Thursday, April 26, 2012

Desert camo

Sure you can see it here...

But it blends in fairly well here.

And what's obvious in this shot... a bit more obscure in this one.

And this one.

But if you can find the toad in this photo...

Would you believe it's in this one too?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


First impressions of cactuses (or cacti, or simply cactus if you prefer) in and around Marana and Saguaro National Park:

[Barrel cactus]

The fruits of the barrel cactus are delicious—the texture is roughly comparable to a bell pepper, the flavour similar to that of a citrus fruit, and the tiny seeds are crunchy, very like poppy seeds.

I remember several books of my youth advising that, if one were lost in the desert, barrel cactus could be used as a source of water—but apparently some species are poisonous. Just as well we carried water with us, and didn't get lost.

[Prickly pear/beavertail]

We have prickly pear in Nebraska, but they tend to be small and obscure—nothing like the specimens we saw in Sonora country.


You don't want to get too cuddly with cactus in general, but cholla is in its own league. One species is known as jumping cholla for the ease with which its thorns dislodge. From the plant, that is. They have backwards-pointing barbs, like microscopic fishhooks, so to get them out of your flesh you'll need pliers.

The flowers, though, are quite lovely, even past their prime.

[Cholla skeleton]

[Group shot, L-R: prickly pear, barrel cactus, cholla. There is a "spear" saguaro in the background.]


The prototypical cactus of western deserts in many peoples' minds, saguaro are actually quite unique (one species of saguaro as opposed to dozens of species of cholla, a couple hundred of prickly pear, and for barrel cactuses how many depends on which genera you count as fitting the description) and are endemic to a single desert, the Sonoran.

[As the song says, "Ain't No Saguaro In Texas", so this logo is flat-out wrong.]

In a land of few if any large trees, saguaros fill that role nicely. Gilded flickers and Gila woodpeckers excavate holes in many of the larger ones, and other cavity-nesting bird species (including American kestrels, elf owls, and cactus wrens) are secondary users of these holes. Other birds, such as Harris hawks and great horned owls, nest directly on the cactus, and virtually all of the Sonoran desert's avifauna makes at least occasional use of saguaro perches for foraging and/or territorial displays like singing.

The very slow-growing saguaro is strictly protected by law (and sometimes by Darwin), and the blossom (pollinated by bats) is the state flower of Arizona.

[Organ-pipe cactus?]

Outside of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which we did not visit, organ-pipe is rare in Arizona, but this may be a young specimen. (Or I could just as easily be wrong.)


Not technically a cactus, ocotillo is close enough for me to include it here. If I were a hummingbird, I would love me some ocotillo.

To close, a few random photos.



Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country; therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace; after having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1934

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tiger of the desert

A pair of great horned owls was nesting in a saguaro near our campsite in the Sonoran desert near Marana, Arizona.

GHOs can be very territorial and intolerant of human interlopers, but we got along quite nicely for the four or five days we were there.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Pronghorns, New Mexico

Pronghorns (the "antelope" of "Home on the Range") like big, open country. I'd seen them previously in other places—Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado—but never have I seen so many as in northern New Mexico.

[Band of does]

[Mature buck in background, young buck or horned doeabout 40% of female pronghorns develop short, unforked horns—in foreground]

Years ago, I wondered aloud to a friend why pronghorns are so much faster (estimates range up to 60 mph) than they need to be. Fortunately, she had training in paleontology, and immediately supplied the answer: Up until about 10,000 years ago, the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, Antilocapra americana was preyed upon by Miracinonyx, the American cheetah, and needed every bit of that speed.

I would love to see these hunted by trained Old World cheetahs...

Friday, April 20, 2012

...and who we are

It's been brought to my attention that Jessica hasn't been properly introduced in the Western fashion. She's actually been on Flyover Country, through allusion at least, since late October, when I posted a poem written for and about her. ("Unexpected" was the first; "Tea Ceremony" in December was another big hint.) But since some of my more geographically distant friends and family keep up with me through the blog, I've been persuaded to discontinue the hints and come out with at least a few details.

Long story short, we met at work, got to know each other as friends, and simultaneously began to discover there was something more to our relationship. On the wall of Jessica's parents' house in Arizona (Jess grew up mainly in Louisiana, which for several reasons I find appealing) is a quote that she framed some years ago, and which turned out to be quite prophetic:

There is something sweetly inexplicable that passes between two people who are destined to meet when one day, after wandering often aimlessly through life, the heavens finally fall into alignment, and they happen upon each other unexpectedly. It is not quite, though some might call it so, the proverbial love at first sight that strangers sometimes experience, for in truth, the two find in each other something extraordinarily familiar and comforting. It is more a feeling of profound recognition than anything else, one that brings with it a sense of relief, as if their hearts are saying to each other, "Oh, there you are. Where have you been? I've been looking all over for you for the longest time."

—Peter Pezzeli, Francesca's Kitchen

It's not just similar backgrounds, interests, and values that make us compatible, it's also tiny details that most people would find irrelevant to the point of absurdity. I like that she's French and Irish; she likes that I'm English. We agree on tea, Christmas lights, and the Oxford comma. We agree the Grand Canyon is impressive, but we would rather spend most of our time looking for tassel-eared squirrels.

I've been dreaming of and fantasizing about this woman since I was about twelve; what an unexpected joy to discover that she actually exists! She's taller than I expected (6'1" to my 6'2"), but I find, somewhat to my surprise, that I like that too. There's a bit of an age difference (never mind the stats on that one), but we almost immediately decided that that simply didn't matter: Jess was, according to her mom, "born 40", and I like to joke that "I may be middle-aged, but fortunately I'm really immature."

A major purpose of our recent trip was for me to meet her parents (and her sister, Heather), for we have a wedding planned for late October, at which point we will officially be the Farrell-Churchills. (We're already breaking the name in...) If you want to learn more, well, you'll just have to keep checking in here, or better yet come visit us.

Trip pictures soon, I promise.