Saturday, December 13, 2014

Holiday Greetings!

Here's wishing you joyous holidays, and a New Year filled with the beauty of nature and the love of family and friends.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jungle Fever

What do you get when you add water to the desert?  A jungle, of course.  The Sonoran Desert is already one of the wettest deserts on earth, pushing the limits of what constitutes a desert.  Ask people to give their image of a desert and they'll say, "sandy", "hot", "barren".  Occasionally someone will come up with the one true and necessary component - aridity.  Deserts may not be sandy, they may not be barren, often they are hot, but just as likely may be cold.  They are all dry. To be a desert, a region must be dry, where potential evapotranspiration is greater than precipitation.  Generally, 10" of precipitation is the upper limit for being called a desert.  So, even on a normal year, we're pushing it here in the Arizona Upland division around Tucson with our annual average of 12".

A couple of hurricane remnants plus a rewarding monsoon has turned our desert into a virtual jungle.  As I introduce my Sonoran Desert Discovery tours at the Desert Museum and talk to people about what constitutes a desert, they look out across the landscape and see nothing but greenery.  The looks turn skeptical.  Desert?  No Way!

Even now, in November, when other parts of the country are shivering and shoveling snow, the greenery dominates our views.  Wildflowers still bloom.  The cold-deciduous acacias and mesquites have given no thought to losing their leaves.  Butterflies are abundant and very active.

Passion Flower

Queen on Milkweed

Southern Dogface nectaring on Lagascea decipiens

Bordered Patch

Bahia absinthifolia

Cooper's Paperflower

  1. Thymophylla pentachaeta

Sacred Datura

I led the Butterfly Walk at the Desert Museum last Friday and my two guests from Ohio were boggled by the number and variety we saw.  I believe our count was close to 20 species, even including a lone Monarch.  Monarchs are not common here, though we do see them in small numbers.  Much more common is the Monarch relative, the Queen, another of the milkweed butterflies.  Many sulphurs, blues, hairstreaks, ladies, Empress Leilia, American Snouts, and more.

Southern Dogface Butterfly (see the poodle head?)

Bordered Patch

Cloudless Sulphur

Painted Lady

Painted Lady


Winter will inevitably come.  Until then, this is our every day. Fiery skies awake us to another glorious day.

Another blast of color signals the day's close.

The desert is happy!

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Verde Valley Visit

I love to go exploring, whether it be across the world, or just across the state.  There's always something new to see. And so it was with this short trip to central Arizona's Verde Valley, where the upper Sonoran Desert meets the lush riparian oasis of the Verde River.  The Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood was to be our home for a few days, and what a lovely one it was.  The park encompasses a section of the river as well as the desert above.  Our campsite sat on a hillside overlooking the valley and the town.

With water and electricity at the sites, a nearby town and excellent cell service, it's not exactly wilderness.  But the sites are huge and well-separated and there are many excellent trails leading right from the campground.  At close to 3500' in elevation, the desert vegetation is somewhat different than around Tucson, almost 1000' lower.  The saguaros have disappeared as have the barrel cacti, but I did see chollas, some prickly pear and hedgehogs.  The vegetation is dominated by crucifixion thorn (Castela emoryi), catclaw acacia (Acacia greggii), mesquite and juniper, as well as grasses, yucca, ephedra, ratany and more.  With the cooler temperatures, there were still some wildflowers blooming.

Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus engelmannii)

Silverleaf Nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium)

Scarlet Gaura (Gaura coccinea)

Ratany (Krameria sp.)

Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata)

Southwestern Ringstem (Anulocaulis leiosolenus)

Southwestern Ringstem (Anulocaulis leiosolenus)

Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodum leucanthum)

New Mexico Feathergrass (Hesperostipa newomexicana)

Red Three-awn Grass (Aristida purpurea)

Wrap-around views from the trails made every hike a treat for the eyes, and the camera.  Below us, the green ribbon of the Verde River's lush riparian corridor, across the valley, the scars of copper mining and the towns it created, all around in the near distance the quiet of the desert.  On a hilltop just a few miles away, the ancient ruins of a native pueblo, now preserved by the National Park Service as Tuzigoot National Monument.

Our travels included a visit to Tuzigoot to learn how the ancient peoples lived in this valley for centuries; to Jerome, perched perilously on the mountainside, old buildings that once served a big mining community now repurposed for galleries, shops, restaurants and inns; Old Town Cottonwood where we discovered an amazing array of quality restaurants; and to Sedona, land of the red rocks and vortices that has been overrun with people.  From Jerome, we spotted the huge plumes of smoke that could only mean wildfire.  We were to learn the fire was burning in beautiful Oak Creek Canyon, which runs between Sedona and Flagstaff.  It burns to this day.

The former mining town of Jerome

The Verde Valley

Cholla at Tuzigoot

From the roof of Tuzigoot


On the road to Sedona, smoke rising from the Slide Fire

Red rocks and Cholla flowers

A cascade of primroses, Sedona

Carole and Jay, Sedona

My fabulous dinner at the Schoolhouse restaurant in Old Cottonwood

In between, we hiked along the river and to a peaceful marsh, across the desert and back again.  New birds, new flowers, new sights and sounds. Along the Verde River is a cottonwood-willow riparian habitat rich in biodiversity.  I was entertained with the antics of nervous little Lucy's warblers, bright yellow Wilson's warblers, flocks of stunning Western tanagers and so many summering phainopeplas.

The Verde River

Tavasci Marsh

Desert Globemallow

Sacred Datura

A very large and well-camouflaged gopher snake.

Evening Primrose

Baby Black-throated Sparrow crying for its mother who was just across the trail.

On the morning of our departure, smoke from the Slide Fire filled the valley, obscuring the nearby mountains and smelling of burning timber.

On a lighter note, I leave you with the parking cop at the Dead Horse Ranch State Park.

And, now for the bird list.

Bullock's Oriole
Wilson's Warbler
Common Raven
Northern Mockingbird
Black-throated Sparrow
House Finch
Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Gila Woodpecker
Gambel's Quail
Greater Roadrunner
Red-Winged Blackbird
Yellow Warbler
Abert's Towhee
Ash-Throated Flycatcher
Western Tanager
Lucy's Warbler
UI Blackbird
Northern Rough-Winged Swallow
Lesser Nighthawk
Mourning Dove
White-Winged Dove
Say's Phoebe
Rock Wren
House Wren
Turkey Vulture
Lesser Goldfinch
Song Sparrow
Bewick's Wren
Red-Tailed Hawk
Green Heron
Bell's Vireo
Western Wood Pewee
Great-tailed Grackle
Costa's Hummingbird
MacGillivray's Warbler

Happy Travels to You!