payday loans

Archive for the 'close in' Category

You are currently browsing the archives of Three Star Owl – Functional and Sculptural Clay Artwork with a Natural History .

No shrieking

I haven’t been posting here much recently, due to circumstances.

Circumstances like deadlines, ants, and the fact that I may be about to lose the entire file structure of my photos on the computer as a result of trying to solve the problem of a broken DVD player (a chain of events as obtuse as it sounds) — all the standard impediments to writing. So instead of shrieking, I choose to post this photo of an excellent organism we saw yesterday in the skirts of the Pinal Mountains:

Grapeleaf skeletonizer

You can tell by its spectacular comb-like antennæ that it’s a moth — the imago of a Grapeleaf Skeletonizer (Harrisina sp.). In this adult format, the metallic blue moth is harmless enough, here sipping nectar from a milkweed flower. It will only live a few days, which it will spend mating and laying eggs, which will hatch into beautiful caterpillars that will efficiently denude plants like grapes and virginia creepers of their foliage. Meanwhile, it wants you and any other looming predators to think it’s a wasp and leave it alone — a strategy that works pretty well, until you notice those telltale pectinate antennæ, a dead giveaway for mothliness.

(Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Aug 5th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (2)

Golden sea-planes in the pool

The New Camera has enabled me to take shots that the beloved, well-used but limited Old Camera couldn’t handle. Both are pretty good at macro, but zoom is the strength of the new camera. Effective zoom has made it possible for me to get a shot of something I’ve wanted to capture for a long time: the lovely paper wasps who float like little golden sea-planes on the surface of the pool.

Polistes flavus (?)

Above, Paper Wasp afloat: no pontoons needed — its light body weight, waxy coating, and ability to create floatation cushions under its feet by not breaking surface tension, enable it to bob on the water while it collects mouthfuls to build with — you can see from the surface distortion in the photo above that this wasp has its mouthparts on the water, actively taking it in. Once it’s tanked up, the insect will rise nearly vertically off the surface to fly back to the nest. They almost never swamp, even in the chop I make swimming laps.

surface tensionThese golden sea-planes are Polistes wasps, commonly called Paper Wasps because of the papery, multi-cellular nests they build. Ours are probably Polistes flavus, but I’d need confirmation from someone who knows more about wasps than I do, to be certain. They seem to be peaceable sorts, and tolerate us moving around their space. In our experience, they’ve never acted aggressively, even once when E was tugging up the dead lemon grass where unbeknownst they’d built their nest. A few of them flew up and out of the fibrous clump. He scampered away, but there was no trouble — none of them even bothered to escort him away from the scene. Paper wasps are good for a garden: the adults drink plant nectar (and hummingbird food) for their own nutrition, but they are tireless predators of small voracious caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects which they prepare by chewing and deliver as food balls to their young waspy larvæ. 

(Both photos A.Shock — Do click to enlarge, especially the upper one. There’s lots of good detail to be gained, like sparly water drops on its abdomen.)

Posted by Allison on Jul 20th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Not dead yet

whiptailventral<< The last post was a photo-op provided by the death of a Tiger Whiptail by drowning. But today I saw the tiniest slip of a whiptail — maybe fresh from the egg — snapping up ants on the back porch. Life goes on.

This morning, when I opened the pool skimmer basket, a female Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle more than three inches long was swirling around inside, caught in the suction whirlpool. She looked defunct. I fished her out, arrayed her on a large ammonite fossil, and took some macro shots. Just as I was finishing up a couple of her feet started flexing and waving. These are very tough creatures: this isn’t the first time moribund subjects have resurrected during a photo session. I put her in a sheltered place to recover or to complete her expiration and fulfill the local ants’ devotion to energetic thrift. I recently read that although the robust and destructive larvæ of this beetle can live underground for several years chewing on tree roots like Niddhog gnaws Yggdrasil, the adult beetle will only live the span of a single monsoon season. It’s entire purpose is to mate, fertilize or lay eggs, and die.

