Life in the Real Desert: The Sands are Alive (With the Sounds of Barking)

Schwinn 700C - my bike
After an eventful weekend of flat tyres on the bike, repeated attempts to fix this problem went badly and left me with a disposition best left alone, and weird dreams, it was time to take stock of the critters who have been scampering, scuttling, and gamboling across the desert floor. The sands are alive this time of year, it seems, with all sorts of little animals, and a lot of huge insects. The air is also alive with the sounds of barking, I’ll talk about this a bit as well and doves are not the peaceful creatures they seem to be. This will be sort of a pictorial, and I will apologize up front for the poor quality of my snaps.

I blame it on my poor iPhone, which to be fair has had some rough handling this year, two spills in the desert, one in a wash and the other on what seemed to be perfectly flat ground, a “hit and run” in Love’s car park and another impromptu flip when hitting the wrong brake at Burger King.

Quick quiz: What is the big difference between having a tumble in Love’s Truck Stop car park and Burger King’s car park? Answer: Burger King has employees who care! Two employees who did not know me that well, yet, came over and after checking I was okay, and that the bike was not damaged, went back to their personal conversation. Did I mention that they were on their break? Class act Burger King.

Not so my prospecting neighbor. He has come back in from searching for gold to bring eight dogs, one of which is a loud constantly barking Chihuahua that sets the rest of his pets off. The noisy little bugger should thank its annoying little stars that I do not own a gun, otherwise at five in the morning, he, or she would be eliminated with extreme prejudice. Sorry animal nuts lovers, no irritating creature is worthy of saving when it will not shut the f*** up.

I have only seen the dog once. It stood on the other side of our property fence and glared daggers at me while barking non-stop. The little sh*** never even stopped for air. My hands itched for an instrument of destruction but my more civilized instincts took over. Besides, it was not five in the morning.

One friend who lives three houses down mentioned the irritating mutt and told of how it came and barked at their entire garden party for a couple of hours. Just as it was mentioned that perhaps a marauding coyote might eat the little pest, it stopped yapping and moved on. I am currently on the look out for a coyote call on the internet…

Apart from obnoxious domestic dogs, I’ve discovered another type of dog; prairie dogs. What I had mistaken for a kangaroo rat was in fact a hole dweller. I did not realize my mistake until one stopped and reared up on its rear haunches, stretched its neck up and took a long careful look around before proceeding. I took the cute creature’s picture after it decided to hide out in a hollow spot on the hard pan floor and peek out:

Prairie dog in AZ
Camera shy…

When a camera is not immediately to hand, these small cute creatures scamper quickly across the eye line. They do pause to have a quick look about and then zoom on their merry way. These same animals were the bane of a cowboy’s existence back in the old days as many a horse stepped into a prairie dog hole with the end result being a broken leg and “old Paint” being put out of his misery with a well placed shot.

Other wild creatures include lizards, like this health conscious lizard filmed on the fence (this was before the little happy mutt moved in next door, hence the total silence except my commentary):

Another chap hangs around the side of the house and under the carport:

Lizard

A neighborhood visitor, a prairie gopher snake – now we know what those prairie dogs are scouting for – came by for a leisurely visit and despite not being bothered by all the attention at the time, has not yet been back:

Snake crossing the road, @4ft

Now about those doves…Certainly the air has been full of barking from the eight dogs, all ranging in size like the owner is paying a personal homage to the dogs in Second Hand Lions – sadly there is not pig or chicken hanging around for comic effect. The other noise, which permeates the early morning hours along with the woodpecker’s knocking on wood, tin, brick and anything else they can bash with their beaks, are the doves.

Sidenote: These woodpeckers are young ones, I think, and thus far they are uncanny at imitating the knocking noise associated with someone pounding on your front door. There is also a bird, a mockingbird perhaps, which does an insanely good job aping a cock crowing. Without the necessary power of a cockerel this feathered micmic sounds like it has laryngitis as it whispers, “cock-a-doodle-doo” a few times then stops. I am trying to get this on tape as it is priceless.

Doves, despite their calmly cooing on an afternoon, are the loudest creatures in the world come mating time. Squawking, flapping, fighting, mating, and otherwise making one hell of a row by smashing on the tin roof of my domestic dwelling, they are the loudest neighbors imaginable.

They also stomp. These birds are well known for making the least practicable nests possible in England and it seems their American cousins suffer the same inept home building skills. Building their temporary abode out of brittle sticks, they place them on air conditioning units and window ledges.

