Category Archives: Discovery

Feeling antsy

ant image
I’ve been overcome this week by creatures smaller than this type font. This happens every summer as the monsoon season edges in. I’m always surprised and horrified as my beloved nature invades the house and requires drastic measures…. poison even.

Every year their strategy is a little different. This year it started on Monday morning with a scattering of miniscule ants on the kitchen floor. Hustling around on my way to work, I scooped them up with a rag soaked in vinegar. Later in the day I scattered diatomaceous earth around the doorways.

A few hours later I find ants massing on the kitchen floor (while the cats sit nearby, apparently transfixed). Worse, a line of larger and even faster ants march in formation up the wall, under the cabinet light fixture and into the spice cupboard. Opening the door, I find an enthusiastic frenzy of ants mobbing the sticky honey container.

Somehow, from all the way outside in the hot desert, these (dumb?) insects “discovered” my gooey honey container! I must say I experienced extreme frustration and a semi-minor meltdown at that point.

Sent hubby to the store for pet-friendly ant spray. (Poison)

We sprayed at all the entrances to the house and behind the fixtures beneath the cupboard. Then I freaked out about spraying poison inside and mopped it all up. Living ants scurried ahead of me carrying dead (or dying?) ants on their backs.

Esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson says he never outgrew the “bug stage” that boys (and many girls) go through. He claims his groundbreaking study of ants came about because ants are easy to find, social creatures. Wilson discovered that each species of ants has its own unique culture. He found that ant societies are held together by chemical communication. Lacking sight and smell, ants thrive following the information-laden pheromone trails they leave for each other.

Those trails in our house apparently allowed the tiny scouts that entered our kitchen to communicate to the larger gatherers the location of not only the honey container, but the next day, the kaluha bottle in the booze cupboard. After we had cleaned up those two sticky areas, the persistent ants found still another pot of gold – the sugar bowl, tucked away and forgotten on a high shelf. (eeek)

As annoying as the ant experience has been, I have to admire these fascinating little critters that willingly sacrifice themselves to find a food source to perpetuate their community.

E.O. Wilson is 86 now, and spends his time urging humans to recognize the importance of all life. “Biodiversity is the totality of all inherited variation in the life forms of Earth, of which we are one species. We study and save it to our great benefit. We ignore and degrade it to our great peril.”

Check out E.O. Wilson’s tremendous website on biodiversity.


The Future is Everyone’s Playground

Desert Museum 020

I was fortunate to hear the brilliant author Margaret Atwood speak recently. She was in town as part of the ASU sponsored Science and Imagination Series. The initiative defines sustainability as stories about the future world we desire.

Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy takes place in a future world run by anonymous corporations while scientific research in biogenetics is carried out in fortressed compounds. Big Pharm sells vitamins that make people sick and gratuitously markets the remedies. The God’s Gardeners’ underground movement tries to keep old traditions and themselves alive.

In person Atwood was funny and wry. She labels her Maddaddam work as speculative fiction. Extrapolating present facts and trends, she projected into the future. She asks, do we really want to go there? If not, she declares, we need to change the road we’re on.

In regards to climate change, Atwood pointed out that in many cases we have the technology we need to address the problems, but lack the will to change. Towards the end of her talk she mentioned a project out of Norway called Future Library.

A young woman named Katie Paterson came up with this mind-bending idea. Why not plant a forest of trees to be cut one day to create books? The books would contain literature written over the past one hundred years, specifically for this project. A specially designed room within the New Public Deichmanske Library in Oslo has already been prepared, where the stories, poems and essays will be sealed.

Works of literature will be contributed over time to build a collection of manuscripts. The stories and poems will be contributed as gifts to the future, one a year, dating from when the forest was mere seedlings until their crowns spread into the sky.

Starting in 2014 and for ninety nine years after, an esteemed author will be asked to submit a piece of writing to the project. Margaret Atwood was the first to be invited to participate and is currently working on her contribution. She’ll never know how her work is received, none of us will. No one alive today will read her story, because it will be sealed in the Future Library.

A printing press will be placed in the library along with the growing body of literature. One hundred years from now, enough of the forest will be cut to print the library’s treasure. A century of fine literature written by storytellers from each era will become available to readers.

What will the world look like then? Who will the “readers” be?
How uplifting to consider an enterprise that reaches across the divide of time and that carries history and meaning. Commercial gain was not a driver in this case! The project embodies the expanse of the human soul.

Atwood claims the future is everyone’s playground. Let’s cut free and go play. Let’s change the road we’re on.

