Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.

Gardener Extraordinaire

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

New Life for Scarlet Emporer Bean

I arrived at Desert Botanical Gardens about 6:15 pm. The evening air cast a cool grace over the gardens. I was there to soak up the wisdom offered by a genuine, true-blue gardener. Pam Perry put her hands in the soil with the intention to grow plants when she was just three years old. Years of observing the performance of different varieties of plants in different soils and microclimates grant life-long gardeners a feel for growing that’s hard to get from books.

Pam’s stayed closely tuned to her passion all these years. For her, varieties of plants have unique characteristics, even personalities. She describes the Rosa Bianca eggplant: “An elegant girl, nice to have in the garden, beautiful really, but be aware she might give you just four eggplants all season”.

Here is someone you would love to have at your elbow as you confront the big seed display at the nursery. Pam offered a perspective on the performance of crops depending on the type of seed purchased. Heirloom seeds are varieties that have been in cultivation from 50 years to more than 3,000 years. Hybrid seeds come from plants that have been carefully bred to be disease resistant and to produce in a short growing season. These plants are trialed all over the country to ensure reliability and vigor.

Seed producers market seed based on the moods of the time. In the twenties, carnations were a favorite flower for funerals, durable and uplifting with their spicy colors and scent. But carnations fell from favor when people began to associate the smell of the blooms with death. Even today carnations are bred to be odorless.

The class covered the secrets and tips to be found in the study of seed catalogs. Pam orders a number of favorite catalogs every year and lines them up to compare offerings for specific plants. Ordering in January allows her to get first dibs on what might be limited seed for popular or newly introduced novelty crops. We learned the ins and outs of saving seed from plants we grow in our own gardens, and how long they last with careful storage.

Seed libraries are sprouting up (sorry) all over the country, and in Phoenix the Permaculture Alliance offers heirloom seed for free, asking only that you save seed from a few of the plants you grow, to renew the library’s supply. Local seed exchanges can be found online.

Master Gardener Pam Perry manages the demonstration vegetable gardens and the native plantings around the Maricopa County Extension offices at 4341 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s worth the time to stop by and see what’s going on in the garden.

The Potential in a Single Seed

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

I’ve been working a lot with seeds lately. It’s my job at my new position with the Roosevelt School District. A seed is a miracle. Place a kernel under the soil, add moisture and warmth, and life bursts forth. The first sign of germination is an eruption from the soil, as the plant pushes toward that next requirement, sunlight.

In a similar birthing, a large greenhouse has appeared on the campus of the Brooks Community School in south Phoenix. When the Brooks School was closed due to low enrollment, the buildings and playgrounds sat empty and uncared for, an eyesore in this humble neighborhood.

Then a visionary from the district came along and planted a seed of hope on the campus. He proposed that the shuttered school be reopened as a community center populated with non-profits offering resources to the people. The seed packet for this harvest would read Community Revitalization and Sustainability.

Various organizations and community non-profits are already operating out of the Brooks School, providing benefits to the greater neighborhood, including parenting classes, a medical clinic, job training, motivational speakers, and community service and volunteer opportunities.

The large greenhouse crouching on land that once swarmed with kids on recess represents a window for students to peer through, an opportunity to learn about the production of food. Field trips to the greenhouse will highlight the sciences of hydroponics, aquaponics and vermiculture; showing vegetables growing in water, fish and prawns thriving in indoor tanks and worms digesting table scraps and paper to produce nitrogen rich fertilizer. These closed loop systems conserve resources while maximizing nutritional yields

Gathering these sustainability practices together under one roof will allow students to explore a range of urban food production. Plans are underway for more education opportunities on the land outside the greenhouse including butterfly and hummingbird gardens, raised beds and native plant landscaping.

Just a few generations ago, children commonly helped with chores in their family gardens. They were part of planting, harvesting and preserving food. Now most kids think food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. Bringing edible gardening into the school environment addresses this disconnect.

Right now the greenhouse is in disarray as everyone is working to get their growing operations up and running. By early October there will be more news to report. If this seed fulfills its potential, the plant is sure to bear fruit

Dragonflies Dazzle

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Photo by Dave Biggs

Photo by Dave Biggs

In the summer months dragonflies hover about the watering holes of Arizona. They flit from rock to reed, all aglitter like jewel-encrusted brooches granted the gift of flight. Dragonflies are phenomenal fliers, among the fastest insects, and chase down their prey and grasp them with their long legs. The dragonfly is unique in that its front and hind wings beat in opposite directions. This allows him to move about with the agility of a tiny helicopter.

