Saturday, February 18, 2012

Worse Than a Bee Sting

Jerome has a skunk problem.  The critters are as common as rats and if you have one there's a neighbor with a live-trap to help correct the problem.  But stories are unique in details of people who have trapped one then walked up to the trap and gotten sprayed...y'gotta have some perspective dealing with them.
I "possessed" a de-scented skunk years ago in an old college dorm. One night I let it out of it's cage for a 2 AM saunter through some of the halls and a drunk coming in after the bars closed stood in front of it as it cobbled an awkward walk along the baseboards.  The skunk (not the late-night drunk) sunk its canines through the top and bottom of the drunk's big toe (sandals y'know) and kept cobbling without a pause.  When the drunk had first spotted the thing he exclaimed, "What a cute Kitty."  It obviously took offense at being so grossly misidentified.
It's a long, long way in miles and years from that college dorm but you always have to be precise in identifying a threat.  If you go wrong ID'ing such a distinct black/white critter the result may be worse than a bite.  
While certain insects and reptiles are  recognized by remarkable colors...not your common raccoons and opossums...part of the perspective depends on you...beware of Jerome...or beware of something that lives there.    



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Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Town too Tough to Die

We ended up in Tombstone, Arizona, by default.  We had set out to follow the route described in Richard Shelton's delightful picaresque novel, Going Back to Bisbee.  South of Tuscon we somehow lost the narrative and stopped in Tombstone at the Larian Motel where we had stayed before.  Nothin' special, just a nice, clean, eat-cheap place.
Winter is the wrong time to visit Arizona.  The color is wrong.  Certain tree species are green but smaller species are a uniform buff without leaves.  The grass is uniform yellow...endless hills of buff without the juniper green.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        
The fauna is there, nonetheless.  A female Harrier cruises by looking for lunch.
Tombstone spreads out unimpressivly.  Buildings refaced for the tourists.

One...
Another...
A Third...
A fourth and friend.
And a big fella who brings you back to where you're coming from.  Farms, ranches, and range lands.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Maybe She Will...Maybe She Won't

A big female crab spider about the size of a small quarter dollar.

Crab spiders or, more precisely, misusenoides formosipes, are found on flowers where they wait to ambush typical pollinators.
Popular thought says the spiders change color to match the flower they're on.  Fun!  This one was found  in a neighbors yard and the color match was so precise the camera had to define where the flower started and the spider ended.  
White crab spiders will sit in white Datura blossoms...yellow ones hide in...well...yellow blossoms.  
Two theories exist.  One is that when these spiders travel to a new location, a different flower of a different color, the spider's color will change in about a week.  The other theory postulates that they simply assume the color of the flower they were hatched on.
The result is probably academic...a female that changes color is fairly common.
Crab spiders make use of camouflage more than other spiders.  The color of the spider is adapted to the hunting terrain.
Because they sit in easily spotted places they become vulnerable prey.  When they spot a possible enemy they move quickly to the other side of their location or leave. 
Crab spiders are recognizable if you tease them. They spread their legs and move side ways...like a crab. 
Although crab spiders are fairly common, finding one might take some patience because they are often well camouflaged. If you want to find a crab/flower spider, try to think like a spider: Where would you sit if you wanted your prey to come to you?

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Beauty to Tatters

Datura is a genus of nine species of vespertine (evening) flowering plants belonging to the Solanaceae family.  Its natural distribution is uncertain.
Pristine at first (above), the blossom's appearance belies its poisonous content.
Our Datura is a "witches' weed," along with deadly nightshade, henbane, and mandrake. Most parts of the plant contains toxic hallucinogens and datura has a long history of causing delirious states and death. 
It is known as an essential ingredient of love potions and witches' brews in literature.  Recall Shakespeares  witches scene...but into this exotic mix comes a common katydid (below).  Ubiquitous throughout Arizona, the critter wants a meal, not a lot of words or to have its picture taken.
All Datura contain tropane alkaloids such as scopolamine, hyoscyamine, and atropine in their seeds and flowers and has been used in some cultures as a poison and hallucinogen. Delirium and hallucination are different but for particulars you'll have to ask the katydid.  
There can be a 5:1 toxin variation across plants and a given plant's toxicity depends on its age, where it is growing, and the local weather conditions. This variation makes Datura especially hazardous as a drug. In traditional cultures, a great deal of knowledge of Datura was critical to minimize harm. 
But what of the katydid?  
It cares little for toxicological  descriptions but instead feeds on the blossom until the late morning sun begins to close the bloom and it's time to move on.  Stoned, sick or happy its had breakfast but the datura is reduced to tatters.

