The Plug Nickel Outfit

Where Walden meets High Chaparral




What's this "Plug Nickel Outfit"?
Well - a "plug nickel" indicates something that is of little to no value, often implying a counterfeit. The word "outfit" hails from earlier times in the western US when a ranch or its wranglers would be referred to as an outfit - as in 'The Hash Knife Outfit' by Zane Grey.

The Plug Nickel Outfit (which I've been carrying in my back pocket for a couple of decades now!) is currently headquartered (falling out and hanging 'round - more likely!) in Southeastern Arizona in the San Pedro River valley. I've already taken some license in describing these scrivenings as something between Walden and High Chaparral - High Chaparral was filmed and located to the west of here and at a lower elevation. In the series one could see Saguaro cacti in many of the outdoor shots which don't naturally occur around here as the winters are too cold. Technically we're located in a transition area between the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan deserts. The elevation here is about 4400' - and we're on the flanks of one of a handful of Sky Islands in this area. Topics covered here will primarily be the plant and animal life of this region, and side issues such as weather and history - but hopefully not limited entirely to these.

Feel free to visit the archives or a listing of links to other websites that may be of interest. If you have questions, suggestions, or just want to rattle our chain - send the Outfit an email!



August 5, 2007        permalink

That boy, I say - That boy's makin' me look bad!

All right - I suppose I was reachin' on that one! Henery Hawk is a Chicken Hawk - and it's probably a Sharp-shinned Hawk that's been stressing my credibility.

A key principle involved in the management of this piece of land is that we do what's possible to promote an "oasis effect" on the property. This is an upland desert where water and forage are scarce, this limits the capacity of the land to support life. Simple things such as maintaining standing water and selectively promoting vegetation are a first step in making a piece of land more friendly to occupants. When I first started working with this piece of land - previously just raw desert - one of the first things I noticed was that I saw very few birds. This has changed incredibly over just a handful of years, it seems there's a constant presence of a wide diversity of wild creatures now.

It also doesn't hurt that I toss out a couple pounds of birdseed every day during the late afternoon. This brings in a pretty good crowd: cottontail rabbits, blackbirds, Scaled and Gambel's Quail, doves, towhees, meadowlarks, finches, sparrows, and other lgb's (little grey/green birds) and lbb's (little brown/black/blue birds). Naturally, too - this attracts other animals that aren't necessarily interested in the birdseed.

That brings us back around to our Henery... Birds of prey often have exceptional eyesight, but what of the exceptions? It's likely that one doesn't hear much about these birds simply because they don't usually survive long under this handicap. I first noticed our Henery a couple of years ago, and the thing that was notable was that it was having horrible luck hunting and seemed to be verging on desperation. I'd see the bird come swooping in and miss by critical inches, sometimes plowing into the vegetation in its overshot. One afternoon I looked out and it was sitting on a birdbath - not drinking or grooming - just trying to remain motionless. I'd swear it was trying a strategy of waiting til some dove alighted beside it. Another time I saw it miss on a low swoop and actually go into the brush afoot to try and get the intended. Then I didn't see Henery for a while and just assumed that it either moved on or perished. Months later and ever since I've seen what I assume is the same bird on occasion. In fact, when the folks were on the property last winter as part of the Christmas Bird Count one of the spotters saw and recorded our Henery.

During the last month Henery has been making his presence more obvious, particularly during feeding time. Sometimes I'll spot him sitting a couple hundred yards out atop a mesquite tree, other times I'll just hear and see the havoc immediately after he comes through. The blackbirds will all wheel upwards and fly away in groups, and the doves just scatter pell-mell while the quail and rabbits crouch motionless in the scrub. This isn't silent either, it's a great commotion of wingbeats and alarmed cries. Henery seems to be getting better too, or is just trying more often. I've seen it make 3 kills in the last couple of weeks, and about 8 passes. In one case it had a quail that was so big it couldn't take flight with it. There's a lot of quail hatchlings around now too, independent of parents but still staying in groups. They've developed a serious respect for Henery, no more running around like dumbclucks on open ground, but instead keeping to the brush and staying quiet.

