Tag Archives: Toads & Frogs

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 30, 2016

Looks like it will be a year of Lark Bunting irruption again: a large flock passes overhead at Mason Pastures. We never hear their sweet song hereabouts, that is a pleasure known to their High Plains breeding grasslands but their funny rubber-ducky call notes tickle as they rain down on these their wintering grounds. The birds are still in incredibly dapper black summering grounds plumage, with gleaming white wing patches. Here is another bird come to teach there are only the briefest of weeks that are purely Summer, as there are only the briefest of weeks that are purely Autumn, or Winter, or Spring.

The naturalizing Bull Frogs have got themselves somehow up the sheer sides of the “new” metal stocktank that was rehabilitated to help the Stockpond keep from getting sullied by the cattle herd–one huge frog sits balanced facing outwards, perched on the rim, contemplating the scenery and probably feeling pretty easy about no herons ever going there to clean out frogs. Several Summers have passed now since there was a large turnout of chortling, mating Sonoran Desert Toads in the “real” pond and I miss their spectacle and their lascivious inflating and deflating gurgles. It may be coincidence, but their numbers have declined with us in proportion to the increasing balance the Stockpond has found as its water slowly became clear and even healthy enough that aquatic plants have colonized it. Or are there no more of the huge, water-dancing desert toads because the Bull Frogs have out competed 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 …

June 25, 2016

Alex finds a knick-knackly perfect, exquisitely miniature Woodhouse’s Toad with its tiny leopard spots, on the ground next to him while he sits eating lunch on The Pond bank. It would be too easy to crush one with a casual knee or an unknowing step.

Two large family groups of Gambel’s Quail cross in front of me as I come along in the old Silverado, each group of bouncing, fuzzy, gravity-defying Ping-Pong balls leaving out from their different sides of the road (after looking both ways?) and passing each other in file as if in Paris crosswalks, looking like so many school girls shepherded by nuns and of course there is always the one who will be off by itself, in panicked lateness shooting forward to catch up, likely named Madeline.

Mockingbird flies out into the middle of the pasture, scolding the flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds and letting them know they are in the minds of an awful lot of avian citizens the scum of the Earth. The notes of that Mockingbird are unmatched for disdain.

June 17, 2016

Suddenly many minute-sized black tadpoles fill The Pond, on the surface, in wiggling, swimming layers down to the bottom; I’ve never noticed these before though I’d heard many adults for the first time at this pond earlier in the season. One on the surface, of about one inch in length, has four well-formed legs and an adult-looking head but still waves a tail behind it, certainly tiny for being at this stage of about-to-leave-for-land, its body leopard-speckled in little round black spots, the little legs with dark bands. They can’t be Bull Frogs, the size at this stage of maturity seems to tell that these are native Woodhouse’s Toads, those wonderful singers we must hope never get pushed out by some other introduced creature. Another new sight, reminding one that there are phenomena that are to be seen on the briefest of days, or even hours, and likely not every year: the bank of The Pond while I’m watching the funny little tadpoles, is alive with many odd beetles, shiny blue-black with very bulbous abdomens 2/3rds their length and bright brick red. Will I ever see those again?

February 27, 2014

The windows of the Cowboy Caravan must be left open for the day, otherwise it will be too hot to sleep comfortably tonight, and too hot for the comfort as well of the inside window garden of English Primrose, Iceland Poppy, Chinese Pinks and Cyclamens, all in flower-show bloom.

The female Cinnamon Teal is missing this morning, but the female Vermillion Flycatcher has arrived, to drive into a frenzy the boys who’ve been here for a while bach’ing it.  A frog swims off from the bank in water gone opaque, bright olive green with algae.  A large hawkmoth with bright hindwings striped pink, and brown mottled forewings, and long white antennae ending in black knobs, swings right past the truck windshield, drops to the rippled surface, hovers flat and drops its proboscis and drinks and drinks.  It’s only the second time I’ve ever seen one do this, the first was of another species, the White-lined Sphinx, over a pool of the San Pedro years ago.

Full sized, mottled-brown grasshoppers appear again, and comes for Spring a single Rough-winged Swallow who glides low over sunny, windy pastures.  Malta Star Thistle has exploded in three of those pastures, to give yet another year the horrid, mind-numbing chore of trying to rid ourselves of them, and I try painting undiluted white vinegar across their leaves with a brush to see if that could burn them out “organically” … Foxtail grass also overnight has started to show their flat, feather-edged paddles of inflorescences held outwards on the ground, bringing to mind that a fretful time will come when those spikes become sharp and dried and endanger the jaws and tender cheeks of the cattle.  More Cottonwood leaves unfurling, moving towards Summer shade … this seems to have come on here in this Once and Future Sonora even earlier than I’d seen it in Alamos, far to the south in Old Mexico.

