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.

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

Drought and Dry Humor

A weather forecast of “fair” or “dry and sunny” can get away with a lot.  Rain or snow quickly call attention to themselves, but “another sunny day” can hide the cumulative stresses of drought to those of us whose technology provides us with the water and other resources we need.  The recent fires remind us how stressed the plants are—ready to burst into flame when provoked.

No one can deny the magic of water.  After months of prolonged drought, the plants are so dry that you hesitate to touch them for fear they will disintegrate in your hand.  Rub your hand over a patch of moss, and it flakes off like dust.  Lizards look parched, desiccated, skeletal.  Frogs are nothing but a vague memory.  Leaves have dropped from some of the oaks, a necessary sacrifice if they are to make it through the period of stress.

Drought is worse than it generally cracked up to be.

Drought is worse than it is generally cracked up to be.

When drought persists for months, you stop expecting rain.  Your skin cracks, your nostrils crust with blood, and there is a constant taste of salt on your lips.   The sun moves across the sky each day, and the shadows echo its passing.  Your own shadow appears less substantial, as if life everywhere has backed off, been reduced to its minimum.  Your cracked lips can barely smile at dry humor. Continue reading

Granite Mountain Ablaze

June 18, 2013.  The anniversary of my father’s birth.  A Red Flag day, according to KNAU, with hot temperatures, fierce winds, ridiculously low humidity.  Fire weather, just needing a source of ignition.

At noon I noticed a plume of smoke to the west and knew this was no “controlled burn.”  Grabbing cameras and a hat, I jumped in the Subaru and headed for Iron Springs Road, only to be turned back as soon as I got out of town.  The fire had started at Dosie Pit Road and had jumped the highway, heading for Granite Mountain.  OK, my vantage point would have to be over near Williamson Valley Road.  I could get up high on a ridge above a housing development to the west of Granite Mountain, and the view should be good there.

View west toward Granite Mt.

View west toward Granite Mt.

Sure enough, Little Granite Mountain was smoking as if she were a volcano, and a towering column of smoke curved over Granite Mountain, casting a strange orange light on its rocks.  A helicopter arrived, hovering over Granite Basin Lake as it dipped buckets of water to drop on the fiery leviathan.  Like spitting into a roaring bonfire, I thought. Continue reading

Burning Desires and Incendiary Thoughts

Horseshoe Two Fire, Chiricahuas

Hot winds batter the landscape, sucking whatever moisture they can coax from desiccated plants.  Record-breaking temperatures challenge the survival skills of wildlife, as they and we wait for the merciful monsoonal rains, should they come in a month.  We wait and watch, knowing that the first plume of smoke to rise skyward could create a blazing inferno defying our feeble but expensive efforts to limit the damage.

Arizona has endured droughts and heat waves before, but there are strong signs that human activities are exacerbating the challenges faced by the more-than-human world.   The summer of 2011 saw huge tracts of forest burn up in the Southwest.  I witnessed the dramatic Horseshoe Two Fire in the Chiricahuas, but in a summer of exceptional fires in both Arizona and New Mexico, that one was just the tip of the melting iceberg.  That was the summer of the Wallow Fire in Arizona (largest in history), the Conchos Fire in New Mexico (also the largest recorded there), the Monument Fire in the Huachucas (which consumed the home and irreplaceable insect collections of one of my friends), and many fires in northern Mexico, where suppression was not even attempted.  More than 2.1 million acres burned, over twice the previous record set in 2006 for these two states.  Megafires.  Unprecedented.  Shocking. Continue reading

When Verde Means Gold

Autumn on Upper Verde River

Just as a migratory bird feels an irresistible inner urge teach fall, so do I experience a powerful restlessness satisfied only by ignoring my in-box, pushing aside the endless piles of papers begging to be shuffled, and taking off to some quiet corner of nature when I can embrace the changing of the seasons with full attention.

Autumn hasn’t been waiting for me—the aspens have scattered their yellow coins already up at Mt. Francis, and the maples have displayed their crimson badges at Mingus Mountain without my approval.  I am not teaching my Interpreting Nature class this fall, which usually provides me a legitimate excuse to get out there.   Thus, if I am not to miss the whole gaudy show of carotenoids, anthocyanins, and other pigments, I have to seize the moment, and yesterday afternoon I did just that. Continue reading

Granite Dells & the Lakes

Granite Dells and the Lakes—Central to Arizona

In Arizona, a state noted for natural wonders, Yavapai County stands out.  Prescott’s physical environment—pine forests, chaparral, pinyon-juniper woodlands, grasslands, dramatic rock formations, and wetlands—is one of the reasons it is called “Everybody’s Hometown.”  Watson and Willow Lakes in the Granite Dells dominate this landscape.

For the entire month of June, the Prescott Public Library Viewerie will display more than thirty large (some up to six feet in length) photographs in professional gallery mounts of Granite Dells and the Lakes (Watson & Willow) that stand as the centerpiece of the Tri-city area of Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Chino Valley in Yavapai County, Arizona.  They represent the work of Walt Anderson, acclaimed nature photographer, and Joe Phillips, master printer.  A reception open to the public is set for Wednesday, June 6, from 5:30-7:30 pm at the library.

This site presents an expanded tour of the content and images, with bonus photos and text added, but it cannot replace the impact of seeing the images in live time.  Please try to visit the exhibition.  Images are for sale from the photographer (geolobo@cableone.net or 928-445-7470), and other images and sizes, individually and lovingly printed by Joe, can be created for your needs.  Here is the price list with images.

This exhibit celebrates our natural heritage and urges all citizens, including decision-makers, to prioritize protection and wise stewardship of our great natural assets.  Right here, right now, in the heart of this watershed, we must act to keep what we love. Continue reading

Where do Toe-biters go when it Rains?

Where Do Toe-biters Go When It Rains?

Floodbug

Curiosity is a well-known field mark of a naturalist, and I have learned to indulge my curiosity when an opportunity arises.  Some years ago, I stayed with friends in the Chiricahua Mountains of SE Arizona, one of the dramatic “sky islands” of the Southwest.  Back in the cooler, wetter Pleistocene, the forests marched across the valleys, allowing free commerce for animals and plants among the ranges.  As conditions warmed and dried, the forests retreated to higher elevations, trapping survivors on habitat islands.  Continue reading