Journey inside Colossal Cave – Arizona’s dormant cave

Before entering Colossal Cave it was essential to educate ourselves and obtain some “cave basics”.  The facts and information we learned about limestone caves made our trip profoundly interesting!

Colossal Cave is an archaic KARST CAVE (meaning erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, caverns and underground streams).

Colossal Cave is a Karst cave
Karst region

Karst caves have 3 categories:  limestone, gypsum and quartzite.

Colossal Cave is limestone and considered dormant, “dry”.  A dry cave is without drips of water, streams or pools.  How was the cave formed?  Here is a short, simple answer:

  • Precipitation mixes with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and decaying organic material in the soil.
  • When Carbon dioxide is dissolved in water it forms carbonic acid. The carbonic acid begins to form holes in rocks, seeps into crevices and dissolves the rocks, especially limestone; but very slowly.  (Thousands of years)
    rock crevices and joints.
  • Cavities form and further sculpting can occur from water and chemical weathering.
  • After passing through limestone, the acid water contains a dis-solvable calcium carbonate.  As this solution de-gases through exposure to air by way of splashing, dripping or flowing, it loses carbon dioxide and deposits a solid mineral called calcite.
  • Calcite is the main mineral component in CAVE FORMATIONS, (speleothems).
Calcite, which gets its name from “chalix” the Greek word for lime, is a most amazing and yet, most common mineral. – See more at: http://www.galleries.com/Calcite#sthash.7JQ91AJ6.dpuf

The SPELEOTHEMS in Colossal Cave no longer grow. This cave formed by water depositing limestone that has NOW disappeared.  Close by, in the same mountain park, are Arkenstone and La Tetera Caves with active growing formations.

dormant speleothems in Colossal Cave
crystallized calcium carbonate formations

The most abundant mineral in limestone is calcite (calcium carbonate).  The majority of limestone formed on ANCIENT ocean floors.

Calcite is a main component used by echinoderms, like sea urchins, starfish, and sand dollars to make their spines and skeletons.  Calcium carbonate (calcite),  is found in the shells of marine organisms and truly is one of the MOST abundant minerals on earth!

In the marine environment, if the conditions are right, calcite is stable enough that it can cement together sediments and overtime make limestone.

calcite in the ocean water
limestone towers in the Atlantic ocean

On occasion another element may be present while calcite is being formed (ex: magnesium) and take the place of a calcium atom.

A less stable aragonite is a polymorph of calcite. They are both calcium carbonate but have different crystal shapes and symmetries.  The calcium, oxygen and carbon atoms in aragonite bond together differently creating a unique crystal structure.

Ok this is plenty of background information so now journey with us to Colossal Cave Mountain Park!

what to do in Tucson
The retaining wall and Visitor’s Center at Colossal Cave

The elevation of Colossal Cave Mountain Park is about 3,500 feet.  The temperature of the cave averages 70 degrees Fahrenheit.  No extra clothing is needed but feel free to carry water or a camera.

Colossal Cave in Vail, Arizona
walkway outside of Colossal Cave entrance

Frank Schmidt was monumental in the improvements and preservation of Colossal Cave by handing over his leases to the State of Arizona.  You can find information and historical photographs at La Posta Quemada Ranch Museum.

preserved Colossal Cave
Frank Schmidt statue at the cave

 

good picnics and kids activities at this Tucson park
bring the family and spend the day at this Arizona park

In 1879, Solomon Lick, the owner of the nearby hotel, was searching for stray cattle and discovered the entrance to this cave.

Arizona historical sites to see
professional guides take you through this historical landmark

Thousands of years ago Colossal Cave was used by Hohokam, Sobaipure and Apache Indians.  Travel down the road to the ranch museum for a fascinating display.

must see historical sites in Tucson, AZ
Colossal Cave has 363 steps

Most crystals are found in areas, like caves, because they take thousands of years to grow.  The growth continues until the saturation is stopped or the cave dries out.  Most crystals in a cave are calcite or aragonite.

visotors must see in Tucson, Arizona
calcite in the cave

Your tour guide will tell the story of the bandits who hid out in Colossal Cave.  These outlaws even played cards in the Colossal Cave Living Room. Legend has it that the gold from the train robbers is still inside the cave!

Stay with the tour group.  Our guide really wasn’t kidding when she said the group might go left and you’ll go right and be lost for hours in Colossal Cave.

Tectonic activity is noticeable.  Your guide will point out a fault in the earth’s crust.

Colossal Cave spelunking
Fault lines inside the cave

Cave’s formations, speleothems, are created by the same water that dissolved the calcite in the limestone —- then deposited the calcite in other areas of the cave.

historical caves in Arizona
stalagmites and stalactites in Colossal Cave

Stalactites – “c” for ceiling – hang from the top of caves like icicles

stalagmites and stalactites
cave formations with labels

Stalagmites – “g” for ground – emerge from the ground like a traffic cone

Because Colossal Cave is DRY;  the appearance of these speleothems is different than living caves.

Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
Layers of calcite build up into fluted curtains.
 cave
our wonderful tour guide at Colossal Cave
FDR's Conservation Corp
Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt

In the 1930’s, a Civilian Conservation Corps designated by President Roosevelt worked tirelessly building the retaining wall outside and improving the inside of Colossal Cave.

The CCC, Civilian Conservation Corps, constructed the stairs, bridges and handrails.

Colossal Cave repairs and protection
Civilian Conservation Corps, CCC, helping Colossal Cave

While visiting this cave do adventure down the road to La Posta Quemada Ranch.

what to do in Tucson, Arizona
visit the historical Ranch at Colossal Cave Park

Colossal Cave and the historic La Posta Quemada Ranch are listed on the National Historic Register.  When you visit be sure to enjoy a Desert Spoon Burger!

