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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.

How big is it?

Fall is a second spring in the desert, and things are wandering.


Immature but already full-grown birds hatched this year are making their first migration, or seeking a permanent residence away from the parental sphere. Young mammals, too, are moving to new locations on their own. Some creatures are fanning out looking for mates, such as tarantulas (right) and other arthropods.

Although many make it, this can be a perilous diaspora, and it brings visibly increased mortality along roads as young inexperienced animals or adults driven by an impulse stronger than their understanding of speeding vehicles try to cross busy highways.

In our yard the main hazard — other

than waiting predators — is the swimming pool. The male sunspider below (possibly Eremochelis bilobatus) fell into the pool sometime during a nocturnal rambling and couldn’t get out. With luck, he’d found a female before he succumbed, and was able to do his part to continue the local population. 

People often ask how big they are, so I’ve included my hand for scale. (Click to enlarge to see his bristly glory and fierce mandibles. Both photos, A.Shock). Driven to find out more about Solpugids or sunspiders? Check this website. For the record, taxonomists consider them more closely related to Pseudoscorpions than to spiders.



Posted by Allison on Sep 10th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (3)


We had a very hard freeze this past winter, and it took its toll in the garden, killing some plants back to the ground, and seriously nipping others. Spring clean-up is long past, but for some reason (maybe it’s the uncompromised-by-cold thorns on its branches!) we never got around to cutting back the partly-killed bougainvillea that clings to the back porch latilla, despite the disorderly brown leaves and gray stem.

Now it’s too late! This little charmer, a first-year male Costa’s Hummingbird, is holding the withered vine and nearby nectar feeder as his own, and I don’t have the heart to prune his perch. Gaze upon his Adolescentness — he’s just growing in his soon-to-be-glorious purple Yosemite Sam moustachios! He’s fairly fearless, and sat on a twig singing just feet from me, as I was taking macro shots of a poor sun-spider I’d fished moribund out of the pool. When I say “singing” I mean emitting a high, thin “sssseeeee” and spraying the sound all around by holding his bill slightly upward, while moving his head gently back and forth like an electric fan. It’s hardly audible to human ears, but clearly does the trick for the species, as he was recently an egg himself.


First-year male Costa’s Hummingbird (Photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Sep 5th 2013 | Filed in birds,close in,hummingbirds,natural history,yard list | Comments (0)


The top of our neighborhood is a great place to view the impressive dust storms that roll into the Phoenix metro area a few times during each monsoon season. My view is to the south, across Papago Park towards South Mountain. This is the direction the storms often come from, the result of a tall cumulous cloud collapsing in a down-draft blast that kicks up agricultural and desert soils in a shock wave of granular murk. They move fast and arrive with a gust of hot wind and chemical-laden grit. I walked up to Oak street to watch this one come in. (Click on each photo to enlarge. All photos A.Shock).

Here’s what the sky to the south looked like pre-haboob. You can just see the brown glow of the dust cloud low to the left of center, a dirt-colored sliver of sky between the two houses, behind the utility pole. The rest are local gray storm clouds. The low sun is the bright glare on the right:


It only took a few minutes for the javelina-brown snout of the haboob (previous snout here) to reach the metro area. In the photo below, it’s engulfing Sky Harbor airport:


The photo above is looking southwest. The front of the dust cloud stretched to the east as well. Here’s looking towards the east valley just as the edge of the storm reached our neighborhood:

 haboob east

The gray thunderstorm above the dust cloud was biding its time. It brought some ominous cloud-forms along for the ride. If the front edge of the dust is the snout of the Heavenly Javelina, these clouds were hanging down like her teats:


Our part of town was fortunate: just a blast of gritty wind, a smattering of raindrops, some window-rattling lightning, and it was over in half an hour. Other neighborhoods weren’t so lucky: stronger winds downed trees, there were flooded roads, and some lightning strikes that crisped a tree or two.

Posted by Allison on Aug 27th 2013 | Filed in natural history,Papago Park,yard list | Comments (1)

Cool brick, flat squirrel

Yes, earlier this summer we did humanely trap the Enormous Family of Rock Squirrels who were living in our attic and relocated them to a squirrel nirvana. This created a Squirrel Vacuum in our yard, and everyone knows that Nature — like every cat but this one — Abhors a Vacuum (and also being dressed up as a shark). So, it didn’t take long — already the Squirrel Vacuum has been filled:


This just-about-full-grown young one has been closing in on our yard (we’ve heard his loud inquisitive chirps growing progressively closer from down the block), and he finally got here. He looks like he dropped from a great height, but he’s just pressed belly-flat to the cool bricks, taking a break from scouring the back porch for yummies — you can’t see, but his cheeks are packed full. The rugged nature of the image is due to being taken through blinds through a window at a steep angle with my cellphone. Pesky, yes, but Oh So Very Cute. I offer this photo for the enjoyment of those readers who will not be plagued with the patter of little gnawing teeth overhead.TBWF13-NatureExpo

Meanwhile, if you’re in Tucson , today is the last day of the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival at the Riverpark Inn. The field trips are full, but the Nature Expo is free and is open from 10am to 2pm today (Sunday Aug 18 2013; more info << left, click to make legibly large.). How I come to still have this Monsoon Droplet Beastie Pitcher (below) on the shelf is hard to imagine! So if you haven’t stopped by the Three Star Owl booth to say Hi, now’s your chance! And if you have, stop by again!


