Saturday, May 19, 2018


I first met Leo in October, 2009, when I was studying to be a docent at Tohono Chul Park. One of our lessons involved getting to know snakes and becoming comfortable with them. I had always found snakes fascinating, but had never known any up close and personal until the day we were invited to handle Leo, a beautiful common kingsnake. For me, it was love at first touch.
KL and Leo meet for the first time
He was smooth, yet under his skin very muscular as he wrapped himself around my arms and hands. His head was streamlined, shiny, and to me incredibly beautiful, his black nose like patent leather. I watched mesmerized as he flicked his black tongue rapidly in and out, sampling the scents in the air around us.

Leo began his career in “show business” as a very small young snake who crawled into the bedroom of Ed Moll, a retired herpetologist who devoted a great deal of time to educating people of all ages about the marvels of reptiles. Ed was delighted to see Leo, since he hoped to add a kingsnake to his programs. Naming the snake was easy: Leo the king. (Snakes that eat other snakes, such as the king cobra, are often called “kings.” The most common, widespread North American snake with this feeding habit is the beautiful common kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula.)
Ed Moll with his gopher snake, Bruno
At the time Leo and I met, he had been working with Ed for several years in programs for the Tucson Herpetological Society and other venues. Ed and a colleague also conducted Reptile Ramble, a very entertaining weekly program at Tohono Chul Park that educated visitors about a variety of local reptiles, including several snakes, two kinds of turtles, a Gila monster, and occasionally a toad.

In 2010 I became one of the docents privileged to participate in the “Ramble.” My duties included showing exhibits (such as a turtle carapace or snake skeleton) to our audience, and holding and talking briefly about one of the animals. Though I generally only got to participate two or at most three times a month, Reptile Ramble quickly became my favorite activity at the Park. And my favorite snake was always Leo, so much so that I asked to have him as often as possible.
Scenes from the Ramble

All of our snakes were accustomed to being held, talked about, and even touched by visitors. But Leo seemed to me to have a special knack for putting nervous humans at ease. He was always calm, gentle, and cooperative, and those who worked up their courage to touch him often seemed to melt when they found how soft, smooth, and nonthreatening he was. I loved that moment when a person who was previously fearful of snakes suddenly relaxed and smiled. I felt a special affinity with Leo. Holding him was soothing to me, and after a while I felt he recognized me in a very laid-back kind of way.
Though our purpose at Reptile Ramble was serious, the demeanor was often silly, with Ed and his colleague trading quips like a couple of comedians. We docents joined in when and where we could. On days when I was showing Leo, telling visitors that he was the most beautiful snake on the planet, Ed often contradicted me by showing his mountain kingsnake, a cousin of the common king, with bright red, cream, and black stripes. “This,” Ed would tell the audience, “Is real beauty.” “There is a big difference between beauty and gaudiness,” I would scoff in reply. This “argument” almost always involved the audience members, who sometimes even voted on the most beautiful snake. (Thanks to my tireless advocacy, Leo often won.)

In 2012 I was thrilled when Ed asked me to babysit Leo for the summer. Before heading off to Wisconsin, Ed dropped Leo and his terrarium off in my guest room, along with a supply of frozen mice. (See The Snake in My Guestroom. and Feeding a Snake.) I so enjoyed watching Leo and occasionally taking him out to hold. I didn't even mind thawing the frozen mice. There was only one problem: Leo shed his skin a week after I took him, and then again three weeks later. I knew that wasn't normal, so I called Ed, who asked me how much I was feeding his snake. “Two mice every week,” I responded. “Just as you told me.” I could almost see Ed shaking his head in exasperation. “I told you two mice every TWO weeks,” he said. Oops. So Leo went on a diet for a while, then resumed his normal feeding schedule.
Leo relaxing on top of the "cave" in his terrarium
Taking a postprandial soak
Shortly before I left Reptile Ramble, Ed took Leo to the vet for a possible skin problem and discovered that he was harboring an egg! It seems that Leo was a “she.” I never stopped thinking of her as Leo, even though Ed began referring to her as Leonora.

