Monday, December 23, 2013

Pre-Christmas Rove with Diamonds and Birds

I have written frequently about Roving, which is among my favorite things to do as a Tohono Chul Park docent. Now that it’s winter, we have very chilly mornings, warming quickly to lovely cool and clear sunny days.

Good morning, pre-Christmas 4-22-2013 12-00-09 PM 4596x2547

This morning it was actually cold—in the high thirties when we started--so my roving buddy and I went for a brisk walk on the Desert View Trail to warm up. It was so incredibly beautiful, I wish everyone reading this could have been with us. The air was so crisp and fresh! And all the plants, especially the creosote, held droplets of dew that sparkled like diamonds. These photos will only give you a pale inkling of how beautiful it was in real life.

Sparkles 2 4-27-2013 1-13-53 PM 1102x1509Sparkles 3 4-27-2013 1-13-16 PM 1355x2194

Along the trail, and later in the Park we saw lots and lots of birds, all of whom seemed to be enjoying the beautiful morning too as they warmed themselves by basking or chasing each other. We saw a few rarities, and got great looks at some of the more common birds, like this Abert’s Towhee, which was hanging out by a finch feeder.

Abert's Towhee cold day 4-27-2013 2-11-16 PM 2705x2135

Here is a list of the 21 species of birds we saw either in the Park or over it: Harris’ hawk; red-tailed hawk; lesser goldfinch; house finch; phainopepla, verdin, Costa’s hummingbird; cactus wren; Gila woodpecker; northern mockingbird; cardinal; curve-billed thrasher; Gambel’s quail; Abert’s towhee; rock wren; house sparrow; hermit thrush; spotted towhee; and Anna’s hummingbird. There are many other birds that are usually in the Park that we didn’t see.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Palm Canyon in the Park

It has been a long time since I’ve blogged here; I’ve been busy with docent class at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I’ve also continued my docent activities at Tohono Chul Park. In the future I will be blogging about both places, as well as local and far-flung birding venues.

It is winter in the desert now. We have had two light freezes, but for the most part the temperatures have been warm during the day—in the sixties and seventies. The weather service is predicting the possibility of record-breaking temps next week in the eighties! At night it’s usually in the forties but warms up quickly when the sun comes up.

I mentioned in an earlier post that Tohono Chul is changing the entrance to feature plantings from a Palm Canyon, a habitat in the Baja portion of the Sonoran Desert. They have finished and it looks great.

Palm Path 3-2-2013 2-58-34 PM 4608x3456

Palms Euc Lomaki 3-2-2013 2-59-49 PM 4608x3456

Palm stream W 3-2-2013 3-00-17 PM 4608x3456

Palms from Lomaki 3-2-2013 3-01-36 PM 4608x3456

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Autumn Miscellany, Here and There

In most parts of the country, there’s an autumnal nip in the air. Here, we’re grateful for chilly mornings and daytime highs only in the low nineties.

To celebrate the season, here are some recent random photos from Tohono Chul Park and the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

Palm Canyn 10-11-2013 8-23-30 AM 3264x2448

Palm Canyon, the newest “habitat” at Tohono Chul. It’s slated to officially open next week.

Big Boojum 9-17-2013 11-12-24 AM 2442x3174This weird-looking, alien-seeming plant is a boojum tree, from another part of the Sonoran Desert. At the Desert Museum.

Little Boojum 9-17-2013 11-11-12 AM 2442x2835 And a smaller boojum tree, close-up.

Gila Monster Escape 9-13-2013 11-02-06 AM 413x397 Lately at Reptile Ramble, the Gila Monster has been trying to escape.

Inca dove laying egg 10-24-2013 12-35-14 PM 872x1153I wish this were a better photo. It is an inca dove, in the process of laying an egg in the Desert Museum walk-in Aviary. Her poorly-constructed nest was so small that her cloaca hung out over the end of it. I didn’t wait for the inevitable sad moment when the slowly emerging egg finally fell to the ground.

