Sunday, December 10, 2017

Backyard Ballet

The good thing about the floor-to-ceiling viewing sites onto our patio bird-feeding venue is the continuous awareness of avian activity.  The bad thing is the continuous awareness by the birds that they are being watched.
Frequently this results in what might be called the “Observer (or Hawthorne) Effect Ballet.”…a form of reactivity in which subjects modify an aspect of their behavior, in response to their knowing that they are being studied.”
Each day’s performance begins when Marsha pulls back the curtain on our bedroom window to let the sunrise in.
Entrée – the Corps de ballet takes the stage. One by one, or two by two, birds descend into our placita.  We become aware of their arrival either by seeing shadows on the stucco wall of the garage, or catching a sideways glance of flurrying feathers out of the corner of our eyes.  An indeterminate number of visitors arrive and settle into their various positions on the patio.
Act I – either Marsha or I slowly move into a position from which to view the activity.  One or more of the birds senses our arrival and abruptly leaves – setting off a frenzy of rapid departures until the performance area is once again devoid of performers.
Marsha and I realize what is happening and remain frozen in our viewing posture.
Act II – having taken a deep breath off stage and unruffled their feathers – and, being bird brains, completely forgotten about the dire threat that drove them from the area in the first place, the Corps de ballet takes the stage again.  Marsha and I avoid making any large-scale movements – hand gestures, e.g., seem not to freak out the dancers.  We watch the performance for a short period of time.  Occasionally the basic eating is interrupted by a brief variation for the principal danseuse or danseur – but mostly its just basic seed and millet gobbling.
Coda – either (a) the Corps de ballet either has it fill or becomes aware of some perceived overhead threat and exits right, left, center, whatever – or (b) Marsha’s and my attention span for watching pretty much static feeding (“My Dinner with Andre” without any talking) reaches its tipping point and we make a large scale move to leave which triggers (a) above.
There are multiple performances per day ending at sundown.          

Monday, December 04, 2017

Mud Homes on Dirt Roads

I feel at rest when I am moving – striding through wide-open land; winding my way through rocks and trees; or even weaving through a gallery of statues at a museum.  On the go I enjoy equally the awareness of emptiness, and the feeling of proximity as I proceed through either open or closed spaces.

Back in Wethersfield Connecticut the houses were too far back to be aware of when you walked by.  Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico on the other hand, a stroll in the neighborhood can be like weaving your way through a high-desert sculpture garden. 

“The traditional pattern of residential development consisted of adobe buildings lining narrow streets that were built with little or no setback.  Residences were often built around a central patio, or placita.  In the often harsh desert climate, the placita offered privacy and refuge from the dust and noise of the streets and formed the nucleus of activity.  New rooms or separate structures were built around the placita to keep pace with the growing needs of the extended families.  Because of the pivotal role played by the placita in family and social activities, landscaping and architectural details were reserved for the area.  Thus, facades of the residences along the streets often provided a deceptive impression of what lay inside.  With this style, housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Remnants of this development pattern can be found in areas settled during the Colonial Period, such as the Canyon Road neighborhood and the area surrounding the Plaza.”  (1999 Santa Fe General Plan)

Our new home in Santa Fe, built in 2001, has that same little setback and that same deceptive impression of what lay inside, and (best of all) has one of those placitas.  As I look out our office window our north side neighbor’s stucco wall is almost within arm’s reach. And the house on the other side provides the southern privacy barrier for our central patio. 

Marsha and I came to New Mexico in May and during our four months of house hunting in we had the opportunity to experience some of the other ways that this residential tradition plays out in New Mexico’s capitol.

Like many cities Santa Fe’s first development began along its main source of water, the eponymous River, and along the acequias (or irrigation ditches) that fed from it.  The pattern of this development was an incremental reaction to the growth of an extended family settlement – not a predesigned plan.  The streets are small and winding, not uniform – the adobe-constructed houses are close to each other and built right up to the road.  These are the classic Santa Fe neighborhoods.  And Marsha and I were able to wander through some of them – such as Acequia Madre – during our Apodaca Hill Airbnb stay on Upper Canyon Road.

