Instead of thronging to the malls, visit the Boyce Thompson Arboretum for Thanksgiving Weekend Live Music and Nature Walks. Admission $10 for adults and $5 for ages 5-12. The Arboretum is open on T-day as well.
When I moved to Phoenix from the Pacific Northwest 16 years ago I didn't expect to become bewitched by the plants, the animals, the geography and even the weather of the Sonoran desert. Arizona's varied habitats have become my classroom and my sanctuary. Thank you readers for joining me on this journey of discovery.
Phenology can be considered a lens for observing and experiencing nature. And, the carefully recorded observations of seasonal changes prove invaluable to farmers, rangers, bee keepers, and many scientists. Thousands of visitors visit Washington D.C. in the spring to see the cherry blossoms. Phenology helps festival planners gauge when the blooms will be most spectacular.
The National Phenology Network was formed in 2007 and provides an online data base of over 900 plant and animal species within the U.S. Over 9,000 observers currently contribute local data to the network. These citizen scientists check regularly on plants and animals at sites near them and record observations of activity, reproduction and development. You and I can join the network and post our observations as well. We’ll be helping researchers better understand how plants and animals are responding to our changing environment, provided we can make the commitment to keep up with the project over time.
I’m excited to get started. I attended a National Phenology Network seminar sponsored by Maricopa County Extension over the weekend. We practiced observing green plants for stages of leafing, bloom and fruit. We learned to watch for specific activities of birds, insects and animals such as feeding, nesting and migration. Independently we’ll choose a handful of plants to monitor in our own backyards. Once a week, or more, we’ll take our checklists out to observe the life stages of the plants, to listen for birds and watch for insects. NPN’s Nature’s Notebook provides ample information and assistance on logging this data through the website.
Using this tool to track seasonal changes over time feels like something important I can do for the planet. The information gathered by citizen scientists, be they nature geeks like me or classrooms of students, can be used to answer scientific questions. Participants of the Tucson Phenology Trail are tracking when mesquite beans are ready for harvest. This information can help ensure beans are gathered at their peak, yet before monsoon moisture contributes to spoilage. There are countless ways local observations can be used in larger programs, and for children phenology activities can be used to promote science and climate literacy.
NPN is establishing a Phoenix Phenology Trail, a series of locations with specific plants tagged for observations by visitors. In this way our local seasonal changes can be tracked and a host of nature enthusiasts, children and adults, will have a new reason to get out and enjoy the outdoors. The first official location of the Phoenix Trail will be the gardens at the Maricopa County Extension on Broadway in Phoenix.
I hiked up Telegraph Trail on South Mountain yesterday, feeling the heat as the mid morning temperatures climbed into the 80’s. I carried my camera, hoping to get some good photos of the area that the proposed South Mountain bypass freeway would cleave with its eight lanes of truck traffic. But the day was hazy and my pictures turned out less than inspiring. There would surely be more smog with twenty two new miles of freeway.
I sat for awhile on flat boulders at the top of the mountain. The view encompassed miles of the Gila Indian Reservation and the pointy blue ridges of the Sierra Estrella Mountains. In the quiet I noticed the thin repetitive call of a bird. Finally there appeared a busy little wren, hopping around the backside of the boulders near me. She poked her long beak into every crevice, hiding places of bugs and spiders.
This is a rock wren, a resident of arid areas of western North America. Shy and nondescript, the wren is most commonly heard before being seen. According to renowned birdsong expert Donald Kroodsma, the male rock wren has a repertoire of more than 100 songs. This must have been a female, because she only repeated her plaintive call of ta-whee, ta-whee. She was curious of me though and kept working her way nearer. Finally she peeked over the far side of the boulder just five feet away and cocked her head to inspect me more closely.
Aside from their songs, rock wrens are known for building walkways of flat stones to their nest sites. First the rock wrens pair up and choose a cozy looking cavity among the rocks. They bring in small stones, twigs and even trash to make a platform for their nest and then weave grasses and plant parts to make a loose cup. The female adds a soft lining of rootlets, animal fur and spider webs. Smooth, flat rocks are used to construct the pathway, which may be a foot and a half long. No one knows why the path.
