Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Humans Who Love Birds Who Love Cacti

Over winter break I found myself in Tucson, Arizona. Flying in, I took these photos of the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile canal diverting water from the Colorado River's Lake Havasu to the thirsty megalopolis of Phoenix and Tucson. The canal pumps water uphill using electricity from Navajo Generating Station, which is closing in 2019. For the fascinating story of water in the West, I recommend Water is for Fighting Over: and Other Myths About Water in the West by John Fleck. And for a broader overview of climate change in the Southwest, take a look at A Great Aridness by one of my favorite authors, William DeBuys.

Central Arizona Project.

The canal looks like a surgical incision in dry land, incomparable to the winding, rough-edged path of river.

First I explored Vail, a town south of the city, with my mother Jane, father Russ, and sister Lisa. Then I met up with great friends from college, the not-quite-twins Amelia and Galen, and we circumnavigated the urban zone in our study vehicle, Red Rover. We slept on tarps, cooked over a WhisperLite stove, and camped throughout Coronado National Forest. We even managed to execute a four-day backpacking excursion through Saguaro National Park, almost entirely thanks to Galen.

A panoramic view of the Rincon Mountains behind our National Forest campsite on USFS Road 35.

I will break up the journey into bite-size blog posts, but this one really gets to the core of our adventure: an entanglement among humans, the birds we love, and the cacti from which we were never far. Welcome to the Sonoran.

The painted table at a coffee shop near the University of Arizona.


A cholla skeleton is worth contemplating.

The Madera Canyon Christmas Bird Count took Jane and I into snowy territory.

An alligator juniper, huge and scaly, in Madera Canyon.

Snow in Arizona? Jane and I were underprepared.

Amelia the rock-hopper.

Family friends and supermodels Remy and Camlin tolerated my photography.

Our botany field camp: Red Rover, Galen, and I photographed by Mother Amelia.

Sometimes humans love cacti.


Phainopepla, a snazzy bird with a snazzy name.

Mourning dove, a bird whose sound reminds me of Walla Walla, New York, and Tucson all at once.

A house finch female.

Her red-tinged male.

A black-throated sparrow at dusk in Sabino Canyon.

Black-tailed (or blue-grey?) gnatcatcher.

Gila woodpecker on saguaro.

Male Gambel's quail in the Desert Botanical Garden of Phoenix.

Red-naped sapsucker.

Male gilded flicker on saguaro. Notice the brown cap and red malar.

Bridled titmouse.

Northern mockingbird on a saguaro.

Black-chinned sparrow.

Galen and I were very lucky to go camping and birding with a friend-of-a-friend, the accomplished birder and professional Wings guide, Rich Hoyer. Check out his blog, Birdernaturalist. We picked him up at his house with enough daylight to admire his lovely garden of vegetables, native plants, bird feeders, and (like any good Tucson yard) hard-packed dirt. Galen, Rich, and I headed two hours south to camp on US Forest Service land at California Gulch, near the US-Mexico border.

It was a trip for flycatchers, so I'll start with some background on them. The flycatcher family, Tyrannidae, is the largest family of birds. It contains more than 400 species native to North and South America. The most common genera of flycatchers in the US are:

  • Empidonax. Many familiar flycatchers are small, grey birds of this genus, including Willow, Alder, Least, Hammond's, and Pacific-Slope Flycatchers. They are best distinguished by voice, or the type of tree in which they prefer to sit!
  • Myiarchus. These flycatchers are larger and more colorful. Their ranges tend to be more southern than many Empidonax. The common US species (Ash-Throated, Great-Crested, and Dusky-Capped Flycatchers) have a faded yellow belly, rufous tail, and grey cap.
  • Contopus. These birds are the pewees: small, charcoal-grey flycatchers that like to vocalize and catch insects from high, dead branches. If you have ever walked in the woods of Washington State and heard a clear, descending, "Peeeeeeew!" it was probably a Western Wood Pewee declaring his presence. Look around, because you won't want to miss his jaunty crest. This genus also includes the Olive-Sided Flycatcher with his classy grey vest.
  • Tyrannus. These birds are the Kingbirds, and they are called tyrants in Latin for their aggressive, territorial behavior. Most have long, pointed wings and broad beaks. They include the Western, Eastern, and Tropical Kingbirds.

Ash-throated flycatcher, a member of the genus Myiarchus.

Ash-throated flycatcher.

When Rich, Galen, and I woke up the next morning, we set out with a mission: to find the lone Nutting's Flycatcher that had been sighted recently in this valley. We had a promising start when we found a different Myiarchus species, the Ash-Throated Flycatcher pictured above. Nutting's and Ash-Throated look very similar, so it was great to get a search image right away.

After a few hours, we came upon our target, the Nutting's Flycatcher!