I stopped working Reptile Ramble in 2014, when I began volunteering at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Although in my new docent work I had a weekly opportunity to interpret snakes of various species, including kingsnakes, none of them were like Leo. I still missed him and occasionally visited him in Ed's pantry.

Early in 2018 Ed retired from doing herpetological programs, and found other homes for his animals. He agreed that Leo/Leonora would be an ideal addition to the Interpretive Animal Collection at the Desert Museum, and when the director of the program agreed, I picked up Leo and one of his compadres and drove them out to the Museum. I was excited at the thought of getting to interpret this beautiful, simpatico snake again, and wondered if he would remember me.

Alas, I never saw him again. A few weeks after he went into quarantine for his new job, the snake vet discovered that Leo had advanced kidney cancer, and euthanized him. I still cry when I think about him. He had his own charm and personality, and I will always feel he knew me and approved of my efforts to save the world one snake at a time.

Rest in Peace, sweet, beautiful Leo the Kingsnake.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Doves of Our Lives

White-winged dove season is finally over. There are only a handful of these beautiful birds remaining, and soon they will be gone too, back to Mexico, where they spend the winter. It is always a sad time for me, because I can't know for certain that I will be here to greet them when they return next spring.

Below is a collage I made to celebrate my love affair with doves over the last few years. Most of the photos are of white-wingeds, but there are some mourning doves here too. Some notes on the collage follow.

Upper row shows doves being doves, doing dove things. The fourth photo over, of the long-beaked juvenile white-winged, was an exceptionally clueless dovelet who repeatedly flew into a brick wall in the carport of our previous home. He always seemed okay afterward, and I'm hoping he survived.

The central large photo is a nearly grown mourning dove fledgling who hung out in my private patio for a couple of weeks. I took the photo because I thought he was beautiful. The upper photo to the left of the mourning dove was one of my most-recent white-winged fledglings being fed in the patio by its mother. Adult doves produce a nutritious liquid in their crop (called "pigeon milk"), which they pump into the babies in a procedure that looks like a vicious mugging.
Immediately to the right of the central dove is a male white-winged holding a curved stick in his beak. I spent around an hour one morning watching him and his mate building a nest on the precarious top of a pole. The process was fascinating.

Just to the right of the nest-builder is a very, very special mourning dove who nested in a particular yucca at Tohono Chul for three years. She had the best-made, safest nest I ever saw for a dove. I thought she was a genius. I used to imagine that some day her offspring would take over the Park, producing a race of super-smart doves. But after three years the yucca grew in such a way that it no longer had a perfect nesting spot, and I never knowingly saw her again.
Finally, the small dove in the lower right-hand corner is an Inca dove I photographed in the Walk-in Aviary at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Inca doves were very common when I first moved back to Tucson in the late 1980's, but gradually disappeared from the central part of town and are now seldom seen. They are beautiful, sweet, very small doves with cinnamon-colored underwings and feathers that appear from a distance to be scaled. Nobody knows for sure why they have disappeared, but a common theory is that the very large Cooper's hawk population here has done them in.
If you have questions about any of the other doves in the collage, feel free to ask them in the "comments" below. Every dove has a story.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

St. Francis and the Lizards

We have now lived in our "new" house nearly three years. The yard came with a small statue of St. Francis. Though we are not Christians, I love the idea of a saint who loved animals watching over the critters who come to visit. From our first days here, there has been one or another Spiny Desert lizard that likes to perch on Francis' head. Here are some of my favorites.

Cedric, a fairly large desert spiny, was the first lizard I named. This is his typical perch--on the side, facing west, his tail relaxed and extending down Francis' cowl. Late in that first summer, I found poor Cedric's body lying on the back porch, his beautiful belly colors still glistening. I have no idea what the cause of death might have been.
Cedric was followed by his girlfriend, unnamed. She was somewhat smaller than Cedric and preferred to sit more securely on the top of the head.
A considerably smaller lizard, whom I named Cedric Jr., appeared the following year:

The lizards have come and gone, but never has warm weather passed without at least one "regular" making him- or herself comfortable on the saint's accommodating head.

