The Amazing Scarlet Runner Bean

 

IMG_1503.JPG(Phaseolus coccineus) – photo from my garden

 

About 30 years ago I was visiting a neighbor for the first time early one August when I spied the most extraordinary vine of brilliant orange pea sized flowers cascading from an emerald climber that stretched across the entire wire wall of a huge vegetable garden. Eileen left an eight foot arch open by tying back some of the vines for an entrance. The vines were massive, at least 12 to 15 feet high and at least 100 feet long, and I could see and hear the sound of joyful ruby throated hummingbirds as they buzzed from one blossom to another as millions of bees, swallowtails, and monarchs swooped through the air lighting upon loose tendrils that were attempting to find purchase somewhere by climbing on the backs of their neighbors. To say I was transfixed by the sight is an understatement. I lost time in the blue and gold mountain field in Western Maine as I stood there astonished and bewildered by such abundance and beauty.

 

Returning to ordinary time, and gathering my wits about me, I asked my new friend about the vine and was only then I was formerly introduced to the magnificent Scarlet Runner bean. As we wandered down the fence line Eileen told me that she had grown up in the south and had been surrounded by these vines since she was a child; she was then a woman in her late sixties. As we peeked into the plethora of leaves I was delighted to see small green beans developing from the flowers and was told that these beans were delicious to eat, especially when picked while still young. I had been a gardener all my life – how had I missed learning about such a plant?

 

By the time I left Eileen’s house that afternoon I had a whole handful of shiny deep mauve and black kidney shaped beans in my hand for next year’s planting. These were heirloom seeds that Eileen had been given by her own mother. I was ecstatic.

 

This was the beginning of my love affair with Scarlet Runner beans, an affair that continues into the present. The first year I grew them they took over the entire back porch. I soon learned to plant even more vines like Eileen had so the deer could feast on the bounty too.

 

One spring a black bear watched me place my seeds into rich loam from behind his spindly screen of bushes, and that very night Little Bee came back and dug up every bean that I had planted (An endless curiosity is a fundamental aspect of friendly backyard bears)!

 

As the years passed my own wild unkempt garden was covered in more and more Scarlet Runner vines, flowers, and beans. I discovered to my surprise that black bears also loved to eat the blossoms and seed pods. Even with all the competition, I had plenty of fresh green beans and took endless joy out of watching so many bees, butterflies, bears, deer, and hummingbirds feast along with me.

 

About ten years ago when colony collapse devastated the honey bee population the bumblebees took over, but I couldn’t help noticing that overall there were less and less bees and butterflies drinking sweet nectar. Diminishment of various species is invisible to some. Only during the last two summers I spent in Maine did I have fewer hummingbirds…

 

Every year after the harvest I gathered and gave away seed gems to friends who seemed to appreciate them as much as I did – passing on the priceless gift of un contaminated heirloom seeds – seeds that held a future free of human manipulation within each be- jeweled skin.

 

When I moved to New Mexico I brought a few beans with me and my friend Iren was the first recipient of this precious bounty. She, in turn, passed some seeds onto others. Last summer her entire back fence was covered in gorgeous plants. Here in New Mexico the vines don’t grow quite as tall but they are still abundant, and during July deer and elk ate some of Iren’s blossoms (but there were plenty left for her to harvest).

 

Here, I planted my beans in a pot above ground. I do not recommend this practice. These beans need ample water and need to be planted in the Earth to thrive (mine had yellowing leaves). I also noted the effect the intense heat had on the beans. The plants didn’t start producing beans until August though we planted in mid – May, I believe. It’s important to know that Scarlet Runners will not survive frost. What I did notice is that butterflies (swallowtails) and a number of different bees flocked to the flowers. Hummingbirds loved them!

 

Imagine my shock when I discovered that the history of Scarlet Runner beans began in North America. These beans are native to the highlands of Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, where they have been cultivated for thousands of years.

 

This climbing plant is one of the oldest documented beans known to humans!

 

Native Americans consumed almost every part of the plant including the starchy root. Some Indigenous tribes regard the Scarlet Runner bean as a sacred plant. The plants seem to pulse with the life force, at least for me.

