Posts Tagged ‘Desert Southwest’

Throwback Thursday: Ocelots in the Sky Islands

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Wednesday, May 15th, 2013
Ocelot

Ocelot © C. Allan Morgan

Throwback Thursday: Ocelots in the Sky Islands by Sheri Williamson

Originally Posted May 23rd, 2012

A little cat has been making big news in Arizona. Back in November 2009, a remote camera in the Huachuca Mountains, placed by volunteers with Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, captured a blurry but recognizable photo of an Ocelot. This was the first solid evidence for the species’ presence in Arizona in almost 50 years.

Tantalizing to be sure, but anyone who spends time in the wild knows just how rare it is to see even the relatively common Bobcat. That’s why it was so exciting to hear on February 8, 2011 that dogs had treed an Ocelot in the Huachucas. The animal, which appeared to be a healthy adult male, was allowed to go on its way unharmed after photo and video documentation. It was much grayer and shorter-nosed than the more familiar tropical subspecies, as befits an Ocelot of the colder, more arid Southwest.

Four months later, the Monument fire swept through the southern part of the Huachuca Mountains, causing many to fear for the life of this very special feline neighbor. The story recently took an optimistic turn in late April, when a private citizen’s remote camera captured new Ocelot photos in the Huachucas. These are being examined by biologists with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and compared with the 2011 photos. Whether or not the spot patterns match, we know that there is still at least one Ocelot roaming Arizona’ssky islands.”

Less than 40 miles as the raven flies from the Arizona encounters, other remote cameras at El Aribabi Conservation Ranch in Sonora, Mexico have recorded multiple Ocelots and at least one Jaguar in addition to Bobcats and Mountain Lions. The bigger felines can no longer travel freely where the border fence has been completed, but I’m glad there’s room for the Ocelot to slip through.

-Sheri Williamson

Generals on the March

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Tuesday, November 20th, 2012
Horse Lubber Grasshopper

Horse Lubber Grasshopper © Sheri Williamson

Generals on the March by Tom Wood and Sheri Williamson

A generous late summer “monsoon” season in the desert grasslands of the Southwest translates to a fall population boom for many wildlife species. Some of the “boomers” are easier to see than others, including the gigantic grasshoppers known as Horse Lubbers. They’re one of the two largest grasshoppers in North America (the other being the Eastern Lubber). A mature female may be 2.75 inches in length and weigh as much as three male Black-chinned Hummingbirds!

Many of our human neighbors here in southeastern Arizona know the Horse Lubber as the “Mexican General,” a colloquial name inspired by its bold pattern of bright yellow accents on a background of black and dark green, like a high-ranking officer in full dress uniform. Grasshoppers often have colorful hindwings, and a few are quite colorful on close inspection (the Rainbow Grasshopper, for example), but no other grasshopper in the Southwest is as in-your-face conspicuous as the Horse Lubber.

Like many desert insects, Horse Lubbers depend on the short-term abundance of food resulting from the late summer rains. When “monsoon” thunderstorms transform the desert into a virtual all-you-can-eat salad bar, lubber nymphs hatch from eggs laid the previous year and begin to gorge themselves. As they reduce the food supply in one area, they march on to greener pastures, passing through several instars (growth stages) as they go. Early instars are chunky and wingless. By the final stage, they have slimmed down and grown wings for greater mobility.

The lubber boom might seem to be a boon for predators, but it pays to be suspicious about a critter that’s abundant, conspicuous, and easy to catch. You’ve probably already figured out that the gaudy attire and sluggish behavior of Horse Lubbers are aposematic, a warning to potential predators of well-armed prey. Like Monarchs and Pipevine Swallowtails, the big ‘hoppers are infused with toxic chemicals that make them unpalatable, but making a predator nauseous is a Pyrrhic victory. The preferred outcome is not to get eaten in the first place. Threatened lubbers start by hissing and flashing their bright salmon-red hindwings. If that doesn’t work, they’ll spray their attackers with noxious chemicals, like six-legged skunks. It doesn’t take too many such encounters for predators to learn not to mess with lubbers. Our pet chickens enthusiastically chase after any small, cryptically colored grasshoppers that find their way into our yard, but they give the big black ones a wide berth.

We think of grasshoppers as herbivores, but Horse Lubbers like a little meat in their diet. They’re not fussy; carrion is fine fare, and they’re not above cannibalism. As with skunks, the sluggish and fearless behavior of lubbers makes them vulnerable to traffic. Those that don’t make it across the highway may become “road food” for their traveling companions. In fact, their chemical defenses are so successful that about the only animal that can stand to eat a Horse Lubber is another Horse Lubber. As our collegue Pete Corradino discovered, Loggerhead Shrikes in Florida will eat Eastern Lubbers after letting them “mellow” a bit to break down the toxins, but we haven’t observed this behavior in Arizona. Maybe Horse Lubbers are “spicier” than their southeastern cousins?

