April 30, 2007

Creepy Crawler Carnival #2: Giant Crab Spiders

Creepy Crawler Carnival #2

Giant Crab Spider
Heteropoda venatoria

These rather largish spiders have become somewhat of a common sight in our house since it began to warm up. They're big enough, however, to make you glance twice before deciding to ignore it or shoo it outside. Sonja's first experience with one several weeks ago was a trifle traumatic, though, considering that she was leaning in to look at a blemish on her cheek when one decided to crawl down the mirror. I guess they look even bigger (and apparently quite monstrous, considering the resulting shriek) when they're three inches from your face and crawling across their own reflection.

Sonja's gotten much more tolerant of them since watching Charlotte's Web, though. As far as movies go, I guess that's a better one for helping cure arachnophobia than others I could name. Still, I like the name Shelob better than Charlotte.

It's taken some work to finally figure out what they were, though. I have yet to find a reliable source for spider identification. Considering its size (a good 2" across when its got its legs splayed out), I had it narrowed down pretty quickly. And since wolf spiders (the only other large, non-tarantula we've got around here) don't climb walls, that limited the field even more.

The coolest part about it is the eyes, I think. You can easily see all eight of them when you look closely. Giant crab spiders tend not to spin webs, but patrol around keeping a lookout for all sorts of yummy insects to eat.

April 27, 2007

Creepy Crawler Carnival #1: Solpugids

I've decided that in order to make the inevitable discovery of assorted many-legged (and no-legged) organisms in and around our new home less, well, creepy, I will instead be celebrating each such encounter with gusto and vigor here on my blog. That's right, we will delight together in the overall creepiness of each entry in our own miniature "freakshow." I will also attempt to de-creepify these amazing creatures by explaining what makes each of them so cool and uniquely adapted for survival in the Arizona semi-arid desert scrublands. So, if anyone reading this is creeped out by these types of organisms and is planning to visit us at some point in the future (i.e., assorted members of the Renslow family), you may want to skip any post that is titled like this one.
Note: No solpugids were harmed in the making of this post.

Creepy Crawler Carnival #1

(Eremobates durangonus)

Also known by the common names camel spider, wind scorpion, and sun scorpion, solpugids are not actually spiders nor scorpions. This little guy was discovered cowering in the corner of our kitchen doorjam by Sonja. I was pleasantly surprised that Sonja didn't freak out when she saw it. Instead, she simply said (rather nonchalantly, I might add), "Paul, there's a wierd spider thing over here." It was relatively easy to catch, and spent only a few minutes in the wine glass you see above (just long enough to snap a few pictures) before being released back into the wilds of our backyard.

One of the more interesting features of solpugids are its pedipalps, those two long, black-tipped leg-things in front. These are actually modified legs that have become sensory organs, used to find prey while walking around (rather quickly, I might add) on the other six legs.

Unlike other arachnids (like spiders and scorpions), solpugids have no venom, so they are relatively harmless. However, I've been told that getting bitten by one isn't particularly enjoyable, either. And after getting a close look at its jaws (chelicerae), I don't think I ever want to experience it. They do make this creature a rather formidable foe to all sorts of other crawlies (like spiders and scorpions, for instance), so having these in your home could actually be considered a good thing. Unless you like spiders and scorpions, I guess.

April 26, 2007

Desert Botanical Garden

Sonja and I took a trip down to Phoenix this morning to use up a couple free passes we had for the Desert Botanical Garden. Obviously, one of the main reasons for going to a botanical garden is to see plants. However, because of the abundance of plants and native habitats available at good botanical gardens (and this one certainly qualifies), they are also fantastic places to see birds. This was a perfect opportunity for us to try to find more lifers and just enjoy some Sonoran Desert birding.

Of course, 60 miles down the interstate I turn to Sonja and ask a fateful question, "Did you bring the binoculars?"


Pretty sad that a pair of hard-core birders leaving for a birding trip forget to pack a pair of binoculars. Luckily, the lady at the front gate of the garden lent us what I am assuming at one time passed for binoculars...about eighty years ago. They worked... sort of. And it certainly was nice of her to let us use them. At least we had remembered to bring a bird guide. In fact, we brought two of them, just in case.

Anyway, we were hoping to see a reported Rufous-backed Robin, a rare visitor from Mexico that had been spotted in the garden a couple days ago. No such luck, although we both got some lifers (me: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher; Sonja: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Inca Dove, White-winged Dove, and Western Tanager).

