Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Bloomy, Herpy, Birdy Day

The monsoon downpours have mostly avoided the Desert Museum, but the bit of rain that has been received has made a transformative difference.  The flowers have burst into bloom, the ocotillos are covered in green leaves, strange insects have emerged, and everything seems so ALIVE!

Fishhook Mammilaria with Bee

Grabbing my attention immediately were the tiny Mammilaria cacti (Mammilaria microcarpa) often hidden under vegetation which have now burst into bloom everywhere.  Delighting the eye like finding a hidden treasure.  A wreath of pink flowers encircles top of the stalks, which may only reach 6" in height.
Also called Pincushion Cactus
The somewhat nondescript Little Leaf Cordia shrub is also suddenly covered in blossoms - clusters of delicate white flowers that seem to float in the air.  Each afternoon the flowers fall off and the next morning the bush is covered with them once again.
Little Leaf Cordia (Cordia parvifolia)
Little Leaf Cordia Blossom
Hanging bunches of lemon-yellow trumpet-shaped flowers are brightening the Tecoma stans bushes, which both please and aggravate me - why can't MY Tecoma stans ever look this good?!

Yellow Trumpet Bush (Tecoma stans)
The normally-barren stalks of the ocotillo are now fully-leafed-out waving green wands.
Ocotillo in Leaf (Fouquieria splendens)
The leaves will remain until dry conditions return, eventually turning orange-brown and then falling off.  This cycle can be repeated many times during the warmer months.  The canes are covered with spines, but this plant is not a cactus.  With its relative the Boojum, it is a member of the Ocotillo family.

More yellow!  This is the Senna polyantha, whose large shrubs produce a mass of small, yellow, five-petaled flowers followed by bean pods containing the fruit.  As so many of our desert plants, this is a member of the Fabaceae family (lugumes).
Senna polyantha
Everywhere I went on the grounds, something was blooming.  I passed this attractive bouquet on my way to see what the Trichocereus garden was doing.

I wasn't disappointed.  Big, bright flowers greeted me as I came around the corner.

From the splashy to the more subtle, but no less beautiful.

Another docent had reported seeing Western tanagers in the Desert Garden earlier in the morning, so I thought I would try my luck at finding them.  I caught just a blur of red as one of the males flew by, but I hung around to watch a Northern Cardinal family.  I believe this is the juvenile getting a drink from the fountain.
And who's that in the background? Photobombed by a juvie brown-headed cowbird.  There are a lot of young birds everywhere at the Museum.  Just outside the Desert Garden in a pine tree was this Gila woodpecker family.  The parents working hard to feed the demanding youngster.
Gila Woodpecker Family (Melanerpes uropygialis)
I apologize for the quality of this photo.  The lighting was very difficult.  Very near here, in the fan palms, I saw a young male Hooded Oriole, one of so many species that nest here on the grounds.  Heading back around to the Pollination Garden, I was greeted by this mix of Mexican Bird of Paradise and Tecoma stans, framed by ocotillos.

The butterflies love the bird of paradise.  A pipevine swallowtail sat still just long enough for me to grab a quick photo.
Pipevine Swallowtail on Mexican Bird of Paradise
The lizards were out in force. I particularly like this zebra-tailed lizard who often carries his tail curled over his back, and waves it back and forth in the manner of a scorpion.
Zebra-tailed Lizard (Callisaurus draconoides)
It was about this time of day that I got a call on the radio that there was a Gila monster in the dry cave.  It's always a thrill to see a Gila monster in the wild, and I headed off across the grounds, getting stopped several times by visitors who had questions.  By the time I got to the cave, the docent there told me that the lizard had gone behind a large sign and was no longer visible.  By squeezing into a small space beside the sign and shining the light from the flashlight app on my phone, I was able to spot the fellow.  He had wedged himself as far as possible into a hiding space.

Although I felt bad about it, I had to call the herpetology folks to come and remove him.  The cave is quite dark and we didn't need the visitors stumbling into him if he went out roaming.  This is the only venomous lizard in the U.S., and while they are neither fast or aggressive, they can be dangerous if people get too curious.  (People do some really DUMB things!)  So, a few minutes later he was loaded in a crate, to be pit-tagged and then released off grounds.

Leaving the cave and making our way back to the docent office for lunch, a crowd had gathered to watch one of the botanists try to capture a coachwhip snake who had moved into the lizard enclosure.  To avoid the big human, the snake had climbed high into the large ironwood tree that is the centerpiece of the enclosure.
Coachwhip in Desert Ironwood
Can you see him up there?  These snakes are very fast! I never would have believed that the botany guy would be able to catch up to and grab the snake, especially without getting bitten.  Although they are not venomous, the word on coachwhips is that they are very bitey.  But I would have been wrong!  Down came Eric, snake in hand, having survived his encounter with that very prickly tree and with the snake.

