Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Species a Day, Week 12

See all my Species a Day posts here.

I said in my last post that I'd soon return to our regularly scheduled Arizona nature programming, so here you go. Less ranty and more picturey.

Without further ado, the species.

Day 78: White-winged dove, Zenaida asiatica

Bird of peace, my ass. These guys are the big, oafish bullies of our backyard. We have a dove block, and a platform feeder, and lots of dove-friendly things for them. They don't care. They prefer the smaller finch feeder; full of flimsy, tiny perches; and usually also full of pissed-off finches and sparrows. White-winged doves take what they feel like taking, whether they fit or not.

They are beautiful, though. Chunky in build, with flame-colored eyes that almost glow; each surrounded by neon blue, featherless skin that looks undeniably like costume makeup.

Honestly, the first time I was exposed to the white-winged dove wasn't even the bird itself; but in the Stevie Nicks song "Edge of Seventeen" -- Just like the white-winged dove sings a song; sounds like she's singin' Oooh, oooh, oooh.

Whether it's their call or their near-ubiquity, people like to tell stories about these birds. They're featured heavily in both Biblical and Greek mythology, often with an olive branch, a symbol of renewal and peace (obviously the writers had never seen my backyard). Doves appear in Roman, Indian, Native American, and Japanese stories as well; and in possibly a more fitting theme, a dove was even a harbinger of disaster in Celtic lore. Even the constellations feature several doves, most notably Columba. It's portrayed holding an olive branch, which I can only assume it stole from a finch.

Day 79: Green heron, Butorides virescens

Solitary and secretive. A small heron, not much bigger than a crow, it likes to feed alone or in pairs, and eats small fish and whatever other water goodies it can find.

It exudes wariness and is exceedingly good at vanishing -- I've lost count of the amount of times we've been scouring the far bank for a heron that we knew was there and stared right past it; only to catch it for a second later when it flicked its tail in annoyance, erected its short crest, and flew away. Even a small marsh or vegetated pond area can support a decent-sized green heron population, with most people never noticing them.

If you can manage not to scare it off, they're fun to watch while hunting. They practically launch their heads and beaks at their prey. And doesn't it remind you of the guys in Spy vs. Spy?

Day 80: Vermilion flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus

There are a few birds that I photograph and people tend to ask if I altered the image -- surely the color isn't that vivid? -- and probably none more so than these radiantly vivid birds, whose males sport eye-poppingly intense red contrasted with very dark brown, almost black, backs and eye bars.

I always used to picture a more subdued orange-red when I heard the word vermillion -- like the Vermilion Cliffs, north of the Grand Canyon. Not so with the vermillion flycatcher, whose scientific name, translated as something like "firehead red," only seems to rub it in. Even my boring field guide, which can say nothing more extreme about the bald eagle than "readily identifiable," calls the vermillion flycatcher "brilliant" and "striking."

The distinctive plumage helps attract mates, no doubt; but the male doesn't rely on looks alone. He performs a courtship display where he'll puff up his red feathers, soar up into the air, flutter erratically for a bit, and land right in front of a female with his tinkling peet-a-see call. Which, I've got to say, is probably less silly than some human rituals that serve the same purpose.

Day 81: Red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans

Red-eared sliders are popular as pets, but also native to the Southern United States, so between native and introduced populations, if you see a turtle in any pond around the Valley, it's probably a red-eared slider.

The "red-eared" part of the name is obvious, and when you see sliders in action, that part becomes clear too. They can slip off a log or rock with uncanny speed and grace, only making a faint "plop," which is often your only sign that a turtle used to be there, and saw you first. Still, they're not hard to spot, especially as they like to sun themselves on partially submerged logs or rocks. They're pretty calm characters, though they can be pretty aggressive when food is involved. Being omnivorous means they can eat anything, which generally includes vegetation and smaller animals like crickets or crayfish -- but I've heard of turtles reportedly eating very small members of their species on rare occasions, which seems to be taking the whole "eat anything" part a bit far. And they look far too cute to be cannibals.

