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Doggerel for Vultures

It’s International Vulture Awareness Day, so here’s some vulture verse. Or perhaps Vulture Culture?


Poetic license categories: 1) the photo is of a Himalayan Griffon Vulture, not a condor (photo Uttarakhand, India, A.Shock 2014); 2) Egyptian Vultures do prefer to eat eggs, but it’s their entire color-scheme that’s yellow and white, with elegant white quills and bare yellow facial skin, which makes “legs” here a synecdoche, where a word for a part of something stands for the whole thing;  3) Kites are not vultures, they are kites, a different sort of raptor altogether, but the word “kite” has been used to refer to scavenging birds of prey for a long time, especially across the Pond;  4) likewise Buzzards are not vultures, but actually buteo-type hawks like the Red-tailed Hawk. The word “buzzard” is American vernacular for Turkey Vulture, widely used and understood in the U.S.  As far as I’m concerned, the only downside of the usage is that it leaves a lot of Americans surprised when they find out we’ve got actual vultures overhead. That brings us full circle to the importance of International Vulture Awareness Day!

“Keep Calm and CarriOn!”

Posted by Allison on Sep 6th 2014 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,natural history,poetry | Comments (0)

Touch the Tiny Toad!

Monday was International Touch the Tiny Toad Day, with bonus Whiptail.  I guess the whiptail makes it more correctly International Touch the Reptile Day, except it wasn’t international, it was just in our yard, and a toad isn’t a reptile, but then again, it was a tiny Spadefoot, which isn’t a toad but a toad-like amphibian, although an amphibian still isn’t a reptile.  But it was tiny, and I touched it.

Couch’s Spadefoot, Scaphiopus couchii, (photo E.Shock) >>

At any rate, I ended the day having made contact with two herptiles: a Spadefoot toadlet which E rescued out of the pool and I held on my palm while he snapped its portrait in the rosy light of sunset, and a Sonoran Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris punctilinealis) which I’d rescued out of the pool earlier but didn’t get a picture of because it zipped into the cover of the fan palm as soon as I lifted it onto the deck.

Normally I go weeks if not months between making direct contact with a yard herp, so this was a kind of blue moon event, as far as handling neighborhood non-mammals goes.  Both whiptails and spadefoots have very soft, smooth belly skin, cool and heavy like silk.  (FYI: if you ever find a whiptail in your pool, go ahead and rescue it by hand — I’ve never had one try to bite, unlike some other lizards I could mention. If you rescue a spadefoot — or any toad — wash your hands afterwards: many have toxins in their skin, and Couch’s toxins pack an eye-swelling wallop, I understand.)

The question remains: was this tiny toadlike toddler an offspring of one of the Couch’s spadefoots we released in September 2008? It’s about the same size as those hatchlings were — that would make today’s youngster “young of the year”, and the first evidence that our releases had reproduced.  (Of course, it could have washed in from uphill during the August flash flood.)  But still, in past years we’ve found larger spadefoots in the pool (right>>) which we’ve assumed were “ours” from ’08, and they were way bigger than this lil dude, so we’re figuring he’s a subsequent generation.

In the top picture, take a look at the spadefoot’s hind leg, underneath his foot.  See that small black dash that looks like a piece of crud on my hand?  That’s his little “spade”: a hard, dark digging organ situated under each back foot, which gives him his name in both English (spadefoot) and Greek (scaphiopus). Actually, you can also see it on the left foot of the spadefoot in the pool photo, too. Click on this link to the Calherps website to see lots of Couch’s spadefoot photos, and scroll to the very bottom to see great shots of their spades.

And, because I didn’t get a photo of the whiptail, here’s a bonus Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus, photo E.ShockE is on a roll, being in the right place at the right time with his camera!)  Green-tailed towhees are Arizona natives, but they breed in mid- to high-elevations, so it’s just passing through our yard — although it’s possible it could stay for the winter.  It looks legless because it’s belying its rep for being a secretive bird by taking a dust bath out in the open.  And it looks spiky because it’s molting in fresh plumage, especially around its face, and the new feathers are still wrapped in a protective keratin casing, like the tips of shoelaces.  The shoelaces’ pushing out makes a towhee itchy, and that’s probably why it’s rolling around in the gritty gravel, scratching its itchy bits.  Itchy itchy towhee.