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What insect has one of the most PAINFUL stings? – meet the Tarantula Hawk wasp

Tarantula hawks, aka – pepsis wasps, are impressive with bright orange wings on a large velvety black body.  They feed on nectar from flowers but are most famous for their battles with tarantulas !!  The fearless tarantula hawk female that is ready to reproduce searches for a tarantula burrow…

tarantula hawk wasp fights spider
huge black wasp with orange wings

This tenacious pepsis wasp will tap and strum the web at the burrow entrance trying to coax the tarantula out.  If the tarantula responds, a long battle will begin!

Most often the tarantula hawk wins by delivering a paralyzing sting to the tarantula. The paralyzed tarantula is dragged to a pre-dug burrow and dropped in by the large female wasp.

black bug with orange wings fights tarantulas
male Tarantula Hawk aka pepsis wasp with orange wings

The tarantula hawk then lays a single egg on the paralyzed tarantula and leaves. The wasp larva will hatch and feed on the tarantula spider.  After completing its metamorphosis, in about 3 weeks, the adult pepsis wasp will then dig its way out of the underground burrow and start its life cycle anew.

tarantula hawk black wasp orange wings
large black bug that fight tarantulas are female pepsis wasps

Tarantula Hawks, have the second most painful sting of any insect.   Just how painful is the sting of the Tarantula Hawk?  The Schmidt Sting Pain Index rates insect stings from 1-4.  Africanized bees and hornets register 2.  Bullent Ants and Pepsis wasps register 4 !!

Only the female Tarantula Hawk stings because the stinger is derived from the ovipositor, the egg-laying organ.

huge wasp orange wings
pepsis wasp aka Tarantula Hawk

In the deserts of the southwestern US two species of Tarantula Hawks are common, pepsis formosa and pepsis thisbe.  The most common in Arizona is pepsis formosa wasp with the orange wings.

Hundreds of Tarantula Hawk Wasp species exist worldwide.  The color of the wings may very from species but the sting of the this killer wasp is described as blinding, fierce, and shockingly electric.  Simply unbearable pain, lasting 3 minutes.  A long 3 minutes!  Not lethal to humans unless you are allergic to pepsis wasps.

tarantula hawks huge bug with orange wings
pepsis black wasp with orange wings eats pollen

How to tell the difference between the male and female pepsis wasp?

  • The antennae of the male tarantula hawk is tightly curved while the FEMALE wasp is only SLIGHTLY curved.
giant wasp insect
female tarantula hawk wasp
  • Tarantula Hawk females grow larger than the males, and can reach up to 3 inches in length.

This youtube video is a battle between the Tarantula Hawk and Tarantula Spider.

Both female and male pepsis wasps are nectarivorous.  The male does not hunt but fills himself with the nectar of plants while watching for female tarantula hawks that are ready to reproduce.

Other than Roadrunners and Bullfrogs, most predators avoid the Tarantula Hawk wasp.

Little TIDBIT:  The tarantula hawk wasp is the state insect of New Mexico 

Mourning Dove Eggs – How long for dove eggs to hatch?

mourning dove nest
Mourning Dove eggs!

How long does it take for mourning dove eggs to hatch?  The dove eggs will be incubated for 14-15 days; by both the male and the female doves. It takes about the same time for the young doves to leave the nest. The baby doves are fed regurgitated pigeon milk by both parents, and they grow and develop rapidly.

tiny baby birds in nest
dove eggs hatched, baby doves

Mourning Dove breeding season is April – July although some may breed as late as October.  Even in southern Arizona, nesting is essentially over by mid-August, and some of the early hatched Dove juveniles have already migrated by late July.

birds in Arizona
Mourning Doves, Turtle Doves

By the first week of September, the migration of most nesting populations is usually underway;  the juvenile birds typically leaving before the adults.

Beginning as early as March, these birds build a loose nest of twigs, grass, weeds and pine needles. The male dove carries twigs to the female dove who then weaves a flimsy nest of grass stems and twigs to lay her eggs.

mourning dove baby in nest
baby doves are called squabs

Mourning Doves, commonly called Turtle Doves, are one of the most adaptable, widespread North American birds. It is also the leading game bird for sport and meat. Doves are strong fliers and can reach speeds of 55 mph (88 km/h).

These doves occur from the lowest elevations along the Colorado River upward through forests of ponderosa pines to 8,500 feet. Their staple foods throughout the year are primarily small seeds and cultivated grains. In the Sonoran Desert the woeful call of breeding males can be heard as early as February, and pairs have been known to attempt as many as seven nestings in a single season.

baby doves left in the nest
mourning dove squabs 11 days old

During the blooming season of the Saguaro cacti it is typical to see White-winged doves (pictured below) eating the fruits of the giant Saguaro Cactus.

white wing
white winged dove on a saguaro cactus

Although still ranked as one of Arizona’s two most important game birds, dove hunting has since fallen off due to urban expansion, changing farm practices, and more restrictive season arrangements.

male mourning dove nest
male mourning dove caring for its young

Arizona Game and Fish Department, http://www.azgfd.gov/h_f/hunt-info/dove/dove.shtml – When it comes to the early dove season, the hot action will typically be near agricultural areas with grain type crops growing or recently cut. While Arizona is well known for its cotton, the state also produces corn, sorghum, melons, barley, and even wheat – all great dove attractants.  Dove hunting is a very popular tradition, and Arizona has more than 30,000 participate each year.

Mourning Doves are building their nest

It is spring and the male mourning dove labors hard to set up his territory.   When this male bird is ready to mate, he circles in a courtship flight and chases other doves from the area he desires to nest.

To attract a female mourning dove, this determined handsome bird perches in an open area and sings a “passionate” coo sound that is louder than his usual call.

difference of male and female doves
Male Mourning Dove

The Coooo bird call is mostly voiced by the male mourning dove and not the female. Once he has charmed a mate, the doves pair for life.

