Paloverde promise

vista
The spring pageantry continues in the desert. Glorious clouds of yellow sit upon the paloverde trees, those bland legumes, often short on leaves and charisma. The humble trees have moved to center stage and flame like beacons across the desert.
Bees drawn to the nectar and pollen create an undulating hum that creates a force field around the trees. All along my walks I hear bees buzzing to, from and about the big pollen party.
Growing up in the Northwest, in the shadow of towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, I didn’t recognize at first the status of the sprawling trees of the desert. But the ubiquitous paloverde and ironwood trees anchor life here.

These leguminous species attract beneficial bacteria to the soil around their roots, and this nitrogen rich zone is a magnet for other plant species such as saguaros that grow up in the shelter of their branches. Their yellow flowers feed bees and chuckwalla lizards, while mammals such as rock squirrels and cottontail rabbits browse the leaves and stems.
The flowers are replaced by a robust crop of seed pods. Already tender green crescents dangle like earrings from the trees. Protein rich seeds will develop inside the pods that will fuel life in birds, squirrels and other small mammals.
The natives are called foothill paloverdes. They are thorny. When we looked for a tree for our front yard, we settled on a desert museum paloverde. It has the same glossy green bark and a crown that opens to the sky like arms reaching towards heaven. Since we too are humble desert inhabitants and given to pruning our own trees, we decided this thornless hybrid allowed us the best of both worlds. Verdins still hunt insects along the desert museum’s branches and whiptail lizards scoop up bugs beneath its canopy.

WAM!

Xeriscape

Xeriscape

April in Arizona is Water Awareness Month. It’s good timing, as the outside temps are rising and the sunlight is starting to take on that knife’s edge of intensity. This is when our yards get thirsty. Approximately 75% of residential water use is outdoors.
There is a website of course: www.waterawarenessmonth.com. Check out the nifty calendar featuring daily water tips. Tabs offer resources, events and more ways to save on water. Find rebates for lowering your outdoor water usage, learn about rainwater harvesting, see lists of low water plants and more.
Az residents are challenged to set a goal of less than 100 gallons of water per person per day. With the two of us in our home, that would mean less than 6000 gallons a month. Still seems like a lot! I looked our water bill and in the last billing period we did use just under that. But usually we’re higher.

In 2013 we took out about a third of our lawn, paring down to just what we see out the family room window, and enough for the dog. We also purchased a rain tank. I don’t really miss the lawn, and I love the tank! It’s positioned under a scupper on the back of the house and one hundred gallons are “harvested” when just one inch of rain falls. For the past five months I’ve had rain water to put on my potted plants and to soak into my vegetable garden, leaching out the salts that our city water contains. The plants look great and the veggies are going nuts. I could use another tank.
The one we got was a Cubo from Oasis Rainwater Harvesting. It’s made of heavy duty plastic and comes in a variety of colors. It has a screened top to keep out debris, an overflow valve, which we’ve needed and a fixture to attach the hose.
I’m hoping to come up with more ways to cut down on water use. What about you? Send a comment and let me know how you’re saving water.

All the Pretty Faces of Spring

In the Sonoran desert many plants are too demure to be noticed until springtime when they break out colorful blossoms in exquisite forms. Its all about reproduction of course, a showy performance designed to attract pollinators. Most field guides to desert plants use pictures of the flowers to identify the species, so I’ve been taking note while the blooms are on.
Besides the globe mallow, the plants pictured here are new to me. Sure, I’ve walked by them for years, but now that I can name them, I see these plants differently. I look forward to watching these new-found friends progress from bloom to seed. I’m interested to see who pollinates these hardy natives and what insects can be found on their stems. I’m watching to see if birds come to eat their seeds.
Desert Trumpet is the name of a street near me. Paging through my field guide to identify the tiny cream colored flowers appearing on the long stalks, I find its name: desert trumpet! This is one of fifty three species of Eriogonum that grows in Arizona. Little wasps from the genus Onyerus drill holes in the hollow stems of desert trumpet and pack in miniature pebbles and captured insect larvae. The wasps then lay their eggs inside the stems. When the baby wasps hatch, they find themselves in a cozy nest well stocked with food.