“The very phrase Acequia Madre – Mother Ditch – suggests something rough and elemental: a primordial slash in the earth from which life springs.  Yet Acequia Madre is one of the priciest streets in Santa Fe. That’s Santa Fe, where mud homes on dirt roads are prime real estate. A few minutes’ stroll will convince you of the neighborhood’s charm. Softly curved walls, aged Mexican doors with weathered paint, cascades of wisteria and drowsy willows: this road that runs along the eponymous waterway – and parallels famed Canyon Road– is iconic Eastside Santa Fe.  Romantic and time bound.” (


This vernacular adobe motif – along with a smattering of Victorian, Pueblo Revival and Craftsman Bungalow buildings  – appears in what is now called the South Capitol area where Marsha and I spent our first three-and-one-half months when first we moved out here.  Built at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries – and at that time the Jewish section of town according to our Airbnb property manager – this locality consists mostly of narrow streets arranged in a right angle grid pattern.  Yet, just to keep you on your toes, some roadways wind randomly and others abruptly become dirt alleyways with the front portals of small casitas set up against them. 

Again here, as in the traditional pattern, space between structures is minimal and the buildings butt against the streets or narrow sidewalks.  And, as it was in the beginning, residences can be quit small.  Our rental, e.g., was a one bed, one bath, 600 square foot adobe casita, which is part of a compound of four other like-sized sun-dried brick residences.  ($225K for the casita, not the compound, per, if you care – remember, “mud houses on mud roads”.)  A metal nameplate reading “E. Whitman & Co, 1928” on the concrete base of one of the badly-in-need-of-tarring roads seemed to be telling me that in Santa Fe pretty much everything is attached to a certain past moment in time.            

 After World War II returning veterans, and increasing government and other jobs locally necessitated significant amounts of affordable housing – and led to the first real “suburban” look in the City Different, the Casa Solana development where our daughter-in-law and son now live.  Located in a moderately hilly area northwest of downtown, partially on the former site of a Japanese Internment Camp, it was built by now legendary developer Alan Stamm and follows the traditional pueblo style housing, but with prominent garages and larger yards and setbacks than found elsewhere in town.   But there is still that feeling of architectural closeness.

As Marsha and I walked with our son and grand-dog through their neighborhood Thanksgiving afternoon we were noticing that although Casa Solana has more of a suburban look, due to the street layout, and larger lots with usable yards it still had the feel of  “Santa Fe Style”.  Marsha mentioned that, in our former New England Colonial house in Connecticut after Bram grew up and no longer used our yard as a play area for he and his friends the lawn became more of a ongoing project rather than a piece of usable space – land for the sake of having land, maintained to show that you can afford to have and expend your time and money on frivolous things.

In the late 1990s Santa Fe again felt the need to strategically look at future development with a plan that emphasized items such as affordable housing, quality of life, sustainable growth, water conservation, and most importantly character:

“Maintain and respect Santa Fe’s unique personality, sense of place and character…Residents have unequivocally stated that new growth should not erode the qualities that contribute to Santa Fe’s unique character and ambience.”

Unique features such as placitas so that even out here in the largely unspoiled rural high desert housing units could be built close to each other without sacrificing privacy.  Which in turn allowed the designer of our community to preserve fifty percent of the land as “natural open space and parks, separating and defining a unique collection of villages.”

The homes are stucco, not mud.  The roads (and some of the hiking trails) are paved, not dirt.  And there are spaces for kids to play, streets and alleys to weave through, and open fields to explore – not mow. 

You know – Marsha and I kind of like this time-bound Santa Fe tradition thing. 


