Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sonoran Desert Spring

John Alcock’s book by that name is a truly delightful literary introduction to this season in southern Arizona. This particular year is made even more dramatic, however, by the atypically regular series of rains we have had over the last three months or so. The extra precipitation has resulted in a truly lush and colorful landscape.

A trip to the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area on March 19, and to Esperero Canyon on March 27 revealed both creeks running full and fast. Both canyons are in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson. The dam in Sabino Canyon was positively roaring with the cascading flow. Esperero Canyon is normally bone dry at this time of year, but the pools and riffles are a welcome sight there, too.

Elsewhere, the rain has soaked into the dusty soil and wildflowers have sprouted in an abundance not seen for decades in some locations. I usually lament missing the show, since the legendary floral exhibitions are usually a fair car ride away and I don’t drive. Imagine my delight in finding a wonderland only a short walk west from downtown Tucson.

Sentinel Peak Park is a city park that includes a butte of that name (known as “A” Mountain to locals, owing to an enormous concrete “A” on its eastern slope, painted in the red, white and blue colors of the University of Arizona), but the area immediately behind (west of) that promontory offers a more spectacular view right now. I discovered that a trail across the “saddle” between two other buttes took me through a glorious field of poppies, lupine, and other wildflowers.

Here is a true “magic carpet” of fleeting duration, transporting one to a fantasyland of natural wonder. Where one would normally find only the gray-green of mesquites and cacti, here now are great swaths of yellow-orange, punctuated by spears of violet-blue lupines and white lyreleaf jewelflowers.

The floral fireworks may be just beginning. I see that the pink (and vermillion) globemallows have just begun to bloom, and soon creosote bush will be coming on strong, along with the palo verde trees.

I feel truly privileged to be a spectator of the season, especially this year. One of the other hikers I met in the park said that friends of hers who had been living in Tucson for decades hadn’t seen anything like this since about 1983. Indeed, a show like this is as rare as a comet in these parts.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Spring Peepers

One of the many things I love about Facebook is that my nature-loving friends will note harbingers of the changing seasons. Lately, I have begun reading that some folks are already hearing spring peepers, a type of treefrog. Given the harsh winter this year, a more appropriate reaction might be “It’s about time.”

Spring peepers bear the scientific name Pseudacris crucifer, in reference to the “X,” or cross-like pattern usually evident on the backs of these diminutive amphibians. Mature adults are only two or three centimeters in length, but they make up for their small size with a big voice.

Males broadcast in synchronized choruses from a variety of wetland situations throughout most of North America east of the Mississippi River. The sound can carry up to a quarter of a mile. What you normally hear is the courtship song designed to attract females. The males are quite protective of their small territories, however, and another intruding frog will elicit a short trill of aggression.

Making a racket is risky, though, as you can also attract predators. So, there is something of a ventriloquistic element. Just try finding one in the act of calling, even when it is in close proximity, on the ground or on vegetation.

After mating, females lay clusters of eggs in a gelatinous mass under water, attached to aquatic vegetation or at the bottom of a small pond. In fact, a favored habitat of this species is vernal pools, temporary wetlands in an otherwise forested habitat.

Egg-laying can continue into the summer months, but the tadpoles hatch in 7-10 days, taking from five to eight weeks to metamorphose into tiny versions of the adult. The larvae are highly vulnerable to aquatic predators including turtles, salamander larvae, and even large insects like dragonfly nymphs.

You would think that tiny frogs known as “spring peepers” would be found in….spring. Apparently they are not limited to that season, since Dave Small, Lynn Harper and myself found one in a meadow in the neighborhood of the Quabbin Reservoir on the fourth of October, 2009. Prior to that, my initial encounter with Pseudacris crucifer had been at Dave’s home, where at least one frog sat patiently beneath the mercury vapor light, awaiting any errant insects that were attracted to it.

Here’s wishing that you hear your own springtime serenade any day now.

Monday, March 8, 2010

I'm Not Ready!

There is one thing worse than not having your camera handy when something extraordinary happens, and that is when you are presented with an opportunity but have no clue how to operate the settings on your camera to take a good shot. Such is what happened to me on Friday, March 5 at John F. Kennedy Park in South Tucson.

Kennedy Park is a large, multi-use park with a lake, stage, and hiking trails. Near the amphitheatre I managed to flush an adult red-tailed hawk from its perch atop a utility pole. I noticed that it had not flown far, though, and surmised it landed on the next pole, farther away.

I carefully plotted how to sneak closer, where the 20X zoom on my Canon SX10 might still be able to register a decent image. The band shell of the concert area provided good cover, so, averting my gaze from the watchful Buteo, I strode to where it could no longer see me. I then came back along the stage, to one of the entrance/exit points.

I was quite proud of my stalking abilities, but got the start of my life when I looked out the “doorway.” In a tree not more than fifteen feet away, at virtually eye level, sat another hawk!

I thought my largely internal reaction was somehow going to manifest itself in my body language or audible inhalation and the hawk would immediately take flight. Such was not the case. It was clearly a fledgling, which no doubt accounted for its inexperience and tolerance. Still, I tried to keep hidden while struggling to get my camera working as silently as possible.

This was the unfortunate, typical result of not knowing what to do beyond point, zoom, and shoot on “Auto”: it would have been a perfectly good image of tree branches, had it not been for that silly red-tail in the way (sigh). How do you bird photographers do it?

The shade of the tree and the band shell didn’t help any, but I can’t blame the bird. Here it was early afternoon with the sun getting hotter by the minute. Eventually, I did manage a couple of respectable shots, which when cropped are in my own “tolerable” category.

Meanwhile, I got a good shot of mom (or dad), too, before they took off, guiding their offspring on another practice flight or hunting foray. I hope to do better the next time good fortune strikes, but at least I have the memories of this encounter no matter how poor the images are.