 

Today, Scarlet Runner beans are usually grown as annuals for the obvious reasons – their showy flowers and their edible pods and seeds. I recently learned that they are unusual among bean species because they are perennial in places where the ground doesn’t freeze and they climb in a clockwise direction. In retrospect I wondered if they were grown as perennials in the south where Eileen once lived.

 

I remember Iren asking me if you could cook the dried beans. My friend Eileen had never mentioned the practice so I didn’t know until I did this research that here in the U.S. consumers, up until recently, were more likely to find the shelled dried beans to cook than seeds to plant! Mature dried Scarlet Runner beans are ¾ inch in length. They can be cooked like Pinto or Pink beans and used in dishes such as soups and stews. Scarlet Runner beans are less starchy than Lima beans with a nutty garden-fresh flavor. These beans are also known by the common names of Scarlet Conqueror, Fire beans, Mammoth beans, Red Giant beans, and Scarlet Emperor beans.

 

Today, of course there are many cultivars to choose from but I prefer the lineage I have because I know those seeds originated at a time that preceded spraying etc.; they also have sentimental value. If anyone is interested in the gift of a few seeds please contact me at Sara@megalink.net.

 

With that much said so much is happening with seed savers across the country that it is now possible to buy heirloom seeds from a number of companies. This year when I attend the Tewa Women’s Seed Exchange I plan to bring some of my Scarlet Runner beans from last year’s harvest. My guess is that Iren will do the same!

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Snowy Comes to Maine

 

 

719e8726-ac9c-11e3-bdba-8d0644e09485-850x478$large.jpg“who whoo WHOOH…”

I will never forget the first Snowy owl I ever saw… I was living in Andover, Maine when a huge white bird appeared in January and soared over the lower fields. It was a very cold winter in 1993 and a pair of these birds became part of my winter bird watching. Their courtship call is quite distinct – three hoots with the loudest whooh at the end. I heard other sounds too but don’t remember the details. When I got my first close up look at one of these magnificent owls I was stunned by their beauty – intense yellow eyes, a black beak and oh, all those pearl white feathers. One had mole brown bars. The Snowy is one of the largest species of owl in North America, and is on average the heaviest owl species. The adult male is virtually pure white, but females and young birds have some dark spots; the young are heavily barred. I believe it was an adult male that I saw at close range. Occasionally one would fly ahead of the car as I drove out of my solitary mile long driveway, a behavior that intrigued me…

Well, Snowy owls are back in Maine! At the Portland Jetport, as many folks know, these owls and those that love seeing them are causing a “problem.” The owls are just trying to make a living but humans are apparently blocking emergency exits.

Many of us will recall that there was a boom in the Snowy population starting around 2011. One owl could be seen perched on a telephone pole between Bryant Pond and South Paris for much of the winter. Recently these birds are becoming uncommonly common! They have popped up in Aroostook County, the mountains of Acadia in Maine, and have been seen as far south as Florida and Hawaii and this year Snowy has made it as far south as New Mexico!

The Snowy owl is typically found in the northern circumpolar region, where it makes its summer home. However, this species is also nomadic because lemming population fluctuations force it to relocate to find food. Recently we have learned that the Snowy has been known to breed at more southerly latitudes

Snowy owls “normally” (is there such a thing today) nest in the tundra of Northern Canada and Europe. Snowy owls are attracted to open areas like marshes, open fields, coastal dunes, and prairies that appear somewhat similar to tundra. During the years when they are found in the Northeastern US, juveniles frequent appear in developed areas so keep your eyes out for a sighting. All ages spend a fair amount of their time over water in the Great Lakes and Atlantic Ocean, mostly on ice floes.

When perched Snowy owls often face the sun; Snowy owls appear to orient themselves into the sun or wind depending on prevailing weather conditions. No doubt they are happy to bask in whatever source of heat comes their way.

