Friday, December 30, 2011

Crucifixion Thorn

While wandering through the desert during the annual Christmas Bird Count south of the Gila River near Buckeye, Arizona the other day, we came across one of three species of crucifixion thorn. All three are  mean spiky shrubs, with green stems and branches that take on the job of photosynthesis where leaves are mostly absent, except in very young plants. Out on the creosote flats of Robbin's Butte Wildlife Area, the lone specimen of Castela emoryi we found is the perfect place for resident loggerhead shrikes to impale their prey. This brand of crucifixion thorn is one of three Castela species native to the Sonoran Desert, but the only one found in Arizona wildlands; the others are found in Mexico. Over in southern California there is a Crucifixion Thorn Natural Area, dedicated to a healthy forest of this somewhat rare Castela. Like its better known cousin, Quassia, stems of Castela are sometimes used medicinally for their bitter tonic and intestinal parasite purging benefits.
The other two types of crucifixion thorn found in Arizona include Canotia holocantha, a very common tree-like shrub with long, flexible spine tipped branches, that grows mostly in the central uplands; and Koeberlinia spinosa, a well-armed shrub endemic to southwest deserts, ranging from California to Texas. None of these species, however, are native to the holy lands, where Jesus is said to have bore the corona de cristo for which these plants are named. The plant most likely to be referenced in biblical stories is Zizyphus spina-christi. We also have a thorny species of Zizyphus in Arizona, but we call it gray-thorn, among other things, in these parts.  Whichever you encounter, it's best to handle carefully with leather gloves, lest you draw blood!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Alligator juniper

For tonight's solstice fire, we burned a bundle of juniper wood that I picked up from a fuel wood market in downtown Phoenix. I could tell by the scaly bark that it was from an Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana). The man I bought it from told me that it was  harvested from a clear cut up near Williams, AZ. Although I shudder to think that these amazing old trees are being clear cut, we could at least feel that these limbs were burned with reverence. The wood burns clean and smells so sweet.

A couple of months ago we visited an ancient alligator up near Flagstaff. This one has seen many centuries, and undoubtedly many young boys in its limbs over the years.
Happy Solstice!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Desert Snails

These spiral beauties are the shells of talussnails (Sonorella spp.), a type of land snail that survives in between rocks in Arizona deserts and canyons, grazing on mosses, lichens, and leaf litter. I haven't figured out which species. If you want to be a land snail biologist, and want to identify the species, you need to get a good look at their penises. Unfortunately, I haven't come across a live one yet, in order to determine the shape and size of their gonads. This, plus the details of shell morphology, are the most important characters used to distinguish between them. All snails have a penis, since they are hermaphroditic, which is very handy for reproduction, since both individuals can become pregnant when they copulate. At least if I do find a live one, the sex won't matter!

Although there are over 200 species of snails native to Arizona, we know very little about most of them. Many are considered very rare, with populations limited to isolated mountain ranges. Threats from mining and recreation have raised enough concern from biologists to petition for protection under the Endangered Species Act, as with the Rosemont Talussnail and Sonoran Talussnail. Others, are considered pests, such as the New Zealand Land Snail, which has inspired annual conferences to discuss how to eliminate them.  

Most snail reports are heavy with measurements and description, but I did find a few lines referring to snail intelligence and behavior buried inside a 69 page report, where two biologists came eyestalks to eyes with a snail:

"With its eyestalks still turned towards us, the snail appeared to increase its traveling speed across the boulder and attempted to go down the side of the boulder and out of our sight. We considered this to be evasive behavior."  Schmalzel and Archer, 2010

They didn't say if that one escaped, or if it became one of the many sacrificed for taxonomic analysis. I hope it got away!

Monday, December 19, 2011


When you look closely at the flowers of tamarisk (Tamarisk ramosissima) it is easy to understand why folks brought them to North America for their ornamental value.  Eight different species have been introduced from Asia for both aesthetics and erosion control. Today, they are reviled by many, because they do very well here. So well that they have become the dominant vegetation in many river corridors of the southwest deserts. After nearly 200 years, we should probably accept that they are now a permanent member of our regional flora. But millions of dollars and thousands of hours of human effort are spent every year in an attempt to eliminate them, using chemicals, fire, insects and other weapons of mass destruction. This particular specimen, however, is a well cared-for tree growing in one of my neighbors yard, planted intentionally for its shade and beauty. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011


We've had a lot of clouds this week. I love clouds! Here are a few of my favs from the cloud files. 
Plus, our families own Word Cloud for 2011. 
Another nebulous year has drifted by......

