Swallowtail butterflies frolic on the wind. Vireos and rock wrens sing their hearts out by the recovering creek. Spiders and other predators chase their next meal. Through it all, John Alcock observes, records, and delights in what he sees. In a once-burnt area, life resurges. Plants whose seeds and roots withstood an intense fire become habitat for the returning creatures of the wild. After the Wildfire describes the remarkable recovery of wildlife in the Mazatzal Mountains in central Arizona.
It is the rare observer who has the dedication to revisit the site of a wildfire, especially over many years and seasons. But naturalist John Alcock returned again and again to the Mazatzals, where the disastrous Willow fire of 2004 burned 187 square miles. Documenting the fire’s aftermath over a decade, Alcock thrills at the renewal of the once-blackened region. Walking the South Fork of Deer Creek in all seasons as the years passed, he was rewarded by the sight of exuberant plant life that in turn fostered an equally satisfying return of animals ranging from small insects to large mammals.
Alcock clearly explains the response of chaparral plants to fire and the creatures that reinhabit these plants as they come back from a ferocious blaze: the great spreadwing damselfly, the western meadowlark, the elk, and birds and bugs of rich and colorful varieties. This book is at once a journey of biological discovery and a celebration of the ability of living things to reoccupy a devastated location. Alcock encourages others to engage the natural world—even one that has burnt to the ground.
When John Alcock replaced the Bermuda grass in his suburban Arizona lawn with gravel, cacti, and fairy dusters, he was doing more than creating desert landscaping. He seeded his property with flowers to entice certain insects and even added a few cowpies to attract termites, creating a personal laboratory for ecological studies. His observations of life in his own front yard provided him with the fieldnotes for this unusual book. In a Desert Garden draws readers into the strange and fascinating world of plants and animals native to Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
As Alcock studies the plants in his yard, he shares thoughts on planting, weeding, and pruning that any gardener will appreciate. And when commenting on the mating rituals of spiders and beetles or marveling at the camouflage of grasshoppers and caterpillars, he uses humor and insight to detail the lives of the insects that live in his patch of desert. Celebrating the virtues of even aphids and mosquitoes, Alcock draws the reader into the intricacies of desert life to reveal the complex interactions found in this unique ecosystem. In a Desert Garden combines meticulous science with contemplations of nature and reminds us that a world of wonder lies just outside our own doors.
"Spring on the Sonoran Desert can be a four-month-long spectacle of life and color. Within these well-written pages, Alcock exposes us to the plant and animal life of a land many regard as desolate. To Alcock, the desert has a constant evolutionary beauty he never seems to tire of. Alcock's approach to his subject is an elegant combination of science and literature. Only the desert itself, arrayed in its April apparel, can rival the beauty of this book."—Arizona Highways
"Deserts are not as bereft of life as they seem; their barren landscapes can support a remarkable variety of plant and animal life, though it may require a patient and skilled naturalist to reveal its mysteries. John Alcock is just such a naturalist. . . . Alcock provides delightful insights into how insects provision their developing young, how parasites find their victims and how flowers attract pollinators. A book of this kind allows its author, more accustomed to the rigours and constraints of writing academic papers and books, to relate revealing anecdotes and simply to express their fascinating for natural history. . . . Books such as this serve a vital function in bringing the mysteries of the desert to the attention of a wider public." —Times Literary Supplement
Sonoran Desert Summer
John Alcock University of Arizona Press, 1990 Library of Congress QH104.5.S58A42 1990 | Dewey Decimal 574.526520979173
What could seem less inviting than summer in the desert? For most people, this prospect conjures up the image of relentless heat and parched earth; for biologist John Alcock, summer in Arizona's Sonoran Desert represents an opportunity to investigate the wide variety of life that flourishes in one of the most extreme environments in North America. "Only very special plants and animals can survive and reproduce in a place that may receive as little as six inches of rain in a year," observes Alcock, "a place where the temperature may rise above one hundred degrees each day for months on end." Yet he and other biologists have discovered here startling signs of life hidden in plain view under the summer sun:
- male digger bees compete to reach virgins underground during the early summer mating season;
- the round-tailed ground squirrel goes about its business, sounding alarm calls when danger threatens its kin;
- the big-jawed beetles Dendrobias mandibularis emerge in time to feast on saguaro fruits and to use their mandibles on rival males as well;
- Harris's hawks congregate in groups, showing their affinity for polyandry and communal hunting;
- robberflies mimic the appearance of the bees and wasps on which they prey;
- and peccaries reveal the adaptation of their reproductive cycle to the desert's seasonal rains.
The book's 38 chapters introduce readers to these and other desert animals and plants, tracing the course of the season through activities as vibrant as mating rituals and as subtle as the gradual deterioration of a fallen saguaro cactus. Enhanced by the line drawings of Marilyn Hoff Stewart, Sonoran Desert Summer is both an account of how modern biology operates and a celebration of the beauty and diversity that can be found in even the most unpromising places.
Life in the desert is a waiting game: waiting for rain. And in a year of drought, the stakes are especially high.
John Alcock knows the Sonoran Desert better than just about anyone else, and in this book he tracks the changes he observes in plant and animal life over the course of a drought year. Combining scientific knowledge with years of exploring the desert, he describes the variety of ways in which the wait for rain takes place—and what happens when it finally comes.
The desert is a land of five seasons, featuring two summers—hot, dry months followed by monsoon—and Alcock looks at the changes that take place in an entire desert community over the course of all five. He describes what he finds on hikes in the Usery Mountains near Phoenix, where he has studied desert life over three decades and where frequent visits have enabled him to notice effects of seasonal variation that might escape a casual glance.
Blending a personal perspective with field observation, Alcock shows how desert ecology depends entirely on rainfall. He touches on a wide range of topics concerning the desert’s natural history, noting the response of saguaro flowers to heat and the habits of predators, whether soaring red-tailed hawk or tiny horned lizard. He also describes unusual aspects of insects that few desert hikers will have noticed, such as the disruptive color pattern of certain grasshoppers that is more effective than most camouflage.
When the Rains Come is brimming with new insights into the desert, from the mating behaviors of insects to urban sprawl, and features photographs that document changes in the landscape as drought years come and go. It brings us the desert in the harshest of times—and shows that it is still teeming with life.