Field Notes

Below is a sample of our Field Notes, Observations, and Perspectives:

Schoolhouse Flat, lower site
Spring and Fall observations
Carolyn and Larry Eppler

Field Notes and related documentation

February 2005:
Having selected this site as a potential location to inventory desert plant communities, in February 2005 following significant winter rains and Roosevelt Lake reaching near capacity, we had opportunity to photograph the resulting spring green-up of annual grasses and forbs. Estimated production of grass growth ranged from 500 to 2500 lbs/acre, depending on location and species composition.

A full inventory of the plant community was not documented at this time. Notable features across the landscape included dense clumps and groups of grasses and forbs, with broken colonies of spring flowers throughout. The cover of cryptogams/moss was remarkable. Even though bare ground could be seen in small patchworks in some places, the cover was greater than 85% in most areas. One thing we always look for is the vigor and ability of plants to penetrate soil surfaces and subsurfaces where impenetrable compaction is presumed to exist. Even where two track dirt routes are known to have been used by recreationists for many years, where vehicles would likely cause some level of compaction, the annual grasses and forbs nearly filled in the road ruts. Their root structure is much more delicate than a perennial plant, so either these plants have a unique ability to establish and penetrate those ruts, or the level of compaction in this area is not such that it deters the spread of their roots as many people have professed. Digging several of the annual plants up to note the direction of root growth - all had their primary roots in a vertical position. So, it seems soil compaction by vehicles, at least for this plant community is not a significant concern. Further, having visited this site over many years, moisture and temperature surely have shown to stimulate plant growth – or not – repeatedly, as the seedbank and reproductive ability of the desert adapted plants here are significant.

While in this area, we drove to see how much lake water had already inundated the surrounding landscape. The opportunity to photograph a King snake just reaching the shoreline after swimming across from the other side was truly a site to see. The place where we watched the snake cross had been dry land for many decades before the lake filled up this year after winter rains. The snake was obviously exhausted. The Bermuda grass that thrives along the lakes’ shorelines and stones on the shores edge seemed to offer a welcome respite. (Please see photographs included in our manuscript and in our Southwest Digital Images page where we are constantly adding images)

Moving forward, in this summary we jump to the year 2009, where we have documented some distinctive features of this landscape.

April 14, 2009:
Soils: The Stratton (Jeanne and Scott) soil descriptions provide the following: This plot sits in its entirety in an upland position. There are at least two distinct soil types within the plot. A majority of the plot keys out as 38.1 Loamy Upland with significant characteristics of the Upper Sonoran Desert. Precipitation at this plot is most likely at the low end of the 12-16” precipitation zone. GPS location of soil pit: N 33 degrees 37.372’ W 111 degrees 01.414’. Elevation is 2355 ft. Surface profile: 0-1/2” gravelly sandy loam. ½ -5” gravelly clay loam. 5 – 12” Clay.

Erosion: There is a very shallow 2-12” trough that drains this primarily flat site. The slope is less than 2% leaning towards the lake. Based on surface components, erosive forces are primarily from sheet or rill erosion by rain and wind. The litter from annual plants and small broken branches and twigs create hundreds of tiny dams across the flat site, which in spite of not being rooted, provide moisture traps. Clay is an obvious texture in the soil, mixed with sands and gravels. Erosion does not appear to be a significant factor in this sites function.

Activity: Primarily various animals and insects frequent this area. Tracks, droppings, or sign are from rabbit, coyote, javelina, quail, dove, crow, raven, cattle, and horses. The most limiting sign was from cattle, though some cow dung was observed in various locations throughout the site. Cattle were not present. Knats seem to rule the air. Butterflies, paperwasps, yellowjackets, bees, various spiders, beetles, aphids, and ladybugs were observed frequently during the day. The dirt two-track we used to access this site does not appear to be used other than from local traffic and perhaps an occasional hunter or hiker.

Creosote bush: Some believe this plant to be unpalatable because of its tannins. Others believe it to create a chemical environment that does not welcome other plants to grow within its over-story boundary. However, there are several desert plants that persist within this boundary. Catclaw acacia is one of those plants, along with many annual herbaceous plants. This plant also offers nectar to bees and wasps. Perennial and annual grasses: Many of the annual forbs have already turned or dried, so some are difficult to identify. However, those identified are recorded in The Pellet Acre table. Their vitality and condition are documented.

A note about this part of the desert- the soil texture, moisture, and temperatures have been observed over the past several decades not to be conducive to perennial upland grasses found on nearby hillslopes. Small stands may establish in very selective locations where ambient surface temperatures, soil texture and moisture, and microbial activity encourage growth, but are rare. The untrained observer has often been heard to comment about how livestock have eaten all the grass and the quail or other ground dwellers have nowhere to nest. These observers are apparently not aware of the phenology of annual grasses and forbs, seed banks, microbial activity, moisture affects, or historical weather patterns. One of our visits this year, while in the area a quail hunter nearly lost his head expressing disdain about the lack of grass – stating the cattle in the area had ruined the habitat for quail. That very same week, in the Arizona Republic an article stated there were thriving quail populations and it was green and lush! Depending on the plant community, slope, aspect, soils, moisture, and temperature, annual Spring plants will have a wide range of densities and cover. The desert plant communities of the Southwest are very diverse with multiple growing seasons, unlike some grasslands similar to a monoculture bird hunters often frequent in other parts of Arizona. See article below about the quail populations:

Click on image to enlarge

Dropseeds and threeawns: These are typically more abundant where surface soils are sandier, with less clay or silt. Therefore, in low-elevation desert soils where clay is more abundant and moisture is low at the surface, we have not observed high numbers of these perennial species. They will establish in scattered locations where sandy loams are mixed in, but are typically sparse because of the soil texture, temperature, or lack of moisture. Drive up just a few minutes into the foothills, and there you will find decomposed granite course soils where these grasses prefer to establish.

