Tuesday, May 05, 2020


In Greek mythology, Androcles was an escaped slave who made friends with a lion by removing a thorn from the lion's paw. Years later, when the two met in the arena, the lion remembered Androcles' kindness and spared his life.

Last night, I glanced out the front door and saw a Gila monster walking up the front sidewalk, purposefully, as if he were going to an appointment. While I ran for the camera, the Gila monster headed straight for the porch and ensconced himself behind some empty planters. 

I have no problem with Gila monsters, but we receive a lot of deliveries these days, and I didn't want anyone running into him. So I called my friend Ed, a fellow docent from Tohono Chul, with whom I go birding in the neighborhood. Ed is a retired herpetologist, and volunteers to remove unwanted reptiles from neighbors' yards. A few minutes after I called, Ed came over with his snake bucket, tongs, and a snake hook. All he needed was the hook, with which he pinned the Gila monster down, then carefully picked it up with both hands. 

Then Ed noticed that the poor Gila monster had a cholla joint near the base of its tail, and a number of small spines.
Ed told me to go in and get a tweezer, so I got my longest cosmetic tweezer and returned. Then, while he continued to hold the Gila monster, I removed the chunk of cholla and the miscellaneous spines surrounding it. The Gila monster didn't seem to mind, though it was difficult to get the cholla joint out. When that was done, we talked about where to release the Gila monster, and finally decided on the little wash next to my house, where it might be less likely to cross the road. So Ed gently set it down in the wash.
 It immediately began slithering uphill, back toward my house. It walked along the outside of the wall, then disappeared into the oleanders behind the wall (and outside of my yard). 

A passing pair of pedestrians, new to the desert, had watched most of this performance in awe. Ed quickly reassured them that he is a professional herpetologist. "Don't try this at home," I added.

As for Androcles and his lion, I know I will never meet our Gila monster in the arena. But maybe someday reptilian aliens will conquer the earth, and our grateful lizard friend will put in a good word for me and Ed.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

OFFBEAT NATURE NOTES #1: How to tell a Pyrrhuloxia call from a Cardinal call

Those lucky enough to live in the southwestern United States often encounter not only the beautiful northern cardinal, but also the similar-looking pyrrhuloxia, a close cousin of the cardinal that is often found in desert environs.
            Male cardinal                                               Male pyrrhuloxia

These two striking birds differ in many respects: size (cardinal is slightly bigger), overall body color, mask color (black for cardinal, red for pyrrhuloxia), beak color and shape (orange finch-like beak for cardinal, yellow parrot-like beat for pyrrhuloxia). Most folks who watch birds around here quickly learn to distinguish one from the other by appearance, but many, including experienced birders, often cannot reliably distinguish cardinal calls from those of pyrrhuloxias.

I am here to help everyone who has this problem. A few years ago, a good friend and I spent a lot of time birding locally, with special attention to these two birds' main calls. What we noticed, and what has proven to be true in at least nine out of ten instances is this:

The cardinal's main melodic call usually ends with the syllables: "CHEW CHEW CHEW."

The pyrrhuloxia's call usually ends with: "CHEWY CHEWY CHEWY."

 Often, a cardinal will simply call out the "CHEW" note; likewise, a pyrrhuloxia may intone "CHEWY," apropos of nothing.

Check this out yourself. You will most likely be amazed.