Fall Colors in Arizona

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Looking up at the beautiful aspen trees in Flagstaff, AZ.

I have never really grown up somewhere with four seasons. In Houston and San Antonio, there were really only two seasons: hot + humid and less hot + humid. Now in Phoenix, we have seasons, but it is more of a wet/dry seasonality, with two monsoon seasons a year (summer, winter). And it does actually get consistently cold in Phoenix, unlike what I remember about growing up in Texas, where one week would be in the 40s and the next in the 90s.

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The only “snow day” we had while I was at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. Look at all that snow…..

This is not to say I have never experienced seasons though. Summer I have nailed down quite well at this point…. Spring I have seen too, as every place I have lived does have a spring-like season, in that flowers bloom, animals start becoming active and breeding, and it starts to “warm up” (aka. go from warm to hot). Winter is tricky. Like I said, it does get cold and stay cold in Phoenix (cold for us at least!), but I’ve never had a true snowy winter. There were the occasional bouts of snow in Houston or San Antonio (see picture above), but it would only snow 1/4 inch and be gone the next day. Whenever I went skiing, I saw snow of course, and I have been to Flagstaff, AZ in the winter where I saw plenty of snow, but I have never lived in it. So I have some experiences but much.

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My favorite picture of the San Francisco peaks with snow, near Flagstaff, AZ.

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Mormon Lake frozen over with snow, near Flagstaff, AZ

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Spring in the high elevation meadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, near Lake Tahoe.

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Palo Verde trees turn yellow in the spring, but not because of their leaves – they have yellow flowers.

However, Fall is the season I probably have the least amount of experience with. I’ve lived in places with the occasional tree that would change color, but mostly leaves went brown and did not look pretty. Here in Phoenix, there are not many deciduous trees, so nothing really changes color, but luckily there are plenty of places in Arizona where you can go to see fall colors! It may not be as colorful as New England, but it is still pretty amazing.

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More aspen trees with their beautiful yellow leaves, Flagstaff, AZ.

When Fall approaches, the first places to visit are the high elevation mountains of Arizona. Either Flagstaff or the White Mountains (especially around Greer) are particularly beautiful! You will only see one tree change color, the aspen tree, but it can range from a orangish-yellow to a neon yellow. Aspens are my favorite tree, because regardless of the color of their leaves, their leaves contrast so strikingly against their white bark, which I think is very beautiful. They also grow in strands, so you will get huge bursts of color dotting the landscape. Sometimes when you are hiking in the pine forests, you will find singular trees, which seem like torches lighting up the place. All if it is beautiful, but my favorite is when aspen strands take over large swaths of land and the bright yellow is everywhere.

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Torches amongst the pine trees!

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The color variation in the aspen trees – orangish to neon yellow.

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More beautiful aspens found in the White Mountains of Arizona.

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This is what it looks like when aspen trees take over a landscape – this photos is actually from a mountain range in Utah. Photo credit – Meghan Duell.

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This aspen strand took over a mountain side in the White Mountains of Arizona.

Another excellent place to visit is the riparian areas of the sky islands in Southeast Arizona. I visited Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains one Fall, and there I saw a great diversity of trees change color. My favorite was the Arizona sycamore, which would turn a bright orange that also contrasts beautifully against its white bark.

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A bouquet of colorful trees in Ramsey Canyon (including the Arizona sycamore).

Later into Fall, the lower elevation riparian areas start changing as well. One of my favorite places to go is Oak Creek Canyon, however it is a lot of people’s favorite place, so it will be crowded. Sometimes it is enough to just drive through that canyon during fall, because you really get to see such a diversity of colors as you go from roughly 4000 ft to 7000 ft. You get the Arizona sycamores again, but also many other trees and many other colors. This might be the most color-diverse place I’ve been into Arizona so far.

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The many different riparian trees changing color along Oak Creek.

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Another view of Oak Creek fall colors.

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Some of the color variation found within Oak Creek Canyon.

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A view looking out of Oak Creek Canyon with the red rocks adding to the color variation.

 

I have heard of other places to visit to see fall colors, but I have yet to go there. Prescott is supposed to be a great place to see colors, and I still need to visit the Chiricahua Mountains and Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. The North Rim of the Grant Canyon is supposed to have some beautiful strands of aspen trees as well. If you know of any other good places to visit in Arizona to see Fall colors, please let me know!

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The Evolution of a Graduate Student: from Start to Hummingbirds

It is amazing how time can fly in grad school. It did not seem that long since I last blogged, but here we are a month later. I mostly blame writing an NSF DDIG (a really big graduate student grant), but I also do not always have the best memory….. Anyways, I actually have not gone on many adventures in the past few weeks, but through writing my NSF DDIG, I have  reflected a lot on my path from starting graduate school to where I am now, and so this post is going to be on how I initially became interested in hummingbirds (a weird accident) and how I ended up with my current dissertation work.

