Southwestern Research Station

The view from Stateline Road.
The view from Stateline Road.

Once again Burt and I are spellbound by the beauty and wealth of interesting things to do in the Portal area. Two nights ago we kept ourselves up past dark with dinner out at the Rodeo Tavern. Joe and Donna were on duty and they cooked up some swell service and yummy food. Joe brought out Burt’s steak for inspection prior to cooking. It was a lovely slab of meat in his bare naked hand. Afterwards we drove around looking for some spadefooted toads. The recent monsoon rains wake these toads up for a few days a year. They dig out of their underground abodes and sing to find each other, copulate, lay eggs in the new water and rebury themselves. I presume they have a bite to eat, too. More research is in order. If we find some I’ll be inspired to tighten up my knowledge. This night we found one dead frog, two unseen but croaking bullfrogs, and we saw the eye shine of a frog in a drainage ditch. It was dark. The mosquitoes made a fine meal us and the two dogs. More interesting were the colorful and dramatic rain cloud skies. The sky view is tight in the canyon where we are living. Outside the canyon the panorama never lets us down.

Last night I went to a lecture on the Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard. Click HERE for a picture and more info. I learned some pretty interesting but specialized things during last night’s lecture. This lecture is part of a course on animal behavior and it covers some out-there animal research. I didn’t learn much about the lizard in general. I learned some crazy stuff.  The spiny lizard has a thing called a nuchal pocket near its armpits. Scientists have wondered about the function of this pocket. Here’s the deal: It’s a home for chiggers. Yes, those same chiggers that love our groins and waist bands and armpits and bra straps. It seems the chiggers are going to dine on the lizard in some not so convenient locations if they don’t provide them a spot. So through the course of evolution the lizards said, “Hey stay out of our eyelids. I’ve got a spot for you that I think will be better for both of us. Check out my nuchal pocket.” This is grossly oversimplified but accurate. I think.

Lizards are covered in scales. Chiggers under the scales lead to water lose (and irritation?). Water loss is life threatening. Chiggers on eyelids sound darned uncomfortable. Chiggers in my nuchal pocket? I guess that’s tolerable. The nuchal pocket is coveres in smaller softer scales and provides a moister environment. To prove this the scientists captured a bunch of lizards, removed and counted and mapped all chiggers, and applied clear nail polish to the nuchal pockets. Then they let the lizards go. After a time the recaptured the lizards and inventoried the chiggers and their locations. The chiggers really wanted the nuchal pockets and some attached themselves to the edge of the nail polish. Most relocated to the eyelids and various leg and arm groins of the lizard. All very interesting but what I really wanted to know was: HOW DO THEY CATCH AND RELEASE AND RECATCH THE SAME LIZARDS???? This question was not addressed.

Next up I learned that lizards must be conscious to drop their tails. What? Did you forget? Lizards can drop their tails if they are grabbed by a hungry predator. I once scared a lizard and it dropped its tail. It turns out lizards drop their tails and enjoy short term survival but their long term viability is severely curtailed. Evolutionary questions remain. It seems they buy enough time to reproduce (maybe) but their tail loss results in other short comings. How does the tail detach? It can detach all along its length. Sphincters (just like the ones we have) close and separate one end of the tail from the other. Weird. This defense mechanism is called autotomy. Anyway, a sleeping lizard will not let loose its tail no matter how hard you pull. The short coming we learned about was impaired mobility. The lizard is not as agile without its tail. Lose of agility may make the animal more susceptible to predation or it might make it more prone to ‘conservative’ choices (lower perches) that make it easier to catch.

Today I already put some of my new lizard knowledge to work at the Cave Creek Visitor’s Information Center. Tonight is a lecture on echolocation in bats. I’ll fill you in tomorrow.

Other animals can loose a limb or tail and regrow it. Do you know what they are?

Willow Tank
Willow Tank
Ant Lion reserach.
Ant Lion research.
Yarrows Spiny Lizard with chiggers on the eyelid.
Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard with chiggers on the eyelid.
Southwestern research Station
Southwestern research Station
An aggrieved Horned Lizard.
An aggrieved Horned Lizard.
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Formication

The guys picking out a $10 ant.
The guys picking out a $10 ant.