(Click on the individual pictures to enlarge.)

An arrow to the heart

IMGP5987This saguaro cactus is probably about one hundred and fifty years old. If you can imagine, when this plant first pushed up through the soil, there were no roads, no subdivisions, no convenience stores, and no state called Arizona. In fact, White folks were just beginning to stream into the Southwest, drawn by stories of silver and gold for the taking.
Up until then, the land, the plants and the animals had been revered and respected by native, indigenous peoples. Humans had seen themselves as just one part of the interlocking web of life.
I’m not sure how long it will take the arrow that some cretin shot through the arm of this enduring cactus to rot. But until it does the saguaro will stand tall in defiance of the nonsense that is displayed here. I recognize that people have defaced trees by carving initials in them, hammering nails in to build forts and that we have decimated entire forests of ancient trees for building materials and single use paper towels and toilet paper.
Most probably this one arrow won’t harm the saguaro. So I’m trying to identify the source of my outrage. Perhaps it’s one more point of shame for my fellow humans. For if you were to take measure of these two beings, the shooter and the saguaro, its obvious which is the more admirable.

NICE

Ring necked ducks on the pond at Gilbert Water Ranch

Ring necked ducks on the pond at Gilbert Water Ranch

I helped out at a Maricopa Project NICE Nature Day Camp for early childhood educators this week. Twenty two educators came for the three day camp, taking part in a wide range of activities designed to spark ideas on how to get kids engaged with the outdoors. Most teach at preschools, spending their days with children from 2-5 years old. NICE stands for Nature Inspired Childhood Education and is under the umbrella of U of A’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The NICE theory is that early childhood is the optimal time to create a life long connection to nature and that being outdoors is integral to a child’s growth and development.
Early on the first day camp participants inspected insects in plastic containers, potential classroom “pets”, such as crickets, millipedes and an impressive family of Madagascar cockroaches. A few teachers allowed the bugs to creep across their hands while NICE coordinator Nikki Julien discussed the natural history and care of the animals.
Bill Kurtz, local architect and Boy Scout dad, spoke to the group about basic architectural terms and rope tying, inspiring a fort building activity. Teachers teamed up outside to make forts from old sheets, cardboard and palm fronds. Next, Pam Justice from Project WET talked about The Incredible Journey of a water molecule. We again went outside for a game that had us all moving from oceans to clouds, to rivers and lakes and through the soil and bodies of plants and animals as water molecules, earning colorful beads along the way.
On Tuesday Terry Doolan from the Arizona Department of Education’s Early Childhood Education gave a great talk on the importance of outdoor play. She explained how “big body play” builds motor and social skills and refines cognitive structure. The teachers shared their favorite items to bring to outdoor classrooms to engage children with the nature world and physical play.
Under the early spring sunshine in the County Extension’s demonstrations gardens we talked about soils, plants and compost, and the teachers potted up some seeds. Later Phoenix Herpetological brought a gopher snake by and talked about the fascinating reptiles of the Southwest. On Wednesday out at Gilbert Water Ranch the teachers visited stations located around the park that featured birds, soils, insects and healthy risk taking.
I remember when my kids were toddlers. It was rewarding and exhausting keeping up with their activity and endless questions. I’m happy these teachers are able to receive training and support. And how wonderful that people recognize that the littlest kids especially need to get outdoors and experience the natural world.

