Friday, July 31, 2020

The end of July 2020

Running northwest for a mile and a half among creosote and saguaros. The setting sun just barely off to the left, so not in my eyes. The sand under my feet is dry and springy, then, when I follow a wash, deep and soft. The dogs are chasing lizards. 7:10 pm and still 109 degrees. Turning back, going southeast now. Thunderheads loom over Wassen Peak. To the right, still building and growing, sharply modeled in bright whites and yellows by the sun that has dipped under the horizon from my  point of view. To the left, anvil shaped and floating apart, rain streaking down on the Tucson Mountains or virgos withering away without reaching the ground? Pink and ominous purple. Lightning striking across and seeking the peaks. Above the cold white moon in the still icy blue sky. Night hawks streaking by me, very fast, though their wing beats are slow. I believe that I can hear them slicing the air. Which is getting heavier. I am not running now. The dogs let their slobbering tongues hang. Will those fit back into their mouths? Will they have to curl them around loosely floating brains, woodpecker-like? No. Those tongues will eventually, but not very soon, deflate and shrink again. Back home at 7:30. Still 106 on the patio 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Night Hawks as Weather Forecasters


 We live between Saguaro National Park West and the Santa Cruz River. Every evening just before sunset, I run about 2 miles with one of my dogs. Chaco and Kira take their turns in that.  On my way home, running south, I always encounter several dozens of Lesser Night Hawks that are moving from their breeding grounds in the Tucson Mountains (including our own backyard) to their nightly feeding area at the river in Marana. They appear like clock work as soon as the sun touches the horizon, and they always all fly in the same direction - north. In May and June, they were usually silhouetted against the sky because they were flying quite high. 

Lately, they come in low, dodging saguaros and even me and my dog on their way, and impossible to photograph. 
My grandmother in Germany always told me to watch if swallows and swifts were flying high: more sunshine to come. Low flying swallows: rainy days ahead. Now I think it's the bugs that fly high or low and insectivore, on-the-wing-hunting birds are just following suit. The bugs may be influenced by the barometric pressure changes, or the coming rain just brings out different bugs. My grandma was certainly as good as any weather forecaster in the seventies in Germany


Sunday, June 7, 2020

Night of the Queen 2020


The COVid19 numbers are sky-rocketing, the timeline indicating that the Memorial Day and Mothers Day weekends with dropped lock-down have more to do with it than the protest marches, but they will also soon show consequences. AZ hospitals at capacity, Better not get sick here now.  I am dreading my gallery duty on the 11th of June.

Photo by Shawna Caldwell: How the fire in the catalinas started
Not to forget that other, probably greater problems loom: Global Warming is pushed out of the news, The slowed-down world economy may provide a small reprieve.   But our weather patterns are ominously confusing.  We had monsoon like thunderstorms for several afternoons, nearly a month too early.


Push Ridge fire by Bill George
Result: fires. We can see them glowing at night and the smoke now. The second photo was taken by a friend who lives in a development that was carved into the mountains about 15 to 20 years ago, so I remember open desert there. 


But some eternal (?) natural rhythms are still operating: last night was the night of the Queen.  Once a year a twig-thin cactus (Peniocereus greggii) produces the most beautiful, fragrant flowers. The Mystery: within miles, they all open at once. I have not been able to relate it to moon phase, temperature, day length (the date can vary by a month) or precipitation (usually there is none before the cacti bloom) barometric pressure - nothing I can measure seems to provide the trigger, and yet, they are completely synchronized. Usually, Tohono Chul Park close to Tucson monitors and celebrates the bloom, so people are aware of the event. This year the park is closed. This morning, I found several on our dog walk. We live right in the middle of a big population. This year there were fewer flowers than usual. 




Honey Bees were all over the flowers in the morning sun. These opportunistic generalists among bees are probably not suited to pollinate the big flowers. That is probably usually done by big Manduca and other Sphinx Moths. But those have been out in numbers a couple of weeks ago. I saw them at my black lights.   At the moment they seem rather scarce.  Perhaps I just do not see them at my lights because the moon is rather full..

Peniocereus greggii, Queen of the Night

By the 12th of June the Big Horn Fire in the Catalinas had spread. The inferno came down the mountain towards foothills homes and 100s of people had to evacuate, others are on stand-by.