Monday, November 20, 2017

AZ But Still NM

Some of you have asked if we are still in an Avian Free Zone.  In a word, no – we have moved from an AFZ to an AZ.
But, first a little bit about our viewing area – the patio.  The courtyard is completely surrounded by stucco walls – south by our neighbor’s house wall, west our garage, east our “Great Room”, and north our bedroom and a lower outside wall with a wooden gate.  At the intersection of the Great Room and our bedroom is a round dining room – and all three of these rooms have basically floor to ceiling window views of the patio.          
The ground portion of the paved outdoor area is covered with large stone slabs on the walking/sitting area, and small gravel stones in the section where our three trees (one Maple, two side-by-side Aspen) bury their roots.   The Maple, at the bedroom end of the patio, holds our three bird feeders – (1) a pottery fish which hangs horizontal to the ground allowing the birds to enter and eat in solitude and currently filled with a blend of sunflower chips, hulled white millet, and shelled peanuts; (2) a “stackable” feeder from Wild Birds Unlimited with (at the moment) food disks of Cranberry, Naturally Nuts Suet, and Peanut and Tree Nuts; and (3) a square wire cage suet feeder.
All of which is to say that we have pretty much non-stop visual access to the AZ from the time we pull back our bedroom curtains, during our meals, and through our reading/TV watching.
This is what we have been seeing.
It began with one extremely cautious chickadee’s stop-explore-and-go visit inside our fish diner.  Then, a few days later one more…then two…then several of the small black-capped birds.  According to Marsha’s research in our “Birds of New Mexico” Field Guide all of these guys are Mountain Chickadees.
We also now are getting on a daily basis small flocks of House Finches and plain old sparrows.  And, after we saw them arrive and leave looking frustrated, we now get small gatherings of Dark-eyed Juncos who prefer to dine from the ground, and whose needs we now are meeting with three small piles of the sunflower/millet/peanut mix on the patio stones.  The little gray ground-eaters also seem to enjoy doing their strange little Junco Two Step ground-scratching maneuver in the gravel bed.
And these food mounds are now attracting a Pinon Jay, a species that according to our local newspaper (Santa Fe New Mexican) has a special hankering for peanuts in the shell, which he apparently flies away with and cracks open in the privacy of whatever area provides him privacy.  Our nuts are shelled.  So the first few visits he pecked, looked disgusted, and left without taking anything.  Now, apparently deciding that he was after all still getting his legume fix, he has been showing up pretty much one or two times every day.
And twice we have spotted a Spotted Towhee – by far the most striking of our visitors, and like the Pinon Jay a completely new sighting to our east coast bird watcher eyes.
There is a flock of pigeons in the area but they haven't found us yet.   And the ravens/crows don't know about the feeders – or perhaps these types of birdseed don’t attract them.  Or it could be that the two-foot tall plastic Owl on the roof that came with the house is doing its job. There is a small hawk in the neighborhood, so far unidentified, and not in our yard.  Either the birds we feed aren’t to his taste, or maybe he is waiting for them to fatten up a bit more.
A quick bird count from our bedroom window just showed a dozen eager ground eaters.  And, even when we are not watching, we can still see the shadows of descending diners on our stucco walls and window curtains.  So Marsha and I have now cast aside our fears of having to live in an Avian Free Zone, and are eagerly looking forward to more new southwestern birds and new foods to keep them coming back.
Unfortunately, now that we are officially in an AZ it gives people one more reason to confuse what southwestern state it is that we actually live in.

