Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The first Rattler of 2014

On January 26th, I found my first active (sort of) rattler of the year at the Santa Cruz River Path in Marana, Pima Co Arizona, USA.

When I was walking my 4 dogs, camera and binoculars around my neck, a lady informed me of a run-over little snake just ahead. I said: 'run-over on this path, what a pity'. She responded 'I'm only telling you so your dogs won't freak out.' When we found the little rattler it was stretched out and quite stiff, but seemed unharmed. He was obviously cold and trying to warm up on the sunny pavement. Only a little over one foot long he had already accumulated several rattle elements. By the way, it's a myth that one can tell the snake's age in years by the number of those.  After a little coaxing with a piece of straw the rattler woke up, buzzed indignantly, and moved out of the bike path. My 4 dogs were staring at him with too much interest and too little fear for my taste.

Check out how his winter weight-loss shows at his tail-end: his skin is throwing two big folds there.

When I posted the story on fb, someone remarked that this might be a Mojave Rattler, and I think that is possible. Going back through my earlier slides, I found that there were always a few among all the Diamondbacks that I photographed. It's not too difficult to tell them apart conclusively, but you have to take a closer look at them than I sometimes do. Here is a link to a blog written when I did.

On the same walk we saw two Northern Harriers, both gold-brown, a Red-tail, a Cooper's, the territorial Kestrel, a group of Lawrences's Goldfinches,  a Belted Kingfisher, several Abert's Towhees, some Mallards, and flying overhead, two clouds of thousands of birds. The first cloud consisted of sparrow sized birds and I couldn't tell what they were, the second was made up of Blackbirds, mostly yellow-headed, and grackles.A lonely Monarch was fluttering among the willows along the river.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Superstitian Mountain, a challenge

 watercolor painted from Apache Junction in 1995
A giant monolith, Superstition Mountain, rises to the height of 3,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor and dominates the eastern fringe of the Salt River Valley east of the metropolitan area of Phoenix.

When I lived in Scottsdale I loved hiking to Weavers Needle or up the Siphon Trail, but I always found the iconic shape of Superstition Mountain an intimidating and awkward topic for a painting.  Last week I tried again to meet that challenge. It was the third time I think. With more distance, I'm living in Tucson now, I approached it after acquiring  a little more background knowledge which always helps. But I think most importantly, I didn't try to sit out there in June to do a plein air study. I did that before: it's too hot for watercolors (and me). So I turned to my old slides for inspiration and did a studio painting.

Plein air study in June of 1997
From the web site of the Apache Junction Public Library I got a little more than the usual 'Lost Dutchman Mine Story'. To the Apaches the mountain was the home of the god of thunder. Having seen huge anvil clouds amassing around the mountain top before summer monsoons, I understand that notion.The Pima Indians called it Ka-Katak-Tami meaning "The Crooked Top Mountain." The Spaniards called it Sierra de espuma (Foam Montain? not quite clear to me). The Pimas had many fearful stories about it, which seems to have given rise to the name Superstion Mt. among white settlers. It appears under this name on military maps from 1870.

The website explains the geology of the strange shape that rises so abruptly out of the desert flats: 'This land of towering spires and deep canyons was formed by volcanic upheaval some 29 million years ago during the tertiary period of geologic time. Superstition Mountain was formed during a tectonic maelstrom which resulted in a massive caldera. The caldera was almost seven miles in diameter. After the lava cooled, magma pushed the center of the caldera upward forming a mass of igneous rock. The mass was slowly eroded for millions of years by running water and wind forming the mountain we see today. Superstition Mountain in the distant past was a thousand feet higher than it is today. Uplift, subsidence, resurgence and erosion have all played a role in shaping Superstition Mountain.' 

