Spring Arrives

Spring Arrives
Spring Arrives

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Docent Diaries

No matter what my assignment, I love my docent duties at the Desert Museum.  Some jobs, however, are more fun than others.  For the past two years, my friend Mary Lou and I have been the Day Captains for the Friday Docents.  Which means we 'get' to spend most of our day in the office doing schedules, organizing the day, making coffee, entering data in the computer, being the in-charge people for all the docent activities for the day, cleaning up the office and lounge, and generally, as another friend put it, "herding cats".  (Just try getting them all together for a photo!) Managing people is always entertaining, frustrating, interesting and normally chaotic.  The reason we became docents, however, is to be out on the grounds of the Museum, talking to visitors and interpreting the Sonoran Desert.  Soon my captaincy stint will be over and I'll be back out doing the really fun stuff.

Here's what our group looks like this year.

There are four or five missing.  It's impossible to find a day when everyone is there, or makes it to the photo shoot on time.  But, this isn't bad.

 Mary Lou and I agreed that, no matter how busy we were, we would still take out our animals for one hour a day.  I am certified this year on Large Raptor, which means I can take out either a Harris' hawk or a barn owl.  We take them out in rotation, and on this day, it was a hawk.

Harris' hawks are a very unique raptor that we are privileged to have as permanent residents in Southern Arizona.  What sets them apart from most other birds of prey is that they are a social raptor, living together in family groups, hunting cooperatively, and all taking part in the nesting process.  The younger birds from the previous brood will assist the parents in guarding the nest and bringing food for the mother and the nestlings.  In each group, an alpha female will be dominant.  The bird I am holding is an adult male.  Males and females are colored alike, but what distinguishes them is size - the females are significantly larger.  For the past several years, I have had Harris' hawks nesting in my neighborhood, and I am now seeing the female on the nest once again.  Every day from October through April, the Museum flies a group of Harris' hawks in our Raptor Free Flight program.  It's a thrilling experience to have one of these big birds fly so closely over your head that their feathers so briefly and gently touch you.  Each year docent can choose which group of animals we want to interpret to the public.  We then go through training and certification to keep our skills current.  The Desert Museum is accredited by the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which sets exacting standards for animal care and handling.

Mary Lou and I try to finish most of our duties by around 3pm, which gives us some time to go explore the grounds, talk to visitors, look for fun and interesting sights, and have a little 'play' time.  April is a good time to see butterflies, as well as their larvae and pupae.  Right now, the Pipevine Swallowtails are abundant in all forms.

These handsome guys are the larvae, feeding happily on pipevines,

Soon they will be forming a chrysalis and undergoing the amazing metamorphosis that will allow them to emerge in a totally new form.  Here's what the chrysalis looks like:

Pipevines have a strange little flower called the pipe.

Which is then followed by this fruit.

Sadly I do not have a suitable photo of the adult pipevine swallowtail butterfly, so please excuse me for borrowing a couple from one of my favorite sites, Firefly Forest

As she says, they are difficult to photograph as they seldom sit still.  I guess that's my excuse.  With their iridescent blue on the upper hind wings, and the array of colored spots on the lower wings, these large black butterflies are stunningly beautiful.

With our lack of rain and warm weather, everything seems to be happening a little earlier this year, like the cactus blooming.  All around the grounds, and out in the desert, little hedgehog cacti are sporting their gaudy pink finery, forcing me to stop and get yet another photograph.  Hedgehogs are a small, multi-trunked cactus, generally somewhat inconspicuous until bloom time.

Glorious too are the claret cups, which are another form of hedgehog cactus, and are one of the earliest to bloom.  They are just about finished now, but this one waited for me.

The Museum grounds are alive with dozens of species of blooming flowers, and it is inspiring to just stroll through the gardens and various habitats and take in the amazing palette.

Here are just a few more. Fairy Duster, yellow primrose, blackfoot daisy and California buckwheat.

Lastly, we stopped by to see the coatis, and watched a young Cooper's hawk watching us.

Ahhh, no wonder I long to spend the entire day out on the Museum grounds talking to visitors and just enjoying the theater. Soon, very soon, I'll be able to do that.  At my age, however, I do not wish to speed up time.  So I will enjoy every day as a docent at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, no matter what it brings.

