Category Archives: Nature

POND LIFE

Dave and I were exploring Bear Canyon in the Catalina Mountains. The stream was intermittent, with long stretches of dry sand, and occasional pools. When we got to the area pictured here, we sat down to relax and talk. The pool was about 10 by 20 feet, and a foot or two deep. We were on the north side of the water, so ripples in the surface sparkled in the sunlight.

bear-canyon-pond

Then we noticed what looked like a cluster of four stars moving erratically across the water. Looking through our binoculars we saw that each star was an indentation in the water caused by the legs of a water strider. We also noticed that the two front legs are very much smaller than the side ones, and created smaller stars, so there were six in all. (Gerridae are a family of insects in the order Hemiptera, commonly known as water striders, water bugs, pond skaters, water skippers, or jesus bugs. Wikipedia)

striderAn enlarged picture of the water strider

It was somewhat hypnotizing watching these insects dart around the pond. We imagined that this might be their whole world. In addition to skimming the top of the water, they occasionally jumped, doing so quickly enough for us to wonder where they had gone.

Then a white moth (or butterfly), landed on the pond, at first lying quite still. The water striders started to gather around, and looked as if they were going to feast on this delectable corpse, when, all of a sudden it started flapping its wings furiously. The encircling mob immediately retreated. We were fascinated by the sun reflecting off the ripples, and the shadows of the ripples making fast moving circular patterns on the bottom.

butterfly-skipper-ripples There seem to be about six striders in this view

After a few seconds of furious motion, the moth lay perfectly still. The striders cautiously started to move in, only to be panicked by another flurry of wing activity. We noticed that the beating wings did not leave the surface of the water. They were more like paddles on a row boat.

butterfly-ripples

In addition to the striders a couple of dragon flies came into the area right above the water, darting back and forth and then disappearing upstream. We were amazed at how they managed to avoid a spider’s web that hung in the still air.

The drama with the striders and the dying moth continued, and we left the area long before it was finished. We felt privileged to share their world, if only briefly.

BOOK SIGNING
This coming Sunday, November 6, I will have a book signing at our church – Sunrise Chapel.
The chapel is on 8421 E. Wrightstown Road, between Pantano and Camino Seco, in Tucson. The signing will be on the Patio from 12:15 to 1 pm. I will have these three books: “Bo and the Fly-Away Kite (written by Virginia Ames and illustrated by me), “Church Growth Pains and Pleasures” and “More Wildflowers and Trees” containing photographs of 343 plants thast did not make it into my other books: “Mountain Wildflowers” and Mountain Trees” which will also be on sale. Notecards of my wildflower portraits will be available. I would love to see you there.

cover-3-books

OCTOBER PLEASURES

It has been a glorious fall in the Catalina mountains. I had a walk with Ed, during which we came across an animal that looked, at first, to be a snake with its tail cut off. Then we saw the four legs, and knew it was a lizard. I had not seen one with the same markings before. There are many varieties of lizards in Southern Arizona (there are about 6000 in the whole world), and we were not sure what this one was. It had lost about half of its body length but evidently was surviving well in the leaf litter. It looks like it could be a Madrean Alligator Lizard (Elgaria kingii).

tailless-lizard

Ed and I enjoyed the fall colors immensely. Two days later my niece, Marjorie, and I drove up the mountain to take in the special beauty of this season. We stopped first in Bear Wallow to see the colors there. Then we proceeded to the parking lot of the Ski area. We were enchanted by the Aspen trees in full color. I usually think of Aspen leaves as all turning yellow in the fall, unlike the big Tooth maples that come in a variety of colors. It did not take long poking through the litter on the ground, to find that just as there are no two snow flakes alike, it seems that no two aspen leaves are alike either. This little sample shows just five leaves. Note the color and shape differences. We were particularly struck by those that were deep red. From a distance, the combination of the usual yellow and the occasional red, makes the overall effect orange. Had we stayed to explore this more, we think we would have found many more colors and shapes.

aspens

populus-tremuloides-lf-fall1-set

Coming down the mountain we pulled off to see one of Marjorie’s favorite areas. It is in a pine forest, with interesting rock formations. The low area had lots of desert marigold (Tagetes lemmoni) in full and glorious bloom. Then I came upon a circle of stones – perhaps a camp fire – with a plant growing through the rocks. Its leaves looked very much out of place. Marjorie said that they could be Nasturtium, a popular bedding plant. This is the first time we had seen this plant growing in the mountains. Nasturtiums (Genus Tropaeolum), are native to Central and south America. Watercress is called: Nasturtium officinale, but the plants are totally different. It seems that watercress and nasturtium produce a similar oil. The name Nasturtium comes from roots meaning “nose distorting”. I imagine that Nasturtium and Watercress smell about the same.
nasturtium-lf

nasturtium-officinale-6

The single leaf, we think, is Nasturtium. The picture below it is of watercress.
Every trip up the mountain brings sights worth enjoying. There are not many flowers blooming in October, but parts of the mountain are ablaze in color.

