Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas in the Sonoran Desert

It’s chilly here in the early morning—in the forties—so I have to bundle up for my rove at Tohono Chul Park. Below two cold, Christmasy sights:

6 Doves in an Agave 12-3-2012 8-59-23 AM 2904x2202

We have neither partridges nor pear trees at the Park, so how about six mourning doves in an agave?

As for snow on the ground, we don’t have that either, but on very cold days frost forms along the trails. Here’s a video of frost on a prickly pear skeleton, sublimating into the air as the sun begins to warm the desert floor.

Steaming cactus skeleton

Happy holidays to all my readers!

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Yes, I live in a desert, and no, we don’t have a coastline here in southern AZ. But we are fairly close to the Gulf of California, and we get a lot of shore birds passing through and/or spending the winter right here in Tucson and in other parts of southern Arizona.

If you like ducks (and who doesn’t?) there are a number of places in the Tucson area where you can see them.        

Ducks in Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona

Sweetwater Wetlands, a sewage treatment plant fairly near my home,  does not smell sweet but harbors water birds all year round, and particularly in the cool/cold months. Water birds also frequent Aqua Caliente Park, a beautiful nature preserve in the far eastern part of Tucson, that is fed by natural warm springs. The city of Tucson itself is graced with a number of large city parks with ponds and artificial waterfalls and fountains.

I visited one of these parks, Reid Park, twice in the last ten days. Reid Park, which also has a zoo and a golf course, is in the center of town. Its two large ponds not only attract ducks, they also draw migrating and overwintering waterfowl of many different sorts. Last week, for example, I saw a cormorant, a great blue heron, and a seagull! The park itself is grassy and dominated by large evergreen, palm, and eucalyptus trees, which many of the waterfowl seem happy to perch in.

Here are some of the beautiful birds I saw on my recent visits:

Great Egret neck 10-16-2012 9-26-32 AM 1021x2681                 Great Egret best 10-16-2012 9-26-43 AM 2821x2588

These photos are of a Great Egret that was visiting the pond. I watched it swallow a fairly large fish, which you could follow down that long, slender neck. It’s a gorgeous bird that seems to like to roost in a eucalyptus tree.

Ring-necked duck best 10-25-2012 9-13-58 AM 1608x1158                 Coot 10-25-2012 9-04-23 AM 928x1384

These are two of my favorite ducks, the ring-necked duck on the left, which I like because it is beautiful and because it has a prominent ring on its bill (a much fainter one on its neck); and the coot, which is beautiful shiny black and has blue feet with weird-looking toes, padded for walking on marshy ground. The first time I saw a coot’s feet, I thought they looked like blue crayfish.

Finally, I saw a large, gorgeous bird I had never seen before, a black-crowned night heron, which posed both in a tree and beside the pond:

Black-crowned night heron in tree 10-25-2012 9-10-43 AM 1939x2487             black-crowned night heron on ground 10-25-2012 9-14-57 AM 2403x2257

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mid-October Birding at Tohono Chul Park

Today was a terrific day for a bird walk in the Park: clear blue skies and temps in the low seventies. I was greeted almost as soon as I arrived by white-crowned sparrows, which I had not seen since early spring.

white-crowned's crown 12-20-2010 9-41-10 AM 732x591

In the front of the Park, a rare treat: a cactus wren building a nest in the saguaro at the top of the trail that enters the Park!

                      Saguaro with nest at TCP 10-19-2012 8-49-26 AM 2299x2421

Cactus wrens build messy, football-shaped enclosed nests throughout the year. Nobody knows why they build multiple nests—possibly some of them are decoys. It’s not unusual in any given month to see a cactus wren with nesting material in its beak.

Cactus Wren Building Nest in Saguaro

  This wren repeatedly selected material from either side of the path, flew up into the cactus, added the new nesting materials, arranged them carefully, then flew back to the ground to repeat the process. Here is a brief video showing the bird’s efforts.

Cactus wren building nest in saguaro at Tohono Chul Park, Tucson AZ

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Why do hummingbirds fight?

