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Wild hogs in the desert…

….but not the quadrupedal kind.

One of the main attractions of following the Castle Hotsprings Road through the edge of the Buckhorn Mountains NW of Phoenix is the spring wildflower bloom. This past weekend the succulent plants predominated: Ocotillos were in full swing, and the prickly pear were starting to get the hang of it.

<< one solitary ocotillo bloom leans in close as if to check out the saguaro’s underarms. This one needs a caption, like those dweeby cactus humor books I remember from my childhood. Something like, “Stubble?, umm, I think you missed a spot.” (all photos A. Shock unless noted; click each to enlarge, it’s worth it)

This horizontal Englemann’s pear leaf sprouted buds like shrimp on a plate, instead of just around the top edge (photo E.Shock). >>

It must have been close to peak for the display of Englemann’s hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus englemannii) in explosive, glorious, hot pink bloom. The stems of these spiny succulents are only about a foot tall and their green skin is concealed by both long and short spines, so despite their numbers, the sturdy hedgehog clumps are easily overlooked for most of the year. But their pink-to-magenta flowers are up to three inches across, making flowering cactus stand out on the most brutally exposed slopes of rocky hills and arroyos. <<

They don’t need much of anything to grow or bloom — their preferred medium is stony, desiccated, mineral soil, sometimes in the scant shade of a shrub or larger cactus, sometimes not: they’re happy baking in the full Arizona summer sun, and can thrive in a crack in solid rock that even a rock wren would scorn.>>

<< One hog we found had the hugest flowers I’d ever seen: that’s E‘s man-sized palm for scale, not my girly-paw.

Native solitary bees buzz in and out of the cuplike blooms, sometimes invisible except for waggling stamens deep in the throat of the flowers. Click on the photo below to see a bee-butt poking upward, right next to the apple-green pistil, which hasn’t opened fully into its star-shaped ærial panoply. You can also see the formidable armory of spines on the fleshy, water-hoarding stems. Even javelina are discouraged by them, although I’ve seen otherwise imposing boar javelinas with lips daintily reddened by the petals of the flowers of a “claret cup” hedgehog cactus. This petal-snacking would be considered hog-on-hog predation, except that neither javelina nor hedgehogs are actual pigs.

Posted by Allison on Apr 19th 2011 | Filed in botany,field trips,natural history | Comments (1)

The key is the beak

A while back, I posted the latest Spot the Bird, a shot of a Mexican wetland that contained hard-to-see birds.  It was a tough one.

Here’s the key.  The hidden birds are three Black-bellied whistling ducks, visible in the sea of green only by looking carefully for their bright coral-red bills, a tag of chestnut plumage, and surprisingly, their gray cheeks which stand out more than you’d think.  Enlarge the B&W version of the photo on the left, and look for the color splashes inside the yellow oval.  Two of the ducks are together on the left, and one, the most diffucult to see, is on the far right.

Well, OK, they’re still hard to see. Here’s a color-heightened, tight close-up to help.  Disregard the bright brown clump of leaves in the middle of the field of view.

(Photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jan 21st 2011 | Filed in birding,botany,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (0)

Three small pictures of four small things…

… I missed at first, when outside friday morning shooting passionflowers.

It really irked me to not have my own photo of a Gulf Fritillary to post yesterday, so once the sun was higher, I went out to fetch one, if possible (a photo, that is, not a flutterby). I ended up encountering not only the butterfly, but three other notable things. Here they are, in the order they appeared (be sure to click to enlarge, except the kestrel, which is too blurry to bother, and actually will just get smaller anyway; all photos A.Shock):

A. The Gulf Fritillary, which started it all. The insect is sort of hidden in the negative space between stems and leaves (almost a “Spot the Bird“).  This was the best photo I was able to nab — the name flitirraries would suit them even better, because they never seem to rest. They are Passiflora specialists, and are clearly thrilled that we have four vines in the yard. (Well, six vines actually — this morning I found two small seedlings, thriving about 4 feet away from where their parent plant refused to take.) >>

B. The Echinopsis in bloom (or “Easter Lily cactus”). This one is a cultivar, I don’t know which, since these shade-growing cactus have been living in this yard longer than we have. In my experience, it’s unusual to find its crepuscular flowers still open at noon. <<

C. The Fearsome Predator. >> The neighborhood male American Kestrel, about the size of a Mourning dove, checking out the Dee-licious Finch Bar (the birdfeeders) for lunch. I looked up when I heard a house sparrow give a rough alarm call; the little falcon was just 20 feet away from me, perched on a low wire with a good view of the menu. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of him until he’d swooped up to the top of the corner phone pole because my trigger finger was distracted by D:

D. The Ants that were biting me painfully on the feet. Due to hastily brushing them off and sweeping them out from under my sandal straps in a undignified quick-time version of the Myrmex Dance I did not immortalize their image, although they were just doing their job, Protecting The Nest, which I’d accidentally trodden upon trying to photograph the Echinopsis. Perhaps the Gilded Flicker family who lives here (and who, I think surprisingly late, just fledged a young’un) will be making a visit to the Dee-licious Ant Bar.

