies.  The next 2 photomicrographs show some of the octahedral crystalline morphologies found during the sorting process.  By examining about 100 colonies within about 1 square mile and estimating the amount of soil sampled by the ants at 50 cubic feet (based on measurements from an exposed ant nest), about 5000 cubic feet of soil was sampled in looking for crystals.  No more than about 20 grams of crystals were recovered and of those only 3 showed clear octagonal crystalline structure.  Not a very good yield and lots of work for very little return, but the utility of harvester ants as an indicator species made the effort worthwhile.

While some may have heard the story of the great diamond hoax of 1872 all these stones were collected from around the estate, but one has to be willing to kneel in active harvester ant colonies to collect these tiny crystals.  You can find almost anything in the boot heel of New Mexico, if you have eyes to see.

harvester ant mound crystal specimens
A photomicrograph of clear crystals from harvester ant colony mounds.

Octahedral crystals.

Octahedral crystals from harvester ant nest mounds.


More Gifts From the Ants.

While testing the idea of harvester ants as a rangeland health monitor species, small crystals from the ant colony mounds were collected and sorted.  Below are small (~3 mm) specimens of chalcedony found outside colony entrances.  The image was taken using a digital dissecting microscope.  While the second image is the same grouping but photographed under UV light with a camera.  Note several of the chalcedony pieces fluoresce with a greenish light.  This behavior was also noticed in larger chalcedony specimens collected from the high New Mexican desert around the Painted Pony Resort.

Chalcedony specimens collected from the mounds surrounding harvester ant colonies.
The same grouping of chalcedony but under UV light.


Harvester Ants as a Rangeland Indicator Species

Ants, especially harvester ants utilize seeds as a food source and might be a useful indicator species for the grassland restoration efforts at the Painted Pony Resort.  A number of reports suggest that both soil composition and grazing intensity can alter harvester ant colony frequency on the landscape (1, 2, 3). Variation in ant colony density across the estate was noted while preparing a previous post on indicator minerals in ant colony mounds so a small comparative study was designed to test the hypothesis that harvester ant colonies varied with the grazing intensity on the estate.  A 3 km transect across the estate from west to east, starting on grazed New Mexico State land was chosen and at 14 stations a 30 m diameter circle (area = 730 meters2) was examined for harvester ant colony entrances.  A colony was defined on the basis of a circular pile of small (1-2 mm) stones, and an entrance hole with or without harvester ants on the surface. Although other ant species were observed along the transect these were not included in the colony totals.
Constantly grazed land had a average of 1 colony/730 m2 while ungrazed land averaged 4 colonies/730 m2 and there was a significant difference in the frequency of harvester ant colonies between the 2 grazing regimes, P = 0.003, single tailed t-test.  Since soil type also varies across the estate the number of colonies by soil type was also tested. Forest-Pinleno association is found on the west side of the estate while Eba very gravelly loam predominates the eastern portion of the estate. There was no significant difference in harvester ant colony density between these 2 soil types, P = 0.12, single tailed t-test. This suggests that soil composition, and secondarily plant species diversity, are not a major contributor to harvester ant colony frequencies on the estate in the semi-arid southwest, but rather the frequency of grazing (constantly grazed versus ungrazed land) is the more important determinant of harvester ant colony frequency in and around the estate.

Satellite view of the 756 acre Painted Pony Resort showing 3 km transect and locations of test sites.  The red line indicates the property boundary but no fencing and accessible to cattle, while the white line indicates fencing around the estate where cattle are excluded.  The 3 stations furthest west lie on New Mexico State land which is grazed year round.

Frequency of harvester ant nest colonies.

Soil map of the Painted Pony Resort.