This year, I've had a special lizard, a very large female I named Heloise. When I first saw her in this pose, I burst out laughing. 
A few days after I took the photo, I noticed that Heloise had lost her tail. That did not stop her from her favorite activity, however, and finally I discovered why St. Francis' head is so popular. In addition to his function as a sunbathing perch, it turns out he is a hunting blind!
With her tail beginning to grow back, Heloise was in her usual spot the other day. I was puzzled, though, because it was cloudy, not suitable for basking. I was just about to change positions so I could get a shot of her tail stub when she very suddenly leaped off St. Francis' head and literally dived into the lantana bush to the west. I saw her wrestling with a large insect, but couldn't tell what sort it was, or if she managed to eat it. Nevertheless, I feel confident that tailless Heloise will continue to thrive in my Francis-blessed back yard.

Monday, March 13, 2017

How is a Snake Like Ginger Rogers?

It was said of  the actress/dancer Ginger Rogers that she could do everything her partner, Fred Astaire, could do--but she did it backwards and in high heels.

It’s sort of the same way with snakes.
Looking at these amazing creatures, you can’t help but notice how different a snake's outer (superficial) body plan is compared to the four- and two-legged creatures we are most familiar with. And yet--at the same time--snakes are in many ways very much like us--they have a brain, a heart, digestive and reproductive organs, and many other similarities, some obvious and some not so (for example, they only have one functioning lung). They can feed and shelter themselves, protect themselves from danger, procreate--in fact, do just about anything a creature with arms and legs can do…

But they do it all without  arms or legs, hands or feet.  How do snakes manage their amazing acts of survival? They do it through a series of anatomical adaptations that allow them to use their mouths in ways we bipeds could only dream of, and their strong, muscular bodies to help manipulate objects. Let’s take a closer look at how some of these amazing adaptations work.
Image from
The best place to start is with the skull. Snake skulls are mobile compared to mammal skulls. Whereas our skulls are solid, with the different parts fused together, the separate parts of a snake's skull are more loosely connected, with ligaments, allowing the bony parts of the skull to move in ways our skulls cannot. For example, Instead of a bony inner ear, snakes (and birds) have an extra bone connecting the lower jaw to the skull, which allows a snake to open its mouth as wide as 180 degrees. This ability helps explain how a snake can swallow something bigger than its head.

Another important difference between us and snakes is that the  two halves of a human’s lower jaw are fused together at the chin. Snakes don’t have a chin; instead, their jaws are connected by a ligament, which allows the two halves to move separately. Snakes’ teeth (not including fangs, which are used to deliver venom in venomous snakes) are small, sharp, and pointed backward--toward the gullet. Thus, when a snake has prey in its mouth, its sharp teeth can hold the object tightly while the snake uses the two sides of its jaws alternately to  “walk” the prey back, through the mouth and toward the gullet. No need for a knife and fork, or even for grasping hands or paws.
The snake’s windpipe has a special extension, the glottis, that allows the snake to breathe while it is swallowing something large. As the meal moves further along, the body begins to expand because of another anatomical feature--or rather, the lack of one. Unlike humans and other mammals, snakes don’t have a breastbone to tie the ribs together in the front of the body, so the ribs can expand as the meal makes its way down the digestive tract.

The below photo, by Carlton King, shows how this all works: it is the last in a series of photos showing a kingsnake devouring a diamondback rattlesnake that was seemingly bigger than the kingsnake!

Snakes have  many other amazing adaptations that allow them to live their slithery lives, and I hope to discuss more of them in future posts. I find snakes awesome in every sense of the word, and I hope this short discussion has helped you begin to feel that way too.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

As the Dove Turns....A Tale of Obsession and Devotion in the Desert

 Friends on social media know that for the last several weeks I've been obsessed with a particular white-winged dove that nests on my private patio above my sliding door. White-winged doves are among my favorite birds for many reasons I have detailed in an earlier post. This particular bird drew my interest more than three weeks ago when nearly all the other neighborhood white-wings returned to Mexico before a storm arrived. I have been thinking of her as Paloma, Spanish for Dove (and for the Holy Spirit). 

