Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Plant sex

mutant barrel 11-26-2009 8-26-01 AM 2304x1728 In my Docent studies I've been trying to learn all the plants in our yard. It's a big yard--nearly an acre--and there are a lot of shrubs, scrubby plants and trees that I can't identify yet. Among the things I can identify are a barrel cactus (fishhook barrel) which actually is crestate (see picture) and a yucca, which I believe is soap-tree yucca, a plant that had great value to the native Americans and the Tohono O'odham. It served as a source of soap, fiber, and basketry. In the spring it has spikes of gorgeous creamy white flowers.

Yucca 2 11-26-2009 8-25-17 AM 1728x2304

Many yuccas are fertilized by a tiny moth that flies (at dusk) from flower to flower, gathering pollen in a little ball that she carries under her head. When she has created a pollen ball BIGGER than her head, she chooses a flower to fertilize. First, she cuts a hole in part of the flower's ovary apparatus and lays her eggs. Then she crawls up the stigma of the flower and deposits her ball of pollen. The pollen fertilizes the flower, and when the moth eggs hatch the larvae have plenty of seeds to eat. But they only eat a few of them, so the yucca is able to reproduce also.

I continue to sleep happily surrounded by lots of roosting quails.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Furry mammals

head on bobcat 11-18-2009 6-15-43 AM 1051x1348 best whole body bobcat 11-18-2009 6-18-27 AM 2028x1494 good head shot 11-18-2009 6-20-35 AM 1031x1129

We had a lecture on mammals in Geezergarten this week, followed by a live demonstration of a captive bobcat by a wildlife rehabilitator. This cat was on leash, and spent a lot of time alternating between eating bits of chicken and growling. Sometimes it looked just like a regular house cat.

The rehabber told us that bobcats cannot be tamed, nor is this one tame. It has possible brain damage, which may be why it’s okay with being exhibited. They will not attack you. They have no feelings for people at all. They are WILD ANIMALS. But they sure are cute!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grisly quail update

Holy maroney! A moment ago I saw movement out in the bird garden—a Cooper’s hawk had trapped a quail in the corner of the fence. Her belly was ripped open. She was struggling. He stood on her for a few minutes. She continued to struggle. He took a firmer gripped, hopped once, and flew off with her in his talons.

Quails, again

Mamma and 9 babies There are a huge number of quails roosting here. I haven’t counted any in a systematic way, but the other evening through the window I watched 13 quails go to roost in the olive tree outside my office window. Some walked up the longer branches and others flew straight up into an overhanging branch.

In the front, several flew into the pyracantha bush (two flew ONTO the pyracantha bush, then settled down into it). And there are the usual handful or more in the dorm tree. Some of them may even be from the brood in this blurred picture from last summer.

It’s a nice, comforting feeling to know that I go to sleep at night nearly surrounded by roosting quails.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Snakes and quails

First, I haven’t done an exact head count, but there are a gazillion quails roosting in the front these days. I have definitely seen some—smaller ones—flying into the pyracantha bush to the right of the front porch as you face it (the dorm tree is on the left). I guess I’ll start thinking of the pyracantha as the dorm annex.

KL Snake CU crop 10-28-2009 6-24-55

Second, just had to post this photo from Geezergarten yesterday. This is a beautiful Common King Snake, the exact type of snake I have around my house, and about the same size as the one (presumably) that shed its skin on my back porch on Sunday.

Some of the other students were afraid of the snakes, so we had lots of practice handling them. Me—I was thrilled. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this snake.

Friday, October 23, 2009

More from Geezergarten

At lunchtime, I took this photo of a very small desert spiny lizard sunning himself. He has such great protective coloration that you may not be able to see him:Where's the lizard 10-21-2009 5-21-05 AM 1817x1340

I also photographed a very calm male Costa’s hummingbird that allowed me to point my camera within a few inches of him:

Gorgeous Costa CU

I also got a photo of a crestate barrel cactus. The crest at the top is the result of a genetic mutation.