Island Enchantment

Really big fern

Meg RainforestSunrise again

My body returned from Hawaii days ago, but my thoughts linger there, circling in meditation like a coconut rolling in the shallows. On arrival at Oahu I unfolded limbs from restrictive airline seats like a new butterfly drying its wings. Outside the airport I found transformation in the island’s nature.

The Southwest’s earth is parched, river beds lay bone dry and the plants on the landscape scrimp and pinch to get by on minimal moisture. In Honolulu rain pours down almost every day, moisture plumps every cell and the air is heavy with humidity.

Reunited in the airport baggage area with Mom and Megan, we found we were all in one piece and glad to see each other. Megan drove us across the mountains to her home on the windward side of the island.

On the pass dramatic pali rake moisture from the sky and gather it around their peaks like grey shawls, until the heavy mists swirl into low hanging clouds. As the rain falls it carves fissures in the shoulders of the pleated mountains, forming impossibly long waterfalls, one after another. Here the water cycle is a tangible expression of infinity.

Unbridled competition for sunlight spurs the tropical shrubs, vines and trees skyward where they unfurl extravagantly large leaves. When we reached the windward side prevailing breezes had driven the clouds back against the mountains, revealing sunny skies and providing relief from the humidity.

In the coastal town of Kailua the ocean immediately dominates the senses. Even in town where we stop for acai bowls the breezes are weighted with salt. On the beach near our VRBO, the mild surf rolls onto immaculate sand, only as gritty as whole wheat flour.
The surge of the waves is unceasing, regular as the breath of a sleeping beast. Two shades of blue meet at the horizon where the imagination conjures tossing ships, islands lost and mythical sea creatures from clouds and air.

Here in Hawaii the charismatic mammals are not tethered to the earth. Sea turtles frolic in the surf, humpback whales nurture their young in warm waters and schools of otherworldly fish browse among coral reefs. We thrilled to songs of birds new to us and tried for photos of frigate birds soaring overhead on crooked wings.

We too let go of earth and embraced the salty buoyancy of the sea. Floating on the surface in a protected cove we stared wide eyed through snorkeling masks at fish and sea urchins, the crusty sea bottom sliding away as currents pulled us.

Perhaps instead of transformation it was an enchantment, as the island not only inhabited my imagination, but on my return, cast a pall over the charms of the desert. But yesterday I heard a bird song new to me and wondered who was migrating through, hidden in the palo verde trees. And today I saw a flock of finches chase a raptor across the sky. The glorious cool temperatures of fall beckon.

The Potential in a Single Seed

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Brooks Community School Greenhouse

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

Swiss chard and melons seedlings

I’ve been working a lot with seeds lately. It’s my job at my new position with the Roosevelt School District. A seed is a miracle. Place a kernel under the soil, add moisture and warmth, and life bursts forth. The first sign of germination is an eruption from the soil, as the plant pushes toward that next requirement, sunlight.

In a similar birthing, a large greenhouse has appeared on the campus of the Brooks Community School in south Phoenix. When the Brooks School was closed due to low enrollment, the buildings and playgrounds sat empty and uncared for, an eyesore in this humble neighborhood.

Then a visionary from the district came along and planted a seed of hope on the campus. He proposed that the shuttered school be reopened as a community center populated with non-profits offering resources to the people. The seed packet for this harvest would read Community Revitalization and Sustainability.

Various organizations and community non-profits are already operating out of the Brooks School, providing benefits to the greater neighborhood, including parenting classes, a medical clinic, job training, motivational speakers, and community service and volunteer opportunities.

The large greenhouse crouching on land that once swarmed with kids on recess represents a window for students to peer through, an opportunity to learn about the production of food. Field trips to the greenhouse will highlight the sciences of hydroponics, aquaponics and vermiculture; showing vegetables growing in water, fish and prawns thriving in indoor tanks and worms digesting table scraps and paper to produce nitrogen rich fertilizer. These closed loop systems conserve resources while maximizing nutritional yields

Gathering these sustainability practices together under one roof will allow students to explore a range of urban food production. Plans are underway for more education opportunities on the land outside the greenhouse including butterfly and hummingbird gardens, raised beds and native plant landscaping.

Just a few generations ago, children commonly helped with chores in their family gardens. They were part of planting, harvesting and preserving food. Now most kids think food comes from grocery stores and restaurants. Bringing edible gardening into the school environment addresses this disconnect.

