A hiker’s journal: December 2011

A glob of Desert mistletoe hanging from a palo verde.

The 5th, a Monday:  North Mountain Park, Phoenix.  I have a plan today, an actual plan.  I’m not going to let stuff just happen as I usually do on a I hike.  I’ve decided to undertake on my broad shoulders the counting of palo verde trees inflicted with the parasitic Desert mistletoe.  Mistletoe seems to be everywhere.  I’ll even provide the scientific name, phoradendron californicus, to make it sound important if not a bit obscene.

Californicus is not to be confused with the leafy green “kissing” mistletoe with the white berries, although both are parasites that live off the moisture and nutrients of host trees.  No, californicus is as ugly as a tumor, clumpy and stringy and brittle.  You wouldn’t be caught dead under it with your sweet-thing.

It’s late afternoon when my mission begins.  I’m not so stupid as to think I can count every tree in the inner basin.   I’m just going to count the palo verde trees along the trail, and only those trees that extend out no more than 10 yards.  The mistletoe attacks mesquite also but is far less successful than with the green-barked palo verde.

Dying Palo Verde

The work of Desert Mistletoe isn't pretty.

One thing about me is that once I lock onto a mission like this, I’m easily deterred.  A jogger, a young woman with a leashed dog, shouts at me in passing as I photograph a palo verde ravaged by mistletoe.  “I just saw a coyote back there,” she says.  I quickly stow my camera and backtrack down the trail about 100 yards.  But no coyote.  All I see is a reddish bird atop a saguaro.  I think I’m looking at a red-shouldered hawk until I see it’s way too small and has a white breast with brown streaks near the wing.  Well, at least I have the mistletoe.

Most of the afflicted trees are fairly close together, near the junction of the Christiansen and Shaw Butte Trails.  At other points there are no trees, only creosote and compass barrel cholla.  I did see one mesquite with a clump of mistletoe.  Farther off the trail I see several palo verde with californicus but do not count them.  It would skew the results.

A pair of Desert Mistletoe sprigs.

Back at the Visitors Center, I total it up. I’ve counted 93 palo verdes with 16 showing varying amounts of Desert mistletoe.   That comes to 17.2 %, or approximately one of every six trees having some infestation.

One thing is strange.  In all my hikes here at North Mountain I’ve yet to lay eyes on a single phainopepla, the little black birds with crests and red eyes.  It is the phainopepla, I’ve read, who is a co-conspirator in the spread of Desert mistletoe.  It eats the berries and spews them out from one end or the other, onto branches.  And, voila.  Before you know it, the tree has a dangerous companion.

So this is my life any more.  Small stuff.  Mistletoe and phainopepla.  I used to think I was a big shot, or at least a bigger shot than I am now.   It could be argued that now I’m just shot.  Strangely, it has come to me of late that I like being a little deal much more than I ever liked being a big one.

This beats a cubicle with a computer screen, it seems to me.

The 8th, Thursday:  North Mountain Park.  Hiking the last leg of a loop on the Shaw Butte Trail, a rider on horseback approaches.  He is an older man, wrapped up in a blue jean jacket and wearing the faint smile of someone enjoying the ambling pace of his big chestnut mare.  “You look comfortable up there,” I say as he passes.  “I’m not working as hard as you are,” he replies, the smile broadening.  “I feel bad about that.”  The man has taken me wrong.  I should’ve said, “You look like you’ve ridden a horse before,”  noting his comfort in the saddle and the relaxed hand on the reins.  I do that a lot.  I mean to say one thing, but it comes out wrong.

For me, it has been a relaxed two-miler in the inner basin.  I’m starting to feel like a trail watchman, so often do I hike here.  The weather is fantastic except for an ever-so slight haze.  It’s sunny, in the upper 50s and a gentle breeze barely moves the branches of the creosote.  And it is so quiet I hear from 100 yards away a hiking stick crunching small rock on the trail.  I stopped at the Trupiano memorial bench to eat a deli sandwich, hoping for a coyote to slink by.  But nothing.  It’s a light day on the trails.  I count 23 hikers, 1 biker, five joggers and the vaquero, 30 in all.

