May 31, 2009

Day 3

The six courses of bales for the walls are up, and there are still some bales left over. We kept a critical eye on whether we kept the walls plumb and the corners square, and it seems all within tolerance. It is amazing how much progress we made in just three days.

This is what it looked like at lunchtime.

Dave pulling a bale for the final course from the tractor.

Putting the final bale in place.

The walls are up.

The happy, but tired crew (plus photographer), ready for margaritas and Mexican food out!

May 30, 2009

Day 2 on the strawbale house

We are making good progress, and having 4 people on the project at the same time is about right. More would have been mayhem. About 2/3 of the bales have been placed. The weather is still holding beautifully.

This is the progress at lunch time.

This is where we were at quitting time, about 2.

May 29, 2009

Summer project

We have a couple of small projects slated for this summer at the WD, but our main activity this summer will be helping our friends (and next door neighbors) David and Barbara build their strawbale house. They have been weekend residents for a couple of years and during that time have built an adobe cabin, the Bear Cave, and a strawbale utility building.

Last weekend we helped move them from Tucson, and today was our first day of lending a hand with the house. Over the spring Dave and Barbara already prepared the building site, brought in utilities and set the foundation. This week was spent building the window and door bucks, which are the boxes here on the ground.

Dave and Dan spent the most of the time today setting these bucks in place while Barbara and I set strawbales.

We are having some interesting weather after a significant storm a week ago: it is as if the monsoons have already arrived. The mornings are clear, then clouds build up and during the afternoon it is partly overcast with a chance of rain. Of course we got rained on today, so we quit at 2. We'll be back tomorrow.

May 27, 2009

Look what I found

On one of our morning walks this past week, Emma came to me with something in her mouth. This usually means she has found something dead (and usually disgusting) and sure enough, when I asked her to drop it, she carefully deposited a skull at my feet. Love those soft Labrador mouths...

The vultures had done a decent job of cleanup: there was just some ligament and soft tissue left, and I carried it home, boiled it and put it in enzyme cleaner. (The Web is such a wonderful place for information).

I found it was a bobcat, and in cleaning up the skull I found it was not a young animal as its canines had worn against each other. I think it came to its demise at the mouth of another animal, a coyote or perhaps a mountain lion, as its skull was punctured on top and its jaw broken.

Meanwhile, it is still sitting outside in the cold frame getting rid of the rest of its smell before it is brought in for display next to the kit fox skull. Nice find, Emma!

New life

Signs of new life everywhere. There are the quail families of course, and "our" finches are about to fledge. Every time we stand in front of the sink we look to see if the three young ones are still there. It must be getting quite crowded up there but we have been resisting taking the egg carton out of the roost for fear that the young birds will decide to leave before their time. It is difficult to get a good picture of them, and not to upset them into catastrophic results, but there are 3 young finches up there.

The ground squirrel also has had babies and the young ones are quite adventurous and comical standing on their hind legs to get to new cactus buds. I bought the new metal seed container just in time I bet. I also caught this brandnew two-tail swallow tail butterfly drying its wings on one of our door frames. It sat there for quite awhile before taking off.

This morning I scared this spider who was perhaps contemplating making my watering can a home. It took me awhile to convince him that a bush was a better place as I use that can every day. I tried to look up what kind of spider he is, but my best guess is that it is a young tarantula. Kath, what do you think?

May 26, 2009

That little devil

I feed the birds here by throwing bird seed on the ground, rather than hanging up a feeder (thistle seed for the gold finches excluded). Not only do the birds come to eat but the occasional bunny doesn't turn down some free seeds, and we have a ground squirrel or two that come join the feast in the afternoon.

One of them has even made a small burrow under a rock that serves as her lookout as well as her hiding place. It is fun to see her stand on hind legs to get Christmas cactus blooms, or sit on her rock enjoying some tidbits.

She is also smart, and bold. The other day I found her trying to open the birdseed container which is next to the backdoor. She even has been gnawing a hole in the lid to get at more seed. Guess we had better think about getting a metal can.

May 22, 2009


Jacques has been fired: failure to perform duties as assigned. But Dan took over, and has saved the day, or rather the entire summer and fall, by making boxes covered with chickenwire that enclose the beds with the leafy greens. I really like the fact that the boxes are well made, very light, and that two boxes cover the length of the bed. It makes them easy to move to harvest, or perform other gardening duties.

