Saturday, June 30, 2012

Quail Update

I haven’t posted a quail update in quite some time, though I am as obsessed with these beautiful birds as ever. A few weeks ago someone at the Park commented that it was a poor quail year, with very few babies. This person does not spend the summer in Tucson. While some broods appear as early as late April, the majority of chicks are hatched once the weather gets really hot (see my comment on quail babies in an earlier post).

This year is a banner year for quail. Families of all sizes, with babies of all ages, are everywhere—in my yard, in my neighborhood, at Tohono Chul Park. Several broods of chicks are already mature looking, though not as large as their parents. Others are recently out of the egg. One interesting group of six are what I think of as teenagers—and they are on their own with no adults. They always hang together, and I haven’t seen them enough to tell if one of them acts as the leader.

This family group with ten very young chicks (I’m guessing no more than a couple of days old) showed up in my back yard bird garden yesterday afternoon. It was VERY hot, so they tried the shade of the porch.


Ten Gambel’s quail chicks and their parents.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Kingsnake heaven

Look who I found on my back porch when I was watering this morning!

Juvenile kingsnake June 2012 6-28-2012 6-09-11 AM 2286x763

                                                        Juvenile Common Kingsnake

This little beauty is about eighteen inches long and has strikingly beautiful markings. He does not, however, like to be watered.

I feel so fortunate—I have Leo, the big kingsnake, in my guest room, and now this little guy hanging out in the backyard, at least for a while. Here’s a video of him trying to escape the photographer. He also sidewinded a little, but I didn’t get it on pixels.

Juvenile kingsnake on back porch, June 28, 2012
Technorati Tags:

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Snake in my Guest Room

On Fridays at Tohono Chul Park, we offer a reptile show, Reptile Ramble, in which two herpetologists talk about and demonstrate a number of local reptiles, assisted by docents. I always feel incredibly fortunate when I get to be one of those docents, because I consider that show one of the most important things we do at the Park. It educates visitors about how to tell one snake from another, and why they shouldn’t fear or harm any snakes, even rattlesnakes.

I also love the show because I have fallen in love with the snake I demonstrate most often, the beautiful, beautiful Common Kingsnake. The snake’s owner is going away for July and August, and this year he asked me if I’d take care of “Leo” (the king) for him while he’s gone. I jumped at the chance, and yesterday Leo moved into our guest room. Here are a couple of pictures of Leo from Reptile Ramble, showing his incredible beauty:

How many fingers  6-24-2011 10-47-26 AM 1480x1777Common Kingsnake and fingers

snakehands 10-15-2010 10-17-17 AM 328x344Leo, performing in the Ramble

And here is Leo’s cage, with just a glimpse of Leo hiding in his little rock cave. I’ve been in to say hello a few times today, and he is no longer retreating the second I show up. Perhaps soon I can get a picture of him more relaxed and stretched out. In a future post I’ll tell you more about this remarkable species.

Aquarium side 6-25-2012 2-14-22 PM 3523x2055

                                                                     Leo’s glass-sided cage

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Bloom Night 2012

Last night was our famous “Bloom Night,” the one night in the year when the Night-blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii)  performs her magic and hundreds of flowers open all at once. It doesn’t start till after sunset, and the flowers blossom all night, to be pollinated by hawkmoths. They open at the same time because they cannot self-pollinate. Apparently they communicate with each other across the desert through some sort of chemical signaling.

At Tohono Chul Park, we have a big “block party” for the whole city on Bloom Night, and hundreds of visitors roam our luminaria-lit trails admiring and photographing the beautiful blossoms.

Last night I was stationed at the back end of our longest desert trail.

Pink sunset at Bloom Night 6-23-2012 7-56-46 PM 3616x2712

                                                           Sunset on the Desert View Trail

When I first got there, Emerald, one of the most spectacular and prolific plants, was just barely beginning to open its tight greenish buds:

Emerald buds 6-23-2012 7-10-18 PM 1902x2276Emerald, with ten green buds

Its companion plant, “Little Sister,” was already about halfway open, showing its lovely pink petals.

