When held to the biodiversity standards of many other Madrean months, things in November appear dry, dull and lacking in many of the floral and faunal spectacles for which our region is renowned.
This is doubly the case this year, given the sparse monsoon season followed by a lack of precipitation in early to mid-October. Currently the only spots I’ve noticed that have a fair amount of life still thrumming are local floodplains, where monsoon torrents allowed water to penetrate parched soils. One such riff at our Raven’s Nest Nature Sanctuary is currently still verdant and buzzing with wildlife despite the relatively scant activity just outside its bounds.
By now, many of our neotropical migrant birds have flown the coop. Winter’s avian spectacle of waterfowl has generally yet to fully coalesce with duck and crane numbers still swelling. Invertebrate sightings take a downward turn this month, given the dry conditions and cooler temperatures. For the same pair of reasons, amphibians will likely be visibly absent in November, while reptiles, too, mostly take a hiatus. Lacking an abundance of resources, expect mammal populations to begin to attenuate, if not plummet.
Plants begin to greatly diminish in November—leaves come off trees, shrubs, and vines, with vegetation transforming into fuel for would-be wildfires.
Nature seems in full retreat, reminding us not so subtly how fragile our local biodiversity truly is. Hanging by a proverbial thread of fragile precipitation. One step away from desiccated barrenness.
What, then, to look for and marvel at in November, when nature is pared down to its bare essentials? I maintain that it’s this very quality that may prove the greatest lure, as we are afforded an opportunity to focus on the relative little that remains. Revel in this time of waning as much as you might the waxing of life during the more abundant seasons of spring and summer. Rather than admiring a blitzkrieg of life, feast your senses upon the sparse pickings of November.
Birds, though greatly diminished in variety, may draw your attention. Witness the white-crowned sparrow—a common wintering bird. Both adults and juveniles grace our local habitats this month, some having traveled here all the way from their Arctic tundra breeding grounds in Alaska or Canada. An epic journey to ponder, particularly when our own lives may seem too daunting. Perhaps you can track down an early ‘winter rarity’ hidden among the more common birds. Already in October rufous-backed robins from Mexico have crashed the scene, holding promise for a prolonged stay. They are attractive first cousins to our more familiar American robins.
Keep an eye out for dried wildflowers, such as pearly everlasting. Living up to its apt moniker, this member of the aster family not only bedazzles with its frozen-in-time dried inflorescences but also with its aromatic foliage. Touching the sticky leaves releases phytochemicals somewhat reminiscent of curry infused with lavender! Investigating the few green plants still clinging on in November is time well spent.
For a bit of relief from the month’s botanical monotony, head to the mountains for a visit to our Madrean evergreen woodlands. There you can wallow in some greenery, courtesy of our still flourishing drought deciduous oaks, as well as evergreen junipers, pines, and manzanitas. A nice fix of floral verdancy. By night, transfix your gaze onto the glowing white bark of an Arizona sycamore, illuminated by a full moon.
Look for hardy, black tip-up beetles plying the ground with relative impunity. A variety of these tank-like and flightless insects populate the Sky Islands. They amble slowly in plain sight owing to the foul Molotov cocktail of chemicals they can exude from their abdomen upon being molested.
Perhaps the diminished cover of November will afford you a chance to gawk at the antics of a foraging troop of white-nosed coatis—mainly diurnal members of the Procyonidae or raccoon family.
Whatever focus or sheer luck may throw your way this month, send out extra appreciation for the encounter. Our biodiversity seems that much more invaluable when thinned to the bone. With all the human-made changes now being inflicted upon our natural landscapes, now is prime time to realize that the restrictions nature foists each year might well be permanently imposed by our kind. A sort of perpetual November.
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 a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit ravensnatureschool.org