Monday, June 28, 2010

In Praise of Shade

The city of Tucson, Arizona could use many things, like mid-level jobs to fill that void between rocket science and “Do you want fries with that?” Another crying need for people and wildlife alike is a Shade Initiative. During the searing heat of late spring and summer, there is nary a place to escape to. Sunscreen only does so much for Homo sapiens, and other animals take refuge where they can find it.

Many desert animals have simply become nocturnal, hiding in burrows or crevices in rocks by day. Even creatures that don’t actively dig will use the abandoned burrows of animals that do. Rattlesnakes will hole up in an old ground squirrel tunnel. Sometimes occupant and interloper will grudgingly share space, such as the many mammals, birds, other reptiles, and invertebrates that are frequently found cozying up to desert tortoises in their dens.

My own experience has showed that even insects will seek respite from the midday heat. One recent excursion to an artificial riparian area in Fort Lowell Park revealed an amazing spectrum of sheltering insects among the dense stands of cattails along the edge of the lower pond. Even butterflies like the Leda Ministreak, Great Purple Hairstreak, Empress Leilia, and Fiery Skipper work their way into the cool heart of the emergent vegetation.

Other insects present include an abundance of bees, wasps, and flies. You have to look closely. The wasps and bees are often tiny. On this day, June 21, 2010, I tallied wasps in the families Bethylidae, Chalcididae, Braconidae, Ichneumonidae, and Sphecidae. Sweat bees, especially males in the genus Lasioglossum (family Halictidae) were also common.

In the past I have observed fair numbers of “tarantula hawk” wasps, and even cicada killers in the ranks of roosting Hymenoptera.

The habit of seeking midday shelter does not escape the predators of these insects. Robber flies (family Asilidae) weave their way in and out of the cattails and pounce on unsuspecting prey of all kinds. Meanwhile, jumping spiders prowl each leaf and lynx spiders (Oxyopidae) lie in ambush to catch unsuspecting flies and other insects.

As I leave the park, I try and stay in the shade, but the mesquite, cottonwood, and ornamental pecan and eucalyptus trees are planted sparsely in the landscaped lawns. Once out of the park altogether, shade is even harder to find. There is no mandate to plant shade trees here, though Tucson Clean and Beautiful is perhaps slowly changing that through its ”Trees for Tucson” and Home Shade Tree programs.

The hot sidewalk, where there is a sidewalk, nearly melts the soles of my shoes. I grow hot and thirsty quickly. I pass by a sign in the flowerbeds warning not to drink the “reclaimed” water from the drip irrigation system. Fine, but then give me a public drinking fountain every few blocks. The bus stop is one of the few that do offer meager shelter. Most have no shelters, or the shelters are oriented such that “shelter” is rendered meaningless. I make a note to myself to consider leaving Tucson and relocating to a place with both shade and water.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Resaca de la Palma State Park

The first stop on Bugguide’s “Texas Mini-Gathering” in early June was Resaca de la Palma State Park in Brownsville, Cameron County. The park is only three years old, but at 1200 acres it is the largest park in the World Birding Center contingent of south Texas parks.

Resaca is Spanish for an “oxbow lake,” a wetland cut off from a river that now takes a different path. The wetlands are being restored at Resaca de la Palma, but during the hot, dry season of late spring and summer, water is still scarce. What little water remains does attract a number of water birds such as the Least Grebe shown below.

Our party of three was given the royal treatment from naturalist Katherine Miller and her interns Cynthia and Ryan. We were taken on a tram ride (visualize an electric golf cart built for 8-10 passengers and no clubs) that covers 3.2 miles within the park, stopping anytime we spied something interesting. Cynthia found this spectacular, albeit deceased Beautiful Mesquite Borer, Callona rimosa as we went whizzing by at…about 2 mph.

