Thursday, June 20, 2013

Breeze in the Pines

How lucky we are in Tucson to be able to drive 30 miles up into the Sky Islands, leaving the 100°+ temps behind and spend the day in the cool mountain breezes.  In the Sonoran Desert region, forest-clad mountain ranges with cool, moist habitats are separated and isolated from one another by 'seas' of arid, hot desert, and can be compared with islands in the ocean, thus the term Sky Islands.  An incredible diversity of plant and animal life exists  on these mountain slopes.  According to A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, (Steven J. Phillips & Patricia Wentworth Comus, eds., Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 2000),
In fact, the "sky islands" of southeastern Arizona and adjacent Sonora are now recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the great centers of plant diversity north of the tropics.

Looking from Mt. Lemmon to Tucson in the valley below, with the Santa Rita Mountains in the distance.
The first thing you notice upon arriving at the trailhead of the Aspen and Marshall Gulch trails is the sound of the breeze blowing through the pines.  And, of course, the almost-chilly mountain air.  My friend Marilyn and I set out on the Aspen Trail with no agenda except to have no agenda.  Yes, we look and listen for birds, but also examine plants, exclaim over fascinating insects, take in the forest scents, thrill to the clouds of butterflies, take too many photos (me), discuss flower identification and marvel at the sheer beauty of our surroundings. 

Especially plentiful were Nais Metalmark butterflies on Fendler's ceanothus.  The tiny white flowers were also attractive to a collection of other insects including flies, bees, wasps and other butterflies. 

Tiny blue butterflies of several species delighted us at every turn.  The shocking blue upper wings of the echo azure made their identification easy.  Yellow-eyed juncos were the most common bird species, often hopping along on the ground, a mom feeding a juvenile.  We were excited to get excellent views of the red-faced warbler who sat still just long enough for me to think about getting a photo.  A beautiful red dragonfly (flame skimmer?) sat patiently for his portrait.
And just when I was losing hope of seeing one, a small horned lizard scrambled across the path and then froze, waiting for the giant mammals to pass. His camouflage was so perfect that if he hadn't moved, he never would have been spotted. We weren't about to pass, however, without some photos.  This is the greater short-horned lizard, a higher elevation horned lizard who primarily feeds on ants, but will also take beetles, grasshoppers and other insects. 
As we sat on a log having a snack, a fresh and beautiful Arizona sister butterfly fluttered by, sitting only briefly.  Stands of bright red bearded penstemon bloomed alongside the path, bird songs competed with one another high up in the trees, and strange little bugs went about their business.  How would you like to be known as the fungus-pleasing beetle?  Well, this guy is, and the fungus seemed mighty pleased!
Taking the return trail through Marshall Gulch we descended into a cool, moist, leafy microhabitat where deciduous trees such as big-tooth maple dominate, and the creek remnant pools are lined with red and yellow monkeyflower and golden columbine. 

A beautiful two-tailed swallowtail butterfly patrolled along the creek, and congregating on rocks in the pools were groups of blue butterflies.

Too soon we had reached the parking lot, which was now full, and it was time to sit at the picnic tables having a little lunch while going over our lists and through our field guides. 

Here is our bird list for the day:
Yellow-eyed Junco
Turkey Vulture
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Acorn Woodpecker
Cordilleran Flycatcher
Common Raven
Mountain Chickadee
White-breasted nuthatch
red-breasted nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch
House Wren
Hermit Thrush
American Robin
Black-headed Grosbeak
Spotted Towhee
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Stellar's Jay
Red-faced Warbler

May your summer bring you cool mountain breezes through the pines.  Happy Summer Solstice!


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Yard Birds

Weren't they a rock group in the 60's?  Part of the British Invasion, I seem to remember.  The current version of the Yard Birds may not be as loud, but they sure are a lot prettier!  Happily for us, many species of birds have adapted to human habitation, and provide us with the daily pleasure of their company right in our own back yards. 

Here, then, are the birds who visit me on a regular, or not so regular basis.  I'm not a purist, so if I see them in or from the yard, they count!

Every Day
Cactus Wren
House Finch
House Sparrow
Mourning Dove
White-winged Dove (summer)
Gambel's Quail
Cooper's Hawk
Anna's Hummingbird
Costa's Hummingbird
Gila Woodpecker
Lesser Nighthawk (summer)
Lesser Goldfinch
Brown-Crested Flycatcher (summer)

Often, but not Every Day
Northern Cardinal
Red-tailed Hawk
Harris' Hawk
Common Raven
Curve-billed Thrasher
Western Screech Owl
Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Turkey Vulture
Ladder-backed Woodpecker
Northern Mockingbird

Peregrine Falcon
Prairie Falcon
Sharp-shinned Hawk
American Kestrel
Great Horned Owl
Zone-Tailed Hawk
Lucy's Warbler
Rufous Hummingbird
White-Crowned Sparrow
Abert's Towhee
Purple Martin
Ash-Throated Flycatcher

Seen, But Rarely
Black Phoebe
Western Bluebird
American Robin
Yellow Warbler
Violet-Crowned Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Rufous Hummingbird
Yellow-Rumped Warbler
Western Tanager
European Starling
Hooded Oriole
Black-Headed Grosbeak
Spotted Towhee
Yellow-Breasted Chat
Wilson's Warbler
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow
Great Blue Heron
Great Egret
Bewick's Wren
Inca Dove

I'm sure there are some I've forgotten.  I'm not always great about writing them down. 