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All! Thanks for following Kat Tracks!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Turf Wars

One of the grandest features of the neighborhood I live in is a ~3 acre park, a vast swath of bright green that brings visual relief to what is sometimes a stark desert landscape.  On just about any day of the year it is warm enough to walk across the field barefoot, fly a kite, toss a football, or just lay down under a mesquite tree and take a nap. On a clear night, it's a great place to do a little stargazing. 

The park is actually a retention basin, a required element of any development around here, meant to help with flood control during monsoon season. It works: when the rain pours, the park becomes a lake. Not all retention basins are lined with turf. Our Homeowners Association has elected to maintain the lawn here, at considerable expense. In Phoenix, keeping a decent looking lawn is a fine art that requires not only an elaborate irrigation system, weekly mowing, and a lot of fertilizer, but also a twice a year conversion from heat tolerant Bermuda grass to cool season rye grass. For this park alone, which is the largest of 6 parks in the hood, we run an annual water bill of about $100,000. Most people think it's worth it.
However, some residents believe that the good green grass should only be admired and not played on. No golf, lest there be divets; no loose dogs, lest there be lawn sausage; and, good Lord!, no games, lest there be skid marks! Our HOA meetings have oft been dragged down by turf wars: endless arguments about who should be able to enjoy the field, and how to regulate the enjoyment thereof. Some advocate that security services be hired to run off any cleat bearing soccer players. Others would like to promote neighborhood ultimate frisbee tournaments. A few curmudgeons would like to see the whole dang thing covered with gravel to eliminate all the expense of turf management and wasteful use of water. 

Here is my vision: wouldn't it be cool if we all got together and made it into a cooperative farm?! We could probably produce enough fruits and vegetables to feed all ~5000 people that live in the neighborhood, AND provide fresh food to the elementary school across the street! We could even allow some chickens, add a fish pond or two, and we'd have the whole food pyramid! Probably a bit too forward thinking for this community, but, heck, it's a great back-up plan!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pit Pond

A few miles south of Lake Pleasant, on a patch of land where burros eek out a living in Peoria, Arizona, there is a huge rectangular pond. You won't see it on most maps, but it does show up on Google Earth. The lake is a recent addition to the landscape,  a wetland created by filling in a giant gravel pit. In the evenings, thousands of water birds congregate there: coots, ducks, geese, herons, egrets and the occasional swan. We caught the sunset from the cattail-rimmed shore last week, and a flock of ducks on the wing.
Whenever I find these places in the otherwise ultra-arid Sonoran desert, I am reminded that life loves heat. 
You just have to add water!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

City Lights

If you really want to gain an appreciation for just how vast the Phoenix metropolitan area is, you really need to get up in the air, preferably at night. Two nights ago, I had the window seat as we flew in at 11:00 pm to this dazzling display, which to a very minor degree, is probably enhanced by holiday lights. The city lights stretch out beyond the horizon as you descend into Sky Harbor airport, with patches of darkness marked by several mountain preserves, and long black ribbon winding through all of it that is the Central Arizona Project canal.

This constant illumination was my bane last spring while experiencing chronic insomnia. Convinced that the light beaming into my bedroom at 2:00 a.m. was to blame, I decided to drive around the neigborhood one night and find out what nefarious activities were at the source, or at the least, what mid-night highway project was being done so as not to inconvenience daytime commuting. Much to my dismay, there was nowhere not lit, save for the clear sky above, whose stars are nearly obliterated by the glare from below. The shopping centers, churches, parking lots and two schools within a mile of our home, the freeway, every street, every cul-de-sac, and most people's homes were literally burning midnight oil. There was no construction project. I went back home to bed and laid awake wondering: How much energy could be saved if we convinced the various folks who control all these lights to just shut them off for even one hour each night?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Pit Pond

A few miles south of Lake Pleasant, on a patch of land where burros eek out a living in Peoria, Arizona, there is a huge rectangular pond. You won't see it on most maps, but it does show up on Google Earth. The lake is a recent addition to the landscape,  a wetland created by filling in a giant gravel pit. In the evenings, thousands of water birds congregate there: coots, ducks, geese, herons, egrets and the occasional swan. We caught the sunset from the cattail-rimmed shore last week, and a flock of ducks on the wing.

