Monday, April 10, 2023

Ralph our cat: Preserver of the Home

Once or twice a year Black-Tail or "Mule" deer invade our yard. We don't know where they are coming from or where they are going to but we enjoy seeing them. At up to 300 pounds they are the largest wild animal we get in our yard, bigger than the bobcats or the javelinas. We have a birdbath outside our front window and that is the first thing they head for, evidently always in need of water, and this is where our cat Ralph meets up with them. He is an indoor cat because we don't want him by day catching our birds and lizards, or by night getting cornered by a pack of coyotes. But he seems to go into a rage when he looks outside and sees some animal staring in at him. Here is an example from the other day when he woke up suddenly to three deer looking in at him.


Thursday, December 15, 2022

Everyone's Back!

 Finally they had given us permission to return to Agua Caliente Park after the fire.

 We all began arriving at the parking area early and as soon as we got out of our cars realized other people were not moving down into the park, but had already seen friends they had not seen for weeks, or in some cases months, and we were gathering right there, standing and talking, or grabbing any tables and benches handy. Cheryl and I don't have a dog (what would they say if they knew we had a cat!) but virtually everyone else does, and the dogs are as much our friends as our human friends are, and they are literally bowling us over as we are trying to talk to their owners. All our friends are okay, so next after the gossip is past what we all want to see is what shape the park is in.

Well, we had already had a glimpse as we came in on the approach road, and at first it seemed stark and dramatic, but as days passed on and we got more used to it, it was just sad. The palm trees had been the park's glory (the date palms had been planted a hundred years ago), but now they rattled in their desiccation, tall scorched-black trunks with nothing on their tops but the broken off scraps of their fronds.

 In its natural vegetation the area surrounding the park is called a called a mesquite bosque. For instance in the unaltered patches around the oasis you can see the recognizable shapes of the mesquites leaning in towards you from the horizon. We never saw any sign that the lightning had struck or in anyway damaged the mesquites so they didn't seem to be attractive to the electricity, but the palms  were clustered in the center of the oasis and with their weak carton-like structure, the high flames whipped straight through them, and immediately caught the next palm, and the next.

Here, in a different stand across the lake is what the burned palms looked like before the fire.


 Here is what whole stands look like now. Some of these might recover, but it looks doubtful for others.


Well, the park might be more enduring than we believe, more able to rebuild itself.  In 2017 (I'm reading a useful history) it was nearly destroyed by a severe microburst which left trees and palms, trn and tattered, the palm fronds ripped apart and littering the ground. The park was cleaned up then; it will be again.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

What we're going to miss

 Agua Caliente, the park, is noted for its palm trees, many of them massive, some half-a-century old. Without them, the personality of the park would be completely altered. But it would seem something like that would be forever. Instead, a person was more likely to come regularly most of his life and never see a palm tree removed or added, but all held in a sort of trance. Unless something untoward occurs.

But this time something did happen. There was a violent lightning storm and one or more lightning strikes hit at least one palm tree. This is where the trees were vulnerable. Think of their broad dusty papery fronds and the dry grassy beards that drape down their trunks. One touch of the lightning and the tree is immediately aflame, then the nearby trees catch it. We had seen from our house smoke billowing up from the direction of the park, and we got in the news that night images of raging fires. The fire was quickly stopped but the damage was done. 


 Here is how it looked before the fire.


 The report from the park was that they would be closed for thirty days till they could clear up the mess and try to see which of the damaged trees could be kept alive. The frustration for us was that we couldn't see what parts had burned, and how damaged they were. Finally the thirty days was over (but they had made no move to open the gates). We drove over to the park and stopped at the closed gates, and peered through the closed fences to see if we could make out anything. Then we suddenly saw them, the horrible survivors. All that remained were the ten-or-fifteen-foot straight trunks covered with black soot, and on top of them the short bitten-off fronds, and we wondered how many would sprout out again,


Sunday, October 16, 2022

What We Do Without Agua Caliente

 I recently wrote a blog about Agua Caliente Park, which we visit almost every morning. In  my blog I tried to list the reasons we are so loyal to it. First of all, we can hop in our car and be there in eight minutes. It's an oasis in the midst of the desert, with lakes and aquatic vegetation suddenly creating a very different, and refreshing landscape, especially because of the many ancient and enormous palm trees. My legs are getting older and I need a good walk to keep them working, and a walk around the outer ring of lakes is perfect for them. And, of course, I mentioned in my earlier blog, we don't know many people here, so our daily social life consists of the people we meet at the park (who come for their own exercise and to walk their dogs).

