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Twilight turtle tale

Driving home with E from campus this evening, we saw a turtle in the street. It was at the corner of Curry and Mill, lodged uncomfortably against the curb, traffic whizzing past just inches away — stranded halfway between the green lagoons of the Zoo and Tempe Town Lake, but blocks from either.


Heroically, E leaped out of the truck and ran back to check on it. It was a red-eared slider (I think; I’m no expert on turtles), and as far as we could tell, she was intact. E put her on the floor of the truck between his feet, and we headed to the zoo.

There is a chain of ponds off the zoo parking lot, a palm-lined man-made aquatic environment stuffed with turtles and ducks and perch and algae — a place that could easily absorb another turtle, or welcome back one who had wandered away.

We set her on the rocky shore right at water line, but she just sat there, head and legs still pulled in tight to her shell. Then GLOOP — she launched with a small splash, oaring madly to the bottom of the lake, and was gone.

Posted by Allison on Jun 8th 2012 | Filed in close in,natural history,Papago Park,reptiles and amphibians,unexpected | Comments (6)

The desert between

It exhibits questionable judgment to leave Phoenix right now when the Sonoran desert is so beautiful, but we did.  In a fit of really-needing-to-get-out-of-town E and I enacted a spur of the moment plan for a busman’s holiday of camping in the Colorado desert*.  We took off down I-8 in the footsteps of Juan Bautista deAnza himself, headed towards a bit of California desert between our desert in Phoenix and the desert under the currently snow-capped Peninsular peaks east of San Diego (see photo below, be sure to click to enlarge).

<< our tent above Bow Willow (all photos A.Shock unless noted)

Between.  We arrived at the south end of Anza-Borrego State Park between weekends (it was spring break at ASU, so E was more or less at liberty mid-week).  The weather was a slice of unseasonable summer between winter and spring, topped by a dry blue sky between pacific storms and a tarry, star-salted night sky between moons.  It was a waiting wing of a moment, a pared-down parcel of between, when all that was in the desert was what was always there, the patient bare granite bones, the sun, cactus, creosote, and cool, rustling palms: the permanent residents.  Ephemerals — the summer-breeding birds and annual wildflowers — hadn’t appeared in any numbers, yet.

>> Overlooking the Carrizo Valley and the snow-dusted Tierra Blanca Mtns from the notch at the end of Smuggler’s Canyon

Arriving in any desert for peak wildflower bloom or migration at an oasis is serendipitous: we’ve managed it occasionally, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose — once for a songbird jam at Butterbredt Springs in the Mojave and twice for “jubilee” blooms in Death Valley only a few years apart.  These were times we effortlessly tripped over the attractions and high points, unable to look away from showers of jewel-colored orioles and tanagers and thick carpets of bright petals.  This between season was different: we had to look hard and close for things — the serendipity took more effort.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) being very splendid indeed; this one was about 10 feet tall  >>

But the desert seldom disappoints and though between, this trip was no exception.  The beavertail prickly pear, studded with fat pink-green buds, were clearly about to burst into glorious magenta bloom only after we were gone.  But the tips of the Ocotillo were in flame, and in the few days we were there their thorny bleached stems scaled over with green leaves.  Little fishhook cactus rocked coronas of creamy blossoms that looked glued onto their heads like fake straw flowers on a hat.  In places, a tide of tiny goldfields washed around the feet of gray wintery shrubs (see photo at bottom of post).  The mesquite and desert willows were still bare, but the Elephant trees (Bursera microphylla) were green with their incense-scented leaflets, and deer vetch, creosote, and desert lavender were all blooming.  Tangles of red-flowered chuparosa scrambled over granite boulders, and in tight crevices fronds of “resurrection plant” or desert mossfern (Selaginella sp) unfurled, instantly green and pliant after recent rains.

<< “Fishhook cactus” Mammillaria (probably) dioica.  They need no more than a fracture in rock for a foot-hold, and seem to require no soil at all.

Birds were also in a between season: Rock wrens and Black-throated sparrows, present year-round on the rocky hillsides, were ubiquitous and vocal, along with Cactus and Canyon wrens, Costa’s hummers, quail, and ravens.  There were only occasional passers-through: a Lincoln’s sparrow in the palm oasis; surprising numbers of Sage thrashers moving through the Bow Willow wash. But the summer visitors were barely starting to trickle in — we found a couple of male Scott’s orioles alternately singing their ringing song and molesting nectar-oozing Ocotillo flowers, a Common Yellowthroat working the dense understory at the palm grove, and an Ash-throated flycatcher k-brkk‘ed near the campsite.