Did you read that right? We’re talking skin crawling sensations not the infamous deed. Formication is the sensation of bugs crawling on your skin. There’s a lot of things that can bring on formication in the Portal Area. Two nights ago we watched a public showing the documentary Empire of the Desert Ants. Ray Mendez, pictured here with Burt was instrumental in filming the movie.  Empire of the Desert Ants purportedly tells the story of a colony of ants in nearby Horseshoe Canyon. The footage is formication inducing amazing. Twenty-seven underground ant sets (formicaries), built by Ray and his team, were used in constructing the plot. As Ray says he’s a wrangler not a trainer. You give the ants what they need to do certain things and they will do those things: eating, feeding, raiding…The ants in this movie are Honey-pot ants. This particular species has a type of ant that fills its abdomen as a storage container of food. Called a replete, these ants hang from the ceiling with translucent honey filled guts.

I enjoyed the movie but it anthropomorphized the ants so much that I missed out on the highlight of the night. Ray brought replete honey-pot ants for tasting.  For a donation to the Sew What scholarship fund you could eat a honey filled ant. I’ve always thought I would eat one if given the chance but after watching the ants on the big screen I was hypersensitized to them and couldn’t bring myself to eat them alive. I was also experiencing some formication from listening to the ant noises throughout the movie. Lucky for us Burt is tougher than me. He paid up and opened wide. Ray advised that the first squish usually results in the emission of the ant’s formic acid as a bitter precursor to the honey but Burt didn’t notice.  Ants form formic acid (CH2O2), the simplest carboxylic acid as venom. If you are interested in the movie you can watch it HERE. The exterior shots of Horseshoe Canyon are magnificent. In case you’re wondering, Formica of kitchen counter fame is named from a combo of the two words ‘for mica’ meaning it was a replacement of the use of mica as a counter top. Formica is not related to ant farms as my otherwise outstanding fifth grade teacher (Mr. Delage, may he rest in peace) misinformed us. BTW, there are more than 125 ant species in the Chiricahua area and there is more than one species of honey-pot ant.

Another source of formication in Portal is the abundance of wildlife. This sensation of formication is real and not imaginary. Yesterday I brought in my laundry, I accidentally left it hanging overnight and unbeknownst to me it had become a layover spot for about 50 moths. The moths peaceably rode the laundry into the trailer and erupted when I began folding the clothes. The trailer is riddled with moths. They fly at the computer and the light reflected off my face. There are moths in my hair and behind my ears. Mimi is doing her bit but at two moths a day my formication was going to cause lasting harm. Burt took to swatting them and we are down to a manageable but still skin crawling number.

The last major source of this week’s formication is the dry desert air. Burt and I are dessicated. Elvis, Olive and Mimi are drinking water constantly. Their water bowls demand filling every hour. My skin looks like a lichen. My nasal passages are shriveled. Where is my giant Pacific Ocean humidifier? This combination of high altitude, high heat and low humidity can mummify a person while still alive. No wonder the moths landed on our clothes. They just wanted a nice spot of moisture.

Opening wide.
Opening wide.
Oh no, this needs to be reframed. The studs are way out of level.
Oh no, this needs to be reframed. The studs are way out of level.
Burt at work.
Burt at work.
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Hummingbird Springs

Druid gets into it.
Druid gets into it. Elvis says, “no thanks.”

Yesterday I went out with Peg Abbott of Naturalist Journeys on an all day birding adventures. Four of us birded from down in the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon at about 4,800′ up to the heights of Rustler Park at about 8,500′.  The Chiricahua Mountains are rich with a wide array of bird life and the species change as elevation changes. We traveled by car but took several mile to two mile walks looking for a few harder to find species. By the end of the day I was worn out but it was worth it. We saw a lot of great things.

