Life in the Real Desert: Living with Nature

Cartoon SpiderI know that the whole living with nature thing has sort of gone to my head. All the animals, lizards, insects and unidentifiable creatures which make up life in the real desert have gotten my attention. Sometimes these four, and more, legged denizens have increased my blood pressure and adrenaline levels.

Over the past three or four days there have been some visitors to my new abode that were less welcome than others. A three inch long scorpion who had a definite fascination with my right foot was one that startled me into my Michael Flatley impression a la River Dancing, or as they say in this country Clog Dancing. While I may have had trainers (sneakers) on my feet, I was still stamping away with frantic enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, I have no idea whether my trainer clad foot killed the desert denizen with the stinging tail or not. One last stomp and smear, you know what I mean the old down and drag movement, left only a rusty orange smear on the porch and when checked the sole of my trainer held no remnants of Mr. or Mrs. Scorpion. This means there may be a good-sized vicious creature out there hunting for a balding older chap with black trainers. I probably should warn my neighbors…all three of them.

Scorpion King action figure

There have been some fairly largish spiders as well, one was in the side room which was attacked with a spindly plastic flyswatter at first. This arachnid fell to the floor and quicker than The Flash, made off to a spot in the room behind my desk and disappeared. A few days later it appeared on the ceiling again and this time a flip-flop sent it to spider heaven.

Last night, while standing on the porch for a little night air, a monstrous eight-legged spider moved along the ceiling of the metal roofed porch (What is it with spiders and ceilings?) and then, as I stood transfixed, started moving slowly down the front door. As it reached face level, mine not his or hers, off came the leather flip-flop and bang!

Before feeling too much sympathy for this giant creature, bear in mind that, including legs, it was the size of my hand. Not a tarantula, not furry enough, but a similar size. Now here is the shivery part, once its body thudded to the porch floor, the flip-flop went back on my foot and I stomped the merry hell out of the apparently lifeless corpse. (Spiders can and do “play dead.”) Despite my approximate weight of 186 pounds, the body never “mushed” up.

I then took this very solid body and swept it into the dust pan and chucked it off the porch. Then, after allowing the goosebumps to subside, I went back into the house to find another, smaller, spider on the ceiling of the side room again. Scratch one more trespassing bit of nature.

I am not afraid of spiders. When working for Her Majesty’s Prison Service I noticed that these murderers, car thieves, drug dealers, rapists et al were all terrified of spiders. Being in the countryside large grass spiders used to come in all the time. While these tough guys screamed, cried and leapt on their single beds, we would pick the creatures up and toss them out the window. The sight of the lads practically passing out was worth it.

I do, however, have real issues with the larger arachnids sharing my bed or crawling over my face while in the Land of Nod. All of the other creatures I’ve encountered are cute and lovely to look at. They are also animals; ground squirrels, prairie dogs, jack rabbits with long brown tails who walk, or trot, like a dog and deer. I like coming across all of these.

As for that spider I count myself lucky that it did not make the floor. If we had been on even footing our altercation might have ended very differently and I could have been the one chucked off the porch.

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

Living in the Real Desert: Nightlife

Desert Mountain

Since being here in this popular desert oasis near the Arizona/California border, I’ve observed many things. For instance, my smartphone’s 4G from Wal-Mart’s T-Mobile does not work out in the desert, or in town for that matter. It is annoying enough that neither company will be getting any more business from this 50-something customer.

Since living in the real desert, I’ve been caught out, so to speak, several times and wound up walking, or biking, back from town after dark. This habit has provided a great look at the local nightlife. As mentioned in an earlier article about this haven for the aged, one local denizen reported coming face to face with a mountain lion in their front yard. Luckily, I’ve not come into contact with this feline. Yet.

I’ve seen the tracks across the hardpan desert floor and saw more again this evening in my trip through the dusk back to the RV. The paw marks of this beast are huge. At one point the tracks showed the creature had run after something, probably one of the jackrabbits that bound through the cactus and sagebrush.