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The brilliantly colored Costa’s hummingbird.

For starters, when I arrived at ASU, hummingbirds and iridescent coloration were no where on my radar for potential dissertation topics. I have always been interested in the diversity in animal coloration and questions about why animals use multiple traits to communicate (e.g. song and colorful plumage are both used for communication in many bird species), so my project now definitely still falls in that broad interest. But, I was going to Dr. Kevin McGraw’s lab, a world expert on bird pigment coloration, specifically carotenoid coloration (responsible for many of the reds, yellows, and oranges, such as in house finches or yellow warblers), so I was looking into species that either hard multiple different carotenoid colors, such as the western tanager:

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A western tanager with its red head and yellow body near Lake Tahoe in California.

Or species like the northern cardinal, which use different types of pigments to color themselves (the red is carotenoids while the black face mask is due to melanins).

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A northern cardinal at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, AZ

I had originally given thought to non-pigmented colors to some degree, such as the blue coloration in the painted bunting or varied bunting, which is due to specific arrangements of the nanostructure of their feathers. Overall, it seemed that I was focused on why certain birds/animals have multiple colors. But then everything changed when ASU teamed up with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and offered semester-long fellowships to potentially start up dissertations in the tropics. This was an amazing opportunity, which I immediately jumped on.

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Me in Panama – photo credit: Alex Tran

At first, I wanted to keep the multiple color patches idea and study some of the extremely colorful tropical birds, but I was told that many of the birds I was thinking of studying, such as the golden-hooded tanager (below), were not very common and/or lived in the canopy, which would make things very difficult. So I ended up shifting my question from multiple color patches to multiple signals and studied song and color in an understory bird – the red-throated ant-tanager.

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A golden-hooded tanager in central Panama.

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Red-throated ant-tanager in central Panama

My work in Panama went fairly well for a first field season, but difficulties during that fieldwork were not why I switched to hummingbirds. My switch to hummingbirds came from a combination of watching the many species of hummingbirds feeding and fighting at our hummingbird feeders in Panama and reading a specific paper – Iridescence: a functional perspective – which has come to be one of the most influential papers I have read to date.

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White-necked jacobins and a violet-crowned woodnymph at a feeder in central Panama (don’t mind their creepy eyes, it is from the flash).

And so, I began many thought experiments and discussions with fellow researches to come up with a project involving iridescent coloration using hummingbirds as my model. For a while I was thinking about looking at how hummingbirds might use their coloration to communicate with other species as they fought at feeders, but my idea switched to wanting to study the use of coloration within species and how that might have evolved. And so I returned to the United States with this idea in mind and began working it into a dissertation project with Kevin. Like a good advisor, he challenged me to continue to craft my idea and find gaps in the field to make a novel and exciting dissertation. And around the same time, he introduced me to Dr. Christopher Clark, a new professor at UC Riverside, who studies hummingbird courtship and acoustics. Eventually we visited him at one of his field sites and saw the hummingbirds in action.

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Boyd Deep Canyon – a UC Davis field station near Palm Desert, CA. This is where Chris took Kevin and I to see hummingbirds in action, and where I ended up studying Costa’s hummingbirds with great success.

It was then, when I learned what I could and could not do with these birds and was able to finally craft my dissertation project. I was going to (and am now) studying how hummingbird plumage coloration and courtship displays co-evolved and interact to produce the colors females see as males display!

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A broad-tailed hummingbird at Mt. Lemmon near Tucson, AZ

Another huge influence on my idea developments came from my interactions and amazing discussions with my two former lab mates Dr. Russell (Rusty) Ligon and Dr. Brett Seymoure, who were both studying color communication and sensory ecology. It was a great time for developing my ideas as Rusty was in his 4th year when I started and Brett in his 3rd, so I had a good deal of overlap with them.

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Sadly this is the only picture I could find of the three of us (Rusty, myself, Brett). Sorry for the tiny photo and poor quality! Photo from mcgraw.lab.asu.edu

Now, both Rusty and Brett have graduated, and the lab has changed quite a bit. Most of Kevin’s students are very mechanistically focused (meaning they are interested in studying the physiological or biochemical underpinnings behind behavior and coloration), such as my lab mate Pierce Hutton, who is studying anthropogenic effects on house finch coloration and behavior. This has been great, because it is forcing me to think more like that (I typically think about the functions and evolutionary history of behavior and coloration). I am currently working to integrate mechanistic studies into my current hummingbird work, and this is something I am building with my DDIG proposal (more on that if I get it!).

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Pierce and I up near Payson, AZ, photo credit: Meghan Duell.

So that is now I transitioned from starting grad school to studying the evolution of hummingbird coloration and courtship displays. I hope you enjoyed my story!