This species of owl nests on the ground, building a scrape on top of a mound or boulder. A site with good visibility is chosen, such as the top of a mound with ready access to hunting areas and a lack of snow. Abandoned eagle’s nests and even gravel bars are used for nesting. The female scrapes a small hollow before laying the eggs. Breeding occurs in May to June, and depending on the amount of prey available, clutch sizes range from 3 to 11 eggs, which are laid singly, approximately every other day over the course of several days. Hatching takes place approximately five weeks after laying, and the pure white young are cared for by both parents. Although the young hatch asynchronously, with the largest in the brood sometimes 10 to 15 times as heavy as the smallest, there is little sibling conflict, a fact that I find fascinating and somewhat unusual. Both the male and the female defend the nest and their young from predators sometimes using distraction as a ruse. Males also defend the nest by standing guard nearby while the female incubates the eggs and broods the young. Both sexes will attack approaching predators, dive-bombing them!

As previously mentioned this powerful bird relies primarily on lemmings and other small rodents for food during the breeding season. They are opportunistic hunters and prey species may vary considerably, especially in winter. Some of the larger mammal prey includes rabbits, hares muskrats squirrels (we could use lots of these birds) raccoons moles and mice. Birds preyed upon include ptarmigan, ducks geese shorebirds and songbirds as well as other owls and raptors. Most of the owls’ hunting is done in the “sit and wait” style; prey may be captured on the ground or in the air; fish may be snatched off the surface of bodies of water using sharp talons. Unlike most owls that hunt at night Snowy owls are diurnal hunting in darkness and in light.

Snowy owls, like other carnivorous birds, swallow their small prey whole. Strong stomach juices digest the flesh, while the indigestible bones, teeth, fur, and feathers are compacted into oval pellets that the bird regurgitates 18 to 24 hours after feeding. Regurgitation often takes place at regular perches, where dozens of pellets may be found.

Previous population estimates of about 200,000 individuals are now regarded as substantially overestimated, and a total population size of 28,000 individuals is probable.

Catastrophic Climate Change guarantees that unless we radically reverse carbon emissions in the next twelve years Life as we know it will be over. The absence of Snowy will become just one more statistic on a planet that has lost its animal populations. So, if you are fortunate enough to glimpse one of these magnificent owls, remember to say goodbye.

The Compost Lizard

IMG_7699.JPGIMG_7710.JPG

(  Top picture is one taken of one of the house lizards a while back – 2nd picture is one of the house lizards sunning himself today (his mate disappears every time I go to take a picture but she’s out too), and the 3rd picture is the little compost lizard in his lair taken at noon. All are sunning themselves as I write!)

 

There is a wily sagebrush lizard

peeking out of star dry flowers

sunning himself on

brittle decaying leaves.

All but two of his

kind have disappeared

since the night freeze settled

kindly,

blackening few tender plants.

How brilliant that he

should choose such a practical

abode, a circular container

warmed by an autumn sun,

full of rotting greenery!

Assured of food from insects

for a while yet,

his eyes are narrow slits when

he slumbers, dreaming his next meal.

Imagine

the variety of bugs

who still visit this

compost heap in

wild abandon,

buzzing madly

at high noon,

oblivious to Lizard’s

canny presence in their midst!

 

It is mid October (10/18) and the mountain peaks wear snowy hats. Here in the valley we have had more rain in the last ten days than we have had all year … the first flakes swirl. The dark eyed juncos have arrived. For the last few days I have been noticing the absence of my house lizards who seem to have vanished with the heat. There are only two left out of the original 6 and these two hide behind the slat closest to the door, slipping out to sunbathe when the sun warms my adobe walls.

 

When I first met the “compost lizard” I knew he wasn’t one that lived here all summer. Earlier in the season I had a large compost lizard that moved to the south wall as it got cooler. So where did the small compost lizard come from, clever little fellow? A compost heap is a lizard heaven of sorts with all the leftovers watered routinely to keep the worms happy, and with heat trapped in a round plastic cylinder the wind is kept at bay. At noontime I go out to visit him noting his blue belly hoping that he will stay around a bit longer, perhaps fattening himself up for an intermittent winter sleep. I would like to think that he will find a safe burrow in this mountain of debris, and that we shall meet again in spring.