Large studio painting, watercolor, 2014
 Superstition Mountain close to Apache Junction is only the most well-known part of the Superstition Wilderness Area containing some 242 square miles or 159,780 acres of Arizona's rugged desert mountain terrain. Mountain peaks tower 6,000 feet above sea level and deep canyons dissect this vast wilderness region. The lower slopes are a great place to experience exuberant spring flower blooms in years with just the right pattern of winter rains.  Down there, the summer heat can be brutal. But I did see my very first Collared Lizard there, running on two legs like a miniature Tyrannosaurus rex. The higher, more remote areas support even Ponderosa Pines and are the home to Bighorn Sheep, Black Bears and Mountain Lions.   
This year I'll definitely be back for more exploration, hikes, and maybe paintings, who knows.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Dog stories: Bilbo

A couple of weeks ago we received a new tag for our second youngest dog, Bilbo. To our surprise he will be eight years old in October 2014 according to the paperwork. Can that be? We still call him and Frodo 'the puppies'.

In December of 2006 our three older dogs, Tana, Cody, and Laika, had firmly established their pack and territory when they found two backpacks at our fence with the State Trust Land. Someone had gone out of his way to hide them there in a the place far away from any road or trail. Anyway, I heard loud squealing and found that Cody was roughly grabbing one of two small puppies that had been left out there with a little food and water. That afternoon we were about to drive to Tempe to set up my art booth for a three day show. No time to take care of puppies. So we called the sheriff. But in the meantime the male puppy ran away, probably because Cody was so aggressive towards him. The sheriff arrived and sat in his car with the female pup, waiting for the arrival of animal care officer, meanwhile fell in love with the pup and convinced his girlfriend to adopt her. We all searched for her sibling until we had to give up because it got dark. At night while we were setting up my tent in Tempe the  temperature fell to a rare 19 Degree Fahrenheit. We couldn't stop thinking about the little guy out in the cold with only our resident coyotes for company. Randy drove back to Tucson in the morning. The pup had come back to his backpack!

When I came home three days later, the tiny dog was 'quarantined' in the old goat pen, living in what Randy called an igloo. To me the little structure of cardboard and blankets looked more like a miniature Native American sweat lodge. The pup was smaller than our cats, too short to drink from the cattle tank that the other dogs use, too short for the steps to the patio, too short to climb in Randy's lab, and short enough to walk underneath Tana, who had the shortest legs of the bunch so far.

But even though one of his legs still showed an ugly bump where Cody had grabbed him, the little guy was ready to join the pack!  And the three older ones did tolerate him now under Randy's supervision. Their tails were still raised tensely and Cody wrinkled his nose, but soon enough the new kid joined the fun.

In 2006 Cody and Laika were still quite young and very much into rough-housing and wrestling. But when the dust cleared the pup was usually still (or again) on his crooked legs with those over-sized paws ... Tolkien's description of a Hobbit came to mind, and so 'Bilbo Baggins' it was ... The 'Lord of the Ring' movies came out some time later, but people who ask for his name still don't understand the reference.... it must be my accent.
 Another question always comes up, but remains unanswered: what breed is he. When I take him with me to art shows, he is very much  admired. He really is a good looking dog: The floppy ears finally stood straight up and the bow-legs stretched. He stopped growing at about 40 pounds. The coat is a rich brown with a slight hint of a ridge on his back, and he carries his tail in a nice curve. He is muscular and elegantly proportioned. At four years old his voice broke, so he doesn't really bark anymore, but he can howl with the best and makes low growling pleasure noises when he roles and wiggles to scratch his back. He is crazy about cattle, but he is no workaholic herder. He doesn't resemble any breed I know, but he looks like the ultimate, classical dog. You can find his likeness in frescoes of Egyptian pyramids, in Roman sculptures, in depictions of Australian Dingos and in kids drawings.  

Randy calls him the motor of the pack who drives the others to run and play. Laika encouraged this from the beginning: when Bilbo was still tiny, she rolled over for him whenever he grabbed her throat, so they could play even though her wolf-legs were more than twice as long as his.

