Nature

Sierra Aconchi Expedition, Sonora, Mex., July 2013

Spent the last three days in Sonora, Mex., backcountry. Nine miles up 2500 feet--low and slow. Working on a biological survey with Sky Island Alliance.Our camp in a small meadow next to a sycamore-lines creek. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceMopar camp setup. John Palting's JK working hard. John is an entomologist and spends all night with lights collecting species-- a number of them new to science. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceMopar off-highway trailer.A few of the species collected on this trip. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandalliancePhotographing a tiger rattlesnake. Beautiful.
Tiger rattlesnake discovered on the first evening next to our dining area. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceJonathan staking out a Sinaloan Wren nest to get some awesome video of nest construction and beautiful song. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceHow to put a lizard to sleep: tummy rubs. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceWe really like our new #Frontrunner aluminum and stainless table, which mounts under the overhang of the Four Wheel Camper. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceThe Frontrunner table slides mounted under the Four Wheel Camper overhang.Mud turtle. Could be undescribed subspecies. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandalliance
Tiger beetle. #mexico #sonora #biodiversity #skyislandallianceOut of the backcountry, spending July 4 at La Posada del Rio in Banamichi before heading back tomorrow. Lovely restored colonial style hotel.Courtyard detail, Hotel Posada del Rio. #mexico #sonora #banamichiDoor detail at La Posada del Rio. #mexico #sonora #banamichiLooking at the Sierra Aconchi from Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoBanamichi, Sonora, Mexico.
Old door, Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoOld colonial hacienda "zaguan" entrance, Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoLa Posada del Rio courtyard at night.Truck art. Banamichi, Sonora, MexicoChuyita, the cook, gave us a lesson in making flan; open photos to read directions in the photo descriptions.Lesson in making flan
We spent four days in the Sonoran backcountry with Sky Island Alliance's MABA Expedition team (Madrean Archipelago Biodiversity Assessment) cataloguing insects, mammals, herpetofauna, birds, and plants. After four days in the field we headed to the colonial town of Banamichi along the Rio Sonora and stayed a night at La Posada del Rio, a restored hacienda along the plaza. It was a great combination of rugged backcountry exploration, camping, work, and then fantastic cultural experiences before heading home.

Easter 2013 exploration - Willow Springs Ranch, AZ

Sonoran Desert spring butterfly hilltoppingpoppiesDesert ChicoryWillow Springs Tortolita Mts campWillow Springs Ranch Catalina MtsSpring emerging tortoise
A group of friends gathered in the Sonoran Desert over Easter weekend 2013 to celebrate a 40th birthday. The company, food, and chocolate cake were outstanding. The weather was perfect, and to our delight we also were surrounded by beautiful desert wildflowers, found a desert tortoise just emerging from its burrow, and climbed a hill to find a furious flurry of hundreds of spring butterflies "hilltopping."

Hilltopping is mate-locating behavior. Males compete for the best location on the highest hills, patrolling furiously, trying to find the few females amidst a sea of males. Theory is that the "top" males that can ascend the hill and hold the best territory make the best mates.

We observed black swallowtails, desert orange-tips, Sara orange-tips, possible Texas crescents, and perhaps 4 other species.

The experience was pure magic—our blood pressure plummeted and we sat, entranced, surrounded by an aerial dance, exclaiming with delight like children at a circus.

Enjoy a short video here:



Sonoran Desert spring butterfly hilltopping from ConserVentures on Vimeo.

Wildlife drama at Ravenrock

Hummingbird migration begins. by ConserVentures


The last week has seen a lot of wildlife drama at Ravenrock.

After a summer pretty much devoid of hummingbirds, two took up stations at our three feeders on Monday (a male black-chinned, and an immature Selasphorus—either a rufous or broad-tailed). On Wednesday two more had joined them, and on Friday morning four more, for a total of eight birds doing full-on battle all around the cottage. Most of them are very aggressive Selasphorus, with the black-chinned holding his own. These guys are so pumped up they even dive-bomb hapless butterflies, who get spun around in the hummer-jet-wash.

