Tag Archives: Native grasses

August 31, 2016

People on the desert long enough
on a certain day about this time
in August feel
and taste
and see
a shift in the afternoon light and
shadows and breeze, and the
oppression of heavy air
lifts off and away
from each

and they let out a sigh
and breathe back in
a new Season
under another
desert Sun

Day after day the temperature tries to reach 100 degrees, and I take it for granted that as a diamond is said to be, the Sonoran Desert Summer is forever. But then–there is a morning like this one come, when coffee in hand I slip into the patio in the dark and wonder what is wrong, what is different. It sinks in, the world has gone silent, no notes from Purple Martins echoing down from stars, all is still and empty, not even a cricket though as the Autumn will, when it comes to its own winding down, have nights again in cricket song. We can get pretty gladly through every afternoon now that still sizzles, every still mid-morning with its drenching humidity, for we know we’re on our way to one of those months whose weather the World must envy, months that bookend that hot time the snowbirds famously flee in panic. This year there have been few storms violent enough to alarm much, nor did the house get hit by lightning and neither did the power pole and lines so no blackouts of more than a few minutes, the WiFi box never got fried once much less its usual several times, no tornado-like microbursts to upend and throw the patio furniture around.

The wide drifts on every flat and mesa-top of brilliant yellow flowers of Hierba de San Nicolas (Thymophylla acerosa) aren’t making a grand show this year, though there are scattered plants low underfoot on Firesky Ridge and they are still in bud, seemingly staying in an arrested state. Neither have I noticed any vines of the naturalized, exquisitely blue Morning-glory, begin their climb through the branches of Creosote Bush along the roadside. In this area of Cascabel the rain accumulation is about an inch and a half less than last year’s Monsoon’s, could that be why we haven’t had this flower display that is one of the delights of late Summer? Or is it that the rains have come at the “wrong” moments? (Mason Pastures, only a few miles away, received much more rain as storm cells passed over them than has come to Ridge House, and their Native Grass Planting has come back to life and greenery spectacularly. It turned out all right to have taken that chance and not watered them from the irrigation well.) The crop of mesquite beans everywhere is no more than half its usual plenty, and many trees have no beans on them at all–another case of rain falling at the wrong time? Many local folk tell that a rain coming at the height of bloom will abort the work of those sweetly scented blossoms, or mold the anthers and pollen but also this year the cattle herd hasn’t gone after the pods on the ground in the manic and addictive way they always do. Perhaps the cows with their oh-so-discriminating palettes have warned the community we shouldn’t expect the flavor of this Fall’s ground flour to be any better than so-so!

At those Mason Pastures the brood of Ash-throated Flycatchers in the post have long ago hatched and fledged, and by tomorrow–September–they’ll have left for the Pacific Coast of Mexico. I’m filled with a longing to go with these birds when they leave for where Summer itself will be migrating too, let go all this Romance of Western Life …

After the Sun is up and I’m watering the flowers on the patio, what is unmistakably some vireo begins singing out on the Creosote Bush flats, and it’s one I haven’t heard before. Bob had listened to a differently-voiced vireo at his place a couple of ridges away and in much the same sort of upland desert country during Spring migration this year; he identified it as a Gray Vireo, one of the “uncommon and local” species sought out by naturalists who travel a long way to visit southern Arizona. The bird here stays close to the house a good while, long enough for me to find recordings of Gray Vireo songs on the Internet and play them right along with what was coming from a Palo Verde. The real and the recording matched note for note, and so a “Lifer” bird is delivered right to the house before I even get on all my work clothes!

Too many kingbirds on the wires with obviously notched tails, birds that haven’t read the field guides (as Ralph says)–that tail shape is supposed to be the mark of the Tropical Kingbird. They’re silent though, not like that bird at El Potrero that gave itself away with its chattering. In the study of natural history there must be art, intuition, science. Making of friends with the notion that there will be birds, butterflies and bugs, that will not be identified even if you hold them in your hand, also helps. To strive for a life solved of all mysteries is hubris.

