Saturday, August 16, 2008

The good, the bad, and the bugly

Hummingbird numbers are rising. Though there seems to be plenty of natural nectar from both native and garden sources, they're hitting our feeders hard. This gorgeous Broad-billed has been one of our regulars this summer:The "monsoons" have been generous this year, cloaking southeastern Arizona in an abundance of green rarely seen in the desert. Unfortunately, some of that green consists of weedy annuals such as the pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri) that grows so fast that in a few days of inattention it's shot up to five feet and is already setting seed. It likes disturbed soil, and we've been disturbing the soil on our property pretty seriously lately in an effort to control the highly invasive Ailanthus (an epic struggle involving our cars and a tow cable as well as garden tools and herbicides). At least pigweeds are edible, though I'm not sure collecting enough seeds to make candy from is worth the time, sweat, and prickled fingers.

In between the weeds, though, our garden is blooming like crazy. The "Red Bed," a sheltered corner of the yard where we've concentrated our less desert-adapted hummingbird flowers, is pretty colorful right now, with Desert Columbine (Aquilegia desertorum), Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), and seven varieties of salvias in bloom. Here's Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips':

All four flowers in the photo above are on the same plant, which is the main attraction of this unusual "sport." The flowers are usually bicolored but may be solid red or solid white, apparently determined by temperature (individual flowers don't change color like a mood ring, though). Right now our plant has all three. It's not a huge hit with the hummers, but it's still worth having around just for this bizarre trait.

The Mountain Sage (Salvia regla, acquired from salvia maven Rich Dufrense), two varieties of Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha), and native Transpecos Morning-glories (Ipomoea cristulata) should be blooming soon, but I'm starting to lose hope of ever seeing the alien-looking flowers of the Aztec (or Jacobean) Lilies (Sprekelia formosissima) given to us by a friend. Our sunny front walk is also bordered with flowers, including two varieties of wild-type cannas (Canna sp.) and four types of lantana (grown especially for butterflies).

The rains have also given insect populations a big boost and, like the plants, not just the nice ones. The "sabertoothed gnats" (a type of black fly, apparently) are on the decline now, but a couple of weeks ago we didn't dare go out without full-body protection (the damned things act like DEET doesn't exist). We haven't found any kissing bugs in the house since I posted on them a few weeks back, but we're still getting bitten occasionally. Grasshopper populations are on the rise, too, just as our tomatoes, peppers, and squash are finally starting to set fruit. Then there's the carpenter bees that slash open the salvia flowers, ruining them for the hummingbirds and butterflies (I can't find the reference just now, but they can see red better than other bees and feed on other red flowers such as ocotillo).

But the bug bounty isn't all bad - we've also got lots of butterflies, White-lined Sphinx Moths, and occasional surprises. This week this formidable creature dropped in for some watermelon:
This is a Long-jawed Longhorn Beetle, Trachyderes mandibularis, the first we've seen in our yard. (Addendum: He can fly, even with that outlandish headgear, but it's like an elk taking wing.) The brilliant green beetle behind it is a Fig Beetle or Green June Beetle, Cotinis mutabilis.

With all the rain, our little water features aren't getting much use. I miss all the activity from the dry season, when one corner of our yard was like a popular neighborhood pub. Here are a few highlights:

Juvenile Costa's hummingbird bathing in the solar fountain

Male Bronzed Cowbird

Male Varied Bunting (a first for our yard)

Male Pyrrhuloxia

The hummingbird and butterfly action should get even better as we slide toward September, and there may be other surprises in store. Stay tuned!