“Cool it, guys! There’s plenty for everybody!”

Yes, I do talk to my birds, and often exhort the hummers to play nice with one another and stop fighting over the feeders. These fierce little jewels always ignore my advice. I recently read a discussion on a hummingbird mailing list that goes a long way toward explaining this aspect of hum-behavior.

According to Lanny Chambers, a hummingbird expert whose excellent website, Hummingbirds.net, is packed with photos and information on hummingbirds, hummers fight because:

 Anna flying

…they treat feeders essentially the same as flowers. A good patch of wildflowers in the middle of nowhere will provoke chases and battles, as one bird tries to defend the territory against all intruders. So, the real question is, "why are hummingbirds so territorial?"

The answer for adult males in spring is easy: the birds with the best territories attract the most females, and get the most sex. Hens want strong genes for their chicks, and they know where to find them: the nastiest, meanest, most evil-tempered studs will be successfully holding down the most desirable food resources.

Outside of that scenario, each flower contains a tiny amount of nectar, replenished slowly over time. A hummer doesn't want another bird to get the nectar first, since it will have to wait until the flower produces more, so the resource is jealously guarded. I don't think a hummingbird has any concept of unlimited supply, so they defend feeders for the same reason.

There are some occasions on which hummingbirds will share food. I myself have observed this, most often at the end of the day or during a cold snap. A couple of years ago two young male Costa’s hummingbirds uneasily co-guarded my patio feeder, as I described here. But this behavior is very rare.

Costas2 5-25-2011 5-01-54 PM 2447x1044

Nancy L. Newfield of Louisiana, author and hummingbird expert, believes the hummingbirds’ perception of the rarity of nectar is “the crux of the whole matter.Every drop of nectar is regarded as the last drop of food on Earth.  They defend their food source because their very life depends on food.” 

Adds Sheri L. Williamson, another expert, who is author of the indispensable Peterson’s Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America, “It’s all about that limited resource and walking (well, hovering) a very fine line between survival and starvation.”

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Butterfly Sex Notes

Birds do it, bees do it, and butterflies do too. Early fall is butterfly heaven in Tucson, and Tohono Chul Park is jam-packed with many beautiful species of butterflies. 

Here are some beautiful queen butterflies, sampling the delights of ageratum:

             butterflies and ageratum2 great 9-7-2010 8-53-49 AM 3616x2712

The butterflies are males (as evidenced by the black-enclosed white dot on their hindwings), and they are imbibing an alkaloid that will help them produce a pheromone that some references say “aids in mating.” My butterfly app says that the pheromone enables them to “subdue the female,” so you might think of it as a butterfly date drug.

These pipevine swallowtails were caught mating in the top of a palo verde tree:

Pipevine Sex best 9-24-2010 8-40-29 AM 442x339

Two days ago, while on a bird walk, my buddy Sue and I saw a young butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. In this brief video you can see the flashes of color appear:

It was a beautiful Gulf Fritillary,

Gulf fritillary 1 9-10-2010 9-07-02 AM 3616x2712

but we had to move on before it had dried out and pumped up its wings.

The very early life of a butterfly is fraught with peril. See how I rescued one in my earlier post on Butterfly First Aid.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Late September Morning Miscellany

The season is in transition. It’s still hot during the day, but mornings have been beautiful and cool. Today I had a lovely walk, just after moonset…

moonset 9-30-2012 6-13-15 AM 502x545

        Almost-full moon setting behind my bird garden

…during which I saw and/or heard phainopeplas. pyrrhuloxias, curved-billed thrashers, cactus wrens, a pair of verdins, Gambel’s quail, and several house finches.