Despite the heat (it was well over 90 today in Phoenix) it was a really fun and interesting place to walk around. However, we were very disappointed and shocked to see three domestic cats wandering around freely outside. The staff at the garden all knew about them and even defended the fact that they intentionally allow them to wander around the entire garden. For a place whose mission is to "advance excellence in education, research, exhibition, and conservation", seeing their blatant disregard for the safety of all the wild birds that depend on the garden to survive was very, very disheartening. The fact that the staff saw nothing wrong with letting the cats roam freely really pissed me off, too. We had been planning on spending a fair bit of money in the cool gift shop they had, too. Suffice to say, they will not be getting any business from us until they keep the cat inside.

I know people get really defensive about their "right" to allow their cat outside, but you know what? Tough. Keep your freakin' cat INSIDE! Domestic cats are responsible for killing an estimated 2.5 BILLION songbirds in the United States EVERY SINGLE YEAR. They do NOT belong outside! Don't get me wrong, I love cats (and many of you know we own one ourselves). But you will never see us let her outside, unless she is in our arms or on a leash (with the sole exception of a single time a couple weeks ago when we woke up at 2:30am to a cat meowing outside our bedroom window...only to discover that it was a mildly terrified Annie, who had snuck out the back door seven hours earlier without us noticing).

Ok, enough ranting. Here are some pictures from the day. The desert is in full bloom right now, making the walk very colorful and exciting.

One of the coolest plants I've seen since moving here is the ocotillo. For much of the year, they just look like a bunch of tall (they can grow up to 8 feet high), skinny dead sticks stuck in the ground. But when it rains they grow these really cool leaves and have neato red blossoms on the top.

I'm not even going to pretend that I know what kind of cactus this is.

Here's another mystery cactus with white flowers.

Ok, yeah, I should probably look these up. But for some reason, they just don't really interest me all that much. They are pretty, though. See? This one's pink!

There were also a good number of hummingbirds around, such as this female Anna's. We were trying to turn each one into a Costa's Hummingbird, but they just wouldn't cooperate.

They had a butterfly tent set up, too. But, they're not birds, either, so I don't know what this one is...except that it's all stripy!

This butterfly was definitely my favorite. They even let me take it home with me!

April 18, 2007

One Bird at a Time

One of the things I love most about birding is the thrill of encountering a species I've never seen before...a lifer. It's called a "lifer" because you now get to add it to your birding "life list," or the list of all the different species of birds you've seen and identified. People create life lists for all sorts of reasons. For some it's a competition, a race to see how quickly you can reach a certain number, or a contest to see who can spot the most species. And for those with a lot of spare time (and money) on their hands, it can even become an obsession. Kingbird Highway is a really fun book that demonstrates to what insane lengths some people will go to find "just one more." I'd recommend it for anyone, even if you're not really into birds.

It's easy to let yourself fall into the category of a competetive lister if you're not careful. I've certainly walked that line a time or two. In fact, every couple of years I try to dabble in competetive birding by participating in a Birdathon (skip to page 10), or even attempt to break a Big Day record. Even when I go all out, however, I still try not to let it get to the point where every bird I see is reduced to a simple checkmark. That's the biggest complaint most non-listers have with people who list. And, yes, there are those who travel hundreds, if not thousands, of miles just so they can spend 30 seconds looking a bird long enough to justify checking it off on their list. I hope I never become one of those people.

For me, adding to my life list is more of a journaling exercise. In addition to the species, I write down where and when I first saw each one. And I do that right below the range map in my birding bible. That way, when I flip through the book my notes take me back to that moment of excitement at finding a bird and realizing that it was a species I had never seen before.

I imagine it might be difficult for non-birders to really understand, or appreciate, what this experience might be like. So to help illustrate, I have decided to share just such a moment. In fact, it is one that occured just this morning. At around 8:35am beneath the steep, red-rock cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon at Cave Springs Campground, to be precise.

Every time you spot a new lifer it's different. Sometimes you spend hours, days, or even years searching all the likely spots. Often with mixed, and rather frustrating, results. But once in a while, you get lucky.

I knew what I was looking for as soon as I got out of the car this morning (I had read that I might be able to see a certain bird there). The campground is situated next to an old apple orchard, and I was told that this particular bird likes to hang out in the apple trees. Well, after a couple minutes wandering around admiring the apple blossoms, I heard what I thought might be the bird I was looking for. So I turned and made my way into a stand of old cottonwoods and began trying to pinpoint the source of the warbly song somewhere in the high branches. Within less than a minute, I caught a glimpse of something.