A “bug” lands noisily on a shrub next to me, oh it’s large, frightening enough that no one would think of holding it in the hand to identify, or get too close to its mysteries. It is more than intriguing enough to demand being wondered over. Looks can be deceiving and that was what this insect unmistakably mimicking the Tarantula Hawk must be all about! I first take it for one of those Tarantula Hawks that are visiting the Graythorns but then see how its strong black legs bow out to the sides, then come back together and are held in a tight row where it clasps the stem (picture a scissors jack) and the head was that of a fly, not a wasp, with large and bulbous eyes sticking out at the sides. The colors perfectly match the wasp it must imitate–the same orange-red and black–and the pattern fools the eye of the human and I’d guess this insect’s prey. Much of the body is black, but it’s the very long, fat abdomen that is orange, rather than the wings. What the insect does on landing is fold those wings long and straight over the abdomen, the wings are clear with tiny black veins and see-through enough that it appears suddenly indeed that they are what’s orange like those of the big wasp! Have I been fooled myself all this time, or is this something appearing on this desert only lately? (Later I mention it to Kathleen, who tells she has been seeing this very monster insect the last couple of years at 3-Links and was also sure it is a Tarantula Hawk mimic. As it turns out we are not alone in seeing it, and it is indeed a newly arrived and spreading species come north from South of the Border. This “Mexican Robber Fly”, Archilestris magnificus, was first recorded north of The Border here only about 2007 and that first published photograph from Arizona then caused a sensation in the world of entomology. Lately it has suddenly crossed over from rarity to “oh, there’s another one” from Arivaca through Cochise County. It does not sip nectar or nip pollen like the Pepsis wasps, but is a voracious carnivore on the wing snagging bugs and insects who presume it is looking for either a flower or a Tarantula, not for them.

Nine teal drop out of the sky, skittering, falling, completely out of control but completely in control, land like cannonballs with such a splash that they cause a mini-tsunami against the bank of hard-grazed Barnyard Grass. One swims warily, quickly away from the truck, shows fully a wing speculum of cobalt blue … she reaches the far shore of Barnyard Grass, turns forty-five degrees and the gem of that speculum lights wildly into an emerald that would raise the avarice of a jewel thief eyeing the Topkapi. A Great Blue Heron is unmoving in this wild splash-down of Green-winged Teal though perhaps he’s grinding his mandibles over the fright it will have set off among what’s left of the huge Bullfrogs he hasn’t yet dispatched. Heron remains implacable, inscrutable. He has an image to maintain.

September, tomorrow, the month larger numbers of Great Blue Herons begin to arrive, northern birds that will stay for the Winter …

So when the shadows lengthen
leaves have turned to dust
first there’s Summer, then
I’ll let you in,
September,
when it comes …

I watch the clouds go sailing
I watch the clock and Sun,
oh I watch myself
depending on
September,
when it comes

–Rosanne Cash and John Levanthal, “September When It Comes”

July 28, 2016

Pat and I ride our horses across the higher range, forlorn of the company of cows now gone so that the native grasses can grow their flowers and seeds to sow again the hillsides and bajadas. We search out Summer flowers but the land is mostly forlorn of their company, too, the rains have been so scant. There is almost no crop of Saguaro fruit again this year, alas! and we’ll miss gobbling them down. The first blossoms of Barrel Cactus are coming on though (nothing stops them); with their varied colors, and the animated shapes of the plants’ bodies, they make for good reason to saddle and go out on a 105 degree day–as this one will be. As we climb one slope and mesa after another we come on one Cassin’s Sparrow and another singing, each having staked out a territory in this Summer of grass that has responded to and made lush by that one big rain at the beginning of the month. The thunderheads a few days ago started building at last, and the rain in the gauges slowly to rise. How we celebrate this afternoon, when three-quarters of an inch fills them!

July 20, 2016

A little more rain, the first in almost three weeks and not enough to stop fretting about the state of the Native Grass Planting with its desiccation and shriveling continuing apace. Water it and encourage too-rampant growth of competing Palmer’s Amaranth, Copper Mallow, and Bermudagrass, or hold off and risk the loss of the precious clumps of gramas, bristlegrasses, sprangletops, beardgrasses, dropseeds and three-awns? All is wet enough, though, and I hope to hear Cassin’s Sparrows again in #3 Pasture but no, only many Rufous-winged Sparrows trilling, or doing their convincing Eastern Towhee impersonations. It must not be enough for the Cassins’ to ask their partners after their singing dive and mating display, “Did you feel the earth move under your feet?” but that they have to hear a certain number of real thunder rumbles … as some human desert rats tell the mud-buried Sonoran Desert Toads must? Maybe not enough rumbles have come on us yet? Or are they troubled by the population boom of Rufous-winged Sparrows still in their dense population cycle here?

The handsome, shrubby Composite in The Lane near the tall water storage tank is as alive with a species of native bee as that Graythorn has been with Tarantula Hawks. These bees are ones I’ve never seen before. Short and stocky, golden in the fore-half, black behind, with slanted greenish eyes: they look like the Roswell Alien and they fly like little spaceships themselves, very fast, in a frenetic zig-zag pattern. They’re as handsome as the sprawling plant and its showy yellow rayless flowers, where they’re joined in the nectar feast by only a few butterflies, and a Tarantula Hawk or two. I think the plant is False Boneset, Brickellia eupatorioides but oh, those Composites, what critters to key out and identify they be–even more fun than grasses. Whatever this is, it might be the longest-flowering and most attractive “pollinator plant” wild on the range and should be propagated and disseminated widely.