 

I recently read that adolescent lizards are more active in the fall, this might account for the sudden appearance of the compost lizard. I also learned that occasionally lizards will “hibernate” together… I wonder if this might be true for my two house lizards who are currently hunkered down behind the slats and the house… I will be watching to see how long they stay there.

 

Lizards are not active during winter; they enter a state of dormancy called brumation which is not the same as hibernation. With both, metabolic processes slow down but with brumation the lizards alternate dormancy with activity. They need to drink water to avoid dehydration. Lizards build up a high level of glycogen (sugar) that can be used for muscle activity. They also need less oxygen to breathe and this is a good thing because some dig holes in mud where oxygen levels are lower. Other lizards will hide underground in old burrows, in a hole in a tree or under leaves. I love knowing that my lizards will still be around even if I don’t see them!

Hawk Moth

When I first saw her dive into the brilliant orange nasturtium I stopped dead in my tracks – I was so fascinated by the speed of her flight, her ability to hover just in front of the flower, as if making up her mind to re- enter that blossom or move on. The pale pink brushed across her speckled/striped mole brown/buff thorax almost seemed like it had been added as an afterthought.

 

What a magnificent creature I thought, as I remembered the night in June when one had spent the night on porch screen door. I suddenly realized that this was probably when she laid her eggs on the Datura plant I was growing in a pot nearby, because hawk moths loved these plants with their huge lace edged trumpeted flowers. The two had a special relationship. The hawk moth deposited her eggs on the underside of the gray green leaves and pollinated the flower in return. However, once the brilliant lime green tomato hornworm ( larva stage) actually appeared with his solitary horn I was shocked by his eating habits. My beautiful Datura had lost new buds and leaves – they vanished in one night. When I attempted to remove this intruder he hung on so tightly to the branch he was ingesting that it came off with him!

 

On closer inspection I discovered 6 more of these mighty leaf eaters crawling and munching away on the underside of half eaten leaves. They varied in size from about an inch to almost four inches – the latter could pass for a true monster. This guy had probably been eating for days. What was baffling to me was why this plant had been chosen as the host, while another Datura, one just below the porch was totally ignored. I guess there is no accounting for a hawk moth caterpillar’s taste!

 

Now every morning I go out and inspect my damaged plant for more leaf tyrants, and this morning found another after a few days reprieve. In spite of extensive defoliation the Datura is making a slow come back, although I think her days of multiple blossoming are over. Prickly round sage seed-pods are developing under the leaves. I don’t mind that this plant’s flowering has been cut short because although I have read about the relationship between the hawk moth/tomato hornworm and Datura, this is the first time I have been able to witness first hand what happens when a Datura is “chosen” as a host.

 

I understand why the hawk moth is often confused with a hummingbird; the two use similar tactics to gather nectar and behave in similar ways. At first glance it would be easy to mistake one for the other.

 

These moths overwinter in the soil as dark brown pupae, then emerge and mate in late spring. They lay their eggs, which are round and greenish-white, on the undersides of leaves usually in June. Next year I will be on the lookout for the Datura I plant on my porch!

 

Some of the largest moths in the world belong to the hawk moth family (Lepidoptera). These magnificent creatures have long narrow wings and thick bodies. They are swift and graceful flyers, highly aerobatic. Many species can hover in place as the one did in front of my nasturtium blossom. Some can briefly fly backwards or dart away. Hawk moths are experts at finding fragrant flowers after dark. They are especially fond of Datura, primroses (they are the primary pollinator of this family which explains why the flowers are so luminous before dawn), orchids, petunias and other flowers with long floral tubes concealing pools of thin but abundant nectar.

Hawk moths have the world’s longest tongues of any other moth or butterfly (some up to 14 inches long). Charles Darwin knew of the star orchids (Angraecum spp.) from Madagascar that had nectar spurs over a foot in length. Darwin was ridiculed by other scientists of his day for predicting that star orchids would be pollinated by these particular moths. After his death, hawk moths with tongues long enough to sip of the nectar produced by the star orchids were discovered on the island of Madagascar. Curiously, some hawk moths are nocturnal and others feed during the day. The ones I have here are abundant day feeders.