Day 82 (Endangered Species Day, Part 1): Desert pupfish, Genus Cyprinodon

The only exception to my "rules" (newly taken pics, in the wild), I wanted to add this one for Endangered Species Day. This is from a hike I took a several years ago to cover an effort by Arizona Game and Fish Department, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management to relocate some fish. And by "hike" I mean "strenuous boulder scrambling" and by "relocate some fish" I mean "seriously badass conservation efforts." Historically, the desert pupfish have lived in the Gila River basin and the San Pedro, Salt and lower Colorado rivers in Arizona, but introduced species and other environmental threats combined to seriously threaten the species. So we clambered over boulders, reached a super-remote stream about a thousand feet down in the canyon, and met a helicopter flown by a former military precision-drop pilot, who conveyed the fish. The fish's new home is in Agua Fria National Monument's Lousy Canyon, and lovely stream at the bottom notwithstanding, it really is well named. Not a place for a leisurely stroll. Still, it was a heck of an effort, and the pupfish is a pretty awesome little fish. It can tolerate water temperatures reaching 115 degrees Fahrenheit, salinity of 20 percent, and extremely low oxygen levels. It's actually been suggested that desert pupfish may be able to help in skin cancer and kidney research.

Day 82 (Endangered Species Day, Part 2): Desert tortoise, Gopherus agassizii

Another endangered Arizona animal. Not a giant tortoise, which many people seem to think. Desert tortoises are about 15 inches long and only about six inches tall, though they do have very impressive front legs, armed with shield-like scales and digging claws (actually sharp, modified scales).

The number of desert tortoises has decreased rapidly in the last several decades, due to factors like habitat loss and fragmentation, illegal collection, and pressures from their natural predators. This, combined with the fact that they spend up to 95 percent of their time underground, makes them a rare sight indeed. Left undisturbed, these are hardy animals. They can live where ground temperatures exceed 140 degrees Fahrenheit, owing to their ability to quickly burrow underground where it's cooler. (They leave a half-moon shaped entrance to their burrows), and can live to be up to 80 to 100 years old, just like that giant tortoise you might be thinking about.

Day 83: Harris's antelope squirrel, Ammospermophilus harrisii

A small ground squirrel native to southern Arizona, Harris's antelope squirrel (and all antelope squirrels, also called antelope ground squirrels) can survive in extreme heat, and has adapted to thrive even as its internal body temperature tops 104 or 105 degrees Fahrenheit. I know the last time I had a temperature that high, I was afraid the animals in the wallpaper pattern were coming to life, and I wasn't doing so great at plain old surviving, much less thriving; so my figurative hat is off to them.

Antelope squirrels are small, no bigger than ten inches long, with a white stripe down the back. They live in burrows that they dig themselves. They're omnivorous and diurnal, and do not hibernate. They're also really good at causing animosity between drivers, as they're big enough for the first car to dodge or slam on the brakes; but are small enough, or fast enough, or maybe employ a cloaking device; so that the other cars never see it and think the first car's driver is an idiot and they must tell her so with enthusiastic language and prodigious use of middle fingers. Not that I know anything about that. Also, they're not called chipmunks, but if you tell your husband that he'll probably just think you're being a know-it-all. Not that I know anything about that either.

Day 84: Grote's underwing, Catocala grotiana

Moths that come out during the day, according to Virginia Woolf, "are not properly to be called moths ... They are hybrid creatures, neither gay like butterflies nor sombre like their own species." I'm totally behind Woolf on the room of one's own thing (not that it'll ever happen to me), but I've got to differ with her here. The underwing moths we see come out in the morning or late evening, so they might indeed be "hybrid creatures" in Woolf's figurative sense, but I don't think it's that they're neither bright and cheery nor somber and deep -- I rather think it's that they're both.

We saved this one after the rain. We found it clinging to our screen door, waterlogged and unable to take off, owing to the fact that it was perched beneath a dripping section of roof (I said they were cheerful and also serious; not smart). We scooped it off the door and brought it into the sun to dry and warm its wings.

The insect slowly flexed its wings and spooled and unspooled its proboscis on my son's hand, as if testing out all its parts. When it was satisfied that everything was back in commission, it took off, flying until we could no longer see it. My son was thrilled, and it was plenty cheesy of a moment, but it was also serious and alien enough to have that cool air of mystery. A mysterious figure with a pink-accented cloak. Why not?

I'll have a hard time rooting against Mothra next time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Nope. Still won't repost.

Not Arizona/nature related. (Check out my Species a Day posts to tide you over on nature and photo goodness, or try some of my recent posts.) If you're offended by me mocking ideology, religion, or stupidity, you probably shouldn't read this. I probably shouldn't even post it. Oh well. You've been warned.

