Posts Tagged ‘sonoran desert landscape’

Part of the year we live in a small Sonoran Desert age-restricted (55+) community. There are no boom boxes masquerading as cars, no outdoor rock concerts, no jake-brake-using diesel trucks. Little happens after dark. Everybody goes home and goes to bed. Contrary to popular myth, older people don’t blast their TVs, stereos or electric organs. When the power went out last week it took us a while to notice what was missing…sounds like the refrigerator running and the a.c. blowing. It was lovely, in an eerie sort of way.

Still, even here, the world in all its naked noisiness, all too frequently jars the quiet.

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

A10s from the Davis/Monthan website

We live within miles of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Their mission? “Deploy, employ, support, and sustain attack airpower in support of Combatant Commanders anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Train the finest attack pilots for the Combat Air Forces. Provide every member of Team D-M with responsive, tailored, mission-focused base support.” (http://www.dm.af.mil/index.asp). That translates into a lot of overhead noise (sometimes exceptionally loud) as mysterious unseeable objects hurdle by overhead. I guess I’m supposed to feel safe.

152nd Fighter Squadron  Air National Guard Tucson

152nd Fighter Squadron
Air National Guard Tucson

Adjoining D-M is the 162d Fighter Wing (162 FW) of the Arizona Air National Guard, stationed at Tucson Air National Guard Base, Arizona. They’re a premier training facility where air force pilots from around the world have come to train including from mid-eastern countries like Israel, Jordan, the United Arab Emigrates and Turkey as well as Thailand, Denmark, Sweden, Chile, Italy, Taiwan, Portugal and others. And yes, when they practice It’s Loud.

Then there are assorted helicopters at all hours of the day and night. Tucson Metro Police as well as Pima County Sheriffs are out there scanning for drug smugglers, runaway convicts and other assorted other n’r-do-wells. Oh and to keep up on accidents and traffic we’ve got the local TV stations. OK so we live less than thirty miles south of Tucson, and only forty miles north of Nogales and Mexico. So I know I have to accept big city and border issues noise.

sound levels  courtesy of Wikipdian

sound levels
courtesy of Wikipdian

Still, it’s those blasted leaf blowers and lawn mowers that can truly lay me low. We live in a very well kept, greenly landscaped community which requires a veritable battalion of gardeners to keep it pristine. While I appreciate the almost compulsive striving for neatness, when they start blowing at my back door at 6:30 am, count me out. I’m not alone: “The World Health Organization recommends general daytime outdoor noise levels of 55 dBA* or less, but 45 dBA to meet sleep criteria (3). Thus, even a 65-decibel leaf blower would be 100 times too loud** to allow healthful sleep (which often takes place during daytime hours for night workers and others). Noise can impair sleep even when the sleeper is not awakened. Acoustics experts say blower noise is especially irritating because of its particular pitch, the changing amplitude, and the lack of control by the hearer. (my emphasis added). (http://www.nonoise.org/quietnet/cqs/leafblow.htm

Hear, Hear. I hope.

The Scream  courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

The Scream
courtesy of the Edvard Munch Gallery

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It’s been a dry 2014 here in the Sonoran Desert, about 0.6 inches of rain. Annual amounts for January through May average about 3.3 inches. So less than 20% of the average rainfall for the first five months of the year. We’ve had one true rain since we arrived in late December.

It’s been hot as blazes the last few days as well, over 100° yesterday. Forecast today was 104° with a front moving through. It was 80° at 5:00 am. But even though the humidity just before dawn was less than 20%, clouds filled the sky and the weather forecasters, ever optimistic in the desert, gave it a 20% chance of rain.

By mid-morning we smelled it—the unique clean dry(?) smell of wettening creosote. Yes! It was raining somewhere within our aromascape. We waited expectantly. I felt a few drops as I ran to close the car windows. Then…nothing.