I assumed Paloma was waiting for her babies to fledge, but it soon became clear there were no dovelets in the nest, at least none that I could see. Worse, an egg fell to the ground one day and two days later another egg appeared on the edge of the nest, balanced but not being brooded. Doves usually lay two eggs per clutch, and obviously neither of these would hatch. So why was she still up on the ledge?

I speculated that maybe Paloma was too young to realize she was supposed to join her friends in flying to Mexico. Or that she had been abandoned by her mate. Or... Or... really, why was she still sitting on that nest?

Yesterday, I found out why, when Palomita, Paloma's adorable baby, appeared on the ledge, next to the balanced egg. But this produced a new obsession. Where was Paloma herself?
I did not see her for the rest of yesterday afternoon, even late in the day, and she was not on the nest this morning.  

 Had something happened to her, after all the hard work of brooding this sweet baby dovelet? Would I have to find some way to remove the fledgling from the ledge and learn how to feed it?

By late this morning, still no sign of Paloma. And then I happened to walk by one of the glass sliders to the back yard, and there she was on top of the fountain.

I looked through my binoculars to make sure it was the same dove (she has a healing injury next to her right eye). It was almost as if she had landed there, and stayed there, to make sure I would see her and know that she and her baby are safe. Please join me in wishing them well when they begin their perilous journey back to Mexico. 

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Ant Orgy!

The monsoon, which has been hit-or-miss so far this year, was very active the last several days, culminating in choking humidity this morning before dawn. I thought I saw rain falling, and briefly opened the sliding door, but smelled no moisture. When it began to get light, I saw that something indeed was falling: thousands of small insects!  

I have seen these creatures before. They are flying ants--the sexually mature members of a tribe of harvester or leafcutter ants--which form huge, rotating mating vortices up to twenty feet high. They are very like dust devils, made up entirely of mating insects. They are often thick in the neighborhood at the height of the monsoon. This is the first time I have ever seen a mating cloud form directly above my little patio, giving me a front-row seat.

At one point the fallen ants were so thick you could scarcely see the brick floor of the patio.

 My cats stared in disbelief, occasionally batting at an ant that had somehow made it inside the house. These photos give only an approximation of how intense this event was. When it got a little lighter I went out front and took a video of the mating vortex, showing hundreds of insects falling, while others continue to join the swarm and rise into the air.
By later in the morning most of the ants had disappeared. I didn't see anything eating them, but in the past I've seen birds congregate at the bottom of a swarm to feast.

 I found an excellent description of the ant mating swarms, with great closeup photos, on the “Tortoise Trails” blog, which is written by a fellow Tucsonan named Pam: Flying Ants. In it, Pam explains how these mating vortices form, and what happens to the ants afterward.  (Spoiler: they couple and fall to the ground still mating; the males soon die and the females go off to form new colonies. I got an excellent look at this in person this morning, though did not see any of the spent couples sharing a tiny cigarette.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

July Bird Count at Tohono Chul Park

For the last few years I’ve been privileged to take part in official Audubon-sponsored bird counts at Tohono Chul Park. The purpose of the annual Tucson Bird Count (TBC), which takes place each spring, is to document what birds occur on each of over 800 points throughout the Tucson Valley and Saguaro National Parks East and West. Additional, quarterly counts take place in several good birding areas, including Tohono Chul. According to Jennie McFarland, TBC Coordinator, the purpose of the count is not only to learn more about our ever-changing bird population, but to determine how Tucson residents can better share their space with native birds.