The design was worked out yesterday while I was shopping in Tucson during a deluge (we got 0.35 inches of rain, yeah!), and we finished the remaining boxes together this morning. While I write this I can see some frustrated quails running up and down the rows through the garden.

An additional benefit: I can cover these boxes with plastic this winter and we'll have veggies all winter long.

Meanwhile I did spot a couple of tiny tomatoes and some small cantaloupes already, and I planted the garden less than a month ago. The seeds were started in mid March however. Ah, I am optimistic again ...

May 20, 2009

This is no dream

It is more like a nightmare. I exaggerate. But I must admit that I have been a bit freaked out about the garden. Everything is growing well (I did pull out 2 of the 12 tomatoes as I suspected a virus), but I am battling rodents, birds, or probably both. Jacques is just not doing his job. Dave and Dan took care of the pocket gopher I believe, after threatening a Caddyshack approach if the gassing and trapping did not work, but the small plants are still getting nipped at. An entire row of arugula and chard simply disappeared! But I have to remove the current protection as the plants outgrow it ...

Dan is coming to the rescue though, and by tomorrow night we should have a greater possibility of having leafy vegetables this summer. The melons that were getting nipped are recovering nicely in their white bottomless buckets, and hopefully the plants will be big enough to withstand some tasting once they outgrow them. Yipes! Yet who can blame the birds for wanting the taste of something fresh and green? We need moisture. It has been uncharacteristically overcast today, and yesterday we saw some good squalls out in the valley. Rumor has it that we can expect a heavier than normal monsoon ... All will be well when the rains come.

Meanwhile, there are no sunflowers remaining at the horsebarn. All 12 of them sawed off by rodents in spite of chickenwire and upside-down pots at night. The sunflowers in the garden are doing well.

I have put bigger chickenwire cages around the ornamental plants at the yard's perimeter. The jack rabbits will eat anything this time of year, even "rabbit proof" plants, and some undesirable pruning was taking place. While I upgraded a plant I found this small horned toad at the base of it.

The finches outside the kitchen window have babies. We sometimes see their searching red throats with tiny yellow beaks searching for food. The parents are taking good care of them, thankfully, as we now regard them as "our babies". Other nests are popping up around the Ranch. The house sparrows spurned the nesting shelves in the barn in favor of their precarious messy contraption right under the roof. We need to move the shelves up apparently. There is another finch couple nesting under the shop/shed veranda roof. The curvebill thrasher has returned to its nest from last year and has heavily refortified it with thorny branches. Those must be some tough baby birds.

May 13, 2009

Bird tales

The Finch Saga. Our winter nights can be very cold in spite of warm days, and I asked Dan to make some roosts for the small birds to hole up in when needed. So done, and I hung them in protected spots around the house with one of them opposite the kitchen window. We never did see anybody roost, but a few weeks ago a female house finch threw some twigs up there and started sitting.

Since I did not think much of her nest building ability, I figured it was just a passing thing, but she has stayed on there faithfully and even fortified the structure some. Then a few days ago a hormone-struck male house sparrow was fluttering around next to the little nest and a female came and joined him with lots of noise, and some lunging at the little finch. They were planning to build their nest there too! I chased them off a couple of times, but of course they persisted. So much so that yesterday morning the intruders appeared with nesting material. The little finch stayed on her nest in spite of being picked at, and I had had enough. We put an empty egg carton in the additional space and hoped that the finch would not mind, but she, and her man, seem to understand and she is still on her nest. The male sparrow spent the rest of the day on a nearby hanging plant, yelling.

We also have seen the first flock of baby quail. (Apologies for the ho-hum pictures but it is the best either one of us can do, and believe me the baby birds are there). They are Gambels and the parents feel comfortable enough to bring them to feed morning and night. I never tire of seeing these golfball size babies eat along with their parents. Thankfully this couple are good protectors as this will mean that most of the babies will survive. It is sad to see some flocks diminish daily for various reasons: separation from the family, predation by various animals and birds, uncaring parents.

I saw the first snake around the house a few days ago. A pair of curvebill thrashers pointed him out to me as the snake was trying to escape their fierce beaks. It was just a bull snake, but those thrashers were unrelenting in pecking at his tail. The snake took the hint and went from shady spot to shady spot trying to escape, followed by the thrashers. I am sure that the birds were worried about their nest being raided.

