Posts Tagged 'Arizona'

Desert Varnish

trunksThe “varnish” here, looking a little like apparitional tree trunks, is made up of clay, iron and manganese oxides, and some organic material. And time. The darker it is, the more manganese, a mineral rare on the planet.

In some accessible areas, this thin layer can be chipped off to reveal the lighter rock beneath. We call the resulting designs petroglyphs (from the Greek words for “stone” and “to carve”) when made by human hands. Here are some of the ones at Newspaper Rock, which is actually made up of several boulders, in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — and is not to be confused with Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument in Utah:Newspaper RockNewspaper RockNewspaper RockNewspaper RockThese, whose meaning remains unknown, are thought to have been made by people farming in the Puerco River Valley some 600-2,000 years ago. The area, as stark and arid as it is (of course, sometimes such conditions are excellent for preservation), has evidence of people dating back 8,000 years.

There are a lot of designs here, and it is fun to try to guess what they are, and mean, but I think I like the circles most of all. What is fully, dare we say perfectly, circular in this world? Perhaps nothing at all, but Sun, Moon (periodically), the eye (both iris and pupil, but not in the case of all mammals) certainly look like they are. What else?


Cedar BreaksAt Cedar Breaks, a Ranger gave us a good mnemonic for the geological history of the Colorado Plateau: “Cedar Breaks is due for a change” with “due” initialing for deposition, uplift, and erosion. Ancient lake and sea beds heaved up and then slowly, differentially, whittled away….Cedar Breaks

Bryce CanyonBryce Canyon in the fog. Not actually a canyon, Bryce is, like Cedar Breaks, the dramatically eroding edge of a plateau; we were standing at about 8000 feet here looking down. BryceThe famous hoodoos are created by frost weathering, fracturing via the expansion of freezing water. The “giant staircase” of the Colorado Plateau descends from this highpoint, geologically the most recent, down into the Grand Canyon, which has rock a billion years old at its base.Grand CanyonA minor tributary of the Grand Canyon from Bright Angel Point.

Antelope CanyonUpper Antelope Canyon, a slot in the Navajo Sandstone cut out by water erosion. In Navajo, Antelope is named Tsé bighánílíní, the place where the water runs through the rocks. While we were there it started to rain, and you could see the water pouring down the smooth walls, uncannily showing the potential of flash floods to rip through the slot. All the red rock in these photos is from iron oxide; rust, essentially, and I’ve intensified it here to bring out the contrasts in these positively sensual surfaces.Antelope

Monument ValleyMonument Valley’s buttes are composed of three separate layers of rock, each eroding at a different rate. It started to rain while we were here, too; water poured off the top of these, especially the aptly named Rain God Mesa, as waterfalls, doing their slow work.Monument Valley

Canyon de ChellyThe inspiration for Jabba the Hutt? At Canyon de Chelly.


There were a lot of lizards, which you would expect for a desert. They are tough subjects to photograph, though, being such dashers and darters. I got a few:r2lizardr1

r4This Garter subspecies was unfortunately run over by an earlier vehicle. Still kicking here, but extruding innards elsewhere, so it may not have made it.

Mammals, Too

We were pretty much surrounded by a Gunnison’s Prairie Dog colony, and heard them call from the meadow across the stream. A couple were sitting upright in the distance. Then a herd of Elk (Cervus elaphus) charged across the colony, surprisingly quiet, through the stream and into the misty meadow beyond. Cervus elaphusWe also saw two other species of p-dogs, the Utah and White-tailed, on our perambulations. Ovis canadensis nelsoniDesert Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Zion National Park. This one was sitting right above the road and was soon joined by a small flock.Ovis canadensis nelsoniOdocoileus hermionusThis Mule Deer (Odocoileus hermionus) fawn was in Zion Canyon itself with its mother. There were also sightings of White-tailed Deer.
Spermophilus variegatusRock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) seen in a number of places, including Picture Canyon east of Flagstaff. Spermophilus lateralisGolden-mantled Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus lateralis) at Cedar Breaks.m6OK, I’m still confused by all the chipmunks and ground squirrels that are found out there, so let’s just enjoy this one, photographed on Bright Angel Point, North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We had an interesting experience with a Coyote (Canis latrans), which we scared from the road. The wild dog circled our van at a good distance twice — it was a very empty road — running hard and looking at “us,” — the van, that is — all the time, trying perhaps to figure out if it/we were dangerous, before returning to the last bits of a road kill which it had been scavenging. Gory, stretched viscera.

