Monday, March 30, 2009


When we arrived in the desert we were told that the week before they had had severe wind storms which had 'blown all the flowers away.' Well if this is how it looks after all the flowers have blown away, I can't imagine what it looked like before! The sides of the mountains are washed in yellow and everywhere we go we discover new flowers.

The most obvious flowers are the dramatic Red Ocotillo Fouquieria splendens. On previous visits these plants had looked like bundles of bare woody stems but this time the stems are covered in leaves and at the top of each stem are heads of numerous tubular flowers which the hummingbirds just can't get enough of.

Another plant that seems to be everywhere is the Creosote Plant Larrea tridentata. The flowers are just drawing to an end and the strange little fuzzy fruits are just starting to appear on many of the bushes. Several of the plants also have the distinctive round growths caused by the creosote gall midge.

A personal favorite, the Barrel Cactus Ferocactus acanthodes is just starting to bud and only a few, in the sunniest spots, are actually beginning to open up. I didn't risk getting a pierced nose by getting too close to the flowers but I imagine that they don't smell too good because we never see any bees near the open blooms but we do see lots of flies!

The Arizona Lupine Lupinus arizonicus is everywhere to the point that I kept putting off taking a picture of it and now I discover that I don't have a particularly good one! This plant has to take the prize for being the most organised! Each individual blossom has a little creamy/yellow spot on the upper petal (barely visible in this picture-sorry) and when the flower has been pollinated the spot turns red, thus acting as a deterrent to further insects and also encouraging the insect to pollinate another blossom.

The first flower I found was beside the road at a viewing point we stopped at, on our way down into the Borrego Valley. It's leaves look exactly like a type of holly and it is covered in clusters of tiny round yellow flowers. This is the Mahonia Berberis haematocarpa. It produces purplish/red berries which the Native Americans used to make a dark purple dye and the wood produces a deep yellow dye.

The Hummingbird Bush or Chuparosa Justicia californica is very prolific. Chuparosa translates from Spanish as 'the sucking rose!' This odd name comes from the hummingbirds who are frequently found 'sucking' at the nectar in the long red blossoms. Many times when we sat near one of these bushes we would be 'buzzed' by a highly territorial hummingbird who clearly thought we were there to steal its nectar!

Rather like the Ocotillo, the Desert Senna or Spiny Senna Senna armata spends most of the year looking like a tangled mass of dead twigs but at this time of year, this member of the Bean Family is smothered in beautiful yellow blossoms. These will soon be followed by yellow spongy pods about an inch and a half long.

The delicate purplish/blue flowers of the Wild Heliotrope Phacelia distans are also very much in evidence in many of the canyons and washes right now. It is also known as the Blue-eyed Scorpion Weed because the blossoms are on a coiled structure which is similar in shape to the tail of a scorpion!

This unusual little flower caught my eye because of its strange flower structure. It was growing on a very rocky path we were hiking along on Borrego Mountain, in full sun on an otherwise very barren area and again. I had to marvel at the resilience of these desert plants. This is the Pima Ratany or Purple Heather Krameria erecta. These plants are partly parasitic and connect their roots to other plants around them, which would explain the somewhat grizzled state of the few Creosote Bushes in the immediate area! Small native bees collect saturated fats from the petals to feed to their larvae.

I think this beautiful flower is a Brown-eyed Primrose Camissonia claviformis. The flower structure looks identical but all the illustrations I can find for it show clusters of these delicate little flowers and this one was definitely not in a cluster, as you can see. However this plant is a particular favorite of the White-lined Sphinx Moth Hyles lineata caterpillar

and we certainly saw plenty of those so maybe the rest of the plant had succumbed to the voracious appetite of these caterpillars!

This bristly little character has a variety of common names like Panamint Cats Eye or Forget-me-not Cryptantha spp, although it doesn't bear much resemblance to the English forget-me-not that I know! It is a member of the Borage family and I can certainly see the resemblance there, not least with those fuzzy leaves and stems. There are eight species that occur in the desert and apparently they are notoriously difficult to identify so as the fruit is supposed to be the only sure way of identifying each species and I didn't see any fruit, I am not going to attempt to say which one it is! That is my excuse and I'm sticking to it!!

Despite its name, the Sand Verbena Abronia villosa is not a true Verbena but actually belongs to the Four O'clock family. This low growing plant appears in sandy washes after the rains have passed. We were exploring Coyote Canyon and were walking up a sand wash and this stunning flower was growing all over the place. Its blossoms can range from white to a deep pink but all the ones in the area we saw them were this wonderful purple. This flower has a rich fragrance which was very apparent from the numbers of bees that were buzzing around them.

OK enough flowers for today, believe it or not that is only half way! And that doesn't count all the species that I either couldn't get a picture of or couldn't identify! Hang in there - there will be more soon.

