Category Archives: desert

Harris Hawk

 

I claim to be a flower child, but the truth is I love birds too. We stopped at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson on our way home this year.  I try to go there every year.  They have a show nearly every day where you can see raptors in flight. Free flight they  call it. It is truly amazing to see them flying and perching so close. These photos however are from previous years. I like them better.

These birds are imprinted on their handlers but are free to fly away. Sometimes they do exactly that. Usually they come back because after living with humans who deliver food to them every day they realize they have it pretty good in the Museum so they come back. The “Museum” by the way is mainly outdoors so they are not captive in the sense of being in cages.

This hawk prefers thorn scrubs for its habitat. Like many hawks the female is larger than the male. The likely reason for this adaptation is that in this way they don’t compete as much for prey.

These are one of the few birds that cooperate in groups. As a result they hunt together. This is what we saw at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.  Cooperation is a very helpful technique in deserts where one Harris Hawk might chase a rabbit into some scrub and then flushes it out so others in the group can capture and kill it. This is the only hawk to hunt cooperatively. They also cooperate in the raising of the young, again, the only hawk species to do this. Nature is not just about competition. Cooperation is important too.

This hawk is rare in Manitoba. I have not seen it here but it is fairly common in the American south.

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Sands National Monument

 

Chris is not standing barefoot in snow. This is sand–incredible sand!

For years I have wanted to visit White Sands National Monument. There is nothing like it on the planet.  The main geological feature here is sparkling white sand about the color of sugar. I had heard about it, but nothing really prepared me for it. This is the largest white gypsum dune field in the world. The glistening sand dunes are found in the Tularosa Basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico north of Las Cruces and south of Alamogordo.

It covers about 800 sq. km. (300 sq. mi). Gypsum, which is also found in Manitoba in a completely different form, is a water soluble mineral that is not often found as sand.  Because there is no drainage from the Tularosa Basin surrounding the white sand dunes  the sediment from the mountains that is washed by rains, even though infrequent, gets trapped in the basin. When the rain evaporates dry lakes form and strong winds blow the white gypsum up into huge fields of rippling white sand dunes.

Sand dune never remain in place. They are constantly on the move. At one point we saw dunes about to climb over the State highway we had driven to get here.   What surprised me is that the water table here  is very shallow and water can actually rise to the surface after heavy rains turning the interdune area into temporary large ponds.

Geology is always interesting. There is a lot of history in rocks. Millions of years ago, an ancient sea covered most of the southwestern United States and during this time layers of gypsum were deposited on the floor of the sea. Of course that sea was never static either. It rose and sank many times over millions of years. This started the process of the creation of gypsum.

Gypsum is created within layers of sedimentary rock often found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters that are high in calcium sulfate content slowly evaporate but are regularly replenished with new sources of water. This is precisely what happened at White Sands.

Massive gypsum rock forms within layers of sedimentary rock, typically found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters high in calcium and sulphate content can slowly evaporate and be regularly replenished with new sources of water. Because gypsum dissolves over time in water, gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand. That is why White Sands is unique.

Many factors led to the creation of this astonishing ecosystem.   280 to 250 million years ago (‘mya’) the continents of the world were welded together in one massive mega-continent now called Pangea. Part of what we today call the United States in the southwest, including the southern part of current New Mexico, were covered by what we now call the Permian Sea.  When the sea rose and fell repeatedly thick layers of the mineral, gypsum, were left behind along with other minerals that were also dissolved on the seafloor.

About 70 mya when the earth’s tectonic plates started to shift they collided into each other. In some places the pressure from such movement pushed up land and created many mountain ranges including the Rocky Mountains and the mountains that now surround the Tularosa Basin.

30 mya ago the tectonic plates began to pull apart in the opposite direction creating many fault zones. Large portions of mountains were sometimes split apart causing sections of the Earth’s crust to drop thousands of feet, forming basins along the faults. At that time 2 distinct mountain ranges were formed in this region—the San Andres Mountains to the west that are shown in my photographs and the Sacramento Mountains that we could see to the east. Between the two mountain ranges, where we stood, the Tularosa Basin was formed.