I am NOT a tick…

……………………………..or a scorpion!

Fear me only if you are a springtail, or a mite, or any arthropod smaller than me.  I am the size of a lentil, so although my scissor-like pincers look fierce and outsized for my body, and the pedipalps wielding them are Popeye strong and elbowy, you are a looming threat — I run from the shadows of your hands, and the clicking black boxes you hold over me, by scuttling rapidly backwards across the exposed surface you expect me to sit still on.  I am the pseudoscorpion, an arachnid, little cousin to spiders, solpugids, and amblypygids.

<< me, much larger than life on the folded edge of a piece of regular paper (photo A.Shock)

My family and I are tiny predators found all over the world who, if you must use your own reference point to validate us, beneficially snap up even tinier creatures which, grown larger, might trouble you: newly hatched mites and ticks, for instance (they’re cousins, too, and I certainly enjoy that branch of the family, if you catch my drift).  Usually I go contently unnoticed, but this past weekend I found myself exposed to sunlight, spied by thumb-mammals who were trying to pack up a buffet they’d set up for me in the pine dirt on the roof of Arizona (they called it a tent and slept in it, which is rude: I don’t doze on their dinner plate). I had been grazing all night on minute leggy snacks that also wandered up from the forest floor onto the buffet — admittedly, stuffed to the spiracles (it was a plentiful spread!), I was a little muddled and got lost in the folds and channels and couldn’t find my way down by sunrise.

They picked me up — I swear they were about to crush me as a loathly tick, but the next thing I knew they had carried me over to their table where they held me captive for a while, which made me alternately freeze hoping they wouldn’t see me, and flee, which didn’t work either.  So I kept waving my pincers at them until no doubt fearful of my ferocious aspect, they put me back in the needles and dirt, and I went on my way.

<< their idea of scale

my idea of scale >>

You may never have seen or even heard of my family, but we’re numerous and famous.  We’ve been around since the Devonian; that’s 380 million short years, O Primate — fossils attest to that.  Note my efficient body design: NOT “primitive,” please — why improve on perfection? But you seemed to notice us, or care enough to write about us, only since the time of Alexander the Great.  Please don’t look so surprised, of course we know about him — pseudoscorpions have lengthy ancestral memories.  My 2347-times-great grand-cousins inhabited Alexander’s libraries and kept them free of booklice, dust-mites, and silverfish larvae (no doubt King Darius’s libraries, too; we’re the Swiss of the Arthropoda).  Anyway, Alexander’s elementary school teacher, who always had his nose in papyrus scrolls, spared a few words for us and some cousins (who live in clothing and keep them free of moths and other undesirable animalcules, unless he’s referring to lice, which are the undesirable animalcules).  Wait, I have his famous quote about us by heart:

Oh, you need a translation?  Allow me, it’s easy Greek: “Still others occur in books: some like those in mantles, others like scorpions without tails, totally small…”  That’s us.  Then there’s some stuff about fig wasps… he goes on and on about them; those Greeks do like their figs.  Anyway, you see? a shout-out from Aristotle — not too shabby!

So how do we get into your books, or for that matter, high up into the mountainous roof of Arizona?  That is a prized family trait — some of us are phoretic.  (Honestly, the high-falutin’ term shouldn’t surprise you, didn’t I just quote Greek?)  It means we hitch rides on larger organisms, like flies or wasps, and let them carry us around for a while before dropping off (pincers again: very useful things for gripping as well as dining).

<< a pseudoscorpion latched onto a fly thigh (photo by Sarefo, Wikimedia Commons)

We may be commensal, but we’re not parasites: other than a little drag on our ride’s flight efficiency, we do no harm, and it’s a great way to get around to greener, or rather, more joint-leggedy pastures.  And you don’t notice, but we cling to the underside of firewood or potted plants you bring inside from the garden.  From there, it’s just a hop scuttle and creep into your woolen carpet (lots of yummies there!) or bookshelf.  You’d have nothing left to wear or read if it weren’t for us.  A slight exaggeration, perhaps, but without doubt we are excellent guardians against hungry woolen moths, carpet beetle and other dermestid insect larvae, not to mention our less human-centered roles in natural ecosystems: we are leopards on the Serengeti of small-scale soil horizons — though you may need magnifiers to detect our depredations, or to count the legs of our prey.