Whenever I find these places in the otherwise ultra-arid Sonoran desert, 
I am reminded that life loves heat. You just have to add water!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Burro Crimes

On a thin scrap of wild desert bounded on three sides by roads and one side by a 80-foot wide canal, this herd of about a dozen burros make a living eating the meager foliage that sprouts up among the saguaros and palo verde. I go out and visit this herd every few months, finding them by following fresh tracks and muffins they've left behind. They are curious, but cautious, always stopping to watch me, ears perked up, intent. But as soon as I move toward them, they trot away and then stop at a prescribed safe distance of about 500 feet to watch me again.

Since 1971, with the passage of the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act, burros have been managed according to AML's or "appropriate management levels" determined by wildlife biologists and resource management specialists. Whereas this used to mean rounding up animals and shooting them, today they are auctioned off as pets.

This small herd is part of the Lake Pleasant management unit, where a population of around 350-400 burros roam freely. Without management, burro populations grow rapidly, and burro crimes ensue. Impacts to springs and riparian areas, competition with native wildlife, altering archaeological and cultural resources, damage to vegetation and soil erosion from trampling are the most frequent citations given to wild burros.

As I gaze across the desert at the power lines spidering out from one of the regions largest electric plants just north of this burro refuge, and watch dust spiraling up from the dirt bike park on the other side of the canal, I often wonder: What would the AML of modern humans be, if our populations were assessed for our damages as burros' are? And who would adopt us?

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Castor Bean

Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a spectacular plant native to tropical regions of the Eastern hemisphere. Growing up to fifteen feet high with leaves the size of large pizzas (16" diameter), walking through a patch of castor bean plants truly feels like being in a jungle. We found them thriving in South Phoenix at the Tres Rios Wetland Preserve, where effluent from a sewage treatment plant is being used to restore wildlife habitat near the confluence of the Salt, Agua Fria and Gila Rivers. Conversely, the wetlands serve as a natural purification treatment for wastewater before it returns to the river system.

Castor, which is not really a bean, but a member of the Spurge Family (Euphorbiaceae), is well-known for its use in folk medicine, primarily as a powerful laxative. However, the seeds, from which the oil is derived, are also highly toxic. The main toxic element, ricin, is reputed to have been used in espionage and torture. Ingestion of a handful of seeds can result in painful death. This does not seem to deter horticulturists who still cultivate many hybrids of the species for use as ornamentals. Wild castor bean in the Phoenix area are escapees from urban gardens, where the lush growth is welcome in our sometimes austere desert environment.

Orion in front of a field of castor bean plants at Tres Rios Wetlands

Sunday, November 20, 2011


This Western Screech Owl (Otus kennecottii) was one of dozens of raptors on display at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center open house this weekend. Anyone venturing into Phoenix from the north on I-17 zooms past Adobe Mountain, which is west of the freeway just south of Happy Valley Road. Critters in the care of dozens of dedicated volunteers range from bats to bobcats, rattlesnakes and woodrats, tortoises and turkey vultures.

In this photo, the owl is posed in a cavity carved into a section of ponderosa pine, but down in these parts, they are more likely to be found in saguaros. Like many other owl species, the screech adapts well to suburban habitats, where irrigated lawns, golf course, gardens and ball fields provide excellent forage for their favorite prey: mice, rabbits, small birds and insects. Since they are primarily nocturnal, they are rarely noticed by humans. This was the first screech owl I have seen in my lifetime. Sadly, the second one I saw was later that day on my way home, when I found one dead in the middle of the road, where it had been hit by a car as it dove for prey. More fortunate animals may recover from non-lethal injuries if brought to Adobe Mountain. Some become part of the education team, or if lucky, are released back into the wild.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cotton Pickin'

On the perimeter of Phoenix, you can still find fields of cotton, one of the "5 C's" that were the foundation of Arizona's economy one hundred years ago. (Do you know the other four? See my post on November 3rd, 2009 for the answer!) Today we cruised by some acreage with both flowers and ripe bolls bursting with downy white fibers. Mexican cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is the primary species being cultivated in the cotton industry today around the world, and is native to the Sonoran desert. Although many cotton farms have been converted to suburban housing over the past few decades, the industry still contributes over $250 million dollars to the state's economy, according to the National Cotton Council of America.

