Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Pinal Peak - August 3rd, 2013

        It is that time of the summer when the “fungi hunter” in me needs to be freed. Arizona, being the arid place it mostly is, has relatively few places to hunt for mushrooms - namely the tallest mountains - and you have to wait for the right temperatures and rainfall to trigger mushroom availability.
     I live in Superior which isn’t very close to any tree-lined mountain. I have to drive over an hour to be atop the Pinals or the Sierra Anchas. There are no weather reports that I’m aware of that will let me know if rain has fallen on those specific mountains. It can be raining in or around Globe and still, by some twisted poor luck, the Pinals will be dry as a bone. You probably don’t suffer from mycophilia, but those of us who do will take a chance on a dry mountain just to see if anything fungal is sprouting. We will go against logic. We will laugh off our doubts. We are willing to take a chance for just a slight possibility that we may find some interesting specimen of mushroom pushing up through a forest’s leaf litter. Mock us if you will, but we don’t care. We’re a proud people.
     Anyway, I was on one of those illogical forays to check on mushrooms as I drove toward the Pinal Mountains. “They might have gotten some rain somewhere up there,” I muttered to myself.  “What if…what if I found morels in the burn area?” You may not know it, but that was truly wishful thinking on my part. I would have about the same chance for finding a unicorn or a sasquatch as finding a morel in August. “A sasquatch would be pretty nifty,” I thought.
     I began the twelve mile drive up FR 651 towards Pinal Peak. This narrow winding dirt road is in pretty good condition. Not too many wash-boarded sections. Not too many huge rocks to tear at your vehicle’s undercarriage. It’s dusty, to be sure, but mostly quiet, with little traffic. I felt as though I had the entire mountain to myself.
     The Pinal Mountains are interesting in their ruggedness and in the fact that they have been well-abused by ranchers, off-roaders, and even the United States government for decades. In the mid-1960s, our government used a portion of the Pinal foothills to test Agent Orange in preparation for its wide-spread use in Vietnam.  The cancer-causing aftereffects worked their way down Kellner Canyon and into the lives of the people who lived in the foothills and depended on water from the area. I’m not overly concerned about being poisoned there, but you won’t see me eating any of the manzanita fruit that grows along those foothills. Nor do I feel comfortable breathing the dust…oh…the dust that my vehicle generated as I bumped up the mountain on an oh-so-dry day.
     For the first three or four miles, the mountain doesn’t look promising. Dust-covered manzanita bushes and agave are what you see. But soon the shrub country gives way to a forest of pines, junipers, sycamores, canyon grape vines, and dappled sunlight. I turned off the iPod and, with window rolled down, enjoyed the passing bird song.
     I decided I would drive all the way to Pinal Peak, which I had never done before. Along the way I stopped a couple of times to make quick examinations of the woods. Not a single mushroom did I see. Along the guardrail-less road on the southwest side of the mountain, where a chasm awaits the distracted driver, I noticed that the agaves were just now displaying their large yellow inflorescences.  Winding back into the forest, I saw tall aspens. Goldenrod and wild geraniums bloomed by the road. There were also scarlet Arizona thistles and mullein growing in thick profusion. There was an unmistakable coolness to the mountain air. I drove on to Pinal Peak, elevation 7800’.
     You can’t say that the peak is much to write home about, not with the huge towers and attendant buildings that crowd the top, reminding us all about the power of electronic communication. I looked at my iPhone and was happy to see that my reception near the towers was fantastic. “Wow! I can check Facebook if I want!” I said. But that I most certainly did not do. I almost didn’t even get out of my van. However, I was there and there was a view so why not take a quick look amid the tangle of guy wires?
     Getting out of the vehicle and walking to the edge of the gravel parking area, I immediately noticed an orange glow to the surrounding foliage. On closer inspection I was overjoyed to find that this peak was being used as the meeting place for hundreds of thousands of convergent lady beetles. Or were there millions? How could I make a reasonable estimate of such a huge number of small creatures?
     To save a syllable, you may be tempted to say “ladybugs” but they are not “bugs”. Bugs belong to the order Hemiptera.  These insects are clearly in the order Coleoptera which is, indeed, the beetle group. Not the group, The Beatles, however. I just want to make that clear.
     The fact that they are named “lady beetles” instead of, say, “murder beetles” probably goes a long way in endearing them to most normal English-speaking human beings. If they were named “little baby kitten beetles” then they might be even more popular.
     Not just any species of lady beetle accumulates en masse; only the convergent lady beetle (Hippodamia convergens) makes such an impressive showing. And, yes, these are the same species of lady beetle that you might purchase at a nursery to release in your garden to control aphids. (Unfortunately, within hours upon their release in your garden, most of them fly away, never to be seen by you again. FYI: Putting a box full of live lady beetles in your garden doesn’t work. Try lacewings, instead.) 
      Every summer, when the valleys grow hot, these small beetles take wing and allow the air currents to guide them to some of the highest mountains in the west. I first saw this phenomenon near Crown King in the Bradshaw Mountains. I saw it again atop Granite Mountain near Prescott. The lady beetles fly in and converge to chillax and mate.  “Chillax”, I believe, is a scientific term. When the mountains begin to cool in late summer, these insects break up the party and fly back down to the valleys. 
     This was an amazing gathering to witness. The beetles seemed to be on every square inch of every plant, often piled up in clusters of hundreds, one on top of the other. They seemed passive except for those who were copulating on the backs of the others.  “Not very lady-like,” I thought.
     Many of them were also crawling on the ground and, soon, I felt them inside my pants. They were on my arms, on my head, on my shirt. If they had been ticks or leeches, I would have felt differently about it, but the lady beetles did not make me apprehensive in any way.  I slowly passed my hand through the plants that harbored the beetles. Dozens of them climbed over my fingers, trying to reach a high point so they could fly away
     I noticed that some beetles had the familiar black spots on their backs while others had no spots at all. Variation and mutation are what makes this evolutionary world go around. I wondered if there might be specialized predators of lady beetles. With so many docile creatures in one place you would think that predators or something parasitic might be obvious, but I saw nothing unusual. One explanation as to why birds weren’t up there having a feast lies in the coloration of these insects. We humans might enjoy lady beetles because they are so brightly red and black. But in the rest of the natural world, red and black are aposematic - warning colors - and suggests that eating these beetles might be a bitter or poisonous endeavor.  
     I marveled over this insect gathering and spent an hour or so poking and prodding the bushes to get a better look at the fumbling masses. I was grateful to them for being there. A few white clouds drifted across the blue sky. Below the peak, the world undulated out to the horizon. A slight breeze ruffled the aspen and locust leaves.
     With a smile on my face, I drove slowly back down the mountain, stopping to get a better look at the Arizona thistle. On nearby goldenrod, I saw a mating pair of Podalonia wasps, the female sipping nectar while the male rode along, clipped to the back of her neck with his jaws. What is the reason for such an odd position?
     Nearby, on a rocky hillside, I saw something that made me jump. There were four mushrooms, a few days old, standing next to the road. Amanita muscaria! Nice! This is perhaps the most iconic of all the mushrooms in the world.  I picked one to better study the gills; they were creamy white. But why were there only four of them growing in this particular spot?
      My trip to the mountains was now complete.  I got back in the van and continued driving toward the valley. Down in the foothills, the dioxin-tainted dust roiling around me, I had one thought as I drove in Globe’s direction: “Should I get a burrito somewhere?”
It was the easiest question of the day.