Sunday, October 13, 2013


This morning I noticed that something had been chewing on the leaves of my grapefruit tree, and that there were fresh bird droppings all over it.

bird poop... or 2-15-2013 2-21-39 PM 3312x2076

Then… the bird poop moved. It raised its head. As I drew closer, it stuck its tongue out at me!

orange dog larva 2-15-2013 2-21-19 PM 1574x790

This was something I had read about but never seen: the caterpillar of the Giant Swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the largest butterfly in the United States. Called “orange dogs” because of their larval habit of feeding on citrus leaves, these beautiful butterflies are found throughout the US and Canada, and as far south as Central America.

                         Giant Swallowtail 9-17-2010 9-03-47 AM 322x251

The larva, as you can see if you look closely, has eyes on either side of its head and eye spots on its “forehead.” When alarmed, they evert their osmetereum, a specialized reddish organ that emits a foul odor (though I smelled nothing). It has been speculated that the forked nature of the osmetereum might resemble the tongue of a snake, adding another layer of cryptic protection.

A couple of years ago I saved the life of a newly-pupated Giant Swallowtail. You can read about it here.

Monday, September 30, 2013

50 Shades of Green

The belated monsoonal rains at the beginning of the month led to some of these sights at Tohono Chul Park during this last week of September.

Weird mushrooms 1-12-2013 2-14-26 PM 4608x3456Nobody I spoke to could identify these strange mushrooms growing in one of the wildflower beds. To me, they look like melted fried eggs.

Cereus fruit 1-12-2013 1-46-04 PM 2893x1828Night-blooming cereus fruit are evident on all the desert trails.

Queens on Milkweed1 1-26-2013 2-00-36 PM 3252x3303BButterflies are everywhere—these Queens are enjoying a sip of milkweed nectar.

50 Shades of Green 1-26-2013 1-44-04 PM 4296x2353…and the well-hydrated desert has turned 50 Shades of Green.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

End of Monsoon Confusion

The monsoon has wound down after several last-minute storms at the beginning of the month. Right now most plants are green, and many blooms have sprung up from the unexpected rain. For example, one of my lemon trees is in bloom (it is beautiful, but not very bright).

At Tohono Chul Park, there are flowers and greenery everywhere. Some of the plants, like the palms in our new, still-unfinished Palm Habitat, look a little out of place.

Unfinished Palm habitat 1-9-2013 1-33-35 PM 4519x2725

The kidneywood is in bloom again, and the scent is so heavenly it is worth a trip to the Park just to smell it. (It’s near the front, just behind the Five Seasons Garden.)

Kidneywood and bees 1-9-2013 1-31-23 PM 2770x2990

This caterpillar, which I believe may be a Gulf Fritillary, seemed very confused, evidently assuming the electrical cord he walked round and round on was a vine.

Xmas light caterpillar 1-9-2013 1-22-46 PM 2888x2825


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Late-August Rove

Except for occasional rain, this is a quiet time of year at Tohono Chul Park. Not many visitors, few migrating birds, most snakes keeping to the shade. But there is still beauty everywhere. And sometimes excitement (see this August post from 2011).

One of my favorite fountains in the Park, the Pot Wall, in the Riparian area.

Potwall 6 8-19-2013 9-43-14 AM 3616x2712

And throughout the Park, barrel cactus are blooming, each plant with a different color.

Red barrel 7-29-2013 8-38-15 AM 2567x2448

Yellow barrel 8-19-2013 9-48-56 AM 2595x2509

Pink barrel  8-19-2013 10-03-11 AM 2742x2656

Friday, August 16, 2013

Old-fashioned Monsoon Rain!

Everyone who grew up in Tucson knows that the best time of the year is the monsoon, from roughly the 4th of July to mid-September. Yes, it is hot, most days in the high nineties to 105 or so. But this is also the time of the blessed, lifegiving summer rains, which appear when the prevailing winds shift from westerly to southeasterly.

