By Ty Fitzmorris
June can be a pretty tough time in the Mogollon Highlands of central Arizona. It is reliably the driest month of the year, with nearly two out of five years receiving no precipitation at all, and most others receiving only the most minute amounts. If there is any rain, it comes at the end of the month with the first of the monsoonal storms. In fact, the drought of June is critical in bringing about the rains of July, because as the hot, dry air in the Sonoran Desert and the Interior West rises it draws the moist, humid air from the Sea of Cortez northward into our region. Whenever these wet air masses enter our area from the south they bring the possibility of rain, but without the heat that accumulates this month the rain will not fall. But it is possible to observe this large-scale, regional climatic pattern evolve by watching the movement and development of the different cloud species as they move across our skies — a pursuit known as cloud spotting.
June mornings tend to dawn clear and bright, but especially toward the end of the month, cumulus clouds appear and begin to build in the hot afternoons. These clouds may start as relatively small Cumulus humulis, wider than they are tall and uniformly white, and then turn to Cumulus mediocris, as tall as they are wide, and with gray bases, and eventually to towering, 30,000-foot-tall Cumulus congestus storm clouds. It is only this last species that brings with it the most precious of all resources in the high desert — water. And with those first, massive raindrops the quiescent, drought-stressed landscape begins its exultant reawakening.
Until that time, however, the wilds remain very dry, with most of the creeks of the Prescott area not flowing at all, though the perennial spring-fed streams of the Verde Valley, such as Beaver, Clear, Oak, Fossil, Sycamore, Verde, and Agua Fria, do continue running during this time. These few wet areas around the Central Highlands are burgeoning with life, and now is the time to see some of our most spectacular migrant birds, including the tanagers and orioles, as they pass through our region heading north, following the fruiting of mulberries and blackberries. Dragonflies and damselflies abound, along with the earliest dobsonflies and a diversity of butterflies. Elk, Mule Deer and Abert’s Squirrels are giving birth now while Otter kits are weaned and Badger kits and Bobcat kittens leave their dens for the first time. The eggs of many species of birds hatch, and adult birds tend their young in anticipation of the coming time of plenty, when the rains finally come.
June is our single most dangerous month for fires, due to extremely low fuel-moisture (the water content in woody and herbaceous plants), the increase in lightning late in the month, the prevalence of dry grasses, and the number of people in the backcountry that mishandle fire. In fact, fuel moistures of live plants in deserts can sometimes drop below fuel moistures of dead wood, making live plants more flammable than downed deadwood. In the high desert of the Mogollon Highlands, as with most of western North America, it is profoundly important that we use fire with extreme caution, and not complicate the already difficult situation that our firefighters and land management agencies face through our sometimes catastrophic mistakes. While fire is a vital force in the Wilds, it must be treated with extraordinary caution.
A Very Brief Survey of What’s Happening in the Wilds
• Butterflies proliferate in the high altitudes — look for metalmarks, blues, and admirals.
• Silverstem Lupine (Lupinus argenteus), with its tall, lilac flower spikes, blooms, drawing bumblebees, Bombus sonorus, to its flowers.
Visit: Maverick Mountain Trail, No. 65.
Ponderosa Pine Forests
• Ponderosa Pines release their wind-borne pollen during this conspicuously windy season. Strong winds carry pine pollen for long distances, thereby increasing genetic diversity through outcrossing of pines from different regions.
• Abert’s Squirrel (Sciurus aberti) give birth. These squirrels are important for Ponderosa Pine health, as they consume and disperse truffles and other mushrooms, which pines rely on for nutrient uptake.
• New Mexico Locust (Robinia neomexicana) flowers in the pine understory. This gorgeous leguminous shrub fixes nitrogen in the poor soils of the pine forests, which is critical for the growth of other species.
• Dalmatian Toadflax (Linaria dalmatica), one of our most aggressive non-native invasive plants, flowers. This is one of the few plants in the Central Highlands that can be removed without qualm when encountered. Look for its semi-succulent, rubbery leaves and bright yellow flowers, which give it its other name, Butter and Eggs, and try to remove whole root systems when possible.
Visit: Schoolhouse Gulch Trail, No. 67.