The desert is a harsh mistress. But nothing caps that amazing smell of desert rain. No matter where it might have fallen.

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To get to the Painted Rock Petroglyph Site from  I-8 involves taking Painted Rock Dam Road north about 10 miles. It’s on this road where the “new” Gila Bend takes shape.

Solana Solar plant photo courtesy of Abamgpa Solar Co.

Solana Solar plant/Paloma Dairy fields at top of photo
photo courtesy of Abamgpa Solar Co.

On the west side of the road lays Solana Solar Power Plant, the largest parabolic trough plant in the world, which came online in October 2013. It covers 3 square miles of spent farmland with 900,000 mirrors that reflect sunlight onto tubes of oil. The heated oil makes steam which spins turbines. Some of the oil transfers heat to molten salt, enabling the plant to continue making electricity up to six hours after sunset, something traditional solar power plants can’t do.

parabolic mirror photo courtesy of Ray stern, Phoenix New Times online

parabolic mirror photo courtesy of Ray stern, Phoenix New Times online

Looking east across the road, are giant alfalfa fields, part of the Paloma Dairy and Sunset Farms agribusiness owned by the Van Hofwegen family. They milk 4900 Holsteins three times/day and have about 10,000 head of cattle. The cows are fed the alfalfa from the Farms fields.

A few years ago, the brothers Van Hofwegen made a U-Tube video in which they suggest their dairy operation is sustainable. It’s true the Sunset Farms grows alfalfa  which the residents of the Paloma Dairy eat. Still it’s hard to claim sustainability where cows are concerned even if they are also recycling manure etc.  Add the copious amounts of water used for alfalfa production and you have to ask yourself exactly how sustainable especially in light of Sunday’s Arizona Daily Stars banner headline: “Arizona needs to desalinate seawater for drinking, officials say.”

Paloma Dairy Milking Barns from the air photo courtesy of Paloma Dairy

Paloma Dairy Milking Barns from the air
photo courtesy of Paloma Dairy

Sustainability-wise, Gila Bend’s town fathers pitch the solar plants. That they use significantly less water than agriculture would have in the same space is an environmental plus. That the energy is non-polluting from a carbon dioxide POV, is great as well. This solar plants (and others around Gila Bend) are “reusing”  high water demand spent alfalfa and cotton fields (rural brown fields), already leveled and primed for solar. When the Solana plant went on line, it upped the greater Gila Bend area’s solar output to over 300 megawatts. Construction employs over 1000 workers; operation adds 80 jobs per plant.

Solar does seem a creative economic driver for a little desert town. So bring on the “Sustainable Gila Bend” promotion. It’s what Gila Bend’s city manager and planning director, as well as local citizens are hoping for.

Susnet Farm Alfalfa Fie; east side of Painted Rock Road © AME

Susnet Farm Alfalfa Fie; east side of Painted Rock Road © AME

For more on Gila Bend’s latest rebirth see:https://www.hcn.org/issues/44.9/the-fading-arizona-town-of-gila-bend-bets-big-on-solar/article_view?b_start:int=0

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Gila Bend isn’t a particular hotspot for travelers on Interstate 8 through Southwest Arizona. We stayed there in the late 80s in a typical roadside motel. Like many always hard-up desert towns, Gila Bend seemed in a chronic state of poor economic health. Besides boarded up buildings along the main drag, all that was memorable about that stay was that at 10:00 pm it was 109°. When we went out through the motel’s automatic glass doors, the heat was startling, like stepping into the stove to check something broiling.

At Painted Rock

At Painted Rock © SR Euston

So this month when we exited I-8 just west of Gila Bend to visit the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Petroglyph Painted Rock Site and Campground we didn’t know what we were about to stumble on.