Here’s a raccoon’s-eye view of her (all photos A.Shock):

paloverdebeetleWhen I checked again later, she was gone. I’m not sure what scavengers are abroad in daylight hours who are large enough to nab her — the foxes and raccoons won’t come out until after dark, so maybe she revived and crawled away palofootieto burrow down into the soil to lay her eggs. Here’s a foot on the second pair of legs, like a grappling hook. These sticky hook-feet come in handy since the beetle’s favored method of travel is to bomb around through the moist monsoon air until it hits something, then cling. If one hits your face, it hurts, even though they generally just bounce off. >>

Finally, below is an image I posted here previously called “Convergent Evolution”. This is the other “drowning victim” I mentioned earlier, the one who fully revived as I was photographing her (see the blurry foot? That was just the first indication). The pinchy mouthparts have nothing to do with eating.  They are for battle — males use them to vanquish competitors, and to subdue females. The larva does all the feeding for this species. How much does that animal look like a pair of pliers? Clearly convergent evolution.


Posted by Allison on Jul 9th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Remains of the day

Yesterday a mature Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris) drowned in the pool.

12inch whiptail

<< about 4 inches snout to vent, 8 inches of trailing tail (all photos A.Shock)

It’s always sad when something succumbs to the pool, but I especially love these “checkerbirds” who inhabit our yard: the Tiger Whiptails are good-sized terrestrial lizards who, along with the smaller, climbing Ornate Tree Lizards, are the species we see most often. They’re active in the day, and glide smoothly from cover to cover like speedy little slender-tailed alligators, snapping up ants and other small invertebrates. Over the years I’ve rescued several clinging to the tiles or swimming along the edge looking for a way out, but it doesn’t take them long to tire and drown. When I’ve scooped survivors out of the pool, it’s always an amazing sensory experience — their limber bodies are sleek and satiny, heavy for their size and cool from the water. I’ve never yet had one try to bite, but they’ll often cling with stickery toes to my hand until I release them. Sometimes they’ll run back to the shade of my foot and climb up onto it to dry out.

I hate losing a neighbor like this — I’m a fan of promoting populations of consumers higher up the trophic pyramid within our garden walls (except perhaps coyotes). At least yesterday’s unfortunate event presented the opportunity to examine the excellent animal up close, and also macro photo ops (more new camera practice!)

The victim was a glorious full-grown individual — I think it’s a male, since the pores on the inside of its thighs are prominent (photo below).  These femoral pores secrete a waxy pheromone substance to mark territory and attract mates. The lizard leaves this marker behind as he moves around — the reptile equivalent of a tomcat signalling his turf, without the spray action (or human-detectable odor, although the cats always seem to know when a lizard is near, even through the door since, thugs that felines are, they’re incarcerated full time).

Up close it’s easy to appreciate the panoply of scales this lizard ports: smooth, fused plates on the head, flexible bead-like dorsal skin, overlapping scaly sides, scute-like belly protection, articulated tubular toe armor — an astounding and functional body-covering. The scales of the limb crevices are fine-textured for flexibility, arrayed like gussets in a knight’s articulated plate armor under the arm and at the groin where the chain maille shows through. The scales are heavier and broader where they need to withstand battle (top of the head and legs) and wear (under belly, thighs, and tail).

Although the lizard’s lower lid is drawn up nearly closed, you can still see the iris behind it.

Even the eyelids are scaled — look at that remarkable scaled, see-through lower eyelid!

I don’t know if whiptails has an additional inner eyelid (or nictitating membrane like some other lizards and many birds), but it wouldn’t need one: the translucent lower eyelid functions in the same way, providing protection without losing much visibility. That’s a spectacular protective feature for an animal who spends much of its day burrowing and sleeping in gritty soil. And you can bask in the open without risk of desert dry-eye or being caught napping by approaching danger, not to mention cutting down on UV damage to cornea and retina while coursing after ants on the glaring pool deck. (Predators’ eyes are notoriously at risk for injury by thrashing prey, and losing vision in even one eye is a serious blow to survival chances.) And it’s constructed of transparent scales! Just look at it! Be sure to click on the image for optimum viewing of the orderly, least-surface soap bubble geometry of those clear scales. Plus there are a couple of bonus phoretic mites. Do you see them?