May every day be one you treasure.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gulf Getaway

It was just a quick trip down to "Tucson's Beach" - Puerto PeƱasco, at the head of the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez.  Rapid development is taking over the once-lonely beaches, with a big cruise ship port now being constructed on the beach where we stay.  But for now, it's still pretty peaceful. The huge tidal swing creates wonderful tidal flats which attract a great array of seabirds, feasting on the small fish and crustacean population.

After diving time after time for fish, drying one's wings is in order.  The large population of brown pelicans stays well-fed in these shallow waters.  Several pairs of American oystercatchers hunt along the reef, squawking in complaint and flying off when any human approaches. Don't you just love their colors?

They use that big, bright beak to pry open oysters and other bivalves.  The American oystercatcher is a permanent resident around the Sea of Cortez and south.  They roost on beaches, dunes or march islands, rarely venturing inland.  Nests are simple scrapes on the beach lined with shells.  They might make 5 or more nests before choosing one.

The other striking beauty along the beach is the black-necked stilt (Himantopus mexicanus), with long reddish legs, and sharply patterned black and white body.

Black-necked Stilts wade in shallow waters to capture their meals of aquatic invertebrates and fish. They often consume such fare as crawfish, brine flies, brine shrimp, beetles, water boatmen, and tadpoles. They peck, snatch, and plunge their heads into the water in pursuit of their food, and will herd fish into shallow waters to trap them there.

Who is easier to photograph than a great blue heron, his statue-like stance lasting for minutes on end. Even when disturbed, his takeoff is slow and deliberate.

Or the lovely egrets, snowy and great, so elegant in their long, white attire.  

As he strolls along, the snowy shakes his foot around in the water, stirring up any little critter that might be trying to elude those sharp eyes and sharper beak.

In the early morning light I watched a flock of birds circle in unison and then land on the reef.  Closer inspection in the binoculars revealed the delicate and beautiful American avocets, joined by a friendly pelican.

As I got closer and the sun rose higher, the breeding colors became evident.That long, thin, upturned bill is used to sweep the shallow water for invertebrates, and to protect the nest against invaders.  Avocets will parasitize the nests of other shorebirds, and the avocet nests are often parasitized by other birds as well.

The tide moves quickly in this far end of the gulf, and within a few minutes the avocets perch was swamped, and off they went, long legs trailing behind, flashing their colors in the sun.

Among the tidepools were many small crabs, blending so skillfully into the crusty brown reef, or scurrying to hide in a crevice at the approach of a giant mammal.  This one cracked me up.  Instead of hiding, he raced out into the open and threw open his arms in a defensive posture, as if saying, bring it on, lady, I'm ready!

The rather plain-looking willet is common along all our shorelines, rather gray in non-breeding colors, and only slightly more colorful when breeding.  But when startled, they react with a piercing call, opening their wings and running or taking flight, flashing a distinctive white pattern on the wings.

Just prior to our arrival was a fascinating event, a grunion run.  These fish come up onto the sand in huge numbers, twisting themselves into the sand and laying their eggs.  The males frantically scurry around the eggs to fertilize them.  The incoming tide covers the eggs with sand, where they will hatch with the next full moon and high tide.  Meanwhile, however, the shorebirds go into a feeding frenzy, searching for the abundant delicacy.  Sandpipers, turnstones, plovers, willets and more, all intent on the buried treasure. Will there be any eggs left to hatch?  Surely, with the beach covered with fish and each female laying several thousand eggs, there will be plenty to make their way back to the sea.

Oh, that's not all, of course.  There were magnificent frigatebirds, ospreys hunting and nesting, gulls too many to name, terns hovering and diving, cormorants by the hundreds, tiny peeps, whimbrels, plovers and grebes.  It was all too brief.  But I got my saltwater fix.  And my shorebird fix.

Here's hoping all your getaways feed your passions.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Chronicle

 .  .  . or  that was the week that was.

No Room at the Table
Around 6 in the evening, there is a literal feeding frenzy at the hummingbird feeders, and the birds' normal competitiveness gives way to cooperation.  I now have one feeder in the front of the house, and five in the back.  Each bird has its favorite, but they seem to use them all at various times.  The resident hummers here are Anna's and Costas, but during migration I might also see black-chinned, broad-billed, broad-tailed and rufous.  One time, several years ago, I was even privileged to have a rare violet-crowned spend a couple of weeks in my yard.  

Quite near the hummingbird feeder hangs a hollowed-out gourd that has been used by nesting house finches for several seasons.  Recently I've noticed a female house finch making many forays to the nest and the other day, after seeing her leave, I took a peek inside and saw a little face looking at me.