Our Henery has apparently been taking notes and has begun to develope a routine. I've noticed over the last few days that once I've tossed out seed in the area where I begin feeding, just as I turn a corner and go out of sight, I'll hear the scattering of all the other birds and rabbits and sometimes catch a glimpse of him swooping through. The same thing happened today and this time Henery didn't swoop through but was on the ground - probably taking one last shot at someone who hadn't scattered but had gone for cover. When I stepped back around the corner it flew to a nearby acacia tree, and within a few seconds, on to a mesquite tree about 60 feet away. Still being too close to me for its comfort, it swooped away again within several seconds.

Now seed eaters like quail, dove, and rabbits are a trusting lot, and I don't think they're much on taking notes - but I suspect some of them are going to start connecting the dots: forked critter comes thru with food and "death from above" Henery swoops in just as it walks away... That's life (and death) at the waterhole for ya'!

Finally, given the frequency of the hunting and the season, I'd almost wonder if Henery (or Henerietta) is hunting for more than one?

July 17, 2007        permalink

'Cause gettin' out of bed just ruins my whole day!

I've probably seen more early mornings after the end of a long night than I have after waking - that's my business. I was just getting a few sips of coffee and taking the first drags from a hand-tailored cigarette when I hear the sound of a vehicle and and couple short honks. Looking out the window I see a clean white pickup truck with a county seal on the door - just lovely... I tie my hair back and put on a cap, slip on a shirt, some flip-flops, and tuck a sidearm into my waistband - then step out into the glaring morning sun.

This reputable looking gentleman was from the county's Planning and Zoning department - a bureau that's grown monstrously in just a short several years. We passed a few words about permits or some such - but that's not what this story is about. From the first minute I saw this guy - I couldn't help but notice his belt-mounted shiny gold and blue lacquered badge. Now what is a guy from Planning and Zoning doing with a badge? Does he get to pack a weapon too? How much firepower does someone from Planning and Zoning need? When will bureaucratic nimrods figure out that the more badges are passed around - the more they're devalued?

I'm starting to think that I need something a bit stronger than Bailey's in my morning coffee - 'cause I don't drink as much as I ought to.

July 8, 2007        permalink

Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness

Each time I've contemplated this new project, I've wondered just how interesting this would be for any potential reader. Sure, I like all this Nature stuff - but I didn't envision this all being just bunnies, deer, snakes and bird chicks. The thing I do find is that this particular lifestyle does lend itself to observations that some might more quickly pass by.

This afternoon I'd asked a family member to help me pick out a pot for some cactus cuttings I'd taken from a dying plant. The cuttings were dry and had scabbed over, with a good amount of growth tip, and it was time to put them in soil and see if they'd root. As we were looking over a wide selection of pots and gardening junk we had scattered around, we noticed a 5 gallon bucket where the lid had deteriorated from sun exposure and had fallen apart. The bucket was 1/2 full of soil mix and it also had a few other visitors...

Lizards (the types we have out here, anyway) tend to be curious and will explore all kinds of nooks and crannies seeking food and shelter and God-knows-what-else. In doing so they sometimes put themselves in spots they can't readily escape from. That was the case with this 5 gallon bucket - there were 3-4 dessicated lizard corpses in there and a few lizards that were still alive. (looking at each other hungrily - no doubt!) I tipped the bucket on its side to allow the live ones to escape - and the person with me asked if I thought any of the remaining corpses were alive. I said that I seriously doubted it and then we both noticed one that appeared to be moving ever so slightly. It was a scrawny thing - emaciated - with its eyes shrunken into its head. I really doubted it to be alive or capable of surviving at that point, but I could see a little movement behind the front legs in the torso - where you'd expect to see movement from breathing.

So we take this bugger over near the hose and get a bit of water on and near it - starting the process of rehydration. We both continued to see small movements from the lizard and I can recall at one point the person with me noted that it's front leg had seemed to hold onto the small twig I'd been using to gently arrange it. Most of the movement was at the neck and upper torso - with the head moving as a result of the neck moving. I put it in the bottom of a saucer for a potted plant and then put a bit of water in the saucer - keeping it tipped a bit to avoid drowning this lizard we were "saving".

