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This is not a toad and do not lick it

I’ve noticed a pattern. In late September and early October, Spadefoots come out and wander around the yard. Some are small, and look like young of the year. Some are less small, and may be hatched in previous seasons.

Today I noticed an agitation in the pool — my workspace looks over the shallow end — and I went out to check, expecting a lizard. We’ve got a wildlife ramp set up, but not all plunge-victims find it in time, so I always go out to see what’s causing ripples.

It was a fairly well-grown Spadefoot. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, Spadefoots are not technically toads, although you’d never know by looking, or at least I wouldn’t know. Technically, they are “toad-like amphibians”. Or so I’ve read.


Here’s an eye-level shot of today’s TLA (toad-like amphibian)

You’ll just have to imagine me lying on my belly on the gritty pool deck with the end of the macro lens just centimeters off this guy’s nose. I think the proximity of the lens is what accounts for the wacky eye-angle: parallax.

more info

#333300;”>And look at those clutching little fingers — I LOVE toad hands. (Yes they’re not toads, and yes they’re not hands, but you know what I mean). Also, it’s hard to tell where its smile ends — does it wrap all the way around its shoulders like a shawl? Am I in danger of being swallowed? In case you’re wondering, its skin isn’t really blue, but it was in the shade, and the digital process cooled its natural tans and dark olives to the color you see. The eyes, however, really are that shattered-glass golden green. The whole animal is not quite three inches long.

I had to rescue it out of the pool twice, and we’ll have to keep checking the filter basket for a few days. At some point, the Spadefoot will have hunted itself into a state of packing enough stored energy to survive its over-wintering self-interment. Then it’ll dig in somewhere in soft soil to wait for next year’s summer storms, when the thunder will boom it up from the ground to enjoy the moist monsoon nights.

Remains of the day

Yesterday a mature Tiger Whiptail (Aspidoscelis tigris) drowned in the pool.

12inch whiptail

<< about 4 inches snout to vent, 8 inches of trailing tail (all photos A.Shock)

It’s always sad when something succumbs to the pool, but I especially love these “checkerbirds” who inhabit our yard: the Tiger Whiptails are good-sized terrestrial lizards who, along with the smaller, climbing Ornate Tree Lizards, are the species we see most often. They’re active in the day, and glide smoothly from cover to cover like speedy little slender-tailed alligators, snapping up ants and other small invertebrates. Over the years I’ve rescued several clinging to the tiles or swimming along the edge looking for a way out, but it doesn’t take them long to tire and drown. When I’ve scooped survivors out of the pool, it’s always an amazing sensory experience — their limber bodies are sleek and satiny, heavy for their size and cool from the water. I’ve never yet had one try to bite, but they’ll often cling with stickery toes to my hand until I release them. Sometimes they’ll run back to the shade of my foot and climb up onto it to dry out.

I hate losing a neighbor like this — I’m a fan of promoting populations of consumers higher up the trophic pyramid within our garden walls (except perhaps coyotes). At least yesterday’s unfortunate event presented the opportunity to examine the excellent animal up close, and also macro photo ops (more new camera practice!)

The victim was a glorious full-grown individual — I think it’s a male, since the pores on the inside of its thighs are prominent (photo below).  These femoral pores secrete a waxy pheromone substance to mark territory and attract mates. The lizard leaves this marker behind as he moves around — the reptile equivalent of a tomcat signalling his turf, without the spray action (or human-detectable odor, although the cats always seem to know when a lizard is near, even through the door since, thugs that felines are, they’re incarcerated full time).

Up close it’s easy to appreciate the panoply of scales this lizard ports: smooth, fused plates on the head, flexible bead-like dorsal skin, overlapping scaly sides, scute-like belly protection, articulated tubular toe armor — an astounding and functional body-covering. The scales of the limb crevices are fine-textured for flexibility, arrayed like gussets in a knight’s articulated plate armor under the arm and at the groin where the chain maille shows through. The scales are heavier and broader where they need to withstand battle (top of the head and legs) and wear (under belly, thighs, and tail).

Although the lizard’s lower lid is drawn up nearly closed, you can still see the iris behind it.

Even the eyelids are scaled — look at that remarkable scaled, see-through lower eyelid!

I don’t know if whiptails has an additional inner eyelid (or nictitating membrane like some other lizards and many birds), but it wouldn’t need one: the translucent lower eyelid functions in the same way, providing protection without losing much visibility. That’s a spectacular protective feature for an animal who spends much of its day burrowing and sleeping in gritty soil. And you can bask in the open without risk of desert dry-eye or being caught napping by approaching danger, not to mention cutting down on UV damage to cornea and retina while coursing after ants on the glaring pool deck. (Predators’ eyes are notoriously at risk for injury by thrashing prey, and losing vision in even one eye is a serious blow to survival chances.) And it’s constructed of transparent scales! Just look at it! Be sure to click on the image for optimum viewing of the orderly, least-surface soap bubble geometry of those clear scales. Plus there are a couple of bonus phoretic mites. Do you see them?