We see so many kinds of birds around here. I throw out birdseed early in the morning and we get entertained through our breakfast watching the birds have theirs. Aside from the orioles and hummers who come to the nectar feeders, we see (in no particular order, and not every day) gold finches, house finches, house sparrows, black-chinned sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, Gambel quail, scaled quail, black-headed grosbeaks, blue grosbeaks, lazuli buntings, indigo buntings, Say's phoebe, king birds, western tanagers, pyrrhuloxias, cardinals, cowbirds, canyon towhees, mourning doves, white-wing doves, shrikes, and the occasional bird of prey. Whew!

May 12, 2009

Barfoot Lookout

When the temperature rises it is fun to explore the sky islands. These are the high mountain ranges that surround our valleys, and are cooler because of their altitude. We went to the Chiricahuas today, across our Sulphur Springs Valley. It never ceases to amaze me how broad this valley is: it takes us a full hour to get across on a road that is almost as straight as an arrow, at 55 mph.

The Chiricahuas are a different world as they are wooded and rugged. We did not go to the National Monument today, but drove up Pinery Canyon to Rustler Park (approximately 20 miles of dirt road). And piny it is. The scent from the pines in the sun is heady and reminiscent of eastern Oregon. There were some lupines blooming but not many wildflowers, and everything is dry, dry, dry. I don't like this time of year much as everything is seemingly in suspense of the coming rains in July.

The hike to Barfoot Lookout is an easy one, short and relatively flat, hugging a hill side. Nice views of New Mexico along the way, and the views from the lookout, which is used for fire spotting, are beautiful. It was a bit hazy today, so although we could see all the way across the valley, we could not spot our house. I almost wish I had brought a shirt as it was cool at 8800 feet, and there was a nice breeze blowing. I had almost forgotten what wind in tall trees sounded like: it was impressive.

May 11, 2009

Leafcutter bees

I saw the telltale sign this morning: the leafcutter bees have arrived. When I came here I was puzzled at what insect might be making these perfect holes in some plants' leaves. Would they do the plant in? After some investigations I found out that these plant leaf circles are lining for a new bees nest. The female leafcutter bee digs a small tunnel in a pithy stem, lines it with the leaf cutting, deposits pollen and nectar for the egg and seals up the hole for the new bee to develop next spring.

Leafcutter bees are solitary bees and important pollinators. Apparently their sting is very mild and it only delivered when the bee is handled. Well yeah ... The damage to the plant hosting the nest as well as the plant providing the leafy lining is minimal, and although plants with well-formed leaves are nice, pollination of plants is more important to me.

I wonder how many varieties of bees there are here. I hope to be more educated while participating in the Great Sunflower Project. In regard to that, the sunflowers that I planted at the horse barn are down from a dozen to 3. At first I blamed the rodentia living under the tackroom, but now I think that they may have been some damping off. The 6 sunflowers in the garden are still alive and hopefully will take off soon.

May 10, 2009

Sunday ride

It feels like spring is over: temps in the low 90's, gentle breezes, and that very bright sunlight. We usually don't ride on Sunday (it is still more fun to play on a workday), but I want to put some hours on Cody. If he does not get ridden regularly, he reverts to being a colt, in spite of his now 9 years.

It is a lovely time to be out in the desert. Our ride took us through what I call the Prickly Pear Forest as there are so many huge plants all together. Lots of blooms right now. I think that every pad has an average of 4 buds/blooms, and it is a shame that the whole plant does not bloom at once. Smart move on Mom's part though: more opportunity to get fertilized if you spread blooming out over a couple of weeks.

From the Prickly Pear Forest we go through the Ocotillo Forest. A lot of them are past their prime, but these plants do seem to all bloom at once. Looking over the hillside you see a red cast of all the blooms. The hummingbirds love this place as the blooms are just the right shape for their beaks.

The mesquites are blooming now too, and when you ride through a patch you can smell their lovely fragrance. Soon these flowers will be beans which are protein rich and loved by all wildlife, as well the horses and Emma, who snatches them off the bush.

The agaves are sending up flower spikes now, but it will be a few weeks before they are in full bloom. These flower spikes grow about a foot a day. This takes so much energy on the part of the plant that they die after blooming. Often they do leave "pups" at the base to continue the cycle.

