Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The End of Summer

The End of summer made me weary. The heat and humidity confined me to my house until I was cranky and irritable. However, on Monday a cooler and drier wind started to blow, and I ventured forth once more.

I have noticed an increase in butterflies recently. Pure lemon yellow butterflies flit about the neighborhood, along with beautiful black butterflies touched with spots of blue and orange. Some sort of giant black bee is also getting drunk on the nectar of blossoms, but the best visitors of all are the hummingbirds.

I had not seen many hummers here in the canyon since we moved here in April, but about two weeks ago they started to show up. It prompted me to get out my hummingbird feeder which I attached to a window hook over my kitchen sink. In less than 10 minutes I had my first hummer, a little female green jewel of a bird with a dark bill and a tiny white patch behind her eye. From her fluttering about with her tail bobbing I assume she is a female black-chinned. There are so many possible humming birds around here that I am hard pressed to distinguish them all as I try to learn them. So far I have only seen females, but I am hoping the males will arrive soon. It would make my task a bit easier.

Since hanging the hummingbird feeder the house finches have been trying to figure a way to get at the nectar themselves. I did not know they did this, but they try to land unsuccessfully on the tiny perches. When that doesn't work they land on the hook itself, or cling to the nearby screen. But, even if they can reach the fake blossoms, their beaks are too short and stubby to extract any nectar from the feeder. However, they do chase the hummingbirds away, but not for long.

A few moments ago a tiny green female was perched atop the slender hook that holds the feeder. She sat there looking at me through the glass. I was so close I could have touched her if it wasn't for the windowpane. I marveled at her tiny beak so like a black syringe. She flicked her filament of a tongue out, then drew it back again. Her dark eye was like the head of a pin set into her petite emerald face. Her dove-gray throat blended into her dove-gray breast and disappeared beneath her wings. She fluttered her wings a couple of times, but didn't rise, then scratched her face with one of her tiny feet. As she looked through the window she cocked her head as if trying to understand this world she can see but never enter. Perhaps my window is her equivalent of television!

I am interested to see how the bird populations change here in Sycamore Canyon as the winter comes on. Yesterday I had a rock wren out here on the block walls, its shrill call ringing across the wash as it bobbed up and down in typical rock wren fashion. It is the first time I have seen a rock wren here and I wonder how many more species will be returning for the winter, and which ones will leave, if any.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

The Name of My Mountain

I have discovered the name of my mountain. Behind me like a sentinel stands Mt Fagan. My house nestles with others on his broad shoulders. It is his face I see each morning as the sun rises in the east. In the evenings the gray-green slopes blush in the light of the setting sun. During the monsoon his face was shrouded in clouds or veiled by a curtain of rain. But when the rain passed the craggy face emerged once again, reflecting golden light.

However, perhaps Mt. Fagan will not be smiling for much longer. Even now plans are underway to deface his slopes. The W.R. Henderson Company wants to extract limestone from a site near Wentworth and Sahuarita Rd. according to the Empire-Fagan Coalition, while farther to the south and east Augusta Resource Corporation, a Canadian Company with no mining experience, wants to start an open pit copper mine that will be a mile across and 3,000 feet deep! This mine will be visible from Scenic Highway 83. It will destroy critical wildlife habitat as well as beautiful recreational areas. These mines will add pollution to our air, land and water. These plans will make a mountain weep poisonous tears upon the desert. Mt Fagan will be scarred forever. These companies will take their money and leave their mess for the residents of Pima County.


How much can our fragile ecosystem take?
Where will the Gila monsters go?
Will vultures rise on dusty thermals?
Will raptors hunt the fleeing mammals?
Will songbirds lose their voice in clouds of mining dust?
Will Mt. Fagan shudder with the blasting mines?
and when the Monsoon comes
will poison rain fall on the desert and run
down the washes to your house and mine?

If you want to help please contact or

Mining companies don't understand the voice of the Mountains, so we must speak for them. They don't care for the creatures that fly, hop or crawl. It is not their back yard that will be destroyed, it is ours, and it is not too late to stop them.

