Saturday, January 26, 2013

What a day!

 Rain! Cultures have many words for the things that are important to them. Here in the desert that has always been rain. I don't know many words of the Tohono O'odam language, but I do know that they call the violent downpours of the summer monsoon male rain and the soft drizzle of the winter month is female rain. The monsoon can be more destructive than beneficial and the winter rain should be rich and nurturing. Historically, December used to be the month with the highest precipitation.  I remember years of heavy flooding in March in the early nineties. But for the last seven or eight years we often waited in vain for our winter rains.

So today we felt very content to see clouds roll in from south and west, obscuring Wassem Peak and Kit Peak, rain drumming on the roof and blowing into the patio. I planned on a day of peaceful painting - finishing the Costa's Hummer sketch  above and starting something new...

But it wasn't going to be. Yesterday we had found cattle tracks on the grounds and discovered that an earlier rain had washed out the ground under the fence, so small cows could walk through. The wire of the electric dog fence is broken, too. Around noon today I heard the dogs barking in the neighboring quarry as if they had treed a big cat (at least I think it would sound like that, it has never happened so far). I got worried and crawled through the quarry fence to follow them. Of course, my appearance gave them just the momentum and confidence they needed to dislodge not a cat but some big javelinas that they had driven from our land into the lower part of our lone Twin Peak (its twin was mined away by Portland Cement). As I was watching, a line of seven adult javelinas emerged from the rocks. They moved somewhat stately and slowly, but the dogs were in mad pursuit. Eventually they scattered most of the herd.

Javelinas or Peccaries way between 35 and 60 pounds
 One big guy stayed behind between me (with Laika) and the action. His hackles were up, nearly doubling his size, he was grunting and showing me his widest side. The dogs cornered some of the other Javelinas at the quarry tailings. Now I had to worry about rock avalanches in addition to javelina teeth.  It took nearly an hour until, with Randy's help, all three male dogs were back on leashes. They were exhausted and dirty but had only some scrapes on legs and faces - nothing that looked like a javelina bite. This was lucky because the pig-like javelinas or peccaries have huge teeth and their bites leave deep holes in legs and bellies of dogs - we've had some injuries before.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Who let the Dog out?

Casually glancing out of the front window, I wondered which of our dogs had jumped out of the dog-run this time. He looked just so familiar.  Cody's color, Frodo's ears, Laika's shape....

Well, none of our dogs, but he turned and walked very confidently towards the house. There is a bird bath and a place with bird seeds under our big Ironwood tree.

That's a huge, well-fed coyote, Canis latrans. According to some literature, Coyotes found in low deserts and valleys weigh about 20 pounds, less than half of their mountain kin, who can weigh up to 50 pounds. Desert coyotes are light gray or tan with a black tip on the tail. The description at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum allows for at least 35 pounds, but I always thought that that referred mainly to their own over-fed specimen.

Coyote, Canis latrans
 This individual is big, though, otherwise I wouldn't have mistaken him for one of my dogs who are all between 50 and 60 pounds. We keep them lean.
January is mating season for the coyotes, and I lately I have been especially careful not to run into playful couples when I'm driving. Since his first visit, I have seen this guy around several times. When he first appeared during last weeks hard freeze he seemed to be searching for water closer to the house after he found the birdbath down the driveway frozen solid. But I have also found chicken feathers along his trail, so he has found a rich, but dangerous source of food in the neighborhood....

Sorry for the for-shortened legs. I was shooting down from the window
    Our desert coyotes are usually quite solitary, there doesn't seem to be enough food for larger groups and the prey animals are small, so hunting in packs brings no advantage. The only time to see more than two individuals on our property is in late summer. Last year after a relatively productive monsoon a lot of young rabbits, quail, pocket mice, lizards and toads were hiding under the burr sage bushes that finally had some leaves again. One afternoon when I was standing quietly in a dry wash not far from the house, there was suddenly so much noisy crushing and stomping in the brush that I was sure that the neighbors' cattle had finally broken through our fence. But then three or four nearly grown coyotes appeared, chasing each other in the blissful abandonment of playing puppies. They looped around me without noticing me at all, followed the wash to the dog-run, seemed to shortly hesitate as if looking for more company, and then took the fun back into the State Land.  At night they were back, teasing the dogs with howls and yodels.

