Saturday, March 6, 2010

Desert Canyons in Late January

On each the last three days of January, 2010 I joined friends for hikes into three desert canyons of southeastern Arizona. The weather is often beautiful this time of year, and signs of spring are everywhere. This weekend, signs of the drought were quite obvious – lack of grasses, completely leafless shrubs which otherwise could have kept a few leaves over the winter, and almost no birds. Flocks of winter sparrows would have been typical, but even the resident Black-throated Sparrows were scarce.

1. Pima Canyon
On Friday the 29th I hiked Pima Canyon with my friend Beth. It's close to where I live and has a nice mix of Sonoran desert plants and birds. Here's a view from the 3/4 mile point before the trail drops to the creek.
Crissal Thrashers were singing at the 1.5-mile point, and a pair of Peregrine Falcons were making lots of noise on the cliffs above. Here is some sea-green crustose lichen on a rock in the shadier, moister parts of the canyon.

2. Mendoza Canyon
Then on the 30th, after a huge breakfast of lemon pancakes, eggs, and bacon, my friends Miranda, Barry, Gavin, Celina, and Mich came with me to Mendoza Canyon near Kitt Peak, southwest of Tucson. One has to drive through a little bit of King's Anvil Ranch and traverse a chunk of state trust land to get there, but during the hunting season they allow people to enter here. This lovely little canyon is most famous among rock climbers who want to scale the difficult Elephant Dome, but the vegetation is interesting, with some of the tallest, most tree-like Kidneywoods (Eysenhardtia orthocarpa) I've seen in Arizona.

We did a bit of our own rock climbing when Miranda spotted this rock arch (upper left).

This is Mich and I just before reaching the arch.

 Here is the whole group after the tough climb, enjoying the view.

There are also some ancient Native American petroglyphs here.

I paused to admire the extensive woody vines of Nissolia schottii, Schott's Yellowhood in the pea family. It's known only from Pima and Santa Cruz Counties in Arizona in the U.S. (also in Mexico).

Miranda was amazed at the pockets of greenery in this otherwise stark, dry landscape. Here is the fern Cheilanthes lindheimeri, Fairyswords, with some liverworts.
 And this fern is Pellaea truncata, Spiny Cliffbrake.

I spotted this Cactus Wren nest it the middle of a Sotol plant (they usually placed in a cholla cactus).

Miranda turned over a rock and surprised this gorgeous Clark's Spiny-Lizard. They are usually in the oak zone, so I was surprised to see one in this lower desert habitat.
Finally, we stumbled upon this carapace from a dead Desert Tortoise. I had seen a live one here on my last visit several years ago.

 3. West Silverbell Mountains
On the last day of January, I joined my friend Greg and two friends of his to explore in the West Silverbell Mountains to the northwest of Tucson (just west of Silverbell mine and the famous Ragged Top). I took lots of photos. This is looking to the north from the small peak that we climbed.

The cacti here are great. This is the LeConte's Barrel Cactus (Ferrocactus cylindraceus var. lecontei).

This is a young LeConte's Barrel Cactus.

This is apparently Engelmann's Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii var. acicularis.

Teddy Bear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii.

Other plants I looked at included this unknown mallow. I'll have to come back in the monsoon to see it in bloom.

A Brittlebush, Encelia farinosa. The really dry season pruned it down to the thicker stems, which are now greening up at the tips to produce a gorgeous giant ball of yellow flowers when it blooms.

This is Arizona Spikemoss, Selaginella arizonica, also called "resurrection fern." It's a primitive spore-bearing plant that goes from brown, dry and crusty to a lush green in response to rain at any time of year.

The recent rains have resulted in the sprouting of annual wildflowers. It may be a brief and late bloom, but if we continue to get periodic winter rains over the next few weeks, it promises to be quite spectactular.

Here are Greg, Susan and Peter hiking in the desert.

The view to the northeast from the unnamed peak we climbed.

The view to the east, looking at the Silverbell Mountains.

A tiny Stripe-tailed Scorpion under a dried cow pie.

Here's some of the lusher Sonoran desert and giant Saguaro cacti – notice the Harris's Hawk and its nest.

Here's another Harris's Hawk nest nearby.

Even in remote places like this you find trash left behind by undocumented immigrants in search of a better life. To get here must have been a grueling trek, and many people die before they get this far. Here are a hat, a pack, and, most incongruous, a surprisingly unfaded copy of a Jehova's Witness pamphlet.

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