27 November 2011

A Snowy Egret Thanksgiving

Snowy Egrets are some of my favorite birds.  They are elegant, stunningly white, and easy to photograph.  And being a larger bird, easy to observe.

This Snowy Egret frequents the shoreline of Shoreline Lake in Mountain View, CA.  Recently on a morning walk I noticed that it was feeding on a fish.  I watched for about 5 minutes as it struggled to consume the largish fish, trying different angles and flipping the fish around in its beak.

Snowy Egret Feeding
Snowy Egret with fish head-first
Alas, I had to head to work so I was not able to see the outcome.  I know it was not good for the fish, but did the Egret succeed in swallowing the fish?

Snowy Egret Feeding
Snowy Egret trying a new angle
Snowy Egrets are common in shallow waters containing fish and shellfish in the southern 2/3 of the USA. In winter, their range pushes further south.
Snowy Egret Feeding
Is the fish looking at me?
Snowy Egret Feeding
This angle shows the size of the fish

24 November 2011

Coot Foot

I don't know what it is about American Coot feet - I just think they are very cool.  Maybe it is because they are some of the few larger birds whose feet are readily seen?  Perhaps if I could inspect other birds feet I'd find that there are plenty of other cool ones?

American Coot Foot
American Coot Foot
Coots love to leave their aquatic habitat and graze on lawns and golf courses - and hey are fairly tame.  As a result, they make for an easy, if bland, photo subject.

Before I knew much about birding, I saw a Coot's feet and assumed that they must be camouflaged to allow them to hunt aquatic insects, fish, mussels, or other animals.  But it turns out they are primarily vegetarians.  When not grazing on grass, they dive for aquatic vegetation.

Coots are some of the most common aquatic birds in the US, especially west of the Mississippi.  So next time you see a flock tearing up your favorite golf course, take a look at their feet and gain some new respect for them.

Oh, and one more note.  Take another look at that foot picture.  Does the word 'dinosaur' come to mind?

25 October 2011

Oleander Aphids

Well, we're at a new house and just finished planting a lot of plants (mainly natives) to attract birds and butterflies.  One of our favorites is the Mexican Bloodflower in the milkweed family.  In Arizona, these were magnets for Queen butterflies and their caterpillars.  My posts on the subject have been some of the most popular of this site.
Mexican Bloodflower (Milkweed)
Mexican Bloodflower close-up

Anyway, the milkweed family also (and more famously) attracts Monarchs.  So, I've been checking frequently to see if any migrating monarchs have stopped to lay eggs.  So far, none have been seen, but I was surprised to see a mass of little yellow "eggs" on the stems.

Upon taking a closer look, I noticed they were moving - not very egg like.  And they seemed to have tiny legs.  Grabbing my macro lens, I decided to get a closer look:

Oleander Aphids on Milkweed

Yes, these tiny bugs did have legs.  And upon researching, they are Oleander Aphids, Aphis nerii, found only on Oleanders and Milkweeds.  They are believed to be introduced from the Mediterranean region, and have spread across much of North America.

They can occur in huge numbers, though from what I've read, are not a danger to the health of the plant.  They can produce a 'honeydew' substance that can look bad, but it seems most gardeners let the aphids take their course.   Often, predators or parasites (such as parasitic wasps) will wipe them out in short order.  Note, however, that the list of predators is small for the same reasons why Monarchs have few predators - the aphids are pick up toxic chemicals from the milkweed!

19 October 2011

Altamira Oriole

Last summer I had the pleasure of taking a trip to south Texas (the Rio Grande Valley) in search of birds and wildlife.  I came away with a number of new bird and butterfly species seen and photographed, and look forward to sharing some of the highlights over the coming months.

One highlight was the Altamira Oriole and nest seen at Estero Llano Grande State Park.  The Altamira Oriole is only found in the Rio Grande Valley in the USA, and this conspicuous nest made for an easy sighting:
Altamira Oriole Nest

The bird itself was a  bit harder to photograph.  It made a couple of brief stops on the wire and then flew off.  As a result, I only ended up with a few blurry shots, but it is enough to see its vibrant orange coloring, extending to its median coverts, along with the black facial markings.
Altamira Oriole

Altamira Oriole

While the photos were not spectacular, the bird certainly is!

06 October 2011

A New Home, Charleston Slough, and American White Pelicans

It has been awhile since I've posted - what can I say?  Life got in the way.  A new baby, a new job, and a new home in a new state tend to disrupt hobbies.

