Saturday, September 26, 2009

Capturing a Cloud

Orion and I were playing with cattails we picked at a neighbor's pond yesterday morning, poking the ripe seed heads to make them burst into fluffy clouds of soft white seeds. With just four cattails, we made a billowing mound around our feet and threw the seeds up in the air to make it "snow." We blew the seeds until we were lightheaded, making thousands of wishes. We had to cut our play short to walk to school, but not before Orion got the idea to stuff a baggie full of cattail fluff to bring to his class for show-and-tell. "I'm going to tell the class that I captured a cloud!" he exclaimed. Another morning to last a lifetime.

These pictures were actually taken in 2005 when we were similarly mesmerized with cattails along the Salt River.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fall Colors

Arizona Poppy Kallstroemia grandiflora

As we roll past the autumnal equinox, which was September 22nd this week, I've been searching for fall colors here in Phoenix. Here, we have very few native deciduous trees, and those that we have are more likely to drop in June at the onset of the hot summer. Chilly mornings here are in the 70's, rather than frosty ones that trigger aspen and maple forests to turn. And instead of a harvest season here in the Sonoran desert, it is a time for sowing seed. The lack of northern boreal seasonal phenologies and rituals that were part of my life for nearly 45 years confuses me at a visceral level. My mind and body want autumn leaves and frost, even after seven years in Phoenix. I go searching for fall colors anyway.

I find fall colors here in the flowers. In the wild desert, Arizona poppies, desert senna, and janusia bloom in response to the fragments of monsoon storms that drenched the area a few weeks ago. In the neighborhoods, Mexican Bird of Paradise are at their peak, every bit as colorful as a Vermont forest. Bougainvillea vines glow hot pink where they are planted by the hundreds along Phoenix highways. Many of the trees, rather than dropping their leaves, have put out a new crop of fresh green. Here are a few of the fall colors we have here now:
Desert Vine Janusia gracilis

Mexican Bird of Paradise Caesalpinia pulcherrima

Desert Senna Senna covesii


Thursday, September 24, 2009


The other morning while out on an early morning walk before school, Orion and I stopped to look at a Queen butterfly perched on a desert milkweed. She let Orion put his hand under her, and perched on his finger. Looking more closely at the milkweed, we also saw a freshly opened chrysalis. Could this butterfly be the one that had just emerged? Then we found another chrysalis still waiting to hatch, a porcelain like pod exquisitely decorated with fine black lines and dots of gold.

Fascinated, Orion looked around and also saw a caterpillar, the kind that Queens metamorphose from. I explained to Orion that Queen butterflies usually lay their eggs on milkweeds so that when the caterpillar hatches out, it has it's favorite food to eat right there. Milkweeds have toxins that the caterpillars can eat, but that make them poisonous to birds and other creatures that might want to eat the caterpillar, so the caterpillar is usually avoided by predators. We didn't find any eggs, but just the three stages all on one plant blew Orion's mind so much that he just sat down right there on the sidewalk and watched for a long time. After a while, he got up and said, "Nature sure is amazing! Wait till I tell the kids at school about this!"

Yes, these are the moments I live for!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Adventures of Lizzy

This summer we adopted a new pet, a green anole lizard. She is six inches long, from her nose to the tip of her tail. In her short lifetime, this tiny creature has traveled farther than many people do. She has also survived being attacked by crickets, two nights of camping out in freezing temperatures, and a visit to the second grade at my sons school.

Lizzy came to us from a friend who rescued her when she was found in a roll of sod that had been trucked from east of Colorado Springs up to Crested Butte Colorado. How she got to the sod farm is still under investigation, but from what I've read, these lizards are native to southeastern United States, from Florida to Oklahoma. They have not yet been documented in the wild in Colorado. But, it's not impossible that they are either expanding their natural range or perhaps establishing wild populations from escaped pets in areas where the climate is compatible with their native habitat.

The coolest thing about Green Anoles is that they change colors from a drab brown to bright turquoise green. In response to what is hard to determine, but it seem like she either likes the warmth of our hands or is completely stressed out when handled, which is usually when she turns green. Camouflage has little to do with it as far as we can tell. They also have bulging eyes that move around a little bit to check out whatever is going on. Lizard eyes have a certain wiseness about them.