While walking to and from the town, I’ve seen a surprisingly large amount of jackrabbits, a few smaller longer eared types of bunny (this evening at dusk), a doe (the night before last actually) and something yellow, small and faster than a speeding bullet (the same night).

Getting a late start back to my temporary home, I walked the long way along the road rather than taking my “shortcut” across the desert. Remembering those mountain lion tracks made me err to the side of caution. About a quarter mile from the turn-off to the small community where the RV is located, a small deer came right up to the opposite side of the road from where I was walking.

The distance between the creature and myself could have been no more than 15 to 20 feet as it started to cross to my side of the desert. I lit her up with my small shotgun shell LED torch and seconds later a car came up and stopped. All three participants in this little tableau froze.

After a frozen second or two, the deer turned and disappeared into the darkness and the car reversed a little; looking for the animal presumably and then both the vehicle and I moved on. The doe was nowhere to be seen so she obviously changed her mind about crossing the suddenly crowded road.

Desert Road

No other living wild thing was seen until reaching the desert community where I am currently staying. Three streets away from “home,” I saw a streak of yellow shoot across the road with a burst of speed that would have turned Speedy Gonzalez green with envy.

Despite this lightening-like dash into the desert, the small creature was slow enough that a few details stood out. Its color, for one thing, and that it was covered in fur another. It had a small head so the first thing I thought was, “Weasel?”

This was immediately followed by, “What the hell does a weasel look like?” I honestly could not remember. For all I knew, that could have been a baby coyote or some other small creature. It seemed to be around 18 to 20 inches long…maybe. One thing for certain, at night all creatures look bigger, in the desert, in the dark.

Nearing the RV while pondering the recent animals sighted around the local area I thought of how tickled I’d been in England when I spied a hedgehog (my favorite small wild creature) or a wild fox. When driving for the East Anglian Times back in the 1990s there were a huge group of foxes that ran around Colchester Park on the Essex paper run. Sadly there were always a few dead ones on the side of the road, the price paid by the group for getting too close to civilization.

Hedgehogs were also seen quite a lot and not just on the Essex run. One foggy morning, around 0200, while unloading bundles of papers at a newsagents, a packet of crisps (potato chips) was spotted floating above the ground by three or four inches.

This odd sight was not caused by wind and the packet did not appear to be blown by anything. Instead, it was jerking forward and then backward before floating forward again. The chap who was teaching me the Felixstowe run reached down and snatched at the floating crisp packet. A baby hedgehog came flying along with the plastic bag. The little creature had gotten its head stuck in the thing and was walking along while trying to dislodge it.

I was thinking of both these separate incidents and briefly remembered that one thing that was not an issue in the United Kingdom was rabies. Mainly due to the country’s strict quarantine laws there has not been an outbreak for what seems a millennia. The second I had this thought, about rabies, I broke out in goose flesh.

What in the hell was I doing marching along after dark in a country where rabies was not banished from memory? What if that streaking yellow thing had been heading towards me and not across the road in front of me? Could I have reacted in time to keep a rabid animal from nom-nomming on part of my body?

Rabid rabbit image...

Having been to the ER (emergency room) and then later the hospital for a heart attack, with the end result being two emergency surgeries, I’ve had injections in my stomach. I can personally attest to the fact that these are not fun, but better than the alternative. The fact that rabies used to be treated by receiving a shed-load of injections in the navel means the shots must be pure agony.

As I’ve mentioned before, the stars in the desert seem to be just out of arms reach. The dark desert sky is full of these celestial sparks of memory. The desert itself is  full of animals that, despite the profusion of people who have flocked to the desert for the season, call this area home. Living abroad for so long, and in a country where there are more people than open spaces, helped me to forget that America is full of wild areas where civilization is just an illusion waiting to be shattered.

22 January 2015