First up were two different owls. In one spot we saw the Northern Pygmy Owl and in another nearby location we saw the Whiskered Screech Owl. The Whiskered Screech Owl is a Mexican bird and only has a small range in the U.S. so this was a rare find. You can see its picture below. I took that with an iPhone through a spotting scope. That is one very well camouflaged bird. After a short drive we did some more road birding and found a bunch of things. Most interesting to me was a pair of nesting Painted Redstarts. These birds nest underground and we spied them working on their nest.

Up high on the crest of the Chiricahuas we looked for an Olive Warbler. It took  a couple of stops and some walking and waiting but we were rewarded with an up close eye to eye visit by this spectacular and tiny bird. The Olive Warbler feeds and nests in a yellowy orange mistletoe found up high. The face of the bird is the same color as the mistletoe. I have no picture. You can see it HERE.

We also traipsed and meandered looking for the Red-Faced Warbler but we had no luck. Instead we found a ton of Yellow Eyed Juncos and American Robins. On our way home, foot weary and hungry, we ran into a small group of turkeys. The Tom was in full spring display mode and waltzed around gobbling like R2D2 chasing after his hoped for lady friends. My birding companions said the best part of the day was watching me go bonkers for the turkeys. I had my hand out the sun roof on my iPhone while it played a gobble to keep the male roused and randy. I squealed with delight as he fanned his tail feathers and strutted about with his glossy blue head and red chin. I do love them so. HERE is what they look like. One of my companions got some great shots. I hope to post them here soon. I left my camera in the car all day so I could practice my binocular and identification skills. Getting your bins up to your eyes in time to see a fast moving warbler takes practice. I have particularly poor aim and have to reorient myself over and over again. By the time I find the spot the bird has moved on. But practice makes perfect and I did see some improvement. The secret is to never take your eyes off he spot as you raise the binoculars. It’s harder than it sounds.

Later that evening I collapsed. Today I headed out for a short hike with the Portal Rodeo Hiking Club. Two days of intense activity in a row has me half asleep now. Our six person, four dog group hiked to Humming Bird Springs on the east flank of false Portal Peak. It was an easy 2 hour walk there and back. The ocotillo are in full bloom thanks to a wettish winter and some rain a few days ago. Despite my weariness it is great to be back out hiking with friends and seeing all the natural diversity Portal has to offer. On the way home I saw this large yellowy velvet ant. Remember the velvet ants is really a mite. The largest mite in the world. This one was running and would not agree to pose.

Pat and Marcia pick out the spot for the group photo.
Pat and Marsha pick out the spot for the group photo.
Ocotillo in bloom.
Ocotillo in bloom.
The biggest velvet ant I've seen. Not really an ant.
The biggest velvet ant I’ve seen. Not really an ant.
Whiskered Screech owl on its nest.
Whiskered Screech owl on its nest.
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Beach Trip

Olive jumping for sand clods.
Olive jumping for sand clods.

We went to the beach. It was wet and sandy. The dogs chased clumps of sand and tennis balls. Burt swam. I took pictures. I’m not allowed in the water. I can blame menopause for more irritating things. Trust me you don’t want the details. Tomorrow I plan to go back in the water.

Elvis paced back and forth while the boys swam. He uses a tennis ball like a baby with a binky.
Elvis paced back and forth while the boys swam. He uses a tennis ball like a baby with a binky.
Olive shakes her money maker.
Olive shakes her money maker.
Burt and Vince check out the waves.
Burt and Vince check out the waves.
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More Birds

A pair of Scott's Orioles.
A pair of Scott’s Orioles.

A pitch of Orioles have arrived and two of them are using our fence to get around. Orioles are monogamous and this male female pair enjoyed their morning feed together. The Scott’s Oriole is a fantastic singer. They must have heard about the rumpus room song sessions.

Speaking of singing, our weekend event is being promoted on the radio and the Gypsy Carpenters have leaped off the silver screen and onto the magic airwaves. At least our name has. The substance behind the name, our music and images, remain unheard and unseen. We’re sneaking up on secret cult phenomenon. These things are delicate and can’t be rushed.

Like my new hat?
Like my new hat?
Female above, male below.
Female above, male below.
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Cactus fight back

This grizzled teenager sized cardon lost her main stem.
This grizzled teenager sized cardon lost her main stem.