Green anoles are marketed widely as "starter pets," something small that doesn't require a lot of space or time to take care of. But any child ready to embark on a relationship with a lizard will have had to sell a lot of lemonade to support the equipment and food necessary to keep a lizard alive in a cage. Pet stores have an impressive line of Anole products, ranging from dried mealworms and reptile vitamins, to special basking lights meant to replicate the sunlight that they are now deprived of in captivity. Creating the warm humid environment she is adapted to was a challenge in the poorly insulated house I was renting in Colorado, which cooled down to 50 F at night, 20 degrees cooler than recommended for Lizzy, so her cage was also outfitted with not one, but two special heating pads that helped warm her tank 24/7. Here in Phoenix we have dispensed with the heating pads, but continue to spritz her cage with water several times a day to keep up the humidity.

If you have a pet lizard, you wind up with pet crickets, which also need to be fed. We had a hard lesson in the relationship between crickets and lizards when we took Liz out of her cage one morning to find her guts hanging out. I had put more crickets in the cage than the lizard could eat, so the crickets started to eat her! Horrified, I cleaned out the entire cage, and started her on a diet of mealworms, which presumably would not be quite so carnivorous. Lizzy's gaping wound was miraculously healed without so much as a dab of Neosporin within two weeks, although she is a bit asymmetrical with a hunk of muscle missing in her abdomen.

During our move from Colorado back to Phoenix, we camped for a couple of nights in near freezing temperatures. Without a plug-in for heating pads, we improvised by putting boiling water into water bottles and putting them next to the cage, then wrapping the cage in our down jackets. Wild anoles in the south probably survive cold winter nights, but as adoptive parents, we were feeling a little over-protective, especially after the harrowing cricket incident.

Visiting the second grade may have been even more terrifying for Lizzy then being eaten alive by crickets. Imagine being her size and having two hundred hands reaching out to touch you. She stayed green throughout the experience, which supports the "green when stressed" hypothesis. But, she didn't jump or dart from Orion's hands in an attempt to escape as he carried her from classroom to classroom. Another survival strategy is to stay still so predators won't see you.

All of this has been intriguing to me because it illuminates the quixotic desire of we humans to keep creatures in captivity, despite the complexities, and sometimes cruelty, of taking animals out of the wild. In this case, there was some kind of altruistic instinct in play when she was first discovered in the sod. As a pet she teaches us about her kind and gives Orion a sense of how to care for the needs of others. Some people surround themselves with pets like these. Creating terrariums becomes an art and obsession.

Someday though, I would like my son to see anoles in the wild, or at least living independently in the suburbs of Texas, where crickets are free, the sun is their source of light and they survive the coldest months by hunkering down in a hole in the ground. And there are other lizards like her to mate with.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Where There is Water

....there is life! We took a field trip to Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area north of Cave Creek the other morning in search of sedges. I had just returned from "Sedge Boot Camp," a plant identification workshop offered through the Jepson Herbarium of UC Berkeley for anyone interested in learning to recognize sedges, especially members of the genus Carex. If this sounds esoteric to you, it is. But, sedges are a very important component of wetland and riparian ecosystems around the world. Since these habitats are some of the most affected by human activities, botanists and ecologists like to pay attention to what grows in them. A workshop like this is a huge draw for botanists, in this case over forty people gathered to learn about these fascinating plants.

But, I digress. The workshop was in California, in an area where we could walk into a meadow and find a dozen species within fifty feet. Here in the Sonoran Desert, sedges are not quite so plentiful. In fact, mostly absent in the uplands. But, wherever there is water, you are likely to find some kind of sedge. And we did! Growing in great abundance around pools along Cave Creek we found American bulrush (Scirpus americanus) growing three and four feet high.

These languid pools exist in magnificent contrast to the Sonoran uplands where giant saguaros and cholla cactus dominate. Along the creek, cottonwoods and sycamore shade the banks. Cattails, cocklebur, sunflowers and common reed (Phragmites australis, a twelve foot tall cane grass) flourish. Leopard frogs and dace stir the muddy pools. A garter snake slithers by. Hot pink Centaury, a tiny wildflower with spiral shaped anthers, peeks out among the rushes. Queen butterflies glide through the rushes in search of fresh sunflower nectar. Dozens of dragonflies cruise the creek, perching on bulrush tips and dipping abdomens in the creek to lay eggs (the female ones). A bear-sized javelina snorts and huffs as it circles to make a resting place at the base of a cottonwood. Water striders skim the pools, creating four-spotted shadows. A Cooper's hawk rests, eyeing a flock of black throated sparrows. The sparrows and a family of gilded woodpeckers call loudly to alert their neighbors.

Nearby, the mesquite bosque has been burnt recently, blackened stems and scorched earth splattered with red fire retardant that was broadcasted from helicopters earlier this summer. But with a the creek nearby, the mesquite and bursage are sprouting new growth already. Where there is water, there is life!