But perhaps the highlight of the mammal action was this Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata). Sorry about the auto-focus; hard to observe and document at the same time.Mustela frenataI heard a strange abbreviated squeal and then saw this long lean animal bounding down along the edge of a concrete path, with something in its mouth. It ran off the path. I shouted to my travel companions “Ferret, or something!” or something like that, and then I saw the weasel again ducking under some rocks. It started to shoot, snake might be a better word, back and forth under this rock and then closer and closer and closer to the path again. I surmised it had dropped its prey and wanted to return to it, a half dozen humans be damned. I bid everyone still. It did get closer and closer, and finally, rooting around in some tall grass, it emerged, with the prey — which looked ratty. The weasel was two-toned, tan on top and creamy below, with a black tip to the tail.


Aphonopelma chalcodesI think this is a male Arizona Desert Tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes), also known as Arizona Blond Tarantula because of the female’s coloring. Our intrepid, and hawk-eyed, guide Jake swerved the van out of the way and then backed up to coax this spider onto his hand. And then, up his wrist.Aphonopelma chalcodesThe males wander over a wide range searching for females this time of year, usually at night. The reddish hairs on the abdomen are urticating, that is stinging, so no petting. The bite is no worse than a bee sting. But according to the American Tarantula Society (well, obviously!) the things are harmless. I hadn’t read that when Jake offered up a chance a to hold this guy. There were various “no thank yous,” from my van mates but I proffered my hand… cautiously, butAphonopelma chalcodes eagerly.

Birds II: Life Species

My cup overfloweth, and I didn’t have to leave the continent, much less travel south of the U.S. border.

Cinnamon Teal:Anas cyanopteraThis is a female, with her very N. Shoveler bill.

Neotropic Cormorant, smaller than our familiar Double-crested, with a pronounced white < chin patch.
Eared Grebe:Podiceps nigricollisIn breeding plumage. And below, another in non-breeding:b16

White-faced Ibis.
California Condor.
Harris's Hawk:Parabuteo unicinctusThis was one of two atop the arms of a big saguaro cactus. This is the only hawk species that hunts cooperatively, like a wolf-pack.

Zone-tailed Hawk:Buteo albonotatusNote the similarity to a Turkey Vulture, except for the banded tail and, through the bins, the yellow feet and cere, as well as the feathered head.

Ferruginous Hawk, the largest buteo, sitting atop a telephone pole. We saw a lot of raptors on telephone poles and wondered where they would go when the telephone poles disappeared. On the other hand, where old Route 66 crosses US 40 in the Petrified Forest, all that is is left is a line of short telephone poles…
Golden Eagle. Whoa!
Gambel’s Quail, a covey of.
Dusky Grouse, formerly Blue, on the road…just before the hunting season started.
Black-necked Stilt:Himantopus mexicanusOne at Big Lake, then several more in the Gilbert Water Ranch riparian wonderland. About 9/10ths of the long red legs are underwater here. Stilt indeed.

Sabine’s Gull. Away off course in Utah.
White-winged Dove. Inca Dove.
White-throated Swift. The second fasted North American bird. We also saw the first, the Peregrine, at Canyon De Chelly, coasting along the ancient cliffs.
Broad-billed Hummingbird. Anna’s Hummingbird. Rufous Hummingbird: very territorial, always chasing away species.b14
Western Screech Owl: heard, and ever so briefly glimpsed in flight in the Utah dawn.
Acorn Woodpecker. Gila Woodpecker. Ladder-backed Woodpecker.
Pacific-slope Flycatcher. Cordilleran Flycatcher. Vermillion Flycatcher. Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Loggerhead Shrike.
Bell’s Vireo. Plumbeous Vireo. Cassin’s Vireo.
Gray Jay. Mexican Jay. Pinyon Jay. Clark’s Nutcracker.
Violet-Gren Swallow. Cliff Swallow.
Cactus Wren. Canyon Wren. Bewick’s Wren.
American Dipper:Cinclus mexicanusDipping:Cinclus mexicanus
Sage Thrasher. Curve-billed Thrasher.
Townsend’s Warbler. MacGillivray’s Warbler. Painted Redstart, wow!
Yellow-breasted Chat.
Abert’s Towhee.
Sage Sparrow.
Gray-headed Dark-eyed Junco (a subspecies)
Hepatic Tanager, both female and male.
Lazuli Bunting, female.
Eastern Meadowlark. Western Meadowlark.
Bullock’s Oriole.

Some More Southwestern Insects

i9The largest beetle I’ve ever run across. It was wider than my thumb. Giant Palm Borer?
i15Like the butterfly below, this dragonfly, a Pale-faced Clubskimmer (Brechmorhoga mendax) I think, was deceased.Danaus gilippusQueen male (Danaus gilippus) and the spider who caught him.i7
i11This stink bug — genus Eleodes? — has assumed the position and is ready to spritz us with noxious spray.i8
Euptoieta claudiaVariegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia).i17Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea).

