News From the Wild
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 female 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. Trees decrease
photosynthesis, by either dropping leaves or insulating them with thicker coatings,
and alter their chemistry by increasing lipid content and membrane permeability to
reduce risk of frost and freeze damage. Often these adaptations, both physiological and behavioral, are remarkably complex.
But the glimmers ofthe coming spring continue as well. Some animals are “planting their seeds” for the coming year, including the black bears and river ot- ters, both of which give birth this month. Many of our wind-pollinated trees are in flower during this time, when the broad leaves ofdeciduous trees have been dropped, and this allows windborne pollen to reach farther without
as many obstacles. Unfortunately the many species ofjuniper 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.
With its snowfalls and floods, January 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, 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 brief survey of what's happening in the wilds:
• Snow covers the high mountains and melts slowly, trickling through the soil to recharge the large underground lakes we call aquifers. Aquifers recharge at extraordinarily low 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. Cubs will stay denned 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 #307
Ponderosa Pine Forests:
• Groups, up to 200-strong, of adolescent and non-breeding 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 (Accipitridae), stop over in our region for barely over a month before heading back 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.
Example: Schoolhouse Gulch Trail, #67
• Williamson’s sapsuckers begin the 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. Example: Little Granite Mountain Trail, #37
Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands • Bobcats begin their mating season.
• Our many species ofjuniper begin flowering now, aggravating the allergies of humans and nonhumans alike.
• Gray fox begin their mating season, which will last till March. Example: Tin Trough Trail, #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 will begin migrating back to their summer breeding grounds to the north, some going as far as Alaska.
Example: Mint Wash Trail, #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 windborne pollen.
• January 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 #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, according to the research ofThomas Van Devender from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. He discovered that some packrat nests in the Sonoran Desert, when excavated, revealed needles ofponderosa pine and other conifers, suggesting 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 ofits host. Healthy trees can reject mistletoes by growing bark around the infestation site, but unhealthy trees can host hundreds of mistletoe individuals.
Example: Agua Fria National Monument
• 3rd: 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.
• 10th: Full Moon at 12:23pm
• 24th: New Moon at 2:44pm
• 28th: Conjunction of the Moon and Venus
Astronomical Highlight: The brightest stars in the night sky are visible in winter. The totem of winter stars is the constellation Orion, containing two of the sky’s brightest stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse. 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 together form the Winter Hexagon.
Ty Fitzmorris is an itinerant and often distractible naturalist who lives in Prescott and is the Curator ofInsects at the new Natural History Institute at Prescott College. Reach him at Ty@PeregrineBookCompany. com with questions or comments.