IMG_2361 - Version 2

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

The petroglyph site itself is an easily accessible jumble of rocks covered with over 800 symbols and pictures chipped out of the black basalt which overlays a granite outcrop. A short trail takes visitors around the mound and allows for up close viewing of the rock art. There is an adjacent dry campground with pit toilets, and for folks seeking desert isolation, a half-full campground and clear night skies this is just the ticket. It may not be as extensive as New Mexico’s Petroglyph National Monument or Three Rivers BLM site or Utah’s Newspaper Rock, but it is a remarkable agglomeration of mazes, natural symbols like lightning and the sun, animals, and stylized people that make it a fascinating concentration of southwest petroglyph art.

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

Petroglyphs © SR Euston

This used to be one part of a Petroglyph Painted Rock State Park which included a “Lake Unit” with camping and fishing about four miles north on Painted Rock Reservoir, formed by a late ‘50s Army Corps of Engineers dam. Now completely closed, the “Reservoir” is only an intermittent lake—in flood it has been (briefly) the second largest lake in Arizona, but with seepage and evaporation, the lake always dries it up. And due to large scale 1950s and ‘60s DDT use on surrounding cotton fields (one of the mainstays of Gila Bend’s shaky economy), this stretch of the Gila River which feeds the reservoir has the dubious honor of being one of the most polluted stretches of waterway in the nation. The only water we saw was one puddle of marshy standing water on Painted Rock Road’s shoulder.

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

Painted Rock Outcrop © SR Euston

For more info on the site see: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/recreation/camping/dev_camps/painted_rock.html

To get to the site from the highway from I-8 involved taking Painted Rock Dam Road north about 10 miles. It’s on this road where the “new” Gila Bend takes shape.

Next: Sustainable Gila Bend

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Beavertail Bloom

Beavertail Bloom © SR Euston

Besides some phenomenal birding, the last few weeks have heralded the beginning of the Sonoran desert’s cactus blooming season. The median strip of La Cañada, our main north/south drag, has been awash in lovely pink beavertail prickly pear plantings, so amazing as to make me wonder if the oddball accident I saw last week wasn’t caused by a driver attempting to simultaneously drive and take a picture.

Our neighborhood has a wonderful cactus garden which has come spectacularly into its own, mostly with horticultural varieties of Argentinian Trichocereus whose stems are covered with blooms ranging from scarlet to apricot to yellow to white. I wonder: How do these Argentinians recognize it’s spring and time to bloom on the opposite side of the equator? Another botanical mystery.

Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear © SR Euston

Hedgehog Bloom

Hedgehog Bloom © SR Euston

Still to me, most impressive really are the shows the local species put on as they go about their business of welcoming this Sonoran desert spring. Our Santa Rita prickly pear are covered with bursting chartreuse blossoms, some yellow with red interior lines. Beavertail pinks peek out from beneath yellow blossom-covered creosote. Pink and red hedgehogs hide behind rock outcrops. Ocotillo are tipped with orange-red tassels, great forage for hummingbirds and tiny yellow verdins. On a birding expedition last week to Buenos Aires National Wildlife we spotted a tiny cluster of rainbow mammillaria.

But Saturday was the prize. On a trip through Tucson Mountain Park we came on large numbers of blooming buckhorn cholla. Not an especially beautiful cactus (it’s rangy and oh so spiny), it makes up for it in flowers in a remarkable diversity of colors from almost burgundy, through scarlet, to bronze to yellow. See for yourself in the montage below (all photos © SR Euston):

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From the Patio © AME

At dusk last Monday a strange thing happened. It began to snow. For about an hour big stuck-together flakes languidly fell from the darkening desert sky.

Surely not noteworthy in blizzard-battered places like Chicago and Boston.

