Introduction to Desert Journal

Saguaro and Stag Horn cactus behind fire place
Some of you have visited us in Tucson; some of you have traded gardening information and trials and tribulations with me; there are our birder friends and family who I email on what we are seeing; a couple more of you enjoy nature and its plants, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals and so on.  However most of you have never lived in a desert.  This is our journal of everyday happenings in our part of  the Sonoran Desert which Tucson lies within.
One of the first things you must know is the Sonoran Desert is almost not a desert.  The Sonoran Desert receive up to 13 inches a rain a year.  After a couple of visits Nancy made the following statement, “Something is always blooming in Tucson”.  And she is right.  I had never seen the desert through the eyes of a non-desert native and only am now appreciating just how drop dead beautiful our desert is day after day.  No, we don’t grow a lot of garden variety plants like snap dragons and gardinas but we have our desert small flowering and large flowering plants and at least one is blooming every day of the year.
We live in Catalina Foothill #7 about a mile outside the city limits of Tucson and only twelve minutes from the University of Arizona hospital and campus.  All the utilities are underground — no telephone or power poles and associated overhead line.  Each lot is approximately one to two acres in dimensions.  The deed restrictions allow you to do as you please within the walled backyard but all other land must be a natural desert landscape.  Cat 7 subdivision has multiple arroyos (drive river beds) which provide open areas for wildlife to move between houses without being seen or bothered by those of us living here.
Backyard fireplace looking east.

To date we have crossed path multiple times with Bob Cats; Coyotes; Javelinas (wild pigs); Jack Rabbits; Cotton Tail Rabbits; (small) ground squirrels; and multiple types of birds, reptiles, and insects.  We have dug tree and plant holes through rock and caliche — a natural concrete type material.  We have walked a minimum of two miles from our house in every direction and noted most everything around us on these walks.

Our desert provides us with constant challenges, wonderment and beauty.  Everything written below is why we love the desert and can’t wait for our next morning walk or looking out a window to see what is going on.

Globe Mallow Flower
2014

August 6

Walked out to pick up the morning newspaper and was greeted by two new flowers in the front desert.

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Flowers of Pevuvian Apple
Flowers of Pevuvian Apple (Cereus hildmannianus) in front desert

August 5

Up early this morning and on the road to Madera Canyon by about a quarter of seven.  We arrived and were out on our first trail by eight.  We spent the next two and half hours walking several different trails plus a half hour watching the birds at the bird feeders located at Lodge.

I won’t call it cool but it was very pleasant walking under the canopy of the tress.  Nancy carried her new wild flower book and I carried the bird book.  Five minutes after we began our first walk a beautiful Painted Redstart entertained us for several minutes.  We finally tore ourselves away from the Redstart to continue our walk.

We were walking a stream bed and came across a half dozen different wild flower species.  It was an interesting walk: Nancy looking down for wild flowers and I was looking up for birds.  Who ever saw something the other changed their direction of looking.

We did spook one large mammal.  I heard and then caught a glimpse of a White-tail doe take off and up a stream bed.  The only other mammals we saw were several squirrels.  And one of them screamed at us the whole time we were in his domain.

Our stop at the bird feeders was very rewarding.  We saw a Plain–capped Starthroat hummingbird.  The Starthroat is a rare visitor to Southern Arizona and Southern Arizona is the only place it may be seen in the U.S.  And we are sure we saw it because there was a birding group at the feeders and their bird guide verified what we saw when I asked him.

P.S.  Shortly after we returned to Tucson I was in the yard watering plants.  I walked over to the fountain to fill it up and I saw the tail end of one of our pet King Snakes in the fountain.  It quickly slid away and when I looked for it, it had disappeared in the plants surrounding the fountain.

August 3

 

The smaller of the two King Snakes was out hunting for food this morning.

King Snake
Note the King Snakes head is coming out of the 8x8x16 concrete block and its tail is just to the left of its head.
July 28

Today we decided to explore Peppersauce Canyon which is about an hours drive from our house and is on the backside of the Catalina mountains and Mount Lemmon. This was a wild flower and birding expedition.
Nancy walking the back road to Mt. Lemmon
Nancy walking the back road to Mt. Lemmon
Pepper

These are wild flowers and plants we stopped to look at as we drove to Mt. Lemmon. The road was very passable and we encountered no problems on the drive. It is a slow drive with a hard dirt surface and curve after curve except for the hairpin turns. It took somewhere in the vicinity of an hour an half not counting stops to make it to the top of Mt. Lemmon.
We drove through Summerhaven and pulled off the road and ate lunch. I made one more stop on the way down the mountain to do a little more birding. Nancy stayed in the car to make sure no one tried to steal it.

July 26

Yesterday mid morning I was finishing up the hand watering of potted plants when a smaller King Snake came out of hiding.  It immediately turned around and hid in a bush.

Nancy was sitting in the kitchen reading when I came inside to tell her about the snake.  We both went outside to look under and in the bush but did not see the snake.  I might add neither of us were within five feet of the bush.  Never know when you might have a jokester snake who decides to pop out and scare the whatever out of you.

We decided to return inside and wait for the snake to reappear.  However, before I sat down to wait I went and retrieved my camera from my office desk.  Three or four minutes later the snake came out and we watched as it came up to the dining room SGD, under the outdoor chair, to the kitchen door and then into a flower bed.  There is a large boulder in this bed and my guess is the snake has a nest underneath the boulder.

As Nancy noted, “It is a beautifully colored snake.”

There is a potted plant (or was) at the edge of this flower bed.  Twice in the last three weeks something and most likely a pack rat has eaten the plant to its roots.  Hopefully our new pet will make dinner out of whatever this monster eating plant devourer is.

No this isn’t the snake I saw a week ago.  This snake is only about 18″ long (using the bricks as a measuring stick) vs. about 36″ inches long (the length of the HVAC equipment slab it was in front of) and twice the diameter.

Never thought I would consider snakes as pets but as long as they take care of me and our plants I will do my best to take care of them.

King Snake on back patio.

July 22

I glanced up from my computer screen this morning and saw a mother and two kittens (babies) Bobcats walking across the front driveway toward the steps to the front porch.  I yelled out for Nancy.  No response.  I quickly headed for the bedroom.  I heard the shower, open the bathroom door and said, “There are two baby Bobcats and a mother in the front yard.”  Didn’t wait for an answer but double timed it back to the office window.

The two kittens were now on the front patio porch and the mother was squeezing through the gate to join them.  Nancy arrives dripping water with a towel around her.  We both spent the next couple of minutes oohing and ahing at the Bobcats.

An hour later after feeding the birds and watering the potted plants I opened the HVAC enclosure gate. Before I took a step into the enclosure I froze. A snake. Wait it is black with white strips and no rattle. Its one of my pet snakes, a Common King Snake or Lampropeltis getula. This snake was about two and a half to three feet long and quickly moved to an underground hiding/nesting place. Once my heart was beating normal I watered the rooting cactus I had in a pot, backed up — no I didn’t turn around even though I know a King Snake is harmless to humans — and left this area.
Giant Hesperaloe with flowering stock
July 19

I lied a couple of days ago about giving up digging holes. Took three hours but I dug a hole through caliche with my digging bar in order to plant a Littleleaf Cordia (Cordia parvifolia). This bush is native to Arizona, is evergreen and drought tolerant. However, the best thing about it is the white flowers from early spring through fall. Will post a photograph when it is blooming.
Giant Hesperaloe with flowering stock
July 15

A couple of days ago the Tucson newspaper had an article on wild flowers blooming on Mt. Lemon. We were parked and walking by 9:15. The day was cloudy and at times we were walking in the clouds. It was cool, almost chilly. All in all a perfect day for a wildflower hike.

We spent better than three hours hiking and driving to the next stop to hike some more and look at more wildflowers. Guessing we saw a dozen different wildflowers, half dozen birds including a female Broad-tailed Hummingbird which flew to her nest, and the most beautiful blooming agaves we have ever seen.
One of many flowering agaves
One of many flowering agaves
July 13

Late yesterday afternoon I notice the bud on this cactus. Forgot to look for its bloom last night but early this morning the flower was still open.

July 12

Yesterday I woke up a few minutes after 5:00 AM.  I made coffee, picked up the local Tucson paper in our driveway, fed the birds and it was time to wake Nancy.  She was already up.  Then it was time to leave the house and go get cactus.

We drove out to the North West side of Pima Country/Tucson.  We eventually parked the car and began our efforts to contribute to the success of Save-A-Plant (cactus) at the site of a future housing development.  For about 90 minutes we walked, dug up, and loaded up cactus — 25 Pincushions, three Hedgehog cactus, and three Christmas Chollas.

I only had to remove one piece of cholla from Nancy’s foot.  And I am learning to live with the fifty or so invisible cactus needles I picked up while digging up, loading and unloading, and planting.  Hey, this expedition only cost us $23 not counting gas and $4.75 in quarters for the vacuum to clean the cactus and dirt out of the rear of our SUV.