Generally, the policy is to let non-venomous snakes alone unless they are in a place where they would threaten our exhibit animals (the lizards in this case).

In the afternoon, we got some more cheap entertainment watching the black-tailed prairie dogs and their ever amusing antics.

And, if that weren't enough fun for one day, there was one more snake on the schedule.  Some visitors spotted a snake sticking its head up out of a tree bowl in front of the hummingbird aviary.  Some fellow docents and I were just a few feet away so we got a lot of laughs watching the snake, another coachwhip, play hide and seek among the rocks and holes.  It reminded us of a game of whack-a-mole.  He would pop up one place, disappear, pop up a few feet away, then we'd just see a portion of the body slither by.  After ten minutes or so of this, out jumped a very tiny mouse and raced across the patio and up onto the roof of the aviary.  The snake looked out as in bewilderment.
Coachwhip looking for the Mouse

Eventually he emerged and crossed the patio looking for the darned mouse.
Mouse 1, Snake 0.

And with that, the day came to a close.  Back at home, a glass of wine in hand, I got another gift.  A magnificent sunset.
Sunset on Agave Drive
May all your days be filled with laughs and may they all have beautiful endings!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Color Burst

It was a lazy Saturday morning and I was in sloth mode.  I hadn't even taken my usual walk around the 3-mile neighborhood loop.  If you've ever seen the sloths of Central America, you know that their favorite 'activity' is just hanging out, usually sleeping.  To quote National Geographic, "The sloth is the world's slowest mammal, so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat."  Rather than in a tree, I had perched myself in a comfy chair on the patio to enjoy the glorious, but all-too-brief show of the trichocereus cactus blooms in the garden.  Big puffy clouds kept the sun at bay and the temperature in the quite pleasant range. 

Trichocereus, also known as hybrid torch cacti, are popular with gardeners in Tucson for their huge, brilliant blooms.  Hybridized from tropical species, they are fairly cold tolerant, asking only for a bit of filtered shade and an occasional splash of water.  I have a collection of perhaps twenty plants in my Jardín Cactita, the little cactus garden.  A paltry number compared to the Desert Museum's large collection.

Cactus bees come to gather the abundant pollen and nectar, and pollinated plants will produce large, round fruits filled with tiny seeds. Being hybrids, it's doubtful that the seeds are viable, but I should ask a knowledgeable grower about this.  I might try growing some new plants from seed.
 For the most part, the blossoms only last one day, closing up by late afternoon, never to open again.  A couple of the species, however, produce flowers that will open for a second day.  Thus, it's important to take advantage of the event, drop what you had planned and simply enjoy!


Flower anatomy is primarily what determines the taxonomy of plants.  While it might seem obvious from looking at a plant that it is a cactus, that's not necessarily so.  Many non-cactus plants, for example, have spiny, sharp projections.  People often mistake some euphorbias, agaves and ocotillos for cactus.  Cactus flowers have a multi-lobed stigma (the white, or cream, structure in the center of the photos, the female part) and many stamens (the male, pollen-carrying structures deeper in the center). 

So, I was sipping my coffee, taking photos, enjoying the flowers and watching the hummingbirds zip around.  My year-around hummers are Costa's and Anna's and I am so accustomed to the sounds they make. 
So, when a new sound entered my consciousness, I looked quickly around to see one of the Anna's being chased by .  .  . a rufous??  Wow, what a surprise!  There was no doubt - the lovely rust-colored wings, the orange-red iridescent throat, and that famous rufous aggressiveness.  Even with my camera in my hand, I was too dumbstruck to take a photo.  Not that he would have slowed down long enough anyway.  The birding experts say the male rufous migrate early, but THIS early?  Oh, that was exciting.  The rufous made a couple more speedy passes by the feeder but never stopped to drink.
No sooner had I calmed down than another hummingbird flew right by my face and it was a blur of color that only registered as blue.  Blue?  Sure enough, a few moments later a better view revealed the red beak and the brilliant colors of a male broad-billed.  What a crazy day!  Flying flowers competing with the torches. 
A desert spiny lizard came out and posed with the flowers. 

Some Gambel's quail stopped by the snack bar.
And those flowers just kept on blooming.


Maybe every day should be a sloth day!  I won't get nervous until I start to see the algae grow.