A CAMOUFLAGE SPIDER AND A CHILDREN’S BOOK

Recently I was exploring the area south of the Santa Rita mountains with my friend, Jim. We were particularly interested in grasses, but kept coming across other plants of interest, including this one with the yellow flowers (Melampodium). When I processed the picture I noticed what seemed to be a yellow flower right at the base of the stem. Then I zoomed in and found it was a spider! I believe it is a Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia). Years ago I was processing a picture of a Bouvardia plant, and found one tucked in among the red tubular flowers. It seems that this particular spider does not make a web. Its color enables it to perch unseen on a yellow flower and just wait for insects to land on it. Maybe this one was trying out a red one to see if that would also do the trick. These spiders also come in white, and can change color to match the flowers they visit.

melampodium-longipes-3

melampodium-longipes-spider

yellow-spider

Recently my old friend, Virginia Ames, published her charming book: Bo and the Fly-Away Kite. She is old in two senses. I have known her for many years, first meting her in 1982 – 34 years ago. Now she is 102. And this is her first children’s book which I was honored to illustrate for her. She is an accomplished water-color artist herself, but chose to have me do the illustrations. It is unique in having the text in three languages, since the story includes three boys – English speaking, Spanish speaking, and O’odham speaking. Here is the link on Amazon.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Bo-Fly-Away-Kite-Virginia-Ames/dp/1533561524/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1475246820&sr=1-7&keywords=virginia+ames#reader_1533561524

SMALL WONDERSS

After some wonderful summer rains, the trails are rich with flowers. Some of the smallest plants bloom at this time of year, especially the little Sixweeks Prairie Clover (Dalea polygonoides), and Drymaria (Drymaria leptophylla). Last Thursday we had a plant walk in the mountains after heavy rains the day before. At 8000′ the mountains were in cloud and each twig and flower was covered with dew. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We saw over sixty different species in bloom, and thousands of flowers.

dalea-polygonoides-3f

dalea-polygonoides-7f Sixweeks Prairie Clover

drymaria-leptophylla-3f

drymaria-leptophyllafl Drymaria

Recently I printed a limited edition of my new plant book. I call it “More” because it is a kind of supplement to the books: “Mountain Wildflowers” and “Mountain Trees”. So far I have just sold it out of the trunk of my car but now people who are in Southern Arizona can find it at the Living Rainbow store in Summerhaven on the Catalina Mountains.

cover-more

Jim Verrier and I are working on a book showing the beauty of grasses, and I am getting ready to format a book which I will call “Small Wonders” showing the beauty of little plants like the Sixweeks Prairie Clover and Drymaria, plus hundreds of others, Many of which I call “Invisible Flowers.”

Recently I have actually met some flowers that I had only read about in books. They are called “cleistogamic” referring to the fact that the flowers are entirely enclosed and never open to the fresh air. They pollinate themselves. My most recent find was several of these on a Pennelia plant (Pennellia longifolia). Prior to that I had photographed cleistogamic flowers in the violet family (Viola umbraticola, or Blue Violet.)

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl-5 Pennellia with the round dot being an enclosed flower

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl

The enclosed flower, above, and a cutaway showing the interior, below

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl-inside

Nature never cease to amazes and delight me. There is plenty of time for more flowers before the cold weather comes.

RAIN – RAIN – RAIN

We have been going on plant walks every week since June, and every week we see fewer flower species in bloom than usual. The last rain here was April 11 – just under eleven weeks ago. What a thrill today when the heavens opened and almost an inch of rain was recorded in our rain gauge! In a few hours the temperature dropped thirty degrees.

There are some wildflowers in bloom, including three that I have never noticed before. One of them had been on Joan Tedford’s plant list for years, but I have never seen it. Perhaps this is because it has leaves that look very much like the walnut trees which grow in the same area (about 6000 feet in elevation.) When I saw the leaves I thought it was just another walnut tree, but then I looked at the flower cluster and knew that this was a plant I had never noticed in the mountains. I could have seen it in other places in America since apparently it is the only tree or shrub that can be found in all of the lower 48 States.  It is called Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra).   I look forward to seeing the red berries, and its brilliant red leaves in the autumn.

