National Park Flora & Fauna

We did not see much wildlife in the national parks. Exceptions were elk grazing as we entered the Grand Canyon, causing a flurry of cars to pull off the road to watch these giants eat. While at the Grand Canyon we also saw Pinon Jaybirds and lots of ravens. A tarantula was spotted by the shuttle bus driver near the Hemit’s rest stop but we only got to view him from the bus. It is mating season for tarantulas (which we were also informed is called migration season – which I thought was weird) because the males are on the move to find a mate. Lastly, we did see two rattlesnakes mating in the morning sun at the Visitor’s Center in the Tucson Mountain (west) section of Saguaro National Park. A ranger was present informing anyone who stopped what was going on. He was also filming the copulation! (No privacy!) And, there were a few butterflies noted in Saguaro also, but none I could capture with my camera.

Fortunately, I am much more of a plant person than a wildlife person. While I do consider myself somewhat of an expert on monarch butterflies, there are many species I cannot identify, especially if they are not local to where I live. I’d rather spend time identifying and learning plant species I know or have an interest in knowing.

The pinon pine is ubiquitous in the Grand Canyon’s environs. It is a somewhat unusual pine with a grayish twisted and sometimes gnarly trunk. I learned the name of this tree from a bright nine-year-old boy we encountered along the Bright Angel Trail and again at the top where we chatted with his family for close to an hour. I’ll be posting more about this encounter in the future, but for now, suffice it to say that I am still drawn to gifted children and the passion they can exhibit for learning. It was also from him that I learned of the Pinon Jay!

Pinon Jay (I believe) in the Grand Canyon. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

Further on in the trip, while traversing the Fay Canyon Trail in Sedona, I was able to identify many plant species that also grow in the upper mid-west, including the lupine, columbine, and fern. There were plants that I knew but don’t live natively in Wisconsin too. These were yucca and agave. But, a tree with a split, craggy bark found in great numbers along the trail drew most of our attention. We were fortunate to run into a hiker that could identify this tree as the Alligator Juniper. I’ll probably never forget how the bark on that tree looks even though it does not grow where I live. This experience would be akin to me showing someone what a hackberry bark looks like or how to identify shagbark hickory. I ate up the new knowledge.

We also learned how to identify creosote bushes from the wayside signage at the visitor center in Saguaro. They are setting seeds now and the seeds are super interesting, developing in clusters of five. My husband got a kick out of pointing them out along the trail, along with the Palo Verde trees.

Creosote seeds. © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021
Saguaro cactus and Palo Verde in the foreground. Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain District (West). © Carol Labuzzetta, 2021

At Saguaro National Park, I knew the giant saguaros on sight. Their unique shape and size are iconic symbols of the American Southwest. But, from a previous visit to Joshua Tree National Park in California’s Mojave Desert, I was also able to identify numerous cholla cacti, barrel cacti, holly, and of course, the prickly pear cactus which grows just about anywhere I’ve ever visited – including Bermuda! None of the cacti were blooming. After all, it is autumn in the northern hemisphere. But, I was lucky to catch a barrel cactus with one bloom still intact! I’d love to return to the desert when the cacti are blooming!

What attracts me to these plants? Mostly, it is the fact they have adapted to live in harsh environments. One year during the tenure of teaching garden club, I taught a unit on plant adaptations. It was a wonderful unit that imparted some insight into how plants evolve to survive in hot, arid, cold, and rainy climates. I enjoyed adding some personal experience to my teaching arsenal.

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