Rock wrens nest between April and August, sometimes raising two broods per year. The female lays five to eight eggs. A couple of weeks later the parents must coax the fledglings towards independence, luring them outside the nest with tasty tidbits. The fledglings stay close and continue to be fed by mom and dad for a month before dispersing. Rock wrens are not known to drink water, gaining moisture they need from their insect prey.
I’m amazed at how many people attend the National Geographic series. Award winning photographer and marine biologist Paul Nicklen spoke at the Mesa Art Center this past week. Nicklen is one of National Geo’s most published storytellers and his adventures and photographs from Antarctica lit our imaginations with images of fantastic wild animals and an icy and imperiled land.
Paul grew up in northern Canada’s Baffin Islands living with an Inuit tribe. He credits that upbringing with his spirit of adventure and willingness to experience intensely rigorous conditions. He described for us the sensations of hour-long dives in nearly frozen sea waters and how his body becomes hypothermic, so numb he has to look at his hand to make sure he’s still pushing the shutter. His underwater photos of leopard seals are piercing.
Paul spent weeks in the Antarctic taking pictures of polar bears, emperor penguins, leopard seals and narwhales. Narwhales carry long ivory horns on their heads like unicorns and all the animals of the frozen arctic seem as magical as those mythical beings. Four foot tall emperor penguins hurried to the plane when Paul and his crew landed, eager to check out the action. The penguins grow large on diets of tiny fish that school under the ice. Thousand pound leopard seals feast on emperor penguins that evade them by shooting out of the water on explosions of air bubbles forced from their feathers. Thus propelled, the quickest penguins land safely on the ice. Massive, shaggy polar bears doggedly hunt the seals. Thus another perfect cycle of nature is fit to a frigid and seemingly desolate environment.
Paul stated his hope that his photographs will do what he was not able to accomplish as a marine biologist. He’s creating visual images to capture imaginations and inspire emotions. His visual stories aim straight for our heartstrings. He asked on the Mesa stage that we all look at our comfortable lives and consider what behaviors we can change to help protect the icy lands that provide a habitat for these wild creatures.
In addition to spending ten months out of twelve in the field pursuing stories for National Geographic, Nicklen has founded an organization called Sealegacy. Visit the website and be reminded that three fourths of our planet is ocean, an ecosystem vital to every aspect of life on Earth. Oceans provide food, oxygen, weather regulation and carbon sinks to support life. There is a clear connection between a healthy ocean and the well being of humans. (I was shocked by a statement on Sealegacy that 90% of all large marine predators have already disappeared from the oceans.)
Google Paul Nicklen Ted Talk and you can see a 15 minute presentation of his Antarctic photographs. It’s a terrific story.
Every member of my immediate family has recently moved or is in the process of moving their households. I feel like the boulder in the middle of the stream. But inescapably, even streams don’t stay in one place. The process of stream morphology sneakily moves tiny grains of sediment. Sandy banks are carved into sweeping curves while rocky stretches jut stubborn. Ultimately the stream bed itself has moved house. Nature’s lessons prove that change does indeed come to all.
Yoga gurus teach that life can only be fully experienced by focusing in the moment, every moment. But as the vigilant red tail hawk floats overhead his shiny eyes probing the shadows below, the squirrel hides, his cheeks stuffed with rich nuts for the winter. Live in the moment but provide for the future is another integral tenet of nature.
Modern humans don’t have to worry much about absolute survival through winter, as we have developed the capacity to insulate ourselves against the elements. The winter of our lives is change itself, which brings opportunity but also presents challenges. Don’t we all love our routines? And more than that, we thrive when we master the conditions and gain control over those variances that threaten to disrupt the smooth flow of our lives.
Upheaval and frustration accompany adjustments to new routines as new residents, new employees, new students learn to navigate their changed world. Experience shows we do come out the other side, with an upper hand once more and in reasonable control of our days. This unruly and uncomfortable process is called growth.