Hibiscus in the Rain
Monsoon rains are usually heavy, abrupt, often violent, and so welcome. A good monsoonal thunderstorm can drop the temperature by 20-30 degrees in just a few minutes. The air fills with the delicious aroma of Desert In The Rain, which is actually produced by the creosote bush, which releases volatile oils when it becomes wet. The sky sends forth sheets of rain, bolts of lightning, and rumbling thunder. Ah, monsoon. Something to look forward to every year.

My back yard in the rain

Most years, that is. Not this year. This has been a bad monsoon year. My neighborhood had received literally NO storms the entire summer. The most rain we got at one time was a tenth of an inch, in a puny storm that snuck in overnight. Much of the rest of Arizona has been repeatedly drenched. But not us.

Big Mesquite in the Rain
Till late yesterday afternoon. I heard thunder and saw a very small storm in the mountains to the northeast. "It won't rain here," I predicted. But it did. Hard. For over two hours. When it was all over, I had just shy of one inch of rain. I could hear my trees and other plants applauding.

Here's a link to a video of yesterday's storm. Please watch, and especially listen. This is why I and so many other people are lifelong Tucsonans.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Sad Mama Dove

This is a brief followup to yesterday’s post about a gopher snake eating two nestling doves. This morning at the Park I told some fellow docents about what I had observed, and added that I felt very sorry for the mother dove, who seemed paralyzed with grief after the event. One of them assured me that doves don’t have a memory for such things, and that within a few minutes she had probably forgotten the whole thing.

I went back this morning to show a friend the tree and nest. There, sitting on the empty nest, was a mourning dove of the same size as the one I observed yesterday. I’m quite certain it was the same dove, and that she has not yet forgotten the loss of her babies.

Alone on nest 8-10-2013 9-00-24 AM 1636x1387

Lest you accuse me of anthropomorphism, I consider that a compliment. Please see my post “Is Anthropomorphism Really A Bad Thing?”

Friday, August 09, 2013

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

After Reptile Ramble at the Park this morning, I led a lizard walk. It was very hot and there weren’t too many lizards out. On the way to the Riparian Area, we did see something fascinating and horrifying: a large gopher snake in a tree, swallowing a nestling mourning dove. At first, all I saw was the mother dove, below the tree, calling and acting upset. Then I looked up to see a perfect example of a snake opening its mouth wide enough to receive prey bigger than its head. (See this post for a video of a nightsnake eating a large lizard.)
Gopher snake digesting baby dove 8-9-2013 11-00-49 AM 2448x2523   The snake has just swallowed the second baby; the first one can be seen here as a bulge in its body.

Once it had swallowed the baby dove, the snake returned to the nest, which was now empty, then began to slither out of the tree. I believe that it probably ate both of the babies in the nest (there are usually two in a dove nest). The poor mother dove continued to stand below the tree, now unmoving, and I’m sure doing the dove equivalent of weeping for her lost children.
Mother Mourning Dove 8-9-2013 11-10-34 AM 2042x2206
I am emotionally torn here. Anyone reading these posts knows how much I love snakes, and also how much I love birds. My heart breaks for the poor mother dove, who has poured all of her energy into raising these two little replicas of herself, and now they are both gone—in an instant—with nothing she can do.

When I left the area about fifteen minutes later, she was still standing there, looking as if she wouldn’t mind if the snake came back and ate her.

Here is a brief video of the gopher snake leaving the tree. Note the empty dove nest above it.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Quail Update—Climbing the tree to roost

This is a promised followup to my earlier post about the quail family roosting in my olive tree. It was just a few days ago, and I observed that the juveniles in this very large family lined up and climbed the tree via a large sloping branch.