Under A Big Big Sky

Petrified ForestPetrified Forest National Park.Petrified ForestAmid the lithified remains of an ancient forest, where the pebbles themselves were essentially petrified mulch, a moving white fluff on the ground was identified as a Thistledown Velvet Ant (Dasymutilla gloriosa), which is actually a wasp. The female is wingless and furry white, like the seedpod of a creosote bush or a cottonwood. She runs around looking for sand wasp nests to parasitize. Painted Desert

Birds I: Some Old Friends and Variations

Catherpes mexicanusHaliaeetus leucocephalusEgretta thula, Himantopus mexicanusI joined Wings Birding Tours for their tour of Arizona and Utah, Fall Migration in the Canyonlands. Buteo jamaicensisPiranga ludovicianaThe tour superbly combined birdwatching with some of the most spectacular landscapes in the Southwest. I recommend it.Xanthocephalus xanthocephalusOn our first day on the road, we visited Boyce Thompson Arboretum, east of that sun-baked madness known as Phoenix, and then rose up to the southern end of the Colorado Plateau.

Sky full of Turkey Vultures

Sky full of Turkey Vultures

Then, in a climb up the Grand Staircase, we saw the Grand Canyon, Zion Canyon, Cedar Breaks, and Bryce Canyon, before returning to Arizona and the Navajo Nation, where we walked into Antelope Canyon and skirted the edge of Canyon de Chelly. Piranga rubraDon’t forget Monument Valley and the Petrified Forest/Painted Desert! Corvus coraxWe explored the pine-filled White Mountains near the New Mexico border. Quisalus maexicanusOn our last day, we descended from the mountains to the desert, feeling the temperature rise 50 degrees, passing through the lesser known but no less spectacular Salt River Canyon, and ending in the Water Ranch, a riparian wonderland in Gilbert, AZ, made of reclaimed water and a magnet oasis in greater Phoenix’s suburban sprawl. Pipilo fuscus
Wilsonia pusilla
Interior West subspecies of Stellar's Jay

Interior West subspecies of Stellar’s Jay

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Ol’ Number (3)54

Navajo BridgeThe Navajo Bridge crosses the Colorado River at the narrow, northeastern start of Grand Canyon National Park, under the escarpment of the Vermillion Cliffs. Those are rafts down below in the not so muy colorado water. Next to the road bridge runs a pedestrian bridge, from where these shots were taken. I didn’t make it all the way across because of the distraction. Notice anything on the bridge? One of our party, Dagmar, did, and said, why can’t we be over there like that guy? Gymnogyps californianusOnly it wasn’t a person. It was an enormous bird, just under four feet tall. Gymnogyps californianusA California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus), to be exact. Tagged and antennaed, ID# 54 is actually condor number 354, a male hatched June 13, 2004, and released March 2, 2006 from the Vermillion Cliffs. Gymnogyps californianusIn 1982, there were just 22 of these condors alive. Last September, there were 180 in captivity and 230 in the wild, the result of a captive breeding program and attempts to end the primary cause of condor death: lead poisoning from bullets in carrion. Condors, like their smaller cousins the vultures, are scavengers. Traditionally, they feasted on the big corpses of now extinct megafauna; although showing good adaptibility in going after smaller carrion sources now, the condors still find big carrion, which unfortunately was all too often also the target of hunters, who contaminate the flesh with their shot. About 3/4s of wild condors have lead in them, making the entire reintroduction program still something of a touch and go operation. Programs exist to get hunters to swap their lead bullets for non-toxic ones, but that hasn’t stopped some of them from using the traditional lead (and being such poor hunters that they either just leave the toxic bodies there, or wound animals who die later); meanwhile, efforts to ban lead bullets are stymied by the usual gun-crazies whose psychosis terrorizes this nation in so many other ways. Gymnogyps californianus354, who so nicely turned around for the paparazzi, shows the pink skin of a fully mature bird. I know some people think this is an ugly thing to look at, and I feel sorry for their pinched little perspectives. I think it’s beautiful, a whole web of life, which of course also includes death, encapsulated; unimaginable millennia of evolution amid the still more ancient, bony rocks. What this is, is glorious: rarer than those dead, compressed bits of carbon and advertising we call diamonds, and gloriously noble, an attempt, perhaps quixotic, to right our own folly.

354 launched himself — they weigh up to 23 lbs, massive for a bird — off the bridge and disappeared to what seemed like a nearby ledge. I saw him, or another, soon after sweep around the corner of the canyon, high above the rafters but below eye-level for those of us on the foot bridge. Then a few moments later, he, or another, did the same. Two condors! On their nine foot wingspans, they fly slowly. It wasn’t the soaring high above I’d imagined — imagined for, say, 30 years now, since I first read about their seeming doom and assumed I’d never see one — but it was enough.


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