Arizona Alligator

010 (1024x768)Alligator Juniper, that is! This fantastic tree, Juniperus deppeana, is common in the woods of southeastern Arizona. Take a closer look at that fantastic bark.

010Gorgeous. No other juniper species has bark like this, and I love it. Do you agree that it resembles alligator skin?


Leapin’ Lizards

I’m back in Wisconsin now, but I have a couple more Arizona posts to share with you. We had the opportunity to observe some interesting lizard behavior in Usery Mountain Regional Park in the Phoenix area when this little guy started running down the trail ahead of us, curling up its tail to display the black and white stripes on its underside.

023 027 (1024x768)This is a zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides), and the tail thing is a display to warn off predators.

We also did some sightseeing in the southeastern part of the state and found this group of lizards resting between some rocks in Madera Canyon.

007 (768x1024)This, I think, is Clark’s spiny lizard, Sceloporus clarkii. (If you know better please correct me in the comments.) I love the blue highlights, which so many male lizards have.


The Itsiest Bitsiest Butterfly

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Okay, there is really nothing in this photo to give you much of a sense of scale, but this is the Western Pygmy-Blue (Brephidium exilis), also known as the smallest butterfly in North America, with a wingspan of about half an inch. They seem to be pretty common around here (“here” being the Phoenix area), but since they’re so small it would be easy to overlook them.

The Western Pygmy-Blue is really a great example of why it pays to take a second look at things that are small and inconspicuous. Yes, it’s tiny – but look at the beautiful detailed patterns on its wings. What a lovely creature!


Desert Wildflowers

When I left my house on Saturday morning it was snowing, but here I am in southern Arizona for my spring break, where at this time of year the daily high temperature is around ninety and the air smells of orange blossoms. This is also the time of year when all the desert wildflowers are in bloom – click on any tile below to bring up a slideshow with captions.


Valentine’s Day Lovebirds

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, so here are some lovebirds. Get it? Lovebirds? Get it?

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My dad took this with his point-and-shoot camera. Rosy-faced Lovebirds are native to an arid part of Africa, but there’s an established population in the eastern suburbs of Phoenix now, and they were recently added to the official ABA checklist (woo-hoo armchair tick!). I know we’re all supposed to frown disapprovingly at non-native species, but these are just so darn cute – look at those pink faces and blue butts!


Winter Hummingbirds

Tomorrow I’m headed back to Wisconsin and it’ll be months before I lay eyes on another hummingbird, but on Wednesday we went back to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum one more time and I had fun admiring the hummers there. Most of them were Anna’s Hummingbirds, which are ubiquitous here year-round. There’s a female that hangs out in the orange tree in my parents’ backyard, but all the ones I saw guarding feeders at the arboretum were males.

Anna's Hummingbird 2 (1024x767) Anna's Hummingbird 3 (684x1024)Each feeder belonged to one specific hummingbird, who would stay perched near it and chase away any others who tried to approach. These birds are tiny, but fierce! And one feeder was being guarded not by an Anna’s, but by a beautiful male Broad-billed Hummingbird. Any range map you look at will tell you that these birds shouldn’t be in the Phoenix area in the winter, but really they hang out at the arboretum year-round. However, the Broad-billed was shyer than the Anna’s and kept choosing perches where he was hard to photograph. This is the best I could do (his bill’s not in focus, drat).

Broad-billed Hummingbird (1024x723)

Look at all that metallic blue and green! Such dashing, handsome little guys! I’m so sorry for those of you who live on continents with no hummingbirds.


Bird Photos!

My big Christmas present was a Nikon D3000 DSLR camera, which came with a 55-200 mm zoom lens as well as the standard kit lens. This means that, for the first time, I can take halfway-decent photos of birds. I’ve been having a lot of fun playing with it (Monday’s mystery goose was one example). Here are some more of my efforts so far, all of which I’m pretty sure I already posted on Twitter. Click on any thumbnail below to bring up a slide show of the full-size images.