A Black-throated sparrow; who says sparrows are plain?  (photo E.Shock) >>

Surprisingly, we were between when it came to snakes, too — we saw none, but I’m sure they were out.  On the other hand, lizards were plentiful.  Blue-bronze Granite Spiny lizards basked, and we were ignored hard by a harlequin Baja California Collared lizard sunning on a boulder right next to the trail.

<< Baja California Collared lizard (Crotaphytus vestigium) is a species of collared lizard found only in a small range in the US, as its name indicates.

The only disappointment of being between was that our transportation was between, too: we discovered after arriving that the truck’s four wheel drive wouldn’t lock in, leaving us with high-clearance passage but wimpy traction.  This wasn’t an emergency but it ruled out more remote, difficult roads — we could only go where two-wheel drive or our two feet could take us, which turned out to be plenty for the short time we had.  But we missed some interesting habitat like the Carrizo Marsh, and intriguing, fossiliferous geology that E is itching to check out.

We’ll have to get that 4-wheel drive fixed so that instead of between, next time we’ll definitely be smack-dab.

Low carpet of yellow wildflowers I know only as “Goldfields” >>

* The term “Colorado Desert” generally refers to the portion of the Sonoran Desert that lies within the state of California.

Posted by Allison on Mar 26th 2012 | Filed in birds,botany,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (5)

Tucson in the rearview mirror: and…

I rolled back into Phoenix from Tucson earlier today — the drive seemed nearly instantaneous and was marvelously uneventful, although I did miss the bumper crop of towering dust devils swirling in the dry creosote flats on the Gila River reservation that I’d seen on the way down but was unable to photograph safely from the driver’s seat.  And the windshield made the trip intact, unlike last time.  And once again I failed to stop at the ostrich farm to take pictures as intended, but it was smack in the middle of the day as I zipped by, and it was so damn hot…

Emma the (real live) Desert Box Turtle nose to nose with a clay coati >>

So now I’m at home being given Stink Back by the felines, coddling the pool back to cleanliness after a dust storm that hit after I left, and rounding up moribund insect life that had made indoor sport for the same felines in my absence, and the email is working again as inexplicably as it wasn’t working earlier, and things may return to normal soon.  The Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival was a good show, sales-wise, and I got a chance to meet new folks, visit with bird festival friends, and send Three Star Owl pieces off to new homes, which is always a good thing.  If you missed the Festival, be sure to look into it next year. Thanks, Tucson Audubon Society, for a great effort and a well-organized and graciously hosted first-time event!

Even better, I had some fun with friends — I stayed with Kate, and she and Dustin and I talked and ate good food, and I met JoJo and Dave and saw Bri’s fine octopus (oh, if I’d only gotten a picture: my sub-theme here seems to be missed shots), and netflixstreamed Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man, and went to Copper Country resale emporium (see swell carved boxes scored there >>), and ogled their current beading frenzy.  As usual I left her home feeling that I’d taken away more than I’d left behind, which was physically true because Kate sent me away with many excellent things like harlequin boxes and an articulated silver manpart charm (with a chain to pull to make it either alert or waggle), and more.  I can’t show you the very special thing that came home with me, because I have to check with Dustin first, and show it to E (for whom it’s intended) but I will later, maybe.  And we saw the Gargoyle House >>

And now I’ve got to be ready to hit the ground running, because there is a lot to do, like get the owls to their people…

A new Spot the Bird… kind of

Well, it’s not actually a bird.  Perhaps these posts should be called “Not the Bird”.

Here is an appropriately faded Old West-y snap shot of a neighbor of ours, taken with my cell phone.  Can you spot the non-avian subject?  It’s a Desert Iguana, posing with dignity as if for a Victorian formal portrait, lurking in the heat of the day under a creosote bush a block from our house.

<< Desert iguana under creosote (photo A.Shock). Click once to enlarge.

These lizards are both camera-shy and fast, and this was the best shot I could get: right after clicking it, the liz shot off across the broiling pavement back to the other side of the road and disappeared.