It wasn't a very good glimpse. In fact, it lasted all of about eight milliseconds. But it got my heart racing with the possibility that I may just have seen something new. But I couldn't be sure, just yet. The lighting was perfect, but the bird was behind a whole bunch of branches and flew off just as I focused in on it. I thought I saw a flash of red on the breast, but it just wasn't convincing. So I kept looking, hoping that this wasn't going to turn into a "may have seen."

Less than a minute later, I spotted another one. But the angle really sucked. While it's certainly possible to identify a bird from looking only at its butt, it's not very satisfying. It would be like going to Yellowstone and seeing a puff of steam above the treetops that you're pretty sure was Old Faithful, but never actually getting to watch it erupt in all its sideways glory. (Ok, so it took me a couple years to figure out that you can't rotate a movie like you can an image once its on your computer. Just turn your head while you watch it.)

Then the bird turned its head, revealing a rather distinctive white crescent under its eye. At this point, I knew I had found what I had spent the better part of a month trying to see. If it flew away now and I never saw it again, I'd feel confident enough in the sighting to be able to justify adding it to my life list. But, knowing how beautiful this bird is, and how long I'd been waiting to see one (not just the last month...I've wanted to see one of these since I was about 9 years old), it still wasn't enough. Sure, I was thrilled that I could finally "check it off", but I needed more. Exciting? Yes. Satisfying? No.

This was a really fun bird to watch. Like most wood warblers, it never stood still. But it also spent a good deal of time fanning its tail and wing feathers as it hopped from branch to branch. Obviously, it was displaying for someone. But the whole time I watched I never saw another one. Maybe it decided it needed to keep displaying on the off chance that another bird would fly by. But I still hadn't gotten the look I was hoping for.

After about five minutes of being rather uncooperative, the Painted Redstart finally hopped out into the open.

Definitely one of the coolest birds I've ever seen. It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's like a robin and a blackbird mixed...bred for its skills in magic. I spent a good twenty minutes watching it hop around until it flew off into the orchard.

Every five or ten seconds it would pause for a moment to belt out a song or two (scroll down that page a bit to hear what a Painted Redstart song sounds like). Then it would zoom to the next branch, flair its tail and hop some more.

I also saw one of the coolest woodpeckers in North America. But I'd already seen several of them before, so it didn't end up in my big "lifer" story.

And I'm not going to tell you what it is this time. You'll have to find a bird guide and figure it out for yourself.

By the way, 7 geek-points for anyone who can identify the not-so-obscure movie references in this post.

I suppose I should get 42 geek-points for thinking I'm being clever by inserting said movie references into the post. And I definitely get 12 nerd-points for both using "said" as a preposition AND knowing what a preposition is.

April 14, 2007

1337 GEEK

I decided to take a nerd-test this evening. I guess I just needed to know exactly how nerdy I was...

I am nerdier than 92% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Just in case you all had any doubts. Although, I am rather disappointed that they didn't have a question about whether or not you have ever made lembas bread for a party (which I have, by the way). And for any of you that didn't have to look up what lembas bread is... congrats, you're one of us.

To be honest, though, I wasn't completely satisfied with this test. While I wholeheartedly admit to being rather nerdy, I think my talents lay more appropriately in the realm of geekiness than nerdiness (yes, there is a difference). For instance, while a nerd might be able to recite pi to ten digits from memory or explain the difference between fusion and fission (both of which I can do, by the way), a geek, on the other hand, not only knows what thac0 stands for, but understands why a thac0 of 10 is better than a thac0 of 14. I might also add that anyone who agrees that the thac0 website in that link is AWESOME can go grab their dice (and I mean real dice) and take a seat next to our elvish friends in the geek club. Oh, and be sure to bring any character drawings you may have sketched, such as this one of my 9th level fighter-mage half-elf.

So, to make myself feel better, I also took a geek test. Or, I should say I took a 1337 Geek Test.

i am an extreme geek

So, it's official. I am not only a "Supreme Nerd", but an "Extreme Geek", too. A fact I am rather proud of.

April 13, 2007

The Painted Desert

Got to spend the day at Petrified Forest National Park for work, today. I discovered that it is only a two and a half hour drive from our house, too. Good to know when we decide we want to go for a wilderness hike. Most of my time was taken up with discussing archeology-based education programs with their education specialist. They've got a pretty nice concept for a program, including a mock-excavation that looks way more funner than anything we've got.

See? Doesn't that stuff look like fun? Seeing that shovel was worth the drive all by itself. I've decided to basically steal all their ideas and try the same thing at the Castle. We'll get our own clipboards, though.