If you're my Facebook friend and/or have had the misfortune of listening to me rant in person, you know I'm not a fan of spammy "Repost this" status updates. Still, they continue. I'm friends with smart, independent, reasonable people, and still the ridiculousness pollutes my feed. Maybe there's some dumb-ifying effect on Facebook to which some of us are immune?

So, to clarify: If you post one of the following things on Facebook, I'm starting to get ocular strain from rolling my eyes. I shall send you my optometrist bill if you don't cut it out.


You know the "Good Ol' Days" weren't, right? Not particularly good, in many respects, and not even that old, in the grand scheme of things. I'm totally sympathetic about nostalgia, seriously. Believe it or not, I experience it as well. However, I don't get all huffy about bringing back chicken pox and Atari because that's what happened to be around when I was 8. And you know your parents probably did the exact same thing, right? Only your stuff was the young/stupid/America-killing stuff? Get over it.

You're right about lard-fried stuff, though.

My Quote-Unquote "Inspirational" Friends

Yeah, you're a fount of individualistic, inspirational wisdom, alright. SO individual and startlingly inspirational that you use a cartoon face someone else made, and your stream is 96 percent "inspirational" quotes, and 4 percent wondering why more people aren't as bubble-gum-happy as you. Also? You're not reaching for the moon, or the stars, or even the door. You're sitting on your couch, copying and pasting silly crap like this. Get outside. Have an opinion of your own.

You can totally quote Douglas Adams or songs I like, though. Those don't count.

But I'm sad for a CAUSE!

Sigh. Yes; you're totally right. I'm obviously neglecting to repost your whiny diatribe or join the 4,587,123rd group against child abuse because I'm actually for it. Please. Slactivism sucks, you guys. You know what? Usually, I'm too busy in my own shit to actually do something about any number of causes that I really do care about. Sometimes it's not my fault, but sometimes I'm just lazy, or overwhelmed, or whatever. AND THE SAME GOES FOR YOU. You're not allaying any actual guilt by reposting this junk. You're just making yourself feel better. And I don't feel bad for saying so when passive-aggressive posts like this imply I care less about a cause because I won't "like" a syntax-free, cheesy status update.

Holier than thou (and thou, and thou, and thou too)

OK. Now, I'm probably treading on dangerous ground here, but you made me do it. Please. Religion is personal, and subjective, and open to interpretation. I love talking about it, really. I really do respect your right to believe whatever moves you. But if you ask me not to question, if you ask me not to be curious, and if you really imply that my family and I are somehow evil for not believing in your cultural myths ... well, then screw you.

I love my kids more than you

Um. No. No, you don't. NO ONE thinks about his or her kids EVERY SECOND of the day. If you do, I'm sorry, but I think that probably makes you a tad less good of a parent. My son is 90 percent of my world. But I have a 10 percent, and I share it with him, but it's mine, and he has his, and it makes us better people.

Also, of course you care about your kids that much. But no one else thinks they're perfect. Guess what? They're not. Neither is mine. Makes life interesting.

Also, um, barf.

Motherf**king AMERICAN!!

Why does acting like a bully somehow make one more American? Why does acting like stupidity is something to be embraced make one more patriotic? What's wrong with being elite or progressive?

My answers are it doesn't, it doesn't, and nothing. And I read your update, loudly and incredulously, at my my husband and proceed to mock it every time.

Huh. On second though, maybe keep posting those. They're really freaking entertaining.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Friday 5: Making friends

I'm an antisocial nerd. Seriously. I have a hard time getting to know people, probably partly because I prefer to bypass social pleasantries such as "Hello. How was your day?" and skip right to "Actually, you're totally incorrect. Listen while I tell you why," or "Hey! Wanna hear me talk for an hour about black widows?"

Maybe stemming from that, I have a hard time cultivating the social circle around me that I'd like -- people who are as passionate about the things I am, in the same ways I am, yet still inspire and surprise me. Luckily, others don't share my deficiency, so the circle still forms. I get e-mails and invitations, even though I hole myself up in a messy home office and talk mostly to my cats. And then, I get to pass it on to you! Only in the Internet age.

Making connections -- it's one of the best things about the Internet, about writing, and about the passions we all pursue. Here are a few I'm loving lately.

