Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Back Yard Tales

If you think you have to go somewhere to enjoy nature, think again - about your back yard.  I am constantly amazed at what goes on out there, and often wonder how many cool things happen that I never see.  What birds stopped by?  What reptile slithered through?  Wouldn't it be fun to have a camera so you could see the otherwise unseen goings on?

Take the Gila monster for example.  He lives underground for perhaps 90% of his life, coming out for short forays a few times a year for food and a mate.  What are the chances of actually seeing one in the wild?  Very low, and yet, just about every year, sometimes more than once, we have had the great pleasure of observing this beautiful creature. And on one very special occasion, we even had two.  Gila monster babies we were hoping for.   But, so far, no visits this year.  My next door neighbor, however, recently had a Gila monster visit her patio as she was enjoying her morning coffee.  Gila monsters are the only venomous lizard in the U.S., but their slow movement and their lack of aggression give humans little cause for fear.  Other very occasional visitors include a beautiful king snake and Western diamondback rattlesnakes.  Gopher snakes, too, sometimes make an appearance.

Since ridding the yard of the packrat houses, the snakes have fewer reasons to come calling.  Packrats, or desert woodrats, a favorite meal for snakes, build a large, messy-looking mound out of cactus parts, sticks and other debris.  They also collect shiny or interesting little objects that might be lying around the yard.

No matter the time of year, the bird life is always abundant in the back yard.  Whether it be the regulars, (Gila woodpecker, cactus wren, Gambel's quail, mourning dove, house finch, phainopepla, northern cardinal, pyrruloxia, lesser goldfinch, Costa's hummingbird, Anna's hummingbird, white-winged dove, Cooper's hawk, red-tailed hawk, black-tailed gnatcatcher, verdin, white-throated swift, curve-billed thrasher, turkey vulture) the not-so-regulars (great horned owl, Western screech owl, northern mockingbird, kestrel, zone-tailed hawk, ladder-backed woodpecker, white-crowned sparrow, common raven, lesser nighthawk, Harris' hawk, greater roadrunner), or the migrants just passing through town (yellow-rumped warbler, black-headed grosbeak, western bluebird, Lucy's warbler, black phoebe, rufous hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, Bullock's oriole, western tanager, Wilson's warbler, lazuli bunting, yellow warbler, American robin, hooded oriole), they keep me continually entertained.  Right now I have a juvenile male Costa's hummingbird that waits every morning for me to fill the feeder that has been emptied overnight by the nectar bats.  He sees me bringing the feeder out of the house and flies right up to my face, as if to say, "about time!"  Impatiently, he begins to drink while the feeder is still in my hand.  

Everywhere I walk in the yard, lizards, big and small, scurry out of my path.  There must have been a good hatch this year, because the really tiny lizards are especially numerous.

These little guys are less than 2" long from nose to tail tip.  They both appear to be young desert spiny lizards and will look like this when they grow up:

The other day I saw one big male munching happily away on my blackfoot daisy blooms, picking off one whole flower after another.  Can't you guys stick to insects?? When it rains it's hilarious to see them racing around the patio grabbing ants or other little insects.  

I've been watching a bud grow longer and longer on a funny little cactus in my garden.  This morning this sight greeted me:

Another surprise was the emergence of a leafy plant in pot containing a silver torch cactus.  A weed?  Let's wait and see.  Soon buds began to form and yellow flowers emerged.  Aha!  A devil's claw (Proboscidea althaeifolia).  But how did it get here?  Oh, of course.  I often pick up the interesting seed pods that give the plant its name as I'm walking in the desert.  Long ago I stuck one of the opened seed pods in this pot and apparently it hadn't disbursed all its seeds yet.

The night blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii) which bloomed in June is now full of bulging, ripening fruit, turning from green to red.

I have yet to try starting a new plant from seed.  This must be the year to do it.  I'd better get to picking, however, before the animals beat me to the fruit.  Anything edible in the desert doesn't last long.

A year or so ago, I planted a lovely group of Mexican fence post cactuses (Pachycereus marginatus) and they've been doing so well.  Suddenly, I began to see large scars where obviously something or someone was chewing on them.

 I had an idea who it might be, and, sure enough, soon I began to see the culprits feeding on other nearby cactus.

These handsome bugs are longhorn cactus beetles who have a taste for the finer things in life.  The more you have paid for a cactus, the greater their enjoyment of it.  Thanks a lot, guys.