About 2 to 3 mya the Rio Grande River flowed along the southern edge of the Tularosa basin bringing sediments and minerals into the basin. This eventually blocked the basin’s outlet to the sea.  Water that was trapped at the blockage started to collect at the lowest point and eventually formed Lake Otero. This lake was about 1,600 sq. miles and covered much of today’s basin.

24,000 to 12,000 years ago the climate was much colder and wetter then it is today. About 12,000 years ago when the climate changed and the last ice Age ended, Lake Otero began to evaporate and when conditions became dryer a playa or dry lake bed was formed. Around 11,000 years ago, the rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountain ranges into the Tularosa Basin. Much of that gypsum runoff settled in Lake Otero.

As the climate became even warmer and dryer the sun and winds combined to transform this area into the Chihuahuan Desert and almost all of Lake Otero dried up completely. The dry portions of the lakebed became what today is called Alkali Flat. When Lake Otero’s water disappeared selenite crystals formed on the bottom of the Alkali Flat. Small pieces of gypsum crystal were broken down by strong winds leaving small grains of white sand that were polished into a brilliant white color unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. These Sands, unlike the white sand beaches of the Caribbean are really white. The sands were consistently pushed to the northeast by the prevailing winds from the west accumulating into massive dunes forming the white dune fields that we saw today.

Of course not all geology is old. Geology is today too. At the present time change occurs as well. Rain and snow melt from the surrounding mountains and even upwelling from the deep water within the basin from time to time fills Lake Lucero with water that contains gypsum. When the water in the lake evaporates again small selenite crystals (2cm to 3cm) are again formed on the surface of the temporary lake and Alkali Flat in the same was they have for thousands of years. It is usually when large floods concentrate the mineralized water about every 10 to 14 years that crystal formations again occur. After that the relentless forces of wind and water again attack those crystals of gypsum creating ever smaller particles of white sand until they are as fine as the sand we walked on today.

Of course it is not just the geology that is interesting in White Sands National Monument.  A plant guy like me must pay some attention to the plants. One of the more interesting ones is Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata). The plants and animals of White Sands are special because they must  have special attributes to survive the harsh and changing conditions of the desert.  The desert is not place for wimps. The landscape here is constantly changing, even more than most other environments.  The sand moves. It never stays for long in one place. That is a characteristic of all dunes.

The Soaptree yucca adapts to these changing conditions by growing rapidly. Yucca first take root in the interdunal soil. Then when the sand piles up as it inevitably does, it elongates its stem to keep it’s leaves above the sand so that they can continue the important work of photosynthesis whereby light is miraculously turned to energy. What looks like a yucca of 4 to 6 feet, as many of those I saw, are actually much taller with a long stem that connects to the roots in the interdunal soil. Plants are smart!

Saguaro National Park

 

Our last day in Arizona was spent at Saguaro National Park, which was created to save the iconic Saguaro Cactus from extinction. So far so good

Hedgehog cactuses are also gloriously in abundance in the park.

 

This part of the park is located at the east end of Tucson. The day before we spent at the west branch of the park.

I love the hedgehog cactus when they bloom.

When the yellow brittlebush wild flowers are in bloom the desert comes alive with beauty.

 

I don’t know if there is a better place to see the majestic saguaro cactus that grows no where else other than the Sonoran Desert.

We drove on an 8 miles self-guided drive around the park.

Some of the rock formations were beautiful too.

I never get enough of the lovely pink flowers of the Hedgehog  cactus.

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 2

This hummingbird was a lifer for me. That means I had never seen it before. Though is was in an aviary at Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. The word museum is really misplaced.  Most of what can be found there is outside. These birds flew freely, made nests and did what birds do, but they were confined to this aviary.

This is one of the more colourful hummingbirds with its iridescent breast feathers and bright red bill. I kindly posed for me.

