By Ty Fitzmorris
August susurrates with storm and shower interwoven with the cacophony of resonant thunder and the assonance of cicada song. In the high heat of summer, the monsoon rains turn the land to emerald, and it seems as though living things are everywhere. Many mammals are teaching their young to forage in this time of plenty. Meanwhile, young birds are on longer and longer forays away from their parents. Ectothermic animals, such as lizards and snakes, whose body temperatures are tied closely to ambient temperatures, are at their most active now, chasing insect and rodent prey, while insects, from the minute leafhoppers to the massive Saturn moths, enter their time of greatest abundance.
The majority of woody plants bear their seeds during this season, including Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxa), and all seven of our oak species. Many herbaceous (non-woody) plants are growing and flowering now, most of which are specialist monsoon plants and did not appear in the spring. This is the time of plenty for many birds and mammals, as insects of all types proliferate, from giant moths to enormous strange and beautiful beetles, to dragonflies, who reach their peak now, while alien-like cicadas measure the day’s heat with their shrill cries. This second flowering brings with it a glut of insect prey, which sends a wave of life through our ecosystems — from the predatory insects to the lizards, birds, bats, and even terrestrial mammals.
Among the insects, August marks the beginning of the time of the giants. Massive moths with 4” to 6” inch (and greater) wingspans, such as the sphinx moths, Saturn moths, and the massive Black Witch Moth (Ascalapha odorata), which can have an 8” wingspan, fly for miles searching for mates, while Grant’s Hercules Beetles (Dynastes granti), Rhinoceros Beetles (Xyloryctes jamaicensis) and Longhorn Oak Borers (Enaphalodes hispicornis) bumble to porch lights and streetlights. The Grand Western Flood Plain Cicada (Tibicen cultriformis) flies in large numbers, providing many species of birds and mammals with food, while all eight of our preying mantid species can be seen. The proliferation of giants happens now because their larger bodies have required longer to grow to their massive size and so have timed their metamorphism into their adult forms for this resource-rich time of the year, when both food and egg-laying sites are abundant.
During the day, butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, and damselflies are at their most prolific during the monsoonal season. Many of the butterfly species out now fly only during this time of year, and the damsels and dragons are groups that are notably absent during the spring, though they are virtually everywhere now, from parking lots to lakes. Our flagship monsoon butterfly is the Arizona Sister (Adelpha eulalia), which glides over riparian clearings near oak stands. Look also for Buckeyes, Queens, Monarchs, and Pipevine and Two-tailed Swallowtails. In all, the wild diversity of living creatures this month is dizzying.
• Little Brown Bats (Myotis lucifugus) nurse their young. Their roosts are often in caves, or cavities in trees, but sometimes they roost communally in buildings. Amazingly, a nursing mother can eat up to 110 percent of her body weight every night of insects, many of which are pests of humans.
• The leaves of some deciduous trees, such as Boxelder (Acer negundo), which grow in riparian drainages, begin changing color. The reason for this early change in creekside vegetation is partly that these creekside trees have exhausted their accessible nitrogen, and partly that high elevation creeks act as “cold-air drainages,” in which colder (and therefore heavier) air flows down them, creating colder environments than in adjacent uplands. This is one of the ways in which the earliest effects of autumn migrate from the highlands to the lowlands.
• Convergent Lady Beetles (Hippodamia convergens) gather in the tens of thousands in crevices in rocks and plants in the high mountains.
Visit: Dandrea Trail, No. 285.
Ponderosa Pine Forests
• Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) in flower. This is one of the most storied of our plants, and has been used as a medicinal plant by many cultures, dating reliably back to the Neanderthals. In ancient Greek lore, Yarrow appeared from the scrapings of Achilles’ spear (hence the genus name) and was used to heal Telephus’ wound, and has since been used for everything from immune support to wound treatment to smallpox.*
• Golden Columbine (Aquilegia crysantha) flowers by cooler mountain streamsides, while sedges bear their seeds and Wright’s Deervetch (Lotus wrightii) continues to flower. Other flowers include Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata), Scruffy Clover (Dalea albiflora), Silverstem Lupine (Lupinus argenteus), and Wild Geranium (Geranium caespitosum), and many others.
• Coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica) bears its delicious black fruits. The fruits have a sweet coffee flavor and a large coffee-bean-like seed.*
Visit: Aspen Creek Trail, No. 48.
• Many different types of “June beetles” fly now. Our most distinctive species is the Ten-lined June Beetle (Polyphylla decemlineata), of the scarab family, which is often drawn to porchlights.
• Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) fruiting. These fruits can be small and tart or large and sweet, depending on the year. When they are larger, they rival store-bought cherries for sweetness, and outdo them for flavor.*
• Oaks of all species bear their acorns, providing the largest overall food crop of the year for mammals and birds, most notably the Acorn Woodpecker.
• Deep blue-purple four o’clocks (Mirabilis spp.) flower on hillsides.
Visit: Miller Creek Trail, No. 367.
• Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) flowers exuberantly in the evenings. These large white trumpet-flowers glow in the dusk, attracting moths and bats. This species has been mistakenly described as having hallucinogenic properties, a piece of terrible misinformation that has resulted in many poisonings and some permanent blindness. No part of Datura should EVER be ingested.
• Our several species of brickellbush (Brickellia spp.) begin flowering. These inconspicuous flowers are not often seen, but their extraordinary aroma suffuses the dusk air. Arizona is home to more than two dozen species of Brickellia, several of which have been found to be very effective in the treatment of certain types of diabetes.
Visit: Juniper Springs Trail, No. 2.
• Yellow and white species of evening primroses (Oenothera spp.) flower exuberantly and are visited by White-lined Sphinx Moths (Hyles lineata), which are often mistaken for small hummingbirds.
• Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) begin their great seasonal flowering here in the Southwest, where they are native. Look for “longhorn”Melissodes bees, as well as iridescent green Agapostemonand Augochlorabees, foraging on their flowers.
• Purple and white-flowered nightshades (Solanum spp.) begin flowering.
Visit: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.
Rivers, Lakes, and Streams
• All of our creeks run exuberantly, often overspilling their banks.
• Our annual explosion of cicadas continues, bringing ear-shattering noise to the Central Highlands. Even though this species, Tibicen cultriformis, is ubiquitous to us, it is only found in the Mogollon Highlands. These cicadas live for several years underground, feeding on tree roots, and only appear to us at the very end of their lives, when they stop feeding altogether, grow wings, and call to each other to attract mates.
• Scarlet Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and bright Yellow Monkey Flower (Mimulus guttatus) bloom, drawing Two-tailed Swallowtails to their nectar.
• Snails become active in streamside vegetation. Arizona is home to more than 200 species of snails, most of which are largely unstudied.
• Swallows and bats abound near creeks, consuming large amounts of insects, mainly flies and small moths.
• Many species of dragonflies and damselflies hawk over the water, patrolling territories. Look for dancer, bluet and rubyspot damsels, and spiketail, saddlebag, and skimmer dragons, and especially the massive Giant Darner (Anax walsinghami), which has up to a 5.5” wingspan, and is the largest dragonfly in the U.S.
Visit: Bell Trail, No. 13.
• Prickly pears (Opuntia spp.) bear their fruits. These spiny fruits provide food for many species, including humans.
• As Coyote Gourd (Cucurbita palmata) and other squashes flower, native Xenoglossaand Peponapisbees begin pollinating them, and sleeping in the flowers in the afternoon. The Coyote Gourd is not edible, though our cultivated squash are beginning to flower also. Look for the flowers of any of the squashes or gourds once they have closed in the afternoon, and pull them open gently to look for these bees. They are extremely gentle and will not sting unless harassed.
• Paloverdes and mesquites bear their seeds now, as do Southwestern Coral Beans (Erythrina flabelliformis), the poisonous seeds of which are sometimes used for jewelry.
Visit: Algonquin Trail, No. 225.
*Always consult with a trained professional before ingesting any part of a wild plant. This information is not intended to encourage the attempted use of any part of a plant, either for nutritive or medicinal purposes.
Average high temp: 86.1F (+/-2.4)
Average low temp: 56.4F (+/-3.3)
Record high temp: 102F (1905)
Record low temp: 32F (1968)
Average precipitation: 3.24” (+/-1.98”)
Record high precipitation: 10.51” (1971)
Record low precipitation: 0.11” (2002)
Max daily precipitation: 3.15” (Aug. 22, 1960)
Source: Western Regional Climate Center
• Aug. 11: New Moon at 2:58 a.m., and partial solar eclipse visible only from Eurasia, Greenland, and parts of northern Canada.
• Aug. 12: The Perseid Meteor Shower peaks after midnight. This is one of the year’s brightest and often most dazzling meteor showers, one of the best of the year, with up to 60 meteors per minute. These meteors are dust particles left behind by Comet Swift-Tuttle, a very large comet that swings through our solar system every 133 years, and which last appeared in 1992. The average velocity of the Perseid meteors is 39 miles per second, much faster than the meteors of last month’s showers. This year the young crescent Moon will make for ideal viewing conditions, setting just after sunset.
• Aug. 14: Conjunction between Moon and Venus.
• Aug. 17: Venus at Greatest Eastern Elongation.The brightest planet in the night sky is at its highest today in the evening sky, and will drop back towards the Sun by late autumn, and enter the morning sky by winter.
• Aug. 21: Conjunction between Moon and Saturn.
• Aug. 26: Full Moonat 4:57 a.m.
Ty Fitzmorris is an itinerant and often distractible naturalist who lives in Prescott and is proprietor of the Peregrine Book Company, Raven Café, Raven Sound Studio, and Gray Dog Guitars, all as a sideline to his natural history pursuits. He is also the curator of insects at the Natural History Institute. He can be reached at Ty@PeregrineBookCompany.Com with questions or comments.