Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Catalina State Park, Tucson, Arizona

Canada del Oro Wash in Catalina State Park

Rain and snow are in the forecast for the rest of the week, so I took the dogs to Catalina State Park today while it's still sunny and beautiful. The parking lot at the trail head was full of cars, so we followed the wash instead of the trail to avoid the crowds. Even though we had two days of heavy rainfall over the last couple of weeks, the wash was bone dry.
Rocky slopes and slightly higher elevations support healthy stands of old Saguaros.  Mesquite Grassland covers the flats. Arizona Mountain Ashes and a few Cottonwoods grow  in the sandy wash itself in a few places. Massive rounded boulders tell of the force of seasonal floods. 

Nice stands of Seep Willow attract multitudes of interesting insects in the warmer seasons. Now there were only a few seed bugs on the ripe, cottony fruit-stands. A few butterflies, some banded grasshoppers...no other insect life. Unpleasant: the thick stands of cockle burrs. Cody's fine silky hair seems to attract those nasty lumps and tonight I will have to bring out the scissors to get rid of them. Some zoochory if they don't know how to let go of their poor ride!

The boulders in the wash make for strenuous walking with camera and dog leads,  but we have the place to ourselves.   

A wild animal among the rocks?

 No, just Laika who's allowed off the leash because she'd never walk more than twenty yards away from us when she's in strange territory. She'd also never chase anything out there. But she did give some hikers a thrill who momentarily believed they'd spotted something wild...

Following the Canyon Loop trail for a while

The wilderness area beyond the park boundaries. This used to be Bighorn Sheep area, but for years now, no sheep could be found and now even the official signs in the park have disappeared. Still, I'm not taking the dogs any further.

A great place to be on horse back!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve in Saguaro National Park West

We live on the Bajada of the Tucson Mountains, that means where their slopes are flattening out and the soil consists more of sand than of rocks. We love to take afternoon rides in my little truck following the dirt roads  through close-by Saguaro National Park West. (These roads will be closed to vehicle traffic next year - I guess it's time to get some horses.)

Very attractive little rock houses at the Ez-Kim-In-Zim Picnic Area probably date back to Roosevelt's work creating programs of the nineteen thirties. This one, on a hill top by itself, would be a great place to sit and paint...

Great views in all directions, and we had nice company, too, when a Canyon Towhee hopped into the window, chirping  and looking for pick-nick scraps?

A pair of Gila Woodpeckers plaid hide and seek in a bare Ocotillo, some  Phainopepla whistled softly from a mistletoe clump - not much activity today.

Later, two Mule Deer does with their nearly grown fawns carefully crossed a wash. Hunting is not permitted in the park. I wonder why they were so shy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Fog Blog

Dec. 17, 2010. After more than 3 months of blue skys and sunshine, we got our first winter precipitation yesterday: a gentle, long-lasting, nurturing 'female' rain, very different from the often violent 'male' downpours of the summer monsoons.  This morning, we woke up to a strange, monochromatic light. Thick fog was rising from the moist soil, obscuring totally our view of most of the Tucson Mountains. Even the single Twin Peak right beyond our property line was shrouded in a white vale.

Old, familiar Saguaro cacti towered as ghostly shapes over our path to the newspaper-box.

Ordinary Cane Chollas had turned into silver filigree.

  When Cody and I reached the newspaper-box at the end of the driveway it seemed a pity to just return home, so we continued on into the State Trust Land.

The sun broke through at around a quarter to eight, and the autumn colors of the desert vegetation appeared especially striking against the diffuse gray background.

A coyote was watching suspiciously. The resident pair is courting and getting territorial right now. I really need a new light weight camera with a zoom lens. These photos are taken with my 50mm macro.

With the mail coyote so close, Cody needs to mark a tree-trunk. No problem if the only trees available are Jumping Chollas: He knows exactly how closely he can approach them.  

The parched Creosote bushes sparkle with droplets. Only a faint trace is left of the spicy fragrance that these shrubs emit when they first get wet. The smell that makes every long-term desert dweller feel so good...

Rain after the drought

How fresh everything looks

Before the raising fog dissipated, it nearly completely shrouded even the closest peak.

 We finally brought the newspaper home. Time for breakfast

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Different Kind of Hawk

Today I went on a short walk into Sabino Canyon, Tucson’s most beautiful and easy access to the Catalina Mountains. It was an organized walk for the  Sabino Canyon Volunteer Naturalists, guided by Ned Harris.

As it turned out, most of the participants were experienced volunteer guides in their own right. There were botanists, ornithologists, geologists, and a lepidoptera specialist.


Young Cooper's Hawk by Ned Harris
 Ned’s own specialty is raptors, demonstrated by his breath-taking hawk photography. His images are so sought after that right now he is providing the illustrations for three new raptor books.

Ned Harris, nature guide and raptor photographer

I can’t wait to see the books! I am also very envious, because a bug photographer or entomology-writer can only dream of such popularity.  

Harris Hawk by Ned Harris
Ok, I admit: while I think that insects can compete with the most colorful birds in terms of hues and patterns and are often much more complex and interesting in their natural history and behavior, they lack somewhat in size and majesty (and if they are big, most people are just horrified).

Toxorhynchites sp. on Coreocarpus arizonicus (Little Lemonhead)

But today at Sabino Creek, while watching butterflies congregate at the last blossoms of the year, we found an insect that can maybe even impress the raptor specialists? It’s the Mosquito Hawk, genus Toxorhynchites. As for the species, this may be either T. aztecae or T. montezuma. It reminded some of the naturalists of an Anopheles Mosquito, but it is at least three times as big.

This largest of the mosquitoes (take that, Minnesota!) is also called Elephant Mosquito, probably because of its oversized curved maxillary palpae that remind of elephant tusks. On this male, the brush-shaped antennae, the palpae, and the down-turned proboscis form a head-gear that rivals that of any antelope or stag.
The scientific name Toxorhynchites translates to "Arrow-nosed", so it has nothing to do with being toxic. In spite of its imposing mouth-parts, Toxorhynchites is one of the few non-bloodsucking mosquito genera. The adults feed only on sweet, carbo-hydrate rich material like honey dew and nectar. In this genus, the larvae are the ones that go for the protein rich food: they hunt, and their prey consist mostly of the larvae of other mosquitoes. So - this is a 'good' mosquito, for those who want to divide the world into good and bad according to our anthropomorphic point of view. Some researchers even suggest the possible usefulness of this mosquito genus for disease vector control, if the insects could be released in malaria or Dengue fever areas. Naturally the huge mosquitoes occur mainly in tropical forests around the world.

On this late autumn day, Sabino Canyon had all the charm of a deciduous forest with its beautiful golden Cotton woods and Mountain Ashes  glowing in the  low standing sun. The elephant mosquito was a good reminder of the close proximity of tropical regions just across the Mexican border.