Nutting's flycatcher from behind.

Nutting's flycatcher from the side.

Not only was this individual a lifer for me (the first sighting of this species in my life), but it was only the seventh record of a Nutting's Flycatcher in the United States. This individual had been sighted several times over the past week, so we were not stumbling upon it out of the blue, but it was still amazing to realize how rarely this bird is sighted north of the border.

If you want to read Rich's account of the day, and his expert tips for telling Ash-Throated and Nutting's Flycatchers apart, read his blog post here.

My sketch of a Nutting's flycatcher as a thank-you to our generous and knowledgeable host, Rich.


Arizona barrel cactus, Ferocactus wislizeni, often lean to the south, earning them the nickname "compass barrel cactus."

The Arizona barrel cactus has fishhook spines.

Smooth prickly pear, Opuntia laevis.

Sabino Canyon at dusk framed by saguaro.

Staghorn cholla, Cylindropuntia versicolor.

My vampiric sister, Lisa, thought the jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida) were cute and fuzzy...

So she dropped one on my hat, and it rolled onto my arm! We had to pry it out of my skin with pliers.

Arizona pincushion cactus, also known as Graham's nipple cactus, Mammillaria grahamii.

Another Arizona pincushion cactus nestled in club moss on the Tanque Verde Trail of Saguaro National Park.

This saguaro has the face of a nightmare clown!

"See you in your bad dreams..."

The trunks of saguaros are far less creepy.

Jane, Nina, and staghorn cholla.

If we were tortoises, we might take a bite of this Engelmann prickly pear, Opuntia engelmannii.

Perhaps a whipple cholla, Cylindropuntia whipplei?

A tree cholla, Cylindropuntia imbricata?

Rainbow hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus rigidissimus.

A field of starkly beautiful teddy bear cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Sonoran Four: Agave, Yucca, Sotol, Beargrass

If you look out the window as you drive past Tucson, Arizona, you'll probably notice spiky plants bursting from the ground.

"Duh, they're cacti," you may be thinking.

But wait! Aside from the cacti, there are dozens of rosette-forming species that put up tall flower stalks called inflorescences. Most of these knife-sharp pompoms belong to one of four genera that I call the Sonoran Four:

1. Agave (genus Agave)
2. Yucca (genus Yucca)
3. Sotol (genus Dasylirion)
4. Beargrass (genus Nolina)

Let's take a closer look. See if you can tell the difference!


Agave, a genus native only to the New World, is easily confused with Aloe, a genus native only to the Old World (mostly Africa). The two genera belong to different families and appear similar due to convergent evolution.

Agave from the top down.

Agave have thick, succulent leaves with serrated edges. Each leaf ends in a sharp, pointed tip.

Jane points out a dead agave inflorescence.

These plants flower only once in a lifetime before dying. They spread predominantly by underground roots that put up new shoots. The flower stalk looks like multilayered tree, and the flowers are usually yellow.

Galen uses a desiccated agave as a weapon.

This notorious species, Agave schottii, is known as "shindagger" because it draws blood on contact.


Yucca leaves are thinner and straighter, without the succulent base of agave leaves. Instead of serrated points, they are often edged with wispy, white hairs.

This yucca species grows a trunk and beard with time.

Unlike agave, most yucca can bloom more than once before they die. Their flowers are white and bell-shaped. Some famous yucca species grow trunks, like the Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the soaptree yucca (Yucca elata).

The roots of soaptree yucca, Yucca elata, are used to make soap.


Sotol, also known as "desert spoon" because of the concave bases of its leaves, goes by the Latin name Dasylirion wheeleri. Its leaves are edged with tiny, upward-pointing serrations. Its inflorescence consists of thousands of small, white flowers in a dense, vertical plume.

Jane shows off the height of an impressive sotol inflorescence.


Beargrass includes several species in the genus Nolina. It is not a grass, but a member of the Asparagus family.

It looks like a clump of soft grass at a distance, but beargrass will leave you with worse than a grass-cut.

The leaves are narrower and floppier than those of Agave, Yucca, or Sotol, but they are just as deadly to bare skin. These leaves are edged with nearly-microscopic serrations.

The narrow, microscopically-serrated leaves of beargrass.

The beargrass inflorescence consists of spindly, upward-growing branches coated in creamy, white flowers.

I tended to find Yucca and Agave at lower elevations, while Sotol and Beargrass became more common as I climbed higher. Keep paying attention, and your Sonoran Four identification skills will get better and better. You know you've made it when you can lean out the car window and identify rosettes at 40 miles per hour. But don't forget to get up close and personal with these spiny friends, too. The details hold many surprises. 

On this agave, the serrated edges are mirrored in a pattern on the leaf itself.