Fantastic Frogs

Tiny canyon tree frog

Tiny canyon tree frog

Couch's spadefoot can be 3 inches or more in size.

Couch’s spadefoot can be 3 inches or more in size.

On March 19 I drove out to the Superstition Mountains, under a threatening sky split with trembling shafts of sunlight. It had rained the night before and again that morning, and as my hiking pal and I set out on the Second Water Trail the cool air was heavy with humidity and sweet with the scent of desert plants.

At the outset the trail descended gently to a boulder strewn wash. It was obvious that in rain events water thunders here, draining mountainous faces that loom craggy and forbidding. Familiar desert trees were joined by lush vines, and lichen and moss sprawled across rocky stretches. Timid lupine, larkspur and hyacinth shyly presented their spectrum of blue blossoms while brittle bushes and creosote flowered in bold yellow.

We hiked for several hours and the day was warming when I noticed movement at ground level. Expecting a lizard, I was astounded to see a small brown frog hop across the trail. He reached the shade of a large rock and slipped out of sight. It was a canyon treefrog, known for cryptic coloring that helps it hide in a variety of habitats.

The canyon treefrog is usually found in rocky canyons in riparian areas. This might be in the desert, in desert grasslands or oak-pine forests. The frog survives in elevations up to 9800 feet, avoiding cold temperatures by retreating to underground burrows.

I saw another frog a week later. I was outside with my Mesa Community College aquaponics class when one of the students spied a frog. It’s an evening class and we often walk over to the greenhouse, adjacent garden, and aquaponics systems to work. As we approached the dimly lit garden, a large frog hopped across the path.

Our professor scooped him up and held him so we could all admire his olive green coloring and dark green blotches. “This is a Couch’s spadefoot,” Dr. Brooks announced. “When I was a kid these frogs used to be everywhere.” The frog’s large eyes bugged out at us from the top of its head.

Apparently back in the day, spadefoots were a common sight in the evening times, especially in areas with sandy soils where drought hardy creosote and mesquite trees grew. Back then people knew the eerie nighttime scream they heard on monsoon nights was the mating call of this frog.

Mating season coincides with the torrential rainfalls of late summer. The spadefoots are called from their underground homes by the drumming of the rain on the earth and by the rumble of thunder. The males come up out of their burrows and immediately start calling the females. In The Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, the call of Couch’s spadefoot is described as the bleating cry that a sheep or goat might make. I would guess most of us aren’t familiar with that sound either.

Females lay thousands of eggs which can hatch in as little as 15 hours. The tiny tadpoles transform quickly into frogs, driven by the rapid shrinkage of the pools where they spawned. The brand new frogs hide under vegetation or anyplace slightly moist, and eat and eat. They feed on grasshoppers, ants, beetles and spiders. This may be the frogs’ only chance to eat until the monsoon season rolls around again. The horny growths or “spades” on their back legs help the frogs dig down into their protective burrows.

Frogs in the desert strike me as improbable, and in these days, nearly impossible. But nature has found a way to put amphibians into our arid landscape and allow them to flourish. As much as Nature favors delicate yet resilient amphibians, humans have mostly stayed immune to their charms and ignorant of their ways.

A Plant Can Volunteer Too



Out in the side yard, where the air handlers crouch near the pool pump, each gobbling electricity faster and louder than the others, a white globe mallow has volunteered.

The mallow first appeared a couple of years ago, as a straggly shoot boasting elegantly lobed leaves. It has grown into a pleasing mound of green in a stark area between a short block wall and a vigorous queen palm.

We think of plants as stationary, but they usually make at least two journeys…the quest of the seed, and the return to earth. Whether this single mallow seed traveled on the wind or in the gut of a bird, it came to shelter in this place. Is it ludicrous to think that the palm tree felt pleasure when the seed trickled down through the gravel to the soil waiting below?

For the seed has now realized its full promise, and the globe mallow sprawls luxuriously at the feet of the palm, drinking deeply of its irrigation and providing shade and cover to its roots. An ever gracious volunteer, at this time of year, the mallow presents long slender arms laden with delicate, cup-shaped blooms.