There’s so much more — I haven’t even told you about our ability to weave protective silken cocoons for ourselves or our offspring by spinning them from spinnerets at the tips of our chelicerae, or that some of us dance elaborate dances before spermatophore transmission (not that that’s any of your business), or that we’re relaxed regarding the concept of eyes, having one pair, two pair, or none at all, or that there are more than three thousand species of us, some limited to single cave sites, others making their living in giant saguaro cactus. But I suspect I’ve bent your ear enough on the efficiencies and curiosities of my large and ancient family.  So, here are a couple of websites (yes, that’s arachnid humor) you can visit, borne there on the underside of your computer’s elytra:

For excellent photos click here, for more in-depth info click here, and for those with inexhaustible curiosity about the order Pseudoscorpionida (thanks for noticing, you free-thinking Prussian, Herr Doktor Haeckel), click here at this excellent resource, or here at our Wikipedia entry.

It’s been nice chatting, but there are collembolids to collar and amphipods to ambush.  And digest.  Have a nice day, and please don’t bother to dust.  Really.

Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (5)

Finding Birds in Paris (Spot the Bird, Île de France edition), Part 2

Our recent visit to Paris was shaped to some degree by the insistence of April on barging into May: cool temperatures and showers persisted for much of the trip.  We were prepared, and rain is not a problem that sweaters, umbrellas, and sturdy footwear can’t handle — except on the one morning we had determined to devote entirely to birding.  That was pretty much a washout, since the rain was heavy and steady.  Birding in significant rain offers specific challenges: wet, fogged eyeglass and optics lenses, using binox with one hand while juggling an umbrella in the other, soaked field-guide pages, and draggled birds whose plumage colors are impossible to determine, for instance.

<< The pine plantation at the northern end of le Bois de Boulogne was recommended for conifer-loving species such as Firecrest; however, the rains had rinsed the pines clean of birds the morning we visited (photo E.Shock).

We stuck with it because frankly it was such an outré experience to have the huge Bois de Boulogne to ourselves, except for a dogwalker leading at least a dozen dogs, the occasional die-hard jogger, two working women still on the job well into daylight, and a very few very wet birds, including what must have been a female pheasant daintily treading around condom wrappers along an obscure side-trail we’d stumbled on.  No sun = no bearings, and we walked in soggy circles until lunchtime, finally heading for the Porte Dauphine exit to search for a café (a goal that oddly matched the difficulty of finding birds in the park in the rain).

>> Sometimes you have to set aside these guides for Michelin’s Guide Vert, or the equivalent.

The weather made real birds a bit harder to come by than May sunshine would have done (see part 1 here, concerning real birds), but fortunately there are many birds to be found in a city as ancient and well-stocked with ornament as Paris.  The unexpected female pheasant above provides a good starting point for our sightings of grouse-like and ground-loving birds who weren’t driven to shelter by a few raindrops.

It’s not always possible to positively ID species in artwork, but it’s clear the four sturdy birds shown below are intended to be Red-Legged Partridges (Alectoris rufa), Perdrix rouge en français. Prominently displayed in the Cluny Museum, the panel is stained glass, separated from its building, where it was probably once the lowest element of a church window in Normandy, dated to “around” 1500 CE.

I’ve read that the partridge is common in medieval Church iconography on account of certain aspects of its lifestyle, as asserted by early chroniclers of natural history.  They believed that the female partridge steals eggs from other hens, and will incubate them with her own clutch.  Little good it does her, the story goes, because upon hatching the purloined chicks recognize the voice of their real mother and run swiftly back to her, making partridge life-history an optimistic allegory for the Devil stealing souls who flock faithfully back to the Church.  Odder still are the old beliefs that the mere passage of air from a male partridge’s wings onto a hen could cause her to be impregnated, and that male partridges forced vanquished rival males to submit to sex. These morally slack tendencies, along with the oft-repeated etymology of the word Perdix from Greek perdesthai (πέρδεσθαι) “to break wind” referring to the birds’ clapping wing-noise, were enough to brand the species as impure by experts such as Isidore of Seville (<< left, perhaps relying on Pliny the Elder for his natural history), and are said to explain why partridges appear in religious art as emblems of reprobate behavior.