We put up a fourth feeder, and have gone from a consumption rate of about a cup a week (including Gila woodpeckers and nocturnal nectar-feeding bats) to two cups every 12 hours.

On the mammal front, we had some of the most fun coyote action we've ever had in the area. On our morning walk on Wednesday, just past the driveway on the road to the well, we spied a female white-tail trotting towards us in the desert scrub—her tail flying, and her mouth dripping with saliva. Very odd behavior. She was stopping, listening, and then started snorting the white-tail alarm whistle. Suddenly she bolted up toward the driveway, where we saw first one and then a second coyote. She dove straight at them, and chased one around and around a small tree. The coyotes had enough, and took off to the north. No doubt the young doe had a new fawn nearby, we've seen several already this year.

This morning early, while I was out doing some yard work, I heard a coyote yipping off to the west just below our hill, and caught movement down off the state road. Two, then three coyotes were dashing towards the house at full runs—normally they trot-walk. Then two more appeared, and it became clear these five were chasing a sixth coyote, who ran hell-for-leather straight up the hill and bulleted over our hill just behind our bird-feeding yard. The chasers stopped at the bottom of the hill. In the golden early morning light their pelts were gorgeous russet-and-brown, they were very stocky and healthy-looking coyotes. Seems like we've got two packs having a territory dispute perhaps, with our property in the middle of the contested ground.

Finally, it's not been quiet on the reptile front, either, though decidedly less dramatic. A lovely small desert tortoise kept me company at the clothesline on Wednesday, and also on our walk we passed this lovely horned lizard hunting ants just off the state road. He was so well-camoflaged we nearly stepped on him.




Dung beetles, Sonoran Desert

Dung beetles, Sonoran Desert an iPhone video by ConserVentures on Flickr.

We frequently see dung beetles diligently working the cow droppings around Ravenrock. Earlier this spring we watched six beetles at one fresh cow patty, madly rolling up dung into perfect spheres and then surprisingly quickly pushing it away with their hind legs, usually two beetles to a ball.

But yesterday we found these two just outside the front door to our cottage—and were just enchanted.

I need to research what species of dung beetles are here in the Sonoran Desert; it's possible these 2 are in the genus Onthophagus. 

Has anyone seen any like this before? To describe them as "adorable" seems antithetical to a dung-harvesting insect, but it's true!

War of mimics





In the last week two male northern mockingbirds have set up and are fiercely defending adjoining territories with our home in the middle.

Starting at dawn (when this audio was recorded), they have been singing non-stop all day every day, and when the moon was more full, well into the night.

We have counted sixteen distinct species (at least) that they are mimicking—greater peewee, lesser nighthawk, American kestrel, Cassin’s kingbird, cactus wren, and Gambel’s quail, to name a few.

While we need to confirm it, it seems that they actually do tend to sing time-appropriate songs. For example, one of them sings Cassin’s kingbird's mostly-dawn and -dusk call right at dawn or dusk.

Anyone else notice this same phenomenon?

Photo credit: USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter, George Jameson

Update on July 21: one of the birds sang most of the night last night, with a near-new moon and cloud cover.

Asperatus clouds


Photograph by B.J. Bumgarner
This wonderful image of asperatus clouds was posted on a Tumblr blog "Science You Can Love."


Asperatus clouds

Asperatus clouds are so rare they managed to escape classification until 2009. Ominous and stormy as they appear, these clouds often break up rather quickly, without producing a storm. As with most other undulating cloud types, these clouds are formed when turbulent winds or colliding air masses whip up the bottoms of the cloud layer into fancy shapes and formations. More common in the plains of the United States (try Iowa), asperatus clouds are at their weird and swirly best during the morning or midday hours after a thunderstorm.

Photograph by B.J. Bumgarner


(via Trebaol of Arabia blog on Tumblr)

Summer Solstice 2012

Technically the northern solstice occurred last night at 23:09.

According to Wikipedia:
A solstice is an astronomical event that happens twice each year as the sun reaches its highest or lowest excursion relative to the celestial equator on the celestial sphere.