The visitor center is surrounded by a garden that attracts a dazzling array of butterflies and other insects. One could easily just relax and stake out the bird feeders, too. In the heat and humidity it is a tempting option. Those who do wander the trails will find shade in most places, and be treated to wildlife such as armadillo, lizards, and toads. The trails are certainly used by nocturnal mammals, too, and they leave their, um, calling cards along the way. A pile of scat can be as attractive as a bouquet of flowers, though, as this pair of Mexican Bluewing butterflies attests.

Despite our arrival during the “off season,” the park had no shortage of things to offer and I encourage folks to pay a visit whenever they can. Amenities include eight miles of walking trails, and four wood platforms that each overlook a section of the four-mile Resaca. Watch for active oriole nests (in June at least). Keep an eye out for the large but shy Plain Chachalaca.

You’re likely to hear them more often than you see them. You might also be treated to a display from a Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron.

Many thanks again to Katherine for going out of her way for us (she even escorted us on a night hike). You will never get so much out of a $4.00 admission to anything. Note that your comfort will hinge a great deal on keeping well hydrated, tolerating annoying insects like eye gnats, and repelling chiggers with sulphur or another treatment.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Save the Scenic Santa Ritas

While enduring delays at the Houston airport on my way back to Tucson from south Texas on June 8, I had the good fortune to strike up a conversation with Joan Williams, who lives near Sonoita, Arizona. She is a mover and shaker in a grassroots effort to prevent a new mine from sprouting up in the very scenic Santa Rita Mountains. She convinced me to take action, and I urge you to do the same.

Southern Arizona is already studded with mines, and/or the scars left in their aftermath, and this one, proposed by Augusta Resource Corporation (a Canadian entity) and its subsidiary Rosemont Copper Company, would be a real eyesore and an environmental mess. It is certainly not an industry compatible with the ranching lifestyle currently enjoyed by residents of Santa Cruz County, or the eco-tourism industry. I can just imagine the next tour operator pointing out a bird sitting “right over there on that pile of tailings.”

The root of this current mess of public hearings, environmental impact statements, and other bureaucratic appeasement is the antiquated General Mining Law of 1872. As unimaginable as it seems, the price of staking a claim has not changed one cent since that date. You can still stake a claim for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre. Our current federal officials are loathe to impede corporate mining interests and have not acted to even reflect current prices for metals extracted from claims.

So, we are left to fight mining claims on a case-by-case basis, with little help from government. Enter Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and the Hilton Ranch Road Community Organization, both devoted to blocking the proposed mine. The groups have succeeded in mobilizing a large contingent of local residents, citizen activists, scientists, and other stakeholders. Victories have thus far amounted to delaying the endorsement of the mine through normal bureaucratic channels. This is a pretty mean feat considering the tactics of the opposition, which have included buying up domain names likely to be used by groups opposing the mine. Such “greenwashing” has become the norm for public relations by the natural resource extraction industry. Fortunately, you can’t fool all the people all of the time, and more and more citizens are waking up every day.

Please consider making a difference through public comments, support of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, and other approaches. Paraphrasing a popular legal quote, “A threat to the natural environment anywhere is a threat to the natural environment everywhere.” It is true. How can we expect other nations to clean up their act when we refuse to clean up our own? Thank you.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park

I recently returned from a vacation (being currently unemployed the term “vacation” seems inappropriate, but…) to the southern tip of Texas where I met up with two other amateur entomologists (the quality of their studies makes “amateur” seem inappropriate, too). One of our destinations was the Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park in Mission, Texas. I will now indulge you in a rave review of this amazing piece of real estate.

Be advised, our party was there in the first week of June, clearly the “off season” for park visitors. Expect heavy crowds during the “wet season” and fall migrations in September and October.

There is plenty to see in late spring and early summer, however, including lots of birds like this Groove-billed Ani, Crotophaga sulcirostris, one of a pair that was nesting right at the visitor’s center. After imaging the bird, I noticed a sand wasp in the genus Bicyrtes that was digging a burrow at my feet. I hardly knew where to point my camera the whole time I was there.