We boulders in the stream will someday find that we too have become unrooted and have begun to roll. We too will confront the confusion and fear of the unknown. Ultimately we’ll come to rest in a new place and slowly this home will become our new normal.
In August I wrote about seeing the smallest quail family ever, a single male and his chick. Dad was running for cover with his neck outstretched and the tiny chick sprinted behind. A few weeks later I saw them again. Dad waited on the sidewalk and the kid, slightly bigger by then, inspected a scrap of paper right in the middle in the street. Any parent would relate to Dad’s impatience.
The pair has obviously suffered great losses, Mom as well as the rest of the chicks apparently falling to predators. This chick also came very late as most quail babies hatch in spring. Quail pairs unsuccessful their first try at breeding will sometimes try again if monsoon rains bring tender and nourishing summer annuals.
In mid September we planted a small winter lawn and the rye grass seeds attracted flocks of birds. Usually doves are the main perpetrators, but this has been the year of the quail. Among the many, I recognized the single dad and his only child, now a scruffy looking adolescent. They pecked vigorously in the yard together and then Dad led Junior around the pool to a quiet corner where they rested under a bottle brush tree.
As much as I love the birds, we try to discourage them during seeding time. The best method for shooing the birds is to let the dog out. She tears out the back door and the birds rise with a thunderous flapping, only to slip silently back when no one is looking. After about a week the seed germinates and the birds dissipate.
Happily, Dad Quail and Junior are still hanging around. I’m surprised, because even though he can fly, Junior has trouble getting out of our yard. A vertical rail fence runs along the back and we’ve installed a wire screen at the base of it to discourage snakes. Several times I’ve come out the back door to see Dad fly up into the trees beyond the fence while Junior runs back and forth at the screen. It’s a pathetic sight, the little guy’s obviously in a panic. In his fear he forgets he can fly and thinks that he can only reach safety through that wire screen.
Seeing Junior trapped by the screen again today, I circled around the house and approached from outside the fence. Dad was waiting and clucked in alarm. Finally, the youngster flew to the wall, ran along the top towards the desert and flew to his father. Reunion!
Observing Junior go to pieces and forget what he knows, strikes me, as does the close bond between these two survivors, as so human. As we get to know animals better we clearly see the links we share. Humans are not the only beings on this earth that have emotions and act accordingly.
In 2000, photographer Nancy McGirr launched the nonprofit Guaruma, opening a small office in the coastal city of La Ceiba. Her goal was to bring environmental education to youngsters deep in the rural watershed of the wild Rio Cangrejal. Two years later she was joined by Honduran Jose Herrero and they set out to replace sling shots with cameras.
Two tiny communities nestled in the watershed between two national parks share a school. Guaruma offers free after-school classes open to all students from elementary to high school. Before the non-profit came, only 10 % of the children graduated from elementary school. Eleven years since the inception of the afterschool program over 95% of the students continue on to attend middle school and high school.
Batten pointed out that this is the first literate generation of the area. Most adults work for large landowners in seasonal farming or construction. Wages range from $2.50 to $5 per day. Otherwise the people eke a living from the land, cutting into the jungle to grow avocados and mangos among other crops.
At Guaruma students are introduced to photography and encouraged to key in on the beauty that surrounds them. They hike into the jungle on picture safaris, snapping shots of insects, birds, and scenery. Through picture making, the students learn to pay attention to light and how it changes things. Many doors open as a result of this work. Back in the classroom, students play with their images on computers. Their own pictures become a gateway to learning the possibilities of technology.
Students are encouraged to put in three years of afterschool classes where they build skills in computers, photography, English and environmental sciences. The seeds Guaruma is planting have sprouted into small scale ecotourism. This became possible when the students took their budding environmental awareness home to their families. Some older students maintain scenic trails and lead ecotours, others give talks promoting the Guaruma program, greater sustainability and an appreciation for the jungle. A student-run graphic design program services small businesses in the community. A gifted few former students land jobs teaching at the school.