Little Sister 6-23-2012 7-09-59 PM 1484x1116

                                         Little Sister, about halfway open

As it got darker, night hawks and bats emerged, chasing insects. By the time it was fully dark, Emerald was more than half open. Emerald 6-23-2012 7-52-05 PM 2286x2465People lined up twenty and thirty deep for a chance to take its picture.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Baby Cooper’s Hawk

Yesterday morning I had a bird tour at the Park. Despite the extreme heat (by tour time in the low nineties, with a high dewpoint), four people showed up and we had a wonderful time, sticking to the shade and checking out the local birds that choose to spend their summer with us.

We were on our way to look at the hawk nest in the riparian area

          Cooper’s hawk nest    Hawk nest 2-29-2012 8-56-25 AM 1927x2690

when a fellow docent, along on the tour for the fun of it, silently pointed to a bird sitting on a branch above the stream. It was one of the baby hawks!

 Baby cooper's hawk 6-22-2012 9-48-28 AM 1810x1698

                                   Baby Cooper’s Hawk at Tohono Chul Park

The picture doesn’t really show how relatively small this little guy is. The photo does show the baby fluffy feathers that haven’t finished molting. To me, it looked a little uncertain as it moved about on the branch, possibly trying to get up the nerve to jump—or fly!—to another one. A little searching revealed a parent hawk nearby, watching over the little one.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Quail Tales

We are now in the heart of dry summer, the time of year when it is blisteringly hot with no clouds anywhere, and the time when the entire desert seems alive with young Gambel’s quail, ranging in age from newly-hatched champagne corks to sparrow-sized teenagers.

I love watching these little guys, and each family group I see adds to my store of information on quail behavior. Several large family groups have visited my backyard bird pond in the last week. The largest group had at least fifteen chicks, but counting them exactly was like trying to count the individual particles in a microscopic view of Brownian motion.

                            cu quailAdult male Gambel’s quail

Quail Tale 1: Yesterday a family with six or seven very young chicks came tumbling into the garden through the chain-link fence. The parents easily crossed the pond, stepping on rocks that stick up out of the water. Most of the chicks easily followed, except for two who, reaching the largest rock in the pond, did a sudden double-take and looked at the vast expanse (maybe three inches)  of water they must cross. They both stood on the rock like little kids on a diving board, clearly getting up their courage to jump. Finally one tried—and fell into the water. It clambered back on the rock, shook itself off, and this time used its wings to assist. Its brother or sister followed soon after.

Quail Tale 2: The other afternoon I saw a group of five teenage quails (about the size of the ones in the video below) in the front yard. There were no adults with them as they pecked at something under the pyracantha bush. A pair of white-winged doves approached, interested in whatever the quails were eating. All of the quails immediately attacked the much-larger doves with their beaks, running at them and eventually driving them off. They acted like a gang of teenage bullies, but I think maybe they are on their own and have to hang tough to survive.

Quail in Sundial Plaza at Tohono Chul Park

Quail Tale 3: This is a video from Tohono Chul Park yesterday morning. These youngsters are what I consider high-school age. They were gathered beneath a seed feeder in the Sundial Plaza. The biggest one, with the comma-shaped topknot, is the father.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Snake Over Troubled Waters

Yesterday in the Park I saw two things I’ve never seen before. The first occurred while I was still in the parking lot. I was just getting out of the car when I saw two white-winged doves very close together on the ground. On closer look, I saw they were a parent dove and a baby dove. The parent was feeding the fledgling, very much the way a female hummingbird feeds her offspring: repeatedly thrusting its beak into the baby’s open mouth, and presumably into its crop. I suppose the parent was feeding its offspring “pigeon’s milk,” which is a nutritious liquid doves and pigeons produce in the crop. (For more information on bird milk, see this fascinating article.) This observation answered a major question for me: do doves care for their babies once they have fledged? I always suspected they did, and now I have seen it with my own eyes!

The second thing I had never seen before occurred in the riparian area of the Park. I had finished with my bird walk and was on the way to Reptile Ramble when a fellow docent pointed out a large gopher snake in the thick undergrowth behind our recirculating stream.

