Thursday, February 26, 2009

Look Up!

This morning while walking to school, my son, Orion, tugged at my sleeve and exclaimed, "Look up!" High in the blue sky a vee of a dozen black birds plowed northwards. Not geese (too small), not cranes (too dark), not ducks (wings too long). I took a wild guess and said "Maybe they are Ibises?" We continued on to the school having a long discussion on the role of the Ibis in ancient Egyptian cultures, a subject that Orion has accumulated quite a lot of knowledge from the towers of library books we borrow weekly. (The Ibis-headed Thoth is the the Egyptian god of writing and knowledge, and is important in ceremonial rituals of mummy-making.)

Back home I did a little research and have deduced that they were not Egyptian gods, but Double-crested Cormorants, though no less noble in my mind. The giveaway in the text of Sibley's is that "Flocks fly high and form lines or V shapes like geese."

A flock of water birds seems out of place here in the desert, but both the Ibis and the Cormorant are actually quite common along the rivers and reservoirs around Phoenix. On the annual Christmas bird count along the Gila River just west of the city, 286 Ibis and 47 Cormorants were counted. My guess is that our small flock was headed up to Lake Pleasant, a reservoir just north of us.

(Photo courtesy of Philip Colla)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Growing Native

My yard is a riot of wildflowers right now, as it is every spring. Desert bluebells, lupines, desert marigolds, penstemons, evening primrose, fiddlenecks and popcorn flower, to name a few, have created a carpet over the gravel mulch that comprises the foundation of our xeriscape. Any day now I expect to receive our annual "nastygram" from the Homeowner's Association requesting us to remove our "weeds."

But I won't. To me, they are not weeds. I sowed the seed. I dug the holes to plant those that arrived in pots. They belong here more than I do.

As retribution for the 500 square feet of artificial turf and pavers that we have installed in the back yard (see January 31st blog), I've set aside the rest of the yard as a refuge for mostly native plants. By this I mean that, of the 80+ species that we've established in our yard over the past six years, about 90% of them are native to the southwest deserts of North America. Of those, about 90% are native to the Sonoran desert in the Phoenix area. This menagerie includes 6 kinds of trees, 17 species of shrubs, 17 types of cacti and other succulents, 3 species of vine, 4 species of native grasses (plus a few escaped remnants of my former Bermuda grass lawn), plus 26 different perennial and annual wildflowers.

This is appalling to many of our neighbors, who prefer a more tidy landscaping style of carefully clipped shrubs and pulverized granite that is annually hosed with herbicides to prevent the growth of seeds that blow over from my yard. The payback for my indiscretion is that they have recently installed an incessantly barking Jack Russell terrier in their backyard. That's okay. I'm still going to let my plants go to seed.

Australia, Africa, the Middle East and Brazil have contributed many of the popular species of plants that populate the neighborhood. But if the drip irrigation ever dries up, my yard will be a seed source to restore the neighborhood to something that resembles the former desert habitat.

Are you growing native?