To hear the dove’s coooOOO sound, click on the short YouTube video below:

Doves mate primarily from spring to fall but are able to mate year round and produce several clutches of young.  These love birds are tranquil and elegant. 
doves birds mate
Mourning Doves seem to be the true love birds
  **Unfortunately, the Mourning Dove Nest can hardly be called a “nest” – generally these beautiful birds just throw a few twigs somewhere and begin setting up their flimsy nest.
tan bird with spots
dove nest on our porch

The nest is constructed over the course of 2-4 days with the male and female mourning doves working together.

bird nest with 2 eggs
mourning dove nest with 2 white eggs

With a hanging basket on our porch, it didn’t take long before a couple of mourning doves took up residence.  AKA Turtle Doves have been known to reuse the same nest over and over. Commonly raising 2 – 3 broods per season.  Researchers found that the basics for constructing the bird nest are mainly instinctive, but birds can improve their skills with experience.

flimsy bird nest with twigs and white eggs
when do the 2 dove eggs hatch?

So, you spotted a dove’s nest with two milky white eggs.  When will the dove eggs hatch?  The incubation period for Mourning Dove eggs is 14-15 days. Then another 2 weeks for the squabs to leave the nest.

One white egg is laid in the evening, and the female dove lays the second egg in the morning.

dove bird nest two eggs
Mourning Dove’s Nest with 2 white eggs

The day shift is handled by the male dove and the female incubate during the night shift.  If you do not see the doves change shifts, it can seem that the same dove has been on the nest the entire time. 

***In our experience, we have seen the male and female doves change places around sunrise and sunset.

The dove chick, “hatchling”, squab pictured below is one day old.  Both eyes on the newborn bird are closed.

one day old baby bird
a newborn baby dove is called a squab
two baby birds in a nest
2 to 3 day old dove newborn

Males and female doves work together to feed their newborns crop milk or “pigeon milk” for the first few days of their life. The dove’s Crop Milk is rich in fat and protein.  Adult mourning doves secrete the milk and regurgitate it to their little ones.

The dove parent opens its mouth wide permitting the nestling to stick its head inside to feed on the nutritious food.

mourning dove in the nest
The Male dove daddy caring for his squab

How do you tell if the male or female dove is in the nest?

With a trained eye you will be able to tell the difference.  Male Mourning Doves have a bluish crown and nape, and a rose wash to the throat and breast.  The crown and nape of the female dove is grayish brown, and the throat and breast has a brown or tan wash.

dove nest with 3 birds
female mourning dove with her squabs
Mourning Dove Nestlings will fledge in about 12-14 days. The bird parents continue to care for the dove fledglings for about another 16-20 days.

**Please NOTE:   Doves are more flighty than other birds and may abandon the eggs or nest if you bother them too much.

Funnel Web Spiders are common in Arizona and the US

Funnel web spiders are known for their “tunnel looking, funnel shaped webs.   There are over 500 species of funnel web spiders belonging to the Agelenidae family.  This esoteric arachnid is very common in the United States and Canada.   These spiders are medium size with the females being larger than the males which is called sexual dimorphism.   Only the body length is measured when determining the size of a spider.

spider web that looks like a tunnel
Brown Funnel Web Spider

This distinctive tunnel shaped web is constructed close to the ground in the grass or low vegetation.  The web is not sticky; instead the strands slow down prey that walk on it and catches their feet as they fall through. The spider can walk on top of it and sprint out of her funnel to grab and bite.  Fun fact These arachnids are shy and come out at night to do repairs and work on their webs.  

funnel spider web
the web that looks like a tunnel

Funnel web spiders hide in their funnel.  The web is open at both ends, so this spider can run away if attacked.  We have several species of aloe plants which the funnel web spiders seem to keep occupied.  It is a fact that these arachnids prefer moist environments.  Once sexually mature, the males spend the rest of their life wandering in search of a mate.  Shortly after mating a few times, the male often dies.

Funnel Web Spider
Funnel Web Spider carrying a large egg sac

These female spiders build their tunnel shaped web and stay with it their entire life.  She spends most of her time capturing and eating prey; while building up her strength to mate and lay eggs.   This female arachnid does not search for mates, but rather, waits for the males to wander by and find her.

brown spiders in the garden grass
round egg sac attached to a female funnel web spider

Spiderlings that hatch out of eggs look like tiny adults.  They have to shed their skin (molt) in order to grow.  Spiders have exoskeletons on the outside of their body.

funnel web brown spider
spider web that looks like a tunnel

The broad funnel shaped web, looks like a tunnel ( see photo above ) and is made by the spider to connect to their burrow.  When an insect enters the web the spider feels the vibrations and rushes out from the narrow end to bite its prey and inject it with venom.

PLEASE NOTE:

The Arizona funnel web spiders are NOT the same as the deadly Australian Funnel-web spiders, Atrax robustus, and are NOT dangerous to humans.

If you were bitten by several funnel web spiders the venom could make you ill and you should see a doctor.

brown spider with long legs
Medium sized brown funnel web spider

Funnel web spiders have been mistaken for Wolf spiders.  When identifying a wolf spider remember wolf spiders DO NOT spin webs.  Wolf spiders are larger.

desert spiders long legs
large gray male wolf spider

I am not crazy about spiders and they make the hair on my arms stand up but spiders are very important to the ecosystem and health of our planet.

Fun description of a tenacious Bird of Prey…. the Cooper’s Hawk !!

