Thursday, May 27, 2010

Agua Caliente

One of my favorite parks in the greater Tucson area of Arizona is Roy P. Drachman Agua Caliente Regional Park, located at 12325 E. Roger Road. It is a Pima County park with a unique history and diverse, surprising habitats full of wildlife.

The park is not accessible by public transportation, but I’ve been fortunate enough to visit on several occasions, courtesy of friends who also enjoy the place. The Tucson chapter of the National Audubon Society operates a small nature store there, and there is a visitor center with an art gallery, too. The Rose Cottage serves as a classroom for nature programs and environmental education. Always open are the restrooms and outdoor picnic tables (with grills) on a large lawn studded with palm and eucalyptus trees.

The main feature of the park is a series of three ponds, linked by an artificial stream fed by a natural warm spring. The scarcity of permanent water elsewhere has made this a Mecca for people, and the human history of the park goes back over 5,000 years, including a Hohokam village, circa 1150 AD, that extended into the property now included in the park. A cattle ranch and orchard sprung up around the spring in 1875. Some historical buildings have been preserved and interpreted in the park, including a bunkhouse from the 1920s, when various owners ran ranches and resort spas at the site, touting the health benefits of the mineral-rich waters. The 101 acre park as it is known today opened in January, 1985, after a donation of $200,000 by local businessman Roy P. Drachman allowed for purchase of the property by the County.

Wildlife benefits from protection here, too, and birdwatchers flock to see such winged wonders as the green heron (shown above) and fledgling great horned owls.

A network of well-groomed trails meanders through a mesquite bosque and other Sonoran Desert habitats. There are interpretive signs and benches along several stretches of the trails, and all the paths are relatively short and easily walked.

Be on the lookout for herps and mammals underfoot. Reptiles such as this horned lizard (Phrynosoma sp.) are quite cryptic, and hard to spot until they move. Stand quietly along the shore of the main pond and you might be surprised by a Botta’s Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae, poking its head above ground.

The emergent vegetation in the ponds themselves provides perches for a wide variety of damselflies, and dragonflies like the Red Saddlebags, Tramea onusta, shown at the bottom of this page.

The park’s official website is here, and an outstanding photographic portrait of the park is presented here by Dan Conway. I highly recommend making a point of seeing the place for yourself, though, next time you are in Tucson.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Remembering Mount St. Helens

Today (okay, yesterday, I’m always behind in this kind of thing) marks the 30th anniversary of the major eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state. I remember May 18, 1980 vividly, and I recall the mountain before and after that day, too.

It was a Saturday, and I woke up late at my fraternity house in Corvallis, Oregon. As I approached the breakfast table a fellow Delta Chi asked if I’d heard that “Mount St. Helens has been going [off] all day.” A major eruption had been expected for some time, since flurries of minor earthquakes and steam and ash plumes had riveted the attention of geologists, politicians, and emergency personnel months earlier.

Everyone in the frat house was gathered in the television room of our house mom, with their jaws on the floor. No wonder. The aerial footage of the ongoing cataclysm was mind-boggling. What I recall most is seeing an entire forest, or what used to be a forest, barreling downstream on the Tuttle River, which had become a wall of water, mud, and volcanic ash. It looked like the Devil had thrown everything into the Blender From Hell.

Later, we learned of just how immense the event was, and how widespread the damage. The ash cloud had blown east, plunging Spokane, Washington into total darkness at midday, and threatening to suffocate anyone who ventured outside. The “blast zone” was marked by trees mowed over like….well, it defies words.

Seventy-one people perished in this nature-gone-nuclear event, most still officially “missing” because recovery was just impossible. One individual, reporter Dave Crockett of KOMO TV in Seattle, miraculously escaped death, but he couldn’t believe it himself. “At this moment,” he huffed and puffed from the ash-thickened air, “I honest to God believe I’m dead.” The images from his video camera actually seemed to verify that conclusion. A dim, distant light in an otherwise totally black screen suggested that characteristic “tunnel” that those who have near-death experiences report on the other side of their ordeal.

