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Cap’n Coast Guard goes AWOL

The largish Six-Spotted Fishing Spider who took up residence in our swimming pool this summer has been missing for a couple of days. For the past two nights, I’ve gone out with a flashlight to look for him with no success, running the beam along the cracked tile edges and around the cement block angled on the top step for accidental swimmers to find a way out. I joked with E that maybe a lady fishing spider had found him to her liking.

But it turned out that was no joke. Tonight when I searched, there he was — lurking above the water on the side of the block ramp just like the last time I’d seen him. Then, looking more closely, I saw too many legs, and not in a good way. It seems the Cap’n had met his First Mate, who was also his last. His body was limp, hanging upside down from her grasp, or at least tangled in her limbs. I’m not an arachnid expert, it was dark and beginning to rain, and details were hard to make out. But here’s a photo (if you’re brave you can click on it to enlarge):


>> Fishing spiders in our pool. One of them is enjoying a little post-date predation. (Photo A.Shock)

Certain species of Fishing spiders are known for their male’s “self-sacrificing” mating habits, and that’s how I’m interpreting this poolside homicide. I suppose it could have also been a territorial dispute — I’ll never know. But if the “last supper” theory is correct, the lady is now gravid, perhaps explaining the gleam in her eye. (Actually, the tiny reflective gleam that’s visible if you enlarge the photo is my flashlight reflecting back from one of her retinas, like a cat’s eye in the dark).

Here’s some colorful literature on the “obligate death” scene of a Nebraska cousin (Dolomedes tenebrosus).

How big is it?

Fall is a second spring in the desert, and things are wandering.


Immature but already full-grown birds hatched this year are making their first migration, or seeking a permanent residence away from the parental sphere. Young mammals, too, are moving to new locations on their own. Some creatures are fanning out looking for mates, such as tarantulas (right) and other arthropods.

Although many make it, this can be a perilous diaspora, and it brings visibly increased mortality along roads as young inexperienced animals or adults driven by an impulse stronger than their understanding of speeding vehicles try to cross busy highways.

In our yard the main hazard — other

than waiting predators — is the swimming pool. The male sunspider below (possibly Eremochelis bilobatus) fell into the pool sometime during a nocturnal rambling and couldn’t get out. With luck, he’d found a female before he succumbed, and was able to do his part to continue the local population. 

People often ask how big they are, so I’ve included my hand for scale. (Click to enlarge to see his bristly glory and fierce mandibles. Both photos, A.Shock). Driven to find out more about Solpugids or sunspiders? Check this website. For the record, taxonomists consider them more closely related to Pseudoscorpions than to spiders.



Posted by Allison on Sep 10th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (3)

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)

Dragon-wing rug

If you had a dragon-wing rug — I do mean a rug made out of dragon wings — and it was terribly old and worn but still in use in the family home, and it lay on the floor of a room at the back with a couple of big armchairs to fold up in and lots of dark wooden bookshelves and not many windows, the rug would probably have fringy bits along the edges, and worn patches where you could see leathery underlayments where the scaly feathers attached, and it might still glitter a little with rainbow membranes.  In fact it might look a lot like this:


White-lined sphinx moth wing detail

This isn’t a dragon wing, it’s the wing of a sphinx (a mystical and legendary creature in itself) but in this case the moth version.  All four of the moth’s wings were discarded by an ærial predator over our yard last night, and all four wings fluttered to the rearwingground and settled within feet of each other.  An owl, or a bat, or a nighthawk had shucked it, perhaps — the body would have made a fat protein-rich mouthful but the wings are dry and awkward to swallow, so the predator neatly clipped them and let them fall.


Given this scenario of on-the-wing food prep, the question remains — if you had a dragon-wing rug — what sort of hunter could do that to a dragon?

  (All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!)

Posted by Allison on May 13th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Fiery forest revisited

Exactly one year ago this month, the White Mountains of eastern Arizona were ablaze with the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in state history.  The human-caused fire scorched more than 530,000 acres in four counties in Arizona and one in New Mexico, significantly damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness habitat, as well as historic and residential buildings, water and timber resources, and range-land.

This weekend, E and I hiked and camped in the high-altitude mixed conifer-aspen, near-alpine grassland biome near Mt. Baldy, curious to see how the fire had affected some of the areas we know and love.  In the few days we were there we found big changes, but perhaps not as drastic as we feared.  We were able to camp and hike in favorite places, each scarred but not destroyed by the wildfire’s effects. The campground was only marginally burnt.  I would love to know if this close call was a natural quirk of fire topography, or if firefighters saved the campground.