Hawk moths have three spectral receptors that are sensitive to blue, green, and ultraviolet light. It was originally assumed that hawk moths relied primarily on olfactory cues to locate flowers, but recent studies have shown that they actually have excellent vision overall.

With a wide geographic range throughout Canada, North, Central, Mexico, South America, Eurasia, and Africa, hawk moths feed on many different host plants as caterpillars and pollinate a variety of flowers. They use both visual and olfactory perception to locate plants from which they collect nectar. They seem to thrive almost anywhere (!) in rural areas, suburbs, mountains and deserts.

 

If you want to attract these marvelous creatures plant penstemon, red salvia, nasturtiums, and scatter Datura seeds around your property. I promise, you will not be disappointed. But beware of of half eaten leaves with holes!

 

Postscript:  I regularly write a couple of weekly/bi weekly nature columns for publication and some of these end up on my blog because I am so fascinated by the information and don’t want it to disappear into the thousands of writings stored in my computer! I have written a few articles about Datura for this blog because the shapeshifting qualities of this plant amaze me and learning first hand how one can be decimated by the hawk moth larva is yet another source of fascination.

Cicada Symphony

Each evening

I sit in gathering shadows

listening for the nighthawk’s peet,

the owl softly hooting.

Peering into the dense cottonwood canopy

I await the symphony…

 

How do they know

just when to begin

in perfect synchrony?

Punctual to the minute,

the swell is deafening

This music of the spheres

saturates my body

with song as I breathe

into the wonder of

Nature on the wing.

 

 

Postscript and Natural History

 

Every night I sit on the porch at dusk listening to night sounds. At precisely 8:30PM the symphony begins as the arching boughs of the cottonwoods come alive with song. When it’s really hot the cicadas are so loud that when I stand underneath the cottonwoods I am transported to another realm.

 

One night they surprised me. A few drops of rain fell and instantly the choral overture began. It was 8:15 PM and this uncharacteristic early beginning seemed to have everything to do with the rain which only fell for a few minutes although the insects sang on… perhaps the cicadas too are singing to the Cloud People, praying for rain.

 

I listened to many recordings before identifying the cicadas that are singing from these cottonwoods! Mine are “cactus dodgers” that are known for their affinity for cacti during courtship because they can dodge deadly spines during frenzied mating! They are primarily black, gray, white, and beige colored; well camouflaged for the desert.

 

Cicadas in general are an order of insects distinguished by piercing and straw-like sucking mouthparts.  Worldwide, cicadas comprise about 2000 species, which occur primarily in temperate and warmer regions.

 

Like all insects, the usually dark to brownish to greenish cicada has three body parts—the head, the thorax and an abdomen.  It has six jointed legs, with the front pair adapted for digging—a reflection of its underground burrowing life when a nymph.  A strong flyer, it has two sets of transparent and clearly veined wings, perhaps its most distinctive feature.  At rest, it holds its wings like a peaked roof over its abdomen.  It has bulging compound eyes, three glistening simple eyes and short bristly antenna.

 

The male cicada has on its abdomen two chambers covered with membranes – “tymbals” – that it vibrates, when at rest, to produce its “song.”  It can make various sounds, including, for instance, an insistent call for a mate, an excited call to flight, or a hoped-for bluff of predators.  Both the male and female cicadas have auditory organs, which connect through a short tendon to membranes that receive sound.  The male produces a call distinctive to his species.  Ever faithful, the female responds only to the call of a male of her species.

 

The cicada often makes its home in the plant communities along river bottoms and drainages but can be found in many different desert ecosystems as well.

 

The cicada falls into one of two major groups, one called “dog day,” the other called “periodical.”  The dog-day cicadas, which usually appear during the hottest days of summer, hence the name, include all of the several dozen species of the Southwest.  They have a life cycle of two to five years. The periodical cicadas, which include several species, all east of the Great Plains, have a life cycle of 13 or 17 years.

 

Once one of the Southwestern female dog-day cicadas answers the call of a male cicadas and the two mate, she seeks out an inviting, tender twig or stem on a tree or a bush.  She uses the jagged tip at the end of her abdomen to gouge into a twig.  She lays eggs, each shaped like a grain of rice, into the wound eventually laying several hundred eggs.

