Saturday, July 17, 2010

Morning-after ant-ics

After 3/4" of bruising, hard rain last night, I was excited to get up early and see what the first major rainfall of the monsoon had done to wake and shake things up. I knew that ants can grow wings and take flight in the time it takes to roast a 12 pound turkey, but I wasn't prepared for the shear volumes that I found. In just a quarter mile walk along the Toll Road trail in the Pinal Mountains south of Globe, I plowed my way through dozens of individual cyclones of flying ants. Each little mini-tornado was about two feet across and twenty feet tall with thousands of furiously busy ants flying in a clockwise motion in tight formation, as if they were caught inside a clear glass tube. I had to cover my mouth and nose to breath ant-free air as I walked through the swarms.

There were many harmless collisions as they slammed against my arms and body, and the temporary stillness of the briefly stunned individuals allowed me to see the expected black ant head, thorax, and abdomen. What seemed totally out of place to me were the wings. They were perfect little translucent wings that were beautiful and clearly functional, but creepy, too. How do they manufacture them so quickly? Do they duck into an alley after a good rain and unzip a compartment on their exoskeleton to reveal the secret of flight that they've kept from everyone their whole lives? And if so, how do they learn to fly in these tightly wound swarms so quickly? It's just unnatural.

A small calf had recently died and I spooked a lone Turkey Vulture that was feeding on it in a small ravine just off the road. My dog was with me and though I kept her from stealing a bit of the meat herself, I have no doubt that she inhaled an ant or two or three as she ran in front of me up the road.

Kim Stone

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Flight of Fruitarians

It takes a patient, thoughtful observer like Arboretum volunteer and birder Jack Bartley to point out the mid-summer bounty of fruit-eating opportunities for wildlife at Boyce Thompson Arboretum. It’s not only about the ripening of red, ripe saguaro fruits-which is huge-but also about the fruiting potential of hundreds of other plants, like desert hackberries and condalias, that are growing in the Arboretum’s plant collections and dare to fruit in the middle of the summer. Jack is keenly aware that knowing what birds eat is the best way to find them, so when he and I met at the bottom of the switchbacks on Sunday, he reminded me of a half dozen fruiting shrubs that he had seen earlier in the day.

Nothing short of a real bird-brain is needed to keep up with such things and I’m sure that Jack would admit to having one, because he quickly rattled off the six fruiting shrubs with the staccato beat of a woodpecker drilling a pine snag. All of them were plants that I considered to be old friends, but I hadn’t noticed that a single one had ripe fruit ready for a bird to pluck. Its human indifference, I guess, brought on by being spoiled and overly domesticated with the luxury to ignore easy food sources in favor of the ones we have to pay for. Sure, those desert hackberry fruits look yummy (and they are), but I have far too many other less healthy, store-bought options to satisfy my hunger than to spend the day picking enough of these tiny orange fruits for a meal. And just think of all those seeds.

I visited each one of the plants that he mentioned and they were indeed loaded with fruit. The funny thing was, there weren’t many birds particularly interested in the fruit salad that presented itself. There were copious amounts of the small, black fruits of elderberry, crucifixion thorn, and Condalia globosa, the orange desert hackberries and the pinkish-orange Berberis, and the leathery-colored, perfect globes of Geoffroea decorticans, but according to Jack, the birds that might be attracted to these plants, like Phainopeplas, Black-Headed Grosbeaks, Hooded Orioles, and others, were all but absent.

Perhaps it’s the heat, in which case the expected 115 degree high on Thursday will be an appetite buster for bird and man alike.

Kim Stone

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A mid-summer bicycle ride

Customarily, I ride the Arboretum’s mountain bike around the main trail every day between 3pm and 5pm. It’s not only because the Arboretum is closed for the day and I have the place to myself, but because if I didn’t, I would probably have nodded off at my desk. My mind considers the 3 o’clock hour to be a time of rest, and even though it’s the hottest part of the day, if I don’t get up and do something physical and aerobic, I will likely wake up 30 minutes later with a teaspoon of drool saturating my keyboard.