Cooper’s Hawks are magnificent and ominous as they perch in a hidden location and watch for prey.  Occasionally, we see this raptor’s thick legs with large yellow talons clasped to a branch or fence.  The Cooper’s Hawk belongs to the genus Accipiter and is about the same size as a crow.

hawk with yellow eyes
Young Cooper’s Hawk with yellow eyes

In 1828, this hawk species was named after William Cooper, a New York scientist.  The scientific name for hawks is Falconidae.  All hawks are classified as birds of prey and commonly called raptors.  The term raptor means to take by force or to seize.

bird of prey hawk
Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk has yellow eyes

First year juvenile Cooper’s Hawks have yellow eyes and uniformly brown backs and brown vertical stripes on their breasts as pictured above.  These determined raptors are medium sized birds of prey that hunt by sudden dashes from a concealed perch.

hawk bird of prey
Adult Cooper’s Hawk with red eyes

Note the tail of the Cooper’s Hawk;  a rounded, long tail crossed by several dark lines with a distinct white band on the tip.

bird of prey mantling
bird of prey mantling

The above photo shows a juvenile Cooper’s mantling.  What is mantling?   Mantling is when birds of prey hunch their shoulders and spread their wings over a kill to keep it hidden from other predators.

hawk bird with red eyes
Cooper’s Hawk talons – claws

Check out those claws, talons!  There are four, sharp talons on each of the hawk’s feet.  How strong are Cooper’s Hawks talons?  The PSI (pounds per square inch) is 150-200 pounds.  An average healthy man has a PSI of 110.  According to the University of Michigan, the larger the bird the stronger the talons.  Raptor’s talons puncture their prey hard; usually stabbing a vital organ causing the animal’s rapid death.

The talons are opened by leg muscles and will automatically close when the hawk impacts an object; example…. animal or perch.  It is a reflex!

hawk bird with red eyes
Adult Cooper’s Hawk

This hawk eats mostly birds, but will also capture mammals including squirrels and rabbits.  The beak of a raptor bird is sharp and resembles the action of scissors.

birds with red eyes
red orange eyes of Adult Cooper’s Hawk

The older adult Cooper’s Hawks have tan barring on the breast, dark red-orange eyes and a dark cap on the head, like a flat top.

These raptors have excellent vision that contain 5 times the sensory cells per millimeter of the retina than us humans. How do these birds see?  Hawks refract certain wavelengths of light with the colored oils in their eyes.

bird of prey in arizona
Mature Cooper’s Hawk with Red eyes

Certain colors are intensified for the hawk at the expense of others.  The light filtration of the hawk’s eyes make the browns and grays of typical prey items stand out against the filtered greens.

Cooper’s Hawks build their nest in trees that average 25-50 feet high.  Southern Arizona contains several mountain ranges that host large areas of undisturbed forest which these raptors prefer.

 

The best time to see the Saguaro cactus bloom

The saguaro, Carnegiea gigantea, is the largest cactus in the United States and native to Arizona. In 1931 the opulent white blossom of the Saguaro Cactus was designated as Arizona’s state flower. The best time of year to see these cactus bloom is April through June.

flower buds on desert cactus
large white flowers on the saguaro cactus

The Saguaro cacti mainly grow in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.  When a Saguaro cactus reaches 35 years of age it begins to produce blossoms.  Amassed near the ends of the branches, the green buds bloom into milky-white flowers. The Saguaro flower blooms after sunset and last only one day.

Arizona state flower
Saguaro Cactus Blossom

At the top of the flower tube is a compact group of yellow stamens. The saguaro cactus has more stamen on its flower than any other cactus.  If conditions have been favorable for the Saguaro you could see hundreds of blossoms on a cactus.

Arizona state flower
yellow stamen inside the Saguaro Cactus flower

Pollinators like birds, insects, and bats are attracted to the nectar that collects at the bottom of the flower’s 4 inch tube.  A Saguaro blossom can only be fertilized by cross-pollination.

Tucson Arizona saguaro blossom
yellow stamen inside the creamy white Saguaro flower

Only a few Saguaro flowers bloom each night and close by late morning; thus, giving a greater opportunity for pollination.

Arizona state flowers
white cactus flower attracts birds

This elegant desert pageant occurs for about 2 months. From living in this area, we have to say it is hard to decide the exact dates but end of April to mid June would be notable.

 Gila woodpecker inside the saguaro flower

bird pollinating the Saguaro cactus blossom

pollinated Saguaro Cactus red fruit
Red fruit of the Saguaro Cactus

Pollinated flowers form a vivid red fruit filled with thousands of black seeds.  The fruit is eaten and digested through which its dispersed throughout the desert.

Coyotes in Arizona – Desert photos

Coyotes have learned to survive and even thrive in our human disturbed environments. In the picture below is a desert coyote looking through our patio window.  Although he appreciates the delicious smells of dinner preparation, this coyote will have to hunt for his own meal in the Arizona desert.

wild coyote animal in tucson, Arizona
coyote’s large pointed ears

In Native American tales of the coyote, this animal is either respected for its intelligence or the coyote is frowned upon for being cunning and manipulative.  We carry admiration for this wild member of the canine family.  Coyotes have never given us problems except overturned trash cans on a few occasions.

best desert coyote face photo
Arizona Coyote with white and tan fur

 

wild coyote animal in Phoenix Tucson Arizona
the desert coyote’s nose, face and eyes

The size of the coyote home range varies from one family to another. Home areas are larger in late winter during the coyote mating season, and smaller in the spring when food is plentiful and the mated coyote pairs are raising pups.

Coyote animals in the US and Mexico
coyote muzzle, teeth and ears

Look closely in the photo above and you can see 2 coyotes.  Male and female coyotes mate for life.

Breeding season for coyotes is January through April.   Gestation is approximately 60-63 days.  Two months after mating, the female gives birth to 1-12 coyote pups.

The video below is filled with adorable coyote pups!

Both parents hunt for food and feed the young by regurgitating their meals. The male coyote takes the lead hunting role when the pups are newborns, obtaining enough food for both his mate and offspring.

The face of a Coyote in Phoenix Tucson Arizona
Coyote’s long nose – muzzle

Coyotes have large triangular ears and a long, narrow muzzle.  They have an extremely well-developed sense of smell!  The coyote has intense yellow eyes.   As beautiful as this wild animal is; we also know how dangerous and how big the coyote’s teeth are!