As children at Priest Lake in Idaho, we shared the shoreline with sparkling blue dragonflies. When we rested, sun-drowsy on floats in the water, dragonflies would light briefly on our wet skin. We didn’t scream and thrash, like we did when bees or spiders landed on us. We paused even our breathing and stared into the globelike eyes. The magical looking creatures seemed a manifestation of the sun, the water and the joys of summer.

The desert is home to some of the most spectacular dragonflies, from the six inch giant darner to the citrine forktail with a wing span of less than one inch. A dragonfly’s head is almost all eyes, and the insect can turn its head nearly 360 degrees as it scans its territory for prey or foes.

Dragonflies mate in mid-air, their arching thoraxes forming the shape of a heart as they link up. The female lays her eggs in the water – some attach to plants, others float beneath the surface.

The eggs hatch into non-descript nymphs. Flat and cryptic the creatures stay near the bottom of the lake or stream. Up to four years can pass while the nymphs live underwater, breathing through gills. They scoop up meals of fish, tadpoles and small invertebrates from the sandy bottom and from among the water plants.

Finally, in a dramatic transformation, the dragonfly pulls itself from the water and unfolds wings and crystalline colors. The air becomes its new medium. The adult life stage will last just two months and the dragonfly lives it up. Sun glints off his darting form as he engages in aerial battles for territories and chases down prey. He mates and provides for a new generation of his species. He epitomizes the glory of living for the moment.

Source: Carl Olson’s 50 Common Insects of the Southwest

Efficiency Unit

Copy of Downsized

Cozy Interior

Cozy Interior

A pioneer from the 1800’s built this cabin in Northern Idaho. What a testament to efficiency! I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I laid eyes on it until the last picture was snapped.

I have to confess that I live in a home that’s over 3,000 square feet. Downsizing is definitely in order, but I never quite imagined paring things down to such an essential scale.

The early inhabitants of our land faced serious, even life threatening challenges, but how do those stack up against the cares and responsibilities that plague the lives of modern humans? Sure, the pioneers wore the same clothes every day, but don’t laundry chores become a drag? Think of the water we use to keep our extensive collections of clothing clean, not to mention dry cleaning solvents, bleaches, detergents and fabric softeners that taint the environment.

Actually, among the many tools and utensils of daily life placed economically about the cabin was an iron! Just because people were spartan does not mean they were unkempt. Another tool I noticed was a “travel sized” washing board resembling a cheese grater. Let’s not forget that modern life has saved us from some grisly chores.

The bed appeared harsh compared to my extra thick mattress with box spring and gel mattress pad (ahem), but how can we know how it felt to roll up in a luxurious bear skin and rest on a nice firm surface? After a day spent working hard in the fresh air it probably felt heavenly.

Maybe our elaborate indoor spaces became more important to us when we found ourselves walled off from the natural world, divorced from the soughing of wind in trees and water bubbling over smooth stones. Instead of tuning into seasons and the opportunities they bring to feed our families, we now watch the stock market, professional athletes and wars in countries we don’t understand. We pore over screens that light up our senses and connect us to a technological world, rich beyond measure in information and stimulation but poor in actual experience.

Just one hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors lived a hard life, but a real life, with challenges that required craft and intelligence and hard physical work. They were integrated with the environment around them. These are the genes we carry today, even as we inch our vehicles along crowded freeways and devote our energy to acquiring possessions and isolating ourselves from the elements. It’s hard to define where we’ve advanced and where we’ve lost ground.

Granite Creek Trib

Uninvited Visitors can be Creepy

Poor quality of photo due to extreme circumstances

Poor quality of photo due to extreme circumstances

The rattle exploded into the still night air, an ancient and unmistakable warning. It came from our front porch where a rattlesnake held his ground on the bristly welcome mat, his triangular head raised and menacing.

We’d set out for our evening walk across that very mat not 20 minutes before. Marc had asked as we stepped out the door, “Do you look around when you come out this door?”
“Nah,” I said. “The snakes are all gone now. I do check for scorpions.”

Years ago our son went out the front door and off to school, tramping within inches of a rattlesnake coiled by the sidewalk. A big gopher snake basked in our driveway on the occasional autumn afternoon, pressed up against the garage door. Max the cat peered excitedly out the window one evening, alerting us to a king snake slithering across the back patio. Yes, we used to see snakes around the house somewhat regularly.

On this hot August evening after moseying around the block, I unleashed Lexie at the end of the driveway so she could prance up the sidewalk and lead us to the door. White tail waving, she trotted proudly, until the unmistakable pandemonium rang out from the porch. I shrieked and all three of us jumped back onto the driveway. Rattlesnake!