The monsoon season began on July 3 and today we had about 1/8″ of rain in the early afternoon, another 1/8″ in the late afternoon, and a little bit more after dark.  Turn the drip system to Off and will turn it back on Wed. if we get no more rain between now and Wed.

Pin Cushion

July 11

Nancy and I took a morning walk through the neighborhood.  After rains in four out of the last eight days everything was greening up and beginning to bloom.

Prickly Pear fruiting in our front desert
Prickly Pear fruiting in our front desert.

July 9

With the summer monsoons also comes brighter colors in the cactus and flowers and fruits.

Dug up the second to last Curveleaf Yucca (backyard in front of wall).

As with the others, when pulled out & checked the roots you find multiple (so far 30+) white grubs and at least a dozen weevil.

I believe the reason I have found so many grubs at the roots of the yuccas (over the last three years) is partially due to the caliche.  The caliche begins about a foot below the surface of the ground and is 12 to 18″ thick.  The plants are watered, the water has no place to go and the soil is moist and cool plus there are great roots to eat so why wouldn’t a grub or weevil want to stay and make a home out of my yuccas.

I dug holes for three aloes last year.  It took several days but each hole terminated in desert soil not the caliche.  So far, the aloes look healthy.

I strongly recommend that when planting the Curveleaf Yucca that they be planted in holes at least 18″ deep and if caliche is encountered anywhere during the digging it be penetrated.  With the caliche being penetrated the soil has a chance to dry out between watering and hopefully is less inviting to grubs or weevils.

P.S.  Hector is the one who dug up the Curveleaf Yucca this morning and has begun digging a hole in basically the same location so as to accept the transfer from the (to be subdivided) existing Giant Hesperaloe.  I am semi-retiring from digging through caliche!

Ocotillo on west side of the house
Ocotillo on west side of the house

July 7

While working in the yard about mid-morning I stopped long enough to watch a Cooper’s Hawk soar over the neighborhood.

July 5

We had two hard rains separated by several hours of cloudy skies.  I lost almost no water to run off except for the driveway.  However, there was a lot of wind and I believe the wind help cause our trophy Staghorn Cholla to split.  I have taken cuttings and am rooting.  The DNA of this Staghorn hopefully will produce new Staghorns just as tall as the original.

Half the trophy Stagehorn Cholla is still standing
Half the trophy Stagehorn Cholla is still standing
July 4

It was a cool morning after yesterday’s rain. I was sitting out on the back patio about 5:30 AM with my coffee. I saw a hummingbird, nothing new in this. But, I then realized it had a longer and a curved beak than my normal hummingbirds. In to the house for the bird book — a Black-chinned Hummingbird.

July 3

Reene, landscape designer, spent one and a half hours with me.  She reset the drip system timer for summer time watering — three programs and seven valves — walked the front and back yard discussing what plants to divide and replant or new plants to be bought and planted, reviewed Nancy’s master bath patio and gave us her thoughts, etc.

At the end of our time together I told her we, David and I, may give her a call to 

help out with Dad’s backyard.  She said, “Oh I hope so.  I want to meet the father of my two favorite plant nerds.”

After Reene left I removed the rock in the garage, shoveled out the mounds of dirt, and put the rock back in place.  During this operation I found one dead pack rat and that afternoon the car repair shop called and among other things told me they found two dead pack rats in Nancy’s car — but very little damage from the rats.  Its been reported in the Tucson newspaper that several cars have been totaled by damage from pack rats this spring.  Oh, and how did they get into the garage?  They dug a tunnel under four feet of bricks, then down and underneath a two foot wide concrete foundation and finally back up to an open area four feet away from the foundation and wall!

The summer monsoon rains began this afternoon.  A very good soaking rain.  The desert needs every drop after a multi-year drought.

Giant Hesperaloe
Subdivided existing Giant Hesperaloe and planted here plus two aloes in this space
Twin Flower Agaves
Added three Twin Flower Agaves (in front of photo and green) and transplanted two existing Giant Hesperaloes (behind palms).
June 27

Walking through the master bedroom patio when a Cooper’s Hawk swoop below the olive tree and above the fence and then pulled up at a 60 degree angle to land in the pine tree. Guessing the hawk’s speed was about Mach 1.

June 26

Walking the east back desert and came across this very large bug.

I believe it is the Thasus gigas or Giant Mesquite Bug and is the largest bug in the Tucson valley.

Giant Mesquite Bug

June 25

Walked out to the mail box in the early afternoon and was treated to watching a coyote trotting down the road.

June 23

This morning I was up and out in the backyard with a cup of coffee before 6:00.  All I did for the next hour and a half was re-fill my coffee cup and look out over the desert.

I watched a pair of Cactus Wrens land on the west side of the yard and cross over to the east side while hunting bugs the entire time.

Several times I heard the buzz of a Costa Hummingbird as it zipped passed my head and then put on its air brakes to breakfast on the Lady Slipper flowers ten feet from me.  I watched a Gila Woodpecker as it tried to dip its beak into the pool.  Or at least that is what I thought it was doing.  Three times it tried to hook one set of toes on the side of the cool decking while using the other set of toes to balance on the side of the pool all the while dipping its beak (into the water).  The entire time I am thinking I need to get the master bedroom patio fountain up and running so the birds will have a place to drink and bathe.  Then on the fourth try the Gila Woodpecker’s beak touches the water but comes out with a bug in its beak — more breakfast for the woodpecker.

Notable bird of the morning was a Brown-headed Cowbird.  Nothing spectacular about this bird but it has only appeared in our yard less than a half dozen times.

I am now dressed, coffeed (coffeed: to have consumed enough coffee to move on to bigger and better things), and beginning to water various plants.  Wait a minute.  When did this cactus begin flowering.  The Cory phantha maize-tablensis I had bought last Wednesday and had given a small amount of water yesterday was now sporting 2 inch and half white flowers with yellow centers.  Yesterday morning not so much as a bud and today two beautiful flowers.  The desert and its life never ceases to amaze me.

Two Pin Cushions at the base of two Saguaros
Two Pin Cushions at the base of two Saguaros
Flowers of a Red Hesperaloe
Flowers of a Red Hesperaloe
Cory phantha cf. maize tallness
Cory phantha cf. maize tallness
June 22

Drinking my morning coffee on the back patio. I realize there are two Cactus Wrens with nesting material in their beaks close to the top of our (trophy) Staghorn Cholla behind the outdoor fireplace. I then see maybe a half dozen items laying in a fork of the Staghorn. I watch on and off for a half hour as they build their nest. Five days later — it appears the nest is complete. These birds work hard!
Cactus Wren’s nest in Stagehorn Cholla
Cactus Wren’s nest in Stagehorn Cholla

June 19

This afternoon I was in the front desert moving first of two water hoses when I realized I wasn’t alone.  I looked up and into the eyes of a coyote.  He or she was slowly trotting across our front desert and at one point was less than 20 feet from me.  As it moved left to right across the yard its head and eyes stayed focused on me. The coyote hadn’t been told we went Vegan a couple of months ago so I no longer carry my Bowie knife and run down coyotes for their meat.

June 18

The Pomegranate tree is loaded with fruit.  However, the Fig tree has some fruit but I was expecting more and it is early so I may get what I am hoping for.  Our two citrus trees: one is doing well and growing — the one I replaced two years ago.  The other tree just looks sad.  Probably should have dug it up and replaced at the same time I did the other.

One of the problems of missing the Tucson spring is we don’t get to enjoy the spring flowers but I still have to dead-head the dead flowers when we return.  I started this morning but have another four hours ahead of me.

Now, we don’t miss all the flowers because the cholla cactuses — an 1/8″ pink round flower — and the Creosote bushes– a very small white fluffy flower which the lesser goldfinch and verdins like to eat — and the Wooly Butterfly bushes — a 1/8″ round golden type color (hard to call it a bloom more of a spot of color) are blooming; as is the Lantana, Lady Slippers, Baja Fair Dusters, Blackfoot Daises (although they look poor but hoping an extra dose of water will help — oh what the heck that goes for everything), Chocolate Flowers, Red Bird of Paradise, Sunset Tecoma hybrid with a nice size yellow/golden flower which I watched a Lesser Goldfinch strip the outside of the flower and eat earlier this week, Anisacanthus Mexican Flame — the Anna and Costa hummingbirds fight over these red flowers — and the Trumpet Creeper Rose has a few blooms left and as for trees the White-thorn Acacias and the Desert Hackberries are blooming but the blooms are so small most people don’t recognize these blooms as flowers.

With all of the above to take care of you would think a plant nursery would be the last thing on our minds.  Wrong!  So far two trips to Green Things and one each to Home Depot, Lowe’s and Plants for the Southwest/Living Stones Nursery.

