Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Toad Concert

Red-spotted Toad, Anaxyrus punctatus
 Last night we were watching a movie when in the background, there were suddenly very loud trilling noises. If that was a cricket, it was on steroids. Now if the movie had been some Amazon nature flick .... but it happened to be a Norwegian Mafia movie, set in snowy Lillehammer. The noise soon reached a volume that droned out the dialogue (kind of hard to follow anyway as my Norwegian is getting rusty), so we investigated. The sounds came in through the open kitchen door. Outside on the patio the dogs had spilled a lot of water from their tub. In that puddle, half a dozen Red-spotted Toads were courting, making great use of the acoustics of our patio, especially a narrow space between the tub and a big wooden box. Mecki was lying close by watching in obvious amazement.

Red-spotted Toad, calling
Anurans (frogs and toads) produce mating calls using the huge swelling of their throats to amplify the sound produced by air blown from their lungs over simple vocal cords. Such sounds are unique to individual species and are used during courtship (a prelude to mating). Spectrograms of the calls can be used to identify frogs or toads species. In most species the peak noise level measured 50 cm in front of a calling male exceeds 100 dB, but of course body size is an important factor.
 Male toads eager to mate tend to grab anything vaguely reminiscent of a female. When other males of the congregation happen to be approached by mistake they utter a different, shorter squeak, demanding to be released. I think that's what's going on in my video. I'm pretty sure that last night, there were no females around at all, and in the morning there were no strings of eggs to be rescued from the concrete patio floor. The monsoon rains have not started yet and I don't expect the females to show up before that happens. Maybe they need the drumming of heavy raindrops to wake them in their underground resting chambers.

Red-spotted Toads occur all over Arizona, but they are highly adapted to procreate in arid areas where puddles may last only for a very short time. They and the desert Spade Foot-species have some of the shortest tadpole phases among anurans so their offspring is ready to leave the water and stand (or crawl) on its own tiny legs within a few days.

Great Plains Toad,  Anaxyrus cognatus, who can make a much bigger resonance bubble
Most of our other toad species need some more lasting water source like this goldfish pond in a friend's backyard at Cochise Stronghold or the remnants of Sabino creek where Ned Harris photographed the big Sonoran Desert Toads.

Sonoran Desert Toads, Incilius alvarius, mating in Sabino Creek (Photo Ned Harris)
We have Sonoran Desert Toads in our desert habitat too (in Picture Rocks). There is no open water for miles. Still, the same individual mature toads emerge year after year to harvest bugs at porch lights and my black light. They are huge, old individuals that can probably remember better times when our part of the desert still received enough water to at least occasionally allow them to breed. But for the last 10 years at least, these Sonoran Desert Toads have been celibate and childless.

Let's wish them better luck in the future.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Sunrise walks in June

June finally lives up to its reputation and it's very hot, with noon temperatures reaching triple digits. Our new dog Mecki needs a lot of exercise, so we begin our walk just before sunrise and try to stay in the mountain shadow as long as possible.

Lesser Nighthawks fly up from the ground where their young may be hiding. The male makes interesting purring sounds while sailing low over our heads, then lands, stretches along a branch, and becomes invisible. A peaceful time of the day, one should think, but it's never quite without drama.

Mecki is not as desert savvy as the dogs that grew up here. This morning he could not resist launching himself at something that had found safety in a Chain-fruit Cholla. He came back with legs, flanks, ears, and nose decorated with broken-off cholla pieces. (No, they did not 'jump' him). With Randy's comb I pulled off the bigger stuff, and Mecki was very stoic about it. The remaining thorns will soften quickly where they are imbedded in the tissue and will be easily pulled out later. 'Jumping' Chollas use zoochory for the distribution of their vegetative offspring, meaning they recruit animals to carry broken-off pieces to new planting grounds. Thus Cholla needles hurt noticeably  less than those of Prickly Pears that are exclusively defensive (and seem to contain painful chemicals to boost their effect).