As a result, on the solstice the sun appears to have reached its highest or lowest annual altitude in the sky above the horizon at local solar noon. The word solstice is derived from the Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because at the solstices, the sun stands still in declination; that is, the seasonal movement of the sun's path (as seen from Earth) comes to a stop before reversing direction. The solstices, together with the equinoxes, are connected with the seasons. In many cultures the solstices mark either the beginning or the midpoint of winter and summer. 
The term solstice can also be used in a broader sense, as the date (day) when this occurs. The day of the solstice is either the longest day of the year (in summer) or the shortest day of the year (in winter) for any place outside of the tropics.
Solstice is one of our favorite times of year—in the heart of the Sonoran Desert it's blazingly hot (106 today), incredibly dry (6% humidity), and often windy. But the black-throated sparrows are singing madly, the summer Anna's hummingbirds are arriving back from California, the nighthawks and elf owls are trilling and peeping all night long—and it means the rains are coming, the desert is ready, the anticipation is palpable.

Monsoons officially start




First official day of summer monsoons in the Sonoran Desert (as seen through ocotillo plant). The traditional date for the start is a week away—June 24, or San Juan's Day.

What is a "monsoon?"Some say that's a misnomer, but according to the Arizona State University School of Geographical sciences, the "Arizona Monsoon" begins after a "prolonged (3 consecutive days or more) period of dew points averaging 55°F" or higher." More from ASU:

The Arizona Monsoon is a well-defined meteorological event (technically called a meteorological 'singularity') that occurs during the summer throughout the southwest portion of North America. During the winter time, the primary wind flow in Arizona is from the west or northwest—from California and Nevada. As we move into the summer, the winds shift to a southerly or southeasterly direction. Moisture streams northward from the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. This shift produces a radical change in moisture conditions statewide.
Such a change, together with daytime heating, is the key to the Arizona monsoon. This wind shift is the result of two meteorological changes:
  • The movement northward from winter to summer of the huge upper air subtropical high pressure cells, specifically the so-called Bermuda High (H).
  • In addition, the intense heating of the desert creates rising air and surface low pressure (called a thermal low) in the Mohave (L).
These two features combine to create strong southerly flow over Arizona. The southerly winds push moisture north-ward from Mexico. The exact source region for the moisture of the Arizona monsoon is unknown. Researchers have proposed the Gulf of Mexico and/or the Gulf of California as the source regions but conclusive evidence has so far been elusive.

MyRadar iPhone app showing the monsoon action on June 16, 2012

Here at Ravenrock, black-throated sparrows started singing right on cue as clouds build over the mountains.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Fall is in the air

Anyone else feel fall this morning? In the desert, it is quiet, sneaky. It was nearly in the 60s this morning ~ cool for us! ~ and the sun is mellow golden, the air crisp, with a hint of something other than the 100+degrees days we've been having. Bird migration is underway, we have vultures gathering in large kettles, and orioles, grosbeaks, and hummingbirds moving through in larger numbers.

Local safari: West Coast Tank, aborted

One of our favorite summer activities is to explore the beautiful ranchlands and wildlife refuge immediately south of Ravenrock—one of the best destinations being West Coast Tank, an enormous cattle pond that fills up (about 5 acres) every summer with the rains. We've had inches of rain, so we headed south to West Coast. But halfway there we had to turn around, because another flooded tank had totally backed up into the road:



We explored a new route around to the east, and discovered some lovely country and lots of little temporary creeks running from the Sierrita Mountains. The desert is bursting green, and the sky was lovely blue, the Baboquivari Mountains a vibrant purple-blue. Lots of new flowers and butterflies, including ghost brimstones and bright yellow giant sulphurs.


We had lunch at the Gadsden Coffee Company in Arivaca, then out to I-19 via Amado, where we saw this sign—rural church humor. Pretty funny.


Tortoises are emerging



With the summer rains come our cavalcade of tortoises. We've seen little ones and really big ones; this young guy, a medium-sized one, was ambling down the trail on our morning walk today (on males you can see the hook on the front of the plastron or belly plate, that is thought to be used during 'combat' with other males for territory; the plastron is also slightly dished, to facilitate mating).