Saturday, July 18, 2009

Wind

One of the things people tell you about when you first move to Tucson is the wind. Now, I grew up in the Northeast with blizzards and nor'easters and the occasional hurricane, so I assumed they were just exaggerating. But then there's a storm like the one that blew through last night and you understand that the wind here has its own personality, unlike anything you've experienced before.

Often the first sign that there's a storm coming in is that the wind picks up. Trees sway, dust devils dance and you start to hear a whistling sound as it cuts around buildings and through slits under doors and poorly sealed windows. The sky darkens as the clouds move in from the Mogollon Rim, lifting over the Catalinas to the north, losing their meager moisture in the cooler air. Lightning crackles across the sky, followed by a rumble of thunder. You think at last you're going to get some rain to soothe the parched ground and fill the scorched leaves with moisture again. But all you get is the wind, stronger now, bending trees almost double, gusting to near hurricane strength. Dried mesquite pods fly through the air, blossoms are stripped from the Texas rangers, power poles topple, plunging thousands into darkness and the heat of a Sonoran summer without air conditioning. The metal garage door vibrates like some harp from hell as the wind assaults the house.

You find yourself willing the rain to start, knowing that the wind will stop once the collision between air masses passes, but sometimes there is no rain. All you get is the wind, endless wind, driving wind, howling wind. Finally, it eases, the storm passes and you find yourself breathing again. Until the next time, when you get to go through it all over again.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Birds and Butterflies

One of the misconceptions about the Sonoran Desert is that it resembles the Sahara. Say desert and people think of sand dunes and a vast wasteland with a meager smattering of oases surrounded by date palms. The Sonoran Desert is alive with plants and animals; sometimes too many plants and animals, but that's a topic for another day.
We seem to have more than our share of butterflies. Lately I've been watching some small white ones that appear to fly in pairs, circling around one another in a dance that's a delight to see. Many of our butterflies are an orange-brown with black and white spots. They are often mistaken for Monarchs, but monarch butterflies only pass through during their spring and fall migrations. The Tucson Botanical Garden has a wonderful butterfly garden and also hosts Butterfly Magic, an indoor exhibit of exotic butterflies from around the world.
The city of Tucson and surrounding areas lie on a major flyway, so we have not only our year-round residents like the Cactus Wren, but transients like juncos and warblers. Perhaps nothing says Southwest as much as the Gambrel's Quail, those large birds with the plume sticking out of their heads, that scurry across roadways in single file, mom and dad at front and back, chicks in the middle. And, speaking of scurrying across the road, there's always the roadrunner. Unlike the quail, these solitary birds are more elusive. Thanks to Warner Brothers, no one can see a roadrunner without smiling and thinking “beep, beep”. A bird that always surprises me in the Lesser Goldfinch. Yellow birds in nature are so rare, these always catch my eye when they land in the mesquite tree outside my office window to feast on the insects on its leaves.
My favorite birds have to be hummingbirds. Maybe it's because I grew up in an area where you didn't see hummingbirds on a regular basis. I think it's probably more that the way they hover over a flower to drink its nectar, their wings beating faster than seems possible, then suddenly dart off to the next one, lets you see their beautiful colors and the delicacy of how they're built. It doesn't take much to attract them here. Hang a feeder filled with sugar water and you'll be sure to have lots of visitors to your patio or yard.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Fifth Season

I grew up deprived. In the Northeast, where I was born and raised, and in Michigan, where I went to college, there are only four seasons. It was only recently, when I moved to Arizona, that I discovered the joys of having five.

Tucked in between (Dry) Summer and Fall, here in Tucson we have Monsoon, the time of year when our normal days of single digit humidity are changed by wet winds coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Traditionally, monsoon begins when we have three successive days where the dew point is over 54 degrees. This obviously was too esoteric for the folks at the National Weather Service to deal with. How do you keep statistics if a season keeps moving around? So last year they declared that monsoon begins on June 15th, regardless of the dew point. This might make record-keeping easier, but it really doesn't correspond to the season very well. The average date for the beginning of monsoon by the old method is July 3rd.

Desert people aren't used to rain. There are two distinct reactions to the thunderstorms that come up suddenly during monsoon. One group of people stands outside in the rain, enjoying the novelty, even acting like children, opening their mouths and catching raindrops on their tongues. The other group, which tends to be much larger, stays indoors until it's over, fearful that they'll actually get wet and melt like sugar.

In the Northeast, storms are big masses of moisture. Thunderstorms in Arizona are more miserly. They break out in columns of water coming down in torrents. A street can be drenched in minutes, rivers gushing down it to flood the intersections and tie up traffic. A couple of blocks over, it will be perfectly dry.

And the lightning! I never really saw lightning till I came to Arizona. Huge forks of electricity pierce the sky, putting on a fireworks show more wondrous than any 4th of July. My second year here, I was lying in bed when I was awakened by the sound and fury of a monsoon storm. Debating whether to get up and watch the light show or stay snuggled in my bed, the flash of light and rumble of thunder were almost simultaneous. I waited a few minutes, thinking the storm would abate, but it continued to flash and rumble. I got out of bed and went to the sliding glass doors facing the patio. Off to my right, a tall tree in the yard of the house next door was blazing like a candle. I never looked at the Italian cypress outside my balcony in quite the same way after that.

Tonight, on the typical monsoon start date, the sky is overcast and the wind is blowing fitfully. I can see the flash of lightning in the distance and have heard the rumble of thunder as I've been typing. But so far, the storm hasn't come to my street. I long for it, the relief from the 100 degree days and the scorching sun. Soon now. I can feel it.