Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Forest Bathing (or . . Tracking the Trogon)

“In Japan, we practice something called forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku. Shinrin in Japanese means “forest,” and yoku means “bath.” So shinrin-yoku means bathing in the forest atmosphere or taking in the forest through our senses. This is not exercise, or hiking, or jogging.”

My friend, Marilyn, and I often go hiking, with a specific goal, miles to cover, a trail to be checked off. Depending on the season, that could mean Wasson Peak or Mt. Lemmon, perhaps the Ventana Canyon Trail or the Javelina Loop in the Tortolitas. But this time it was about ‘forest bathing’ in Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains. And, oh, if we just happened to see the elegant trogon, so much the better!

The elegant trogon is highly sought after by birders, a rare species in the U.S. that can only be seen in a few southwestern locations. Many make the trek from the world over to Madera Canyon in pursuit of this beautiful bird, often leaving disappointed. As Marilyn and I had both seen the trogon in times past, there was no pressure to find this forest gem. But still . . .

Instead, we were going for the pure pleasure of being in the trees, to feel the cool and gentle breeze blowing through the pines, to smell the clean mountain air, to listen to the quiet and be mesmerized by the fluttering of colorful butterflies. We ambled up the trail, stopping often to see an elusive warbler, to watch a scampering lizard, to chat with a fellow birder, to catch sight of a little brown creeper spiraling his way up a big tree trunk, and to marvel at the mighty sycamores.

Little pools of water persisted in the ephemeral creek, and nearby many bird species vied for our attention, or maybe that of potential mates. We were surprised at the number of butterflies – so many Arizona sisters, mourning cloaks, red-spotted purples, yellow sulphurs, and tiny blues. Yellow columbine bloomed along the creek bed and red paintbrush on the drier hillside. The odd barking call of the elegant trogon teased us all along the trail, now sounding nearer, now farther away. Just ahead of us a birder spotted two trogons, but she watched them fly out of sight before we could arrive. Sigh!

On the way back down the trail, crashing sounds in the forest signaled a big mammal, and, sure enough, a white-tailed deer emerged and spotted us too. We gazed at one another for a few moments. She seemed to be alone. Soon, the call of the elegant trogon could be heard again. We had almost resigned ourselves to not seeing the trogon this trip, and that was okay. But, the call got louder and louder, until finally we knew he had to be nearby. I scanned the trees just above us and there he was, right out in the open, not 20’ away! While he preened and called, we enjoyed the wonderful view and took many photos.

Elegant trogons (Trogon elegans) are medium-sized, stocky, potbellied birds. They are larger than a robin, with a large, round head, a thick neck, large eyes, and a short, stout bill. Trogons perch upright with their long square-tipped tails pointing straight down. Males are brilliantly colored, with coppery-green upper parts and a rose-red belly. A white band crosses the breast, the underside of the tail is barred, and the face and throat are black. Trogons are omnivores, consuming both insects and fruit. Woodpecker-created cavities serve as nesting sites. They are known to nest in four mountain canyons in southern Arizona. If you've never seen the trogon, I urge you to do so. It's a distinctly southern Arizona treat!

After giving such great looks, the male flew off, out of sight, leaving two happy birders and forest-bathers. Now, if we could just see the red-faced warbler . . . or how about the blue grosbeak!

Ah, well, we’re saving those for our next forest-bathing experience.

Read more about the elegant trogon.

Read more about forest bathing.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Visit to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center

It is becoming increasingly important that we communicate to the public the reasons that we have wildlife in captivity. A vital part of that story is giving a home to animals that have been injured or mistreated and cannot be returned to the wild. We were privileged this past week to visit one of the Desert Museum's sources for just such animals - The Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in far northeastern Scottsdale.

In business for over 20 years, the center began with one injured coyote taken in by Linda Searles, the founder and Executive Director, and has grown into the 10-acre operation of today with over 100 rescued animals. If the animals can be rehabilitated and returned to the wild, they are kept in a separate area from those who cannot. The center is very careful to not allow those animals to become habituated to or imprinted on humans, so contact with them is strictly limited. The animals that we observed were those which can never return to the wild and are given sanctuary at the center. The reasons for that range from permanent injuries, mistreatment, being kept illegally, habituation to humans, given a death sentence (3-strike bears, wolves condemned for preying on livestock), etc. The center works closely with Arizona Game and Fish Department on rescues and confiscations. They have a small paid staff, a large contingent of volunteers and several contract veterinarians. A recent addition is the new veterinary center.

