2017-02-16 Socorro’s Cloud Forest

Socorro Parakeet - Psittacara brevipes

We left the boat early this morning and the Marines graciously offered to give us a ride in trucks part way up the mountain. When the trucks could go no further than the two miles the road allowed, at an elevation of 1675 feet, we hoofed it for the rest of the way.

The wooded slopes that line the mountain are called a cloud forest. Islands create their own weather, and any puff of cloud that drifts across the ocean and encounters an obstacle, is trapped by the elevated land mass, wringing out rain or dew, capturing moisture from the vapors and providing conditions for large trees to thrive. I’ve read that early Polynesian sailors of the southern Pacific would follow clouds above the horizon, knowing there was an island under them.

The mountain had much to offer all the biologists. After many years of habitat decimation due to sheep grazing on the lower slopes, the island has recovered remarkably. Many acres that lay barren for decades now had a rich carpet of grasses, ferns and shrubs. Amy and Jorge had visited this island 10 years ago when sheep still grazed freely over the island. A mere seven years ago all the sheep were removed, and the recovery began. Sheep graze by pulling plants out by the roots, and so the destruction is more severe than with other herbivores. Amy shared photos from her and Jorge’s visit a decade earlier. It was very dramatic and encouraging to see the recovery in progress.

While most members of this hike had their sights set on the highest elevations (3770 feet), my targets on this day were Socorro’s endemic mockingbirds and parakeets. After hiking past several locations where these birds were heard, I found a shady spot at 2230 feet, and under the canopy I waited quietly. Eventually the mockingbirds revealed themselves, as did the towhees and wrens. These mockingbirds were ‘skulkers’, preferring the dense undergrowth to the upper canopy that Northern Mockingbirds prefer. The Socorro Mockingbirds would even sing from the low thickets. Wrens seemed to be everywhere on the island. Their behaviour seemed typical of most small wrens; forward, inquisitive and engaging. The towhees here behaved much like the Spotted Towhees where I live; foraging on the ground and seldom venturing higher than the mid-canopy.

The parakeets were easily located by their boisterous vocalizing. I knew they were near to my location, but they seemed to be moving downslope. I elected to do the same. Drifting as slowly and quietly as I could, I eventually located a small group. These birds frustrated me by staying behind thick canopy. After collecting a few very bad, back-lit images, I left this group fearing I’d missed my opportunity. My luck was good though, and I encountered two more flocks down-slope, who offered me much better looks.

The largest of the trees I encountered on the mountain appeared to be some variety of strangler fig. Their gnarly, twisted trunks seemed medieval or mystical, right out of a Tolkien novel. They so captured my imagination, I expected trolls or gnomes to emerge. I was compelled to stop and take their portraits.

Carrying my heavy equipment took its toll on my old bones, but the experience was unforgettable. If I captured good images, all the better. One member of this hike was Chris, part of the Shogun crew, who was along to see we didn’t get into trouble. He caught up with me on my descent and offered to carry my camera and tripod out for me. I gladly accepted. Our party was too large for a single Navy (or more correctly: Marine) vehicle to carry, and Chris wanted to be sure there were enough passengers waiting for our ride out when the first truck arrived. Without the burden of the camera gear, I was able to navigate the trail more rapidly and arrive at our extraction point in time (thank you Chris).

The day’s images are below:

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