Right now the greenhouse is in disarray as everyone is working to get their growing operations up and running. By early October there will be more news to report. If this seed fulfills its potential, the plant is sure to bear fruit

Dragonflies Dazzle

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Flame Skimmer is a dragonfly of the Southwest

Photo by Dave Biggs

Photo by Dave Biggs

In the summer months dragonflies hover about the watering holes of Arizona. They flit from rock to reed, all aglitter like jewel-encrusted brooches granted the gift of flight. Dragonflies are phenomenal fliers, among the fastest insects, and chase down their prey and grasp them with their long legs. The dragonfly is unique in that its front and hind wings beat in opposite directions. This allows him to move about with the agility of a tiny helicopter.

As children at Priest Lake in Idaho, we shared the shoreline with sparkling blue dragonflies. When we rested, sun-drowsy on floats in the water, dragonflies would light briefly on our wet skin. We didn’t scream and thrash, like we did when bees or spiders landed on us. We paused even our breathing and stared into the globelike eyes. The magical looking creatures seemed a manifestation of the sun, the water and the joys of summer.

The desert is home to some of the most spectacular dragonflies, from the six inch giant darner to the citrine forktail with a wing span of less than one inch. A dragonfly’s head is almost all eyes, and the insect can turn its head nearly 360 degrees as it scans its territory for prey or foes.

Dragonflies mate in mid-air, their arching thoraxes forming the shape of a heart as they link up. The female lays her eggs in the water – some attach to plants, others float beneath the surface.

The eggs hatch into non-descript nymphs. Flat and cryptic the creatures stay near the bottom of the lake or stream. Up to four years can pass while the nymphs live underwater, breathing through gills. They scoop up meals of fish, tadpoles and small invertebrates from the sandy bottom and from among the water plants.

Finally, in a dramatic transformation, the dragonfly pulls itself from the water and unfolds wings and crystalline colors. The air becomes its new medium. The adult life stage will last just two months and the dragonfly lives it up. Sun glints off his darting form as he engages in aerial battles for territories and chases down prey. He mates and provides for a new generation of his species. He epitomizes the glory of living for the moment.

Source: Carl Olson’s 50 Common Insects of the Southwest

Efficiency Unit

Copy of Downsized

Cozy Interior

Cozy Interior

A pioneer from the 1800’s built this cabin in Northern Idaho. What a testament to efficiency! I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I laid eyes on it until the last picture was snapped.

I have to confess that I live in a home that’s over 3,000 square feet. Downsizing is definitely in order, but I never quite imagined paring things down to such an essential scale.

The early inhabitants of our land faced serious, even life threatening challenges, but how do those stack up against the cares and responsibilities that plague the lives of modern humans? Sure, the pioneers wore the same clothes every day, but don’t laundry chores become a drag? Think of the water we use to keep our extensive collections of clothing clean, not to mention dry cleaning solvents, bleaches, detergents and fabric softeners that taint the environment.

Actually, among the many tools and utensils of daily life placed economically about the cabin was an iron! Just because people were spartan does not mean they were unkempt. Another tool I noticed was a “travel sized” washing board resembling a cheese grater. Let’s not forget that modern life has saved us from some grisly chores.

The bed appeared harsh compared to my extra thick mattress with box spring and gel mattress pad (ahem), but how can we know how it felt to roll up in a luxurious bear skin and rest on a nice firm surface? After a day spent working hard in the fresh air it probably felt heavenly.

Maybe our elaborate indoor spaces became more important to us when we found ourselves walled off from the natural world, divorced from the soughing of wind in trees and water bubbling over smooth stones. Instead of tuning into seasons and the opportunities they bring to feed our families, we now watch the stock market, professional athletes and wars in countries we don’t understand. We pore over screens that light up our senses and connect us to a technological world, rich beyond measure in information and stimulation but poor in actual experience.

Just one hundred and fifty years ago our ancestors lived a hard life, but a real life, with challenges that required craft and intelligence and hard physical work. They were integrated with the environment around them. These are the genes we carry today, even as we inch our vehicles along crowded freeways and devote our energy to acquiring possessions and isolating ourselves from the elements. It’s hard to define where we’ve advanced and where we’ve lost ground.

Granite Creek Trib

Arboretum Adventures

Funnel spider web

Funnel spider web

Coachwhip Snake

Coachwhip Snake

I drove out to Boyce Thompson Arboretum last weekend for a wildlife photography class with Lisa Langell. Click here for Lisa’s website, her images are stunning. Lisa’s presentation style is warm and personable and she has lots of great stories. The class was titled Seven Common Mistakes in Wildlife Photography and I’ll confess here that I make them all!