Coyotes are often watching us when we are walking
  There is no great animosity between our dogs and the coyotes. I have seen them run right past each other without any interaction, even with pointedly averted heads. At other times, Cody has chased them out of his territory, like he would do with any male canine.   

 This is one of my earliest Arizona watercolors, after a coyote encounter at Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains. I was still so fascinated with chollas, ocotillos, prickly pears and volcanic dikes that they all got equal consideration and sharp focus in my painting. Even the dreaded buffelgrass got its due (I didn't know anything about it then).

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Frozen Hummingbird Feeders

My friend Rich Hoyer had warned us via facebook for a couple of days: move the hummingbird feeders inside over night, or they will turn into blocks of ice. Ours are under roof overhangs,  the birds were still feeding after sunset, and later it was too cold and dark to climb up to get the feeders down ... so this morning hummers and Gila Woodpeckers looked quite unhappy and we quickly filled our spare feeders to bring outside. Now there are much more hummers feeding than I had seen for weeks.

Male Costa's Hummingbird
 In the backyard, a male Costa's guards a feeder from his perch in a Creosote Bush. He is confident enough to let me push my camera in his face. Yesterday I was only half a meter from him using the macro setting and he kept coming back to his perch and my camera after short feeding and fighting forays.

Around the corner of the house, right in front of my studio window, resides as Costa male with a gorget that resembles the beard of an old-fashioned Turkish Bey and the attitude of a territorial pit bull...He routinely threatens Randy when he hangs the laundry.

 Today several females are trying to use 'his' feeder. They are hungry and determined to stay. He attacks them in a peculiar way. He grabbs the neck feathers of a drinking female with his beak and pulls. When she ignores him, he lands on her back. I looks now more like a mating attempt then a feeder defense. Please see the video here. As the day progressed the male's approach became less aggressive and clearly more sexual. The females still ignored him if they could: they kept feeding.
Of course, I can't tell whether the females are even Costa's. I also don't know whether this feisty guy would care. I do know that ethologists see an evolutionary connection between aggression and sexual behavior...
We have been hearing the sharp whistling of the male Costa's display for a couple of weeks. I haven't found any nesting attempts yet, but the tiny nests are easy to overlook. But I guess it's too early. Rich looked up when egg laying could begin: According to the Birds of North America species account, egg laying begins in March here, but the Breeding Bird Atlas says February, with January 20 being the record early.

 With a nice flash of those structural colors (as opposed to pigments) of his gorget: Blurr and out!

Monday, January 7, 2013

The P.A.U.S.E. Project

In late October I joined the SEABA butterfly experts when they visited Tohono Chul Park in Tucson to prepare a butterfly list for that park. On that occasion, Jo Falls, Director of Education and Visitor Services, introduced us to the P.A.U.S.E. Project.
 P.A.U.S.E. stands for Pollinators / Art / Urban Agriculture / Society / and the Environment
Sponsors are the American Alliance of Museums and the United States Department of State through the Museums connect: Building Global Communities Grant 2012- 2013
The Museums connect (formerly Museums and Community Collaborations Abroad) grant program strengthens connections and cultural understanding between people in the United States and abroad through collaborative and innovative projects facilitated by museums.

 In 2013, about 30 young people from Tucson (Tohono Chul, Uof A, Pima College), St. Louis (Zoo) and Nairobi (National Museums of Kenya) will join in the study of pollinators.
In this modern approach the three groups of students will be linked in teleconferences and cooperate in local classroom and field studies. Some  lucky students will later have the opportunity to visit each others countries.

On the Wings of Pollinators by Paul Mirocha
The project will touch on many different aspects and angles of the topic of pollinators.