 

Once a cicada nymph hatches, it drops to the ground, immediately burrowing into the soil, using its specially adapted front legs for the excavation.  It seeks out a root and uses its specially adapted mouthparts to penetrate through the epidermis and suck out the sap.  The cicada spends much of its time in its underground chambers.  Once grown, it tunnels upward, to near the surface, where it constructs a “waiting chamber.”  Upon receiving some mysterious signal, perhaps a temperature threshold, our nymph, along with its multiple kindred nymphs, emerges in a synchronized debut, one of the great pageants of the insect world.  It climbs up nearby vegetation, molts for the final time, emerging from its old nymphal skin as a fully winged adult, beginning the final celebration of its life.

 

The cicadas struggle for survival through their final days because they are nontoxic and relatively easily caught, especially during the final molt, and must deal with a crowd of potential predators, including birds such as boat-tail grackles, various woodpeckers, robins, red-winged blackbirds and even ducks; mammals such as squirrels and smaller animals; reptiles such as snakes and turtles; spiders such as the golden silk spider; and other insects such as its especially fearsome arch enemy, the cicada killer wasp.

 

Of course, the cicada does have certain defenses.  Once it has molted, it can fly swiftly to escape some potential predators.  The raucous male alarm call may startle some predators, especially birds.  It may occur in such numbers that it overwhelms the collective appetite of predators.

 

In perhaps its most novel defense, the desert cicada has developed an extraordinary ability to remain active throughout mid-day, when most would-be predators have to seek shelter from the desert heat.  Notably, the cicada, unlike any other known insect, can sweat, which helps it dissipate heat.  When threatened with overheating, desert cicadas extract water from their blood and transport it through large ducts to the surface of the thorax, where it evaporates.  The cooling that results permits a few desert cicada species to be active when temperatures are so high that their enemies are incapacitated by the heat.  No other insects have been shown to have the ducts required for sweating.

 

While the cicada may cause minor damage to the plants on which it feeds during its life cycle, it contributes in important ways to the environment.  Studies of the cicada in Colorado River riparian communities revealed the ecological importance of this species.  Feeding by the nymphs influences the vegetative structure of mixed stands of cottonwood and willow that occur in certain habitats.  Excess water removed from the host’s water conducting tissues (the xylem) during feeding is eliminated as waste and improves moisture conditions in the upper layer of the soil.  Xylem fluids are low in nutrients and the nymphs must consume large amounts of it to accommodate their energy needs.  Most of the water is quickly excreted and becomes available to shallow rooted plants.  Additionally, cicadas comprise an important prey species for birds and mammals, and the burrowing activity of nymphs facilitates water movement within the soil.”

 

The cicada has entered the realm of folklore across much of the world, possibly because its periodic emergence from darkness into light and song has been equated with rebirth and good fortune.

 

In one myth Cacama was the lord of the Aztec kingdom of Tezcuco who met his end at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. Cacama lives on in these winged desert treasures.

 

A Greek poet once wrote,  “We call you happy, O Cicada, because after you have drunk a little dew in the treetops you sing like a queen.”

 

An Italian myth held that “one day there was born on the earth a beautiful, good and very talented woman whose singing was so wonderful it even enchanted the gods.  When she died the world seemed so forlorn without the sweet sound of her singing that the gods allowed her to return to life every summer as the cicadas so that her singing could lift up the hearts of man and beast once again.”

In our desert Southwest Zuni mythology, the cicada outwitted the traditional trickster, the coyote.  The insect produced heat in Hopi mythology, heralding the arrival of summer, and it is “the patron of Hopi Flute societies in charge of both music and healing,” according to Stephen W. Hill, Kokopelli Ceremonies.  The cicada played a key role as a scout and a conqueror in Navajo creation myths.  It brought renewal and healing to other tribes.

Across the Southwest, from prehistory into historic times, the cicada became identified with the hump-backed flute player, or Kokopelli, a charismatic and iconic figure portrayed in rock art and ceramic imagery.