My companion went inside to take a phone call and I sat and continued to watch this critter, curious of the outcome. At a point I started seeing things that weren't quite right. One was some movement from around where the ear would be on this lizard - the tip of something poking out a bit (1/16" or so). Not only was something poking out - it moved - and then it dissapeared back into this lizard's ear! Meanwhile, at the other end of this lizard - there was some movement coming from under the tail - from about where the poop chute would be. Within a minute or two it was evident to me that it was definitely larvae at the rearward end and I was suspecting the same up near the ears. By the time my companion had returned I told her that I had some news that I'd doubted she'd appreciate. I knew that two things were possibly happening at this point - either the poor bugger had been blowflied and was still ever so slightly alive - or that the creature was purely a corpse inhabited by what were likely maggots and that the maggots alone had caused the movements that we'd taken as signs of life. Well, by the time a maggot about an 1/8 of an inch in diameter had worked its way out of an ear and then back into the same opening - we were pretty sure of the latter. Meanwhile - at t'other end there were now 5-6 larvae squiggling around and the hind end was elevated about a 1/4" from where it'd been 5 minutes before.

It appears that we'd rehydrated a corpse and awakened its payload of maggots! What's so amazing is how the "movements" we'd seen were so easy to credit to the labored breathing of the lizard itself rather than the occupants.

My remark to my companion as we were watching the scene was - "I wonder how we could market this - maybe for Halloween!".

Afterwards I placed a stick in the bucket so that any other critters that might wind up inside could climb back out of the bucket. A few days later I happened to look in the bucket again and noticed a tarantula inside. We've had heavy monsoon rains lately and the soil in the bucket was fully saturated and the water level was above the soil level but for one small hump of soil where someone had dumped the soil from a small flowerpot. That was the high ground this tarantula had retreated to. I called out my companion to come and check the "bucket o' death". After - I tipped the bucket over to allow the tarantula to escape and then decided to just leave the bucket tipped on its side.

July 2, 2007        permalink

Quoth the Raven...

(note - this is a continuation of the previous entry)

In years past I used to give "interpretive talks" and presentations about nature and regional history. I can still recall expounding on about the synchronicity and harmony of the natural world. Over time my expressions of this 'harmony' became more reserved as I witnessed more of the inconsistency and tragedy - sometimes sheer brutality - of what I'd started to see in the "natural world".

Yesterday I noticed that the phoebes I'd mentioned earlier were giving "flight training" to the young they'd moved from the nest that morning in a partly constructed building on the property. Looking back, I can see where the parents probably abandoned the nest a day or two early because of the snake encounter. At the end of the day yesterday I noticed one of the chicks sitting on the ground at the corner of this building. Though the parents would occasionally come to it and give it some encouragement, it just didn't seem to have the will or means to pick up and fly to shelter for the dark hours. Once darkness fell I went over and collected the chick and placed it in the building off the ground in a somewhat secure place. The building has a roof and full walls, but no doors or windows installed yet - so the parents, and any other critter, can come in and out of there at will. I knew there was a good chance the parents would find it the next day if it came to no harm through the evening.

This morning I came out when some workers arrived at the unfinished building. There was no chick on the table, but one of the workers asked me right away if I'd seen "that bird". Sure enough, the chick has managed to flutter off the table I'd placed it on and was a dozen feet away on the ground. I collected the chick again and moved it over to a part of the building away from where the work was going on and asked the workers to avoid that area for the day. Sure enough, within a couple hours both parents were moving in and out and tending the chick, encouraging it and giving it food. Still though - the chick wasn't showing any efforts to fly, but I'd hoped that by the end of the day it might just get up to speed.

Then, when I was outside in the mid-afternoon, I noticed a raven settle in a tree near the corner of the building where the chick was. I decided to walk over and shoo the raven away. While headed that way I could see one of the phoebe parents flying high circles and calling more emphatically than usual, and the other parent was on the windowsill nearest to the chick - also calling out loudly. I walked in a side door just in time to see the raven pick up the chick and fly out the nearest window.

A final note... A few weeks ago I'd noticed that a raven that was getting harrassed righteously by the phoebes - to the point where I wondered if the phoebes might actually have it foxed and were wearing it down. Every time it would fly the phoebes would dive bomb and pester it, and when it would perch the phoebes would continue to torment it. Even when the raven would try to fly and gain speed and altitude to escape, the phoebes would keep it from making any distance. The phoebes usually keep to a fairly small territory here, but they'd fly as far as a 1/4 mile pestering that raven. At a point later in the day I noticed that raven wasn't even trying to fly off anymore but was just hopping along on the ground trying to keep away from the phoebes and he was looking pretty discouraged and overheated.

