If there is a singular force of nature that defines March in the Sky Islands, then it must be wind. Anyone who has literally weathered the local vagaries of March’s meteorology knows the mercurial nature of both this month’s temperatures and winds.
On March 20, winter turns to spring during the vernal equinox. This month seems, then, like a mortal combat between seasons, as spring tries to subdue winter and wrest the weather from its cold grip. As temperatures vacillate between sometimes frosty nights and occasional 80 degree days, fierce winds are generated that both challenge the very fabric of biodiversity, but which also are vital to, and support it.
“Wind that howls,
wind that roars,
shutter the windows,
bolt the doors,
earth destroyed, earth
The name “March” is derived from “Mars,” the Roman god of war, possibly because the change to spring’s more temperate climate in the Roman kingdom may have favored battle more often than the gloom of winter.
Locally, the natural world has much afoot in this often schizophrenic month. Perhaps the most palpable effect of March wind is its ability to destroy. Trees may be blown down, entire shrubs cast aloft, and soil rent from the Earth. Both severe gusts and sustained winds can effect these dramatic changes which, on face value, seem only detrimental to our biodiversity. Indeed, soil loss from overgrazing and poor agricultural practices is now an endemic and chronic environmental crisis that plagues us each year. Highway shutdowns and associated fatal accidents are stark reminders that protecting our soil is crucial not only for safeguarding our biodiversity, but also to our own life and limbs.
Every coin has two sides, however. Soil lost from one area may fertilize another, like an airborne spice of nutrients. The sands of the Sahara sometimes fertilize the distant Amazon Basin thanks to wind! On April 12, 2001, a huge dust storm from China and Mongolia descended upon Arizona, bringing such “manna from heaven” to our local ecosystems. Similarly, fallen trees provide runs for rodents and cover for a wide range of wildlife. Yesterday’s destruction is today’s boon.
Lost hats, which March must lead the league in, attest to the wind’s ability as a transport mechanism. Thus, a host of plants and plant parts have evolved to hitch a ride on substantial gusts. Wind is a highly effective and consistent method for the delivery of pollen, and a wide range of plants, from trees to wildflowers, rely upon gusts to cross-fertilize the next generation of plants. Junipers, mulberries, and ashes are among our wind-pollinated species that may flower in March. Ask anyone who suffers from allergies, and I am certain that March is one of their least favorite months!
Molded by millennia of natural selection, some seeds are primarily dispersed by wind. Seeds in the aster family rely heavily upon this mode of propagation. Many have a seed with a parachute-like set of filaments that serve to carry them skyward. The aptly named “silver puffs” uses its reflective chutes to catch the wind and land away from its parent plant. Fremont cottonwood likewise employs breezes for casting its seeds near and far.
Non-native tumbleweeds attest to the fact that Arizona has no monopoly on wind. These natives of the steppes of Asia may become completely airborne or en masse travel across the parched earth in a windy March, thus dispersing their seeds.
Many species of birds migrate at night, navigating by the stars, but also avoiding vexing daytime winds. Generally nocturnal gusts are more minimal and thus equate to a substantial energy savings to the birds. Further, airborne predators, such as hawks and falcons, may use winds to their advantage during their predatory swoops. All the more reason to avoid the perils of diurnal gales.
The space limitations for this article do not allow me to chronicle the slew of other natural effects of the wind – grounded butterflies, desiccation of plants parts, the shelter of wind-resistant plants, ravens cavorting on the wind, wildfires fueled by wind, thermoregulation challenges for reptiles, etc.
If our March winds drive you to distraction, take some solace that our breezes are but a prelude for the god of war. When the same systems reach the Great Plains and the southeastern U.S. it’s tornadoes they have to deal with! Our Sky Islands topography helps protect us from tornadoes to some degree.
“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!
“King Lear,” Shakespeare
Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers private birding & biodiversity tours. Visit: www.ravensnatureschool.org