Thursday, August 4, 2011

Musings on an August Morning

The dog days of summer have arrived, when Sirius, the dog star and the alpha star in Canis Major, rises in the morning, chasing (or being led by?) Orion across the sky all day.  The August days are sultry, as my grandma would say, hot and sticky. 

Since the beginning of the monsoon in the Sonoran Desert, many of us have been waiting, more or less patiently, for that defining storm, when the lightning puts on a spectacular light show, the thunder cracks and rumbles in a near constant roar, and the rain comes down in buckets.  It finally came, two nights ago, unpredicted and unexpected, and oh, so wonderfully welcome! 

It takes a really good rainstorm to bring out the flying ants.  Sure enough, there they were this morning in a huge column over my patio, mating in the air and falling to the ground, there to be snapped up by the feasting lizards, finches and quail.  The quail parents brought their young family to the buffet and they ate like typical growing kids.  On my walk around the neighborhood I must be sure to wear sunglasses and to keep my mouth closed! 

Also responding to the moisture in the soil, a desert millipede (sometimes called a rainworm) emerges to go exploring, looking for .  .  .  what?  Food, a mate?  I’m not sure, but I’m always happy to see the strange little creature with a hard, rounded body and so many, many legs.  Each of its many segments has two legs, and a new segment is added each time the millipede sheds.  Known as detritivores, millipedes forage for decaying organic material and are good burrowers. 

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As I greeted the morning birds in the yard and had a word with all the plants, complimenting them on their lush vegetation, I heard a familiar hoarse screech and looked around the for the hawk I knew must be nearby.  Just down in the wash behind my back wall there sat a Harris’ hawk on top of a saguaro, calling and calling.  These social birds are generally seen in groups, so I quickly scanned for more hawks, but never saw any.  This appeared to be a young male, though I admit that’s mostly a guess. 

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Just a few evenings ago, two Harris’ were sitting in a big dead snag in my yard, possibly this same bird and one of his siblings, both of whom may have been from this year’s hatch.

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The fat barrel cacti (Ferocactus wislizenii) celebrate August with glorious blooms in a warm palette of colors from red to yellow.

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Agave 8.4.11 017  A broad, flat central spine curved into an arc gives this cactus it’s nickname of fishhook barrel, and the propensity of the elongating barrel to tilt toward the southwest has led it to also be called compass barrel.  I don’t suggest you cut it open to quench your thirst in the desert, however.  That’s a myth perpetrated by John Wayne and Western movies. 

Ocotillos wear their green robes so elegantly, and limberbush, the ultimate monsoon plant, puts on leaves before we have a hint the monsoon is coming, and doesn’t lose them until it’s sure the monsoon is over.  These plants are so smart!  The fruit of the prickly pear ripens to a lustrous deep red, drawing birds and small mammals to its sweetness. 

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A big black bird floats lazily over the landscape, it's two-toned wings tipped up in a dihedral - turkey vulture, right?  No, Jay says, it's the zone-tailed!  I grab my binoculars for a closer look and, sure enough, there is the tell-tale white band across the tail that tells me this is no turkey vulture.  The zone-tailed hawk has been hanging around our neighborhood for a couple of months, and what a magnificent sight he is!  This time he is carrying some little prey species but he doesn't seem intent on landing or settling down for the meal.  He flaps his wings a couple of times and disappears from my sight.  Zone-taileds (Buteo albonotatus) don't often live in urban areas and they are a rare sight here in Tucson, so how privileged are we?

Floating around in the pool, I paddle over to the thermometer to check the water temperature.  Something in the rope-holder catches my eye.  Closer inspection reveals .  .  .  a mouse!  He's alive and he's hanging on for dear life in that little cavity where he can still get air.  The waves I've been creating don't make his life any easier.  I try pulling him out by his tail to rescue him, but he is clinging too tightly.  OK, I'll try grabbing him by his rear end.  I have to really pull to get him to release his hold on the bar, and I'm afraid he's going to turn around and bite me.  So, I quickly pull him loose and toss him unceremoniously over the side.  He lands in a little trough that runs between the pool deck and a rock wall, stunned and soaking.  Slowly, he looks around, discovers he's alive and on dry ground, and he proceeds to get cleaned up, sniff the new surroundings, and high-tail it out of there.

To top it all off, August is the Birthday Month in my family.  Happy Birthday to us, McNeall girls!  Celebrate the season, whatever your reason. 


  1. Oh my! Almost makes me wish I was in the desert. Fantastic post. Thanks...

  2. You've got a very nice and interesting blog with lovely pictures of flowers and nature! Congratulations from Barcelona, Spain

  3. I love your Sonoran Desert blog!
    We love to winter down there, but are not brave enough to deal with the summer's heat!
    You work at my most favorite place! I could live in the hummingbird aviary! :)

    Has this been an abnormally wet monsoon season there?! It seems like it has been raining (as seen on the Weather Channel) for months now!

    Can't wait to return to the cooler desert in November and be a cavern volunteer at Kartchner!

    Thank you for reading our blog!
    Kathy aka

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog entry, with all the lovely photos. I love Arizona and someday when I'm rich (haha) I will have a home in AZ in addition to my home here in AK. It's my second favorite state in the country!

    I've only been to Tucson once, and I was so taken by the tall saguaro. I hope to return again soon.


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