I'm now in the Bay Area, and excited to explore the local flora and fauna.  I'm lucky enough to work very near a birding hotspot - Shoreline Park at Mountain View.  And that of course places me close to Palo Alto Baylands and not too far from the Alviso birding hot spot.

I've already made three or four trips over to Shoreline, and have some good material and photos to post.

I'll post more about the area in the near future, but I'm excited to post some photos.  One of my walks to Shoreline took me across the park to Charleston Slough, which borders Palo Alto and Mountain View.  Charleston Slough is affected by tides, making it an excellent shorebird spot or duck/grebe spot depending on the tides.

This time of year, American White Pelicans congregate in great numbers, drawing the attention of birders and non-birders alike.  I've seen American White Pelicans in Nebraska, Arizona, and even in Yellowstone, but never anywhere close to the numbers that occur at Charleston Slough.  I'd conservatively estimate a count of 200 the evening I stopped by in mid/late September.

American White Pelican Flock
 Pelicans are one of the easier birds to get nice flight photos of.  Their white/black contrast make it easy for auto focus, as does their size.

American White Pelican Flight

10 April 2011

Greater Earless Lizard

It never fails - new visitors to Arizona usually have the same "take away" comments.  "It's Hot."  "Those Saguaros are amazing!" "I never saw so many lizards."

In Phoenix you might see Ornate Tree Lizards, Common Side-Blotched Lizards, Tiger Whiptails, some non-native geckos, and maybe a Chuckwala if you hike one of the parks.  

Get a few miles outside of town and you'll find all sorts of other interesting lizards.  In the foothills and mountains, the Greater Earless Lizard, Cophosaurus texanus, is one of the most spectacularly colored. 

Greater Earless Lizard
Greater Earless Lizard, female
The above photo is of a "dull" female.  The males will get a greenish-blue hue on their legs and tails, and even a bit of yellow.  Unfortunately, I do not have a decent male photograph in my collection (yet!) By the way, it is called an "earless" lizard because of the lack of an ear hole.

Greater Earless lizards can be seen from central and south Arizona into central Texas, and south in Mexico.  Like many lizards, it is a ground-dweller that eats insects (spiders, grasshoppers, crickets, etc).  As alluded to above, it is generally seen above the low desert, but usually not in high elevations.

If you're looking for an excellent (albeit large) field guide to lizards, I highly recommend Lizards of the American Southwest.

Argentine Giant - Echinopsis candicans

A few years ago I posted about a handful of desert plants in our yard, including the Argentine Giant - Echinopsis candicans. Well, this year has been an amazing year for several of our cactus, and I thought it was worth a revisit.

One unique aspect of these flowers is that the sepals are actually decorative, creating the pinkish-red border of the flower.  

The Argentine Giant (aka Easter Lily Cactus) is known for its sprawling stems that originate from a central point. But its better known for the giant flowers, measuring up to 8 inches across, that it gets:

Argentine Giant Easter Lily Cactus
Argentine Giant Snapshot

Unfortunately, these flowers only last about 1 day, opening at night. If the weather is hot, as it was the day I shot the above photo, they start to wilt by mid-morning. And the one-day duration really worked against me. With a new baby at the house I was not able to get out in time to take a photo while the morning light was nice, leaving me with the harshly lit snapshot above.

Argentine Giant Flower Bloom
Argentine Giant flowers

The above cactus has been planted for over three years and has grown maybe 3 inches. I understand that they will grow faster in the right conditions. This year's bloom of 6-8 simultaneous flowers was much more vigorous than any previous year, where two or three simultaneous flowers was the max. If we're lucky we'll get another handful of blooms sporadically through mid-May.

07 April 2011

American Avocet

The American Avocet (Recurvirostra americana) has to be one of my favorite birds of Arizona. Its graceful wading and foraging, up-curved bill, and and contrasting colors are truly unique.

American Avocet

Both photos here were taken at the Gilbert Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ (metro Phoenix) in March a few years back. Most years you can locate a few pairs of Avocets at the GWR in the late winter and early spring, and some years we are lucky enough to see them raise young.
American Avocet Pair

20 March 2011

Paper Wasps

Well, spring has definitely sprung here in the low desert, with numerous bees, wasps, and spiders now active.