Not one rattlesnake to be seen this Summer at Mason’s–the Roadrunners are many and large and often accompany me in groups of three or more as I scare up bugs and lizards in my own frenetic zig-zagging and flying saucer zooming across the pastures to get the endless rounds of chores done …

July 2, 2016

When Monsoon after her opening fiesta lifts the hem of her skirt of clouds enough above her ankles to wade in the arroyos she’s left running, all this land lies drenched and steaming.

Over a half inch of rain begins High Summer and the temperature soars from the delight of a cool 80 degrees yesterday to well past 90 today. The smallest of effort to push myself into #3 Pasture to listen for Botteri’s Sparrows pulls sweat to wet and darken the work shirt. No, no Botteri’s–but yes, yes! for a second day comes the rich, descending, see-sawing whistles of Cassin’s. They may have been here already but they do not let go their songs until rain actually falls for if it doesn’t, why waste the swagger and the aerial dance of courtship? Will they stay even if the much rarer Botteri’s has abandoned us and apparently withdrawn to their more usual range closer to The Border? The presence of the Cassin’s Sparrows is exciting and deeply satisfying enough to us and the Forest Service and the pastures, now after so much work of the past few years has turned the wide almost sterile Burroweed flats into the kind of mosaic of those shrubs and the native grasses that this “Species of Concern” might want to call home.

Those overgrown “ducklings” of the Mexican Mallard pair head for the shore whenever the Silverado appears at The Stockpond, move up through the weeds away from me crouched almost flat to the ground, quickly and more like lizards than large birds that can fly off if they want to. Black Phoebes have appeared again in good numbers through the pastures but especially in the branches overhanging the open water, after having been absent most of the Foresummer and early Summer. Where do they come back from?

August 2, 2015

The Monsoon. Bug time big time, when you never know what’s going to hatch next, what’s going to appear that none of us have seen before here, what’s going to appear that we wish we hadn’t seen, ‘specially at night on the floor. (And as the more tropical Desert moves slowly northwards out of Sonora, there are surprises in store that no Wall will stop, surprises beautiful or dreadful–or both!) I only spent a few nights this Kissing Bug season listening intently in the dark of our hot June for that drone-whir of a big one zooming low over the bed, checking out the blood buffet it wants, then that, um, blood-curdling little bang against the wall and ensuing total, sudden silence as it lands there to plot its next move. Only six bites this year, now I’m so sensitized to the nasty and distinctive sound The Thing makes that it can wake me from sleep and have me scrambling for the vacuum cleaner to put the suck on it in a sweet turning of tables, or have a paper towel around it and with a quick squeeze, dispatch it. Aviso: DON’T whack these guys with a magazine or a shoe heel against a wall, especially a white wall, unless you need someone to divine the future from a large red Rorschach blot mess. I found them on the windowsill, on the woodwork, in the sink, in the tub–“Kissing Bug Bath & Beyond”. Nicer(?) was a visit one evening by a huge, I do mean, huge, Blonde Arizona Tarantula, revealed to me suddenly when I turned on the bedroom lamp to read and found it just over the pillows, suspended upside down and hanging on to the underside of a swag of curtain I’d pulled out of the way so whatever precious cool of the night air movement would pass through the room. With its beautiful long dark legs, it sure stood out against that white curtain material. They fall from the ceiling onto people’s beds from time to time. I wound the alarm clock, and put out the Tarantula. Maybe it went looking for Kissing Bugs in the night garden.

There is beauty in smaller packages. A few days ago on a sweat-drenched late afternoon just when I’d had it with pulling mesquites and mesquite-lings from what will be one of this year’s winter pastures for the cattle, I scared up an exquisite moth of about a two-inch wingspan, white of fore- and hindwings, with scattered black flecks and points, a short russet cape down its upper abdomen, that cape, too, dotted with black. It was fat, and seemed strained in take off–gravid, I suppose. Some minutes later a very similar white moth took wing from another mesquite I was disturbing, this one very active, wild and warier, with a fast, purposeful flight even under a hot afternoon sun in air of 99 degrees. Its hindwings, though, were the same russet of its own abdomen cape, leading me to think not only was a lovely moth of these parts newly revealed to me but of all the luck, both its dimorphic male and female forms were. At home later, a quick google-search brought the identity: the Salt Marsh Moth, or Acrea Moth–not a desert specialty, but a species found in many parts of the world and whose similar relatives are known as “Ermines.” What an appropriate folk name that would be for this Acrea Moth of ours, too, as can be seen in these pictures from the Internet site, “Butterflies and Moths of North America“:

(who could resist this moth-apparition of one of those sad-eyed DeGrazia children?)

