What are we looking at?
If you really want to follow our progress then there is probably no more accurate way than to check out our posts on iNaturalist. This is a website we've been using for a while to record some of the critters, plants and other lifeforms we've come across as we're out in the world and each observation shows exactly where we saw it. iNaturalist is something of a social network where all types of folks, from enthusiastic kids just learning about nature to dedicated biologists in every field, can contribute to a massive database of information on species. What started as a Masters project by some students at UC Berkeley has grown into a worldwide resource. It now has a home and some funding after being adopted by the California Academy of Sciences. Anyone can participate and many people have created projects where others can contribute their observations. It's kinda wide open as to how it can be used and over time it will surely become an invaluable record of what's out there and where and how things are changing.
An easy trap that nature lovers, amateur naturalists and especially birders fall into is rote cataloging of sightings; simple checklists of species that bring little depth of knowledge or appreciation. This can definitely be a danger of using iNaturalist. Because you are connected to a huge community of nature observers and each plant or animal on the site has links to extra information, iNaturalist can also be a springboard for getting to know more about the creatures you encounter. Identifying and classifying life on earth has been incredibly valuable to our scientific understanding. This is not without pitfalls though and between the lumpers and the splitters you can find innumerable arguments on the fine points of where one creature ends and another begins. A red-shafted flicker and a yellow-shafted flicker probably don't lose too much sleep over whether or not they are two separate species, especially since they can interbreed either way.
No species can exist is isolation anyway. Sometimes the interconnection between discreetly defined species is so locked that you have to wonder if they should be considered the same life-form. Most trees coexist with specific root fungi and the health of each is contingent on the other. The cells of our own bodies are outnumbered by a huge variety of microorganisms on and inside of us, the vast majority of which are either harmless or beneficial to our well being. A person is never truly alone.
Currently if you click over to my observations you would learn that Rachael and I spent some time in Organ Pipe National Monument. Here I learned of a charming relationship between the Sonoran desert's iconic Saguaro cactus and its fellow trees and shrubs. In order to grow into the unmistakable towering columns they become, Saguaros must first find shelter under an existing plant that can provide some cover until it has grown big enough to weather the extremes. No sooner had I learned this than I quickly noticed that nearly all the Saguaros are nestled in with one of their desert neighbors. A Saguaro can grow up to 50 feet tall and live over 150 years. I saw one stately elder emerging from an old Ironwood. Because this shorter tree grows slowly and can live to 1500 years, it may have sheltered many generations of the of the other's ancestors.