<< aspen and ponderosa forest damaged by the 2011 Wallow Fire (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Our relief that things weren’t worse than they were is the result of a non-technical, tourist viewpoint.  For residents, both human and wildlife, the fire changed the landscape in ways that will not be restored in our lifetime. Blackened trees stand everywhere, some killed outright, others damaged and struggling.  Fallen trees — some reduced to a trunk-sized trail of ash — criss-cross the forest floor.  Some of the downed trees were felled as part of federal and state agencies’ safety strategies intended to make the most seriously burnt areas safer for hunters, hikers, and fishermen: many hazard trees near roads, structures, in campgrounds, and along trails have been cut down and piled into charred heaps by feller-buncher equipment and saw-crews.  Bright yellow signs posted at every trailhead and forest road junction caution people venturing into the back country that flames are not the only dangers of fire: once the fires are out, flash flooding, falling trees and branches, and landslides are the legacy of wildfire for seasons to come.

But not all of the forest suffered equally: crown-fire areas, where the flames jumped from treetop to treetop, burnt hotter than others and show more severe damage.  Ground-fire areas burnt spottily, while other places were only lightly toasted.  Some pockets were not touched by flames at all. Yet each of these places shows a welcome resurgence of life.

>> a foot-tall aspen regrowing in the shelter of a charred ponderosa trunk (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Although Ponderosa pines appear to be hard hit in many places, aspen trees and firs growing alongside them often seem to have sustained less damage. In addition, 2012’s snowmelt and spring rains provided most areas with a green carpet of grass, re-sprouted shrubs, and young trees.  Elk cows trail gangly calves, and busy Barn swallows, Hermit thrushes and Brewer’s blackbirds have bug-filled beaks, carrying food back to their nestling broods.  A pair of Bald eagles has built a nest in the woods crowning a peninsula of a popular fishing lake: a joyful reason for an area closure, unlike the parts of the forest still closed to recreation because of severe fire damage.

<< watercolor sketch of small aspen that survived the fire (A.Shock)

The flame-colored sky in the background of the top image is reminiscent of the fires that swept through the area last year. But it’s just a mid-June sunset glowing behind the aspens and Ponderosa pines where we camped. Ironically, the blazing sunset is caused by smoke particles in the air, wafting from wildfires currently burning in Arizona and New Mexico — the Poco fire near Young, AZ, and the enormous, lightning-caused Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest , now classed as the largest fire in the history of that state.


A few weeks ago, we discovered that one of our local Gambel’s quail pairs had nested in an aloe bed at the foot of the back garden wall.

The pale, speckled eggs were tucked deep into a hollow among the spiky aloe leaves — real Spot the Bird material — they’re barely visible inside the red circle on the photo. (click to enlarge) >>

The hen had scraped a shallow depression, lined it with bits of dry vegetation and a few feathers, and settled hennily onto the eggs.  She had hidden her nest well, but unfortunately it was while we were out of town and the garden was quiet.  Once we came home and started watering and raking and making a human kind of tidying fuss, she flushed when we passed near. If she hadn’t flown out of cover each time with a clapping wing burst, we might never have discovered her and her trove.  On the other hand, these skittish, explosive escapes were as much distraction as alarm, designed to draw a predator’s attention towards herself, and away from her helpless, immobile egg cache.  But we kept away as much as possible and did the math, looking forward to seeing the little cloud of downy chicks swarming uncountably behind her before long.

For more than a week we avoided her part of the yard as much as possible in order to keep from disturbing her, but occasionally we had to Pass the Nest.  At those times, when she flew, or if she wasn’t at home, we’d peek briefly into her green hollow to see what was new.  We counted ten eggs, which is about average for Gambel’s quails.  If the clutch had been out in the open, it wouldn’t have looked significantly different from these Cadbury Mini Eggs (photo by William Warby from Wikimedia Commons) — if they’d been a bit rounder, larger, and not delicious candy-coated chocolate.  No pink or yellow ones, either: they all look like the white ones with cinnamon speckles and blotches.

Here’s a slightly better view of the genuine eggs, enlarged from the photo above right >>

For a week nothing changed: hen, aloe, eggs.  Late one afternoon I passed by, and when she didn’t flush I peered down into the hole.  I didn’t see eggs — just some miscellaneous checkering and speckles.  Since quail babies follow mom right out of the nest the minute the last chick has pipped, never to return, my first thought was that the chicks had hatched and I was seeing eggshells. But it didn’t look quite right for that. I bent closer in, peering, and saw bright eyes staring back.

A young gopher snake had found the nest.  All I could see was elegant coils of yellow and brown snakeskin draped over the eggs in the shallow scrape.

>> the gopher snake in the hen’s nest.  It looks like it’s eating an egg, but it’s just the angle of the photo

After managing a few blurry cell phone photos in very low light, I moved away, not wanting to spook the snake.  Since I didn’t know whether the quail hen was going to come back to the nest or not, it would be a shame if the eggs went to waste: the gopher might as well have them.

Would the snake eat all ten eggs?  Would the hen abandon the nest in agitation?  Did she even know she’d been robbed (possibly not if the snake came and went while she was away, because unlike ravens, quail can’t count).  We didn’t know.