Mecki securely leashed, we then walked along a dry wash that is lined with Ironwoods, Acacias and Palo Verdes. All are still much greener than usually in June. Soft heavy wings were suddenly beating right above me: A Great Horne Owl had been hiding to sleep through the day. Now he landed about twenty meters away from the shelter of the wash, and close to a Saguaro Cactus where a Gila Woodpecker had just raised his brood. The woodpecker probably felt still territorial. He not just mobbed the sleepy owl, he flew right at it with his formidable beak. Of course, he's no match for the GHO who just stayed put.

Saguaro fruit are ripening and bursting open to expose seeds imbedded in sweet pulp that everybody loves. I even spotted a quail up there, but only the house finches let me take their photo while they snacked.

Snack break for the pack, too, and still no coffee for us. The old guard Bilbo, Frodo and Laika, sticks together. Mecki is still not to be trusted around Frodo so I keep them apart. Although Randy thinks they'd be just fine.

I'm afraid of another fight and want to slowly and patiently habituate them. Luckily, Frodo does not return the aggression, so it's enough to control Mecki (at my feet, with training collar). A nice old Ironwood makes a great barrier.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Midsummer Night Magic

For midsummer night Randy and I joined the traditional party at Mark Dimmit's beautiful gardens in North West Tucson. An Oasis overflowing with native as well as exotic xerophytes outside and a jungle of orchids and bromeliaceae in greenhouses, or rather shade tents, the place fascinates and surprises every year. The potluck tables were equally rich and exotic. We could only try to sample everything. Just about everyone who loves  herbs, herps, bugs and birds, and braves Tucson in the mid of summer, was there. Weaving through the crowd under those huge mesquite trees, we exchanged greetings and news, and easily joined conversations with friends and strangers.

Tucson's latitude is 32° N. So at around 8:45 pm it is already fully dark even on the 20th of June. That's so different from midsummer nights in Norway and even Germany at higher latitudes!
The nice thing about Tucson is that it  it get's really dark when the sun goes down, because artificial light pollution is kept at a minimum for the sake of several powerful observatories on the surrounding mountain tops (Kitt Peak, Mt Graham).

Around 8:15 the space station caused ahhs and ohhs when it crossed over, still radiantly illuminated by the sun that had just set for us.

Soon after the crescent moon and close to it Venus and Jupiter dominated a deep blue, velvety sky, off-set by  the black filigree of the trees' canopy. Admiring that scene, I overheard with one ear Maggie Fusari's remark about  Lewis Carroll's (and Walt Disney's) Chesire Cat, whose body  disappears from time to  time, the last thing visible being its iconic grin. I had read Alice in Wonderland when I was 6 or 7. At that age, it's magic must have completely escaped my budding analytical mind and I did not like the story at all.
But now I suddenly discovered the Chesire Cat above me in the tree, or at least I clearly saw its grin! ...Midsummer Night Magic!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A snake in the morning ...

Diamondback Rattler peacefully resting in a desert wash.
5:56 am.This morning's rattler encounter was hair-raising and heart-stopping. For us humans that is, not the other participants, the rattler not having any hair, and my wolf-dog Laika being completely heartless, I'm certain of that now.

Frodo is our snake spotter. He found the camouflaged rattler
So here goes: Frodo, on Randy's leash, pointed at a rattler resting in the shade a couple of feet in front of them. Randy called me to take a photo. Laika had run ahead and now decided to rejoin the party, loping down the wash right towards the snake. Randy jumped to the side to divert her. I tried to make her stop (a trained command, but hey, this was party time, right?) and the wash is the most comfortable place to run along in. Time slowed down for me like in a movie. In slow motion, I saw her left front leg touch the snake, then her hind legs actually pushing it out of place.

Happy Laika then hoped for her treat. Indignant snake reorganized its coils. My heart got back into its, albeit accelerated, rhythm.
But wait, then comes Bilbo! Hot on Laika's tracks, but lighter, younger, more elegantly only just skimming the snake.

Resting after the excitement. Bilbo now on the leash, behind him Laika, Frodo. Mecki and I are not in any photo because we are operating the camera

Does the rattler look grumpy now? This picture was taken after the assault ... can you tell?