My favorite is the mockingbird. Hopefully this means I’ll be adding more posts about birds to my usual repertoire of plants, insects, tracks etc. in the future!


Mystery Goose

On December 29 we were walking around at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve when we heard a tremendous amount of honking coming from one of the ponds – a flock of Canada Geese was in residence. This is the right time of year to spot a Snow Goose or two mixed in here, so I scanned the flock, and sure enough…

031 (2)But is that a Snow Goose? (These photos were taken using the 200 mm lens I got for Christmas. The bird was pretty far out.)



There are two very similar-looking species of white goose in North America, the Snow Goose (the larger, more common one, which I’d seen before) and the Ross’s Goose (the smaller, less common one, which would be a new life bird for me). The usual way to tell them apart is by examining the head and bill. Ross’s Geese have rounder heads and shorter bills. Their bills have some bluish or greenish coloring around the base and typically don’t have the black “grin” that a Snow Goose’s bill does. To further complicate things, the two species hybridize pretty regularly. So what’s this one? I wasn’t sure, and since Ross’s Goose would be a lifer, I posted the (admittedly crappy) photos on Twitter and Facebook. On Facebook I directed my question to an old college birding buddy who’s now a PhD student in ornithology, while on Twitter I just posted a general plea for help, which led to someone there forwarding the photos to an ornithologist acquaintance of his own.

The bill coloration looks Ross-ish, but in that last photo the head shape and bill size look more Snow-ish. My Twitter follower and his ornithologist friend decided it might be a hybrid. My ornithologist buddy from college, on the other hand, declared that to be a cop-out and put his money on Ross’s Goose, albeit maybe one with a slightly bigger bill than normal. When I checked eBird and saw that someone else had reported a Ross’s Goose at the Gilbert Water Ranch the same day, I decided to call the bird in these photos my life Ross’s Goose.

Yes, birders really do spend their time thinking about and debating this sort of thing. Here are a Snow Goose and a Ross’s Goose so you can make your own comparison. What do you think?

Ross’s Goose (Wikimedia Commons photo by Dick Daniels)
Snow Goose (Wikimedia Commons Photo by Simon Pierre Barrette) – ignore the brownish coloring on the face, it’s not relevant to the ID

Hedgehog Cactus

There are many kinds of cactus around here besides the famous saguaros – prickly pears, barrel cacti, various kind of cholla. My favorite one is the hedgehog cactus (genus Echinocereus), and I couldn’t resist stopping to snap a couple photos of them while out on the Christmas Bird Count.

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They don’t grow more than a foot or two tall, but something about the little round clusters of stems is really aesthetically appealing for some reason. And in the spring they’re even more gorgeous (this is a photo I took a couple years ago)…


Hooray for cacti and their big showy flowers. Just don’t ever try to pick them.


Christmas Bird Count

Once again, I spent the day after Christmas participating in Superior, Arizona’s annual Christmas Bird Count. A big chunk of the morning was spent on a four-plus-mile hike into the backcountry, the route of which I mapped out above in blue. You can see the famous Boyce Thompson Arboretum at the top left, also part of the count circle, although not the area I was helping to cover. You can see two creeks in this map – they’re the corridors of green trees, mostly cottonwoods. The top one is Queen Creek, the one which flows through the Arboretum, and the bottom one is Arnett Creek, which we hiked up over a ridge and down again, scrambling down a dry wash when there was no trail, to get to. At this time of the year the cottonwoods aren’t green, they’re yellow. December is fall color season in the desert.

003 (768x1024)It was around forty-five degrees (Fahrenheit) when we started at sunrise, and I laughed at the other birders in their hats and mittens and scarves. Forty-five is not considered cold in the North Woods. Anyway, the bird of the day for me was my life Bridled Titmouse. This was my eighth year of Christmas counting, and I’ve managed to get at least one “lifer” every year.

public domain photo from Wikimedia

Anyone else out there been Christmas counting this season?