The center's mission is . . .

Southwest Wildlife rescues and rehabilitates wildlife that has been injured, displaced, and orphaned. Once rehabilitated, they are returned to the wild. Wildlife education includes advice on living with wildlife and the importance of native wildlife to healthy ecosystems. Educational and humane scientific research opportunities are offered in the field of conservation medicine.  Sanctuary is provided to animals that cannot be released back to the wild.

The animals we visited included Mexican gray wolves, foxes, coyotes, a large sulcata tortoise, mountain lions, bobcats, javelina, white-tailed deer, black bears, coatis, and one leopard-jaguar hybrid. Each one had an interesting, mostly heartbreaking story to tell, as related to us by our volunteer tour leader, Tara. Black bears whose mothers had been shot as a result of being habituated to humans; Leo, the leopard/jaguar hybrid who was bred for the entertainment industry and then sold to a roadside "zoo" in Douglas, Arizona; a mountain lion who was kept illegally as a pet (seriously?!). Our black bear, Strawberry, came from SWCC as did one of our coyotes and one of the beavers. Sometimes the animals go the other way, as in the case of three kit foxes, the Pepper Brothers - Chili, Hatch and Jalapeño, who were sent to SWCC by the Desert Museum.


The center depends wholly on donations and tour revenue for its financial support. That revenue stream was severely curtailed in the last couple of years as a result of a new neighbor. As far out in the desert as this location seems, houses are quite close to them. They prided themselves on their good relations with their neighbors. But that was shattered when a new neighbor moved in and promptly filed a zoning complaint against the center, saying that they did not have the proper zoning to be conducting tours for the public. And he was right. They had to immediately cease giving tours. That financial blow was compounded by further legal action by this neighbor over noise (coyotes and wolf howls!) and dust complaints. Late last fall, Maricopa County Board of Supervisors granted SWCC a Special Use Permit, allowing for the resumption of tours and school group visits. This was good news, but the conflict with the neighbor continues.

See the video of the black bears having a snack.

I believe that all of the docents who visited the center were quite impressed with the facilities and with the dedication of the staff and volunteers to the welfare and well-being of the animal population. The center's website contains extensive information about the animals, the history, the legal battles, education programs and the philosophy of SWCC. ASDM is fortunate to have this resource, and so are the animals who depend on it for their existence. Check out this link to the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center and read about all their programs.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Mobbing Behavior in Birds

One Friday at the Desert Museum, another docent and I separately witnessed an interesting interaction between a raven and a smaller raptor, most likely an accipiter (Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk).  The larger bird was harassing the smaller one.  It’s more common to see small birds attacking or harassing a larger raptor.  This behavior is known as mobbing, and, although it’s most frequently seen in birds, other animal species use similar tactics.

Mobbing is an antipredator technique used by a prey species against a predator, most commonly to protect their offspring.  The goal of the prey species is to drive the predator from a nest, breeding territory or non-breeding home range, or even a food source.  Mobbing takes place most often in the spring, coinciding with breeding and nesting. Sometimes mobbing is employed to distract and steal food from another bird. Another important function of mobbing is to teach younger birds to distinguish friends from foes. A recent study indicates that mobbing may also give male birds the chance to show off their physical qualities to impress females. 

The most common targets of mobbing include hawks, eagles, crows, ravens, herons, and owls.  Those doing the mobbing (mobsters?) include chickadees, titmice, kingbirds, blackbirds, grackles, jays, crows, ravens and even other raptors.  Mobbing behavior can include chasing, dive-bombing,
bumping, loud squawking, defecating or vomiting on the predator, and may be done by a single bird or a group.  The loud calls often attract more birds of the same species to join in on the harassment. 

Several years ago, I felt very lucky when a great-horned owl chose one of my large trees in which to roost.   It wasn’t long, however, before I began to hear the incessant alarm calling of a Cooper’s hawk.  I discovered the Cooper’s hawk perching nearby and constantly tormenting the owl.  Eventually, the owl moved on to somewhere more peaceful. The Cooper’s hawk, who had a nest not far away, had achieved her goal, removing the predator from the area.  In fact, one way to find perching owls is to listen for the loud calls of mobbing birds. 

