Earth Notes

National Park Service

  When chill winter winds buffet the juniper trees and sigh among the boughs of the piñon pines, the merry song of the Townsend’s solitaire rings out as cheerfully as any spring lark’s. Is the Townsend’s solitaire simply a jolly fool, drunk with Yuletide cheer, or perhaps befuddled by the way climate change is threatening western forests?

California Academy of Sciences

  In the late nineteenth century, it would have been a brave undertaking for a woman to tromp around the wilds of the Colorado Plateau. But that is what Alice Eastwood did, in long skirt and fine flowered hat, following her passion for plants.

Born in Canada in 1859, Eastwood grew up in Denver and was a high school teacher there for a time. Armed with field guides and a plant press, she spent vacations exploring all over the West. An energetic woman, she traveled by foot, horse, and rail, and eventually won welcome to an all-male hiking club.

The historical photo collection at Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library will be a key tool in answering a very modern question over the coming months. Dating back to the late 1800s, the images will be used like a visual time machine to reveal the effects of changing climate – and land management – on northern Arizona’s plant communities.

Principal investigator Professor Tom Whitham says that comparing historical and contemporary photos will allow us to literally see how vegetation has changed over time.

National Park Service

  They’re an animal many gardeners love to hate, though they’re rarely seen. Ribbons of dirt strung across the ground, and sometimes disappearing plants, are the only sign most people will see of pocket gophers, rodents that themselves are very active gardeners.

The dirt trails are created as these small animals excavate underground tunnels where they live, store food, and bear young.

Verde Valley Archaeology Center.

 Archaeologists have long appreciated that the Southwest’s dry climate is ideal for preserving perishable goods left by past people. Cloth, basketry, wood, or plant and animal materials that have survived for nearly a thousand years are rare, exciting finds.

Such a discovery was made on a ranch near Montezuma Castle in central Arizona, and the entire collection was recently donated to the Verde Valley Archaeology Center in Camp Verde.

Bureau of Land Management

Electricity-generating wind turbines are a common sight these days. Yet their popularity is limited by the fact that the wind stops blowing from time to time, even on the breezy western plains. But a planned wind farm, and a set of caves, in the interior West may represent a creative solution to this problem.

The Pathfinder Renewable Wind Energy project is the name for a proposed utility-scale facility that would provide Southern California with over two gigawatts of green power. That’s double the amount produced by Hoover Dam, and enough to serve over a million homes.

What yelps, purrs, cackles putts, kee-kees, and gobbles? Yes, your teenagers might do all of these things, but we’re talking turkey. Turkeys yelp to call their children, while lost youngsters kee-kee piteously. Like cats, turkeys purr when they’re content. In early spring toms gobble and strut to attract hens.

After mating, the hen scratches a nest under a big pine or in a brush pile, laying one speckled egg a day until she has a clutch of ten to twelve. She’ll incubate them alone for nearly a month. Chicks are out of the nest and following mom within 24 hours of hatching.

  The Colorado pinyon pine, the tree that covers millions of acres of the Colorado Plateau, bears hard-shelled, wingless seeds in stubby cones. And people in the Southwest have harvested and eaten those delicious nuts for thousands of years. 

But the pines produce nuts only every five to seven years. When there was a good crop in the fall, whole families trekked to the woodlands to gather the protein- and calorie-rich nuts, which nourished them through the winter.


It’s unusual for the southwestern states to be affected by hurricanes. Most years, predominant wind patterns in the Eastern Pacific Ocean steer storms away from the region. But about once every five years – like this year – the ocean winds change direction.

And those shifting winds steer hurricanes closer to northwestern Mexico, making them more likely to head northwards and track across the southwestern U.S.

The American beaver is an appealing animal, with dexterous paws, curious eyes and paddle-shaped tail. But, these rodents, the largest in North America, were nearly wiped out by the early 1900s as trappers sent mass quantities of the thick brown pelts back East for stylish top hats.