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

Real Life in the Desert: The Lizards are Getting Bigger

deserted house in the desert

When I first moved down here in the real desert, the lizards were these teeny little dark shadows that flitted over and around small rocks and pebbles. Now the little fellers are getting bigger and longer, and scrambling over stones and the odd smallish boulder. They must also be that bit slower as I can see them easily.

The tiny shadow lizards moved so quickly that they seemed to be an optical illusion. A lighting fast streak of shade that disappeared before your eyes could focus on the small creature. Now they stay in view long enough that even without glasses they can be seen.

These are not the only desert denizens that are making regular appearances. Something that looks like a rat, but prettier, darts across the roads and can be seen very easily. These bold creatures will stay in the shade of a small bush and watch you pass. Monsieur Rat, or mouse, is around six to eight inches long, not counting his tail, and while not as cute as the chipmunks that scramble over the boulders that line the road, they are not ugly by any means.

After being here for a couple of months, where there has been no previous sign of them,  buzzards are now regularly  circling the hard pan on either side of the road. One persistent chap kept dropping down to the scrub brush along the washes. Presumably the “dead” animal he was going after was not quite ready to be put on the menu. There are, however, a great many new items alongside, and on, the roads  from rats to lizards and the occasional rabbit.

As it is spring, baby bunnies are hopping around the area. The cute creatures are not as numerous as the ones back in Suffolk. In the English countryside, there were always plenty of the tiny things clumsily jumping here and there, wide eyed and (sorry) bushy tailed learning about their world. The desert bunnies are obviously the offspring of the huge jack rabbits that call the hard pan their home as even though they are “babies” they dwarf their British relatives.

The appearance of the buzzards, or vultures, I can never remember which of these huge carrion loving creatures live in this part of the world, is a reminder that death is never too far away for denizens of the real desert.

The little house on the hill..
The mysterious house on the hill…

 

On the way home from town yesterday, as the sun dipped slowly behind the surrounding hills of Quartzsite, I found the police had closed off the only road open to a bicycle. The cars could take the alternate route via the Interstate, but my two-wheel self-propelled vehicle could only take the route in front of me.

One of the on-scene officers explained that the road would be closed for at least another two hours. Looking ahead I could see two motorcycles on the right hand side of the road. One looked as though it had been damaged, the other did not. Pointing to the left side of the pavement, I asked if walking my bike through on that part of the road’s narrow shoulder was acceptable.

It was.

As I pushed my bike up the small grade, the two motorcycles came and went whilst I tried not to be too morbidly curious. Glancing over, once or twice, I could see that one bike had hit the boulders on that side of the road with enough force that it buckled the front wheel and twisted it to the left; until it was almost completely back under the petrol tank.

A lone helmet lay on the small shoulder of the two lane road just in front of the large rocks. On one big boulder in front of the abandoned safety item a blue arrow had been spray painted. It pointed up. At a wild, and most likely over-imaginative, guess? It looked like the rider went airborne at the point of impact.

Later, as I neared my destination, a couple who had been driving pulled up beside me and asked about the blocked road. I explained about the bikes and added that I would not be surprised if the accident had ended in a fatality.

They were not impressed with the thought of a dead biker but then, they were both of an age where impending death is not so much a concern. To this older couple, death looked to be just another all too close step in their own personal journey. Being a sprightly young thing in my late 50s, I still struggle with the inevitable advent of my rapidly approaching mortality.

It may well be that along with the lizards getting bigger in the real desert, that living in this hot and harsh climate is not just about surviving, but also about dying. The manner of death for the creatures that are native to this environment is often a quick visitation under the blazing sun. Cause of death: A speeding car, an ATV, or a hikers boot. After all, living is also about dying. As the late Katherine Hepburn once said, “Of course life is hard, it kills you.”

15 March 2015