From the saddle, looking north.

The 10th, Saturday:  Quartz Ridge Trail, Phoenix Mountains.  I slow for speed bumps as I drive north on Squaw Peak Drive, passing the busy summit trail to Piestewa Peak.  It used to be called Squaw Peak until a former governor, Janet Napolitano stuck her political nose into it, wanting, I guess, to make a name for herself as an Indian-sensitive humanitarian.  She steamrolled the state’s naming board into changing the name in 2003 in favor of Lori Piestewa, the first known American Indian woman to die while serving in the U.S. military.  This although Piestewa, a Navajo, had nothing historically or otherwise to do with the peak.  Plus her home was faraway, in northern Arizona.  Nothing against Ms. Piestewa, but . . . .

Large outcrop of quartz.

A half-mile past Piestewa, I park, don my hiking boots and head up the steep Nature Trail to the saddle, where a new world opens up to the north under a bright sky.  Nothing but desert for two or three miles in front.  I soon veer off on Trail #8, the Quartz Ridge.  The trail is not so-named for nothing.  White quartz dots the landscape both as boulders and outcroppings.  A modest ravine runs on the left.  It is filled with palo verde, many of the trees laden with the parasitic Desert mistletoe, much more so than at North Mountain Park several miles to the northwest.  It should not surprise to see a phainopepla here for the little black bird feeds largely on the mistletoe.   It should not surprise but it did.  It was resting high up on a branch of ocotillo, and I quickly brought my camera into position.  But as patient as the bird was for this photo op, the shoot ended in frustration.  My hand was too shaky to capture a clear, zoomed-in image, and I cursed myself for not acquiring a tripod and remote clicker.

Otherwise it was a nice afternoon.

The unique Papago Buttes.

The 11th, Sunday:  Once you visit Papago Park you never forget it.  Knobs of pock-marked red sandstone known as Papago Buttes sprinkle the drab desert with color.  The buttes are like “desert snowballs,” having collected boulders, small rocks and other debris like a snowball would rolling down a hill.  This debris is stuck into the sedimentary rock like candles in a cake.

A first for me at least, a Black-throated Sparrow

Except for the buttes, Papago is a relatively flat tract that is knifed north and south by busy McDowell Road and east and west by Galvin Parkway.  It is more urban than the other parks.  Amid the creosote, palo verde and brittle bush, there is a zoo, a golf course, the Desert Botanical Garden and, on a hill above it all, the pyramid structure where Arizona’s first governor, George W. P. Hunt, is buried.

I’ve trekked out here many times, so the highlights can be quite small.  Like adding a bird to my life list.  Walking along the trail I stop for five minutes trying to get that just-perfect photo of what I later learn is a Black-throated Sparrow.  I’d had seen plenty of its cousins, the black breasted House Sparrow and the red-headed House Finch, in my backyard.

Papago is best known for something beside birds.  I speak of the marooned hikers who, thinking they are Sherpas, try to scale the buttes and find at a certain point it is impossible to come back down.  So out come the helicopters.  One to rescue and a few others to film for the visually-starved local TV stations.  Phoenix, the dull town that it is, never seems to tire of these “scary” moments.

The Trupiano bench pointing to North Mountain.

The 16th, FridayNorth Mountain Park.  Did the inner-basin loop again, about two miles.  Saw for the first time in this park a black-tailed jackrabbit.  It scurried across the Shaw Butte Trail in front of me and quickly out of sight.  Much more shy than the Audubon’s cottontail.   The normally drab desertland’s winter coat was blessed by a patina of green, courtesy of big rains early in the week.  While the blades of grass are small, maybe a quarter of an inch, their cumulative effect is huge.  The temperature reached the mid-60s on a clear day but an easterly breeze chilled the air.  Counted only 22 on the trail. Twelve hikers, six joggers and four bikers together, all middle-aged men moving fast.