Juglans majorLFsWalnut leaves

Rhus glabra LFcpSumac leaves

Rhus glabra 6cpSumac flower cluster

Another new plant – not yet identified – looks like a lactuca, but it seems to be one that I have never seen before. The third new plant is a Galium. I am waiting to photograph it when it starts to bloom in a week or so.

Mystery lactuca plantMystery plant

Mystery lactucaMystery plant close up

I recently produced a new book of plant photographs. I call it – “More Wildflowers and Trees.” It includes photographs of plants that did not make it into my books: “Mountain Wildflowers of Southern Arizona” and “Mountain Trees of Southern Arizona”.
The new book has been printed in a very limited edition. Later I plan to print more. It contains photographs of 342 species.

On Father’s Day (June 19) the Arizona Daily Star had a two-page article titled “Art Strengthens Family Ties – Father, son share love for creating watercolors.” This excellent article was written by  Angela Pittenger and features our son, Owen, and me plus pictures of our paintings. I have had many very positive responses to the article.

Fall leaves“Fall Leaves” – One of the paintings in the article:

We are all excited about the rain that fell today, and hope for more rain in the coming weeks. This should bring out many more of the wildflowers that I love so much.

SUMMER TIME

Ed and I were walking along the Sunset Trail in the Catalina Mountains, and my eyes were drawn to these Douglas Fir trees. I have seen one-sided trees like this on high mountain ridges where the prevailing winds fashion them into a flag shape, but we were in a canyon about a thousand feet down from the highest poInt in the range, and these were the only two with this particular shape. I suspect that the wind at times can come roaring up the canyon from the right in this photograph. And then again, there may be another explanation for this unusual shape (called Krummholz or Flag trees).

flag trees

Now it is June and the Cow Parsnip plants are huge and showy. Their botanical name, Heracleum lanatum, means Woolly Hercules, the giant of Greek mythology (Heracles in Greek, Hercules in Latin). This plant is in the carrot family and can be as high as six feet tall with large leaves and inflorescences. Using my close-up camera I was able to photograph an individual flower from one of the many clusters that make up the entire flowering head. I notice that these little flowers tend to be lopsided, with small petals facing to the center of the cluster,, and larger ones facing the outside.

Heracleaum lanatum 1

Heracleum lanatum 6

Heracleaum lanatum 7

It has been very dry and hot (many days over 100 in the valley), but the Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea) are flourishing and are a treat to see.

Heuchera sanguinea 3

FALL OF A CHAMPION

Some time ago I heard from Jeannie at the Ranger’s Station that one of my favorite trees on the mountain had fallen. Early this month (May) we saw a front page article in the Arizona Daily Star: “100-foot tree towers no more in Catalinas”, by Doug Kreutz. Then I knew that it was time to go and see my old friend.  I have been hiking in the Catalina Mountains for thirty-four years and have come to know and love this very special tree. It was on a West-facing slope high in the mountain, and leaned over the trail. I have done a number of paintings of this magnificent specimen. This is one of them

. Granddaddy Ent

I recalled my fear for the tree in the Aspen fire of 2003 when much of the town of Summerhaven and huge stretches of forest burned. When I finally got to visit the tree again, about a year after the fire I noticed it was in fine shape. I apologized to it for doubting its ability to deal with fire. In its two or three hundred year history it must have been scorched many times.

In the end it was not fire that brought the tree down, but internal decay. This made it vulnerable to the wind.

Soon after reading the article my wife and I went to hike at the top of the mountains so that I could see it for myself. Considering the angle of the tree I knew it must have completely blocked the trail when it fell. Sure enough I found the trail impassable, but people had made a route up the slope to the base of the stump and around the other side. I had a few moments of silent respect for the tree, and returned a little saddened by our loss

It was a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). This is a species that is second only to the Redwoods in the height to which it can attain. Fortunately there are other giants in the Catalina Mountains, but none that I know of with this much character. We will no doubt see it lying across the trail for a long time to come, and will miss its majestic presence on the mountain.

Douglas Fir Stump and trunkThe trail was about in the middle of this fallen trunk

Douglas Fir Stump and blocked tailThis is where the trail used to be

 

 

The trail now goes just by the stumpDouglas Fir Stump

PEACE IN THE GROTTO

Peace in the Grotto

El Nino promised rains and wonderful flowers but the promises have not been kept. So far this has been an average Spring. Here is a picture of two of the favorite Spring flowers – the Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica ssp. Mexicana) and Wild Heliotrope (Phacelia distans). We saw a few patches of these in Catalina State Park. Other years we would have seen fields of them.

