I heard a sharp “pik” in the backyard this morning, so I grabbed the long lens and went out to look for the male Black-headed Grosbeak I’d heard and briefly glimpsed at dawn from the comfort of bed (birdwatching from bed is one of the things I love about the big sliding door in our bedroom — I should keep a bed-list: Harris’s hawk, Cooper’s hawk, three species of hummers, two owls heard, Gray fox, raccoons, etc, etc. Really, it’d be a pretty good list for mattress-based observation). Unfortunately, later in the day, no Grosbeak could be found.
Instead, the generator of the “pik” call was a male Ladder-backed Woodpecker (Picoides scalaris) being shown the door by a Gila Woodpecker. Because the squabble was moving swiftly west across the yard, I managed only two or three shots and none of them were great.
The subject birds were in the shade with a brightly lit background, and because of the action, low light, and distance nothing was terribly sharp. But the Ladderback had perched fetchingly on a saguaro skeleton, and I decided to try to salvage the shot.
The result is above, a manipulated photo-based digital image, “overedited” for sure but pleasing nevertheless, with a painterly quality that captures the gist of the little woodpecker and his eponymous barred back. Not to mention his hilarious spiky red chapeau!
Below is the undistinguished original image for comparison, with the Gila Woodpecker off to the left:
The process was hit or miss, and I don’t recall each step. But I started by cropping the shot heavily, then I ran it through a few filters (including the canned Orton filter effect) and stopped tweaking when I liked the look.
If you had a dragon-wing rug — I do mean a rug made out of dragon wings — and it was terribly old and worn but still in use in the family home, and it lay on the floor of a room at the back with a couple of big armchairs to fold up in and lots of dark wooden bookshelves and not many windows, the rug would probably have fringy bits along the edges, and worn patches where you could see leathery underlayments where the scaly feathers attached, and it might still glitter a little with rainbow membranes. In fact it might look a lot like this:
This isn’t a dragon wing, it’s the wing of a sphinx (a mystical and legendary creature in itself) but in this case the moth version. All four of the moth’s wings were discarded by an ærial predator over our yard last night, and all four wings fluttered to the ground and settled within feet of each other. An owl, or a bat, or a nighthawk had shucked it, perhaps — the body would have made a fat protein-rich mouthful but the wings are dry and awkward to swallow, so the predator neatly clipped them and let them fall.
Given this scenario of on-the-wing food prep, the question remains — if you had a dragon-wing rug — what sort of hunter could do that to a dragon?
(All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!)
Apparently, it’s spelled Wood-Pewee. And, no, it’s not that the American Ornithological* Union has changed its mind (although that’s been known to happen) — it’s that after decades of birding, I just learned how to spell “Pewee”. All this time I thought it was “Peewee”.
That’s a good thing about birding: refresh, reset, renew.
Even if it’s only orthographic renewal.
>> right, Migrating Western Wood-Pewee (Contopus sordidulus). Below: same bird with a bee for lunch. (Photos A.Shock, digiscoped with a 65mm Zeiss spotting scope and my ancient Canon G7 point-and-shoot)
And speaking of needing refreshment, this little guy (or gal) has come from his winter home in Ecuador (or elsewhere in northern or western South America) to rest in our yard for a day, and to tank up on flying insect fuel. He’s on his way to his woodland breeding grounds north and uphill from here, and he could be almost there if he’s headed to Arizona’s Mogollon Rim. Or he could still have a long way to go, if his destination is inland Alaska. I asked him where he was going, but he was too polite to answer with a beakful of bugs.
All the way from South America! I think we can spare him a bee or two.
*Oh, and by the way, it’s “American Ornithologists‘ Union”, not “Ornithological“. Apparently, spelling pewee isn’t the only new thing I learned today.
There are places like this in the garden and around the house:
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.
<< 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.