Tucson Arizona Desert Coyote animal
the coyote bushy tail and thick winter fur

Since the dog, coyote and wolf are from the same family, Canidae, there is similar  resemblance. Coyotes have a bushy tail which is usually tipped in black and is carried down when the animal moves.    One way to tell the coyote apart from its cousin the wolf; is to watch its tail when it runs. Coyotes run with their tail down and wolves run with their tail straight out.

For more coyote facts and information see this article:  Arizona Desert Prairie Wolf

 

 

Arizona Coyotes – Prairie Wolf desert animals

The most famous desert animal is the coyote.  One could even consider the coyote as a symbol of the West.  Native American legends call the coyote the WISE ONE. Our relatives live in a natural area of the Sonoran Desert with a first hand view of coyote behaviors.

Sometimes called the Prairie Wolf, coyotes are a species of canine found throughout North America from eastern Alaska to New England and south into Mexico and Panama.

  • Family: Canidae – Order: Carnivora – Species: Canis latrans
coyote in Tucson Arizona
coyote in the desert during summer

With their narrow face and big ears a coyote can be mistaken for a medium sized dog. The coyote’s fur color is light brown to grayish.  They have a long, bushy tail with a black tip.  Desert coyotes only weigh 15 to 25 pounds with long slender legs and small feet.  You will NEVER see a fat coyote in the wild.

coyote in arizona desert
coyote in the Arizona Desert

The picture above was taken while we stood in the backyard.  Most evenings, as the sun begins to set the coyotes start the hunt for food.  No matter how well we try to hide they know we are there.

The coyote is intelligent and has keen senses that adapt it for survival.  They have excellent vision, acute hearing, and an extremely sensitive nose!

The coyote’s elongated nose, muzzle, has a highly developed sense of smell to detect prey, other coyotes and us humans.

According to Tennessee Wildlife Resources  The coyote’s eyesight is six times greater than humans.  The sense of smell of the coyote is 23 times better than a human.

Coyote Phoenix Tucson Arizona
Coyote’s tan fur and bushy tail

Coyotes typically sing a wake up song around dusk as they prepare for a hunt.  They make unique sounds to communicate with their family members.

To hear the sounds of a coyote try here: Arizona Desert Museum Coyote sounds

Coyotes adjust their hunting style to what foods are available. When they hunt small prey alone, they usually stalk it and then pounce. If the prey is larger like a deer, coyote will often hunt in small packs and work together to kill the prey.

coyote in the Tucson desert
Arizona Coyote

Coyotes are omnivores, which means they will eat or try to eat just about anything. In the Sonoran Desert, coyotes vary their diet with the seasons. Cactus fruit, mesquite beans, flowers, insects, rodents, lizards, rabbits, birds, and snakes make up some of their dietary choices.

Secure your garbage cans because coyotes will knock them over. Coyotes also walk along the tops of walls around homes in search of unattended dogs and cats to eat.  Coyotes have lured free-roaming dogs away from their owners to attack them.  They are cunning.

Coyote in our Arizona yard
Coyote in our Arizona yard

The most common enemy that coyotes face is disease. Bears, wolves and mountain lions will also prey upon coyotes.  A pack of coyotes is their strength and should never be underestimated.  How fast can a coyote run?  They run up to 30 mph.

coyote animal face, eyes in Saguaro National Park
Eyes of the Arizona Prairie Wolf, Coyote species

Coyotes have a central den site which is used for rearing the pups and sleeping. They will scent mark the area around the den and defend it from other coyotes. The breeding season is February to March with young born in April and May. Coyotes only use dens for whelping pups.

In the wild, coyotes live between 10-14 years. In captivity coyotes are known to live much longer, as many as 20 years.

Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry. – Navajo Proverb

Many Native American tribes consider the coyote to be their creator. Some tribes also regard Coyote as teacher and magician. Coyote is often associated with the “trickster.” In all of its roles, Coyote is a benevolent figure, intentionally or otherwise helping us to restore balance and order.

Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion – Largest scorpion in North America

We found several bark scorpions in our Arizona yard but this is the first time we found a Giant Desert Hairy ScorpionHadrurus arizonensis.  This giant scorpion is the largest scorpion in the United States.

Scorpions are related to spiders, ticks, mites, etc… They are venomous arthropods in the class Arachnida.   Scorpions have over 1,300 species throughout the world.  They have four pairs of legs and pedipalps with plier-like pincers on the end.

giant desert hairy scorpion
Hadrurus arizonensis, Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion

Three species of scorpions are commonly found in the Arizona Desert:

  1. Small Bark Scorpion, Centruroides exilicauda
  2. Striped Tail or Devil’s Scorpion, Vaejovis spinigerus
  3. Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion, Hadrurus arizonensis

Arizona is home to more than 30 species of scorpions but the only truly “life threatening” one is the small Bark Scorpion.  Unlike the other species, Bark Scorpions like to climb.

Giant Arizona Scorpion
the largest scorpion in the US

Scorpions have mouthparts called chelicerae that enable it to rip and tear its prey while feeding.  They have a sensitive antennae along with the pincer-like pedipalps that are used to hold the prey while inflicting venom or eating.  The Scorpion’s body has two main parts; the cephalothorax and the abdomen.

Hadrurus arizonensis
the largest scorpion in North America, Hadrurus arizonensis

According to the book Scorpions: A Complete Pet Owner’s Manual, in order to measure a scorpion; start from the tip of the telson, stinger, to the prosoma, head.  Our Arizona scorpion was just over 5 inches!  Giant Hairy Scorpions have a dark back.

scorpion tail stinger
Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion Tail, metasoma

The metasoma (tail) of the scorpion is actually an extension of the abdomen. It consists of five segments, each one longer than the last; at the tip is the telson (stinger).

