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What luck!

This morning, I found a golden egg, high up in a tree.

Nestled into the rough bark of our backyard mesquite, a magical bird had laid a golden egg.  This was excellent: what a windfall! — my fortune was secured, if only I could reach it.

But it was too far over my head, so I had to satisfy myself with longing for its golden curves through binoculars.

And guess what, it wasn’t an egg at all, but some type of -quat or other: kum-, or perhaps lo-. Yes, that was what it was: a small orange fruit, probably a loquat since a neighbor has a tree, wedged into somewhere safe by a bird, or maybe a squirrel, to be retrieved later.

Who would do such a thing, hiding a golden treasure in plain sight?  The jammer would have to have sufficient strength, beak/jaw gape, toe-grasp, cleverness and agility to handle hauling a small fruit into a tree, and stashing it on a vertical trunk.  There are several candidates, but I strongly suspect the Curve-billed thrashers, who have just fledged their ravenous brood and are working incessantly, combing every crevice in the yard to feed their greedy-gaped offspring.  These industrious foragers will eat anything, seed, suet, bug, or fruit.  And they have an eye for treasure, just as golden as loquats.

(All images A.Shock).

Posted by Allison on Jun 7th 2011 | Filed in birds,botany,drawn in,nidification,oddities,unexpected,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)

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)

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!

A Little the worse for wear

They don’t all make it.  E found a dead fledgling hummingbird in the path across the wash, under the palo verde tree. It was dried, mummified, an inoffensive inanimate thing, not even worth the ants picking over.  We buried it under a nearby chuparosa, a favored food of hummers.  (Photos E.Shock)

Top: detail of foot, with primary feathers behind.

Middle: detail of rump feathers and tail feathers, showing juvenile buffy-edged plumage with a hint of metallic green.  The green deck feathers (middle tail feathers) are just growing in.

Bottom: whole little corpse, with partly-grown baby-beak.

Hen Triumphant!

We’ve been watching a hummingbird Hen — we think she’s an Anna’s (Calypte anna) — on a nest since the middle of February.  Lots of people have passed close to her chosen spot, which was fairly low in a crooked Aleppo pine in our backyard, right over a gravel path through the side of the garden.  There was a big wind storm, and chilly late-winter temperatures.

>> Hummingbird nestling (photo A.Shock; click to embiggen)

But the Hen kept sitting, and we finally saw the results of her diligence: one slightly fluffy, fairly well-grown chick peering out over the edge of the small cup-like nest (see photo above).  There’s going to be one more influx of people in the next couple of days to try its courage.  But at least the weather is warm now, and many more flowers are blooming, including some recovered chuparosa flowers, so when the new little bird fledges, there should be lots of nectar and gnats to learn on.

And, for those who follow this blog regularly, I believe I forgot to mention here the last appearance of the unusual (for Phoenix) male Broad-billed hummingbird in our yard last month.  He stuck around until the 16th of February, and we haven’t seen him since.

In other hummingbird news around the yard, yesterday, March 14, we saw our first-of-season Black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) at one of the feeders.

<< Black-chinned hummingbird magnet (Three Star Owl/A.Shock)

Or rather, saw and heard: the males’ wings produce a whirring zizzz in flight: usually we hear them in the yard before we see them.  These hummers are slender, and the males have a black head which shows a purple swash at the bottom edge along their neck, but only if the light is just right.


Posted by Allison on Mar 15th 2011 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,increments,natural history,nidification,yard list | Comments (2)

Oh say can you KIK…

…by the dawnzerly light?

<< Here’s one of the local Cooper’s hawks preening in the pre-dawn light above my tent “office”.  Every morning at EXACTLY 5:48 by the alarm clock, the pair begins their day by skrekking KIK a couple of solo kiks, then rolling out a long stream of duo kik kik kik kik kik kik kiks.  But the crows are up a few minutes earlier, also clacking and giving their hollow caws. (Side note: crow is okay, but raven is better, if you’re lucky enough to live where it live.  I missed raven when we lived in St. Louis, although there there are two species of crow, American and Fish; it almost makes up for being ravenfree).  The crows are nesting too, and fly into the palms with beakfuls of sticks.

