By Ty Fitzmorris
January in the Mogollon Highlands is when the long quiet of winter reaches its coldest and snowiest, as storms bluster and howl, pushing plants and animals to the limits of their strength. The frigid days, however, are often interspersed with sunny, cold days that skitter with bursts of bird and mammal activity.
Every plant and animal has a set of strategies for making it through this time of scant resources and dangerous temperatures — pregnant female Black Bears hibernate in underground dens; Bobcats, Coyotes, and deer grow thicker coats and subtly re-route blood flow away from their skin and extremities; and ground squirrels, chipmunks, and Beavers settle into the well-stocked dens that they’ve been provisioning for months. Insects and herbaceous plants have evolved so that only their eggs and seeds overwinter, while trees decrease photosynthesis either by dropping leaves or by insulating them with thicker coatings and alter their chemistry by increasing lipid content and membrane permeability to decrease risk of frost damage. In many cases these adaptations, both physiological and behavioral, are remarkably complex.
But the glimmers of the coming spring continue as well. Some animals are “planting their seeds” for the coming year, including the Black Bears and River Otters, both of whom are giving birth. Many of our wind-pollinated trees are in flower, during this time when the broad leaves of deciduous trees have been dropped, and this allows wind-bourn pollen to reach further without as many obstacles. Unfortunately, the many species of juniper in our area are among this group, making the next several months the peak allergy season for humans (and some other animals) in the Mogollon Highlands.
January, with its snowfalls and floods, is one of the best times of the year to study the activity of mammals by examining their tracks in fresh snow and clean riverine sand. Not only does this season present us with the best tracking substrates, but mammals are particularly active during the breaks between storms, searching actively for food, so a small area of pristine snow or mud can yield amazing tracks and fascinating stories. Look especially for intersecting trails of different animals, and signs of predators tracking prey. We are lucky to live in a part of North America where activity in the wilds never goes completely silent, and the stories of our animal neighbors are abundant.
A Very Brief Survey of What’s Happening in the Wilds
• Snow covers the high mountains and melts slowly, trickling through the soil to recharge large underground lakes called aquifers. Aquifers recharge at extraordinarily slow rates, however, and typically only from this type of gradual melting. Snow will cling to the north sides of the mountains for many months, feeding our rivers and aquifers through the spring.
• Black Bears give birth, usually to two blind cubs. The cubs will stay in dens with their mother for several more months, and forage with her through the next year before establishing territories of their own.
Example: Spruce Mountain Loop, Trail No. 307.
Ponderosa Pine Forests
• Groups up to 200-strong of adolescent and nonbreeding Ravens forage together in the backcountry. Ravens are unusual among the birds in that they form clear dominance hierarchies and sometimes even hunt in packs with both other Ravens and other species, prompting Bernd Heinrich, a prominent Raven researcher, to label them “wolf birds.”
• Great Horned Owls finish nest building and lay eggs.
• Northern Goshawks, the rarest in North America of their group of hawks (the Accipitridae), stop over in our region for barely over a month before heading back to the north. These larger cousins to the Cooper’s Hawk are generally denizens of the deep wilds, but can be seen across our region during this time.
• Ponderosas continue “weeping” excess water out of their branch-tips. This cold-adaptation reduces the risk of dangerous ice-crystal formation in the tree’s tissue, creating a gentle “rain” of tiny droplets of sap.
Example: Schoolhouse Gulch Trail, No. 67.
• Williamson’s Sapsuckers begin their migration to their summering grounds to the north. These woodpeckers make holes in the bark of Ponderosa Pines and other conifers, and wait for insects, mainly ants, to be drawn to the sap. Many species of overwintering insects, such as the Mourning Cloak Butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), rely on these “sap-wells” during the coldest months for crucial nourishment.
• Javelina conclude their mating season, which began in late November.
Example: Little Granite Mountain Trail, No. 37.
• Bobcats begin their mating season.
• Our many species of juniper begin their flowering now, aggravating the allergies of humans and non-humans alike.
• Gray Fox begin their mating season, which will last until March.
Example: Tin Trough Trail, No. 308.
• Mixed-species flocks of sparrows, including Brewer’s, Sage, Lincoln’s, Chipping, Savannah, White-crowned, and Black-throated, forage together for grass seeds and insect eggs, larvae and pupae. Over the next two to three months some of these species begin their migration back to their summer breeding grounds to the north, some migrating as far as Alaska.
Example: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.
• River Otters give birth in riverside dens, while Beavers begin their mating season nestled in their lodges.
• Arizona Alders (Alnus oblongifolia) begin flowering. These beautiful trees don’t typically cause allergies, though they may slightly exacerbate those caused by junipers. Notice that the Alders bear two different designs of flower — small, round, cone-like growths and long, pendant droops. The cones are the female flowers, which capture the pollen from the long male flowers. Some types of cone actually manipulate air currents around them, pulling pollen inward in small whirling vortexes, and this is more easily accomplished when other trees don’t have leaves to get in the way of the wind-born pollen.
• January’s storms knock migrating waterfowl from the sky, and they will often settle in lakes to wait for clearer weather. Exotic species brought into our area in this way include Tundra Swan, Ross’s Goose, Blue Goose, Snow Goose, Common Loon, and, extremely rarely, the small, uncommon Brant and the larger Greater White-fronted Goose.
Example: Sycamore Basin Trail in Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, USFS Trail No. 63.
• Packrats (Neotoma spp.) begin their mating season. Packrat nests can be extremely old, with some continuously inhabited for as long as 50,000 years. These species have been instrumental in reconstructing climate and vegetation patterns over the last 15,000 years, through the research of Thomas Van Devender from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He discovered that some packrat nests in the Sonoran Desert, when excavated, revealed needles of Ponderosa Pine and other conifers, which suggested the large-scale migration of plant communities upslope.
• Desert Mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum), a parasite of acacias, mesquites, palo verdes and buckthorns, bears its red-white fruit. These fruits are eaten by many species of birds, but primarily by Phainopeplas (a relative of the flycatchers). The berries cannot be easily defecated, so the birds must rub themselves on branches, thereby distributing the fruit to its preferred germination site, where it can grow into the tissue of its host. Healthy trees can reject mistletoes by growing their bark around the infestation site, but unhealthy trees can host hundreds of mistletoe individuals.
Example: Agua Fria National Monument.
Average high temperature: 50.9 F (+/-4.4)
Average low temperature: 21.1 F (+/-4.3 )
Record high temperature: 73 F (Jan. 5, 1927)
Record low temperature: -21 F (Jan. 22, 1937)
Average precipitation: 1.73” (+/-1.73”)
Record high precipitation: 7.79” (1916)
Record high snowfall: 53” (1949)
Record low precipitation: 0” (5.3 percent of years on record)
Maximum precipitation in one day: 2.97” (Jan. 22, 2010)
Note: These figures don’t reflect 2016 & 2017 data.
Ty Fitzmorris is an itinerant and often distractible naturalist who lives in Prescott and is proprietor of the Peregrine Book Company, Raven Café, and Gray Dog Guitars, all as a sideline to his natural history pursuits. He is also the curator of insects at the new Natural History Institute at Prescott College. Contact him at Ty@PeregrineBookCompany.Com with questions or comments.