Cardons are the signature wild west cactus of lower Baja. They are very similar to the saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert of the the southwestern United States. Cardons are bigger and more rugged looking than saguaro but both are long lived and very large with massive arms. Hurricane Odile took down many cardons in our neighborhood. A favorite up on the hill is gone and many in Janet’s yard tipped over. Many desert plants can be tipped right back up but cardons weigh hundreds of pounds. Even without all the spines it would be a risky endeavor. Our own cardon snapped in half just above the ground. There was no saving it. Or so we thought.

As I wander through town and spring is upon us I am discovering many plants that appeared hopelessly maimed are in fact alive. We had a few days of gentle rain this winter and the desert is waking up. One of the terrote trees (elephant tree) in our own yard is making its own miracle recovery.  This particular tree did not break in the storm but topped over. Shallow but wide reaching roots are how desert plants find water. Shallow roots allow a plant to fall without breaking.  I adored this tree. It has a lovely curve to its trunk and the branches spread in an artistically pleasing way. It’s only about 8′ tall and 6″ around. The tree had been out of the ground for several months when we arrived and we gave it up for dead. We hauled it to a pile of debris across the street. I was so sad. The loss of this tree was harder for me than the loss of our palapa. I stopped thinking about it. I planted some new things but the special tree’s hole remained empty.

The days are longer and the dewy spring has arrived. A few weeks ago Burt gave the tree a second look. Things were waking up all around us so he wondered if the tree was really dead. Burt broke off the tip of a branch and found a bright green and wet inner core. He decided right then to put the tree back in the ground. Today, just 3 weeks later, every branch on that tree has new leaves. Tears filled my eyes this morning when I saw them. It’s our very own Lazarus tree.

The main stem on the ground. I think somebody cut off the tip and planted it.
The main stem on the ground. I think somebody cut off the tip and planted it.
Close up of a new button.
Close up of a new button.
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Cloud Appreciation Day

Cardon and Clouds
Cardon and Clouds

It’s come to my attention that I really don’t notice clouds without some help. It takes a nudge by my companions to get me looking up. I’ll blame it on my sun hat. Despite my limitations I know clouds make the day and frequently the picture. A pure blue sky is rather bland not to mention hot. Sunset and sunrise need clouds for dramatic color. With three certified cloud aficionados (one a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society) I am casting my eyes heavenwards far more often. There are a lot of interesting things going on over our bit of Baja. First up we have the ocean meeting the mountains. We also have humid meeting desert. Then we also have very few contrails since we are not on the way to anywhere. Trans Baja flights almost always fly over the Bahia de California. Our diversity of cloud formations defies the simple four (or three) types we were taught in school. I just looked them up: Nimbus, Cumulous, Stratus, Cirrus. These four are massive heads of the cloud pyramid. They are more like saying something is an animal, vegetable or mineral. There are so many sub-cloud types and mixtures of clouds it’s no wonder I gave up a long time ago trying to make a cloud fit into one of the four groups. It bewildered me. Today’s search of the internet convinced me it is hopeless to identify without professional help. I am relegating myself to admirer.

Yesterday’s clouds were dynamic and diverse. We spent the day looking for whales and checking out different sea caves. Some whales were spotted spouting from a distance. One sea cave was filled with sand and another had a shrine with food and beverages for a departed loved one. Overhead the clouds wilted and whisped and did their cloud thing. We concluded with a late lunch and mojitos. Bed time came early.

Clouds over Elvis and Olive
Clouds over Elvis and Olive
Magnificent Frigate and Clouds II
Magnificent Frigate and Clouds II. A little Mackerel sky meeting Mare’s Tails.
Magnificent Frigate and clouds.
Magnificent Frigate and clouds.
More clouds
More clouds
IMG_9973
Clouds and Ridge
Looking for whales
Looking for whales
Found a few whales
Found a few whales
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Chorro Hot Springs

Blue Man and his beer can tree.
Blue Man and his beer can tree.