I did get to poke around the north end of the park a bit before I left for home. This is the "Painted Desert" of Wile E. Coyote fame.

It was a bit on the rainy side, though. And, considering it was bright and sunny at home when I left this morning, I neglected to pack any sort of clothing for inclement weather. Oh well...at least it wasn't hot.

April 12, 2007

Beaver Creek Trail

We went for a windy hike along the Beaver Creek trail outside of Rimrock this morning.

The birds were pretty quiet due to the wind, but we did see a couple lifers for Sonja, including her first Scott's Oriole.

We are also nearly 98% confidant that we spotted a Brown-crested Flycatcher near the White Mesa trailhead, a couple miles in from the parking lot. We spent a good ten minutes watching it and debating about whether it was a Brown-crested or Ash-throated Flycatcher. We finally decided upon Brown-crested after hearing several distinct whit calls. I tell ya, flycatchers always tie my brain in knots! We also watched a pair of Black Phoebes hopping around the rocks at the swimming hole we watered the dogs.

Anyway, the other excitement occured when we interrupted a Sharp-shinned Hawk that was in pursuit of a rather distraught-looking Ruby-crowned Kinglet in a juniper next to the trail. I could have sworn the Sharpie gave me a dirty look as it circled around with a last forlorn glance toward its almost-meal before heading off into the sycamores. I'm telling myself that the kinglet was grateful for our unintentional interruption of its near-death experience.

But the stars of the hike were all the wildflowers in bloom. We've had enough precipitation this past month that many of the cacti are beginning to bloom. They're even predicting a saguaro bloom next month down near Phoenix. I openly admit that I am not very good at, and only mildly interested in, identifying wildflowers. So, in order to avoid embarassment at getting these wrong, I'm making up my own names. If, however, anyone (*ahem* Chris?) does, in fact, know the names of these flowers, post a comment and let me know.

Desert Creamsicle Flower

Arizona Goldeneye Pseudo-Poppy Thingie

Alien Carnivorous Claw Pod
(attacking an Engleman's Prickly Pear)

Vampiric Tube Flower
These turn red due to all the blood they suck out of hummingbirds.


Surprisingly enough, Harvey completely ignored it, even though it was only about 30 feet away.

April 11, 2007

Counting Down

Too bad they didn't come up with a time accelerator, too.

April 09, 2007

Shades of Purple

As we all begin to prepare ourselves for next year's circus of empty promises and special-interest pandering, also known as the Presidential Election, I thought it might be a good time to bring to light an interesting image I found recently. Hopefully, this will help put to rest the myth of the red and blue America. But first things first...

Barack Obama for President!

Sorry, just had to get that out.

Anyway, remember all those depressing maps after the 2004 election? You know the ones I'm talking about. They're the red-state-blue-state maps that show the results by county. There were also some more humorous versions floating around that I enjoyed a bit more. Anyway, after seeing such a black and white version of the election results I got incredibly depressed at the tsunami of right-wing intolerance and ignorant redneck nationalism that seemed to be enveloping all the prettiest parts of the country.

Ok, I guess that's not really fair. I don't necessarily think that ALL Republicans are flag-waving, moronic sheep. Well, ok...maybe I do.

I'm kidding, of course...
sort of.

Now, on the other hand, I'm not saying that Democrats are all that and a bag of chips, either. They're just better at hiding their intolerance and bigotry.

Anyway, it always seemed misleading to see the country so polarized either by state, or even county. I mean, there has got to be at least ONE progressive liberal in Utah, right? Ok, that might be asking too much.

So this evening I found this animated map that gives a much more realistic picture of America. Forget all this "Red State - Blue State" crap. Sure there are places that lean more heavily toward one end or another of the political spectrum, such as all the states that Sonja and I have lived in the past seven years. But for the most part, the political map of the U.S. over the past 47 years has really been covered in various shades of purple.

Cool, huh? Now, if we can just eliminate the electoral college and let every vote count. What a novel idea, eh?

Someday, maybe. However, until then...

Go, dark purple!!

April 08, 2007

Easter at Montezuma Well

It wasn't nearly as crazy here at the Well as people were claiming it usually is on Easter. Supposedly, this is the buziest day of the year for us, but it really wasn't that bad. Everyone was very pleasant and just happy to be out enjoying the beautiful weather. That included the wildlife. Here are some pictures from today here at Montezuma Well.

I thought it was cool how dark orange this bee's pollen sacs were on its hind legs. Don't ask what the purple flowers are.