Kokopelli risked his life to lead the Ant People from mythological inner worlds to the present world, where they became The First People, after agreeing to follow the teaching of the Great Spirit.

“Kokopelli’s transparent wings have now unfolded and dried, and he is able to take to the sky.  Kokopelli’s reward is flight.  His continued gift to us is his reminder to be grateful that we no longer live in darkness.

Mr. and Mr. Rufous

 

This morning I was aghast when Mr. Rufous hit the window and fell to the ground. Rushing out to give him sugar water, I was so relieved to see him recover his wits and fly towards his cottonwood bower on his own. A very close call.

Rufous, an iridescent coppery jewel of a hummingbird arrived here on June 22 with his mate – just as beautiful in her less dramatic emerald and rust attire. My other resident hummingbirds (black chin, and broadtail) all seemed to be cooperating as they visited my two feeders – both of which are emptied and refilled every day. I have so many! I wondered how Rufous and his wife would fit in so I have been keeping a sharp eye on hummingbird cooperation dynamics. Three weeks have gone by since their arrival, and I do believe this couple may stay to raise a family because they are still here and fly off in the same direction whenever leaving the feeders.

It is true that this pugnacious little hummingbird can throw a wrench into cooperation but I have been pleasantly surprised to see this male and female sipping nectar with other birds sitting on neighboring perches. Could it be that the broadtail and black chin social dynamic has rubbed off on Mr. and Mrs. Rufous? I have no way of knowing, but it does seem that this couple is more willing to compromise than most others I have known. Some days, of course Mr. Rufous hovers above the feeders making sudden aggressive dives to scare the others away with his high pitched squeaks – but only for a few moments. Often, he lets others return and I have pictures of their sharing quite companionably. Mrs. Rufous seems very cooperative and she has taken to visiting the nastursiums, scarlet runner beans, fiery salvia, deep rose and scarlet penstemon and the pot that holds my bee, butterfly, and hummingbird friendly wildflower mixture that Iren gave me last spring. This pot is an astonishing bouquet of deep pink, mauve, purple, and white flowers, with a few golden California poppies. I have become increasingly attached to these fiesty little hummingbirds.

It interests me that the territories that the male and female “defend” are somewhat different. Males hover over the primary food source(s) while the females extend their ranges further afield choosing less dense wildflower meadows. This year, except for my little pot garden there are few wildflowers beyond the fence where I do not water, so choices, at least here, are very limited. And Mrs. Rufous does not hog these flowers; the others sip from them too.

Rufous hummingbirds are small with a short tail with mighty flight skills that allow them to travel 2000 miles from Mexico to as far north as Alaska for breeding in the western states. This migration can take place from as early as May to August in New Mexico, and some stop along the way to raise their families. They follow the wildflower season. During their long migrations, they make a clockwise circuit of western North America each year moving up the Pacific Coast in late winter and spring, reaching Washington and British Columbia by May, Alaska by June. As early as July they may start south again, traveling down the chain of the Rocky Mountains.  Only recently have we learned that these hummingbirds follow a clockwise pattern of migration.

The adult male  rufous has a slender bill, white breast, a rusty face, flanks and tail with a startlingly beautiful orange-red throat patch or gorget. Some males have some green on back and/or crown (Mr Rufous does not). The female has green, white, some iridescent orange and a dark tail with white tips. The female is slightly larger than the male and has longer wings.

As many of us know, like all hummingbirds, these exquisite jewels feed on nectar from flowers using a long extendable tongue or capture insects on the wing. They require frequent feeding while active during the day and go into a state of torpor at night to conserve energy. Because of their small size, they are vulnerable to insect-eating birds and animals.

Most breeding habitats are open areas, mountainsides and forest edges in western North America and the Pacific Northwest. The female builds a nest made out of mosses, cattails, spider webs, in a tree shrub or tree and raises her brood of two chicks alone. The offspring are ready for flight in about three weeks.

Surveys show continuing declines in rufous numbers during recent decades. Because they rely on finding the right conditions in so many different habitats at just the right seasons during the year, these hummingbirds are especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Hummingbirds in general are only found in the western hemisphere, so they do not appear in any culture’s legends and myths except those of North and South America. On the Pacific coast of Peru people carved into the desert surface what archaeologists call a “giant ground drawing” of a hummingbird.

