Prickly Pear Blooms

Prickly Pear Blooms
Prickly Pear Blooms

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gila Monster - A Visit from an old Friend

What's black and orange and beaded all over? Why, a big, fat, venomous lizard, that's what!

The Legendary Gila Monster, that almost mythical creature of the Wild West, about whom tall tales are told, about whom superstition and myths abound. And yet, here he is, right in my back yard.  I consider myself among the lucky ones who have actually seen a Gila monster in the wild.  Some people live their entire lives in the Sonoran Desert and never encounter this fascinating creature.  

Even the name, 'monster', is absurd and reflects the amount of misinformation and exaggeration about a lizard that is barely two-feet long, slow and lumbering, shy and non-aggressive.  Perhaps it's the elusive nature of a creature that spends 90% or more of its life underground, hidden from view, and about which, as a result, not a lot is known. 

The Gila monster is one of only two venomous lizards in North America, and the only one in the U.S. The other, the Mexican beaded lizard, lives exclusively south of our border, in Mexico and into Guatemala.  Gila monsters are known as nest raiders, and since they prey almost exclusively on food that will not run away from them - baby rabbits, bird eggs, baby lizards - their venom is not needed to subdue prey as is the venom of rattlesnakes, for instance.  So, what's the purpose of the venom? Defensive?  It seems the most logical.  The venom gland is located in the lower jaw, and travels through the grooved lower teeth to enter the victim, producing excruciating pain.  Just in case you were thinking of getting away after being bitten, the Gila monster's other trick is to not let go, continuing to gnaw, increasing the venom delivery and making sure you are plenty sorry you harassed him.  Not to worry, however, you won't die from the venom.  And that's the good news.  The bad news is that you'll probably wish you would!

The beautiful black and orange/pink beaded pattern is unique to each individual lizard.  The genus name, Heloderma, means studded skin. The 'beads' are actually bony scales, making the lizard's skin extremely difficult to penetrate and providing a good defense against large predators such as coyotes. Two subspecies differ in the beading patterns - banded, with regular, well-defined bands all over; and reticulated, with the irregular pattern such as the one shown in the photo.  The reticulated is the species of southern Arizona and the only one I've ever seen.   Oddly enough, all newly hatched Gila monsters are banded, but the ones in our range (Heloderma suspectum suspectum) develop the reticulated pattern as they mature. The small western banded gecko is sometimes mistaken for a baby Gila monster.  

A forked tongue, like that of snakes, gives the Gila monster an extremely good sense of smell, and allows it to locate even buried eggs.  Emerging from the winter den in spring, the Gila monster goes looking for food, and may gorge itself when food is available, storing fat in the tail for the long, lean months ahead.  A mate is also on the agenda, and, if that quest is successful, the female lays eggs in July or August, burying them in the sand.  The eggs overwinter and hatch in the spring.  

In recent years, research on Gila monster venom has led to the development of exenatide, a drug that is a synthetic form of a substance found in Gila monster saliva, for the treatment of Type II diabetes. It helps control blood sugar levels and leads to weight loss. 

Many years ago, we named a visiting Gila monster Albert.  Since then, every one who comes to our yard is known as Albert.  I suppose it would be possible to compare photos and see if Albert is one individual or many different ones.  I prefer the mystery.  See you again next year, Albert.

The End

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Walk in the Spring

All of a sudden, it seems, the colors of the desert burst forth, and for a short, glorious time, flowers everywhere are advertising their wares to potential pollinators and awed onlookers.  From prickly pear to cholla, saguaro to palo verde, the desert is going crazy.  My walk around the neighborhood was slowed by the urgent need to photograph every flower.  Of course, I didn't get them all, but here's a little taste of what enamored me so.

First, the flowers . . .

Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus Flower

Ocotillo, Saguaros, Palo Verde

Prickly Pear Cactus

Cholla Cactus

Cholla Cactus Flower

Saguaro Cactus

Cholla Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

Prickly Pear Cactus

Cholla and Palo Verde

Purple Prickly Pear

With Yellow Flowers

Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

Prickly Pear Flower

White Ratany

Twining Milkweed Vine

Purple Prickly Pear surrounded by Catclaw Acacia

Blue Palo Verde

Blue Palo Verde Flower

Yellow Bird of Paradise

But, it wasn't all flowers.  Some of the other sights . . .

Phainopeplas and Dove in Ocotillo

Cooper's Hawk

Beautiful Long-Nosed Snake

The snake's tail
 And, when I got home, who should come to visit?  This handsome fellow.
Desert Kingsnake
All the flowers are somewhat early as we've had a warm, dry spring.  After the blue palo verdes bloom, come the more numerous foothills palo verdes, which will turn the entire landscape yellow with their beautiful blooms.  They are slightly paler yellow than the blue PV flowers due to the presence of the white banner petal.  So the show will go on for a while.

The Sonoran Desert in spring will forever alter your perception of "desert" in a good way!

Monday, March 28, 2016

On the Beaten, Bumpy Path

Each spring during the University of Arizona's spring break, the campus is taken over by the incredible and ever-growing Tucson Festival of Books.  Anything and everything book-related is represented, including an impressive array (see the list) of authors giving talks and signing their books.

One of the panels I attended featured three Arizona travel writers, including one of my favorites, Roger Naylor.  He just makes you want to get outside, lace up your boots and hit the trails.  One of the questions posed to the panel was about the most unique place they had come across in their Arizona travels.  The other two authors gave thoughtful responses of places they had found that had almost spiritual qualities.  Then it was Roger's turn.  And he proceeded to wax poetic about .  .  .  the Desert Bar!

I almost laughed out loud, as not a week before, while camping along the Colorado River, we had made our annual pilgrimage to this odd and crazy place.  Literally out in the middle of nowhere, after miles on a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling, rocky road, you are greeted with an almost surreal sight.  Hundreds of parked cars (where did they all come from??) and a collection of structures that can only be described as bizarre.  In the parking lot you encounter the facade of a church, with nothing behind it.

Crossing a covered bridge into an open-air bar, tables are packed with happy people, a band playing the sounds of the 60's and 70's, colorful umbrellas keeping the desert sun at bay, and the bartenders hard at work trying to keep up with the crowd.  Burgers and hot dogs are on the grill, but don't ask for cheese!  There's an inside saloon too, and a popular shop for the shirts and hats, and many levels of seating areas.  Downstairs a new kitchen has added many food items to the menu.

Everything is run on solar power, and, how's this for a business model - they're only open on the weekends, 11am to dark, for a few months a year.

Officially the Nellie E Saloon, the Desert Bar is located in the Buckskin Mountains, just north of Parker, Arizona.  The name comes from the original mining claim on which the bar now stands.  Everywhere you look is some little quirky, kitschy, interesting relic - an old, rusty fire truck, old glass refrigerator doors for windows in the saloon, open-air restrooms that give a view across the desert.  Between the people-watching, the music, and looking at the details of construction, you'll stay totally entertained.

If you want a truly unique Arizona experience, make your way out to the Desert Bar.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Beavertail on the Colorado

Opuntia basilaris
The rocky, almost barren desert of the lower Colorado River valley comes alive in March after winter rains and warm temperatures.  Yellow creosote bush blooms, brittlebush and yellow cups, and purple phacelia shout that spring has arrived.  But, nothing prepared me for the explosion of color that was the blooming of the beavertail prickly pear cactus.  Our annual trip to the river was just a week later this year than usual, and what a difference it made.  Normally I'm happy to see ten or so of these bright pink beauties.  Imagine my surprise and joy to be met with hundreds of the humble little cactus sporting big, bold flowers, everywhere the eye could see.

The flat, jointed pads of the beavertail give rise to its name.  A low-growing prickly pear with gray-green stems and no large spines, the pads are covered with tiny brown bristles called glochids.  These are far more irritating and bothersome to the human body than the big spines.  Note to admirers of the flowers, don't get too close to the plant!