Sometimes you wish you remembered the origin of an idea so you had someone to blame. Burt and I and Al and Rachele hatched an idea to hike someday. That idea morphed into a non-hikey excursion when corporeal issues precluded strenuous hiking. Someone, it might have been me, thought let’s go see the hot springs on the other side. We can take a drive, see something new and have a fun day.
Hey, and this was my idea, let’s bring the dogs. Dogs love spending 7 hours cooped in a car doing nothing almost as much as we do.

Yesterday the plan was put into action. We drove south to Al and Rachele’s at Elias Calles. Perusal of maps revealed it was a shorter drive around to the other side from Cabo. Five humans packed into an SUV with two dogs in the hatch. Remind me I am too old for three across in a backseat for any drive greater than a mile. Burt forgot his map. Al only had one of the cartoon like tourist maps. Oh well, we’ll ask for directions when we get closer.

Olive rode the first 2 1/2 hours with her paws up on the back seat whimpering and panting on Rachele’s sister’s neck. What was worse: the whimpering and panting or me ‘disciplining’ Olive to get her to back off? Patty was tolerant. Olive was tenacious. I gave up trying to stop her. Clear of the convolutions of Cabo we headed north up towards Milaflores and San Antonio. Now this crayon map was not much help. We headed into Miraflores, as lovely a small town as you can find in Baja, and went in the general direction Burt thought we should go. A collective stop was called when we saw an official outside the Sierra de La Laguna Biosphere Preserve offices. This guy was named Silvestre (WILD in Spanish). Burt and he exchanged sentences out of earshot while the four of us watched. We headed down a road that Burt thought was recommended. It rutted out into a rancho yard. I guess Silvestre doesn’t know his way around. Or maybe it was another incident of a preposition being lost in translation. Maybe he said If you go that way you’ll have trouble NOT it is not trouble to go that way. We’ll never know. We turned around. We met a ranchero with an equally packed truck cab and he gave all of us directions. Mutli-layered directions. Choices. Collectively we opted for what consensus concluded was, “Go back to the highway, go to Santiago, 12 km to the left.” There was debate about the alternate route and a schoolhouse landmark. Consensus was we stick to the highway. No more dirt. Olive and Elvis breath too hard on dirt roads and the ladies cheek to jowl in the backseat did not like riding the corrugated gravel.

In Santiago we sought out an update to the previous advice. This man on the street alarmed us when he responded, “the hot springs were very, very far away.” His face was contorted in dismay. Like 12 km he sadly informed us. All of 8 miles. We had driven 2 1/2 hours. He was speaking English and we were speaking Spanish so maybe he mixed up his near and far. We’ll never know. We dug deep to find the endurance to cover the remaining 8 miles. Past the zoo. The well known zoo of Baja. Nobody I know has gone in. We are all much too scared of what we might see in a zoo. So, past the zoo, through the arroyo, and past some tidy houses to a guarded gate. Twenty pesos a person n we were in. Now to soak and recover from the arduous drive.

The east cape of Baja is much warmer than our side of the peninsula. I felt my leaden muscles move from stiff to limp. A bald sun beat down on a tight, hot canyon. The pools of El Chorro (the stream) are algae and fish filled and small. They are also tepid. It was hot so tepid wasn’t much of a problem but it made me wonder, when is a tepid hot spring enjoyable? Too cold out and you can’t get in. Too hot out and you don’t want to get in. Green and small and unappetizing were the problems. Road weary and hungry we crouched under a thorny bush and enjoyed our lunch. Canadians of the great plains can be quiet people. There wasn’t much to say about our underwhelming feelings at reaching the hot springs. No false praise to be found amongst this lot of don’t say anything if you can’t say something nice at all people. Myself included in that remark. Eye rolling and nose scrunching was about all that needed to be said. Even Burt didn’t have much to be jolly about.