 

Spring flowers

 

Yesterday Dave and I went to visit one of our favorite spots in the Catalina Mountains. To reach it we followed an unmarked trail up a canyon to a place where the stream drops about fifteen feet into a little pool. On the way we stopped to enjoy the view and have a little rest. We were struck by the quiet in this remote canyon. It was not completely silent. After sitting a while we could hear a background of insect and bird noises, together with the gentle flow of air through the flowers, shrubs, and trees.

There were wildflowers here and there, like this beautiful patch of Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi) just by the trail.

Penstemon parryi 3c

When we reached the grotto those noises were eclipsed by the water dropping down from the cliff, and splashing on rocks and mosses before landing in the very small pool at the base. Some of the drops refreshed us with a very gentle rain.

We have been there when the pool was the size of one of those above-ground pools that are popular in Tucson back yards. Today it was scarcely three by two feet. With the binoculars we caught a glimpse into its life. There were water scorpions, water striders and other aquatic bugs with their zig-zag courses skimming on the water and bouncing into each other like bumper cars at the fair. Occasionally one would dive the six inches or so to the bottom. Over time we saw lots of different species and couldn’t help wondering what they would do when the pool dried up completely in a few weeks. We had a quarter of an inch of rain on February 1st. The only rain since then was a tenth of an inch two weeks ago.  Even so the snow melt from higher in the mountains continues to provide life-giving water to the lower canyons and every day we can expect to find new flower species coming into bloom.

 

Grotto 2 The Grotto with a trickle of water. Below a close-up with yellow monkey flower

 

Grotto

An odd plants, a dead bird and lost paintings

On our walks lately we have seen plants in bloom but they are few and far between. We did see a Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) with two flowering stalks. Normally they only have one that stays on the plant for more than a year. At least we think it was one plant. Sometimes plants grow so close together that their leaves become entwined to the point that it is hard to tell whether it is one or two.
Dasylirion wheeleri 2 stalks
The Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) has some of the densest collection of spines of all the cactus species around here. Some birds build their nests right in the thick of them where they can feel really safe and secure. How they manage to fly in and out without impaling themselves is quite a mystery. Recently we came across a dead bird lying on one of their branches. We assumed that it had been flying in and out of the plant successfully until it finally got hooked. Of course it could have died in the air and simply fallen to this resting place.
Chollas

Cholla closeup

Dead bird  in cholla
My wife and I occasionally have a burst of energy to de-junk our house. Last week we tackled the shed throwing out many large plastic bags of trash. And then, to my amazement, I found two oil paintings that I had done years ago. They were tucked away in the back corner. The fact that I had not signed them proves that they have never been in a show. As it turns out our son, Owen, and I are having a joint show at the Contreras Gallery (110 E. 6th St., Tucson) the whole month of March. We will frame these two oil paintings and make them the center pieces of my part of the show. You are all invited to the opening of the show, 6-9 pm, Saturday March 5, 2016.

Douglas fir

“Douglas fir” oil painting (30×24 inches)

Navajo country

“Navajo country” oil painting (24×30 inches)

In a few weeks we will have lots of flowers to enjoy and talk about.

Fun with Saguaros

For over thirty years I have been admiring the great columnar cactus, Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). When they are about 60 years old some, but not all, of them start growing arms. Much later, some of the arms might begin to grow arms. What if those arms grew arms? About ten years ago I became obsessed with the task of finding one with an arm on an arm on an arm, what you might call a third-generation outgrowth.

On one of our hikes in Catalina State Park years ago we saw one but I did not get a photograph. Since then every time I go to that park I look for it. So far no luck. But last week Ed and I were walking on the Pink Hill Trail in Saguaro National Park East, and there was a giant Saguaro. Ed pointed out that it did indeed have an arm on an arm on an arm.

 

Arm Arm Arm3Arm Arm Arm

We hiked again yesterday, this time on the Ridge Trail on the south side of the Rincon mountains. The trail ends at a beautiful outcropping of rock with a panoramic view of the area. We noticed a Saguaro whose south side was almost pure white. We studied it a little and came to the conclusion that it had been pelted with stones over the years and, for some reason the whole south flank turned white.

Saguaro white side

Then, as we retraced our steps, we looked in the distance at a Saguaro that looked like it had just had a terrible shock, with hair standing on end. Of course we were seeing two saguaros. The one behind was now a skeleton with its ribs pointing skyward.

Saguaro hair day

Then we saw an Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with several of its branches turning downwards and then turning back skyward. It must have been injured in some way.

Ocotillo turn 3Ocotillo turn

It is the day before Christmas, and we are still seeing plants in bloom. Yesterday it was Pringle’s Prairie Clover (Dalea pringlei), and Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) plus lots of dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta) and others. Every month of the year we find plants in bloom. Soon the early spring flowers will brighten our walks.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you