Renewal

Copy of sphinx mothI was climbing down a rocky incline very early in the morning when this white lined sphinx moth flew right under my nose and hovered in front of desert lavender awash in lilac colored blooms. The moth was gigantic, flying on wings spanning three and a half inches. I thought I’d been buzzed by a hummingbird. I had my camera handy so snapped a few pictures. See the long proboscis unrolled to probe for nectar hidden in the deepest part of the flower. This pollinator works day and night, fertilizing many native plants. On the other side of the equation, the white lined sphinx moth is a rewarding food source for bats, but is not the easy target she appears. Ears on either side of her abdomen are attuned to bat frequencies, acting as a warning system that allows her to attempt escape.
This moth has spent the winter inside a pupa buried in the soil. There she transformed from a hornworm caterpillar that marched across the desert in the fall munching on spurge and other weeds, to this ornately decorated moth that feeds on the nectars of spring. Assuming she evades the bats, nighthawks and daytime predators like mockingbirds and flycatchers, she’ll soon find a mate. Perhaps she’s already receiving the air-borne chemical signals that work like craigslist for singles. When the time comes she’ll lay tiny eggs from which hatch the green and yellow striped hornworm caterpillars. These caterpillars shed their skin as they grow, transforming into new larger instars several times before burrowing into the soil once again in a remarkable cycle of renewal.

Counting Birds

Costa's at penstemon

Costa’s at penstemon

Verdin

Verdin

The Great Outdoor Bird Count snuck up on me like a birdwatcher in a yellow rain slicker pushing through wet foliage. I knew it was coming, but it was on me too soon. So just before the pets started pressing for dinner on President’s Day, the last day of the count, I stepped outside with a notepad and binoculars. I sat in a folding chair beyond the edge of the patio and looked around. It was 4:10 pm. The blue sky was empty and the back yard was still.
I took some deep breaths and tried to settle into the moment. Our backyard fountain was annoyingly loud. It splashes like Victoria Falls when the water level is high and slows to a drip when it’s low. But birds are attracted to the sound of water, so louder was fine. 4:25 pm. I thought about checking emails on my phone. Why wasn’t I out at daybreak, like most birdwatchers?
Then the female Costa’s hummingbird zipped into the yard and began working her way among the blood red blooms of the chuparosa. This is her territory; the violet hooded male feeds at the purple blossoms of the lavender and sky flower near the fountain. When not feeding the female roosted on the topmost branch of the creosote bush, where she could see over the walls and out in every direction.
A mourning dove flew overhead. A verdin began chipping, and I peered through my binoculars at the tiny animated bird picking insects among the Palo Verde branches. Later he came down to the creosote and took nectar from the yellow blossoms.
Four more doves flew towards South Mountain. Beyond the iron railing of the back fence a cottontail rabbit hopped leisurely by. My husband came out with a chair and glasses of wine. When I turned toward him I spotted a red tailed hawk circling the craggy peak to the east. This hawk and her mate become active and vocal this time of year. Usually when they fly in the afternoons you can hear thin screams of keee-er.
Three doves secretly roosting on the rocky hillside behind our house broke cover and flew up in a commotion of flapping and chittering while a coopers’ hawk veered away, disappointed. Later two Gila woodpeckers bounded in flight through the cooling air, going opposite directions and passing each other over our yard.
At 5:10 I went in to feed the outraged cats, their dinner sorely overdue. Then I was drawn back outside to see what further drama might unfold. Two doves drank at the fountain, then flirted and cuddled on a cement fence post in the day’s last sunshine. The hungry coopers hawk made a turn in the sky to the west and a fence lizard hesitated then darted into the lawn to snatch a bug.
After dinner I submitted my count to ebird.org and a response came right back questioning the number of doves I’d claimed, stating that ten mourning doves sounded unreasonably high. They gave me a comment box to justify myself. I typed in that our neighbor feeds the birds and that our backyard is in a flight path from nearby golf courses to the desert preserve, so doves are a common sight. I imagined raised eyebrows, but then I too am amazed at all that’s going on out there.

Canyon Condor

Condor photos courtesy Terry Stevens Liberty Wildlife

Condor photos courtesy Terry Stevens Liberty Wildlife

Liberty Wildlife patient

Liberty Wildlife patient

From Phantom Ranch a few of us hiked up looping switchbacks of the Clear Creek Trail to overlooks far above the Colorado. At one point we noticed a lone figure in the distance, standing on a promontory high above the river. He waved a device resembling an old time TV antenna back and forth through empty air, searching for some sort of transmission.

