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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.

I’ve always wondered what the “peanut gallery” looks like. Now I know….

… it’s part of our roof.


Young Rock Squirrel peering out from under our tiles, where it was born. They are natural in the desert and welcome in our yard, but a problem in the attic and walls.

(Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on May 27th 2013 | Filed in furbearers,nidification,yard list | Comments (2)

Further joys of nidification

There are places like this in the garden and around the house:

nestwagongolden glovespeachflat

Laissez faire places, where neglected green wagons fill with garden miscellany, well-worn gloves are left out in the dust, empty peach flats perch forlornly on footstools. These neglected corners are golden places — especially in spring, when things are looking for private spots to nest. The three opportunities above were discovered by hens of one sort or another, females looking for somewhere to hole up with their young, to tuck in their larvæ, to get uninterrupted rest.

<hideyhen< Nid the First.  The small red arrow points to where a Gambel’s quail hen has been sitting tight in the debris in our garden wagon for a few days.  She’s easier to spot in the photo below, a tight telephoto of her wary eye from the same angle.  I wish her luck: although she’s well-hidden from bumbling humans, we’re not sure how the youngsters will find their way over the sides of the wagon once they hatch.  We have a policy of non-interference in these circumstances, but at some point, a ramp may have to be constructed.  Update: while the hen was away briefly, it was possible to count 9 eggs in place.

hidden hen

Nid the Second.  In the desert, it’s advisable to always look into a shoe before slipping your foot in.  The same goes for gloves left outside for a week: E tried to put on a work glove this morning, and found that his fingers didn’t go all the way in.  Looking inside, he discovered that a female leaf-cutter bee had found the interiors of the stiff leather fingers just right for stashing her eggs (alongfingernid with food for the eventual larvæ) between individually-constructed layers of soft leaves — three green tubes and one purple.  The colors of the tubes depend on the bee’s plant selection.  A spare pair of gloves in the garage that no one was using enabled E to get the yardwork done, and the nest-glove and its contents were left to hatch or be scavenged.

Nid the Third. The final nesting location is more domestic, and will not be news to anyone with cats: it’s the simple miracle of a box spontaneously generating a cat of frootflatprecisely equivalent volume.  Here Miss B has condensed in the peach-flat we call the “Summer Palace” since it sits by the sliding glass door, allowing the sights and smells of the back yard to be taken in at leisure, even in sleep.

With all of these casual nesting choices being made in objects intended for another purpose, I’d like to point out the irony of the fact that the deliberate, pricey nest box we set up for woodpeckers and/or screech owl is unused, so far.  Of course: it’s the wildlife correlation to kids ignoring the toy, but playing with the box it came in.

(All photos by A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Apr 20th 2013 | Filed in birds,close in,cool bug!,natural history,nidification,the cats,yard list | Comments (2)

Wren rocks

When you get out, you see things.

On a recent drive through a favorite stretch of desert mountain backroad, we saw a small thing that I’ve always wanted to see, ever since reading about it.  We saw it.  And I got a picture of it.  It’s this:


A tiny bird in a tiny hole in a big desert-dirt wall above a desert dirt road.   (Photo A.Shock)

That’s a Rock Wren — Salpinctes obsoletus — standing at the entrance to its nest cavity.  It’s not the bird itself that I’ve been hankering to see, because I’ve seen a few Rock Wrens: in the right place and time, they’re largely (or small-ly) unavoidable in craggy arid regions of the western US, Mexico, and Canada.  We even have them in our neighborhood occasionally.  What I was so excited about is the small expanse of rock chips to the left of the bird: the Rock Wren’s very rocks!

It’s not actually a pile, please, it took more effort than that.  It’s a pavement.  A mysterious pavement.  Rock Wrens are known to construct paved areas leading to their nests, and sometimes to lay a foundation of flat stones under the cup nest they construct in a crack, crevice, hollow, split boulder, or other rocky vug. But no one knows why, exactly.

Building this pavement requires a lot of time, energy, and effort.  Each bird of a nesting pair carries stone after stone in its beak from its source to the nest — sometimes as many as two or three hundred, then deliberately sets them in front of its chosen inaccessible and hidden location.  Both males and females have been seen doing this, although some observers report that it’s mostly the females who pave.  The stones are flat, and though they’re small by our human scale, they can weigh up to a third of the bird’s body weight.  Theories about why they go to the trouble lie as thick on the ground as wren-rocks, ranging from pair-bonding to mate-evaluating activities, to nest and nestling thermoregulation, to steep site soil stabilization, to landing pad or sign-post or defensive barrier.  Ornithologists studying an unrelated old-world species, the Blackstart, hypothesized that stone pavements or ramparts built by their subject birds could function as a predator defense system, providing early warning of a predator as it moves rocks aside to get into the hidden part of the nest. (In this case, the study was done in Israel in the Ein Gedi Nature Preserve, and the Blackstart pairs closest to the archæological sites there employed potsherds along with rocks to build their ramparts — how Bronze-Age is that?)