A much better time to ride is in the morning and I did that today about 8:30am. The trail was dimpled from a wisp of rain that we received the night before. Prominent golf cart tire tracks flattened the dimples on some of the trails and showed that the rain had come before 6am and the first cart traffic. When I called up to Lynnea in the Gift Shop to ask whether we received any measurable rainfall, she paused to check and then responded, “No, nothing in the rain gauge. Not even a trace. Sorry.” It seemed strange to hear her apologize for something she has no control over, but even though she is only the messenger, she can sense the plaintive tone of our voices when we pose the "r" question. What we are really asking this time of year is: “Please, oh please, tell me that we received more than a trace. Lie to us if you have to. Even a tenth. We’ll take a tenth.” It’s only July 11, though, and too early to become alarmed or overly disappointed by the lack of rain. We’ll reserve those sentiments for mid-August during which no rain will be a legitimate reason to panic.

Every saguaro is full of split open, red lipstick-colored fruits. They’ve been fruiting now for several weeks with succulent red flesh and dark black seeds exposed to the elements and to every living creature that can reach them up high or collect them from the ground. This morning, I found several small caliber piles of animal scat that were comprised of 100% saguaro seeds. This is a sure sign that the fruits are ripe for the picking. One pile across from Picket Post House looked like it was from a fox or skunk, and the other larger, more consolidated pile in Queen Creek was probably from a javelina. The seeds, when tightly packed and unmixed with other seeds, closely resemble blackberries as they glisten in the low morning sun. The rule of thumb is that there are about 2000 tiny seeds per fruit and by the looks of the “blackberries,” there were three to six whole fruits digested, depending on the size of the pile. Because the Arboretum provides so many varying food sources from trees and shrubs all over the arid world, it’s comforting to know that our own Sonoran Desert can hold its own as a life giving food source without any horticultural intervention.

Butterflies are everywhere, especially in areas where irrigation has run onto the trails and created little moist sumps for butterflies to alight and collect moisture. Half a dozen Harris’ ground squirrels were criss-crossing the trail above the lake, their three inch furry tales standing ramrod straight and vertical in the air as they run. Many lesser earless lizards were seen, too.

Kim Stone

Thursday, July 8, 2010

49 bye byes, Part 2

Years ago, maybe ten or so, the rodent population in the Smith Building and Visitor Center was of a similar density as it was before we launched our newest offensive on June 15th. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years, and we have dealt with the population fluctuations on a “catch as catch can” kind of basis. To the mice, it’s been more of a “catch me if you can” scenario, with the mice inevitably holding the upper hand for a time, then losing ground to our lukewarm eradication efforts, then going into a high speed reproductive mode when they sensed that we were losing our resolve.

Wholesale rodent eradication requires a killer instinct. But because our staff is in the plant business, our murderous tendencies are usually reserved for those biological entities, typically insects, that chew and suck on our plants, rather than those that tear into salted peanuts and Snickers bars in the Visitor Center Gift Shop or set up nesting facilities in the endless piles of newspapers in Paul’s office in the Smith Building. The mice were aware that we were “plant people” and therefore knew that we were inherently pacifists. We could be counted on to fence-out rather than shoot skunks, rabbits and javelinas, and to favor live traps that would inevitably give every mouse, rat, or other animal a second chance. One of the staff might finally flip out—like me on several occasions—and attempt to kill as many mice in as many creative and cruel ways as possible. Baited snap traps, sling shots, torture, loud and unapologetic yelling were all fair game. Inevitably, though, blood, guts, decaying flesh, and the thought of little mouse families torn apart by the tragedy of my doing would take its toll and I would return to my pitiful “shoo mouse shoo” control methods. They had my number, all of our numbers, and so, about ten years ago, the professionals were called in.

Men arrived in their crisp uniforms, armed not with sophisticated traps, sonic deterrents, or small caliber side arms, but with little packets full of poison. Within each packet were a few tablespoons of toxic blue crystals, the same color as the nutrients delivered to a hospital patient in your garden variety feeding tube. To the rat or mouse, the crunchy contents of these packets were designed to be irresistible and eaten with relish. The pest control people knew best and in their wisdom they spread dozens of these packets throughout the Visitor Center and the Smith Building, particularly in the crawl spaces above the ceilings. The exact locations of the packets were unbeknownst to us and quickly forgotten by the applicators, but we were told that they were put just about everywhere. “Your mouse and rat problems will soon be over,” they told us as they packed up their sophisticated step ladders and powerful flashlights. “Guaranteed,” they said. Over time, the poisonous bait did its job, but it was a move that we would regret for many, many years to come.