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Friday, July 22, 2011

The Red Dragon

One hot day we drove several secondary roads in Arizona off Rt. 260 to Beasley Flat  which offered convenient access to the banks of the Verde River.  That day the access road was bumper to bumper cars of young people wanting to beat the heat.
Real heat seems to bring out insects of all kinds.  Dragonflies are a good example.
 
Genetically, dragonflies pre-date recorded history and modern classification is difficult because it is thought they are a combination of several very early species.  The difficulty is apparent in the Wikipedia description:  "an insect belonging to the order Odonata, the suborder Epiprocta or, in the strict sense, the infraorder Anisoptera."
They are usually found around lakes, streams and wetlands.  This day its winged morphology hung close to the Verde.
Dragonfly nymph under water displays vestigial wing cases.  
  As a nymph, the dragonfly is a fierce predator.  Its ultimate evolutionary form is indicated by the embryonic wing cases on the back of its thorax. When it morphs into the form familiar to most of us, it feeds on mosquitoes and other insects like fliesbeesants and sometimes the occasional butterfly
Even though dragonflies have six legs they cannot walk well. 
 Dragonflies are some of the fastest insects in flight.  If one looks back far enough, however, it has passed through a much slower life. 

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Friday, June 10, 2011

It's a Prickly Life

When we drove a local gravel road the other day the visuals quickly changed from small town shops and restaurants to scrub desert, hills, ravines, endless views if you're up high . . . typical in rural Arizona.  

Wildlife was plentiful.  Hawks and golden eagles looked for mice and squirrels, and lotsa snakes that didn't like human companionship went about their business,  pushing these same mice and squirrels back into their burrows.

Flowers provided a carnival of color...prickly poppies, penstemons already tall, prickly pear in bloom.   

Prickly Poppies grow anywhere there's disturbed soil . . . roadsides, old garages, abandoned houses.  The attractive blossom belies the rest of  the plant. . . stems, leaves, and seed pods are covered with spines.
True to the poppy family the seeds provide a slight narcotic effect, if you're willing to endure working with the spine covered seed pod ( above,left....below, right/left).
Despite the wind that curled the petals a small butterfly negotiated its way to the flower, looking for nectar in all the meager places. 
 It doesn't take much to sustain a butterfly, but it was a lucky photo opportunity.  

Nectar attracts these pollinators but the attraction is momentary until they travel to the next flower . . .maybe another prickly poppy.
But...maybe not.
  
Next for the butterfly was another plant with spines.  Unlike the prickly poppy, the prickly pear has a stem that has morphed into a spongy, water storing pad and "leaves" that have evolved to water conserving spines.  The pads carry a waxy coating that prevents water loss.  Shallow roots absorb the minimal desert rainfall, exaggerated reproductive characteristics (flowers) attract pollinators.  
The drive for life takes many forms.

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Nectar Is Sweet Stuff

We took a mini-trip over a local, seldom traveled gravel road in rural Az just for the helluvit. The road takes you into whatever still exists of undeveloped acres in rural Arizona. . . hills, scrub grassland, grease wood, brittle bush, and solitude. Just a dusty road and endless views.  
It's the type of environment that suggests you should change your auto air filter at the next opportunity.

These bees ain't Odysseus responding to the Sirens call and facing destruction.   In fact, there doesn't seem to be a risk to their activity.  They want nectar.
Bees of all kinds were having a play-day among the anthers and filaments of the flowers.


Going head-down for nectar, a bee actively stirs the anthers.  It's premature...the flower hasn't matured sufficiently for pollen to have been produced.  Usually you can see the grains spread around the petals.  But, the nectar is there and the bee wants it. 


Mellifera ligustica has a long proboscis (tongue) which extends to draw up nectar and water.

Belly down in stuff , a bee takes the hard way to its goal.

We often don't see the "little ones" that make life possible.  Our life is crowded with irrelevances.


After a long day of activity the cycle will begin again.  Probably tomorrow...flowers fertilized...bees happy...life continued...our auto air filter not replaced.  Life is perpetuated by small things.
  
However, the irony may escape our view.  Some bastard will use a fly swatter and an innocent perpetuator of life will bite the same dust that clogs my auto air filter.  