The aftermath of the eruption was felt throughout the Pacific Northwest. Volcanic ash, which amounts to pulverized glass, fell everywhere; and prompted outdoor workers to don filter masks throughout the summer when diminished rainfall let the dust become airborne once again. I had to do that myself, working the summer installing office furniture.

The show was not over, either. The mountain spouted off again in the late afternoon of July 22, 1980. While the May 18 event had been shrouded in the usual overcast skies, the July display was visible for miles. Rush hour traffic came to a standstill as motorists gawked in amazement at the mushroom cloud over the summit (now nearly 2,000 feet lower in elevation than before the May 18 eruption). Indeed, I was in the car with my mother and stepfather, and we decided we’d dash up I-5 for a better look (Mt. St. Helens is roughly fifty miles North-Northeast of Portland).

Beyond the horrors of the natural disaster, the chronicling of the story introduced us all to a myriad of human characters, like the cantankerous Harry Truman, resident of Spirit Lake, who refused to obey evacuation orders prior to the eruption. The story educated us by explaining terms like “pyroclastic flow” and “lava dome.” To this day the mountain landscape demonstrates the resilience of nature, even after it is quite literally paved over. It also inspired artists and writers. I wrote this poem sometime after May 18, 1980:

The Last Day of Mount St. Helens

Peaceful sloping hill in May
With somber tones of brown and gray
That do not fortell
Of disaster yet to come this day.
Eight twenty-nine and all is well,
Then gentle, sleeping mountainside
Comes unglued in massive slide.
A giant terrestrial tidal wave
Lays seventy-one in an ashen grave.
Sandy taste and sulfur smell
Hands each of us a piece of Hell.

I sometimes still prefer to remember Mount St. Helens from a trip to the “Ape Caves” led by my high school biology teacher, Karen Wallace, one Saturday in 1978(?). It was still the familiar “ice cream cone” summit back then, still a forested wilderness. There is no going back now, of course, and I have to wonder how many people get to witness a volcanic eruption in their lifetime. Geologic events generally happen on a geologic time scale, and one has to appreciate the natural and historical elements of such phenomena.

I am very interested to hear about your memories of that monumental day, or your memories of the mountain in general. Please share them here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Mother's Day in Madera Canyon

I am enjoying the field trips of the Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association (SEABA) this year. SEABA is a local chapter of the North American Butterfly Association. The monthly field trips, usually on Saturdays, are led by a butterfly expert or someone knowledgeable of the fauna and flora of the destination. Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains, a popular place for both Arizonans and tourists, was the site of May’s field trip on May 9. The leader was Gary Jue of Greg’s Camera Shop (where I bought my own camera), who works on Saturdays.

Hiking the trails takes you through several habitats, from mesquite grasslands at the entrance to oak and juniper forests at mid-elevation, and finally pine and oak at the top. It is a very visitor-friendly place. Just ask this rock squirrel that greeted us early on.

What is Mother’s Day without flowers? The bloom below is a type of milkweed known as “Antelope horns,” Asclepias asperula to botanists. Ordinarily, milkweeds are highly attractive to insects including butterflies, bees, wasps, and flies, but nary an insect was on this one, save for what might be a “seed weevil” in the Chrysomelidae leaf beetle family. I only noticed it when I cropped this image. See if you can find the tiny gray insect in one of the blossoms.

Among the birds we took note of was the ever-present Acorn Woodpecker, Melanerpes formicivorus. You will hear them often, even if you don’t see them, but the ones here in Madera Canyon have become habituated to people and frequently land quite close to picnickers.

I have noted some of the butterflies we saw over at “Bug Eric,” but wanted to conclude this entry with the most exciting, yet unfortunate aspect of our group’s visit last Sunday. As we were preparing to leave the canyon, we caught sight of something that nobody wants to see when they are in a forested area: a plume of smoke.

Word quickly made it to those of us at the top of the canyon that a car had burst into flames about half way up the road.

Traffic in and out of the canyon was halted while it was extinguished. Fortunately, the family in the car exited without injury. Miraculously, the fire didn’t touch off a wildfire, despite red flag warnings on this windy day. The flames did jump to either side of the road, but were quickly put out. The whole incident happened close to a creek, so the initial response was a volunteer bucket brigade. Also close by was a bed-and-breakfast, and the folks there strung together garden hoses to stop the roadside fire. Emergency vehicles arrived shortly thereafter, but the car was clearly toast.