Photo Credits - CJT

Saturday, March 28, 2009


The last time we visited Anza Borrego, on one of our hikes I had seen a distant view of the Salton Sea but we never actually got to visit it. On this visit I was determined to rectify this. The Salton Sea is an extraordinary lake that was once an extension of the Gulf of California. It is fifteen miles wide and thirty-five miles long and most oddly of all, it is two hundred and twenty-seven feet below sea level. The lake has virtually no inflow sources and is being threatened by run-off from surrounding agricultural fields and municipal effluent. Also with the course of natural evaporation the lake is becoming increasingly saline, it is currently twenty-five percent more saline than the Pacific Ocean! The increased salinity is threatening the huge number of species that live in and from this huge body of water and there are efforts in place to try and stop this decline. At least fifty species of birds that are listed as threatened, endangered or of concern, rely on the Salton Sea for survival during their migration.

I was particularly keen to see what bird species were still around but I don't think I was expecting so many treats. We drove round to the North East corner and called in at the Visitor Centre. As always at these places the volunteers were very helpful and gave us several suggestions of good birding spots to visit. Before we set of again we sat on the beach to eat our lunch and watch the shore birds.

It is a very unusual place to be, next to this huge lake when you are in the middle of a desert. The water was teaming with bird life, I have never seen so many Eared Grebes in my entire life! I have always had a huge soft spot for Pelicans so I was delighted to see both Brown and White Pelicans sailing majestically about, on the water and in the air.

We then set off down to the Southern end of the lake to the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. This is an amazing area where numerous bird species come to breed and feed. There was so much to look at, I didn't know where to look first.

But there was one more BIG treat in store for me and this was not one I was expecting at all. I was looking around at the endless array of water birds and watching all the terns wheeling and circling so gracefully when I saw a sandy brown, stocky little bird fly in front of me, low to the ground. I watched where it landed and trained my binoculars on it and.............

there he was! A Burrowing Owl! So perfectly camouflaged that when you looked with the naked eye it was virtually impossible to see. There were in fact three of them and we watched them for some time. Eventually my wonderful husband managed to see them with his camera and get this lovely shot. I was so thrilled, it was just a perfect day.

Here is my bird list for the day, and just to put into perspective how special it was, all the asterisked ones were new species for me.

Ring-billed Gull,
Bonapartes Gull,
Yellow-footed Gull*,
White Pelican,
Brown Pelican,
Black-necked Stilt,
Caspian Tern,
Great White Egret,
Cattle Egret,
Snowy Egret,
Great Blue Heron,
Green Heron,
Eared Grebe,
Horned Grebe,
Black-bellied Plover,
Canadian Snow Goose*,
American Coot,
American Avocet*,
Northern Shoveler,
American Widgeon,
Ruddy Duck,
Greater Yellowlegs,
Double-crested Cormorant,
Marbled Godwit,
White-faced Ibis*,
Turkey Vulture,
White-throated Swift,
Yellow-rumped Warbler,
Aberts Towhee*,
Burrowing Owl*,
Great-tailed Grackle*,
European Starling,
Hooded Oriole*,
House Finch,
Northern Mockingbird,
Black Phoebe.

Photo Credits - Dominick V

Thursday, March 26, 2009


Although we have been having blue skies and sunshine in Chicago lately it has still been very cold so I was more than happy yesterday to board a flight for San Diego and then when we landed, drive out into the desert. Anza Borrego to be exact. We had visited a couple of years ago, very briefly so we decided we wanted to see a bit more of the area.

The difference this time is that there has been a fair amount of rain in the area recently so the desert is actually very much more colourful than on our previous visit. As you can see from the Red Ocotillo Fouquieria splendens (sorry hard to see in this picture but I will do better in a later post!)

Having previously mentioned my 'prickly' nature it should come as no surprise that I like cactii! And even they are blooming right now. This is a Beavertail Cactus Opuntia basilaris

and these are the much maligned Teddy-Bear Cholla Opuntia bigelovii

After we had arrived and got settled into our room we went to the Visitor Center,

we knew it was too late for it to open but there is still always plenty to see around it and, sure enough, it didn't disappoint. It always surprises me how many hummingbirds I see when I come here. The light was failing so forgive me if I have this wrong but I think this is a Costas Hummingbird Calypte costae

And how could I possibly not take a photo of this little chap, even though he was shouting very loudly at me for most of the time I was there!

We walked around for a while but the light was starting to go so we couldn't take any more photos. It was fantastic to just sit and listen to the coyotes calling to each other ad enjoy the twilight but I had one more treat in store for me. On my last visit I hadn't had a good sighting of a Greater Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus so, just as we were walking back to our car, he appeared

He continued the theme where the ground squirrel had left off and gave us a good telling off for getting in his way when he was busy hunting bugs!

What a perfect start to my visit to the desert.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dominick V

Monday, March 23, 2009


As anyone who knows me will verify, I am not a big fan of Homo sapiens as a species. I find our arrogance and aggression distinctly unpleasant and I am appalled by our endless capacity to destroy other species. That being said it is not without a slight modicum of surprise that I find myself actually doing a post about a person this week. Don't worry I am not about to get all mushy about my 'mate', I'll save that for another time ;) And no, I am not regressing to some bizarre school girl crush! This week for ABC Wednesday I am posting J is for Jamie.