Gopher snake Tohono Chul Park 9-10-2010 8-13-50 AM 2792x842 9-10-2010 8-13-50 AM 2792x842

As we watched, the snake approached a small waterfall, then elevated the front part of its body and formed a bridge to the other side. The rest of his body followed, serpentining and staying dry. I wish I had thought to take a picture, but I was so startled and fascinated I could only watch in amazement.

Finally, this is something I have seen many times, but I’m sure a lot of the people reading this blog have not. Our reptile show usually ends with a discussion and demonstration of a Gila monster. These huge, lumbering lizards are one of only three species of venomous lizards in the world (the others are the Mexican beaded lizard and the Komodo dragon). Gila monsters are interesting in so many ways, and I will do a post on them soon. But for today, I just want to post the short video I took of the demonstration animal walking around the inside of the safety fence, trying to find a way out.

Gila monster, Reptile Ramble at Tohono Chul Park

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Early Morning Beauty at Tohono Chul Park

Yesterday morning I went to the Park early for a bird walk scheduled for 8:30. When I got there I was the only person around. I stood for a while in the central part of the Park, what we call the Sundial Plaza, and just looked, breathing the fresh scents, listening to many birds calling (cardinal, Gambel’s quail, Bell’s vireo, lesser goldfinch, house finch, white-winged dove, cactus wren), feeling the faint breeze on my skin. It was so beautiful, so lush, that tears filled my eyes and I wished that everyone I know could have been there. 

Here are some of the things I saw. I only wish my photos could really capture the incredible beauty.

                                  Sundial Plaza 6-13-2012 8-29-00 AM 3616x2712

This is an overview of the Sundial Plaza, showing the circle with its beautiful flowers, including giant hesperaloe (red yucca), ageratum, and tecoma stans (yellow bells). There were small gray birds on the hesperaloe, probably young verdins.

Here is another shot from deeper inside the sundial plaza, with a shot of one of the two male cardinals who spent a good bit of time chasing each other away; I don’t know who ultimately won.

                                                                                         Cardinal 6-13-2012 8-31-24 AM 2647x2624

On a nearby desert trail, you can see why some early visitors to the desert thought the saguaro had a red flower; these fruits can be seen all over the Park, often with a white-winged dove in attendance.

              Saguaro fruit 6-11-2012 9-13-47 AM 1405x1539

Finally, on another trail, here is one of my favorite mourning dove nests. The mother, who built her nest on TOP of an old cactus wren nest, is raising her second brood of two babies (you can just see the beak of the second baby behind the first). They were totally motionless as I watched, no doubt certain that made them invisible.

                                                         Mourning dove and two babies on cactus wren nest 6-13-2012 9-25-24 AM 3616x2712

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is Anthropomorphism Really a Bad Thing?

I sometimes say that “anthropomorphism is the last refuge of vivisectionists.” Many people--not just scientists--use the term anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to nonhumans) pejoratively,  as an excuse to ridicule and thus minimize the concerns of those of us who have empathy for other creatures. Many also use it to suppress their own natural empathy; to distance themselves from things they do that cause suffering to laboratory or food animals.

I believe that feelings of anthropomorphism are innate and natural.  Even small children recognize that animals have feelings. This belief is often called unscientific, yet if you believe in evolution, how can you maintain that emotions appeared full-blown in humans without first evolving from other animals? It may be sentimental to care about the feelings of animals, but I refuse to view sentiment as a bad thing.

Even the most hardened “rationalist” would agree that animals demonstrably experience fear and pain; but I believe they possess a much broader spectrum of feelings as well. I believe that the higher animals, mammals and birds, experience, in their own way, love,  joy, and wonder. It would not surprise me to learn someday that primitive versions of these feelings exist also in reptiles and fish.

All of this is by way of explaining why I will continue to write about critters in this journal from an anthropomorphic point of view, sometimes putting words in their mouths or beaks. Of course I do not believe these creatures see the world exactly as I do, and in these dialogues I’m often joking. But my joking is based on close observation of what I see the animals doing.

       mom   9 close 6-23-2009 12-18-56 PM 756x507                                                           Baby Quail 5-16-2008 9-58-26 AM 514x357

Take baby Gambel’s quail. They are among my favorites of the desert’s warm-weather creatures. They emerge from the egg ready to roll, and they follow their parents with what can only be described as enthusiasm.These little puffballs rush into new adventures evincing curiosity and excitement about everything they encounter.

