Friday, May 27, 2011

Species a Day, Week 8

Check out the rest of my Species a Day writeups here.

Day 50: Fiery skipper, Hylephila phyleus

Probably the most common skipper around here. You can tell this one from other skippers by the fiery orange color (duh) of the male, and from other orange skippers by the dark spots on the wings. The female is dark brown with orange-yellow spots, which made me think until very recently that they were different species, especially since the only mating pair I saw appeared to be two brown ones. Either one of the pair I saw had a very interesting adaptation, or it was probably a dull-colored male skipper.

Can an insect be cute? (I mean, to someone who's not me?) These guys are like little butterfly puppies. The closeups make me want to pet them, seriously.

Day 51: Painted lady, Vanessa cardui

So, I wasn't always a critter expert. Here's how dumb I am. As recently as when David started asking about species, I guessed, when their wings were open, that these were monarch butterflies. If I happened to see them with their wings folded, like here, I thought it was a different species entirely. It wasn't until I saw a "monarch" land and turn into "that other species" that it clicked. These days, I can identify subspecies of painted ladies, and tell a monarch from a queen at fifty paces.

So, see? You, too, can be totally ignorant and quickly learn the names of the critters around you.

Painted ladies are one of the most widely distributed butterflies in the world, so if you also have orange-and-black-butterflies-that-are-not-monarchs, they're probably painted ladies. They could be queens or soldiers if they really resemble monarchs, or, if they're more closely related to painted ladies, red admirals hundred other types that sort of look the same. But guess "painted lady, or some type of brush-footed butterfly," and you'll sound smart and have a fighting chance of being correct.

What's that? You want real information, not just show-offy blurbs? OK. Painted ladies eat a wide variety of nectar, and their caterpillars prefer leaves of plants in the daisy (Compositaceae) family. They have a wingspan of about 5 to 9 centimeters, which makes them pretty large and noticeable. When their wings are open, they have black wingtips with five white spots and lack white dots in the orange areas.

Also, since they're so common (meaning, you can release them just about anywhere and they'll be fine), if you order one of those butterfly-raising kits, these are kind you usually get. Super fun and easy.

Day 52: Flame skimmer, Libellula saturata

The two I captured here are actually both females, which if you can believe it from the top shot, are the dull ones. Male flame skimmers (I'll include a really old shot of one below, sharing a reed with a blue dasher) are bright, fire-engine red. Entirely red, too, including eyes and wing veins.

Flame skimmers live mainly in the Southwest, because they like it hot, and we've got plenty of that. They frequent warm ponds and even hot springs, and sometimes neighborhoods. They mate from May to September, which means they're starting now, which makes me really happy. Which, in turn, probably makes me really weird.

Here's the male. I really want to get a better shot of one.

Day 53: White-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

Hey, a new record! I was four days into the week before I got to a bird.

Unlike the house sparrow, this guy is native to North America. Also unlike the house sparrow, I only see them for part of the year, and they like the shade, so I don't have a million well-lit pictures of this sparrow.

White-crowned sparrows winter throughout Arizona. They're really fun to watch feeding on the ground. They stay in huge, hyper groups and scratch (with both legs simultaneously) for seeds.

Day 54: Rock squirrel, Otospermophilus variegatus

These guys are tough.

If you're not in Arizona (or neighboring states, or Mexico), you probably have the similar-looking tree squirrel. These guys look the same, but they're no sissy hide-in-trees squirrels. They prefer mountains, cliffs, canyons, and any rocky habitat they can find, where they excavate shallow burrows. (If they can't find a nice rocky area, they'll use a building.) Biologists have been intrigued by rock squirrels, because they're honestly not as well adapted to non-tree life as ground squirrels and prairie dogs.

My theory? I think they make up for it by just being tough. Check it out:

Not my image -- via Boyce Thompson Arboretum, taken by Dot Coffey.

That's a squirrel taking on a freaking Gila monster. They've also faced down rattlesnakes and other critters most of us run from. See? Totally badass.

Day 55: Desert spiny lizard, Sceloporus magister (yellow-backed and purple-backed!)

Rough scales, bright colors, and seemingly confident even when you get pretty close. Since my field guide warns "Caution: bites," the confidence is probably because they can handle themselves, thankyouverymuch.

These guys are from the iguana family, about ten inches long, and active during the day. They come in a few subspecies. Recently we captured this yellow-backed one at the Desert Botanical Garden.

