Wednesday, August 15, 2018

We Love Our Monsoons.

Summer in Arizona: ridiculously hot days, wild monsoon storms, terrifying haboobs, exquisite sunsets and all sorts of critters out wandering around. It is not a time for the faint-of-heart. But, for us true desert creatures, this is the best time of year. The primordial joy of rain after extended months of dryness is shared by flora, fauna, humans and insects alike.

What we call monsoon season runs from late June through September. Our storms are caused by a seasonal shift in winds that draws moisture-rich air from the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of Mexico up into Arizona. This air hits the super-hot air in the valleys and shoots up the mountains into the atmosphere. Once there, it builds and builds until it rolls back down as an action-packed storm. Watching the storms build is a favorite pastime of all us Arizonans, but the changes they bring to desert are life-affirming.
Desert dwellers, of all species, can sense and smell the rain as it’s coming. This earthy smell of rain as it lands on dry soil is called petrichor. In Tucson, where I live, we also recognize the beguiling scent of the creosote bush.

 Contributed by Valerie @ ARBICO Organics
Monsoon rains provide almost everything in the ecosystem with renewed life. Plants green up and fruit ripens, providing food for mammals, birds and insects. All this additional fodder makes this the ideal time for mating, so the parade of mating creatures comes out during monsoons. Arizona is ranked 3rd in the country for biodiversity by The Nature’s Conservancy and, at times, it seems like they are all out after a good, hard rain. Lizards, snakes, beetles, arachnids, toads and mammals come to feed and mate. This is the only time to see our most publicity-shy desert dwellers, as they stay hidden the rest of the year.

At the top of the list of spectacular monsoon creatures is the Gila Monster (Heloderma suspectum). These lumbering beasts are the largest lizards in North America and can grow up to 2 feet long. They are one of only two venomous lizards in North America and the other, the Mexican beaded lizard, is a close relative. Gila Monsters spend 90% of their time in underground burrows and only emerge after rains to drink, bathe and mate. It is during this search for a partner, when their biological impulses outweigh their natural reticence, that people run into them. This year has been an active one for Gila Monster sightings - we had one crawling across our office parking lot one day, a co-worker had two loudly mating in her driveway and my Facebook feed has been full of pictures of Gila Monsters in garages, on porches and by swimming pools.

Gila Monster

Gila Monsters are carnivorous and venomous but they are rarely fatal to humans. Their venom, like their coloring, is meant to be a defense mechanism. They feed on small birds, other lizards, carrion and insects, not humans. They will bite, though, and their jaws are extremely powerful. They can also latch onto an object for up to 15 minutes (dispensing venom the whole time). Luckily, Gila Monsters are conflict-adverse, they will hiss and back away and will only bite if prodded, poked or picked-up.

Gila Monsters are a threatened and protected species. They were the first venomous animal protected by law, back in 1952. It is illegal to catch or keep one and harming one could cost you up to $750.00 in fines. You should feel lucky if you see one, but then back off and let him do his Gila Monster thing.

Like the Gila Monster, toads in Arizona stay underground most of the year and only emerge with rain. They live on fat reserves while hibernating and, if there is not sufficient summer rains, many species will stay under until there is adequate rainfall. You will know when the Couch’s spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus couchii), have decided to emerge and eat and breed: their mating call is extremely loud and sounds a great deal like as lamb’s bleating. Which, if you’ve ever heard a lamb, you know is not a cute baa-baa sound. Other toad species you can see (and hear) out and about during monsoon are the Colorado River (with the famously hallucinogenic toxic skin), the Sonoran green and the red-spotted toad.

Scaphiopus couchii

Insects are also affected by the wetter and cooler days of monsoon. From the large and freaky-looking Palo Verde Borer Beetle, to the masses of winged leaf-cutter and harvester ants (which swarm in the morning after a heavy rain) to the intimidating yet harmless Vinegaroon (also called Whip Scorpion), they are all out to eat and mate.

Vinegaroons are arachnids, (like the tarantula, who is also a monsoon cruiser) and look like a fearsome mash-up of a scorpion and a spider. They have eight legs, but only use the back two to walk. The other two are used as feelers. 
They are harmless to humans, but can emit a concentrated acetic acid (vinegar) spray as a defense. They wait in their underground cells for the first rains and then come out to feast on bark scorpions and cockroaches. 
Once they have packed on enough fat, they will head back underground and wait for the next monsoon season.

Some of the less scary insects that appear during monsoons are the butterflies. 
Drawn by the newly sprouted blooms, they feast while they can. Some butterflies to look for include the monarchs, sulphurs, queens, fritillaries and two-tailed swallowtails.

Male Clouded Sulfur Butterfly
Most mammals are out year-round, but are more likely to be seen during the wet summer months as they roam around in search of fresh greenery (or those animals that eat fresh greenery). Nectar-feeding bats, on the other hand, commute to Southern Arizona to feed on flowering cactus and agave. The Mexican Long-tongued Bat (Choeronycteris Mexicana) and the Lesser Long-nose Bat (Leptonycteris yerbabuenae) are native to Mexico and points south, but happily cross the border to enjoy the monsoon flower bounty.

All the aforementioned species should be left alone to procreate and maintain their position in the ecosystem. However, we understand that some monsoonal activity can be dangerous (as in the case of snakes) or just unsettling (as in the hordes of ants that can pop up out of flooded tunnels). If you must use controls, we recommend BONIDE® Snake Stopper and BONIDE® Bat Magic. These do not harm the animal, they encourage them to leave the area. For crawling insects, Diatomaceous Earth like Perma-Guard™ Crawling Insect Control can be used. Just remember that DE will harm any insect that crawls though it. For ants that are indoors where they shouldn’t be, Terro® Ant baits are a good choice.

Next week, I will be writing about a summer lover that you don’t want to meet – the kissing bug. 
Stay tuned! - Submitted by Pam at ARBICO Organics

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