Second spring

One of the most common misconceptions about the Sonoran Desert held by those who’ve never lived here is that there are no seasons. Isn’t it just hot and dry all year long? Maybe a little less hot in “winter?”

Of course, we don’t get the spectacular fall foliage that blankets states such as Vermont in swaths of yellow, red, and orange (unless you head to our nearby mountains . . . ). But nature compensates us for that: We get two springs. 

The geography of the Sonoran Desert region, while it restricts the overall amount of rain that falls each year, breaks what does fall into two major periods—one in July and August, another in December and January. The summer rainy season is characterized by brief, powerful thunderstorms that originate in the tropical Pacific Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico; winter rains are usually more gentle and of longer duration (and, of course, colder), and sweep down from the northern Pacific. In good years each season will result in about four or five inches of rain—perhaps 10 inches annually. Not much by the standards of Vermont residents, who’d cry “Drought!” if they failed to get three times that amount—but desert plants and animals have evolved to exploit every drop.

On the road for butterflies

We recently became acquainted with the Butterflies of the World Foundation, a small but hard-working non-profit dedicated to improving public awareness of butterflies, and conservation of their habitats—vital to these lovely insects, many of which also (like the birds above) migrate vast distances. Founder and chief butterfly fanatic Bryan Reynolds has used a Jeep Liberty to travel through 15 states and provinces thus far in North America, recording the lives of butterflies through beautiful photography, sharing his images in public venues, and publishing in national and international magazines.

Download their impressive accomplishments and mission statement here.

A perfect match for ConserVentures with our theme of exploration and conservation, the organization is seeking help properly outfitting its Jeep Liberty for extended overland travel. Here's their wish list (download a PDF copy here), contact us or Bryan if you can help out:

o JBA 4 inch lift kit for Jeep Liberty, KJ, 2002-2007
o JBA Dana 30 Steel Front Axle IFS
o ARB Air locker front and rear
o ARB Compact On-board Air Kit
o ARB Bull Bar for Jeep Liberty
o Warn XD9000 Winch
o BF Goodrich All Terrain T/A KO LT245/70R16/D
o ARB E-Z Delator Kit
o Hi-Lift Jack HL-484 48”
o Front Runner Wind Cheetah Slimline Roof Rack 1.8M with Tent Mount hardware
o Eezi Awn T Top – Xklusiv – 1.6 roof top tent
o Eezi Awn Series 2000 1.5M “spoyla”
o Front Runner Stainless Steel Camp Table
o Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Portable Toilet
o Cleanwaste Go Anywhere Toilet Kit, pack of 100
o National Luna Weekender 50 Liter Split Fridge Freezer, Aluminum 

Miracles on the wing: bird migration

Five billion.

That’s roughly how many birds migrate each spring and fall—just in North America.

The physical feats performed by many of those birds make the accomplishments of Olympic athletes seem laughable by comparison. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird—which weighs five grams fully fattened for the journey, the same as a nickel—flies non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico, 500 miles in 22 hours. At the end of that flight it weighs about the same as a penny, perhaps three grams. For comparison, a 150-pound human marathon runner can lose four pounds during the 26.2-mile race. Imagine a single event that could strip 50 pounds off him. 

Other flights are equally astonishing. Arctic Terns make the longest migration known—22,000 miles round trip from the Arctic to the Antarctic. In 2007, using satellite tags, scientists tracked the longest non-stop migration flight ever recorded when a shorebird called a Bar-tailed Godwit flew from Alaska to New Zealand—7,145 miles—without pausing to rest, eat, or drink. About 70,000 godwits make this trek each year.

These are superlatives, but each of those five billion migrating North American birds—along with billions more across the planet—performs its own, well, superhuman feat.

Why do they do it? The answer lies entirely within the phenomenon of seasonal change. Every year, the latitudinal zones of greatest productivity in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres shift north and south by thousands of miles with increasing and decreasing solar exposure. Arctic tundra covered in ice and 24-hour night in January is by July burgeoning with life and sunshine. Even states in the northern U.S. change dramatically month to month. Birds that make the trek from warmer winter climes to these rich summer grounds can vastly enhance their food intake and subsequent reproductive success—the end goal of all living things.

If they survive.

For the downside to migration is that it is immensely hazardous, exposing the bird to starvation, predation, dehydration, hypo- and hyperthermia—a catalog of risk. It’s impossible to guess how many thousands of those Ruby-throated Hummingbirds come up just short of the fearsome amount of energy needed to complete their flight, and fall into the sea. A bird that arrives early at its summering grounds can get a head start on territory and breeding—or it can die during a late freeze. Many predators have evolved to prey specifically on migrating birds during peak movement periods. It’s estimated that over 60 percent of some species’ populations fail to make a complete two-way migration.

Partially because of these risks, only about half the estimated 10,000 bird species on earth are migratory (many tropical species don’t need to migrate, thanks to the stable year-round climate in their habitat). The percentage of migratory species varies country to country depending on climate. For example, fully 90 percent of Canadian birds migrate south to the U.S. or beyond each winter. 

The good news for humans is that, twice each year, migration offers a wildlife viewing spectacle beyond compare. Across the U.S. and Europe, known migratory flyways—the routes used by a majority of species due to abundant water and food—attract thousands of people, from avid “twitchers,” as they’re known in Britain, to those with a simple sense of wonder who couldn’t care less if the 200 hawks passing overhead at once at Cape May, New Jersey, are Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s. 

But even backyard birdwatching peaks during spring and fall. Check your local Audubon Society website to find out what’s happening when near your home—or along the route of your travels. Here are a couple of links to get started:

Migration hotspots

200 North American birdwatching spots

New first-aid treatment for (some) snake bites

First aid for snake bite has ranged over the years from the ignorant (whisky, live-chicken poultices*) to the formerly accepted but now discounted (incision and suction, ice packs), to the hilariously irrelevant (“Wash the bite with soap and water”—American Red Cross) to outright quackery (electric shock). Since no one has as yet developed an antivenom suitable for field use by non-medical personnel, the single “treatment” recommended by all authorities is “Get the victim to a hospital”—which is okay if you’re two hours from a city and run afoul of a rattlesnake, not so okay if an eastern brown snake nails you two days from Alice Springs. (*Cut open a live chicken and spread it over the bite to extract the venom. When the chicken’s comb turns blue, you’re cured.)

Update to our tarantula spider post

In our July ConserVentures News, we included a short story about enjoying watching a female tarantula spider whose hole is next to the door to our cottage. Recently, just across the compound near the office porch, we found this little guy—a tarantula spiderling, about the size of a silver dollar at most. He spends most of his time in the hole, and even catches the moths we drop to him. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, tarantulas in the Sonoran Desert lay their eggs in burrows and sometimes but not always stay with them. There could be more spiderlings in the hole, or he is the only one, we are not sure.