The pleasing blossoms cluster along the pliable branches like faces of joy. Some are fully opened and visited by bees. Others are still in bud form, pale green pods shaped like tiny pointed domes. The petals push from these buds to form perfect teardrops, imitated in art and jewelry, then elongate into rose-like profiles that gradually unfold.

The globe mallow is one of the desert’s most drought tolerant mallows. Its nectar attracts bees, while on rocky wild hillsides, bighorn sheep graze on the plant. Globe mallows may be white, orange or pink and make a nice addition to natural desert landscaping.

No Place for a Cottontail


Wednesday, as you may know, is double coupon day at Sprouts Market, and as I pulled into the parking lot I found a throng of people. Shoppers trickled out the doors pushing loaded shopping carts, and others headed in toting handbags. Most of the nearby parking spaces were taken and a line of cars inched along, drivers looking for an empty slot. The red brake lights of a Suburban glowed as it sat, half way out of a front row space, waiting for people to pass.

In the midst of all this, I was astounded to see a cottontail rabbit crouched on the asphalt near the Suburban. He was absolutely still and people parted and passed by as if he was indeed invisible. Suddenly the press of autos and humanity seemed ominous and horrible.

I peeled off my sweatshirt with the thought I could drop it over the poor bunny and rescue it from what must be for it a hellish scene. But as I approached, the rabbit lollopped off to shelter under a parked car. I kept herding the little critter away from the busy store entrance, but parking lots, storefronts and heavily traveled streets surrounded us.

Sprouts is one of the anchor stores of the busiest intersection in our community. This is the corner of 48th Street and Ray Road. Seven lanes of traffic travel along one arterial and eight on the other. Once for a writing project I sat for half an hour at the bus stop on Ray Road just east of 48th.

Sitting on the bench inside the plexiglas shell I was overcome by the volume of traffic that surged past, pulsing in waves created by traffic signals. As a driver, I’d scarcely noticed the bus stop, but as a pedestrian I felt exposed, vulnerable and completely out of my element. The sheer mass of machinery and the anonymity of the passing drivers sealed up inside their vehicles, closed off behind their tinted windows….well, quite honestly, I didn’t really last the full thirty minutes.

I quickly lost the rabbit outside Sprouts on Wednesday, as the rows of parked cars offered plenty of places to hide. In an effort to replicate the writing exercise that demanded a radical change in perspective, I wondered if a very urban population of rabbits may have found a niche in parking lots.

Small squares of green grass are offered up in these fields of asphalt, a paltry attempt to soften the glare and provide comfort and a sense of aesthetics amid expanses of heat and grit. Rabbits most commonly feed in the early morning and at dusk, and these strip mall lots would be quieter at those times. During the day parked cars offer shade and cover. Most natural predators would be excluded from this environment.

This strikes me as a depressing theory, but plausible. After all, coyotes do roam city streets, peregrine falcons hunt from skyscraper ledges and black bears turn up in the oddest places. There’s no getting around the fact that a cottontail rabbit was hanging out at Sprouts, early afternoon on double coupon day.

Kiwanis Trail -Then and Now



Saguaro at rest

Saguaro at rest

The Kiwanis Trail was the original access route carved into South Mountain Park. Alarmed by the assault on the highly scenic area by miners, 100 Phoenix citizens petitioned to have the mountainous region declared a national monument. Stephen Mathers was brought in as advisor on this effort and he recommended the group ask the Honorable Carl Hayden to introduce the bill in Congress, which granted the land to the city of Phoenix for $18,000. There was no money left for developing park amenities.

In 1925 civic leaders formed two teams for a friendly competition. Who could build more mountain trail in a given number of hours? By the end of a single morning Kiwanis Trail was shoveled and carved through a gorgeous rocky canyon, from the foot of the new South Mountain Park to the top of Telegraph Pass. Prominent city chefs held their own contests as they prepared a celebratory luncheon for the volunteers.

