Monday, July 30, 2007

The rains have brought a huge crop of hedgehog cactus blooms in the front yard. They are scattered throughout the yard, and they are beautiful, as these photos show.

They are predicting more rain today. At this point, we don't really need it. The cactuses and trees have already taken in what they want. Our prickly pears are no longer shriveled and wrinkly, but have become fat and juicy-looking. The saguaros have also become fat, to the point where their pleats have mostly filled out. The drooping agaves now stand upright once again.

I wish there were some way to space the water out more evenly over the year. Or even over the monsoon season. But some of this should soak in and help recharge the valley's very depleted aquifer.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Well, we got another storm shortly after I posted yesterday. It lasted about 45 minutes, and looking out into the yard you could see a virtual wall of water falling. I figured maybe another .70 or so, but when I went out to check the rain gauge I could hardly believe my eyes: 1.80. With another .15 falling overnight, we got 2.65 inches of rain in less than one day. This in an area that averages 10 - 12 inches in a year.

This morning when I went out very early to get the paper, the air was filled with swarms of small insects. I think they were looking for sex partners; sort of a singles swarm. The birds all seem happy and very active this morning, and the cacti and trees all look great. the ocotillo are leafing out, and it's just gorgeous.

Bird notes: we have a bumper crop of young cardinals and pyrrhuloxias. They have all mostly learned how to use the seed feeder, and they or their parents are at it throughout the day. I'm going through a huge amount of striped sunflower seed. Also, the other day I saw a big bird eating the blossoms of my golden jubilee vine. On closer inspection I saw it was an oriole, but I'm not sure what kind: either hooded or Northern, probably. A beautiful bird, very like an overgrown goldfinch.

Finally, my yellow bells were in full, glorious bloom (see them and the golden jubilee in the picture above) until three nights ago when something ate all the blossoms and a lot of the stems. I suspect a pack rat, because the dregs were left in my planter on the porch.

The other picture here is my mutant golden barrel cactus in the back yard. It is a gorgeous plant, and very unusual. There is another in the front yard.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The monsoon has been raging the last few days, with heavy rains everywhere but here. This afternoon, finally, we got a really good one: .70 of an inch in about half an hour. They are predicting more rain for later, but I'll see it when I believe it.

The pictures here are of an approaching storm seen from our backyard, and another of a distant storm to the north beyond my garden fence.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

As you can see, I have changed the format for this blog. I have unfortunately lost all previous comments, and want to thank everyone who commented in the past.

A bit of bird discussion today. First, hummingbirds. I finally have a decent variety in the yard, including, at last, I'm pretty sure a broad-billed, which is my very favorite. The picture here is a broadbill from my old house. We called him "Olivier" because he was so dramatic and self-confident.

Second topic is the monsoon, which so far is pretty much a non-soon. Though it has been very hot (105 plus most days) and humid, this neighborhood has received only .18 inch in the last three weeks. It has been horribly uncomfortable out, and my back porch is full of baby birds panting in the shade. They are very messy, but I love to watch them because they are so full of curiosity, interested in everything around them. There's even a baby cardinal who occasionally snags a sunflower seed from the feeder, then brings it to the porch to try to open. He seems to be getting pretty good at it.

This morning while I was watering, a black-headed grosbeak landed on the fence about two feet from where I was standing. I wish I had a picture, as this is a very impressive bird. About the size of a cardinal, maybe a little bit bigger, but its body is a bright russety orange, it doesn't have a crest, and its bill is large and parrot-like.

Finally, quail. There are a number of quail families of varying sizes that visit my pond and run around our front and side yards as well as the back. I've been hearing quail calling at sunset in the front yard, and suspected they might be nesting in citrus tree outside the porch, which has a thick security screen. Yesterday evening while I was standing on the porch looking at storm clouds to the south, a quail family including three young fourth- or fifth-graders began preparing to roost. First the parents began herding the children toward the citrus. Then, after everyone was in position, the father flew up into the tree, quite high, and began calling to his family. Then the mother flew up. Then, one by one, the babies flew up. Their little wings flapped so hard they looked like little sideways helicopters. The third baby didn't quite get the angle right and slammed into the screen door. He then picked himself up and made another attempt, landing perfectly on a branch.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

No picture for this one, but trust me--you don't want a picture. I just watched a cactus wren on my porch with something large in its mouth... big bug, maybe, I thought. I got my binoculars as the prey tried to run away, and it was a small lizard. I think a gekko. The cactus wren grabbed it again, and again it tried to escape. Then the two of them disappeared out into the garden beyond my view.

A few minutes later, the cactus wren returned to the shade with the now-limp lizard in its beak, and is now dismembering and eating it, using that very sharp beak to peck the lizard's body into pieces.

If my cats had caught the lizard, I would have freed it, but I can't bring myself to interfere in this. Nature Red in Tooth and Claw. Indeed!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

I have three things I want to talk about today, only one of which is illustrated. The first one is tall things in the desert. You can tell what pollinates a plant by how high it is off the ground. The examples above, all from our yard, are a saguaro cactus, a yucca blossom , and agave blossoms. They are all way high off the ground, and they are all pollinated primarily by bats, though I believe bees also work on the yucca, and birds on the saguaros.

Next, I want to talk about the pre-monsoon, which is here now, and which is the worst time of year. It's very hot (this year, rather unusually, around 110 or more every day), and a bit humid, enough to make you uncomfortable but not enough to do the plants any good. It's the meteorological equivalent of PMS.

Finally, bees. More specifically, bee behavior. My little bird pond in my garden attracts a lot of bees this time of year, and by "a lot" I mean dozens--though probably not hundreds. They congregate on the algae in one corner all day long. In the morning, when I water, they are very active and easily agitated. if I stir them up by getting water on them, they lift up and fly around irritably.

Now, these are almost certainly Africanized bees, also known as "killer" bees, because they can mass and sting large animals, including humans, to death. (Every year now a few people in Southern Arizona are killed by them.) But I'm not afraid of them, because I'm pretty sure they only attack when they are defending their nest, and their nest is somewhere to the northwest of here. How do I know? Because after soaking for a while, each bee flies off in that direction. I believe they are acting as apian cooler pads, saturating their bodies and taking the moisture back to the hive, where they and others will beat their wings to cool it off.