In an admittedly brief search through modern ornithological resources, I couldn’t find much evidence for any grouse habits that would give rise to these beliefs, except perhaps the fact that a Red-legged partridge female lays fairly large clutches — on average about a dozen eggs — which might look to some like the result of theft stemming from matronly covetousness; or that the wing-clapping, oddly vocalizing lek behavior of male grouse of many species (see Capercaillie link below) might account for the air-born insemination story.  However, according to modern ornithologists, Red-legged partridge are among the most monogamous of the gallinaceous birds, and longer-term pair-bonding has been observed among these partridge pairs than in other notoriously promiscuous members of the grouse clan.  You would think this gap between nature and natural history might limit the usefulness of the species as a bad example, except no doubt the clergy, through instructive sermons and eye-level stained glass panels, was able to ensure that their version reached the popular ear.  Nevertheless, I suspect Partridges were of interest to the pragmatic people of the Gallic countryside less for their christian symbolism than for their tasty flesh.

People’s abiding enthusiasm for the succulent aspects of France’s fauna is made plain on this building, at 134 Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement (photo E.Shock, click to enlarge). >>

Rain may have caused us to set aside our bird guides, but not our binoculars — I carry my small ones on trips like this because they’re handy for getting good looks at architectural detail like frescoes, stained glass on high, and gargoyles. With them I could see more clearly the partridges and other game animals found perched on flourishes and vegetal motifs in the ornate painted façade on the residence above what is now a celebrated cheese shop.  Originally the ground floor shop was a charcuterie-traiteur run by Facchetti, a butcher, who commissioned the frescoes in 1929 from the Italian artist Eldi Gueri.  He depicted bucolic pastel scenes of country life between the windows of the first floor, while the upper floors bear elaborate brocade-like brown and white patterns in the “style of the Italian renaissance”. They show game animals, including a pig, wild boar, deer, and a variety of birds, perhaps reflecting the varieties of saucissons and charcuteries Facchetti offered.

Among the birds are woodpeckers, pheasants, and grouse, including what must be a Capercaillie (upper bird to right >>) — a showy, giant, black grouse of Old World coniferous forests, depicted here with his tail fanned in courtship display, like his North American relative the Wild Turkey.  Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), le grand tétras en français, although a seriously excellent bird (check out its absurd courtship display here), is not now — nor ever was — native to the Paris metro area, except for the two mirrored images dwelling here in tinted plaster as idealized icons of the tasty abundance of the woods.  And the lower bird? — it has me stumped: perhaps a wood pigeon, with its longish tail and straight bill.  It’s not unlikely: one wood pigeon would make several meaty pies.  It appears to be paired with the bird below it (only partly visible in this edit) which is a dove, perhaps a turtle dove, to judge by the scaley pattern of its dorsal feathers.

On the same façade, the balcony birds look like woodpeckers, especially the one on the right with its crested head.  Are woodpeckers included here because they are a jaunty, spirited design presence, or does it mean they were considered fair game for the table?  I haven’t been able to discover an answer to this, although ornithologists and conservationists have for decades been working to diminish the long-standing Continental tradition of song-bird consumption by humans. These painted images are the only woodpeckers we saw on the trip, except for one quick glimpse of a real pic vert — the Green woodpecker (Picus viridis) — the Eurasian equivalent of our Flicker except largely green.  (Perhaps the green ones taste like mint?)

I remember from earlier travels in France that woodpeckers can be hard to find; they appear when they appear, or not — like woodpeckers anywhere. But unexpected sightings are one of the joys of birding, like this one: a two-foot tall street-art roadrunner.  Popularly known in France as “Bip Bip” after the familiar Chuck Jones cartoon character, the roadrunner’s French common name is Géocoucou, a more accurate handle than the folksy English name “roadrunner”, since phylogenetically the bird is actually a ground-dwelling cuckoo.

We wondered why a street artist had wheat-pasted the photo-image of a southwestern bird to a wall under the half-timbered shelter of a medieval Parisian alley.  No explanation was evident (to us) as to why it was posing among the sprayed graffiti.  As with ecclesiastical stained glass partridges, a viewer would just have to know what it meant, or be told.  But no St. Isidore of street art proposed to illuminate it for us.  How odd that of all of the bird imagery we’d encountered, the most recent one was the one whose significance I least understood. Still, I was happy to have spotted this bird.  It was as far from the desert as we were, yet it had found a home — even a temporary one, until the rain melted the soluble wheat-paste, or someone painted over it — in the heart of Paris.