Crestate Barrel 10-17-2009 2-22-04 AM 1406x1459

Quick quail update: a cold front blew through two nights ago. Just at sunset I heard a big racket from the front yard and looked out to see about twenty quail  squabbling and chasing each other. Eventually they all started flying into the tree, flying out, flying into the pyracantha bush, flying out. I assume they got it all sorted out, but I didn’t see how and I didn’t get a head count.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Alien abduction

Today in Geezergarten, we got to watch a rattlesnake in the exhibit area. This was a large diamondback that had been caught in the Park and will be let go after it shows off a bit more. Our facilitator kept the snake in line with snake tongs, and you could see it was terrified. It spent almost the whole time (at least half an hour) rattling and alternately trying to escape, striking at the snake tongs, and rising up in a defensive posture as the picture shows:

Alien abduction 10-21-2009 7-32-44 AM 2304x1728 I imagine that this was like an alien abduction to the rattlesnake, surrounded by a dozen giant warm-blooded creatures, repeatedly approached by one of the creatures, and menaced by an instrument that didn’t yield when he struck it. Oh, the tales he’ll have for the other rattlers. And speaking of tails, here’s a close-up showing his, striped, with an impressive set of rattles:

Rattle 10-21-2009 7-27-00 AM 1345x941

Friday, October 16, 2009

Tohono Chul Critters

I have attended presentations about reptiles and a captive Harris Hawk (rehabilitated, but can’t be released to the wild). Here is the hawk, Sueno:

Sueno closeup 10-14-2009 4-56-09 AM 2304x1728 Sueno on Glove 10-14-2009 4-54-35 AM 1099x1659 She is a gorgeous bird.

The snake below is a hognosed snake, the one that plays dead by lying on its back:

Hognosed snake 10-9-2009 3-24-50 AM 2304x1728

…and a coach-whip snake. The coach-whip can grow to be nine feet long, and is fast-moving, with bubble-gum pink coloration:

Coach-whip CU 10-9-2009 3-29-35 AM 711x399

And finally, a molting Gila monster, the only venomous lizard:

Molting Gila Monster 10-9-2009 3-46-09 AM 1603x714

Thursday, October 08, 2009


I’m going back to school. Yesterday was my first day studying to be a docent at Tohono Chul Park (http://www.tohonochulpark.org/gardens.html), a beautiful desert botanical garden near where we live.

The training is very rigorous and time consuming—basically all day Wednesday and a few hours the rest of the week. Yesterday was my first day, and it was so much fun! I learned a few interesting things, including the fact that international taxonomy rules have changed quite a lot since I last studied zoology in the sixties. These days some experts think birds (Aves) should be a subdivision of snakes (Reptilia). I partly like that, since it acknowledges that birds descended from dinosaurs, but I also think it disses birds.

In other news… Sundial 10-7-2009 7-31-07 AM 2304x1728 Cement horned toad 10-7-2009 5-33-31 AM 1575x772 Education garden 10-7-2009 5-34-05 AM 2304x1728 the Docent Emperor told me that the reason I saw no pack rat nests is that they live-trap and kill all packrats they find in the park. I understand, but am a little creeped out.  Above, pictures from gardens near the education center, including a cement horned toad and a very elaborate sundial.

Quick Update

It’s fall! It’s cool! The white wing doves have all gone to Mexico! The baby quails are all grown! My only remaining problem is the nectar-eating bats, which have been draining my hummer feeders nightly. But this morning the two feeders I leave out still had a little fluid in them, so I think the bats are pretty well on their way to Mexico too. Yay!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Autumnal Quail Update

autumn day in the garden 9-22-2009 6-46-39 AM 2304x1728

Today is the first day of Fall, and the temps are peaking in the low to mid nineties, with dry air, so it’s very pleasant. The baby quails are mostly grown up now.  Some families were very successful, and raised ten or more chicks. Some of the chicks have full adult plumage (and look very handsome), while others are still sort of mottled as their adult feathers continue to come in.

The hawk shield has apparently been figured out by at least one hawk; yesterday afternoon I found a big pile of feathers under it. I think the victim was a white wing.

The dorm tree is still open for business. The other day I counted thirteen quail heading for it (I didn’t see them fly in). I also, for the first time, watched from the room behind the tree as two quails flew into the tree. As soon as they reached the branches they disappeared, except for a little movement of leaves.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Monsooner or later

wildclouds 7-25-2009 11-47-21 AM 2223x1578We’ve gotten a few calls from people back east wanting to know what we’re doing about the hurricane. The answer is: thanking the Universe for it. August went down as one of the driest and hottest on record. We did get one major cloudburst here producing over an inch of water in about half an hour, but that was pretty much it for the month.

clouds whitewing2

So now, Hurricane Jimena’s remnants are moving in. Last night the clouds dumped half an inch of rain, which for us is a lot. It’s supposed to rain throughout the weekend. And temps will be below 100. I can’t wait!