This stunning male hummingbird pose very close to me. In fact I took a large number of photos that appeared to be out of focus. I could not understand why, until I realized I was too close to it and had to step back a bit.

Another stunning bird that i had never seen before. This was a good day.

I think this is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. About 15 years ago I saw one near Mitchell.  It is a fairly rare visitor to Manitoba. This was a great day for a bird brain brain like me.

Cactuses in Bloom

 

This has been a strange year in the American Southwest.  In January and February there was a lot rain (by Sonoran Desert Standards) and it was also very cool by those same standards. Of course in the world of wild flowers there is no such thing as “normal.”

The entire time we were there this year I worried that the cactuses would not bloom before we left.

That almost happened. They only started to bloom the last week of March just before we left. If I come back next year I must stay until mid April.

 

From this prickly pear cactus you can see the large number of buds. I would love to see a prickly pear cactus filled with blooms.

 

I think this is a pincushion cactus but am not sure.  As a result of the cool weather we did not see many cactuses in bloom. But what we missed in quantity we gained I think in quality.

 

I think the cactuses we saw were stellar.

 

 

Picacho Peak State Park: a little gem

We drove to Picacho Peak State Park where we enjoyed the wild flowers. This is small gem of a state park. It is right off highway 10 on the way to Tucson. The prominent peak, which is visible from miles away, has been a landmark for centuries. The peak was also the site of the most western conflict of the Civil War. The park includes a fine small visitor center, store, campground, picnic areas, ramadas, playgrounds, grills, and hiking trails.

I had been told that Picacho Peak State Park was likely the best place for wild flowers in our region. It might be a little past prime but should still be good. We were not disappointed. Even though one woman I met said she had been here once when the entire mountain-side was filled with flowers, we thought this was pretty good. Of course, I would love to see that.

 

First the hillside was remarkably green as a result of recent rains. Then to see flowers sprinkled in the midst of the green was wonderful. We made many stops for photos.

This little park is beautiful. The flowers were like gems on a lovely garment. Many people think the desert is dull; many people are wrong.

This mountain is across highway 10 from park. I loved it with lovely Brittlebush flowers in the foreground. The desert with wild flowers can’t be beat.

Sky Islands

There are many sky islands in Arizona.  Madera Canyon was one of them. Madera Canyon is located on a sky island. We went there after the debacle of Tucson’s Festival of Books. Sky islands are  incredible mountain ranges that rose up abruptly out of the desert lowlands without  foothills.  The mountains seemed to be  emerging out of the earth as if by magic.

Later I learned more about this phenomenon.  I learned that such mountains usually had an elevation of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. I also learned that these mountains which looked like islands in a sea of grass or sea of desert scrub actually had an abundance of wild life.  These islands include most of Arizona’s biotic communities. They are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are often the meeting place between desert and forest and everything in between. It is precisely that diversity that attracts wild life, especially birds. That is why these sky islands contain well over half the bird species in all of North America.  Not just Arizona. They also contain 29 bat species, more than 3,000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals.

 

Sky Islands are havens of biodiversity. That is really their most important feature.  When you move into these “islands” in the desert there is an astounding range of biodiversity.  As Gary Paul Nabhan said, “In fact the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona and adjacent Sonora are now recognized by the national Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the great centers of plant diversity north of the tropics.”

The reason for that diversity is of course the great variety of topography in the state. That produces a wonderful variety of life, both flora and fauna. As Nabhan said, “When we compare our desert with others, the contrast is striking. Overall, the Sonoran Desert has the greatest diversity of plant growth forms–architectural strategies for dealing with heat and drought–of any desert in the world.”

The Sonoran Desert is certainly not the bleak and barren place that many expect–and sky islands are the apexes of diversity.

What makes Madera Canyon so special is the creek at the bottom. It traverses  4 life zones and many habitats between the desert floor and the mountain tops.  It has become world famous for its diverse flora and fauna. According to the Friends of Madera Canyon, “the variety of climates within 10 miles is similar to that found in driving from Arizona to Canada!

