Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Day in Happy Valley

 My birding group made its monthly outing yesterday, and our destination this time was Happy Valley, on the east side of the Rincon Mountains.  Seems somewhat silly to call ourselves a birding group when we look for and at so many other interesting things.  Maybe ‘naturalist’ group would be a better description.  For many miles along the dirt road we birded from the cars as Private Property signs were posted along both sides.  A juvenile Northern Harrier caught our eyes as he hunted low along the ground, many sparrows flitted among the trees, a Loggerhead shrike stood tall on the top of a mesquite tree, and Western Meadowlarks hopped from the ground to the low trees, singing their beautiful song.  That sound always takes me back to my childhood on my grandparents’ ranch in Ash Valley, California, where I would often awake to the song of meadowlarks.  A red-shafted northern flicker flew by.  As we rose in elevation, oaks and junipers joined mesquites as dominating species.  Along the ephemeral stream bed, the big cottonwoods, sycamores, willows and ash trees rose tall and offered a touch of fall color.

An unfenced area beckoned to us and there didn’t appear to be any NO TRESPASSING signs, so it was time for some exploration.  Grasshoppers were abundant here, as Buzz, our resident entomologist, had hoped, including large plains lubbers mating, beautiful red-wingeds flying, and another mating pair caught in the web of a black widow spider.  As the grasshoppers struggled to get free, the spider kept making jabs at them, but acted nervous and fearful of getting too close.  Quite the drama.  There were a few flowers blooming - morning glories, caltrops, threadleaf groundsel, scarlet creeper and some kind of vetch.  Birds included mockingbirds, red-naped sapsucker, a red-tailed hawk, a raven, yellow-rumped warblers, sparrows, Say’s phoebe and a Western wood pewee.  In the butterfly category, we saw queens, a variegated fritillary, pipevine swallowtails, sleepy oranges, cloudless sulphurs, and more.  Debbie found a very small set of antlers, long-since discarded by a white-tailed deer.  Did all that make up for the horrible stickers we  got in our shoes, socks, pants and legs??  Just as we were leaving, a woman came along and asked us to leave as we were on private property.  Fine. I couldn't wait to get out of those stickers anyway!

The caravan proceeded slowly as there seemed lots to stop and see - grasshoppers, butterflies, birds, plants, lizards.  Along the way a red-tailed hawk posed on a dead snag, frightening a large group of small birds that Gay was able to identify as lark buntings in winter plumage.  A bank of clouds advanced steadily until the sky was mostly cloudy, and looking somewhat like rain.  White-crowned and black-throated sparrows got the cars to stop for a closer look.  I could hear the white-crowned’s musical song.

Finally we arrived at Forest Service land and after a few minutes to study the maps, chose a road to Turkey Creek where we parked and had lunch at a large cleared campsite.  Up in the big trees, a chatter of small birds revealed yellow-rumped warblers.  An American robin and red-naped sapsuckers were all happily foraging in the juniper tree right over our heads.  Down the road we walked on a lovely fall day, the clouds keeping the temperature quite pleasant.  Some bird activity attracted our attention to a big sycamore tree, and Wow!  We found a bonanza!  White-breasted nuthatches, bridled titmouse, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-rumped warblers, all so busy.  So many fascinating little things to see, like a mantid egg case, a perfectly rounded bird nest with the entrance hole on the end, a shrine made of native rock, green cane chollas decorated with their bright yellow fruit.   Magnificent, giant trees amazed us with their huge girth and height.  One long-ago-fallen giant was like a sculpture, so lovely were its patterns and designs.  A red-tailed hawk rode a thermal, seeming to sit perfectly still on the wind.  The big leaves fell like snowflakes and crunched under our feet.  An interesting array of beetles and other small creatures hid under rocks, or so they thought!

Walking back to our cars, we felt a few raindrops, but that was the extent of the rain.  It had been a perfect day for ‘naturing’ !

For all the photos, go to  Happy Valley Birding

Sunday, October 9, 2011

This Week in the Garden

Plant sales.  I am unable to resist them.  And this is plant sale season in Tucson.  So when the Desert Museum had their sale recently, of course I had to go.  The line of people already waiting to pay for their purchases almost made me give up before starting.  But, we had driven all the way out there, and there were some wonderful plant specimens, so we soldiered on.  Three cacti and one passionvine later we were in line, Jay and me and my fellow docent Mary Lou.  About that time one of the Botany folks came along to write up our purchases and advise us that there was a separate cash line.  I went off to investigate, leaving the others to hold down our place in line, just in case.  How nice to discover not one person in the cash 'line'!  We were out of there in no time.

