Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Widow wins big

I was walking towards the Gift Shop just before noon on a Sunday last August when I found the entrance completely blocked by a commotion of a dozen people clustered in front of the glass entry doors.  The groups' collective gaze was directed towards something - or someone - on the ground in a corner that was hidden from my view. I thought at first that someone was injured, but the group seemed to be generally smiling, chatty, and upbeat, implying that they were watching something more engaging than a twisted ankle or an arm full of cactus spines. I shouldered my way into the pack and when I looked over one of the shorter heads, there was indeed a person there. His body laid stretched out, stomach-side down, completely blocking the entrance. But he was moving. He was propped up on his elbows and was using them to slowly drag his prone body towards a dimly lit, hollow crevice near the bottom of the hinge of the right hand entry door. From where I stood, the shadowy space looked like it contained a tangled shoelace that was suspended in mid-air, encircled with odd, alternating black, white and red bands, like something a clown would wear. When I asked the person next to me what all of the hubbub was about, she said, "It's either a snake eating a spider, or a spider eating a snake. I'm not sure which." 
As it turns out, it was a six inch coral snake that had become entangled in the sticky web of a black widow spider, and the black widow was wasting no time in sucking the life out of the unfortunate coral snake.  The horizontal man had now rolled over on his side and was aiming his digital SLR camera for close-ups of the carnage. He was later introduced to me as  Larry Jones, herpetologist and author of the book The Lizards of the Southwest. The majority of the onlookers were just returning from a Learn Your Lizards walk led by AZ Game and Fish biologist Abbi King, and the real-world, life-and-death scene that was unfolding before them was an added bonus that thrilled everyone right down to Abbi, who was now lying next to Larry with her camera, stifling any hope of anyone getting in or out of the Gift Shop.
Over the next half hour, most of the onlookers that had cameras, including me, took their respective turns rolling around on the warm concrete outside the Gift Shop doors, inhibiting commerce, but also photographing a unique scene that Larry Jones later said was a "first" for him.  When I quizzed him for his expert opinion about which one of these venomous creatures he would rather be bitten by, he gave me the only scientifically valid response: "Neither." Then he added, "Well, it depends on where you're bitten. Coral snakes have a nasty venom, but then so do black widows." I thought about this as I stepped between several pairs of legs on my way to get another look, and decided that my envenomator of choice would probably be the coral snake. With its tiny mouth, there are a limited number of body parts that would present themselves on a fully clothed individual, whereas the black widow could more easily slip itself in or under, exposing a plethora of meaty targets.   
BEMUSED BIOLOGISTS BARRICADE BOOKSTORE  might have been the headline in the morning paper had the scene not diffused itself as quickly as it started. By early afternoon, life was back to normal for everyone but the coral snake.  What had started as a five-alarm biological event --a rare clash of the titans --was now barely a side show. With no crowds to draw attention to it, most visitors came and went, buying tee shirts, or books, or Gatorade, without ever noticing the black widow hanging smugly from her fresh kill in a shadowy, nearby corner.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Falling for fall finery

In the deciduous woods of the northeastern U.S. and Canada, the progression of fall color typically follows lines of latitude. To catch all of fall, itinerant color chasers with too much time on their hands often start somewhere in Quebec in late September and then put in some serious road miles and six weeks of bed and breakfasts until they see the last leaves fall in New York and Pennsylvania sometime in early November. For fall color enthusiasts in the low deserts of Arizona, we have it decidedly easier. What color we miss in our own back yards, we can find in hours - if not minutes - with some relatively painless trips to the higher elevations that surround us. Subtract the obvious high-country opportunities like the Mogollon Rim and the White Mountains, and we're still blessed with half a dozen "sky islands," mountain ranges that rise nearly a mile, sometimes more, above local population centers like Tucson, Safford, Sierra Vista, and Globe.

What we lack in quaint covered bridges and idyllic scenes of white-steepled churches, we make up for in precipitous, windy roads that often lack guard rails but are sometimes paved, like those in the Pinaleno Mountains near Safford or the Catalinas north of Tucson, and dusty, rutted tracks that snake up to stands of aspen, gambel oak, and maples like Forest Service Road 651 in the Pinal Mountains south of Globe. This kind of vertical accessibility means that you can roll out of bed at 8am in Tucson and be sipping coffee and crunching through fresh layers of fallen leaves at nearly 9200 feet on Mt. Lemmon in the time that it takes a visitor to New Hampshire to correctly pronounce Lake Winnipesaukee. And you can do it again and again throughout the fall autumn season without burning vacation time, crossing any international borders, or stumbling over multi-syllabic words.

Fall in the higher elevations was late by a week or two this year which gave those of us with poor planning skills more of a grace period to see what we would have missed in previous years had the nights cooled down earlier and closer to schedule. Though late, the colors have been consistent and homogeneous with aspens and maples coloring up evenly and en masse, creating surreal environments of yellow on brown and yellow on white, like a colorized sepia photograph. A full description of the mechanics of why leaves change color is the lead story in the October Member newsletter that you should have received in the mail about a week ago.

Back at the Arboretum... the most vibrant trees that exhibit the anthocyanin pigments (the glorious oranges and scarlets of our Chinese pistachios), usually reach their peak in late November or early December. It's a logical and predictable progression that begins with the now-changing leaves of honey locusts, jububes, and soapberries, all with their characteristic hues of yellow carotenoid pigments. In fact, all of the Arboretum's deciduous trees lose their leaves by November or December, and most take on some sort of yellow-ish coloration first that ranges from the cornbread yellow of canyon hackberry to the lemon-sorbet leaves of our native cottonwood, the last hold-out to finally drop its leaves.

The fall season is much like following wildflowers in the spring but in reverse: the leaves are dying rather than springing to life - and summer is seven months away rather than two. It's not a re-birth, it's a cool-down. It's the victory lap that celebrates the wrap-up of another desert summer and the out-pouring of sweat and air-conditioned tonnage that kept us cool enough to appreciate all of the color that we'll see for the next few weeks. Think of autumn as a seasonal attitude adjustment. Chill.