All Scorpions are nocturnal and leave their shelters at night in search for prey.  A Giant Hairy Scorpion burrows deep in the desert soil.  This large scorpion follows the moisture level in the soil and can burrow as far as 8 feet below the surface!

home / nest of the scorpion
Scorpion burrow opening

Scorpion burrows are commonly oval or crescent-shaped.

large Arizona Scorpion
Giant Desert Hairy Scorpion in Arizona

Although this scorpion is very large, the sting is somewhat mild and feels similar to a bee sting.  The sting is not life threatening.  If by some chance you experience an allergic reaction to a Giant Hairy Scorpion sting,  seek medical attention immediately.

Scorpions give birth to live young during the summer months and the babies safely ride on mom until their first molt, approximately 2-3 weeks.

If you really want to observe these ancient nocturnal arachnids, take a black light to the desert on a moonless, warm night.   In the dark you will be able to see scorpions dig burrows, capture prey and possibly witness a unique mating ritual.

How do we try to keep our home scorpion free?  By keeping our windows and doors closed!  When opening a door in the desert, make it a habit to look at the bottom.  It is known that scorpions have poor eyesight and tend to walk along walls.  Glue boards placed by doors and windows are good ways to catch scorpions inside the home.  Bark Scorpions are smaller and more common in homes.  Bark Scorpion stings can be fatal so we have a contract with Truly Nolen that helps to keep our home safe. 

Migrating birds fly off course – Brown Pelicans in the desert?

We were privileged to document the noble Brown Pelican landing at Lakeside Park in Tucson. This impressive sea-bird extended its wings (almost 8′ wingspan) to brake before alighting on the water.

migrating birds in arizona
brown pelican in Tucson Arizona

Various migratory birds wind up off course due to bad weather and end up in Arizona lakes.

birds off course in arizona
pair of pelicans at Lakeside Park

Brown Pelicans have an extremely long bill with a large pouch attached on the lower half.  The pelicans pouch is used to catch fish.

endangered birds in arizona
Brown Pelicans have a long bill
Lakeside Park migratory birds
Pelicans in the Sonoran Desert

According to the LA Times, these odd looking large Brown Pelicans were nearly driven to extinction because of abuse from hunters and fishermen.

Hunters coveted its plumage and commercial fishermen believed pelicans were gobbling too many fish. These sea birds were also hurt by the effects of a chemical pesticide, DDT.  It is no wonder brown pelicans were placed on the federal endangered species list.

Louisiana’s state bird is the Brown Pelican.  This bird started to make a recovery, only to suffer again from the coastal damage incurred from the oil spills.

Louisiana state bird pelican
Brown Pelicans damaged by the oil spill

During the oil spill in 2010, this whole area was covered with oil, said P.J. Hahn, a coastal zone director in Louisiana.  The brown pelican was particularly at risk because it dives beneath the water’s surface to forage.

Dedicated teams worked diligently to save the brown pelicans after the massive oil spill.

brown pelican bird
Volunteers helping the Brown Pelican during an oil spill

(above photo courtesy of http://www.latimes.com/  Los Angeles Times)

Are Brown Pelicans, still on the endangered species list?

The Brown Pelican finally came off the endangered species list in 2009.   Now, there is a growing fear history could repeat itself because there is not enough habitat for the birds to nest.

migratory birds in the desert
pair of brown pelicans in Arizona

One of the most prominent characteristics to observe for this large pelican, also called the California Brown Pelican, is the way it forages for food.  It dives beneath the water surface.  Pelicans simply catch the fish in their pouch, drain the water out and swallow the fish immediately.

pelicans in the desert
Brown Pelican plunge for fish
sea birds in arizona
Large pouch of the Brown Pelican bird

Watching the Pelicans effortlessly fly, gallantly dive, and methodically fish was one of the highlights of our year!

These Sea Birds can facilely glide low over the water; so low their wingtips often brush the waves – with occasional slow, powerful wing beats to gain speed.

Brown pelicans in the desert
Lakeside Park migrating birds – pelicans

Brown Pelican birds are the only pelican to plunge dive to catch their prey, other species of pelicans fish from the surface of the water.

wing span of brown pelican bird
Brown Pelican’s wing span can reach 7 feet

They can be seen performing a surface plunge from as high as 20 meters to catch their prey!

pelican birds in tucson phoenix
Brown Pelican dives to collect fish

Click below to watch a short video of Brown Pelicans diving for fish:

In flight, the Brown Pelicans hold their head back on their shoulders and rest their bill on their folded neck.

pelicans in tucson lakes - lakeside
Brown Pelican amazing flight and wing span

Pairs of Brown Pelicans are monogamous for a single season but the pair bond extends only to the nesting area; away from the nest, mates are independent.

Pelicans blown off course in Tucson
Brown Pelicans in Arizona

From the fossil record, it is known that pelicans have been around for over 40 million years.  Brown Pelicans live on both coasts in the United States.

Lakeside Park pelican heron egret Arizona
Brown Pelican, Great Blue Heron, Great White Egret

Nesting and roosting birds are very sensitive to human disturbance, load noises from boats etc…  Nest disturbance is the biggest reason for a bird to abandon its nest. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to tamper with, or destroy active nests of native wild birds. If there are eggs or babies – you cannot touch the nest or harass the birds in any way.

Brown Pelicans reach sexual maturity at 3-5 years of age.  Adult Brown Pelicans have few natural predators.

migrating birds in Arizona
Great Blue Heron and Brown Pelican at Lakeside Park

Quick Brown Pelican Facts:

  • Young pelicans feed by sticking their bills into their parents’ throats
  • Pelicans build large nest structures on the ground, in trees, or on vegetation
  • The nesting season can extend from January through October
  • Brown pelicans normally lay three eggs and the adults share incubation duties
  • They can dive from 60 feet in the air
  • Brown pelicans can live up to 40 years old
  • A pelican’s throat pouch can hold over 2 gallons of water

If you see Brown Pelicans in Arizona PLEASE Call AZ Game and Fish at 520-290-9453 and let them know.

