August in Arizona – It Must Be Madness!
Why would anyone go to Arizona in August? It’s hot there, a visit would be Madness! According to the guides of Naturalist Journeys, a top birding and nature tour company based in Portal, Arizona, a visit in August is a must do on a savvy natural history traveler’s agenda, part of that bucket list one might never have thought of. Why the fervor for this season? Monsoon Madness.
Arizona in August is extreme. Summer rains, called monsoons, power extreme biodiversity, and produce off-the-chart, unreal numbers of species. Naturalist Journeys owner Peg Abbott recalls her first visit to Portal at that time of year, over twenty years ago. “I was making a call from the phone booth outside the Portal Café. I started looking around and realized I had company – over 17 species of insects, large, colorful katydids, praying mantis, and a wild Rhinoceros-looking beetle. I hung up and quickly called my entomology friend, a professor at Colorado College, telling her she had to see this. She did, later that fall with a field class. It’s wild, in summer the whole region gets green. In fact, in Southeast Arizona August is the greenest month of the year. Landscapes are transformed. Grass grows thigh-high. Wildflowers explode. One has to see it to believe it.
A sense of adventure beckons naturalists in the know to Arizona each August. Even the local Border Patrol agents train to recognize the odd behaviors of August visitors. Birders gather in groups at night, passing silently under ghost-like sycamore trees, scanning limbs for small owls. Wilder than birders at night are those in cars on the road – sometimes very remote roads – that swerve, and stop suddenly. From them people jump out of all sides, carrying sticks. Border agents learn these are “herpers”, the local name for professional and amateur snake and reptile enthusiasts. This is their time. August brings out peak numbers of numerous species. Bob Ashley, a reptile enthusiast and owner of the Chiricahua Desert Museum, describes a good “herper” night as warm, with no moon. August is the peak month, when nights are warm and humid. In a couple hours of driving one might see 30 snakes of more than a dozen species. Antelope Pass, in neighboring New Mexico, reports the highest number of lizard species in the United States. The region has 8 species of toads. Insect diversity abounds. In the natural history realm, it’s madness.
All through August, for those going out, need for precaution prevails. Weather is extreme. Lightning extraveganzas happen almost daily as clouds gather. This signals cool, shaded afternoons – until electricity sends residents (human and other) to shelter. People find a place with an open view, and watch with fireworks-style fascination. Strong rains follow the show, at times causing flash floods.
A simple dinner invitation in Portal can turn into a slumber party, as guests have no way to cross raging Cave Creek to get home. Resident Susanne Apitz, active with the local Emergency Response team, says, “We take it in stride. Like northern states have to be ready for ice on the roads, freezing temperatures, and high levels of snowfall, we get ready for stranded cars, spot-fires from lightning strikes, and hikers with hypothermia on mountain trails where it may even hail”. So much for it being too hot in August in Arizona!
Ten Reasons Not to Miss Arizona’s August Monsoons:
1. Extreme Biodiversity. Find fourteen species of hummingbirds, observe butterflies that stray north from Mexico, tally a list of lizards – Ashley says, “nearby Antelope Pass, just over the state line in New Mexico, has the highest number of species in the US, with almost 30 species”! Hire a guide from small companies such as Naturalist Journeys in Portal to help you learn and observe.
2. Stunning Photography: Find a rare Elegant Trogon pair with chicks. Try some timed exposures for lightning shows, or star trails. Portal, Arizona sports Sky Village, a subdivision home to serious amateur astronomers, some willing to share their expertise.
3. Time to Get Dirty. Poke and probe on forest trails of Coronado National Forest, abundant in each of the Sky Island Mountain Ranges. Portal, Arizona has a Visitor Center staffed on weekends to help you find your way. Work up a sweat going for gusto to one of the finest lookouts in the Southwest, Silver Peak in the Chiricahua Mountains. Stand and let powerful monsoons rains wash you clean.
4. Redefine Adventure. In the Chiricahuas you don’t need bungee cords, canopy towers, zip lines, or boats. Weather and the wild world combine to keep your adrenaline pumping. Those with curious minds can dig for a honeypot ant, follow a troop of coatimundis, or join a rattlesnake count each August in Barfoot Park, recently (2011) declared by the Park Service as one of the country’s first official National Natural Landmarks.
5. Scream Back! Cave Creek Canyon has one of the highest densities of breeding raptors and owls on the planet, on a par with the famous Snake River Birds of Prey area in Idaho. In August young are fledging, making demands on their parents. Feisty Apache Goshawks can split your skull if you wander too close. Luckily their screams alert you to invasion of their territory. From Golden Eagles, to tiny Elf Owls, the airways abound with clatters, clucks, chatter, calls, songs and screams. Take off the headphones, and listen!
6. Dare to Unplug. Portal, Arizona just got cell service in 2013, and it only reaches the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. WIFI locations, like the local library, the porches of local lodgings, or the Chiricahua Desert Museum, make for good social encounters.
7. Reap the Harvest. The monsoon rains bring life to all things wild, including those who like Prickly Pear Margaritas. The cacti’s aubergine-colored fruits are called “tunas”. Locals do the work to harvest them, remove small spines, and make a syrup good on pancakes, or mixed with lime. Buy some at the Sky Islands host farmer’s markets, weekly as agriculture kicks into high gear with the rains. Bisbee’s Saturday market, in an historic mining town located between Portal and Sierra Vista, has flavor beyond its food vendors and is not to be missed.
8. Go Wild. During Arizona’s August monsoons, local biology-types can be found with glazed over stares, not unlike those coming down from a long weekend party. Recognize sleep deprivation, as they’ve been up at dawn to look for Elegant Trogons, stared through scopes in search of shorebirds passing through from the arctic, and strained to see fine feather variation of hummingbirds at feeders. They’ve hiked mountain trails, where after the 2011 Horsehoe II fires wildflowers appear in August in profusion. They may have surveyed 150 ft. Douglas Fir trees in search of Mexican Chickadees that only live in the Chiricahuas, revealing their presence in a call too high-pitched for many to hear. And then there is “herping” to do long into the night…
9. Unwind. If you can’t keep up with biodiversity-crazed locals and visitors, just enjoy yourself. There are no fancy accommodations here, but the area’s Inns, lodges and B and B’s all have in common splendid views, porches to sit on to appreciate them, and good old western hospitality.
10. Brag. Tell Your Friends – YOU Visited Arizona in August (weird?), and let them ask you WHY. Smile and say – you know, it’s Monsoon Madness.
Naturalist Journeys, LLC has expert guides, and can help you plan your visit in July or August for Monsoon Madness through their Independent Ventures program. Participants can enjoy either 4 or 6 nights split between two great eco-lodges in a package that includes dinners at local restaurants, expert guides, and special discounts with local vendors. Not ready yet? August 4-10, 2014, join them for their popular week-long group tour, entitled –you guessed it – “Monsoon Madness”.