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.


Lunar Eclipse: Rained out in Southern New Mexico

All prepared for the big lunar eclipse but it was rained out.  The Painted Pony Resort received 0.21" from this late monsoon storm and it made viewing the event impossible.  I did manage a photograph just at moon rise as the full moon rose just over the mimetolith (stone face profile) in the Peloncillo mountains just south of Antelope pass in southern New Mexico.  Visible from the estate, this large stone face profile appears to be watching the full moon rise over awaiting the eclipse.  I felt very fortunate to walk outside just at the right time on an evening when the moon was full and positioned over the mimetolith, it was just the right combination of factors to get a unique image.

Looking at the Moon


Indicator Minerals and the Gift of the Ants

While ants are considered pests by many, their biology is of interest to many entomologists. In the desert southwest the Harvester ants of the genus Pogonomyrmex are a common occurrence on the landscape.  In fact at the American Museum of Natural History Southwest Research Station a yearly course on southwestern ants is taught.  Harvester ants nests are easily found since they occupy large open areas which the ants clear of plant material and the entrance mounds may be over a foot tall looking like small volcanic cones.  The detritus that makes up the mounds is a combination of excavated material from chambers in the colony, plant refuse, and other organic material.  Harvester ants colonies essentially sample the soil while building chambers within their nests by removing small gravel and dirt which is conveniently placed just outside the entrance for inspection.  The volume of soil sampled is a function of nest size and in the images below a profile of an abandoned nest over 4 ft in depth and 2 feet across resulted in a sampling of 50 cubic feet of soil.  These naturally produced soil samples are used by geologists in explorations for commercially important minerals and in Australia, ant nest mounds are explored to locate gold deposits.  Recent explorations of harvester ant nest mounds at the Painted Pony Resort did not identify any specific mineral deposits but did uncover some interesting crystals.  While small in size and not very common in nest mounds the crystals are quite beautiful with some interesting crystal structures. 

In the process of looking for nest mounds there seemed to be variation in the frequency of harvester ants colonies across the landscape and this may be related to landscape quality.  Areas to the east with little ground cover seemed to have fewer ant colonies while on the western side of the San Simon riverbed, where grazing is excluded, there seemed to be more colonies.  This observation suggests that harvester ants may be useful a proxy indicator species for range land health and an experiment to test this idea is under development. 

The surface expression of a large mature ant colony, probably leaf cutter ants.  The mound of excavated material is over 1 ft in height.

Underground expression of an ant colony.  Four foot deep and approximately 2' wide this nest sampled approximately 50 cubic ft of soil.

Ant nest, closeup of underground chambers.  Note the connections between chambers.
clear crystals from nest mounds.

More clear crystals from harvester ant colony mounds.  The rounded specimen in the bottom left is chalcedony which is weakly fluorescent.


Tumbleweed Cannoli

Cannoli are great Italian desserts with a fried pastry shell stuffed full of yummy filling but down in the bootheel of New Mexico there are not available, so we make do without.  In terms of landscape restoration though, the idea of a cannoli translates to another use for tumbleweed.  Tumbleweed is used in garlands on the Painted Pony Resort for arroyo stabilization and has been adapted for use in topsoil restoration barriers.  One of the problems with using annual grasses in topsoil barriers is their light weight.  With a wind storm the grasses become dislodged and move reducing the efficiency of the barrier.  But by wrapping the annual grasses, Amaranth and other weeds in a shell of tumbleweed the mass is heavier and stays put.  The natural stickiness of tumbleweed stems makes them ideal for wrapping the lighter grasses and weeds.   Below are 3 photographs of the process used to create tumbleweed cannoli.  Flattened tumbleweed is filled with annual grasses and then rolled allowing the tumbleweed shell to hold to itself.  The finished cannoli is then placed on the landscape as a barrier to catch sediment and create microhabitat for new grasses the next year.  It is similar in design to using rolled hay barriers but costs nothing in materials since everything is off the landscape.  Another example of using products of the land to heal the land and restore the landscape.

Flattened tumbleweed as the cannoli shell.

Annual grasses and amaranth as the cannoli filling.

A 5' long rolled tumbleweed cannoli ready for placement.


Rangeland Restoration: Mesquite Removal

While mesquite removal continues in the river bed in an effort to restore the area to open grasslands, mesquite removal began on the upper benches around the main complex of buildings at the Painted Pony Resort.  Because of deep taproots, mesquite is difficult to remove and experiments using the tractor required a second treatment with herbicide to completely kill the plant.  The Galion Grader, on the other hand, weighs 35,000 lbs and easily pulls the mesquite, taproot and all, out of the ground.  So after some modification to protect the hydraulic hoses, the machine was used to grub mesquite off the benches above the river bed.  Between 30 and 40 acres of mesquite were removed with the grader by the owner of the estate over a day of work.  The front tines were lowered and used to grab each plant and as the machine was moved forward the big diesel engine would provide enough power to pop most intermediate sized mesquites out of the ground.  So piles of uprooted mesquite dot the landscape at the moment but the material is being redistributed along the contours of the land to create additional topsoil barriers.  This spreads out the plant material allowing more rapid decomposition the creation of micro-habitat for the catchment of wind and rain blown seed and soil which will in turn provide new grass the opportunity to grow and spread over time.  With the establishment of new grass the tumble weed problem will slowly resolve itself since perennial grass cover will out compete the yearly tumble weed crop.

Intermediate sized mesquite with tap root and stringer roots.

Topsoil barrier created from grubbed mesquite.


Tabosa Grass, the Grassland Indicator Species

The Painted Pony Resort's grassland restoration project is aimed at restoring the native grasslands once so common through out New Mexico and the southwest.  In the segment of the San Simon riverbed on the estate the major grass species is Tabosa,  Pleuraphis mutica. This drought tolerant grass species is a major component of the grasslands and as restoration work proceeds this species is a useful qualitative indicator species of the restoration process.

Slowly new Tabosa grass is moving up out of the riverbed and back onto the landscape where grazers are excluded.  Below is a photograph from the riverbed showing complete ground coverage while the next image is from a bench above the riverbed where  grasses are being recovered.  The presence of new stands of Tabosa grass indicate that the seed reservoir concept is producing results.  While the topsoil restoration barriers have produced annual grasses during their first year, the eventual presence of the perennial Tabosa grass along the barriers will mark the next step in the restoration process and a shift from annuals to perennial grasses.

Tabosa grass in the San Simon riverbed (the seed reservoir)

Tabosa grass on the upland benches