Category Archives: Wildlife

Summer Solstice Snake Story

gophersnake

I find I organize my thoughts and perceptions into patterns that if not entirely comforting, are at least expected, so that I can negotiate my days in a somewhat orderly manner. Maybe everyone does this.

Leave it to Nature to toss out surprises to jolt us from our comfort zone and even make our adrenalin rush.

My husband provided this Onelookout summer solstice report from the local golf course. He, or his golf buddy, shanked a ball into the rough and the two of them searched a grove of desert mesquite trees for the missing ball. Marc says a movement overhead caught his eye.

Wound gracefully in a nearby mesquite, about seven feet up, a handsome gopher snake cast its head about in search of prey. The three foot long reptile wore a striking pattern in colors of cream and brown.

When the snake saw the golfers it slithered smoothly down the rough barked trunk. Without seeming to hurry much, the snake quickly disappeared into a burrow at the base of the tree.

Gopher snakes are good burrowers, climbers and swimmers, but mostly of course they are constrictors. This impressive snake species provides us the great service of rodent population control. The snake Marc saw may have been hunting for lizards in the tree or even baby birds.

Even here in the Southwest desert, coming across a snake is always surprising and somewhat alarming. A snake in a tree, on a golf course?

My husband sounded pretty thrilled to experience a jolt of wildlife to spice up his day.

No Place for a Cottontail

cottontail

Wednesday, as you may know, is double coupon day at Sprouts Market, and as I pulled into the parking lot I found a throng of people. Shoppers trickled out the doors pushing loaded shopping carts, and others headed in toting handbags. Most of the nearby parking spaces were taken and a line of cars inched along, drivers looking for an empty slot. The red brake lights of a Suburban glowed as it sat, half way out of a front row space, waiting for people to pass.

In the midst of all this, I was astounded to see a cottontail rabbit crouched on the asphalt near the Suburban. He was absolutely still and people parted and passed by as if he was indeed invisible. Suddenly the press of autos and humanity seemed ominous and horrible.

I peeled off my sweatshirt with the thought I could drop it over the poor bunny and rescue it from what must be for it a hellish scene. But as I approached, the rabbit lollopped off to shelter under a parked car. I kept herding the little critter away from the busy store entrance, but parking lots, storefronts and heavily traveled streets surrounded us.

Sprouts is one of the anchor stores of the busiest intersection in our community. This is the corner of 48th Street and Ray Road. Seven lanes of traffic travel along one arterial and eight on the other. Once for a writing project I sat for half an hour at the bus stop on Ray Road just east of 48th.

Sitting on the bench inside the plexiglas shell I was overcome by the volume of traffic that surged past, pulsing in waves created by traffic signals. As a driver, I’d scarcely noticed the bus stop, but as a pedestrian I felt exposed, vulnerable and completely out of my element. The sheer mass of machinery and the anonymity of the passing drivers sealed up inside their vehicles, closed off behind their tinted windows….well, quite honestly, I didn’t really last the full thirty minutes.

I quickly lost the rabbit outside Sprouts on Wednesday, as the rows of parked cars offered plenty of places to hide. In an effort to replicate the writing exercise that demanded a radical change in perspective, I wondered if a very urban population of rabbits may have found a niche in parking lots.

Small squares of green grass are offered up in these fields of asphalt, a paltry attempt to soften the glare and provide comfort and a sense of aesthetics amid expanses of heat and grit. Rabbits most commonly feed in the early morning and at dusk, and these strip mall lots would be quieter at those times. During the day parked cars offer shade and cover. Most natural predators would be excluded from this environment.

This strikes me as a depressing theory, but plausible. After all, coyotes do roam city streets, peregrine falcons hunt from skyscraper ledges and black bears turn up in the oddest places. There’s no getting around the fact that a cottontail rabbit was hanging out at Sprouts, early afternoon on double coupon day.

Most Unusual

Cooper's hawk  Photo by Wikipedia

Cooper’s hawk
Photo by Wikipedia

Thick fog has cocooned the desert in a white wrap this morning. Visibility is limited to about the distance I can lob a tennis ball. The moisture laden air releases sensuous vapors from the desert plants and the aromas supplant the sights I normally enjoy.

The lack of visibility focuses my attention on the immediate surroundings. This is a useful change of perspective. Normally, my thoughts and energies are drawn to possibilities of the future or events of the past. Thick fog brings the focus of attention to the now.

My walk through a favorite wash finds everything changed. The surrounding mountains and hillsides seem nonexistent. Saguaros and bony desert trees arise from the mist like they’ve just arrived, rather than holding their ground all these centuries. Spider webs, usually invisible, gleam from tangles of branches near the ground, moisture highlighting every tenuous strand.

