Posts Tagged ‘desert’

The Defensive California Barrel Cactus

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Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

The Defensive California Barrel Cactus by Lisa Densmore

California Barrel Cactus wildflowers

California Barrel Cactus © Lisa Densmore

Location: Grand Canyon

Once or twice each day during my six-day float down the Grand Canyon we beached the raft to check out an interesting side canyon. During these forays, the unusual assortment of desert-adapted flora fascinated me, particularly the barrel cactus that bulge their thorny bulk from the impossibly dry rocky soil.

I saw two types of barrel cactus in the canyon, Candy Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus wislizeni) and California Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus). While both had similar 4-inch arching spines that immediately drew blood if one accidentally bumped against them, the California variety, also called miner’s compass and compass cactus because they lean to the south as they age, intrigued me more with its faint reddish hue.

A protected plant in Arizona and Nevada, this slow-growing, long-living perennial is relatively rare, occurring mainly in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts though they can be found from southern California to Utah and south to Mexico at elevations up to about 4,500 feet. They thrived in the Grand Canyon.

Though the ribbed, unbranched stem can grow up to five feet tall and 16 inches wide, the largest barrel cactus I saw was about three feet tall and about 12 inches wide. Upon close but not super-close inspection, I noticed barrel cacti have two sets of spines. After doing a little research, I found out the smaller ones prevent water loss and scorching by reflecting the intense rays of the sun whereas the larger spines deter thirsty desert animals. Humans, too.

I tried to imagine cutting into a barrel cactus if I were stranded in a desert without water, but getting past those ubiquitous curing barbs would be a challenge. Apparently the liquid is bitter anyway, though I suppose it would keep you alive if the effort to tap it didn’t kill you first.

I’ve also heard that some people cultivate California Cactus as an ornamental landscaping plant. It might be a challenge weeding around it.

Ravenous Ravens

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Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Ravenous Ravens by Lisa Desnmore

Location: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ

Common Ravens

Common Raven © Lisa Densmore

As our oversized raft bumped against the shore after our first afternoon traveling down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, Evan, one of our guides, hopped onto a high hoint on a heavy tarp covering a mound of dry bags. “We’ll be camping here for tonight,” said Evan, “Don’t leave anything lying around. The ravens will steal it, and not just food. I once saw a raven unzip a tent!”

Ravens may be clever avians but I doubted they could unzip a tent. I suspected Evan was merely trying to enforce a Leave-No-Trace ethic among us. The campsite was surpisingly pristine considering 24,000 people per year float the Grand Canyon. Ravenous ravens likely scavenged the area after each rafting party departed, which also helped.

At the mention of ravens, I had a flashback to my other far flung adventures over the last decade. Ravens of various persuasions had infiltrated many of the backcountry campsites I had visited, including Thick-billed ravens in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia and White-necked ravens Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I’ve also watched ravens hop around the grounds at the Tower of London. The English say if they ever flew away, the British Empire would collapse.

Native Americans revered the raven as a trickster, a visionary or a keeper of knowledge depending on the tribe. In Sioux lore, a white raven used to warn the buffalo of approaching hunters, causing them to stampede and thus leaving hunters meatless. A medicine man threw the bird into a fire which turned it the black.

I wondered if we might see a crow-like Chihuahuan Raven which inhabits arid regions of the Southwest, but the only visitors to our Grand Canyon campgrounds were Common Ravens, such as this one. As soon as the guides started preparing dinner, two of them appeared, undoubtedly a couple that had staked out this spot as their turf. I kept my tent zipped and checked on it periodically, just in case.

Leading Lizard

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Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Leaping Lizard by Jack Ballard

Desert Collared Lizard

Desert Collared Lizard © Jack Ballard

I nearly miss sighting the creature, though my footsteps on an arid path take me within an arm’s length of its motionless body. A large lizard basks contentedly on a rock. While I’m sweating with exertion and in response to the intense summer sun, this fellow looks downright comfortable.

Stopping to observe my reptilian trail-mate, my eyes are immediately drawn to an unusual band of color circling its neck just above its shoulders. The band consists of two stripes of black, sandwiching a lighter streak of white.

I move closer to take a photo. The lizard’s unblinking eye betrays no hint of my presence. The utter stillness of its body seems relaxed, even confident. I slide in a few more inches to compose a more interesting portrait. Suddenly the reptile cocks its head a bit higher and opens its mouth, clearly an indication of displeasure. Although I know it’s not going to attack me, its actions are intimidating.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one a bit unnerved by a handsome Desert Collared Lizard. The leading lizard in many areas, collared lizards often prey on their own kind, running down smaller lizards and gobbling them with their large mouths and strong jaws. Collared lizards have large hind feet, which allow them to run upright, similar to a human.

