Hidden Picture

GHO hiding in plain sight

GHO hiding in plain sight

Young great horned owl

Young great horned owl at Liberty Wildlife

I love it that wild predators carry on their business right under our noses. The other day I was sitting outside with the dog – both of us looking around aimlessly – when I noticed an unusual blob, a bulky profile, in the neighbor’s acacia willow tree. Only with binoculars could I confirm my suspicion, it was indeed an owl.

Great horned owls are impressive hunters, superbly adapted with special feathers for silent flight and acute hearing that pinpoints rodents and other prey in near darkness. They rest in trees right around our homes during the day, hidden by first-rate camouflage. The owls’ feathers are matte, not shiny, so no sunlight reflects. They squint or close their large golden eyes so no glow emits. The cryptic coloring of their feathers imitates tree bark and usually owls blend in even more by hunkering down near the tree trunk.

This time of year, youngsters fledge from nests and establish territories of their own, often showing up where a more experienced bird wouldn’t. My husband was sitting outside at dusk, when a great horned owl came sweeping in just over his head and crashed into the spindly palm tree that shades our house. Again a youngster. Maybe the same one.

I hope he or she sets up shop around here. There’s nothing so evocative as the eerie hoot of a great horned owl at dusk. And how thrilling to spot an owl flying silent on outspread wings, intent on some mysterious errand. These birds of prey keep a check on the rodent population, for which we never really thank them. If this owl could nab that pesky rock squirrel that’s been eating my plants, I’d be forever grateful.

Note: Click on the top picture to enlarge it and see how she squints her eyes closed. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me!

Kayaking the Salt

Bulldogs tower over the river

Bulldogs tower over the river

Wild horses on the Salt

I arrived at Saguaro Lake Ranch early Sunday morning for a Liberty Wildlife kayak expedition. The ranch’s rustic cabins, tidy horse corral, green meadow and plentiful shade trees rest peacefully on a big bend of the Salt River. The Bulldog Mountains make a stunning backdrop. Twelve of us and our guide Derek clambered onto kayaks, took up our paddles and ventured ‘round the bend.

Only a trickle of water flows in the Lower Salt except when summer crops like cotton are growing in the parched valley below. Then the sluices are opened at the dams that pen the Salt into a series of lakes and clear water flows again in the riverbed. The released water is destined for irrigation canals miles downstream.

Valley residents throng to the temporary river playground to picnic and swim, to fish and paddle. Unfortunately many of these people bring a lot of stuff that they don’t take home. The further we kayaked downstream, the more garbage bobbed in the current and clogged the reeds.

In a terrific documentary called Go Ganges a couple of young men kayak from the headwaters to the outlet of the Ganges River in India. High in the mountains the river is pure and wild, but by the time the kayakers paddle past low-lying cities it has been worked to the bone. Factory toxins are dumped in the river and people wash, get blessings and bury their dead in the life-giving source of water which finally limps to the sea choked in garbage.

On our more modest adventure, we too paddled through pristine landscape at the outset, past the lofty Bulldog Mountains whose cliffs were studded with saguaros, prickly pears and agaves. As we floated under the brow of the precipice some crazy guy base jumped from the top. For a heartbeat it looked like he would crash into the rocks. But his chute erupted with a crack like a gunshot billowing blue and orange silk. The jumper landed on the other side of the river within seconds.

On the kayaks everything gets wet, so I didn’t bring my watch, camera or cell phone and felt unattached to time and distance. Derek pointed out the juncture where the Verde River joins the Salt. One of Arizona’s last rivers that flows year around, the Verde surges into the placid Salt, a roiling rush of blue black water edged with green trees and musical with bird song.

Along the way we saw kettles of turkey vultures, a zone tailed hawk, black vultures, a gorgeous Harris’s hawk, a couple of peregrine falcons roosting on cliffs, cormorants, red-winged black birds and great blue herons. We also saw several herds of sleek wild horses. Some horses stood chest deep in the river and dipped their heads completely under to graze on submerged grasses.

Different reaches of the river have different moods and aspects. In the crystal clear upper half it felt heavenly to dunk hands and feet, to get splashed. Farther downriver where the tubers party and picnic sites line the banks, trash is ugly on the landscape. Near the lower dam, the river gets sluggish and murky. Soon it will seep into cement lined irrigation canals, and be put to work growing crops.

Kestrels Fly to Freedom

kestrels to releaseregal kestrel

One of the very special perks of volunteering at Liberty Wildlife is the chance to release an animal back to the wild. This time of year many orphans that were brought in as helpless babies become ready to go out on their own.

Orphaned nestlings brought to Liberty are placed with surrogate parents, non-releasable birds that feed and care for dozens of youngsters of their species. Liberty staff keeps a close eye on the young birds’ progress. When fully feathered, the fledglings are moved into flight cages with others of their kind, where they practice flying and learn to hunt on their own.