Southwestern Arizona and this canyon are spectacular places for people who love wildlife and wild plants. This area is ranked the third best birding area in the US!  It contains some 400 birds species and especially 14 of Arizona’s 15 hummingbird species. That is more hummingbirds than any where else in the United States. But today we saw none at all.

It was interesting that the more we gained in altitude the more deciduous trees appeared and the less cactuses.   I have learned that usually in Arizona the higher the altitude the higher the precipitation so the more diverse the vegetation. Trees need the added the moisture on the higher elevations. Of course, if the mountain is too high, as in the San Francisco Peaks then there are no trees at all. Just snow. Trees, like all life is finicky.  Like Goldilocks, things have to be just right.

The landscape of southern Arizona seems dry—it is dry.  But it does get rain. In fact this region gets about 11 inches (280 mm) of rain per years. This is enough rain to allow a surprising amount of vegetation to flourish. Even wild flowers abound.  That seems impossible. It looks so dry and nearly barren. But the land is not barren—far from it.

On the day we were there an enthusiastic birder showed me a photograph of an Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) one of the rarest birds in the United States. A couple of years ago my brother-in-law Harv and I went in search of it but did not find. He has seen it a few times. Me never. Darn! The birder showed me a photograph he had taken of it. I was really jealous.  Later I went in search of it. I found another birder who had found it and he told me exactly where to go, but I missed it. I am an incompetent fledgling birder.    We spent some time sitting on a bench with camera and binoculars in hand. We saw a lot of birds of different species, but surprisingly no hummingbirds. Usually in the past we saw a large variety of hummingbirds here. I was puzzled by their absence.

House Finches are interesting birds because they were released in the eastern part of North America by people who brought them from Europe in the 1940s and now they have spread over most of North America including Arizona and Manitoba.

 

Acorn Woodpeckers often drill small holes in trees in the autumn to insert their acorns. Often their “granary trees” are used over and over again and contain thousands of acorns. Aren’t birds weird?

Mexican jays have co-operative breeding where the young from previous years help the parents to raise the new young.  Nature is not just competition, sometimes it involves cooperation.

 

Snow in the Superstition Mountains

 

I know people will have hard time believing this but we went looking for snow. I am not sure I ever did that before. Usually I try to avoid all snow. I certainly never go looking for it. That is not quite true. I snow can be beautiful. But snow is  what I was looking for. I was in search of truth and beauty and today this day that  meant snow. And we found it in the Superstition Mountains after the area experienced the worst snowstorm in 122 years.

I wanted to take some pictures of snow in the Superstition Mountains and I was not disappointed. And we were not alone. On the weekend there were people everywhere trying to photograph the snow. Everyone was an artist with their cameras. So we returned on Monday when the unlucky working people went to work.

 

We decided to go a little farther on highway 88. We wanted to go where we could not go a couple of days ago on account of huge crowds. We really wanted to go a couple of miles and head back to San Tan Valley where we wanted to go to the pool. But the beauty seduced us. It was just too beautiful to turn back.

 

We drove all the way to Tortilla Flats and ate again in the outside bar listening to the music of the Tortilla Flat Band. That is always a pleasure. I loved the high water in the stream that was overflowing the road.

Canyon Lake is always beautiful. Like virtually all lakes in Arizona this one is store bought.

On the way back I wanted to photograph a mountain with snow on it. Since there were many utility wires in the way, I had to trek into the Tonto National Forest about a quarter mile dodging jumping cholla and other nasty cactuses. When I made I was so proud, I shouted just like Nolan when he figured out how to play the music on a card we sent him: “I did it; I did it.”

The oldest plant in the Sonoran Desert–maybe the world

 

 

Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata.)

 You would have to be a much better photographer than I am, to make this inconspicuous plant look interesting. But it is interesting. Very interesting. It is probably the most interesting plant in the Sonoran Desert. They are very common. Ubiquitous I would say.