The hummingbirds seem to have more than their share of competition for the nectar in the feeders these days.  The little birds themselves are highly territorial and competitive for feeding spots, but now they also have to compete with the bats, bees, ants and woodpeckers.  Nectar bats come every night to empty the feeders.  As soon as I fill them in the morning, the bees arrive to get their fill. Soon a stream of tiny ants descends for some of the sweetness.  As if that weren't enough, the Gila woodpecker sticks his beak and long tongue into the tiny holes for his share of the nectar.

Cooper's hawks are daily visitors to the yard, looking for an easy meal of dove or quail, often perching in an old dead tree before coming down for a drink from the water bowls, or resting on the patio furniture.  Sometimes they will just stand in the water bowl, cooling off their feet.  A rapid swoosh of wings as all the birds in the yard take off tells me that Coop is in the area.

But the really big thrill is when a bobcat strolls nonchalantly by the back door, only a foot or so from the floor-to-ceiling window, and stops for a drink of water.  He drank from two bowls, walked slowly to the wall and effortlessly hopped up to the top and over.

"Back Yard" could mean anywhere around your house or your neighborhood.  Wherever you live, nature is there too.  Take a little trip into the world of nature in your back yard.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Endless Summer

Or so it sometimes seems in Tucson.  And it's not necessarily a good thing.  By the time September rolls around, we've had just about all this fun we can stand!  Some desert denizens, however, can't get enough of the heat.  Take the short, stubby barrel cactus.  By the first of September, it is just coming into it's glory days, blooming long after all the other cactus species, thus sharing its fame with none of them.  I showed you some of them last month, but can't help taking more photos.

All of these and many, many more were in bloom at the Desert Museum on Friday.  I particularly love the barrels with the super-long spines, but I wouldn't want to try to plant one.

 Cactuses have wide, shallow roots to gather as much moisture as possible from the desert surface, where pounding rains often send water racing across the land, not allowing it to soak in.  The moisture is then stored in the fleshy body of the plant where it is protected from transpiration by a waxy skin and special photosynthesis called CAM.  The spines do their job of keeping the predators at bay.  Ground squirrels and even deer will brave the spines to eat the bitter-tasting fruit and help disperse the seeds.  Cactus flowers are what primarily define the family.  All have many stamens and a multi-lobed stigma.  Native cactus bees are the primary pollinators.

The white-winged doves have left town, a sure sign that summer will eventually be over.  I won't miss their greedy monopoly of the bird feeders.

And now the nectar-feeding bats have arrived to nightly empty my hummingbird feeders.  They are readying for their long migration to Mexico later in the fall.  It's quite amazing how these little creatures can find such a nectar source in this urban environment, flying many miles each night from their day roost in mountain caves.

Two species of bats spend the summer in southern Arizona - the Lesser Long-Nosed and the Mexican Long-Tongued.  To my knowledge, I've only ever had Lesser Long-Nosed at my feeders.  It seems as though very little is known about the overall roosting, mating and foraging habits of these bats, but recent and continuing studies are changing that and providing a clearer picture.  For several years I have participated in a monitoring program which records data from many volunteers regarding the bats' feeding habits at the hummingbird feeders.  Generally, the bats begin arriving around the middle of August and come nightly until sometime in October.  The darkness and the rapid movement of the bats combine to make it difficult to count or photograph them.

Our summer getaway took us to the White Mountains of east central Arizona, where the high country offered green meadows, cool temperatures, daily rain, wildflowers, and, on the sad side, a look at the devastation of the recent huge Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona's history.

For the entire photo album, go to White Mountains Photos

Next up was a too-brief trip to Reno, mainly so I could attend the funeral service of my Uncle Rich, my mother's younger brother, and to pay tribute also to my Aunt Grace, another of the siblings, who also recently passed away.  Of the five children of Thad and Amy Bath, my grandparents, only the eldest son survives.  Adin, California, just over 150 miles northwest of Reno, was their hometown and where the service was held.  Despite the sad occasion, it was good to see so many cousins and their families.  Having spent every summer vacation and every school holiday on the family ranch in nearby Ash Valley, a visit to this magnificent country brings back so many memories.

In Reno, my sisters and I celebrated our August birthdays with a dinner at Zagol, an Ethiopian restaurant.  It was fun and delicious, and we had some good laughs over the strange, sponge-like bread that is used in place of utensils to scoop up the food.

More photos at Reno and Ash Valley Photos


Here's to summer! Yes, even the Tucson summer.