Tom Keyes, and other awesome Arboretum folks

You know I love the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. And that it happens to be featuring nature photography from yours truly right now. (See it all this month!) You know what else is cool? The people there. Paul Wolterbeek, the volunteer coordinator/public relations guy/all-around He-Man of the arboretum, knows that cool folks flock to the place, and he's awesome about connecting them to each other. A while ago, he noticed similarities in my Species a Day posts and local artist Sandy Tracey's Painting a Day project, and sent us each other's info. Last weekend he passed along this gorgeous etching made by arboretum volunteer Tom Keyes, going off one of my exhibit photos. Remember this image?

Check out the awesome etching he did:

Gorgeous, isn't it? It's getting a place of honor in my home office, I think (though my son did suggest his room). Apparently, Tom just makes these gorgeous pieces like they're no big deal and often shares them, just because. Makes him a pretty cool guy, in my book.

Everyone who sends me awesome science, beauty, etc. just because you know it's my thing

My friend BJ Bolender (known around these parts as Ms. Cobalt) sent me the sadly beautiful video on the death of a dragonfly. Sad as it was, I loved that she thought to send it to me, because I know she appreciates and cares about dragonflies like I do, but also because we sort of see things the same way; and I could imagine her noticing the details that I noticed. Several of you sent me the eerily gorgeous "Loom" a while back because you knew I'd love it. And don't even get me started on photographic inspiration. Here are just a very few shots from my Flickr contacts lately (click through to see each photographer, with links):

You guys are inspiring.

Rus VanWestervelt

I've "known" Rus for a while now -- he's a Facebook contact and a fellow Gopher (Goucher College grad), but he graduated a few years before I did, so I didn't really know him. It seems I missed out. He sent me an e-mail out of the blue the other day. Totally not a big deal to him, I suppose. Just a note saying, basically, Hey; you're doing great stuff. Keep it up, to tell me he'd been enjoying my online work. But it hit my Inbox at just the right time, when I was feeling uninspired and dumpy and not so great at all. It was perfect. And come to find out, that's what he does: inspire people and foster community for some of us creative-types. Also, he's taken some pretty kick-ass photos himself.

Jim Burns

I've long loved Jim Burns' photos. What I try to do in bird photography, he just does, with apparent ease that I know is really from years and years of meticulously honed skill and practice. He knows his equipment, he knows the birds, and he's good. Really, really good. I don't know if there's a North American bird he hasn't captured, and well. (That's his Cooper's hawk shot. Have you ever seen a more unique hawk shot?)

So you can imagine my pleasure and surprise when his latest column (he's also a nature writer, and he's good at that too) was entitled "Kim Hosey." Seriously. I'm not nearly that big of a deal, so I was really pretty tickled. It's a column about my exhibit, but it's mostly a reflection on our connection to nature growing up. It's perfect. What's even better, though, was that he gets me. I began my artist statement in my exhibit with the sentence "I am not a photographer." I wasn't trying to be cute (not too much, anyway), and I wasn't feeling insecure. I'm really not a photographer, at least, not primarily. The thing I bring to the table is how I see the world -- or even that I see the parts I do. He got that. I was thrilled.

Also, just go check out his work. He seriously rocks.

Dragonfly Day folks

Here's a late shout-out, but I went straight from the event to camping, back home, and, well, things pile up. The Chandler Environmental Education Center at Veteran's Oasis Park put on a great event, dedicated to one of my favorite orders of insects. I had a table with some recent photos I've taken, and I got to talk about the insects and how I got some of the images. (Tough, I know. You know how I hate talking about animals.) Naturally, my exhibit was accompanied by an informative sheet by none other than The Dragonfly Woman, who you may have seen around here. Honestly, I felt like I was getting more than I was offering. I got to meet all kinds of nature-loving people. Pierre Deviche, who runs the website Arizona Dragonflies, gave a captivating lecture on dragonflies, evidenced by the fact that my son disappeared to the lecture and reportedly sat still and silent (!) for over an hour. The folks at the Center were wonderful. They're building a hub of environmental outreach and education, bringing together teachers, presenters, the public, and the natural world. Good stuff.

I think my favorite part of the day, though, had to be the kids. Kids aren't always familiar with nature, but they're nearly always open to learning more about it. Probably two thirds of the questions I got were from kids: What do dragonflies eat? Do they eat each other? Why do they have hair? Why do they do that weird thing to mate? What's this bright red one? And, from what I swear was six-year-old me: Are you sure that's a blue-ringed dancer? Because I saw a whole bunch of that kind out on the pond and I think it's another species; hang on; let me look in my book...