(All photos A.Shock except where noted)

Etymological note: Choate, in his Dictionary of American Bird Names, primly avoids the earthy perdesthai etymology twice: first, in his entry for “Partridge”, by releasing nothing more airy than a fussy list of spelling variants in various European languages over time, and then again under the genus name “Perdix”, by reciting the tale of the youth of that name, Daedalus’ too-clever nephew, whom the craftsman nudged off a tower as unwanted competition.  But the boy was saved by Minerva (according to Ovid), who turned him into a bird — in fact, a partridge — just before he hit the ground.  Choate diminishes the force of this explanation by quoting MacCleod (of The Key to the Names of British Birds fame) who commented that the youth was more likely named after the bird than vice-versa, which seems to leave us inescapably with perdesthai, “to fart”, as the source for perdix, the Greek and Latin word for partridge, after all.

Tale of Two Tiny Tarantulas

On our way home from our weekend getaway, E and I stopped at Montezuma Well National Monument.  It’s one of our favorite places: a compact confluence of archæology, geology, and natural history. If you haven’t been there while visiting central Arizona, I highly recommend it.

>> Montezuma Well and beautiful fall color (all photos in this post either A or E Shock; click to enlarge)

As we were walking back to the truck, admiring the glow of the cottonwoods in the creek bed and dramatic clouds in a sapphire blue sky, I remembered to look down.  It was a good thing I did: underfoot were a couple of spiders.  Unaware of each other or of us, they were not going in straight lines as if to get from point to point, but were moving around deliberately, as if looking for eight lost contact lenses.  Each was a moderately large animal, the size of an adult wolf spider.  But they had round cephalothoraxes, and were black with lots of gray spiky hairs on their abdomens and stocky legs.  I bent over for a closer look, and wondered if I were seeing tiny tiny tarantulas.  Tiny for a tarantula, that is — they were still fairly large spiders, about an inch and a half from toe to toe.

<< on the go, places to be, females to find

We watched them for a while, got some pictures, and went on our way, hoping the squabbling tourist family on the trail behind us wouldn’t accidentally flatten the little guys through inattention.

Back on the highway in cell phone range, and uncertain if we’d really seen tarantulas, I consulted the internet and discovered this site: So You Found a Tarantula?  (In case you ever need to know how to transmit a live tarantula through the US Postal Service — and apparently there are good reasons to do this — this is your site.) It solicited questions, specimens for ID, and generated answers about things tarantular, including citizen science and advice about tarantula husbandry.

>> “Do not get too close: I am assuming the posture that indicates I am willing to kick irritating urticating hairs off my abdomen at you.”

Through this post on the website of the American Tarantula society, Dr. Brent Hendrixson of Millsaps College is trying to increase what’s known about American tarantulas, which for all our familiarity with them from heebie-jeebie movies turn out to be poorly understood in terms of their systematics and life history.

<< Keen sandal for scale.  Tiny tarantula is just to the left of the yellow leaf.

The website was fascinating, but it assumed you already knew you’d found a tarantula — it wasn’t set up to answer the question “Did I find a tarantula?”  And we weren’t sure: aren’t all tarantulas huge hairy hand-sized horrors?  Other tarantulas I’ve seen in the wild or in captivity were all enormous.  If tarantulas we had seen, then they were “toy” tarantulas, the chihuahuas, the tea-cup tarantulæ of the arachnid world.

After a little more research on the Web I was still undecided about their tarantularity, and decided to email Dr. Hendrixson photos of one of our dinky dudes asking if we had seen tarantulas, and if so, what kind?  Within minutes, I’d received an email reply from him: “Definitely a tarantula.”  This was exciting!  Better yet was the next part: “There are a number of ‘small’ species in Arizona and it turns out that this one is most likely undescribed (i.e., doesn’t have a name yet).”

>> Possibly, these were adult males  wandering about searching for females’ burrows, where the ladies were waiting for male callers.

