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.


  1. I hope you'll be docenting next fall when I stop by.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post tonight! And sure wish I could see the Hawk and Barn Owl. The pictures explaining the Pipevine Swallowtails are fascinating!

  3. You are one very lucky person! What a great gig you have.

  4. Being out and about is the best but guess someone has to do the paper work.

    When a volunteer at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle I used to cruise with a Harris Hawk and he was in our flight show with no tethers needed to call back in. Flew out right over the amazed visitors heads.

    We have the best jobs ever.

  5. What a wonderful place to volunteer Carole, I wish I could make time to get out there more often.


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