I know that many birds don't like ravens, so I wasn't particularly surprised by this, but I wondered if they could actually kill the raven just by pestering it away from food, water, and shelter. After seeing that raven snatch that chick today I suspect I understand more of the animosity the phoebes harbor toward ravens.

July 1, 2007        permalink

Snake rasslin' and chick herding

There's a small alcove along one wall of a building here where several generations of Say's Phoebes have nested and reared their offspring on a small ledge about 7' from the ground. In some cases they'll even bring forth two clutches of kids during the spring or summer - usually back-to-back. The second clutch is just about fully grown and today they left the nest and are getting their first tour of the area.

They're fortunate - yesterday things looked grim awhile. I'd noticed one of the parents flying animatedly around the entry to the alcove for a few minute but just figured that they were trying to give the nestlings encouragement to set out. After a few minutes I wondered if there was more to this and walked over. The parent settled in a nearby mesquite tree and kept up a loud chatter. A Bull Snake had managed to climb up on a piece of equipment and was in the rafters of the alcove trying to work its way over to the nest.

I generally avoid intervening in this type of issue - we try to give all critters a fair shake here. I guess I'm soft on the phoebes - they're a regular feature here and I've kept an eye on their nest watching the young develop. They're a pleasure to watch too, being flycatchers they catch and eat a lot of flying insects here. Efforts at working the snake out with a short stick weren't fruitful so I went and got my homemade snake stick. It's a simple but (so far) effective affair: 6' oak, 1" by 1" with a 1/4" string attached to form a loop at one end adjustable from the other end. It's probably not the most comfortable snake stick - but I doubt any snake finds any snake stick comfortable! The snake nicely obliged and put his head right into the loop once I'd put it in front of him - and after he'd gotten about a foot of his overall 4 feet of length through the loop - I tightened up and as gently as possible took him from his perch to the ground. He scooted off quickly - didn't want to be bothered by me anymore.

I'd noticed that the snake didn't have any of those tell-tale bumps along his length - but didn't see the phoebe chicks right away either. I don't know how many were in the nest this last clutch, but two chicks were down on the dirt floor of the alcove huddled in a corner - they'd bailed the nest before that snake had reached them. About 10 minutes had passed since I'd arrived there and a parent was still in a nearby tree keeping up a steady din. The chicks were almost mature enough to fly but were way too vulnerable just sitting on the ground there. Naturally neither of them was too thrilled about being picked up by some giant critter so shortly after escaping another ill-intentioned critter. With one in each hand I put them back on the ledge next to their nest. One fluttered back off the ledge to the ground. When putting that one back up on the ledge - the other one then fluttered to the ground. This went on a few rounds and finally I got them both situated back up on familiar territory. I backed on out of there quickly to allow them to settle down in hope they'd stay put on their ledge. (I'd already moved the piece of equipment that had allowed the snake to climb up there in the first place) I looked around for any other nestlings but didn't see or hear any so it's uncertain how successful the snake had been. Two chicks is a small clutch from what I've seen around here - 3 or 4 is more usual.

A few hours later I see the same snake a couple hundred feet away from where we'd first met. This time he's stretched in the shade under an acacia tree and some silly cottontail rabbit is sniffing around him - a curiousity that would lead to no good end for the rabbit except for it (maybe) being a bit too big for the snake to eat. I walked over, telling the rabbit what a dipshit he was. The rabbit moves off some feet away into the shade and the snake sensing me slithers into a nearby hole. It was probably the hole of a Kangaroo Rat... the drama never ends...

The nest was empty today and I could hear the parent phoebes and the chicks calling out to each other over at an unfinished structure on the property. The chicks are getting their flying lessons today, and coaching and encouragement from the parents to forsake the shelter and start catching their own food. They keep up a regular chorus of calls to each other as they're growing up and learning to be on their own and it's likely I'll be hearing those calls back and forth quite a bit over the next week.

Offsite Links

Dream Garden Press

Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory

Boyce Thompson Arboretum - Superior, AZ

Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation
and Educational Foundation

Tucson Wildlife Center

Desert Botanical Garden - Phoenix, AZ

Palace of the Governors - Santa Fe, NM

Native Seeds/SEARCH

El Rancho de las Golondrinas - Santa Fe, NM

California Mission Studies Association

Historic La Posada Hotel - Winslow, AZ

Sharlot Hall Museum - Prescott, AZ

Museum of Northern Arizona

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Amerind Foundation

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