A pair of Black-throated Sparrows.

Purple flowers sans bee.

I call this one "Snake and Squirrel". You'll have to figure out for yourself where the squirrel is.

April 05, 2007

Hoodoos? You doos!

Went hiking today up in the San Francisco Volcanic Field area of Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. It was a really neat hike into a cinder cone volcano, complete with all sorts of obsidian, cinders and hoodoos. I don't feel much like posting pictures, so instead I'll just let you watch a video. For some reason, YouTube has been messing up the sound on its videos, so the audio is a bit off with the timing. But you still get the general idea.

April 04, 2007

The Swarm!

I'l admit, I don't know what the official term for a flock of hummingbirds is. However, after filling the feeders this morning I have decided that calling it a swarm is perfectly appropriate. Within seconds of carrying the feeder out into the yard I was attacked. They didn't even wait for me to hang the darn feeder.

While I was outside enjoying the feel of wings beating at over 70 times a second only inches away from my ears and tiny little feet perching on my fingers, I only noticed the Anna's Hummingbirds. But then, I was a bit preoccupied with holding the feeder still and taking pictures. It wasn't until I downloaded the pictures that I realized there were actually two species mobbing me. The other was a Black-chinned Hummingbird.

Here are some of the pictures I was able to capture from this morning's action. Be sure to click on the pictures to be able to see these beautiful little birds more closely.

I didn't get very good photos of the male Anna's. But I did get a couple that show off their brilliant throats and crowns shining in the sunshine.

Here's an action shot of an Anna's swooping down to the feeder. He was one of the bullies of the group, and as a result, the other hummers ended up allowing him to perch on my finger unmolested for almost two minutes. It was on the finger behind the feeder, though, so I couldn't get any pictures of it.

This is a female Black-chinned Hummingbird. You can tell her apart from the female Anna's by the greyish crown and the white spot behind the eye. If you look to the left you'll also see a tiny hummingbird tongue from a second female who just finished drinking.

Here's a nice shot of one of the male Black-chinned Hummingbirds. Too bad I clipped his wing off. If I had turned the camera just an inch more to the right this would have been a damn good shot.

So, if you ever plan to feed hummers in your own yard, it's really important to make sure that you always have fresh food out for them. Sugar-water can go bad fairly quickly, particularly if you live in a warm climate, so it's good to change them out every few days. And once the hummers in your area find your feeders, they'll empty them rather quickly. Don't bother getting the "hummingbird food" you can buy in the store. It's loaded with food coloring to make it look red, and this does absolutely nothing for the birds. Instead, just make them a mixture of sugar water (1/4 cup sugar for every cup of water). If your feeder has a little bit of red near the feeding holes, the hummers will find it. They don't need a whole container of red liquid to know there is food present.

When you do get hummers coming to your yard you will have a great time watching them. You'll also be amazed at how close you can get and how easy it is to get a hummer to perch on your finger. All it takes is some sugar-water and a little patience.

April 01, 2007

Snakes in a Tube

Things got a bit more exciting today at the Castle when one of our biologists showed up at the visitor center with a bucket full of surprises!

Not only did I get to see my first western diamondback rattlesnake today, I got to hold it, too. For the past twelve years we've participated in a regional telemetry study of rattlesnake mortality. Herpetologists have been capturing snakes and, if they are big enough, implanting them with microchips and transmitters that enable them to find each individual. It's a fascinating project that has already influenced how the park manages its rattlesnake population.

Today, Matt (our resident herp-nerd) used a receiver to find this particular snake who had been captured several years ago. Once he caught it, he needed to determine its sex (it was a male), measure it, weigh it and evaluate its general health. My job was to make sure its head stayed in the tube.

It really was a beautiful snake. And the people who crowded around to watch and learn about it (I lost count at 60) all left with smiles on their faces and an experience they'll never forget.

Sonja had an exciting day, too, although I have a feeling she feels fortunate that she did not get to see a snake. She spent the day on horseback exploring the desert south of Camp Verde. I guess her horse (his name was Spooks) was pretty docile, so she didn't really have to worry about it getting too rambunctious. She also said Spooks was rather wide, so Sonja's "sitting bone" is a bit on the sore side.

Now I'm just waiting for Sonja to get me back for the April Fool's prank I played on her this morning. She's only got a couple hours left, so she better get a move on. Although, I must admit that it's hard to get me to fall for anything. I'm just too darn clever, I guess. If she's gonna succeed it's gotta be something good.