This also solves a longtime mystery, of the identity of long haired, formidable-looking caterpillars that appear on the mesquites of Mason Pastures, whose spines and heavy fur we’ve had a great care not to touch for fear of being burned (though now I read that these caterpillars are harmless.) Apparently the gorgeous if frightening larvae can range in color and form so widely that one would automatically take them for several species. One of these is much like the Wooly Bear of Eastern states, and this I’ve now found goes by the lyrical, appropriate name, “Black and Tan” …

Earlier on that same day, Anna Lands reported to me something she saw happen at The Stockpond where she waited for me to join her for lunch: a female Vermillion Flycatcher shot out over the pond and grabbed a dragonfly mid-air after the insect had been depositing eggs over the water. I had no idea that little flycatcher would go after an insect as large as that. Those birds are fearless: this Spring I was entertained by a mated pair of them dive-bombing a huge Belted Kingfisher as it made circles around the pond, closer and closer in towards the flycatcher nest half way up a big mesquite on a branch over the water. The closer the big bird swooped, the more frantic and angry was the reaction of the pair of small Vermillions. It was a surprise later to find out that indeed those kingfishers will snatch a nestling if they can get away with it, I guess no less a dainty than would be a minnow. Kingfisher never got to find that out for itself, though, because the flycatchers won, at least this bout.

Early August, and the Red-winged Grasshoppers have appeared earlier I think than I have seen before–the first during the final week of July. The Monsoon is revving slowly, and at last has started to bring good, terrifying and dangerous chubascos that cause me to flee the pastures and hole-up at the Ridge House where I wonder how the place can stand the huff-and-I’ll-puff blasts of 50, 60, 70 mph winds. Then yesterday during a sunrise of incredible calm, there was not a breath to rearrange the spectacular flights of ants in air as saturated as a Hawaiian morning. After the night of a ferocious storm that dropped an inch and a half of rain, the ants swirled for miles and miles of gravel road, in Van Gogh glittering swirls of golden stars, to delight, and to creep out. It was the greatest bughatch I’d ever seen, like driving into snow, collecting in bronze and copper shining drifts across the road surface. I had to close the windows, Too many were landing on my hat brim and nose. I finally had to have at least air movement inside the cab of the pickup by the time I got to the pavement, on my way to check on our rather famous Molly the Cow and her new, impossibly beautiful calf Barbara Clark named, “Two Too.” In a few moments, though, the truck was flying through even greater masses of undulating, madly mating insects, which hit the windshield with the pit! crack! of driving into an ice storm, they hit my face with the sting of wind-wrenched pebbles as I sped along trying to get through them, got sucked roundly into a nostril, ack! snort! gasp! The truck slid on piles of them along the edge of the road, and I got out at Three Links to open the gate to get to Molly, with having had quite enough of “bugs”!

February 24, 2014

An odd little song, “tseeee-burr-REEP … tseee-burrr-REEP”, repeated and repeated, ventriloqual, of an elusive bird leads me around and around the bigger mesquites at El Potrero early this morning but I finally track it down to a small, greenish fluffball: Hutton’s Vireo.  It looks so like a Kinglet, whose numbers are increasing here too, eight miles north of Mason Pastures.

I stare and stare at them (who could help it?) but I still can’t take seriously that the glowing embers of Vermillion Flycatchers are so soon back on what seems to be every fencepost at Mason’s.  Their numbers have increased to the crowding point, and now pairs of males are already eyeing each other resentfully but don’t know why.  There are no females yet, and when they arrive, oh buddy, watch out!

Three Flickers are in the native grass area, where the many sprangletops, gramas, bristlegrasses and dropseeds planted there last year are doing passably well and might even bring seeds for their own natural increase this Summer and Fall.