A Cooper’s hawk swoops low overhead, following the twists and turns carved by ephemeral streams draining the unseen slopes. I’ve seen a number of Cooper’s hawks lately, or the same one several times!

At the edge of visibility is the gnarled form of an ironwood tree and perching on a branch about eye level is the Cooper’s hawk. She faces away from me, presenting her long tail and bulky shoulders. I stop walking and softly call the dog to me. Cooper’s are notoriously shy and this is the closest I’ve ever been. I wait for her to spook and fly away but she sits firm. I can see the lighter feathers around her beak, the gleam of an eye beneath a dark cap as she looks my way.

Is a bird that relies on superlative vision uncomfortable flying in fog? Or is she sitting on a fresh kill, reluctant to leave a much needed meal? After watching for awhile, I cluck to the dog and we turn back, walk away. We climb out of the wash and take the trail instead, skirting around the raptor.

Tromping through the cool mist I think about the bird, and hope she’s tearing into warm meat, gulping down much needed protein, and not just grounded by fog. The dog and I climb a ridge to a point where every vista has vanished. How representative of life. As much as we plan and scheme and peer into the distance, we can never know what lies ahead. And what we’ve left behind is gradually erased by the unceasing passage of time.

Leading Edge of Spring

Costa's in creosote shrub

Costa’s in creosote shrub

Costa's at the garden chuparosa

Costa’s at the garden chuparosa

A covey of quail hops the fence and busies themselves under the shrubs and on the lawn, pecking and scratching for insects. The sleek feathers on their round bodies gleam in the afternoon sun and their top knots bob.

The chuparosa shrub in the corner of the garden is resplendent with red trumpet-shaped flowers that taste like cucumbers. The slender blooms hold nectar that is a magnet for hummingbirds from sunup to sundown. Anna’s hummingbirds and the smaller Costa’s hummingbirds fly into the garden like the shiny points on arrows, and hover at the luscious display to sip the sweet nutrients.

A Costa’s roosts on a low branch of creosote bush nearby and watches for invaders to her closely guarded food source. She tolerates the tiny green verdin that browse the chuparosa for insects and perhap nectar as well. But if another hummer approaches she rushes the intruder and away they chase.

Last night I dreamed I was hiking a rocky trail and a large lizard materialized before me, shimmering in hues of green and blue. Our desert lizards may shimmer in certain light, but their colors match their rocky habitat. Lizards and snakes too, will soon venture short distances from their burrows to soak up the early spring warmth.

I walk slowly in the desert, examining the small plants sprouting underfoot. These dabs of green in the landscape’s brown palette won’t wait long to unfurl flowers – colorful tapestries of saffron and blue. The Sonoran spring wildflower show is coming to brighten our landscape soon.

Sitting on a rocky outcrop, I’m looking south across an open expanse of basin and range topography, when five mourning doves come out of nowhere. They careen low overhead on clattering wings. The dog and I both duck and startle in surprise. A moment later the predator appears, a silent Cooper’s hawk soaring on glistening white wings. Ascending on the chilly breeze, he circles once and disappears.

Wisdom

Wisdom and her 2011 chick.   Photo from Wikipedia

Wisdom and her 2011 chick.
Photo from Wikipedia

I’d like to introduce you to a young woman named Wieteke Holthuijzen who describes herself as a budding environmental scientist. Wieteke is working right now for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services on Midway Atoll.

In a fascinating blog post she writes about the oldest known banded wild bird, a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom.

Please click on Wing It to visit the blog.

The Coyote Call

Young spying coyote

Young spying coyote

There are multiple perspectives to consider in every decision, even that concerning whether or when to share your life with a dog. Go ahead and line up the pros and cons, but be sure and weight the entries.

A huge positive by-product of dog ownership is the mandatory trip outside first thing in the morning. This forces you into a magical realm, when dusk still holds the upper hand and daylight is just a promising glow in the east. Wildlife is out and about.

I sit sleepily in the patio chair and wait for the dog toilet duties to be done. Birds sing and rustle in the trees. Coyotes calling nearby wake me up and bring goose bumps chasing down my spine.

A coyote chorus is chaotic like a drawer-full of pots and pans rolling across the kitchen floor. Two or three coyotes yipping sound like twenty as each individual in the pack yips shriller and louder than the next. The cries ring from the desert hillside just at the end of our block.

Lexie tips her nose to the sky and draws out a series of woo woo woos in a deep baritone. It’s clearly her best howl and the moon shines from the dark sky with approval.

Then an answer rings from the flanks of South Mountain, just to the north of us. These coyotes are farther away, and their cries are less piercing. The territories marked out by this auditory posturing is clear, even to me.