One of the more conspicuous visitors to the yard is the Paper Wasp.  In fact, they've enjoyed my yard so much one decided to take up residence in the frame of my front door!

Paper Wasp

The photo shows a wasp tending to a newly built nest.  The nest looks a bit like paper (thus the wasp's common name).  If you enlarge the photo you will see small white eggs in each of the chambers of the nest.

Paper wasps are known for building there nests on man-made structures, often in conspicuous locations.  Why?  I have no idea but I'm certain some scientist somewhere has given this thought.  It certainly doesn't seem like a good survival strategy to build where people will see you!  Any theories from anyone?

17 March 2011

Green Herons

Green HeronOne of my favorite birds of Arizona is the Green Heron (Butorides virescens).  As I've talked about before with other Herons, many 'outsiders' are surprised to find such a strong heron population in the desert southwest.  While I don't think there are more herons here than in other areas of the USA, I do think they are easier to find since they are drawn to the relatively few water sources.

The photo at right is of an adult from the Gilbert Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ.  Female and male Green Herons are nearly indistinguishable.  They average around 18" length, though often appear much smaller when crouching with their neck coiled.

Green Heron
Green Heron
The picture at right is somewhat atypical of where a Green Heron would normally be seen.  They are best spotted on shorelines, often on low overhanging branches, waiting for small fish to swim by (see photo below).
Green Heron
Green Heron on Man-made Lake Edge

Part of my love of the Green Heron comes form an experience I had at Gilbert Water Ranch in May of 2007.  The ponds all had very little or no water, and the Egrets and Herons had to share close quarters.  I found a small clearing in some vegetation surrounding the pond, and crouched down and waited. 

After a few minutes, a Green Heron took a few steps out of the brush just about 5 feet away from me. It proceeded to go on a fishing bonanza as I watched and attempted to photograph it.  I was so close my lens hardly would focus - I had to lean back on my heals to get a few extra inches away.

Green Heron with fish
Green Heron with fish

13 March 2011

Broad-Billed Hummingbird

Arizona boasts some of the most diverse landscape and habitats in the entire United States, and this is reflected in the number of hummingbird species that occur in the state.

In the low desert, Anna's, Costa's, and Black-chinned are most common.  Migration season brings Rufous Hummingbirds with relative frequency.  Move into the Southeastern Sky Islands, and you'll see Blue-throated, Magnificent, Calliope, and Broad-tailed with frequency.  With luck, you'll add Plain-capped Starthoat, Lucifer, Violet-crowned, Berryline, and White-eared.  In this laundry-list of birds, you may even see Allen's during migration, if you are skilled enough to distinguish it from Rufous.

Adding in today's subject, the Broad-billed (Cynanthus latirostris), and there are 14 species that visit Arizona!

Broad-billed Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird, Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, AZ
The Broad-billed is another Hummingbird that can be seen in the low desert backyards, but is most often seen in riparian or canyon habitats.  It is a stunning bird, with a bright orange bill and blue and green iridescent feathers.  

The Broad-billed is generally nondescript in other aspects aside from its appearance.  It is known to be a "mild mannered" hummingbird - much less combative than other hummingbirds.

Broad-billed Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird, near Tucson, AZ

10 March 2011

Wood Ducks - Eye Candy of the Fowl World

I think its safe to say that no American duck rivals the beauty of the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). The male's gaudy colors make them unmistakable, and even the females boast a striking white eye patch.

Male Breeding Plumage Wood Duck
Male Wood Duck - Breeding Plumage

Wood Ducks are also quite an interesting duck from a behavioral standpoint.  While many ducks congregate in large numbers, especially on wintering grounds, wood ducks are rarely seen in groups.  Pairs are probably most common.  Additionally, and counter-intuitive for ducks, they feed mainly on seeds (Sibley indicates Acorns being a preferred food), but are known to also eat berries and insects.

Wood Ducks derive their name from their nesting location - tree cavities and occasionally man-made boxes near ponds, swamps, and lakes.  Uniquely, Wood Ducks also have claws to help them perch in trees.

Wood Ducks are easy to identify, and are found in most of the eastern half of the USA and along the west coast.

While my photos for this post are from Nebraska and Washington, Wood Ducks occasionally show up in the interior west, and here in Arizona are rare but increasing visitors in many locations of the state, ranging from Willcox to Prescott and Oak Creek and even Bullhead City.

