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

Dogs in the Desert: Not Just for Retired Folks

dog and three kids statue at Quartzsite

I used to think that the English cornered the market on pets and total devotion to animals. Since living back in the USA and specifically in the desert, it seems that the pet of choice is canine in nature. Man’s best friend is not just for the multitudes of retired folks who live here either. The modern wild west may still have a lot of wildlife, coyotes, mountain lions, et al, but dogs are overflowing in this huge open world litter tray. Australian comedian and actor Paul Hogan used to have a bit in his act where he poked fun at the average Brit for their love of all four legged creatures.

“You have more wildlife preservation societies than any other country, but you’ve got no wildlife!” – Paul Hogan circa 1982.

While the British are barmy about animals in general, they are almost obsessive about training their pets. Dogs in the UK are, for the most part, well behaved. Owners, apart from the odd cretin who refuses to subject his neighbor to the stench, clean up after their pooch.

There are exceptions to this, there were at least one or two areas in Kesgrave, Suffolk, where I lived that reeked of dog poop to the extent that it was unwise to walk down that particular stretch of the pavement (sidewalk) in summer. Certainly this little desert community of older folks share the English people’s love of animals. Walking around town there may just be more four legged mutts roaming the sidewalks than people.

Crossing through the desert, and by the side of the road later the same day, I was accosted by two different types of dogs, both well-known for their savagery. A group of pit bulls, whose owner assured me were harmless although one multicolored one’s teeth could be heard clicking on empty air each time he leapt for my arm, and an Alsatian aka German Shepherd who came bounding up to me so fast I only had time to grab my pepper spray.

The latter incident did feature an animal who seemed glad to see me, the owner was beside himself with annoyance at his dog’s decision to visit me and the chap told me repeatedly that his pet only wanted to play. This was in complete contrast to the pack of pit bulls who appeared to be intent on taking a good sized chomp out of my arm or leg. In that instance, the owner had no effect on their behaviour and had they chosen to attack I’d have become a large portion of Kibbles and Bits.

Pit Bulls

Doggy snacks aside, even the homeless desert rats have pets. These animals all range in size but most are mid to large in size and cannot be cheap to feed. These folks must have a desperate need for company, no matter how smelly or hungry. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, dogs and cats usually like me as well.

But animals smell when they are not bathed regularly. I’ve heard claims that the desert rats are also a bit on the “rank” side, as well as possibly dangerous, but I’ve yet to meet one whose odor registered with my senses and most seem friendly enough. Granted, I’ve not met one on the desert away from civilization but if they did decide to be aggressive, they might be in for a surprise.

Since moving out here, I’ve been caught out after dark several times on the journey back from town. Each time I walk the streets of the tiny community outside the town limits, dogs can be heard barking or at least growling as I pass each house.

Last night, and a couple a nights before, coyotes were yipping in the street. They travel in packs around the area, although most locals reckon “not as much as they used to.” There is nothing quite like being woken up in the middle of the night by the sound of every pooch in the neighborhood howling in sympathy to the chorus of coyotes serenading the night.

The wild animals sound as though they are right outside the RV and are loud enough that they can be heard over their domestic cousins. At this point in my stay here in the Arizona desert, it seems the barren yet beautiful wasteland is full of dogs. Man’s best friends, barring the pit bulls, are not limited to the plethora of retired folk who gravitate to this location. I believe that there are enough of these four legged creatures, wild and domestic, that I have no business in increasing the population.

On a brief side note before signing off, I have not forgotten about the hippie population in Quartzsite and will be adding them to my short catalogue of desert life.

3 February 2015