We scuttled around to the back door. The dark ground seemed littered with snake like objects. A few minutes later, fascination drew us back out. The snake lay across the welcome mat, stretching from one end to the other. Its sand-colored body was marked with dark diamonds. The snake was thick in the middle and skinny at the ends. Its wedge-shaped head tapered sharply to a scrawny neck. A wide middle seemed to indicate a meal digesting inside, and the tail was thin. Four black and white bands of rattle reflected the dim light.

We decided the rattler had mostly likely come down the wash from the preserve and would be going back soon. There’s plenty of room for snakes in that rocky haven and I’m sure he’s no more eager to encounter us than we are to meet him again.

Sounds weird, but I’m glad to know there’s still snakes around. And when I go out that door at night, I open it a tiny crack and peek out before venturing forth.

Jaguar

snre_jaguar

This past week I attended a talk by Pinau Merlin of the University of Arizona led Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project. It’s thrilling to discover that a jaguar prowls and roars in the night in the mountainous wilderness of Southern Arizona. It’s depressing to learn that this male cat makes up the entire population of jaguars in our country.

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, ranking only behind tigers and lions. They are powerful, massive animals with formidable jaws that can crush the skull of any prey. They are also gorgeous; marvelously proportioned with sleek golden coats marked with black rosettes. No two jaguars wear the same pattern of spots.

The unique markings are the key to the study. Two hundred motion-detecting cameras have been placed in wilderness areas across the southern part of the state. The study also employs a specially trained scat hunting dog that retrieves jaguar scat and brings it to his trainer. The scat is genetically tested for information on the identity, diet and health of the jaguar.

Jaguars require an enormous tract of unfragmented landscape. A young male may travel 500 miles to find a territory. This lone male has come up from the state of Sonora in Mexico, where there is a breeding population. Somehow he navigated around the border fence which is more of a barrier to wildlife than humans.

The huge cat prowls through the night; eating pretty much whatever he comes across. Jaguars prey on 85 different species, preferring deer and javelinas. Pinau said a javelina is like a candy bar to a jaguar.

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has provided proof that apex predators make a habitat more diverse and thus healthier. All of the animals get stronger and faster and the plant life becomes richer when big hunters are at work. It’s a very good thing for the environment to have even one jaguar in the wild.

Does it make the hair stand up on your neck to think you might run into a jaguar some dark night? It’s unlikely as the cats are very secretive and avoid humans. Instead of inspiring fear, a magnificent predator like this deserves our respect. Pinau agrees that the animal is something special. She said she feels the jaguar is the visible soul of the wild.

Read more from Pinau Merlin on the jaguar and ocelots too, on the Arizona Highways Guest Blog.

Hidden Picture

GHO hiding in plain sight

GHO hiding in plain sight

Young great horned owl

Young great horned owl at Liberty Wildlife

I love it that wild predators carry on their business right under our noses. The other day I was sitting outside with the dog – both of us looking around aimlessly – when I noticed an unusual blob, a bulky profile, in the neighbor’s acacia willow tree. Only with binoculars could I confirm my suspicion, it was indeed an owl.

Great horned owls are impressive hunters, superbly adapted with special feathers for silent flight and acute hearing that pinpoints rodents and other prey in near darkness. They rest in trees right around our homes during the day, hidden by first-rate camouflage. The owls’ feathers are matte, not shiny, so no sunlight reflects. They squint or close their large golden eyes so no glow emits. The cryptic coloring of their feathers imitates tree bark and usually owls blend in even more by hunkering down near the tree trunk.

This time of year, youngsters fledge from nests and establish territories of their own, often showing up where a more experienced bird wouldn’t. My husband was sitting outside at dusk, when a great horned owl came sweeping in just over his head and crashed into the spindly palm tree that shades our house. Again a youngster. Maybe the same one.

I hope he or she sets up shop around here. There’s nothing so evocative as the eerie hoot of a great horned owl at dusk. And how thrilling to spot an owl flying silent on outspread wings, intent on some mysterious errand. These birds of prey keep a check on the rodent population, for which we never really thank them. If this owl could nab that pesky rock squirrel that’s been eating my plants, I’d be forever grateful.

Note: Click on the top picture to enlarge it and see how she squints her eyes closed. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me!

Kayaking the Salt

Bulldogs tower over the river

Bulldogs tower over the river

Wild horses on the Salt

I arrived at Saguaro Lake Ranch early Sunday morning for a Liberty Wildlife kayak expedition. The ranch’s rustic cabins, tidy horse corral, green meadow and plentiful shade trees rest peacefully on a big bend of the Salt River. The Bulldog Mountains make a stunning backdrop. Twelve of us and our guide Derek clambered onto kayaks, took up our paddles and ventured ‘round the bend.

