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Pygmy nuthatch

A pygmy nuthatch munches on a seed bell.

What a year, 2018. This one’s for Randy Wilson.

Driving north out of Flag on 180 in August, I passed fields of the sunflower, golden crownbeard, Verbesina encelioides, in full force across from Cheshire. Its nice resiny fragrance was strong, even driving by. Randy used to ask me what it was and where it was in certain years. It was so nice to help out with their name and information about their late monsoon blooming habit. He sure made it his business to learn about and be in the natural world around him. And Randy totally supported Nature Notes, for which I am so grateful. Thank you.

The dry winter set a lot of things back. I noticed that many herbaceous perennials like wild geranium and some penstemons disappeared from parts of my yard that I didn’t water. It was just a little too dry a little too long to for them to hang in there till the monsoons started. The native garden at Buffalo Park is changing as things dry out. What was a wetland section for the last six years, with golden tickseed, New Mexican checkermallow, and Rocky Mountain iris, is shifting to dryland grasses.

And then the monsoons came and the way everything rallied was profoundly touching. The lesser goldfinches were able to breed a second time this summer! The dayflower patch in my backyard was bigger than ever; I don’t know what is going with those monsoon-adapted spiderworts. Bumper fruit crops all over town.

And this fall there were tanagers in my plum hedge, chowing down on the remaining plums ripe for eating. That sure made me smile. I love just to watch them and to help them a little. Some of the tanagers seemed dusty red, so maybe hepatic or scarlet!?

Of late, the pygmy nuthatches have been going to town on these cool seed bells that Jay’s Bird Barn sells. It was nice that they stayed put long enough for me to figure out what they were. Another first in my bird education. Pygmy nuthatches are elegant little birds, and I marvel that they can eat while upside down. The bells are made of compressed seeds and fruit, with little filler.

I got back to Government Prairie late this summer and while beautiful as always, it seemed a little dry. In most years, it is kind of blindingly green. By contrast, things were stunningly green along the Mogollon Rim, as seen along Route 260 this year; It did seem like the rim country got more rain this year. It probably always does; it’s like they get the first dump in the stack, as the rim forces moist air upward and our way.

So, we camped in Government Prairie and from camp walked closer to the heart of this grassland. As we walked into the larger part of the prairie, I had the clearest sense of the space filling me up. After living in a forest for a long time, I find I crave the open spaces, and there is nothing like an Arizona fescue prairie for that.

Some plants are cycling back in to the scene around here. White aster and showy goldeneye are becoming more common after disappearing for a while. I have a picture of the central meadow at Buffalo Park being solidly yellow with goldeneye in the fall of 2015. And from then on, zippo. Similarly, with white aster, I feared that the population in my yard would overtake the place, but that didn’t happen. I haven’t seen them in a few years, and am glad to have them back.

My book on the natural history of the Peaks is out. It is a regional piece, geared for scientists and the interested lay public. It’s a good look at this mountain, covering the last 1.5 billion years to today. It is such a remarkable mountain, our sky island here on the edge of the cold and warm deserts.

Over 30 species of plants live on the Peaks and nowhere else in Arizona. Most are high elevation species, and thoroughly isolated from related populations, perhaps for the last 10,000 years. The Peaks provides very rare high elevation habitats for these species in this enormous region.

I have started a conversation with a geneticist at NAU about studying the DNA of a tundra species in the Peaks and comparing it with that of populations in the Rockies and Utah. Such a study might reveal when this little cold-loving plant got here, from where and perhaps how many times it came on down! Wouldn’t that be the coolest thing in the world. We shall crowd-source for that!

So, the Peaks book is for sale at: Aspen Sports, Babbitt’s, Bright Side Bookshop, Jay's Bird Barn, the Museum and the Arboretum, and directly from my website, SanFranciscoPeaksNaturalHistory.com. I will be talking about the water chapter of the Peaks’ book at the Pioneer Museum from  6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, replete with a bar. I will also have books, artwork and cards for sale.

Happy winter!

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Gwendolyn Waring is an artist, writer and mother based in Flagstaff.

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