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Flowers of Boyce Thompson Arboretum

Honey Bee arrives for. . . dinner?  It doesn't realize but will certainly enter as a 2nd or 3rd party into an orgy of cactus fertilization.  Usually there are several that take part.
Open petals are sexy for bees and insects.  Bees have an easy time...among humans sex is selective, between flowers and bees, sex is indiscriminate.  .
Showered by fallen Paloverde blossoms this Hedgehog Cactus stands out.  It says, "Hey, look at me!!"  The Paloverde blossoms have had their chance.
Either a beaver tail cactus or what Boyce Thompson Arboretum calls a "red prickly pear cactus flower" it stands out like a stop light in the desert traffic.
One of the common yellow blossoms of the prickly pear.
The yellow/red is a common variation within the prickly pear family.  The prickly pear is notoriously "promiscuous", allowing pollen from a variety of related and unrelated species.
One of the Boyce Thompson "variants" from its "Cactus Garden."


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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Invisibly Green

We must have hit it at just the right time.  
The Jeep bounced along a dirt road into the Superstition Wilderness which, these days, is merely a playground for Phoenix area residents. . . with wilderness rules. 
We were looking for cactus flowers but never guessed we'd come across green ones.  I've wandered this part of the desert for years but have never had the opportunity to see the Teddy Bear Cholla in bloom.
Maybe I just wasn't looking . . .or had unconsciously restricted my visual thinking to the more common yellows, orange, magenta, or other colors that decorate these plants.  But...green?  I knew they were out there, but just never "saw" them.  
Cylindropuntia bigelovii is a cactus native to California, Arizona, New Mexico  and northwestern Mexico.  Enlarged stems carry out photosynthesis and store water.  Unlike other succulents, the stem is the only part where this process takes place.
Flowers of some cacti form long tubes (up to 30 cm) so only certain species of moths can pollinate the blossoms. There are also specializations of this cholla for specific species of bats, hummingbirds and bees. To confuse us, the duration of flowering is highly variable...and probably the reason I've missed the event in past years.   
 
Summer was a month away but the intensity of the southern Arizona sun got to us after several days.  Your instinct is to cover up with a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves and long pants.  We did exactly that but beat a quick retreat to a local motel when it became uncomfortable.
Seed formation of these cacti is prolific and the fruits are conspicuous.  A menagerie of goats, moths, birds, ants, mice and bats eat the fruit contributing to seed dispersal and cactus reproduction.


Some cacti have a waxy coating on their stems to prevent water loss. Because of the plants' water-retention ability, detached sections of the plant can survive for long periods and grow new roots when rain comes.
These Teddy Bears are resourceful, leaving no aspect of their reproduction to chance.
Bees, spiders and other bugs take care of pollination.  Moths, birds, mice and bats eat the fruit and disperse seeds.  Their last method of "reproduction" is more insidious...stem sections detach when brushed by passing humans, dogs, foxes, javelina or other desert inhabitants. 

Perhaps the next time you pass too closely and say, "OUCH!" and use a comb or tweezer to remove a stem section, smile and remember you're part of a group effort to help cylindropuntia bigelovii give birth.

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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Wondering and Wandering in the Superstitions

If you're going to the Superstition Wilderness Area and not planning to camp, the only place to bed down at night is the nearby town of Apache Junction.  Thirty years ago this town was simply a crossroad of Arizona Rt. 88 and a road whose name I've forgotten.  Today, the town has a population of 37,000 and is a bedroom community of Phoenix.


Weaver's Needle is a landmark in the Superstition Wilderness.  Named
 for Pauline Weaver, a cavalry officer, it gained notoriety as being integral
to the supposed location of the Lost Dutchman's Gold.
  

The Apache Junction Motel was delightful because of its low rates and the nearby Mickey D's Cafe was delightful because of its oatmeal.  Low rates at the motel were balanced by outrageous prices at the gas pump.
The unique Teddy Bear Cholla blossoms belie the unique message the
spines convey: stay away unless you want a nightmare involving boots,
pants, socks, and even minutes later, car seats. 
Mickey D's Cafe had a sign proclaiming, "Because of the Current Drought, Water Will be Served Only on Request."   The nearby cacti would think that a good idea.


A bright Buckhorn Cholla can range in color  from red to orange to a
 brownish yellow...the spines have a serious purpose, also, but not quite
 as insidious.   
Our friend, the Western Diamondback, was never seen again.  I was happy it didn't want to be friends and I'm sure it was happy not to be in the company of Jeeps.


As most cacti and critters in the desert, a Western Diamondback rattlesnake
has "spines" of it's own.  It disagreed with our presence and struck at
the tire of our Jeep.  Except for  a missing fang or two all was OK.  The
fangs are replaced quickly. 
Despite the fangs and spines that are ubiquitous in the desert...it does have great sunsets.


All's well that ends well!


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