The tiny iridescent “flower birds,” were considered gifts from the gods by Indigenous Peoples. In Peru and other South American countries, at or near the equator, naturalists have catalogued over three hundred species, and it is believed that not all have been discovered yet.

The rain forests of South America were probably where hummingbirds first evolved (co-evolved) with flowers. Perhaps hummingbirds drank the life-giving nectar, leaving behind a pollinated forest before flying away, its burnished colors shimmering in a primal world of sunlight…

Just the sight of these birds brings me into the present moment, one filled with joy.

Thanks be for hummingbirds!

Spadefoot Toads

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The other day my friend Sabra regaled me with spadefoot toad stories that caught my hair on fire. Toads and frogs need water to thrive and the lack of rain has left me feeling paralyzed and obsessed at the same time over a thirst driven desert, and missing my liminal amphibious friends dearly. Listening to her talking about the toad holes in her garden – Sabra literally waters these depressions every night until resident toads pop their heads out of the holes with their tongues sticking out (!) – made me realize that I feel exactly like a toad myself. I am starved for water from the sky.

 

Every morning before I walk down to the river at dawn I turn on the sprinkler in front of the house to water the chamisa to keep one area green, but also to create a bathing area for the hummingbirds and other birds who take early morning baths under the spray. Everyone needs water…and I keep hoping that a toad or two might find this temporary early morning oasis at some point and move in. So far, no toads…my guess is that I would need a more permanent source of water, not to mention less heat (because most toads cannot survive temperatures about 86 degrees) to have some visit.

 

Last year I heard one western toad and found one dead on the road, run over by a car. She was probably on her way to meet her croaking male suitor. No toad eggs appeared in Iren’s little pond, so my guess is that this female was the only other toad in the area.

 

After Sabra told me about the spadefoots I immediately looked them up wondering if they also live down here by the river. Listening to the spadefoot’s call so I could recognize it I was surprised at how different the calls of spadefoot sounded from the others – a weird grating sound.

 

I also learned that the spadefoot is found in all of New Mexico’s 33 counties but I was not able to determine precisely where they prefer to live (Sabra lives on the Mesa). Some sources say they burrow near ponds and low areas but obviously they also like Mesas if they have a water source like Sabra does (or did – not this year). When I learned that they were nocturnal, secretive, and totally dependent upon rain I realized I might have one in my area and not know it? I needed to learn that call.

 

Distinguished by eyes with vertical pupils (other toads have horizontal pupils) that sit close to the top of their heads and small, hard, wedge-shaped structures on hind legs used for digging into moist soil, spadefoot toads vary in color (between gray, brown or dusky green). They are approximately 1.5 to 3.5 inches in length and when threatened they emit an odor said to smell like roasted peanuts. These toads can survive temperatures above 98 degrees, unlike most other toads.

 

The amazing thing about spadefoots is that they spend most of the year underground in cocoons formed from layers of shed skin. This shedding of skins helps keep the toad from ‘drying out’ or dehydrating, and they stay alive in a state of ‘suspended animation’ called estivation. Some burrow three feet down in the ground. When summer rains fill low areas with water they emerge to feed for the year on insects (termites, ants, beetles and spiders but not worms as Sabra feared) and to breed. The males do the calling. Breeding takes place in temporary pools. Around a thousand eggs are laid in large masses and often hatch in as little as 48 hours. The tadpoles are forced to metamorphose in 7 – 13 days, the fastest developing of all toads. If the tadpoles hatch little toadlets will eat frantically (they are omnivorous too) and burrow into the ground to wait for the next downpour. With this drought I can’t imagine water remaining above ground long enough for tadpoles to survive, even if we do have rainfall. The earth is so parched.

It does not surprise me that most of the seven species of spadefoots are under threat of extinction, especially with global warming. Most sources say they are not ‘true toads’ because they do not have warty skin and they have teeth!

Talk about living on the edge – wow – the fact that these amphibians have survived at all to the present is a source of mind -bending amazement to me.