The mile long ascent through the canyon alternates rock strewn inclines with peaceful meanders along flatter terrain. The trail traces to the shoulder of the canyon and the rain washed arroyo below appears sandy, shaded and mysterious. The northerly view of the modern city skyline would have astounded the park founders.

On this slightly overcast day in middle February the canyon shelters many plants that are revealing early spring blooms. Blue grey brittle bushes crowd the trail and wave cheery yellow blossoms. Shy scorpionweeds dot the ground with royal purple flowers. Michelle and I take turns calling out the spring blooms we see; fagonia, four o’clock, creosote.

A cactus wren lights on a boulder near the trail, a long slender reed drooping from its beak. I imagine the bird scouting the region for nesting sites and building materials, puffed with the importance of the duty. Cactus wrens are continuous builders, working tirelessly on their football shaped nests. Typically the baby wrens will appear in mid March, and breeding continues into September.

We pass a large stone dam about two thirds of the way to the top, installed to slow the rush of runoff down the canyon. We notice another dam close to the base of the trail on our way down. The Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp at South Mountain in the 1930’s and constructed trails, roads, picnic ramadas and these dams.

A pair of rock wrens plays tag among the boulders, where they live off insects sheltering in cracks and crannies. The intact ribs of a large saguaro recline on the hillside, as if the stately cactus became tired and lay down one day, never to stand again. Perhaps this happened during the time the Hohokam shamans pecked petroglyphs into the patina on the walls of these canyons, so long ago.

To see for yourself the beauty of this city park that offers spectacular hiking and close encounters with plants and animals of the region, check out this link.
I think you’ll enjoy it.

Join In! The Great Backyard Bird Count’s Upon Us.

Sparrow drinking

Sparrow drinking

Northern mockingbird

Northern mockingbird

Don’t forget that the 18th annual Great Backyard Bird Count starts tomorrow and runs through Monday. This event spans both Valentine’s Day and the President’s Day holiday, so presents great opportunities to get outside with a loved one or a little one and share a love of nature.

This is also your chance to contribute to a scientific body of knowledge! The count reveals the current health of bird populations and in recent years has highlighted the impacts of weather events like polar vortexes on bird ranges.

Imagine that helping the world is as easy as sitting outside in your back yard for half an hour and making notes about what you see! You’ll watch for birds of course, but in the process you’ll see more aspects of nature unfold.

Last year, I hit the jackpot. Sitting in our backyard, in late afternoon on the last day of the count, I saw no birds for nearly an hour. The inactivity made me feel impatient, I’ll admit. It was a big relief to see that first mourning dove.

Between those that came into the yard to feed on nectar plants and brittlebushes and those that flew overhead, the numbers of birds I sighted added up quickly. By the time I finally and reluctantly went back inside to resume routine activities, I’d tallied up six species! Not only could I record the numbers, it was fun to observe what the birds in my backyard were up to.

Back inside, take up the cloak of citizen scientist! It’s time to log onto and record your findings. Last year 144,000 checklists were logged online over the four day count. For an activity that’s fun, educational, free, and a contribution to science, the numbers should be far higher. Come on, join in. Give the GBBC a try this year!

Let me know what you saw~

Most Unusual

Cooper's hawk  Photo by Wikipedia

Cooper’s hawk
Photo by Wikipedia

Thick fog has cocooned the desert in a white wrap this morning. Visibility is limited to about the distance I can lob a tennis ball. The moisture laden air releases sensuous vapors from the desert plants and the aromas supplant the sights I normally enjoy.

The lack of visibility focuses my attention on the immediate surroundings. This is a useful change of perspective. Normally, my thoughts and energies are drawn to possibilities of the future or events of the past. Thick fog brings the focus of attention to the now.

My walk through a favorite wash finds everything changed. The surrounding mountains and hillsides seem nonexistent. Saguaros and bony desert trees arise from the mist like they’ve just arrived, rather than holding their ground all these centuries. Spider webs, usually invisible, gleam from tangles of branches near the ground, moisture highlighting every tenuous strand.