Baby House Finch in the Nest

The first-to-bloom cactus in my yard is this little claret cup - a form of hedgehog cactus, Echinocereus coccineus (triglochidiatus), and the only cactus in Arizona that is adapted for hummingbird pollination.

It grows naturally on rocky cliffs and gravelly slopes in oak and pine-oak woodlands and mixed conifer forest, so is not common at this elevation.

It's certainly not a great wildflower year, but around the neighborhood I have spotted a variety of blooms.

Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Twining Milkweed Vine
Desert Zinnia (Zinnia acerosa)

Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)
Desert Globemallow
Chicory or maybe Tackstem?

Ocotillo and Carpenter Bee

The beautiful Harris' hawks are seen every day, and appear to be nesting again in the neighborhood, which makes me very happy.  Yesterday a female flew right over me with a meal in her talons.  She landed on a utility pole and commenced dining.  Her companions continued to circle overhead, hoping, perhaps, to share in the meal.  One of the birds was a very different color, so I'm guessing he was still quite young.

Here's hoping your week is full of interesting and beautiful sights!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Road Trip - The California Coast

My blog is calling and I find myself feeling guilty for never finishing this fabulous road trip.  So let's shuffle back to September of 2013 and make our way down the spectacular California coast.  Growing up in Reno, with relatives in several areas of Northern California, I spent many happy times  all along the coast, so I am always thrilled with the opportunity to go back. 

From the Oregon coast, Highway 101 took us into California's magnificent redwood forest, where the quiet and a feeling of reverence surrounds you.  How happy we should be that mankind finally came to its senses and quit logging the oldest growth redwoods, and protected huge areas of forest in national and state parks. 

There is nothing quite so peaceful as a stroll among these giants.

South of the redwoods, Highway 1 takes off to the coast and takes you on a wild ride to the little town of Fort Bragg, where the abalone diving used to be great, twisting and turning its way along the rocky shoreline.  Just make sure you are the passenger on this ride so you can enjoy the unrivaled scenery without having your eyes locked on the narrow road.

So many lovely little stops - Mendocino, Gualala, Fort Ross, Bodega Bay, Point Reyes, Tomales Bay and then along the headlands of Bolinas Bay, past Mt Tamalpais before finally descending into the madness that is the San Francisco Bay Area.  On a warm, cloudless Sunday, Sausalito was teeming with people, cars and bicycles, a stark contrast to the lonely, peaceful places we had just been.  Crossing the Golden Gate we decided to stop and see the America's Cup headquarters near the terminus of the bridge.  It was a non-racing day for the big boats, so finding a parking space was easy and we enjoyed strolling the grounds and being awed by the size and technology of the boats.

With too little time and too many places yet to see, we forged south through the intense San Francisco traffic, back onto Highway 1, stopping for the night at funky little Half Moon Bay.  So many places I want to spend more time, like Santa Cruz and Capitola, but we'll save those for another time.  It's not like I haven't been there before.  Rounding Monterey Bay, we stopped at Elkhorn Slough, a birder's paradise.  How I would have loved to be out there on a kayak, among the sea otters and a dizzying array of birds.

In Monterey, a walk along Cannery Row, a classic car show, lunch overlooking the bay, and gray whales breaching in the bay.

Winding along the Cabrillo Highway, the magnificence of the Big Sur coast will take your breath away.  Again, just be sure you are not the driver!  After the big rock slides of recent years, a new tunnel is being constructed, an engineering and construction marvel.

Just before San Simeon, you reach the Piedras Blancas bay, where the elephant seals are hauled out on the beach, mostly juvenile males, resting, basking in the sun, playing in the water, honing their fighting skills.

Next stop, Morro Bay, where our hotel overlooked the big Morro Rock, the harbor and all the people action on the streets below.  

Just east of Morro Bay lies one of California's lesser-known wine regions that, in my humble opinion rivals Napa Valley for quality and diversity.  Spend a couple of days touring the vineyards and tasting the zinfandels and you will be equally impressed.  

Last stop before San Diego - our favorite campground, San Elijo State Beach to check out our site for our Christmas camping trip.  

And then, one of our favorite big cities - San Diego and our farewell to the Coast. A wonderful meal in Little Italy capped off our weeks of indulgence in all the bounty that California offers.  And then we were Arizona-bound.  All too soon.

May all your travels take you to the places of your dreams.