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By Carmen Harris
Honorable Mention, Green/Environmental Article, 2020 NMPW Contest. From fawns to frogs, nature’s beauty is just a drive or hike away.
Tracking the world of animals outside our homes and daily human world can bring a lot of joy when we have clues as to what we might see and where these animals commonly reside. We have the good fortune here in Santa Fe to have easily accessible wild lands that are home to a wider variety of animals than many of us are aware of.
Here are just a few of the creatures you might be excited to encounter on an excursion to one of our local wild lands.
To make the most of visiting with other creatures, try early mornings and later afternoons or evenings as your hiking times. These are the most active moments for animals and therefore the optimal times for your wonder-filled adventures.
Just as we like to hide in the shade on summer days, fawns — who are born in the summer months — nestle up alone, or with their siblings, under trees with low-lying foliage, where they are camouflaged by their dappled spots and light brown coloration. As you hike, keep your eyes out for deer beds — oval-shaped depressions of compressed grass beneath trees, in bushy areas or in shady glades — where you can lie down and see where fawns and deer have slept. White-tailed deer and mule deer are the most common species in New Mexico. White-tails are more common at lower elevations during the summer. As the name suggests, white-tailed deer have white coloration under their tails, while mule deer are recognizable by black-tipped tails. An early morning walk or late afternoon stroll at the easily accessible Nature Conservancy’s Santa Fe Canyon Preserve (beaver ponds) on Upper Canyon Road will often reveal deer activity.
The Nature Conservancy has been actively protecting the northern leopard frog for some years, and they are now well established in the ponds. These frogs are quite sizable — between 2 and 4½ inches— and easy to see when you are quiet and still along the edge of the smaller ponds. The frogs speak loudly in a low-pitched, chainsaw-like call, and are amazing to watch as they fill their cheek pouches with air. The northern leopard frog commonly lives two to five years, but can live up to nine years in the wild. They usually breed between April and early June. Each female (larger than the males) lays an egg mass of up to 6,000 eggs (about half a centimeter in size each). These are strung onto some surface or submerged plant matter in the water and take five to seven days to hatch. Looking for frogs and tadpoles can make for a very fun expedition!
Note that all amphibians breathe through their skin and are hypersensitive to the salts, oils and other products on our skin. Handling frogs and salamanders (who also reside near the ponds) can be extremely harmful for them, and their populations are already in steep decline. Finding alternative ways to connect with these fascinating creatures, such as quiet observation and journaling or animal charades, is more ecologically responsible than being tempted to catch and handle them. Oh! Don’t forget to look out for great blue heron fishing in the waters or flying overhead. A frog probably makes a delicious meal!
If you’d like to see even bigger frogs, go and visit the bullfrogs (named for their bull-like roar) at the Leonora Curtain Wetland Preserve in La Cienega, just south of Santa Fe. These educational and well-loved wetlands are open on weekends from the first weekend of May through the last weekend of October. Take a walk down one of the main trails, past the huge Rio Grande cottonwoods and a large number of native plants, to the pond and sit for a while on the dock. There are wonderful picnic areas in strategic places, so bring along something to sip or munch!
As with the northern leopard frog, the female bullfrogs are larger than the males, reaching up to 6 inches in length and regularly weighing over one pound. The males are extremely territorial, which can be seen through visual displays of self-inflation. These frogs are opportunistic ambush predators who prey on any small animal they can overpower and fit down their throats. Bullfrogs use their long tongue to strike their prey and have an unusually strong jaw that grips larger food, such as small rodents, reptiles, amphibians, birds and bats. It is also common for many species of frogs to eat smaller frogs for dinner.
If butterflies, a running stream, and the prospect of getting to some waterfalls and wildflowers are what you’re after, the Lower Rio en Medio Trail, outside Tesuque, provides a refreshing wander. Take a nature guidebook or fold-out picture identification guide of wildflowers and butterflies of New Mexico with you along the trail to identify various flowering plants and spot the species of butterflies you see. Children often love to carry these and stop for investigations. Look online for easily printable picture guides. Swallowtails, cabbage whites, the golden-colored sulphur family and mourning cloak butterflies are but a few who flit along that trail. Decked in wildflowers and with a waterfall at a fair but walkable distance for children over 6, this is truly a magical place. Be aware, there is poison ivy along the very beginning of the trail, and a bear mother with cubs was spotted along this trail last summer!
Remember, these are wild spaces. Take time to equip yourselves with knowledge and effective practices of what to do if you encounter a bear, mountain lion or rattlesnake! And be on the lookout for signs of other creatures that might be out and about, from bear scratches on trees to fox and coyote scat on trails. There are many resources available online or at valuable educational hubs such as the Santa Fe Public Library and the Randall Davey Audubon Center on Upper Canyon Road, which has guide books and fold-out guides. These guides can also be found at Collected Works Bookstore in town.
Enjoy your adventures!