American crow (all photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!) >>

I haven’t had a chance to bird the campground systematically, but casual encounters besides crows and coop’s are yellow-rumped warbler, a common yellow-throat who sings every morning on the other side of the fence, mallards who stroll about the campsites like cats, snapping up dropped hotdog buns and popcorn, a white-crowned sparrow or two, ruby-crowned kinglets scolding fussily overhead, and Anna’s hummingbirds, a hen of which kind was moments ago diligently gathering spiderweb from the plank fence just feet from where I’m eating breakfast.  She took her time — eventually I got the photo on the left. <<

>>Cooper’s hawk in the morning sun.  It was being hassled by the crow above.

Today I’ll be at the San Diego Audubon Festival at the Marina Conference Center on Mission Bay from 11am until 5pm, or maybe a little later.  If you’re in the vicinity, come on by: there’s still both beastie and wazzo wares to check out, and other artists and exhibits to enjoy!

Posted by Allison on Mar 5th 2011 | Filed in birds,Events,field trips,natural history,nidification,three star owl | Comments (0)

I know where the Hen she sits…

…and also why it’s called “Broad-billed”.

Although those two statements concern two different birds.

Update: as of Friday morning, “Bill”, the Broad-billed hummingbird, is still reporting in to our backyard feeders, passing the 72-hour mark (I first observed him on Monday afternoon).  We guess he’ll be here until he’s not!

Breeding season for Anna’s hummers is in full swing here in Phoenix.  The males are executing their showy flights, shrieking down from a height with their gorgets flashing scarlet, making a loud peeping pop with their tail feathers like tiny bullroarers, then rising vertically upward to do it again and again, usually targeting a perched female to impress her with this routine.

<< Anna’s hummer on current nest in Aleppo pine (click to enlarge; all photos A.Shock)

And from my studio I’ve been watching a female Anna’s gathering spider webs and flying away with her beak wrapped in gossamer, a sure sign of “nidification,” otherwise known as nesting.

When our trees were trimmed last week, we searched hard beforehand to make sure there were no current nests in the trees affected, and didn’t find anything. However, late this afternoon, while scanning for the errant Broad-billed hummingbird who has been working our feeders, I did find a nest, just by luck: I saw the Hen fly up into a low pine branch, and stick.  Binox showed me a little beaky head above an apparently completed nest, built above a pine cone on a nearly horizontal branch.  From everyone’s perspective, it’s not a great spot: it’s fairly low over the path through the part of our yard we call the Sonoran Garden, and E could (and probably unintentionally will) bump the branch with his head as he walks by. To me it seems a very exposed location.  In fact, while I was watching her, the Broad-bill zoomed up and perched on a smaller branch just inches below the nest with hen, apparently unaware of her.  She knew he was there: she froze, and waited perfectly still until he went away, which was soon — he’s a restless body.

>> Male Broad-billed hummer, out of place, out of season, but he’s been here for 48 hours, that we know of.  (Click to enlarge.)

The Broad-bill flew a short distance away and settled on a preferred perch in the “ugly” lemon tree.  Although the photo isn’t perfectly sharp, you can see that the base of his bill is slightly flattened, making it look broad, especially in comparison with the needle-like rest-of-the-beak.

Incidentally, for the first time ever, the normally prolific “ugly” lemon tree set one whole lemon as its entire crop this season, and it dropped that during the tree-trimming episode.  So as far as I’m concerned the shirking citrus can bear the burden of a tiny colorful bird as its tangy winter crop for a while longer.

Posted by Allison on Feb 9th 2011 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,increments,natural history,nidification,yard list | Comments (2)

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