Yesterday, when my volunteer shift wrapped up Jan asked if I’d like to release a couple of kestrels. Of course! The North American kestrel is the smallest of the falcon family. About the size of a mourning dove, the kestrel is a stunningly beautiful bird of prey.

At South Mountain where I planned to release the birds, I peeked into the cardboard box. Kestrels are one of the few birds of prey that exhibit dimorphism, or different colored plumage for males and females. A male and a female glared up at me, fiesty.

The male stood boldly in the center of the box, chestnut feathers contrasting smartly with blue grey wings. His two dark eye stripes were like a warrior’s mask. The female huddled in the corner, showing the dark bars on her rust colored wings and back.

I fully opened the box and the male lifted out like he’d been pulled on a string. He flew to a nearby boulder and perched, screaming keeer-keeer. I jiggled the box a little and the female made for the sky, flying in a big arc. Her long, narrow wings pumped steadily, flashing mahogany. She soon disappeared from view.

The male stayed perched for a bit. He ruffled his feathers and flicked his tail up and down. He looked all around. If he was an orphan, this might be his first view of wide open sky and an expanse of rocks and mountain.

Perhaps he’d been brought to Liberty with an injury. If so, he may have spent weeks in the hospital healing and regaining strength. In any case, it was a momentous occasion.

Kestrels typically hunt in late afternoon or morning in the summer, avoiding the midday heat. They mostly prey on insects, but also eat lizards, rodents and small birds.

Pretty soon a couple of mockingbirds, perhaps with young in a nest nearby, decided they didn’t like this kestrel in their territory. Squawking indignantly they dove repeatedly at the stranger. The kestrel simply spread his wings and flew off to freedom.

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: Reptilesofaz.org 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!

Oak Creek Account

Slide Fire scar

Slide Fire scar

Junipine Resort

Junipine Resort

Oak Creek

Oak Creek

Michelle and I drove up to Sedona hoping to hike the West Fork Trail and reassure ourselves that a leafy, green paradise still flourishes along the banks of Oak Creek. Since the Slide Fire had been extinguished we’d seen no news as to the current situation up there.

We left Phoenix a little before six a.m. When we entered the riparian canyon north of Sedona a little over an hour later, a delicious chill crept in the open windows, along with the tangy odor of smoke.

For those who’ve not been, Oak Creek Canyon is best described as enchanting. Sculpted rock cliffs soar on either side of the winding two lane road and lush cottonwood trees arch overhead. We were the only car on the road as the 89A was closed about a mile beyond the West Fork Trailhead. We drove slowly and even stopped in the middle of the highway to scan the cliffs for fire damage. The small resorts and cafes we passed all displayed banners, mostly handmade, expressing thanks to the fire fighters and first responders.

At Slide Rock State Park we got our first glimpse of fire damage. High on the western cliffs of the canyon was a harsh line. On one side pink rock was studded with clusters of green trees and on the other the cliffs were ashy white, with only a few black skeletons of trees remaining.

Still, tall cottonwoods and sycamores crowded the 89A. Birds raised a ruckus of song and the early sun slanted into the canyon. Pink tape blocked every pull-out along the west side of the road and each barrier was posted with a closure notice. We started to suspect we would not be hiking the West Fork.

Sure enough when we reached the trailhead, barriers blocked the way. We stepped out of the car into cool, pine-scented air. The posted Coconino Forest Service closure order stated “the necessity of protecting public health and safety due to ongoing wildfire and rehabilitation efforts”. A forest service map fluttering in the breeze showed the entire watershed of the West Fork Oak Creek was closed.

A ranger at the Slide Rock State Park told us the fire and the creek intersected at a point about a mile and a half from the West Fork trailhead. I’ve hiked in that far, crossing the creek numerous times along the way, hopping on rocks and teetering on logs. A profusion of pine, oak and aspen trees sink roots deep into the stream banks and stretch leafy branches toward light at the top of the canyon. Gnarled apple trees, products of errant seeds carried on long-ago summer breezes persevere. Even patches of fern thrive in the moist shade. It’s hard to think of the hot breath of a raging fire blowing away that all that tranquility.

But, in an article published a few days later in the Arizona Republic, Roger Naylor reported that rangers told him the fire burned along the creek side at low intensity and stayed close to ground level. This spared the tree canopy. If so, it won’t be long before ferns and chokecherry push out shoots and once again offer shelter and shade to all kinds of life.