Mountain Chickadee

House Finch

Dark-eyed Junco

Pinon Jay


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Living in an AFZ

For a while Marsha and I were worried that we had inadvertently moved into an Avian Free Zone.
Not New Mexico, which according to the Field Guide “Birds of New Mexico” given to us by the realtor through whom we bought our new house, has “over 300 kinds of birds recorded over the years.”
 Certainly not the city of Santa Fe which the National Audubon Society highlights as one of the “birding hotspots” in the Land of Enchantment – as well as being the location of the Randall Davey Audubon Center whose website outdoes the book by touting 542 species of birds in the state.
Definitely not our Rancho Viejo Community from whose walking trails the two of us have observed avian sightings rarely if ever seen in Connecticut, our former home state: such as bluebirds (lots of special houses to attract them back in the northeast – with few results); soaring ravens (or maybe they’re just crows – we’ll know we are truly south westerners when we can tell the difference at a glance); and (what we were really hoping for) roadrunners.
It’s not the state, or the town, or the neighborhood  – it is our open patio that we became worried might turn out to be an AFZ.  Surrounded by the high stucco walls of our house and our neighbors’ on three and three-quarter sides, with a waist-high barrier secluded by a Pinon Pine for the other twenty-five percent the area provides enough privacy for even the most timid of feathered visitors.  And the branches of our twin Aspen and lone Maple tree you would think supply ample pleasant resting areas. 
But in one and one-half months of living here we had had no feathered landings in what we had hoped would be our sheltered wildlife viewing area.
Back in CT we ran several feeders that provided sustenance to a wide variety of (admittedly) not that exotic, but nonetheless entertaining feathery creatures – as well as an endless parade of plundering tree squirrels.  All in all it was pretty much a non-stop feeding frenzy outside our family room.  Now we have no intention of trying to replicate that environment at our new home.  For one thing we have seen only two squirrels since we moved to New Mexico in May, and they lived in the ground and apparently do not climb.   But we would like some feathery fauna activity outside our window, particularly during the winter months.
Even though the “City Different” is so much more laid-back than the “Nutmeg State” – seclusion and ambiance apparently is not enough to attract these flighty yard-guests. We also need some culinary enticements.  We had brought with us from Wethersfield a long-loved hanging pottery feeder shaped like a fish within which birds such as chickadees like to take their meals.  And our daughter-in-law Monica gave us a suet holder.  So off we went to the local branch of “Wild Birds Unlimited” to stock up on prepackaged squares of white fat, fill the fin-clad feeder, and to find out what we else needed, and how to best display our wares.  (We are finding that Santa Fe is a very restaurant-centric city and food presentation is a competitive sport within the industry.  Very likely the regional avian population has picked up on that vibe also.)
For our piscean food-holder the very helpful WBU sales staff sent us away with a twenty-pound bag of No-Mess Blend (sunflower chips, hulled white millet and shelled peanuts).  The bag has a “NM” prominently displayed on the side, which we at first thought was a special recipe for New Mexico.  It isn’t.
Following their advice we also purchased a wrought-iron device that hooks over the tree branch and has a round base with a center rod onto which you place one or more “stackables” – mixtures of various nuts, fruits, seeds, melded together with peanut butter and/or fat into a donut shape whose hole slips onto the holder.  We began with a “Stackables Combo” – one disk each of Cranberry, Naturally Nuts Suet, and Peanut and Tree Nuts.  Our instructions were to observe which birds came and which menu selection they preferred and then expand our offerings accordingly.
When we got home we put the NM mix into the fish, loaded and hung our suet feeder, setup the wrought-iron hanger stacked with its tripartite assortment, created a tracking spreadsheet, and waited to do our bird count.
Day one – zero.  Day two – the same.  Days three through six – zip, zilch, zippo, and (being in New Mexico) nada.
Around day seven we saw movement at the maple tree that wasn’t a leaf falling.  A lone chickadee disappeared into the tail of the fish and emerged from its mouth.  Then, after a brief touch-and-go landing on a maple branch alit onto the topmost saucer – gave it a sniff – and flew away.  An event not worth scribing into the rows and columns of our tracking table – but nonetheless an event.
Later that morning the chickadee returned.  And then again – this time with a friend.  Now they are here several times a day, along with a small number of other varieties that we recognize from CT, such as sparrows and purple finches.  Two or three unfamiliar faces also came by.  But they left before we could find them in our Birds of New Mexico.  The chickadees favor the food in the fish, and all of our guests go for whatever seed disk is on top.  (We rotated them to see to see if their choice making was flavor-driven or positional.  It is definitely the latter.)   
All in all things are going well in what we first feared was going to be an AFZ.  Marsha and I moved out here to experience something new.  But we like still having our old friends in our lives.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sometime It Just Hits You

I had gone for a walk on part our community’s hiking trails, and was vacuuming up the fallen maple leaves that I had blown into a sort-of-pile on our patio when I looked out through the door window into our open garage and saw a framed image of the high-desert landscape with the Jemez, Ortiz and Sandia mountains on the horizon and realized – we’re f***ing living in New Mexico.