It isa shrub or  bush. But, it is a perennial bush that has some amazing properties. It can live for up to 2 years without rain. Today it did not have its tiny yellow flowers. They have already turned into tiny fruit.  These plants are believed to be among the oldest living plants. Some are as old as 11,000 years old! That is older than the Old Testament was written. That is older than the pyramids. Archaeologists believe Egypt’s large pyramids are the work of the Old Kingdom society that rose to prominence in the Nile Valley after 3000 B.C. Historical analysis tells us that the Egyptians built the Giza Pyramids in a span of 85 years between 2589 and 2504 BC. Is it possible that a creosote bush is twice as old as that? At least one such plant was carbon dated to be more than 11,000 years old.

Creosote is the probably the most drought resistant perennial plant in North America. It must be to survive in a desert for that long.  And we humans think we are smart? As humans we naturally value what we do. Does anything we do compare with this? This was an old friend worth cherishing. I tried to show I appreciated it.

The Most Important Plant in the Sonoran Desert

 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea)

This is a pretty boring little bush isn’t it? Nothing special. Less than that it looks puny and unimportant. To add to the wonder, this plant is actually filled with flowers! Can’t you see them?  Well they are tiny. Tiny and green.  Little green jobs is what we call them. They are very difficult to see and hardly look like flowers at all. After all who has green flowers?

According to my hero Ranger B, this is both the most the most common and most important plant in the Sonoran Desert. But it gets no respect.  How can a commoner be so important?

To begin with, Bursage holds  the desert soil together. If it were not for Bursage there would be a lot more sand and dust in the air in Arizona. So Bursage keeps the air clean. That is very important. It would be very difficult to live here were it not for my old friend Bursage. Because of Bursage sand storms in the Sonoran desert are very rare, unlike other deserts such as the Sahara. The problem is, of course, that Bursage is disappearing. The reason of course is obvious. Life is disappearing on the desert, as it is everywhere, that humans touch. All life  that is except Homo sapiens and those organisms and creatures that can stand living with us. Things like quack grass, rats and cockroaches are doing fine. Humans make life difficult for many plants and animals. That is a pity. The Sahara desert does not have Bursage, hence it has more sand storms. I am exaggerating a bit of course. The Sonoran desert has more plants than most deserts because it has more moisture. More rain means more plants. Plants hold soil together. So it is only natural that there are less sand storms here. But of all the plants the lowly inconspicuous Bursage may be the most important of all desert plants as Ranger B claims.

Too often people have insufficient respect for Bursage. They build new residential subdivisions everywhere and kill the Bursage. That is why there are now more dust storms in Arizona now than ever before.

I must admit that as a wild flower guy I would tend to pass over such a lowly plant but that would be a big mistake. No one wants Bursage on front lawns. Too boring. Saguaros everyone accepts. No one cares about Bursage. Everyone gets rid of it. It does not have pretty flowers because it relies on wind pollination, not insects. Insects don’t come for tiny little green flowers. After all they have standards. Insects, like wild flower guys, want the big flashy flowers with bright colors or scintillating scent, or better yet, both. The flowers of Bursage are extremely small.

Bursage is also important as a nurse plant. This happens often in the Sonoran Desert. Conditions are so harsh that young plants seek the protection of old plants to give them shade from the harsh sun. For example, many Saguaro cacti start out this way. But other plants use the same survival technique. According to Ranger B, Bursage is also the best shade plant in the desert. It supports more young plants than any other plant. According to Ranger B it is not uncommon for ground temperatures in the desert to hit 160°F in the open sun. Remember temperatures are measured in the shade. Plants like humans find that tough. That can kill plants like young saguaros. Most plants in the desert need shade to get a good start. Without bursar there would be a lot less plants in the desert, including the massive Saguaro that starts out as a tiny little plant that needs a nurse–like Bursage.

Like human children, showing a startling lack of gratitude, the young plant eventually outgrows the nurse and overshadows it, stealing nutrients that the nurse could use.Often the nurse dies.  Life in the desert is harsh. Just like life in gated communities.