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 (along 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 precisely 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)
It’s springtime, and under the fluorescent bulb the front porch metamorphoses into a feeding and mating hotspot. Mantids, huntsmen, sunspiders, cellar spiders, a variety of moths and other jointleggedies and geckos congregate at this arthropodal equivalent of a savannah watering hole to look for love, snacks, and in the case of the mantids, lovesnacks.
The showy barflies of the moment are the sphinx moths — I believe these are White-lined Sphinxes, Hyles lineata, also known as hummingbird moths — two of whom have been flirting on the front door screen by night and roosting under the eves during the day. Last night one chose the Cyclamen in a wall pot for its dayroost, and was a patient subject for close-ups in the morning. (By the way, the outrageous saturation of the pink cyclamen is not artificially boosted — in fact, I had to tone it down a bit because it actually hurt to look at.)
The sphinges hover at flowers like Evening primrose (which aren’t in bloom yet around the yard) and this hovering habit along with their large size (nearly 2 inches long) and feathery-looking body covering give them their nickname of hummingbird moths. But look at the portrait on the left — they’ve got big nocturnal eyes, which look more owly than hummery to me.
Check out another sphinx moth here, the rustic sphinx whose larvæ feed on Desert willow and tecoma.
(Photos A.Shock, be sure to click to enlarge)
Time to play Spot the Bird! Here you go: clearly, there’s a bird nearby, large — or rather, small — as life, casting its shadow. Look closely, though, and the dinky girl throwing shade is in the shot, warming her tiny bones in the winter sun, whose heat radiates off of our lovely pink block wall (never mind the awful hue, the quail and foxes who use it as a thoroughfare above the gaping jaws of neighbors’ dogs and the occasional coyote don’t care what color it is).
(female Costa’s Hummingbird perched on a creosote twig, photo A.Shock)
We have a loose house.
By that I mean that nothing — windows, roof, doors, plumbing — closes tight, seals off, keeps in, or shuts out. Anything. Everything — cold draughts, hot breezes, swirling dust, muddy floodwater, joint-leggedies, fur bodies, helicopter rotor din — it all comes in, then usually goes out again, unless it decides it’s nice enough to stay, or the cats find it.
From many angles, this is not ideal. But it’s never boring. We call it “living close to nature” and try to learn to appreciate having wasps’ nests in the door jambs, rock squirrels in the attic, leaf-cutter bees in the keyholes, Huntsmen and Cellar spiders at the top of the walls, praying mantises on the houseplants, and termites in the kitchen door frame. OK, to be honest, we haven’t yet learned to appreciate termites in the kitchen, although we haven’t evicted their larval selves yet, either. You get used to inroads, after a while.
>> Palo verde seeds of two types (photo A.Shock)
We uncovered the latest inroad yesterday while searching for a bag of sawdust in the garage: someone’s carefully harvested, cleaned, and stored seed hoard. It featured two different kinds of seeds, Blue Palo Verde and Little-leaf Palo Verde, neatly cached with a little fuzzed fiber as a casually engineered plug to keep the treasure from flowing down the fold of a burlap bag. It was nice work: no husks, droppings, or other pollution in sight. But no owner, either. It was probably one of the Other Mice, family Heteromyidæ, a pocket mouse or kangaroo rat (neither is either a rat or a mouse), most likely the former, which we see around the yard. Caches like this are generally stored underground, and in addition to nourishing the gatherers, provide one of the main ways Palo Verde trees propagate: seeds in a rodent’s forgotten subterranean hoard will germinate, just add monsoon rains. But this trove was high and dry, and the seeds would have languished without benefitting the tree.
And maybe not the pocket mouse who stuffed it into our loose garage, either. But we’ll never know — the human need for not sharing living space with chewing organisms (except dogs, for some reason) kicked in and we scooped up the hoard and spirited it away — a full 1/3 of a cup of pretty little hard, brown seedlets, the smallest ones speckled like the beans they are. Their fate is to be determined. I read that you can bake bread with palo verde seeds: like most legumes, they’re very nutritious. After all the rodent’s hard work, it seems like someone should eat them.
Now, does anyone have a recipe for termites?