Flowering Creosote Bush
Flowering Creosote Bush
Cholla flower and fruit behind the flower
Cholla flower and fruit behind the flower
Red Bird of Paradise
Gaura lindheimeri “Whirling Butterflies in Master Bdrm Patio
Tecoma stand var Sunrise
Baja Fairy Duster
Red Bird of Paradise
Gaura lindheimeri “Whirling Butterflies in Master Bdrm Patio
Tecoma stand var Sunrise
Baja Fairy Duster

June 16

While cutting the brown leaves off the Canna Lilies I found a White-wing Dove’s nest with ten eggs.  Of course, this wasn’t the first nest I found.  There are also the two nest — one each for each hanging light on the front porch — and another nest on a rear porch beam protected by a vine.  And then there are the nests in the desert chollas and trees.  I think of White-winged Doves as flying rats — they eat all your bird seed, keep other birds away, and are not interesting.  And then there is their cooing!  Nancy almost went crazy listening to the cooing the first summer in Tucson but now she just tunes it out or maybe that is why she wears earphones and listens to music on our early morning walks.

June 14

I was up and out on the back brick upper deck with a cup of coffee by 5:45 AM and saw my old friends: Gambel’s Quails, Mourning Doves, Lesser Goldfinches, Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, House Finches and Sparrows, Anna and Costa Hummingbirds, Northern Cardinal, Verdin, White-winged Doves and a Curved-billed Thrasher on top of a Saguaro eating one its fruits.

Later in the morning I began water everything — including cactus and Saguaros which are 50 to 100 years old.  It took me eight days with four hoses to complete my watering.

The Prickly Pear seems to be suffering the worse in Southern Arizona (a neighbor’s yard)
The Prickly Pear seems to be suffering the worse in Southern Arizona (a neighbor’s yard)

June 13

Its mid-afternoon and we just pulled into our driveway.  It is hot but a dry hot!

Less than an hour after pulling in I was walking the yard.  The yard was dry!  I called my brother, David, and before saying hello I asked, “What does your yard look like?”  His reply, “Right now everything is drooping but tomorrow morning for a couple of hours it will look good.  You do remember it is summer time in Tucson.”

I will add I have never seen so many fruits on the Saguaros.  It seems as if each Saguaro is trying to out do the Saguaro next to it with fruits.  (Later David and our neighbor, Ed Montgomery, both told me there was an article in the newspaper discussing the unusual number of Saguaro fruits.  No one seems to know why, maybe because of the warm winter.)

Our neighbor’s Saguaro which was the closes multi arm Saguaro to our backyard lost its top.  Have no idea what caused the top three or four feet to snap off.

Saguaro fruit breaking open
Saguaro fruit breaking open
Top of Saguaro that snapped off while we were out of town
Saguaro missing its top
Top of Saguaro that snapped off while we were out of town
Saguaro missing its top

Jan. 16

An email to our birding friends is below:

A few minutes after 12 I walked outside.  I saw a large hawk like bird at the top of the Palo Verde tree in our back desert.  At first I assumed it was Nancy’s Cooper Hawk.  Then my mind began to work and I realized this bird was bigger and a different color.  Quickly back into the house for binoculars, camera and bird book.  Put the binoculars on the bird and I knew I was looking at a Harris’s Hawk.  Then out of the corner of my eyes I saw a second Harris’s Hawk 10 to 15 yards away and lower to the ground.

I saw a single Harris Hawk fly over the next day and then saw three on Saturday — each sitting at the top of the three cyprus trees in our front yard.

The Harris’s Hawk is a treat to birders or naturalist because it is only found in southern AZ or a portion of the Rio Grande River in TX and is the only raptor I know of that hunts in a group.

A couple of years ago we were touring the Desert Museum when it was announced the raptor show was about to begin.  Before the show began it was asked that no one put their arm(s) up in the air because the birds would be flying low — no understatement here.  During the show the audience was told how the Harris Hawks will hunt in groups of two to four birds.

P.S.  Harris’s Hawk neotropical raptors that prey upon rabbits, rodents, snakes, lizards, and birds.  These hawks are social and hunt in family groups.  Most social groups consist of a pair and several non-breeding helpers who assist in feeding the nestlings and defending the nest.  This cooperative behavior is also used to flush and catch prey that is hiding in cover.  Large family groups are observed during the autumn and winter (in Southern AZ).

A Natural History of the Sonoran DesertArizona Sonora Desert Museum

Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)

January 7

I noticed a couple of days ago on my way to pick up our newspapers one of our newest plants was blooming.  I would tell you the name of the plant but I forgot to write it down in my notebook and therefore your guess is as good as mine.  Better yet, this plant and the one next to it have never been attack by any desert animal.

As long as I had my camera in hand I decided to photograph one of Tucson’s winter visitors — the Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens).  The Phainopepla feeds on insects and berries, especially mistletoe berries.  Every winter the Phainopeplas arrive in Tucson just about the time the mistletoe which lives off of and in the local Palo Verde trees begins to produce ripe berries.

Being a very non-professional photographer the photograph doesn’t due the Phainopepla  justice in color and beauty.  I will tell you the bird is a very shiny black with a distinct crest — at least the photograph shows the crest — long tail, and red eyes.  When you see the bird in flight you will see a white patch on each wing.

Winter bloomer
Phainopepla and mistletoe berries in a palo verde tree

January 3

I was barely awake and standing in front of the coffee maker when I glanced out the breakfast room’s sliding glass windows.  My brain was slow but then the light bulb came on.  A bobcat, a big bobcat was in our backyard.  A big silky gorgeous bobcat was on the opposite side of our pool and ever so gracefully walking toward the master bedroom patio.

I yelled out to Nancy to look out the bedroom windows.

I continue to be mesmerized by the bobcat.  Again, I hadn’t even pour water into the coffee maker so it took a couple of seconds before I thought to grab my camera.  I took off across the house to the bedroom.  Just as I pulled up to our bed Nancy turned to me and asked, “Did you see it go over the fence?”.  No, damn it.

Nancy then went on to say the bobcat never changed its pace or stride but took a last step in our yard and then was in the back desert.  She said the bobcat was so incredibly graceful she never noticed it was leaping over our five foot wrought iron fence.  Again, damn it — I missed its leap and didn’t get a photograph.

P.S.  The bobcat (Felis rufus) is primarily a nocturnal and is secretive and shy.  It is a small cat with long legs weighing in at 15 to 22 pounds and for the most part is solitary.  It has broad cheek ruffs on the sides of its face and a very short tail that is blacktopped on the dorsal surface and white underneath.  The bobcat usually has indistinct dark spots on its coat.

The bobcat is carnivores and hunts small prey, mainly jack rabbits, cottontails, birds, snakes and rodents, but on occasion has been knows to take down a deer.  The bobcat hunts by ambush.  Because the bobcat feeds on smaller prey, it usually has to hunt every day.

The bobcat’s home range is only a few square miles, depending on availability of prey.  If prey is scarce the cat may wonder extensively.  Bobcats don’t usually leave kills as evidence of their presence in an area, but they do make scrapes and mark scent posts with urine, often using the same area repeatedly.

A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

December 2013

Dec 25

A Christmas present we definitely need: Pomegranates by Ann Kleinberg.  With our five year old pomegranate tree now in production stage we needed a source of information on how to use the seeds and prepare drinks or dishes with pomegranate seeds.

Dec. 22

I decided to vacuum out the SUV about mid afternoon.  I leave the house and after driving maybe a quarter of a mile I have to stop for a javelin crossing.  There were two adults in the road and another adult plus two youngster climbing the desert hillside next to the road.

I finished cleaning the interior of our SUV and drive home.  About a half mile from our driveway I see a coyote trotting across the road.

All I needed to see was a Bobcat and I would have bagged the big three in our neighborhood in a single day.

December 20

It must be winter in Tucson even though it was 83 degrees yesterday. The fruit trees’ leaves have changed color in the last week.

Left photograph is Pomegranate tree and the right is our fig tree.

December 16

I was driving over to Kent’s house to dump caliche, rocks and dirt I had dug up in the backyard.  Kent has a long dirt driveway that during summer monsoon rains becomes rutted.  I get rid of material I don’t want and his driveway is easier to drive.

As I turn off of River Road there is a lady in her car and I see her pointing toward the hill side.

I stopped, got out of the SUV, walked across the road, and there in the hillside are several bee hives.

Bees and honey in the hill side
Bees and honey in the hill side
Hillside Bee Hives
Hillside Bee Hives

December 15

Another gorgeous day in paradise.  After returning to the house after our Sunday breakfast at the Good Egg; I took the newspapers, a final cup of coffee, my binoculars, and camera with 400 mm lens outside to sit and read.

It was a beautiful blue sky without a cloud anywhere and the temperature was in the very low 60s.  I was wearing a long sleeve shirt and will say one or two more degrees in temperature would have made my sitting even better.  Then again it is difficult to complain about one or two degrees when a significant portion of the country is freezing and covered with snow.