A couple of days ago at Tohono Chul Park I followed a roadrunner for some distance, hoping to get a quick video. Unfortunately, every time I started the camera he stopped moving, as if he were deliberately trying to thwart me. Here are a couple of still shots he allowed me to take:

RoadrunnerA 9-22-2012 8-32-38 AM 1555x1204

                                                 Roadrunner back 9-22-2012 8-33-46 AM 762x1349 

And below is a really nice wolf spider hole, surrounded by its signature parapet: These holes (with parapets) can be seen to the sides of most trails these days. I have not been able to find out why wolf spiders construct parapets, but have heard that they sit on them to see prey coming down the trail. I doubt this, since I’ve never seen a spider on one. If anyone reading this knows the answer, please leave it in the comments.

Wolf Spider parapet 9-24-2012 9-42-58 AM 2039x2205

Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Sonoran Desert Toad

I have written here several times about Reptile Ramble, the program at Tohono Chul Park in which two herpetologists and a handful of docents talk about and demonstrate live reptiles (snakes, lizards, and turtles mostly).

Yesterday was one of the days when I was privileged to participate in the show. As usual, I got to demonstrate my favorite snake, Leo the Common Kingsnake, whom I babysat for this summer. But I also got to demonstrate a different type of herp, an amphibian: the Sonoran Desert Toad. We don’t usually have a toad, and I had never even held one before.

Toad in Hand 9-21-2012 10-44-10 AM 1251x2015Sonoran Desert Toad

These toads are surprisingly large (the size of a bullfrog). They spend most of the year underground, waiting for the rainy season. From late May through the summer they emerge to mate in temporary rain pools or permanent streams. Their voices when mating are said to sound like a sheep being strangled.

I am wearing gloves in the above photo because the toads exude a toxin from their parotid glands (large, wart-like protruberances behind their mouths). This toxin has psychedelic properties, and was used by Native Americans to bring visions. It is dangerous and even fatal to dogs, however, and any dog that licks or mouths a toad must have its mouth washed out with a hose (from the side) and taken to a veterinarian for treatment.

                                  Sonoran Desert Toad Hopping 9-21-2012 10-43-33 AM 612x406

The most fun thing to me about the Sonoran Desert Toad is its exuberant hopping. We had a few dozen first-graders at the program yesterday, and they screamed and laughed in delight when I set the toad on the ground. It began hopping around, fast and high, no doubt trying to escape. I had a heck of a time re-catching it, but finally did. What an amazing creature it is!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

My nectar bats

For the last several years, nectar bats have drained my hummingbird feeders at night from the end of August through mid-October. I usually leave two or three feeders up for them, then set out fresh feeders for the hummers in the early morning.

I don’t mind doing this, because the two species of nectar bats that work the Tucson valley, the Lesser Long-nosed Bat (Leptonycteris curasoae) and the Mexican Long-tongued Bat (Choeronycteris mexicana) are both imperiled. The “Choero” is threatened, while the “Lepto” is endangered. How could I deny either of them a little sugar water?


Lesser long-nosed bats (“Leptos”), photograph by Ted Fleming

Both species are important to our ecosystem, pollinating agaves and saguaros. Although I have yet to meet one in person, I’ve been assured that these bats, particularly the “lepto,” are very gentle. They are, as you can see above, amazing animals.

Last night, a very knowledgeable graduate student from Toronto set up a recording array on my back porch that will let him track the number of bats (and the species) during the night. Bat array 9-13-2012 6-32-01 AM 1978x2699  He specializes in bat communication—a bat linguist, if you will. He told me that these bats can see well enough to find food on a brightly moonlit night, but that most of their food-finding is done entirely through echolocation. Their “sonar” shows them exactly where the feeders are, down to the tiny feeding holes.

The bats also communicate with each other, which is important since they come to the feeders in large groups. It’s not known what their calls mean, of course, but they are probably something on the order of “Coming in, now!” “Watch out!” “I’m next!”

Lepto 5       lepto3

Lepto blob

Leptos feeding. Note the tiny droplets of nectar.

