January Means Winter!
Last month we spoke about the desert dwellers celebrating Christmas. This month we’ll center in on the fact that January, our coldest month and this year 2019 is proving that fact by ushering in the New Year with below freezing temps and snow! In fact, many guests at Spirit viewed snow-dusted mountains that surround the center, as well as hail and frozen water in our fountains! It goes without saying that most of these visitors thought they left winter behind when they came to the desert, but alas, not so. The Sonoran Desert Climate has some of the most “extremes” when it comes to weather. We start the day at 25 degrees and by 2pm we’re at 60 degrees. Because this desert goes from below sea level to almost 11,000′ mountains, weather can change at any time. Here are a few pictures and facts about the desert-dwellers who have learned to adapt to these extremes.
The Harris Hawk, one of only two raptor species in the world that hunts socially, is a treasured desert bird. The species originated in the high Andes Mountains and was probably brought to North America via conquistadors who enjoyed falconry. Today the Harris Hawk remains a favorite for falconry sport. They live 15 to 20 years and are not an endangered species as they have healthy populations but they, as are all raptors, are protected by the Migratory Bird Act. The Harris Hawk in the picture is honing in, most likely on a jackrabbit, on a snowy day. An early-morning common sight is to see 2 or more of them standing on top of one another! Ornithologists have several theories about this, warmth being the major one as they certainly don’t need higher ground for their vision! Much like the eagle, they can see what the human can only imagine. Winter brings more antics with them, diving, free-falling, and most of all, building nests. They move on after a few years so the nests left behind are snagged by Great Horned Owls who don’t build nests–they steal them! Harris Hawks are “cleaners of the desert” as their prolific hunting culls the rabbit/rodent populations. Many call them “free critter control.”
Snakes, Lizards and Frogs-Oh My!
Winter for these critters can be dicey, but many have learned to adapt quite well. The Wood Frog, for instance, as you see in the picture on the left, secretes a glycogen gel-much like an amniotic fluid sac, around it that it can stay in this goobery bubble even under frozen ponds at higher elevations! Since a snake has no way to dig, it takes over gopher/pack-rat holes and after eating anything in there, curls up tight for a “long winter’s night.” As the ground heats up so does the snake and, if the hole doesn’t get filled (it happens and snakes die) they emerge to find their sunshine again. Lizards find shelter in cracks in rocks and piles of leaves and branches. Smaller lizards go underground as well but they have to be careful because even a hungry rat will find them tasty! The difference for amphibians is they are ecto-thermal, in other words, their outer skin is the temperature as the air. Mammals are eco-thermal and have an internal system to regulate their heat. As mammals we humans also can buy coats and boots!
Plants of the Sonoran Desert, have learned to adapt but for many it isn’t easy at all.
For those who live in the desert and have plants in their yards, freezing temps can make a mess of things. Ficus Trees are especially vulnerable and with one good frost will turn black and literally weep and fall over! Young plants will instantly turn brown and crumble like corn flakes. Succulent Cacti need covering as well when they are young. You’ll see many nurseries with insulated “cone hats” on the top of their succulent cacti as that is where the plant is most susceptible to frost-bite. Native plants in the wild, however, get sturdier and yes, some perish in persistent freezing temperatures, but persistent is the operative word here. Rarely do freezing temps persist long in the Sonoran Desert! Some cacti, like the Prickly Pear, will drop newer pads in the frost, but their core continues strong and they continue on despite the cold.
As we think of climate change today, a pro-longed freeze in this desert would be devastating and change the eco-system immensely, and not for the good.
To be truthful … the Sonoran Desert is temperate in winter, but it can sneak up on you and find you wondering if you’re still back in Minnesota or Wisconsin! But one solid truth is “this too shall pass” and the lovely desert sun will melt off the snow and ice and the desert is back to normal again. Like the seasons of our lives, we ebb and flow, but in the Creator’s hands, we are safe and sound. Happy New Year and may 2019 be a time of blessing and hope for you all.