So we were somewhat at a loss when we heard the park was closed for a full  month to give them some time to clean up the damage they had from a lightning strike. But actually we already had a substitute, one we took when we wanted an occasional variation. We drive straight up the Mt. Lemmon Road till we get  to Gordon Hirabayashi Park.    

That takes a bit longer to get to, but otherwise has similar features.  A road goes straight through the center, following a creek, and the sides are often rich with wild flowers. You park shortly after you enter the park, and if you then walk to the end of that central road and walk back again to where you parked, it is just right for our walk.

But do you know what? We have learned something. What we love so much here is the wildlife. These parks are kept to be attractive to wildlife, and no doubt it is there, and you can occasionally glimpse a bobcat or coyote or deer, but I think they are disturbed by the press of people and stay concealed until dark. 

But here at home is where we see it. We have about a third of an acre, a mixture of trees, cacti and open areas, and the other houses here on the edge of town often also continue the unbroken natural desert for the animals to slip on through. Many washes come down from the mountains providing corridors for the animals to travel along. We put out food for birds, and that brings them up close to the house where we can see and photo them. It is against the law to put out food for the mammals, the creatures we are most interested in, but that is not a problem. This is a desert and what everything wants is water, and we put out a bird bath outside the front window and have several big dishes of water scattered around the backyard.

Often the animals walk right up to our windows. The other day a large handsome bobcat came up to a  water dish we had in our backyard and spent a long and careless time drinking his fill.

Not long before this I looked up from  a book I was reading and looked out the front window by our bird bath and three enormous Mule Deer were looking in at us. They looked as tall as horses and each one probably weighed 250 pounds.  They show up in our yard every year, only bucks, and usually with their antlers still in velvet. But pretty soon they will start knocking off the velvet and fighting each other    

and looking for females. Like the males the females will break off into only female groups, but they will still have their last years' fawns with them, and I think stay farther up the mountain, so we never see them in our yard.

When we least expect them, suddenly one or more coyotes come strutting up the yard, and it is fun to see their quickness, always looking like they have a plan, in a flank, for instance, twenty feet apart from each other, hoping to surprise a small rabbit that will veer off from one coyote to run right into another. Before you know it the coyotes have come the distance of our back yard and are now crossing the road in front of our house, and are gone.

Here is one trying to dig out a ground squirrel it can hear under the surface.
And though we have the javelinas, our notorious pig-like peccaries, fenced out of our yard because they do so much damage (knocking down our garbage can and scattering  the garbage all over is the least of it) they occasionally dig their way into the back yard, usually a gang eight or ten with all their babies with them, and they are such characters we enjoy seeing them anyway.
 What I'm getting at is, we love all of the wilds of Tucson, but it is only in our own backyard that we can regularly count on something amazing making an appearance. So maybe we need to sit on our porch and stop complaining.










































Saturday, October 1, 2022

A Sad Post Script on My Last Blog

Our Monsoon season is coming to an end and, as with many other places, it has been pretty disappointing. 

The sky goes black to the east of us, or in the mountains to the north of us, there is some flashing of lightning in the distance getting our hopes up, and then everything fizzles out with at most a few drops. Next morning we meet our friends at Agua  Caliente and the conversation is "How much did you get?" "Well, .006." "That's what we got too."

The other day it started in the usual way. Cheryl with her excellent hearing said (from inside the house) "it sounds like it's raining." I, with my lousy hearing, said "I don't hear it." But when I took the garbage out a moment later I could see big splots  of rain spreading on the ground, and a splitting sound of thunder hit so close I rushed back in the house for shelter. A sudden wind came up, and instantly it was raining so hard we couldn't see across the back yard. Cheryl said "I'm going out to enjoy it."

Our porch along the back of the house is open on the outside, but has a roof, so we could sit out on it and keep relatively dry except when the wind struck us with a gust of rain. Every few seconds there would be a flash then thunder sounding like it was directly overhead, and I actually saw a bolt of lightning go into the ground across from us. It was all so intense, and we were enjoying it so much, we were afraid any minute it would turn off like a spigot, but it kept going at full power, and it was wonderful, the first real storm we had experienced this year.