If you want to know more about these beautiful and important animals, check out the Marana Bat and Hummingbird Feeders Study. The stunning photos of Leptos in this post are by Ted Fleming, one of the coordinators of the Study.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Soggy Rove and Farewell to Leo

It rained gently for the start of my rove yesterday. There were a lot of birds out, including a beautiful, beautiful broad-billed hummingbird (he’s been there about a week). Not much else going on, except I saw an amazing pair of cactus wren nests on the North Trail.

fuzzy cactus wren nest 1 9-10-2012 9-34-41 AM 1797x1910  weird cactus wren nest entrance 9-10-2012 9-35-42 AM 2537x1715

They were amazing because they were covered with what appeared to be fiber-fill. Cactus wrens like to decorate their nests, and will use things like tinsel, yarn, cellophane, even Kleenex. So this wren must have found a pillow somewhere!

After the rove, the owner of Leo (The Snake in my Guest Room)  came over to pick him up. I will miss Leo, for sure. Here are a couple of pictures from his next-to-last day with me.

Leo, coiled 9-7-2012 1-07-20 PM 1497x1407         Leo, cave 9-7-2012 1-05-00 PM 1674x1517

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Monday Miscellany

I love the feeling of living close to nature, here in the foothills and at Tohono Chul Park. Even on days when nothing particularly noteworthy happens, there is always beauty nearby.

For instance, yesterday morning before dawn, I got to see what was left of the Blue Moon, shining very brightly down on our driveway.

Driveway AM blue moon 9-1-2012 6-00-49 AM 2467x2324

While I was on the way to my rove at the Park, I watched a thin, blond coyote carefully look both ways before crossing a busy street.

The Park itself was heavy with humidity and extremely lush, which made seeing birds problematic, though I did catch glimpses of Abert’s towhees, black-tailed gnatcatchers, and surprisingly a Bell’s vireo. While looking for birds, some visitors and I saw these odd tracks along the trail:

 Sticks and sand 9-3-2012 9-22-15 AM 3616x2712

At first we thought they must be termite tunnels—but why would they be on a rocky trail? I decided to open one, and found that it was just a stick—oddly covered with a thin film of sand. This was presumably some phenomenon of wind and rain, but I haven’t heard a good explanation yet. There were several other of these “tracks” on some of the other trails.

Finally, I got to see a Palo Verde tree near the Five Seasons Garden, decked out as if for Christmas…Gourds in palo verde tree 9-3-2012 8-42-41 AM 2418x1865

The hanging balls turned out to be coyote gourds, growing from a long vine. 

Coyote Gourd 9-3-2012 8-43-15 AM 1969x2333

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mantis and Tricho: quick notes

Yesterday afternoon I was looking out the living room window at the beautiful display of red Bird of Paradise, when I noticed an odd green pod hanging from one of the blossoms. A hummingbird flew to the blossom, then took off almost immediately when the pod tried to grab it. I ran outside and saw a huge praying mantis waiting for the hummer to come back. I grabbed it and threw it as hard as I could. Don’t know if I killed it. I didn’t think to photograph it first, but here’s a picture of one of the blossoms:

            Mexican Bird of ParadiseRed Bird of Paradise Blossom

This morning the lone bud on my beautiful trichocereus opened, just until the sun was overhead. So beautiful. The second time this season it’s bloomed.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Late-August Week in the Park

These are the uncomfortable days of late summer—hot but not scorching, and very humid but mostly not rainy. Still, Tohono Chul Park is always a very special place to be.

Tree Tragedy

Monday morning, the big news was that a huge old palo verde tree in the Sundial Plaza—the center of the Park—had broken in half during the night. It was clear that the center of the tree had rotted, and heavy winds had done it in. Our grounds guys cleared most of it away from the path within an hour.

Palo Verde Down 8-20-2012 8-28-45 AM 3616x2712


Friday, I had a bird walk. When it began, the visitors and I noticed a desert spiny lizard behaving oddly inside a ramada. When we got closer, we saw that he was standing by a long line of small red ants (not leaf-cutters), and methodically eating them one by one, bobbing his head as he zapped the ants with his tongue. It looked as if he were playing a video game. I failed to get a photo of this remarkable behavior, but am recording it because I have never seen it before.

Here’s a desert spiny lizard: just imagine him playing Super Mario.