After a somewhat startling experience with this bold lizard, I turn my own two legs up the trail.

Rattlesnakes: Don’t Fear the Viper

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Friday, August 10th, 2012

Rattlesnakes: Don’t fear the viper by Sheri Williamson

The return address on the envelope was in New York City.

I’d love to visit Arizona to see the hummingbirds, the letter began, but I’m wondering if I should be worried about rattlesnakes.

Thanks for your concern, I typed, but the rattlesnakes are doing just fine.

I immediately apologized for the flippant response and assured the writer that it’s all about what you’re used to. Venomous snakes don’t bother me because they’re something I live with, but muggers and pickpockets would make me think twice about exploring the Big Apple.

I added our standard educational spiel about rattlesnakes:

  • They’re beautiful and interesting creatures in their own right.
  • Being shy and mainly nocturnal, they’re seldom encountered by visitors.
  • They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.
  • You’re more likely to be hit by lightning than die from snake bite.
  • The typical snake bite victim is young, male, and under the influence of alcohol and/or recreational drugs.

Start your visit at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, I suggested. It’s a great place to get acquainted with all kinds of desert wildlife, including snakes, in a safe, non-threatening environment. And please let us know if you need any additional help in planning your trip.

We never heard from her again.

Mojave Rattlesnake

With nowhere to hide, a frightened Mojave Rattlesnake adopts an S-curve striking stance. © Sheri Williamson

Rattlesnakes are such icons of the desert that it’s hard to convince the average visitor to the Southwest that they’re unlikely to see a live one except through the glass wall of a zoo exhibit. Sadly, most wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s a shame that the demonization of snakes in our culture has made it almost impossible for people to enjoy them the way we enjoy birds, mammals, and even most other reptiles.

Though many people wouldn’t use this adjective, we consider ourselves blessed with viper diversity here in the Southwest. Our 13 rattlesnake species (of 16 found north of Mexico) range in size from the dainty Massasauga to the burly Western Diamond-backed and Mojave. They come in colors and patterns as varied as the environments they inhabit: black, rust, pink, olive, blonde, and gray, barred, banded, blotched, mottled, speckled, and of course diamond-backed. The legendary Sidewinder is a rattlesnake, too, though one with an unusual mode of locomotion adapted for sandy deserts.

Rock Rattlesnake

A Banded Rock Rattlesnake retreats from an intruder © Sheri Williamson

Excellent camouflage plus sluggish behavior help to conceal rattlesnakes from both their prey and potential predators. Of course, you can’t avoid something you can’t see, and this rightly puts many desert travelers on edge. You could walk right by a rattler nestled under a bush or tucked away under a rock ledge and never be aware that it’s there. It’s a dangerous myth that they always rattle to let you know they’re there. They may not be aware of you until you’re too close, or they may opt to keep quiet if they don’t sense immediate danger. I’ve had a couple of close calls with quiet ones when traveling off the beaten path (another good reason to stick to roads and well-marked trails).

For such well-armed creatures, rattlesnakes are surprisingly timid. They’d prefer to avoid a confrontation with you, but most are so heavy-bodied that they can’t move very fast. Larger specimens in particular tend to stand their ground when threatened and wait for you to retreat. The appropriate response to seeing one in the wild is to stop and, if necessary, back off to a distance at which it feels comfortable (you’ll know because the rattling will stop). If you only hear one, the safest response is to freeze and determine where it is. Once you locate the snake, back slowly away until it stops rattling. Then you can enjoy it from a distance comfortable to both parties and give the snake enough room to make its getaway.

Though snakebites are extremely rare, it’s important to know what to do and what not to do. Despite what you may have heard about cutting, suction, tourniquets, ice, and/or whiskey, you risk complicating the injury and delaying expert treatment if you try any of these discredited first aids. Snakebite specialists now recommend just washing the site of the bite, immobilizing the affected area (below the level of the heart, if possible), and getting to a hospital as soon as possible. Our friend Alan Tennant, author of The Snakes of Texas, liked to emphasize this point by jingling his car keys when asked what snakebite kit he recommended.

Another dangerous myth about snakebite is that it’s important to catch or kill the snake and bring it to the hospital. All rattlesnake bites are treated with the same antivenom, so it’s not crucial for the ER staff to know which species it was. Leave the snake where it is and use your Audubon Guides app to identify it.