Growing on the rockiest slopes, these plants seem to need little in the way of soil or water.  The flowers range in color from bold magenta to delicate pink, and I understand, there are even yellow and white varieties.  In this section of the Sonoran Desert along the Colorado River, I saw none of the yellow or white.

The flowers are followed by fruits, magenta to pale green, maturing to dry brown-gray, barrel shaped and usually spineless. Cactus bees are the pollinators.

A drive along Cienega Springs Road, and later a hike up Buckskin Trail literally took my breath away with the stunning glory of these flowers. The Death Valley superbloom had nothing on this display!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I've Got the Blues

If you love beautiful rocks, gems, meteorites, fossils and minerals, you’re attracted to the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show like moths to a light.  It’s not about buying anything, or needing anything, it’s just about the wonder and beauty of it all.  Every year, a fellow docent and I work at the Desert Museum’s booth at the TGMS show at the Convention Center, and it’s really a fun gig.  Along the upper hallway, not on the main show floor, are the booths of lapidary clubs, geological societies, museums, state parks, government organizations, educational institutions and the like.  That’s where we are.  Everyone who enters the show must pass our way.  Our main mission is to tell people about the Desert Museum, and secondarily, about our connection to the geology of the Sonoran Desert.  This year we had both the mineral specimen kit and the meteorite kit, which bring interested visitors over to our booth.  It’s wonderful to see so many adults bringing their children, and how deeply interested the children are. 

After our shift is over, we can go down to the main show floor, where hundreds of booths and exhibits await.  One of the main attractions of this particular show is the incredible array of spectacular mineral exhibits, usually centered around the theme for the year.  This year’s theme was Shades of Blue, somewhat of a departure from past years, which normally feature a specific gem or mineral.

Arizona, and the Desert Museum in particular, are in the enviable position of having something of an “embarrassment of riches” when it comes to blue minerals.  “The Desert Museum's permanent mineral collection has been touted as one of the finest regional mineral collections in the world. The strength of the collection lies in the museum's narrow focus of attention: minerals from the Sonoran Desert region of Arizona, Sonora and Baja, California.” (ASDM website)

The blues in the various exhibits ran the gamut from sky-blue turquoise, blue-green chrysocolla, intense indigo of azurite, on to the reddish-blue shades of amethyst.

The Museum’s mineral collection is nothing short of breathtaking, and from this, they select some of the most exquisite to display at the Gem Show.  The minor copper ores of azurite, chrysocolla and turquoise are the most well-known of our blue minerals. And, of these, we have an abundance.  Bisbee is known the world over for the quality and beauty of the azurite found there, and that is the centerpiece of so many ‘blue’ mineral exhibits.

You need know nothing about the powerful forces that created these wonders in order to appreciate their beauty.  And yet, we cannot help but be awed by those forces, still so active today. So, is geology a ‘living’ science like the others represented at the Desert Museum?  What is your take?

From the Desert Museum’s website: “. . .  the visitor to ASDM's earth sciences center has been treated to a full spectrum of the truly "living" science of geology - from the raging forces that create wonderlands in the underground caverns, to the jewel-like products of tremendous tectonic forges.”

So, until you can go to next year’s gem and mineral show, come to the Desert Museum and take a trip down to the Earth Sciences Center and just drink in the beauty of nature’s creations.

Monday, February 15, 2016

How Can You Do This?

It never ceases to amaze me how much litter I find on my walks, whether they be in cities, or on remote nature trails.  I am almost compulsive about picking it up.  My sisters and I spend Christmas on the Southern California beach and we never fail to carry a trash bag.  Granted, much of the beach trash washes up with the tide, but not all.  One year, we filled a 30-gallon trash bag to overflowing, and then started another one, just in a little over a mile of beach.  People would say 'thank you' to us, and yet I wondered what kept them from doing the same, even on a small scale.

