Water in the Desert: Oak Flat Edition

Oak Flat watering hole

Originally uploaded by heinemanfleck.

Lissa made a great discovery yesterday morning while we were walking in the woods at Oak Flat, in the Manzano Mountains east of town.

The big thing in the background of the picture that looks like a UFO is a big cistern, with a flared top to catch rain and snow. The collected water feeds a pipe to the little metal watering hole in the foreground. (That’s me, to the left, for scale.)

It’s at about 7,500 feet elevation (2,300 meters). In the state of nature, before we came and altered the system, this would have been an open Ponderosa pine forest – widely spaced trees with an open understory. A century of grazing and wildfire control has turned most western forests of this type into scraggly doghair thickets of little tiny trees. But the area north of the Oak Flat picnic area has bee cleared into an open forest again that is beginning to resemble what it must have once looked like.

The nearest site I could find with a long term climate record is the ranger station down the hill, which averaged 15 inches (38 cm) of rain a year when they were collecting data. So it’s arid, but not a desert. It’s dry enough, though, that if you add a bit of water, you can really see the difference.

We’d been looking at birds while we walked, and saw a few fun ones – some little nuthatches, and a soaring bald eagle flying low, just above the tree tops. But when Lissa spotted the watering hole, we wandered over and realized we were in bird city.

A little dark-eyed junco was drinking when we walked up. It eyed us warily, then kept drinking. A pair of sapsuckers were poking at the trees right around the watering hole. A jay and a couple of flickers flew in. But the most interesting birds of all took us a while to figure out. Lissa spotted them first, a little flash of red in the trees. After staring a while, I got a glimpse in silhoutte and saw their strange bills – red crossbills. As we sat, we saw more and more – a flock of maybe a dozen, no doubt passing through on their way south for the winter. They’re a strange bird, no two alike. Except for that distinctive beak.

Give the birds water, and they’ll be happy.

One Comment

  1. Priceless trip you described where you found the birds at the watering hole and then stumbled upon some crossbills too. wow what a day. Thanks for sharing the cistern water collection device also. I enjoyed your style too. Love your site.

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