News From the Wilds: January 2019

By Ty Fitzmorris

January in the Mogollon Highlands is when the long quiet of winter reaches its coldest and snowiest. Storms bluster and howl, pushing plants and animals to the limits of their endurance. 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 black bears hibernate in underground dens; bobcats, coyotes, and deer grow thicker coats and subtly reroute blood flow away from their skin and extremities; 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 and freeze 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 give birth this month. Many of our wind-pollinated trees are in flower when the broad leaves of deciduous trees have been dropped, because this allows wind-borne 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 flood-swept riverine sand. Not only does this season present us with the best tracking substrates, but mammals are particularly active during the breaks between storms, as they search actively for food. 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.

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Ty Fitzmorris is an itinerant and often distractible naturalist who lives in Prescott and is proprietor of the Peregrine Book Company, the 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.

IMAGES FROM TOP: Goldfinches: “Lesser Goldfinches remain in the Mogollon Highlands through the winter, and toward the end of January will begin forming pairs, with males beginning their courtship songs, which are unusual in that they often include the calls of other, unrelated species.”

“Raccoons are active throughout the winter in our region, and their behavior can be uncovered through careful examination of their ubiquitous tracks.” Photos by Ty Fitzmorris.

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A Very Brief Survey of What’s Happening in the Wilds

High Mountains

•   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.

Visit: 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 in hierarchies and sometimes hunt in packs with other ravens and even with 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 the Mogollon Highlands 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.

Visit: Schoolhouse Gulch Trail, No. 67.

Pine-Oak Woodlands

•   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 butterflies (Nymphalis antiopa), rely on these sap-wells during the coldest months for crucial nourishment.

Javelina conclude their mating season, which began in late November.

Visit: Little Granite Mountain Trail, No. 37.

Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands

•   Bobcats begin their mating season.

Our many species of juniper begin flowering now, aggravating the allergies of humans and non-humans alike.

Gray fox begin their mating season, which will last until March.

Visit: Tin Trough Trail, No. 308.

Grasslands

•    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 2-3 months some of these species will begin their migration back to their summer breeding grounds to the north, some migrating as far as Alaska.

Visit: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.

Riparian Areas

•    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.

Visit: Sycamore Basin Trail in Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, USFS Trail #63.

Deserts/Chaparral

•   Packrats (Neotoma spp.) begin their mating season. Packrat nests can be extremely old, with some continuously inhabited for as many as 50,000 years. These species have been instrumental in reconstructing climate and vegetation patterns over the last 15,000 years, according to 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.

Visit: Agua Fria National Monument.

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Prescott Weather

Average high temperature: 50.9F (+/-4.40)

Average low temperature: 21.2F (+/-4.30)

Record high temperature: 73F (1/5/1927)

Record low temperature: -21F (1/22/1937

Average precipitation: 1.74″(+/-1.72″)

Record high precipitation: 7.79″(1916)

Record high snowfall: 53″(1949)

Record low precipitation: 0″(5.1% of years record)

Max daily precipitation: 2.97″(1/22/2010)

Source: Western Regional Climate Center

Skyward

  • Jan.3— The Quadrantid Meteor Shower will be at its peak after midnight. This mild-mannered shower will be exceptionally visible this evening due to the dark skies of the nearly new Moon. The Quadrantids can produce up to 40 meteors per hour, appearing to radiate from the constellation Bootes.
  • Jan.6—New Moon at 6:28 pm, and Venus at Greatest Western Elongation. Venus, the brightest object in the night sky (after the Moon) is at its highest in the morning sky. Look high in the southeastern sky for Venus in the hours before sunrise.
  • Jan.12—Conjunction between the Moon and Mars.
  • Jan 20—Full Moon at 10:16 pm, and Total Lunar Eclipse. This is the only total lunar eclipse of 2019, and is rare because the Moon will be at its closest approach to the Earth, causing it to be referred to as a Supermoon. The eclipse will be visible in its entirety from the Prescott region, and will begin at 7:36 pm, two hours after the Moon rises, and will conclude at 12:48 am, with totality between 8:33 pm and 11:50 pm. During a lunar eclipse the Moon turns a deep red, causing some to refer to this rare phenomenon as a Super Blood Moon.

Astronomical Highlight– The brightest stars in the night sky are visible in winter, and are not only a beautiful sight, but are among the easiest to learn the names of. The totem of winter stars is the constellation Orion, which contains two of the sky’s brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, and is one of the more recognizable constellations. Orion is followed through the sky by his hunting dogs, Canis Major, whose brightest star, Sirius, is the single brightest star visible from Earth, and Canis Minor, whose brightest, Procyon, is the seventh brightest. Look also for Capella (in Auriga), Castor and Pollux (in Gemini) and Aldebaran (in Taurus), which altogether form the Winter Hexagon.

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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.

 

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