By its nature, mobbing by small birds of a large, dangerous predator seems to be a courageous or foolhardy act.  Researchers don’t completely understand why predators don’t turn and snatch up one or two of the tormentors, which would presumably put an eventual end to the behavior. Since mobbing persists, it suggests that surprise is an essential element in raptor hunting. 

Next time you hear loud bird squawking, check the skies for some fascinating bird behavior.


All About Birds: Mobbing Behavior

Mobbing Behavior: Wikipedia

Stanford Birds - Mobbing 

Science Daily: Birds of a feather mob together

Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Last week, fellow docents and I were having a conversation, prompted by a question to one of them from a visitor, regarding the relationship between a palo verde and a saguaro. It was obvious from our discussion that we needed a review of symbiotic relationships!

Symbiosis is defined as a relationship between two or more organisms that live closely together. There are three main types of symbiosis: commensalism, mutualism and parasitism. Commensalism is a relationship in which one organism benefits and the other is unaffected. Mutualism is a relationship in which both organisms benefit. Parasitism is when one organism benefits and the other one is harmed. To be successful, a symbiotic relationship requires a great deal of balance. Even parasitism, where one partner is harmed, is balanced so that the host lives long enough to allow the parasite to spread and reproduce.

These delicate relationships are the product of long years of co-evolution. Bacteria were the first living things on the planet, and all of Earth's other creatures have been living and evolving with them for hundreds of millions of years. Today, microbes are essential for many organisms' basic functions, including nourishment, reproduction, and protection.

So, back to the saguaro/palo verde relationship. The visitor wanted to know, if the nurse tree was benefitting the saguaro, what the payoff was for the palo verde? How would you classify that? The saguaro benefits from the protection provided by the palo verde. But, how about the palo verde? Most of the time, their relationship is probably commensal - benefiting the saguaro and causing no harm to the palo verde. However, in times of drought the shallower root system of the saguaro may intercept most of the rainfall.  These two species would then be said to enter a type of symbiosis known as interspecific competition. The saguaro could eventually hasten its nurse tree's death.  

There are thousands (millions?) of symbiotic relationships in the Sonoran Desert. Just take the saguaro, for example. Think of all the animals that depend on the saguaro for food, or shelter. The saguaro, in turn, depends on certain species to pollinate it, and to disperse its seeds. Bees, bats and white-winged doves get a food reward, while doing the important work of helping the saguaro to reproduce.

Parasitism - The desert mistletoe is an example of a parasitic symbiont that depends on its host,

usually a legume tree, for nutrients. The host tree is harmed over time and with heavy infestation of the mistletoe by the depletion of nutrients. 

Other common parasitic relationships include the coyote and the flea, or the mange-causing mite. Female mites can burrow into the skin. Coyotes with mange can lose their hair, which can make it difficult for them to control their body temperatures. Mange must be extremely severe before it disables a coyote. Most coyotes can survive with the disease for a long time. The brown-headed cowbird parasitizes the nests of other birds, called brood parasitism. The cowbird benefits by having another bird raise its young, which are usually larger than the bird’s own young and can out-compete them for food and space.

Animals are parasitized by viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoans, flatworms (tapeworms and flukes), nematodes, insects (fleas, lice), and arachnids (mites). Plants are parasitized by viruses, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and a few other plants.

Mutualism - Examples of mutualism abound. Just think about flowers and their pollinators. That’s a
win-win for both parties. Not all symbiotic relationships are visible by humans. Take the bacteria that live in the guts of herbivores, helping them to digest plant material, which is more difficult to digest than animal prey. This gut flora is made up of cellulose-digesting protozoans or bacteria living in the herbivores' intestines. Another example is the bacteria that allow legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil, living on nematodes on the plant roots.

Commensalism - Commensal relationships may involve one organism using another for transportation or for housing or it may also involve one organism using something another created, left after its death (metabiosis). Examples of metabiosis are hermit crabs using gastropod shells to protect their bodies. Birds nesting in trees is a commensal relationship. Vines use trees to reach up to the light, causing no harm to the tree (most of the time!).  Consider the packrat home and all the many critters that seek shelter and food there.

