Below the John Dunn Bridge

[I started this as a rough draft on 2016-01-03. Oh well. Time to publish.]

I was supposed to visit Ohio last week. The Christmas weekend blizzard that affected so much of the country forced the trip to be cancelled.

My mom took it in stride and suggested I use the time to get outside. So I made another journey to Taos, for the first time to the John Dunn bridge at the top of the Taos Box, to see if I could catch a glimpse of river otters.

Happy day! Although the air temperature was below 20°F, the place was teeming with life – not just otters, but water ouzels, elk, hot springs, canyon wrens, and a variety of ducks.

American Dipper

I'm pretty happy about "discovering" the American Dipper. I'm not sure I'd ever even heard of it before last summer, and it didn't catch my attention then. But it's really unusual.

It looks like a little gray robin. You'd think this one would have been freezing its butt off in the sub 20F weather. Instead, it kept flying under the water (!) to hunt insect larvae. Turns out it has solid instead of hollow bones, several eye and nose adaptations to help it hunt in fast-moving streams, and what must be a very productive oil gland to keep its feathers waterproofed.

John Muir devoted an entire chapter to the "water Ouzel", as it was commonly known, in "The Mountains of California." So I guess it's not exactly obscure or rare. As with so many things, it's just new to me :)

[Indicator of river health: it eats macroinvertebrates. If they can't live in a stream, it can't live there either.]

[Predators: John Muir conjectured that it had no predators, as to his knowledge not even hawks chased it. A few years ago a biologist found one in the belly of a trout.]

River Otter

By 1953, river otters had disappeared from New Mexico.

In 2005, river otter scat was found near Navajo Lake State Park. By this time plans were underway to reintroduce river otters by translocating a small number from the Pacific Northwest. The discovery of the scat, which would have been from the southwestern river otter subspecies, led to a call to delay the translocation plans until more could be learned about the status of the animals in the state.

I don't know the difference, genetically, between southwestern river otters and other subspecies.

From 2008 through 2010 river otters were re-introduced to the Rio Grande near Taos. One of the release sites was near the John Dunn Bridge.

I follow a river guide on Flickr because he occasionally posts images of the local animals. Over the past couple of years he has posted a few photographs of these new residents.

Britt Runyon's photos were the reason I drove to the John Dunn Bridge.

[What the otters eat.]

[Otters as an indicator of water quality.]


In this part of the river the western bank is covered by grasses and reeds. Most of the vegetation has been flattened out to form a sort of blanket over the angular basalt rocks. A clear path runs through this section, often within inches of the water.

In some places basalt boulders block the path. Cedars or junipers grow next to the big rocks, and beneath them is bare dirt. It looks as though the earth has been swept clean, and the cedars used as shelter for some sort of animal bed.

The path is strewn with small black spheres of scat. Where the rock is not covered by vegetation, whether it is a stone or a tall boulder, it is covered in a thin layer of snow. And the snow, in turn, is marked by cloven hoof prints 2-3 inches long.

When I saw the scat and hoof prints, I thought of bighorn. These signs looked exactly like the ones I'd seen on the West Rim trail a few miles south. But after meeting one animal that probably contributed to that mess of prints and poop, I'm not so sure.

I didn't know the cow elk was there until I stumbled over a basalt rock. My misstep came with a muffled thump as my foot found the ground again. Immediately after came an loud dull thunder, originating just up the hillside; for a moment I thought I'd unlocked an avalanche. When the rumble subsided there she was, forty or fifty feet away, nostrils flared, looking back down at me with alarm and indignation.

Canyon Wren

Common Goldeneye


I wonder what the temperature of that water actually was?

How much does the water level vary by season in this part of the river? The reeds and grasses seem well established all the way to the current water's edge.

Why did the boulders in the stream have coloration bands? I'm guessing it's because the water ran at the level of each band for a significant amount of time.

Why did the rocks seem to be notched at the top of each band, as though they were worn down more at the water-air interface than farther below? Were they eroded mainly by flotsam? Is the water-air boundary special in some way, e.g., in its ability to catalyze chemical reactions? Is the amount of sunlight different at these points?

John Dunn