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
Rufous –crowned Sparrows, Crissal Thrashers, finches, towhees, and even woodpeckers—they all drank from our little pools in apparent harmony. Continue reading →
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
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 →
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 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 →
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.
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 →
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 →
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 →
No, I am not going to pontificate on the NCAA basketball tournament in progress, though the testosterone-driven excitement around the games certainly parallels the changes that I see in the hummingbirds in my yard. Anna’s Hummingbirds have been chasing each other around like ballistic missiles with hyperdrive all month. When a surprising snowstorm raged through Arizona in the final two days before the vernal equinox, it was shocking to see zipping flashes of hot pink though the snowflakes. When I would replace a feeder of frozen nectar with fresh liquid, the feisty little birds buzzed my head as if annoyed that I was not out there at the crack of dawn with sugary elixir. Patience is not a hummingbird virtue. Continue reading →
A blustery stranger arrived unannounced on Friday. The day dawned clear like so many others. By 11 as I drove home from the college for a quick lunch, the unexpected guest had arrived, leaving the door open so that its forceful breath whipped up whitecaps on Watson Lake. Dust and leaves swirled in its powerful exhalations. Low clouds streamed over the rounded crests of the Bradshaw Mountains. Winter had suddenly returned to Arizona. Continue reading →
Another summer has slipped over its equinoctial belt—its pride hath gone before the fall. And so it is for me, veteran of many celestial cycles. Basted over the coals of another Arizona summer, I am, at the very least, well-seasoned by now. Continue reading →