We hiked on, past red prickly pear cacti and peach colored cliffs, traipsing on the rocky bones of Earth herself. The majestic spire and amphitheater of Zoroaster Temple beckoned and receded. Finally we stopped for lunch, opening our packs while gazing across the chasm to the Tonto Plateau.

Suddenly a gigantic bird, a condor, drifted past like a mirage from the days of the dinosaur. His pink head twisted as he looked across the distance. Perhaps some feathers shifted within his nine foot wingspan, but no effort seemed required to speed this rare character away on the thermals.

Later back at Phantom Ranch I sat in the sun warming spent muscles when a man walked past with a silver antenna sticking out of his backpack. “Excuse me,” I called. “Would you mind sharing what you were doing up there?”

He stopped and told me he was monitoring condors, the device picks up signals from radio transmitters attached to the birds.
“I’m glad you got to see him,” he said. “That’s a male who most likely was checking on his year old chick.”

I asked about the chick’s mother. The ranger said they believe the female is still helping to raise the chick, but that she has either lost her transmitter or it has lost function. He said the condors produce an egg just once every two years. They nest on bare rock, usually on a sheltered ledge or cave high on a cliff. He described the calamity that is often the youngster’s first flight, as it tumbles from the high ledge to a rocky landing below and gradually works to regain the nest cave, learning how its big wings work in the meantime.

Condors wear radio transmitters because they are among the most endangered birds in the world. About 70 condors fly free in Arizona and it is believed that for the breeding season of 2012 only four eggs were laid. Successful breeders produce one egg, usually between February and March. If that egg fails, they may try for a replacement.

Arizona’s condors favor the remote high reaches of the Vermillion Cliffs and the Grand Canyon. Other equally limited populations live in California and Northern Baja Mexico. These carrion eaters feed on anything from dead squirrels to elk, domestic stock and sea mammals on the coast. They are premier cleaner uppers.

Condors are considered critically endangered because there are less than 50 actively breeding pairs in the wild and these are not self sustaining. In 1987 only twenty two of the birds remained and they were all captured and put into breeding programs. The Peregrine Fund, a non profit that conserves birds of prey worldwide, manages today’s reintroduced population of condors. Breeding programs continue with 6-10 birds released every year.

Lead toxicity is the leading cause of death for these magnificent animals. According to Arizona Game and Fish, all of the state’s condors are trapped twice a year and tested for lead poisoning; 45-95% test positive. Sick birds must be injected with chelating medications twice a day to help them metabolize the toxins. Some require surgery which is performed at Liberty Wildlife.

The lead comes from spent gunshot. Carrion eaters like condors consume gut piles laced with lead shot, as well as animals that were shot and not taken out. Arizona Game and Fish offers free all copper ammunition to hunters in condor territories. Every hunter needs to make the switch from lead to copper in order for condors to become a stable population.