Quail update: I just discovered that someone severely pruned the dorm tree behind without my knowledge. I don’t think there’s space for anyone to roost in it now. I’ll try to take a look one of these evenings.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mating vortex!

Better yellow butterfly sex_thumb[1] The monsoon has returned briefly, and this morning it was incredibly humid before dawn. The air was literally filled with small flying bugs as I began my walk. A woman I encountered had taken off her hat and was using it to swat them away from her mouth.

The bugs—flying ants, as we used to call them—were headed for one of several vortices, like very high dust devils, made up entirely of mating bugs. I Googled this and found an excellent description with amazing pictures on the “Tortoise Trails” blog, which is written by a fellow Tucsonan named Pam: Flying Ants. I strongly recommend reading this. In it, Pam explains how these mating vortices form, and what happens to the ants afterward.  (Hint: they couple and fall to the ground still mating; I saw gazillions of them on the ground under one of the big swarms.)

I have no pictures of my own on this, so instead have given you a photo of butterflies getting it on, from last year.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Another close encounter

Snake crop  Of the snake kind, this time. As I came home from walking I saw a teeny-tiny king snake on the steps outside the front porch. He was seven or eight inches long and the diameter of a pencil. When I tried to move him with my walking stick, he coiled and began furiously vibrating his little tail. “I’m a big, scary rattlesnake!” he said.

He slithered up the bricks and under the weather stripping, so I had to open the door and evict him from the porch. He continued to shake his imaginary rattles at me.

According to my reptile book, “some species are excitable when first encountered, and vibrate the tail, hiss, and strike.” I wonder how this trait developed, evolutionarily speaking. My guess is it is a mimicking behavior and maybe does scare some animals into thinking they have met up with a rattlesnake.

Below is a baby king snake from my rose garden, disguised as an irrigation hose; the picture above is of a more mature one I saw on the back porch a couple of summers ago.

Rose snake 5-15-2009 5-26-31 AM 1966x979

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Close encounter of the EWWW! kind

This morning when I picked up my watering can I felt something crawling on my hand and saw, from the corner of my eye, big legs. I yelled and dropped the watering can along with the huge tarantula that had been on it or in it.

Luckily, the spider wasn’t hurt, and I watched it for a while then ran for my camera. It walked fast, but very gently, as if floating. The two front legs, which are probably called something else, reached out ahead of it, as if they were canes, testing the surface. There was something very delicate about the way it maneuvered.

My tarantula 8-12-2009 4-03-00 AM 1035x1118 T walking 8-12-2009 4-03-13 AM 2304x1728

Monday, August 10, 2009

An elephant’s eye

10 ft yellowbells 7-25-2009 11-46-34 AM 2070x1513

My yellowbells are as high as an elephant’s eye. An African elephant. That would be ten feet tall (the elephant is eleven feet). I looked it up.

In other news, the monsoon has gone missing again. It’s supposed to be back for a few days, then go away again. It has the guys at NOAA all flustered. One day last week one of the weatherman posted in the weather discussion: “Strange goings-on.”

No more tragic quail tales. There are  a lot of hummingbirds around. I think they are migrating through. I know it’s at least two months till things get cool, but there is a feel of fall in the air, and the light now has that slanted quality that means summer is ending.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

As the quail turns, continued

 barrelflower1 7-25-2009 11-44-28 AM 2304x1728barrelflowercu 7-25-2009 11-44-44 AM 2304x1728

But first! Barrel cacti are starting to bloom all over the neighborhood.

Quail update: my babies are growing up.  Many of the adorable little fuzzy chicks have grown into gangly teenagers. In the very large families it is a crowded table around the quail block. The chicks still follow their parents, but you can see some of them striking out on their own, particularly when they aren’t ready to stop eating when the rest of the family leaves.

This can have tragic consequences, as my little abandoned chick showed. Yesterday I saw another recently-abandoned chick in the yard outside the French doors. This one was fairly young, and he was running back and forth, clearly looking for something (his family). It was very hot, 107 degrees, and I expect he must have been exhausted. Whenever he saw a quail-sized bird, including doves, he ran toward it. The doves ignored him, the adult quails chased him. He ran over to the pond garden a couple of times, looked around, then returned to the central part of the yard. The last time I saw him, he was being chased and PECKED, by an adult male.