Thursday, September 6, 2007


Leaden skies and steady rain await me this morning as I open my eyes. I want to curl back up in my blankets and go back to sleep, but instead I get up and started puttering around. It takes me almost until 9:30 before I came up with the brilliant idea of walking in the rain. Usually when it is raining around here, it is also thundering and lightening—not exactly the best time to be outside, but today’s rain is gentle and steady. I slide on my canvas sneakers and head out the door.

It has been a long time since I have gone for a walk in the rain. While the temperature is cooler than normal, it’s still warm enough to be out in a sleeveless shirt. I head up the road to the end of the cul de sac. On the way I remove my shoes and allow myself the joy of splashing in the water as it runs downhill. I’m not exactly "singing in the rain," but I am having fun.

Farther up the street I return my shoes to my
feet so I can go out to the edge of the desert. There is a spot up here where I can stand on the edge of the world it seems. Before me the desert spreads out wild and undisturbed. To the south are the Santa Rita Mountains, to the west I can see the towns of Green Valley, and Sahuarita. Beyond them the scars from a mining operation are etched into the hills. Immediately before me I can see down into the wash below, the silver gravel snaking through the mesquite, creosote bush, and cactus. Between the brush the grasses have turned green and lush. I hear the laughter of a Gila woodpecker and the inquiring call of a Gambel’s quail. Somewhere the silvery tinkling of a black-throated sparrow is ringing across the desert.

With the cooler temperatures the desert has come alive. Birds are flitting from tree to tree, or bush to bush. There is movement everywhere. I scan the wash for signs of other life. I wonder if there are coyotes or javalina hiding beneath the desert scrub.

The soft rain continues to fall, but it is tapering off. I am starting to see the sun trying to burn through the remnants of tropical storm Henriette. Behind me lies the neighborhood. I hear the strains of a Mexican radio station wafting out the windows of a home under construction. The rain has chased most of the workers off for the day, but someone is working inside a house.

I truly feel like I am on a precipice. Behind me is civilization; before me is the vanishing wilderness. Will the desert survive this intrusion of man? How many rabbits, birds, lizards, snakes and other animals will lose their homes to make way for the human habitations? I can’t but help ask myself, what is my part in all of this, and what is my responsibility? I am so moved by the wildness I see before me. It frightens me even as it call to me. Am I brave enough to wander out there and listen to the desert's voice? Am I willing to learn what it wants to teach me?

I turn my back and head for home with these questions rattling around in my brain. The rain has tapered off. The sun has re-emerged. My skin is slick with rain as I walk home and think.

Monday, September 3, 2007

What I Saw Today

After days of humidity and thunderstorms I awoke this morning to a cool, dry day. The wind was blowing steady from the east as the sun rose behind the mountain. I haven't been out to the desert in awhile and today seems like the perfect day. I eat my breakfast and put on my shoes, but just as I reach for my binoculars the phone rings. It is a friend I haven't heard from in awhile, and so I am on the phone for another 45 minutes. During that time, the sun rose higher and hotter in the sky. It is almost 10 a.m. when I finally make it out the door.

I head straight across the street and enter the desert between the block walls of the neighborhood. The desert is lush and green from all the rains right now. With the wind still blowing steady from the southeast, I have to hold my hat on my head to keep it from blowing to Tucson!

I glance around me at the mesquite and saguaros. Not a bird in sight. Mid-morning is probably one of the worst times to go birding, but I am enjoying the desert. Since it is a holiday I am able to enjoy the sounds of nature without the ringing of hammers and the rumble of machines as they tear up the desert to put in more roads and more houses.

I decide to head down the wash today as I have never gone that way before. It amazes me how the wash seems to meander through deep ravines then level out with the desert, only to cut back deeply into the earth once again. Ahead of me I see a red clay cliff rising 15 feet above me. The bottom of the wash is all gray sand and gravel, but the cliff bank is orange with iron. On top of the cliff sentinel saguaros stand guard. Near the edges I see mesquite with exposed roots as thick as their branches and longer. I read that mesquite roots can go 250 feet deep in search of water. It is hard to believe but seeing these roots today has convinced me. I am careful as I walk, always on the lookout for rattlesnakes, for I have been told this is their mating season, and they are most active now. However, it is not a rattlesnake that I see ahead of me in the gravel, but another creature that I have wanted to see ever since I moved here.