At this site, no dropseeds or perennial threeawns were observed on this date. However, they are established in the foothills above, as mentioned earlier. Annual three-awns were observed at this site, though generally where moisture and apparent microbial activity was more abundant near troughs, along cobbles, or under the shade of trees. In the past, we have observed higher microbial activity in these soils under the lens of a microscope.

Grama grasses: Black grama establishes best on old loamy soils. Therefore, at this site, we did not observe this species.

Filaree: The Bull and Redstem both have nearly equal representation.

Jojoba: This plant we must make additional comment about. Please see photos directly below.

The jojoba plant has not been given appropriate coverage in many environmental documents. The photos above were taken at a place of business where the native plant is hedged regularly by landscapers. It is quite dense. Taking a closer look at this plant, it is obvious that moisture is a greater factor in plant foliage production – rather than whether or not the plant is ‘eaten’ or hedged. Jojoba is a remarkable plant, having observed it in a dormant stage dropping most leaves during multiple years of drought, to full foliage on the same plant after sufficient moisture is captured. In the Long Gulch study site at the Dutchwoman allotment, managed by Mr. Mitchell Holder of the Hat Ranch, we observed over 600 jojoba plants per acre across most of that pasture. In forests or deserts on the open range certain times of year the leaves become more leathery and bitter (human taste) and our observation has been that animals do not tend to consume it during this time. One may observe ‘hedged’ plants near water sources or along trails. This tends to create a plant that appears to be unhealthy; however, with sufficient moisture it will continue to produce foliage in spite of its appearance. Jojoba seems to regrow after fires from the roots, similar to many other desert shrubs. This demonstrates another important plant adaptation for survival. Just as many trees, the jojoba plant can live 100 and even 200 years. It is a Phanerophyte, a plant that bears its perennating buds well above the surface of the ground. Highly nutritious for grazing/browsing animals, in this area late Spring and Summer foliage have highest values for protein and in-vitro digestibility.

Jojoba is often the browse plant used to determine ‘condition’ of a plant community when evaluating livestock or wildlife use. Observations cause us to conclude that outward appearance does not actually tell the productive capability (this is a very broad subject) of an individual plant after being browsed or ‘hedged’. Rather, the soil, soil moisture, and plant competition for moisture seem to determine if it will continue life for the typical century it lives. At another level, further study of male/female plant ratios may determine survivability. Drought and cold reduce flowering in some years, but does not inhibit survivability in most plants. The plants may become dormant, but continue to be viable. Because the plant is largely wind pollinated, central Arizona offers good growing grounds. There is a high variability in quantity and time of year when flowering and fruiting occurs. Seeds have been known to remain viable for over a decade. Most seedling mortality is caused by dry soil and freezing temperatures with predation only amounting to a small percentage of deaths. Seedlings are very sensitive to harsh summer weather in their first year [see References, Jojoba].

Animal consumption of Jojoba is often viewed as a negative activity by individuals not familiar with its characteristics.

Therefore, the ‘condition’ (still needing further clarification) of Jojoba as evaluated by animal consumption, based on many documents reviewed, is not truly represented without a discussion of all other factors such as its botanical and ecological characteristics.

Juagilla or Fairy duster: This plant is a perennial subshrub, reproducing by seed. It has multiple woody low lying stems. It can be propagated by cuttings or bare root also, which may offer a management opportunity on slopes with erosion concerns. This plant does not do well in temperatures below freezing and prefers full sun. Lifespan appears to be at least two decades. A palatable forage for livestock and wildlife that is very drought tolerant and grazing tolerant.

Western Honey Mesquite – Primary location is along a shallow upland drainage (2 to 12” depth). Several branches appear to be dead; however, the plants are only dormant. Some branches on these trees have not yet sprouted leaves, others display full leaves. Those nearest the shallow drainage appear to have an earlier growth cycle. One tree sets in the upland area near the center of the plot. This tree appears to be dying, with a mature trunk, 13” diameter, brittle branches, with remaining branches broke off short. Branches likely removed by recreationists.

Annual Forbs:
Primary dominant plants identified, in order of relative abundance:
1. Bristly hidden flower
2. Indian plantain
3. Filaree (Bull and Redstem)
4. Red brome
5. Annual grasses
6. Bindweed
7. Yellow fiddleneck
8. Fluff grass
9. Snakeyes

Conclusions based on review of various agency environmental documents:

1. Many agency land management documents lead the reader to believe that most of the plant communities in central Arizona within the Tonto National Forest are in very poor condition. We believe that the term ‘condition’ must be appropriately clarified, as our observations revealed very diverse ecological systems with 100’s of plant species. Most environmental assessments do not collectively address the entire plant community nor the differences of plant growth between seasons and years within a site evaluated. Many documents used for environmental assessment have limited ‘on-site’ data to support conclusions.

2. Multiple photos of specific scenes are necessary to illustrate the significant differences the eye can observe in landscape, moderately close, and close-up views. The importance of this becomes apparent with the discrepancies in monitoring the same sight by different individuals. If one person takes the time, all day for example, to walk through a sight, taking the time to collect or observe more details about a plant community and the soils, etc. the final report will be very different than one who simply rides or drives through a site, spending only a few minutes to look as they go along.

This is a sample of our Field Notes, Observations, and Perspectives. Please check back as we will be downloading additional notes at these links:

Dagger Ranch
Dutchwoman Allotment
Hat Ranch
Dutchwoman Allotment
DC Cattle Company
Coolidge Parker Allotments
Rafter Cross Ranch
Campaign-BarVBar Allotments
X4 Ranch
Sedow Allotment

Natural Environment Society Southwest

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