• Arizona Thistle (Cirsium arizonica) flowers. This is one of the few hummingbird-pollinated thistles.
• Bobcat kittens emerge from dens, following their mother as she hunts, and often preventing her from hunting by their playing and clumsiness.
• Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) young fledge from their nests and begin learning to fly. These lovely wrens form monogamous pairs that last for years, and can be seen exploring granite boulders in areas such as the Dells for spiders and insects.
Visit: Little Granite Mountain Trail, No. 37.
• Gophersnakes (Pituophis catenifer), important grassland predators of rodents, lay eggs in large clutches, and hatchlings appear starting in August. These very long constrictors (up to 8-9 feet!) will sometimes mimic rattlesnakes when threatened, but have no rattles and are not venomous or dangerous to humans.
• Mule Deer give birth to their spotted fawns, which weigh as little as eight pounds, and will remain hidden for the first month of their life.
Visit: Tin Trough Trail, No. 308.
• Evening primroses (Oenothera spp.) flower in profusion.
• Young Badgers emerge from dens for the first time to play, especially in the evenings.
• Ringtails, cat-like relatives of Raccoons, begin giving birth after a seven-week pregnancy.
• Mexican Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) give birth to a single, nearly helpless pup, which remains in its nursery with the young of other bats. When the mother return to the nursery with food she finds her child among the throngs by its unique song. Mexican Free-tails can live up to 10 years, and eat as much as 80 percent of their body weight per night of insects.
Visit: Mint Wash Trail, No. 345.
Rivers, Lakes, and Streams
• Many of the creeks in the Central Highlands, with the exception of spring-fed perennial streams, stay dry until monsoon storms come.
• Western Screech-Owl young fledge this month and can be heard calling after their parents with a short, descending three-note trill late in the twilight.
• Black Hawk eggs hatch, and young can be seen perching on nests, watching for their approaching parents.
• Young Great Blue Herons begin fishing alone for the first time, often following other fish-eating species, such as Common Mergansers, to find the best fishing grounds.
• River Otters are weaned now, and begin hunting with their parents for fish and
• Common Mergansers can sometimes be seen with their young ducklings riding on their backs. Look for them especially in lower Granite Creek, Willow and Watson lakes, and the rivers of the Verde Valley.
• Yellow Monkeyflowers (Mimulus guttatus) flower by perennial creeks in the Verde Valley, while Texas Mulberry (Morus microphylla) sets fruit, drawing tanagers and other birds to their delicious berries.*
• Chick Lupine (Lupinus microcarpus) flowers in wet streamside seeps in the mountains, such as Butte Creek, Miller Creek, and Aspen Creek.
• Young Botta’s Pocket Gopher (Thomomys bottae) leave their parents’ dens and establish their own. These gophers are fundamental in the maintenance of soils through oxygenation and nutrification.
Visit: Sycamore Basin Trail in Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, USFS Trail No. 63.
• Ocotillos flower, providing important nectar resources for hummingbirds. As their primary drought adaptation Ocotillos have lost their leaves now, though they can still perform photosynthesis without leaves using their photosynthetic bark.
• Manzanita fruits are nearly ripe, and are edible and delicious even when green. Beware the large seeds, however, which are hard and inedible.*
• Preying mantids reach their winged, adult stage, and begin searching for sites to deposit their resinous egg pouches. Mantids are important predators of many types of insects.
• Crucifixion-thorn (Canotia holacantha) “flowers” on hillsides, though strictly speaking this species is more related to pines and junipers than to the flowering plants.
• Saguaros, the second tallest cactus species in the world, continue to flower, attracting Mourning Doves by day and Mexican Free-tailed Bats by night.
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: 86 F (+/-3)
Average low temperature: 49.5 F (+/-3.8)
Record high temperature: 104 F (2013 & 2016)
Record low temperature: 25 F (1899)
Average precipitation: 0.38” (+/-0.51”)
Record high June precipitation: 2.46” (1972)
Record low June precipitation: 0” (36 percent years on record)
Max daily precipitation: 1.35” (June 26, 1954)
Source: Western Regional Climate Center
Note: Figures do not reflect 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, 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.