Summer in the desert

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One thing that makes traveling to Portal each month so interesting is the speed at which the desert landscape can change. Southeastern Arizona has recently been in a major drought, but the arrival of summer monsoon rains seems to have helped green things up, at least temporarily.

Desert mushroom

Gopher snake on traps

Below, the first photo was taken on July 2, 2011 and the second photo was taken August 6, 2011. During that month approximately 11.4 cm of rain fell and transformed the dry, dusty ground into a carpet of green seedlings and flowers.

Some areas were covered in orange flowers (e.g., summer poppies, orange flame flower, and showy flame flower), purple flowers (e.g., silverleaf nightshade) and large caterpillars were abundant (I think mostly Sphinx moths).

In addition to the growth of new plant life, the summer rains have also led to flooding in the Chircahua Mountains where the fire left slopes unstable and vulnerable to washing away. Some of the forest roads remain closed and a short drive into Cave Creek Canyon makes it easy to see areas where the forest floor is buried under mud and debris washed down by flash flooding. Some locals, bloggers Azure Gate and Cave Creek Ranch, have posted updates and photos on conditions in the area.

In addition, the dry soil conditions and lack of vegetation on the bajada and in the valley seem to have allowed for increased erosion at our site as well. The gravel roads leading towards the Portal Project were washed out in places and erosion around the fenced plots meant that some gates were left > 12 cm above the actual soil surface or buried underneath mud and debris; both scenarios making it difficult or unlikely for rodents to actually find and use the gates. I’ll have to work at maintaining these gates over the next month as more rains are likely to occur.

Luckily, I had lots of help digging out rodent gates and collecting data by Elita Baldridge, a Ph.D. student in Ethan White’s lab who came to help out before we both headed to present at ESA after field work was finished.

I continue to be amazed at the “sea” of desert pocket mice (Chaetodipus penicillatus) that seem to be taking over–we’re even encountering control plots, where kangaroo rats should be dominant, with no kangaroo rats at all! Amazing.

Oh, and speaking of amazing…

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2 Responses to “Summer in the desert”

  1. Morgan Says:

    I love the paired photos of July and August!

  2. Mary Mohlman Says:

    Awesome pictures! Thanks for including the common names of plants and animals for the common people who enjoy reading this blog.

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