By Ty Fitzmorris
Most years, February in the Central Highlands of Arizona is still a quiet time when mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and plants remain quiescent, waiting for the combined cues of increased day length and higher temperatures to end their winter diapause and begin searching for mates and food.
But in all years, the first glimmerings of Spring’s vivacity begin this month in the deserts and the chaparral of our region. Over the next several months, awakenings in the lowlands reach a deafening roar, flowing up the slopes and into the highest mountains, carpeting the whole of the Central Highlands with flowers, warblers, and butterflies. But for now, the uplands remain relatively quiet, leaving the naturalist to search for hints of spring.
Bird migrations begin to pick up steam now as overwintering species from the far north, such as Northern Goshawk and Townsend’s Solitaire, begin the months-long journey that ultimately ends in their breeding grounds as far north as the Arctic Circle. Other species migrate through our region to points nearer to the north, and the last of the migrants include the neotropical migrant warblers who have spent the winter in the rainforests and dry forests of Central America, and will breed and nest here. The overwintering waterfowl on Willow and Watson lakes, as well as the many smaller bodies of water, begin trickling out of our region over the next several months since they need to wait for the lakes to the north to thaw before migrating.
Though our winter has been extremely mild so far, February could bring amazing storms, and holds the record for both the most snowfall in a month and the highest rainfall in a 24-hour period. On the other hand, February’s precipitation is extremely variable and difficult to predict — with as many as one in 10 years receiving no or nearly no rain or snow. A wet February can, by itself, usher in a glorious, flowering spring, while a dry one with no other snowpack can herald low fuel moisture and high fire danger.
In high desert, such as the Central Highlands, the abundance and distribution of water is the single greatest predictor of all activity in the wilds.
An all too brief survey of what’s happening in the wilds …
• Ravens begin nesting and laying eggs. Yearling Ravens have spent the winter in communal roosts and can be seen flying in large numbers, but these flocks begin to break up now as breeding pairs form.
• Northern alpine birds, including Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins, move into this area driven by extreme cold to the north. These finches follow the seed crop of coniferous trees, including Douglas Fir, White Fir, spruces, and pines.
Visit: Maverick Mountain Trail, No. 65.
Ponderosa Pine forests
• Peregrine Falcons return to our area from the south to reoccupy nest sites. Most Peregrines are monogamous from year to year. Both partners migrate independently back to previous nest sites and beginning courting and mating upon arrival. This species is named for its extraordinary migrations, which can lead some birds to migrate from Chile to Greenland.
• Abert’s Squirrels chew off the tips of growing Ponderosa branches to reach the inner bark, or cambium. This is an important food source for this rare squirrel during the late winter after they have depleted other food stores. They are also performing a vital service to the trees, themselves: Ponderosas rely on a symbiotic root fungus to break down soil nutrients, and Abert’s Squirrels carry this fungus in their feces, transporting its spores from tree to tree and thereby keeping forests healthy.
Visit: Miller Creek Trail, No. 367.
• Townsend’s Solitaires, relatives of the American Robin, begin migrating north to their breeding grounds as far north as Alaska. Solitaires subsist largely on the last of juniper berries from last year’s crop while in their wintering ground.
• Sharp-shinned Hawks, the smaller cousin of the Cooper’s Hawk, begin migrating north through the Central Highlands. These small hawks were once considered a threat to songbird populations, and were hunted aggressively. Now, “mesopredators” such as the Sharp-shinned Hawk are understood to foster biodiversity by preventing one species from outcompeting another. Studies have documented increases in prey species where these types of predators are found.
Visit: Little Granite Mountain Trail, No. 37.
One-seed, Utah, and Rocky Mountain junipers all release their pollen now, thus causing extraordinary allergies for many mammal species.
• Winter flocks of Western Scrub Jays begin to break up as jays form breeding pairs.
Visit: Tin Trough Trail, No. 308.