Survival of the fittest. Cruel. I guess the message is, don’t strike out on your own before you are ready. Always obey your parents. If you get left behind, you are doomed.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

R.I.P., Brave Little Quail

Buddha 4-18-2009 8-49-51 AM 913x1574 geranium 4-18-2009 8-50-20 AM 1410x1237

I was going to post—today! about the adolescent quail who was abandoned at some point and has apparently been living on my porch, where he can dart out to the quail block or pond between visits from hostile adult quails. I wasn’t sure where he was roosting—didn’t see any signs, but thought he might have been sleeping in the olive tree, behind the porch.

This morning when I went out to water I found a dead little quail of about the right age lying under the olive tree. There were no obvious signs of what might have killed him. I would have photographed him, but he was already covered in ants.

August is the cruelest month. Today I discovered that the leaf-cutter ants have come out. They stripped ALL the leaves off my climbing rose and are after the pomegranate tree, as well as a few other plants. I’ll have to get up very early tomorrow and find the nests. I wish they would just stick to eating the desert vegetation.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Farewell, monsoon!

Cloud whitewingfly 7-25-2009 11-43-22 AM 2304x1728

According to NOAA, we are about to experience a virtually unprecedented weather phenomenon in which, at the height of the monsoon, the whole southern wind pattern will shut down, the air will dry out, and temps will rise to Junelike highs. This starts tomorrow, and they don’t say when or if the monsoonal flow will return.

It’s been very humid. This is the first year we turned on the a/c at the beginning of the monsoon season (in mid-June this year). I’ve noticed that I have NO connection to the actual weather. No scent of creosote from the rains, no sense of how hot or humid it may be outside. Opening the door and actually going outside is a big surprise, every time. I think I like it better using the swamp cooler, at least in a psychic sense, but must admit that the a/c is more comfortable. [Click on the picture for a closer view of the startled whitewing at the upper left.]

Saturday, July 18, 2009

As the quail turns…

But first—have I mentioned that my pond is infested with bees?

Turtle bee2 7-15-2009 4-05-35 AM 2112x1586

They come to soak themselves, then fly back to the hive, where they act as living cooler pads, standing around while other bees beat their wings, creating a cool, moist breeze. The ones that soak themselves gather on rocks in the pond, and, lately, around the mouth of my spitting turtle. There are hundreds of them.  Click for a really gross closeup.

As for the quail, I think I will quite worrying about them. Despite a few really strong storms, the numbers of chicks seem undiminished. The families literally line up to use the quail block, and they come in waves, with one, two, three, a dozen chicks. After they eat, if there’s no squabbling, they all drink their fill, then wipe both sides of their beaks on rocks. If there’s no territorial squabbling, they then fluff and groom themselves almost like cats.

Monday, July 13, 2009

But first: fishook pincushion cacti are blooming all over the place. These little guys (mammillaria grahamii) are just a couple of inches tall, but they have big, candy-colored pink blooms.
pincushon cu gorgeous 7-10-2006 6-26-16 AM 1238x1049
And now the Darwinian moment: A family of eleven was at the quail block (nine chicks). The parents stopped feeding and looked up, alert, then rushed over to the corner of the garden, where they started frantically scratching and pecking at something. They moved closer to me and I saw they were pecking at a little chick. It must have gotten lost, and been calling for its parents.
The other chicks gathered round while their parents continued to attack the abandoned chick, then the whole family left. The abandoned chick just stood there, looking dazed and confused, but was apparently unhurt because it began to look around, I suppose searching for its family. It pecked a little at the quail block. I was thinking this wouldn't be a bad place to live alone if it could avoid being killed by the adult quails. But then a female adult showed up. They showed no recognition of each other, but after a few moments the female left and the chick followed her, so I guess she was its mother.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


storm dramatic 7-19-2007 12-17-35 AM 2304x1728

The weather service has been forecasting a major heat wave that will dry things out and temporarily stop the monsoon. So I expected no rain yesterday. Around 6 PM the wind picked up, thunder began to roll, and the definition of torrential unspooled itself before our eyes. It was raining so hard you could barely see the cactus in the back of our property. The wind blew all this rain sideways. The backyard quickly turned into a lake.

When it was all over, I checked the rain gauge: over .60 of an inch. Most of it fell in about twenty minutes. The wind blew my pomegranate tree down, but it didn’t break and the roots didn’t come out, so it may be okay. We tied it to the fence with some torn strips of bedsheet. We’ll stake it later.

The only real downside is that yesterday I saw a quail  family with THIRTEEN newly-hatched chicks. I fear they may not have made it through the storm.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Quail update

No pictures—just a quick update. There have been many quail families feeding at the quail block. The largest have about ten chicks, the smallest one. I’m guessing three is about the average.

