Sunday, June 30, 2013

Wordcloud Sunday

Our final assignment for the Blogathon is to post a “wordcloud” of our recent posts. Here, then, is mine: the last post of the Blogathon. I will still be writing about nature in the Sonoran Desert, but not as often!
Word Cloud Bird
That was actually so much fun I have created a second word cloud, for my writing blog, KL’s Writing Tips. Come check it out sometime!
writing word cloud
Wordclouds created using

Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Tour of My Bird Garden

I have frequently written about my small Bird Garden, which is just across the porch outside my glass office doors. It is a smallish, fenced-off area that was originally a dog run without anything growing except for a sickly juniper tree. Over the years I have transformed it into a lovely and inviting spot for local and occasional migrating birds, as well as rabbits, squirrels, mice and probably other critters. It is always changing, but here are some of the things you can see these days.

rabbit and male quail 5-25-2009 6-30-51 AM 2304x1728Quail block, with cottontail and male Gambel’s quail.

cards feeder bottlebrush 4-11-2013 8-20-42 AM 2475x2414   Cardinal feeder, pomegranates, and

                        Pom CU1 8-30-2011 6-15-59 AM 1107x1095 Garden Buddha


Pom4 8-30-2011 6-17-04 AM 3586x2260My beautiful pomegranate tree in the early dawn.

Feeders and grapefruit 6-26-2013 1-48-19 PM 3616x2712Here you see the suet feeder (left), and the finch feeder (center) over the grapefruit tree.

pond yerba mansa 6-26-2013 1-48-54 PM 2040x1453A nonfunctional turtle fountain guards the algae and yerba mansa in the small pond.

mesquite, saguaro, palo verde 6-26-2013 1-48-37 PM 2854x2577In the back of the garden, I have a young mesquite, and just outside a palo verde and saguaro

shade garden 1 8-4-2010 11-12-23 AM 3616x2712My shade garden, on the porch. The gate opens into the bird garden.

Study in snow with grapefruit 2-20-2013 6-06-36 PM 3616x2712And here is the garden on Feb. 20 of this year, during the Great Tucson Blizzard.

Guest Post: Gardening in the Desert Part II: 5 Ways to Kill Your Favorite Plants

Guest post by Kate Fowler Kelley, educator, novelist, and humor writer

As I explained in yesterday's post, my thumb is more olive drab than vibrant green, but years of trying to keep plants alive in the hot/cold sandy/caliche-ridden desert have produced the following insights:

1. Let go of guilt. Consider my petunias. When I bought my last Tucson house, the raised brick flower bed in the front overflowed with colorful petunias. I expected to enjoy these lovely flowers in perpetuity, but a couple of years later when I put in petunias they promptly wilted. A bad batch, I thought, and tried again. Same result. A consultation with a nursery professional abbot costellowas  as  enlightening as an Abbott and Costello routine:

“When I plant petunias, they just wilt.”

“You got petunia wilt.”

“Um, right, my petunias wilt as soon as I plant them.”

“Yeah, petunia wilt.”

“Ye-es, petunia wilt. Put petunia in dirt, petunia wilt. What I do?”

The expert gave me a pitying look, then enunciated slowly and carefully. “Sounds like you’ve got a soil condition called ‘petunia wilt.’ You plant petunias, they’re gonna wilt.”

“Oh. What do I do?”

“Stop planting petunias.”

2. Beware of free plants. In case you missed all the movies in which prolific plants bring about the destruction of humanity, be warned. The threat is real. If a so-called friend offers you a mint plant, run! Put that thing in the ground, and soon little tendrils will be creeping under your door to strangle you while you sleep. And don’t think free plants are safe just because they’re offered at the church rummage sale. If I had known an alluring succulent was called Mother of Millions, I might have been warned off. Instead I’m engaged in an epic battle to save us all from Mother’s limitless offspring. (You’re welcome.)

carnivore plant

3. Plant at night, preferably between 1:00 and 3:00 am, so the plastic handles on your gardening tools don’t melt into your skin. Tell curious police officers that night planting reduces chloroplastic shock, or that flowers planted under a gibbous moon are more fragrant. Note: Always say ’gibbous.’ People aren’t sure what it means. Also, immediately drop the trowel when ordered. Unless it’s melted to your hand.