My son got a better angle on him. Prickly pear cactus makes a nicer background than whatever I had, and the pose is great. I'm jealous.

And we captured this next guy, a purple-backed, on a trip to the zoo. Not captive. (I decided not to "cheat" with the Species posts. Recent shots, no captive animals, no recycling.) It was chilling in the natural desert surrounding the zoo. They're so striking, so exotic looking, that a passing girl asked, with some concern, "Why did they release it?"

Day 56: Ring-necked duck, Aythya collaris

We tend to call these ring-billed ducks, since you can see the double ring on the bill prominently, but the neck, not so much. They do have a faint cinnamon ring on the neck, but it's nearly impossible to spot. (You can see part of it in the shot below.)

Ring-necked ducks are most common in the winter, and are skilled divers. I think my favorite thing, though, is their call, heard most often when they spring into flight from the water without windup or warning. It's not so much a quack as a cross between a caw and a laugh: Ha ha ha ca ca ha.

My shortcomings, and other things

If you missed it earlier this week, visit my photo print giveaway and join in!

I do this really stupid thing. I'll mean to do something -- weekly "Species a Day" write-ups, to pick a not-random-at-all example -- and I'll succeed. I get proud of my success. It doesn't matter how important or lofty my original goal was; I have committed to do something and I've done it. I'm Dependable™ and Consistent™, and I begin to tie up a certain amount of my identity in having succeeded at my pathetic task. This is where I go wrong.

Because inevitably, life happens. I get a teensy tiny bit behind. At first I'll be fine; I'll make it part of my thing: "Post coming soon; fifty kids at my house right now." "Post coming soon for real now, as soon as I appease my editor." "Post coming for really-real, I promise. Please don't hate me."

But after a while that seems worse than just not saying anything, so I stop. By now, I feel bad that I haven't done The Thing to be Done immediately following my first apology, and that becomes part of my identity. I should just do it and be done with it, but now I actively avoid doing it for fear of disappointing myself with the results. (All this buildup for a regular lackluster post? myself says. And you weren't even funny this time.) (I'm kind of a jerk to myself.)

I've come to realize that I can't depend on myself. I'm so neurotic about satisfying my own self-imposed decrees that I end up failing entirely.

However, I'm pretty darn good at satisfying other people. I promised you a species a day, and I'm still going at Day 88 (and yes, I do count posting at 1 a.m. as "making" the deadline for the day that just passed). Promising something to others makes me get it done. (Yes. It did take me 31 years to work out a clich├ęd shortcut to motivation that you can find in any checkout-counter magazine on weight loss.) So in addition to my explicit species-a-day photo-posting promise, once I'm caught up (I'll post in week chunks), I henceforth promise weekly posts, with extra pictures when I have 'em and not-too-rambly writeups. That's right. No one can make with the self-serving, overly dramatic, mundane promises like me. That's why you come, right?

Week 8 coming by lunchtime, barring an apocalypse. Or if my husband wants to watch Fringe. But probably by lunchtime.

In the meantime, enjoy two videos I've been sent this week. If you like spiders, you'll absolutely love the first one. Mesmerizing. If you don't like spiders -- well, you'll probably hate it, but watch it anyway. It's freaking awesome. The second one should tickle all my photog friends. Yes, I do take it pretty much that seriously.

Loom from Polynoid on Vimeo.

Also! If you're local, and you go to Phoenix Comicon, you absolutely have to tell me about it, so I can vicariously experience it through you. Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Wil Wheaton, Stan freaking Lee ... it's probably a good thing I can't go. I don't know if I could handle it.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Photo print giveaway!

Aaah! It's almost the end of the month! Dang passage of time. How does this happen?

OK, OK. I promised a print giveaway in honor of National Photography Month.