Meeting the next generation of nature nerds. I guess the circle is complete.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Species a Day, Week 11

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

Oh my gosh, you guys. I'm really behind on this Species a Day thing.

Thanks a lot, summer vacation. With your trips and quality family time and whatnot. Don't you know when I don't have time to write properly, I get all rambly? Seriously, vacation self, I take forever to write a short essay, but give me a time limit, and I turn in William Faulkner or F. Scott Fitzgerald, only without the heavy drinking or the talent. And no one wants to read 4,500 words on scorpion mating habits. It takes more time to write less. So now I get to pay for it, while Summer Break Kim rests up for a brief stint of screwing me over again come winter break.

Some critters. And only some brevity.

Day 71: Least sandpiper, Calidris minutilla

My peeps. Literally.

Of the smaller North American sandpipers, the five smallest species are so similar; their differences so subtle, headache-causing, and bird-nerd-fight inducing; that they're often just collectively called "peeps." Of these, the smallest is the least sandpiper. I only know them because 1) I have friends who are even bigger bird nerds than I am; 2) they're the ones that make their homes at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve; and 3) only the least, as far as I know, has dark brown upperparts.

We find these sandpipers throughout much of the year at the preserve, one of our go-to bird-spotting spots, though their winter and migratory ranges cover most of Arizona. They're one of the more unassuming shorebirds, timidly picking their way through the shallows, avoiding the larger stilts and avocets. You also can tell them by their shrill - you guessed it - peeping. They seem to enjoy games of chase, pursuing one another over the muddy flats with exaggerated rapid-fire strides and spins that seem to be out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. I keep waiting for the comical stare and piano music.

They're the least peeps, but they're definitely one of our main peeps.

(Yes; these are the puns you can expect after my brain has been fried.)

Day 72: Green darner, Anax junius

Its name translates to "king of June," or as I once read, "lord and master of June." Seriously? How awesome a name is that? I mean, I'm totally in love with all things hexapodal, and I'm not sure I'd have come up with such a cool name. It's certainly much cooler than the appropriation of their common name, darners, as a threat to sew youngsters' mouths shut.

Really, it's a perfect name. In its range -- which is wide indeed -- the acrobatic green darner rules the summer skies.

Although green darners aren't the most common dragonflies around here, they're still one of my favorites. I remember them as one of the first insects I discovered, only these were across the country in New York State's Allegany Park. The huge powerful wings, coupled with the blue and green jewel tones, were captivating. They're the most common and widespread large dragonfly in North America (though I believe the gorgeous and enormous giant darner is larger), and new information about their migration habits is still being uncovered, but it is known that they can migrate more than a thousand miles.

I saw dozens of species of dragonflies in Arizona before I saw green darners again, and when I did, it was like a gem that linked (darned?) my past and present. It's little things like this that make me really love wildlife, and insects in particular -- the closer we look, the more widely we all seem to be linked. Ugh; see what happens when I take a break? Puns, and now sappiness. At least I never made up any weird stories about dragonflies being the "devil's darning needles" to freak out my kid. (However, if you ever DO find an organism capable of sewing his mouth shut from time to time, hook me up.)

Day 73: Loggerhead shrike, Lanius ludovicianus

The loggerhead shrike call is usually a low warbling that crescendos into high-pitched, raspy calls; rather like its presence -- unassuming at first, but potentially fierce. This bird doesn't look much like an adept predator at first glance. It's smallish, with weak feet and no talons. The ferocity is in the acrobatic dives it can make while hunting, and especially in the beak. The loggerhead shrike's hooked beak forms a sort of tooth near the tip that helps the bird rip into its prey -- larger insects and smaller prey like lizards, mice, and other birds -- and can be used to sever the prey's spinal column. After this intense attack, the bird likes to impale its prey on a nearby branch or thorn, the better to tear it apart and wolf it down. This sweet little thing is called the "butcher bird." I think that's pretty awesome.