The birds were singing from points all over the yard.  Or at least they were when the hawks were not in the vicinity.  Less than ten minutes after I got comfortable one hawk landed on the fence maybe 15 feet from me.  This hawk flew and landed several times along the fence and wall always looking around for the lone bird which hadn’t taken off when the hawk arrived.  After three or four minutes the hawk launched and flew off.

It usually takes less than five minutes for the birds to return after a hawk leaves and so it was the case this morning.  It wasn’t ten minutes later when I heard no singing but lots of wings flapping and looked up to see two hawks flying 30 feet above the yard but they didn’t stop.

After an hour of newspaper reading I decided to put aside the papers and walk through the desert.  For the most part I spent the next 30 minutes walking outside our fenced in backyard in what I call the back desert.  I checked on the all the plants we have planted in the last five years, gave thought to what I want to plant this coming spring/summer, checked on the Christmas Cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis) to see if the fruits had turned red — the reason for the name Christmas — and no they haven’t as of this morning, and gave thought to planting another tree so as to block out the view of a house a mile or so away.

I also had fun taking photographs of the Gambel’s Quail which were running all over the back desert.  Then it was the Curved-billed Thrasher which hides beneath cactus and desert plants.  Am still trying to take the perfect picture of a Cactus Wren and although I pushed the shutter button multiple times this morning I was unsuccessful in capturing the Cactus Wren in all its glory.  And to conclude the morning photography exercise two ground squirrels arrived.  The ground squirrels are difficult to capture a good image because they never stay still for more than a second or two.

Gambel’s Quail
Gambel’s Quail
Curved-billed Thrasher
Curved-billed Thrasher

December 5

Rain for us in the valley and snow for Mt. Lemon.

Late afternoon and I heard the far bird feeder snapping shut.  This bird feeder only opens for birds with a specific weight such as Northern Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, etc.

Storm blowing in
Pyrrhuloxia
Storm blowing in
Northern Cardinal
Northern Cardinal
Pyrrhuloxia

December 3

Ted and crew showed up this morning to add additional outdoor ground lighting and fix a group of lights not working.  I gave them a hard time: they were all wearing tee-shirts under sweatshirts with their shorts.  This is about as close as we get to the layering affect of clothes in Tucson.

Eventually they laid a new set of wires to the non-working lights.  Best guess is one of the burrowing animals must have bit through or at least nicked the original wire — hope the damn animal got electrocuted.

The advantage of getting up early — sunrise
The advantage of getting up early — sunrise

December  2

This morning was one of my many mornings where I work in the yard for several hours but can’t remember what kept me busy.  I do remember I spent an hour or so in the back desert shoveling dead cactus, etc. from a rat nest into a large nursery plastic pot and then dumping it into the garbage can.

November

 

November  25

Most of the non-desert readers probably thought I had gone over board on my last post.  However, this morning’s PBS they noted: (a) Officially Tucson received 2.10″ of rain over a 72 hour period, (b) this is the only rain we have received so far this month and no additional rain is expected this month, and (c) unless more rain shows up this Nov. will be the 7th wettest Nov. in Tucson history and the wettest since 1931.

Yesterday under a cloudy sky and almost cold temperature I finished digging the three holes and planted the three Orange Flame Aloes (Aloe dawei).

Orange Flame Aloes

November 22

Rain, damn I forgot what rain looks like in Tucson but it is raining this morning.  No sunshine and when you go outside it is cold, only 63 degrees and its 10:30 in the morning.  Ah, but it is so great to see the ground wet.  I know the desert is soaking up the rain for I already been outside to check on our rain gutters and to look for any rain run off on our house lot.  The more rain water I can keep on the lot the less metered water I have to use out of the faucet.

No continuation of digging holes today
No continuation of digging holes today

November 20

I was out at the far bird feeder filling it with a special bird seed blend for cardinals, phainopeplas, pyrrhuloxias, and hopefully grosbeaks.  Have never seen a grosbeak in our yard or for that matter in Arizona.

Anyway, I had filled the feeder, had turned around taken one or two steps and every bird around me takes off.  Typically I can move around and most the birds give me 10 to 15 feet of room but otherwise ignore me.

Before I can take a third step, swooping low and I am talking low like knee high, here comes one of the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk.  It was less than 15 feet from me as it weaved between the cholla cactus looking for breakfast.

November 19

 

You are never done digging holes when landscaping in Tucson.  We had a couple of yuccas die in the last four to six months due to either over water or grubs or a combination of the two.  Anyway I have decided to try planting and keeping alive (keeping alive a plant is success whereas other gardeners grow plants and consider the growing a sign of success) three aloes.

Unfortunately another reason for the death of the yuccas was discovered when I began my hole digging — caliche.  The caliche — a natural concrete hard soil made up of calcium carbonate — to my dismay was at least two feet thick.  Back to the garage for my digging bar.  I also brought the water hose over to my work area.  By filling up the hole with water, the water slowly seeps into the caliche and ever so slightly softens the caliche.  Any help in softening the caliche and reducing the bouncing off the caliche surface by the digging bar is a positive in my mind.

The white soil layer is good old southern AZ caliche
The white soil layer is good old southern AZ caliche
Mourning Doves
Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) taking advantage of the water hose to drink out of the pool.

November 15

How do they do it?  Over a week ago while working in the backyard I was preparing to plant some flowers in an almost four foot tall pot.  I pulled out the existing and I will add very dead plant.  Damn, a rat has made a home in the pot.

Background on the pot.  I had added bricks and half concrete blocks from the bottom of the pot to within a foot of the top.  The weight kept the pot from potentially blowing over and created a pedestal for a smaller pot with plant to be placed in the big pot.

I spent the next 15 minutes with my cactus tongs pulling out cactus, leaves, wood mulch, and rat nesting materials from the pot.  I continued this for about a week, every day I pulled crap out of the pot and every night the rat put more in the pot.  I will add on two different nights I put a cube of poison in the pot and the next day the poison was gone.  I am beginning to believe the poison doesn’t harm rats!  Finally I remove all but the bottom bricks from the pot.  Yet the next two mornings there was nesting and protection materials at the bottom of the pot.

Did the rat drop the items to the bottom of the pot or did it jump to the bottom — about 3 feet — and back out?

 

November 14

A week ago I went on line and ordered a half dozen books.  The two gardening and landscaping books have arrived and I have already checked them out in detail.

The first to arrive was: Cool Plants For Hot Gardens, 200 Water-Smart Choices for the Southwest by Greg Starr.  Starr’s book has become a classic and to buy new its roughly $100.  I bought a used copy — “like new” for somewhere around $20.

The book is great and has the same set up on each plant as his book, Agaves (see July 24 post for my brief review).  That is: each plant is identified by common and scienctific name, then gives a brief characteristic description like flower color and hardiness; next is a paragraph titled, Field Notes, these notes are from Starr’s diaries when working in the field; next a paragraph titled, Description, which describes the plant and there is always a photograph showing a mature plant not just a flower or leaf;  then Culture/Maintenance and this heading includes more on hardiness, pruning, watering, and general care; next is Identification which is a very short write up on how to identify this plant from others or subspecies; next and I think a very good paragraph titled, Landscape Application, which tells you where to plant (full sun, afternoon shade, etc.), how to use it in a landscape design, etc. and finally Precautions such as “Resist the urge to transplant from one spot to another”.

If you are new to the desert I would recommend this book before his Agaves book.  I wish I had bought this book when it came out in 2009.  It would have saved me a lot of investigating time on what plants to buy and plant for our Tucson yard.

The second book (see July 7, 2013 post) is Scott Calhoun’s year old book, The Gardener’s Guide to Cactus, the 100 Best Paddles, Barrels, Columns, and Globes.  I also bought a “like new” copy of this book for only a couple dollars and shipping cost.

Again, this is a book I wished I had when I began my landscaping adventure.

Both of these books have the Tucson gardner in mind — both authors live in Tucson.

Planted this Curiosity Cactus (Cereus peruvianus monstrous)4.5 years ago. It 4.5+ ft high and they can grow as high as 15 feet
Planted this Curiosity Cactus (Cereus peruvianus monstrous)4.5 years ago. It 4.5+ ft high and they can grow as high as 15 feet.

Nov 12

This morning while reading the papers with a cup of coffee within reach out on the upper deck I saw movement in the back desert.  I looked up and watch a ground squirrel scamper over to one of the barrel cactus, climb up on top of the barrel, make breakfast out of one of the barrel cactus’s fruits, and take off out of my sight.

I am beginning to believe rats may not be my only nemesis in attempting to grow plants in the backyard.

October

Oct 26

Its about 4 in the morning.  I am not asleep but not awake.  Nancy says, “There is a skunk in the patio.”  I am now awake and I don’t know about the skunk being in the patio but it sure as hell has lifted its tail and spray something.  I get out of our bed and turn on the patio floods — no skunk.  I walked to the kitchen, turn on more lights, carefully survey the backyard — no skunk, and open the sliding glass door.