4. Accept your limitations. Some plants will never thrive for you, no matter how tenderly you care for them. Three decades after I first encountered them, I gave vincas another try. Hope springs eternal, after all, hand-in-hand with its little friend, delusion. Predictably, our dysfunctional relationship hadn’t changed. The insatiable little water-thirsty things drooped even during a monsoon downpour.


5. Move. I can't say that my gardening disasters led to my decision to move to the Pacific Northwest, but I admit that it's easier to garden when you don't risk third-degree burns just from crossing the yard. Now if only I could get accustomed to my frequent encounters with banana slugs....

Happy trowels.

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Guest Post: Gardening in the Desert Part I

This delightful piece is by educator, novelist, and humor writer Kate Fowler Kelley, who inexplicably moved from hot, sunny Tucson to cool and rainy Seattle three years ago.

I’m not sure why my 1980 move to Tucson prompted a sudden interest in gardening. Perhaps it was because my house, the only rental on Juarez Street, looked forlorn with its barren flower beds and single chinaberry tree in a yellow lawn. I envied my green-thumbed neighbors their attractive yards and sought advice on plants for beginners. “Marigolds,” said one. “Vincas,” said another. I planted both. The combination of orange and fuchsia was startling but it matched the shag carpet.

               marigold vincamarigoldvinca

I soon came to loathe vincas. My neighbor recommended them because “they let you know when they want water”. What she failed to mention was that they want water all the time. Those flowers demanded water like a five-year-old at bedtime. “We wanna drink of water. We’re really thirsty. Pleeeeeze can we have a drink? We won’t ask again, we promise.”

                              wilted plant sun

But soon the leaves would shrivel into pathetic little curls and I’d grab the hose, muttering “All right, but this is the last time today, I mean it.”

My next house was on a freshly-graded lot in northwest Tucson. It needed trees, but under a thin layer of grit lurked caliche, a substance impervious to shovels, digging bars, and pickaxes. If the Colorado River flowed through caliche, the Grand Canyon would be seven inches deep.

I moved on to a 1936 house, where a desolate patch of dirt by the side door offered a blank canvas for my horticultural fantasies. It offered a blank canvas over and over again, as everything planted there died.  wilted plant no sun

I amended and mulched until it should have been fertile as that fabled crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, but it remained a plant graveyard. I finally decided it was atop an ancient cursed compost heap and left it alone.

When I bought my final Tucson home the back yard contained one tree. The front yard had two, but one was dead and my moving truck ran over the other. I banded its split trunk together with panty-hose and it survived to become a favorite nesting site for mockingbirds and cactus wrens.

Mockers new backyard 007Cactus wren on cholla 10-18-2010 8-14-005

Tomorrow: Gardening in the Desert Part II: Tips and Tricks

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Reptile Ramble

One of my favorite docent activities is assisting at Reptile Ramble, the “snake show” that we offer at Tohono Chul Park on Fridays in warm weather. Our two herpetologists and a few lucky docents demonstrate and talk about snakes, lizards, turtles, amphibians (such as frogs) and other local herps. (Herpetology, the study of these creatures, comes from the Greek for “things that creep.”)

Tom and Coachwhip 5-27-2011 10-29-28 AM 3607x1995Tom “Snakeboy” McDonald and coachwhip snake

Arizona is herp heaven. We have around 50 snake species, and are the rattlesnake capital of the US, with 13 species. We also have around 50 lizards, 25 frogs and toads, and one salamander. I have always been interested in snakes, because they have such an unusual lifestyle and anatomy. Many of the organs we have two of, they have only one of (or only one that functions), to save space. Other anatomical adaptations allow most snakes to swallow prey bigger than their heads.