On a recent predawn walk, with the dog of course, a coyote materialized. A dark form trotted on the sidewalk far ahead, dimly illuminated by streetlights. As we approached, the creature veered into the wash that runs between the neighborhood block wall and the sidewalk where we walked.

We continued on, and I watched for the coyote to pass us by in the shallow wash. Abruptly she re-emerged onto the sidewalk just ahead and crossed the street. Her tawny coat gleamed with good health and she flowed past at an easy lope, near enough to see the flash of her eye. Lexie whined and strained at the leash.

A car approaching from a side street cast headlights across the scene and the coyote flinched. She accelerated effortlessly like white water in a gorge, flying to the dark safety of the wash where she disappeared for good.

This seasoned resident was clearly familiar with the risks of urban life. She wouldn’t alter her route more than necessary to avoid a single dog and a human, but reacted much differently when a vehicle entered the picture.

Falling strongly in the camp for dog cohabitation, I have high regard for the intelligence of dogs and the positive impacts they bring to a household. It is intriguing and bewitching to hear the calls and see behaviors of similar, equally intelligent and social animals living in the urban wild just beyond our ken.

Big Rains Bring Bugs

See the bee in bottom left

See the bee in bottom left


Garden pipevine caterpillar

Garden pipevine caterpillar

Record amounts of rain create a big impact in an arid region, and not just in freeway underpasses and basements. The familiar trail where I walk was positively lush. Some plants I hardly recognized, so dressed were they in profusions of green. Seldom seen grasses grew in clumps on the desert floor, thrusting up and setting out seed heads in a water-fueled rush.

Insect eating birds – primarily black-tailed gnat catchers and verdins, worked busily among the foliage. Looking across the wash that dominates South Mountain’s Desert Classic Trail, I saw bugs massing above the green trees, backlit by the rising sun. Rain equals life, and near the bottom of the food chain, rain equals bugs.

A western spotted orb weaver spider hung her web from a block wall just above a hedge of Ruellia that buzzed with bees. The large moth trussed and motionless in her trap seemed to be looking out through the silken wrappings at me. A bee was also caught, with a leg tangled in the sticky web. It struggled vigorously, but in vain. The spider reached out and plucked at the web, which quivered along its length. Would she quickly wrap the bee as well? But she only strummed at her web until the bee broke free.

The sun was well up when I walked past again on my way home, and the spider and her meal cast a black shadow on the block wall. She crouched over the still form, feeding avidly.

In the garden I pushed aside a branch of Sonoran pipevine that snakes along the ground and discovered a large black caterpillar with red tubercles. This is the larval stage of the pipevine swallowtail. It feeds only on pipevine plants. The cautionary colors of black and red warn predators of powerful toxins that that the caterpillars ingest from the vine.

In early spring the adult swallowtail breaks out of the chrysalis as a large iridescent butterfly in shades of ebony and sapphire. Woe to birds that try to eat the butterfly; for all its changes in appearance, the swallowtail still harbors the toxins that the caterpillar recieved from its larval food plant. The butterfly is a dazzling visitor to gardens and roadsides where it pollinates many desert plants.

Read more about the pipevine swallowtail at Onelookout from March 2012. http://onelookout.com/2012/03/15/tale-of-the-swallowtail/

Hornworms and the Web of Life

Hornworm caterpillar

Hornworm caterpillar

Sphinx moth

Every so often Nature pulls a stunt that gets everyone’s attention. Some examples come to mind: deluges in the desert, crimson and gold fall foliage, and sometimes big hatches of insects. Last Saturday Lexie and I went out for our walk and stepped into a sea of creeping caterpillars. Large green hornworms crawled everywhere across the desert floor.

Hornworms hatch as tiny non-descript caterpillars and continue to shed their skins and grow, trading up to ever larger sizes and brighter colors. They eat and expand until variances in light, moisture and temperature trigger a change. When this happens the caterpillars march in a mass dispersal like we witnessed last week. Reaching a suitable place with soft soil, the hornworms dig. Their grand miracle takes place as they lay underground.

A couple of weeks ago I found a hornworm inching along the floor of the greenhouse. This tomato hornworm was as big as my thumb and bright green, with stripes of white across his back like slashes of butter cream frosting. I put the caterpillar in an empty cottage cheese container and took it home.

At home I put leaves and sticks in a quart jar designed for seed sprouting, with a perforated plastic lid. I. added a trowel full of soil and then the hornworm. My caterpillar immediately started burrowing under the pile of soil in the jar. Within seconds he was invisible.

Flash forward twelve days. Marc and I are sitting outside after dinner watching bats swoop through the dusk. They’re snagging bugs that rise from the yard. The dog noses at the caterpillar jar on the table nearby. Something’s going on. I pick up the jar and see the large white-lined sphinx moth, clinging inside the lid. Metamorphosis!