Rattlesnakes may not live up to their mythical reputations, but encountering one is still a thrill and a privilege. Be safe, and savor the experience.

Lizard Rapids

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Wednesday, August 8th, 2012

Purple-backed Spiny Lizard by Lisa Densmore

Purple-backed Spiny Lizard

Purple-backed Spiny Lizard, Subspecies of the Desert Spiny Lizard © Lisa Densmore

In celebration of my friend’s 50th birthday, I recently spent six days floating through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. What sounded like a six-day catered cruise via J-Boat, a super-sized 16-person raft powered by a 30 horse-power outboard motor, turned out to be much more adventurous. In addition to scorching heat, we encountered rain, rock fall, flash floods and rapids so varied and big they were classified on a scale of 1 to 10, rather than the usual 1 to 5 river rating system. We also saw a unique and diverse assortment of flora and fauna. I’ve spent little time in desert environs, so my voyage down the Grand Canyon was also a naturalist’s nirvana.

At our first lunch spot, on a sandbar about 15 miles downstream from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry, I spied this Purple-backed Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus magister magister), a subspecies of the Desert Spiny Lizard. It was about ten inches long from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. Like other desert spinies, it had distinct pointed scales on the sides of its neck.

One of the purple-backed spiny lizard’s distinguishing traits are the dark bands down its posterior, which can be purple or black, and the thin dark lines from the corners of its eyes and mouth that also extend backwards. This one was probably an older juvenile as it lacked a dark wedge-like marking on its neck and it still had some light spots. It was hard to whether its spots were fading because it was approaching adulthood or simply lightening because it was in the sun. Like many lizards, the coloration of a purple-backed spiny lizard lightens in the sun and darkens in the shade.

I wasn’t about to pick up this wary fellow, though I doubt I could if I had tried. Had I grabbed his tail, it would have come off. Had I tried to pick it up, it would have taken a vicious bite though I’m way too big to be on its daily menu. Purple-backed spinies generally eat bugs, beetles, caterpillars and other small invertebrates, as well as flowers and berries, at least that’s what scientists say. I suspect this lizard gets to taste a flower or a berry in extremely small doses in the arid Grand Canyon.

What’s the Buzz on Pollinators: Bats

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Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Bat Facts:

Mexican Long-tongued Bat © Charles W. Melton

The Lesser Long-nosed and Mexican Long-tongued bats migrate 1,000 miles north every year from Mexico to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Bats are vital pollinators in the tropical and desert climates and flock to large, pale flowers with fragrant, fermenting and fruit-like scents. Bats pollinate agave plants, saguaro plants and fruit trees, including mango, banana and guava.

Lesser Long-nosed Bat © Merlin D. Tuttle/Bat Conservation Int’l

More Bat Facts:
1.) Much like a human mother’s instinct to take in orphans as her own, female bats do the same.

2.) In West Africa bat droppings are highly valued. The excrement is used as fertilizer and adds nitrogen to soil.

3.) Bats can digest mangoes, bananas, and berries in 20 minutes.

4.) The saliva from Vampire Bats, which acts a blood thinner enabling the bat to drink the blood of a living animal unhindered by naturally clotting, has recently been used to treat heart conditions and strokes.

5.) A colony of bats may consume 400,000 pounds of insects in a single night.

6.) The Bumblebee Bat of Thailand is the world’s smallest mammal, weighing less than a penny.

7.) Although they have poor eyesight, bats have immaculate echolocation abilities. The Fishing Bat can sense a minnow with a fin as fine as a human hair protruding two millimeters above the waters surface.

8.) 200 tons of insects are eaten every night by the 20 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats who live in Bracken Cave, Texas.

Giant Saguaro Bloom by Charlie Rattigan

Giant Saguaro Bloom by Charlie Rattigan

Trailing Windmills

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Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010


This lovely member of the four-o’clock family, with the mellifluous scientific name Allionia incarnate, lives in deserts and arid grasslands from Texas to southern Nevada and southeastern California, its wiry stems sprawling across the ground. The hot-colored but otherwise average-looking flowers hide an anatomical secret. Here’s a hint: How many flowers do you see in the accompanying photo? —SW

Hot Desert

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Friday, October 8th, 2010

It is the last day of September and at three o’ clock in the afternoon it is 103 degrees, even though the skies are overcast. The hills around me rise up like the mountains of Mordor, made of burnt, tortured rock. The few plants are equally inhospitable. Most are covered in spines while those with flowers are buzzing madly with what appear to be bees on methamphetamine, undoubtedly the Africanized honey bees that made their first appearance in the area two years ago. Other than the bees the world is quiet, waiting silently for the sun to set and the heat to ease.