Below is another pool victim in a post from 2009, drawn fresh from a ziplock in the freezer. The older post also mentions that at the time there was a second ziplock bag in the freezer with a scorpion in it. I’d forgotten about that one. I wonder if it’s still there? If so, it’ll turn up sooner or later.


Posted by Allison on Jul 7th 2013 | Filed in close in,doom and gloom,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,yard list | Comments (5)

Meet some Liz

Heavy deadlining at the clay bench for summer shows PLUS a new camera mean this space will have mostly photographic posts for a stretch. Here are two lizards who obliged while I was in New Mexico recently.

First up is a Crevice Spiny Lizard (bearing the excellent scientific handle Sceloporus poinsettii but in no way resembling a red flower often associated with winter holiday decor, except in a tendency towards pointiness). He was basking unabashedly on the waist-high peakity peak of a large triangular rock in the middle of the well-trodden trail to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.spinyfaceHe (or she, I’m not acquainted with S. poinsettii well enough to know which, and they’re said to be similar anyway) simply did not care that I was there.  It was breezy and the foliage swayed, exposing him alternately to blotches of shade and sunbeams. He didn’t care about that either. Of course, armed with long closeuptelephoto capability, I had no need to approach closely to observe him. We did, however, have to pass very near in order to finish the jaunt up to the cliff dwellings, and if I stopped briefly for a close perusal — which the subject endured without flinching — who can blame me? A lizard whose prime basking platform is a busy trailrock must get good at ignoring curious people. Crevice Spinies have a rep for being shy (one field guide recommends binoculars as an observation aid), so this guy must be an outlier.

Below is another photo of the same liz. The subtle coppery green iridescence of the scales was caught by the camera in this shot, an artifact of sun angles and lens physics, apparently: to our human eye, the animal looked mostly gray and white with darker bands. Another lizard would have been all over the beautiful radiance immediately, its eye and brain built specifically to receive that shimmering information.


Now meet a whiptailed lizard (below), whose textures are quite different from the spiny lizard above. I think she’s a Desert Grassland Whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens).  Some species of whiptail are unisexual: all individuals are females who reproduce by laying unfertilized eggs each with a tiny clone embryo ready to hatch out and carry on mama’s DNA. The Desert Grassland Whiptail is one of them, which explains its Latin moniker. She’s very beady and sleek in the sun — whiptails are abroad in the heat of the day — but was well warmed up and didn’t stay long to be admired, or to be questioned on her parthenogenetic lifestyle; there were termites to eat and predators to evade.


Posted by Allison on Jul 3rd 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (1)

Supermoon au naturel, and not

Here’s what the June supermoon looked like last night, rising over our neighbors’ roof:


(photo A.Shock)

The photo above is  an unmanipulated image (except for a little tweaking of contrast): I shot the moon, the tree, and the roofline as seen, with a tight zoom and digital cropping.

Now for a little fun. Remember? new camera, still learning. I was able to get good shots of a saguaro at dusk and good shots of the moon — just not both in the same frame! The moon indeed came up under this venerable saguaro’s arms from our viewpoint, but “on film” without quite so much lunar precision (at least in camera: it looked a lot like this to the naked eye). Photo-editing software to the rescue! I edited two of the night’s high-detail photos — one of the moon and one of the giant cactus — into one.  Please enjoy the image below, but think of this one as art and not astronomy:


June 22 2013 “supermoon” (composite image A.Shock)

The next “supermoon” is on August 10, 2014; maybe by then I’ll be able to get the shot without benefit of photoshop. In fact, mulling this over, I think I figured out one way to capture both the dim spiny green of the cactus, and the bright silver moon: this may be a job for High Dynamic Range!… And, there’s always tonight, as long as there aren’t any clouds.