It seems that the brittle sticks are not to their liking so the feathered homemakers then stomp on the twigs presumably in an effort to soften them up. For such a “peaceful” bird, when stamping on the nests they could be wearing seven league boots, or at least heavy hobnailed boots. Plus, it has to be said, that for such pretty creatures, their offspring are, “Uuuugleeee!” See for yourself:

Baby Doves
To be honest they were a lot uglier a few weeks earlier…
Baby Doves
See? UUUGLEEEE! (Just sayin’.)

There are other creatures awaiting discovery via my iPhone 5. A red-tailed lizard, which was apparently quite a delicacy amongst the local Native American denizens, crawls into a crevice and inflates itself so it cannot be plucked out. One was glimpsed on a ride into town, although its tail was more orange than red and it was huge.

Of course there are other inhabitants in the real desert. Coyotes, one of which is so “domesticated” that according to another friendly neighbor, it comes and lies on top of the low fence for a nap, completely ignoring all the two-legged denizens who are walking around its sleeping form. Baby bunnies are all over the place, one in my garden has gotten so use to me that it no longer runs when I come out.

Deer, mountain lions, bobcats or wildcats all make this area home. I found a dead deer the other week and all that is left of that poor thing is one leg, a bit of vertebra and the odd rib bone. Tracks of a large mountain lion have been spied on my several jaunts across the desert floor and luckily I have yet to bump into this large predator.

One more desert resident can be seen constantly (usually searching or as in the case of the expired deer landing nearby) and this is the buzzard or vulture. Surely the ugliest creatures ever created; these can be seen soaring above the sands looking for carrion. They also sit in trees near a dead, or dying animal, waiting…

Buzzards...or vultures...

Single vulture
This chappy looks like a bit of CG but he is real…

The only creature I’ve not included in my little pictorial was that of the very aggressive rattlesnake I encountered on the way back from town. The snapshot taken of this angry chappy did not turn out too well as I opted to stay clear the other side of the road from him. This after coming within two scant inches of his slowly moving form. Slow, that is, till I turned round and took his picture, in my Twitter feed I named the creature Kanye West; who also hates having his picture taken by strangers…

20 May 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Life in the Real Desert: And Death

Death of a deer
Riding home last night after having spent hours in the Burger King making use of their wonderful Wi-Fi, I noticed a lot of buzzards in the darkening sky. Oddly, on my way to town much earlier in the day, a lone bird stood in the road just outside the estate. Standing motionless, it was seemed to be staring off into the desert at God knows what. The buzzard only moved when I stopped my bike to take a picture. Very camera shy these carrion eaters.

The first thing that sprang to mind was the scene from Wild Hogs where Woody, Doug, Bobby and Dudley (played with hilarious precision by William H. Macy) are walking their motorcycles along the desert road and a buzzard is patiently following the small group of men. I was not too perturbed as the featured creature was not paying any attention to me at all.

As I rounded a corner of the road, just before a deep wash that reeks of either dog or coyote, off to the right about 25 feet from the pavement lay a deer. Face pointed to the road, long eyelashes still as death and not a mark on him or her, at least not that I could see. It was quickly getting dark and despite the light being strong enough for my old eyes to see everything in stark detail, the iPhone 5 could not compensate for the dwindling sunlight.

I took a few pictures and then had to “tweak” them at home in order to make out the details. After remounting my bike, I started again for home. The buzzards who had been circling the deer flew down to the fresh carcass to join the one bold chappy who did not mind me taking his photo. There were roughly 10 of the birds scattered around the deer.

After a couple of strong pumps on the pedal, I was on my way. I looked the the left and broke out into gooseflesh. On two trees, mesquite I believe, there were another 30 buzzards all waiting for their turn. I know it was 30 as I stopped and counted. I was so shaken by this sight that I quite forgot to attempt a photo. It was, by now, a lot darker and most likely would not have come out.

Today on my way into town I watched for the body. I could not remember how far away the poor deceased creature lay from my house. Much further than I thought as it turned out. The huge amount of buzzards had disappeared and only around 5 to 10 were feasting on the creature’s body.

As I approached, using the video on my iPhone, the birds all took off. This enabled me to get a bit closer to inspect the “damage” done.

WARNING: This next bit is not for the squeamish.

Last evening, the deer was pretty much whole. It could have been sleeping as, from what I could see, there was no apparent cause of death. I remember wondering if it had been bitten by a rattlesnake as no wounds were visible. Today, the animal’s remains were dramatically reduced from their full state the day before. Apparently after I left the area a feeding frenzy ensued with not only buzzards eating their fill but coyotes as well?

Here is the uncut video:

I wondered, ever so briefly, whether or not this was the same deer who almost crossed in front of me back in February as I walked back to the estate after dark. It certainly had the same “lack of horn” as that one did, but it is highly unlikely. Just another reminder that the desert is not just full of life but death as well and that both rely upon the other to exist.