View towards the Catalinas from Tucson on June 11th 2020








Natures Gifts - Raptor Feathers

Female left, male right Harris' Hawks
5 Harris' Hawks are hanging around for days now, watching us from breakfast to last evening walk. Maybe they like the new big birdbath that I put out across the street? There they left a beautiful feather. For me? Or does it come from the pair of Cooper's that also frequents that yard? Legally I'm not even allowed to pick it up. At the base, it has a light part with some freckles and the darker part of the vane is subtly banded. It looks very much like the eagle feathers on Native American festive gear, just much smaller. At its tip it shows traces of at least a year of use.. Only the strong rachis and some hard barbs are left to form a sharp, bleached out point
Harris Hawk tail feather, probably from a juvenile

Thursday, May 21, 2020

My own, very personal response to the virus threat:


My own, very personal response to the virus threat:

ACE2 is an integral membrane protein that appears to be the host-cell receptor for SARS-CoV-2

In the beginning of this pandemic, My friend Tom McDonald (physiology professor U of A) mentioned some research data from China that referred to increased vulnerability of lung tissue after treatment with Losartan-class blockers. The rational was that hypertension treatment with angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor blockers, to which SARS-CoV-2 binds, might in the long-run increase the number of those receptors (often the case with receptor blockers). As the virus binds to those (increased in numbers) loci, lung tissue may be more vulnerable
. Recently, another theory, was that Losartan may block enough receptors to actually protect the tissue from the virus - may prevent organ failure on a wide range in C19 patients and thus.was considered among possible treatment options.
But most patients who died were hypertensive and receiving treatment.
So the thinking now goes back to the earlier idea : "Two recent studies, however, have poked holes in this hypothesis (that losartan could be used to treat C19 patients). In the first study, researchers raised the possibility that antihypertensives, including losartan, could actually induce the body to make more ACE2, increasing the ability of SARS-CoV-2 to bind to and infiltrate cells. In the second study, Italian researchers found that three-quarters of patients with COVID-19 who died had hypertension. Antihypertensive treatment may have been the reason for their increased susceptibility."
Anyway, Tom's very first mentioning of the possible connection made me look more closely into my own treatment with Losartan. It is the only drug I was taking and I did never like doing so. So in early March, I started a running regiment - twice a day 1 to 2 miles - I have lots of time on my hands after all art shows were cancelled! I monitored my BP and weight and after both began decreasing I started going off Losartan in small steps. Surprisingly, my BP was not at all correlated to the drug dose, but very much to body weight. I went from 170 pounds to 155 without fasting, and my BP is in a healthy normal range now.
The conflicting theories about Losartan show how very difficult and intertwined physiological processes and the reaction to drugs really are, and why it is often so difficult for the scientific community to make easily understood yes-or-no statements. Sadly, this opens up the discussion for loud-mouthed science deniers. As a physiologist myself, I am in a position to at least make somewhat educated decisions for my own health. Whatever the outcome of the Losartan studies concerning the virus will eventually be (I expect a difference between long-term chronic use and short, high dose treatment) I feel much healthier and fitter than in a decade. So thanks to my friend's push


Friday, October 4, 2019

Sept./Oct.Insect Programs in Maricopa, Gila and Santa Cruz County

Over the last 3 weeks I was invited to present programs about insects by the Butterfly Association of Maricopa County, held at the Glendale water Ranch, Oracle State Park and the Native Plant Society of Santa Cruz County (held at the Fire Station in Sonoita). All 3 audiences were very responsive and interested in my PowerPoint Presentation. While folks were inside listening to my talk, the lights outside were attracting local bugs to my sheet set up.

Glendale, photo Marceline Vanderwater
In all cases we ran the lights only from sunset to about 8 or 9 PM . There were interesting and very obvious differences, some surprised me. As I was busy answering questions and showing off the most popular bugs, I had little time to concentrate on small stuff or take many photos

Longhorn Beetle Plionoma suturalis
The Glendale black lighting spot was in the middle of the park, and I'm eternally grateful to my friend Kc Smith that he logged his heavy generator all the way in there. We were close to water but in the middle of thick mesquite trees. So we got lots of biomass in form of green stinkbugs and Bruchines (Bean and Pea Weevils) that came from the mesquite pods. all moths were tiny. We got a few Caddisflies as to be expected close to water. I was surprised to see a good number of the Cerambycid Plionoma at our lights. I have never seen them night active and attracted to lights before. I think they were Plionoma suturalis, though they were on the small, stout side for that species. I collected one specimen but it got lost in the shuffle of the take down.  The image above is from my files.