The smell is less but the breeze is blowing from the bedroom side of the house towards the kitchen so I am in no doubt about what I am smelling.  I take a few steps onto the patio but see nothing.  Back to bed.

The next morning I checked outside the patio iron fence but see nothing resembling a dead skunk.  However later in the morning I saw Ed, our neighbor, working in his yard.  I told him if he saw a black cat and should its tail be white to get the heck out of Dodge.

P.S.  The Sonoran Desert has four species of skunks: spotted skunk, striped shank, hooded shank and hog-nosed skunk.  All skunks are omnivores and opportunistic feeders.  They eat anything from beetles, grubs, and grasshoppers to rodents, birds, carrion, seeds, and fruit.  Skunks snuffle around or dig in the ground, turning over rocks, logs, and debris looking for insects, lizards, bird eggs, and so on.  They hunt for mice and also search for fruit.  The hog-nosed skunk uses its long snout to turn up leaf litter as it searches for worms, grubs, and insects.

Skunks are nocturnal creatures famous for their ability to spray a fluid so noxious that it can stop a predator in its tracks.  The only major predator skunks have, aside from humans and automobiles, is the Great Horned Owl, which has almost no sense of smell.  Skunks usually have enough fluid for five or six volleys of spray, which they can shoot up to about 12 feet.  Their bold black and white patterns, easily seen at night, function as warning coloring, advertising the skunks’ malodorous capabilities.

A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

October 24

This is a story from my brother.  He was in the backyard planting a couple of new plants.  He saw 8 — 12 small holes around where he was working.  He assumed these were holes dug by one or more tarantulas and gave it no more thought.

He is now down on his knees scooping out the last loose bit of soil when — damn, there is a tarantula walking up my arm.  He said his first reaction and he thought best was to fling his arm out toward the hillside below him.  Sure enough the tarantula went sailing.  David said I know tarantulas are non-threatening to humans but there is something about tarantulas that gives me the shivers!

The hummingbirds hit on these flowers all day
The hummingbirds hit on these flowers all day.

Oct. 23

After putting out 20 plus cubes in two nights and waking up each morning to finding them all gone, this morning I also found a dead mouse/rat laying next to Nancy’s sawed off kale — YES!

P.S.  Bad news is the following night I put out 11 more cubes and they also were all gone the following morning.

 

Oct. 20

Nancy is now (and probably before) on my side of the war with all the plant eating animals we are feeding.  She planted a half dozen kale plants in her garden yesterday.  This morning there are maybe three stems left.

Bought poison cubes and will begin spreading them through out the backyard this evening.

 

Oct. 17

I am in the garage doing something important I sure when I hear the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk screaming.  First scream didn’t mean much to me but by the fourth or fifth I decided to investigate.  I walk through the kitchen toward the sliding glass doors to the backyard and stop.  The hawk is on the back wall and lets out another scream.  I realize the hawk is not standing but is sort of leaning with one leg higher than the other.  Ahh.

Picked up binoculars and put them on the hawk.  Sure enough there are two birds on the wall.  Unfortunately the second bird is a Mourning Dove that is no longer alive.  I slowly walk out the door and begin taking photos with my IPhone.  Then I switch to movie.

The Hawk stops screaming and begins de-feathering the dove.  Feathers are flying and I would not get them all out of the pool for two or three more days.  I am now standing at the edge of the pool and the hawk is 15 – 20 feet on the other-side of the pool on the back wall.

The hawk has removed enough feathers to begin dinner (its about 5:20 pm).  The hawk enters into the chest cavity of the dove at about the bottom of the dead dove’s neck and beginning of its chest cavity.

Finally about 35 minutes after I first saw the hawk it took off with the remainder of the dove in its talons.

 

Oct. 15

I was reading the morning papers on the back porch when I heard all the birds fly off.  A few second later four coyotes appeared.  They all look healthy and well feed.

As they trotted by I yelled out, “Take a mouse, rat or rabbit with you.”  The first three didn’t even turn their heads toward me and the fourth gave me a quick “drop dead” look.

October 13-14

I spent four plus hours each day watering the cactus in our yard.  The multi-year drought, 39 straight days of 100 degree this summer, plus two out of the last three unusually cold winters (hit a low of 18 this passed Jan.) has stressed not only our cactus but all the cactus in southern Arizona.  Hopefully we will get an above average rainfall this December (avg. Dec. rainfall is 1.05″) — our wettest month other than the monsoon months.  Also it would be great if we didn’t have any long (anything over four hours is long for Tucson) below freezing days/nights.

Front desert and our house in background
Front desert and our house in background

Oct. 10

Yolanda who cleans our house and also checks on it while we are gone arrived about 9 this morning.  I knew she had a story for us because Bonnie, my sister-in-law, had already given me the high lights.

It seems Yolanda was standing in Nancy’s garden with the hose watering.  Her youngest was with her and said something along the lines of, “Mommy, snake”.  Yolanda said one of the games they play is pointing at things to name them but sometimes just to see if they can scare each other.  She doesn’t look.  A half minute late, “Mommy, see the snake.”

Mommy looks down and slithering across her shoes is a snake.  Good news for us she didn’t have a heart attack.

She immediately calls her husband, Hector, who helps with the yard and also checks on the house.  He calms her down and asked the color of the snake.  Yolanda replies, “black”.  Hector tells her if it is black it is a King Snake, nothing to worry about, and don’t kill it because King Snakes are Tom’s pet!  Only a true friend would say something like this and it goes without saying a husband also would say it.

October 9

Working in the front yard when one of my favorite birds caught my attention.  I looked up just in time to watch a Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) fly into its nest.  The opening of a Verdin nest is at the bottom not the top.  The nest is baseball in size and shape with the opening at the bottom so the Verdin must fly up and into the nest.  The nest is used not only to raise young but to sleep in.

The Verdin is a small gray back and white underside bird.  The top of the head is yellow along with the throat.  The hardest identifying mark to see is the small red patch located at the wing and shoulder intersection of the bird.

Not only is this bird enjoyable to watch as it takes nectar from the flowers in our backyard or hangs upside down to grab a meal but its diet is mainly insects.  Mosquitos are insects and you probably can connect the dots without my assitance.

Verdin ( Auriparus flaviceps) nest
Verdin ( Auriparus flaviceps) nest

October 7

We returned from Africa this past Friday night.  It wasn’t until today I got around to filling the bird feeders.  And then I realized — the White Wing Doves (Zenaida asiatica) have left to winter in Mexico.  The White Wing Doves are my least favorite bird in Tucson — they are big, bigger than a Mourning Dove; they eat a significant portion of our bird seed — sort of like a squirrel with wings — and there are so many you stop looking at birds because it most likely is another damn White Wing Dove.

Note: Doves grind seeds in their muscular stomachs (or gizzards) using sand or gravel much like internal teeth.

The good news on White-winged Doves:  They are important in the life cycle of saguaros.  They are one of the pollinators of saguaros and they spread the saguaro seed.  The seed is spread when the dove eat the fruit, regurgitate the fruit to their young and in the process some seeds fall to the ground beneath the nest where it germinates, and the new saguaro grows in the protection of the tree holding the nest.

August 22

Reene, our landscape consultant, stopped by this morning.  We spent 45 minutes walking the yard and adjusting the drip system.  When I pointed out the gopher plants and a lantana that had been eaten by something, she told me she had just learned these plants are sometimes a snack for Jack Rabbits.  Damn those Jack Rabbits!

I haven’t work in the yard for the last week.  Yesterday I had a tooth pulled and our trip to Africa is fast approaching with many things for me to do before we leave.

Another good rain and I decided to turn the drip system off for tomorrow.

August 17

Early this morning I went out to fill the bird feeders.  The Coopers Hawk was sitting on the fence at the fire place waiting for the doves and quail to show up.  I waited until he tired of waiting and then filled the bird feeders.

August 15

Swimming pool vacuum wasn’t working.  I pulled the vacuum out of the pool and without looking put a finger into the suction point to see if I might pull out whatever was blocking the vacuum intake.  As soon as the tip of my finger touch the blockage it sent an immediate message to my brain which said, “STOP”.  Dang, the vacuum had sucked up a dead mouse.  The only good thing about this incident is I knew the day was only going to get better.

This evening we finally received a summer rain.  Rained for 45 minutes and expect we got almost a half inch — more than all the other summer monsoon rains put together.

August 14

Late this afternoon Nancy called from the bedroom.  Yes, the Cooper Hawk had returned.  Told Nancy this was her hawk because he only shows up when Nancy is using the computer in our bedroom.

August 13

This evening Dad was over for dinner.  The three of us were sitting in the living room having cocktails.  Nancy got up and fetched her binoculars to look at the butterflies taking their own dinner from some of our blooming flowers.

A few minutes later I was looking out at the butterflies when I watch a lizard leap vertically up an inch or two.  The lizard was going after dinner which just happen to be a butterfly.  His leap was short and we had no Disney Wildlife moment.