Day 74: Red-winged blackbird, Agelaius phoeniceus

A passerine bird like the shrike, the red-winged blackbird is a bit more representative of what people picture for the order -- perching, pretty-song-singing birds. You've got the pretty -- those shoulder pads! And you've definitely got the song singing. Still, this bird's not boring. They'll defend their territory against much larger birds -- I saw one chase off a heron once -- and will dive-bomb people on occasion. The territorial displays the males put on are endlessly entertaining, and the songs are actually quite beautiful -- a liquidy, cong-a-lee that repeats over and over again, signaling the beginning of spring and, he hopes, the beginning of a mating liaison. Seriously, even a recording of their song instantly brings marshy grass, cattails, warm light and spring goodness to mind.

The males are the bright ones, naturally, but that just means they're the ones who need to show off, which means it's the females who do all the choosing. The males are jet black except for vivid red shoulders (they're actually called epaulets, which seems even more darling), edged by yellow. The females are streaked brown, with white eyebrows. They're both gorgeous.

Day 75: Mexican amberwing, Perithemis intensa

Strictly a Southwestern dragonfly, these little guys prefer shallow, warm water, which makes them a perfect fit for Arizona. They're also feisty and fierce, which I guess also makes them a pretty good fit for Arizona. You'll find Mexican amberwings perched on the grass and reeds near the water at places like the Gilbert Riparian Preserve, Saguaro and Canyon Lakes, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, and probably a ton of other places that have warm, calm water and accommodating perches. They're entirely a rich amber-orange color, including the wings (hence the name), and the way they light up when the sun hits them is just incredible.

Day 76: Western pondhawk, Erythemis collocata

It was a dragonfly-heavy week. The western pondhawk is fairly widespread throughout the western United States and Mexico, and is a medium-sized dragonfly. The male is a subdued, dark blue color throughout the body, with a bright green face; and the females are green with a black dorsal stripe. The thing I always notice about them is how voracious they are while hunting/eating. More than once I've seen one catch a damselfly (twice while the damselflies were mating -- a twin snack pack, I guess), and once I saw one catch another dragonfly. They'll even eat other western pondhawks.

It was while photographing a western pondhawk that I first met an "Ode." That's what he called himself -- short for a human who's really into odonates, or dragonflies and damselflies. His bible was Common Dragonflies of the Southwest. He let me in on the first semi-proper dragonfly ID -- this blue dragonfly here with the green "nose" was a pondhawk; that one over there with the white nose was a blue dasher. I remember I felt like I had discovered a twofold secret society: that of the dragonflies and that of the Odes, who are so taken with the magic in these four-winged creatures that they will begin preaching their virtues almost immediately upon meeting someone; that is, if the person doesn't first ask why they are forever walking about with four dog-eared field guides, a camera, a set of binoculars, and a dilapidated notepad for new discoveries. I was an easy convert, and many hundreds of dragonfly photos (so many thousands of attempts) later, I'm coming along in my IDs.

Day 77: Jumping spider

OK, so the small amount of expertise I've gained in IDing dragonflies? Totally not there with spider species. This is a brown jumping spider, which is a sucky ID. I'm pretty sure it's different than the one in the header up there (it's definitely smaller), but I'm lost otherwise. Most of the jumpers I see are "brown jumping spiders," which most field guides try to tell me is the widely distributed Platycryptus undatus, though that jumping spider is endemic to Canada and the eastern United States. I'm pegging this one as Platycryptus arizonensis, which is native to Arizona as well as California, New Mexico, and Utah; though it's possible that it's a Platycryptus californicus, which has a wider, more western, and much more north-reaching range. And more of those conclusions were clouded by the fact that these all used to belong to the genus Metacyrba and almost nobody has written anything about Platycryptus. And yeah; I know I could just be making these names up for all you know or care.

You see how this kind of thing can make you nutty? Seriously, though, taxonomy is an awesome thing. Besides the funny names for things (Colon rectum, Agra vation) and nerd fights about what species belongs in which genus (you know what I'm talking about, biologist friends), taxonomy is kind of a beautiful thing. It organizes things. You can tell a lot about an organism from how it's categorized. Platycryptus, for instance, and all jumping spiders, are squat in shape, seemingly built on the horizontal axis -- they can become almost entirely flat, the better to surprise you from between papers or layers of bark -- and only jumping spiders primarily use their eyes for hunting.

Which also means they have keen eyes for catching snoopers and photographers, so I've had precious little time with these awesome tiny creatures. If I accidentally reuse this same species, it's only because I'm too ignorant to know it, and I'm sure at least a few of you will correct me. Which, honestly, is another thing I love about online connections and wildlife obsessions.