What happened was that the young gopher ate five of the eggs, and departed.  The hen came back, and continued to incubate the remainder.

But only for two days.  After that, she didn’t return to the nest and none of the remaining five eggs hatched.  We don’t know if she abandoned the nest because of the snake, or because the eggs weren’t viable, or if she met her own fate (probably not to the egg-robbing adolescent snake, which wasn’t big enough to eat her).  There were five eggs for a while, then four, and now there are two — somebody’s coming back periodically for a snack.

<< today, two remaining eggs

It seems like a terrible loss for the hen, and it made us sad to not have a batch of fresh quailets swarming around the yard (and we still haven’t seen any quail hatchlings this season, which is unusual).  But a moment’s reflection provides reassurance.  The eggs went to a native predator, and weren’t wasted by some other pointless loss like being stepped on, eaten by a well-fed pet dog, or crushed by our neighbor with a dropped branch as he lopped mesquite limbs on our side of the wall.  Even if the eggs had hatched, the odds are that some of the chicks would have been lost to predators anyway, perhaps to the very snake that scored the egg bonanza.  I’m pleased to have gopher snakes and coachwhips (or even the occasional problematic other) working the yard, keeping less appealing scurrying neighbors in check. It means there’s some vestige of a natural system at play here, so I can’t truly begrudge them a baby cottontail or a quail egg, or eight.

With luck, experience, and efficient gene expression, the hen is sitting on another clutch right now under the watchful eye of her baby-daddy rooster, in a nest better hidden from foot traffic, human disruption, and snake-sense.

(All photos and illustration by A.Shock, except where noted)

Face of a Sphinx

The morning after our latest haboob I found an expiring Sphinx moth, battered by the winds and on its last legs.  It was a big one, not as colorful as some, but marked like bark in black and white, with three orange spots on its abdomen.  It’s a fairly large animal: about three inches long, with an abdomen like my little finger, except segmented and furry.  I’ve identified it as  Manduca rustica, the Rustic Sphinx (if you know different, please let me know), which as an adult moth feeds on deep-throated nectar flowers such as Petunias and Tecoma.

<< Manduca rustica (photos A.Shock, click to enlarge)

Although it’s probable that this individual was done in by the wind, it may also have been at the end of its life span anyway.  I carried it to the outdoor table, and took a few macro shots with my cell-phone macro lens.  That I got any results worth sharing is a bit amazing, since the lens, which is designed for a different cell phone than the one I own, has to be scotch-taped to the device.  (Seriously, scotch-taped to the device, not exaggerating.)

Anyway, here’s the sphinx’s face, with its big night-seeing eye, its furry head, and its coiled, straw-like proboscis, plenty long for reaching down the throats of flowers for the good stuff.

Posted by Allison on Sep 12th 2011 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (6)

A small thing the rain brought out

Other parts of the Phoenix area had been rained on already in this monsoon season, but so far our part of town only had dust.  Big dust, impressive dust, haboob-style wall of silty grit in your eyes, teeth and hair dust, but no rain.  At about four this morning, however, that changed with the slow onset of rumbling thunder, brief flashes of lightning, and (after suitable meteorological prelude) buckets of rain.  About four tenths of an inch came down over a couple of hours, a perfect pace for sluicing dust, soaking gravelly soil, filling flower pots, and refreshing everyone and everything that lives here.

Lots of things come out of the ground during heavy rains: Spadefoots, scorpions, centipedes, and various snakes either choose to or are forced to emerge from their underground refuges to flee the flood or to hunt others who have come out to drink, mate, or search for food.  Unfortunately, a small hunter with inadequate eyesight and no capacity for swimming fell victim to our pool during last night’s downpour: a tiny Western Threadsnake.  Not good for the snake, but good for photography.  We’ve  seen these guys in the yard a only couple of times before, usually unearthed during gardening and gently reburied, but we’ve never managed pictures.

<< Western Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops humilis), with a dime for scale.  Its scales are so translucent that you can see a couple of its last meals as dark areas in various points along its digestive system.

Threadsnakes are tiny silvery-pink worm-like snakes with two blunt ends that look alike, except that the tail ends in a harmless spine which it will poke aggressors with defensively (on larger nuisances, such as humans, this has no effect).  The other end has its nearly featureless face, which consists of two darkish spots below the scales that are eyes and a small, practically toothless mouth. >>

The eyes are almost blind because the snake lives predominantly underground, and the mouth is toothless because the little snake’s prey — ants, termites, their larvæ and the like — are swallowed whole. In general, the entire snake maxes out at 15″ in length, the last 0.3″ inch of which is the stubby tail.  As you can see, this one was barely 10″ from snout to tail-tip; here’s a picture of my rusty studio straight edge, with threadsnake for scale, a reptilian Dinky Dude of the Desert:

(All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge)

Posted by Allison on Jul 11th 2011 | Filed in close in,doom and gloom,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,yard list | Comments (1)

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