Do you suppose the Ant Bar has a Formica countertop?

Bonus etymology: Formica, etc.

According to the archives of “Word of the Day”Greek murmex [is] “an ant,” which also gives us myrmecology “the study of ants” and myrmecophagous “ant-eating.” In Latin the related word for ant was “formica,” from which we have the former Word of the Day “formication,” the sensation of ants crawling under the skin. The proprietary name “Formica” applies to a plastic laminate ultimately derived from formic acid (which comes from ants), but it is also a pun—it was originally developed as an electrical insulator that could be substituted “for mica.”

For the detail-oriented, let me add that Latin formīca is the ancestor of the French and Spanish words for ant, fourmi and hormiga, respectively. The Latin and Greek words formīca and myrmex (μύρμηξ) at first glance may not seem similar to each other, but as neatly summarized by Wikipedia, both are generally accepted to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *morwi- along with a pile of words for ant in other languages: Latin formīca, Iranian /moirbant, Avar maoiri, Sanskrit वम्र (vamra), Greek μύρμηξ (murmēks)/μυρμήγκι (mirmigi), Old Norse maurr, Crimean Gothic miera, Armenian մրջիւն (mrǰiwn), Polish mrówka, Albanian morr, Persian /murče, Old Church Slavonic mravie, Russian муравей (muravej), Tocharian /warme, Kurdish Mérú, Breton merien.

Posted by Allison on Oct 16th 2010 | Filed in birds,botany,close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,natural history,yard list | Comments (1)

Spot the bird: Lesser goldfinch fressing

We planted sunflowers in the garden for the goldfinch; it seems to have worked.

Now that the flower heads are mature and seedful on the stalks, the bushes are crowded with Lesser goldfinch. There are lots more flowers in bloom, which will keep the hungry finches supplied into the fall or even early winter. The thin stems don’t seem to support the weight of larger birds, so the lil yellow finks have the crop to themselves. The LEGOs (LEsser GOldfinch) also love herb seeds, “Mexican Hat” (Ratibida columnaris) seeds, and the nyjer thistle we hang for them from mesh feeders. They are cling feeders, and often feed hanging head-down.

Here are a couple of photos from this morning of male and female Lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) chowing down on the seeds from the ripe sunflowers. In the top photo is an easy-to-see first-year male, nearly completely molted into his adult male plumage. The picture to the left is a “Spot the Bird” since the little bodies blend in so well, due to both color and size; I counted three goldfinch, two males and a less colorful, olive-y female, but there could be more. I put up a big file, so please enlarge it to see better. (All photos A.Shock)

Lesser goldfinch are the default goldfinch of the western US. If you live east of the 100th parallel (roughly), you’ll have the dapper American goldfinch (called Carduelis tristis on account of its “sad” vocal note), who is slightly larger and yellower and who uses its noticeably pink, conical bill to open seeds. Lawrence’s goldfinch (C. lawrencei, no points for etymology there) is the most uncommon of “our” goldfinches; most of the population lives in arid California grasslands, but they roam a bit, and a few show up in Arizona and other western states most years.


According to Choate’s American Bird Names, the genus Carduelis is derived from the Latin word carduus, thistle, goldfinches’ favorite food the world around. The species name, psaltria, is from the latin word for “lutist” because of its musical singing. They do have a bright, cheery song, lengthy for such a small bird — LEGO is the smallest of the three North American goldfinches — and they chatter delightfully in groups in the palo verde trees after the morning feeding session is finished. If you have a tough time keeping the species name “psaltria” in mind, try this mnemonic: psaltria sounds a bit like (although is totally unrelated to) “paltry”, which means small.

By the way, there is no correlation to bird body size and song duration or (relative) volume; it’s just humorous when a little beak opens up and lets out a long stream of warbly, chatty notes. The Winter wren is another small bird with a mighty song.

The Boss in her office: “checking for lard”

[This is a Spot the Bird, although it’s less of a quiz than a photo series. All photos A or E Shock.  Click to enlarge.]

