Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Stories in the Sand

Last week's violent monsoon storms brought life spending water but also destruction and death to Tucson. Yesterday I visited two of my collection spots on the Santa Cruz River and found the Disk Golf Park in Marana still completely submersed.

At Sanders Road Bridge the riverbed was scoured clean of any vegetation. In the aftermath of the flooding the waste water treatment plant must have stopped releasing any water, so all that was left  was a 500 feet wide corridor of bare drying sand and gravel with some uprooted salt cedars and burrow brush and no running water. Small fish were wiggling and dying in the last puddles while a few water bugs were making use of the easy pray.

 I was ready to go home, disappointed.

But then low sunlight and hard shadows brought to live the sandy surface itself, exposing deeply sculpted, cracking, and peeling textures of an eery beauty.

Smoother planes of sand and mud had preserved a log of all passing visitors.
Tracks, regular as pearls on a string, followed the riverbank: Perfect canine paw prints with at least the two middle toenails showing betrayed coyotes pacing, stopping to investigate ever so often.

 Round and firm,  showing no trace of the retractable claws, were the paw prints of a bobcat who had approached from behind some still standing vegetation, took one leap into the wet stuff and then walked away - I can just imagine the disgusted look on his big tom-cat face when he shook the mud from his paws.

 Herons had been stalking along the edges when there still was water, so their huge prints already looked washed out.

Smaller wading birds left strings of perfect marks, Killdeer running speedily from sand bank to sand bank.

 Little groups of impressions, regularly spaced about a foot apart turned out to be those of a wading bird that had stopped, probed several times with its beak the sand around his feed, than run forward to do the same again, and again... leaving these peculiar little groups of impressions. A Spotted Sandpiper or a Lesser Yellow Legs maybe? They used to be here.

 A very regular double row of imprints about 6 inches wide was left by an animal that steadily and unhesitatingly moved across all kinds of ground textures. The depth of the imprints changed between mud and loose sand, but not the rhythm of the machine-like motion. A turtle? Yes, the marks of his stiff claws were clearly preserved where he had crossed some harder, dryer sand.

Another paired row of imprints with a blurry middle line had to be that of a rat or big mouse. I think I can exclude reptiles as the source because a lizard that size would have left a sharper line where the tail dragged and the tracks would have followed a more undulating line.

I found surprisingly few five-fingered raccoon tracks. I know that a healthy  population lives along the river and at Sweetwater Wetlands, but maybe there was just not enough river left to make it attractive to them.

Closer to Sanders Road Bridge, the riverbed traffic had been most intense with humans and their companions  and livestock contributing.  So the deeper hoof tracks of the resident Black Angus herd intermingled here with hiking boot and dog paw prints.

There were no visible foot prints of arthropods (they can be very obvious in the finer sand of the dunes around Yuma) but ant and wasps had left their mark by quickly reconstructing mounds and burrows after the flood.

As a kid in Germany, I loved to look for tracks of roe deer and bunnies in the fresh snow around our house in the light of crisp, sunny winter mornings. The memory still makes me a little homesick, but reading the sands of the Santa Cruz River was a nice little surrogate.


  1. There's always something interesting to find. You just have to look. Great photos and interesting narrative!

  2. I loved this post. I miss living in the countryside.

  3. I love that nature always reveals wonderful treasures with every change of scene and circumstance.

    An Ojibwe phrase comes to mind:

    Pimachiowin Aki- The earth(land) that keeps on giving in all ways

    Great observations and pics.

  4. Great post, thank you! I'm glad you decided to stick around and see who has been visiting your haunt.