So how's this:
  • I can't think of any way to trick encourage you to comment regularly, so it occurs to me that I should be the one providing the goods. Comment here letting me know you're game for the print (say "Put my name in" or something), and what you'd like to see more of. Photos? Animals? Travel write-ups? My ridiculous drawings? Sentences that don't end in "of?" Basically, just give feedback, plus saying you're in.
  • Or, "follow" me on that Google widget at right, and/or on Twitter, and leave a comment below letting me know you did (go ahead and count it if you already follow me; just let me know in the comments here so I can count you).
  • Or, "like" the page I just created for Arizona Writer. I promise it's going to get much better; just promise you'll come back later when it's a proper page. Comment below letting me know you did that. (Same thing if you already have. Let me know below in the comments and you're in.)
Do any or all of these, and I'll enter you up to three times to win a print of your choosing (pretty much any of my shots you see on Flickr, with a few exceptions -- but I'm assuming you don't want a shot of my son anyway). I can get it printed at up to 11" x 14" (or 10" x 15", or 10" x 10", 8" x 10", or smaller if you choose -- up to this range, depending on your preference and the shot you choose). Does that make sense? I'll either use a randomizer thing, or just go low-tech and put a bunch of names in a hat and have my son choose. I'll take entries through the end of May. Sound good? Good. Enter. Pretty please with black widow spiderlings on top?

Maybe one of these? I've got more birds. And more insects. And clouds and sunsets. And, of course, spiders.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Four things this Friday

1. It's Endangered Species Day! I'm featuring TWO species special for today. (Don't get too excited; the first photos aren't exactly phenomenal. But the animals are, and are both endangered.) Think about endangered species today. Think about all species. Appreciate an animal. (Or a plant!) Volunteer at your local preserve or refuge. Just learn more. Go here to learn more about endangered species. You can even type in your own state to see what needs protecting in your own backyard.

2. If you're local come to Boyce Thompson Arboretum this weekend for an encore of the special events from earlier this month, which had to be cut short when the arboretum was evacuated so firefighters could stop the Picket Fire. (Which they did, right at the entrance.) Especially cool, for one final weekend: the arboretum is opening up the mansion, otherwise known as Picket Post House, otherwise known as Castle on the Rocks, otherwise known as "that house on the hill." It was built by Colonel William Boyce Thompson, starting in 1923 (construction took about 14 months), right onto the rocks (hence the name, duh). The inside is pretty cool too. Tickets for self-guided tours are $20 (admission to the arboretum itself is separate), and funds raised help support the arboretum, which raises 90 percent of its own funding. There are many other goodies this weekend -- grilled brats, live music, and their usual guided tours and arboretum awesomeness. Read about the Picket Post House here. And if you come Sunday, I might see you with a certain junior helper.

3. David's famous again! He's got an interview over at The Magnifying Glass. Thanks a bunch to Lucia for the interview. Peruse the rest of the site while you're there, and don't forget to give props to my kid. :-)

4. Aaaand ... I keep saying I'm going to hold a photo giveaway, in honor of National Photography Month. Guess what? I'm really going to! Guess what else? I have no idea what I'm doing! But I'm trying anyway. Stay tuned. For really real.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Arizona Science Center

Are you local or in town? Have you been to the Arizona Science Center lately? Their Body Worlds exhibit is only there through May 30, and you should totally check it out. And either way, they have four floors of good stuff.

This was originally published in the print edition of this month's
Times Publications. Pick one up, if you get a chance.


With a look of pure fascination, my son stared at the man's gluteus maximus.

I watched my son as he stared. I swelled with pride.

Wait. Let me back up. I should probably tell you that the gluteus maximus in question belongs to Soccer Player, one of the preserved bodies on display at "Body Worlds and the Brain." Soccer Player, and over 200 other real human specimens, are available for fascinated adults and kids to view until May 30 at the Arizona Science Center.

I was proud, and happy, because I was witnessing the fascination and thirst for knowledge that my son constantly shows, and because the Arizona Science Center is a perfect match for the curiosity that is so natural for children.

Of course, taking a kid to the center gives you a perfect excuse to indulge your own curiosity.

"Body Worlds" is just one of the featured exhibitions at the Arizona Science Center. You can easily spend an entire day here, taking in IMAX features, planetarium presentations, and four floors of interactive science galleries.

Upon first entering this exhibit, we noticed the skulls, brains, and full skeleton near the entrance -- but the first thing I caught was the mood of the place. Almost reverent. No one was snickering. No one was repulsed. No one was bored. Everyone seemed enthralled. This is the stuff that makes us us. My son and I will not get very many opportunities to see the stretch and form of the muscles of a soccer player, or the intricate branching of a complete, real nervous system. We took full advantage of this opportunity. There’s no re-entry to the exhibit once you go in, but you can take as long as you wish. No one was in a hurry to leave.

