Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Rain, the Birds, and the Horse Lubber

It’s 4:15 a.m. on Monday morning and I am sitting here in the dark outside on my patio trying to wake up. This is bird survey morning and it’s been so long since I have gone. We took the first part of the summer off, and then I was unable to attend July’s survey. Now, as I sit here sipping my tea waiting for all the circuits in my brain to start firing I listen to the haunting sound of great-horned owls hooting in the distance. The earth is still and dark and scented with the sweet smell of creosote. It must have rained at least a little during the night. A waning moon is playing hide and seek with the clouds and the clouds are winning, for very little of the soft pearl light is making it to earth. I finish my tea and head inside.

It’s starting to sprinkle by the time I head out the door. Rain drops spatter on my windshield. We rarely get this kind of rain here in Tucson. Usually it is the downpour of a thunderstorm. I drive in and out of showers all the way to Sabino Canyon. The clouds are snagged on the jagged peaks of the Catalina Mountains. Now a steady, but light rain is falling as I park the car and walk over to meet my companions. Peggy, Pam and Jean are already waiting for me with umbrellas. Though it is raining it is still warm and I am dressed in a light cotton sweater and shorts. My wide-brimmed birding hat protects my face from the rain as we hike a mile and a half into the canyon. I did not bring my camera and I am glad, for it would have been difficult to keep it dry in this steady rain.

Sabino Canyon 3-5-08

Everything has grown so much since I was here last. The canyon slopes are covered in lush green vegetation. Red rocks jut from green mounds of life, but the birds are few and far between. Usually we are serenaded by bird song as we hike in. Today I have not seen one yet. We finally arrive at our start point and there sitting atop a velvet mesquite tree a varied bunting is waking up the dawn with its song. It is our first bird of the day. As I raise my bins to get a better view I realize what will be a perpetual problem for the day-my lenses are speckled with rain drops, and though I wipe them dry, the lenses soon fog from the warmth of my eyes. I try a strategy of covering the eye pieces with my sweater, which I have removed because I was too warm, but this only partially helps. We hike through knee-hi wet grass on the lookout for snakes and start our survey.

The lesser goldfinches are out in force, but the rest of the birds all seem to be hiding from the gentle rain fall. As we stumble over boulders along the creek bed the towering trees are silent. All the rocks glisten from the wetness reveling their myriad colors and tints. We’ve seen a cardinal or two, an Abert’s towhee, and then a Cooper’s Hawk, but we’ve only seen one white-winged dove and Jean speculates that they are already starting to migrate. Down by the dam where the humming bird feeders are set up for the humming bird monitoring station we find Broad-billed Hummingbirds and some sparrow species we are unable to identify as it skulks about in the deep vegetation. Giant reeds have overgrown here creating the feeling of a jungle. These are an invasive plant and an eradication plan is scheduled for this area soon.

South of the dam we reach our finish point. I stumble on the Bermuda grass covered dunes when I step in a hole hidden by this invasive grass. It has rained for most of the three and a half hours we have been out here and everything about me is wet. My feet are wet. My shirt is wet. My arms and legs and face are all dripping. It’s muggy and steamy and I just want to be dry again, but we still have at least a half a mile hike out of the canyon. As we head down the dirt trail and we draw near the visitor center we see the power lines pegged with doves. I count at least fifty of them strung across the sky, but most of them are mourning doves with a couple of white-wings thrown in. We part ways at the visitor center and I hurry to my car where I have dry shoes and a dry shirt to change into. Then, it’s a 30 mile drive back home.

Sahuarita Road looking west 8-25-08

The farther south I travel the clearer the skies get until soon I am driving in bright sunlight. But gray clouds still billow overhead, threatening still more rain. As I turn onto Sahuarita Rd I keep my eyes open for these large black grasshoppers Gus and I encountered yesterday on our way to town. We were driving out of our neighborhood when I saw them moving across the road. All I knew then it that they were large and black and I wanted to know what they were, so, though we were anxious to eat I made Gus turn around and go back. I had to know what they were.

Gus stopped the car and I jumped out, but before I could cross the street I had to wait for other traffic to pass. By the time I got to the insects they were all dead, crushed by the tires of the other vehicles. Then, I saw movement farther up the road and I ran up there to see these large black grasshoppers with orange stripes bisecting their heads. Misty green wings lay along their backs and they were walking! Simply walking across the road. They did not hop and they did not fly, despite the obvious wings on their backs.

Horse Lubber devouring its dead kin

Well, I didn’t have the camera with me and our stomachs were starting to growl, so we headed off to eat breakfast in town, but we decided if the creatures were still there when we returned we would get the camera and come back to photograph them. Imagine our surprise when we turned onto Sahuarita Rd. and saw a wave of these insects walking south across the road! There were hundreds, if not thousands of them! Most were crushed by the steady traffic on this prominent east-west road. Yet, still some of them kept on coming, trying to cross this black ribbon of asphalt to get to the other side. Yesterday, when we finally returned from town we were hoping to take a photo of the grasshopper littered roadway. To our horror the road had been scraped and cleaned by the road crews in preparation for today’s rain. But now, as I drive past the same spot a few hundred of the grasshoppers are marching to their death once again. Though I am tired from hiking in the rain and being up since 4 a.m. (it is now almost 11 a.m.) I hurry home to get my camera. I loop back and pull off onto the sandy shoulder of the road and start snapping.