27 April 2015

Michael Knox-Smith

Vinnie’s Bomb

My friend Vinnie had called me at home. He wanted me to see a dead buzzard he had shot from his bedroom window. This was a favourite pastime for Vinnie. Even though his parent’s house was in the city limits, he thought nothing of taking off his window screen and shooting at the “varments” that wandered into the back yard. Amazingly, no one ever complained about his shooting. I do not know if this was because he used a scoped rifle and had little chance of missing or if no one truly cared.On this particular day, it was late enough in the year for there to be a good bit of frost on the ground. When I got to Vinnie’s house the frost had mostly melted away. “You should have seen it first thing this morning,” Vinnie said, “It threw up when I shot it and the stuff was frozen on his head.” I said that I was sorry I hadn’t gotten there sooner so I could see this undeniably grotesque sight. *Yes, I do know that young teen boys can be disgusting at times*After looking at the dead bird in his back yard for a bit, Vinnie then mentioned in a very hushed tone that he had some professional explosive powder and some water-proof fuses. My jaw dropped down in total surprise. It seems that Vinnie had an uncle who was in the underwater demolition business. On his last visit he had given these items  to Vinnie with the idea of making a home made explosive. “You want to help me?” Vinnie asked. My answer was a resounding yes. Excitedly we both made our way to his dad’s garage.

While figuring out what we wanted to make with the blasting powder and how we were going make a casing for it, we decided to experiment a bit with the blasting powder. We took one of Vinnies .223 cartridges and filled it tightly with the powder, we then crimped the end of the shell around a two inch bit of fuse. Taking this miniature bomb out to his back garden, we made a hole  in the hard ground. After the hole was about six inches deep, we lit the fuse and dropped it into the hole. We scrambled quickly away  and waited.

A geyser of dirt and rock shot into the air accompanied by a most satisfying boom. Rushing back to the hole we checked to see how far down it had extended after the explosion. We found a bamboo fishing rod and shoved it in the hole. We never did get to the bottom and the rod was well over six feet in length. We were suitably impressed.

Vinnie then showed me an aerosol can that he had taken the top off of without blowing himself up. This he decided was going to be the explosive’s casing mould. He just needed some lead to melt and pour into the can. That was where I became useful. My dad was a house builder. One thing he had lots of was lead. In those days when the plumbers made a base for a shower stall, the base was lined with lead. They invariably left tons of “off-cuts” laying around the site that was anyone’s for the taking. Since lead was cheap, we used it to make fishing weights. My dad had a “shed-load” of the stuff.  I asked and got permission to use as much of it as we needed.

For weeks Vinnie and I melted lead and poured it into the can. This was a slow and boring process. When we finally got the whole can filled with lead, we then cut the can off to leave us with our bomb casing. This left us with a cylindrical object that was roughly three inches in diameter and seven inches long. There was no “hole” in the middle to put the powder in. But we knew just what to do.

Vinnie got out his dad’s heavy duty drill and fastened a one and a half inch drill bit to it. We then took turns drilling out a hole. This was also a long and boring task. We were about halfway through when a female friend from school dropped by. She wandered out to the garage and asked us what we were doing. We explained about the bomb and having to drill the hole. We also moaned a bit about the amount of time it was taking.

Looking at the half drilled cylinder she said, “Since you guys melted the lead to make it, why didn’t you put something in the middle and pour the lead around it so you didn’t have to drill one?” We both reacted the same way. “Huh! What do you know?” “That never would have worked!” She gave us both a disdainful look, tossed her red hair from her face and left. It was only after she left that we both had a face palm moment. Now why didn’t we think of that?

We finally finished the bomb and tried to set up a time for it to be set off. Vinnie’s dad had some land beyond the city limits and we both agreed that would be the best place to blow it up. All that was left to do was organise a time to get together. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to come up with a time that was mutually beneficial. Plus, while we were building the thing, my family had decided to move.

Although we only moved a few towns away,  I did not get a chance to hunt down my friend for a couple of years. I finally bumped into him while visiting my grandparents. The first thing I asked about, of course, was the bomb. “Oh yeah! Dad and me took it out to the farm. We dug a hole, put about a mile of fuse on it, planted it, then we lit it and ran like hell!”How big was the hole after the blast I asked. “HUGE!” Vinnie said with a grin. ” It left a crater about six feet across and about four feet deepIt was also so loud, I think they heard it in town!”

I think back to those days and wonder how in the world did we not blow ourselves up! I also marvel at the simplicity and naivety of the both of us. We never at any point thought that this was too dangerous a pastime.  We also never realized that what we were doing might just be illegal. When anyone complains to me about today’s youth and how they spend too much time playing video games, I always think back on my childhood activities.

Sure video games can be time consuming and expensive, but at least they aren’t making bombs.