By Ty Fitzmorris
July in the Mogollon Highlands of Arizona growls with the rumbling of the afternoon clouds and rings with the first drops from the monsoon storms. After the high temperatures and low relative humidity of June, the plants and animals of the wild areas are at their most stressed and are at high risk of death from extreme temperatures and lack of water. But during this time, many species gave birth to their young, provisioned nests, and lay eggs, in anticipation of a coming time of abundance and growth. Though this is a gamble, the first, massive raindrops near the beginning of the month (and the first flush of monsoon flowers that follow) prove it to be well-founded. And so the second grand flush of life begins.
Though the climate of the Central Highlands can be harsh for part of the year — dry and fire-scorched in early summer, cold and snowy in the winter — these tough times are typically followed by some of our most exuberant seasons. So it is with the annual drought of June, which is followed by the coming of the monsoon rains in July. Especially in drier years such as this one (Prescott’s 2016 total so far is just over 72 percent of average), the July showers are a real cause for celebration. They are, however, something of a mixed blessing — they will bring a second wave of growth and flowering, but in the short term they bring lightning, which, when combined with the low fuel-moistures from a dry June, could lead to a proliferation of new fires.
July is the most reliable in terms of rainfall of any month, and only once in our recorded history have we received no rainfall at all during this month. It is this predictability, in fact, that allows many of our plants and animals to survive the year in the Highlands, serving as a strategic infusion of vitality. Even the unusual climatic patterns in El Niño years, such as this one, do not affect July rainfall or temperature in any measurable way in the Mogollon Highlands.
When the rains come, we enter the second massive proliferation of life in the Mogollon Highlands, which will continue until September. Birds fledge their young while reptiles hatch, and some mammals, such as the bats, give birth, while others begin their mating seasons, as do the Badgers. A second “spring” of flowering happens now, led by the deep purple four-o-clocks (Mirabilis spp.), varicolored penstemons, golden columbines, clovers, and monkey-flowers. But most noteworthy is the explosion of insect life during this time, especially at night. Beetles fly in huge diversity, from the massive Grant’s Hercules Beetle (Dynastes granti) to the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa), considered to be the most beautiful beetle in North America. Thousands of species of moths, from giant Saturn moths to small bird-dropping mimic moths to beautiful Cecrops-eyed Silkmoths (Automeris cecrops pamina) are also flying now, and can be drawn to porch lights for close observation. During the daytime butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, and cicadas abound, while the ants launch their nuptial flights. The dazzling diversity of life in the Mogollon Highlands in July is extraordinary, and is one of our most wonderful times of the year.
A Very Brief Survey of What’s Happening in the Wilds
• Ravens teach their young to fly now, waiting for the approach of monsoon storms and flying in the rolling blasts at the leading edge of the storm system. Ravens are unusual in that they fly preferentially in storms, and perform extraordinary aerobatics in gales and high winds.
• One-month-old Elk calves begin travelling with their parents and start to lose the spots that have helped hide them during the first few weeks of their life.
• Badgers (Taxidea taxus) begin courting and will soon form pairs and mate. These remarkable creatures are important predators of pocket gophers, venomous snakes, and mice and rats.
• Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowers, attracting fritillary, checkerspot, and most notably, Monarch butterflies.
Visit: Maverick Mountain Trail, No. 65.
Ponderosa Pine Forests
• Bergamot (Monarda menthaefolia) flowers. The beautiful lilac flowers of this plant draw in native bees in large numbers, giving it its other name, Beebalm. The flowers of Bergamot are edible, and spicy to taste, used in salsas, while the leaves are fragrant, and often used as a mint-like spice.*
• Several species of ants have their annual nuptial flights within days after the first rains. Some species are so consistent that they fly almost the same day every year. Early in the morning, winged males and females fly in tremulous clouds from the previously unobtrusive colony entrance. After mating, the males die, and the females shed their wings and start their own colonies.
• Wiry Lotus (Lotus rigidus) flowers. These very small snapdragon-like flowers are bright iridescent yellow, but change color to orange and then to red after they are pollinated. Their yellow appears bright to us because it includes a certain amount of ultraviolet pigment, and human vision sees just barely into the ultraviolet spectrum. Bees, by contrast, see ultraviolet clearly, and flowers of this color are called “bee purple.”
Visit: Miller Creek Trail, No. 367.
• Young Western Screech Owls begin to lose their down and molt into their adult plumage, during which time they stay near their parents and hunt with them just after sunset.