Only one pair of Mexican Mallards swims this morning, but brown duck feathers are spread all along one bank …

I’m resigned to the job of raising the stock fence along the Cascabel Road never having an end, but at least there are always many interesting creatures winged and running and burrowing to be a distraction between jacking out posts, or being wrapped round about with devil-inhabited coils of barbed wire, and the fuss of measuring the distance between each of the five ranks of wire that need attaching.  The day is hot–over 80 degress, again we’re not yet at the end of February–and from across the road and out of the Saguaro Canyon comes that mysterious, descending singing again, only now I know this is not a bird, but a mammal: the Harris’s Antelope Squirrel.  (A few words in a websearch line led me straight to recordings of various Arizona squirrels and chipmunks, and there it was to be heard at the click of an audio link!  I already feel keenly the loss of that mystery, though.)  The work of leveling the old ridges of grader-piled rocks and sand digs out many panicked centipedes, sundry bothered spiders and many Whiptail Lizards (undoubtedly Desert Grassland Whiptails) that run off lightning fast and which I’m always glad I haven’t accidentally cut in two with the shovel blade.  And scorpions … lots of scorpions … two species at least, one kind gruesomely fat, cold blue with big yellow forceps-like pincers, the other small and black but no less fearsome.  None are killed, of course, though maybe I’ve done so to others unknowingly as the project has continued over many a day.

December 14, 2013

Sad sweet notes of White-crowned Sparrows come on the 26 degree morning air. A pudding skin of ice covers The Stockpond and the bermudagrass is a filaree of white crystals of frost with Red-shafted Flickers looking bright against the tall white weeds.

A lot of the herd from the Mason Pastures will be moved downriver on the road over the next couple of days, to be settled then on the upper grazing ranges for the Winter; surely we’ve just brought them down from there only last week in that great heat and dust of June! The first waterer for them must be topped up, there fairly high up above the dry Hot Springs Canyon. Lesser Goldfinches drink eagerly, boldly, at the cracked hose filling that metal stocktank: on the desert, those who delight in having a garden or patio be visited by the variety of birds here that is the marvel of these Sky Islands and bajadas need only fill a pan with water, sit back, sip a bacanora, and enjoy.

Back at Mason’s at the end of day, the tiniest of midges dance on the surface of a now-thawed puddle in the native grass planting, each minute form catching the late sun before the very cold and long night comes down.

November 16, 2013

The day’s range of temperatures spans only 15 degrees–neither cold nor hot–and so with this second Pacific front the Sonoran Desert year’s quiet season’s weather pattern is set.  A sprinkle comes to us and our ranges, but no more than that; all that’s really to be had from this storm is a high and annoying wind who desiccates the germinating pasture grasses.  A few dragonflies manage to hover on through it all.

Mesquites are sprouting from the seeds left behind by cows in piles of manure.  London Rocket (mustard), too, showing millions of pairs of cotyledons; Sweet Clover is in lush, sudden renewal low to the ground in #2 Pasture; the handsome flat rosettes of what will be tall Gaura next warm season suddenly are just there, having scattered themselves through the native grass plantings.  So are woven together this year and next, on the loom Arizona’s multiple and complex seasons, a marvelously eye-catching quilt that decorates no other land but ours.  Just now it is Autumnal Spring–sometimes long lasting, always delightful, sometimes regrettably short.

November 6, 2013

Low 20s at the early pastures–what a seesaw!  The “Layered Look” is an invention of Arizona ranch hands.  The expected rise of 60 degrees by afternoon comes along, fills out the grasslands with Red-winged Grasshoppers again; a Gray Fox lopes across the native grass plots.  Frogs are still leaping from The Stockpond’s edge, splashing in and swimming away well under water.

October 8, 2013

The newly established native grass planting is being weaned into dormancy, getting watered only twice a month and in decreasing amounts–it is a showcase of wintering sparrows (Lincoln’s, White-crowned, Vesper, Savannah, and a female Lark Bunting.) Seeding amaranths in there are shoulder high and dropping spiny fruits into my boot tops, irritating my feet but quite the buffet spread for the birds. Native gramas long before established by themselves in there, plus naturalized Stinkgrass and Lovegrass, add to the seed bounty.

Opening one of the growing number of silky chambers appearing in the outside branches of the small mesquites overgrowing the pastures, I find a large-bodied, pearly-gray furry spider, fascinating and also unsettling, with an abdomen fat as if it were storing up supplies for the winter.

A drive to that north dirt tank reveals it still has water in it, going on three weeks after the last rain. It has always been “productive” of little birds, but today a Sharp-shinned Hawk is present and the only sound is crickets. The electric wires and utility poles, t-posts and barbed wire strands, and mesquite crowns are also empty of Cassin’s Kingbirds, and I think ours must have left.

Amigo Snipe is at The Stockpond, and Snout Butterflies, and a plain, nut-brown dragonfly with a blue, soap bubble sheen to the wings. Across the water itself gracefully swims a bright orange, large Water Scorpion–or should it be called better, Water Stick?

A Verdin peeps in the mesquites of The Lane; they are almost absent from these lands I work every day.