August 10

I always have a small sense of pleasure when I find a mouse/rat swimming or scuba diving in our pool.  I fish them out and fling them about 25 yards into the back desert and hope something makes a good meal out of them.

I was working at my desk when out of the corner of my eye I saw this Harris Antelope Squirrel/Ammospermophilus harrisii lay down in the shade of the front patio.  About five minutes later is got up and took off.

dead mouse
Harris Antelope Squirrel

August 9

Sometime around nine this morning I was watering the potted cactus in the backyard.  Every ten to fourteen days during the summer I also use the hose to water various plants in the back or front desert.  I had the hose spray on the jet setting and was watering an ocotillo about 20 feet from the fence.  The usual ground birds were around and all of a sudden took flight.  This isn’t unusual.  I may have spooked them, a hawk may be in the vicinity, and sometimes the birds just take off.

However, today was different.  The birds flew and ten seconds later a smallish coyote causally walks up to where the water is landing.  It stands there for a few seconds letting the water spray land on it.  It then walks under the spray and a few feet further, turns it head and looks at me.

The coyote and I stare at each other.  Finally, I say something along the lines of, “What the hell are you looking at”.  Which at this point it trots off toward the arroya.

Finished up installing 30 feet of half inch poly tubing to extend our drip system, planting eight more plants, and running emitters and tubing to each plant.  This was a very rocky area.  The first inch or two I was able to use a shovel but everything deeper required the digging bar or hand pick.  The last two tools are not on my favorites list.

August 8

Walked out on the back patio and the first thing I saw was: DESTRUCTION.  Don’t know what decided to attack this specific pot but it pulled out the cactus and either ate it or took it back to its nest.

This afternoon I took a picture of one of the Desert Spiny Lizards /Sceloporus magister which frequent our back yard.  Not a pretty lizard.  Large body with pointed scales and all I will say is I have seen uglier Desert Spiny Lizards than this one.

Desert Spiny Lizard Sceloporus magister
Desert Spiny Lizard Sceloporus magister

August 7

Bad news for the front desert — five foot plus high by five foot wide Santa Rita Prickly Pear/Opuntia santa-rita died.  How do I know it is dead because it has fallen over on its sides and various limbs have split/fallen off of the main trunk.  I am guessing this cactus was 40 – 50 years old based on its size and location in the yard.

I will cut off the deepest purple colored pads and root them in a couple of plastic nursery pots filled with cactus/palm tree soil mix.  After they have rooted I will transfer them into our desert landscape.

Santa Rita Prickly Pear that has fallen over — dead
Santa Rita Prickly Pear that has fallen over — dead

August 6

While doing our morning two mile walk (three or four times a week no later than 6:30 start time) Nancy pointed out two dead tarantulas.  They were on the road and appeared to have been slower than the car they were sharing the road with.  I am assuming these were male tarantulas because the females stay close to or in their vertical holes whereas the males go hunting for a female to mate in August and September.

It never ceases to amaze what the various animals in the neighborhood will eat.  I planted two small Sea Urchin Agaves/Agavi strict – Salm-Dyck in the front desert two days ago.  Today I added a chicken wire cage around the plants because the larger of the two lost almost a third of its needle-like leaves to a hungry critter.

August 5

I was in the master bedroom patio feeding/filling bird feeders when I saw something walking across the desert that wasn’t a bird — it was a tarantula.  Nancy was in the bedroom so I called to her and we found the tarantula hiding beneath a creosote bush.

On our way back into the yard Nancy point out the olive trees/Olea europea were fruiting.  We have four very large olive trees spaced along the west side of the house.  These trees most likely were planted when the house was built 40+ years ago.  This was a very common tree to be planted when I was growing up in Tucson — low water needs, heat resistant and a fast grower.  The city put a ban on olive trees since 1988 due to the nuisance pollen and the allergies created by the pollen.

tarantula
Olives
Olives

August 4

I was up early this Sunday morning and after feeding the birds took a quick walk through our back desert (the desert area behind the walled in backyard).  The Beaver Tail Prickly Pear/Opuntia basilaris has fruited.  These fruits make a good tasting juice for a margarita or jelly.

For the first time I noticed this very new or young barrel cactus.

About eight in the morning we got a 15 minute shower.  Not saying this shower brought out the Rain Lilly bloom but I don’t remember seeing it in the yard yesterday.

This fruit I found on the ground and something has been snacking
Very young barrel cactus–about 3″ across and 2″ high
Rain Lily in bloom in backyard
This fruit I found on the ground and something has been snacking
Very young barrel cactus–about 3″ across and 2″ high
Rain Lily in bloom in backyard

August 3

Nancy was out in the garden checking on her squash plant and guess who appeared but our King Snake.  She saw it leave the plants on the south side of the garden and move up against the short wall and under the squash plant on the north east side of her garden.  Best we could tell it is recovering and any netting that may still be around it is not slowing it down.

August 2

This morning Nancy and I took a two-mile morning walk in the neighborhood.  As we left the house I pointed to one of our barrel cactus and noted it was ready to bloom.  Later that morning I was in the front desert and realized the barrel cactus now had three blooms open.  Things in the desert seem to move fast or not at all.

On one morning walk I counted 56 White-winged Doves.  This morning’s walk set a personal best for us on the number of White-winged Doves in a single ocotillo — 11 doves.

Barrel cactus in front desert
Barrel cactus in front desert
11 White-winged Doves sitting in an ocotillo
11 White-winged Doves sitting in an ocotillo

August 1, 2013

There is always something to do in the yard.  This morning began with me rolling up the bird netting I had put over our fig tree to insure we ate the figs not the birds.  Doesn’t help the survival rate of our figs that I have hung two of our bird feeders only ten feet from the fig tree.

Wasn’t more than a minute into rolling up the bird netting when a new job appeared – a king snake was imbedded in the bird netting.  I spent the next hour and a half cutting the netting away from first: a pissed off snake and second: a frighten snake.  OK, the snake may have been frightened the entire time but for the first ten minutes it had its mouth open – nice row of upper and bottom teeth.  Being a person who isn’t overly fond of snakes and seeing those teeth didn’t make be any too happy.

First I cut away the section of netting that wasn’t wrapped around the snake.  Then I went inside, retrieved my beard scissors, back outside, put the bird netting and snake into the outdoor sink, and continue cutting the netting away from the snake.  It isn’t easy to cut netting flush against the scales of a snake and a snake which is curled up in a ball with the non-netted portion of the snake being the outside of the ball.

Nancy and I had to leave and I wasn’t done freeing the snake, or at least I thought I wasn’t.  I put the snake in a large empty plant bucket.  The snake was balled up so I couldn’t see his head.  The size of the snake ball was larger than a baseball but smaller than a softball.

Two hours later we return.  The snake is gone.  I began searching the yard but never found the snake.  I have to believe I had cut enough of the netting away from the snake that it was no longer confined to a u-shape with its head bent back about six inches along its backside but could now stretch out in a flat line and move on to greener pastures.

I wish the snake well and hope it continues to guard our yard against rattle snakes and eats my nemeses the hated pack rat.

Common King Snake caught in bird netting
Common King Snake caught in bird netting
Common King Snake rolled up as I try to cut bird netting away
Common King Snake rolled up as I try to cut bird netting away

July 2013

July 31

Took Nancy out into the backyard desert.  Showed her two pincushion cactus, the Wooly Butterfly Bushes and the Quail Bush I had planted two years ago that were all blooming.  The pincushions are blooming late or not at all in our area of town due to the lack of monsoon rain.  As for the Quail Bush, I thought it had died so to see blooms and small leaves was a pleasant surprise.

Pincushion cactus
Pincushion cactus
Wooly Butterfly Bush Buddleja marrubiifolia
Wooly Butterfly Bush Buddleja marrubiifolia

July 30

About 4:00 Nancy called me and I followed the voice into the bedroom.  She was sitting at her computer but looking out the window.  She pointed and I looked.  There on the fence less than 25 feet from our door was a hawk.  Didn’t take long to identify it as a Coopers Hawk.

We watched and I took photographs for the next 30 minutes as it preened itself and just took it easy.  Finally I had to leave to go pick up Dad for our Tuesday night dinner.  When we returned a few minutes past five Nancy said the hawk had moved over to the fountain and was dipping each foot into the fountain and bring the foot up to its chest to bath.  Dad and I walked to the bedroom but the hawk had left the fountain and therefore we missed it bathing.

Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk

July 29

About 6:30 pm I decided to pop a beer and go outside.  I sat down at the table in front of the outdoor fireplace, leaned back, and took a swallow of my cold beer.  Spent the next hour drinking my beer and watching the desert outside our wrought iron fence.  Didn’t take me long to realize there were more than just one or two Pyrrhuloxias (Cardinalis sinuatus) looking for dinner.  Eventually I counted six – I was able to see six at the same time.  A couple of years ago I would have been over joyed to see one.  I have to give us credit for creating a bird friendly backyard and desert.