Nightsnake eating zebratail 2 8-6-2012 8-45-54 AM 2131x2567Nightsnake eating zebra-tailed lizardKL and her favorite kingsnake 4-20-2012 10-43-40 AM 3394x2328KL and her favorite kingsnake

The animals we show at the Ramble generally include: gopher snake (called bull snake in some parts of the country); coach whip; mountain kingsnake; common kingsnake (my favorite); long-nosed snake; and rattlesnake, safely displayed behind a small barrier. We also usually show a box turtle, a Sonoran mud turtle, and a Gila monster, the largest (and only venomous) lizard in the United States. Sometimes we also have a Sonoran Toad, an amphibian that lies dormant most of the year, then emerges to mate when the monsoon begins.

gila monster tongue 10-23-2009 2-10-48 PM 2816x2112 Gila monster Sonoran Desert Toad Hopping 9-21-2012 10-43-33 AM 612x406Sonoran Toad

We show our audience how to tell the difference between venomous and nonvenomous snakes, and explain why it's a very good thing to have a king snake or gopher snake in your back yard (they eat pack rats and other undesirable creatures). We also demonstrate why you should not fear rattlesnakes, as long as you respect them and use common sense.

2 rattlesnakes at Ramble 6-3-2011 11-12-47 AM 2120x1471  Two western diamondbacks in our special enclosure

A lot of people are afraid of snakes, but after attending a session with us, many lose their fear and begin to regard snakes with respect and fascination; even awe. I love watching an adult's face turn from revulsion to smiles the first time he or she actually touches a snake.

Ramble Kids

Children love the show, and usually leave with a fascination for reptiles. I like to think that through reptile ramble we have saved the lives of hundreds—maybe thousands--of snakes over the years. Come visit us sometime!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Late June HOT Rove

Longtime readers of this journal know that I frequently write about roving, the docent activity in which I just roam around Tohono Chul Park, interact with visitors, and see what's what. Every rove is different, and there is always something beautiful and/or interesting to see.

Here are some sights I encountered on yesterday's rove, on a morning when it was already nearly ninety degrees by 8 AM and expected to go to the mid 90's or higher by 10, when my shift ended, and 103 or so by afternoon. It was also the 25th straight day of temperatures 100 degrees or higher.

Cereus Grandicostatus 6-24-2013 9-20-35 AM 3616x2712This gorgeous flower is Cereus Grandicostatus, a probable native of South America.

Ant lion holes better 6-24-2013 9-36-28 AM 3616x2712

These depressions in the sand are antlion pits, created by the larval form of the antlion, an insect that preys on ants and other very small insects. The sand in the pit is placed at such an angle that a small creature will plummet through the hole at the bottom, where the voracious larva awaits. For more info on this fascinating duet of death, click here.

Tarantula hawks on milkweed 6-24-2013 9-45-17 AM 2520x1949Two tarantula hawks seemed to be mating on this desert milkweed blossom. Tarantula hawks, which are specialized wasps, prey on tarantulas and other large spiders, and are very common as the monsoon approaches (which is when tarantulas leave their burrows to seek mates).

Pink Rain Lily Best 6-24-2013 9-26-43 AM 2377x2596 Pink Rain Lily, from Southern Mexico

Sonoran spider lilies 2 6-24-2013 9-31-09 AM 2728x2300Sonoran Spider Lilies. Note the orange anthers on these flowers. (I do not know what color the quethtions are.)

No Rove would be complete for me without a new bird’s nest. This is another Bell’s Vireo nest. Myy fellow docents and I watched as both parents fed their chicks.Bell's vireo at nest 6-24-2013 10-04-00 AM 3616x2712The nest appeared to have notepaper attached as part of the design.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Haiku on a Cactus Wren

As part of the 2013 WordCount Blogathon, all participants are to write a haiku, a traditional Japanese poem consisting of exactly 17 syllables and referencing nature, for Day 24. Here is my Sonoran desert-oriented attempt.


Cactus Wren

Cactus wren feasts on

Organpipe fruit;  for now his

Raspy voice is stilled.