I watched this pair of Rock Wrens for twenty minutes as they fed their nestlings in the deep dark of the niche.  The babies were concealed in shadow, but mom and dad called frequently — Rock Wrens are very vocal — and took turns flying in and out of the small adit, their curved bills full of insects pried from crevices in nearby rock and streamside boulders.

(I should add that it wasn’t necessary to get close the nest site to watch the parents and take photos: this location was in a road-cut about 15 feet above the dirt road at a creek crossing, so I just walked up the road a bit to get an eye-level observation spot away from the nest, and watched quietly with binox and a telephoto lens. I don’t need to remind you how important it is to never agitate nesting birds, or wasps, mountain lions, or your sleepless neighbor with a new baby, right?  It’s rude and at best stressful for everyone, if not potentially harmful.)

Posted by Allison on Apr 18th 2013 | Filed in birds,field trips,natural history,nidification,rox | Comments (1)

Subsequent “toad” extractions

‘Tis the Season.

Every morning when I get up, I check the pool for unintentional overnight swimmers. Usually there’s nothing, but when there is it’s often a sunspider, or a scorpion, or beetle; sometimes it’s a hapless mammal like a pocket mouse. Sometimes it’s a rescue, sometimes a recovery, to use the clear but courteously oblique terms of search and rescue.

>> hatchling afloat contemplating options, fully aware of looming predators, uncertain of their intentions

This time of year — at least this year — it’s spadefoot hatchlings. We seem to have successfully hosted a batch of hatch of these Sonoran native amphibians (toad-like but technically not, more accurately referred to as a toad-like amphibian — the way a javelina is not an actual pig, Sus, but a pig-like mammal). We are happy and proud, of course, but a little surprised, since we thought our local population of Couch’s spadefoots had dried up. Up to this point, we weren’t sure our 2008 efforts at re-introduction (read here) positively took, and we haven’t heard their sheep-like bleating mating calls this year, despite several seemingly appropriate thunder-blasting, downpouring monsoon storms of the sort we’re assured is considered by “toads” to be romantically stimulating.

Yet here they are in our yard, Couch’s spadefoot hatchlings, and so the resulting morning pool check is carried out. Usually this is what happens: I go out, check the strainer, the hose, the tile water line, the open water, the bottom (for victims, although we’ve never found a drowned toad), and fail to find a “toad”. Then an hour later E goes out and announces, “A! ‘Toad’!” (“Janet! Donkeys!”) From this we know that either a) the toads are jumping in after sunrise, or b) I’m blind to Couch’s spadefoots. Since a tiny ‘toad’ throws hard-to-miss ripples from its bi-lateral, efficient frog-kicking tour around the perimeter, we think it must be a). a) is the more desirable answer because it means that the “toadlets” aren’t spending a long time in a water feature they can’t climb out of (we do have various ramp-like structures set up for self-extraction from the pool, but smaller animals don’t always find their way to them). Answer a) also means I’m not blind to “toads.”

<< scooped up in a kitchen strainer, not an inch long

The paddler we rescued this morning — pictured in this post, both images — appears to be a lighter “toad” than the last one rescued, with more highly contrasty spots, which is an indication we’re probably dealing with a batch rather than a one-off. Hurray spadefoots! You’re welcome to use our overgrown, puppy-dog-free yard as a nursery any time!

(Photos A.Shock — they’re large files, click for better look. Check out the blood supply in delicate veins on throat in bottom photo, and a glimpse of dark spade on rear feet of upper photo)

Pink eye door

We have not been stuffing our keyhole with magenta tissue paper.

The local leaf-cutter bees have been trimming neat circles out of fresh, hot pink Bougainvillea bracts and carefully layering them with pollen in a tubular nest for their eggs. The eggs will hatch into grubs — females deepest* so that the woodpecker or cactus wren gets the vulnerable males near the opening (the population needs fewer males to successfully reproduce, the theory goes) — which will eat the pollen and leaf material and hatch into another generation of solitary bees.  Solitary bees don’t produce honey, and aren’t at all aggressive, but are vital pollinators in the garden.  If you don’t have handy keyholes in your screen doors, you can buy or make nest-boxes with drill holes or bamboo to encourage them.  A few scalloped leaves on your bougs or roses is worth it!

Collateral observation: I use this worn lever door-handle fifty times a day, and I never see it close up like in the photo — hadn’t appreciated the “greek key” design circling the hole.  Also, I’m pleased to see that its patina is just getting good!

*I couldn’t find out if the gender of the eggs develops as a result of depth, or somehow the female eggs are laid first.  The former sounds more plausible to me, but I’d love any ideas?

(For more info, click here . It’s by a British blogger, but the basic lifestyle info is the same for this type of bee on either side of the Atlantic; be sure to enlarge his photos of the cutaway nesting chambers and the circular cuts the bees make on thin, pliable leaves).

Posted by Allison on Jun 15th 2012 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,nidification,oddities,yard list | Comments (2)


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)

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)

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