July 28

Every month of so I go out at night with a cigar and glass of wine.  Tonight was one of those nights.  After 45 minutes the cigar was done and the glass was empty.  Stopped on the way in and took this photograph.

The Western Banded Geckos congergate at the kitchen window at night because when the lights are on it draws insects which become dinner for the geckos.  This gecko was about 2.5 inches in length and may grow to 3″.

Western Banded Gecko Coleonyx variegatus
Western Banded Gecko Coleonyx variegatus

July 27

After working in the front yard desert I leaned back against the front yard rock wall – in the shade mind you.  Within minutes the lizards and the birds returned.  I think my favorite birds in our yard are the Cactus Wrens (Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus) .  I can watch them for a half an hour and never loose interest as they hop around looking for something to eat and talk to each other or anything within listening distance.  I have to note the Cactus Wren is the state bird for Arizona.

Later in the afternoon I stopped to take a photo of another insect reducer in our yard.  The Sonoran Collared Lizard is a common lizard in our yard.  Will post a better photograph when the opportunity arises.

Cactus Wren
Cactus Wren
Sonoran Collared Liziard  Crotaphytus nebrius
Sonoran Collared Liziard Crotaphytus nebrius
July 26

We attended and of course bought plants at the Tucson Botanical Garden’s Weird Cactus sale. One the plants we bought was Melocactus concinnus. It is fruiting — not what you typically think of as a fruit and no I didn’t try to taste the fruit.

This cactus is a native of Brazil and will have to winter inside our house. Looks similar to our barrel cactuses but will only grow to about 6 – 10 inches in height.
Melocactus concinnus
Melocactus concinnus

July 24

Coming home from Civano’s nursery where I scored two Whale’s Tongue Agaves/Agave ovatifolia and eight flowering desert plants I had a coyote cross in front of me about 100 yards from our house.  The coyote looked very healthy so I have to think he is eating well – hopefully its diet consist mostly of pack rats or rabbits.

Agave ovatifolia was first discovered in the mid-1980s and named in 2002.  There are two known populations located outside of Nuevo Leon, Mexico.  This agave can grow to 3 – 4 feet tall and 4 – 6 wide.  Ours are currently 12 – 15 inches tall and 15 inches wide but with a little summer watering by me they should be three feet in each direction in less than five more years.

The agave every Tuc-sonan knows and I grew up with is the Century Plant/Agavi americana.  For size comparison Wikipedia states the Agavi americana grows to 13 feet wide and 6 – 8 feet high.  I planted three of these in the front desert three and half years ago.  They are about 3’ by 3’ in size and will only get bigger and have produced about 10 pups (baby agaves).

I bought Agaves Living sculptures for landscapes and containers by Greg Starr after meeting him at a cactus sale at Tucson Botanical Gardens.  Starr lives in Tucson, has his own small nursery and wrote a best seller – at least in the agave book section (Amazon shows it as its #29 most purchased book in Cacti & Succulents.).  I expect to see him Saturday at the Tohono Gardens’ cactus sale and am going to suggest he write a follow up book on agaves.  His book only covers 80 different species, cultivars, and hybrids and current thinking is there are about 208 species not including cultivars and hybrids.  If you are into desert gardening this is one of three books you need to own.  The other two are Arizona’s Gardener’s Guide by Mary Irish and Scott Calhoun’s book mention on my July 7, 2013 post.

Whale Tongue Agave in foreground & Mexican Fence Post in background
Whale Tongue Agave in foreground & Mexican Fence Post in background
Front desert looking south east Three Agavi americana
Front desert looking south east Three Agavi americana
Front desert looking across driveway and south west
Front desert looking across driveway and south west

July 23

After spending four hours in the yard and mostly in what I define as our front yard desert – the desert on the far side of our circular driveway – I spotted a Sonoran Spotted Whiptail lizard/Aspidoscelis sonorae.  With all the different lizards sharing our yard I have decided to learn their species’ name.  (I don’t talk lizard and therefore don’t know if they have individual names like Tom, Dick or Harry.)  Good thing Nancy and I bought AMPHIBIANS and REPTILES in Arizona by Brennan and Holycross.

I also will attempt to take photographs of the different lizards visiting and sharing our yard.  Until I do I will borrow the description in AMPHIBIANS and REPTILES: A slim, small to medium (3.5”), brown or black lizard with a long brown to olive-brown tail and six yellow to cream stripes.  Distinguished by distinct striping on neck, relatively few spots on the body, and usually three enlarged preanals (look the word up).

Lizards, together with snakes and amphisbaenians, comprise the order Squamata.  Seven families of lizard are native to Arizona.  The book shows 50 of which three are non-native and one is protected: lizards, geckos, skinks and the gila monster under its lizard heading.

July 22

While working – digging holes and putting plants/cacti in the holes – I heard the sound of a Cooper Hawk.  When I finished what I was doing I looked for the hawks.  There they were in the eucalyptus trees in our neighbors yard.  Both hawks were perched almost at the very top of the 60-foot high tree.

These hawks have nested in this tree the pass two years and before that they nested one year in the large pine tree on the west side of our house.  A favorite meal for a Cooper Hawk is a White-wing Dove and guess what bird in great numbers summer in southern Arizona.

Front desert
Front desert

July 20

This afternoon I went shopping for two Whale’s Tongue Agaves.  B&B cactus has two for sell at $150/ea – my landscaping budget doesn’t have the money.  However, Civano’s Nursery had three in three gallon containers for sell at $39.99/each and with my coupon they agreed to take off $10 each should I buy two or more.

Didn’t make it to the nursery but not due to lack of trying on my part.  About eight miles from the nursery it began to rain.  Then it started raining hard.  And then it came down as hard as I have ever seen it rain in Tucson.  The car in front me put its emergency blinkers on and I could barely make the car’s outline out.  Now it’s hailing.  Cars to the right of me, cars to the left of me and all not moving and off the road.  I drove through several dips with about a half-foot of water but I was a man with a mission.  Less than a mile from the nursery and back to just a rain I notice cars are backed up.  Then I see the power pole snapped at the 4 to 5 foot mark above the ground, the next pole at a 45-degree angle and the next at a 60-degree angle.  Several police cars and one fire engine and everyone is being turned around.

Heck I seen worse rain so I double back about two miles and take a right turn to the east.  Another couple of miles another right turn and at least I am headed in the correct direction to get to the nursery.  Pass through three or four small washes with 6 to 10 inches of water and a fair amount of water on the road.  Damn, a line of dozen cars in front of me and people walking and talking on the road.  Must be 18” of water ten yard wide flowing across the road.  Time to go home.

Called Nancy and she reports the bricks didn’t even get wet enough to change color.

July 16

On our morning walk Nancy spotted a late blooming Saguaro flower. Also saw a Phainopepla (Phainopepla nitens) – similar in size and profile to a Northern Cardinal but all black rather than red.

I have always wanted a photograph of our neighbors barrel cactus and my camera was in my hand this morning.

July 15

While back flushing the swimming pool I spotted a second and smaller King snake.  This snake was in the same area but was only about 12 inches long and ½ inch in diameter.

This evening I spent a half hour or so on the upper brick deck.  I noted the chain chollas had a couple of late blooms.  Also spotted several bats reducing the flying insect population.

Chain Cholla blooming
Chain Cholla blooming

July 14

This morning’s walk began with me taking a photograph of the Octopus Agave/Agavi vilmoriniana.  This agave bloom in March of this year — the stock is the bloom.  It still has a few light blue flowers on the stock.  Birds will land on the stock and eat the seeds produced within the stock.  Like most agaves, the Octopus Agave dies when it blooms.

Octopus agave
Octopus agave
Octopus agave that bloomed in March
Octopus agave that bloomed in March

July 13

This potted cactus in our backyard began blooming this morning.

July 12

One week gone but not forgotten:  Jack was my constant companion while I worked in the yard.  He was always there to agree with any placement of a new plant when asked, to OK the depth of a hole, and always had my back from any potential animal that may want to sneak up on me.

Now, all I have is his collar in my short’s pocket.  Several times a morning I reach in to hold his collar for a minute or two just to let him know how much I miss him and loved him.  Sometimes when the hurt becomes over powering I pull out his collar, put it under my nose and then I can smell him even though he is gone.

July 9

Nancy spotted this cactus in bloom on our morning walk.

I later went back with my camera, took several photographs, and counted 56 open blooms and each bloom is about 2 inches across.

Some of you have heard me complain about pack rats which are actually White-throated Woodrats/Neotoma albigula.

They are very destructive, just ask anyone who had one make a nest under the hood of their car.  Also they will burrow under a brick patio and thereby collapsing the patio and eat anything including cactus that is green.  The two photographs show a nest and a nest I have been cleaning out every other day for the last month.

cactus in bloom
White-throated Woodrat nest across the street from us
White-throated Woodrat nest across the street from us
Cleaning out pack rat nest of cholla cactus brought over the iron fence
Cleaning out pack rat nest of cholla cactus brought over the iron fence

July 8

This morning while watering various plants I walked over to the small wall in front of the oleanders, step up on the wall and took my first step onto the ground.  Out of the corner of my eye I see a snake.  I jump back onto the driveway – a two-foot drop from where I was — and the snake took off into the oleanders.  It was a two-foot Common King Snake.  Didn’t need any more coffee for my adrenaline was much better than any caffeine.