P.S. On this balmy morning the rattler was probably warm enough to be active. But it was resting after a presumably active night. With day temps close to 100 degree Fahrenheit, the snake will spend the rest of the coming day in a cool rodent burrow and go hunting again in the evening (if he's already hungry again) But for now, this shady spot in the sandy wash must have been so pleasant that it would have taken more than some 70 pound dogs barreling over it to make it  rattle, strike or leave. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Queen of the Night, Peniocereus greggii, 2015

Last night the night-blooming Cereus  bloomed in our area. While Tohono Chul Park and the Cactus Society's park on River Road got all the press, we went looking for wild specimens here in the creosote flats of Picture Rocks. We took off around sun rise, shortly after 5 am. The flowers were still crisp when we started but began to wilt before we go home around 7 am.

We found more than 20 blooming plants and several that took the year off. Most plants do that from time to time - the whole over-ground part of the plant, which is pretty thin to begin with, shrivels up and looks dead. Luckily, a fresh trunk eventually springs from the under-ground tuber and in a couple of years will be ready to bloom.

Most plants had 1 to three flowers, about knee to wast high and hidden within creosote bushes. Their sweet cloying fragrance betrays them and optically they stand out as pale handsized signals even at dawn and even from a distance.

Randy, being a head taller than I, had a definite advantage spotting them after he had the search image down.

A few plants towered  above their creosote  companions with a whole array of flowers on an antler-like branched system of trunks. Here in the desert, the wild plants seem to max out at around a dozen flowers. Irrigated specimens in parks, under optimal conditions can have more than 20 flowers.

I prefer the magic of finding them in the wild, without any strangers around.  It's just us and our dogs who mostly don't understand what the fuss is about. And there is the memory of my faithful dog Cody who accompanied me for the last time last year to see the wild Queens.

Here are a few notes from Facebook correspondent Larry Ayers:  a great drawing by Paulus Roetter, an artist who accompanied George Englemann when Englemann was exploring the US/Mexico boundary. This might be the first visual record of the species we now know as Peniocereus greggii var. greggii, La Reina de la Noche.

Another plate from Englemann's report which shows cross-sections of P. greggii stems, the tuberous roots, and other details

 Also, several people from Cochise Stronghold and the Bisbee area have found blooming Queens since mid-May (2016) while the ones here NW of Tucson showed only very small buds. Larry says: Yours (NW Tucson) are var. transmontanus, which I think of as the Sonoran sub-species, whereas the plants down here (Cochise Co.) near the border are var. greggii. The greggii var. greggii plants seem to be consistently earlier to bloom.
Asked if he is aware of any morphological differences between the two subspecies he answered: I think so. Some friends of mine in the Bisbee area have plants which they bought from Tucson nurseries. Transmontanus seems to have larger flowers and stems with more ribs, and the stems are slender compared to var. greggii. 

One more photo of out NW Tucson variety in the state trust land behind our house

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Following Coronado's Trail

In 1541 the Spanish explorer Coronado traveled north through what are now the eastern most  counties of Arizona: Graham, Greenlee and Apache. Coronado did not find gold in the city of Cibola as he expected, and I also missed out on my trip last weekend. All I wanted to see were some interesting AZ beetle species that I had not yet photographed, but along  Coronado's Trail it began to first rain, then hail and finally even snow, and I knew that I was out of luck.
But I did thoroughly enjoy myself anyway. While the Phoenix Valley was sweating under 105 degree Fahrenheit and Tucson wasn't much cooler, we (my new dog Mecki and I) were on our way to Hannagan Meadow, which according to Wikipedia is one of the coldest inhabited places in Arizona.

But first we had to get there, and the early part of the trip right after turning north from I 10 on Hwy 191 is not very pretty. The Safford stretch was endless and boring. Mt Graham invited on the left, but we it wasn't on our list this time.

Clifton on the San Francisco River
Clifton at the San Francisco River is still quite picturesque with its towering red cliffs, old buildings and some narrow old downtown streets. We missed out on the big Horn Sheep, except on traffic signs.

In Clifton Mecki stood unmoved and yawning right next to a rumbling train that shook the ground under out feet. The little guy is fearless.

In Morenci, it got depressing.  Freeport-McMoRan offers pull-outs to scenic views of about the worst destruction that humans can wreak on the earth. The huge pit mine, plus smelters and ponds of toxic sludge - eye sores praised as attractions - from horizon to horizon.