Guaruma introduces new crops that provide commercial products. Local farmers inspect experimental plots of earth where alternatives to slash and burn agriculture are explored. The non-profit also supports university level biological research programs to promote conservation efforts in the Pico Bonito National Park. Consider the terrific boost to this area, all started with an idea to teach children to see their world through the lens of a camera. Read more about the programs at Guaruma.
Oh, the ants! I admitted we’d been having some trouble in that area, and said she’d find environmentally friendly, pet friendly ant spray in the garage. After unsuccessful efforts with cinnamon, vinegar and diatomaceous earth, I’d broken down and purchased spray to kill the pesky invaders. Amanda used the spray and we continued on our vacation.
A week or so after we got home I again saw ants marching up the wall. This issue was not going away. I pulled back the carpet to investigate. A mass of ants swarmed on the cement underneath. Here was an entire society, busily coming and going through a crack that ran along the floor near the exterior wall. There were big ants, little ants, even ants with wings. Next to the wooden slats that the carpet is tacked to, were spread beds that looked like carefully tilled gardens. Apparently, over time the ants had carried in soil to make their new home more like the outside. I’m not sure if they were laying eggs in these gardens, or what.
I sprayed and caulked and vacuumed and then I suffered the heebie jeebies for days. I swore I was getting rid of that carpet and putting down some sort of impervious flooring. I brought home various floor samples; squares of tile and bamboo, even linoleum, it’s the new greenest option. Weeks have passed. Today when Amanda asked about the ants I stared at her blankly for a minute and said, Oh yeah! Those ants were terrible, weren’t they?
There seems some deep symbolism at work here – of things better not mentioned, things best swept under the carpet while putting on a happy face. Seeing Amanda was a great reminder to get busy and find someone to put down a new floor. At the very least I should pull up the edge of that carpet just to make sure there’s nothing going on under there. Maybe I’ll get to that tomorrow.
Who would think a desert city such as Phoenix would have an urban forestry department? Recently I heard Phoenix’s head forester speak about the city’s lofty goals for planting more trees and providing shade coverage in urban settings as well as parks and neighborhoods. In fact the city’s target is 25% shade coverage by the year 2030.
As the guy in charge of all the city’s trees, Richard Adkins’s days are full of calls from people who have issues with those trees. Yes folks, over time, trees get big. Uppermost branches encroach on power lines or block billboards, lateral branches impede sidewalks and truck traffic. Storms or old age may topple trees that have lived for generations.
As Adkins will tell you, most problem trees are victims of poor planning. Part of his job is working with urban planners and developers to plan for sensible tree planting. How often do you see twenty foot trees growing from a four foot square cut-out in the middle of an asphalt parking lot? The root system of a healthy tree is equal to the size of the tree’s crown. Adkins argues that any good-sized tree should be granted 400 square feet of open space for its roots. This means a planting area that won’t be compacted by sidewalks or covered with pavement. New technology for “floating” sidewalks and permeable pavement protects tree roots and allows rainfall to benefit trees.
Adkins advocates planting “nodes”, or clusters of trees with shrubs beneath them. Rain water shunted to the area benefits the plants while they in turn help with runoff issues. A few large trees, properly planted, stem the slashing destruction of a big storm rather than becoming victims. A guild of trees and other plants is much more sustainable than a straight line of trees with insubstantial roots growing in heavily paved areas.
It’s a no brainer that trees provide tremendous benefits. Adkins confirmed that trees are proven to soothe and cool an urban population. Yet trees also provide services to the city such as improvements in air quality, storm water maintenance, reductions in energy costs and increases in property values.
Trees absorb vehicle emissions as well as particulates from the air. In storm events leaves break up the downpour, while roots prevent erosion and soak up excess water. Adkins pointed out that outdoor malls with tree-lined streets and walkways offer a pleasing ambiance that draws customers who spend money, assisting the business environment of those areas.