Truly a Grand Canyon

Monique's bobcat photo

Monique’s bobcat photo

Phantom Ranch cabins

Phantom Ranch cabins

On the morning of the canyon hike three inches of fresh snow blanketed the South Rim and dark clouds clumped above the abyss, promising more weather to come. I pulled on rain pants, raincoat, gators and ice cleats. Our company of 15 women set out down the switchbacks of Bright Angel Trail after group photos and prayer. Snow sparkled in mounds on pinyon pine branches and errant beams of sun set a ruddy glow on enduring rock faces. We hiked ever deeper into the canyon, leaving snow behind and then the sticky slippery mud. The eight mile hike from the South Rim to the Colorado River encompasses biomes found from the Canadian Rockies to Sonora, Mexico.
By the half way point at Indian Gardens the skies had cleared and we ate lunch in shirt sleeves under an ancient cottonwood tree that shades long grasses and prickly pear cacti. The next stretch of trail hugs close to musical Garden Creek, where occasional waterfalls trickle down sheer cliffs through beds of bright green moss. By the time we reached the river, everyone was plenty tired. Thankfully the last two miles along the Colorado and up Bright Angel Canyon to Phantom Ranch aren’t so steep. Crossing the Silver Suspension Bridge, I knew I had made it.
The Bright Angel Campground was studded with tents, and Phantom Ranch’s canteen, cabins and dorms looked tidy and timeless as always. When I reached the group sitting around the picnic table by the creek they’d already photographed a bobcat! A very tame resident population of mule deer that browse in the area may be the reason this predator appeared so very well fed. Bobcats weigh 15 to 30 pounds and normally prey on rodents and rabbits. But they are known to take deer if the situation arises.
The next day a few of us hiked up Clear Creek Trail where we oohed and ahhed over more glorious canyon outlooks as well as a multitude of natural gardens cloistered on terraces, cupped in shady corners and even growing from cracks in cliffs. Very few flowers were in bloom yet. We stopped for lunch in a broad drainage where rainfall rushes off Zoroaster Temple to pour thousands of feet to the river below. Two ravens came snooping and a condor cruised past, effortless on the thermals. A nine foot wingspan is fitting in this place.
Toiling up the South Kaibab Trail on Sunday we stopped often to catch our breath and savor the ever changing vistas. We dodged mule trains and peered at tiny purple flowers springing from the dirt. Ravens swooped low overhead to chuckle at our efforts and icy breezes near the top reminded us that winter still reigned.
We took the shuttle back to Bright Angel Lodge where our cars were parked. Grubby and exhausted I gazed around at the tourists on the bus. They looked so clean and comfy. I’m sure they too were awed by the canyon and I realize not everyone is able to hike. But I can guarantee that in this case I did reap what I’d sowed.

Bloom Time Canyon Time

P1020363P1020331It’s bloom time in the desert and flowers spring everywhere. The brittle bushes are shouting their yellow across the landscape and delicate purple blossoms are opening on the demure desert lavender. The tiny wildflowers that dress up the desert are splashing bright spots of yellow, purple and white at the feet of hikers. I’ve seen Mexican poppies, purple owl clover, purple lupine and yellow fiddleneck flowering on my walks.
I’ve been walking a lot lately to gear up for my hike this weekend to Phantom Ranch – way down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Its seven to ten miles each way, depending on which trail you take – Bright Angel or South Kaibab. I’ll be carrying a pack loaded with water, rain gear, food and wine. This will be my fourth trip to Phantom Ranch and I always wish I could bring more stuff…binoculars, field guides, camera gear, books. But when you must carry everything on your back and keep track of these items in a small dorm housing nine other women, it pays to keep things simple. As it is, basic items somehow remain lost in the bottom of my backpack until I get home.
Last trip I picked up a booklet on the plants of the Grand Canyon. There are 1400 species of plants that grow in the canyon, covering the range of elevations. Looking at the list of plants found in the inner canyon where I’ll have the most leisure to scout around, there are a dozen that should be in bloom. Most of these are tiny wild flowers with intriguing names.
I’ll be on the lookout for Adonis Blazing Star, Purple Bladder pod, Blue Dicks, Storks bill and Caterpillar weed. Miner’s lettuce should be showing white flowers. This member of the Portulaca family is said to be a tasty salad green that miners ate back in the day to prevent scurvy. Stork’s bill or filaree is a member of the geranium family and gets its colorful name from the seed pod that resembles a bird’s beak until it dries and twists into a spiral. It lies on the ground until rain comes. Then the pod untwists, screwing its seeds into the soil.
It’s a grand part of this adventure that in February at the South Rim where the elevation is 7120 feet, winter reigns. There will surely be snow on the ground and perhaps swirling in the air as well. By the time we make it to the bottom of the canyon to Phantom Ranch we’ll be at sea level and spring will be unfolding bright petals of Mexican poppies and firecracker penstemon, our gorgeous and familiar desert wildflowers.