Wood Duck Pair
Wood Ducks - Female (left), Male non-breeding (right), Omaha, NE
Wood Duck
Female Wood Duck, Juanita Bay, WA

06 March 2011

Saguaro Spines

Shortly after we moved to Arizona we decided we had to have The Icon of the Desert Southwest - a Giant Saguaro cactus - on our property.  We bought one that was just shy of 8 feet tall, and had it planted in December of 2006.

The planting process was very interesting.  Saguaros of this size weight hundreds of pounds, so a special truck delivered it in a horizontal position.  The truck tilted upwards to position it nearly vertical, and it was lowered into its hole.  The Saguaro was wrapped in thick carpet at the points where the truck contacted the plant - both to protect the plant and the workers.

Amazingly, the cactus had virtually no roots.  They placed it in the hole and packed dirt around it.  I'm sure I was like most Saguaro purchasers - skeptical that a plant with no roots that is 8 feet tall could withstand a breeze, but withstand it did. Apparently they are so heavy and have a nicely center of gravity that they can stand quite well until new roots grow.

Saguaro Spines

Saguaros are amazing plants, growing to huge heights (some to over 50 feet), in an inhospitable climate, and produce millions of seeds.  Some individuals live over 150 years!  But one of the overlooked but amazing things about the Saguaro is its thorns (spines).  They grow in clumps, called aureoles, and are amazingly sturdy and rigid.

In fact, after the Saguaro was planted, a few of the aureoles had fallen off.  I made the mistake of stepping on one in my running shoes, and it pierced right through the sole and into my foot!

As for our Saguaro, it is now about 11 feet tall and presumably has grown a massive root system. Also, it produced flowers last year for the first time (indicating it is about 35  years old.  Unfortunately, the flat lands we live in are relatively devoid of Saguaros, and thus, Saguaro pollinators.   Last year's crop of 7 or 8 flowers didn't get pollinated - here's hoping to this year!

Saguaros are amazing wildlife plants in Arizona.  Gila Woodpeckers excavate nesting cavities, which are in turn used by Elf Owls and other birds in subsequent years.  Bats and other pollinators seek out the flowers, and many birds nest in the joints, including Cactus Wren and Verdins.  Ripe fruit are devoured by White Winged Doves and others.

White-winged Dove on Saguaro
White-winged Dove Eating Ripe Saguaro Fruit

03 March 2011

Red-Tailed Hawk

The low desert is an important wintering ground for a number of hawks and falcons.  A drive down country roads near agriculture fields usually reveals hawks perched on top of power polls or berms in the fields.

In fact, this time of year it is quite hard to miss Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, and today's featured bird, the Red-tailed Hawk.  And with a bit of luck you may also spot Prairie Falcon, Ferruginous Hawk, and perhaps a White-tailed Kite.

During the Phoenix Area Aquatic Bird Count I had to drive from the far eastern developments of Maricopa southwest-ward towards some canals.  This took me across a nice stretch of undeveloped desert and farmland.

Along this drive I noticed a nice looking Red-Tailed Hawk sitting on a berm adjacent to a stretch of agricultural land.  I pulled up nearby, and turned the car off (even an idling car creates too much vibration for a crisp photo.  I stayed in he car to use it like a blind (which can be very helpful when roadside birding).

Red-tailed HawkBut as is often the case, the hawk was very jumpy, and at the sight of my window unrolling it got into an alert posture.  The movement of raising my camera was just enough to force it to fly (see right).

Well, I can't say that I really needed another nice Red-tailed Hawk photo, so I'm not too upset about only getting fly-away shots.  Regardless, Red-tailed Hawks are amazing birds to observe.  There are so many plumage variations (some of which lack the red tail) that I still like to take every chance I get to study them.

Speaking of the red tail, as you can see below, this one certainly had it!
Red-tailed Hawk Tail

27 February 2011

Metallic Green Bee

Shortly after I moved into my house in Maricopa, AZ nearly 5 years ago, I was working on installing a new drip irrigation system. Our yard was just dirt (literally!), as were most of our neighbors at that time.

While testing the system a bit of water squirted out. And within a few minutes, I noticed a beautiful green bug landing to sip some of the water.

Amazed that a bit of water would attract a bug so quickly, and surprised by its metallic color, I grabbed my camera and was able to snap a quick photo.
Metallic Green Bee, Agapostemon sp.