Financial models indicate a return on investment of $2.23 per dollar spent on trees in the city. Property values increase 10-12% with well maintained trees out front. Tools such as the Tree Benefits Calculator and i-Tree software document the financial benefit of planting a tree in a specific location.
The city periodically offers Homeowner Tree Care Workshops and Citizen Forester Training. Lots of organizations and youth groups are eager to plant trees and citizen foresters head up these projects. For more information email email@example.com or call 602-465-3762.
I felt that way until I took the County Extension course and became a certified Master Gardener. I often don’t feel all that masterful, but I have become pretty knowledgeable about gardening in the low desert. And, I’ve discovered there’s a long list of native plants that will flourish in a home garden setting. I love the native plants because they bring wildlife right into my yard. I see more critters in my backyard than I do out hiking in the preserve.
Of course native plants have not been bred for urban gardens, and they don’t look great all the time. They can take on a weedy aspect and you’ll want to trim. Before you get too hasty, remember the seeds are food for quail, finches and sparrows. When the rains come or spring rolls around native perennials revitalize with buds and flowers. The hardy plants provide shelter and sustenance to birds, butterflies, lizards and native bees. Watching the interaction of plants and animals in my back yard connects me to the seasons and the natural world.
Maricopa County Extension Master Gardeners, Desert Botanical Gardens, Boyce Thompson Arboretum all have plant sales coming up. Sale organizers stock primarily native plants and non-natives that are well acclimated to our climate. I always come home from the plant sale with something new to try. (Understatement! I’m the crazy gardener you can barely see behind the loaded shopping cart.) Many native perennial finds have become favorites in my garden. Flame aniscanthus and chuparosa are great examples. These tubular bloomers are absolute magnets for hummingbirds and I always want to plant more.
The handsome creosote with its striped branches and lovely form graces gardens and desert alike with vivid green foliage and cheerful yellow flowers. This drought tolerant native looks great year around and requires no pruning and no irrigation once established. Creosote flowers are the only food source for twenty two species of bees. Small rodents dig burrows under its protection and share those hidey holes with lizards and other critters.
The folks from Az Herb Association introduced me to the cone head thyme. The name makes me giggle and the herb possesses a pleasingly pungent fragrance and a profusion of lavender flowers. As cone heads are hard to find, I’m trying my hand at raising some seedlings.
Last spring I discovered an elusive Superstition mallow (Abutilon palmeri) at a sale. The leaves are flamboyant, not like your usual desert-adapted. The mallow has grown into a pleasing addition to the garden. It flaunts its furry heart shaped leaves while bees shuffle together between the buttercup petals of its flowers like dancers on a packed dance floor.
See sidebar for sale dates and locations.
Just in time for the excitement, I signed up for Rainlog.org and became part of a network of volunteers measuring rainfall in the greater Valley. It’s as easy as installing a rain gauge and reporting the data online. Arizona’s varied topography and seasonal weather patterns create pockets of weather that can vary dramatically, particularly during the monsoon season. At the RainMapper site you can view a map of the area that indicates all of the participating rain gauge locations and their readings. I reported half an inch of rainfall on Monday and three quarters of an inch of Tuesday.
The information gathered is used for watershed management and drought planning on local, county and state levels. The organization behind rainlog is SAHRA, Sustainability of semi-Arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas. This is a University of Arizona program designed to promote development of water related research projects. SAHRA integrates university curriculums in hydrology, ecology and physical sciences.
Once the gauge was in position, I headed for the nearest desert wash. The morning air was fresh and cool. Quails, thrashers and verdins celebrated. Clouds of insects hung in the air. On the floor of the canyon desert lavender boasted fleshy new leaves and the elephant trees were clad in vivid green. The bursera microphylla I always visit was completely bare a few weeks ago and already loads of burgundy berries ripen among her leaves. Wolfberry, turpentine bush, and brittle bush have also leafed out. Some weedier plants are setting flowers. It’s remarkable the transformation an inch of rain brings to the desert.