Friday, June 23, 2017

More Arizona

Lately it seems like every time I sit down to write a new post, we are just back from Arizona and we've seen a whole new bunch of Sonoran flora and fauna.

For instance, almost as soon as we arrived in Tucson Heather, my daughter-in-law, was showing me around the garden she was creating in what had been, when they bought their house, a fairly bare backyard. We were looking at a raised bed of squash, just coming into bloom, when a small but muscular creature, like a half-size hummingbird, came powering through the yard and began hovering over the squash. It was moving so fast we couldn't see much detail on it, so I got up as close to it as I could and began snapping pictures of it with my macro lens and we looked at this wonderful creature magnified on the viewing screen.

It was a clear-winged moth got up to look as much like hornet as possible, the furry red hind legs carried alongside the abdomen to make it look even bigger than it already was. It was a squash-borer moth, beautiful to see but possibly disastrous for the squash. Its caterpillars would bore their way into the stems and eat the plants inside out.

The red and black and bluish coloration was meant to be a warning. "If you try to eat me you will discover that I am deadly poisonous, or maybe I have a hidden sting." In this case I suspect it was a bluff, and the moth was perfectly good eating (if you like moths). But we later saw another big, warning-colored creature, a kind of blister beetle called the iron cross beetle. The warning here was genuine: if molested this beetle would squirt out Cantharidin, a blistering chemical.

Unusual for our trips to Tucson, we took a break and flew out to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit my sister, and her daughter and family. Nice to get back in close touch with everybody. Lots of good meals and good walks and a natural-history high point was visiting the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, a huge area in Strawberry Canyon above the Berkeley campus frequented by mountain lions (which unfortunately we didn't see) and with plantings from all the temperate parts of the world. Featured on that day was the blooming of a puya, a plant from Chile, which we were told was the largest bromeliad in the world, and which had the largest bromeliad flower in the world. Now, most bromeliads are small scruffy epiphytic plants that grow on trees or telephone wires and are detached from any connection with the earth because they get all their nourishment and other needs from the air. Some of them have attractive flowers but you would hardly call them enormous. Well, the flower spikes on puya were advertised as being three to four meters long. Four meters is about fifteen feet. We thought we had better see this and had to ask directions several times to find the plant off in an obscure corner. Here is a picture of Cheryl photographing one flower spike which is only a disappointing ten feet tall.

The color is quite wonderful.

We came back to Tucson to continue our stay for another week, and went out to Sweetwater, which featured two White-faced Ibises sitting in a muddy field, and a family of Gambel's quail slipping through the brush.

There were lots of good mammals around, almost tame, as mammals quickly become when they are in places where they are not disturbed. Coyotes were common and virtually ignored our presence.

In past trips to Tucson we had often seen the big antelope jack rabbits; this time we saw, new to us, the much smaller desert cottontails (though their ears were nearly getting up to jack rabbit size).

Tucson is located at about 2000 feet, and has Mt. Lemon, an 8000 foot mountain, just out of town. It gets cooler as you go up, so you can dial-a-climate. We decided to go up. As you climb, the fauna changes, and we began to see birds like Bridled Titmice

and Yellow-eyed Juncos.

At one picnic ground a child had laid out all her toys on the table, then gone off somewhere else to play, and this Acorn Woodpecker could not resist coming over to say hello.

By the time we got to 8000 feet we knew we were getting into some real high mountain stuff when we saw this Abert's Squirrel. The abert's race is famous for being on the south side of Grand Canyon, with the kaibab race on the north side and never the twain can get across to meet. Both races are also famous for the super-long tassels on their ears, which unfortunately they only have during the winter.

Of course before we left for home we visited our favorite Saguaro East N.P., where as always we saw a number of neat things.  This small, chipmunk-like creature, for instance, is it own kind of rodent, an Antelope Squirrel, Harris's Antelope Squirrel, common in the Sonoran Desert.

And then we saw an insect we had always wanted to see. There is a group of wasps called velvet ants, because that's what they look like. They have long velvety fur, and the females are wingless, so they walk around on the ground like large furry ants. There are dozens of kinds in different sizes, but they all have an almost identical pattern, bright red with bands of black. The largest of them are called "cow killers" as an only slightly exaggerated description of the power of their stings, and so all the species have the same pattern to immediately warn any predator away from trying to attack one and risk the sting. Well, one species is so small it does not try the warning colors bit, and instead relies on camouflage, making itself resemble very perfectly thistledown, something there is lots of blowing around on the desert floor.

Cheryl, with her sharp eyes, spotted some Thistledown Velvet Ants (that's what they are called) by their frenetic movements. They don't walk, they hop and skip and jump in the most eccentric manner, making it very hard to catch up with them and focus a camera on them.

 This roadrunner stopped very close to us.

It must have been a young one; its feathers seemed only half developed. I thought I could see the primal dinosaur looking through its reptilian eyes. And then in fact we saw a genuinely primitive reptile, not dragging its belly as it moved, but carrying its body in the air as it walked on its muscular legs, swinging its head back and forth, its forked tongue appearing at intervals.  We are told that even most people who have lived here their whole life have never seen this creature: It was a Gila Monster.

Okay, this will seem like boasting, but we also saw an even rarer reptile, one probably never seen before by anyone: a Six Headed Turtle.