More Species soon. What have you all be seeing in your respective necks of the woods lately?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Splash pads around the Valley

The following writeup appears in this month's Times Publications. Splash pads. They're fun, universally appealing, ubiquitous, and free. Good stuff, you guys.


Making a splash in the desert

I want my son, David, to have a blast; especially during summer vacation. For that reason, we make big plans. We prepare, gear up, and take trips.

But sometimes, we’re just not in the mood for all that fuss. Sometimes, we just want to get out for some simple, summery fun. Somewhere close, playful, wet (for cooling off), and, wait; what’s this? Free? Sign us up!

Turns out, one advantage to living in the desert is a wealth of unique and entertaining splash pads for kids. These play areas are great for kids of all ages, though they’re especially good for kids between the ages of toddler and about 10. They’re safe even for children who can’t yet swim. They’re splashy, obnoxious fun for kids, and they’re convenient for parents.

David and I grabbed some towels and checked out the splash pad at Chandler’s Espee Park.
Within seconds, he was playing with a gaggle of other drenched kids. Something about the combination of the outdoors and water makes all kids instant friends. Raucous games of water tag and jump-through-the-spray broke out, and half a dozen of them formed a shrieking procession running through the spray rings again and again. Everyone was having so much fun that “Play nicely” wasn’t a necessary admonition. My son and a few 10-year-olds took the younger kids under their wings, including a tiny but rambunctious 2-year-old and a small herd of 5-year-olds.

City pads

In addition to the tunnel of bright orange spray rings, the Espee Park Splash Pad (north of Knox Road, between Arizona Avenue and McQueen Road in Chandler) features a water tower with water cascading in thick waterfalls and sprays, three candy-cane-shaped water showers, and scores of ground sprays that shoot straight up. The sprays typically run for fifteen minutes, then shut off for five minutes for the pad to drain, during which kids can play on the adjacent playground (or, as some did, plop down and claim a spigot for when it turns back on). We went five or six cycles, then rounded it out with some playground time. He was drenched, happy, and ready to eat dinner and sleep. Not bad for a free outing.

Chandler, Scottsdale, and Tempe seem to be the hot spots if you’re looking for a splash pad. Each city maintains several splash pads.

In addition to Espee, Chandler maintains Chuparosa Park Spray Pad, on Dobson Road, between Queen Creek and Germann Roads; and at Desert Breeze Park, at 660 N. Desert Breeze Blvd., between Rural Road and McClintock Drive and Ray Road and Chandler Boulevard. Desert Breeze is particularly popular. In addition to its ground sprays, it features animal sculpture water features, including three dolphins and an elephant.

Tempe Beach Park boasts one of the most well-known splash pads in its one-acre splash park, which doubles as a lesson for kids on the water cycle. A metal circle of rain mist starts the cycle. The water turns into streams and cascading waterfalls (all fun to run through or stand beneath). In some areas, the water collects in a two-inch-deep ocean complete with whales to ride. With oceans to tromp through, arcs of water to duck beneath, and endless water toys (I mean, learning opportunities), it’s no wonder this is one of the most popular splash pads. An adult attendant watches the area, but always watch your kids as well.

Tempe also maintains splash pads at Jaycee Park; Esquer Park, and its newest, Hudson Park. Visit the city’s pool website at for more information.

Across the Valley

Many splash pads are dedicated, unique play areas, but perhaps even more appealing to many parents are the ones erected in line with the errands and plans grown-ups already have planned.
If you’re tired from shopping and looking to tire out your shopping “partner,” for example, you can stop at the Scottsdale Quarter Splash Pad, located in the middle of the Scottsdale Quarter shopping area. The city district attracts parents (and any adult) with its dining, shopping and entertainment attractions, but a newer social hangout is “pool” side at the spray pad, where parents can meet up or just meet new friends on towels and on reclining pool chairs. The ocean-town vibe spreads through the area as kids towel off and head out for pizza, ice cream, or candy. Perfect shopping trip bribery.

Other shopping areas have put up splash pads as well, including areas at Desert Ridge Marketplace and Kierland Commons. Scottsdale also maintains seven park-area spray pads, many of which are in popular areas, such as the one at McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park on Indian Bend Road. Fountain Hills has a pad as well.

Bottom line? You’re going to be out and about anyway, the summer is unrelenting, the kids could use some play time, and you could all use a break. Check out a splash pad near you.