Well, it did stop, and the air cleared. But that wasn't the end. We looked off in the distance, and saw a plume of brown smoke rising. Lightning had started a fire somewhere. We didn't know where it might be, but our daughter-in-law sent us the news that night that it was Agua Caliente, the lightning had struck some of the 50-year-old palm trees and started a blaze in the dry leathery
leaves. They had put out the fire quickly but damage had been done. That was bad enough, but there was even worse information: The park would be closed for a month while they cleaned it up.

What would we all do?


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Agua Caliente Park

 We live just off the Catalina Highway. We can get on the highway in minutes, and be heading up the winding road some 8000 feet to the top of Mt. Lemmon. The scenery is stupendous as we climb up through life-zone after life-zone from the flat desert at the bottom to the coniferous forest at the top. But it is more than visual: It is our dial-a-climate. At this time of year when we we have day-after-day of  100-degrees we can watch the temperature in the car fall to whatever temperature we want as we reach higher altitudes. By the time we are at the top it has dropped down into comfortable 70s. 

There are wonderful mountain trails to walk, and we were originally looking for one for a suitable place for a daily walk, but many are steep and rugged, and at our age sometimes you want something easier going. That's when we discovered Agua Caliente Park. "Agua Caliente" means "Warm Springs." It's an astonishing place, an oasis in the midst of the desert, from water welling up. The vegetation outside the park is cactus and cholla; inside the park it is aquatic grasses and hundred-year-old date palms. At the entrance to the park you come to a big lake followed by a chain of smaller lakes joined by smooth, level paths. We only had to walk around the paths one time before we looked at one another and said "This is it." The clincher was, it only took us eight minutes from our house to get there. 

 Nature is encouraged, and when we arrive we are always watching to see what new birds are passing through. But in general people come there to walk their dogs, and dogs like their walks daily, and following a daily routine, and so the dogs' owners are forced into the same routines. We don't have a dog but this is a friendly place.  Everyone on the path has a friendly "Good morning," and their dogs, wagging their tails, pull on their leads to come over to you to have their ears scratched, and that is followed by a discussion about what kind of dog and so on, and when you come the next day and see the same person with the same dog you have already the makings of a new friend. Pretty soon you know all the regulars and their dogs, and they know you.

Since you are not climbing the mountain, the daily heat needs to be handled another way: We get up at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning (this is now every day, unless there is some necessary interruption) and drive straight to the park without breakfast, and try to get all our exercise-walking done (by about 830) before it really begins getting hot. The trick is to get it done, and still get a chance to chat with our growing accumulation of friends.

You see, living out here on the scattered edges of northern Tucson, as most of us do, we have protected ourselves from Covid by avoiding the downtown crowds and either staying in the bubbles of our families, or walking in this wide open airy park. As to the people, the dog-walkers, this is our society, in fact it is our social life. And this seems to be enough.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Black-headed Grosbeak

 We usually see the Black-headed Grosbeak in the mountains, with only an occasional visitor to our yard, But some years they come down here in numbers, and we always stop what we are doing to watch them. They are quite striking (I am describing the males, the females are plainer)with their black head and heavy two-tone beak, with their black and white wings, their deep orange body, and the comic postures they get into as they twist around to watch us. Especially the comical postures.

This year they surprised us, quietly insinuating themselves into our notice, and now they seem to be increasing: a Black-headed Grosbeak year!

They often seem to look at you out of the corner of their eye.


They can look impressive and commanding.


Then turn around and look silly again.

Half the things they do look noble, and then they ruin it. For instance

here is a female black-headed on top of a log of tasty food we put out for the birds. She would like to get down to the choice fodder, but look how she goes about it. Here is a dove watching her.


She's dived in head-first and the dove can scarcely believe it!

Well, I shouldn't make fun of her. She' a handsome bird, 



 and all the other birds like her.


Friday, July 15, 2022

A Visitation



Once a year since we have lived here, we have looked outside and been startled to see from two to ten Black-tailed (or Mule) deer wandering through our yard. They are the largest and heaviest animal that has ever appeared in our yard, and by comparison to the usual bobcat or coyote or javelina, they look enormous with their big bodies and long legs, moose-sized practically. This effect is increased by the fact that they are virtually all adult males with full racks of antlers (usually in velvet). And they are made even more impressive by the fact that they are often standing just a few feet outside or front window, having come there (by memory?) to drink at a small birdbath.