The old farmhouse in Oracle State Park was a lovely setting in the middle of a park at higher elevation with mixed Oak Mesquite habitat. At my arrival in the late afternoon I noticed that it seemed very dry and there were very few blooming perennials. Andrew Meeds had been searching for day-active  insects and found only a few. Numbers were really low. 

Agonoscelis puberula (African Cluster Bug)
Several people found and asked about African Cluster Bugs, so those invasives (harmless it seems) were common and obvious
Rhinoceros Beetle Xyloryctes thestalus
The evening  was a little windy and cool. At the lights we did not get a lot, But a number of Rhinoceros Beetles impressed and delighted. A single large, grey Epicauta sp Blister Beetle indicated that there would have been more if we had waited longer.


The Fire Station of Sonoita is surrounded by roiling grasslands that looked very dry, even the Desert Broom bushes that should be blooming by now, looked sad and straw-colored instead of juicy green. I loved watching a little herd of Pronghorns near by, but did not expect a lot from the black lights
And most of the attending people had not expected to stay far beyond 8 pm, so this was probably my shortest black lighting session ever.  And yet, it turned out surprisingly interesting


Megacyllene antennata, Oncideres rhodosticta (Mesquite Girdler), Scudderia mexicana (Mexican Bush Katydid) Stagmomantis sp. male, Curculio, Greater Anglewing Katydid, White-lined Sphinx, Lichen Moth, Noctuid, Spurthroat Grasshoppers, Oxygrylius ruginasus (Scarab Beetle)

Surprisingly no Digonthophagus  gazella at all. In other years at this time they covered the walls and the ground around lights in Sonoita. It seems that all invasive spp reach a peak and eventually crash.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

September Storms 2019


We had started to call this summer a non-soon because there was nearly no rain. I cannot remember that  the tough Creosote bushes ever turned that rust-colored.  Yet the ground is still covered by dead, yellow cheat grass - a remnant of an unusually wet early winter. But that was so long ago!


Mid September a number of Hurricanes and tropical storms  approached  Mexico from the Pacific, and some of those cells sent their pressure disturbances far into the Sonoran Desert. So it did not only finally rain, we even saw some spouts dip down from the heavy clouds: small, short lived tornadoes. One was visible from our house to the west, but while less than a mile from us 3 inches of rain came down in less than 5 min, we had blue skies, no wind, and only a few sprinkles at that time. Eventually we did get some nice precipitation and we weren't sad that the tornadoes missed us. Still found a leak in the roof though - at the seam of the patio roof.


One early morning after the rain,  Leaf-cutter Ants, Acromyrmex versicolor started their mating flights. Winged males and females left the colonies and flew to one of their traditional meeting points. A huge column of dancers rose next to a  tree in our driveway.  The cloud of ants wavered  in the wind. It would nearly disappear at times but always reorganize. Walking the dogs, we ran into many flying ants still on their way to join the party. 


While I was watching, the column move right over my head - they like an elevated focal point. But mated pairs, or rather females with several suitors clinging to them, keep sinking to the ground, or down on my head as long as I kept standing there. so keeping some distance is highly recommended.



Swarming ants and termites draw predators. we are far from the next water, but Saddle-backs and Gliders (Dragonflies) are cruising the desert.


Cliff Swallows are sporadic visitors to our area, but during the days after the storm they were constantly shooting through the partly blue sky. In the evening hundreds of them fell into a neighbors tree to roost. It's quite far from our house but their chirping was loud enough to bring me outside to find out what the noise was.
We have not seen as many Night Hawks as usual this summer, although their purring could be heard all night at the south end of our property. Now they don't just stream across our house at sunset to get to the Santa Cruz River, but glide and flap in wide curves and zigzags among the saguaros, obviously hunting.


Tiny Western Pipistrelles somewhat resemble in size and flight pattern a large dark butterfly, maybe a Pipevine Swallowtail though they move more swiftly. We see them all summer long at sunset, but at the moment they seem especially common and active. Probably working on the fat reserves that have to last through the winter. These are much smaller than the nectar bats that will show up when it's fully dark to raid our hummingbird feeders. A third of their size?.


Following smaller predators come fiercer ones. Large insects, but also lizards and small birds are prey of the Shrike. Around our bird feeding area, mobs of smaller birds but also the local Mockingbird keep the masked killers away. But for a couple of weeks  I've now hear the nasal, loud shrieking.

The sun setting opposite dark storm clouds brings out the brilliant colors of the desert. I drove through Saguaro National Park West - sadly it's not a loop-drive anymore because the connection to Picture Rocks Rd seems permanently closed. Still, the tour inspired a watercolor painting