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Much the most super-est!

No clouds where you are? Get out and look at our Moon this weekend. It’s a Supermoon. And not just any super moon, it’s the superest of the year.

Tomorrow night and the next night the moon will be at its best (that’s Saturday and Sunday, 22-23 June 2013). Here’s last night’s moon — Pre-Super — as a preview (click to enlarge):

pre super giant

Waxing gibbous, 20 June 2013 (photo A.Shock)

The term “supermoon” has recently been coined by media and some astronomers to refer to a full moon that coincides with its closest approach to earth (or perigee). What’s special about a supermoon is that it actually looks a bit bigger in the sky than at other times (although, don’t fall for some of the wacky claims circling the internet about just how big: it’s not going to look like ET’s bicycle moon). For more scientific and understandably presented info, click here.

The Man in the Moon has never shown himself to me.  When I look, I see Quetzalcoatl’s obliging Moonrabbit, her ears at two o’clock, pointing right.  And, why stop at waxing gibbous — let’s wax meta for a moment: Professor Danneru would like to point out the One-Clawed Crab in the Moon, the lunar apparition his mysterious ancient poets saw. That works for me. Can you see the Crab in the Moon?

Posted by Allison on Jun 21st 2013 | Filed in increments,natural history,rox | Comments (0)

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.

Not my hen

Anna’s hummers are capable of setting clutches just about year round in warm climate states like Arizona and California.  The little males have been doing their combo territorial and courtship dives — which culminate in a loud, popping “CHEEP” sound since December, at least in our neighborhood.  This little Hen in Tucson has gotten a bit of an early start to her reproductive year: here’s a digiscoped shot (acceptable if not perfectly sharp) of her on her fresh nest >>

I was visiting Kate‘s house in Tucson on my way back from Wings Over Willcox, when the motion of the tiny busy hen happened to catch my eye as she flew up into her nest with a beakful of some sort of light-colored fibers to add to the construction.  Mature Aleppo pines seem to be a favored nidification tree for Anna’s, where nests are often built on top of the smallish pinecones, as in this case.  I wish her luck, and I hope there’s not too much more winter weather for her to sit tight through!

(Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jan 18th 2012 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,increments,natural history,nidification | Comments (0)


Here’s the total lunar eclipse from the Phoenix area this morning, just before totality.  The desert skies were clear, so that we had a wonderful dark sky view of the first half of the event.  But totality began right at sunrise, so just as the whole moon was shadowed, it sank in a sky too bright to see the light reappear along the upper rim.  Still, it was spectacular!  Above, just digital zoom on a Canon Elph; below, digiscoped on a 50mm Nikon Fieldscope.  (All photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Dec 10th 2011 | Filed in increments,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Another Potter

Here’s a slightly arty image of an un-opened Potter Wasp nest on the front wall of our house, with a drawing pencil for scale.  Click here for more info on what these tiny clay pots are, and why the wasps build them.  One of these days, I hope to be in the right place in the right time, and see the new wasp break out and fly away.

(Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jul 30th 2011 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,increments,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

New out of the box

Though the lady bug life cycle has been covered here before, I can’t resist posting this photo of a brand new Lady Bird Beetle and its recently exited pupal casing.

>> the bug and the box it came in. Click to enlarge, it’s a nice big file (photo A.Shock).

Just a couple of days ago, I’d noticed the pupa on an artichoke leaf in the veggie garden. It was practically the first evidence I’d seen of the spring lady bug generation’s progress since finding the eggs on the cilantro earlier this month. Later, I’d only managed to find one active larva, so I was pleased to locate this pupa. Sunday morning I went to show it to E, and there it was — split open now, while its erstwhile occupant, having backed out of the crack in the posterior of the casing, pumped its new flight wings full of hemolymph in the bright morning sun. The unripe-tomato-y quality of the elytra at this stage is perfect, starting out transluscent waxy-yellow and slowly deepening to the familiar cherry-tomato red. The spots appear and darken gradually like darkroom images, gaining contrast and intensity as the carapace dries and hardens.

The Hidden Egg

This time of year the world is pregnant with nests full of eggs, tiny cottontails hopping and hiding in the yard, fledgling birds following their parents food-begging insistently, new yellow-green leaves and catkins on the mesquite trees, and glorious cactus blooms.