The visitor’s center is just the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of the park is located across a canal. The road is closed at the canal and Border Patrol habitually stakes a vehicle at this post. A tram, towed behind a pick-up truck, transports park visitors through the park, which is otherwise closed to vehicular traffic. One may then hike on trails that start at the various tram stops.

Wildlife feeding stations are placed at various points, equipped in some cases with “blinds” consisting of walls with holes for your camera or binoculars. While birds were not particularly abundant when I looked, the oriole feeders with orange halves were overwhelmed with emperor butterflies, genus Asterocampa.

Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park is named after the Bentsen brothers of political fame who donated the 760 acre parcel to the state, largely in exchange for lands they developed elsewhere. The park, which opened in 1965, is also the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Expect to see an abundance and diversity of butterflies, dragonflies, and damselflies as well as birds when you visit the park. There are also reptiles, like this Great Plains Rat Snake, Elaphe guttata emoryi that I encountered one night near the visitor center. Western diamondback rattlesnakes, Crotalus atrox, also occur in the park, so do pay attention to where you are walking.

The highlight of my recent visit (and there will be many more if I have my way) was, without a doubt, spying this bobcat sitting on the wall at the entrance to the park after an afternoon thunderstorm had subsided. Do visit yourself and make your own memories at this jewel in the Texas state park system.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sweetwater Wetlands

One of the most reliable places in Tucson to find wildlife is Sweetwater Wetlands. Indeed, it is a very popular spot for “birders,” and a destination for countless school groups who come to learn about the ecology of wetlands in an otherwise very arid environment.

Besides being a Mecca for birds, mammals, reptiles and insects, Sweetwater Wetlands is an integral part of the nearby sewage treatment facility. Effluent from the traditional treatment facility is channeled into a series of ponds where the treated water then percolates back into the underlying aquifer. This natural filtration further cleanses the water and it is then “reclaimed” when it is withdrawn again for use in irrigation, mostly of golf courses and the landscaping of business parks.

I have to admit I am ambivalent about the extensive signage warning not to drink the reclaimed water (presumably aimed at our homeless population) while there is nary a public drinking fountain to be found in the city of Tucson. “Irony” does not do justice to this situation. Maybe I just got spoiled growing up in Portland, Oregon where there is a public fountain on nearly every corner downtown.

Back to the wetlands. There is plenty of interpretive signage along the several trails that course between the ponds; and also at the wildlife viewing areas that take the form of small peninsulas extending into some of the ponds. Benches offer places to rest, drink, and snack as well as wait for birds to come to you. An average visit may yield such birds as the Common Moorhen, or a blue-billed male Ruddy Duck.

Lizards, mostly Desert Spiny lizards and whiptails, scatter in every direction at your approach, one seemingly every couple of feet. There are Greater Roadrunners in the area, but they seem to hardly make a dent in the herp populations. One can only wish for some predator to eat the non-native Bullfrogs that have come to call this place home. You can hear the “Jug-a-rum” call of the males at nearly any time of day.

I come here for insects and spiders, too, of course, and am rarely disappointed. Though this year has been sparse for most insects, I can always count on seeing Blue-eyed Darners, Rhionaeschna multicolor, like the female above that I found on my last visit. Also present in abundance are the Blue Dasher, Pachydiplax longipennis, and the Mexican Amberwing, Perithemis intense. I have also seen the Flame Skimmer, Libellula saturata, and a Roseate Skimmer, Orthemis ferruginea, this year.

The wetlands are torched nearly every year, a prescribed burn charring some parts of the area annually. It does not seem to adversely impact the animals, and in fact the scorching of the willows and cottonwoods sometimes makes them more of an attraction to insects and nesting and feeding birds. I recently found a giant crab spider (genus Olios) under a burnt strip of bark on a willow.

Do make a point of visiting this little gem the next time you are in Tucson. It is especially spectacular during waterfowl migrations, but any time of year is likely to reward you with a great “urban nature” experience.