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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Name That Bird! Sunday Nature Quiz #2

The Sunday Nature Quiz.  What are the names of these desert birds? (And I mean species names—not  Harry, Gwendolyn, and Marissa).

Bird A:

. Lesser Goldfinch

Bird B:

Gambel's Quail

Bird C:

Gorgeous Costa CU-001

Bird D:

White-winged dove CU 6-27-2011 8-31-41 AM 1901x2105

Bird E:

Curve Billed Thrashers

Bird F:

VerdinCU 2-20-2004 1-21-30 AM 2048x1536


A. Lesser goldfinch

B. Gambel’s Quail

C. Costa’s Hummingbird

D. White-winged dove

E. Curve-billed thrasher

F. Verdin


0-2  You’ve never been to the Sonoran desert, right?

3-4  Not bad—for a snowbird.

5-6  Either you’re a native—or you wish you were.

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Klutzy Dovelet

Note: I intended to finish my series on beginning birding with a roundup of books, binoculars and apps.(The first four posts are: “How I Taught Myself About Desert Birds”“Birdwatcher—Or Birder?”“Your First Bird Walk”. and Improving Your Birding Skills.) I spent about 3 /12 hours gathering information, choosing links and illustrations, and writing. I was nearly finished when I hit the wrong button and the entire post disappeared.

I will try to recreate most of the information in a later post or posts. But for today, I will talk about frustration other than mine: that of a hapless white-winged dovelet, who recently fledged in my carport but does not yet seem to have the knack of how to fly.

White-winged family in carport 5-15-2012 5-16-002

Day before yesterday, I startled the bird, which had been standing at the edge of its flimsy nest, watching its mother and sibling in another part of the carport. The bird flew off its perch—straight up, hitting its head on the carport roof. A little dazed, it flew to the other end of the carport, and again straight up, again hitting its head. I decided to leave so the poor little thing could calm down.

White-winged siblings 5-16-2012 3-12-04 PM 1929x1331Well, they’re kind of ugly, I admit. But also kind of cute.

This morning, the fledgling was back at its post at the edge of the nest when I opened the car door to head for Tohono Chul Park. This time the bird flew out from the nest, heading across the carport rather than straight up. “Aha!” I thought. “It has learned that flying is possible in more than one direction.”

I watched as it flew to the other end of the carport, where there is a trellis with very large spaces between the crossbars—spaces easily big enough for a full-grow bird, let along a tiny fledgling, to pass through. The young bird headed straight for the trellis and smacked head-on into one of the crossbars, then fell behind some cabinets. When I came back later, there was no sign of the poor little thing.

Klutz Dove 6-21-2013 2-17-18 PM 1378x1528

PS: I’m pretty sure this is the same fledgling, now perched on some lumber in the carport. Presumably his mom is feeding him, and who knows? Maybe he will make it.


Improving Your Birding Skills

Note: this is the fourth post in a series on beginning birding. The first three are: “How I Taught Myself About Desert Birds”“Birdwatcher—Or Birder?”; and “Your First Bird Walk”

Once you know the basics, your interest in birds can take you as far as you want to go. In my own case, I progressed from total novice to someone knowledgeable enough to lead bird walks on my own.

My roving buddy at Tohono Chul Park and I started off at about the same level of knowledge, but she began birding several times a week, both on her own and with friends who are expert, and she is now what I would consider an expert birder. (She is modest and would deny this.) She can tell from a bird’s behavior if it is, say, a vireo, though she might not know which one. I feel fortunate that I even know what a vireo is. We sometimes lead bird walks together, and I almost always defer to her superior knowledge.

Bell's vireo nest in olive tree 4-22-2013 9-55-32 AM 3616x2712Bell’s vireo (the only vireo I can identify) feeding its young.

To become as good as my birding buddy, or just to expand your horizons, do all or any of the following.

Take classes. In towns where there is a branch, the Audubon Society offers birding classes for all levels. Check your local Y as well, or a hiking group.