Here is one of the three that appeared yesterday. We have no idea where they came from, but we assume they came down from the mountains. Everything about them is a mystery, For instance, they dependably come once a year, but it is never at some special time. They have appeared at scattered months throughout the year. They are almost always only adult bucks, only occasionally a doe. They are almost always in velvet but you could see that when their antlers have fully grown they would be immense. Sometimes they appear skinny and emaciated and mangy, sometimes, as now they are full and prime.

Often they hang out in a far corner of our yard for a few days, then drift away, and when we walk through the place where they were we are stepping on piles of their droppings.

We'll be looking forward to them next year.

Friday, July 8, 2022


  When we moved here to Tucson a couple of years ago I began photographing the wonderful wildlife around us, the bobcats and wolf-sized coyotes, the javelinas, the mule deer, the Gila Monsters, the Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes, the tarantulas, the scorpions. It's how I got in touch with them, how I learned to really see them.

Birds are a special case. They come in discrete containers, and so can receive priority attention depending on their charisma. So it was no surprise I began with hummingbirds. First of all, there was their amazing flying, and their brilliant colors they suddenly flashed just by turning to look at you, and their tameness so you can photograph from just inches away. In the past I had lived in places that only had one or two species; suddenly I had half-dozen species to sort out by age or sex, and that was my first bit of business.

And of course I spent great time on the raptors, who lived their savage lives in front of us, plucking their prey with snow-storms of white body feathers.

This year suddenly we had orioles. Cheryl began putting out little tubs of grape jelly, and the sweetness is bringing bring them  up close to the house and my camera.  I knew they were colorful birds but I hadn't realized just how photogenic they were. Like the hummingbirds, and the raptors, they vary with age and gender.

Here is the female Hooded Oriole. It is the plainest form, darkish on the back and wings and tail, yellow below. It is the commonest species here in Tucson. The name is because the male appears to be wearing a yellow hood over its neck (other oriole species are dark on the head and neck).

Here is the immature male. It differs by having a black chin and black breast.

And finally, here is the adult male, going to a beautiful orange and black.

 And as a bonus, if we hadn't been observing the hooded orioles so carefully, I would have missed out on another species, looking exactly like the hooded, except it didn't have a hood, but a black head and back, and this one was a Bullocks Oriole, a species I had never seen before.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Lizards taking over

 Meal worms are costing us a fortune, but they are our magic potion to tame the smaller animals on our porch. A creature comes up on our porch a first time, then when we come out to greet it it timidly rushes away. But by the second time it comes it realizes all that happens is a scatter of delicious worms appears at its feet, and it doesn't ask any more questions.

For instance we had a pair of roadrunners for going on three years coming up on the porch for handouts  and they ended by nesting in our front yard and raising young. They weren't tame in the sense that we could pet them or touch them, but they would walk around at our feet and snap up the meal worms we tossed among them.  We already had blocks set out for the quail, and half a dozen feeders for the hummingbirds. And now whatever birds were in season began getting in line for the worms,  And then, a  surprise,  we soon had a row of lizards lined up in the vegetation on the edge of the porch that would dart out and grab a worm then race back into hiding.

That's where the trouble came. You see, we loved our roadrunners, but we quickly came to love our lizards too, and roadrunners eat lizards, and it seemed our lizards were disappearing. We didn't know quite how to handle this, but this year the roadrunners seem to have moved over to an adjoining yard, and suddenly our lizards are returning. And amazingly the roadrunners almost instantly stopped coming, and one by one the lizards began reappearing.

This is one of the first to come back, the Desert Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus magister). They are often brightly colored with golden scales (and often a purple square on their backs), the males all swashbucklers, standing sideways to each other, making their chests as deep and masculine as possible, and doing their pushups. The biggest ones dash in for the most meal worms, and sometimes they get  into real battles.

Here's one making its chest look larger.
There are several lizards in the "Spiny Lizard" complex. The next most common is Clark's Spiny Lizard, which is separated from the "Desert Spiny Lizard" from the fact that it has four or so black bars going around its forelegs, which I sometimes have a difficult time recognizing, and find a better  mark in the fact that it is often a greenish color.

Once they have determined which males are the fiercest, the males notice all the females and then instead of looking fiercest they try to look their handsomest, showing bits of the blue on the underside.

 And when the female sees a man she likes (females generally have reddish coloring around the head) they get close together with the male and begin going around and around  in a tightening circle.

They can end up being as violent as they were competing for meal worms.


But then peace returns to the land.