Encountering a Gila Monster or Mexican Beaded Lizard – lizards protected by law

The exotic color pattern of the gila monster (pronounced – Hee la) is black with pinkish or yellow spots and bands.  Its unusual skin is beaded in appearance. Native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona and Mexico, the Gila Monster is a species of venomous lizards.  This lizard is named for the Gila River in Arizona where they used to be abundant.

pink and black stripes marks fat lizard
Gila Monster desert lizard

Towards late summer, gila monsters become active after thunderstorms. Although this lizard is venomous, it moves very slow and represents very little threat to us humans.  People often kill gila monsters due to fears; even though it is protected under Arizona state law.

If you encounter a Gila monster remain calm. This lizard will move on if left alone.  Alert anyone in the vicinity and keep your pets away.  For questions or advice call your Game and Fish Department.

 arizona slow lizard gila monster
pink and black lizard – gila monster

Do not worry or have fears; the Gila monster tries hard to avoid humans and other large animals. To warn off potential predators, gila monster lizards will open their mouth very wide and hiss.

poisonous lizards venomous
gila monsters open mouth and hiss as a warning

What to do if you are bitten by a gila monster?  —  A Gila monster bite is painful to humans but rarely causes death. The biggest problem you will have is trying to get the lizard to release its grip!  The bite is strong,  you may need to fully submerge the biting lizard in water to break free from the bite.  If there is no water, you can use a stick to pry the gila monster’s jaw open. Be careful after you have dislodged it.

black striped large lizards - arizona
slow moving gila monster lizard

Remain calm if bitten and get to a medical facility immediately.  Remove all jewelry from the bitten limb and keep it below heart level.  DO NOT use a constriction bandage or a tourniquet on a gila monster bite.

picture of beaded gila monster
gila monster lizard face

The Gila monster eats primarily reptile eggs, frogs, insects and worms – feeding only five to ten times a year in the wild. They have poor eyesight but an extremely acute sense of smell which they use to locate prey. The sense of smell of the gila monster is so keen that it can accurately follow a trail made by a rolling egg.

They live in burrows, thickets, and under rocks with ready access to moisture.  Gila Monsters are solitary and live in desert and semidesert areas.  They are inactive much of the time.  When spring arrives, gila monsters begin to hunt again. During the summer the lizards only come out in the evening.

lizard looks like a dragon
gila monster beaded skin lizard

Breeding season for Gila monsters is usually early summer. The female digs a hole, lays a clutch of oval-shaped eggs. Four months later, the baby Gila monsters break out of their eggs and crawl to the surface. The Gila monster may live up to 20 years in the wild, or 30 in captivity. This heavy, slow-moving gila monster, is the only venomous lizard native to the United States and one of only two known species of venomous lizards in the world, the other being its close relative, the Mexican Beaded Lizard.

mexican beaded lizard
mexican beaded lizard

The beaded lizard is larger (2-3 feet in length) than the Gila monster (up to 2 feet in length);  but has duller coloration with black and yellowish bands.  The Mexican beaded lizard’s venom contains enzymes used in manufacturing drugs to treat diabetes. Once again people kill these lizards because of fears and superstitions.  The beaded lizard is protected by Mexican law and it dwells within the range of several protected areas.

protected desert lizard species
Mexican Beaded Lizard

In 1952, the Gila monster, Heloderma suspectum, became the first venomous animal in North America to be given legal protection;  it is illegal to “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect the Gila Monster.  Gila monsters are listed as Near Threatened. 

Protect your yard from rattlesnakes – tips for snake proofing

Safeguarding against Rattlesnakes is not easily done; but protective measures can be completed.  Several of the following steps not only divert venomous but also non-venomous snakes.

deadly snakes in tucson phoenix
dangerous rattlesnake

1)  A rattlesnake proof fence is not cheap but it is one of the best ways to keep snakes out!  If you compare it to the cost of emergency medical bills, a snake proof fence is well worth the investment.

protecting against rattlesnakes
snake proofing using 1/4″ construction wire

The experts recommend your fence be at least 3 feet tall with the bottom section of the fence buried 4 inches or more.  Use no more than 1/4″ x 1/4″ construction cloth or you can choose a smooth, solid material.  Rattlesnakes are not able to climb on smooth surfaces.

More steps to snake proof your yard:

2)  Snakes can’t hide well in a short lawn.  Mow your lawns and fields around your home.

snake repellant sprinkle granules
products to keep snakes away

3)  Remove the debris and piles that Rattlesnakes like to call home, such as: wood piles, trimmings and leaves.  Always be cautious and on the lookout for snakes while you are cleaning the area.

4)  Keep your garbage cans covered.  Pick up fruit off the ground to help control the rodents in your yard.  Birdseed also attracts small critters that rattlesnakes prey on.

rattlesnake proof yard
1/2″ construction cloth lets rattlesnakes in

5)  Block holes and spaces around the foundation, walls, fence, steps, and under your house where snakes could hide.

use to keep garden safe from snakes
1/4″ construction cloth to snake proof yard

6)  Keep the area against your fence clear of anything a rattlesnake may use to crawl over.

Some snakes are beneficial to have around your yard.  Gopher snakes are very protective of their territory and will deter rattlesnakes from staying around.

snake descriptions chart
difference between gopher snake and rattlesnake

Equipped with enzymes to breakdown the poison from snakes, the common KINGSNAKE is immune to viper venom!  Kingsnakes kill and eat copperheads, rattlesnakes, and even coral snakes.

good snakes
Kingsnakes eat rattlesnakes

Stay calm If you do discover a rattlesnake!  Get pets and children indoors immediately.     Rattlesnakes only attack in self-defense. The best way to avoid being bitten is to leave the rattlesnake alone.  Call a professional snake removal service if you are concerned that the rattlesnake may be taking up residence.

call poison help number
National Poison hotline

If you need help with a poisonous bite, call your Poison Center immediately. If the bite victim has collapsed or is not breathing, call 911.