This bee is an Agapostemon tyleri (or perhaps Agapostemon melliventris) but definitely an Agapostemon.  The photo just wasn't sharp enough to get the details needed for a clear identification.

These bees nest in the ground, usually solitarily in vertical burrows.  In the summer I can usually locate about 6 to 12 burrows on my yard, most of which are very near flowers.  (And this is good news because I'd really like to get some better photos of them).

I've had a surprisingly difficult time finding detailed life history on these bees - it just goes to show how little is documented (or documented in easily accessible forms) in the bug and insect world.

24 February 2011

Greater Roadrunner

Last week's post mentioned that the highlight of a recent outing were the numerous Black-tailed Jackrabbits. Well, a close second was a nice encounter with a Greater Roadrunner, Geococcyx Californianus, running across the wide path, which with artistic license, I'll call a road.

Coming around a bend in the path, I noticed a bit of movement to the left and saw this:

Greater Roadrunner

Of course, that is the long tail of the Roadrunner poking out. A few seconds later it emerged on the path, er, road, and sprinted across:

Greater Roadrunner on road

In fact, the bird even took flight briefly, something that roadrunners don't like to do, and I've only seen four or five times. Of course, that explains why you occasionally see them in trees, such as the case here a couple of years ago:

Greater Roadrunner in tree

Roadrunners are another amazing bird with a number of interesting habitats, including cooperative hunting of snakes. I've always had my best luck in seeing them in Arizona between January and March, though they are year-round residents of much of the southwest. Check out this prior Roadrunner post for more information.

19 February 2011

Size Doesn't Matter for Spiders

This is an 'oldie but goodie' from my files back from 2005 when I lived in Omaha, NE.

One evening I spotted a beetle (a Phyllophaga species, aka June Beetle) struggling in a spider web in my garage. It was a large beetle - maybe 3/4 of an inch. Having caught my attention, I figured it would be a good subject for my burgeoning photography hobby.

I snapped a few photos and while getting set up I immediately noticed a small Cobweb Spider (perhaps Steatoda triangulosa per feedback on Bugguide) feverishly attempting to sedate the beetle. Quite an amazing site to watch!

Beetle Caught in Orb Weaver Web

Now, my interest back then was not what it is today, so I spent maybe 5 or 10 minutes watching and photographing, and never checked back to see how it all 'turned out', though I must say it didn't look promising for the beetle.

Update: I mistakenly hit 'publish' on this post when I meant to schedule it for a future date and edit it further. I made further edits to this post today, Sunday Feb 20.  And be sure to check out the Macro Monday share for more nature (and other) macro photos from around the world.

17 February 2011

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

I recently took my daughter on a picnic to Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler, AZ. This park combines walking and hiking paths with a urban fishing lake, a man-made waterfall, and a number of recharge basins.

As a relatively new park, the landscaping is immature and there is a lot of future potential. On a side note, I've been a bit discouraged that they haven't planted a few more riparian trees and shrubs, but that is a topic for another day.

I was hoping to give my daughter some nice close-up views of ducks and coots, but the highlight of the day ended up being the numerous jackrabbits:

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Noon-time photography makes for some harsh photos, but you can still see a black tail
with streak extending up towards its back - a prime identifying quality of a Black-tailed Jackrabbit, Lepus californicus.

Black-tailed jackrabbits are quite large - reaching 18" in height and up to 6 pounds. Their large ears are thought to help with thermoregulation. And their powerful legs can propel them to 20 foot leaps and 35 miles per hour.

Black-tailed jackrabbits are probably the most common jackrabbit in the Phoenix area, though an occasional (and larger!) Antelope Jackrabbit may be encountered (I saw one a Papago Park in the middle of the city one time).

These fun to watch rabbits inhabit much of the western USA, whereas most other jackrabbits are limited to certain fringe habitats.

14 February 2011

A New Addition to the Nature's Archive Family

My wife and I are proud to announce the arrival of our new baby girl! Coupled with an active three year old, we have our hands full.

I hope to continue weekly postings as much as possible, but obviously family comes first.

Please continue to check back often, or subscribe to the Nature's Archive RSS feed and get automatic updates when I post new entries.

13 February 2011

Green Lacewing - In Our Refrigerator!?

A few weeks ago I posted about a tiny egg that seemed to defy gravity.  That was the egg of a Green Lacewing, a beneficial insect that often targets aphids as its meal.  At that time I promised to follow up with some adult photos since these are so common in my yard.