Pollinators are of the greatest ecological and economical importance because 90% of flowering plants use animals as the vector for pollination and a great part of our food production is based on those biotically pollinated plants. The topic has recently gained urgency and was brought to greater public awareness because of several reasons: On one hand global threats to pollinators emerged and intensified like climate change, urbanization, industrialization of agriculture, and bee hive collapse, and on the other hand the interest increased in urban food systems with an emphasis on sustainable agricultural methods.

While the decline of pollinators is a worldwide problem, many underlying reasons and hopefully solutions may be based on the local ecological situation. So next Thursday, local experts will be contributing presentations to highlight the local pollinator fauna. I am honored to be one of the speakers.

Tucson is well centered in one of the ecologically most diverse and species-rich areas worldwide.
Hundreds of bee species inhabit the southwestern United States, and most of them are involved in pollination. Many show specializations that make them far more important to their target plants, and far more interesting to the biologist, than the ubiquitous imported generalist, the honey bee. Steve Buchmann will be talking about this group, probably our most numerous and effective pollinators.
Butterflies may not be the best pollinators, but everybody knows and appreciates them as flower visitors and nectar lovers. Fred Heath from SEABA will introduce the rich plethora of local species. 
I will fill in the important role of other insects, like wasps, ants, beetles, moths and flies.
Lynn Hassler will discuss the role of our local hummingbirds as pollinators.
Karen Krebbs will focus on local bat species that visit flowers to restore their energy reserves by drinking nectar.

I owe special thanks to Tucson artist Paul Mirocha who generously allowed me to use his beautiful image 'On the Wings of Pollinators' in my powerpoint presentation and here in my blog.
Stay tuned for the content of my talk in the next blog chapter.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Seasonal pond at the Rock Disk Park in Marana

Seasonal pond at the Rock Disk Park in Marana
View towards Sombrero Peak
On the first day of 2013, I visited the Rock Disk Park in Marana. It's basically a wilderness area along the Santa Cruz River that serves as a catch basin for the rare, but powerful floods of the Santa Cruz River. The water that filled the temporary pond and irrigated the lush growth of the flood plain was mainly monsoon rain water but it also flushes the nitrogen and phosphate rich sediment from the river bottom that accumulated year-round when the river contained exclusively reclaimed water from the Roger Rd treatment facility.

Native desert vegetation does not compete well under these conditions, so the grounds are mainly covered with non-native grasses, Cockleburrs (Xanthium sp.) and Docks or Sorrel (Rumex sp). These grow in lush green carpets even in December. The corridor along the river contains several species of Salt Ceder (Eurasian Tamarix) and willows. Huge trunks of dead Cotton Wood trees are all that's left from times when the river was providing year round reliable irrigation.
View towards the Tortollitas

The Portland Cement factory blocks the river-path on the NW side
Greater Yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca and Black-necked Stilts, Himanotopus mexicanus
Nevertheless, the temporary pond with a muddy, fecund bottom attracts wintering waders and usually also dabbling ducks, but the latter were missing this year. Egrets and Herons fly over from the river that has a small population of  tiny fish, but they never stay long.

Great Egret, Ardea alba, and Black-necked Stilts, Himanotopus mexicanus
Cooper's Hawk, Accipiter cooperi
Juvenile Rufous-morph Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

It's a great place to observe raptors. In addition to the local Red-tail, Harris and Cooper's Hawk, Harrier and owl populations, there must be many wintering birds, because there were Buteos perched in dead trees at regular intervals of less than 50 meters and several more were circling above.

Black Phoebe, Sayornis nigricans

Say's Phoebe, Sayornis saya
Year-old Vermillion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus

Adult male Vermillion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus
Flycatchers also occur in abundance. Black phoebe and whole families of Vermillions compete for perches in and around the pond, while Say's Phoebes occupy dry cockleburr stalks in the drier areas. Just around sunset several Swallows appeared swooping up insects over the water.