Getting your back rubbed, sipping on fruit juice, enjoying the warmth of a summer evening in the desert. Sometimes life is good.
Last year after getting some confidence identifying the more common birds and mammals and reptiles of the Sonoran Desert, I decided to start learning the desert plants. I spent an evening reading up on the trees (there aren’t a bunch, this shouldn’t have been hard) but the next morning I couldn’t remember anything I had read the night before. I was a little frustrated with myself but heard a pleading voice that there had been too much that was new and to focus on the things I had to learn, not the things I wanted to learn.
As a creature of habit I knew Arizona would provide beneficial opportunities to experience something different but also that there was so much different both at work and at home that it might be overwhelming (the pandemic hasn’t helped). So I heeded that voice and put aside the guide books and stuck to familiar nearby parks rather than venturing further afield, trying out trails new to me when I felt up to a little challenge.
This summer has brought a mild awakening in being willing to learn new things, spurred on partially by the giant cactus out front that exploded in blooms after the summer monsoons and brought in a host of small creatures to feed on its bounty, and the butterflies that similarly burst into view at the same time either in our yard or on my beloved trails.
Insects have been tricky to learn but I believe this little lovely is a leaf-footed bug of the species Narnia femorata but take that with a grain of salt, I’m not a biologist much less an entomologist, and this is all new to me besides. While they apparently prefer prickly pear (the neighbors have a glorious patch) a group of them have been hanging out on this big cactus in our front yard, feeding either on the buds and blossoms like here on a rainy summer evening, or on the fruit that grew after the pollinators got to work.
As the butterfly turned and spread its wings into the light of the rising sun, I could see how its wings resembled fallen leaves with uneven edges and transparent sections that mimic areas that have rotted away leaving only the veins. The disguise might be more effective in the forest than the desert where the leaves tend to be rather tiny.
Hard as it is to believe we’re in our third summer at our house. Out front in addition to a saguaro and a barrel cactus is some sort of big beautiful sprawling cactus. I was rather startled in July to see large flower buds emerging as it had sat silent during our time here, perhaps finally getting some decent rain this monsoon season woke it from its slumber. Even better? Like me, it blooms at night!
On a cloudy morning in late July the flowers hadn’t closed up yet so the bees were taking advantage of the new and abundant source of pollen. They seemed to struggle a bit gaining purchase on the flowers, such as this one clinging to the petal tops after clumsily climbing out from the center. Usually the flowers have closed up by the time I drag myself out of bed so I’ve developed a nightly ritual where I go out a couple of times to see the blooms and the wildlife feeding in the dark.
There are moths of course, mostly the little brown lovelies we see around but a couple of nights I saw what I think was a white-lined sphinx month, though I didn’t get a good enough look to be sure. Despite the large blossoms when this massive moth tried to land inside one it reminded me of when our dog Ellie would curl up in a cat bed when they took hers.
Best of all, we had a couple of bats coming in and resting in the alcove outside the front door. Have they been there before and I just haven’t noticed? Also best of all I saw a western banded gecko, while it doesn’t care about this cactus I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t been going out to watch the blooms.
There are still a few flowers each night, mostly up high, and a whole bunch of fruit that some leaf-footed cactus bugs (at least I think that’s what they are) have been gorging themselves on, they stick around for more than just the night so I do have some pictures of them. And though I haven’t seen them, around me I can often hear coyotes howling to each other as they move about in the night. What joy this cactus has brought me, my brother in spirit if not in form.
As summer turned to fall in September 2009, an adult fork-tailed bush katydid dined on one of our rose blossoms. Once I discovered they were eating the rose petals I stopped pruning the flowers after they lost their aesthetic appeal and only cut them once the petals fell off. Which worked out well for both the katydids and myself, as they loved the roses and I loved watching them.
Do Gila woodpeckers eat honeybees? With the sun starting to rise this honeybee hovered over the saguaro blossom for so long that this male craned his neck out and started watching it. If he was thinking about jumping out and snaring it he never did, he stayed at the nest entrance until his mate returned. Which didn’t take long, the pair was pretty amazing to watch, even before sunup they were constantly bringing food back to the nest. I don’t know if they eat honeybees or not but there is an ample supply nearby when the saguaros are blooming.
Another picture from 2011 and from another place near-and-dear to my heart, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. This white-breasted nuthatch had snared a multicolored Asian ladybeetle (not native to the Pacific Northwest, I don’t think I ever saw a native ladybug in our many years there). While nuthatches do eat insects this meal I suspect was destined for the hungry maw of the babies in the nearby nest. I wish the picture had more depth of field but I was shooting as wide open as I could since I had forgotten my tripod at home and the light was dim under the canopy so I needed as much speed as I could muster.
I wonder if these two grasshoppers thought their end was near when this sooty grouse suddenly loomed large, as they are one of the insects grouse like to eat, but the bird paid them no heed as it sauntered through the mountain meadow. Taken in the fall of 2014 on my last visit to Mount Rainier National Park.