November 20, 2013

The Arthropods have stripes today, including a spider in a web in the little mesquites, with zebra legs.  Rain could be felt a-building, maybe not today but the sky all around and the odd light on the land announced it, and I check the rain gauge to empty it of dead flies.  There are no flies, but instead in the bottom are two dead little bees, and two that still live.  One is frantic, angry, half of it metallic Mallard green with the other, rear half black and white zebra-striped: that most perfectly named Metallic Green Sweat Bee.  The two dead ones lie curled up below, their bodies instead are ultramarine though equally metallic, equally beautiful.

It’s still pleasantly warm enough that frogs are jumping into The Stockpond at my approach, the cold that will come at the trailing edge of the expected storm will put an end to their very long party and these are the last I’ll see and hear.  No dragonflies buzz along over the frog-rippled water today.

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 1, 2013

Crescent Moon, topaz chalice, hovering above the peaks that crest the Muleshoe country, all else is stars and constellations. Not a sound of bird, but the night is rich with chirps and singing of insects. Martins overhead are gone, flycatchers on the mesas are gone, Chats in the bosque below are gone, there are no calls of Sonoran Desert Toads, nor Spadefoots, nor Red-spotted Toads from the far flats. For crickets, though, it is their time, and they will only get louder as the months of the year wind down–all their predators having gone to Mexico or dug towards Hades. When light finally suffuses the sky towards the East where Dipper rises and sparkles, two Great Horned Owls hoot a duet. Cold air flows right through the house, to be captured by closing doors and windows early as a hedge against the still 90-degrees-hot and sweaty days.

It’s a madhouse of birds newly arrived and soon to depart (though I wonder when) at The Stockpond: Bell’s Vireos, Blue Grosbeaks, the first White-crowned Sparrows, the first Yellow-rumped Warblers–the comforting and at-home burrs and buzzes of those Vireos, though, will be the last that I’ll hear for today they vanish. Several Wilson’s Snipe take off with a much bothered, “Shrekk! Shrekk!”, circle, land again, crouch, freeze, tilt their back end at a 45 degree angle with bill pointed a slant the other direction to touch the mud. The ephemeral dirt tank sounds like a bird aisle in a pet store, with the chattering and whistles of many Lark Sparrows, Pyrrhuloxia, and the Brewer’s Sparrows that today arrive at the Mason Pastures. Gad, one of those Fall warblers, the ones to be identified in part by process of elimination … green above, yellow throat, yellow under tail coverts, grayish crown; I think I can take it for a female Nashville Warbler. A Rock Wren calls out a chittling note from the hillside scree on the other side of Cascabel Road. Cassin’s and Western Kingbirds, still aplenty on the fences and wires and poles, still entertaining with their boldness, their colors, their lusty joy of flight.

Those little frogs of Summer never grew up into Bullfrogs (it appears we are Bullfrog free, who knows how, or for sure?) and they’re still very active–I can never get “the jump” on them and have a good look. Not that frogs are so easy to tell apart, even if they’re in the hand. No chance of that happening, what with how they leap in panic from along The Stockpond edge even at my distant approach, scream an “EEEeeeep!”, splash and are gone. Today, though, while I watch dragonflies and stand completely still, one of the frogs rises submarine-like to the surface at my feet; I don’t dare blink, though it does, one eye looking up at me, then the other. It has a knobby face, with a beautifully bright green jaw, the top of the head green but duller, and it’s spotted on every limb going out onto the toes. Could these be Chiricahua Leopard Frogs, known to be making their last stand along The Border in about the only habitats left that are dependably wet year round, ranch ponds and cattle drinkers? I grow tired being motionless, move ever so slightly, and it submerges and is gone so quickly that it is as if it had never appeared to begin with though little swirls of mud show something had indeed been there.

A dear mamma cow, Brindle, looks a little odd, isn’t walking with the right rhythm, and while I try to divine if she has a problem or it’s my imagination, an immature Cooper’s Hawk hunts past us. Tom and I look over this herd later on, and find Brindle’s entire left side collapsed and enlarged; neither one of us have seen anything like it, and fear she will be carried off by it. Vultures have lately become thin on the air, not many around still to clean up a carcass, but one suddenly comes into view high over the cow and the humans now alarmed by her appearance. Everyone instantly has the same thought, endemic in this far country under the Mae West Peaks: “She’d better do it now before the Vultures leave.”–Kathleen. “Good thing the vultures haven’t left!”–Pat.

The last sun rays on The Stockpond light brightly, stunningly, the stripes on the head of a single Snipe, who probes the mud with its marvelously long bill, all the way up to its eyeballs!