When I'm home, my regular walk is a 3-mile loop around the neighborhood, which is urban/suburban, houses on somewhat large properties of 1 acre or more with mostly natural desert vegetation. Most of the neighbors love the desert and take great pride in the neighborhood.  We love the fact that we are 15 minutes from downtown, but feel a world away, a place where coyotes, bobcats, javelina, snakes, rabbits, and a great variety of birds are our regular visitors and neighbors. Saguaros, barrel cactus, palo verdes, acacia, cholla and brittlebush dominate the desert vegetation. And the Santa Catalina Mountains loom over it all.

You would think that by walking the same route every day, there would rarely be any trash to pick up.
 Not so.  In fact it's rare that I come home with nothing in the bag. Cigarette smokers are on top of the list as the biggest litterers.  Think those cigarette butts are not litter?  Think again.  They could take up to 12 years to biodegrade, meanwhile creating a hazard for unsuspecting wildlife thinking it is food.  Plastic bags, soda cups, straws, aluminum cans and all the miscellaneous detritus of modern human life.  Sometimes you can't help but wonder at the life of the litterer.  A while back, just about every day, I would find one, maybe even two, small liquor bottles - vodka or wine.  Were they drinking it on the way home? One the way to work? Hiding if from their spouse or kids? Would these little empties lie beside the road waiting to be picked up?  No.  I have many battle scars from palo verdes and cacti trying to prevent me from my mission.  Then one day, I stopped finding the bottles.  What transpired?  Hmmm.  My mind ran through the possibilities - maybe he got religion and sobered up, perhaps he got arrested for DUI, did he move away .  .  .  ??

Several years ago, our neighborhood association installed Mutt Mitts - plastic bag dispensers for picking up dog poop.  Still there are dog owners who don't think they should have to pick up after
their dog.  That's where I draw the line.  I won't pick up after someone else's dog.  Even worse, however, is the person who carefully picks up the droppings, puts them in a bag, ties the top and proceeds to leave the whole thing by the roadside!  Oh my.

With magnificent scenery all around, and the possibility of seeing wildlife, I truly love my walks.  But, I just can't help but think how much nicer they would be without the trash.

Dear litterer, how can you do this?

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Hummingbird Tale

One of the great joys of living in Tucson is the year-around presence of hummingbirds.  This year, in particular, for whatever reason, the hummingbird population at my feeders has exploded.  Rather than the three or four regulars through the winter season, I'm seeing up to 15 of the tiny birds.  At times, they resemble a swarm of bees, especially during a rainstorm when their feeding seems particularly frantic.

With all this air traffic, accidents are bound to happen.  I have floor-to-ceiling windows facing a front courtyard where several feeders hang.  Occasionally, a bird will crash in to a window and knock himself out.  One chilly day last week I heard a thump on the window.  Afraid of what it meant, I looked out on the ground below the window and there was a lifeless-looking little bundle of feathers.  I gathered him up and brought him in the house for some revival warmth.

He rested calmly for about 15 minutes, then he signaled his readiness to go by fluttering his wings.  Outside we went and as soon as I opened my hand, off he flew.  Success!

Just a few days later, on what was to be our coldest night, darkness had already settled, and inside, I was sitting just a few feet from the window.  I kept hearing a fluttering sound, sort of like when a moth is trying to escape.  I turned around to look for the moth.  Instead, on the outside down on the sill was a hummingbird flying up and down the window.  How odd, I thought.  But, I knew she must be in trouble, so I went into rescue mode again.  It was a little female, possibly a juvenile as there were no markings.  I scooped her up and brought her inside.  She seemed exhausted. When she finally appeared to recover, I was afraid to release her into the cold and dark. Hummingbirds go to their overnight roost before dark and, when the temperatures are cold, go into a state of torpor, or lowered metabolic rate.  This allows them to survive sub-freezing temperatures.

My husband scrounged around the house and found a box, which we then outfitted with a soft towel for a perch and another light towel over the top allowing for air.  I put her in and closed the top and she immediately settled quietly.  Once the sun was up the next morning and the temperature had risen somewhat, I placed the box outside and removed the lid.  She sat patiently for a few minutes, and then she was gone.

 I saw her later at the feeder chowing down on sugar water.  Did she nod at me and wink?