<< Praying mantis egg-case on a Palo Verde twig (photo E.Shock). >> close-up of a mesquite catkin (photo A.Shock)

But as this acceleration of generation increases, we see another side of abundance: broken eggs on the ground, young birds not experienced enough to stay out of the street, small mammals learning the hard way about the swimming pool, an adult gopher snake swallowing a tiny cottontail.

Spring is a scavenger’s prime-time. We’ve been watching an Inca Dove carcass decompose under the tangerine tree. In the dry desert, this isn’t a grisly thing: if not enjoyed by raccoons, foxes, or feral cats, the soft parts are quickly consumed by the local scuttling scavengers, usually ants or dermestid beetles and the like. Inca Doves are small, anyway — there’s not much to them, and small bodies don’t have time to bloat, liquefy, or smell very much.

>> Inca dove skeleton (photo A.Shock)

Decomposition is short and if not sweet, at least efficient. What was an intact dove carcass lying in the leaf litter a couple of days ago was, by yesterday, an articulated partial skeleton. The head was gone, but the ribs were still festooned with a few feathers, and the pelvis dangled two femurs and a foot. The ants’ tidy de-fleshing revealed a possible cause of death invisible to us before: egg-binding. Look below the rib-cage under the vertebrae and pelvis, and you can see an intact egg, cracked but still heavy with its contents, in place in the abdominal cavity.

<< Here’s a side-view. The large blade-shaped bone on the right is the little dove’s keel, or breast-bone; the egg sits snugly — perhaps a little too snugly — under the tiny pelvis.

I don’t have my own photo of an Inca Dove — although they’re common in our yard, they’re camera-shy, at least in my experience. But if you need the reassurance of a living image, or more info about Inca Doves, click here, for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology entry on the species.

And just to sweeten the pot because after all it is the holiday season, here’s a photo I posted last spring, of two terribly tiny bunnies snuggled into the form their mother scraped out for them. Go ahead; click to enlarge to see their tiny fluffy details. It was either this or one of the gopher snake eating a baby cottontail, but I think I’ll save that for next Easter.

>> two infant cottontails stashed in a form (photo A.Shock)

Heretofore missing eggs

Last fall our herb garden hosted a successful crop of parsley, cilantro, and Lady bird beetles (AKA Lady bugs).  But we only noticed the bounty of bugs when we found roving hordes of hungry beetle larvæ voraciously devouring hapless aphids.  Pictures of the process of larval metamorphosis were captured  and posted here, but all the eggs had already hatched, leaving the beginning of the adventure undocumented. Now the cycle has begun again, and happily this time we caught it from the start.

>>Here are lovely saffron-colored lady bug eggs on our bolting parsley, awaiting transition into fearsome predatory eating machines. (Thanks to E for the photo.)

We’ll have to be careful when we harvest for tabbouleh!

Where are the Owl Hives?

The Owl Hives are in Chandler.

On Friday night, March 18, the All AZ Clay Invitational Exhibition opened at the Chandler Center for the Arts, displaying the work of more than 40 clay artists from all over the state of Arizona.  Among them is an installation of artefaux by me, entitled Assemblage: Owl Hives.

>> Assemblage: Owl Hives (photo and piece, A.Shock 2011)

The piece is composed of a variety of related, archeologically-themed elements, and is intended to be viewed on its own æsthetic merits.  But, if you read this blog regularly, parts of the installation will look familiar to you, since I’ve posted bits and pieces of it before, in progress.  Also, in the Assemblage, you may recognize a tie-in to the fictional posts that appear here irregularly: according to the signs, the piece is purported to be on loan from the august but mysterious Ganskopf Foundation.  In addition, the ubiquitous and insinuating Dr. Darius Danneru has graciously provided an excerpt from a recent article, supplying authoritative and scholarly, if prolix, context for the piece.  <<

I hope you can stop by the Chandler Center for the Arts’ Vision Gallery anytime before April 16, when the show closes, to see what the Arizona clay community is up to, including three pieces by Don Reitz, from the CCA’s collection.  More info below, or click on Three Star Owl events(Photo E.Shock>>)

Exhibition Dates, Hours, and Location:

March 18 – April 16, 2011
Vision Gallery Hours: Monday – Friday, 10 am – 5 pm, Saturdays, Noon – 4 pm
at: Chandler Center for the Arts
250 North Arizona Avenue
Chandler AZ 85225
For more information call 480-782-2695.

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