One family with eight chicks has one that is crippled—its left wing was dragging on the ground when it first appeared as a hatchling. I’ve been watching, expecting it to disappear like the little one-winged chick did last year. But lately, as it grows older, the chick seems to be healing. His wing no longer drags and is starting to look normal. Maybe he will be okay!

On the other hand, that same family left this morning with three chicks still here, feeding on the other side of the quail block. When they noticed they were alone, they finally took off too, but in the wrong direction.

Tohono Chul Cacti

gorgeous saguaro 5-30-2009 4-03-19 PM 1620x2043

Tohono Chul is a prime example of beautiful Sonoran desert vegetation. The gorgeous saguaro above is just off the trail we followed to see the cereus. The white-wing on top of the saguaro is one of many, many species that live in or visit the park. During this trip I also saw an oriole and a nighthawk as well as dozens of normal desert birds.

Many cactus besides cereus bloom at sunset or at night. This is an evening-blooming staghorn cholla:

Evening-blooming staghorn blossoms 5-30-2009 3-53-16 PM 1660x1302

And below, a backlit teddybear cholla and its blossoms:

backlit teddy bear 5-30-2009 3-58-30 PM 1495x1382

Teddy blossoms 5-30-2009 3-59-21 PM 1147x1110

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Quail Mayhem!

Mom   9 screened 6-23-2009 12-18-40 PM 1060x359

I have noticed that adult males will attack straggling chicks. Today I saw something even scarier, though it was preceded by a very cute incident.

There have been a lot of baby quails lately. This morning a family of ten hatchlings showed up. This afternoon, a family of nine hatchlings plus a single mom appeared. I don’t know if it was the same family as this morning. Anyway, the mama started to lead her babies to the quail block, but saw another family there—both parents and three somewhat older chicks. So she led her little band onto my porch, where I was able to take these pictures through the screen.

I didn’t snap it, but when the babies first got to the porch all of them—who must have fed at the quail block previously-- pecked at the brick wall, obviously expecting it to yield yummy seeds.

The mama quail must have been pretty hungry, because she eventually mom   9 close 6-23-2009 12-18-56 PM 756x507 tried to feed by herself, but the papa quail attacked her fiercely, jumping on her and pecking the heck out of her.

The last I saw of her, she was heading off away from the quail block with her tiny chicks following her.

mom   clump 6-23-2009 12-19-03 PM 947x738

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Hum bath 2 CU I water our young mesquite tree with a hose running slowly over a flat rock, to avoid digging a hole in the tree well. The other morning as I did other things around the garden I noticed a female hummer (maybe a Costa?) bathing on the mesquite rock. She laid herself out flat and wriggled around, making sure to get all parts wet. It was adorable. I managed to get a picture of it and another of her in the tree, doing contortions as she groomed herself.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

rabbit and male quail 5-25-2009 6-30-51 AM 2304x1728
The hawk is still around, though not nearly as frequently as before we put the shelter up. The other afternoon it appeared twice. Once, all the doves and quail exploded out from under the shelter about ten seconds before the hawk appeared. The second time, same thing but not everyone got the message. A couple of quail and one rabbit were caught under the pomegranate tree. All three remained absolutely motionless. The hawk looked closely everywhere he could see, but apparently the birds and the rabbit were invisible to him. He flew off and the quail skedaddled, but the rabbit remained there for quite a while.
Above are a male quail and a rabbit that allowed me to photograph them a couple of mornings ago, and below is one of a number of babies that showed up with the daddy quail and his mate. This is the first time quail have actually appeared while I was out on the porch.
baby quail cu 5-25-2009 6-30-44 AM 540x538

Thursday, June 04, 2009

More from Tohono Chul

Dorothy 5-30-2009 4-48-24 PM 2304x1728

The cereus are all over the park, but most of them are along a circular trail (maybe 3/4 of a mile long) that winds through desert hills and washes. The path was illuminated by luminarias, paper bags holding candles.

Many of the cereus have nameplates. The one above is named “Dorothy,” after a former girlfriend of the curator. He said it was not nepotism, as they are named after the person who finds them.

Before the buds fully open, they look like eggs or cotton bolls:


Younger buds look like bumps. I think there may be an immature bud on the end of one of the branches above.

More night blooms:

night-blooms 5-30-2009 5-02-07 PM 2304x1728