Below is another pool victim in a post from 2009, drawn fresh from a ziplock in the freezer. The older post also mentions that at the time there was a second ziplock bag in the freezer with a scorpion in it. I’d forgotten about that one. I wonder if it’s still there? If so, it’ll turn up sooner or later.


Posted by Allison on Jul 7th 2013 | Filed in close in,doom and gloom,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,yard list | Comments (5)

Meet some Liz

Heavy deadlining at the clay bench for summer shows PLUS a new camera mean this space will have mostly photographic posts for a stretch. Here are two lizards who obliged while I was in New Mexico recently.

First up is a Crevice Spiny Lizard (bearing the excellent scientific handle Sceloporus poinsettii but in no way resembling a red flower often associated with winter holiday decor, except in a tendency towards pointiness). He was basking unabashedly on the waist-high peakity peak of a large triangular rock in the middle of the well-trodden trail to the Gila Cliff Dwellings.spinyfaceHe (or she, I’m not acquainted with S. poinsettii well enough to know which, and they’re said to be similar anyway) simply did not care that I was there.  It was breezy and the foliage swayed, exposing him alternately to blotches of shade and sunbeams. He didn’t care about that either. Of course, armed with long closeuptelephoto capability, I had no need to approach closely to observe him. We did, however, have to pass very near in order to finish the jaunt up to the cliff dwellings, and if I stopped briefly for a close perusal — which the subject endured without flinching — who can blame me? A lizard whose prime basking platform is a busy trailrock must get good at ignoring curious people. Crevice Spinies have a rep for being shy (one field guide recommends binoculars as an observation aid), so this guy must be an outlier.

Below is another photo of the same liz. The subtle coppery green iridescence of the scales was caught by the camera in this shot, an artifact of sun angles and lens physics, apparently: to our human eye, the animal looked mostly gray and white with darker bands. Another lizard would have been all over the beautiful radiance immediately, its eye and brain built specifically to receive that shimmering information.


Now meet a whiptailed lizard (below), whose textures are quite different from the spiny lizard above. I think she’s a Desert Grassland Whiptail (Aspidoscelis uniparens).  Some species of whiptail are unisexual: all individuals are females who reproduce by laying unfertilized eggs each with a tiny clone embryo ready to hatch out and carry on mama’s DNA. The Desert Grassland Whiptail is one of them, which explains its Latin moniker. She’s very beady and sleek in the sun — whiptails are abroad in the heat of the day — but was well warmed up and didn’t stay long to be admired, or to be questioned on her parthenogenetic lifestyle; there were termites to eat and predators to evade.


Posted by Allison on Jul 3rd 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (1)

Soaking up the sun

Rummaging through the archives, I recently re-discovered this shot of a glorious basking Greater Earless Lizard (Cophasaurus texanus), taken a couple years back on the Pine Creek Loop Trail northeast of Phoenix, AZ. Click to enlarge, and get a load of those toes! (Photo A.Shock) 

grtr earless

Posted by Allison on May 22nd 2013 | Filed in close in,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (2)

Spot the Bird: horned edition

spotthebirdlogocopyIt’s Spot the Bird without a bird.  No clues, except that it’s all elbows.  Answer below the fold.hiding



Adult Desert Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) hiding under a shrub, Joshua Tree National Park (photos A.Shock March 2013)


Posted by Allison on Mar 27th 2013 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Pondering escalation

It’s Valentine’s Day week, and I’m feeling a little sentimental. So here’s a farewell to a piece that recently found a new home in Florida. It sold from the co-op gallery I’m involved with — On the Edge Gallery, a fairly new outlet for Three Star Owl — and I was there when the customer bought it. It’s a wall piece, not something I frequently make, an effigy vessel of a very much larger-than-life horned lizard. In the lizard’s scaly back is a window into its hollow innards, where a tiny pink and black gila monster hovers in the darkness: the horny toad’s imagination (why not an imagination in a gizzard? — they used to say stegosaurus had a second brain in its hip), where it’s considering what it would be like to be


armed not with defensive weapons like scales and spikes, excellent camouflage, and the ability to squirt blood from your eye, but to be aggressively, offensively venomous. I’d engraved the title, “Pondering Escalation” on a carved banner across the back of the piece, along with the copper hanging wire and my signature stamp.

As I cautiously swathed it in bubble-wrap to defend the clay details against the rigors of travel as carry-on, I realized I wasn’t quite ready to let the piece go. I wished I’d taken more photos, wondered if I’d gotten a photo of the back (I hadn’t, damn it), and hoped it made it safely to its new destination. Like a real horny toad, the clay piece is sturdy and spiky but a little bit tender, and I worried about a horn breaking off, or the tiny inner gila monster on its invisible pedestal being jarred loose on its journey.


We can’t know what a horned lizard would decide after pondering escalation, but I guess that innate tendencies — biology — will always win out: being resilient is a survivor’s most valuable trait. The glow of a vibrant gila monster may enchant a humble horned lizard for the duration of a dream, but after all, venom is expensive for an organism to produce and deliver, and the venomous find it hard to keep friends. Have a happy Valentine’s week.

Posted by Allison on Feb 11th 2013 | Filed in art/clay,effigy vessels,reptiles and amphibians,three star owl | Comments (0)

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)

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.


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)

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