Go birding with other people. If you have friends who know more than you do, you will benefit from their knowledge. If you know more than your friends, YOU will benefit from sharing your knowledge. Be sure to take a bird book or an app, so you can look up the birds you see. Trying to identify an unknown bird with other people is—believe it or not—one of the most fun parts of social birding.

Turtle 3-30-2013 9-49-35 AM 1415x1578.1You never know what you will see on a bird walk. My friends and I encountered this red-eared slider while birding at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson.

Find or form a bird group. Check community bulletin boards, or classified ads. If you can’t find a group, consider starting one yourself. You don’t need to know a lot; just have the desire and interest to learn more about birds.

What about a life list? You may have heard of “life llists,” the number of species of birds that birders have seen in their lifetime of birding. I have never been interested in keeping such close track of the birds I encounter; such detail seems to me too much like collecting stamps. But many people enjoy collecting stamps, and for many birders keeping a continuing list is part of the fun. 

bird listThis is one of several birding diaries you can buy online. Though a simple spiral notebook would work too.

I do make a list of the birds I see on individual outings, whether on my roves at Tohono Chul Park or on bird walks with other people, just for the fun of it. I count the number of species, then throw the list away.


National Audubon Society Tons of information on all aspects of birding, as well as links to local groups.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology An educational site offering plenty of information, including a huge library of bird songs.

Birdzilla Describing itself as the Number One Birding Site on the Internet, this interactive site offers a wealth of information and activities.

Next: books, binocs, and apps.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Your First Bird Walk

Note: this is the third post in a series on beginning birding

You don't ever have to go on an organized bird walk. But if you decide to, you'll find that many organizations all over the country, such as your Parks Department, the Audubon Society or other conservation group, or even a local group of enthusiasts, offer free or low-cost bird walks for bird lovers of all ages. The first bird walks I ever went on were sponsored by a mom-and-pop birding supply store, The Wild Bird Store, here in Tucson.

wildbirdstoreThe Wild Bird store in Tucson, showing some of their many products, most of which are for sale by mail order.

The main thing I remember about my first bird walks is that I was very nervous, because I was such a novice. I was afraid that the leaders or other participants would laugh at me. But instead, they all helped me to learn how to identify birds that I didn't know, and explained how to look for “field marks,” the individual signs that aid in identifying bird species. Field marks include such obvious items as size and color of the beak, overall size, length of tail compared to body, and more detailed markings, such as eye rings, color patches, and stripes, The amount of information really good birders know can be daunting, but birding is not (or should not be) competitive, and you can proceed at your own pace.

bird field marksIllustration of bird’s field marks from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

My first “official” bird walk with the local Audubon Society was even scarier than the first ones with the Wild Bird bunch. These, I thought, were real pro birders, and they would no doubt sneer at my obvious lack of knowledge. This trip was out of town to a local canyon famed for its wide variety of hummingbird species. It was wonderful to see those beautiful birds. Equally wonderful: there was no sneering. In fact, I was surprised to find that I knew more about some hummingbirds than many of the more experienced birders, because of all the time I had spent studying hummers in my yard.

Anna2Anna’s hummingbird in flight

Here are two Do's and one DON'T for your first bird walks:

  1. DON'T be afraid. Birders of all levels of expertise are mostly very nice, generous people (some fanatics are not—but that is true in any endeavor). After all, everyone has to start somewhere.

  2. DO ask questions. Most birders are happy to share their expertise. And you'll be surprised at how many may not have an answer to your question. Even the best birders are occasionally stumped. When I lead bird walks at Tohono Chul Park, I never assume that beginners know anything. Some bird walk leaders may gloss over such very common birds as house sparrows, (the image below is from Wikipedia), to avoid boring more experienced bird watchers, 800px-House_Sparrow_mar08 but I always make sure that my newbies know all the birds we encounter. Learning a common bird is every bit as much an accomplishment as learning a rarity, if you did not know it before.

  3. DO learn at least one new bird on each bird walk, if you can. As you gain more experience, you can try to learn more on each outing, but learning even one or two is doable and a real win.

Next: Improving Your Birding Skills