Friday, November 18, 2011


The view out my bedroom window is dominated by a jojoba shrub (Simmondsia chinensis), which is just beginning to burst into bloom. Jojoba is dioecious, which means there are "male," or pollen producing plants and "female" or seed-producing plants. The flowers in the photo above are males. Fortunately, I've got one of each in my backyard, so in a good year, we get some jojoba nuts, which are edible, although not so tasty as to inspire use as an ingredient in snack bars.

However, chances are high that you have a bit of jojoba in your household, since the waxy oil in the nuts has been harvested from commercial plantations of jojoba since the 1970's as an ingredient for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and industrial lubricants. The oil is famous for being a replacement for sperm whale oil, which was historically preferred for certain industrial applications because of its excellent heat tolerance and resistance to oxidation. The importation of sperm whale oil to the U.S. was banned in 1971.

Jojoba is an ultra drought tolerant native to the Sonoran desert, but is now cultivated all over the world in arid regions both as an ornamental landscaping plant as well as a commercial crop.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tortoise Bones

Last week we found this scute, a section of shell from a Sonoran desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai), lying at the edge of a trail we were biking on. Recognizing that it had to have been attached to a rather large tortoise, we explored the area and within minutes found the still smelly, decaying remains of an ancient male. Measuring 12” long and 8” wide (30cm x 20cm), this guy must have been in the upper end of the 80-100 year life span. The crack in his shell tells another story, perhaps a fatal tumble down the rocky hillside where he once roamed. A dozen more scutes were scattered about, although many are missing after three separate visits to look for the old one’s burrow, which we also haven’t found.

This is the second tortoise shell I’ve found in the Deem Hills, a desert island that backs up to the neighborhood we live in. The home of this desert tortoise is just a few blocks from my own; both are visible in this photo. Next time I cross paths with a wild tortoise, I hope that it’s a live one!

Through analysis of DNA and other characteristics, tortoises that live east and south of the Colorado River were recently distinguished from the Mojave desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) as a new species. Read more in this June 2011 scientific publication on tortoise taxonomy.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Signs of Spring

About half an inch of rain has drenched the central valley of Phoenix over the past month, which is plenty of moisture to excite seeds to germinate and dormant shrubs to leaf out. The well-armed branches of Ocotillo (Fouqueria splendens) are some of the first to respond to winter rains, transforming what appeared to be dead sticks into a splendid green wands.

On the desert floor, a carpet of seedlings is beginning to form. In the shade of shrubs and trees, around rocks and in swells of litter that were deposited by sheet flow of heavier rains, Burr Comb (Pectocarya recurvata) are some of the first to pop up. If we continue to be blessed with even an eighth of an inch every 10 days or so from now till March, this could be another banner year for desert wildflowers!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Wild Hive

We recently visited a wild hive of honeybees (Apis mellifera scutellata) nestled in a crack in lava cliffs just a ten minute walk from our house in Phoenix. Although we are warned that these bees are most likely “Africanized” and thus aggressive, I have never been chased or stung in the nine years that I’ve been observing this hive. Then again, I have never tried to steal their honey or poke the hive with a stick. These same bees are most likely the ones that are at work daily in the neighborhood, gathering nectar and pollen from our landscaping plants. Maybe they just recognize me as one of the friendly neighbors whose garden they come down to forage in every day!

Orion prefers to keep his distance from the bees. The dark cleft in the cliff is where the hive is hidden.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Glorious Golden Scarab

We found this gilded beetle trundling in the duff along the Clear Creek Trail up near Verde Valley, Arizona a few weeks ago. The species was dubbed Chrysina gloriosa, or “glorious golden one,” one of 30,000 or so beetles in the scarab family. The Glorious Scarab is supposedly camouflaged by its gleaming exoskeleton as it feeds on the foliage of juniper trees. As grubs, they make a living chewing tunnels in decaying sycamore logs, most common in riparian habitats of southern Arizona.

My son, who aspires to be an entomologist, studies the elaborate appendages while drawing our specimen. This beetle was in its last hours, so is now preserved in Orion's insect collection.

I was surprised to find very little other information about these living jewels. Their much homelier distant cousins, the Egyptian dung beetle, Scarabaeus sacer, however, have earned the status of gods in Mediterranean mythology. As a symbol of the sun god, Ra, the scarab is plentiful in the hieroglyphics, jewelry and sculptures of ancient and modern Egypt.

If you are a Facebook user, search for Chrysina gloriosa, which has its very own fan page, and give it a thumbs up!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


Dinner at Finca Bella Vista in Costa Rica

"Ecogastronomics." When my daughter told me yesterday that she just registered for a college course with this title, my first thought was, "What the heck is ecogastronomics?" My second thought was, "Why is this a credited course at a University?" My third thought was "When is that girl going to get serious about her college career and start working on a "real" major!?"

