Last week the river was dry but teeming with life all waiting for a single summer storm to bring water back to the river. Then, on July 8th around 9pm a storm hit the upper Santa Cruz River valley, the first storm of the monsoon. The rain gage I have at home registered 0.35 inches of rain. On my day off, July 9th at around 2pm, a storm hit the border towns of Nogales Arizona and Nogales Sonora producing a massive flood. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reported a gage height of 7 feet in the Nogales wash. It has rained around the area everyday producing beautiful clouds and lightning strikes.
Check out the USGS water data here:
I was excited to return to work on Tuesday and take a hike to the river. I wanted to know if the river had water and the extent of the flood damage in the cottonwood habitat. As I hiked the Anza trail leading to the river I noticed all kinds of wildlife. Birds were chirping in every tree. Lizards rustled in the leaves and bushes as they ran away from my incoming feet. Tiny flying bugs were seen clumped in the air enjoying the morning breeze. Once I arrived to the river I noticed the same frogs I saw last week. They were enjoying their new source of water.
The river was no longer dry! The rains that occurred the last few days returned the river to life.
About a month ago I visited the Santa Cruz River and observed all the different species of animals. Since then, I visited the river two more times and each time there was water. On July 6th I visited the river again. To my surprise the river had no water flowing in its banks. I have visited the Santa Cruz River many times in the year, especially during bird walks in the months of January through April, but I have never seen it dry. The celebration of the summer rains of El Dia de San Juan have passed and so far very little rain has fallen since. We may be looking at late monsoon this year.
Yet life is resilient. I walked to where the stream usually is and to my astonishment I saw jumping frogs. Then, I got startled by rustling leaves on the ground; it was a whip-tailed lizard (Cnemidophorus sonorae). Above me, I heard all kinds of singing birds. To my right was the sound of a well concealed Yellow-breasted chat (Icteria virens). On top of
the Freemont cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) was a gray hawk (Buteo plagiatus) in search of its next prey. All over the river I could hear lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria). Life at the river continues its usual course, but for how long? Eventually we are going to need life’s most precious resource: water.
This past school year I started a bird club at Wade Carpenter Middle School in an effort to get students to participate in citizen science. Citizen science is collaborative networking between scientists and everyday citizens. Through citizen science people can contribute to scientific data. For example, citizens use eBird to share sightings so that scientists get an idea where populations of birds are located. Teaching kids about citizen science not only inspires them to pursue science careers but connects them with nature. When we start as kids we may be more inclined to be citizen scientists for the rest of our lives.
Students had a wonderful time participating in the bird club. We did all kinds of projects including participating in the schools science fair and taking top honors in the Friends of the Santa Cruz river art contest. But one of our biggest contributions was entering our sightings on eBird. Students spent time counting the number of each species of birds and making sure to correctly identify the bird using their field guide. We bird watched twice a week from August until the week before finals in May. My students learned how to identify birds based on shape, size, color pattern, behavior, and habitat. We also feed birds at our school campus and visited Las Lagunas de Anza (a lagoon located near our school) to bird watch. It was an amazing experience to see my students gain an interest in local birds and have them participate in a citizen science project that contributes to scientific research.
My work here at Tumacacori National Historical Park deals with creating a curriculum for the Santa Cruz river. Much of the program is centered in a citizen science project. Through this program I hope to inspire kids to perform citizen science and contribute to scientific research. Using citizen science becomes a hands on way to educate kids about the environment and science, and gives them a personal sense of nature.
Water is the most important element for life on earth. It is highly evident in southwestern Arizona desert ecosystems where the average yearly rainfall is about 18 inches. Most of the rainfall falls during the monsoon, which traditionally starts on June 24th Dia de San Juan and ends on September 15th. Half or more of our yearly rainfall falls during this time period. Many plants, including the saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantean), bloom during this time and wildlife, including humans, depend on it. Spanish explorers that colonized the area turned the start of the monsoon into a celebration known as el Dia de San Juan.
The story goes that in 1540 the Spanish arrived in a drought stricken land here in southwestern Arizona. Worried for their European crops and livestock the Spaniards prayed to Saint John the Baptist for rain. Shortly after and on St.John’s Day rain started to fall. Since then, the coming of the monsoon season has become a celebration of water. It’s celebrated with cold beverages or foods, water filled activities, a bonfire, and prayer. The summer rains are always welcomed here in southwestern Arizona.
Upon reflecting about Dia de San Juan and the importance of water in nature I remembered listening to stories about the celebration from family members. When they were younger they mentioned how it would rain on the day of Dia de San Juan and would rain almost every day until September. Today it seems that the monsoons start later in the year. I wondered if it’s possible that climate change may have changed the timing of the monsoon and how that might affect life in the southwestern Arizona desert. I have not yet found any data that supports my hypothesis but Arizona temperatures are higher in 2017 than previous years and drier. Yet, the celebration of Dia de San Juan will never change because here in the desert the monsoon is always needed and welcomed.
The Santa Cruz River supports a huge diversity of life in Arizona. Most of the ecosystem has been lost due to irrigational pumping and tree clearing, making this riparian habitat endangered. Yet, many animals still depend on this very important ecosystem. Entering the river corridor you are first impressed by the 90’ tall Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) and their close neighbors the Gooding willow (Salix goddingii). Both of these trees support large numbers of insect populations.
One common insect is the giant mesquite bug (Thasus gigus) which lives in velvet mesquite bosques. Mesquite bosques (bosque is a Spanish word that means forest or woodland) run parallel to the Cottonwood riparian habitat. Giant mesquite bugs come alive during the monsoon. They are social insects and will stay in clumps feeding on the legumes of the mesquites. As the bugs feed on the mesquites so do the birds that prey on them. Black phoebe (Sayornis nigricans) can be seen feeding on insects, A typical flycatcher, it will return to its perch once it gets its food. The most common migrant raptor in the river is the gray hawk (Buteo plagiatus). A species of concern, its squeaky cries can be heard for miles but especially so along the river corridor. It hunts in the air and nests in cottonwood trees during the spring.
The Santa Cruz River is also home to the largest cat in the Americas, the jaguar (Panthera onca). It was last seen at the river in 1993, but has been captured on wildlife cameras in the nearby Santa Rita Mountains. Recently the Santa Cruz River has seen the return of a lost species, the gila topminnow (Poeciliopsis occidentalis occidentalis), an indicator that life at the Santa Cruz is slowly returning. The biodiversity of the Santa Cruz River is a clear sign that this ecosystem deserves our full attention.
Hello to all of my fellow interns. My name is Jacobo Carrasco and I am the Santa Cruz River Education Intern at Tumcacacori National Historical Park (TNHP). I was born and raised here in Rio Rico, Arizona. I live about 15 minutes away from the park. I received my Bachelors in biology at Northern Arizona University and my Masters at the University of Arizona South in secondary education. I also lead bird walk tours at TNHP and have volunteered here since the summer of 2013.
I am deeply excited to intern at TNHP! Every time I visit the Santa Cruz River I feel like Professor Challenger from The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle because as I explore this river I get excited about educating kids here. Although it runs right through our communities, the Santa Cruz River riparian habitat is truly a lost world where very few students get to visit and understand its importance in the area. My plan is to develop lesson plans that encourage students to visit the river and explore its habitats and wildlife. Perhaps learning how important it is will inspire them to care for it.