Symbiosis can either be obligate or facultative (optional). In obligate relationships, one organism cannot live without the other. Perhaps one of the most well-known obligate mutualistic relationships is that of the yucca moth and its host plant.

The yucca moth, also commonly called the pronuba moth, is a small white moth that lives in the semi-arid habitats where yucca plants grow. The yucca moth is well-known for its co-dependent relationship with the yucca plant. The yucca moth’s larvae rely exclusively on the seeds of the yucca plant as a primary food source, and the plant relies exclusively on the yucca moth for pollination. One cannot exist without the other, creating an obligate mutualism between the moth and the plant. 

We talk about Keystone Species - a plant or animal that plays a unique and crucial role in the way an ecosystem functions. Without keystone species, the ecosystem would be dramatically different or cease to exist altogether. These are species on which so many other species are dependent. Think about the saguaro, and prairie dog, and the many different species for which they are so important. Another good example is the cottonwood tree and the many creatures that depend on it. I’m sure you can think of many more relationships in biology, for I haven’t begun to scratch the surface.  I have discussed only the 3 main types of symbiosis.  There are many more, and perhaps those are topics for another article.

We do well to remember that in each of these types of symbiosis, few situations are absolute.  In most cases, there is a continuum of types of interactions between species, rather than an exclusive category.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Turning Down the Noise

There are few ailments of the body and soul that cannot be soothed by a walk in nature.  And, thus it was that post-election depression sent my like-minded friend and co-worker and I up into the Tucson Mountains for our annual trek to Wasson Peak. At 4687', Wasson Peak is the highest point in the Tucson Mountains on the west side of Tucson proper.  While there are several ways to access the peak, the trail we chose this time was the Camino del Cerro, leading up the east side of the mountains, 9.6 miles round-trip.

The low elevation and lack of cover make this definitely a hike for the winter, and this November day proved to be a perfect time - a light cloud cover, temperatures in the 70's, and a few breezes.

Leaving the trailhead parking lot, you immediately enter Saguaro National Park West. We had gone but perhaps a quarter of a mile when we spotted the first mule deer, and soon we encountered several more - 8 in total - watching us as we watched them.

Beautiful low-desert vegetation surrounded us - giant saguaro cactus, palo verde trees, ocotillo, prickly pear, barrel and cholla cactus.

As the trail rose in elevation, subtle changes occurred in the plant community.  Sotol (desert spoon) and jojoba appeared and soon became abundant.

The trail was mercifully quiet on this Tuesday morning and we met only one other hiker before reaching the 'saddle', where trails converge and meet the final leg to the top.  There it was time to have a brief rest and snack before tackling the steepest part of the trail.

Another 1.2 miles to the top and the legs were burning.  But once there, what glorious 360° views of the entire valley!  Such a fine spot for lunch, especially on this day of little wind.  Several other hiking parties shared the space, mostly visitors from Canada.

Then it was time for the descent. Another 3 hours of peace and beauty, undisturbed by political discussion, the news, television, the too-often ugliness of real life. There were few flowers blooming after a long dry spell, but a few desert zinnias and purple filaree added color, as did the bright red fruit of the Christmas cholla and the beautiful yellow fruit of the barrel cactus.   Bright neon green lichen decorated the north-facing rocks.  We marveled at the glowing spines of the teddy bear cholla, which looks deceivingly cuddly.  Lovely reddish tanglehead grass made a nice contrast to the brown and green palette.

Back at the trailhead parking lot, we were disturbed to see trash littering the ground all around the overflowing container, and cigarette butts everywhere.  Yes, we're back in 'civilization'.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Docent Diaries - An Update from the Desert Museum

Tucson, Arizona

After a busy winter season, things are beginning to slow down at the Desert Museum.The heat is ramping up, getting ready for summer's blast. Out-of-town visitors find somewhere cooler to go.  Afternoon tours are eliminated. Winter visitors are leaving town. The docent corps, too, is thinning out.  But, for those of us who brave the warmer temps, things are always exciting at the Museum.