 Desert spiny 4-11-2011 10-43-45 AM 945x825

Birdless Walks

My bird walks on Monday, Friday, and today were pathetic—birders for each of them, but virtually no birds. Too hot, and too much new plant growth to see anything.

But all was not lost. I got to see some of our new sculptures. Here is part of a javelina family group in front of the small pond behind the Exhibit House.

                                                                javelina statues 8-20-2012 9-44-33 AM 3616x2712

Are you Cereus?

And a rare sight this morning: beautiful fruit of the night-blooming cereus.  Our head botanist collects these fruits for their seeds, so I was very lucky to see these before he got to them.

Cereus Fruit 8-25-2012 8-34-47 AM 3616x2712

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Feeding a Snake

Leo, the beautiful kingsnake in my guest room, needs to be fed two mice once every two weeks. His owner, the herpetologist who brings Leo to the reptile show at Tohono Chul Park, feeds him live mice, but correctly assumed I would not want to do that, so he left me a plastic bag of frozen mice. I thaw two out, wait till they reach room temperature, and place them in Leo’s cage. He will not eat in my presence, however.

Here is a video of my attempt to capture the very interesting process by which a snake swallows something larger than its head. I explained this and have a video showing it in a small way in my post on the nightsnake eating a lizard.

Leo sniffing dead mouse

This poorly-lit video still gives you a sense of how terrifying it must be to be a mouse when a snake is approaching. Leo was obviously interested in the mouse, but kept backing off because I was there. I left him alone, and when I came back, the mouse was gone, and Leo had a bulge in his body just above the bulge of the previous mouse.

The next time I checked the cage, Leo was curling up in his water dish. The first time I fed him he soaked for eight hours; this time he was only in there for about three. Leo bathing 7-5-2012 8-22-34 AM 1471x1411






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Monday, August 13, 2012

Long-nosed Snake Rove

I’m having a very snaky month so far, which is wonderful for someone like me who believes that a day without snakes is like a day without sunshine. This morning I was surprised and delighted to see a beautiful long-nosed snake basking in the hot sun on the main path into the Park. It quickly slithered away before I could quite get it in focus. These gorgeous snakes, Rhinocheilus lecontei,  are smallish constrictors who like to eat lizards.

Longnosed snake shadow 8-13-2012 8-04-06 AM 1123x507

That was the only snake I saw (can’t get greedy, after last week’s nightsnake), but I also saw the eerily beautiful flowers of Stapelia, a South African succulent we have growing in one of our ramadas,

Stapelia 8-13-2012 9-23-20 AM 1251x648

…and the lovely flowers of Cereus grandicostatus, a cactus of uncertain origin that twines in a palo verde near the center of the Park.

Grandicostatus g.  8-13-2012 9-02-36 AM 3021x2474

Since I started this post with snakes, I’ll end with a quick update on Leo, the beautiful kingsnake in my guest room. So far, I’ve only taken him out a few times, but it is a privilege to take care of him and observe him. He has shed his skin once in my care and currently looks shiny and healthy. I have to give him back to his owner soon, and I’ll try to post more pictures before I do. 

Monday, August 06, 2012

Another Rove Filled with Surprises

It rained last night, and this morning the Park was hot and steamy for my rove. A lot of the usual birds were out and about (pyrrhuloxia, cactus wren, Abert’s towhee), and I even saw a roadrunner, not uncommon but not that often seen. About a minute after I saw the roadrunner, a jack rabbit bounded down the path in front of me. Unfortunately I was unable to photograph either of these guys. However….

While climbing a short trail, I encountered two visitors who were watching something. When I approached, they told me a snake was eating a lizard, and could I identify the snake? I took a close look at this rather small, tan, blotched snake, and immediately ruled out rattlesnake. Maybe a baby gopher snake? But there was something strange about the markings, and after a few minutes I realized it was likely a nightsnake (Hypsiglena), which, as its name indicates, is supposed to be a nocturnal animal. This was the first one I’d ever seen in the wild.