Freeport-McMoRan Copper Mine in Morenci
North of Morenci, though, I had miles of beautiful winding mountain road all to myself.  It is a popular trip for motorcyclists, but I met hardly any this time.  Wildflowers and fresh leaves on Gambel's Oaks and Aspen were soon contrasted by dark green conifers because the road gains quickly in elevation.  Stopping along this road used to be difficult to impossible and letting a dog out of the car was a real challenge. But since my last visit about 13 years ago many trail-heads, day use areas, little horse corals, and campgrounds have been added. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has become much more accessible. A heavy price was paid, though: the Wallow fire of 2011 was started by an unattended campfire and left acres upon acres of burned trees and eroding soil behind. The scars are  healing very slowly.

But the fire had also opened up many areas for fresh growth and wildflowers, perennials and annuals alike.

Parey's Agave, Asclepias sp., (Milkweed), Erysium sp. (Wallflower), Orobanche sp, (broomrape), Yucca baccata (Datil yucca or Banana yucca)
The rocks in many areas were porous like sponges but extremely heavy and hard as glass indicating their volcanic origin. I bumped my feet against them repeatedly, but only a delicate little flower made me look properly.  The blinders of special interests.

Corydalis aurea – Golden Smoke, Scrambled Eggs
As soon as the sun broke through the clouds, insects were collecting nectar and pollen. Some plants in the mint family were completely covered in butterflies.

Strymon melinus (Gray Hairstreak and Callophrys gryneus siva (Siva Juniper Hairstreak)
Missing from my shots are the many Common Buckeyes. But the Juniper and Gray Hairstreaks were interesting and cooperative.

A lush Milkweed had attracted Valley Carpenter Bees and Sweat Bees as well as Small Milkweed Bugs and Hairstreaks, but no Monarchs, sorry.

 Surprisingly, a Bee Fly's proboscis proved long enough to reach into the deep throat of a Lonicera-like flower.  Acmaeodera bodwitchi (Jewel Beetles) were meeting on  Fleabane (Aster). At this elevation Oaks and Juniper predominate.

Looking east into New Mexico
Fantastic views opened as I climbed up into the Blue Range, new home of the first Arizona Wolf packs in decades. As problematic as their reintroduction turned out to be, it still gives hope.

Cirsium neomexicanum – New Mexico Thistle
  Along the road were fewer flowers at higher elevation, but some thistles supported a kaleidoscope of interesting insects and arachnids.

Sharpshooter Oncometopia alpha female burdened with some red mites, a leafbeetle genus Chryptocephalus, two juvenile jumping spiders genus Phidippus and two bees,  Dianthidium sp. and  Apis mellifera (Honey Bee) were only a few of the insects and spiders on the big thistle. They all had a great view!

Monochamus scutellatus (Whitespotted Sawyer)
At over 9000 feet elevation, the mixed conifer forest showed heavy fire damage from 2011, I had expected some wood-boring beetles to emerge from piles of dead wood that are still left everywhere. But the only one I found was a Monochamus scutellatus  that sadly had been stepped on on the stairs of the historic lodge at Hannagan Meadow. I saw another one flying, but could not get to it. So the photo became a restoration project. Still, the species is variable and I'm happy to have an image that has still all the characters of the specimen from Hannagan Meadow. See my reconstructed image on the right.

Left and middle Formica fusca, workers with larvae and pupae, right swarming Liometopum luctuosum
Most dead Pine trunks were crawling with ants of many species.  Camponotus sp. stood out for their size. One downed Ponderosa trunk seemed to boil with life. Large alates and agile small workers of Liometopum luctuosum  were pouring out from under the loose bark by the thousands. Seeing that, I understand finally why some pupae are so much bigger than others and much bigger than the attending workers. They must be the pupae of prospective alates, young queens and males.

