Sunday, December 15, 2013

State parks are fantastic too: Part I - New Mexico

As all my readers know, I'm a huge devotee of national parks; the ones I frequent are the American and Canadian parks, but there's no doubt there are plenty of equally fantastic set-asides for nature and history in other parts of the world, all therefore, by default, on my to-do list. But lest I give the wrong impression, many state (U.S.) and provincial (Canada) parks can be the small equals of national parks. I've blogged about the pleasures of Brown County State Park in my natal southern Indiana, but recently had opportunities to explore other truly remarkable state parks, all new to me.
As our ambitions to see Carlsbad Caverns and Guadalupe Mountains National Parks were completely knee-capped by the October 2013 government shutdown, we had plenty of opportunity to avail ourselves of particularly nice state parks in that corner of New Mexico. Not wild, but easy to love, is the Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad.  It sits upon a small rise overlooking the basin busy with extractive activities, an oasis of regional plants (with the exception of the wonderful world-wide greenhouse of succulent plants) and wildlife. The animals, birds, and reptiles cannot for whatever reason be released to the wild, so it serves as their refuge as well. The view back towards town provides a good impression of the landform and makes it easy to picture how the area might once have been the floor of the Permian Sea.
The Park's Succulents of the World collection documents the amazing variety of botanical adaptations to desert conditions like those around New Mexico, western Texas, and northern Mexico. Note KLK in the background there, for scale:
Sere though it may appear, the desert amply supports mammals large and small. Most endearing at the Living Desert is Mounty the mountain lion (Puma concolor). As is so often the case with attractive animals that end up in refuges, someone thought she would make a good pet. Although she apparently relates well to people, and did not flinch at the excited screeches of the little kids watching her, mountain lions don't do kitty litter, and they need a diet rich in animal protein and minerals that doesn't come out of a Friskies can. Mounty is obviously well-cared for at the Living Desert and was so much enjoying wrestling with her tough plastic toy that we could hear her loud purrs on our side of the fence.
A creature that was new to me was the New Mexican gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). It was  skittish and, like a lot of wild animals, nervous about the big black eye of the camera following it around.
The fox maneuvered to avoid me, almost levitating itself high into the crook of the tree in its cage to get some privacy.  Although this species of fox, with its huge ears and tiny face, is more petite than the ubiquitous red fox, it shares the characteristic out-sized bushy tail of its vulpine brethren around the world. 
The Living Desert honors the local geology as well with this big gypsum outcrop glittering in the sunny landscape.
Gypsum (aka, selenite) has many commercial uses, including as an important ingredient in drywall, fertilizer,  cement and concrete, and is among the many economically important resources that the region yields. It's quite pretty in a rock garden too.
Of course the one thing we really wanted to see was the Mexican Free-tailed Bat that gives Carlsbad Caverns such scientific and ecological significance. Unfortunately, the Living Desert Zoo has no live examples, though they do have an informative exhibit and this odd, "somewhat" enlarged (maybe 4-½ foot tall) disembodied model with teeth better scaled for chewing up small children than the moths and other flying bugs the bats are famous for consuming.
The geology of the region is endlessly interesting, as a visit to the little Bottomless Lakes State Park a few miles to the north in Roswell illustrates. Among the more informative descriptions of the "bottomless lakes" are Wikipedia's and New Mexico Tech's geology tour. The water-filled sink holes, technically cenotes, are collapsed caves fed by underground water sources, perhaps supplemented by precipitation, rare and scant as it is in southeastern New Mexico. One of the most interesting things about these deep (hence "bottomless") mini-lakes is that, due to happenstance of depth, orientation, presence or absence of shade from surrounding cliffs, algal growth/overgrowth, water levels, salinity, acidity and the like, the character of each is slightly distinct even from its closest neighbors. Some allow the survival of fish (stocked), amphibians, and aquatic insects. The avian silhouette is of course that of the ever-present turkey vulture.
The glittering red cliffs (sandstone, limestone, gypsum, shale, siltstone) of Cottonwood Lake are striking:
By contrast, Lea Lake is suitable for swimming and kayaking and I suspect is especially appreciated by the local people in the heat of desert summer.
Beside Lea Lake is an impressively large and interesting Civilian Conservation Corps-constructed bath house and pavilion (built between 1935-1938 with that era's version of government stimulus money) which has been well-preserved by the state.
Click to get an idea of how large the bath house, with its shady pavilion and viewing tower, on the far shore in this photo, really is.
This large, hairy, and dramatically marked male silkworm (Agapema anona) moth was on a shady wall at Lea Lake, Bottomless Lakes State Park.


  1. Fascinating and so much to explore. Your right about the many state parks and refuges around the country being gems. We've explored some in New Mexico on the way to visit the grandchildren in Arizona...:)

  2. I enjoyed your description of your visit to this area, and your account of the flora and fauna. The patterns on the wings of the moth are so striking! And the little fox also has striking features.