Only a trickle of water flows in the Lower Salt except when summer crops like cotton are growing in the parched valley below. Then the sluices are opened at the dams that pen the Salt into a series of lakes and clear water flows again in the riverbed. The released water is destined for irrigation canals miles downstream.

Valley residents throng to the temporary river playground to picnic and swim, to fish and paddle. Unfortunately many of these people bring a lot of stuff that they don’t take home. The further we kayaked downstream, the more garbage bobbed in the current and clogged the reeds.

In a terrific documentary called Go Ganges a couple of young men kayak from the headwaters to the outlet of the Ganges River in India. High in the mountains the river is pure and wild, but by the time the kayakers paddle past low-lying cities it has been worked to the bone. Factory toxins are dumped in the river and people wash, get blessings and bury their dead in the life-giving source of water which finally limps to the sea choked in garbage.

On our more modest adventure, we too paddled through pristine landscape at the outset, past the lofty Bulldog Mountains whose cliffs were studded with saguaros, prickly pears and agaves. As we floated under the brow of the precipice some crazy guy base jumped from the top. For a heartbeat it looked like he would crash into the rocks. But his chute erupted with a crack like a gunshot billowing blue and orange silk. The jumper landed on the other side of the river within seconds.

On the kayaks everything gets wet, so I didn’t bring my watch, camera or cell phone and felt unattached to time and distance. Derek pointed out the juncture where the Verde River joins the Salt. One of Arizona’s last rivers that flows year around, the Verde surges into the placid Salt, a roiling rush of blue black water edged with green trees and musical with bird song.

Along the way we saw kettles of turkey vultures, a zone tailed hawk, black vultures, a gorgeous Harris’s hawk, a couple of peregrine falcons roosting on cliffs, cormorants, red-winged black birds and great blue herons. We also saw several herds of sleek wild horses. Some horses stood chest deep in the river and dipped their heads completely under to graze on submerged grasses.

Different reaches of the river have different moods and aspects. In the crystal clear upper half it felt heavenly to dunk hands and feet, to get splashed. Farther downriver where the tubers party and picnic sites line the banks, trash is ugly on the landscape. Near the lower dam, the river gets sluggish and murky. Soon it will seep into cement lined irrigation canals, and be put to work growing crops.

Kestrels Fly to Freedom

kestrels to releaseregal kestrel

One of the very special perks of volunteering at Liberty Wildlife is the chance to release an animal back to the wild. This time of year many orphans that were brought in as helpless babies become ready to go out on their own.

Orphaned nestlings brought to Liberty are placed with surrogate parents, non-releasable birds that feed and care for dozens of youngsters of their species. Liberty staff keeps a close eye on the young birds’ progress. When fully feathered, the fledglings are moved into flight cages with others of their kind, where they practice flying and learn to hunt on their own.

Yesterday, when my volunteer shift wrapped up Jan asked if I’d like to release a couple of kestrels. Of course! The North American kestrel is the smallest of the falcon family. About the size of a mourning dove, the kestrel is a stunningly beautiful bird of prey.

At South Mountain where I planned to release the birds, I peeked into the cardboard box. Kestrels are one of the few birds of prey that exhibit dimorphism, or different colored plumage for males and females. A male and a female glared up at me, fiesty.

The male stood boldly in the center of the box, chestnut feathers contrasting smartly with blue grey wings. His two dark eye stripes were like a warrior’s mask. The female huddled in the corner, showing the dark bars on her rust colored wings and back.

I fully opened the box and the male lifted out like he’d been pulled on a string. He flew to a nearby boulder and perched, screaming keeer-keeer. I jiggled the box a little and the female made for the sky, flying in a big arc. Her long, narrow wings pumped steadily, flashing mahogany. She soon disappeared from view.

The male stayed perched for a bit. He ruffled his feathers and flicked his tail up and down. He looked all around. If he was an orphan, this might be his first view of wide open sky and an expanse of rocks and mountain.

Perhaps he’d been brought to Liberty with an injury. If so, he may have spent weeks in the hospital healing and regaining strength. In any case, it was a momentous occasion.

Kestrels typically hunt in late afternoon or morning in the summer, avoiding the midday heat. They mostly prey on insects, but also eat lizards, rodents and small birds.

Pretty soon a couple of mockingbirds, perhaps with young in a nest nearby, decided they didn’t like this kestrel in their territory. Squawking indignantly they dove repeatedly at the stranger. The kestrel simply spread his wings and flew off to freedom.