There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

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Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Throwback Thursdays

Notes from the Field by Tom Wood: There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

hawks during migration season

Swainson’s Hawks © Tom Wood

There is a rhythm to the seasons. Technically, fall began on September 23 when the sun crossed the equator and the days in the northern hemisphere began to grow shorter. But to me, the first precursor to fall is the arrival of waves of Rufous Hummingbirds winging through Arizona on their way south to Mexico. I’ll know for sure when I hear the first Sandhill Crane calling in the Sulphur Springs Valley. If you are a naturalist or gardener or anyone else with a close attachment to the land you view the passing of the seasons differently than the deskbound city-dweller. Seasons are measured in the plants and animals around us rather than the calendar.

Actually, we have five seasons here in southeastern Arizona and it is the arrival of that fifth season that affects many of us at a very primal level. After months of hot, dry weather the first thunderheads begin to build in late June. When the first rains of our “monsoon season” come in early July, the impulse to go out in the rain and celebrate the season is often too overwhelming to ignore. I imagine that the arrival of the salmon in Alaska is greeted with the same sense of relief and celebration. Like the blooming of fruit trees or a vegetable garden, it is the promise of plenty.

This time of year the afternoon temperatures can still be uncomfortably warm. And, although there is scarce change in the morning temperature and humidity, there is SOMETHING in the early morning air that tells me that fall will soon be here. It arrives earlier on the mountain peaks and I can see the golden yellow aspen groves from miles away. Another hint that change is on the way. For a couple of weeks the newly arriving Sandhill Cranes, some of whom nested in Siberia this summer, will share the fields with the last of our nesting Swainson’s Hawks before the hawks leave for Argentina. It’s the pulse of the planet and you can hear it if you are listening.

Nature Stories: Capturing the Secret of Wildlife

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Monday, September 10th, 2012

Capturing the Secret Life of Wildlife by Tom Wood

American Badger wildlife

American Badger © Tom Wood

I’ve been blessed to see some amazing wildlife and behavior in my life. Sometimes, after a particularly exciting, serendipitous sighting I think, “What if I had been ten minutes earlier or later?” It’s only a short jump from that thinking to “What have I missed by ten minutes?”  Until recently this has been nothing but a Zen riddle “What is happening when I am not here?” but now a new tool allows an inquisitive naturalist to monitor what is happening miles away while you sleep (or work or play). Motion-sensitive remote cameras have become ubiquitous in the hunting community and can also be used to monitor a wide variety of wildlife and habitats. They have become an important research tool as well as a new way to learn about your wild neighbors.

Collard Peccary wildlife

Collard Peccary © Tom Wood

Trail cameras, also referred to as “gamecams” or “camera traps,” can be found at most sporting goods stores or on-line outlets or can be home-made with a simple point-and-shoot camera and motion-sensitive hardware. Over-the-counter models range from less than $50 to over $400.  Some cameras use flash for nighttime visitors, while others are able to take infrared photos without the use of flash. Many also offer an opportunity to capture short video clips. Some features to consider when purchasing a camera include battery life, shutter delay and security features.

I purchased a couple of inexpensive cameras on-line after seeing tracks in a dry creek-bed on property owned by friends. I was amazed to quickly verify that both bobcats and coyotes were regularly visiting the creek bed. Encouraged by my early success, I soon established two photo points watching a strategic location: a shallow basin I kept filled with water. Water is a magnet for wildlife in the desert, and I soon had photographs of an amazing array of desert creatures who visited the sites. I had no idea, based on my daytime wandering on the property, that this habitat supported so much life.

Bobcat Wildlife

Bobcat © Tom Wood

Baiting sites is controversial in the camera monitoring community and may be illegal in some areas, but I freely admit to scattering birdseed and even cat food occasionally to entice the local wildlife to pose for my cameras. My weekly visits to refill the water basins are rewarded with the thrill of sorting through the sometimes hundreds of images stored on the computer chips, vicariously watching as the wildlife visits. Sorting through the images is like opening Christmas presents, waiting for that special one.

Coyote wildlife

Coyote © Tom Wood

If you have wondered, as I have, what animals might be using a particular trail or visiting a waterhole or feeder when you are not around, a wildlife camera provides an easy and fun way to satisfy your curiosity. Pick a tree or post with an unobstructed view of the target area – a blowing branch in front of the sensor will result in hundreds of pictures of the branch. Hopefully you will be rewarded with a few candid shots. If you would like to share your results, we could set up a site for wildlife camera shots from around the country. Contact me at: tom@sabo.org

 

A Furry Surprise

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Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Adult Great Horned Owl, Southeastern © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

When I saw the two ears just above the edge of a large nest forty feet up the cottonwood, I thought to myself “a Great Horned Owl is already on the nest in late January”. I gathered our birding group and set up the spotting scope and was surprised to see the “ears” were not the feathered ear tufts of a Great Horned Owl, but the furry ears of a Gray Fox high in the tree enjoying the winter sun. I had often seen foxes relaxing on low branches of willows and other small trees but this one won the prize for tree climbing.

The Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), may be at the top of the tree because it is at the bottom of the canine food chain. A very atypical canid, Gray Foxes are adept climbers and may climb or roost in trees to escape coyotes. Many years ago, as a wildlife rehabilitator, I had the chance to raise both a young Gray Fox and a young Red Fox in North Central Texas. I would let them out in our large nature center auditorium to play and a rousing game of tag often ensued. The Gray Fox was no match for the long legged Red Fox in a straight race, but whenever the Red Fox got close the Gray would go arboreal across chairs and tables and outmaneuver his pursuer.

Gray Fox © Daniel J. Cox, Natural Exposures

Although the overall color is mostly gray, the rufous on the shoulders of Gray Foxes sometimes misleads people into calling them Red Foxes. Gray Foxes seem to be a charming mix of dog and cat. They only weigh about as much as a big house cat, 8-10 pounds, with short legs and a long snout. They make a variety of chirps, barks and yips that sound anything but doglike. Like a Coyote, they are efficient predators on mice, birds, lizards and large insects and will eat fruit in season. Their ability to climb, rare among canids, allows them to reach fruit high in the tree. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I don’t see them often. But now that I have a better search image, I’ll be checking all the old raven’s nests I see for those telltale ears.

There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

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Friday, September 30th, 2011

There is a rhythm to the seasons. Technically, fall began on September 23 when the sun crossed the equator and the days in the northern hemisphere began to grow shorter. But to me, the first precursor to fall is the arrival of waves of Rufous Hummingbirds winging through Arizona on their way south to Mexico. I’ll know for sure when I hear the first Sandhill Crane calling in the Sulphur Springs Valley. If you are a naturalist or gardener or anyone else with a close attachment to the land you view the passing of the seasons differently than the deskbound city-dweller. Seasons are measured in the plants and animals around us rather than the calendar.

Actually, we have five seasons here in southeastern Arizona and it is the arrival of that fifth season that affects many of us at a very primal level. After months of hot, dry weather the first thunderheads begin to build in late June. When the first rains of our “monsoon season” come in early July, the impulse to go out in the rain and celebrate the season is often too overwhelming to ignore. I imagine that the arrival of the salmon in Alaska is greeted with the same sense of relief and celebration. Like the blooming of fruit trees or a vegetable garden, it is the promise of plenty.

This time of year the afternoon temperatures can still be uncomfortably warm. And, although there is scarce change in the morning temperature and humidity, there is SOMETHING in the early morning air that tells me that fall will soon be here. It arrives earlier on the mountain peaks and I can see the golden yellow aspen groves from miles away. Another hint that change is on the way. For a couple of weeks the newly arriving Sandhill Cranes, some of whom nested in Siberia this summer, will share the fields with the last of our nesting Swainson’s Hawks before the hawks leave for Argentina. It’s the pulse of the planet and you can hear it if you are listening.

I Wish Upon a Star

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Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

The power of the night’s sky is truly something to behold. For centuries, stars have been looked at as Gods, points of light to navigate by, and even shimmering lights to simply enjoy. This is that of a star-filled night by where a father and son chased a special image.

One day in May of last year, I was busy preparing for a photography trip to Sedona, AZ with my father. Knowing my dad would be all over Sedona red rock landscapes, I was envisioning something a bit different and the plan quickly morphed into coming away with a great nightscape image. What I envisioned was something with great foreground elements, star trails and enough lighting to make the entire scene incredibly dynamic. Once in Arizona, we did the obvious shooting early in the mornings and late in the evenings. The remainder of the time during the days was spent scouting for new spots, including where my night setup would be. I had already researched the phase of the moon and the times that would work best for my shot. What we didn’t plan on was the multiple tanks of gas and hours of time it took to find the perfect spot. And wouldn’t you know it; the perfect spot ended up being no more than 5 minutes from town.

I set up my rig based on composition, and about 40 minutes after sundown the process began. While some photographers out there might envision one very long exposure, I approached it a bit differently, mostly because of the amount of light pollution from town. I took the first image, 40 minutes after sundown. To our eyes, it was almost dark but to the camera, there was still a lot of light to be exposed. This particular image is what illuminated the mountain ridges in the foreground. I then left my rig alone for around 2 hours, waiting for the moon to set and the night sky to get as dark as possible. This is when multiple 30 second exposures began which lasted 90 minutes. I left the spot with 181 images. I ended up using a subset of those images, stacked them in a way that created the single final image which you see above. As some may see, some images require a lot more time than others!

What was so exciting about this long and arduous process was hidden inside all this work was the adventure of a father and son. My dad was so enthralled to be a part of something that was merely a vision in my head more than 1700 miles away. We both came home with a diversity of imagery and adventures we will not soon forget.