Thursday, August 18, 2011


To most of the world, the desert’s seasons are a secret. That’s why a few human visitors each year, relying on the obvious dryness of arroyos that look as if they hadn’t seen water for decades, park in them and lose their car, or their lives.

As everyone in Doña Ana County knows, the seasons this year have been even more extreme than usual: a record freeze in February that killed plants that had been around for decades; a record drought; and some violent rainstorms of late. It’s been cheering to watch the revival of various plants that appeared dead from the freeze.

Meanwhile, Dael and I begin learning more about the rhythm of the desert.

Our friend Bud, who has lived on our land just north of Dona Ana county for more than a quarter-century now, records everything. All summer dozens of hummingbirds buzz and battle around his place .  (After all, for migrating birds the Rio Grande is the Interstate, and our land borders the river.)  Every year but one they have returned on the same day. Only once in all those years, he says, have they failed to appear on April 1st. They were two days late this year, perhaps because of that freeze..

Among our friends is this fellow I photographed behind the house a year ago, when we were just visiting.
We were quite taken with him. Dael discovered him under a datura leaf. Datura plants are poison to us and many other creatures, but he loves ‘em.   He also felt safe in them from predators:

He’s a sphinx moth caterpillar, I’m told.   Manduca sexta.

To the thrasher, he’s delicious.

To our neighbor, he’s the enemy.

He’s also known as a tobacco hornworm in South Carolina, and mistakenly called a tomato hornworm elsewhere; because along with datura he likes, and destroys, tomato and tobacco plants.

We were happy to see him – or, more precisely, one of his descendants – again this year. We photographed him hanging upside down from a tomato plant; and here (at right) he looks as if he’s peering over a wall, looking for more plants to destroy. He has a neat face. (It took me quite awhile, actually, to realize that the end with the red horn -- green in young ones -- is the rear.)

This year, now that we live here and have our own tomato plants, he did us a good deal of damage. His green is so indistinguishable from the curved leaves of a tomato plant that you can look right at him a while without seeing him. Rather than killing him and his brethren, we carry them around back to various datura plants.

More recently we have found a several more, including some young ones, on a bush near the house.   Here’s a shot from this morning.  It suggests how effective her camouflage is.

At the same time, her elder brother whose photographs we took only two or three weeks ago, is no longer a caterpillar. At dusk and sometimes dawn, we seem him fluttering about. He still favors the datura plants, but also likes bird of paradise, the desert willow, and even . . . the hummingbird feeder:

He’s a colorful fellow, and big for a moth.

I hope to get a better shot of him soon, without some ugly man-made feeder in it.

Meanwhile, here’s a quick video bit in which he visits the desert willow (the other night) and the feeder (this morning). Unfortunately, the feeder remains of interest to others:

Dael says these critters live just 30-50 days.  They "wander" in search of a good spot, then pupate underground.  (They spend 18 days in their tiny burrows.)  As with hummingbirds and orioles and much of the natural world, the males are more colorful than the females.  There's even a word for that, I just learned: sexually dimorphic.

I'd like to say something profound about the brevity of their lives and ours, but it's dusk, and perhaps I can improve on that video right now.

Desert Photography

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