29 August 2010

Boyce Thompson Arboretum Birds

Boyce Thompson Arboretum, near Superior, AZ, is always a wonderful location to spot some of Arizona's best birds. It is close to Phoenix, as a number of exotic and native plantings that locals and migrants love, and is close enough to the famed Arizona 'Sky Islands' to occasionally draw in some SE Arizona or Mexican rarities.

My Saturday morning trip to Boyce Thompson was actually focused on butterflies and dragonflies, but I can't ignore certain birds. Cardinals and Phainopepla were abundant, as were Lesser Goldfinch. There were a number of other 'usual' desert birds, including Curve-billed Thrasher and Cactus Wren.

The Broad-billed Hummingbird below was one of a handful that were seen.
Broad-billed Hummingbird, Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Broad-billed Hummingbird

Canyon Wren, Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Canyon Wren
Perhaps the nicest find for me was a somewhat photogenic Canyon Wren.  I say 'somewhat' because I had to look up a sheer rock face of Magma Ridge and contend with the strong backlighting of the sky and the usual tendency for the camera to focus on the high-contrast rocks.  But I was able to snap a couple of identifiable photos - something I've struggled with when I've seen Canyon Wren in the past.

And below was another nice find - a male and female pair of Wilson's Warblers playing in a small stream.  Unfortunately, I had my 100mm macro lens on at the time, but the fact I was able to get as close as the photo shows tells you how engrossed they were in the water.

Wilson's warblers are some of the more common warblers in the low desert, but any warbler is fun to see.

Canyon Wren, Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Canyon Wren

Wilsons Warbler, Boyce Thompson Arboretum
Wilson's Warbler Pair

22 August 2010

Orange Sulphur Butterflies

Our yard is alive with butterflies at this time of year. We have daily visits from Checkered Whites, Queens, Western Blue Pygmys, Fiery Skippers, Orange Sulphurs, and others.

In fact, the other evening I noticed half of an Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme) laying on the ground in our backyard. It had obviously died recently, and the ants were starting to perform their "clean-up" chores. But not wanting to pass up an opportunity for inspection, I brushed the ants off and took the butterfly inside for a few photos.
Orange Sulphur Butterfly - one wing
Orange Sulphur Butterfly (partial)
With my 2 year old knocking at the door wanting to see what I was doing, I was a bit rushed in snapping off a couple of shots.  With my macro lens, depth of focus was quite shallow, but I tried to align the plane of the butterfly wings with that of the lens.  The result was pretty good detail even when viewed at 100%.  Click on the photo to get a larger view, and you can get a good look at the wing structure.

Orange sulphurs are very common butterflies across much of the United States.  Are medium-small (2 - 2.5 inches wing tip to wing tip when fully open), and are erratic fliers.  They typically do not look as colorful as the above since they are typically seen with their wings closed, which presents a dull yellow color.

21 August 2010

Orange-Crowned Warbler In My Window

The other day my wife noticed one of our cats 'going crazy' at our living room window facing our backyard. She was surprised to see a small yellow bird sitting immediately on the other side of the glass, on a narrow ledge.
Orange-crowned warbler At The Window
Orange-Crowned Warbler 'Panting'
The bird turned out to be an orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata), and a hot one at that.  It was apparently looking for a shady spot to cool off, and this north-side ledge was perfect for a 10-15 minute break from the heat.

This bird must have been particularly hot, as it was 'panting'.  Birds don't sweat to cool off, but pant instead, kind of like a dog.  It's actually a daily summer-time sight here in the low desert.  If you're interested in the biology behind birds panting, do a quick google on 'birds gular panting', and you'll have some nice reading in front of you.

Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler
Anyway, this little event provided for some nice close-up looks at the Orange-crowned Warbler.  They are one of the more common warbler visitors here in Maricopa, and can be seen almost anytime during the year.  Despite being somewhat common, I've never seen more than two or three in the yard at time, and it is not uncommon to occasionally go a few months with no sightings.

Orange-crowned warblers are relatively easy to identify.  They are generally a drab yellow (the one above was fairly bright - often they are duller).  Like most warblers, they are very small and active birds, and have a typical warbler sharp and narrow bill.  The eye-ring is a good place to confirm the identification.  Orange-crowned have a light yellow eye-ring that is broken by a horizontal dark line, as can be seen in the photo above.

The only typical low desert warblers that look similar are the Yellow Warbler, which is typically brighter and lacks the horizontal eye-line, and some first-year Common Yellowthroats and Wilsons Warblers, both of which can be distinguished from the Orange-crowned by either habitat or the eye ring/eye-line.  There are some rare vagrant eastern warblers that may also look similar, but vagrant warblers tend to occur more often in fall and winter.

I was really hoping to get a view of that elusive 'orange crown' on its head, but even with these close views it was not visible.  Often, the orange crown feathers for which the bird is named is not visible except when the bird is bathing or if inspecting in-hand.

15 August 2010

Queen Butterfly

My wife and I have worked quite hard to create a nice backyard habitat for birds and butterflies, and it is always fun to see it pay off.

