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So much for 2015 – now here’s something super and bloody!

Even with all the, errr…. stuff that’s come down the pipes in a bit over a year, I was shocked – SHOCKED – to see that it’s been just over a year since I’ve posted anything here in

The less said about all that the better (I’m looking at you ID thief, Hurricane Norbert, prankish and bullying 2015 Monsoon season, Volkswagen, and anything else I may have forgotten that’s sucked the energy, concentration, and joie-de-vivre – not to mention short-term memory – out of me in the past 16 months).

So here’s last night’s Superbloodharvestocotillomoon Eclipse, shot from my driveway through ocotillo canes just as it’s coming out of totality. I’m pretty sure this was a narrow escape for the moon from the serpent’s bite of the Ocotillo’s thorny jaws (a lot like my escape from the past year). Clickit to embiggit, it’s better bigger:

ocotillomoonhoriz web


Posted by Allison on Sep 28th 2015 | Filed in natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (2)

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).

Peaches and cream

The young peachy person shown below has been hanging out in our Old Scottsdale yard, eating seed-fluffs off of Creosote bushes. It’s a Rosy-faced Lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis, formerly known as the Peach-faced lovebird) with naturally-occurring variant plumage called “Lutino”. The image inset bottom left shows a bird with the standard “wild” coloration, also photo’d in our yard.


Rosy-faced Lovebirds have been naturalizing themselves in the greater Phoenix area since the mid-1980s, and are probably the descendants of escaped pets. For the full story, read Kurt Radamaker and Troy Corman’s excellent account on the Arizona Field Ornithologists website.

This lemony youngster flies with two “normal”-plumaged individuals, presumably its parents. Although it doesn’t show in this photo, the bird has a few reddish feathers coming in above its beak, the first indication that it will soon sport a coral forehead. Breeders offer this azureless color variant under the name “Lutino”, but the fact that this bird is a youngster suggests that it hatched ferally, and is not an escaped pet.

Update: with a bit of further research, I turned up some info on Lovebird genetics. The Lutino plumage is a sex-linked recessive gene, which means that with two visually “wild”-plumaged parents, a visibly Lutino offspring is always female — our little Lutino is a Lutina.

Variations on a lovebird theme (photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on May 26th 2013 | Filed in birds,natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (1)


Really, they’re not so very different.peaspod

(Composite photo of young Gilded Flicker and a whimsical, biologically unsound Three Star Owl clay pterosaur effigy, by A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on May 24th 2013 | Filed in art/clay,birds,oddities,three star owl,unexpected,unnatural history,yard list | Comments (0)

The Mystery of the One-armed Bandit and other Tales of the Cold War

Just a few days ago, we experienced a rare deep-freeze in the Southwest deserts.  During a normal winter it can get cold in the low desert — not Canada cold, or even Iowa cold, of course — but this was an unusually lengthy and deep cold for our desert, sinking well below freezing for several nights running, and not warming up past the mid-40s during the day. One spot in our yard went below 20F for three nights in a row.  That’s enough to cause trauma and die-back even in hardy native plants.  Birds spend long daylight hours feeding frantically at both natural and human-provided food sources; mammals, too, unless they’re equipped to shelter in cavities, crevices, or caves, or underground like the local reptiles and arthropods.

<< Old-school thermometer hung in a young saguaro in the cold part of our yard

Cold-powered hunger also can make animals “tame” — fearless hummingbirds slurp at feeders as they’re being carried out to the trees, and aloof night-time hunters like owls and coyotes will boldly stretch their workdays into sunlit hours, and onto back porches and front yards.  This boldness can increase success in finding nourishment, but it also increases exposure, which can be risky for animals who rely on not being seen for both safety and effective foraging.  Traveling in California during an extreme coldsnap many years ago, E and I saw three bobcats in a week, because the stealthy nocturnal predators were out in daylight hours hunting sparrows and small mammals themselves made unusually unwary by the desperation of hunger.

But a mitigating feature of desert freezes is how quickly warmth follows cold.  There’s no lengthy spring warm-up. Within a day or two of our arctic chill, daytime temps have already bounced up to the 70s, 10F degrees above the seasonal average.  Expert survivalists don’t waste this advantage: as soon as the sun can warm air and soil again and melt pools and trickles, animals re-appear in search of food.  This morning I spotted a coyote foraging in the neighbors’ front yard in broad daylight. After a cold snap, temperatures may rebound quickly, but cold leaves many animals hungrier than usual, and without whichever of their plant or small-animal food resources that succumbed to the cold. In the days and weeks afterwards, sometimes extraordinary tactics are required for survival.

>> An aloe blossom that survived, and a female Lesser Goldfinch who didn’t (photo A.Shock)

That might explain E‘s sighting of a Stripe-tailed scorpion (Hoffmannius/Væjovis spinigerus) scuttling about on our driveway the other evening at sunset.  We seldom see scorpions moving around in our yard — believe me, I’ve tried, black-light and all.  Sadly, most of our encounters with these efficient nocturnal predators are with drowning victims in the pool.  And NEVER in winter — they seek shelter as soon as the weather gets cold, and don’t reappear until it’s balmy again.  For an exothermic organism, there’s no point in being out and about in the cold, expending energy at a time when their arthropod prey is hibernating, making it hard to recover the calories lost in fruitless hunting.

Yet, here was a striper in our driveway.  Maybe it was forced by the cold to come out to try for a meal to boost its caloric resources so it could survive the rest of its hibernation.  Maybe its lack of left-hand grasping pincer meant it had gone into winter with fewer reserves under its exoskeleton.  What its story is we’ll never know for sure.  But my hunch is that our efforts at salvaging succulents contributed to its untimely emergence.  We had stashed most of E’s tender cactus and succulents in the garage when the temps plunged.  Maybe this guy was wintering in a planter, and tempted by the relatively warm dark of the garage, wandered out trying to steal a march on spring.  E snapped a couple pix for me, and let it go on its way, to whatever resolution it could manage.

Good luck to it in its wanderings to find dinner and a new refuge.  But I wonder what that hunger sharpened coyote was rummaging for so hopefully across the street “after hours” this morning?  Sometimes it’s the late bird that gets the worm.

Posted by Allison on Jan 19th 2013 | Filed in close in,Invertebrata,natural history,oddities,yard list | Comments (0)

Little-known avifauna of the desert southwest

My iPhone4, its OS, and its apps are getting creaky old, but they’ve still got what it takes to manage an image of the rare Three-beaked Raven (Corvus cerberus), turning over stones for whatever reasons ravens do.  Someone alert the Cryptobiologists.  And, Happy Halloween!

Posted by Allison on Nov 1st 2012 | Filed in art/clay,birds,oddities,unnatural history | Comments (0)

Happy Halloween!

Halloween Greetings to all, with the assistance of a cobweb-and-leaf “Owl” in a tree hollow!

The spooky holiday is just too tempting an occasion to resist re-posting this delightfully faux fowl I found on a hike in the fall woods of Cape Cod a few years ago. (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Oct 31st 2012 | Filed in natural history,oddities,owls,unexpected,unnatural history | Comments (0)

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)

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.

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