Baby quail  hatch in the hottest, driest part of the summer. All the other birds move slowly in the heat, fluttering their throats (gular flutter) and holding their wings out from their bodies to cool down. No matter how hot it gets the baby quails are undaunted, cheerfully following their parents over blisteringly hot rocks in search of food. I imagine an internal dialogue something like this: “It’s so hot here I think I have been born into hell! And it is wonderful! Oh, how lucky I am to be here!”

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Roving in Tohono Chul Park

One of the regular things I do as a docent is “rove” on Monday mornings. In the cool weather, I rove from 8 to 11, and once it gets hot, from 8 to 10. My job is to interact with visitors and be aware of what is going on in the Park. It is a wonderful “job” to have, a way to be out in the beauty of nature and spend time with like-minded people. I thought I’d give you a look at yesterday’s rove, which was fairly typical for this time of year.

I started by walking from the front of the Park to the North Trail, a 1/2 mile trail that meanders through natural Sonoran desert. Along the way I checked out the birds, including a family of Gambel’s quail: parents plus four fairly young chicks. They would not pose for a photograph.

It was already in the eighties as I approached the large sentinel saguaro about halfway down the path:

saguaro 6-4-2012 8-22-40 AM 910x2005 This saguaro has a windowwindow 6-4-2012 8-22-18 AM 3616x2712 through which you can see its ribs and vascular tissue.

While on the trail I also took a look at the night-blooming cereus buds. This picture shows two very ripe buds that will probably open before Bloom Night,  when all the cereus in the Park bloom together (see my post on this amazing event from a couple of years ago).                                                          Cereus 6-4-2012 8-20-20 AM 1198x842    Night-blooming cereus with buds

Leaving the trail, I walked through the behind-the-scenes propagation area, where volunteers prepare plants for sale in our greenhouse, then on to the Desert Living Courtyard, where we have a pond containing Desert Pupfish, an endangered species that we breed in cooperation with AZ Game and Fish. These little fish can reputedly live in water up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit! The males turn fluorescent blue when they are ready to breed.

                                                                      pupfish 6-4-2012 8-35-19 AM 2369x2073Desert pupfish

I stopped by the hawk nest, but was unable to photograph the baby hawks. I also stopped at the Bell’s vireo nest, but the female was not there and hadn’t been seen all morning. I hope she is all right.

I continued to wander around the Park, talking to my fellow docents and our dozen or so visitors, and enjoying the beautiful, beautiful desert and its critters. The next thing I knew it was ten o’clock, ninety degrees, and time to go home.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Hot bird walk in the Park

This morning it was so hot so early (around ninety at 8:30), that I didn’t really expect anyone to show up for my bird walk. But four people did: a young woman and her fourth-grade son, who adores birds and has practically memorized his bird guide, and a middle-aged couple who decided to join us on the spur of the moment.

The Park was so beautiful today, even in the heat. There were lots of desert spiny lizards, and exotic pipevine flowers, and local birds. Cicadas were buzzing, and I said that if someone would catch a cicada I would show them how it makes the noise. Sure enough, the boy caught one. It was furious! Buzzing and making other strange sounds that might have been cicada cursing. I had trouble getting it to hold still long enough to grasp it and turn it over to show the orange tympanum that it vibrates for that distinctive summery sound. cicadaMale cicada from Bing Images

There were two high points to the bird walk: the little Cooper’s hawklets are out of the egg and standing up in the nest. They are too far up to photograph yet, but I could clearly see round fuzzy white heads and big black eyes. And in the fig tree in the ethno garden, we saw  a BEAUTIFUL Bell’s vireo nest with the mother sitting in it. What an intricate, beautifully-woven and decorated structure!Bell's vireo nest Tohono Chul Park 6-1-2012 9-20-57 AM 3616x2712

Bell’s vireo nest, Tohono Chul Park