Lacon pyrsolepis, Elateridae
Among all those ants, a click beetle slowly made his way, surprisingly unmolested. Its upper side was strangely textured, it nearly seemed covered in reddish-golden scales. I have no idea if it had anything to do with the ants, but most beetles have to expect vicious attacks if they venture so close to the nest of a colony. When I reached in to collect the beetle, I immediately felt ants all over me and they were stinging. The Click Beetle turned out to be Lacon pyrsolepis  (Blaine Mathison det. P.J. Johnson confirmed). While some Elateridae are obligate myrmecophiles (like those with bio-luminescence) PJ Johnson says about this one: 'Lacon spp. have no known associations with ants. Their larvae are saproxylic, mostly in conifer logs, snags, stumps, etc., where they are predatory on other inverts. On occasion they can be found in the same logs as Camponotus or Formica ants; I suppose they might opportunistically eat the ant larvae or pupa if given the chance. I have observed both Camponotus and Formica examine and then ignore adult Lacon.'

Nicrophorus guttula (Yellow-bellied Burying Beetle)
At night, I placed my uv light on the side of my van, but under a full moon and temperatures in the forties a single Nicrophorus guttula (Yellow-bellied Burying Beetle) was the only taker.

 The next morning, Mecki and I started around sunrise to explore some trails through mixed conifer stands and aspen. 

Interesting spiders: a cobweb spider on the wall of a restroom, a colorful Mecaphesa dubia ambushing insects on a cactus, a Tibellus oblongus was sitting on my dogs head, and finally an orb weaver trying to hitchhike in the window of the van.

Linyphia rita, Jillian Cowles det.

Jerusalem Cricket and Camel Cricket

Tenebrionid, Aphodius fimetarius,  Sphaeridium scarabaeoides
Under logs and old dry cow dung waited a whole different world - more spiders, but also Jerusalem Crickets and Camel Crickets, one as big as the other. Tenebrionidae, Aphodine Scarabs and Hydrophylids were hiding in those cool moist places.

Hannagan Meadow Lodge
After a good breakfast at the lodge and Mecki's short fight against two incredibly huge Malamutes I continued towards Alpine in rain and sludge.  
On the other side of the ridge, towards Eagar, there was no rain. At an old cattle ranch that is now the Sipe Wildlife Viewing area, the caretaker told me that it had not rained for years, but that the ranch boasted an average of over 30 in per year in earlier decades.

Western blue flag, Rocky Mountain iris, and Missouri flag. Iris missouriensis
I saw no elk or antelopes, only their droppings. The area was disturbed, very high in nitrogen and full of non-native grasses. Botanically the only redeeming factor were clusters of beautiful irises, which are of course considered a weed by ranchers because livestock cannot eat them. 

Broad Tail Hummingbird
Still, a creek ran through the area, so it was interesting. The thrilling noise of Broad Tail Hummingbirds accompanied me while I looked for small scale wildlife and found some. 

Callibaetis ferrugineus hageni, Ephemeroptera (Mayflies)
 Rarities for our dry state: Mayflies were emerging to begin their very short life as winged adults. Soon they were clinging to my jeans, my camera, my hair ... 

On a tent of caterpillars an assasin bug,  Pselliopus zebra seemed drawn to the motion within. Due to the low temperature and rain, all the caterpillars stayed home and were quite safe from this visitor.

Cryptocephalus pinicolus

Merhynchites wickhami (Western Rose Curculio)
Wild Roses grow along the creek, hosting leaf beetles and weevils. I had seen the weevils before in CA, but now I can use them in good conscience for my AZ beetle book.

Gnathacmaeops pratensis

 Some small umbelliferous plants that seemed to be quite invasive on the disturbed grassland just came into bloom. I found one single flower longhorn on them. With Bob Androw's  help I learned that it's Gnathacmaeops pratensis and this may actually be a range extension for this northern species (?).

When we approached the little mountain hamlet of Greer I had to seriously make up my mind if we should spend another night as planned or rather head home. From earlier visits I have a strong emotional attachment to the little log cabin town, touristy as it may be. So I had to see how it had survived the fire. Actually, one could hardly tell, even the White Mountain Lodge had been rebuilt.

at the Little Colorado River
The Little Colorado River still runs clear and fresh among willows and alders, the only Stinging Nettles I know of in AZ are still growing,  and Mecki absolutely loved it. 
But when the rain started yet again, I carried my camera to safety and began our long drive home.