Doves Beat the Heat

White winged dove

White winged dove

It’s June in Phoenix – that time of year when you stand in front of the refrigerator with the door open, not because you’re hungry but because you’re wondering if you could fit inside. Riding in the car is a treat because you can set the air at 59 degrees…if you survive the first ten minutes after getting in. Just don’t touch that metal seatbelt buckle! Okay, enough.

What about the wildlife? The outdoor critters take the brunt of the summer inferno. How do they survive?

Doves seem especially immune, as I see them everywhere this time of year. They’re winging arrow-straight routes through the bright skies, humping fleetingly on the searing block walls and raising multiple broods of babies in flimsy twig nests.

Where do they find the gumption? Understanding what these birds are up to answers some of our questions. Summer is breeding season for white winged doves and for mourning doves, so they have important reproductive work to do. The desert provides plenty of nutrition in the way of seeds and cactus fruits during the hottest months, so doves have plenty to feed their young.

Doves are plump birds. (Hunters like them.) Their relatively large body mass offers some protection from heat. Their feathers also provide excellent insulation. Pinau Merlin in her book Bird Nests and Eggs, shares the story of ornithologist Steve Russell who measured the surface temperature on the back of a mourning dove sitting on a nest in midday in June. The thermometer read 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, the bird’s internal temp was only 104.

Doves sitting on babies or eggs in a summertime nest absorb heat from their unfeathered young and dissipate that heat by panting. They also seek shade when possible. Even a thin covering of shade can lower ambient temperatures 15 degrees. I’ve seen doves on the ground with one wing raised like a sail against the sun.

The flimsy looking nests also protect eggs and young from the dangerous heat. The slightest movement of air passes easily through the loosely woven twigs, cooling the eggs and hatchings. Doves turn their eggs throughout the hottest days to keep them from cooking. Using these tools, doves thrive in the desert.

Doves are big drinkers. Unlike some native birds that get their moisture from their food, seed eating doves must drink water. For plump birds with little heads, they are surprisingly strong fliers. You’ve heard the vigorous clapping sound of a dove taking off. Doves easily fly ten miles to reach water.

They rehydrate quickly by sucking water directly into their mouths. Many birds have to raise their heads to let the water trickle down their throats. I see dove flights follow a straight line from the desert to the ponds at the golf course every morning and evening. Doves are also conveniently tolerant of brackish, salty water.

Because many doves may use a water source, a water borne disease called trichomoniasis or canker is a scourge to them. Once the disease takes hold it spreads as mothers feed their young and as raptors such as Cooper’s hawks and red-tailed hawks prey on the doves. If you offer water for birds, make sure to change it frequently, as this disease is very contagious and causes a slow death.

The last cool fact about doves that I’ll share with you? According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the oldest known mourning dove was 31 years and four months old.

Felis catus

Bird watchers

Bird watchers

I see you

I never dreamed I’d be able to work my cats Boo and Bandit into a blog about the nature of the Sonoran Desert. Then I read Stephen DeStefano’s book on urban wildlife Coyote at the Kitchen Door, where he states, “Cats may be the most efficient predators on the planet, and the domestic cat has filled a niche in the human environment so perfectly that no other animal even comes close.”

It seems ludicrous to imagine my plump kitties could be considered urban predators, masters of stealth, skill and intelligence. Yet Felis catus counts as the most abundant carnivore in North America. Figures from National Wildlife Federation indicate there are around 73 million pet cats in the U.S. Approximately 40 million of these roam unsupervised. Add in the feral population and as many as 100 million domestic cats prowl the outdoors.

And the victims? Al Manville a wildlife biologist for U.S. Fish and Wildlife says cats could be killing 100 million song birds per year. Others estimate up to five times that many. Domestic cats also kill lizards and native rodents such as voles and chipmunks. Native species seem to fall prey to feline hunters more often than introduced species such as Norway rats.

Since learning this I’ve been looking at my orange tabby Boo in a new way. I’ve noticed that when he’s not sleeping or bugging me for dinner, he’s at a window, staring out impassively, with only the steady twitch of his tail to reveal his thoughts.

I think back to a recent incident when I opened the patio door and Boo practically knocked me down to rush outside. This was pretty shocking, as Boo is a rescue cat and has never indicated the slightest interest in going back “out there”.
But he’d spied a lizard through the window and in an instant he streaked past me and had it cornered under the dense shrubbery outside the door. Boo’s never moved so fast and with such intent, not even at dinner time.

Outdoor cats have a severely shortened life span, living an average of just five years. I’ve loved and spoiled indoor cats that lived to be 20. The National Wildlife Federation suggests setting up a wildlife viewing area for your cat, on the inside of your home.

Boo and Bandit have plenty of windows, and also enjoy a short daily game of String. That seems to satisfy their prey instincts and keeps them safe from harm.

Wildlife Watching is Exhausting

Wildlife Watching is Exhausting

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.