Desert iguanas (Dipsosaurus dorsalis: “thirsty lizard” with a “notable back”) are fairly large lizards — this one was twelve inches from nose to tail-tip — closely associated with creosote bushes, which provide them with food, shelter, and shade.  I’m always thrilled when I see one in our ‘hood, which is only a couple of times a year.  Unlike our other local lizards who eat other creatures and shun the heat of the day by retreating to shelter and burrows, these pale pinkish, blunt-nosed lizards are primarily vegetarian thermophiles who are most frequently seen active and out in the heat of the day in the very hottest part of the summer.  This one was basking on the edge of our black-asphalt street, swishing its long tail slowly back and forth before it fled the camerazza (me).  Click here for an earlier Three Star Owl post on our neighborhood iguanas, here for more species info, and here for still more info and great photos.  If you’re too blasé to click the second link, you will miss reading about this species’ interesting natural history, including why it eats the fecal pellets of other iguanas, and what its thigh glands secrete.  Really, you need to know, so go ahead and click.

A small thing the rain brought out

Other parts of the Phoenix area had been rained on already in this monsoon season, but so far our part of town only had dust.  Big dust, impressive dust, haboob-style wall of silty grit in your eyes, teeth and hair dust, but no rain.  At about four this morning, however, that changed with the slow onset of rumbling thunder, brief flashes of lightning, and (after suitable meteorological prelude) buckets of rain.  About four tenths of an inch came down over a couple of hours, a perfect pace for sluicing dust, soaking gravelly soil, filling flower pots, and refreshing everyone and everything that lives here.

Lots of things come out of the ground during heavy rains: Spadefoots, scorpions, centipedes, and various snakes either choose to or are forced to emerge from their underground refuges to flee the flood or to hunt others who have come out to drink, mate, or search for food.  Unfortunately, a small hunter with inadequate eyesight and no capacity for swimming fell victim to our pool during last night’s downpour: a tiny Western Threadsnake.  Not good for the snake, but good for photography.  We’ve  seen these guys in the yard a only couple of times before, usually unearthed during gardening and gently reburied, but we’ve never managed pictures.

<< Western Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops humilis), with a dime for scale.  Its scales are so translucent that you can see a couple of its last meals as dark areas in various points along its digestive system.

Threadsnakes are tiny silvery-pink worm-like snakes with two blunt ends that look alike, except that the tail ends in a harmless spine which it will poke aggressors with defensively (on larger nuisances, such as humans, this has no effect).  The other end has its nearly featureless face, which consists of two darkish spots below the scales that are eyes and a small, practically toothless mouth. >>

The eyes are almost blind because the snake lives predominantly underground, and the mouth is toothless because the little snake’s prey — ants, termites, their larvæ and the like — are swallowed whole. In general, the entire snake maxes out at 15″ in length, the last 0.3″ inch of which is the stubby tail.  As you can see, this one was barely 10″ from snout to tail-tip; here’s a picture of my rusty studio straight edge, with threadsnake for scale, a reptilian Dinky Dude of the Desert:

(All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge)

Posted by Allison on Jul 11th 2011 | Filed in close in,doom and gloom,natural history,reptiles and amphibians,yard list | Comments (1)

Cucumbers don’t usually have scales

<< Here are my next-door neighbor’s cucumber plants, with a snake napping amidst them. The neighbor noticed it when he was rummaging around in these leaves looking for cukes for dinner. I happened to be in our backyard, and saw him and his wife standing just on the other side of our shared block wall, and went over to see what they were looking at.

“A gopher snake.”

The wall is six feet tall, and I can’t see over it. So I asked him if he would mind snapping a shot of their snake with my cell phone. He obliged, and handed the phone back to me. As I walked away, I checked to see if the picture was in focus; cell-phone cameras are capricious that way. Nope, in fine focus (photo above).