Here are some feral date palms, growing wild at a substantial oasis in Death Valley, CA.  The date palm is Phoenix dactylifera (“finger-bearing”), but in this case we could call it P. bubifera, “owl-bearing.”  There’s an owl in this palm, although you can’t see it. >>

Owls seem to like roosting in palms.   Every birder the world over checks palms for owls.  Great horned, Barn, Grass, whatever the local species are — if there are owls and palms together in a habitat or region, they are likely to be acquainted.  This is because palms (like pine trees) provide what owls like: concealing, sturdy roosts, and habitat and food source for prey items.  An owl perched hidden in palm fronds has a grand view of scurrying, foraging rodents at its feet — imagine regularly finding dinner on your very own kitchen floor… or, to quote Homer: “Mmmm, Floor Pie!”  (that’s the epic Homer Simpson, not Homer the epic poet).

Spot the bird: In the center of this photo, you can see a vague milky blur on the right edge of the darkest dark: the vermiculation, or fine breast barring, of a Great horned owl, Bubo virginianus. >>

It’s nearly invisible because its distinctive yellow eyes aren’t visible; owls roosting in plain sight will often consider themselves concealed by squinting.  When even one eye is revealed, the bird become easier to spot. <<

I’ve checked a lot of palm trees.  I never find owls in them (although I know others who have), but I keep checking.  This repeated optimistic searching is known in our family as checking for lard. The term was coined after a cat named the Beefweasel found an unattended pile of chopped fat on a windowsill in our St. Louis apartment, waiting to be put outside for winter-hungry titmice and chickadees.  Making good her name, the Beefweasel wolfed down the yummy chunks.  Balancing on her hind legs and sniffing hard, she checked that bountiful window-ledge for years hoping for a fatty repeat.  Birders are well-known to check for lard, too: there was a nut tree in St. Louis that was searched every winter by local birders on field trips because once in a decade past it had hosted an out-of-range Bohemian waxwing.  Among birders, places to check for lard are passed down as oral tradition: I knew about that pecan tree, but the waxwing that made it famous alit there long before my time.

So out of habit and hope, I was checking these particular palms with my binoculars, searching the deepest shadows for Good Feathery Detail (vermiculation).  And there was an owl.

>> The bird never fully unhid; this was the maximum best sighting it allowed.

It was a Great horned owl, tucked in out of the breeze, and not at all worried about us (although we didn’t go very close, being equipped with telephoto lenses and optics — owls are like cats; sometimes you have to respect their invisibility, even if it’s just in their heads).

It’s so delightful to luck into a surprise owl (which, mostly, they are), that we talked about it for the rest of the trip.  We referred to this bird as “the Boss in her Office”, because she reminded me of a boss I once had, who lurked invisible at her desk most of the time.  Although she was hidden from us as we scurried around busily, it was never a good idea to forget she was there…

Two too-hot pear

Says me: few plants are more gratifying than prickly pear cactus, Opuntia spp. At least, if you live in the desert, or any reasonably dry place.

Actually, even in not so dry places: we saw some naturalized in Aoteraroa (New Zealand), which seemed frankly bizarre, knowing how much rain that island gets (see the photo hanging off the very bottom of the post, like how NZ hangs off the bottom of the world).

And there are species that grow in cold-winter climates — like one that used to surprise me every time I saw it in the dry glades of Missouri.  It would lie down flat under the snow in winter, and just wait, hunkered down, for spring.  I seem to recall its Latin name was Opuntia humifusa, which at least sounds like it means that it grows stuck to the soil.

So, pretty much anywhere you live, there’s probably a variety of “pear” that will grow and bloom in your conditions, with little care other than a basic knowledge of what kind of light conditions it prefers, and how much moisture it requires or can tolerate. (Photos E.Shock; not color-enhanced)

The top two photos are of a couple of Opuntia blooming now in our yard.  The first one is Opuntia aciculata, or Chenille prickly pear, named after its deceptively velvety cinnamon spines called glochids; the other is a variety of Santa Rita prickly pear (Opuntia santa-rita), named after the southern Arizona mountains that are its home range.  The purple color of the pads is natural for this cactus if it’s allowed to grow with available moisture: it gets greener when it’s grown lushly, or in monsoon season when rain is more plentiful.

<< A naturalized “pear” growning in Rotorua, New Zealand.  Probably a sub-tropical species.  The plant it’s growing up into could be Manuka, famous for the honey bees make from it.

You may know that Opuntia pads are actually water-storing stems.  The plant’s leaves, sometimes only present for a short time as new pads are forming, grow on the edges and faces of young pads; you can see some tiny green-and-red leaves on the newest pads above the yellow flower on the Rita-pear above.

Posted by Allison on May 5th 2010 | Filed in botany,close in,growing things,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Rio Salado in early spring

Today I actually got outdoors to breathe air, soak up sunbeams, and take a look at what’s up, and what’s in the air.  It’d been awhile, and I thought I’d celebrate by passing along some of what’s happening along the Salt River, smack in the middle of the City of Phoenix, AZ.