But, my biggest photography sin? No patience!
Lisa advocates the careful study of animals as they move about in their natural environment. She urges persistence to catch wildlife in characteristic acts that speak of their habits. She told of visiting potential sites on different days at different times to maximize the lighting and composition. She sometimes waits, hidden in cover for hours, before finally capturing her signature images.

This is a far cry from me, tromping along with camera bumping my ribcage, hoping to spot any sort of critter and praying it holds still long enough for me to get a shot off. So the class gave me plenty to think about.

Before Lisa spoke, there was a lizard walk led by Arizona Game and Fish wildlife biologist Abi King. Abi was also great and led twenty or so of us, children and adults, through the shimmering heat on a reptile hunt. We had not walked far along the garden path before someone spied a coachwhip snake, lying just off the trail. The poor snake was dead, but recently so, and his inactivity gave us all time to see what a big coachwhip looks like.

These snakes can get as long as 5 to 6 feet. They are one of the fastest snakes and a reptile that shinnies up trees with ease. During the daytime hours coachwhips patrol their territory hunting for grasshoppers, cicadas, lizards, birds, rodents and snakes – even rattlesnakes. If cornered by a predator, the coachwhip coils, vibrates its tail and strikes repeatedly at the face of the attacker.

We also saw a number of other reptiles; ornate tree lizards doing pushups, whiptails scurrying through the brush and a side blotch lizard basking on a rock. Usually it was one of the kids who spotted the critters first.

Altogether, a wonderful time out at the Arboretum. They open at 6 am this time of year.

Sources: and National Audubon Society Field Guild to Reptiles

Secret Signs of Coming Monsoon

Cicada nymph husk

Cicada nymph husk

Tiny busera flowers

Tiny busera flowers

About a week ago we had our first sticky day, when our famous dry heat became a bit clammy and sapped the energy right out of me. The humidity measured 25% early in the day, but the moisture in the air could not outlast the blistering sun. Only 7 % of the humidity persisted into the 107 degree afternoon.

You can watch humidity levels rise and fall in the newspaper or on weather apps, but the approach of the monsoon is showing up outdoors in mysterious and magical ways. These first-hand discoveries initiate the watchful into a confederacy with the turning seasons. Just by looking around we begin to share in the secret handshakes of nature.

The first monsoon sign I noticed was the Apache cicada husks, clinging on vertical surfaces, like elaborate vessels wrought by elves. The cicada nymphs wait in the soil for three to five years and then dig their way to the surface. Above ground, the nymphs climb. In a perfect world that would mean a tree, but in our back yard the cicadas climb the water tank, the house and the outdoor furniture.

Each glowing husk I see tells of a dramatic moment when the nymph burst from the back of its exoskeleton and unfolded brand new wings. The male adult cicadas produce the unrelenting buzzing sound so evocative of the desert. This mating call reverberates from their hollow bodies, but the females fly silently, guarding the eggs that fill their abdomens.

Flowers turn to fruit on the saguaro cacti in another miraculous transformation that seems ho-hum in our techno wonder world. And dry, ripe pods drape from mesquite, paloverde, ironwood and acacia trees. These seeds represent a cram packed warehouse that will feed many growing families of wild desert critters.

Increased humidity also brings out the bugs. Birds snatch insects from the air and raise their young on the protein rich prey. Lizards lap up all manner of bugs. When I walk in a sandy wash near South Mountain, the pits and crosshatching of tiny footprints are countless. I picture a sand highway lit by stars, carrying nocturnal traffic of rodents, rabbits and hunting owls. In the dawn hours doves and quail, reptiles and cottontail leave their mark.

Most surprising of all is the elephant tree. Busera microphyllia, one of my favorites, passed into a dormant stage in early spring. The leaves shrived and dropped away and the fragrant elephant trees have appeared for months as dark, skeletal forms.

I hike up Cabrillo Canyon where the big buseras grow. The soil is bone dry. Other desert plants give up or fold up their leaves in an effort to conserve water. Yet for the non-conforming elephant tree, a blip in humidity brings forth renewal. It’s as if the summer solstice cast a sparkly spell of frail green leaves and tight pointed buds on the twisted purple branches.

A couple of days later, the buds open into tiny blossoms. Now translucent white flowers decorate the sprawling trees. Cicadas whine on, announcing more monsoon drama is coming our way!