Kudos to all who not only prevented what could have become a catastrophe, but who had traffic flowing again in a remarkably short period of time. I hope the afflicted family is going to be ok.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Apologies, Excuses, Suggestions

The loyal followers of this blog deserve to be dazzled and amazed much more frequently than the writer has been able to do lately. I sincerely apologize for the time lag and anticipate that things will improve soon. Today I will do a little explaining.

I am delighted to report that part of the reason I have been “missing in action” is because I have acquired some assignments that, believe it or not, are actually paying me for online content I am creating. As a co-moderator with Mandy Howe, I’m monitoring submissions to for a modest monthly wage. I want to express my sincerest thanks to webmaster Kyle Williams for this opportunity.

Kyle had also purchased the domain name “,” but soon sold it to another individual. That person, Tim McGuiness, is out of the same amazing mold as Kyle in that he, too, has offered to pay me for creating content. I am in the midst of doing that right this instant, and am facing a pretty tight deadline. The research alone has had my head swimming. Obviously, I am also grateful to Tim for his generosity. Both the spider and dust mite websites will eventually include advertising that may generate more income still for all involved, but first things first.

Since it is springtime, I have also found myself out in the field quite a bit, though my allergies to pollens have sometimes made for miserable outings. It has also been extremely windy here in southeast Arizona, making it difficult to get respectable images of flowers, insects, birds, and other organisms to illustrate this blog with. I am very appreciative of my friends Margarethe Brummermann, Ned Harris, Fred Heath and his wife Mary Klinkel, John Rhodes, and others for including me in their own field trips.

I am hoping that all of you are also getting out and about, but if not, may I suggest investigating some of the blogs that I follow? Margarethe just started her own, all about Arizona beetles, bugs, birds, and more. It is listed, along with perennial favorites like “The Marvelous in Nature” by Seabrooke Leckie, on the sidebar of this blog.

Thank you again for your patience and understanding. May you enjoy the season.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch

I had the pleasure of joining my good friends Margarethe Brummermann and Ned Harris last Tuesday, April 27, for a trip “up north” to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona. Gilbert is rather seamlessly connected to Phoenix, but it was well worth enduring the traffic to reach this wetlands gem.

There are seven ponds covering 110 acres here, with the berms between them providing comfortable trails for walkers, joggers, and wildlife-watchers. One pond is dedicated to fishing and stocked with a variety of game species. Not all of the remaining ponds are full at any given time, but draining some exposes mud flats for shorebirds like the long-billed dowitcher to probe.

While the preserve provides wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities for people (there are also manicured lawns, a playground and “dino dig” for children, and even a small observatory), there is another purpose to the area. “Reclaimed” waste water, already treated for sewage, is what fills the ponds, allowing for a further natural purification and recharge of underground aquifers (as I understand it, anyway). It certainly seems to agree with the likes of the American avocet.

Our personal bird tally for the morning and early afternoon included mallard, cinnamon teal, northern shoveler, ruddy duck, Canada goose, American coot, double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, great egret, black-crowned night-heron, green heron, killdeer, black-necked stilt, mourning dove, white-winged dove, cliff swallow, red-winged blackbird, and great-tailed grackle.

Dragonflies are plentiful, too. It is a bit early in the season for them, but we still saw common green darner, blue dasher, roseate skimmer, black saddlebags, red saddlebags, and Mexican amberwing (female above).

The area is planted with lots of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers that provide plenty of cover and forage for all forms of wildlife. There is even a pollinator garden that attracts butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Should you decide to visit, be prepared for the park’s popularity. By 9 AM on a weekday the parking lot can be full, and the trails crowded with people walking for exercise and school groups learning about wetlands. When the day heats up, you might consider taking a break indoors at the Gilbert public library. It abuts the preserve and overlooks the fishing lake.

Meanwhile, you can live vicariously by visiting websites like Tom Webster Photography that give a great overview of the preserve and its facilities. Also be sure to visit the website for the Riparian Institute which manages the Preserve.