When I first started working at the Museum the two other people who were working in the Animal Care division were, lets just say, a little lacking in their dedication! Whenever I went away on vacation I would be filled with a sense of dread as to what I would find upon my return, and trust me, it usually wasn't anything good! Anyway, on one occasion on returning from a trip I find that one of them has been fired and the other one has handed in their notice! So within a week of coming back I was on my own! For a while I did three peoples jobs on my own and then we managed to do some hiring. One of the people we hired was Jamie. Jamie has now been at the Museum for almost three years and I can't begin to tell you how much she has improved my work environment.

I will be honest, when we were interviewing I had my reservations, she seemed so young, I wasn't sure how she was going to stand up to the tasks, but lucky for me, my colleagues saw her potential and we went ahead and hired her. Just occasionally a person comes into your life and provides a wonderfully positive force and that is exactly what Jamie has done. She has worked her way into the position of Aquatic Animal Technician and she is totally in her element out in the field with her hip waders on and her net in hand.

I have yet to meet a more positive and cheerful person, even when we are rushing round like headless chickens at work without enough hours in the day to get everything done, she still remains upbeat, but not in an annoying way. And the most amazing part of it is, she actually is a good influence on me!! I am a self confessed, cynical, grumpy old fart. But with Jamie around, because she is so great, she actually makes me behave in a slightly better manner towards my fellow humans! And believe me when I tell you, that is no mean achievement!

It is very rarely that I meet someone with the same dedication and devotion to the animal kingdom that I have, but Jamie has it. Her work with all our animals, everyday is concrete proof of that fact. But one of the things I like best of all about Jamie is when we are out in the field and we find something cool, she is always more than happy to oblige when I say 'hold this Jamie, I want to get a picture of it for my blog!'

Doesn't matter what it is.....................

Large or small, Jamie steps up, and so her hands have been on many of my posts!

So thanks Jamie, for being such a breath of fresh air, for being such fun to be around, for being such a phenomenally hard worker, for helping to look after all the animals in our care so well, for making my return from vacations an entirely non-stressful event, for making me the most outrageously delicous chocolate cake for my birthday, and for making me a (slightly) less grumpy old fart! YOU ROCK!!

For lots of 'J' posts from all over the world, check out ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits - CJT

Monday, March 16, 2009


This week for ABC Wednesday I thought I was going to end up having to post about ice! But thankfully the weather has taken a major upturn and I am now able to think beyond the frozen tundra we have been enduring for the last few months to something that happens in the spring for many species. My post this week is I for Incubation.

This word comes from the Latin incubare which translates as 'to lie upon.' The word is used in various different contexts but today I am using it in terms of incubating eggs. For the female Green Honeycreeper Chlorophanes spiza in these pictures it means providing enough heat to allow the embryo to develop and then hatch successfully. She will hatch altricial chicks, that means the chicks are blind, bald and totally dependant on their parents to feed them, protect them and keep them warm.

In contrast, when the Button Quail Coturnix chinensis has successfully incubated her eggs to hatch, her work is largely done. She hatches precocial chicks which have downy feathers, their eyes are open, they are fully mobile and able to forage for themselves. When alarmed she will crouch and spread her wings to cover the hatchlings.

Reptiles have a much more 'hands-off' approach to incubation. Animals like turtles and crocodiles bury their eggs in the ground or decaying vegetation and depending on how warm the eggs get, this will define the gender of the emerging hatchlings. For example, the Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus, if the temperature inside the nest is below 89.1 °F, or above 94.1 °F, the offspring will be female. Males can only be born if the temperature is within that narrow 5-degree range.

For the Blandings Turtles Emydoidea blandingii that we work with in our conservation project more females are produced at higher incubation temperatures and more males are produced at lower incubation temperatures.

For many great 'I' posts, check out ABC Wednesday.

Photo Credits - CJT & Dan Thompson


This is a new meme started by my friend Michelle at Rambling Woods. She wants people to post about nature! Oh OK Michelle - twist my arm!! :)

Today it was actually warm enough to enjoy strolling around outside so I was happy to grab the opportunity and make the most of the sunshine to see what signs of spring I could find. First major change - the pond has thawed and, never slow to make a move, the turtles were swimming.

No that is not a stump, that is a turtles head! If you look really carefully you can see the outline of it's body under the water. There were also numerous turtles hauled up onto logs warming themselves after a long winter buried deep in the mud.

With the thaw on the pond there were feathers floating in the water.

Of course with spring upon us, every young girls fancy turns to love...............

or at the very least, finding a suitable mate!

It would appear that we still have a beaver somewhere in the pond!

There is definitely a sparkle in the ganders eye

as he too looks to pair off.

In amongst the mud and the dead leaves there are little glimpses of green beginning to show.

And the spring daffodils are just beginning to shoot.

When you look as dashing as the male Wood Duck Aix sponsa

The spring task of finding a mate should be a breeze.

For the American Robin Turdus migratorius the highlight of the thaw is that the ground is no longer like stone and he was getting busy searching for juicy little invertebrates.

We are forecast to have temperatures in the seventies tomorrow so no prizes for guessing who will be dawdling home through the park after work tomorrow :)

Photo Credits - CJT