At Tohono Chul, the counts are led by a very experienced birder, Jim Hayes, who is retired from the National Science Foundation. At Jim’s invitation, he is joined by three or four Tohono Chul docents who have varying degrees of birding experience.
We begin the count in the eastern parking lot around 5:15 just before the sun comes up, to see/hear owls or other night birds, and to be able to more clearly hear the first dawn songs. Each birding area has six official points, where the group stops and records all birds positively identified. The rules require that the group leader must personally see or hear the birds at the official point. The point counts last five minutes each. Birds seen and heard on the way from one point to another are also recorded (by number and sex, if known). Anything unusual, such as a bird actively building a nest or a rattlesnake, is also noted. The photos in this post are from the midsummer bird count at Tohono Chul, on July 10, 2016.

Point 1.  This point is at the western end of the Park, at the bottom of the Saguaro Discovery Trail. It's a good area for seeing desert birds as well as other wildlife in the wash west of the trail. 

We saw and/or heard a number of typical birds at this point, including: brown-crested flycatcher, cactus wren, Gila woodpecker, house finch, pyrrhuloxia, verdin,  and white-winged dove. 
 On the way to the next counting point we saw a nesting purple martin, in the same saguaro it had used the previous year. (It was sticking its head out of the nest hole, just like the bird in the above photo.) These birds are new to Tohono Chul, having first appeared last year. We knew they were likely to be on or near "their" saguaro, because they'd been seen recently by docents. But we could not note the species in the official point count because the bird couldn’t be seen from the official point, so it was placed on the "supplemental" list. When I asked about the strictness of the rules, I was told that they help make certain that the counts are consistent from year to year.

Point 2.  We picked up a supplemental Lesser goldfinch on the way out of front entrance and to the next official point, in the front parking lot. Sometimes that is where we start the count, and we've been there in the cold dark of a winter morning, where the early birds are already vocalizing. At this point we picked up a few more species (in addition to several we already had), including bronzed cowbird, mourning dove, Abert's towhee, and Bell's vireo, as well as supplemental phainopepla, en route to the next point. When you're on a bird count, you try to identify every bird you see, including distant wire birds, such as this pair of doves:
 We now headed to the next two official points on northeast side of the Park.  On the way we passed a pile of eucalyptus logs, all that remain of the giant tree that shaded the front of the Park for more than forty years, serving as a home to numerous birds, including several Cooper's hawks.
 As we approached the third official counting point, on the Desert View Trail, the sun was just peeking over the Catalina Mountains. 
Points 3 and 4. After  five minutes at the third stop, it was already starting to get hot, so we hurried over to the next point, on the other side of the loop trail, where we were protected by shade, but it was also a bit harder to see birds. 
Points 5 and 6.  We returned to the interior of the Park for the last two official counting points. There were few new species by this time, since it was already too hot for most of the birds (the hummers were still busy drinking nectar--we saw three species overall: Costa's, Anna's, and my favorites, broadbills). We saw more birds than I have mentioned in this report, but I will not enumerate them all except to say that there were approximately 25 species. There was plenty to see besides birds. Tohono Chul is known for its outdoor art, and we saw some new metal sculptures near the fifth point, in the Sundial Plaza:
Heading to our final stop, in the shady Riparian area, we were all hot and tired. On the way we were rewarded with the sight of a supplemental Western diamondback, which didn't move a muscle as the five of us trooped by.
A bush of beautiful morning glories,

A colorful leaf-cutter ant trail,
And the beautiful Texas ranger the ants were dismantling.
We finished the bird count around eight AM, hot and sweaty but satisfied. It is so exhilarating to be out in the desert, even on a hot July day, before dawn. I even love doing bird counts in the winter. Because Jim and usually one or two of the other birders are so experienced, I always learn a lot (for example, this time I learned that the brown-crested flycatcher is most likely to sing his complete, complex song at dawn). I always pick up tips for when I lead my own bird walks at Tohono Chul or the Desert Museum. No matter how many species we "get," there is always the pleasure of seeing and hearing the birds, being with like-minded people on an important purpose, and, at least for the Tohono Chul walk, seeing some of the changes in the ever-changing venue.

For more information on the Tucson Bird Count, as well as ways you can attract birds to your yard, visit the Tucson Audubon Society website.