Nightsnake eating zebratail 1Nightsnake eating zebra tail lizard (Callisaurus)

Googling tells me that the nightsnake is mildly venomous, with rear fangs, and has smooth scales (unlike a gophersnake, which has keeled scales). The nightsnake also has vertical pupils (the gophersnake has round pupils). When I enlarged the picture, it clearly showed the vertical pupils. Here is a brief video of the snake eating the lizard. This is a good illustration of the way a snake can open its mouth and stretch its body to accommodate prey larger than its head. 

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Three very special hummingbirds

In a previous post I talked about the many beautiful hummingbirds that visited the house I lived in before I moved to the Tucson foothills. Of the hundreds of hummers who came to my yard, three stood out as special.


Rufie was a young female Rufous  who showed up in my yard at Thanksgiving one year, weeks after the last migrants had moved through. She seemed to like my yard—perhaps she thought she had reached Mexico—and she stayed through the winter, even though we had a long freeze that made me fear for her life. I got up before the sun for several days to put out fresh nectar for her.

RUFIE CU 12-11-1999 4-39-18 PM 262x295

When she returned the following year and the next, I got in touch with a local ornithologist and bird bander, Bill Calder, who came over to trap and band Rufie. He told me that most likely she was the same one I had seen the previous two years, because it was so unusual for a Rufous to overwinter in Tucson. He said that she might have migrated thousands of miles from wherever she spent the summer. The following year, Rufie returned and Bill confirmed that the band was the one he had placed on her. She came one more year, and then I never saw her again.

“The Ghost”

This hummingbird showed up one day in the spring. When I first saw it I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked like a hummingbird ghost. I called the Audubon Rare Bird line, and two hours later a man showed up from Phoenix to photograph it. It was not an albino, by the way, but “leucistic,” because it did have pigment in its eyes, beak, and feet. It stayed for about a week, then continued on its migration. It never returned to my yard, but I wasn’t surprised because birds with defects in coloring often have other defects as well.



My favorite of all the hummingbirds I’ve ever known, Olivier was a bold and beautiful broad-billed male who lived year-round in my yard for three or four years. He showed very little fear of humans, and projected an attitude that caused a friend of mine to name him after the famous actor.


Monday, July 30, 2012

A mid-Monsoon Rove

I posted about a typical Rove at Tohono Chul park in early June. We are now in the midst of the summer Monsoon season, and it has been very humid—very unlike our usual desert weather. Last night it rained two inches in the Park, and this morning it was like a steamy jungle. A lot of plants appeared  to have grown overnight. There were lots of blooms, and one major change to a familiar landmark.

All the trails were very eroded—when water flows in the desert, it goes where it wants to go.

erosion 7-30-2012 8-48-03 AM 3616x2712 Just off the Saguaro Discovery Trail

Two cacti were blooming—one a saguaro way out of season; the other a fishhook barrel, whose season is just beginning:

July bloom 7-30-2012 8-46-05 AM 3616x2712                           Barrel blooms 7-30-2012 8-49-16 AM 2114x2121

Desert senna was in bloom along all the paths, and passion flowers were beginning on a vine outside the Sonoran Springs Desert garden:

DSCF1939 Passiflora 5 Seasons 7-30-2012 8-59-04 AM 1572x1340

The biggest monsoon change of all was across from the Overlook, where we have a beautiful, huge copper boulder showing oxidation to azurite and malachite.The ground was evidently so saturated that the boulder had settled, and a previous small crack had widened, splitting the boulder nearly in half!

                    Split copper boulder 7-30-2012 8-58-04 AM 2630x2174Copper Boulder

I asked our resident geologist what could have caused such  a split, expecting a technical geological answer, and she said, “Weathering.”

The little female Desert Spiny Lizard who lives in the small crack in the boulder(on the left of the above photo) didn’t seem to mind that her hiding place had become noticeably wider.

Desert Spiny Lizard in crack in Copper BoulderCopper Spiny 7-30-2012 9-22-49 AM 2405x1808