Last night I finally got a video, but the juveniles have grown so much that many of them are flying up to roost. The light is poor here, but you can still see four climbing, and one flying, then climbing.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

BEEP-BEEP! Visit from a Roadrunner

Greater roadrunners are common in the Tucson area. I once saw one crossing the road—at the crosswalk!—at the busy intersection of Grant and Craycroft. We often see them at Tohono Chul Park.
Yesterday afternoon a handsome roadrunner visited my porch, presumably looking for lizards, one of their favorite things to eat. He did not find one, so went on to explore the pond and the quail block. It was hot, and you can see him using the gular flutter, in which a bird rapidly vibrates throat membranes to create evaporation and cool off. (This is the avian equivalent of panting.)
Roadrunners have a variety of odd calls;  none of them sounds like the cartoon character. They are members of the cuckoo family, and their most common call is a percussive “Coo!”, which you can hear near the beginning of this video. The plaintive call just before the roadrunner’s is a white wing dove.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Quiet Rove and Quail Update

It’s hot and humid. There has been enough rain at the Park (though none so far at my house) that everything is growing like crazy. This morning two different people pointed out that “it’s a jungle out there.”  Here are some shots of the lush Sundial area:

Sundial Circle 7-15-2013 10-07-03 AM 3616x2712

Lilies and Torso 7-15-2013 10-06-33 AM 3616x2712The pink flowers are rain lilies. The vaguely obscene-looking white plant is a currently non-blooming African import.

Below is a picture shot through the main gallery window, showing my favorite little grotto with statues of javelina. I saw four real javelina this morning, two adults and two juveniles. They were much bigger than these little representations.

Grotto 7-15-2013 9-43-50 AM 3487x1787

Quail update: There are still several families of quail around the house, eating at my quail block, drinking from the pond, and roosting in our many trees. One family in particular, whom I have mentioned before, has around ten fairly mature offspring (college age). Over the last few weeks I’ve watched them go to roost in the old olive trees on the west side of the house. Some of them fly into the trees, but most line up on one of the trunks, which rises at a slant, and walk up it into the higher branches. The line is not always orderly, and there seems to be a bit of squabbling at the top over who is going to sleep where.

Olive tree 7-15-2013 1-25-25 PM 2448x3264The olive tree roost. The quail mostly climb up the right-most slanting branch.

Also, yesterday afternoon I spotted what seems to be a lone juvenile quail—high school age, a bird version of Youth On Their Own. She (I think it’s a female) was sheltering from the sun under the pyracantha bush in front of the house, but I just saw her again—or a very similar quail of the same age—out by the quail block, all alone but proceeding with confidence as if she is sure what she is doing.

How did she come to be alone? I can guess only that she either lost the rest of her family in some sort of catastrophe, or got left behind at some point. She seems to be doing well, and I hope she makes it through the rest of the summer. 

Monday, July 08, 2013

Morning After Bloom Night 2013

I have written frequently about Bloom Night, the one night during the year when most of the hundreds of night-blooming cereus at Tohono Chul Park bloom in unison. This event can only be predicted at the last minute,though it almost always occurs during the monsoon.

I did not work the event last night, but went to my Rove very early this morning, when the Park had been opened to visitors who had not been able to attend last night. Many of the blossoms were still open, and even those that had closed still had a lovely scent. These are some of the things the visitors and I saw:

N Trail Lums 7-8-2013 7-53-23 AM 2867x1782

Luminarias (paper bags, containing a candle and weighted with sand), marking the trails where the cereus blooms were concentrated

4 pink cer 7-8-2013 8-00-29 AM 1184x2051

Four lovely pink cereus blooms.

Emerald 7-8-2013 8-04-22 AM 1993x1082

Partially closed blooms from Emerald, which still has about ten unopened buds.

2 bright white 7-8-2013 8-12-23 AM 1817x1902

Two amazingly open bright white cereus that had apparently not received the message that it was daytime and already over 90 degrees

PR Cereus 7-8-2013 7-52-00 AM 1697x963

In the center of the Park, a Puerto Rican cereus of a different species, which also (and coincidentally) decided to bloom last night

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.