Beaver Dam Wash is the lowest point in Utah. It lies at the confluence of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert ecosystems although for the most part it is only the latter that is evident. The Mojave Desert ecosystem is classed as a hot desert, one in which the precipitation falls mainly as rain, rather than snow as in cold deserts. The indicator specie for this ecosystem is the Joshua tree. I should be surrounded by a forest of them but this area has been very badly burned in a series of fires over the last decade. All that remains is the occasional badly charred stump, protruding from a landscape more lunar than earthly.

I move from the foothills above the wash to its bottom, a wide green ribbon of life. There is little water in the broad course but enough to make a difference: the stream’s boundaries are marked by groves of cottonwood, mesquite, and catclaw acacia. The wash has been spared by the fires but was transformed by a flood of nearly biblical proportions early in 2005. Flood detritus is ubiquitous here but where there is water Mother Nature nurtures and heals. Life flourishes despite the heat. Gambel’s quail run back and forth in the shadows while white-crowned sparrows call to each other from the brush. A phainopepla, glossy black and elegant, watches me with blood-colored eyes as I make my way carefully through the mesquite and acacia but not carefully enough – the vegetation is dense and the thorns are sharp and unforgiving of those that approach too closely. I hear the call of a verdin and then it appears, bearing golden acacia leaves. It is autumn in the rest of the Great Basin and soon it will snow in the high country, but Fall remains weeks away in the hot desert, while winter is only a whisper in the wind.

Toxic Beauty

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Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

It hits me one evening as I step out onto the porch: an intoxicating perfume from the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) in our back yard. The recent rains have been good to this plant, and a dozen huge white trumpets glow in the moonlight.

Though an icon of the American Southwest thanks to the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe, daturas are found throughout the warmer parts of the world. All parts of the plant are toxic, with effects ranging from delirium to death. These properties have been well known since ancient times, earning the plants a long list of intimidating names: locoweed, devil’s weed, devil’s trumpet, devil’s cucumber, Hell’s bells. It also goes by thorn-apple, apple-Peru, pricklyburr, stinkweed, moonflower, and jimson weed.

There’s a bit of American history enshrined in that last name. It’s a corruption of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in what was to become the United States. The human colonists knew daturas as colonists of disturbed soil, as described by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter:

…a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple-peru, and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society…

In 1676, British soldiers cooked up a pot of the young leaves of this plant. The hallucinogens did their work, and, according to early Virginia historian Robert Beverley (1673-1722), the soldiers went on an unexpected trip:

…they turn’d natural Fools upon it for several Days: One would blow up a Feather in the Air; another wou’d dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature.

They survived, but in no shape to do the job the crown sent them to do: quell a rebellion of Virginia colonists. Protesters led by Nathaniel Bacon, angered by their governor’s response to conflicts between colonists and Native Americans, set tribes against one another, massacred whole villages, and eventually burned the capitol to the ground. It’s sobering to ponder how many lives might have been spared had the British soldiers recognized the plant as poisonous and kept their wits about them. –SW

Darwin in the Back Yard

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Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Watching Gambel’s Quail bring their young families to the backyard feeder and water feature is a graphic demonstration of survival of the fittest. In an average year, what begins as a procession of eight to ten ping-pong ball-sized hatchlings is winnowed down to six little pre-teens, then four gawky teenagers and eventually one or two young adult quail as the weeks progress. It seems like everything eats baby quail – from foxes, coyotes and hawks to gopher snakes, roadrunners and feral cats. Other hazards, like weather, separation from the parents and exhaustion also take a toll. Baby quail are precocial, following after their parents within a few minutes of hatching. They have to learn how to fend for themselves very quickly. That’s why quail start out with so many chicks. The strategy is to allow for the expected 90% mortality by laying a dozen eggs and hoping for the best. In fact, this is a great strategy for a boom-or-bust environment where a large brood can exploit a particularly good year and their populations can skyrocket.

This has been a good year for quail in southeastern Arizona, and the broods of young quail visiting our yard remain large. Winter rains are essential to the grasses that the spring nesting quail need to survive. Soon we will have an explosion of grasshoppers, another species that can quickly produce many young in a good year, and the quail and many other species will feast. Montezuma Quail wait until the summer rains to lay their eggs. Hopefully we will have a good monsoon season and they too will prosper.