Posted by Allison on Jun 23rd 2013 | Filed in close in,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

If Sikorsky made insects

Robo-fly or Robber fly? This handsome ærial predator was basking on the parsley in the garden this morning.  I’m armed with a new camera, just getting acquainted, and marauding for likely subjects.  Still learning — in fact, I hadn’t figured out how to shoot in Macro mode at this point, but the standard shooting mode digitally cropped for a zoom did a fair job.  It’s hard to see, but I believe this bird has lunch in its mouthparts; I spy extra wings under the crook of that front leg. And check out the grappling-hook feet!

robofly big

Robber fly, family Asilidae (photo A.Shock)


Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (4)

Larval, dude.

It’s squishy and voluminous, bulbous-headed and bulgy. Plus, it engulfed every single leaf of a poor little potted chile, covering the soil below with drifts of black frass, but… it’s REALLY GREEN, and I think it’s pretty spectacular, in its way. It’s a hornworm — I’m not sure which — which makes it the larva of one of the Sphinx moths. Two days after I took this photo (do click to enlarge, I loaded a file as monstrously huge as this caterpillar is), it disappeared: it must have plopped to the ground below the plant to bury itself a few inches down in the soil to pupate. Then it will emerge as a moth. I’m trying to imagine what it looks like when a full-grown sphinx moth — a creature of the night air — emerges from dirt. Imagine!

Check the sparse, sparkly polyester-looking hairs on its back, the bristles on the “feet” of its fleshy, blunt prolegs. And the golden “portholes”. What a machine! We’re watering the now leafless chile plant, hoping the frass dissolves and the plant can re-process the nutrients from its own devoured, caterpillar-bypassed leaves to grow more. (Photo A.Shock)


Posted by Allison on Jun 12th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,nidification,yard list | Comments (4)

Life in the day of a Fritillary

There’s a certain Passionflower vine that grows in an unlikely crack in our pool deck.


Sonoran desert Passion flower, Passiflora foetida, a rambunctious native vine with a weird (but edible) fruit.

It’s the most enduring of all of the tough volunteer passiflora vines that inhabit our yard, exposed to blazing sun each summer afternoon, and even surviving winters with killing frosts, its roots shielded from chill and drought by the aging cement deck. This plant is crammed into the same seam as two other stubborn, spiny volunteers, a Palo Verde tree and a wolfberry, which the vine uses unashamedly for support while clambering up to the sun. This chimæric tangle of species is inconveniently located — crowding an outdoor table and the barbecue grill — but it provides prime nature-watching: towhees scrabble around looking for seeds underneath, whiptail lizards flick their tongues at ants, desert cottontails crouch in its shade, and cactus wrens glean its stems and leaves for insects.

All of the following photos of the Gulf Fritillary’s (Agraulis vanillæ) life cycle were taken on this scrubby Passion flower vine clump in our Phoenix-area back yard. (All photos A.Shock — be sure to CLICK TO ENLARGE, especially the last portrait!)

A single egg.  Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary

A single egg like a tiny ear of yellow corn. Each is laid one at a time by a hovering, nimble female Gulf Fritillary. The egg is the size of a dull pencil point.


A spiky red larva hatches from the egg and begins to eat and grow. The bright warning colors and spines advertise its body’s ability to concentrate toxins from passionflower leaves. If not discouraged by a human guardian or natural predator, fritillary larvæ can denude an entire plant in a matter of days. When it’s finished eating, the caterpillar anchors itself to its food plant, hangs head downward, forms a brown chrysalis, and pupates.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower lear. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

A new chrysalis looks like a dead passionflower leaf. Exactly like a dead passionflower leaf.

about to blow

As the chrysalis nears maturity, it becomes transparent and reveals the new butterfly’s colors. The dark sheath on the left side is the wing. 

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they're sturdy enough to fly.

The chrysalis splits open, and the new butterfly hangs in the shade, pumping up its wings until they’re sturdy enough to fly.


The adult butterfly’s sole role is reproduction. Never having even take wing, our brand-new fritillary is still on a stem near its split chrysalis when another one lands and mates with it. Egg-laying will begin the cycle over again.


Fritillary face.

« Prev - Next »