Here's wishing you Happy Birding, even if it's just in your own back yard!

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


This week I'd like to introduce you to another plant of the Sonoran Desert.  You may be familiar with this family as it is widespread and contains many species.

Berberis wilcoxii

Berberis haematocarpa

So many times when I have taken visitors on a tour of the Desert Museum grounds, I get asked about that "holly-looking plant".  Visitors invariably notice these interesting plants and ask the docent about them as it reminds them of a familiar plant from home.  Both species above, along with another one you’ll be surprised about, are barberry species, in the genus Berberis and the family Berberidaceae, and are planted in our Mountain Woodland.  The third species is B. longipes, a Sierra Madre plant that grows in tree, rather than bush, form.  The B. wilcoxii and B. longipes are located behind the benches facing the bear enclosure, while the B. haematocarpa is along both sides of the path near the wolf enclosure.  Two more species, B. fremontii and B. trifoliate are included the Desert Museum’s collection.  Look for B. fremontii in the Bee Garden, and B. trifoliate in the Desert Garden.

Berberis is a very large genus of perhaps 500 species worldwide, many of which are widely planted as landscape specimens, and some imported species of which have become invasive.  Barberries are closely related to the genus Mahonia, and some references use the names interchangeably.

The genus Berberis has many antibacterial, antitumor and tonic medicinal uses.  Berberine, universally present in rhizomes of Berberis and Mahonia species, has marked antibacterial effects and is used as a bitter tonic.  Since it is not appreciably absorbed by the body, it is used orally in the treatment of various enteric infections, especially bacterial dysentery.  For highest concentrations, the root and root bark are best harvested in the autumn.

The primary bioactive constituent of the species in the Berberidaceae family is the yellow alkaloid berberine.  It is found in the foliage, stems and roots, although usually strongest in the roots. The roots and lower yellow stems are gathered from midsummer to winter, the leaves from May through mid-fall. The cleaned roots are chopped while still fresh since they become very dense and hard once dry. If there is a layer of brown bark on the stems and roots, this is scraped off and only the yellow parts are used. The leaves can be collected and dried in a paper bag. The dried leaves, stored away from any light, will last for up to a year. The dried roots and stems will last for several years.

 In the Southwest, curanderas boil the leaves in water and drink the tea twice a day for anemia, and take the decoction early in the morning before eating to bring on menstruation. The leaves or roots are boiled or tinctured and taken internally to cleanse the blood. The Navajos use a decoction of the leaves and stems to relieve the inflammation of rheumatism. The tea from the roots has been used as an alterative, antisyphilitic, diuretic and laxative. Of the species with juicy berries, the ripe berries can be made into a tasty jam that some call happy berry jam because it tends to lighten depressed moods.

Plants in the family Berberidaceae all have high concentrations of xanthophyll (yellow) pigmentation in the stem. A yellow dye is obtained from the inner bark of the stem and roots. An ink is made from the wood. Dark green, violet and dark blue-purple dyes are obtained from the fruit. A green dye is obtained from the leaves

Six species of Berberis have been identified in Arizona.  The most common of these is B. haematocarpa, known also as red barberry for the red, juicy berries it produces.  It can be found growing in desert grasslands and oak woodlands, from 3000’ to 5000’ in elevation.  On our recent visit to Arivaca Cienaga, many large red barberry plants were blooming along the paths.  Growing to about 12’ tall and 12’ wide, the dense evergreen shrub makes a good wildlife cover.  The fragrant flowers have 6 yellow petals and stamens and grow in a loose cluster.  The fruits can be used to make red jelly, and are relished by birds, while the root and bark are useful for making a yellow dye.  Leaves are pinnately compound with 3-5 leaflets which are lobed, each of the lobes ending in a sharp spine. 

B. trifoliate, also called trifoliate barberry, has narrow leaves with 3 leaflets, each of which is deeply lobed.  Flowers are also very fragrant and the fruit edible.  B. fremontii grows at higher elevations, typically 4-7000', in pinon-juniper and pine woodlands, and blooms from April to July.  The Hopis use the wood for crafts and the roots for yellow dye. 

The Desert Museum has an incredible collection of plant species, and it seems that every time I’m on the grounds I notice something I hadn’t seen before.  It’s a constant learning experience. 
Epple, Anne Orth; A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona; The Globe Pequot Press, 1995, pp.72-74
Montgomery, George; Curator of Botany, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; personal correspondence
Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science, Vol. 26 (1), 1992, pp. 2-4