Roadrunner Rush

I moved to Arizona from Eugene, Oregon, also known as Track Town USA.  Road runners were everywhere—streets, sidewalks, and trails.  Funny that the collegiate athletes are called “Ducks.”

Here in Arizona, ducks are limited to rare wetlands in the desert.  Roadrunners, on the other hand, thrive in the deserts and chaparral of the Southwest, and it is always a special treat to encounter this bizarre member of the cuckoo family.

Greater Roadrunner

Greater Roadrunner

I live in Granite Dells, a wonderland of granite outcrops with clearings (“dells”) nestled among the boulders and peaks.  This is roadrunner country.  Continue reading

Wildlife Wonders of Tanzania

My first experience of East Africa was in 1979, and it changed my life profoundly.  The wildlife and people of Kenya and Tanzania have become “family” to me–not replacing kinship but adding to it.  After the tremendous success of the June 2015 safari, I have set up two exciting and very different safaris in order to renew my connections there and give others the chance to experience the very best that an African safari can offer.

The next safari takes us off the beaten path using small planes to get us to wilderness parks few people are even aware of: Selous, Ruaha, Katavi, Mahale.  Here are details: Tanzania WILD: Explore the Exceptional (July 25-August 8, 2016).

The next will be in January-February 2017 when we can expect the Great Migration to be in the shortgrass plains of the southern Serengeti.  It also coincides with green landscapes, wildflowers, and tremendous bird populations as winged visitors for Europe and Asia join the African residents.  I hope you can join us! Tanzania Herds & Birds, Nature & Culture (January 25-Feb. 6, 2017).

A few months ago, I gave a presentation at Prescott College, and they video-taped it so that if you were not there, you can now, through the wonders of technology, experience that presentation and vicariously go on safari.

Thoughts on J. Henri Fabre

Plains Lubber, Brachstola magna

Sitting in a burlap blind at the edge of the vast Malheur marsh in SE Oregon, my camera on my lap, I knew I might have hours to wait before some creature appeared within range of my lens.  I was new to wildlife photography, but I was aware that constant vigilance was a price the photographer must assume for success.  Continue reading

I, Pundit

The holiday season is upon us, that mathematically odd time of year when ads multiply, good friendships reap dividends, and politics remain as divisive as ever.  My in box and mail box swell with promises of deals so good that if I only spend enough, I can surely become rich.  Buy until you’re spent!  No money down!

The sporting goods catalogs promote insulated jackets so well that the market for down is up.  Which reminds me how our language (and corruptions of it) can bring us cheer well before happy hour.  When I hear someone say, “I am going to lay down,” I immediately visualize that person ovipositing feathers.  If those speakers realized what they were saying, I think they would be willing to lie a lot more readily.

Try to imagine this bird "laying down."

Try to imagine this bird “laying down.”

Our language simply invites word play, and as a man, I manipulate it. Continue reading

Hope has Wings

Hope has Wings

A Monarch & a College PresidentMonarch 102814

It’s late October here in Prescott, Arizona, and summer seems to be lingering, maybe loitering, as if it had nothing better to do.  Frost has yet to visit, and the warm afternoons invite shorts and light shirts, somewhat to the delight of the mosquitoes, who have not given up on summer either.

But the birds are not fooled.  Bald Eagles are showing up at the lakes, where the swallows are long gone.  Sparrows and juncos visit the feeders, far from their breeding grounds, while orioles and grosbeaks are likely sipping the avian equivalent of margaritas south of the border. Continue reading

Monsoon Magic

For weeks, we have waited, hoping that the early July pattern of monsoon rain arrival would be repeated.  It did not look promising.  June was brutally hot and dry, clouds rare, winds fierce.  The scrub oaks and manzanitas have shed most of their leaves; time will tell if they will all survive this challenge.  Grasses were dry as tinder, nutritionless.  Sprouting daturas withered and died except where we gave them water.  We are the recipients of past pluvial generosity, siphoning water from underground stores without little thought of where that water has come from.  But for now, sharing a little of that water with the other creatures that share our space seems like the right thing to do, since we have taken so much from the wild already.

Water set out for the local birds and mammals was eagerly sought by both.  Our house became the oasis to which dozens of species flocked.  Quail seemed to have had a good reproduction year, as at least a half dozen broods came in daily, but what would have happened without our water subsidy?

Quail brood at water dish

Quail brood at water dish

Rufous –crowned Sparrows, Crissal Thrashers, finches, towhees, and even woodpeckers—they all drank from our little pools in apparent harmony.  Continue reading

The Hotshots & the Juniper

June 30, 2014 marks the first-year anniversary of the tragic Yarnell Hill fire that took the lives of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots.  A day of infamy in US fire history, it has provoked abundant reflection and some action.