A Cooper’s hawk swoops low overhead, following the twists and turns carved by ephemeral streams draining the unseen slopes. I’ve seen a number of Cooper’s hawks lately, or the same one several times!

At the edge of visibility is the gnarled form of an ironwood tree and perching on a branch about eye level is the Cooper’s hawk. She faces away from me, presenting her long tail and bulky shoulders. I stop walking and softly call the dog to me. Cooper’s are notoriously shy and this is the closest I’ve ever been. I wait for her to spook and fly away but she sits firm. I can see the lighter feathers around her beak, the gleam of an eye beneath a dark cap as she looks my way.

Is a bird that relies on superlative vision uncomfortable flying in fog? Or is she sitting on a fresh kill, reluctant to leave a much needed meal? After watching for awhile, I cluck to the dog and we turn back, walk away. We climb out of the wash and take the trail instead, skirting around the raptor.

Tromping through the cool mist I think about the bird, and hope she’s tearing into warm meat, gulping down much needed protein, and not just grounded by fog. The dog and I climb a ridge to a point where every vista has vanished. How representative of life. As much as we plan and scheme and peer into the distance, we can never know what lies ahead. And what we’ve left behind is gradually erased by the unceasing passage of time.

Leading Edge of Spring

Costa's in creosote shrub

Costa’s in creosote shrub

Costa's at the garden chuparosa

Costa’s at the garden chuparosa

A covey of quail hops the fence and busies themselves under the shrubs and on the lawn, pecking and scratching for insects. The sleek feathers on their round bodies gleam in the afternoon sun and their top knots bob.

The chuparosa shrub in the corner of the garden is resplendent with red trumpet-shaped flowers that taste like cucumbers. The slender blooms hold nectar that is a magnet for hummingbirds from sunup to sundown. Anna’s hummingbirds and the smaller Costa’s hummingbirds fly into the garden like the shiny points on arrows, and hover at the luscious display to sip the sweet nutrients.

A Costa’s roosts on a low branch of creosote bush nearby and watches for invaders to her closely guarded food source. She tolerates the tiny green verdin that browse the chuparosa for insects and perhap nectar as well. But if another hummer approaches she rushes the intruder and away they chase.

Last night I dreamed I was hiking a rocky trail and a large lizard materialized before me, shimmering in hues of green and blue. Our desert lizards may shimmer in certain light, but their colors match their rocky habitat. Lizards and snakes too, will soon venture short distances from their burrows to soak up the early spring warmth.

I walk slowly in the desert, examining the small plants sprouting underfoot. These dabs of green in the landscape’s brown palette won’t wait long to unfurl flowers – colorful tapestries of saffron and blue. The Sonoran spring wildflower show is coming to brighten our landscape soon.

Sitting on a rocky outcrop, I’m looking south across an open expanse of basin and range topography, when five mourning doves come out of nowhere. They careen low overhead on clattering wings. The dog and I both duck and startle in surprise. A moment later the predator appears, a silent Cooper’s hawk soaring on glistening white wings. Ascending on the chilly breeze, he circles once and disappears.


Wisdom and her 2011 chick.   Photo from Wikipedia

Wisdom and her 2011 chick.
Photo from Wikipedia

I’d like to introduce you to a young woman named Wieteke Holthuijzen who describes herself as a budding environmental scientist. Wieteke is working right now for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on Midway Atoll.

In a fascinating blog post she writes about the oldest known banded wild bird, a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom.

Please click on Wing It to visit the blog.

Why Worm Compost is Best

Worm bins at greenhouse

Worm bins at greenhouse

Ok, time for a tolerance test. We embrace nature in all her glory, right? We understand the interconnectedness of the natural world and honor even the tiniest contributors to the grand scheme. We realize that even the house fly has a mysterious purpose.
I’d like to invite you, loyal readers, to embrace worms. Let me explain.

I’ve recently been given the responsibility of caring for approximately one hundred red wrigglers at the greenhouse. They were delivered to me in a rather snazzy white bag that claimed to contain one pound of worms.