What insect looks like a green leaf? – true katydids – leaf bugs

Those green bugs that look like leaves are called true katydids.  Katydids enjoy all the leafy plants in our front yard.  We were so close to this wondrous green bug that we observed its mouth and eyes moving.

green leaf bug
Green bug that looks like a leaf

The British often call these leaf insects bush crickets.  Katydids or bush crickets are in the family Tettigoniidae.  They are not grasshoppers, katydids are related to crickets.  Grasshoppers have shorter antennae while family member tettigoniids have very long antennae.

katydid leaf bug
green bug that looks like a leaf

Katydids, True Katydids or Northern Katydids are insects that really do not like to fly!  To avoid danger they may leap out of a tree and parachute to the ground.  Katydids will walk to a vertical surface and start climbing.

The most common color of katydids is leaf green.  As a matter of fact, this bug is a master at camouflage with veins on its wings that look just like leaves.  Katydids eat flowers, stems and leaves of plants.  Some species will even eat other insects.

katydid
katydid green grasshopper like bug

Many species are commonly found throughout the southern part of the United States. These bush crickets, katydids are most active at night.

green katydid
green leaf insect – katydid

True Katydid species come in a variety of sizes from 1 to 4 inches.  Their antennae can be two times the length of their body.

katydid
True Katydid also called Bush Cricket, Northern Katydid

Male and female katydid sounds are made by rubbing their wings together to produce a song that is used as part of the courtship.  It sounds a bit like your fingernails moving across a comb.

green and pink katydid insects
true katydids are bugs that look like leaves

Interesting fact:  The Katydid’s hearing organ, tympana, ears, are on their front legs.

katydid
katydids look like a leaf insect

click on the short youtube video to hear the sounds of the katydid bugs

The life cycle of the katydid goes through three stages of development:

  1. egg
  2. nymph
  3. adult

The katydid egg is laid in the fall and hatches in the spring.  It will hatch as a nymph.

katydid nymph
katydid nymph, baby

The katydid nymph looks like the adult but without wings.  It will shed its skin several times as it becomes an adult.  The lifespan of the katydid is about 1 year.

young katydid baby
young katydid nymph

You may be the lucky few who get to see the rare pink katydid.  The lack of dark pigment, melanin, is the major difference between the pink and the green katydids.

pink katydid
rare pink katydid insect
pink and green leaf bugs
Pink Katydid with a green katydid

Melanin, is the same pigment that makes a panther black.  Like the pink katydid… would the lack of pigment make it similar to a pink panther?  No wonder The Pink Panther was bad at hiding; he had no camouflage!

 

Cormorants, crested ducks, cottonwood trees and more… at Fort Lowell Park in Arizona

Our Arizona travels brought us not only to a gentle bird refuge; but the historical Fort Lowell Park in Tucson.  This wildlife oasis streaming with ducks, cormorants, turtles and dragonflies was an United States Army post from 1873 till 1891.

City of Tucson Ft Lowell historic park
Fort Lowell’s wildlife pond in AZ

The most prominent building at Fort Lowell was the hospital, the adobe remnants still stand under a protective structure.

Arizona parks for wildlife, bird watching
Tucson’s historic Ft Lowell in 1900

Ft. Lowell lay in ruins for numerous years. The City of Tucson eventually converted the bulk of the former post into Old Fort Lowell Park, which features ball fields, tennis and racquetball courts, a large public swimming pool, and the Fort Lowell Museum dedicated to its days as an active military installation.

**This is a superb choice if you are looking for Tucson activities.

Tucson Parks with history and wildlife birds
adobe remains of Fort Lowell military installation

A lane lined with cottonwood trees, aptly named Cottonwood Lane, glorified the area in front of the officer’s houses.

Historic Cottonwood Lane in Tucson Arizona
large Cottonwood Tree at Ft Lowell Park

Following World War II, the Fort Lowell area grew into a small village which the predominantly Mexican local residents called El Fuerte.

The Fort Lowell Museum is located in the reconstructed Commanding Officer’s quarters.

Stroll from the remains of the Ft Lowell Hospital towards the wildlife pond to enjoy crested ducks with the latest updos.

ducks with hair on their head in Tucson
Brown colored Crested Duck

Catch a glimpse as a pigeon tries to remember the secret code to get passed the duck security.

Fort Lowell park in Tucson, AZ
pigeon stand off with ducks

Dedicated community members adopted Fort Lowell Park to keep it clean and build a protected area for birds.

During our visit we spoke with some of the impressive volunteers with “Friends of Fort Lowell Park” as they were planting trees and tidying up the nesting area.

Tucson Arizona wildlife park with water
nesting area created by Friends of Fort Lowell Park

A regal Neotropic Cormorant bird was standing by to make sure we didn’t decide to jump in and go swimming.

bird watching parks in Tucson Arizona
neotropic cormorants at Ft Lowell Park

Many species of cormorants make a characteristic half-jump as they dive and under water cormorants propel themselves with their feet.

wildlife oasis park in Tucson Arizona desert
community effort at Fort Lowell Park

Thanks to the collaboration of The Friends of Fort Lowell Park and Tucson Parks and Recreation for giving residents and guests a place to enjoy outdoor activities and wildlife in the Sonoran Desert.

tennis handball swimming park in the Arizona desert
Parks to visit in Tucson – Ft Lowell Park

Local historians have found evidence that Fort Lowell Park sits on a site endowed with a continuous supply of underground water and has been occupied by humans since ancient times.