It’s time for the changeling to fly free. Marc says take a picture, but it’s nearly dark and I want the moth to go, to be free. I unscrew the lid and the moth sails right out and up, into the darkening night.

Bam! She’s hit immediately, nabbed from the sky by a plummeting bat.

Sphinx moths are prime food for bats, an important source of nutrition for their fall migration. They have the ability to pick up on the echo location calls of hunting bats, and employ evasive moves. But this poor moth was tossed straight into the jaws of fate.

Made me feel like an ignoramus, unthinking of the life cycles and dramas going on around me. The doings of bugs seem a quaint reflection, nostalgic reminders of a time before we fell into the thrall of technology, before the world became quite so big and complicated. Yet, it is the cycles of insects and plants and that actually support our lives, not the latest and greatest devices.

Uninvited Visitors can be Creepy

Poor quality of photo due to extreme circumstances

Poor quality of photo due to extreme circumstances

The rattle exploded into the still night air, an ancient and unmistakable warning. It came from our front porch where a rattlesnake held his ground on the bristly welcome mat, his triangular head raised and menacing.

We’d set out for our evening walk across that very mat not 20 minutes before. Marc had asked as we stepped out the door, “Do you look around when you come out this door?”
“Nah,” I said. “The snakes are all gone now. I do check for scorpions.”

Years ago our son went out the front door and off to school, tramping within inches of a rattlesnake coiled by the sidewalk. A big gopher snake basked in our driveway on the occasional autumn afternoon, pressed up against the garage door. Max the cat peered excitedly out the window one evening, alerting us to a king snake slithering across the back patio. Yes, we used to see snakes around the house somewhat regularly.

On this hot August evening after moseying around the block, I unleashed Lexie at the end of the driveway so she could prance up the sidewalk and lead us to the door. White tail waving, she trotted proudly, until the unmistakable pandemonium rang out from the porch. I shrieked and all three of us jumped back onto the driveway. Rattlesnake!

We scuttled around to the back door. The dark ground seemed littered with snake like objects. A few minutes later, fascination drew us back out. The snake lay across the welcome mat, stretching from one end to the other. Its sand-colored body was marked with dark diamonds. The snake was thick in the middle and skinny at the ends. Its wedge-shaped head tapered sharply to a scrawny neck. A wide middle seemed to indicate a meal digesting inside, and the tail was thin. Four black and white bands of rattle reflected the dim light.

We decided the rattler had mostly likely come down the wash from the preserve and would be going back soon. There’s plenty of room for snakes in that rocky haven and I’m sure he’s no more eager to encounter us than we are to meet him again.

Sounds weird, but I’m glad to know there’s still snakes around. And when I go out that door at night, I open it a tiny crack and peek out before venturing forth.

Jaguar

snre_jaguar

This past week I attended a talk by Pinau Merlin of the University of Arizona led Jaguar Survey and Monitoring Project. It’s thrilling to discover that a jaguar prowls and roars in the night in the mountainous wilderness of Southern Arizona. It’s depressing to learn that this male cat makes up the entire population of jaguars in our country.

The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world, ranking only behind tigers and lions. They are powerful, massive animals with formidable jaws that can crush the skull of any prey. They are also gorgeous; marvelously proportioned with sleek golden coats marked with black rosettes. No two jaguars wear the same pattern of spots.

The unique markings are the key to the study. Two hundred motion-detecting cameras have been placed in wilderness areas across the southern part of the state. The study also employs a specially trained scat hunting dog that retrieves jaguar scat and brings it to his trainer. The scat is genetically tested for information on the identity, diet and health of the jaguar.

Jaguars require an enormous tract of unfragmented landscape. A young male may travel 500 miles to find a territory. This lone male has come up from the state of Sonora in Mexico, where there is a breeding population. Somehow he navigated around the border fence which is more of a barrier to wildlife than humans.

The huge cat prowls through the night; eating pretty much whatever he comes across. Jaguars prey on 85 different species, preferring deer and javelinas. Pinau said a javelina is like a candy bar to a jaguar.

The reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has provided proof that apex predators make a habitat more diverse and thus healthier. All of the animals get stronger and faster and the plant life becomes richer when big hunters are at work. It’s a very good thing for the environment to have even one jaguar in the wild.

Does it make the hair stand up on your neck to think you might run into a jaguar some dark night? It’s unlikely as the cats are very secretive and avoid humans. Instead of inspiring fear, a magnificent predator like this deserves our respect. Pinau agrees that the animal is something special. She said she feels the jaguar is the visible soul of the wild.

Read more from Pinau Merlin on the jaguar and ocelots too, on the Arizona Highways Guest Blog.