Twelve days before the fatal, fateful fire, another blaze, the Doce Fire, started in dense chaparral and shot northward, propelled by powerful winds.  It jumped the highway and sped up over both Little Granite Mountain and Granite Mountain itself, descending with unexpected ferocity down the north slope right up to the edge of homes in Williamson Valley.  It was a terrifying reminder of the power of nature that can overwhelm the puny efforts of humans, even with our advanced technology.  It was humbling.

There were bright spots in that human-nature conflict.  The 20-man Granite Mountain Hotshots team was aware of the ancient alligator juniper that grew in view of both mountains for centuries.  Revered and respected, that tree stood in the line of fire.  But for the intervention of the hotshots, it might today be nothing more than a lifeless, charred trunk, victim of one fire too many.  The crew saved it by creating firebreaks and by using their personal water containers to put out spot fires in its branches.  This was an act of thoughtful heroism; these men put themselves on the fire line simply to save a tree.

Ancient juniper at edge of Doce Burn

Ancient juniper at edge of Doce Burn

But it was, and still is, more than a tree—it is a symbol of resistance, of fortitude, of ancient wisdom.  Continue reading

Yarnell Revisited

Nine months after the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, the event continues to touch many of us with a rawness only slightly softened by time.  My memories remain vivid.  With thunderstorm activity developing in the Prescott area that afternoon, I grabbed my camera and headed out to the Doce Fire area south of Granite Mountain.  Fierce little rain squalls gave me subjects to explore visually.  The powdered ash deposits post-fire are very vulnerable to erosion, a step in the ecologic process I wanted to capture.

June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral

June 20, 2013 rain on burned chaparral

Then as a squall shifted south, I could see in the distance a column of smoke that caused my hair to rise—it appeared to me that the small town of Yarnell was on fire.  Without hesitation, I leaped into the car and shot toward Skull Valley, having to slow down once in the midst of an intense downpour.  The closer I got to Peeple’s Valley, the more my concern intensified, and I made a decision that gave me a perfect vantage point on a ridge north of the fire.  If I had continued any farther down the highway, I would have been stopped by emergency vehicles and stuck in a line of other cars prohibited from moving farther.

I remember as keenly as if it were still happening how, as I began to photograph the towering cloud of smoke, winds shifted, chilling me briefly with horizontal pellets of rain.  A small herd of horses ran north to below my position.  I continued to watch and document as the fire split into two fiery tongues—one right at Yarnell and another in rugged canyons in the Weavers to the west of the valley.  Planes and helicopters appeared as tiny insects buzzing around the periphery of the towering giant.  I watched until sunset, an eerie yellowish light bathing the entire scene, and I sensed that this would be a moment of tragic history.  Continue reading

Landscape Lunacy: Chaparral on Fire

29 June 2013.  Prescott, Arizona.  At Granite Mountain, eleven days after the eruption of the big Doce Fire, the smoke has cleared—mostly.  There are still hot pockets (inedible ones) with potential for flames to rise from the ashes and run amok again.  Mother Nature teases us with clouds trailing virga—and even a few drops of liquid that reach the ground—but the hot winds accompanying the clouds continue their mischief, and dry lightning ignites new blazes around the county.  A microburst (sorry, not an artisan brew) takes down trees in town and starts a fire.  The firefighters are still out there at the mountain, and aircraft drone overhead on their missions of attempted control.  But for most of us, the adrenalin has subsided; our fears have receded.

30 June 2013.  One of those fires started two days ago happened to be in Yarnell, and today it erupted into the disastrous fire that took the lives of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, the same folks who fought the Doce Fire and, in the process, saved the sacred ancient juniper that may have watched the comings and goings of wildfire for millennia.  I was photographing the aftermath of the Doce Fire when I saw the terrible black cloud rising to the south, so I raced down there and watched from a safe distance as the flames engaged in the chaotic dance of pyrotechnics triggered by an advancing monsoonal cell.  I heard and saw the screaming influx of ambulances and feared for the worst—but it was even worse than my greatest fears.

Two major local disasters by fire in Yavapai County within two weeks.  Sorrow and grieving for beloved Granite Mountain (clearly personified in the emotions of many) and the brave firefighters dominate discussion.

28 July 2013.  Now a month later, our wounds healing with time, we can look at the context of these fires with a bit more rationality—or at least we should.  “Don’t mess with Mother Nature” is a common phrase, and it exemplifies our tacit willingness to shift responsibility to a perceived natural deity rather than accepting an obligation to live our lives as informed citizens of Planet Earth. Continue reading