When we got back I rinsed off the horses in the wash rack. I think it must feel better to be rid of old sweat and it was a nice temperature for an outside shower. Afterwards there is the after-shower-routine of horses drying each other off.

May 8, 2009


The fight is on. In spite of all the protection that I am providing the plants in the garden, there is still picking and digging going on. I know who the digger is: it is a pocket gopher, and as I have no experience catching them (as opposed to pack rats), I have asked my friend Dave, who does have experience, to get rid of this guy and a trap has been set.

I am suspicious of the quail doing the picking of the leaves. The melons and peppers in particular are suffering as the birds can get their head through the chickenwire, or over the upside-down pots. I have gone to bigger pots in some cases, but my newest way to foil them is Jacques. Dan made his frame and donated a shirt; I donated jeans and the hat. He is realistic enough to get Emma to bark at him and I finally had to let her check him out.

The quail or other birds better be fooled, as I am every time I look towards the garden. Don't ask why he has a French name because I have no idea why I am on this French kick. Awhile back we had a rooster called Henri-Pierre ...

As for the sunflowers at the barn, in spite of the chickenwire and protection of upside down pots (with bottoms), I am down to 7 plants, from a dozen. The victims get nipped off an inch above the soil, at night when the pots are in place. I have no idea how the animal, a rodent of some sort, gets to them. Plants need to grow quickly to outrun the appetites.

May 4, 2009


I planted the sunflowers today for The Great Sunflower Project. I received the seeds awhile ago, but they weren't shipped in a padded envelope (funding for the project is limited) so they arrived rather smashed . Not a problem, I knew the variety (Lemon Queen) so I ordered another package and started them in the laundry room/cold frame. I was afraid that if I planted directly into the soil, the birds or some other animal would get the seed and I would forever be waiting for a plant to show up.

I am enthused about the project (did you know that bees are responsible for every third bite of food?), but I am also a firm believer that Arizona should look like Arizona, and I have not grown any non-desert ornamental here. Where to put sunflowers? Sun is not a problem but wind is, and Lemon Queen will grow 4 to 6 feet. I finally settled on the south side of the horse barn. Lots of sun and a tall wall to lean against when our southwestern winds blow. Should look nice too when you come up the driveway.

I amended the soil with manure and fertilizer and 12 plants are in the ground. I know it does not look like much (they are in those chickenwire enclosures next to the cacti), but hopefully I will be able to track their growth with a picture once in awhile. I had about 6 plants left over that I put into the garden. Same exposure, just not as high a wall to lean against.

Meanwhile, the Santa Rita cactus is blooming in the driveway circle. Gorgeous, or what? And as luck would have it, here is a bee who just rolled around in the pollen.

May 1, 2009

Dragoon Spring and Jordan Valley

When "out back" in the Coronado National Forest with our horses we always keep an eye out for new riding spots. It would be so cool to be able to get from one side of the Dragoons to the other, but it is complicated. For one thing, the mountains are steep and a lot of the washes are huge: sometimes the walls are 20 feet high. I don't feel comfortable taking our beloved horses on 30 degree slopes, or ask them to climb out of straight-up situations, hence our explorations on foot.

The original plan today was to see if we could approach Council Rocks from the north side as it would be much shorter than our trip a couple of weeks ago. We did not make it very far as, shortly out of Dragoon, we came across a sign for Dragoon Spring, and decided to explore.

On the way to Dragoon Spring is a turnoff for Dragoon Spring Station which was the westernmost stone fortified stage stop in the Butterfield Overland Mail Route. The station, in the heart of Apache country, was used from 1858 until 1862. The stone ruins are still there.

After the stage coach stop we drove on to Jordan Valley "road" and finally abandoned Subie and continued on foot. Dragoon Spring is dry now, or at least it was today, but it is supposed to be the site of the signing of the peace treaty by Cochise and General Howard.

I thought I recognized a rock outcropping that we had seen from our (east) side of the Dragoons so we hiked on to see if we could find a way across, or rather through, the mountains. Emma and I even went straight up the hill to reconnoiter, but the view was not clear and neither is the Google map. I would like to go back and walk through the wash and see if it connects with a known wash. This of course would not be in the monsoon season, but that is still about 10 weeks away. It would be spectacular to see the washes full of water, but it would be way too dangerous: flash flood extraordinaire.