July 7

From one of my emails to a gardening friend: “I ordered Scott Calhoun’s Yard Full of SUN and it arrived early this week.  I don’t read gardening books on gardening and his is a little touchy feely and definitely I am one with the desert.  However, I found it a great book to read.  It is a short book and only requires a few hours to go from page one to 185.”

Calhoun works at the Civano Nursery on the far east side of Tucson.

When visiting this nursery I always try to talk either my brother, David, or Nancy into going with me.  Next its time to pack a lunch for it’s at least an hour and half driving round trip to this Nursery.  However, when we were planting our backyard and back desert (separate by a wall) we went with our landscape contractor to the Civano Wholesale Nursery to pick out our trees which is also an hour and half round trip but to the south of us.

I have complained about our hard soil more than once.  I found it interesting that Calhoun’s list of gardening tools begins with: Mikita 42-pound electrical jackhammer with spade bit!

Standing in master bdrm patio looking east
Standing in master bdrm patio looking east
Potted cactus across from grill
Potted cactus across from grill
Front to back: Angelita Daisy, Chocolate Flower, and Yellow Trailing Lantana
Front to back: Angelita Daisy, Chocolate Flower, and Yellow Trailing Lantana
Looking from SGD in kitchen looking north
Looking from SGD in kitchen looking north
Looking north west in backyard
Looking north west in backyard
Jack

July 5

Jack didn’t get up when I got up.  A half hour later when Nancy got up, Jack remained on his bed in our bedroom.  Before 9 o’clock we have Jack checked in at a local veterinary hospital.  At approximately 12:30 Jack was no longer with us.  I don’t remember ever losing a pet and friend as suddenly or unexpectedly as we did Jack.

Cousin Scott Wood may have said it best, “What a blow, he was such a part of your lives, integrated into the fantastic Tom, Nancy and Jack team, a trio even greater than the sum of its parts, and no slackers there! It’s impossible to imagine anyone seeing you two without asking, “where’s Jack?” and missing his society as much as any humans.

Wish I was there with you and all his old friends and admirers to toast and swap stories, laugh, cry and pay tribute to a hell of a dog.”

July 4

Our yard has become much more bird friendly since we moved in. Yes the bird feeders, birdbath, and water fountain have made a difference. However, the big difference is the vegetation. We have planted many bird friendly plants, bushes and trees. A great majority of these plants provide food, cover, shade, nesting materials or perching places. In the mid afternoon our back porch provides shade and at times I have count more than 20 House Finches and Sparrows, Cactus Wrens, White-Wing Doves and Mourning Doves sitting on the brick patio. It has been so hot that the House Finches stand with their beaks open and wings slightly apart from their bodies to cool off.
Gambel Quail
Gambel Quail
Costa Hummingbird
Costa Hummingbird

July 2

Soaking rain from about 4 am till 5 am.  Had to trade our morning walk for an early morning visit to the vet.  Jack is sick and I was up with a good portion of the night – that’s why I know when it was raining.

July 1

The Tucson newspaper reported for the first time in the history of Tucson the temperature hit 100 degrees or better everyday in the month of June.

Sometime around mid-morning I was looking over the back patio wall and saw a Pyrrhuloxia on the ground hoping around outside the master bedroom patio wall.  This is a bird I rarely see but have set up a bird feeder for it and the feeder only opens to birds of a certain weight.  Hopefully this bird feeder will bring more Pyrrhuloxias, Northern Cardinals, and Phainopeplas to our yard.

June 2013

June 30

Late in the afternoon I called Nancy out into the backyard – rain was coming down.  It only took Nancy about 30 seconds to understand why I had her come out – the drops were very microscopic in size and we probably had less than 200 total drops land on our one acre lot.  No reason to turn the drip system off for a day or two.

June 29

On our morning walk came across an unusual sight.  A White-winged Dove apparently had flown into a cholla impaling itself on two of the cholla’s joints.  I found the bird on the ground next to the cholla with two joints of cholla planted squarely in its chest and belly.

June 28

Sometime around mid afternoon I watched a House Sparrow make four or five repeated dives at the water in our pool.  On the last dive it opened it beaks, took in some water, and continued flying.

House Sparrow
House Sparrow
Misc. Photos
Common King Snake and I might add uninvited. Any snake in our house is uninvited especially before I have coffee.
Common King Snake and I might add uninvited. Any snake in our house is uninvited especially before I have coffee.
Caterpillar
Caterpillar
Yucca located on west side yard
Yucca located on west side yard
yucca
The above yucca’s flower stock is shown in detail above.  Unlike most agaves which die when they develop a seed/flower stock the yuccas go on living and will produce stocks year after year.

2011- The Desert is Expensive: Cost Me a Bottle of Scotch

My brother, David, called and before I can say hello he begins telling me I owe him and I owe him big time.

One of the many things David does is he checks on our house once a week or more.  As he tells the story he stopped by that morning.  He put the hose in the pool to maintain the water level and walked over to the pool skimmer to make sure it wasn’t clogged up with leaves, etc.

He removes the lid, set it on the cool deck and begins to put his hand into the open space just above the water.  All of a sudden it is:  Danger Will Smith, Danger — no robot but self preservation had kicked in.  He yanks his hand back and stares at a gila monster which is clinging to the skimmer equipment.

For those of you are unaware just how scary a gila monster is here are some facts.

“A Gila monster/Heloderma suspectum is a heavy-bodied lizard that may reach one and half feet in length.  The head is large, with small, beady eyes; the tail is short and fat.  The family name Helodermatidae means “warty skin,” referring to the beaded look of the dorsal scales, due to the of osteoderms (small bones) under the scales.  The lizard is bright pink and black, usually in a reticulated pattern, but in a banded pattern in some populations.

The gila monsters are one of only two venomous lizards known to occur in the world…..

Venom is produced in glands in the lower jaw and expressed along grooved teeth as the animal bites.  Once the lizard bites, it generally hold on and chews more of the venom into its victim.  Thought the bite is rarely life-threatening to humans, it may cause pain (does anyone believe the bite and chewing won’t cause pain), edema, bleeding, nausea and vomiting……  Gila monsters should not be handled!

….. In 1952 the Gila monster became the first venomous animal in North America to be afforded legal protection; it is therefore illegal to collect, kill, or sell them in Arizona.”

A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert by Arizona – Sonora Desert Museum

David found a stick, lowered it down to the Gila monster, the Gila monster clamp down on the stick, David walked out into the back desert, laid the stick and attached gila monster down on the ground and parted company with the Gila monster.

David let me know it cost him a pair of undershorts and wanted something for the loss of his undershorts.  The next time we were in Tucson I delivered a bottle of Glenlivet scotch and told David we were even.  He didn’t agree but he gladly took the bottle of scotch.

2009 - Spring

I wake up and look at the clock — its 4:20 am.  What am I doing up?  Wait, what is that noise.  I lay still and hear the same noise two or three more times.

I roll over and nudge Nancy to wake her.  She mumbles something along the lines of, “why”.  I tell her to listen.  Now she is awake.

I tell her lets go find the owl.  We walk to the other side of the house and let ourselves out into the backyard.  We follow the sound to the second level of the brick patio and begin to look hard into a palo verde tree — nothing.

A minute or two later all we hear is the incredibly soft woosh of the owl’s wings as he leaves the tree to continue his hunt for breakfast.

Because of its call and very soft almost non-existent sound of its wing I am going to guess it was a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus).

2008 - a Month or Two after We Bought the House

We typically leave the sliding glass door in the breakfast room open so Jack can go in and out – Jack is on constant lizard patrol in the backyard.  Wednesday night I was in the den and Nancy was in the breakfast room on her Mac.  All of a sudden I hear a scream and the words, “There is a big spider in the kitchen”.  I know Nancy is not a spider lover and almost all spiders are big to her.  I head to the kitchen.  Damn if there isn’t a six inch black and brown tarantula walking across the floor.  I might add I don’t know how it got where it was without walking across Nancy’s bare feet.  I find a newspaper and push the tarantula to its side of the sliding glass door and close the door.

The following night Nancy yells out, “Tom”.  Apparently the tarantula didn’t understand which side of the door it was suppose to be on because it made a return trip to the inside of the house.  This night I take the tarantula to the desert side of our  backyard wall before I deposit him on the ground.

June 19, 2008

Original backyard. Looking east to west or towards master bdrm.
Original backyard. Looking east to west or towards master bdrm.
Original back porch before the roof was raised and new higher and longer SGD were installed.
Original back porch before the roof was raised and new higher and longer SGD were installed.