These new cactus specimens, plus two others that my friend Marilyn had given me now necessitated expanding my Small Cactus Garden, (cactita?) an area under an expanding blue palo verde tree that provides them some important filtered shade so they can survive the Tucson summers.  Jay helped me lay it out, mix sand and soil, fill the designated area and line it with rocks.

The new additions include two Coryphantha elephantidens from Marilyn, two Trichocereus (trichocerei?) which  will hopefully be two different color blooms, and one Hecho cactus with two stems.  The Hecho may have been a mistake as it does not like cold, and if it does do well, it gets huge.  So, we'll see about that.  The Trichocereus (hybrid torch) produce the huge, glorious blooms that just take your breath away.  Joining these new friends in the garden are two small pots - one with a variegated agave and the other with another Coryphantha species that is about to bloom.  The agave really should be unpotted (is that a word?) and put in the ground where it can spread its roots and grow.

The poor passionvine still sits in its nursery pot, waiting for its new home, which, at this writing, is still under discussion.  I'd like to plant it in the front courtyard on the shady side, with a trellis that will show off it's glorious purple blossoms.  And, it's looking rather ragged at the moment as I discovered several gulf fritillary butterfly caterpillars munching happily away on foliage and flower.  And, not two days after bringing it home, an adult gulf fritillary came to visit the passionvine and, if I"m lucky, deposit her eggs.  After all, the attraction of these spectacular butterflies is one of the main reasons to own this species.

Another reason, of course, is the beautiful flower, which sometimes also gets eaten by the voracious larva.

One of the caterpillars evidently decided it was time to go and find a place to spin its chrysalis as it took off and made it's way along the garage wall.

The same day, this handsome fellow was spotted, also on the garage wall, but in a different vicinity. It seems that I see a walking stick here about once a year.  Where do they go the rest of the time?

Hard to see, huh?  No wonder I rarely see them.  My husband gets credit for spotting this one.

The golden barrel has decided to bloom again.  This is a species (Echinocactus grusonii) native to Mexico, but widely grown in landscape in the Southwest.

Here are a few other blooms from the garden.

And speaking of caterpillars, I was happy to find some giant swallowtail caterpillars on my sad old lemon tree leaves.  The poor, ancient tree was on its death bed, and then along came the big freeze of 2011 and that was the final death knell.  We cut the tree down, intending to replace it with something more native, but have yet to dig out the stump.  New leaves are emerging, just the place for a giant swallowtail to deposit her eggs.  

If you were a bird looking for a tasty morsel, you would most likely pass this caterpillar by, resembling as it does just some bird poop.  Pretty good camouflage idea.

Passing by a foothills palo verde tree in the yard, something caught my eye.  A little closer examination revealed the egg case of a praying mantis, a lovely little object that looks as though it were sewn together.

I'm not sure if these will hatch this fall or overwinter in this form.  I'll keep watching, and look forward to having some mantis nymphs.

Another small discovery, sitting on the flower of the yucca was this interesting little creature, a leaf-footed bug.

Now blooming in the desert is the amazing creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), the most drought tolerant perennial plant in our desert, and among the longest-living of all plants. The yellow flowers occur at various times, usually following a rain. The fruit is a small, fuzzy white ball. Many insects feed on creosote bush, but few mammals do, probably only the jackrabbit.

It was a Murphy's Law kind of day when I looked out the window and saw a small lake forming in the yard, water bubbling up out of the ground.  Repairing the drip irrigation is a constant, ongoing project.  We dug down to expose the pipes, about two feed under the pathway.

In the process of trying to figure out which system the leaking pipe served, Jay was using the timer controller to manually turn on each system, when suddenly the display flashed ERROR and then went blank.  Great.  It's never just one thing that goes wrong.  Must have multiples.  He was able to jury-rig the system to make it run, while figuring out that he could send the defective one to the factory for repair under warranty.  Well, that was one bit of good news as a new controller is about $120.  Although the weather is cooler and the water demands are down, the days will be warming up again into the high 80's next week.

That little bit of distraction took my husband away from his other current project - refinishing the two aging park benches which have succumbed to the harsh desert sun.  He replaced the old oak slats with that 'wood' made of recycled plastic bags, and painted the metal portions.  Voila!  A brand new bench.

Take a rest in your garden and enjoy the fabulous fall weather!