LW Volunteer Gig

Photo by Terry Stevens

Photo by Terry Stevens

Okay, volunteering at Liberty can be interesting in the summer. The facility is brimming with animals that need to be fed, and cleaned up after. Most of them eat raw meat and the daytime temps are climbing into the triple digits. I look around at all of the volunteers working outside and feel great respect for this hardy group.

On Wednesday a couple of special moments reminded me why we do it. My first duty of the day was feeding an orphan baby screech owl. The fuzzy tomato sized nestling huddled at the back of the heated brooder and did not respond when I offered a bit of mouse. In fact, as I tried to tempt him, he shrank away. Luckily Jan came to our rescue. She reached in and lifted the nestling out and helped me get the little mouse haunch into the petite curved beak. Then she set the owl back in the brooder. Away from our ugly human mugs he immediately and eagerly gulped the food down. We got a couple of mice in him that way.

Later, after I’d gutted plenty more mice for our more eager raptor patients, Susie appeared with two speckled quail eggs in her palm. They were hatching. Each quail had already perforated a crack half way around the egg, breaking through the membrane inside with a single egg tooth. I could see the tooth barely piercing the shell, a tiny white incisor.

“Hear the peeping?” Susie asked.
When I lowered my head to listen I saw one egg was rocking slightly. Then it cracked open with a pop. The quail’s head, which had been lying tight against its breast, thrust out of the shell. I could see the might of his tiny wings as he elbowed those free too. He lay flat on Susie’s hand, his lower half still encased in the egg, his shiny black eye blinking at us.

She pointed out a speck of blood in the cup of the empty shell. “In the wild the blood in the egg sac attracts predators. That’s why he’s peeping. He’s urging the other baby to get a move on and hatch too.”
Gambel’s quail generally lay 10-12 eggs in shallow nests on the ground. The eggs hatch within hours of each other and the downy babies are able to follow their parents away from the nest site soon after birth.

This orphan hatchling raised its head and began to struggle again, kicking hard at the clinging shell. Both feet came free. Already it seems impossible that all the legs and feet could have fit into the egg. The quail scrambled upright. Susie closed her hand gently around his damp downy form. She put him into a brooder right away as quail babies need temperatures in excess of 95 degrees. Despite their precocious ways, the littlest quail are extremely vulnerable and their mortality rate is high. Thankfully, plenty of them are getting help at Liberty Wildlife.

Quail orphans get good care until release time. Photo by Terry Stevens

Quail orphans get good care until release time. Photo by Terry Stevens

Digger bee

Digging bee

Digging bee

I try to save the bees that fall into our swimming pool. Today, I was too late. Crouching down for a closer look I could see the drowned bee was mostly grey, with green cyclops eyes and tan fuzz gleaming on her back (thorax). When I looked up bees I found we have 1000 different species of them in the Sonoran Desert!
Evidently little is known about most of the bee families. There are not enough scientists to study them all. At the Ask a Biologist site I came across an article by John Alcock, professor at the ASU School of Life Sciences. Alcock first noticed the grey bees flying in low circles over open patches of sandy ground. While he watched, one of the bees landed, probed the soil with his antennae, and started to dig. The male bee uncovered a female digging her way up from her natal burrow and the two mated immediately.
This is the digger bee, Centris pallida. Many of our native bee species live underground. The female digger bee does all the hard work, burrowing into sandy and even gravely soil with her jaws and legs. She goes down about a foot then makes a right turn and excavates a brood cell. Sometimes multiple cells are constructed in a branching network.
The digger bee lines each cell with wax secreted from her body, sealing it from moisture and fungi. She then collects nectar and honey from the blossoms of ironwood and paloverde trees and fills each brood pot. She lays a single egg on top of the sweet, sticky food and seals the tiny den closed.
The egg hatches into a grub that eats all the food in the pot. The fat white prepupa lies curled in its cozy burrow for eleven months, waiting for spring. Then, in a double metamorphosis, the prepupa transforms first to a pupa and then an adult bee. The males dig out first and many may swarm above the nest site, awaiting the arrival of the females. Alcock states the bee’s sensitive antenna can smell the females as they approach the soil’s surface.
After mating, the bees feast on pollen and nectar from native blooming trees. The females will soon be digging and provisioning brood cells. I like to stand under the branches of an ironwood tree and listen to the rising and falling hum, a crescendo of digger bee buzz. You can try this if you live nearby, as these bees are non-aggressive. Or, see a short video of a female Centris pallida digging by clicking the link.