Fortified with victuals we ambled about to see if we were wrong in our first impressions. Maybe we were too hungry to see the secret beauties of the soaking pools. A German woman was in the one person pool behind the dam. She exclaimed that the fish were exfoliating her skin. There was only room for her and the fish so we continued on. Upstream Burt spotted a precarious boulder with a blue and orange Virgin of Guadalupe on the face of it. She cast her protective gaze down upon the canyon and it’s fetid, tepid water. I was thankful that she was worth seeing. The dogs found the shallowly buried poop of humans. That makes for healthy neck drooling on the ride back. I’d seen enough it was time to go.

Rumors of lovely swimming holes further up the canyon will have to remain rumors. We left. I picked up a bottle of local honey on the way out. Al took us back by an alternate route and everyone but Al switched seats so we could wear out different parts of our anatomy on the drive home. Burt sat on the middle hump. We thumb wrestled. He won. Numbed by disappointment and car time we didn’t stop in El Triunfo or anywhere else. The dogs slept.

All in all it wasn’t as bad as I make it out to be here. I realized it was just too far for 5 people and 2 dogs. A camp out might have made it more enjoyable. Time to go up canyon in the early morning would have been fun. I hope Al and Rachele still like us after we shared a lame adventure with them.

Virgin of Guadalupe way up on a rock above Chorro Hot Springs.
Virgin of Guadalupe way up on a rock above Chorro Hot Springs.
The ring of rocks at the lower edge of the photo is the soaking pool.
The ring of rocks at the lower edge of the photo is the soaking pool. There’s room for one and fish.
Elvis, master drooler.
Elvis, master drooler.
Tiny but pretty pool of hot water.
Tiny but pretty pool of hot water.
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Pictures for You Peeps That want to see MEEEEEE

I spy
I spy

We had a brief visitation from friends of a friend and one of them happened to take pictures. Here are the results. Thanks, Barry, if you are out there. Aside from pictures, Barry and Jen are also musicians and all of us, Barry, Jen, Tom, Burt and me mixed it up a week ago at Wind and C’s. This week it was back to just the two of us and I have to say, despite it being one of the best shows ever, it seemed like it would never end. Two hours goes a lot faster when there are five of you to mix it up.

This week we are off music wise and on big time with the film festival. I am now half in charge of monitoring and moving dinero from tickets and merchandise. A big promotion for me that I did not earned. Last girl standing and I couldn’t hide the fact that I like money and counting. I love counting money. Burt will be my body guard.

I am not afraid of Tom. I was playing th every loud claves and trying to mute it behind Burt.
I am not afraid of Tom. I was playing penetrating claves and trying to mute them behind Burt. Meanwhile my head is back in extasy as I contemplate Tom’s work on El Cumbancero.
Dancing girls and El Cumbancero.
Dancing girls and El Cumbancero.
Panorama of our spot. It's dusty, I admit.
Panorama of our spot. It’s dusty, I admit.
Where is my hand headed? Horse skull and ....
Where is my hand headed? Horse skull and ….
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Was it a Full Moon Where You Are?

Sierra de la Laguna at sunset. Picacho.
Sierra de la Laguna at sunset. Picacho.

Well, of course it was, silly. I hatched a great plan to have our Valentine’s Day date out in the desert where we could see the sunset over the ocean and the moonrise over the mountains. I hoped to taken some pictures of the mountains lit by the setting sun as the moon peeked out. Alas, the moon was about 15 minutes late to the show. I should have come out the day before. And I should have remembered the little adapter that attached the camera to the tripod. The lovely pink haze was dioxin laden smoke from the dump burning. Pretty isn’t it? All my moon pictures came out over or underexposed but the mountains had already gone to sleep so it didn’t matter.  It was a fun date anyway.

Afterwards we returned home to the gNash and dined on homemade ravioli’s out of the freezer. It was a pretty good day. Later this week the 11th Annual Festival de Cine starts and I might be short on time or energy to blog. The volunteer coordinator is planning on using our overly reliable butts to do anything that needs doing. Today I had to let her know that Burt is a man of action and not an accountant just so she wouldn’t expect him to do any heavy money changing. Rules combined with money gives Burt hives. Today is chore day. Off to water and pick up dog poop. Life in paradise.

Desaturated desert and Sierra de la Laguna.
Desaturated desert and Sierra de la Laguna.
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