Continued in Part 3…

Kim Stone

Friday, July 2, 2010

49 bye byes, Part 1

It’s the first of July and the beginning of a new fiscal year with a new budget and a fresh cycle of money and time to help make the world a better place. This, in and of itself, would be reason to celebrate, but it is dwarfed by an accomplishment of near incalculable value: since June 15, nearly 50 mice have been removed from the confines of the Smith Building. There was no overt violence thrust upon them. We didn’t whip them with ocotillo branches or lunge at them, snapping with pruning shears. In fact, every benefit of the doubt was given to them to leave willingly and peacefully at any time, the very same opportunities granted our staff at the close of each day. Our tolerance has been noble in its scope and for six months or more, we have coexisted in a laudable natural harmony, each of us, mouse and man, acting out our lives in our own separate ways. “I’m OK. You’re OK,” is what we have voicelessly said to each other.

Because I work the late shift, often working until 9pm or later, I have always been more privy to the secret lives of our resident rodents than the rest of the staff. At roughly 5pm, after most of the humans have left for the day, I generally spot the first mouse coming through the door of the hort office, its fat little grey body hugging the edge of the wall. Depending on the day and the mouse, it either climbs to the second shelf of the metal bookcase on the left and then leaps across twelve inches of open air to the nearby countertop where our seeds are stored, or it turns the other direction after entering through the door and disappears through the crack in the sliding door of the wooden bookshelf on the other side of the room. My desk is in a centralized location, bordered on one side by a felt-covered cubicle divider supported by hollow, square metal tubes, and I have a clear view of their comings and goings. Because of the “live and let live” philosophy, I generally ignore them once they’re in the room even though I’m conscious of their presence.

Over the past month, however, a certain brazenness has come over them. And even though I haven't changed, their attitude has assumed a palpable cockiness that has begun to wear on my utopian attitude. For one, they began to reproduce inside my office, actually using one of my desk drawers to suckle a budding little family unit of three mouselets. This, after shredding the tabs off of the manila folders H through K that were hanging in the drawer in order to provide the fodder for their cozy nest. When I opened the drawer, the mother ran off, dragging one of the baby mice still hanging onto a teat, leaving me no choice but to take the two remaining hairless pinkies and drown them outside in a bucket of water.

When they weren’t breast feeding, the female mice joined the males in uninhibited romps across my desk. They made playful runs up and down the hollow tubes of my cubicle, poking their heads out of the top and quickly retreating if I made aggressive moves towards them. And if I left the room for more than ten minutes, I could guarantee that a dime size hole would be eaten from the bottom of my bag of almonds, or one or two fresh, glistening black mouse turds would be deposited on top of my lunchtime soup spoon. They pealed the labels off of the stashed soup cans and ate through hard plastic jars of Planters peanuts in my other drawers. They chewed the cuffs off my canvas work gloves, and pooped or left dollops of pasty pee on everything else. I occasionally brought in my vacuum to suck up the droppings but within three or four days, the deposits would be back to their former glory, leaving no doubt as to their preferred routes of travel.

I started to sour when some of the really obnoxious mice would waddle out into the open and just stand there, barely holding up their distended, well-fed bellies, knowing that the most they could expect from me was the kind of backhanded swat usually reserved to shoo flies from a bowl of potato salad. I had clearly lost their respect. To them, I was a patsy. They had me pegged as either a card-carrying PETA member or a pacifist who’d rented The Green Mile too many times. They had built themselves a smug little dynasty in the Smith Building, courtesy of the benefits of the welfare state that we had created to meet the demands of their lifestyle. Like most living things, if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile, and until recently, both parties appeared to be content with this arrangement. But since June 15th, their cushy world of obesity, excess, and public defecation has been turned upside down with the passing of each fateful day.

Continued in Part 2...

Kim Stone