Thus, I found myself awake in the middle of the night, once again, Googling for information, where all of my questions seem to find an answer these days. Ecogastronomics, by simple linguistic analysis, is the study of the ecology and economics of food. Okay, I thought, that is definitely relevant. To answer my second question, it turns out that the University of New Hampshire made the news back in 2008 by pioneering Ecogastronomy as an official major area of study. Their aim is to integrate the study of agriculture, nutrition and food services management into a course that examines the effects of our food choices on local and global scales. Or something like that. Michael Pollan's books, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "Food Rules" are obvious choices for primary texts; the "Slow Food Movement" is the philosophical foundation of this new trend of study.

My third question does not have an answer on the Internet, but I realized that one of the reasons my daughter chose to go to college is to explore the world beyond the heavily plodded pathways of "normal" careers and lifestyles. These first two years are a golden opportunity to learn about other cultures and topics that just aren't part of the standard middle class American public school system. Yoga, Argentine Tango, Vietnamese History, Western Philosophy, Photojournalism and now, Ecogastronomy, are somehow colluding into something unique and exciting for Brooke. I can't wait to see what she cooks up!

So now I turn to my pantry and refrigerator and ponder the idea of ecogastronomy in my own life. As I snack on almonds (from California) and sip my Yerba Mate (from Argentina), I'm intrigued at how most of our food has absolutely no ecological relationship to the local landscape. Phoenix is no longer well known for it's agriculture, although Cattle and Citrus were once the economic engines of the region. My veggie gardening skills are weak. However, I do have a bag of mesquite flour in my freezer, ground from seed pods that I gathered in my front yard. Might mesquite be a key ingredient in the restoration of ecological and economic sustainability here in the Sonoran Desert? And maybe a culinary ingredient that could be reintroduced to the local culture?

Mesquite bean pods

Some nutritionists of aboriginal cultures suggest that restoring indigenous food cultures could cure a lot of health problems, such as diabetes and obesity. In that case, I'd like to live wherever cacao is part of the native ecosystem!

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Skulls & Feathers

If you open my freezer looking for ice cream, don't be surprised if you find a dead bird in there. I have this odd habit of collecting roadkills and assorted gifts that my cat brings home. When time and inspiration collide I harvest the feathers and skulls from these creatures to add to my collections. Maybe a little odd, but I was inspired by museum collections like Chicago's Field Museum, the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History, a collection for academic study at Colorado College and displays at many national parks that I've visited over the years. Some of history's most noteworthy naturalists contributed to these kinds of collections in the days when harvesting creatures for scientific study was the norm: John James Audubon, Charles Darwin, Alfred Wallace and Olaus Murie all collected hundreds of birds as well as multitudes of other creatures, carefully preserving their skins and bones so that they could be observed by other curious naturalists. So I started my own little museum.

There's nothing very scientific about my collection. I keep them because I am an artist as much as a naturalist, and am enamoured with the delicate curves and details in the bones, the patterns and textures of the feathers, the way the wings spread. The process of curing a skull teaches me about anatomy. Plucking feathers teaches me about insulation and flight. I figure it's better than throwing the carcass into the bushes, or letting it get flattened by traffic into a totally unrecognizable smudge on the road. My kids are used to the fact that I'll stop in the middle of a highway to pick up a dead bird, and even back track if I've noticed something interesting while moving 65 miles per hour. It keeps the contents of our freezer interesting!

Friday, August 26, 2011


For year-round bloom power, Lantana (Lantana camera) tops the charts here in central Arizona. No matter how blistering hot or desperately parched the summer weather becomes, Lantana keeps on flowering. When I first ventured into the Phoenix suburbs in 2002, this plant was unknown to me, since I'd always lived in cooler climates. One thing Lantana can't survive is a hard frost. Since then, I've realized that these flamboyant flowering shrubs can be a nuisance in some regions; in Australia and southeastern North America, they bear the loathsome label of "invasive species." And to a serious landscape designer, Lantana is on par with petunias: colorful, yes; but sort of like linoleum or popcorn ceilings. Unsophisticated unless you have a retro-modern or unique creative streak going.

But, I don't get tired of their colors and heartiness. Or the way their name feels on the tongue. Lantana, lantana, lantana!