“Umm, Dane? I don’t think that’s a gopher snake.” I fetched a flimsy plastic chair to stand on, and peered over the wall straight down onto the comfy animal. It was a beautiful Western diamondback rattlesnake, curled in the ‘cukes, snoozing and digesting its latest meal. I could see the sun glinting off of its rattle, concealed deep in the center of its keely-scaled coils. >>

The Fire Department was called, and a re-location made. The Scottsdale FD is equipped for reptile removal. They only take snakes from settings urban enough that the reptile might be considered “out of place” — if you live in the foothills, or on the edge of open desert, they will tell you your snake isn’t a suitable candidate for removal, because it’s at home in your yard. But in our mixed suburban-desert zone they came for the neighbor’s rattler, in a huge, danger-green fire engine — three strapping, uniformed Firemen with their names embroidered on their dark blue uniforms (why would a desert community make their public safety officers wear dark blue in the desert sun?) redolent of calm and expertise. The guy with the snake-tongs had on shorts. The entire scene was calm. No one was horrified, or panicked, or officious. If it hadn’t been for the fact that the neighbors have a 14-month old grand-daughter and an overly-mouthy not-too-bright black lab, I think we all would have been happy to let the snake stay put and take in more roof-rats. There’s plenty to go around, along with the pocket mice, cottontails and those tomato-thieving rock squirrels who disemboweled Shelby’s patio furniture cushions to line their nest in our attic with. All of us would have traded the snake for the rodents, any day. But… the grand-toddler… So unless there are more rattlers, the gopher snakes will have to take care of the rats.

The capture was uneventful; the snake’s belly was bulging from recent feeding, and it only rattled a little. It was taken away along with repeated assurances it was destined for safe relocation (I chose to believe the nice officers). The fireman with the snake even paused to let us take photos — my neighbor had his video cam and I was still hanging over the wall with my camera. The rattler, which was only about three feet long, just looked pissed off.

The folks next door have lived in their house since the 1970s, and they’ve never seen a rattlesnake around here in all that time. But the Army National Guard just paved over a generous chunk of their desert two blocks south, and the city has an on-going streets improvement project a couple of blocks in the other direction. I’ve seen more coyotes in the past few months than in the rest of the time we’ve lived here, including one IN our (totally walled) yard. We suspect this habitat loss and upset is forcing critters there to move into our streets.

Not infrequently the topic of snakes comes up among the folks who live here, and I often mention what a good idea it is to not kill snakes because they eat rodents (we’re in a part of the Phoenix area plagued with non-native roofrats). One of the reassuring things I tell people is, “Anyway, all the snakes around here are non-venomous — we don’t have rattlers any more in this area.” Oops. Also, I’ll be carrying a flashlight when I go out into the yard at night, now. There hasn’t really been a need: the raccoons are scrappy, but they’re not venomous.

And it’s still not a good idea to kill snakes.

(All photos A.Shock; click to enlarge)

The young spiny lizard…

contemplates you.  Click to enlarge, twice if you can, for good spiny detail.  (Photo A.Shock, Devil’s Canyon)

Posted by Allison on May 18th 2011 | Filed in close in,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (1)

Don’t worry, this post is NOT titled…

… “Don’t take this frog for granite”

I never can resist posting Canyon treefrogs (Hyla arenicolor), those most toadly of frogs.

This one was sunning itself on a rock this morning, looking quite like its substrate, the granite of Devil’s Canyon. As we canvassed birds along Queen Creek for North American Migratory Bird Count, we had to look down as well as up, because the warm rocks were frequently festooned with fat frogs, each one blending in just as nicely as this one — a stream cobble with gold-flecked eyes. (Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on May 14th 2011 | Filed in close in,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (0)

It was all fun and games till the alligator showed up…

Well, not actually an alligator, but a beautiful spiny lizard. As we were packing up, we found him snoozing in a sheltered nook under my table foot at Birdy Verde.  The event is in a huge tent set up in a field, and they put a carpet down over the dirt — this dude found a good spot to take refuge from all the bustle.  The nights were still going down to near freezing, and who knows, maybe the carpet covered his hidey-hole.

I think he’s a Desert Spiny lizard, since he didn’t have the barred forelegs of a Clark’s.  But I’m not an expert.  Anyone care to weigh in?

At any rate, there he was, all 9 inches of him including tail, looking a lot like a small alligator.  Tom of Tom’s Bird Feeders (and Reptile Supplies) wrangled him into a box >>, and E released him at the edge of the woods.  He scuttled away, a little sluggishly because of the cool temperatures.

<< This is what the west end of an eastbound spiny lizard looks like.

(Photos E.Shock, click to enlarge, especially the middle one!)

Posted by Allison on May 3rd 2011 | Filed in close in,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (2)

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