Posted by Allison on Aug 18th 2013 | Filed in Events,furbearers,yard list | Comments (0)

Golden sea-planes in the pool

The New Camera has enabled me to take shots that the beloved, well-used but limited Old Camera couldn’t handle. Both are pretty good at macro, but zoom is the strength of the new camera. Effective zoom has made it possible for me to get a shot of something I’ve wanted to capture for a long time: the lovely paper wasps who float like little golden sea-planes on the surface of the pool.

Polistes flavus (?)

Above, Paper Wasp afloat: no pontoons needed — its light body weight, waxy coating, and ability to create floatation cushions under its feet by not breaking surface tension, enable it to bob on the water while it collects mouthfuls to build with — you can see from the surface distortion in the photo above that this wasp has its mouthparts on the water, actively taking it in. Once it’s tanked up, the insect will rise nearly vertically off the surface to fly back to the nest. They almost never swamp, even in the chop I make swimming laps.

surface tensionThese golden sea-planes are Polistes wasps, commonly called Paper Wasps because of the papery, multi-cellular nests they build. Ours are probably Polistes flavus, but I’d need confirmation from someone who knows more about wasps than I do, to be certain. They seem to be peaceable sorts, and tolerate us moving around their space. In our experience, they’ve never acted aggressively, even once when E was tugging up the dead lemon grass where unbeknownst they’d built their nest. A few of them flew up and out of the fibrous clump. He scampered away, but there was no trouble — none of them even bothered to escort him away from the scene. Paper wasps are good for a garden: the adults drink plant nectar (and hummingbird food) for their own nutrition, but they are tireless predators of small voracious caterpillars and other soft-bodied insects which they prepare by chewing and deliver as food balls to their young waspy larvæ. 

(Both photos A.Shock — Do click to enlarge, especially the upper one. There’s lots of good detail to be gained, like sparly water drops on its abdomen.)

Posted by Allison on Jul 20th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

Spot the Bird: horizontal napping bark the second

spotthebirdlogocopyIn anticipation of a major and photogenic meteorological event, I went out just now to photograph the storm.  With the exception of some dramatic skies, the whole mess skipped over us (we need the rain, but I can’t say I miss dust and wind). But I caught something else brooding and unpredictable. It shouldn’t be hard for you to spot it, its eye is partly open. Horizontal napping bark.* (See HNB the first here.) Once you’ve found it, click to enlarge, I’ve uploaded a generous-sized file.

LENIroost For readers unfamiliar with the group of birds called nightjars, this is a Lesser Nighthawk (Chordeiles acutipennis, a member of the caprimulgid family or goat-suckers, along with Whippoorwills and kin). It’s hunkered parallel to a mesquite branch with its tail pointed at the camera. The bird flew up off the ground as I was watching the sky, did a lap of the neighbor’s yard, and settled on a branch where it will stay until it’s dark enough to launch on an aerial forage. Even though the bird is facing slightly away from the camera and behind some twigs, you can see the distinctive white throat patch, and the white mark on the primaries neatly folded over its tail. This is one of a pair of birds who nested on the gravel of a neighbor’s front yard. In an effort to keep wildlife out, the homeowner created a stir along the block (it’s not a very pretty fence) and also a really good habitat for ground-nesting birds. I look at the unpopular fence a little differently, knowing that a pair of nighthawks has fledged nestlings inside its confines for each of the last three years, at least. (Photo A.Shock)

*Vertical napping bark would be, of course, an owl. This concept inaugurated the Spot the Bird feature here on Three Star Owl blog.

Posted by Allison on Jul 15th 2013 | Filed in birds,natural history,spot the bird,yard list | Comments (0)

Not dead yet

whiptailventral<< The last post was a photo-op provided by the death of a Tiger Whiptail by drowning. But today I saw the tiniest slip of a whiptail — maybe fresh from the egg — snapping up ants on the back porch. Life goes on.

This morning, when I opened the pool skimmer basket, a female Palo Verde Root Borer Beetle more than three inches long was swirling around inside, caught in the suction whirlpool. She looked defunct. I fished her out, arrayed her on a large ammonite fossil, and took some macro shots. Just as I was finishing up a couple of her feet started flexing and waving. These are very tough creatures: this isn’t the first time moribund subjects have resurrected during a photo session. I put her in a sheltered place to recover or to complete her expiration and fulfill the local ants’ devotion to energetic thrift. I recently read that although the robust and destructive larvæ of this beetle can live underground for several years chewing on tree roots like Niddhog gnaws Yggdrasil, the adult beetle will only live the span of a single monsoon season. It’s entire purpose is to mate, fertilize or lay eggs, and die.

Here’s a raccoon’s-eye view of her (all photos A.Shock):

paloverdebeetleWhen I checked again later, she was gone. I’m not sure what scavengers are abroad in daylight hours who are large enough to nab her — the foxes and raccoons won’t come out until after dark, so maybe she revived and crawled away palofootieto burrow down into the soil to lay her eggs. Here’s a foot on the second pair of legs, like a grappling hook. These sticky hook-feet come in handy since the beetle’s favored method of travel is to bomb around through the moist monsoon air until it hits something, then cling. If one hits your face, it hurts, even though they generally just bounce off. >>

Finally, below is an image I posted here previously called “Convergent Evolution”. This is the other “drowning victim” I mentioned earlier, the one who fully revived as I was photographing her (see the blurry foot? That was just the first indication). The pinchy mouthparts have nothing to do with eating.  They are for battle — males use them to vanquish competitors, and to subdue females. The larva does all the feeding for this species. How much does that animal look like a pair of pliers? Clearly convergent evolution.


Posted by Allison on Jul 9th 2013 | Filed in close in,cool bug!,doom and gloom,Invertebrata,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

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)

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