My son's favorite was X-Woman, a woman displayed with many of her systems and organs expanded, so viewers could see how it all fits together. He's still telling all his classmates about it. In several cases the body cavities are opened and layers are cut away, so you can see the organs in context. My husband is diabetic, and my son identified the pancreas in several displays. We were making real-life connections.

The bodies in "Body Worlds" are individuals who agreed to donate their bodies to science.

Know your own and your family's interests and limitations for this exhibit. These are dead (though permanently chemically preserved) humans. Just about any organ you can imagine is shown in great detail. One less-prominent section shows fetuses at different developmental stages. I have heard some people are bothered by parts of the exhibit, but everyone I saw this weekend was captivated. My son is nine years old, and was one of the youngest at the exhibit, though there were several who were younger.

The cool part about this, for us and all the families I met that day, is the authenticity. This is real science. It fascinates. It sparks the imagination. It makes kids (and adults) want to know more.

If "Body Worlds" isn't your speed, or you're itching for more, there is plenty.

Lie on a bed of nails. This -- once he worked up the nerve -- was David's second-favorite interactive exhibit. The nails are real, so that means real bragging rights. Kids all but forget they're learning about distribution of weight.

Ride a bike on a high-wire. The Evans Family SkyCycle, suspended on a 90-foot cable nearly 15 feet in the air, illustrates center of gravity and counterbalance. You can feel as though you're about to plummet -- and David did -- but it's impossible to actually fall. This was the one that bumped the bed of nails to number two. You'd have thought he had just been on a roller coaster. (Special props to the very patient folks operating this one. They somehow both made it seem daring and then reassured my son once he got "stuck" out on the cable.)

Use a heartbeat drum, which beats and lights up according to your pulse. Walk through a giant stomach, complete with sounds and smells, and slide out the end. Visitors can see how smoking and exercise affect the body, watch a larger-than-life IMAX movie about the human body, or be sneezed on by a giant nose (a huge hit with younger visitors). At the entrance, kids look through "Curiouser and Curiouser," a Phoenix public-art installation that shows science videos to the user while projecting his or her eye, giant-sized, from a telescope hanging from the center's ceiling.

We're big on science in this family, so the Arizona Science Center was a perfect match. But more than that, it's just plain fun.

The Arizona Science Center is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit their site for more information.

All photos taken by me at the Arizona Science Center. Visitor photos are not allowed in the Body Worlds exhibit; these are used with permission and all link back to the Center's Body Worlds page. (Don't worry; you'll be too busy looking with your eyes anyway.) You can snap away elsewhere!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Photography, parental pride edition

You know what I haven't shared in AGES? My son's pictures. He takes some pretty good stuff, y'all.

You know what's both awesome and jarring? These aren't all shots I would have taken. Some are the same, but many are not. He does more closeups, more detail studies. Did you know there were so many ways to look at turkey vulture feathers? I didn't.

My son is becoming different from me. How weird. And cool.

(I know. Not THAT different. You'll notice a certain affinity for birds, bugs, and pretty light.)

So in honor of my son's talent, in honor of National Photo Month, and in honor of I Don't Do This Nearly Often Enough, enjoy:

P.S. Did you know it was National Photo Month? I was thinking of doing something on the blog in honor of it -- a print giveaway, maybe. Any suggestions? Would you participate if I did something, or would I look like even more of a presumptuous show-off?
P.S. I did start one. Come join!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Species a Day, Week 7

Bumped up, now with added turkey vulture and hummingbird!

Day 43: Harris's hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus

Almost all raptors are solitary hunters. Not the Harris's hawk. Gosh, that spelling looks funny. It's the preferred spelling, though. If you know me, you should be utterly unsurprised to hear that I went to great lengths to check the spelling. Apparently, John James Audubon named it in honor of his friend, Edward Harris, which totally makes me want to strategically befriend some biologists.

The Harris's hawk hunts in packs, usually consisting of two or more related hawks. This hawk and his companion (she was slightly larger, which female hawks are) were hunting off the side of the road just outside of Apache Junction.

Harris hawks are deep chocolate-brown, with rust-to-chestnut patches on their shoulders. Their species name, unicinctus, means "once girdled" and refers to the band on the tail, but always kind of makes me giggle anyway. Juvenile Harris's hawks are streaked in a buff yellow-brown, and lighter in color than adults.