Sure enough, according to this website, there are 14 species of tarantula, all in the genus Aphonopelma, that live in Arizona: three in Maricopa, three in Pima, three in Coconino, etc.  But in Yavapai County, situated between Coconino County and Maricopa County, no tarantulas have been scientifically described.

This doesn’t mean that we discovered an unknown, new species of tarantula (although it is a possibility).  It’s just that biologists haven’t poked around enough tarantula burrows to know who answers the door in this location — it could be an already described species that also lives in an adjacent county.  We’ll have to wait to see what science decides.

In the meantime, we can fantasize about eponymous lightning striking twice: first Thermogladius shockii, now Aphonopelma shockii?  Well, of course not (that’s not how scientific nomenclature-giving works), but you can’t blame us for pretending.  Nevertheless, I’m still excited about having spotted diminutive, un-named tarantulas in the wild, who are living their lives entirely unconcerned that no one has ever slapped a latinate moniker on their hirsute posteriors.

Bonus etymology

All American tarantulas belong to the genus Aphonopelma.  According to Henry F. Beechhold, this name is derived from the Greek elements aphonos, “silent”, and pelma, “[sole of the] foot”.  (I haven’t cracked Liddell and Scott on this one, so we’ll have to take his word for this.)  I think it’s unfair of tarantulas — even tiny ones — to be pussy-footed; I’d rather be able to hear them coming. On the other hand, I once heard the click of a cockroach’s feet as it walked across ceramic tile, and that was fairly disturbing, so maybe, on second thought, silence is golden.

Posted by Allison on Nov 22nd 2011 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,etymology/words,field trips,Invertebrata,natural history | Comments (1)

A new Spot the Bird… kind of

Well, it’s not actually a bird.  Perhaps these posts should be called “Not the Bird”.

Here is an appropriately faded Old West-y snap shot of a neighbor of ours, taken with my cell phone.  Can you spot the non-avian subject?  It’s a Desert Iguana, posing with dignity as if for a Victorian formal portrait, lurking in the heat of the day under a creosote bush a block from our house.

<< Desert iguana under creosote (photo A.Shock). Click once to enlarge.

These lizards are both camera-shy and fast, and this was the best shot I could get: right after clicking it, the liz shot off across the broiling pavement back to the other side of the road and disappeared.

Desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis: “thirsty lizard” with a “notable back”) are fairly large lizards — this one was twelve inches from nose to tail-tip — closely associated with creosote bushes, which provide them with food, shelter, and shade.  I’m always thrilled when I see one in our ‘hood, which is only a couple of times a year.  Unlike our other local lizards who eat other creatures and shun the heat of the day by retreating to shelter and burrows, these pale pinkish, blunt-nosed lizards are primarily vegetarian thermophiles who are most frequently seen active and out in the heat of the day in the very hottest part of the summer.  This one was basking on the edge of our black-asphalt street, swishing its long tail slowly back and forth before it fled the camerazza (me).  Click here for an earlier Three Star Owl post on our neighborhood iguanas, here for more species info, and here for still more info and great photos.  If you’re too blasé to click the second link, you will miss reading about this species’ interesting natural history, including why it eats the fecal pellets of other iguanas, and what its thigh glands secrete.  Really, you need to know, so go ahead and click.

Spot the Bird answer: rock and wren

20110417-021458.jpgTo the right is the photo key to the Rock wren of the current Spot the Bird. Rock wrens rock one of my favorite Latin names in the bird world (along with Upupa epops, the hoopoe): Salpinctes obsoletus. According to Choate, the name comes from Greek salpinctes, “a trumpeter” and Latin obsoletus, “indistinct”, referring to its ringing voice and drab plumage. These contradictory traits explain why the little bird is often heard before it’s seen.  Some of you who wrote to tell me you found it said that after not seeing it for a while “it just suddenly popped out of the picture”.  That’s the way it tends to happen in person with these guys, too.

Below is a rock wren up close, singing its song. You can see its long, de-curved bill, useful for probing rocks and crevices for insects and spiders.  It’s also good for carrying and manipulating small rocks: Rock wrens construct a pavement of tiny flat stones and pebbles leading up to their nest, which is concealed in a hole or crack in a rock.  No one (except the wrens) knows why they do this.  (<< photo E.Shock, taken at Fremont Saddle in the Superstition mountains) One thing the beak does not do is take up water: Rock wrens are thought to get all their moisture through their prey, and don’t drink even when water is available.