• Pronghorn begin giving birth after eight months of pregnancy. Young Pronghorn are able to walk after only about an hour and can outrun a human once they are several days old. Pronghorn typically give birth to twins who remain in the center of their herd for several months.
• Toward the end of the month, Broad-winged hawks, such as the Rough-legged Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk and Swainson’s Hawk, begin migrating north through the Central Highlands following the open grasslands where they can see rodents. Many can be seen perching on power line posts.
Visit: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.
• Beavers, after consuming most of their winter stores, are very active in chewing away the inner bark of riparian trees. Their breeding season continues through the month.
• Coyote Willow (Salix exigua) flowers and is mobbed by Honeybees (Apis mellifera) for nectar and pollen. Honeybees are native to Europe and are unlike most of our native bees in that they are social and live in massive hives of up to 80,000 bees. North America is home to roughly 4,000 species of native bees, most of which are either solitary or seasonally social and so remain inactive during the winter.
• Newborn River Otters remain in their dens. Toward the end of the month, they will open their eyes for the first time.
• The first migratory songbirds, including spectacular breeding-plumage warblers, follow rivers and riparian corridors through our region to their breeding territories to the north.
• Mourning Cloak Butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa) fly on sunny days. Unlike most butterflies, Mourning Cloaks overwinter as adults, taking shelter in cracks in tree-bark and eating the sap that drips from wounds in riparian trees.
Visit: Willow Lake Loop Trail, from the Willow Creek Road entrance.
• Flowering begins in earnest, starting with Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa), which paints large swaths of the desert bright yellow. Some species of verbenas and anemones, as well as Desert Marigolds (Baileya multiradiata), begin flowering at lower densities.
• Butterflies begin flying now, including the small Sara Orangetip (Anthocaris sara) and the tiny Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon), both of which can be seen at patches of wet mud as they seek out minerals and nutrients..
Visit: Agua Fria National Monument.
February Prescott Weather
Average high temperature: 53.9 F, +/-4.3
Average low temperature: 24.1 F, +/-3.6
Record high temperature: 77 F, Feb. 27, 1986
Record low temperature: -12 F, Feb. 6, 1899
Average precipitation: 1.84”, +/-1.84
Record high February precipitation: 10.59”, 1927
Record high February snowfall: 37.5”, 1932
Record low February precipitation: 0”, 7.2 percent of all years on record
Max daily February precipitation: 7.92”, Feb. 22, 1905
Friday, Feb. 14.: New moon. 4:53 p.m.
Wednesday, Feb. 19: Conjunction between the moon and Mars. These two objects are within about three degrees of each other high in the eastern sky at midnight.
Friday, Feb. 21: Conjunction between the moon and Saturn. This extremely close encounter (less than one-quarter of a degree) between the moon and Saturn is most visible after 2 a.m. in the eastern sky.
Tuesday, Feb. 25: Conjunction between the moon and Venus. The very nearly new moon will rise less than a half degree from Venus at three hours before sunrise.
February highlight: Andromeda Galaxy. When the skies are at their darkest early this month, our nearest galactic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy, is visible with the unaided eye. Look for the galaxy as a smear of light next to Andromeda’s knee, to the northwest after twilight. Or use a direct method: Draw a line between the two highest stars in Cassiopeia — Segin and Ruchbah — and the brightest star in Andromeda, Alpheratz (her head in most drawings), and then look for the galaxy two-thirds of the way from Ruchbah to Alpheratz. The Andromeda Galaxy, the furthest object that can be seen with the naked eye, is 2.5 million light years away and is slowly headed our way. It will collide with our galaxy, the Milky Way, in 5 billion years, after our sun has turned into a red giant and consumed Earth.
Ty Fitzmorris is an itinerant and often distractible naturalist who lives in Prescott and runs Peregrine Book Company and Raven Café as a sideline to his natural history pursuits. Contact him at Ty@PeregrineBookCompany.Com with questions or comments.