Well, the weather turned cold and several freezes, including some low 20's, all but eradicated the Green Lacewings from the yard. 

So I was surprised when I opened my refrigerator the other night to find one in the refrigerator!  Of course, I took advantage of the opportunity and grabbed my camera and snapped a few photos.  I wasn't thinking clearly and was in a rush (I was just stopping home for a few minutes while my wife and newborn were in the hospital).  So depth of field and other fundamentals were thrown out the window, but I did manage one usable shot, albeit not with the depth of field I should have been able to get.

Green Lacewing

For those interested in Macro photos, check out Macro Monday, which covers all things macros (not just nature).

10 February 2011

Hooded Merganser

As I've talked about before, I live in Maricopa, AZ, a town of around 35,000 south of Phoenix. We are surrounded by open desert, with Native American reservations on two or three sides (depending on how you look at it).

Many towns in this part of Arizona have been excellent birding spots, acting as 'vagrant magnets' and oasis in the desert. Casa Grande, for example, has had interesting finds, such as Northern Jacana. Arizona City is another spot where birders occasionally make interesting discoveries.

Arizona City and Casa Grande are right off of I-10, and have a track record among birders. If these similar sized towns can attract interesting birds, why not Maricopa?

For this reason I was excited to participate in the 2011 Phoenix Area Aquatic Bird Survey, administered by Arizona Game and Fish. These sorts of thorough bird counts can result in interesting discoveries.

My search didn't result in any rarities, but did turn up some slightly less-than-common species, including the Hooded Merganser below.

Hooded Merganser
Hooded Merganser is a medium/large sized duck with an amazing white crest that it can raise and lower.  In the photo above, the crest is pretty much lowered.

While not rare, I was not expecting to see any Mergansers on my survey, so this was a nice addition.  This Merganser was on a small neighborhood pond congregating with a few other Mergansers and a couple of Buffleheads.

One nice side-effect of this bird survey was that I got to 're-learn' duck photography.  It had been almost a year since I've been out photographing ducks, and I'd forgotten that even slow swimming ducks need a surprisingly fast shutter speed for sharp photos.  Needless to say I ended up with way too many out-of-focus shots.

06 February 2011

Robber Fly

Late last summer I had this odd fly perching in my yard. It was fairly large, and very conspicuous.
Robber Fly

Robber FlyThis fly is known as a Robber Fly, from the family Asilidae. I'm not sure of the exact species.

Like many of the insects and bugs I've profiled, this one is a voracious predator. Robber flies are known to even attack larger bees and wasps! In fact, some robber flies will even take on dragonflies.

They use their spiny legs to help clutch their prey, and then will literally suck the prey to death.

As always, I welcome any assistance in identifying the species.

03 February 2011

An Owl Ball

I was out participating in the Phoenix Area Aquatic Bird Count in mid January, and after several hours of focusing on area ponds and canals in Maricopa (Pinal County), a non-aquatic bird caught my eye.

From a distance it looked a bit like a large ground dove or Inca Dove. But something wasn't quite right.  When I trained my binoculars on it I saw a balled up Burrowing Owl.

Burrowing Owl

The Owl was sitting on a drainage grate that diverts storm water into a grassy retention basin.  The grate was askew, so presumably it is using this man-made structure as its home.

Since moving to Arizona I have been surprised at the places that Burrowing Owls turn up.   Owls are generally reclusive or retiring species, and overall Burrowing Owls are on the decline.  But in Maricopa, I've seen them at a gas station, in my yard, in nearby farm fields, and numerous in some of the defunct/bankrupt half-started sub-divisions.  This owl was in a small park with a pond and children's play equipment.  I'm especially surprised at this one and the one by the gas station since those are both locations with lots of human activity.

30 January 2011

Leafhoppers In Winter

Some hard freezes earlier in January put an end to much of the insect activity in my yard.  The only conspicuous inhabitants of the last few weeks are a few Dainty Sulphurs that still fly on the warm days, an occasional house fly, a lady bug or two, and a few bees on the warmest of days (though few flowers exist in our yard at the moment).

Regardless, I was in search of a Green Lacewing to complete a series based on the gravity-defying egg photo I posted a couple weeks ago.  I thought it would be a piece of cake to find one - but apparently the cold weather has had an impact on them too.