Dead grasshoppers litter the roadway

One of the first grasshoppers I photograph is devouring its dead brother. Grasshopper carcasses litter the roadway, though not in the numbers I saw yesterday. I follow various grasshoppers around the side of the road. A few wisely turn back into the desert and climb the steep gravel ridges created by the scrapers to clear the road of monsoon debris. Then, as I pursue one hopper it finally takes wing and flies revealing bright pink underwings! I am not able to get a shot of that because the flight was so brief and I was caught by surprise but I have the image in my head to enjoy.

Horse Lubber escaping back into the desert

When I get home the photos reveal a very tribal looking insect. While the basic structure is the same for all the grasshoppers, their bodies are patterned differently, as if some in some secret grasshopper ritual they painted their black bodies with fire, sun, and cactus. Now they march out in an army to accomplish what? But, though their bodies are large for the insect world at 3 inches or more, still, their frames are fragile when compared to the crushing weight of a thousand plus pound vehicle. I can’t help but wonder if they will survive this onslaught in, what I am assuming, is their native grounds. Will they march like this forever until they are extinct?

I do not know if these creatures are beneficial or not. I only know that I am captivated by their wild and tribal beauty. They seem to be a fierce creature with those huge mouth parts (sorry Doug, I don’t know what they are called and I am waxing poetic here!) and their ginourmous legs. Their bulging eyes seem to pierce right through me. I don’t think I would like then in my yard, but I am glad to know they exist in the wild. It makes me feel as if we have not quite tamed the earth, yet.

Perhaps the tribal chief?

A bit of research reveals that these grasshoppers are called Horse Lubber Grasshoppers. Everything I have experienced has been documented by others. To read an excellent but brief article about this species go to the Firefly Forest.

Birds Seen in Sabino Canyon today:
Location: Sabino Canyon Recreation Area
Observation date: 8/25/08
Notes: Most of the doves and all of the cactus wrens were seen near the Visitor's center. Part of this count is Tucson Audubon's IBA survey but I include the hike to and from the survey transect.

We had 4 unidentified sparrow species, 1 unidentified grosbeak sp. and 1 unidentified tanager species.

Number of species: 17

Gambel's Quail 5
Cooper's Hawk 1
White-winged Dove 7
Mourning Dove 60
Greater Roadrunner 3
Broad-billed Hummingbird 6
Gila Woodpecker 2
Common Raven 2
Verdin 2
Cactus Wren 4
Canyon Wren 1
Abert's Towhee 2
Rufous-winged Sparrow 2
Northern Cardinal 3
Varied Bunting 1
House Finch 10
Lesser Goldfinch 23

Photographers Note: All of today's Photography is by Kathie using the Nikon D80 and the 70-300mm lens. Grasshoppers and the Sahuarita road photos taken on Monday, August 25, 2008. Sabino Canyon and Cardinal photo taken in Sabino Canyon on March 5, 2008. As always, click on photos to enlarge for the best view.


Deborah Godin said...

Never been to the SW, so this hopper was unknown to me - but what a beauty. I think the tribal descripiton really suits, his patters and colors do remind me of African cloth etc. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathie!

As you know, I am always amazed by your photos and writing. Anyway, I think your blog would make an excellent book! Have you seen this software?

It takes the photos and content from your blog and helps you create a book out of them - you should do it :)!

Love, Jess

Kathie Brown said...

Deborah, Thank you.

Jess, I will check out that link. Thank you. I am also heading to a writer's conference here in Tucson next month. I just learned about it and I will send in my registration this week. I'll let you know how that goes. Thanks for the encouragement!

kjpweb said...

Excellent report and photos! Wow, girl - you can write! I wish I could.
Thank you for sharing and Cheers, Klaus

Amila Salgado said...

What a report!
Horse Lubber is such a beautiful critter. Great job of macro.

Pappy said...

Really colorful little bug. Thanks for the info. Pappy

Doug Taron said...

Wow, you got some great horse lubber shots. They are a very common species. Each year at the conference, we collect some to take back to Illinois for live display here at the museum. Most of ours have now done their last molts and are adults. I'm not surprised at your descritions of the numbers. A month ago, when we were out there (has it really been a month already?) we were noticing that they were especially abundant this year. Hundreds were crawling along Ruby Road when we went out to the other Sycamore Canyon. I'm guessing that two very strong monsoon years in a row has contributed to this. They can be serious pests of rangeland.

Kathie Brown said...

Thanks klaus! Writing is my true passion.

Thanks Gallicissa and Pappy.

Doug, I was hoping you would show up and chime in. Thanks for the additional info.

Anonymous said...

That is a sporty looking grasshopper!

Pepper McKean said...

When I was a child, living in the State of Missouri, I use to love to catch grasshoppers. Later my love of grasshopper chasing was passed onto my children. I always thought we had the biggest grasshoppers.

My son and I were driving to Madera Canyon and there were swarms of grasshoppers. I just stopped my car and watch in amazement. There were different varieties of grasshoppers but the one that caught our attention was big and black and feasting. I told my son - "don't touch it!"

We took pictures and tried to identify it. Thank you, we now know what it is. Beautiful post and pictures.


DeniseinVA said...

I have never seen one of these types of grasshopper before. They are really pretty things and are more vibrant in color and markings than our plain green ones. Wonderful post and as always I feel I learn so much when I visit your blog. Many thanks.

Texas Travelers said...

Great post and terrific photos.
Beautiful specimens.
Well done.
Great scenery.

I really enjoyed my visit today. It was almost like being there.

If you are keeping track,
Alaska Sunday is posted.
It's the trip log with some new photos.
To see the post, Click here.
Troy and Martha