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.