• Longhorn Oak Borers (Enaphalodes hispicornis), large, lumbering black beetles with long antennae, emerge from their underground pupae and begin looking for mates. These beetles are harmless, though they are large and somewhat alarming.
Visit: Little Granite Mountain Trail, No. 37.
• Juniper berries proliferate on some trees while other trees have none. This is because some of our species, such as One-seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma) and Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) have their male and female flowers on separate plants, while others, most notably Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) have both on the same plant. These berries, which are actually cones surrounded by fleshy tissue, are important food sources for many birds and mammals.
Visit: Tin Trough Trail, No. 308.
• Young Sonoran Mountain Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis pyromelana) hatch after the first rains come. These snakes are harmless to humans, though they resemble the venomous Sonoran Coralsnake (Micruroides euryxanthus) somewhat. Their identities can be determined by the simple rhyme “Red on yellow kills a fellow, red on black is a friend of Jack.” If the red on the snake’s body borders yellow, the snake is the venomous Coral Snake, if the red borders black, then the snake is the more common Kingsnake. Either way, all of our Prescott snakes like to be left alone, and will move away from people given the chance.
• Bluestem Pricklepoppy (Argemone pleiacantha), also known as “tissue-paper flower” for obvious reasons, blooms.
• Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi) seed pods begin to grow by the end of the month.
Visit: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.
Rivers, Lakes, and Streams
• As the monsoon rains arrive, our intermittent creeks, such as Granite, Butte, Aspen, and Miller Creek, begin running, sometimes in turbulent flash floods.
• Young Common Mergansers are nearly grown though still unable to fly. They will stay with their mother and learn to fish for several more months before striking out on their own.
• Arizona Blackberry (Rubus procerus), which is, in spite of its name, not native to Arizona, begins bearing its delicious berries along the perennial streams of the Verde Valley.*
• Golden Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), one of our most beautiful flowers, appears now.
• Grand Western Flood Plain Cicadas (Tibicen cultriformis) emerge at night from their larval homes in the roots of cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows. These alien-like creatures climb up trees and buildings in the thousands and slowly shed their larval skins, as the winged adult breaks through. Once their wings harden, the cicadas fly into the treetops. This is by far the most conspicuous insect in the Central Highlands, and very little is known about its ecology or biology.
• Dragonflies abound above creeks and lakes. Look for Giant Darners (Anax walsinghami), Flame Skimmers (Libellula saturata), and Twelve-spotted Skimmers (L. pulchella).
Visit: West Clear Creek Trail, No. 17.
• Prickly pears, mesquites and mimosas bear their seeds and fruits, while Western Pipistrelles and Western Mastiff bats bear their young and horned lizard eggs hatch.
• Couch’s Spadefoot Toads (Scaphiopus couchi) emerge at night, sometimes in the hundreds, to eat, mate, and lay eggs after the beginning of the monsoon rains. The tadpoles can mature in as few as eight days, a crucial desert adaptation, since pools rarely last long.
• Tarantulas emerge in sometimes large numbers with the rains. These spiders are harmless to humans, but should not be handled due to stinging hairs on their abdomens.
• Rainbow Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus pectinatus) and Buffalo Gourd (Cucurbita foetidissima) in flower.
Visit: Agua Fria National Monument.
*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 temperature: 89 F (+/-2.8)
Average low temperature: 57.9 F (+/-2.8)
Record high temperature: 105 F (1925)
Record low temperature: 34 F (1912)
Average precipitation: 2.90” (+/-1.73”)
Record high precipitation: 8.8” (1908)
Record low precipitation: 0” (Only 1993)
Maximum aily precipitation: 2.96” (July 24, 1970)
Source: Western Regional Climate Center
• July 12: Mercury at Greatest Eastern Elongation. The small planet closest to the Sun is at its most visible now in the evening sky, below and to the right of Venus and Regulus, the brightest star in Leo, and especially visible due to the New Moon at 7:48 p.m.
• July 27: Full Moon at 1:22 p.m., and lunar eclipse visible only from the other side of the Earth.
• July 28: Delta Aquarid Meteor Shower peaks after midnight, while the Alpha Capricornid Meteor Shower grows in intensity toward the end of the month as well. The overlap of these two showers should produce some extraordinary meteors, though the full Moon will wash out many of the less bright ones. The Capricornids are characterized by slow meteors, most moving at no more than 15 miles per second, and can produce brilliant fireballs, while the Aquarids are faster, and generally brighter. The Capricornids are increasing in intensity every year, and by the 24 century will be the brightest meteor shower of the year.
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.