Instead, I located this fancy looking 1/8 inch bug on my orange tree:

Leafhopper on Orange Tree

This is a Leafhopper, so named because of its ability to 'hop' from leaf to leaf. These bugs are often considered pests, especially to food crops. 'Sharpshooters' are part of a sub-family of leafhoppers, with the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter the most infamous (especially to lovers of wine and grapes).

So many species exist that I may never know for sure what this one is, though it has been suggested it may be a Potato Leafhopper, Empoasca fabae.

27 January 2011

An Icon of the Southwest - the Cactus Wren

Common from Texas westward to Southern California, the Cactus Wren is truly an icon of the desert southwest.  Perhaps it doesn't rival the Roadrunner, tumbleweeds (which are actually invasive weeds from Russia), or rattlesnakes, but once you hear a Cactus Wren's buzzy call, it will be immediately familiar.

Many movie Westerns have Cactus Wrens subtly calling in the background.  And Arizona has even made it the State Bird.

This Cactus Wren was kind enough to pose on the tip of a Saguaro - perfect!
Cactus Wren on Saguaro
Cactus wrens are very unique as compared to other wrens.  They are much larger and much more gregarious.  They get their name form the fact that they usually build their nest within the fork of a cactus - including saguaros and chollas.

Cactus Wren

20 January 2011

Streak-backed Oriole

One of the perks of living in Arizona is the steady stream of rare birds that seem to show up all year. We get eastern vagrants, Asian strays, and the occasionally off-course neotropic bird.

One such example is the Streak-backed Oriole, Icterus pustulatus. The Streak-backed Oriole seems to make an appearance somewhere in Arizona about three out of 5 years. One showed up for a couple of seasons at the Gilbert Water Ranch and Riparian Preserve a few years ago, and this year as many as two were seen in the Yuma, AZ area.

Streak-backed Oriole
Streak-backed Oriole

The Streak-backed superficially may be confused with the Bullock's Oriole, but the most obivous difference is the lack of an eye-line on both the male and female Streak-backed.  Of course, the "streaked back" evident in the photos above is generally more pronounced as well, but first year Bullock's may also have some similar streaking.

17 January 2011

A Mexican General

When traveling the Arizona-Mexico border in late summer or early autumn, don't be surprised to stumble across a Mexican General.  Or perhaps 10,000 Mexican Generals!

Based on some of the outlandish stories in the media, often filled with sensationalism and hyperbole, you might expect me to be talking about members of the Mexican National Army.  However, I am actually talking about a large grasshopper, also called the Horse Lubber (Taeniopoda eques).  

The Horse Lubber does best after a good monsoon season (usually occurs in Southeastern Arizona from late June through mid-September), and can sometimes be seen in mass hordes crossing the high desert, usually in the vicinity of some wooded oak habitats.

Like most grasshoppers, it will eat many different plants, and occasionally other insects if presented with an opportunity.

13 January 2011

Snowy Egret

One of my favorite wintering birds in Arizona is the Snowy Egret (Egretta thula).  It seems to be a prototypical example of one of the topics I frequently blog about - the surprisingly vast array of animals that the desert supports.

Of course, the easiest places to spot Snowy Egrets are at man-made ponds and recharge basins.  But they also will show up as slow running washes, natural ponds and lakes, and other natural waterways.

Snowy Egret at Sunrise
Snowy Egret at Sunrise
At different times of the year Snowy Egrets can be found through most of the southern half of the USA, making it as far north as Idaho, Nebraska, and Massachusetts on a regular basis, but only regularly winters in California, Arizona, the Gulf Coast, and the southern Atlantic coast.

In general, it covers much of the same range as the larger Great Egret and the similar sized Cattle Egret, with the Great Egret's range being slightly larger, and the Cattle Egret's range slightly smaller.

Often, the Snowy Egret can be distinguished from Great Egrets by size alone - but if you do not have something of a known size to compare to, this can be difficult.  The best distinguishing feature is usually coloration - contrasting yellow and black on the lores and bill, and yellow feet.  In contrast, the Great Egret has gray/black feet and legs and much less black on the bill.

As for distinguishing from the Cattle Egret - once you've seen a Cattle Egret once this should be easy.  The short bill of the Cattle looks almost comical and disproportionate as compared to that of the Snowy Egret. 
Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret
The Snowy Egret's Feet Really Stand Out

Great Egret
Great Egret (for comparison)