I deposited them, half and half, in two worm bins prepared with homemade bedding. Worm bedding is shredded paper, peat moss and vermiculite with a trowel full of soil tossed in to get the microbes simmering. The bedding is kept nice and moist because worms like things wet. They are clammy little beings, with skin slime that performs important duties, such as lubricating the passage of the worm through the soil, and sealing the walls of the worm’s burrows as it goes.

Red wriggler worms help at home by eat rotting stuff. Kitchen throw aways like potato peels, egg shells, coffee grinds and apple cores are tucked into the worm bin along with the bedding. Microorganisms on these food wastes are swallowed by the worms and take up temporary residence inside their guts. In the digestion process nutrients are released by the bacteria and taken into the worm’s bloodstream for energy.

Red wrigglers are of the classification epigeic, worms that live near the surface where there is the most microbial activity. The microbes that aid their digestion pass through the worm alive and are excreted in tiny dark pellets called castings. Worm castings are packed with nutrients and beneficial microorganisms that feed life.

If you feel the need to wash your hands, just reading these words, I think that’s normal. Our society worries about germs and wants to wipe them out forever. But microorganisms are everywhere and they aid many aspects of life. Worm castings are a critical link in the lifecycle of healthy soils and make terrific compost.

So, people keep worm bins under their kitchen sink. There in the warmth and dark of the cozy kitchen, the worms live happily, munching away on food scraps and paper. Meanwhile, the home garden thrives with the addition of worm cast compost.

Technical information abounds online about how to keep worms and how to harvest the compost. Progressive cities across the nation supply homeowners with worm bins or information on how to make one. California even has an online interactive game to teach residents about vermiculture, called The Adventures of Vermi the Worm.

Let’s wrap up with a few fascinating worm facts:
Worms have no need for eyes, ears, teeth or limbs. They do have a mouth, a lip and taste cells.
Worm bodies are divided into segments called somites. Each segment is heavily muscled and lined with tiny bristles called setae. The bristles are used to pull the worm through soil, or to hold it in place when a bird tries to tug it up for a meal.
A worm’s actions are directed by a brain made up of sensitive nerve cells that detect light, moisture and vibrations and coordinate muscle movement.

Power Addiction

aloe stairway

It’s been cold in the Phoenix area this week, and snow fell as low as 2,000 feet last night! We also lost our power yesterday afternoon, at about 4 pm. It was as if the house emitted a long sigh and then everything went absolutely quiet. The silence was eerie and peaceful.

I remember when we moved into this home, and how nervous all the various humming, droning and switching on and off of appliances made me. I worried about knowing how to fix everything that might break. The water softener comes on the middle of the night and once wandering sleepless, I panicked thinking that water was spewing throughout the garage. It was just a “normal” cycle of another machine that had become indispensible to our lives.

Yesterday afternoon I’d planned to make meatballs for dinner, but instead I found my head lamp and started pulling candles from dark cupboards. There were just five matches left in the book, so I lit an old chopstick so I could get to all the wicks before the matches ran out.

The boys left to watch football on a sport’s bar screen, and I wondered what to do. How many of our leisure activities involve electrically powered devices! Without the relentless bright lights that carry us through the dusk and dark, I felt disoriented like I’d forgotten to wear my glasses. The cats paced and the dog clung to my side.

I don’t want to start on some big thing about survivalism, but gosh. How prepared are you to be without power for an extended time?

I saw a listing in the paper for a program called Kid vs. Wild at Usery Mountain Regional Park. Children ages 7-12 learn how to find their way, signal for help, build an emergency shelter and avoid desert dangers. Kids must be able to hike a mile, bring a parent, water, hat and closed toe shoes.

Maybe someone will think to offer classes on how to carry on with life without electricity. We might learn some interesting lessons along the way.

Oh, the house came back to life after just an hour of silence. One machine after another kicked in, and warm air began to flow from the vents. I turned on the lights and started making meatballs.