Thursday, November 20, 2008

What's Blooming

Something is always blooming in the Sonoran Desert. Or at least in the suburbs of the Sonoran Desert. In the desert itself too though, desert lavender always seems to eek out something. But here in my irrigated one-eighth of an acre, nine species are blooming today, all native. There's the aforementioned lavender, a sage, ruellia, fairy duster, and Mexican oregano. Also some yellow bells, justicia, and orchid vine. Last but not least, a wiry looking plant with hot pink blooms called Dicliptera, aka "foldwing," which is the unsexy translation of the Latin describing the shape of its very sexy flowers. This one came in on it's own, a vagrant in my landscape. I like things a little wild. 

Along with the flowers come the bees and the hummingbirds. Hummers all year round! Today we watched a bright red-headed Anna's male declaring one of the palo verdes in our back yard as his territory. A bit early to be courting, you might think. But not so here in Phoenix. These males will start doing their spectacular aerial diving display in December, and nest-building soon thereafter. 

A little Costa's male was flitting about as well. This species is much smaller than the Anna's, but with a shortish neck that makes them look sort of "dumpy." To make up for their stout form, the males sport a purple forehead and throat with long "sideburn" feathers that make them quite distinguished and showy. Costa's are spring breeders here, and have just recently arrived from the tropics where they escape the blistering heat of our summers.  

These are the delights of our garden nearly every month of the year, excepting the very hottest weeks of summer when even the natives shut down despite our extravagant gift of bi-weekly watering. We have no traditional fall, nor a true winter. Instead, blossoms drift at the sidewalks edge, and hummingbirds wake me with their soft vibrations, reminding me where I am in November. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Mystery Snake

The other day we found a little black snake basking among the boulders in Cave Creek...the actual creek, not the town.  Turns out this might be a rare snake, the Mexican Garter, not seen in the area for decades. The black eyes and pale blue pinstripes are unique, not matching any of the common garters known in Arizona. Next week I'll join the ranger at the conservation area to scope out the habitat where we found the snake. There are preliminary plans to reintroduce the Mexican Garter there, but maybe they won't need to! 

Alas, our little herp turned out to be a young black-necked garter, very common in the area, but no less exciting. Watching this creature glide gracefully across the perennial pools among the cottonwoods in Cave Creek was as rare a sight as any in this dry desert on a cool November day. Along with the snake, we watched leopard frogs, dragonflies, water striders and hundreds of little minnows called longfin dace thriving in the spring-fed pools. Cattails and bulrushes grow thick there in contrast to the spiny cacti that cover the rocky slopes just a dozen feet above the creek.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Pyramid Peak

Rising five hundred feet from the desert floor, Pyramid Peak is a prominent feature on the landscape at the north edge of the Valley of the Sun. As you cruise into Phoenix from the north, its dark silhouette is just west of the freeway north of Happy Valley Road. By itself, this photo might make you believe that the mountain is part of wilderness, surrounded by acres of pristine desert and deep silence. The reality is that bulldozers and ATV's lap at the mountain's shores. The Central Arizona Project water canal, flanked on both sides by an eight foot high barbed wire fence, skirts around its southern edge. Between my camera and the skyline is a throbbing six lane highway that hums and shrieks twenty four hours per day.

I like to think that this small desert island will prevail. The coyotes and owls and lizards and palo verdes that seek refuge there will wait until the rising tide of civilization ebbs, and spread themselves out again. This is only a matter of time.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Fresh Eggs

Yesterday, I bought a carton of fresh eggs from my friend Merrily, who raises a couple dozen hens in her yard just over the hill. I rode my bike there and back, about six miles, feeling quite smug about buying local, organic, cage-free eggs while keeping my carbon footprint at a minimum. Life is good here in the suburbs.

Friday, November 7, 2008


The first time I saw a roadrunner in the wild, as opposed to on Saturday morning cartoons, it was darting across a sea of asphalt at a nearby mall. This was a huge disappointment to me at first, wanting to believe that roadrunners are one of the desert’s wilder creatures, a symbol of natural beauty and testimony that we haven’t infiltrated all of nature somehow. But after watching this prehistoric looking offshoot of the dinosaurs blaze through a parking lot, I now admire the roadrunner even more. Here is a creature that, like his adversary, the coyote, is able to adapt to the worst of human intrusions into their natural habitat. An opportunist at heart, the roadrunner fares well in both the most remote desert refuge and the starkest urban wilderness.

Here in suburban Phoenix, the local roadrunner population can navigate between worlds, snacking on fat lizards that inhabit our lush neighborhoods, and retreating to the hills where nesting and rearing young may be a bit safer. You are as likely to see one hopping across a six-foot high cinder block wall to scope out someone’s back yard, as you are to catch a glimpse of one dashing through the brittlebush off a desert trail.

At two feet long, and half of that their iridescent black tail, roadrunners are unmistakable. You can see them any time of year in the Deem Hills, although during the cooler winter months, they are more likely to be spotted during the day after they’ve had a chance to warm in the sun. During the summer, like most other desert critters, they will evade the heat by hunting at dawn and dusk.

Roadrunners are mostly carnivorous, revered for their ability to prey on young rattlesnakes and scorpions. They also devour small rodents, spiders, insects and small birds. A close look at their sharp stout beak and four curved claws makes it clear that they are gifted with hunting skills equal to raptors. Although roadrunners are not adept flyers, they can reach running speeds of up to 18 miles per hour, giving their main predators, coyotes, raccoons and hawks, a good chase. When meat is scarce or fruit abundant, roadrunners will supplement their diet with cactus fruit and seeds.

While roadrunners are solitary hunters, they are monogamous and mate for life, a rare feat for any creature. Either partner may initiate courtship rituals by chasing the other around their territory. They also engage in an energetic display of hopping, wing flapping and tail fanning. Things get more intense when one presents the other with a stick, a prelude to nest building. The male calls the final shot when he brings the female a gift of a lizard or other tempting morsel, which she accepts after mating. The two share all of the parenting responsibilities, including nest-building, incubating eggs, and feeding the young. The brood of two to six young roadrunners fledges after about three weeks. They are independent hunters after another couple weeks of training. Once the first brood is off and running on its own, the parents may start a second nest for the season.

Last time I saw a roadrunner, it was on the side of highway 160, forty miles from the nearest town. Dead. A few white-tipped tail feathers flagged in the wind, a few others caught in nearby shrubs. I stopped to pick it up, spread its short broad wings, and ruffle its fur like feathers. So cunning and beautiful a creature, I thought, as I laid it to rest under a nearby purple sage. Might it be that they have found a safer home on the suburban fringe?