Speaking of water, E would like me to add that the rocks in the top photo, along Castle Hotsprings Road, are significantly hydrothermally altered.  You know, subjected to intense heat in a moist environment, either at depth, or nearer the surface, as in a hotspring.  I don’t suppose the rock wren cares, except that the hydrothermal process has left the rock cracked and full of holes, which is just what a rock wren likes.  Click here for a tale about another hydrothermally-altered rock that hosted many organisms.

Posted by Allison on Apr 21st 2011 | Filed in birds,etymology/words,natural history,nidification,rox,spot the bird | Comments (0)

The Year’s First New Bird

Last post was the New Year’s first bird — a frosty Costa’s hummingbird — but this one is the Year’s First New Bird, and it’s a hummer, too.

We just returned from Baja California, and in the mission village of San Javier on the dramatic east side of the Sierra de la Giganta in Baja California Sur, Xantus’s hummingbirds (Basilinna or Hylocharis xantusii) were much in evidence. They’re pretty little birds, medium-sized for a hummer (about the size of Anna’s) and colorful, sporting a bright red bill, buffy chest and belly, azure and emerald green upper-parts, black throat, blue-black forehead, a white line behind the eye, and a cinnamon tail.

Behind the Misión San Javier de Viggé-Biaundó, in the three-hundred year old olive grove planted by its founding Jesuit missionaries, Xantus’s hummers zipped back and forth, feeding on chuparosa flowers sprawled over the bulky stone walls (photo right), perched in the thin tips of the olive branches (below), and scolded each other. This is a hummer that lives no where else on earth but central and southern Baja California, and we had tried unsuccessfully to see it once before on an earlier Baja trip, so it was delightful to get so many good views.

(All hummer photos thanks to E.Shock and his magic big little zoom lens, in difficult light conditions with tiny moving targets! Click to enlarge.)

The man whose shares his name with the bird had an interesting history: Xántus János, John Xantus de Vesey (left), was a Hungarian exile who came to the US in the middle of the 19th century, and worked with Hammond and Baird (also names familiar to birders and biologists). He had a short-lived consulship in Mexico — according to Wikipedia he was dismissed for ineptitude — but was there long enough to collect a specimen of this endemic hummer.

In his lifetime, Xantus’s name was also attached to a blenny, a croaker, a gecko, a pelagic crab, a murrelet, a wrasse, a night-lizard, and several plants. In addition, according to an anecdote recounted to me by a Baja historian, during his consulship Xantus left quite a few of his own chromosomes in the local gene pool, along with his Hungarian family name Xántus, which reportedly can still be found as a surname in Baja.

Posted by Allison on Jan 14th 2011 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,etymology/words,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)


As long ago as the Old Kingdom (the middle of the third millenium BCE), the Egyptians used the eye of the Falcon — the eye of Horus, the falcon-headed deity — as an apotropaic, or protective symbol, wearing the still-popular faience amulets as personal ornament, or tucking them into the wrappings of mummies.

The Left Eye of Horus, also known as the Wedjat Eye, was known to be particularly potent, and its resurrective power was demonstrated by bringing Osirus back to life. According to the British Museum:

The name wedjat means ‘the sound one’, referring to the lunar left eye of Horus that was plucked out by his rival Seth during their conflict over the throne. The restoration of the eye is variously attributed to Thoth, Hathor or Isis. The injury to the eye and its subsequent healing were believed to be reflected in the waxing and waning of the moon.

Horus’s falcon counterpart is said to be the Lanner (Falco biarmicus), a falcon of southern Europe, Africa, and the middle east. We don’t have Lanners living wild in this hemisphere, but most falcons display the typical black “speed stripe” below the eye, like cheetahs, which is the distinctive characteristic of the Wedjat Eye symbol.  To illustrate, here’s a detail of a clay portrait of a native falcon I recently completed: the left eye of a male American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America, and terrorizer of finches, grasshoppers, and small rodents.

Really, I don’t know if a Kestrel’s eye is so much a bringer of life, as it is a see-er of lunch, but, that’s life-giving to a kestrel, if not to the lunch.

Posted by Allison on Nov 23rd 2010 | Filed in art/clay,birds,close in,etymology/words,three star owl | Comments (2)

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