<< green Goodding’s willows, brittle bush, Desert willow, and chuparosa at Rio Salado; photo A.Shock

The Rio Salado Habitat Preservation Area, as it’s officially designated (here is the website), is an  ex-horrific-riverside urban dump that’s been cleaned up and improved in order to attract and showcase permanent and migrating wildlife, including birds, mammals, and insects.

Along the Salt River just south of downtown Phoenix, the RSHPA is less than 10 miles downstream from the riparian area at Tempe Town Lake (see here), and has a variety of habitats, from mesquite bosque to shady bands of Goodding’s willows (the bright green foliage in the photo above.)  Each time I visit, the vegetation is better established, both naturally (Goodding’s willows are said to be able to grow something like six feet per year), and with the help of human hands — many native desert and riparian plants have been planted along the bike path and walking trails that weave along the river, on both sides.  Right now, the Goodding’s willows are in bloom.  The screwbean mesquites (right) are still bare, making their tightly-twisted seed pods stand out against the blue sky, clustered like little brown bouquets of rattlesnake rattles.

The river is high today after all of the rain in both the metro basin and in the high country north east of Phoenix, but it’s obviously been higher recently: big piles of flood debris are left on both sides of the trail. Cormorants (Double-crested and Neotropical), American coots, and Killdeer are common along the river, and the ponds and oxbows host a variety of waterfowl, like this handsome Ringnecked drake (left), Cinnamon teal, and Common moorhens.  But we were especially on the lookout for dinky dudes — in this case, an out-of-range straggler, a Black and white warbler that’s been hanging out at the Rio for at least a week.  It proved too dinky to photo, but we did get crippling looks at the tiny tourist, wrestling an enormous caterpillar into its gullet.  It was keeping company with a Brown creeper, numerous Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped warblers, Ruby crowned kinglets, a Blue-gray gnatcatcher, and other dinky dudes.  A casual couple of hours of birding yielded a list of more than 35 species of birds, including a House wren.

But for me, the surprise of the day was provided by our furry mammalian neighbors: there’s a beaver working the Rio! We didn’t see the critter itself, but check out the evidence of Beavers At Work. right >>

I love the industrious pile of wood chips under the chewed ends of this downed tree.

Anyone birding in the Phoenix area during autumn through spring seasons might wish to check out RSHPA .

Remember — it’s an urban birding gem, so you might wish to bring a friend, and don’t leave anything valuable in your car.

Don’t be discouraged by the urban nature of this area, it’s got its advantages, too, like some really nice public art along the paths, and under the bridges on otherwise blank concrete supports.

>> Local wildlife painted under Central Ave bridge, RSHPA (all photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Mar 3rd 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,botany,field trips,furbearers,natural history | Comments (0)

Redcaps and Redthroats: ‘shrooms and loons…

…on the northwest Oregon coast.

redcapIt’s not very much like the Sonoran Desert here. Everything’s either wet or damp, and when it rains it’s not a pounding monsoonal deluge that ends quickly, but a steady long-term soaking, which might last hours, days, or the rest of the year.  Things that live here are water-loving organisms, like Loons and Mushrooms.

E got great photos of some of the numerous – and poisonous – Fly agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) pushing up through the evergreen needles on Clatsop Spit. There were other varieties of fungus in abundance too, little brown guys with caps so transluscent their gills showed through, and big slick yellow ones with a slime sheen on top. As well as fungi, the moist forests had sprouted mushroom hunters galore: some with five gallon plastic buckets topped with edible varieties, perhaps chanterelles.

RedthroatLess colorful but still nice to see were an assortment of loons: Common, still sporting a bit of their black-and white summer plumage; a juvenile Pacific loon with its silvery neck; and a pair of Red-throated loons close to shore (left), with their distinctive pale tip-tilted bills, and backs whose pattern looks like the texture on a manhole cover.

Fortunately, sea birds and waders are out in all weather, so even on the wind-whipped estuaries and rain-lashed beaches, there are things to see, like this distant dotted line of Brown pelicans speeding s_jetty-peldown-wind on a gale at the South Jetty at Fort Stevens State Park.

(Top photo: Fly agaric mushroom, E.Shock; middle: Red-throated loon, only adequately digiscoped by A.Shock; stormy Pacific coast with brown pelicans, A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Oct 24th 2009 | Filed in birds,botany,close in,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)

Seriously Cereus

The weather has cooled a bit, and even the succulents in the yard are perking up a little.  Here’s a shot of a luncheon-plate sized flower of a nocturnal, non-native Cereus aethiops columnar cactus, taken at dawn before it faded in the rays of the sun.

(Photo of Cereus aethiops blossom by A.Shock)C-aethiops

Posted by Allison on Sep 24th 2009 | Filed in botany,close in,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)

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