By Meredith Hughes
What does an emergency nurse working three 12-hour shifts a week at UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center in Rio Rancho do during his downtime at home in Corrales during a pandemic? Alex Price started a blog. It’s called Nature in Corrales, and is described like this: “Watching the change in Nature over the seasons. Kind of senseless, and yet full of purpose.”
In his first post on April 2, Price wrote: “The level of the ditch has fallen dramatically in the last several days of hot, dry weather.” The ditch referred to is officially the Corrales Interior Drain, known unofficially as “the scuzzy ditch.”
Only after reading through several paragraphs do we learn of Price’s true passion. “I returned Phil, the bullfrog, to the ditch, where he is doing fine. Bullfrogs are an invasive species and the public is actually encouraged to remove them. I don’t go in for this kind of thing, and find their froggie brains pretty fascinating. There is still so much to learn about these charismatic amphibians…”
Toads and frogs, above all, but insects, too, and fish, plants and the intertwined nature of them all. His blog is rich in nature portraits. Consider the tiny freshwater mosquito fish, aka gambusia. Price writes that “mosquito fish are [the] eyes and ears” of the ditch.
“The insects are often very approachable during the heat of the day, when they are hiding and lethargic. In the ditch, however, many animals will use the ever-alert mosquito fish as an early warning system. The fish are experts at sensing vibrations and movement, but most creatures are. Because of the use of the ditch by vehicles, movement and vibrations are pretty much constant. The mosquito fish are better than most animals at discerning specific threats, such as people.
Ever notice how the water ripples when people approach the water's edge? That’s the mosquito fish in the shallows warning the other critters to freeze and act like a leaf.” Introduced from somewhere in Africa, to help keep down mosquitos, the fish unfortunately take on dragon flies, which are “much better at eating mosquitos,” according to Price.
Starting his nature blog was a “good way for me to pass the time during lockdown,” said Price, as staying put does not come that naturally to him. Originally from Canada, he is also a Brit-American. His father, a geophysicist working in the oil business, took his family to a new posting about every two years, among them Egypt, Kashmir and Price’s favorite, Madagascar, which is rich in chameleons. His mother, from Britain, wanted him to “grow into a proper British boy,” so he attended Abbotsholme School, on the border of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, a now co-ed boarding school established in 1889 by a progressive educator.
Price moved on to studies at Sandwell and University of Birmingham in the UK, then came to New Mexico to study nursing at the University of New Mexico. Always keen on biology, he realized that biology as a career, “likely would not pay the bills.” He tiptoed into becoming a doctor, then saw that nursing would be a much quicker career route.
Why New Mexico? “My stepfather developed stomach cancer in Mallorca, Spain, while I was in Birmingham University, about 20 years ago. He was American and chose to get American medical care. They picked New Mexico because it was like Spain in climate, and cheap to live in.”
He adds that “I have since learned Rio Rancho in particular attracts a large number of “medical tourists.” There are many people living in the high desert getting chemo treatments, just like the old tuberculosis sanatoriums in the 1920s.” And what better place for a biologist, a state with an Official State Amphibian, the spade foot toad? The seldom idle Price, now 43, currently is studying for a degree in biology education at UNM, and before COVID-19 shut so much down, was volunteering at the Museum of Southwest Biology there. He retells an old joke biologists tell, that “medicine is easy because it only focuses on one species.”
Toads and frogs, however, are “always thrown in with reptiles, as an afterthought,” a move clearly irritating to Price. The spadefoot is visible only at night, hence Price’s vigilance when starting for home just after midnight. “They come alive somewhat during the monsoons to breed, visible for about three-four days. Otherwise they live underground for nine months of the year!”
Spadefoots soak up moisture through a patch on their skin, and, can be recognized also as per their official state description. “The voice of the New Mexico spadefoot sounds like a fingernail running across the teeth of a comb. When threatened, the New Mexico spadefoot toad emits an odor said to smell like roasted peanuts.”
Bullfrogs seem his favorite, however. “I love them! They are the smartest frogs on the planet.” It’s always been said bullfrogs have “no necks.” But Price has closely observed bullfrogs turning their heads… and, while said frog does not have much in the way of lungs, “it breathes through its throat, not its skin.”
A new pursuit not quite yet defined is the measuring of tadpoles. “There is too much to study,” Price laments. “How things change in the seasons over a year, how tadpoles react to changes in their environment …it’s a complicated study.” Unsurprisingly, Price has major concerns about the Interior Drain being overhauled into an official recreational site, with parking areas and more people invading the scene. “No problem with anglers, who tend to be more mindful than some,” he says, “But….”
Having posted a concern about this on the social media platform NextDoor, Price got a response from Corrales’ Rick Thaler, who wrote he was part of a group of people who live on or near the drain. “We have considered calling ourselves ‘Friends of the Scuzzy Ditch’ but not sure if that will fly. Most of us either grew up here or have lived here most of our lives.”
“My involvement sprang directly from my opposition to the plan last year to pave the section of road on the drain between East La Entrada and East Ella. I wanted to find a positive way to respond to that plan and I found that some of my old friends and newer acquaintances were already thinking the same way.”
“Our goal is to explore and present to the Village ways to preserve the drain corridor from Dixon down to Meadowlark. We hope to come up with creative ways to preserve and improve access for homeowners, land owners and fire/rescue, reduce speed, volume and dust from north/south traffic, provide permanent, safe pedestrian, bike and equestrian ways, and preserve and improve wildlife habitat along the drain. This is a long process and our priority is to do do it with the maximum of input from our friends and neighbors along the drain.”
Thaler invited Price to “stay tuned for more information as we get the process going.” Likely he will, although he somewhat regrets “I can never seem to agree with anything anyone else ever says.” A high-energy enthusiast, Price wrote recently on his blog that “One of the biggest benefits of studying nature is that studying, helps you study.... Looking closely at plants in the bosque meant I was prepped to see them when up on a mountain meadow recently. Learning how to see with the mind is a valuable skill that takes time. A lifetime in fact.”
His blog is at https://corralesphenology.blogspot.com.