The 19th, Monday:  North Mountain Park, inner loop.  Three boys on bicycles roll past me.  The youngest who is maybe 12 at the most is wearing a sweater with lettering at the bottom that says, “I Am Parental Guidance.”  A sign of the times.  Later I come up behind an obese young woman with a girl.  The woman is walking two pit bulls on a leash.  As an experiment in human nature, I wait to see if she acknowledges me as we approach the Visitors Center.  It would be courteous of her to pull to the side with her dogs and let me pass.  But she does not.

The elusive Black-Tailed Jackrabbit.

The 20th, Tuesday:  Papago Park.   Unexpectedly, my walk around the western buttes turns into a wildlife tour.  I see a black tailed jackrabbit out in the open and attempt a photograph.  But at the last moment, it scurries into some brush and I catch only a fleeting image.  On the back side of the buttes near a ravine, something large darts across the path and disappears.  Was it a coyote?  Or maybe just another jackrabbit?  I recognize a few birds.  The red-chested House Finch and olive-headed Verdin.  I’m unsure what the hawk was.  It lit on a fence by the golf course only long enough to see that it was small, 10-12 inches, with a dark-streaked gray breast.  A Sharp-Shinned perhaps or immature Cooper’s?

A bird, the Channel 3 balloon, near the park.

The 21st, a Wednesday and the last day of autumn.  North Mountain Park.  Stopped for a 4 o’clock lunch at the Trupiano bench.  Who was that guy anyway?  The cold-cut combo goes down quickly.  To the east about 40 yards is a snag, or what’s left of a dying palo verde.  Atop it are three birds.  One I believe is a Gila woodpecker, another quite likely a Meadowlark.  The third is sparrow sized, brownish with streaks on its breast.  Soon after they fly away, in comes what appears to be a small hawk.  Looks much like the one seen  yesterday at Papago.  As I complete the last leg of the inner loop another bird appears, the Channel 3 hot air balloon to the north.  It is a Cameron Z90, standing 60 feet tall when inflated.  I raise my hand and make a fist, measuring how far the balloon appears above the horizon.  Ten degrees.  If the number increases, if I have to use my other fist, the balloon is drifting closer.  But no.  It eases back to the north and east, slipping behind a hill out of sight.


The Moon one day into the New Phase.

Christmas, a Sunday:  North Mountain Park.  It’s late afternoon, 4:45, when Nebra and I hit the trail.  The city below is dead.  We passed only a few gas stations and an ethnic restaurant that were open.  To my surprise, it’s much busier out here in the park.  Parking lot is fuller than usual, and I count 23 hikers, 7 bikers and 6 joggers along the inner basin loops of two miles.   We stop at the bench and share a deli sandwich.  A family of six comes by.  The man asks directions.  He is headed the wrong way to get back to the Visitors Center.  It is very quiet.  Not even sounds of chattering quail.  “Maybe,” says Nebra, “they’ve gone to visit relatives.”  On our last leg, Nebra stops to admire the sunset at the far end of the basin.  Amid the pinks and purples, I find a sliver of yellow.  A waxing crescent Moon, only a day after the New Moon.  I stop to shoot a shaky photo.  Santa failed to bring a tripod and remote clicker.  I’ll have to drum up those items on my own.

December 29, Thursday:  North Mountain Park.  I may abandon this park on beautiful days like today.  The temperature was near 70, blue sky and only a trace of haze.  What other reason than the weather could the “crowd”  of people on the trail be attributed?  Since I began hiking in North Mountain last spring, if you see 50 on the trail that is a lot.   But today I counted 69 over the two-mile inner loop.  Fifty-three hikers, 8 bikers and 8 joggers.  It was like walking a downtown street.  I did not hear again the sounds of Gambel’s quail in the brush.  Are they still on holiday?  Or is it the crowds?  I did catch a pair of Curve-Billed Thrashers foraging 20 yards off the trail.  I purchased one of those ultra-light tripods two days ago, a used one, but I didn’t want to take the time to set up with the busyness on the trail.


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