Lumbering over the gravel and rocks is a black and tangerine lizard. Its thick head and thick tail lead me to believe it is a Gila Monster. I am not afraid, but excited about this rare glimpse of wildlife. I regret I do not have my camera with me, but then I remember my cell phone. I pull it from my pocket to take a picture but as I open it I realize the sun is too bright for me to see if the lizard is in the frame. I'm following the brightly colored animal across the wash. He is hurrying as fast as his fat legs will take him. He is almost to some thick brush. I take my chances that he is in the frame and shoot the picture before he disappears. He does not reappear. That was my only chance. Later, at home, I find I was unsuccessful in capturing his picture. Now I wish I had spent more time enjoying this rare sighting, instead of wasting the opportunity in trying to capture its image for good.

I continue down the wash to where the new bridge is going in. On the way back home I walk on one of the trails. I did not see any birds while down in the wash other than a turkey vulture riding the thermals above. Here on the trail I finally spot a cactus wren as it scolds me before disappearing into its nest in a spiny cholla. Farther ahead a canyon towhee alights on a nearby branch. His brownish crest is ruffled at my disturbance to his morning nap. I see a couple of house finches and I hear the lone call of a Gambel's quail. Other than that the only bird I see is a lark sparrow as it flies past me to perch on a distant tree. My birding expedition was mostly unsuccessful, but I can't help but feel that if I wasn't delayed by that phone call I would never have seen the Gila monster.

Tonight is a different story, however. Gus and I are taking Blossom for her evening constitutional. As we head down the hill on the sidewalk we see a dark shape on the gray sidewalk before us. It crawls slowly across the pavement and even from a distance we know what we are seeing. Gus takes the dog off the sidewalk, while I pull my trusty camera phone from my pocket. I creep up slowly to the tarantula and snap its picture before it crawls off the sidewalk. It is a soft fuzzy brown with some black shading. Though it is about the size of a mouse, it makes no threatening gestures with any of its eight legs and I pass by unmolested as it crawls beneath a weed.

I use to be afraid of spiders, but no longer. Tarantulas are also nocturnal and they eat scorpions, so I am quite glad to see this one. I only wish I had someway to bring it home and release it in my yard! I would name it Scorpion Slayer and call it my friend.

Life Is Dangerous, Isn't It?

The brown crickets have continued to invade my yard and my house. Bonnie and Breezy have made it their nighttime pastime to guard the doors and try to catch any cricket stupid enough to enter. They rarely survive long enough for Gus and I to stomp on them, but occasionally they do.

Last Sunday night we returned from our evening walk to find Bonnie crouched in front of the linen closet. She was lashing her tail and patting at the bottom of the door. Assuming it was yet another cricket I opened the closet door to make it easier for her to catch the bug. It was dark and there were some rags on the floor of the closet, so I turned on the hall light and pulled the rags out. What I saw was not a cricket, but a translucent tan colored scorpion about 3 inches long! It turned to face me with its claws lifted and its tail curled over it's back. I am not the screaming kind of person, but I jumped back and exclaimed loudly. Gus came to see, then removed his shoe and squashed the arachnid for me. He said it splattered all over the closet. I didn't stay to see. I was ready to pack my bags and move back to Utah that very night!

As usual, I went to the Internet and did some research. I discovered our scorpion was indeed the most poisonous variety in Arizona, the Arizona Bark Scorpion. It is a creature that likes moisture and is found in riparian areas. It is also nocturnal, and guess what it's favorite food is? Brown crickets! However, no one has died from a Bark Scorpion sting since 1968. I also found out that so far, I am the only one to have seen a scorpion in this neighborhood. So, I am hoping it is a fluke and the scorpion washed down from the mountains with the rains. I was careful to wear shoes at night for a few days, but now I am back to my barefooted habits.

The scorpion unnerved me more than any other creature around here, for it seems more menacing to me. It is small and silent and creeps about in the night, hiding in crevices and folds of clothing. I could call an exterminator, but I don't want to live someplace I have to spray with poison all the time. So, I tried to put it all in perspective: I can live here in the desert with the potentially deadly creatures, or I can live in the city with the potentially deadly criminals. Life is fraught with danger. It is part of being alive. I can try to wrap myself in a safe cocoon, but even then danger can find me. So why not live life joyously and daringly and at least have a story to tell when I'm through.