Our Cactus Garden has undergone a transformation in recent months and is now a stunning showcase for all things spiny.  Friday docents give a tour every week of the garden, and visitors are fascinated by the shapes, colors and adaptations of cactus from the Sonoran Desert as well as more tropical locales farther south.  I love giving these tours and last Friday I had six enthusiastic visitors learning about what is, and what is not, a cactus.

The cactus blooms were sort of in a lull, but there was this lovely, mounding Notocactus.


And this Mexican night-blooming cereus, which was just starting to close after its nighttime shift. Interestingly, the one in my garden bloomed the same night, for the first time ever.

Mexican Night-Blooming Cereus

Not to forget our amazing saguaro cacti that are still blooming full blast.

Friday is a popular day for school groups to visit the Museum.  A good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view.  As a docent, I love having the schoolkids come out, and I am especially  happy when they are well-chaperoned and have been given learning assignments.  After the Cactus Garden Tour, I was stationed in the Ethnobotany Garden and I had a group of high school girls who listened intently and asked great questions.  First, I had to explain what ethnobotany is! Just a big word for how people use plants.  They loved tasting the mesquite flower, and feeling the texture of the jojoba oil.

Near the People and Pollinators Garden is the Maze Garden where I found a gorgeous Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis) covered in deep magenta flowers. This is not a true willow, but a member of the Bignonia family.  Large, fragrant, orchid-like flowers cover the plants from April to August in a range of colors from white to this fuchsia color.

But my real mission was now down the path in the Big Horn Sheep area, where not one, but two, lambs have recently been born.  There's no doubt that all babies are adorable, but these lambs take the cuteness factor to a whole new level.  Within just days of birth they are scrambling up the steep cliff of the enclosure, bouncing and leaping all over.

The two ewes are mother and daughter.  The lambs, one a ram and one a ewe, were born one month apart, first to the mother and then to the daughter. Playtime is followed by a crash - moms and babies find a spot in the shade to get some rest. Along with the visitors, I could watch these guys all day! We'll have the pleasure of watching them for another 8 months or so before the lambs are shipped off to another facility.

Time for lunch and our monthly potluck.  There's always so many fun dishes to try, and oh! the desserts! This was a special one as we were honoring our day captains at the end of their tenure.  Each docent day has two captains that serve for one or two years, doing the scheduling and keeping us docents in line.  Sort of like herding cats.  We are thankful that they are willing to do the job, which can be stressful and frustrating.  I know.  I've been there!

Martha, Rae, Carole, Marsie
Outgoing captains Rae and Marsie, with incoming captain Martha, and me

Animal handling is one of the great privileges and rewards of being a docent.  Each year we choose the categories of animals we want to handle, and then go through training and certification on each.  This year, my animals are snakes and middleweight raptors.  Everybody loves the big birds, of course.  But the snakes, not so much.  So, it's especially important to educate visitors about snakes, and perhaps change their thinking a bit.  On this day, I had a large common kingsnake.  It's amazing how many people's first question is, "Is it poisonous?"  Right.  I'd be fool enough to stand here holding a venomous snake.  Kingsnakes, which are constrictors, prey on a variety of small animals, including other snakes.  Famously, even rattlesnakes are on their diet.  Which leads people to classify kingsnakes as 'good' snakes.  I gently inform them that there's no such thing as 'good' or 'bad' snakes. All snakes are just trying to make a living, using the tools they've been given.

There were still many more sights to see as the day went on.  Passing a very large saguaro, I could hear baby birds calling.  Just then this male Gila woodpecker poked his head out of the nest.

It is the male woodpecker who does the work of excavating the hole in preparation for nesting, and then he shares the duties of caring for the nestlings.  Right after I snapped this photo, off he went, most likely in search of more food for those ravenous babies.

Baby animals are everywhere on the grounds.  Black-tailed prairie dog pups have emerged from their burrows and are providing a never-ending source of entertainment.

One lucky pup was getting a serious grooming from mom.

Last stop of the day was in front of the mountain lion exhibit.  Our young male, Cruz, was feeling frisky.

Big Stretch
And then, he decided to talk to us.


Have you ever heard a mountain lion meow like a housecat?  Well they do, and it sounds so odd coming from this big cat.  Mountain lions are the largest of the small cats - those that meow and purr.  The big cats roar.

That was a perfect ending to a most excellent day!