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Boyce Thompson Arboretum

The monsoon has broken which provides delightful weather to get out and about in Arizona. This weekend, I took the drive out to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum — which is operated by the University of Arizona and is located just a few miles from the mining town of Superior, AZ. Their mission statement (sounds so HP, doesn't it?) is "to instill in people an appreciation of plants through the fostering of educational, recreational, research and conservation opportunities associated with arid-land plants". I found it a wonderful opportunity to get away from the city and see the the Sonoran desert in all its splendor — plus some pleasant unexpected surprises.

The first surprise was the Hummingbirds/Butterfly Garden. There were flowering plants aplenty offering nectar to attract scores of butterflies and a few hummingbirds. Ah, a wonderful time to capture a few images on silicon! Hmmm, these Yellow Sulphur butterflies are harder to photograph than one might think. First they all flitter around at the same time then they land on flowers and stop moving as they drink the nectar — almost like butterfly musical chairs. When flittering about, they are hard to photograph without them being blurred — and when they land, they are camouflaged among the stems and flowers.

After a moment's reflection, I realized that they had evolved a great defense mechanism. When they all flitter around at the same time, any predator would be confused by too many prey flying in too many directions. Then when they stop, they are hard to spot in the foliage.

I was lucky to have one photograph turn out so you can see three butterflies in the picture — one (on the left) feeding, one (at the top) about to land and one (center bottom) barely visible with its camouflage working nicely.

As I explored the trails of the arboretum, I found many more butterflies including a couple of other varieties — Pipevine Swallowtails which is mostly black but with an iridescent blue tail — and Queens which are similar to Monarch butterflies although smaller and not as brightly colored. They were everywhere but devilishly difficult to photograph. I was lucky to catch the one at left with only the tiniest amount of blurring on his wing before he took off to the next flower.

In contrast to the Yellow Sulphurs, the Pipevine Swallowtails seem to be more visible. Google tells me that the caterpillars feed on the Pipevine plant which produces a toxin to ward off these voracious eaters. Obviously, the caterpillars have evolved a tolerance to the toxin — and the adults carry that toxin in their bodies as well. The toxin makes the butterflies distasteful and harmful to birds — which have learned to avoid butterflies that look like this. Interestingly, other butterflies have evolved similar marking and gain some measure of avoidance by birds even though these mimics do not carry the toxin.

The next surprise was birds of prey. The Arboretum was having a special "event" with owls, hawks, eagles and kestrels. All of these birds had been injured and are being cared for by Arboretum staff and volunteers. Here a Pigmy Owl.

Because of the nature of their injuries, they (the birds) could not be released to the wild. What a wonderful opportunity to be up close to such magnificent birds. This is a hawk, although I do not know what variety.

Some of what I encountered was normal for someone living in Arizona such as Prickly Pear Cactus (below left). The body of this type of cactus is flat, almost like a Ping-Pong paddle. Of course they have spines (thorns) that will catch the inattentive passer-by (such as a photographer who is taking the picture of a lake and not watching where he is walking). They also have fine barbed spines beside the larger ones easily visible in the photo. These are more difficult to remove from one's skin (says the voice of experience).

Prickly Pear Cacti are somewhat unique in the edible fruit that they produce. Native Americans found this an important source of food in this arid land — and contemporary people still consume the fruit as well as the pads (the green flat part). Prickly Pear Jelly is available in all the tourist shops — I've tried it and it is quite tasty.

The Boojum Tree is one of the most unusual trees you'll ever see. I didn't know what it was — fortunately, it was labeled. A quick Google search reveals that the name is attributed to plant explorer Godfey Sykes, who whimsically named it after a strange and mythical creature that Lewis Carroll described in one of his children's poems, The Hunting of the Snark. Its branches are extremely short and it is leafless most of the year. When the rains fall (as we have experienced recently), the leaves come out.

There is so much more to see — but I'll leave it to you to visit someday. However, I will include some tantalizing shots of Ayer Lake...

...and canyon walls. I'll be back because the Arboretum will change with the seasons — I'd like to see those changes and record them photographically.

Congratulations: Before I close, I'd like to include heartfelt congratulations to my friends Vince and Gigi for the new additions to their family (no, they didn't get a Roomba) — Adam and Maisie. They were born on July 10th (premature so I delayed broadcasting the news until they were healthy enough to come home). Adam was quite tiny at birth, only 1 lb. 12 oz. Maisie was 4 lb. 5 oz. They still are quite different in size — but I suspect Adam will catch up at some point. They are as cute as can be — necessarily since they will be the cause of many a sleepless night for Vince and Gigi. All our best to the whole family.


Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com