The weirdest habit these guys have is what's informally known as toteming, where they will stack themselves on one another (like a totem pole). I totally thought this was a myth, until I heard the fourth or fifth biologist speak about it. According to those who know raptors better than I, if there is only one saguaro suitable for resting while scouting for food, one Harris's will perch, another will perch on its back, and another on its back. So if you're ever in the car with me and I shriek with excitement, abruptly pull over, grab my camera and leap out of the car, now you know why.

Day 44: Costa's hummingbird, Calypte costae

These guys are tiny, but gorgeous. You can tell a male Costa's apart by the purple gorget, which flares out distinctively when he bends his head. The flash when he turns his head just right is absolutely gorgeous. Female Costa's are plainer, but their smaller size, gray cheeks, and white eye marks. Costa's are only about three-and-a-half inches long, and have very short tails, which are overlapped by their folded wings when they perch.

They're tiny, but these little birds hold their own. They don't call out as much as the Anna's, but Costa's are territorial. These two competed with a couple of broadbills and a garden full of Anna's, and still managed to get a good dose of feeder nectar as well as stuff from the original source, as you can tell from the pollen on the female's bill.

Day 45: Canada goose, Branta canadensis

Obviously from their name, not strictly a regional bird, but I like to mix it up between Arizona Animals™ and ones with a wider range. Mostly Canada geese are snowbirds in Arizona. Like snowbirds of the human variety, they have been known to stick around if they decide they like the food and mild climate here. (Unlike snowbirds of the human variety, there is little problem with geese driving 45 miles an hour on the freeway with their hazard lights on.)

We mostly see Canada geese throughout the winter, sometimes right through to mating and raising families. Adult geese molt their primary flight feathers while raising young, leaving the whole family flightless for a brief period. They are monogamous, and great parents. The male will sit as sentinel, chasing and hissing at anyone who gets near his young. And if you've ever heard the obnoxious honking they do when just flying from one place to another, you can imagine how they can turn it up when they're really mad.

Day 46: Turkey vulture, Cathartes aura

Ah, turkey vultures. You know how I feel about these guys. (Read here.) What else can I say? Well, plenty. But mostly, read that. And just watch them. Grace. Purity. Beauty (yes, really). Certain aviation techniques were designed after the Wright brothers watched the way turkey vultures glided, and decided the birds had it exactly right. It's not hard to see why.

You know what? I totally think we need some more turkey vultures.

Day 47: American wigeon, Anas americana

I haven't seen this one nearly as often as many other ducks, but it's always a treat when I do. Wigeons are common migrants and winter residents in Arizona, and there have been records of them breeding in the White Mountains area. The male of this species has a white cap, giving the species the nickname "baldpate." (He also has brilliant green streaking back from each eye.)

The weirdest thing about this one? She growled. Crazy. I didn't know ducks growled.

Day 48: Lowland leopard frog, Lithobates yavapaiensis

Credit goes to Cascavel1 (also known as Brendan) for the ID on this one. I am really rusty on amphibian identification most of the time, mostly because they've always been so rare that at the time of sighting my analysis only goes as far as "Holy cow; a frog!" (On the other hand, rattlesnakes and spiders of all kinds are common enough that I can identify scores of species of each on sight. It's all what you're used to.)

This guy is pretty small, just a little over three inches, barely larger than its tadpole form. They're usually brown and mottled, have ridges (dorsolateral folds) that break up toward the rear, and have a yellow wash to their groin. (Now can you see why I have a hard time IDing frogs?) They have a decent range in central Arizona, though they used to range from the lower Colorado River, east through central Arizona below the Mogollon Rim and southeastern Arizona, and into New Mexico. They are being displaced by other species, though they have held out better than the Chiricahua leopard frog, presumably because they're better at breeding. (I'm sure that's the line used by every male lowland leopard frog.) They're especially active near washes during the monsoon season.

Day 49: Greater yellowlegs, Tringa melanoleuca

Pretty easy to identify, with their mustard-colored legs. The only trick is telling greater yellowlegs from lesser yellowlegs. If they're not side-by-side for a size comparison, one trick is to check the bill: a greater yellowlegs' bill is noticeably longer than the head, and sometimes slightly upturned. These guys are pretty timid, prancing or flying away with a scolding tew-tew-tew if I get too close.

That's it this week! What've you seen lately? I got two e-mails to identify spiders, one for a dragonfly, and one for a hawk this week, so I know you're looking!