As an example, we've planted several plants in the milkweed family, including Pine-leaf Milkweed (Asclepias linaria) and Mexican Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica), also known as Mexican Milkweed. With these plantings, our hope was to attract Monarch and Queen (Danaus gilippus) butterflies, and with some luck, maybe a Soldier.

These plantings have proved to work quite well, with Queens seen daily in late summer, and occasionally most of the rest of the year. The one photographed below was looking for a place to roost for the night, and I noticed it settle on my Desert Hackberry (which is a fine butterfly plant in its own right).
Queen Butterfly
Queen Butterfly

As mentioned above, Queens, Monarchs, and Soldiers are all considered Milkweed butterflies. This is because these plants serve as their primary larval food source, and as such, these butterflies lay their eggs exclusively on milkweeds. It is thought that Milkweed butterflies have adapted to feed on milkweeds so that they can accumulate toxins, making them poisonous to potential predators.

Two plants we're considering adding to the yard to help improve out attractiveness to Milkweed butterflies include Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) and Mule-fat/Seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia), which is known to be a favorite nectar source of Queens.

And an additional update: the next morning I spotted another Queen apparently "warming up" for the day.  It was attached to an Autumn Sage (Salvia greggi).  I tried to take the opportunity to get a close-up photo of its head using my 100mm macro lens and ring flash.  Even with the ring flash I had trouble getting a sharp photo over f6.3 (trying to get some better depth of field), but the following photo turned out OK.

Update: A few weeks later a number of Queen larva (caterpillars) were spotted, and along with some subsequent pupa.
Queen Butterfly
Queen Butterfly Close-Up

12 August 2010

Cicadas, Part II

In my last Cicada post I mentioned that Cicadas lay their eggs in the slits of tender new growth on trees. There was one obvious branch on my Mesquite tree that had the tell-tail signs of this.

I decided to clip it off and take a closer look.
Cicada Egg Evidence on Mesquite Twig

As can be seen in the photo (click on the photo for a larger view), the eggs were laid in a slightly offset pattern along the length of the twig. 

I was surprised to find more Cicada egg-laying evidence in my Shoestring Acacia tree:

Cicada Egg Evidence on Acacia Twig
The Acacia branch was a little fresher and more clearly shows the slit that the cicada creates when depositing eggs.

For what its worth, there are still a few Cicadas buzzing around the neighborhood, but the quantity (and seemingly the volume) is rapidly trailing off.

Flesh Fly Macro

Last evening I found this fly resting on our Pink Fairy Duster (Calliandra Eriophylla). About the size of an adult small fingernail, it nonetheless caught my eye with its bright orange eyes.

As always, I am amazed at the fly's compound eyes (click on the photo for a larger image):
Flesh Fly Macro of Compound Eyes
Each eye consists of hundreds of lenses at differing angles.  It is believed that compound eyes result in a "mosaic" image to the fly, and the more lenses there are, the more resolution that exists in the mosaic.  Compound eyes are also thought to detect motion better than still objects.

Flesh flies are some of the more stereotypically "gross" flies.  They breed in carrion, and there larvae are what we generally refer to as maggots.  Maggots continue to feed on the carrion or other matter in which they hatched, and ultimately burrow into the ground to mature.  As adults, they live for less than a week.

Flesh Fly
The exact species of this fly will likely never be known.  According to many resources, only a dissection will allow for exact identifications of flies in the Sarcophagidae family.  However, most flesh flies do have large orange eyes, and some gray/black striping, making them relatively easy to casually identify. Both of those field marks are clearly evident in the photo above.

One last note - the Flesh Fly eye close-up picture above is posted in full-size on Nature's Archive in the "Nature Up Close" section.

08 August 2010

Spider Crab (actually...Crab Spider)

"Spider Crab". Sounds like some sort of coastal beach super hero - part crab, part spider.

Crab Spider Macro

Crab Spider Macro
Actually, Crab Spiders are quite amazing in their own right. They are known for their chameleon-like camouflage, which they use to their advantage to catch insects. Most crab spiders find a spot on a plant or flower and wait...looking like an odd flower themselves. In fact, some people call crab spiders "flower spiders" for this reason.

The spider photographed here was from my backyard in Maricopa, AZ.  It hitched a ride on some tree clippings, and was trying to "blend in" on top of the recycle bin in the garage.

Crab Spider MacroThese spiders seem to be quite common here - I often find them in this very spot after I prune my Mesquite tree or tend to the garden.  This is good news - it means plenty more photographing opportunities.  These photos were taken with my 100mm macro lens and pop-up flash, so I know there is room for improvement.

From what I've read, Goldenrod Crab Spider - Misumena vatia and Whitebanded Crab Spider (Misumenoides formosipes) are two of the more common Arizona crab spiders.  Unfortunately, neither seem to look like 'my spider'.  In fact, I believe that this is a Misumenops species, perhaps a color variation of Misumenops Asperatus?  My general purpose insect field guide, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Insects and Spiders & Related Species of North America, shows the Misumenops Asperatus in a different color phase. If any reader has any identification suggestions, please let me know.