But his best friend was Tana: they spooned in her bed when it was cold, and every morning he thoroughly groomed her face. She had developed a wart on her forehead, a common skin problem in huskies. It was unsightly but harmless, so we hadn't done anything about it. After some time with her new groomer, the wart shrank and disappeared.

Bilbo didn't get to spend a lot of time as the spoiled youngest kid. In February of 2007 Frodo was born in a den in the desert, and three months later he joined the pack. For a short while, he looked up to Bilbo as his admired older brother, but very soon they became partners in crime: equals when it came to chewing shoes and pillows, un-potting lettuce plants, uprooting cacti, and terrorizing the cats.

We quickly learned to always keep one of them leashed during our walks, or we would have to wait at least half a day for them to come home. Together they would visit all our far-away neighbors, sit for hours with the cattle in the state land, drive squirrels into chollas, dig for lizards, flop down in puddles ... but they always eventually showed up together, happily panting and in time for dinner.

So Bilbo and Frodo became, and still are, simply 'the pups'.

The one thing that Bilbo gets to do more often than the other dogs, and without his alter ego Frodo, is booth-sitting at my art shows. He is easy going with other dogs and he likes all humans. He doesn't love everybody, as Cody might, but he is polite and entertaining and not too distracting from my art work, I hope.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Bug Forensics

I went to Madera Canyon today. With snow on Mt Wrighston and an overcast sky, not many insects were active.

Argoporis costipennis (?), Eleodes subnitens (?), Metoponium sp.
I found a few tenebrionid beetles under rocks and this Western Leaf-footed Bug under a loose patch of Sycamore bark.

Leptoglossus clypealis
 But I wasn't realyy in the canyon to look for bugs, I needed to get some soil from home for my 3 Strategus cessus grubs that seem to have a hard time deciding to pupate. I also had to find some rotting oak logs to feed 9 Strategus aloeus grubs that are huge by now and the Dynastes granti grubs that are finally beginning to hatch. But their story will be a different blog chapter.

Marginitermes hubbardi (Light Western Drywood Termite)
In our dry climate a lot of wood decomposes through dry rot. They are broken down by powder-post beetles, fungi and termites and there never is the moist brown wood pulp that my scarab offspring supposedly needs. But moisture does collect in stumps that remain upright. Soon the wood in the center of the stump softens and crumbles and additional organic material gets trapped. This is supposedly the cradle for many species of beetles.

Sycamore, still alive and standing with rotting stump hole
When I pushed against one of these stumps, this one was oak, it came off the ground easily. It was completely hollowed out. Only a pile of mulch remained where the center had been. Mixed with it were the shiny remains of several insects.

Sorting through the debris, I found parts of the elytra, the pronotum and some sternites of a buprestid beetle. There was just enough to deduce that it had been a big female of the blue footed Lampetis webbii. The pieces in the bottom left corner belong to this beetle.

Lampetis webbii
A single shiny black elytron with a light band ( upper right) indicated that a scarab in the genus Gymnetina had died here, too. I have seen Bill Warner and Pat Sullivan look for theses beetles in locations just like this because the beetles are known to deposit their eggs in stump hollows. I usually see the adults flying high out of reach and I still don't have any good images with natural background.

Gymnetina howdeni Warner and Ratcliffe
The third is a big head capsule, top left. At first I mistook it for the head of a beetle larva because of the huge biting mandibles and the simple small eyes. But the larvae of the big boring beetles don't have heads like this and the holes in front of the eyes clearly indicated that this insect had a pair of well developed antennae ...

Stenopelmatus sp., Jerusalem Cricket
  BugGuide and my well chosen group of facebook friends solved the mystery quickly: a Jerusalem Cricket was also buried here.

Now I can speculate what kind of drama happened here. Are the beetle parts remains of females that oviposited and then died of old age? Or were helpless young beetles killed while they were waiting in their pupal chambers for spring to arrive?  Was the Jerusalem cricket the culprit?