But for us here in Green Valley this was a very unusual event…so rare in fact that the last measured and recorded snow (according to the Western Regional Weather Center wrcc@dri.edu) was March, 1999 when one inch fell. Prior to that 0.1 inches fell in March,1992. Over the 25 years of records available, these are the only two snow events recorded for our little town. For this Monday’s “Sonoran Desert Blizzard”, NOAA’s official record was one inch.IMG_1818

In our town the population is divided into two types—the year-rounds and the snow birds. At this time of year in the Safeway parking lot you can spot, in almost equal numbers to Arizona’s, license plates from the mid-west— Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin—as well as Canada (British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan mostly), Washington, and our own home state of Oregon. We’ve even got a guy in our neighborhood whose motorcycle sports New Brunswick plates.

Out Our Back Door © AME

Out Our Back Door © AME

So you can imagine the mix of groans, exclamations of “oh no!” and jokes around town as night fell. The next morning tee-times and tennis dates were cancelled as fairways and courts remained covered with that white stuff snowbirds had hoped to leave behind. Pools were closed with warnings about ice on their cement aprons. “Drifts” covered chaise lounge pads.

As for me, the snow was just fine. Nothing to shovel, nothing to slide on (although there were reports of accidents on the highway), nothing to detract from the sheer delightfully beautiful crystal frosting on saguaro and palm, mesquite and prickly pear in the gloaming.

By 10:00 am Tuesday morning all the snow had melted away.

Palo Verde in Snow © AME

Palo Verde in Snow © AME

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One of the most exciting denizens of the Sonoran Desert is the Saguaro—spiny, grey green sentinels towering above the palo verde, mesquite and cholla desert. Last week we took a stroll up the Bajada Wash Trail in Saguaro National Park’s Tucson Mountain West District, just north of the Red Hills Visitor Center.

Picturesque, statuesque, these saguaro are among the “old ones” of the desert forest. Up to 150 years old and weighing in at 16,000 pounds or more (that’s 8 tons!), they rise 50 feet above the dirt and broken rock. Here’s a slide show of some of the grandest:


© SR Euston

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Javalinas at the Entrance© AME

Javelinas at the Entrance © AME

This week we visited one of Tucson’s premier attractions, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum. Over the West Mountains, the Desert Museum is pressed up against the foothills between Pima County’s Tucson Mountain Park and the western unit of Saguaro National Park.

Looking South from Patio © AME

Looking South from Patio

In the midst of this sweeping Sonoran desert landscape overlooking the Avra Valley, the Museum is home to 1200 plant types as well as 166 birds, 100 mammals, 276 amphibians, 531 reptiles, 11,000 fishes (their latest accomplishment is a brand new aquarium(!) spotlighting the Sonoran desert’s Colorado River and its terminus, the Sea of Cortez), and 620 invertebrates.

Harris Hawk© AME

Harris Hawk

Besides the new aquarium, along the two plus miles of paths there’s an earth sciences center, 22 gardens, a small animal room, a hummingbird pavilion, and natural habitat displays of native beavers, cats, javelinas, coyotes, bears, deer, wolves, parrots, prairie dogs, big horn sheep, tortoises, coatimundis, snakes, and raptors.

We were treated to a free flight raptor show featuring barn owls, falcons and hawks. Where we stopped to watch the show we soon discovered the nearby woman with the headset and leather glove was one of the handlers, who, with a tasty morsel, lured a Harris hawk to land on her hand.

Nest Sitting© AME

Nest Sitting

We also spent a long time in the hummingbird pavilion where the local species are nesting right now. Because the hummers aren’t in the wild, they’re provided with dog hair and other bits which, combined with cobwebs, are used to construct the tiny nests.

A highly trained army of docents patrols the grounds, providing information on everything from the plant and animal life to water fountain locations.

The Museum celebrated its 60th anniversary Labor Day 2012. From its humble (and dusty) beginnings, it has grown into a premier interpretative, educational and research facility, with a mission “to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.”

It’s exactly that emotional bond—love, appreciation and understanding—a visitor feels viewing the animals held in “gentle captivity” as well as the carefully tended desert grounds. It’s the perfect introduction to this magnificent Sonoran desert.

Bobcats Nap© AME

Bobcats Nap

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